Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Andronicus (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Titus Andronicus was (most scholars agree) William Shakespeare's first produced tragedy.  It remains one of his least performed, although quite popular in his own day.  All that over the top murder, torture and mayhem--it was the torture porn of Elizabethan London.

Andronicus at ZJU takes this work and (like several other folks in recent years) plays it as a comedy in one way or another.  In this case, they simply did it as a comedy.  By assuming we the audience are supposed to laugh, director Rose Bochner allowed/coached her cast into playing it all as a dark farce.  A very, very dark farce.   Honestly there are moments it doesn't quite work--efforts to make Lavinia's (Annamaire Kasper) rape and mutilation are not quite successful.

But the rest of it pretty much works like a charm.  Especially Aaron (Timothy P. Brown) who hits the bullseye when it come to the tone and attitude--having a glorious time playing the villainest of all villains, not taking any it too seriously and aware this is a show, even winking at the audience about the convoluted plot.

Generally though the whole cast does a fine job, playing their characters over the top to the point of being bizarre:  Emperor Saturninus (Ian Heath) as some vaguely disgusting perv more in love with his own nipples than with either power of his Goth Queen Tamora (Leila Symington), Titus (Jack de Sanz) as a general with more than a few anger issues and frankly not having far to go to arrive at barking mad, his son Lucius (Chase Mullins) as a surfer dude--why not?  Having Tamora's twin sons Demetrius and Chiron (Chris Kappel) played by the same actor with a hand puppet seems almost normal.  Well, in this world anyway.

The rest of the cast--Bobby Coyne, Major Curda, Carlos Chavez--likewise fall into the whole farcical nightmare of the show with enthusiasm and skill.  As a result, we laugh.  We laugh at things which aren't supposed to be funny.  Like cannibalism.  Except it is funny!

Nothing more clearly marks a successful comedy that that!

Andronicus plays Mondays at 9pm until June 26, 2017 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre, 4850 Lankershim Blvd (north of Camarillo), North Hollywood CA 91601.

2017 Fringe Shows Part Three (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Third series of reviews to shows seen at this year's Fringe Festival.  At least one or maybe two more to follow.  Click on the title to see the review posted on the Fringe Website, which in turn can tell you details of further performances:

My Janis is a one woman show, and very ground breaking in a tiny way.  Even the title gives a clue.  Most of these try to give you an overview of a real person's entire life, be it Harry Truman or Oscar Wilde or Martha Graham, etc.  This feels a thousand times more personal.  Most powerfully, the writer/performer here captures not Janis Joplin trying to explain herself to posterity or some such, but captures a particular moment in her life, a nexus, a decision which easily could have gone either way--and it feels that way.  I was awestruck.

Nick and Brooke's Comedy Dance Party may be the most aptly titled show I've ever seen.  It absolutely delivers what was promised--comedy, dance, music, singing, skits, etc. as part of a party we the audience have had the grand luck of attending!  So much fun!  A simple, delicious idea carried off with wit and style!  The audience joins in--singing with the stars and some of us ended up on stage dancing!  The grin on my face arrived soon and stayed for a long time after I left the theatre!

An Evening With John Wilkes Booth offered what to someone like me--theatrefolk and history buff--seems like a slice of heaven.  Imagine something from history coming alive, seeming human rather than any kind of grand event sans nuance or real context.  What I got was well-acted, well-researched, done with an almost sublime competence and skill.  Yet I felt nothing, save a growing distaste for this violent man-child full of himself who as much as admitted he committed murder to get good reviews.  So if that is what we were to see, that indeed appeared on stage.  But I wanted more.  I wanted to sympathize with Booth, to weep for the man he might have been.  Or to become fascinated by a human being driven to such an act by his own personal demons.  I got neither of those, and I'm human enough to have been very disappointed (despite--it bears repeating--the fine efforts and genuine talents on display).

Bitch Brow shocked me more than once.  And when it comes to watching plays, I'm not that easily shocked.  Blending humor and pathos with a unique blend of human detail, this play details the meeting of two women in an all night laundrymat in Long Island.  They share life details, comments about men and life, that sort of thing.  Sounds like you know what this might be like?  You. Are. Wrong.  This gets a lot more raw, more naked about what people really do and feel.  I am not easily shocked.  That bears repeating.  I was this time, although it all made perfect sense.  Highly recommended!

Friday, June 16, 2017

2017 Fringe Shows Part Two (reviews)

Spoilers ahoy!

More reviews of plays I've seen at the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival.  Each links back to the review published at the Fringe website.

The Physicists by Friedrich Durrenmat was brand new in the early 1960s, considered a ground-breaking piece of dark humor.  The current production brings out the absurdity of it into sharp relief, which makes the whole thing even more like a weirdly funny nightmare.  The backdrop is a private insane asylum where all the "physicists" (two thing they are Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton, the third really is a physicist but says he talks to King Solomon) are in one wing...then the murder happens.

The Tempest: All Woman Cast by the Say Yes! Collective assuaged my fears.  The fact is, I've seen two other wonderful Tempests in the last 48 months it seemed impossible yet another would do this (very) tricky play justice.  Yet they did!  This includes my favorite Miranda so far.  And the whole thing proved fresh, fun, entertaining and also moving (the ending and its rationale quite touched my heart).

Sunday, June 11, 2017

2017 Fringe Shows (review) Part One

Spoilers ahoy!

I am reviewing multiple shows in the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival.  Here is a precis of each, with links to the full review, in the order in which I've seen them so far.  At least one more of these is coming...

Jack the Ripper's Mistress by Cynthia Asmar, marks the first of six vampire plays in this year's Fringe.  Yeah, in this one Jack is a vampire, and the murders for which he's famous a work of art intended for his undead lover.  The play shows the full arc of their love story, in all its very VERY dark splendor and passion.  Like the love child of Rice and Fassbender, it ends up equal parts romance and nihilistic manifesto.  What it needs however is more than an hour.  At present this version just doesn't have the time to do more than plot highlights, albeit with lots of promise.  Ultimately I ended up looking forward to the next iteration of the piece, my appetite whetted by this taste of something very compelling yet to come.
The Little Mermaid (A Movement Piece) by the Boundless Art Theatre Company.  Based (refreshingly) on the deep, often disturbing fairly tale by Hans Christian Anderson, this piece straddles the line between play and dance.  I don't believe it quite succeeds at either one, despite being ultimately very effecting.  The choice of music by Evanessance proves a nice choice, and the cast generally does very well, but in a movement piece or dance the movement needs precision and it only sometimes had that.  Yet the story was there, with performers experiencing it rather than going through the motions or posing.  No small thing!
The Spidey Project by Justin Moran is Theatre Unleashed's low budget but delightful musical based on the famous superhero.  I cannot think the Broadway one was half as good.  Humor is tricky, because you either laugh or you don't.  This time I laughed and laughed and laughed, but also felt my heart tug more than once.  At heart the story is about a lonely young man who by raw chance gains real power, and at heart wants to be a hero.  So the undertone of "What is a hero?" flows throughout, with a very skilled cast of actors doing wonders.
Three Can Keep a Secret by Greg Crafts of Theatre Unleashed gave me deja vu.  Because when going to school in NYC the musical on Broadway I most enjoyed was Edwin Drood in which the audience elected several plot points, including the identity of the murderer.  This show does something similar, but sprinkled throughout the plot, to vastly funny and entertaining effect!  It is all about a crime, where things (naturally) go wrong--and from there matters spiral more and more out of control.  The cast is fantastic, giving all kinds of startling nuances to the story.  What could easily have been formula instead is played straight, but with skill to make the laughs emerge easily.  I may see this one again to view multiple endings and plot twists!
Love's Adventures by Margaret Cavendish proved a special little prezzie for yours truly.  The Broads Word Ensemble found a classic piece I've neither seen or read (nor heard of to be honest) and it proved delightful!  Apart from the fact it gives a lovely glimpse of ideas not-so-modern as we think (women winning swordfights with men, for example) the cast under a very fine director were just fantastic.  Language in these things can be an issue, yet never was.  It was simply a style of speech, which the actors understood to their core and thus so did we.  Recommend this one highly (Full disclosure: The editor of the piece and the director are both good friends of mine.)
The Rise and Fall of Dracula by Melissa Ortiz bills itself as a "total immersion" piece, in this case meaning we are led room to room, with our perspective changing scene to scene. That is actually the least interesting bit, compared to the movement and compelling retelling of Stoker's novel--which brings in Ancient Greek history as well as LeFAnu's vampire classic Carmilla. This gave Ortiz the chance to re-write/reconfigue the story as she saw fit, including (and I will simply not complain about this one bit) a reimagining of the roles played by Mina and Lucy.  The performance is not without a few problems, mostly in length (this NEEDS a longer version) but ultimately works very well indeed.
Normal by Anthony Neilson marks the best, most powerful piece of theatre at the Fringe this year so far.  That I have seen.  I expected little less from the Vagrancy to be honest.  Peter Kurten was a real serial killer/arsonist whose crimes and atrocities shook Weimar Germany.  The so-called "Ripper of Dusseldorf" was executed just before Hitler's rise to power, having been adjudged "normal" (i.e. not insane) by the courts.  Seen from the POV of his defense attorney, the play unfolds as a compellingly intense chamber of horrors--with the most horrible of all realizations, that that chamber is in some very real sense Home.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Almost Equal To (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Been going to see plays and performances at Santa Monica's City Garage for about a year now, and must say in general I like their repertoire very much.  My term for much of what they do is "Theatre of Dreams."  Rather than anything really linear, we experience something with the logic of dreams, sometimes as if a dream is precisely what we're viewing.  Almost Equal To by Jonas Hassen Khemiri takes this idea into another iteration, in which the characters share not only what is happening in the real world (or what we call "real") but some of their minds.

Which almost makes this a naturalistic work, by City Garage standards.  Almost.

Forgive me for talking about style instead of substance.  In this case (often the case with really good theatre) the two end up entwined.  A part time economics professor (Andrew Loviska) begins literally with a description of falling.  He seeks to make his students see the subject as fascinating, filled with the life story of extraordinary, eccentric, very real human beings--including a former chocolates manufacturer named Van Houten (Bo Roberts) who walked away from vast commercial success to spend the rest of his life learning.  Therein lies a clue about the play's subject.  Two in fact.  The falling, and the dissatisfaction, coupled with an attempt to understand it in rational, even academic terms.

What follows at first seems like an almost disconnected series of sketches about characters who have little in common save their interest in economics as a set of ideas--most of whom simply fail at achieving what they want.  All of them end up demonstrating how the current system fundamentally fails on a human level.  The most financially successful individual is a homeless man named Peter (Johanny Paulino) who apparently is anything but homeless, yet by artful pretense makes a good living.  Martina (Lindsay Plake) meanwhile dreams of a radically new world and life, seemingly to no avail, slowly succumbing to the hyper-materialistic, ethics-free voice in her head (Natasha St. Clair-Johnson) who sometimes shares the stage with her.  A boy (Jeffrey Gardner) feels compassion and generosity, hence in effect robs himself and then finds himself beaten up by his older brother as part of a "rescue" of the money lost.  This makes perfect sense given the way their mother (Sandy Mansson) raised them, with frugality worshiped above joy.  Later we get a glimpse of a strange episode involving a woman (Ann Bronston) who might have just tried to commit murder to get her job back.

All of this and more becomes clearly more than coincidence and theme as the second act begins, when we see just how much these character intersect within each others' lives. The web which twists them, threatening sanity and safety--threats they often see, and sometimes clearly understand if not quite finding a way to escape--becomes more than theatrical motif.  What brings so much harm to these characters proves a pervasive system, a set of values and institutions encouraging the very worst in each of them.  And in us.  Paranoia.  Violence.  Dishonesty, especially to oneself.  Hopelessness--not only as an emotion but a fact.  Yet not presented as a dirge or lecture, but almost a poem.  A sad, disturbing, touching poem.  Not, as it happens, an unusual facet in productions directed by Frederique Michel.

Almost Equal To plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm until July 2, 2017 at the City Garage, Building T1, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica CA 90404.