Thursday, March 23, 2017

Malicious Bunny (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Matthew A. Sprosty’s world premiere of Malicious Bunny contains an amazing scene. Near the end of Act One, blue collar worker Jonathan (Markus Taylor) visits the very swank, expensive apartment of his wife Angela’s (Heidi-Marie Ferren) parents.  Mr. and Mrs. Parsby (Larry Gilman and Jennifer Edwards) pretty clearly despise their son-in-law.  They certainly have no desire to look at him, much less talk with him.  Reasons why—apart from the snobbery of money—emerge as Jonathan, whose visit clearly surprises them, insists on staying.  What the parents don’t realize is that Angela is with them as well.  She listens to it all via her husband’s Bluetooth, and she remains in constant communication with him.

Honestly, doesn’t that description whet your dramatic appetite, at least a bit?  Because honestly, this wonderful scene eclipses everything else in the play. It plays out with tension and mystery, character and tensions emerging one after another, while the cast does a genuinely splendid job.

It also leads up to murder.

Here lies the problem.  Not that we already know such is the reason for the visit (although from a technical point of view that does weaken the scene) but because the rest of the play never reaches this level.  Understand—elements turn out quite interesting, even engaging, but overall the script remains uneven.  Billed a dark comedy, honestly I hardly ever laughed or even grinned. Part of that must lie with the slow way scenes shifted (this remains a complaint of mine with many productions—no one wants to watch furniture being moved) but also frankly the lack of insight we receive about most of the characters.  The only one who consistently seems very much alive and himself is Greg (Andrew McIntyre) whose relationship with best friend Jonathan remains the biggest unexplored mystery of the play.

Clearly, the playwright has some real talent.  Ditto the cast.  Director Bryan Fox shows some skill and cleverness, albeit amid some problems, but truthfully the production does not gel into a coherent experience.  Given its avowed nature as a comedy, this comes down more than anything to rhythm.  One can indeed shift tone and genre successfully and to great effect.  But the skill to do so only shows in small flashes.  Meanwhile three extremely minor characters—the Pit Boss (Nicholas Maes), Detective Grilling (Tess Kartel) and Detective Ispy (James Vallejo)—seem wasted.  Honestly I could not figure a single reason for the first of the three to even be in the script!  The other two come across as just weird, but purposelessly so.  I like weird.  But weird needs to fit.  Just as a deliberately jarring note in a piece of music has to be the right jarring note and placed in just the right moment.

Malicious Bunny plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until April 9, 2017 at the Actor Company’s Let Live Theater, 916 North Formosa Avenue, Los Angeles CA 

The Cruise (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

(rather more appropriate this time)

Sometimes titles of plays (or novels, short stories, etc.) can prove problematical. At least they should give a hint to the audience what awaits.  Some alas make very little sense (Other Desert Cities I’m looking at you). Others, such as the Jonathan Ceniceroz’ The Cruise at LATC end up a source of contemplation, because the title actually suggests so much.  Consider the word “cruise.”  Obviously, given the play takes place on a cruise ship, we have the simple act of traveling on the surface of the sea—as ancient a metaphor for life as boats. It also harkens to “cruising” as in looking for partners.  And to constant travel without landing anywhere, never really finding a home.

All of which makes perfect sense.  Because this play explores all that and more.
James (Kenneth Lopez) comes aboard the Majestic, a high-end cruise ship, to spend some time with his semi-estranged father Ramon (Ric Salinas), recently hired to give an entertaining lecture about native peoples in the Caribbean.  As father shows off the digs, son clearly feels uncomfortable. Part of it seems discomfort over Ramon’s unrelenting enthusiasm that reaches the level of garish. As time goes by, layers peel back and we learn more. Some of it we probably expect. Yeah, James is gay. No, Ramon did not get this job under totally above-board circumstances (he gave a false name and lied about his credentials).  All this sounds like something of a zany comedy coupled with a bonding experience between father and son so far, right?

Credit: Grettel Cortes Photography
It proves more.  Soon enough James meets Judith (Carolyn Almos) and her partner Howard (Gary Lamb), taking one of many mini-vacations aboard the Majestic.  They turn out to be conservatives who’ve come into money and now want to enter politics.  Well, Judith has and does.  She wants to help groom a Latino for the GOP nomination to the legislature.  Given this day and age, one might expect this pair to be demonized.  Not so.  At the very least, maybe a Jekyll and Hyde situation wherein an evil bigot emerges when the subject turns to politics.  Again, not so.
Given these end up coming across as charming, in many ways positive, and very much individuals, formula might call for James and Ramon to function as stereotypes.  But yet again, not so.  The layers continue to peel back, revealing surprises.
For example, James recently panicked over a long term relationship.  He feels adrift, unsure of what his life can or should be.  Ramon it turns out has a long, long history political activism—so much so it ultimately wore away at his wife’s considerable patience at his absenteeism and lack of support.  His planned lecture aims to upset the guests with extremely unpleasant truths about Christopher Columbus.

Credit: Grettel Cortes Photography
Navigating amid such shoals we find Cruise Director Boyd (Brian Wallace), whose long history with Ramon blends enmity as well as friendship, frustration and loyalty, even some romance as well as fierce judgment.  Boyd’s character seems almost designed to steal the show, with a scalpel-sharp wit and ability to metaphorically tap dance with great skill. He’s the Malvolio of the play, far from the lead but too vivid to forget and whose presence put everything else into sharp relief. Under Heath Cullens’ direction, in fact, the whole ensemble does a fantastic job of keeping a lot of emotional, dramatic and comic balls in the air simultaneously.  Perhaps what impresses most is how those balls have not at all come to rest as the play ends.  They remain in the air, although moving on to a different pattern—one we can only guess at.

Ultimately we end up with a show full of genuine and warm charm, but a charm that firmly bites.  The script brought to life cuts us, but with an extremely sharp blade—one effortlessly and almost painlessly breaking the skin to leave a delicate scar, yet without drawing one drop of blood.

The Cruise, produced the Latino Theatre Company, plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm until April 9, 2017 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 South Spring Street, Los Angeles CA 90013.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Paradise Lost (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Not Man Apart and its members created three of my top dozen shows of 2016.  Now they offer an all-movement multimedia adaptation of Milton's epic poem, titled Paradise Lost: Reclaiming Destiny.  As you would expect the work covers the creation of the Cosmos itself, including Earth, the "birth" of the Son of God (Zachary Reeve Davidson), the rebellion of Lucifer/Satan (Jones [Welsh] Talmadge), then the temptation of Adam (Leslie Charles Roy Jr.) and Eve (Alina Bolshakova) which results in the world we know now.  Well, that is in the title after all.

Two aspects of the show I want to really talk about and praise.

First, the actual production which proved spectacular as usual.  As ever the entire cast showed not only talent but physical training to a very high degree, but now backed up byextraordinary multimedia.  Not only do we the audience see amazing images dance across the stage and set, but the cast interacting with those images!  One of my personal favorites involved Satan emerging from hell, then leaping from world to world until he finds Eden!  Fantastic!

Second, though, must be the story itself and how Milton's epic emerged into a new form--with, frankly, some welcome changes.  For one thing, the poem's misogyny never popped up.  For one thing, we see not only God the Father (J-Walt Adamczyk) with a wave of some kind of wand bring stars and worlds into existence, but the God the Mother (Marguerite French) at his side.  The Archangel Michael (Anne-Marie Talmudge) as well as other members of the Heavenly Host are played by women, just as Eve is given a far more central role than in the original.

But what really impressed me most how much of the story's symbols and unique features emerged crystal clear in performance.  Of course as Satan rebelled a female figure seemingly appeared on his back, raven haired and sheathed in red.  Who could this be but Sin (Laura Covelli) herself.  Once they coupled a darkness appeared from them, at first amorphous yet even before he took human form I realized this must be Death (James Bane). Must be!

Which means of course because the ideas and characters remain so vivid, the situations so clear, the disturbing questions about the narrative remain intact for us to ponder.  Why for example were Adam and Eve not warned by the Trinity or any of the Angels (Kendall Johnson, Elisa Rosin, Joseph Baca III) about Satan?  Why did they not intervene?

Meanwhile, why could they not simply be forgiven?  I don't think this a weakness.  Encouraging the audience to think and question seems to me a virtue--one of many in a piece that seems like one the company will return to, again and again in years to come.

Paradise Lost: Reclaiming Destiny plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm until April 2, 2017 at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 North Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90036.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Disinherit The Wind (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I feel strange writing this.  Disinherit The Wind (the title is a sly reference to the famous Pro-Evolution play Inherit The Wind--one of several) is a polemic about the relationship between science and spirituality, with an emphasis on how the two can live side by side.  It attacks pure materialism, while eschewing anything smacking of fundamentalism or Creationism.  But it also rejects Darwinian Evolution.

Now, most of this is actually my own point of view as well.  I also see the universe itself as the manifestation of a transcendent consciousness of which we are a part.  I see no inherent conflict between my faith and science.


Disinherit The Wind tells a moving story, one that centers around some fairly esoteric questions of evolution, biology, genetics and other sciences.  The fact such seemingly dry fare becomes a source of fascination and passion marks one of the play's great strengths.  It urges, encourages, almost makes audience members think!  Which is nearly the highest praise I can offer.

Credit: Ed Krieger
Dr. Bertram Cates (Matt Chatt--the playwright and owner of the Complex Theatre) is our protagonist--a neurobiologist fired because (he claims in a lawsuit) he disagreed with Darwinian Evolution. Financially he defends himself while the University has prominent attorney William Brady (Ken Stirbl) assisting Dr. Jared Brown (G. Smokey Campbell).  The only witness Cates has on his side is graduate student Howard Blair (Stephen Tyler Howell), engaged to Dr. Brown's daughter Melinda (Renahy Aulani).  One can see how the case cannot help but strum the strings of conflict, also the real battle happens in Act Two.

That is when Cates confronts the University's prime witness--Dr. Robert Hawkins (Circus-Szalewski) a very thinly veiled version/parody of Richard Dawkins.  Since all this takes the form of testimony before not a scientist but a judge, both debaters are forced to make their points in layman's language--which sometimes even strays into the poetic.

Credit: Ed Krieger
Juicy stuff.  It works  I feel for the characters, and the rest of the audience felt for them as well.  More I was so involved in the debate my urge to enter into it, making a point, needed stifling!  Wow.  Well done!  Entertaining, moving and thoughtful--as fine a trio of adjectives as most plays could hope for!  And totally deserved!

So why do I feel strange?  Especially since I essentially agree with the protagonist in what after remains a play with a great big MESSAGE delivered pretty explicitly over and over again?

Well, I don't think he succeeded in making his case.  Not in the way he claimed, anyway.  Frankly Hawkins is set up as a straw man, the authoritative voice of the opposition.  And he comes across as very intelligent, very arrogant, very unwilling to consider any world view other than his own--to the point where he storms off rather than even talk with Dr. Cates.

Credit: Ed Krieger
Frankly that feels like cheating.  I wanted to step on stage and take his place--specifically because I do agree with Dr. Cates and wanted to hear him expound on important things such as punctuated equalibrium, and alternate definitions of life, and other matters.  The play presents the question of evolution and beginning of life as in any way related--they are not.  The latter is an infant science and anyone who confidently claims ideas common before I was born as current thinking--as Hawkins does--of course comes across as a fool.  The playwright set up his voice of dissent to fail.

Of course that also makes for a good story, so in a way I cannot blame him. It helps as well the whole cast does a fine job--including Lon S. Lewi, Tony Cicchetti, Caroline Simone O'Brien and Christina Hart. All of which adds up to an almost startlingly good piece of theatre, a theatre of ideas that (and this makes for very high praise) fuels serious thought on the part of the audience.

So despite my whining, this remains a good play and very compelling production.

Disinherit The Wind plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm until April 9, 2017 at the The Complex (Ruby Theatre) 6476 Santa Monica Blvd (between Vine & Highland), Hollywood CA 90038.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Artificial Flowers (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

One genuine pleasure (and to be honest, worry) in writing theatre reviews is seeing the premiere of original plays.  Usually, at best one can call such works still in need of some re-writing.  Sadly, sometimes we see vanity projects that make one cringe.

Artificial Flowers on the other hand steers clear of those fates and makes its own.

I walked into the theatre a bit nervous.  For one thing, I saw the cast consisted of only two people.  More, one of them, Emily Charouhas, also includes the credits of writer and director. A few facts soothed my nervousness, one being her co-star Jason Britt, an actor I know and admire very much.  For another, the writer/director/actor Charouhas I've seen and thought quite good.  I even saw--and very much enjoyed--a ten minute play of hers last month.

Credit:  ZJU
What followed essentially consists of a long conversation in the middle of the night.  Maeve (Charouhas) comes to see Phelix (Britt) as she evidently does every few weeks.  They met via some dating site, a nicely ironic fact given their acid-tongued personalities. Both are writers.  Both clearly feel something for and with each other.

The two characters get together now and then for company and for sex.  On stage, biting, scratching, nakedness, pleasure and pain ensue.  Presumably the sex is more of the same.  But that gives you a clue of how riveting Artificial Flowers proves to watch.  To be sure, the script is a challenge because it presumes the characters extremely articulate, capable of maintaining really fierce concentration for a full hour.  Fortunately, in this production that proves exactly the case!  Good thing too--without that (and compelling characters) this would be deadly dull.

Instead, it proves fascinating and disturbing from the get go.  We've likely all seen some kind of relationship like this from the outside at least--very often the result of at least one person who've numbed themselves to so much in their lives.  But living wrapped in metaphoric cotton wool suffocates, so they seek out something or someone who makes them feel alive!  In practice this means some kind of pain.  Pleasure too (hello addictions--from sex to drugs to booze to gambling, etc) but also pain.  Both allow us to feel, to know down to the marrow we are alive and real.

Likewise the other person probably has some mental issues, often bipolar (like Phelix) and quite possibly a sadistic streak (lots of us do) and a nihilistic outlook that makes them whittle away at others.

The combination litters many an artist's life, and small surprise it contains such vast dramatic potential  What we see in Artificial Flowers is the time it finally goes too far. Too much is said and done to allow any continuation.  What happens next instantly comes to mind--but would be a totally different story.  At the end, so much TRUTH stands revealed one story has clearly ended.

And it is riveting.

Artificial Flowers at this writing has only performance left, Friday and Saturday, March 11 and 12, 2017 at 8:30pm at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just north of Camarilla, just south of the NoHo Sign), North Hollywood CA 91601.

Church Discipline (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Brandon Slezak is an up and coming writer/director at ZJU. This is his third show at that venue, Church Discipline. What particularly distinguishes a lot of his work is audience interaction, which can be tricky.

He and the cast manage a tricky balance on that point.  As one enters the theatre, we see the place reset as the interior of a church.  Cast members even greet you, asking if you've attended here before, engaging you in small talk, etc.  Let me say up front this felt fun, if a tiny bit confusing.  Which can be a good thing!  From a young lady's reactions when I answered her questions I found out we were in Texas.

Of course the sermon eventually began, and with it the true wackiness.  The publicity doesn't really let folks know Church Discipline is a comedy, so let me be the one to tell you.  A dark comedy.  A zany comedy.  A genuinely startling comedy.  As Pastor Luke (Slezak) begins his teachings for the day, we learn this Church seems very well-meaning.  They urge folks to confess their sins in a bit that raised my eyebrows all the way to my hairline a few times.  As a group they seem pretty forgiving, at least of most things.  Lola (Emily Charouhas) had an abortion for example, and while shocked the congregation pretty eagerly prayed for her forgiveness.  What they do find beyond the pale is something of a comment--cross dressing.

Credit: ZJU
So this is mostly pretty straightforward, with a few weird details--like one young woman's claim her yet-to-be born child is an immaculate conception.

Then, Satan (Henry Steelhammer) shows up.  For reals.  Well, within the reals of the play's reality you know what I mean.  Turns out he has plans, or maybe we should make that PLANS, for the characters in question.  And this leads us to a wittily evil Game Show in Hell.  No really, think about that concept for a moment.  Satan as a Game Show Host, with Damned Souls playing for a chance to not have their tortures increased.  Clever!  And yeah, dark.  This is not a show for those easily offended (or maybe it is--I can see an argument made either way).

And the play ends with a quick fun, even interesting twist.  Which I"m not going to give away here save that it involves Mildred (Jennifer Weisner).

Never seen a show like this.  What a weirdly charming blend of satire, horror, irony and humor!  Really!  I do think this feels like an early draft of a really powerful rather than just entertaining show.  The elements seem just waiting to be taken a couple of steps further, mostly by taking the premises of this weird world totally seriously and going for it.  But then, I think a zany comedy might be the perfect venue to discuss the nature of Sin and the Question of Evil, how belief impacts all of this, etc.  I really enjoyed Church Discipline, but feel with some more work I might genuinely love it.

For now, though, what a clever and amusing show, especially for those (like myself) with a fairly dark sense of humor!  And let me give a quick shout-out to the rest of the cast as well--Cassidy Davis, Jetta Juriansz, Ben Korman, Alexander Landeck and Zenobia Rose Tucker,

Church Discipline plays Sundays at 7pm until April 9, 2017 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim (just north of Camarilla, just south of the NoHo sign) North Hollywood CA 91601.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Long Joan Silver (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

And kindly forgive my use of the above graphic.  I just like it so much better than the official poster.

Methinks plenty of folks would agree that Los Angeles theatre can generally do with a few more pirates.  Not those who shamelessly steal images or other copyrighted material to make a profit, but the swashbuckling seafarers or old.  Shiver me timbers and the like.  And in Arthur M. Jolly's Long Joan Silver frankly it seems as if we've struck gold matey ay arrrrrrrr.

Quick confession--Mr. Jolly is a friend of mine, as is his wife, the director of this show Danielle Ozymandias as well as the actor who plays the title character Bree Pavey.

In essence the play re-imagines Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island with a modern eye, to the point of becoming quite meta at times and yet also frankly deepening both humor and drama.  After all, what is pirate treasure if not ill-gotten gains?  The coming of age tale of young Jim Hawkins (Ilona Concetta Castro) is played for more than laughs but also for poignancy.  After all, "adventure" in this case includes considerable danger and real violence.  One memorable part of the novel--a part which helps elevate it--remains how one of the most dangerous pirates of all proves a parental figure for the orphaned lad. What Jolly does is dive deeper into that notion--just as he includes the lovely twist (historically supported with many instances) of making many (okay in this case ALL) the pirates women.  This fact disturbs the like of Squire Trelawney (Kristian Maxwell-McGeever) perhaps even more than the fact they plan on killing him.

What we get for the price of a ticket ends up as a rollicking good time on a startling number of levels.  Yes, the show is funny, not only for the humorous bits that dot the show, but also for the fact the characters seem to notice the huge plot holes now and then.  Many traits are exaggerated to delightful degrees, including Mrs. Hawkins (Jennifer DeRosa) preternatural powers of hearing and Captain Smollet's (Mitch Rosander) dour willingness to do whatever it takes.  Yet also, one reason we laugh is as a release for the real danger and disturbing undercurrents. After all, central to the whole plot is people killing each other--and of the ways Jim comes of age, that surely is the worst, if also the most exciting.

The cast is pretty large, and all do a fine job in all sorts of ways, up to and including Marian Gonzalez as both Blind Pugh and Long Joan's parrot.  JoAnn Mendelson, Alex Paige Fream, Marissa Galloway, Michaela Kahan, Alina Maris, Amanda Noriko Newman, Celina Lee Surniak, Jillian Riti, Kailey Bray, Morgan Allyce Smith, Mollie Wilson, Tony Williams, Jefferson Reid, Thomas C. Lebow, Tor Jensen Brown and Sarah Nilsen all likewise contribute their acting, combat (thanks to Mike Mahaffey) and skills to a thoroughly fun--and surprisingly thoughtful--show.

Long Joan Silver plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 5pm at the Loft Ensemble, 13442 Ventura Blvd (across the street from the Psychic Eye Bookstore) Sherman Oaks, CA 91423.

Tortured Souls (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Zombie Joe's Underground has a history of pushing limits, most famously in their signature work Urban Death.  Casts, writers and directors often try to find new, strange ways to explore the macabre.  Tortured Souls marks their latest effort.

But here's an important point--and the crux of what makes this review difficult to compose.  Quite simply, despite the disclaimer above, spoiling this might very well ruin the experience.

So forgive the circular language that follows, so lacking in telling details!

The "show" lasts approximately 30 minutes, and as far as I can tell we the audience have wandered into some antechamber of hell itself--or some kind of very unpleasant afterlife.  We certainly get the strong impression these denizens we encounter have died, and exist in an almost timeless loop of madness and desire.

We do, as a result of things they say and sometimes what they do, get some hints about those encountered.  For example, at one point they literally sit each of us down as individuals and read something aloud.  In dim light, the company enacts certain pains and desires.  Some don't seem particularly bad or evil.  But then, we don't know their whole story do we?

More disturbingly, we don't really know why they are here at all.  We have after all no real reason to suppose they deserve any of what seems to be happening.  Do we?  After all, to some extent it all happens to us as well...

The cast consists of Jason Britt, Chris Harmony, Jonny Hazen, Ian Heath, Daniel Palma, Kimberly Sadovich, Elif Savas, Kevin Van Cott, Matt Vorce and Yael Wallace. Again, without giving too much away, the raw concentration of the cast members is much of what gives this experience its power.  No jump scares here.  No threats.  Just deeply disquieting moments and images, words and motions which pile up one atop the next.

Does this sound attractive?  Intriguing?  It did to me, and I found the event sufficiently intriguing Zombie Joe kindly allowed me to go through a second time.  Warning: Tortured Souls certainly includes very disturbing imagery, including full frontal nudity and simulated acts of great cruelty.

Tortured Souls plays Fridays and Saturdays at 11pm and 11:45pm until March 25, 2017 at  ZJU 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just south of the NoHo sign, just north of Camrillo), North Hollywood CA 91601.