Tuesday, February 20, 2018

4Play: Sex in a Series (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

On Valentine's Day I attended the west coast premiere of a play with a witty title.  Appropriate as well.  In this case the play is also in a form I rarely enjoy, that of "total immersion."  Rarely, mostly because the production doesn't really use the idea very well. 

4Play: Sex in a Series on the other hand uses it well. The stage area (where I've seen several shows previously) didn't look so much like a stage but a bar.  Indeed a real bar, complete with bartender et al next to entrance!  One corner of the room, raised not even a foot from the floor, is elevated.  Now, given that I need to sit down, this meant I had a poor seat overall, with several people standing at high tables obscuring my view--but I heard everything, and saw quite a lot, not least because the action kept moving.

This all sounds like an example of hyper-naturalism, doesn't it?  Refreshingly, this proved not to be the case.  Theatre cannot really compete with film and television in terms of realistic detail, but far exceeds those media when it comes to using imagination.  4Play jumped back and forth through time, shifted place constantly, the cast even recognized this was indeed a play, the characters commenting on that fact!

Credit: Kelsey Risher
But that is the delightful paradox of theatre!  And such makes up the blood, flesh and bones of this fascinating performance!

Plot-wise the whole thing is the stuff of rom-coms and farce.  The Director (Graham Brown) seems to be trying to get over his Ex (Marian Frizelle), in part by some experimentation with his sexuality and also by putting together a play.  A unique theatrical "event."  The play we are watching in fact, complete with a Stage Manager (Kaitlin Large) who almost/not quite functions as a greek chorus.  His gay Best Friend (Dustyn Gulledge) is there for him, offering what advice he can--some--and support--quite a lot.

Meanwhile we also get a glimpse of a changing living situation.  A Roommate (Zoe Simpson Dean) shows a Lesbian (Ariana Anderson) the apartment she shares with an actress we will soon know as the Girlfriend (Eve Danseisen).  It seems to be working out well.  Pretty soon the Girlfriend will audition for the Director and impress him mightily, not only in terms of talent but a connection they seem to share when she reads for him. 

Credit: Kelsey Risher
That is actually one of the most clever bits in a very clever show, and ultimately one that creates some interesting conflict.  Notice how she is not identified as the Actress (there is someone like that--Kelsy Risher)?

So after a little while, the Best Friend meets and hooks up with the Best Friend's Boyfriend (Cameron J. Oro).  Perhaps you can see a pattern?  Never fear, this will all play out but some expectations relentlessly veering off in new directions. 

Others will prove quite prescient.

High on that list is how in what is/might not be a play within a play, the Girlfriend and the Director do hit it off.  She soon becomes his Girlfriend, even as the Girlfriend's two roommates hook up and become each others' girlfriends.

Don't worry that plays easier than it reads.

As things proceed, we also meet the Little Sister (Bevin Bru) and the Tequila (Kristen Racicot). More importantly, the ships involved enter stormy seas threatening to sink them all.  But here may be the most clever bit of all.  We care for them all.  We want each of the three couples to find happiness in each other, which some do and some do not--not through anything particularly dramatic but through simple/not-so-simple communication.  But--it eventually becomes clear only some of these we see are in fact people.  At least two (I would argue three) are really just characters, based on people but ultimately figments of a deliberate imagination.  Truth wins.  Deceit--even the most delicious deceit of a well-crafted story--fails, but only fails at being truth.  It succeeds in showing what not to do, oh please do not do this, not if you want that elusive thing called love.

Credit: Kelsey Risher
Now, doesn't that sound charming, and clever, and entertaining?  It is.  It even manages to be true.

Give credit also to writers Graham Brown, Nathan Daudree and Lisa Roth along with director Graham Brown.  And yeah, the Director really is the writer and the director.  For reals.

4Play: Sex in Series plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm until March 17, 2018 at The Actor's Company, 916 A North Formosa Ave (just south of Santa Monica Blvd), Los Angeles CA 90046.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Extremities (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Who are you, really?

The question, at the very heart of William Mastrosimone's play Extremities, has no simple answer. How could it?  In the end, after all, there are no simple people, only different nuances of complexity and layers.  As per the title, only at certain moments--often extreme ones--do all our social masks slip, revealing something at our very heart.

Marjorie (Virginia Novello) is hanging out at home when a stranger named Raul (David Hardy) knocks on the door, looking for someone he says owes him money.  It takes a few moments, but her alarm bells start going off a little too later. This man is here to rape her, and he gloatingly notes he's also going to "cut" and kill her.  These first twenty minutes of the play prove deeply uncomfortable to watch.  I would imagine they feel ugly in the extreme to actually perform!  Fortunately, she manages by a fortunate coincidence to get the upper hand and renders her assailant unconscious.

What next?  Here the play proper begins.  She drags him into the fireplace, using her bicycle and laundry cords and bicycle chains and other things to bind him.  Makes sense.  Render the dangerous man--the one inches taller and at least fifty pounds heavier--immobile. 

He wakes up, unable to see, and enraged.  He screams at her, threatens her with the idea "there's no proof!" and promises to come back and kill her. 

When she comes back, she's carrying a shovel.

I described the basic plot to someone on the train heading home, and this person seemed puzzled that neither Marjorie nor Raul behaved in ways that seemed to make sense.  Which honestly misses the point.  Anyone working themselves up to commit a rape/murder isn't likely to be in a particularly rational state.  Victims of assault in the immediate aftermath of it (which counts as both of them) are in shock and running on adrenaline.  At this moment, the social masks have begun to slip, but remain in place.

The same thing happens as Marjorie's roommates start coming home.  It becomes their turn to face stress, to try and figure out what to do.  Terry (Caroline Dingwall) arrives first, and seemingly follows Marjorie's lead.  Patricia (Marissa Fennel), a social worker, comes later and ultimately tries to take charge.  Raul meanwhile does nearly all he can to set the three against each other.  He succeeds to a disturbing degree, revealing in the process some unpleasant truths about each.  Terry has herself been raped, and she never told anyone.  Patricia clearly thinks herself the smartest of the three (she may be right) and harbors some severe resentment of them both. Her face as she realizes something about herself proves haunting. Interestingly, Terry--who seems to fit into the role of ditzy girl--in moments of stress puts clues together at light speed. That's one of the things about social masks--to some extent they are lies, often lies we tell ourselves about ourselves.

By the play's end, though, Marjorie and Raul go furthest, have gone to the most extreme, and theirs' are the social masks that fall all the way off.  Emotionally they end up naked, the most real selves unveiled.  Both find themselves a bit shocked.  Which makes for a brave and harrowing performance.

Extremities plays Saturdays and Sundays at 7pm until March 31, 2018 at Theatre68 5112 Lankershim, North Hollywood CA 91601.

A Walk in the Woods (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

For the second time in one week, I saw a play dealing with the end of the world--in this case focusing on those whose jobs (one would think) are to prevent that happening.

Or is it?

Lee Blessings' A Walk in the Woods takes place in the 1980s, and consists of two arms negotiators tasked with finding a way for the two superpowers to reduce their nuclear arsenals.  With the power to wipe out all the nations on Earth simply waiting to be used, waiting for some accident or misunderstanding or some act of stupid malice, it should prove not too difficult.  Right?  After all, our own survival depends upon this.  Right?  Our own lives and the lives of everyone we love, hate, know, have heard of plus everybody else.

Yet it proved so very hard.  Why?

Credit: Matthew Gilmore
American Joan Honeyman (Nan McNamara), new to Switzerland where the negotiations continue, finds herself gently but firmly dragged for a walk into the local woods by her Russian counterpart Andrey Botvinnik (Phil Crowley).  He proves to be precisely as she had been warned--charming, cheerfully self-contradictory, with a thousand and one ways to say "No."  In particular she seems baffled (or frustrated) by his insistence they be friends, and when she rejects this idea, going along with it because they are friends.

Like many a work about an apocalypse, even a looming one, this play softens the horror with humor.  Good thing, too.  In many ways this becomes Honeyman's story of bitter disillusionment, of her holding on all the same.  The interplay of these opponents gradually grows into precisely what she said it must never be--a friendship.  As that happens, the issues behind and (horrifically) above those of the dangers involved emerge.  We should leave the theatre depressed.  Interestingly, we don't, but we hopefully avoid complacence.

Even as Botvinnik keeps trying to needle her into relaxing, to becoming his friend, she eventually coaxes him into revealing his own cynical view of their real purpose in these negotiations.  To seem busy, but achieve nothing.  The superpowers want to keep their atomics weapons.  Don't want to ever give them up.  They adore these things. Without them, he notes, the United States would just be a "bigger, richer Canada" and his nation "an enormous Poland."

Credit: Matthew Gilmore
If the world were really peace-loving, he points out, there would be millions of peace negotiators and only two soldiers. Not the other way 'round.

He clearly did not always feel this way. That it emerges, is the tragedy behind his own humor, a way of dealing with hopelessness.

During the course of the play, which consumes more than a year within the show itself (four scenes = four seasons), the two go back and forth, not in terms of specifics but of communication.  They grow and to some extent meet in the middle. It proves a bittersweet middle.  A melancholy one.  They have failed. Were always meant to fail.  Yet at least they are alive now.  Along with everybody else.  Who knows?  If they are lucky, maybe this will go on for centuries!

At that point what can one do but laugh? Laugh and enjoy this particular moment.  Then soldier on, hoping for something to happen.

Which seems like good advice for life, maybe.

A Walk in the Woods plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm as well as  Sundays at 2:30pm through March 18, 2018 (with special Saturday matinees at 2:30pm Feb.17 and 24) at the Crossley Theatre (on the grounds of the First Presbyterian Church) 1760 North Gower, Hollywood CA 90028.



Wednesday, February 14, 2018

PoPalypt1c (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Interesting, how certain themes and ideas seem to bubble to the top of the collective theatre consciousness.  At least that seems a pattern.  Look at all the Shakespeare's lately having to do with very bad kings, from John to Macbeth.  Another idea showing quite a lot has proven that of Apocalypse, the end of the world. 

Gee, I wonder why?

(No, I don't.)

Credit: Shayne Eastin
Anyway, PoPalyp1t at Zombie Joe's has one more weekend as of this writing and let me say up front more folks should go see it.  The night I saw it was close to standing room only, but please take that as more reason to go get a ticket asap.

Really. 

Now, like a lot of shows at ZJU, this one falls into a category I call "Theatre of Dreams," i.e. instead of a linear story per se it has the logic of a dream, in this case an often deliriously funny nightmare. The dream here is of those survivors from some kind of apocalypse, probably involving atomic war.  We focus on about three groups of survivors.  One consists of Satan (Jason Britt) and his fawning minion Squeak (Anes Hasi), the former furious as the mess he's now inherited which looks to be no fun at all.  Just an almost empty wasteland.  He can't even set fire to anything! 

Then we have three wrecked remnants of humanity--Itchy (Nick D'Alberto), Radar (Skye LaFontaine), and Burner (Abel Kidane)--clinging to/obeying/in some ways worshiping a female cyborg known as Mother (Caiti Wiggins).  Mother has a sense that Satan walks abroad and leads her distorted followers to find a Doctor (David Dickens) who doesn't seem terribly qualified for his supposed job, nor to have a particularly firm grasp on his own identity.

Credit: Shayne Eastin
Finally, we have Claudius (Daniel Palma) and Fauna (Alyssa Weldon), a pair of very dashing tango dancers who seem insane, at least by human standards.

This sounds all well and good and nicely weird, as per what one expects of ZJU.  Stream of consciousness, disturbing imagery, dark humor, blending fantasy with science fiction, etc.  This one, though, is actually more linear than (for example) Urban Death or Blood Alley.  Writer/director Shayne Eastin (a veteran of both earlier pieces in more than one iteration) takes her story more in the direction of a strange epic quest, fueled by Satan's inexplicable desire for this female Mother, his efforts to torture one of her children into becoming her Judas, and the strange, fractured wisdom with which she greets this trap. Her weird world-building seems coherent in a drug-induced sort of way, not merely in terms of tone but with specific characters and even character arcs. 

Likewise, the cast pushes forward to doing more than being "in the moment" as so many short-term characters (often brilliantly) are in such semi-stream of consciousness shows. Indeed, the way each actor devoted themselves so totally to their character made me only want more. 

Credit: Shayne Eastin
Indeed that is pretty much the only real criticism I have of the show, which otherwise does a magnificent job with its bizarre dreamscape, equal parts Lord of the Rings, Paradise Lost and Mad Max (with a mild sprinkling of Zardoz). But there seemed to be more story here, a few beats missing. 

Yeah, I wanted more.

PoPalypt1c plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm until February 17, 2018 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood CA 91601.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Chinese Wall (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

In 1946, after the vast horrors of the second World War ended with the looming threat of even greater horrors via atomic weapons, Swiss playwright Max Frisch wrote The Chinese Wall.  This work dealt with the idea that humanity can no longer afford pettiness among those in power.  Once we achieved the power to kill everyone, change became necessary.

But would change happen?  Can it happen?  Today, more than in over a decade, such questions seem more pertinent.  Today, we have world leaders who make us look back with envy at the likes of Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev.  Those terrifying, ruthless old man seem more benign that who we have now.  Let us share a genuine shudder at such a thought.

Now, The Chinese Wall is remounted by the Group Rep in North Hollywood for precisely that reason.  How does it work?

Something of a mixed bag, to be honest.  For one thing, its style is dreamlike, with figures from history meeting out of sync with one another. One of the central characters is simply known as The Contemporary (Patrick Skelton), a visitor from our time trying to...I'm not sure.  Persuade figures from history to change their ways?  Try and understand them?  Such a lack of linear story need not wreck a theatrical experience.  Many wonderful such remain equally "dreamlike" with all the weird logic inherent in dreams. But to make it work, just as in any production of Alice in Wonderland, the cast and director need laser-like focus.  Sadly, only a handful of this quite large cast show such.  Fortunately those handful have pretty much the major roles, but the rest of the cast create a muddle, often a series of jokes that aren't funny.

credit: Doug Engalla
Shoe-horning contemporary comment over and over and over again frankly helps not at all.  The plot deals with a surreal version of Chinese Emperor Tzhin Zhe Huang Ti, builder of what we call the Great Wall of China (there are actually lots of such), which in this production is almost painfully made to represent Donald Trump (Mark Atha).  The actor himself just dives into the madness with energy and vigor, so kudos to him, but some of the "gags" are awkward at best.  One, equating the First Lady with an overly licentious version of Cleopatra (gorgeous and charismatic Gina Yates) bordered on offensive, as well--more importantly--trivilizing the point by making it all so specific.

Not to say the play isn't fun at times.  It is!  More, as the play progresses the absurdity takes a shape which by the end made me care, particularly about the Emperor's daughter Mee Lan (Savannah Schoenecker) who bears zero resemblance at all to Ivanka Trump, save for being seen as an asset by a wealthy powerful father, like royal daughters and their like throughout history.  Her desire to rebel and growing relationship, however dreamlike, with the Contemporary becomes a genuine character arc.

In the end, amid a trial equal parts Lewis Carroll and 1984, the revolution finally comes, fueled by rage and broken promises, by greed and toxic masculinity, and by a failure of our heroes--Mee Lan and the Contemporary--to find a way to prevent the blood bath.  Amid ashes and ruins, they contemplate an eternal cycle it seems of lethal foolishness and casual cruelty.  In the very end, I felt something.

 credit: Doug Engalla
Which is good.  Too bad about the all the chaff in the way but I liked bits of it, and not just from a few leads.  Caroline Stella was enormous fun as Don Juan, while Nick Paonessa proved genuinely interesting as well as frightening as Wu-Tsiang.  Todd Andrew Ball did a quite good job as the kind of ur-bureacrat Da Hing Yen, while in a tiny tole Sarah Zuk as the Ingenue managed to come across as a person speaking her own words, no small thing.

The Chinese Wall plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm until March 11, 2018 at the Lonny Chapman Theatre 10900 Burbank Blvd. North Hollywood CA 91601.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Eviction Notice (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The Sherry Theatre is one of several charming little venues on Magnolia in North Hollywood.  Inside, roughly fifty seats rise before a fairly deep stage and a quite nice lighting/sound system. 

Currently you can see Eviction Notice at this theatre, an original whodunnit set in a not-quite-seedy Hollywood Hotel called the Henderson--the place has seen better days, but currently hosts a group of would-be artists, former stars, second rate performers, plus of course the son/heir of the late owner.  If you know much about murder mysteries, you'd probably guess correctly said son/heir will turn out to be a jerk (Bo Burroughs) and eventually murdered.  Structurally the reason seems simple enough--he embodies change at this establishment.  Things change, and as a result dominoes fall and this time one of those dominoes is a corpse.

With a cast of eleven, we end up with eight suspects (minus two detectives and of course the victim). Jacques Freydont's original script has several pluses and minutes going for it.  The biggest minus is an inherent problem in many kinds of murder mysteries--making the initial situation interesting in the shortest possible amount of time. This falls apart somewhat, because Act One proves ultimately too drawn out despite some really interesting characters and interactions going on.  For one thing, we don't have an obvious "hero" or "pov" character.  More, we are waiting eagerly for the murder so the mystery can commence.  That the obvious victim does indeed end up not breathing does not help.

Now in Act Two, we get an extraordinary piece of writing that still makes me blink.  The two homicide detectives (Ian Michaels and Adriohn Richardson) assigned to the case reveal themselves as very interesting indeed.  Both break--and use--stereotypes in compelling ways, and their internal dynamic (this marks their first case together) proves even more interesting than either seems as individuals.  Add to the fact I did not know who the killer was (which frankly is unusual), left a very positive impression.

Honestly the direction seems a bit sloppy, with vague blocking and at times it seemed some member of the cast were in different styles of play--which can work, given the types of characters, but did not quite do so. That is a nuance more than anything, though. The rest of the cast--Lara Fisher, Sonja Kovacevic, Ray Mainenti, Kelly Pierre, Thomas Porter, Lorena Rodriquez, Debba Rofheart, A.J.Sass--did a fine job, and I believed them.

Still, while the first act had problems, the second act ended up grabbing my attention and never letting go.

Eviction Notice plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm until February 24, with a special Sunday performance at 5pm on February 25, 2018.  The shows are at the Sherry Theatre 11052 Magnolia Blvd. North Hollywood CA 91601.

Freud's Last Session (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The premise sounds intriguing.  At the onset of WWII, Dr. Sigmund Freud has a conversation with C.S.Lewis.  One, the founder of modern psychological science, remains firm and fierce in his atheism.  The other, author (later) of the Chronicles of Narnia as well as The Screwtape Letters and other works, a famous former atheist who became a major Christian apologist (interesting term, that...).  At this point in their lives, the eighty-something Freud was dying of mouth cancer and had fled from the Nazis with his family.  Lewis, in his fifties, had only recently converted and had yet to become famous for his radio broadcasts, nor yet met the woman who would become his wife.  Not sure if my knowing quite so much about these two figures makes a major difference in appreciating the play.

So how is it?

Very enjoyable, if you enjoy a very good conversation between two interesting people who disagree with each other, especially under quietly dramatic circumstances. I happen to enjoy that kind of thing very much, and the performances only added to my enjoyment.

Credit: Enci Box
Martin Rayner as Freud conveyed a living copy of what I know about the man.

Interestingly Martyn Stanbridge as Lewis, which giving a very good performance, resembles his character not at all (I've seen Lewis portrayed many times, and almost no one really looked much like him).

Publicity made much of the fact Freud was a devout atheist and was challenging the relatively new Christian convert, which to be fair is a running thread throughout the play. But it really never becomes more.  If (as frankly I was) you come expecting to hear something insightful on the subject then you will probably feel some disappointment. Likewise if you desired to learn something really important about these two you might not have simply by watching a documentary or two about these two fascinating characters--again, you will not find that here. The play simply lacks anything approaching that power.

Credit: Enci Box
What it gives rather--backed up by excellent performances, top quality production design, etc.--turns out to be a interesting conversation in which we walk away with some sharp insights into Freud but little more than an overview of Lewis.  The actual start of World War Two happening on this day--when Prime Minister Chamberlain announced Hitler was not going to withdraw from Poland, and then the King spoke to the nation about the greivous ordeal ahead--forms a lovely framework but does little else.  Freud's impending death and the very real agony from his mis-shaped mouthpiece (replacing his upper palate after surgery for mouth cancer) offers poignancy, very real and touching.

But that is it.  Which, to be fair, feels very nice.  I enjoyed myself.  Freud's Last Session makes for a very human slice of life not only for these characters but for the twentieth century itself.  I felt interest, charm, admiration -- but never fascination, never real surprise, never powerful emotions. Which perhaps says more about me than anything else.  It proves quite enjoyable, but never very compelling, which ultimately comes down to Mark ST. Germain's script, and for all I know this is precisely what he was aiming for.

Freud's Last Session plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm through March 4, 2018 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90025.  Also some special performances on Wednesday February 21 and Thursday March 1.