Friday, December 7, 2018

Richard III in 2019

As the year draws to a close, please indulge this announcement.  I am getting ready to direct my favorite Shakespeare play, Richard III.  More details will follow, but look for a premiere on Theatre Row in April 2019.

Been talking about his for ages, and lately a lot of folks have expressed plenty of interest.  Twice I've done versions of an edit of the script, with increasing excitement by those involved.

This will mark the first full stage production by a new company, THEATREanon!  

So much I could say--and will--but let me give this much of a hint.  Imagine a nation torn in half, families fighting within themselves, implacable hatred leading to one terrible act after another.

A nation at war with itself.

Now imagine a human monster who sees all this as nothing but an opportunity...


Wednesday, December 5, 2018

King Lear (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Mentioned to a friend I was going to see ZJU's King Lear and referred to it as "Shakespeare's darkest play."  My friend disagreed, insisting that title goes to Titus Andronicus.  But as he listed the reasons why, I interrupted to clarify.  The one is easily the most brutal, the most violent, but that to my mind is not quite so dark. 

Here's what I mean.

King Lear (Robert A. Prior) is not an obvious tyrant.  Indeed he has inspired vast loyalty in those outside his family.  Those around him are not all habitually brutal or selfish.  Albany (Christopher Sonafelt), Gloucester (Paul Carpenter), and Kent (Tom Trudgeon) to name three are mighty, powerful Lords who are clearly honorable, ever striving to be fair and just.  While Regan (April Sigman-Marx) and her husband Cornwall (Anthony Feole) are evidently not the nicest people, they don't seem guilty of any great crimes when the play opens.

But--Lear did just one thing wrong.  One thing.  One very human mistake.  He banished his youngest and most honest daughter Cordelia (Carlita Penaherrera) because she wouldn't flatter him enough--and then to compound the error he gave all his power away.  Yes, he was tired and old.  He wanted to bestow upon younger hands the dreadful burden of office.  There's even a hint he realized his danger, at the start of the play.

Credit: Denise Devin
So human frailty leads to utter catastrophe.

Because Goneril (Sasha Ilford), the eldest of his daughters, proves to be one of those who obeys the law out of fear.  Once her father can do nothing to stop her, she finds reasons to strip him of protection, of status, self-respect or even the trappings of power.  Regan and Cornwall follow suit.  Once it starts, the floodgates open until Gloucester's eyes are put out for simply showing compassion to his King. 

Likewise Gloucester makes a mistake as well, believing the evidence presented to him about his legitimate son Edgar (Christian Sullivan) manufactured by the illegitmate Edmund (Saint Ranson). 

Civilization, honor, loyalty, compassion--crumbling into random cruelty and greed at what?  Just a few mistakes.  The kind of mistakes we all make sooner or later.  We get in a bad mood and misjudge someone.  Look upon evidence and come to the wrong conclusion.

Credit: Denise Devin
The world of King Lear has all the virtues and good things of life.  What makes the story so dark is how fragile all that proves.  Society dissolves into chaos.  Because an old man got cranky.  Peace became war.  Because another old man made a mistake.  Yet is it really all down to Lear and Gloucester?

What if Cordelia had swallowed her pride and given the old man what he wanted to hear?  Or if Edgar had insisted upon staying to defend himself?  Albany proves a strangely ineffectual figure, and his lack of ambition seems to prevent him from countering his wife's plans until his hand is forced.  He could have done much.  In fact, although in theory at the end he should sit on the throne he wants to give it away!

Still, is this all it takes to strip away the humane and reveal the human beast?

Credit: Denise Devin
In the play, the answer seems to be "Yes."  And given recent events, can we doubt this is true?  If you doubt it, think back three years.  Yeah.  That is all it takes.

Darkness.  That light and hope can prove so fragile.

This production isn't doing anything especially different in design or concept.  I love things like that and director Denise Devin has done that aplenty in the past (often to wonderful effect).  This time she went with a perfectly straightforward idea, with quasi-medieval costumes (and fantastic ones they were too!) and a simple edit of the text.  Everyone--even the actors in relatively small roles like Gilbert Roy DeLeon, Ryan Lisman, Luc Rosenthal--simply did their parts, allowing the power of the story to work.  In this one that is what happened.  And that story warned us of just how dark the shadows really are, and how foolish we are to suppose light has banished them away. 

King Lear plays Sundays at 7pm and Mondays at 8pm until December 17, 2018 at Zombie Joe's Underground, 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just south of the NoHo sign), North Hollywood CA 91601.

Plays I Want to See - Dec. 2018

Again, I was asked about what plays I'd like to see produced here in Los Angeles that I have not. Sooo...

The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster, is probably the best-known Jacobean Tragedy (although one might make the argument Shakespeare's Hamlet deserves that title).  It has all the wonderfully macabre ingredients including extreme duplicity, sexual perversion, madness real and/or feigned, a huge body count at the end.  More to the point, it is a portrait of a world without either loyalty or compassion, where preening greedy cowards rule and corrupt all they touch.  One might well view this as especially topical at the moment.  The tale focuses on a young widow who has fallen in love with a gentleman who serves her--over the objections of her twin brother the Duke and their elder brother the (very) corrupt Cardinal.  At the center of the play lies Bosolo, a brilliant but cynical rogue who would in truth rather be honest and honorable.  Yet he is the one who actually commits the crimes commanded by the brothers.  Haven't seen a production of this play for years and years and years.

Let the Right One In, by Matt Thorne, based on the novel by Jan Alvide Linqvist.  Widely regarded as the best vampire tale since Anne Rice's first novel, LTROI has been adapted into two films and two stage plays.  The English language one premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, then did a run in London before landing in New York.  It tells of Oscar, an unhappy (and very angry) bullied little boy who finds one night another twelve year old has moved next door--a girl name Eli.  But Eli is not a girl.  She's a vampire, lonely beyond words.  A strange, touching love story full of horror and hope in equal measure.  Would adore seeing this play in person.

Love's Labours Lost (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

After two earlier productions by Chase What Flies, I can safely say I was looking forward to their latest, Love's Labor's Lost.  Adding to the fun, never having seen this particular work (generally seen as one of Shakespeare's lightest comedies) my expectations were nill.


Essentially the story deals with the King of Navarre (Doug Harvey) and his three male companions who have vowed to eschew pleasure and the company of women for three years of intense study.  Dumain (Kelvin Morales) and Longaville (John Cody Fasano) feel at least as much enthusiasm as their monarch while Berowne (Jordon Klomp) hesitates hard.  In the end, he signs the vow with a confident prediction--he will be the last of the four to violate it.

He proves to be the first.  But the King is second, as news arrives of the Princess of France (Tiana Randall-Quant) coming to court on an important diplomatic mission.  One look is all it takes, as the King falls for the Princess--just as Berowne falls for Rosaline (Julie Lanctot) one of the Princess' companions who has in fact seen the young Lord prior.  The Princess of course has two more companions, Maria (Maia Luer) and Katherine (Megan Ruble).  Well, of course she does.  You saw that coming, didn't you?

Everyone else did.  They also have a sharp-tongued male courtier along, named Boyet (William Gray Schierholt).

Of course it wouldn't be a Shakespeare comedy without lots more supporting characters of all varieties:  Don Armado (Kristina Mueller), a silly foreign knight, plus his clever squire Moth (Ken Ivy), the winsome young local girl Jaquenetta (Talya Sindel) whom the knight has fallen for, plus of course the clever but not wise local lad Costard (Cameron Rose) who also longs for her.  Add to this two local pedants, Sir Nathaniel (Kaite Brandt) and Holofernes (Tippi Thomas).

But stealing much of the show is Dull, one of the King's rangers or groundskeepers (Alex Sheldon) who listens with such a marvelous combination of puzzlement and pathos I rarely could take my eyes off of him. Although to be fair, the entire cast did as much for pretty much every moment.

In cinematic terms, the whole comes across as a blend of the most delightful farces and romcoms of all time.  The cast and director Taylor Jackson Ross clearly aim for this, and achieve it.  The sweetness of the silly love stories, the antic goings on, the misadventures--at one time involving a lot of wonderfully inventive masks and costumes--work all the better for a dashes here and there of the bittersweet.  A moment of casual cruelty by someone who isn't generally cruel.  A reminder of personal tragedy.  A human moment of humiliation.  But amid trap doors, wit, practical jokes on top of practical jokes, the wise and foolish as well as the high and low spouting what they think is wisdom and what they hope is true love.

On top of all that, as in the best of the Bard's comedies, come a melancholy event to bring everyone back to the real world.  Characters, no less than the audience, must leave the carefree hours of courtship and play.  Return to a world where consequences await--and lovers require more than verses to prove themselves.  The name of the play after all is Love's Labours Lost, not Won.  But there is a note of hope after all.  While the story ends with only one marriage--not among any of the highborn, not coincidentally--it offers the possibility of more.  Eventually.

That we feel that is part of what makes this such a fine and franky beautiful show.

Loves Labour's Lost plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm until December 16, 2018 at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd (one block east of Vine), Hollywood CA 90038.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

White Nights, Black Paradise (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I was 18 years old when the news came out, about a community of Americans in the Guyana, what looked like a cult, who killed a US Congressman then committed mass suicide.  Don't think I was alone in feeling deep shock.  Still do.  Almost every depiction since then, at least the one's I've seen, focused on the Congressman, on Reverend Jim Jones, on maybe a few people trying to escape.  Never once have I seem much focus on what Sikivu Hutchinson's play does--the ordinary members of the People's Temple and why they joined.

White Nights, Black Paradise aims to accomplish much--recreating a bizarre and sprawling series of events that in truth stretched back decades, and thousands of individuals each with a personal history and story.  Not easy.  Not impossible, but a difficult challenge.  Honestly the success ends up mixed.

What works in the play usually works very well indeed.  More than anything it seems to capture a feel of rampant racism and despair, a desperate sense of being under attack which would be the African American communities in 1970s San Francisco (and likewise the United States, even what we like to call Western Civilization).  "There is a war going on" characters tell each other, and as events progress we see why they say that.  Nor are they wrong.  Such an atmosphere stayed with me when I left the theatre.

More, I really want to heap some praise on most of the cast, especially those involved in what ends up the personal core of the plot.  Taryn (Darnell Rhea Williams) and Hy Strayer (Charlotte Williams) are sisters fleeing Indiana (where, not coincidentally Jones had his start) for the relative comfort and hope of the Golden Gate.  They arrive as the establishment is cracking down on the advances made by African Americans, determined to take what they've achieved, making a profit by wrecking the lives of the non-whites.

Sound familiar?

Now Taryn and Hy come to the People's Temple simply to get some hot food for free.  There they meet Jess McPherson (Elvinet Piard) a fierce and strong advocate of the Temple, and sparks fly pretty soon with the elder sister.  In time Hy begins going out with Foster Sutcliffe (Scott T. Patrick Williams) a sometimes Temple member increasingly seen as an outside, an enemy of those loyal to Jones.

Unfortunately this personal story ends up out of balance with a more stylized, broad series of presentations which all too often do not work, with a kind of Greek Chorus commenting in ways that often  seem random.  In fact the whole production lacks a certain focus, mostly in terms of individual stories and characters.  The play was almost ended before I realized certain actors were playing more than one character, for example.  Events eventually rush to a conclusion that seems almost to come out of nowhere--although this might be at least a problem with the direction, because momentum often stumbled.  Likewise a sense of place was lacking, nearly throughout.  Likewise I must say most the Temple Leadership, espeically Jones, came across as essentially identical at the start of the play as they were at the end.

I cannot say this play is not worth seeing.  It continues to haunt me, which remains surely its most important purpose.  But it was very confusing a lot of the time, and I think could use some work-shopping to hone the text into a more focused whole.  Given its topicality, the way it opens one's eyes to what had been unseen, the potential, I hope this happens.  While moving, I believe this play could pack a very powerful punch indeed.  Right now it only a slap in the face, instead of hitting your chest so hard the heart stops for a second.

White Nights, Black Paradise plays Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm until December 3, 2018 at the Hudson Theatre. 6539 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood CA 90038.