Saturday, January 19, 2019

Brilliant Traces (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

A startlingly simple formula for writing a play:  Two or more characters are trapped with each others' company and nothing else.  Maybe they are the last people on Earth, or are in a single room in the afterlife, shipwrecked together on a desert island--it hardly matters.  What matters is the potential in the set-up.

For Brilliant Traces by Cindy Lou Johnson, the location is a cabin somewhere in Alaska during a white out.   Harry (Chris Cardano) lives here, a virtual hermit when he's not a cook at an oil rig.  Imagine his shock when someone starts banging on his front door, and a woman in a soaking wet, freezing wedding dress bursts into his home!  She does shut the door behind her, then deliriously insists she must have walked an hour from her car before collapsing in exhaustion.

Her name, we will learn, is Rosannah (Caitlin Carleton) and on reflection her car must be not too far away, not really.  After all, she's still alive.

She wakes up two days later, dry and under blankets, to find this stranger has made some soup to help warm her up--oh and if she goes outside while the storm continues, she will almost certainly die.  Everything will turn white, the sky become indistinguishable from the ground, even your own sense of herself will just blur out of existence.  Harry warns her.  Harry knows.

The two have a lot to share, albeit often reluctantly, as the play proceeds. 

Both come across as a cluster of paradoxes (I think most human beings do, but only good writers manage to capture that fact and good actors successfully portray it).  Harry seems too polite, too sociable to be a hermit.  He doesn't want her here, insists he did no more for her than he would a starving dog.   For all the brusqueness, though, and all the irritable courtesy, he really does seem both thrilled and terrified to have her here.  Likewise, she comes across as clearly intelligent, clearly able and insightful, yet spouts a lot of what sounds like gobbledegook.  She claims for example to not really be here.  Something happened to bring her to this place, and perhaps not surprisingly she views revealing it as akin to gum surgery.

Eventually, the question comes up about what brought Harry here as well.

Answers do emerge.  Those answers matter.  But even more compelling is what happens between these two strangers, as on some level they grow to recognize themselves within one another--and thus see themselves and each other anew.  Makes for an exciting, deeply moving theatre.

Plus it ends up very funny.   No, really, the weird things each of them say, and the reactions they give alone are just a delight.  Both in a real sense are not only ducks out of water, they seem like all sorts of different creatures, each totally removed from their natural environs.  Moles in the air, elephants at sea, camels on a glacier--take your pick.  Really, the effect proves not only hilarious but deeply illuminating--and not only to we the audience.  Not least because when you think about it, both of them must feel in danger.  Yet there's nowhere to go.  No one to help or flee from or run to save each other and themselves.

This marks the third director's effort I've seen by Kiff Scholl and every single time it hit a home run. Here we have another example of the same.  Highly recommended for all the passion, all the humor, all the feels, all the mysteries, and all the startling moments of beauty.

Brilliant Traces plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm until February 10, 2019 at the Lounge Theatre (just east of Vine) 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. Hollywood CA 90038.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Definition of Man (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

A few years ago I was invited at the most moment to see this very show at the Hollywood Fringe Festival.  Since then it has traveled abroad, to Berlin as well as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  Now it has returned to Los Angeles for a limited run.

The Definition of Man marks a type of performance I call "Theatre of Dreams" because it simply makes more sense to so many audience members to think of it as a dream.  In this case a man and woman, the sole survivors (evidently) of a world-wasting apocalypse, seek to fill their time.  What can they do, ultimately, save contemplate themselves and each other?  Truths uncovered prove uncomfortable, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny, but in the end something wonderful happens--or is achieved.  Certainly purchased with a process of self-awareness that hurts as much as it frees.

We never learn their names, but we learn a fair amount about their backgrounds.  XX (Jason Rosario) and XY (Nikki Muller who is also the playwright) are both Americans from broken homes.  Both carry with them the habits of dealing with the traumas of youth.  For him, a lack of identity or sense of home, an eternal other-ness as he existed between the Anglo and Puerto Rican worlds.  She likewise sought to somehow reconcile the deep, abiding love she felt from a father whose calculated cruelty aimed at her mother never ever stopped.

But the apocalypse of which they are the sole survivors?  Nothing.  Nor does it matter. 

Instead we get an image of dirt and dust, an arid seemingly flat wasteland sans any real features and with water too precious to do anything save horde to quench thirst as an absolute last resort.

Simply, they have nothing.  Except each other.

During the course of an hour, in dance and drama, movement and aching words, not only do they wallow in their own issues, but slowly (sometimes quickly) whittle away at what underlies them, to their most primal shapes.  It gets ugly.  It also becomes beautiful, as they learn so much about each others' pain.  Once all things are exposed, all wounds revealed, every dark or neurotic impulse with their consequences now stand naked--then real communication happens.

The heart and soul of each reveals itself at the end, allowing words to fall away, permitting forgiveness, making possible something fundamental.

A harrowing Odyssey not to conquer fanciful monsters, but the aspects of one's self when in the end there is nothing else to explore.  No more words,  No more scenes.  In the end, movement and action and therein a hopeful truth amid nothingness.

The Definition of Man plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7pm, Sunday at 2pm until January 27, 2019 at the Arena Stage on CalState Campus Los Angeles, 5151 University State Drive, Los Angeles CA 90032.


Thursday, January 17, 2019

Diary of Anne Frank (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank (the book, not the play) in my early teens and crying.  Decades later I heard a new, unedited version of the book had been released--one with slightly more disturbing, more complex content (we are talking about the innermost thoughts of a pre-teen then early teen after all, under far more than usual stress).  The play being done now in Hollywood is based on this new (or if you prefer, original) version.  Written by Wendy Kesselman, based on the original play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

For those who (and frankly I find this upsetting) are not at all familiar, here is a breakdown.

The Diary of Anne Frank is all that remains of a life of a teenage girl who happened to be Jewish in Europe during the Second World War.  Her father Otto (Emiliano Torres), seeing the rising tide of anti-semitic discrimination in Germany, fled with his family to Holland in the 1930s.  Sadly in 1940 Germany conquered Holland.  Soon, Jews all had to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothes at all times.  They were forbidden from attending public schools, using public transportation, going to the movies.  All this proved a prelude to ordering healthy young Jews to work camps, from which they would eventually be transported east to God Knows What Fate.

Credit:  Elvira Barjau
Of course today we do know.  What awaited them was a systemic attempt to murder the entire Jewish population of Europe (plus Slavs, Romany, Jehovah's Witnesses, Communists, homosexuals and various dissidents as well as those with various health problems).  It came very close to success, with victims numbering in their millions.  That today we have people insisting it was all a hoax despite tons of physical evidence serves as a horrifying reminder this has been neither the first nor the last attempt at genocide, albeit the most infamous.

Only Otto Frank survived of his family, despite his best efforts--which finally came down to hiding in a hidden annex within the factory owned and run by a former business partner.  Anne (Genesis Ochoa) with her sister Margot (Nikki Mejia), their mother Mrs. Frank (Tasha Dixon) were joined by a family of three--Mr. Van Daan (Robert C. Raicch), his wife (Raquenel) and their son Peter (David Gurrola) who was a few years older than Anne.  Later a dentist named Mr. Dussell (Aris Alvarado) joined them.  With almost no privacy, needing to remain utterly silent during the day, full of terrifying dreams of what might be happening to their friends, everyone sooner or later on each other's nerves--yet through it all this remarkable young girl kept her diary, which was discovered after the war and became this shining voice echoing out of a very very dark shadow of history.

Credit:  Elvira Barjau
Which to be fair could have ended up maudlin beyond words.

Instead it comes across as deeply real.  I'm not going to pretend the current production is flawless, but the people on stage do come across as real rather than stereotypes.  Perhaps to emphasize this even more, the director took a startling but powerful chance:  Having read that some refugees are hiding from ICE in safe houses here in Los Angeles, director Stan Zimmerman decided to use that as the frame for the whole show.  In a place not unlike the Annex of the book, Latin American refugees gather with copies of the script and begin reading the play aloud.  Soon, in a not very clear transition, they go from reading the play to becoming the characters in the story.

Which some may find disorienting but works to hammer home a central truth that needs repeating--we are all human beings.  Differences of accent, cruisine, language, etc. are fundamentally trivial at worst--delightful and exhilirating at best!  And reminds us, the worst of human nature is still with us.

Credit: Elvira Barjau
Now--since I know some are going to take offense at equating the United States with Nazi Germany much less ICE as the Gestapo, let me state my perspective on this.  To deliberately slaughter millions  was by any definition an atrocity.  But is letting two children die of thirst really any less of one?  How many children can we let die of thirst before it becomes something that horrible?

We as a nation, as a species, and as individuals need to remember that.  And good theatre, like all good art, exists to help remind us of that.

The Diary of Anne Frank plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm until February 24, 2019 at the Ruby Theatre in The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood CA 90038.


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Soul-Crushing Disco Ball (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Honestly, when the guy telling us to turn off our cell phones and how to exit in the unlikely event of a fire also took a moment to remind us this was a comedy, I felt dread.  Experience says anytime someone makes a point of telling you something is funny--that makes for an omen of humorlessness.

On the other hand, maybe he was using reverse psychology on us.  I actually enjoyed Soul-Crushing Disco Ball quite a bit.  I even laughed.  Out loud.  Several times.  So did the rest of the audience.

Has a few problems, though.  None unsurmountable.

Fundamentally the play follows the lives of these two guys who become best friends when both were immature idiots in grade school (is okay--children are supposed to be immature idiots, and when they are not they become icons of certain genres of horror films).  By play's end, they have both grown up.  A lot.  Both have gone through quite a roller coaster (or roller coasters) of life and death, love and loss, success and failure.  In the end, they become much more rounded human beings in ways we all probably hope to grow up. 

Credit: Glen Gainor
Sounds pretty good, right?  Now let us throw in the fact both actors have quite a bit of personal charisma and acting talent and the ingredients all sound right.  But a few problems do pop up.  One I just mentioned.  Both actors.  As in two and only two.  The play has numerous scenes, jumping "o're time" in a way that makes perfect sense for the story--going from childhood to teenage years, early adulthood, marriages, etc.  But this requires in effect the entire cast to leave the stage ever few minutes and do a costume change.  Literally, the play stops.  I've seen this kind of thing gotten around before, but it always proves tricky.  In this case, playing music loudly (music that almost never resonated with me in terms of the story, but your mileage may vary) and having an attractive pair of young women rush on to change the set slightly did not fill these moments.  So in effect the play stopped then had to start again.  Which set up an emotional drag, one I could feel.

So we have a problem the production evidently hasn't found a way to overcome, not yet.  Frankly, the story also zips by too fast.  I kept beginning to like and get genuinely interested in these guys, then things changed so fast.  For one thing, the sheer number of off-stage characters left me lost after a time.  I'm usually pretty good at this, but what with parents and several different fellow students, cousins and doctors, a succession of girlfriends and friends and wives then at least one child and in the end references to some children from the very first scene--I was lost.  I feel strongly that last scene was supposed to wrap up a mystery which was intended as a hint to a lot of behavior later on.  But for the life of me I couldn't remember enough details to put it all together.

Credit: Glen Gainor
Again, far from insurmountable.  The story, one that feels real and affirming, is there.  But obscured.

I want to recommend the playwright and production take this play back to some workshop process.  As it stands now, what's feels like some misfires short circuits the whole process of telling this story.  There was humor, but the balance felt off.   They need to find a way to fix the dead space between scenes.  Simplify yet expand it enough to feel more complete, less confusing.  And I'll add I'm not quite sure what the title is supposed to mean.  Maybe I got it.  But I"m not sure.

Soul-Crushing Disco Ball runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm until February 3, 2019 at the Hudson Theatre Guild, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood CA 90038.


Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A Permanent Image (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The new Breakdown Productions decided to perform Samuel D. Hunter's play A Permanent Image as their premier production.  Easy enough to see why.  One set.  Three characters on stage, one projected onto the wall.  Modern dress.

All well and good but what really struck me was the raw power of the piece.  Like a haiku, it packed a multi-faceted emotional and philosophical punch.

In essence we begin with a video recording of the man we soon come to know as Martin (Robert Clenenin).  He's trying to say something, something he evidently finds important but uncomfortable.  Off screen we hear the voice of his wife, who comes across as a bit of a nag.

When the lights come up, the next person we see is Bo (Andrew Loviska) , luggage in hand and eyes wide at seeing how everything in the room has been painted white.  Even the pillows.  Even the magazine on the table.  His mother Carol (Clara York) soon enters and explains away the painting as something she wanted to do.  A series of facts emerge.  Martin is dead.  He was Bo's father and Carol's husband.  It is Christmas Eve and tomorrow will be Martin's funeral.  Mother and son--who is an international photo-journalist--do not really get along.  Eventually we learn this is Northern Idaho and pretty soon we meet Ally (Sasha Venn), Bo's sister, who lives a few hours away.  She runs a business, has a lesbian partner and a little boy together who haven't visited this house in years.  They are not there today.

Pretty bare, those facts.  Even stark.  Of course more emerges, much of it increasingly startling.  Amid the tensions and arguments that follow, we the audience try and assign blame.  More, we try to assign simple explanations to the relationships here.  But as Bo and Ally soon find out, that will require a whole lot of looking the other way.  Which becomes increasingly difficult.  In fact, maybe the only way to do that is to run away.

Which they both already did.  With, to be fair, plenty of good reason.  Martin and Carol, we learn, were not particularly good parents.  Not horrible in terms of physical abuse or neglect.  But distant.  Difficult.  Obnoxious and demanding at times.  Even shrill, when there.  One can easily imagine the two overwhelmed kids trying to find themselves amid the neuroses locked in that house.

But after a time, one sees them as no less neurotic.

More, we begin to see the unplumbed and disturbing depths neither sibling saw in their parents.  "Who knew he had an inner life" Bo says of his father, which sounds funny and then really sad.  Because we all have inner lives.  We all have to find our own answers.  Not about career so much, or where to live, or even how one figures out how to make things right.  What we learn about Martin and about Carol is that sans their identity as parents, they began reading up on things like string theory and quantum mechanics.  While this shocks Bo and Ally, even more shocking is that clearly their parents understood what they were reading.

Disturbingly, they came to a conclusion based on it.  On it, and on the lives they'd led, how little control, even importance they've felt.

The warning atop this review to the contrary, I don't wish to spoil the play, not least because the journey for characters and audience seem to require experiencing rather than description.  Family dramas of this kind tend to create expectations.  One might think of diagnosis, meticulously working out the mistakes and situation, much like Chekhov and Tennessee Williams for example.

  This play seems far more akin to Edward Albee, his existential exploration of human questions.  Who are we in this cosmos?  What decisions and reactions emerge from the mysterious alchemy which makes up our lives?  How much can one person's answers be of any aid to anyone else?  And amid all this, one of the very last lines in the play resonates in to my soul and out to the stars.  "I wish we knew each other better."  Even thinking of it now, brings a tear to my eye and for a legion of reasons.  Which stands as a fine testimony to the author, the genuinely talented (and courageous) cast, as well as director Genah Redding.

A Permanent Image plays Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 6pm until January 20, 2019 at the Skiptown Playhouse, 665 North Heliotrope Drive (at Melrose),  Los Angeles CA 90004.


Saturday, January 12, 2019

Richard III: Hour of the Tyrant (Auditions)

Auditions ahoy!

I've already put new of this into a Facebook event as well as Better Lemons and Backstage magazine.

Silly not to have it here as well!

Quite simply I have edited Shakespeare's Richard III down from a four hour length to under two.  I've reduced thirty six speaking roles (a good dozen of whom never reveal their names) to about fifteen.  Along the way, in keeping with my focus on what I see as the play's themes, scenes got re-arranged, some characters were cut, others fused together, and even lines as well as scenes from other Shakespeare plays.

So this adaptation/edit focuses essentially on the questions "What makes a Tyrant?" and "What makes a kingdom (or nation or group) that Tyrant's prey?"  Rather topical in my opinion. 

There are two days of auditions scheduled.  First is Saturday, January 26, 2019 from 11am to 3pm at Oh My Ribs, 6468 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90038.  This location will also be where the production goes up.  Second is Sunday, February 3, 2019 from 12noon to 5pm at Studio 100, 900 East 1st Street Los Angeles, 90012. This is south of Union Station and east of the Little Tokyo Gold Line station.  We will be having a fair number of rehearsals here.

I am asking folks to bring a single one-or-two minute monologue from Shakespeare of some other forsoothly piece (Johnson, Webster, Poe, etc.).  Everyone does their monologue in a given hour-long bloc and then I lead everyone in that bloc in an exercise. 

Right now the only overtly open bloc is at 4pm on February 3.  However, I encourage anyone and everyone to simply show up at the top of each hour any particular day.  The fact is, there are always no-shows and I will struggle to fit in everyone.

Meanwhile you can contact me at zahir13@gmail.com.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Top Dozen of 2018!

I have no idea why this didn't post automatically on January 1 as it was supposed to.  My apologies for not double-checking.

Every year I do this, draw up a list of my dozen best.  Given the amount of wonderful theatre I get to see, some rules became necessary.  First, no two shows from the same theatre company.  Second, I limited myself to actual plays, rather than (for example) dance performances.  This year I faced a dreadful choice between two plays by the same writer who is a friend of mine!  

The Flu Season (Pico Playhouse) was an exquisate poem of a play, about people who meet and feel and try to endure what they have or have not said, done. felt.  When you see as much theatre as I do, frankly any play that keeps you guessing as this does, while continuing to make sense, is a treasure.  That all this surprise surrounds so many fundamental human issues, tricky ones, the might have beens that haunt us, helps make this a very special show, brought to life by an ensemble that moved me in so very many ways.
Romeo and Juliet (Vagrancy)  Why does Juliet fall for Romeo.  In answering this question, the Vagrancy's production makes this centuries-old play extremely topical for our specific day and age.  For that reason I'm sure some audience members were offended.  But to me, the entire company created a world for the play which echoed our own in some terrible, tragic ways.  This ended up the best production of this play I've yet seen.

Native Son (Antaeus)  Another topical work, one which has sparked quite a bit of controversy amid my circle of friends.  Some lifted their eyebrows as this milky white dude reviewed a play based on this classic African American novel.  Others were upset at the liberties taken with the novel's story.  Some found the central character (understandably) repellent.  I certainly did.  But--and here is what puts this production on my list--as disgusting as I found that young man's actions, I grew to understand the why of them.  In seeing and knowing the shaping of his paranoia, his myopia, his desperation--and also realizing fundamentally he was far from the only person so shaped--I came to stunning realization.  Namely, that I am a monster.  In this society, even moreso in the era of the play, my white skin makes me a creature of whimsical and vast power.  It changed me by revealing a truth.  What more is Art for?

The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man (Son of Semele) may be the most original work on this list--a musical taking place inside the mind of a real science fiction author, a woman who pretended to write her works as a man.  What we saw on stage was an Odyssey with a female Odysseus confronting all the most important people of her life, up to and including many aspects and avatars of herself.  This theatre company, which put on the single best piece of theatre I have ever seen a few years ago, once again wowed and shook and moved me to center of my heart.

The Woman is Perfected was a one-woman show, the title coming from the last poem written by Sylvia Plath.  So.  A comedy!  Well, no--rather a searing portrait of a woman whose soul has become infected with and then totally converted to misogyny.  It was a horror story, in monologue, not told in terms of a story related but rather the monologue itself. 

Play On! is another one woman show, this time a cabaret of songs written by and for the performer, each inspired by one of Shakespeare's great female characters from Olivia to Ophelia, Viola to Juliet and Gertured and Lady Macbeth and others.

Longing Pinocchio (ZJU) was an original retelling and re-imagination of the 19th century novel that somehow (much like Alice in Wonderland or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) somehow succeeded in becoming a modern fairy tale.  Breathed into new life by looking at the source material with a fresh, often irreverent as well as sharply observant eye.

Winter Solstice (City Garage) is an example of why I give each theatre company only one slot on this list each year.  It otherwise proves too hard.  This play from Germany, superbly acted and directed as ever by City Garage, touches on an extremely topical question--that of the covert rise of fascism, via attractive lies and alluring half-truths all wrapped up in a generally friendly, supportive package.  But what does one do?  That question, powerfully asked by the play, is not answered here.  Rather, the answer is left where it belongs--with us, for us to come up with something, each individual.  Where else after all does the responsibility lie?

Gray People (Force of Nature) was written by a friend of mine, and this is one of two plays of his that opened this year.  I was very hard pressed to choose which one to put on the list.  It came down to which feels a tiny fraction of a shade more complete emotionally.  And it could have gone either way.  In the middle of the night, three people who prove both strangers and not-strangers to each other have met within some far-off woods.  Thriller, mystery, dark comedy, tragedy, and redemptive drama plus more, this play and cast enacted a soul-shaking tale of disturbing surprise to haunt audience members.

King Dick   is literally the funniest political farce I have ever seen, to the point where I sometimes cried and/or had trouble breathing.  At one point in history (this part is true) Elvis Presley requested a meeting with President Richard Nixon. From this emerges a comedy of error, mismanagement, paranoia, fantasy, drugs, and talking to the dead.  The cast superbly managed the absurdity of the situation so perfectly my brain is still reeling from it.

Blue Surge (Sixty-Six Theatre Company) tells a seemingly simple story about some flawed but generally likable folks in an ordinary small city.  It might almost count as a soap opera.  But we sense from almost the first line this will dive deeper into the human condition, fathoms deeper.  With a wonderful cast that is how deep it proceeds to go, down to some of the saddest facts of being human and alive--yet also how we can endure, how we can heal, how we can find a reason to breathe at all.

Love's Labour's Lost (Chase What Flies) proves a brilliantly delightful and "on target" production of what may be Shakespeare's lightest comedy.  Honestly, this script makes As You Like It look like Romeo and Juliet!  But--and this oft ends up forgotten in heavier fare--it has some genuine emotional truths, some sharp insights, and a melancholy or bittersweet undertaste that makes the humor so much more poignant.  That is portrays women as more mature than men, yet does not condemn either one, marks just one more detail this production hit in the bullseye!