Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Give Me The Sun (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I had a teacher back at the National Shakespeare Conservatory who viewed only two playwrights in the 19th century as "giants."  One was Norway's Henrik Ibsen, author of Ghosts which Tony Tanner has now 'adapted' into a somewhat streamlined version, titled Give Me the Sun.

The original proved deeply controversial in its day.  The notion of even mentioning venereal disease in polite society shocked and disturbed audiences over a century ago.  What Tanner does in this version is not so much recreate the same feeling as tweak it in ways making the story more interesting to a modern audience.  Social commentary focuses more upon dishonesty, upon keeping up appearances at the expense of happiness.  Ibsen's original built upon a squeamishness no longer nearly so extreme or common.  Instead Tanner shifts focus upon hypocrisy, upon willful stupidity and the habit of conformity.

Honestly the total effect--in terms of the script--proves less shocking, less powerful but more engaging.

Tanner also directed this production, and here there's a delightful level of just raw, pure competence.  Everyone dove into their roles with skill, so that even the weakest of them still did a fine job--and best of them enthralled.

Credit: Deborah Brosseau
The central character remains the widow Helene Alving (Alison Shanks), one of those female characters for which Ibsen rightly won so much fame, brought wonderfully to vivid life in this production.  Having lived a lie for decades, she now feels quite ready to spit it out, all concern for the rules of polite society burned away by marriage to a drunken libertine admired by all as a great, civic-minded citizen.  Now her son Osvalt (David Shofner) is home, a successful artist, she can finally reveal why she kept him away--i.e. to protect the boy from his father.  She ultimately reveals all this to the local minister, Manders (Stuart W. Howard) shocking him to the very core.  Although straight-laced and narrow minded, he turns out humane if not morally very brave.  Well meaning, but loving order more than love--which makes him in some ways the most pathetic character on stage.  Half of the shocking things she tells him he dismisses or forgets, with a pervasive habit of myopia the actor makes as vivid as it must come across as tragic.  Manders in fact can be easily manipulated by those ruthless and skilled enough--especially by a half-crippled sometimes-drunk named Engstrand (Joe Hulser).  Here is the one whose skillful deceit--so skilled I found myself believing him even when I knew it to be a lie--demonstrates a bit of the real world this man of God so little understands.  Finally we have Regina (Jill Maglione), Engstrand's daughter who's been raised in the Alving household and to whom the returning Osvalt feels such attraction.

Credit: Deborah Brosseau
Ibsen's words (through Tanner's lens) naturally reveals the secrets and tragedies which lie behind and within events.  Here we experience tragedy focused upon not the great and powerful but the rest of us.  This was the start of what led to giants like Williams, Albee, and O'Neil.  Not the hearts of kings or the mighty, but the epic of ordinary lives, which require so much silent and rarely applauded courage.

And in that courage, there is greatness.  In its absence the tragedy.  Helene, once the slave of conformity, can now look at the prospect of her son perhaps wedding his illegitimate half-sister and thinking only "Will they be happy?"  She finds in herself forgiveness to her late husband, realizing the fierceness of his heart turned in on itself by that conformity.  Faced with what for any parent must be the worst terror--the doom of her child--she smothers tears and stands straight when she clearly longs to flee.  Just as her son, desperate in the face of horror, proceeds with a brave resolve, accepting the sort of truths good pastor Manders would forever refuse to see. 

So instead of a searing indictment of moral cowardice involving one specific issue, we get a more rounded examination with less focus but more compassion.  Less of of an accusation, more of a sad tale with failed heroes rather than any real villains.  One that touches our hearts more, while stirring up one's bile less.

Give Me the Sun plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm until October 7, 2018 at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. (one block east of Vine), Hollywood, CA 90038.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Swan Song (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

A man comes to the park in a small Irish port.  He's there to see the swans, especially Agnes--the one who lost her mate.  The man, named Occi (Andre de Vanny) apologizes to Agnes for being tardy.  But he wasn't in trouble "not this time."  Soon he is introducing us to his friend the swan.  In the process, and eventually with profound depth, he introduces himself as well.

A strong lad is Occi.  Well, he's needed to be.  He and his Mum have only had each other pretty much their whole lives.  It emerges she had him out of wedlock.  In this community, the pair of them might as well have worn Red Letters A on their chests.

Or a yellow star on their clothes.

Swan Song by Connor McDermottroe is a one person show, a challenging form that flies or sinks very much on the interest and passion one performer can generate and inspire for an hour or more.  Here we have a hard time tearing our eyes away.  De Vanny comes across as emotionally naked, open to a degree that warms our hearts.  As we learn more, however, the hint rises and becomes vividly clear--he must have paid a fearful price for achieving this.  For here is a story about compassion, about the lack of it which cannot help but make a hard world a thousand times worse than it must be.  Oh compassion exists alright.  If it did not, Occi would likely be rocking to himself, eyes staring at nothing, his bloodstream infused with drugs for decade after decade until he rotted away.

But there wasn't enough.  There could have been.

Yeah, the fellow children who hurt his brain didn't mean to really damage Occi.  It was an accident.  He looks back on that now with forgiveness--a forgiveness he cannot bring himself to offer some (like the bishop and the priest, for how they treated him and his Mum all their lives).  Occi can like people.  He can be a good friend.  But he's also been poisoned by humiliation, by ruthless and casual lack of concern.  If only one or two of his neighbors had been just a little kind.  If only they hadn't called him that name behind his back and everywhere else, creating a trigger for ever-swelling rage.  If only...

The saddest two words in English, those.  If only...

Such is the experience of this man's life, unfolding before us with yes lots of charm and plenty of humor, his remarkably modest hopes coupled with plenty of really wonderful virtues.  Despite his problems, this performance (helped no doubt by director Greg Carroll) allows us to see in someone deeply troubled, haunted by past crimes, what the very best theatre often does show us.  Ourselves.  The sad lonely boy.  The shunned mother at her wit's end turning to drink.  The sad young woman who finds in Occi a kindred spirit.  The hard-working, hard drinking pal who becomes first Occi's best friend then his victim.  Mostly Occi himself.   Us.  Me.  You.

Swan Song plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm; 2:00pm on Sundays; and 8:00pm on Mondays through October 7, 2018. at the Skylight Theatreat 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave, LA, 90027. 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The Downtown Rep has the great good fortune to have Pico House across the street from Union Station as a venue.  The centuries-old building (still undergoing restoration) includes a gorgeous central courtyard of red brick--a seemingly perfect setting for a gothic work centered around this nation's most famous poet.

They also play up this for all it is worth, exploring not only that wonderful courtyard but different rooms and hallways.  Publicity calls it an "immersive" experience, which it certainly proves, and frankly more-than-usually successful.  Part of the story's conceit centers around Poe, immediately following death, finding himself two choices embodied by two individuals from his life: Henry Kelly as a mysterious figure urging him to atone and repent for his errors;  and Dan Lench as none other than Rufus Wilmot Griswold, the critic who loathed Poe and libeled him after death (portraying the poet as insane, seething with envy, a habitual drunk, etc.).  They seek to show Poe his life, to understand himself as well as his work.

Poe himself makes for a marvelously complex and weird individual, compelling and tragic yet strangely triumphant.  His mother  dying young, with a wealthy childless couple adopting Edgar (but not his siblings), his stepmother (Tiana Randall-Quant) dying young as well but an "odious" stepfather (Matt J.J. Miller) cutting him off in favor of his own illegitimate children. 

We follow and observe highlights of a difficult life, helped hardly at all by Poe's pride and sharp tongue.  Yet without doubt he also proved a victim.  The play doesn't really deal with this detail, but Poe was even murdered by parties unknown, almost certainly kept drunk for days to make sure he voted over and over again in Baltimore's local elections.  Whoever they were, they left him in a gutter, in wet clothes in November.  Along the way, he fell desperately in love and married his underage cousin Virginia (Chanel Castaneda) over her mother's (Kathleen Cecchin) objections.  Yet by all account the marriage proved happy, until once again tuberculosis (called "consumption" at the time) slowly claimed her.

Poe himself is played by several four different actors, allowing him to not only stand there in his life, but watch and comment upon it--his fierce and strange relationships with Mrs. Ellet (Rachel Levy), Mrs. Osgood (Arielle Uppaluri), and Helen Whitman (Dylan Diehl) among many others (these were but three of the many women in his life--a fact to which Virginia later makes her own loving but melancholy coda).  Hence we have the dead or omniscient Poe (Devon Armstrong), my personal favorite Poe in his thirties (Garrick Lewinter), Poe a little younger (Alec Gaylord) and also in his teens (PJ Diaz). 

Within this limbo plays out not only scenes from Poe's life, but also his poems and his stories.  Indeed, the very start of the play amounts to an adaptation of "The Cask of Amantillado" which increasingly seem cogent.

The end result feels a little bit like one of Poe's stories, but ending with perhaps less horror and more wisdom, and a trifle more narrative complexity.  The two hours of the show manages to leave us not with a lecture, but a dramatized portrait, a history in low key spectacle, leaving lessons or conclusions to be drawn by ourselves rather than imposed by the authors (Devon and John Armstrong).  It really does come across in some sense as "a dream within a dream."

The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe plays Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 7:15pm until August 26, 2018 at Pico House 424 North Main Street (at Olivera), Los Angeles CA 90012 (across the street from Union Station).  Performances are free but contributions extremely welcome.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Longing Pinocchio (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Live theatre can do things nothing else can, not least bring to life dreams and myth.  I believe it the ideal dramatic form for fantasy, far more than movies or television, no matter how much anyone spends on special effects.

Longing Pinocchio shows exactly what I mean by that.

Based not on the Disney sugar-coated version, but the original 1881 novel by Carlo Collodi, this play turns the story of the puppet who wants to be a real boy into more of an Odyssey in Dreams.  Our framework is a funeral service of Gepetto the woodworker but re-imagined into contemporary times.  Three actors--Valeria Iacompo (who plays the title character), Veronica Nolte, and playwright Eric Paterniani--play all the roles.  Along the way, tiny costume changes and radical physical ones coupled with vivid characterizations help keep us very much aware of what's going on.  Increasingly, the chaotic and often terrifying adventures of Pinocchio become sheathed in shadows.  Appropriate.  For as much as this is an Odyssey of sorts, it is also a Divine Comedy.  Not only a wild, magical world of talking animals, a turquoise fairie, and meetings inside monsters make up this tale.  We also watch a journey through Purgatory, Hell and maybe even a glimpse of Heaven.  At one point we pretty clearly see beyond death itself.

Credit:  Nolte-Slezak

Amidst all this come little speeches by those attending Gepetto's meager funeral, including his Nurse who so loved the wild stories the old man told about his child, some locals who try to use the occasion to sell life insurance, someone who used to lend him money, a ruffian who spied on the man but seemed to like him anyway.  Not just comic relief (not always very comic), these serve as punctuation and reminders.

It ends with an enigma that maybe serves also as an answer, a context with which to see this story, to understand how to feel about it all.  Despite the warning above, I'm not going to spoil those details.  But here is a bit of a clue--every single line means something, and when a line is repeated, it means much more.

Credit:  Nolte-Slezak
Plus, I must applaud the technical and dazzling skill of the cast, bringing to life so much on stage, often in sharp relief, often with very little time.  The face of a real little boy turned into a beast of burden, a wise and good being of vast power and compassion, a terrified old man facing his end, a pair of casually cruel and skilled rascals, plus over a dozen more appeared and lived in that black box theatre that is Zombie Joe's.  Most of all, the awkward and immature child trying to become whatever-it-is they will be.  Together these three performers are called Aliens With Extraordinary Abilities, and personally I eagerly await anything they create in the future!

Longing Pinocchio plays Sundays and Tues at 8:30pm until August 28, 2018 at ZJU 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just south of the NoHo sign), North Hollywood CA 91601.