Saturday, May 27, 2023

Everything Starts Like a Knock on the Door (review)

Spoilers ahoy! 

My friend Stepy Kamei is forging a powerful niche with her interactive immersive performances.  The premise is so simple yet conveys so much power.  You get a phone call from someone, some one very real but also long gone from this world.  And you have a conversation with someone who you have probably heard of--but for the wrong reasons.  Not for their accomplishments, nor their character.  Rather we know them for how they died.

Kamei seeks to correct that.  To reclaim the memories of those who deserve better.  Which is almost everyone.  Including you.  Including even me.

Rebecca Schaeffer was a young actress up for a role in a major motion picture in 1989, following a stint in a sitcom and some appearances in several films.  In Everything Starts Likes a Knock at the Door begins with a phone call from her to you, the audience member.  Almost.  We are getting some time travel involved here, via one of the most powerful artforms, namely music.  The first song we here, a charming one we've all heard before, becomes quickly chilling--if you know about how Rebecca Schaeffer ended.  As it happens the last song likewise feels like a punch in the soul's very gut.  Her murder proved especially shocking, and resulted in new laws being passed all over the world, acknowledging and trying to deal with the dangerous trend of stalking.

But she was more than an inspiration for legislators.  More than a body laid out on a morgue.  More than a set of memories.

Maybe we don't dwell on that so much--she and others who have died by violence in their millions and millions and more millions--because it feels so hard to admit how fragile breathing proves to be.  How easy it is for us to stop.  Or for someone to take it away.  

In a few (or not so few) minutes of conversation, all those possibilities live again.  Someone who was a face and voice on a screen, becomes some one we know.  Or knew.  Or now know, long after their deaths.  Their end is approaching.  We know it.  And the performance makes clear amid Rebecca's giddiness about life, about finding friends, about a career she clearly loved/loves...the end is approaching.  

For her.  For us.  For you.  For me.  Maybe that is most powerful thing about these performances, this quiet and intense glimpses of a real past and never-to-be-real future.  

Magic really.  When you think on it.

Everything Starts Like a Knock on the Door plays 28 different dates through June 30, 2023.  Follow the link at the start of this paragraph to learn details.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

The Slippery Knot (review)

 Spoilers Ahoy! 

This marks (I think) the fourth production I've had the pleasure of seeing from Ballview Productions

The Slippery Knot by David Dickens and directed by Brandon Slezak is described in their press release as an "absurdist Dickensian dark comedy" which is accurate, and rarely I will urge you to pay attention to those adjectives.  All apply most acutely.

Let me be brutally frank--this play is hard to initially get "into."  The opening scenes are very busy and frantic, also so fast with characters speaking such odd things one has trouble following.  

Mind you, the scale (especially in cast size) and weird background make up a lot of the show's charm.  Dickensian, yes, but also a bit of Dr. Seus plus Lewis Carroll, soaked in absinthe and sprinkled with J.M.Barrie.  We never really get explanation of how Lord Montsume (Ian Michaels) ended up having to live/dwell in his School for Demeaning Boys, where his viciously loyal Colonel (Talin Vartanian) routinely degrades and punishes a band of children who've evidently never known anything else (or maybe have forgotten--evidently this place has been in operation for centuries).  Our entire story is a flashback, though.  One Robert Gardener (David Dickens) is missing and his wife Martha (Megan Colburn) has seemingly hired or at least become allied with The Inspector (Ayanda Dube) to find him, looking up the retired Mr. Skeams (Jay Rumor) to help figure out what they can.

It all goes back to when Robert was a demeaning boy named Speedy Gardener (Lauren Adlhoch) along with other boys/prisoners such as Pip (Fatima Camacho) and Poor Nicholas (Alex Rhind).

NOTE:  I am not at all sure I've got all the names right, simply because the cast of characters was so large.  Yet it is easy enough to recall the major characters.

When the once-in-a-century visit to the school of a circus occurs, a complex plot emerges to let Speedy escape.  Much of this depends upon the so-called wild girl Mental Martha (Natalia Ortega) who will one day grow up to be Martha Gardener.  Seems the Circus' Magician (Jayden Jack) vows revenge on his wife (Libby Rose) who is having an affair with Lord Montsume.  Urged by Mr. Skeams, he uses a magic door to free/hide young Speedy in what seems to be a pocket dimension or realm of some kind.  Other people are trapped there, most of them totally mad.  Once released, they go rampant.  Aided by the Circus' former owner Mr. Whistle (Alec Schiff) Mental Martha and Speedy steal the train which brought it to this location, along with the Emptiness Clown (Isaac Tipton-Snyder) and a former prisoner of the Circus called Mr. Plank (Max Zumstein).

The Lord and the Colonel are soon in pursuit, sparking a quest/chase in which some really odd aspects of life take weird shape.  I don't want to spoil the thought-provoking details, but the two act fever/opium dream really does embody what I sometimes like to call Theatre of Dreams.  Not so much a plot or story, really, as a dream mounted on stage, full of powerful images and meanings it will take time to digest and decide for yourself what it all might mean.

The Slippery Knot plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 pm, Sundays at 4pm until April 30, 2023 at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd, North Hollywood, CA 91601.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Battlesong of Boedica 2023 (review)

 Spoilers ahoy!

(and lots of misspelling of the name "Boudica")

First mounted for the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2022, Battlesong of Boedica impressed me so much I put it on my "Top Ten" for that year.  It has been remounted, and my short review comes down to one sentence:

They did it even better!

If you don't know, Boedica was a Queen (or War Chieftan) of a Celtic tribe in Britain during the reign of Nero.  Faced with oppression more than she and her people will tolerate, she raised tribes in revolt, destroying London then slaughtering hordes of Romans until at last falling in battle.  The stuff of great story-telling, indeed.  More, though, in this case that story is told with all the matter of theatre one could hope for.  Dance plays a major role, as do masks (telling of course how ALL the Romans wear them, while the Britains do only rarely).  Combat itself becomes a dance, while the raw theatricality of it all keeps growing and growing.  At one point, Boedica herself (Jen Albert) dares to summon a Goddess of Battle, brought to more-than-life in a uniquely theatrical manner (and btw better than anything Weta Workshop or CGI could ever hope).  

What I describe sounds like spectacle, and indeed this show is that and more.  Be warned--plenty of violence, some extremely gruesome, some of it frankly triggering (the worst, thank all the gods, off stage--yet just as horrific).  

Yet without a story full of real people, what's the point?  Boedica begins as a harshly practical ally of Rome, having to persuade her husband Prasutaugus (Daniel Admonian) to put up with the company of a Roman Governor.  But in the wake of her husband's death in battle, fighting Druids in the name of "civilization" which kills its own citizens for sport, Boedica's home is looted, herself literally whipped and her daughters sexually assaulted.  

And war erupts.  I want to emphasize how almost every named character, from the Roman officials in their careless arrogance to Boedica's daughters who embrace yet sometimes question their mother's quest, even to relatively minor characters like a Celt challenger to Boedica's leadership, the young warrior in love with one of the Chieftan's daughters, the official looking at the wreck of all he believed permanent and inviolate, all have individual arcs, all we see live emotional truths--see and recognize those truths (in once instance, startlingly funny). 

The consistency of all this earns kudos to the writer/director Christopher William Johnson, as well as the entire cast--Christopher Neiman, Tristan Rewald, Dawn Alden, Allegra Rodriquez Shivers, Colin A. Borden, Lucy Schmidt, Tom Block, Jack TenBarge, Payton Cella, Jesse James Thomas, Sara Gorsky, Frank Tirimacco, Brad. D. Light, and Dan Wingard.  All to this Chloe Madriaga who accompanies the entire show with drum and other percussions.

More than Lord of the Rings and the entire Star Wars saga, more than Game of Thrones this grand performance deserves the epitaph "epic" not least because it stirs the imagination the way film almost never can.  I actually found myself moving in rhyme and rhythm with the the dance of war.  Likewise the hair on my skin rose more than once, and I tasted the despair of both the Romans and the Celts as each approached their doom.

And one leaves the theatre, remembering Boedica.  As one should.

Battlesong of Boedica plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm until April 29, 2023 at the Hudson Backstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038.

Content warning -- Blood violence, whipping, suicide, depiction of animal sacrifice and verbal description of sexual assault.

Monday, February 27, 2023

King Lear 2023 (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The story goes that Richard Burton spent part of the last years of his life trying to summon the courage to play the lead in King Lear.  Don't know if that is true, but I can well believe it.  One of the most powerful and challenging of Shakespeare's plays, the layers and complexities of it easily rival Hamlet.

Essentially the plot deals with a very old, formerly great and powerful monarch (Ari Agabian) who has no sons.  He determines to divide his realm between his three daughters, thus avoiding possible conflicts in the future.  That he imagines this would somehow work is one of many reasons to suppose he is not the man he once was.  Even more worryingly he asks his daughters to say how much they love him before he doles out their inheritances.  Of course his two eldest Goneril (Aura Rico) and Regan (Jessica Wienecke) begin to lay down the flattery for all they are worth, while the youngest Cordelia (Jahnavi Aithal) insists on saying she loves her father, but hopes to also love her husband.  Enraged, Lear disinherits his hitherto favorite, bidding her two suitors the Duke of Burgundy (Ryan Hollow) or the King of France (Bobby Brodney) take her sans any dowry.  The latter, interestingly, is perfectly willing to do so.

And the instant Lear's back is turned, Goneril and Regan note how unstable the old man is.  They needs must protect themselves from him, pledging to be allies.  

Parallel to all this is the Earl of Gloucester (Eduardo Mora) with his two sons--the elder, legitimate Edgar (Rafael Hernandez Roulet), and younger bastard Edmund (Erin Manker).  This last--one of Shakespeare's truly great villains--decides to frame his brother, in the end forcing him into exile.  This he swiftly accomplishes, not least due to their father's gullibility.  In fact, as the play proceeds, eventually both the older royal sisters fall out in part because they both want Edmund for themselves!

I have seen over a dozen productions of this play, and to get all the dramatic lined up in a successful row is very rare.  So that this one has it flaws is hardly unusual.  Some extremely high end such have had them.  I would note only a very few real problems here.  The stage combat is not very good.  A couple of actors seem not to understand their roles at all, at least imho.  One or two costumes or blocking choices made me go "huh???"  

But I would rather note that this production has one of the best Edmunds I have ever seen, and also the director Holly LeVeque had a hand in this--especially the "eye" scene.  The moment when the Duke of Cornwall (Andres Tyrell-Smith) actually flirts with Edmund proved startling and delightful--but then the villains are so often the most fun to play as well as watch.  The Duke is husband to Regan, and they seem well matched in casual cruelty.  Lear himself seems a bit young for the part, but he listens and reacts with a genuine intensity that works very well overall.  

Most importantly, the audience was rivetted, and I'm more than happy to note that it was clear the cast understood their lines and sought to genuinely speak them as part of the action (I have seen plenty of Lears where actors pretended, and it was obvious--just as it was cringeworthy).  This production grabs your attention and keeps it.  Few things bore me faster than Shakespeare done by those who have zero clue or refuse to dive into the actual drama (or comedy) of the text.  

King Lear at the Long Beach Shakespeare Company has four more performances--Saturday March 4 at 8pm, Sunday March 5 at 2pm, then Friday March 10 and Saturday March 11 at 8pm at the Helen Borgers Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach CA 90807