Monday, February 12, 2024

Betrayal (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize in literature, which is way impressive.  As a writer he managed to write silences into his plays which were filled with meaning, and forced actors to plumb the text for meanings by having them say the same lines several times.  It makes for quite a challenge--one met magnificently by the latest production of Betrayal by Santa Monica's CityGarage.

Frankly, been looking forward to this ever since they announced it on the schedule and even more when I read the cast.

Essentially, the play tells the story of an affair.  Emma (Angela Beyer) is married to book publisher Robert (David E. Frank) but had/has had a long term affair with his best friend Jerry (Troy Dunn).  If this sounds a little too straightforward, even mundane for Pinter, never you worry.  What follows is a sometimes scorching, sometimes hilarious, always intriguing exploration of human relations.  Aiding in all this is how the scenes generally (but not quite always) proceed in reverse chronological order, namely starting with a meeting years after the affair has ended and ending with the scene in which that new relationship was truly born.  Helping all this is a a character known simply as the Waiter (Gifford Irving) who wanders around the scenes in which his character does not appear simply to tell the audience when what follows happens.

This last is a tiny addition from director Frederique Michel.  Personally, even though I understood the chronology (did the role of Waiter at my University), this helped me keep track.

But what really grabs our attention and hearts are the performances.  Again, Pinter masterfully forces actors to examine what the words coming out of their mouths really mean.  In the hands of these actors, the results often astound.  The meaning of the word "squash" for example changes dramatically as events proceed.  All too often current styles of acting consist of treating lines casually--which in theatre at least nearly always turns out to be a dreadful error.  In Betrayal every word matters, and given its author so too nearly every single silence, i.e. the words not said.  Maybe never even considered for speaking.  

One result of this is a constant state of surprise.  Predicting what is about to happen simply doesn't work.  Oh, we know some of the results already.  The play began at the ending after all!  But the play isn't about the plot, but about the human relationships--the thousand thousand tiny moments, the words said or stammered or whispered or spat.  Every question asked, and answered (or not) assumes enormous weight--the weight of lives and hopes and disappointments.  Even the tiny, meaningless lies.  Or the tiny, seemingly meaningless details.  Whose kitchen was it when Jerry did that thing?  Where did Robert go in Venice, and how?  When did Emma tell her husband that secret?  

Trivial and momentous at the same time and for the same reason.

Betrayal plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm until March 17, 2024 at Bergamot T1 Space, 2525 Michigan Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90404.

Monday, January 1, 2024

Best of 2023


Happy New Year!

Behold my list of the best half dozen plays I reviewed in 2023.  Usually this list is longer, but honestly I've been going through a lot this year.  Lost my twin brother.  Had a series of teeth removed.  Had to help a friend move to Las Vegas.  And directed a ten minute play for Fierce Backbone's Think and Imagine Festival.  Plus...well, a lot of things.  Good and bad.  Horrific and glorious.  Yeah, I watch the news.

Twelfth Night (Burlesque) is honestly the single best version of my favorite Shakespeare comedy I've seen.  Joins my favorites from the Bard here in LA such as Measure for Measure, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest as well as Macbeth.  

Things to Avoid at a Eulogy was written by a friend of mine, and is that rather rare beast of a perfect two hander, i.e. there are only two characters for the entire play (unless you count the dead cat, which I reluctantly do not).  A trip through a brief, loving friendship.

The Lifespan of a Fact proves one of the most compelling plays I've seen in a long while.  Have very rarely been disappointed at the Fountain.  In this case, we confront the issue of TRUTH with it many tricky facets but also the difference between truth and facts.

Everything Starts Like a Knock on the Door was a one of a series of immersive telephone calls from my friend Stepy Kamei, this one about yet another of her great obsessions--people remembered for their deaths, rather than celebrated for their lives.

Turn of the Screw is rightfully a gothic classic, and when nailed is amazing amid its ambiguities and harsh realities.  One of the amazing things about live theatre is to see this entire story done with only two actors!

Ghost Land was written by a Ukrainian playwright and City Garage put it on with a thunderclap to the soul.  When the revelation comes of what we've been watching it shook me.  Absolutely glorious.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Insulted, Belarus (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Until I saw this play, I don't think the name Lukashenko had ever registered with me.  He is a dictator in the land-locked country of Belarus, near Romania.  Playwright Andrei Kureichik was smuggled out of that country after the dictator cracked down on the country and all dissent in a big, big way.  Weirdly (in light of what has been going on in the USA), he held a sham election and this time people tried to call him out on that.  His reaction was brutal violence.

Insulted, Belarus (translated by John Freedman) tells the tale, Reader's Theatre style, of that election and its horrific aftermath.  But more than that, it portrayed the hopes of those who thought maybe this time they could topple a dictator by the rules he said he was going to obey (but never, ever had).  This was the real thing, played with chilling, shallow malice (Randall Wulff).  A optimist election witness (Devin Davis-Lorton), a candidate (Angela Beyer) seeking to unseat the dictator, a hooligan/protestor (Anthony M. Sannazzaro), they all wanted to change things.  Just as a storm-trooper (Andrew Loviska), and a school principal (Juliet Morrison) want things to stay the same, and don't care who gets hurt, maimed, violated, or even killed.  Not at first.

Add to the mix the dictator's youngest son (Courtney Brechemin) exactly as shallow and selfish as his father, but with the excuse of childhood.  A kind of weird mirror/echo to the dictator.

Powerful stuff.  And topical.  Performed by one of the best theatre companies in the Los Angeles area.  More, this play works in stirring up emotions.  The performances are all good.  As expected with this company!

It is also less good that what I've come to expect.  Nowhere near bad, or even average.  In fact it remains a very worthwhile piece of theatre!  But...less excellent than expected.  And I think the reason lies in the whole Readers' Theatre format, which forces pretty much the entire cast to directly interact with the audience for most of the performance.  This is hard.  Honestly, the audience can almost never give anything to the actors in this situation.  It is as if the cast are stuck doing ninety minutes of very intense monologues.  It is very hard  And lacking the dynamic energy that an entire cast usually feeds to one another--and which I've seen nearly all this cast participate with/create in the past--well, it suffers.  Some.  Not a lot.  Barely enough to mention.  Just enough to mention, in fact.

The play is still powerful.  Still dramatic.  Still intense and worth the price of a ticket, not least for us to think about nations who are not in the forefront of the news reports right now, but still suffer.  

I am not "damning with faint praise" but rather "praising with faint damnation."  Saying "not quite as good as City Garage usually fares" is a little like saying "not the tallest skyscraper in Manhattan."  Because it remains an impactful work of living art, opening one's eyes and heart to the unknown, yet somehow recognizable as absolutely true.  The characters and their fates (for so many of them are acted upon most of all) haunted me long after I left the theatre.  Honestly, given the track record of this theatre company, had my soul not been so haunted I would be shocked.

Insulted, Belarus plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 4pm until December 17, 2023 at the City Garage, Bergamot T1 Space, 2525 Michigan Ave Santa Monica, CA 90404.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Ghost Land (review)


Spoilers ahoy!

We all know a terrible war (well, most of them qualify) is taking place between Russia and Ukraine.  CityGarage commissioned a play about this horrible series of on-going events from Ukrainian writer Andriy Bondarenko.

Ghost Land, directed by Frederique Michel, emerges as a series of vignettes which at first seem to have little in common.  Yes they all deal with this particular war, and from the side of those whose nation has been invaded, but other than that...

But this is almost deceptive.  Increasingly we see how all these emerge naturally from one another as naturally as the denizens of a forest.  Eventually.  When the final revelation comes, it hits like thunderclap.  

No, I'm not going to tell you what it is.

Instead I will recall and paraphrase a quote from Joseph Campbell.  "Dreams are the mythology of the individual.  Just as mythology is the dreams of the society."  I agree with this, noting it is even true of day dreams.  Even more of nightmares.

The first vignette is "The Butterfly" and initially features Lura (David E. Frank) and a Doctor (Andy Kallok) discussing the former's trauma on the battlefield.  Or at least this vignette's prologue does, before it switches to the battle, the trenches, the horrific flashbacks of sudden death and wild fantasies coupled with strangely fantastic messages, with fellow soldiers and his girl friend--a character that may or may not return later.  Each of these ends with a twist worthy of the Twilight Zone.  I will note the first one involves H.G.Wells' The War of the Worlds.

Lot of little references like that in here.

"The Dowry" involves Kallock as a father in small Ukrainian village who didn't get out before the snows or before the Russian troops arrived.  He and his wife Maria (Juliet Morrison) look after their silent, pregnant, and ever-knitting daughter Halia (Léa De Carmo).  Almost instantly I saw the red thread Halia was knitting, making something her parents cannot fathom, and wondered if she were somehow channeling the Fates of various mythologies.  Especially amid discussions of wolf-like ghouls of legend in the nearby woods.  When two soldiers (Anthony Sannazzaro and Isaac Stackonis) working for the Russian Army--even though one of them is a local Ukrainian--I got my answer.  Yes.

"Crime and Punishment" ends the trilogy of vignettes, with Iulia (Angela Beyer) arriving in a room and matter of factly putting down her backpack then sitting down.  Soon enough Gennadiy (Gifford Irvine) shows up with a small suitcase, radiating a sadistic glee.  He is here to torture her, get her to confess to crime that she obviously did not commit, in fact never happened.  But...something is off.  She is strong, with a courage worthy of the greatest heroes.  He revels in what is a fantastic portrayal of vicious evil.  Yet something feels not quite right, somehow out of balance, something is not as it seems.  When we learn the truth, it is a revelation and starts to put the entire play into a new, vibrant perspective.

This last vignette functions with an epilogue, again with the same Doctor as before, and here the full context of all we've experienced since the lights came up at the start becomes clear.  I was shaken.  Among other things, the play ceased to be about just what is happening in Ukraine or even about the hell of modern war.  It became about me, and you, and everyone who has ever had to endure the trauma of real evil.  Of those moments when the worst of us turn this earth into a real Hell.

More, how do we heal after that?

Be warned--this play is often grim, disturbing, and deeply depressing.  As it must be.

Ghost Land plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm until October 15, 2023 at Bergamot, T1 Space, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404