Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Veronica's Room (Review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Only, not that many spoilers. Honestly, revealing much of what actually happens in this play could definitely ruin it. I shall endeavor to avoid such...

Veronica's Room debuted in the 1970s. It emerged from the pen and mind of Ira Levin, the writer responsible for both Deathtrap and Rosemary's Baby. Therein lies one's first clue. Not a comedy. And not anything really straightforward. Coming up with a genre for this play makes for a challenge in and of itself. After due consideration, my own choice would be "psychological horror." The story begins with some mild disquiet that grows and grows, until at last one feels they've received a heavy dose of nightmare fuel.

The essential plot set-up is one that screams "omg don't do it!"

Susan (Amelia Gotham), a college student in 1973 Boston, enters an old-fashioned bedroom. An elderly Irish couple show her in--the husband played by Patrick Skelton and a wife Karen Kahler. Susan's date (Mark Souza) hovers nearby, suspicious. The room belonged to a girl named Veronica, who died of tuberculosis years and years ago. Her elderly sister Cissy lives there now, dying of cancer. But Cissy has grown confused of late, distressed Veronica hasn't spoken to her in so long, fearful she's angry for some
Karen Kahler, Amelia Gotham, Mark Souza & Patrick Skelton
reason. The elderly couple say Susan is the spitting image of Veronica and hope she'll pretend to be the dead sister for a few minutes, to give her a little peace of mind.

We all know of course she will agree. If she didn't, whence the play after all? But--what happens next?

And if you're to enjoy the play, I cannot really tell you.  It would be like telling someone the end of The Usual Suspects who hasn't seen it--or revealing the solution to The Murder on Orient Express. But suffice to say you'll be left guessing almost to the last line of dialogue. When I attend the production at the Visceral Company opening night, my companion figured out an essential detail twenty minutes before I did. My sense of the audience was that I was ahead of them. And it seems safe to say further revelations continue, providing still more nightmare fuel (see above).

The production suffers (slightly) from a space almost too small for the play. Honestly, if one more character had come on, they would need to lose some pieces of furniture. An ingrained problem remains that the play itself begins slowly. Very slowly. But for that blame Ira Levin and the tale he decided to tell. How to get around that baffles me.

What remains sterling however is the cast. Amelia Gotham is the only one I've seen prior, in the same company's very fine two-person show of The Turn of the Screw. She shines again in a very different role--someone thoroughly sane and nice, having to endure something worthy of the more disturbing episodes of Twilight Zone or Criminal Minds. The great trap with something like that is play such an ingenue as passive. She avoids that trap, and in fact comes across as a sufficiently real--and flawed--human being that we begin to doubt reality at a few points.

Mark Souza also fails to fall into the trap of his part--that of a single-note personality. I dare not reveal more, but suffice to say he manages to portray a person rather than a cardboard cutout.

Central to the whole piece remains Kahler and Skelton and the dynamic between them, which involves layer after layer peeling back. Give credit where it is due--all that is indeed in the script, but plenty of actors fail to do written words justice. In this, both succeed admirably. I must say especially Skelton, but that is likely because of the way his role is written--probably the most complex in the play.

But be warned--Veronica's Room is genuinely disturbing, all the more since the cast members invest their roles with so much reality. The story feels as if it could happen, and that genuinely terrifies.

The Visceral Company's production of Ira Levin's Veronica's Room plays Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm at the Underground Theatre, 1312 North Wilton (at Fountain) in Hollywood. Tickets are $20 and well worth the price.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Love Me Deadly (Review)

Photo Credit: Adam Neubauer
Spoilers Ahoy!

Ever seen someone mount a radio play on stage? But keep it a radio play? The actors look forward, standing in front of a microphone, while on on-stage foley artist makes all the sounds one would expect--opening and closing doors, pouring drinks, picking up phones, etc.

If you haven't, it can work very well. And does in Zombie Joe's latest excursion into live action horror, Love Me Deadly. The set literally looks like a radio studio from probably sometime in the 1950s. Period advertisements dot the wall. There's even an announcer/narrator providing segues and commentary throughout (Matt Skylar, who also appeared hilariously in Not With Monsters in the same venue).

Photo Credit: Adam Neubauer
This kind of show can be tricky to pull off. Actors have to rely on the voices but not ignore their physicality. More, they don't look at each other so must project a special kind of intensity out to the audience. Add to that the special tone of this particular play (written by Matthew Sklar), a mix of genuine human emotion with slight over-the-top caricature. One can see why this style sometimes makes producers, directors and actors hesitate.

But this company nails it!

Love Me Deadly reminds one of Twilight Zone or maybe Boris Karloff's Thriller back in the day.  A nice enough schlep named Sam Meeker (Cory Wyszynski, veteran of several ZJU productions including Not With Monsters) hangs out at
a bar with his best friend Bobby Callahan (Willy Romano-Pugh). The barkeep Alice (Caroline Montes) knows them both, flirting with Sam--alas to no avail since he doesn't notice. Yet at that moment a mysterious beautiful woman introduces herself to Sam. Her name? Fiona Rourke (Erin Cate--who was in the recent Down And Dirty Christmas Cabaret at ZJU). Doesn't take long for Sam
Photo Credit: Adam Neubauer
to fall utterly under her spell, even as he begins to look the worse and even worse for wear.

Eventually, the bar's resident drunk Gus (Henry Hart-Browne) fills them in on the secret that made him crawl into a bottle for four decades. Fiona Rourke committed suicide in the 1890s. This is her ghost, still hungry for all that life denied her. In effect she's drawing out the life of her victims, persuading them to join her in death. For the record, this description of what the ghost really is I found quite compelling--not the remnant of that girl who died, but just an intelligent echo of her loneliness and pain. "She" isn't a person at all, but a need.

Honestly, isn't that the real horror of ghost stories? Not a person caught in between life and death. That might
Photo Credit: Adam Neubauer
be anything from horrible to quite nice, depending on the person. One might find it even re-assuring that the death of the flesh can demonstrably not be the end of all. But true ghost stories aren't about that. They tell about strange alien desires that cannot find fulfillment, but devour those who venture too close. We hate it most when the past reaches out to demand that which we cannot give, threatening us if we fail as we cannot help but do. Insane, unreasonable demands that cannot listen, cannot change. Which is why Shirley Jackson's The Haunting makes for a much more terrifying read that Richard Matheson's Hell House. As H.P.Lovecraft so demonstrated, the real horror is a world where chaos storm around us, our entire lives mere islands in a sea of malice.

Perhaps that is also why these kinds of stories often require some kind of humor to make more palatable.
Hence the Narrator's somewhat gleeful comments as things go all wrong for poor Sam. Likewise the
Photo Credit: Adam Neubauer
Announcer/Girl/Nurse role (Corey Zicari, another veteran of both Down and Dirty Christmas as wells Not With Monsters ). She also does all the foley art for the play, as well as doing little advertisements for the show's sponsors--like Zombie-gone, to get rid of those pesky undead. Or the Bathory Beauty Salon!

I enjoyed this show so much I hope they use this format again to create more radio dramas, or perhaps even resurrect some from the past! My only real complaint is that all the sounds used didn't come from a more-obviously seen musician (Kevin Van Cott could barely be seen) or from Ms. Zicari's character--maybe from a gramaphone.

Love Me Deadly plays Sundays at 7pm until March 24, 2013. at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre, 4850 Lankershim Avenue North Hollywood. Tickets are $15.

Southern Gothic Novel (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Years ago, I lived in New York City and had the vast good fortune of seeing A Bronx Tale performed as a one-man show by Chazz Palmienteri. One-person-shows used to be more popular, but they still can amaze when both subject and performer come together in some moments of real magic. Right now such a show is on offer from the Visceral Company in Hollywood. There, at 1312 Wilton Place, you can see Southern Gothic Novel until March 30, 2013. I highly recommend you do so.

In effect, we see an entire novel (with the subtitle "The Aberdeen, Mississippi Sex-Slave Incident" which just sounds so marvelously trashy doesn't it?) enacted out by one man--the author, Frank Blocker. During the 70-minute show, he portrays a total of 17 characters. All but one (the narrator) make up some of the population of Aberdeen, Mississippi. No small feat, that.

The story itself center around Viola Haygood, an almost terminally romantic librarian in her early twenties--a younger, more naive, somehow less toxic version of several Tennessee Williams characters. Her fantasies and pretensions set the story rolling. She has--not for the first time--fallen in love at first sight. The fact that several girls about her age have gone missing lately simply doesn't factor in as Viola pursues the mysterious dark man entering Big Otis Saloon each night. Big Otis turns out is a woman, Odessa King--quite big, quite black and very matter-of-fact. Yes, Viola does indeed meet the object of her virginal desire. Along the way, we meet her mother, a not-very-bright neighbor named Jimmy who adores Viola, an elderly judge, a chain-smoking pair of gossips, some professional (as opposed to "competent") criminals, and Mrs. Wong, owner of the town's only Chinese Restaurant.

And a june bug.

Let me say right here that Mr. Blocker accomplishes a tour-de-force as all these characters. Almost all of them have southern accents for example--Mississippi accents no less. Yet we can instantly tell who is who. Partially because their voices are different, but also the accents vary in the way that real ones do. He also does wonders in maintaining radically (sometimes subtly) different body languages. At one point, a character makes himself known just with a gesture--but we know who is it! He even keeps in up successfully towards the end when a startling number of these characters are on stage at the same time! At one point three of them even get involved in a physical fight!

The technical feat alone is worth watching!

But don't suppose Mr. Blocker's technique is all we have to enjoy in the show. Southern Gothic Novel comes across as a gentle, affectionate story making fun of a people and a place that one likes, even while shaking one's head at the human foolishness. A lot of that stems from the fact we can recognize ourselves throughout. Who hasn't suffered the pangs of unrequited love? Or done something really stupid? Watched someone close to us make a fool of themselves in public? Leaped instantly and as far as possible to the wrong conclusion? The true test that the story works just as a story is how the ending feels. Without going into detail, we shake our heads once more but smile while doing it. And then keep smiling as the lights go up.

The show is at 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays through the end of March. Tickets are $12 which can be purchased at the theatre's website or at the door (1312 North Wilton Place, Hollywood);