Monday, March 25, 2013

Fragments of Oscar Wilde

Spoilers Ahoy!

This week marks something of a marathon--four plays to review within five days. Not that I complain! But it ends up putting me in a contemplative, some might say pretentiously pedantic mood.

So be it!

Fragments of Oscar Wilde comes across as a very personal and rather experimental idea by writer/director Vanessa Cate. Something about Oscar Wilde does seem to stir something like that from authors. Years ago I saw a play about his life, in which his imprisonment for sodomy was intercut with scenes from both The Importance of Being Earnest (with the warden as Lady Bracknell) and the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Patience (which made fun of him), other prisoners doing the chorus. Twas fun!

Photo: Vanessa Cate
In this case, Ms. Cate combined scenes from several Wilde works to create a theatrical montage of scenes along a theme--the relationship between love and art and life. She took several opening scenes from the novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray, a bit of La Sainte Courtisane, another bit from Salome, The Nightingale and the Rose, and the uncompleted play A Florentine Tragedy.

Honestly the flow between the different sections of the piece sometimes seem a little ragged, but the writing itself unites the different elements. Just to keep us on our toes, she also finds ways to surprise us. The very first scene shows La Courtisane (Anastasia Charalambous) reading about a character from Portrait, Lord Henry--who instead of a jaded older gentleman (I've seen John Guilgud and Colin Firth play him) turns out to be an attractive young woman! More, one who looks rather like a cherub or maybe Nancy Drew--if either one had somehow acquired an extremely jaded palate towards life (Taylor Solomon).

Photo: Vanessa Cate
Likewise the speech of Salome towards the dead John the Baptist's mouth ends up delivered by three women towards the audience, dancing together and sharing a long red cape (Natalie Hyde, Stephanie Giles, Rebecca Watson). About two years ago I reviewed a production of this specific play and it frankly was better done in this instance.

Now I'm going to get pretentious and pedantic. You have been warned!

The whole show has a few problems--the single biggest one is the lack of vocal training by the cast. Honestly, this remains a pervasive complaint I have with nearly all theatre I go and see. But it really stands out when the language doesn't even pretend at any naturalism. Wilde's speech is and remains arch, witty and sophisticated. We Americans rarely learn how to do that. In this show the quality of vocal performance varies quite a bit. A few actors fall into the trap of (evidently) thinking speed and volume equals passion. No. Worse, a couple have trouble with parts of speech (rule of thumb--anyone who places the stress on pronouns over and over and over again has not mastered the art of speaking). A few show weak consonants, which is actually very easy to overcome by practice. Really--do some tongue twisters a few times a day for three weeks and the results will astonish!

Photo: Vanessa Cate
But these problems--which remain very common--get some nice compensation in the actual production. For one thing, the leads do quite well. Secondly, Zombie Joe's is a "black box" theatre so we can easily hear actors. As the great director Peter Brooks once noted, the quieter a character speaks the easier it is for them to find the emotional truth.

Also the director did something very clever in casting. The cast as a whole all demonstrated genuine stage presence. Each took command of the stage simply by entering, standing, walking or exiting. No small feat. All in some really fundamental way radiated their character, even looking at things and listening in ways their characters would. Again--NO SMALL THING.

Finally the movements conveyed a great deal. I happen to know that a few members of the cast (I've seen them in other things) are dancers or at least studied dance. So too the Director, and the various movements throughout conveyed a great deal. No fidgeting, no remaining rigidly still, no uncontrolled awkward business. Bravo! For example, an actress at the very beginning has a lovely piece of material wrapped around her. While exiting, she simply lets it drop, revealing a brief flash of nudity. Very simple and elegant. Likewise a sword fight almost looked real (they had foils and moved as if they were sabres--but how many folks would ever know that?) and certainly looked NOT AT ALL AWKWARD. Most sword fights on stage look wrong, Very wrong. One at San Francisco's ACT was actually embarrassing!

Photo: Vanessa Cate
So in the end I find myself very glad to have attended, genuinely moved by what I saw, and left pondering the dramatic sonnet Ms. Cate created for us. Wilde was never an author to tell you what to think--one reason Victorian society (and our own) found him so daunting. He drew connections, showed consequences, did not stint on the details the story naturally presented. Fragments of Oscar Wilde and the cast that present it do a find job of capturing all that bittersweet irony, the melancholy beauties, the musings by an artist upon art (and not necessarily to be taken entirely seriously).

Fragments of Oscar Wilde plays Saturday Nights at 8:30 March 23 thru May 18 (no show April 6) at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group 4850 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood, CA Call 818-202-4120 for reservations.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sculptress of Angel X (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

An odd dichotomy kept rising to mind while watching Sculptress of Angel X at Zombie Joe's in NoHo.

I kept thinking about the difference between voice and movement. The play itself tells of a harrowing personal odyssey in the life of artist Wyler Benoit (Melita Camilo). The title character, she appears the very incarnation of a fallen soul when we meet her. Eventually, in the wake of meeting someone who recognizes her, she falls into a drunken sleep. Then we see her life until then.

To put it mildly, a harrowing tale.

But one with a surprising amount of love in it. Her mother, wretched in her drug addiction, still adored Wyler. Her death beside the little girl might have been the most searing of her life--which from what we see is saying something. Yet in her starving artist uncle's home she finds comfort, affection, safety and love again. She and Lazslo (Kirby Anderson) become a very real couple, hand in hand against the vagaries of life. But alas, nothing ever stands still. She becomes successful, famous, rich. He remains obscure. Wyler allows it all to go to her head, some. Lazslo allows his envy to eat him away.

Were that the sum of the story, I wouldn't recommend it particularly. But other elements filter in, sometimes in terms of plot but also with the performances. Gotta say the entire cast grabbed my attention and held it. This play explores extremes, the heights as well as the depths, leaving us certain the journey is far from over.

Clearly the star is the lead, Melita Camilo whom I myself have never seen before. Hope to see her again! This play, with its often grim and sometimes fantastical subject matter, requires an actress who fascinates. Ms Camilo does that! Let us be utterly fair and note her lines sometimes don't work. At least a couple of times she's called upon to say something quite erudite. Each time the words just didn't sound real. Which brings up the dichotomy--that while sometimes her words felt fake, her movements and gestures and looks never failed to attract the eye. Frankly a few members of the cast had a bit of trouble not ending up upstaged her eyes. That kind of personal charisma shows great potential! But she does need to work on her voice, to expand its range. Some (many in fact) of her lines were just fine. Yet outside a certain type of speech, a certain narrow sort of vocabulary and attitude, what she said didn't fit.

Photo: Vanessa Cate
The second lead, Kirby Anderson (and btw, if you're reading this Mr. Anderson--GET A WEBSITE) has a bit less raw charisma. A bit.  Different flavor too. His comes across as quiet, firm, and totally present at all time. Cannot tell  you how wonderful I find it to watch actors who manage to simply be there, to listen and live "in the moment." Unlike Mr. Camilo, he demonstrated a very good range and control when it came to his speaking. And like her, he showed an arc for poor Lazslo with remarkably little time in which to accomplish that. For example, when we meet him for the first time, he's painting away. Over in the corner is his niece (age uncertain, my guess is around twelve or thirteen) Wyler. Since we don't know him at this point, but have seen Wyler amidst some pretty loathsome dregs of humanity, our radar for some is on full alert. He talks to her, rather like an adult in some ways, puts his arm around her. Yet we realize this is not some pedophile, but rather a good if bohemian fellow who'll do what he can.

Very soon after, we see them together, and some years have passed. Now, without doing anything overt or gross, we see the truth that makes him deeply uncomfortable--he finds his teenaged niece extremely attractive. Not simply because she's lovely to behold (she's very pretty) but her.

And one way he does this is his voice.

Photo: Vanessa Cate
Not to overwork the symbolism in this work, penned by none other than Zombie Joe himself, Lazslo paints Wyler as an angel. For this, and so much else, she loves him. She herself proves a sculptress (hence the title) and creates a life-size angel herself--the Angel X. When her life crashes and burns, the strange woman who claims to know her seems pretty clearly to be that very Angel. Somehow. Amidst the degradation, the heartache and pain--the artists in the play reach out to each other and themselves through their art. One stops listening. The other manages to hear again. So we end up with hope amidst the slime.

Now all of this requires a world where clay angels might walk. In other words, something not quite real, yet if anything more real than truth. In very many ways director Vanessa Cate created that, with the help of the entire cast. One in particular comes to mind--Tucker Matthews, who's appeared in several fine performances in this venue before. Here he very nearly steals it! Good thing the character is in only one scene! "Little Joe" is...I don't know what he is, actually. Certainly a denizen of dark subterranean part of our society where violence and perversion seethe and grow. A fun enough guy, though. Wyler likes him. Somebody who likes to wear pretty things, of course. A bra. Stockings. A fair amount of heavy makeup. Doesn't shave the full beard, though--thank God because that might have ruined the impact!

But the whole cast does that--creating this weird world of hyperreality, I halfway expected a superhero to show up. Not Superman or Batman maybe, but possibly Rorscharch from Watchmen. After all, we already met some supervillains in terms of style. It helped us believe an artist's creation might become flesh and blood in order to save her creator.

Sculptress of Angel X plays Friday nights at 11pm March 22 through May 10 at ZJU 4850 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood, CA Call to make Reservations: (818) 202- 4120

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Dirty Little Demon (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Imagine a love story. A very very dark, very perverse love story.

That probably won't  help prepare you for Zombie Joe's latest fare, Dirty Little Demon by Joseph Le Compte. Honestly, I'm unfamiliar with his work but this play gets high marks for imagination--and his acting in one of the roles gets high marks as well. Sociopaths such as the one he plays (I would term him a psychopath actually--but then mine remains a perhaps distorted view of what if any difference lies between the two) all too often end up portrayed in terms of one or two notes. Usually rage and a kind of general creepiness. Not so this time! Rather we saw a complete range of an actual human being. A twisted, dangerous human being with desires enough to send anyone running for shelter--but still a real person. Kudos!

In fact pretty much the entire cast does a splendid job.

But first, a few words about the story. And what you can expect to see. Full frontal male nudity to begin. Murder. Cruelty. Sadism. Blackmail. One poor guy who kept crying--with good reason!  And blood. Not enough, in my opinion. You slit someone's throat and what happens is--well, you can't really create that effect easily if at all in live theatre but I thought more blood appropriate.

Then again, I don't have to clean up the stage afterwards!

We begin with an unidentified group of (presumably) Satanists raising a Demon. Never mind the cultists, our 'hero' is the Demon played with flare by Matt Harrison. Eventually, we'll get to know him pretty well. Indeed, his hopes and dreams prove the driving force behind the plot. He looks up the charming psychopath David (played by the playwright) as the latter is finishing up with Gabby (Caitlin Reilly, who does quite a lot with not a huge amount of time). Seems the Demon has a favor he wants. One that involves a woman named Angela (Keri Green--who also tends to hit many notes rather than a few!) who proudly proclaims herself as anything but vanilla. Truer words were never spoken. Right now she's well into what appears to be her hobby--blackmailing some guy into dressing up like a little boy and letting her film him getting seduced by a man. David Wyn Harris plays Jeff, her victim, and he was in last year's Blood of Macbeth at ZJU. Remember the aforesaid guy who keeps crying? That is Jeff. And he brings a lot of nuance to what could easily have been a one-note role. In a way, he acts as our stand-in as we get deeper and deeper into this bizarre plot by the Demon--which, as I mentioned before, is a very very dark, very perverse love story.


Plus of course the Demon "invites" a priest named Father Cyrus (Mark Leland) to the party. He too has zero notion what he's getting into.

Did I mention this is a comedy?

Not for everyone's taste, to be sure! But a comedy nonetheless, a comedy based on lust and darkness and the horrible truths in life we'd like to forget. There aren't that many serial killers after all--but a whole lot more than we'd like to exist. Frankly, we share the world with a whole lot more psychopaths than serial killers--people who leave agony and destruction in their wake the way "normal" people leave business cards or used water bottles. In the face of just how casual some genuine horror can be, isn't at least one perfectly natural reaction laughter? This play explores exactly that, as well as the weird connections that people can make even amid a metaphorical House of Mirrors in Hell.

A show like this could be nothing more than a grotesque, a portrayal of sadism and tragedy worthy of the most crass of torture porn flicks. What we get instead is a well-crafted odyssey into the Id, a visit through nightmare, at the hands of a well-directed and extremely precise (this word tends to be extremely high praise coming from yours truly) cast of actors. As the lights come up, you awake. Then you're left with allowing the nightmare to teach what it will--not in terms of overt lessons but by the experience itself.

Dirty Little Demon plays at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group Fridays at 8:30pm until May 3, 2013 (no show April 5). Tickets are $15. Find the show at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group at 4850 Lankershim Blvd North Hollywood CA 91601 (Just north of 101-134 Fwys across from KFC). Call (818) 202 - 4120 for reservations.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Lords Lover (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

"Acting is rhythm." Those words from an acting teacher decades past continue to resonate with me. Watching The Lord's Lover this week they rose again into consciousness.

Acting is rhythm.

We know a parrot isn't talking when he (or she) says words. Even if the words themselves join together into cogent sentences. Not even if said words are beautiful or wise. Why not? Because what we mean gives a flow, a pattern, a rhythm to words in genuine speech. Hence a dear friend can say "You bastard" and have it come out as an endearment. Or those who've experienced love tend to be least easily fooled when someone lies, saying "I love you."

The rhythm of genuine communication leads us to the difference between talking and saying words.

So much of the art of theatre consists of finding that rhythm. Theatre, being artificial, often finds tricks to achieve this. One of the earliest is with style. Metered verse for example can serve as an anchor, and good actors who learn how to 'ride' such verse can move with it into emotional truth. Juliet Annerino, the singer behind The Lord's Lover (she wrote and produced it) demonstrates this throughout the show. She can sing--not only carry a tune but reach out and share her heart. The artificial nature of lyrics (unnatural speech on par with poetry) and of making her voice part of the music don't get in the way of communicating with us. Just the opposite!

Odds are, that took some time to learn. But the results show. I can recommend her performance and voice without any hesitation.

The rest of the show is a mess. A promising mess, one that manages to entertain and move now and then, but suffers considerably in comparison with Ms. Annerino's singing. Or, to be brutally frank, against most professional theatre. With perhaps one or two exceptions, the cast all demonstrate real talent. Only a few did not eventually grab my attention. A few times I was moved.

But frankly the text is written in a daunting style. The vast majority of it consists of monologues, in which the cast members involved without exception spoke to the open air. Not for a second did I believe in them, because not for a second did I believe in their audience--to whom were they speaking? Frankly this is a trap in many stylized plays, especially verse plays or Shakespeare. To whom is Hamlet speaking? The answer is--the audience. His companions and intimates. Just as Richard III makes them his co-conspirators. Much of The Lord's Lover has these two people describing different aspects of their relationship in long monologues. Never until they actually had some one to physically look upon and speak to did either one seem to be actually talking. Both recited. Gave line readings. Played a mood instead of communicating something for a personal reason to do so. What made this most frustrating (in retrospect) was a simple answer lay before them all the time--each addressed their therapist! We learn that at the end. But without that awareness, they might as well have been parrots.

But give them an acting partner and both did fine. Not great, but fine.

The playing of attitude and mood pervaded the show, so much so I cringed whenever the man playing God entered. The idea was fine, even a little bit inspired--God as a Master of Ceremonies, half D.J. half Canival barker. Bravo! But mugging and lots of energy can only enhance a purpose, a motivation, a real desire brought to life by the actor. They cannot substitute for it.

At the same time, let us give praise where due. Nearly the entire cast sooner or later made a real connection, shared a real moment with the audience. Many the show I've seen that never accomplished that. "Bermuda Love Triangle" was a borderline brilliant vignette (albeit under-rehearsed). "Second Coming, Last Call" got my attention and interest, keeping it. And the very ending of the show, revealing the truth about the two young lovers we'd followed, centered around a nice touch.

In the end, I was glad to have watched the show, but my frustrations at it still gnaw. Why didn't the singer ever interact with these scenes? Did the message of several scenes have to be SO heavy-handed? And so on...

The Lord's Lover plays Wednesday nights at 8:30pm at "Los Globos" is at 3040 W. Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90026. You can get tickets
right here.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Urban Death 2013 (review)

Spoilers ahoy! (Barely, but still...)

Fans of Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group probably already know about their recurring show dubbed Urban Death. I certainly had but this marks my first exposure to their "signature piece" as the 2013 version premiered.

Grand Guignol meets Performance Art. Such forms my description in a nutshell. Non-linear for the most part, with very few spoken words. Something like two dozen vignettes from minutes to seconds in length. The vast majority have music or at least sound effects. Much of the cast I've seen before. Vanessa Cate and Roger K. Weiss, Denise Devin plus Corey Zicari and Willy Romano-Pugh as well as many others (about two or three I haven't seen before--including Cimcie Nichols and Adalys Alvarez ). On top (sometimes literally) of all these are Mark Hein (who is braver than myself), Emmanuel Paraskiv, Chelsea Rose and Kevin Van Cott. Many appeared in such shows as Love Me Deadly, A Down and Dirty Christmas, Not With Monsters and Notes From Underground.

As for the subject matter--well, it is DEATH. Not a rumination on what mortality might mean or how we as mortal deal with our knowledge that our time will end, sooner or later. Rather, this becomes all about the experience of death. Sometimes quite graphically. I wondered just how much and how rapid the washing backstage must be! (For the record, when the cast emerged to meet the audience afterwards all their hands were stained blood red.)

Death by zombie.
Death by poison.
Death by fear.
Death by random violence.
Death by serial killer/rapist.
Death by chainsaw.
Death by vampire.
Death by cannibalistic witch's coven.
Death by machine--or by becoming a machine.
Death by sex (in several forms).

Death of the body, of course. As well as what might happen to the body after death.
Death of the soul--from fear, from a love of pain, from use as nothing more than meat (metaphorically, and not).
Death of hope.
Death of identity, via its eclipse--by music, gender, even motherhood.

What you carry away from this hour-long event remains up to you. This is not Arthur Miller or George Bernard Shaw, telling you want to think. Nor is it a history, albeit fictional, from which you derive what lessons you can (thus we're not in the land of Tennessee Williams or William Shakespeare). Rather we experience something, and take from it only what the visceral sense of events can. A bit of Ionesco, a few touches of Edward Albee, some dashes of Lady Gaga--but also first and foremost Zombie Joe.

Urban Death plays Saturdays at 11pm until April 27, 2013. Tickets are $15 while the shows take place at 4850 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood CA 91601. You can call the box office at (818) 202-4120.