Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Captain Dan Dixon Vs. The Moth Sluts from the 5th Dimension (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

In North Hollywood,  Zombie Joe's Underground has done its fair share of undead-related plays. Currently they offer one that blends science fiction. Carnivorous sirens men cannot resist, green of hue and sultry of nature, eager to persuade the crew of Earth's first interstellar spacecraft to take them back to our world...

Oh, and did I mention they're go go dancers?

A delirious blend of cheese, cheap 1960s science fiction and more than a few dashes of Beach Blanket Bingo, the play pretty much tells you what's in store with the title--Captain Dan Dixon Vs. The Moth Sluts From The Fifth Dimension! Dan Dixon, commanding officer of humanity's first starship the Magellan, is the lantern-jawed, broad-shouldered gentleman one might expect--a blend of James West, James Kirk and John Wayne. Played by Matthew Sklar (who also wrote the piece) he's more than anything an American WWII officer in the space age.

His crew includes a female android Uranaia (Gloria Baraquio) in gold lame in love with her Captain , a huge-brained mutant named Dr. Canigulus (Jonica Patella a veteran of an earlier production) to whose insights no one pays any heed of course, and a host of others including the ship's cowboy cook named Chow (David Wyn Harris). All relentlessly white Americans even the ill-fated Hashimoto (Vincent Cusimano). In testing the quantum drive which hurls Magellan into the fifth dimension, they accidentally pick up some hitchhikers--a clutch of beautiful green women in hibernation.  Batting their eyes, literally cooing and purring, they claim their world is destroyed. Their leader? Empress Syphla (Katherine Canipe), whose wings are the most vast and
whom the others call "Mother."  Moths include Antheraea (Courtney Bandeko), ZJU regulars Caroline Montes (who plays Cecropia as well as choreographing the dance numbers) and Corey Zicari as Luna (she also had a hand in helping design the costumes). Lastly is Polyphema (Vivi Varon).
Photo Credit: Joe-Munoz-Varon

One of the aliens actually isn't a Moth, but a caterpillar--Vickibelle (Heldine Aguiluz)--and apart from the furry bikini instead of silver pasties, she lacks even vestigal wing. Even her antannae are crooked. All together now--awwww! Any wonder she's the nicest of the group, even genuinely falling for one of Magellan's crewmen!

Naturally, there's far more to their story than the tale of hapless refugees! Not the least--where are the males of their species?

Hint--there aren't any. Nor have there ever been!

Potential mates (meals/incubators) from Magellan include Jerry Chappell as Casey, Tyler Koster as Virgil (who finds Vikibelle finally too attractive for words) and R. Benjamin Warren as the aptly-named Sterling.

But what really makes this worth seeing is not the sheer cheesy fun of it all. Nor the pasty-clad green seductresses in silver hot pants. No, what makes this really worth the price of admission remains its success as a satire. Coincidence the ship's contains only two females, one a machine and the other a virtual neutered mutant? Or that Captain Dan doesn't want to hear what his science officer has to tell him. The whole thing can be seen as a paranoid reaction to both strong women as well as aliens of any kind--with a note mentioned again and again that the only way to win in this situation is for somebody to commit genocide. Yet--and herein is something vital--the show never gets preachy. Even the hardest, most serious question asked ("Did we really give up on war? Or did we just win?") comes totally in character without any pat answers offered. In a lot of ways this reminded me of Young Frankenstein that way.

Photo Credit: Joe-Munoz-Varon
Not that it is perfect. The rhythm of the whole thing feels ever so slightly 'off,' as if energy isn't quite carried through when the blackouts between scenes.  Each scene felt as if it were an end, rather than a continuing story.

At the same time other rhythms and performances were generally spot on. My personal favorite was when the Moth Sluts were alone, speaking to each other in snarls and clicks, seeming like a weird pack of wild dogs. Until a human crewman entered the room--then they all cooed and purred again, going from scary aliens to exotic coquettes in about half a second! Frankly, one sure sign of how well the show worked overall was that I (and pretty much everyone else) saw the "surprise ending" coming a mile away. Yet it still worked, still got the mix of horror and laughter intended, and we all left the theatre smiling.

Captain Dan Dixon V. The Moth Sluts plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm until September 14 at 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood CA 91601. You can make reservations by calling (818) 202-4120. I for one hope it will earn an extension.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sherlock Through The Looking Glass (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The above warning to the contrary, I'm reluctant to give away much when reviewing a mystery. Simple really--don't want to interfere with anyone's pleasure in viewing the show!  Especially this type of mystery. The Porters of Hellsgate is a classical theatre company without a permanent home. Their most current production is a world premier, Sherlock Through the Looking Glass written and directed by Gus Krieger.

As one might imagine from the title, it involves a crossover of sorts between the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll. I can safely say the direction this took surprised me. Twice.

My initial expectation was for Holmes to venture into a dreamlike world akin to Wonderland or on the other side of the Looking Glass. This does indeed happen, but not the way I expected.

Essentially, we begin with Holmes (Kevin Stidham) and Watson (Timothy Portnoy) in Baker Street, the former complaining of boredom and turning to cocaine to relieve same. Perfectly straightforward this. Soon a client arrives, a pretty young woman named Lillian Childress (Jennifer Bronstein) telling a strange story--about her sister Josephine (Dana DeRuyck) who suddenly went utterly mad minutes after purchasing used copies of Lewis Carroll's famous Alice books from a street vendor (Andrew Graves) and his feeble-minded assistant (Amelia Gotham). More, her ravings echo the words of that author, especially a sentence we shall hear again:

Beware The Jabberwock.

As Inspectors Lestrade (Sean Faye) and Gregson (Michael Hoag) also note, this marks the third such person to lose their minds so suddenly and catastrophically. But who? And why? What evidence exists seems to point to Charles Dodgson (Bert Emmett) and the two Scotland Yard men soon show up to arrest the man--whose reaction proves very unusual. Holmes, who is present, soon discovers the professor's extremely detailed diaries are missing volumes and pages.

The game is afoot! Exactly what happens in the course of the play makes for a thrilling and interesting tale, one I will not ruin for others. Allow me to point out some strengths and weaknesses in the production itself. The space itself has a few problems, the single biggest is how lights don't seem to reach the highest levels of the playing area. Acoustics are alright, and the cast deserves praise in general for their diction and projection. However, many of the lines are very long, spoken very quickly, and sometimes become a blur. The fight scenes look staged, but then they are! And they all have the same 'feel' so they fit together, helping create teh 'world' of the play.

I felt considerable pleasure that Holmes came across as the arrogant so-and-so he frankly comes across as in the books! Plus Watson himself seems not a bumbling physician but an able and tough war veteran, clearly very intelligent but not in the super-genius level of his friend. The writing impressed me, not only for displaying so much knowledge of the Holmes canon but weaving it into the narrative so well--and even tricking me by creating a subtle expectation (which shall remain unrecorded in hopes of letting others enjoy the same surprise). So many British accents on stage are poor, but these were very good! Likewise even the smallest of characters came across as having real individuality--an admirable display on the part of writer, director and cast! That even an insane character appeared to be saying something, not just rambling, makes for a fine tribute to the whole production.

Along the way, I must say Sherlock Through the Looking Glass goes after some genuinely disturbing stuff--revenge, sexual sins and guilt, the source of madness and how it leaks into our seemingly rational, logical world, the embrace of chaos as opposed to order. That is what elevated this play beyond formula, beyond a mere retread of Sherlock Holmes' greatest hits, out past a charming pastiche into something with genuine revelation about parts of life. In the true mystery-story fashion, order is restored. But, order has won only the battle. The war goes on. Final victory remains nowhere in sight.

Sherlock Through the Looking Glass plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm until September 22, 2013. The show is at the Whitemore-Lindley Theatre Center at 11006 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood CA 91601.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Blistered Hands and Bloody Mouths (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Zombie Joe's theatre has lasted a quarter century for many reasons. One remains the fact the shows presented remain very entertaining. You step into their black box in North Hollywood and you can pretty much count on some kind of roller coaster ride. It might blow your mind or tickle your funny bone or any one of a dozen other reactions (often combining them) but theater-goers in this town know some of what to expect. And know they'll be surprised as well!

Bistered Hands and Bloody Mouths by Sam LaFrance fulfills that promise.

Now understand--I grew up in the Deep South. Lots of folks don't agree because of where I was for two decades, i.e. Florida. But we're talking northern Florida, a long way from Miami, a place where KKK rallies and Confederate flags along with lots of (great!) fried food and the smell of honeysuckle form part of the whole mise-en-scene. Been through twelve hurricanes growing up and I promise you that is one reason earthquakes seem less frightening to me. Some people doubt when I talk about walking quite comfortably in warm rain, or a level of habitual hospitality at odds with the South's image (sometimes justifiably). This play captures something very Southern, and not in a particularly stereotypical way. More an archetype. And with something genuinely individual.

Margaret (Valorie Hubbard) is the first face we see on stage (the lady in question also directed) and she immediately did something that impressed me. She said the same line several times, with the same meaning, and remained interesting. That consists of no small feat! That also set the quality level for the whole show. Pretty soon Margaret in her panic over "Ray" coming back shoots up her front door--only to discover Ray isn't there and she missed anyway! Several times!

Yeah, Margaret drinks.

Enter Millie (Anastasia Charalambous, a veteran of Fragments of Oscar Wilde at ZJU earlier this year), a statuesque blonde with legs that go on forever (especially in that black dress!) and a mane of platinum hair. She is Margaret's roommate--which makes for a quite a contrast, as Margaret herself is older, frumpy and round, sans the slightest hint of glamor.

Credit: Victoria Watlington
As we can guess from the opening scene as well as the poster, sooner or later Ray does show up. The playwright himself plays this part, and as might have guessed he's in orange prison duds, but with a gray jacket. A tad more disturbing are the copious blood stains. But we also kinda/sorta expected that.

What follows in fact consists of a bizarre blend of the expected and the shocking, the horrific and the hilarious. After the curtain call someone sitting next to me compared the show to something by Sam Shephard. I piped in there was a lot of Quentin Tarantino as well! By which I mean the characters as written not only resort to violence (of different kinds and styles) but all tend towards self-righteous--and frequently erroneous--proclamations of "fact." They each qualify as major league eccentrics, in one way or another, but see themselves as the very standard of sanity and good sense. Yet at the same time realize each remains seriously messed up. A mass of contradictions, from Millie's efforts to be "kind" and Margaret's genuine concern wrapped in prejudice to Ray's work ethic.

But much of this comes down to actual performances. Frankly most theater or any form of performing art rests squarely on the quality of those who enact it.

LaFrance as Ray could easily have fallen into cliche--the half-sane, violent bully who sees himself as a romantic figure and cannot wrap his head much around anyone else's point of view. Ray is all those things, but at heart he remains somehow innocent, or at least naive rather than stupid. Stupid, too, but at the same time rather clever--in a mind-bogglingly foolish way.

Charalambous as Millie plays a diamond in the rough, or at least that seems to be her self image. She believes (accurately as far as that goes) herself the most intelligent person in this group. In many ways, at first, she also seems the most normal or reasonable person we've met. But then, cracks begin to show. Not least what is apparently a bit of a dental fetish. And a demonstrated impatience with the world around her. For that very reason she's the funniest person on stage. Millie literally boils with energy, so she remains busy nearly all the time--from writing notes to snapping her fingers to pacing or letting her foot vibrate like a tuning fork while tied up and trying to get someone to untie her. Humor often comes from a disconnect between expectation and experience. Millie very nearly embodies that (most especially regarding the bag and Ray's game). Of course that is also how on a visceral level we recognize madness.

Hubbard's Margaret is the most fragile of the three, which one thinks would inspire our pity. It does, actually. But we also kinda want to slap her. When such a psychological train wreck spends so much of her time telling others what they're doing wrong with their lives, how can we not see this as ridiculous? And arrogant? The fact none of the things she complains about matter, while her remaining totally ignorant of this, is part of what pushes the whole piece into a realm of almost hyper-reality.

All of which ends up compelling on a human level, and yet very funny from a very dark place indeed.

Blistered Hands and Bloody Mouths plays Tuesdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 7pm on August 6, 11, 13, 18, 20 and 25 at Zombie Joe's Theater, 4850 Lankershim Blvd. (across from KFC and just south of the NoHo Sign), North Hollywood CA 91601. You can make reservations at (818) 202-4120. Tickets are only $15, and well worth it IMHO.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dancing on the Edge (review)

This review is late. And I apologize. Word to the wise--keep your anti-virus software current. 'Nuff said.

Dancing on the Edge is the latest show from Zombie Joe's in North Hollywood. Directed by Denise Devin (who also did Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing as well as performing in such shows as Urban Death and Whore's Bath).

Seven dancers make up the ensemble, performing a total of 23 different pieces in about 60 minutes. The works cover a broad range from straightforward ballet ("Wabbit") to individual expressionism ("Hurt") and striptease ("Redemption"). The mood and feel involved include disturbing ("Ma Coeur Mort") to exhiliration ("Animal") and the interplay of power ("Bow Down").

The dancers themselves make quite an impact when it comes to their individual personalities and strengths. Two in particular shine out. Donna Noelle Ibale (also one of the five choreographers) demonstrated the kind of physical skills one comes to expect of truly fine dancers, not only in terms of precision and strength but expression. In fact, her characters vary quite a bit, some of them pretty extreme (including a wizened old woman with a cane as well as what seemed like a kind of angel of death, plus a sea creature). The fact is, lots of dancers only dance with their bodies. Many others also dance with their faces, which is much better. Ibale does all that and tops it by dancing with her eyes.

"Animal" Credit: Denise Devin
Zee Smith also shone but for a different reason. She, like the rest of the ensemble, showed skill and energy and commitment to the idea of each dance (not as common a thing as one might expect or hope, alas). But she has a certain something more, a charisma on stage that grabbed my attention. Near the end of the show she played a character who seemed so desperately unhappy I thought maybe it was her! I actually felt the desire to comfort her, to go up after the show and ask if there was anything I could do?

Other favorites included Nicole Wormley, a newcommer to ZJU whose 'roles' generally matched that of an ingenue, but quite a variety even within that archetype. Her partner several times was Randall Morris, who also demonstrated that most essential trait in all good performers--a willingness to come across as completely ridiculous (not gonna give away all the details but "Vaudeville Circus: Diva" included him in a tutu!) The pieces he himself choreographed ("Frene Anemones" and "Many Toys Celebrate Solstice") echoed Cirque du Soleil in some ways as did his piece "Tapping Down" (which I wish could have been longer).

Cody Whitley (another choreographer) brought vast energy and enthusiasm to his dancing, which is maybe why the show ended with one of his pieces, an ensemble pieced titled "Clarity." J.J.Dubon seemed in some ways yin to his yang. Whitley's energy went out, while Dubon's sucked you in. The former smiled with his mouth, the latter crying tearlessly from his eyes. Rounding out the company is Jade Waters-Burch, a tall and beautiful dancer hopefully all will remember from A Down and Dirty Christmas Carol.

"Ma Coeur Mort" Credit: Denise Devin
Carrie Nedrow choreographed fully ten of the pieces, and hers all touched on human drama, on moments in time between people--with one lovely exception that remains hilariously vivid in my imagination (we all laughed but methinks I laughed the loudest).

The problem with reviewing these twenty-plus dance pieces is that to say how any of them proceed is to perhaps ruin them for the first time goer. A poor way to treat audience members! So I'll confine myself to saying the individual pieces all contained considerable quality, and met the challenge of their tiny space with considerable skill. A few transitions ended up a touch ragged, while now and then I wished something were longer or more complex or that a specific dancer would go a little further. Yet at the same time, I smiled almost the whole show, and when I didn't that was certainly the way the dancers, choreographers and director desired my emotions to go! It touched my heart, and tickled my funny bone--and gave me a lovely evening's worth of entertainment!

Dancing on the Edge plays Saturdays August 3, 10, 17, 24, 31 and September 7, 14, 21 at 11pm. It also plays Sundays August 4, Sept. 8, 22 at 7pm. Tickets are $15 and the shows are at ZJU 4850 Lankershim Blvd (across from KFC) North Hollywood 818-202-4120