Monday, September 30, 2013

Presidential Suite (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Not sure I've ever reviewed a musical on this blog ere now. To be honest, I don't see that many--more for financial reasons than any other. Yet truth to tell, I do enjoy them quite a bit!

Presidential Suite had its world premiere September 27 and the producers very kindly invited me to attend. The premise frankly seems silly. Imagine a pageant in Las Vegas to determine the MVP, Most Valuable President. Literally, a competition between eight finalists among the 43 (the script inaccurately says 44, ignoring Grover Clevelands' two non-consecutive terms) Chief Executives of the United States. For some reason they have all begun manifesting in and around a particular historian (Kim Reed), who's organized this pageant with pretty much every drop of tackiness one might expect.

Although, as the program notes, the swimsuit competition ended up cancelled "due to unforeseen circumstances."

This sounds like the stuff of a comedy sketch on SNL or maybe the Carol Burnett Show. Initially it comes across as a blend of both. Contributing to this is the initially broad portraits. Andrew Jackson (Bradley Thomas Kuykendall) keeps getting into arguments with Teddy Roosevelt (Alex Walters). A remarkable short (the real man was six feet in height) Thomas Jefferson (Matthew Hoffman) using supremely precise language and witticisms more appropriate to 1776 than 2013. Harry S. Truman (Irwin Moskowitz) acting thoroughly unimpressed while Abraham Lincoln (Edgar Allan Poe IV) smiles, uttering homilies with a down home twang. Lots of little details seem wrong. JFK (Abbott Alexander) looks older than Kennedy ever reached. And so on. I laughed, disturbed by minor inaccuracies only because of my own pickyness about details. The whole thing seemed funny, especially with everybody jealous over Lincoln's personal prestige, especially George Washington (James Schendel) and FDR (John Eddings).

Loved it when those two shared a fist-bump. Captured the whole absurd premise of the show in that one gesture.

But Lincoln ends up alone on stage for a moment, his hillybilly jovial mask slips. He sings a solo, recalling his past and comparing it to this present. We get a glimpse something complex as well as compelling. Not for the last time in this show we view a man of great accomplishments, considerable ambition and ability, who in his heart of hearts sees himself a failure. "Your Sacrifice," his song, is a wail of despair. And that makes a devastating kind of sense, given his relentless humor up until then. We all know, do we not, that clowns are sad? All that humor--what is if for, if not as a kind of anasthetic?

Turns into a theme before long. In particular two other presidents have similar numbers. Thomas Jefferson sings "The Best Any Man can Do" as a virtual apology to the female African American stage manager Lorraine (Shae Wilson). After all, he was an abolitionist who owned slaves. Loved a slave. But did not free her or them. For the record, the real Jefferson did seem to feel that way as he neared death, haunted by the what he seemed to view as his great failure.

Later, and very appropriately, Richard Nixon (Steve Nevil) tells his fellow Presidents what he himself learned in the wake of his own train wreck, "I'm Not the Man in That Picture Now."

All of which sounds a lot more solemn than the show overall ends up being.  There's plenty of humor and silliness, as well as clever character bits throughout. Jackson, arguably in total keeping with what he know of his real character, never has a reflective moment. In face he ends up singing a rap song. Don't try to figure it out, just accept it. Frankly I was amused as everyone pretty much agrees in the play that he's an ass (my own opinion as a matter of fact). On top of all this remains a plot--one I won't give away because it gives some genuine surprises.

Bottom line, I was expecting entertainment little more as I sat down to see this show. Imagine my pleasant (and intense) surprise to find myself moved!

Presidential Suite plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm until October 27, 2013 at Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center 11006 Magnolia Blvd. North Hollywood, CA  9160. You can make reservations at  (323) 960-7724.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Kamikaze (review)

Spoilers ahoy!.... kinda/sorta

Full disclosure. Kamikaze is a one woman show performed by Vanessa Cate and directed by Zombie Joe. I know both these folks and consider them friends. More, I've enjoyed every single thing either one of them has done. Genuinely. One reason for this remains the fact I got to know their work first, then the people. But I'm not uncritical of either one.

Zombie actually called me "ruthless" once. I think he meant it as a compliment.

But to the show!

Kamikaze makes an excellent example of Performance Art--a tricky form because it nearly always comes from a highly intuitive place. Elements juxtapose in a way that make little or no literal sense but somehow "fit." Dance, mime and words blend, along with singing or interactive activities with the audience. Absolute reality and precision go hand-in-hand with the bizarre, the deliberately vague, the nonsensical. Frankly, most attempts at it crash and burn. It takes an unusual focus coupled with particularly strong performance skills to pull off.

This one does indeed work. I went in with as few expectations as I could manage. Still, the show did surprise, startle, fascinate. Almost immediately, as the lights rose, the one thing very few performers or performances offer at the very start appeared.

Photo Credit: Zombie Joe's Underground
Stillness. Following by slow, precise movement. Frankly, this shouldn't have worked. But it did. One reason remains the intimacy of the space (Zombie Joe's is not a large venue). More importantly, Vanessa Cate remains an actress of great stage presence. A difficult thing to define, that, but almost impossible to miss when revealed. When darkness fell once more, we in the audience heard singing, in this case the so-called "Ophelia Song" by William Shakespeare (Cate had several roles in ZJU's wonderful Hamlet last year, but not interestingly Ophelia). The lights rose, and we all laughed. We were watching Cate Something about the smile, the way she picked up items and put them in the imaginary basket, moved around the store... To be sure, a fine example of mime, but one cannot quite put your finger on what it might actually mean.

And that is kinda the point. Language is wonderful. I myself love words and the potential they offer, the insights and messages to which they give shape. But part of this show revels in the subtleties of experience for which we have no words. Language not with sound or symbol, but experience.

The same applies to when the lights shifted and we got a genuinely hilarious bit of Cate simply driving. Why was it so funny? And why did it seem something else was going on? Likewise, how come these odd images and movements connect in the way they feel as if they do? Ditto the next segment that intercut three wildly different scenarios (the program listed this part as "So Fine"/Fish/Hell and that actually does make plenty of sense as far as titles go).

When performance art works, it often feels as if one has just visited another person's dream. And such was precisely my reaction to this one woman
Photo Credit: Zombie Joe's Underground
show. The skits and pieces that make it up rattle around my heart still. Like a therapist, my inclination is to interpret the dream. So I look at a major clue, the title of the show. The program helps, as it gives a definition:

ka-mi-ka-ze (noun) 1. Japanese "divine wind" (from the legendary name of a typhoon that in 1281 saved Japan by destroying the Mongol navy): kami divine + kaze wind 2. A Japanese pilot trained in World War II to make a suicidal crash attack, especially upon a ship. 3. Slang - An extremely reckless person who seems to court death.

Of course, Vanessa Cate, as a veteran of Urban Death at ZJU, could mean far more than the death of the body. Interestingly, she also made a point of saying in the program how the Kamikaze was viewed as a legendary salvation.

What I got out of this work was the odyssey of a woman's soul, from trying to understand the world, to enjoying/experiencing what it has to offer, to feeling the pleasures and tortures of life, then coming to some very personal answers. We see her delve into madness, into nightmare, clearly finding great pleasure in things (an actress I know in the audience opening night had a very pleasing surprise at one point) but also emerging from trauma.

One of the most clear-cut, most "linear" parts of the piece was simply titled Tracy.  This one frankly comes across as a mini-play in and of itself, an
Photo Credit: Zombie Joe's Underground
autobiographical account of a friendship. Cate, wearing a floral dress and matching glasses (!) stood prim and enthusiastic, telling of her friend Tracy. How they were girls together. How they grew apart, without our narrator seemingly noticing--a bad sign. At first the story is funny, very much so. Yet Cate's character, like nearly all founts of real comedy, is tragic. Here there's something marvelously subtle I feel the need to praise. This monologue is not written in great prose. It doesn't create fantastic word pictures nor do the words invoke the essence of what's happening with the precision of a haiku. Because that would not be this character's vocabulary. Rather, Cate's performance does all that. Standing almost perfectly still, with almost the same expression throughout, her voice bled this character's soul all over the stage. First a drop or two, then a trickle, then a vein opened up. A tour-de-force and that one section alone would be worth the price of admission!

But that did not complete the night's journey. No, Cate went on with several more pieces, including her poem "I Am Raw" and a monologue lifted from a decades-old movie, equal parts cheesy, awesome, beautiful (in no small part because Cate herself is), insightful and just a bit disturbing. A nice comment on art, that, and to be expected really from the author of Fragments of Oscar Wilde. Art, even pop art, lives because it says something true. Don't such things provide individual building blocks of our psyches, our souls? Sharing them, sometimes, takes courage. This segment does take that, on several levels. But by then we rather expect it.

And when it ends with martial arts, that seems very right as well.

Kamikaze plays at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm from Sept. 20 to October 5, 2013. You can find the venue at 4850 Lankershim Blvd. (across from KFC) North Hollywood 91601. You can make reservations by calling (818) 202-4120

Monday, September 16, 2013

LA Women's Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark not only remains one of Shakespeare's most famous works, but one of the most challenging. For an almost startling number of reasons! Many go unnoticed unless (like yours truly) one has seen many productions of differing styles and quality.

The Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company just premiered a production. I've never seen a show of theirs before now, sorry to say. Having watched this, I'm even sorrier to have missed earlier shows! A major conceit of this company lies in an all-female cast, with male parts (Edwin Drood-like) played by male impersonators, i.e. women in drag. Not in any campy way, but simply in a reversal of how they did theatre in Shakespeare's day--with men (or boys) playing the women's roles. Some folks react badly to such, whereas to me this counts as a style. Ditto the non-traditional casting, i.e. ignoring ethnicity. Seems to me this production did exactly the right thing in such casting. I've seen plenty of Shakespeare productions do as much, and nearly always it worked when the performance pretty much ignored ethnicity altogether. Audiences accept a lot. If the cast simply does something, most of the time the audience follows suit. After all, people don't speak in iambic pentameter! Neither do they routinely stand in such a way as to be visible to people sitting in one end of every single room!

Okay, enough of pontificating about other performances! How was this one?

Something of mixed bag, but far less mixed than usual! Mostly quite good--and in startling ways! I really want to offer up a lot of praise for Natsuko Ohama who plays Polonius. Not until reading through the program did I realize she's also the co-director of this production. And not until I did a search to find her website did my jaw drop as I realize why she looked familiar! Quite simply, she was a regular on a favorite televisions series, Forever Knight. But more to the point, she is the second best Polonius I've ever seen (the best was Ian Holm). And Polonius is the single most difficult character in a play riddled with traps and difficult characters (an acting coach once insisted to me we don't have the final draft of Hamlet for that very reason). Better than nine times out of ten, Polonius ends up as a comic relief, played as an elderly clown. In this production, Ohama's performance shows exactly why that's a mistake. Suddenly, Ophelia's and Laertes' reaction to his death is shared by the audience! Yes, sometimes Polonius is funny, not least because the man does like to hear himself talk and he's old enough now and then he loses his train of thought. But he himself is not a joke. Polonius is wise, active, capable of admitting a mistake (amazing, that)
and for this among other things commands the respect of virtually every other character in the play! In fact, one can point out the biggest mistake Hamlet makes in the whole story is not trusting Polonius from the very start.

Likewise, Cynthia Beckert's Laertes (the second most difficult part in the play, so say I) makes total sense now, simply because his relationship with Polonius is based not simply familial love but genuine respect and admiration. This is no boy enraged at a personal loss, but that enraged boy who knows (as does everyone) what a very fine and good man has been murdered. Ditto Chastity Dotson as Ophelia! The specificity of her performance completely grabbed my heart as I (rightly or wrongly) came away with a precise idea of what is going on inside Ophelia's tortured soul. Lawrence Olivier famously answered the question "Did Hamlet and Ophelia sleep together?" with the (very funny) "Yes...on tour." But my measurement of Ophelia tends to be whether I know the answer to that question. Or think I do. In this case, the whole story of this young lady's tangled feelings for her brother, her father and her paramour, even for herself, bled out onto the stage.

I can offer lots of other praise for many details in this production, including the high quality sets and costumes, the very cunning expedient of making one of the notoriously difficult-to-distinguish pair Rosencranz and Guildenstern female (including--no small thing--treating the character as female in that milieu), the overall quality of the cast (very high indeed) or even the seemingly minor detail of having people cross themselves correctly (how odd this is
so rare!). But I called this performance 'mixed' and I should justify that.

First, the stage combat didn't work. It looked seriously under-rehearsed, because the essential actions themselves seemed just fine. Above average at least! But the actors (the same two) moved too slowly and with not near enough assurance to look like a real fight.

Second, this production over-used the Ghost. Not much, but putting the Ghost of Hamlet's father into scenes where the playwright did not (however briefly) can be problematical and in this case didn't work.

Both of those seem barely qualifying of critiques, maybe. True enough. I've little to complain about at all. A few moments here and there I thought could use some work. Here however I will come to a subtle but pervasive problem.

Hamlet, as played by Lisa Wolpe (who also co-directed). I find myself wondering if the fact she directed herself had something to do with what I have to say. The rest of the cast did such a splendid job overall! But that creates the wrong impression, as if Wolpe did a poor performance. Not at all! But it did prove an uneven one. Quite startlingly so--because between Hamlet's first and last scenes with the Ghost (on the castle parapet, then in the Queen's chamber) this was a vivid, poignant and in his own way powerful Hamlet. Every actor who takes on this role needs to make it their own. Wolpe made a choice I've never seen before--and kudos for that alone! Her Hamlet is...well...weak. Not a bad person, but less strong than a future king really should be, and he cracks under what is simply Too Much. Too much confusion over his father's death and mother's remarriage. Too much resentment over the same,
coupled with the frustrations over his longing for Ophelia. Finding out there's life after death, that his father was murdered and now suffers in Purgatory, followed by one lie after another from those he cares about (his contemporaries, all--like many young men he simply doesn't look to his elders for wisdom or advice). This Hamlet pretends to be mad, but doesn't have to pretend much. He's suffering from a kind of breakdown, and Wolpe shows us this in ways that touch the heart and involve the mind.

But no so much at the very start. At the very beginning this Hamlet seems a cypher. Mind you, the more Wolpe acts with other members of the cast the better and more powerful her every moment. Which is to say she's better doing scenes than soliliquies. Okay.

More frustrating (but still--anything but bad) is when Hamlet returns from abroad, having escaped a piece of treachery by arranging the legal murder of two (former?) friends then going through a battle at sea. The confusion vanishes. Instead of melancholy, we see a razor-like serenity and focus. He's gone from someone who listens to the Dead in terror and rage to a man contemplated the skull of a beloved childhood companion, asking questions without any fierce demand for answers. Ophelia's death moves him to an outburst, but instead of wallowing he realizes almost immediately he's in the wrong, forthrightly and with minimum drama. "Readiness is all," he says. Here lies the heart of who Hamlet has become. Now, he is ready. Knows it. Proceeds with the end of this tale, eyes open and head up, unafraid and resolute. But where did this change take place? And why? Frankly this seems to me the greatest single challenge of the part. Wolpe doesn't quite answer that question for me. She does the middle Hamlet, the tormented young man bubbling over with passions he doesn't understand, extremely well. Her beginning Hamlet is straightforward, real, uninspired but totally believable. Her end Hamlet, though, lacks the power of her Middle.

Which is a nuance. That I 'complain' about such a nuance actually testifies how good this production is overall. I recommend it highly, and say publically it compares well with some of the very best Hamlets I myself have seen (like Kevin Kline's and David Tenant's), and far exceeds others (Mel Gibson's and Richard Chamberlain's).

The Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company's production of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark plays through October 27, 2013 at the Odyssey Theatre at 2055 Sepulveda, Los Angeles CA 90025 (310) 477-2055.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

My new play: "Carmilla"

Not exactly news that I'm a hug fan of Joseph Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla. Well, now I've written a play version and we're trying to put it up on stage!

In fact we've got rather a lot lined up. Enough to run a fundraising campaign to finish the process, complete with gifts (like this mug) for certain levels of donors.

This really is a dream come true for me, seeing LeFanu's classic as I've long believed it should be--with all the ambiguity, the drama, the sensuality and haunting as the original story!

Given we're talking about a stage play and not a novella, more a story being told in 2013 instead of 1872, some changes are of course needed. Probably the biggest change I've made is to create a character to whom Laura is telling her history. LeFanu has her talking to someone. We don't know who, not really. In my version, this is a specific person with an agenda of their own--an agenda somewhat at cross purposes with Laura, which leads to awkward questions Laura probably does not like answering. But must, given the circumstances...