Saturday, April 12, 2014

Salome (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Salome has always had something of a strange reputation. Arguably Oscar Wilde's most infamous play, it so outraged Victorian sensibilities the work was banned in the UK until 1905. The English of the era missed the point of the work quite spectacularly. Despite (or in truth because) the work deals with insanity, obsession, decadence and perversion, it remains as moralistic as the rest of Wilde's serious works--that is to say, profoundly. He treated the ideas of virtue and evil very seriously indeed. So much so he saw saints and sinners first and foremost as human beings. And although he demonstrates a definite moral point of view, Wilde never ever tells you what to think.

Now the Archway Theatre downtown has its own production. For the second time since beginning this blog, I'm reviewing the mounting of this precise work.

The experience proved a very mixed bag, not least because the play is not only in verse but in a style of verse far more French in style than English. Wilde wrote it in French, and translation presents a problem. A very tricky one, because it builds on a cadence natural to a different language from the one these actors use. So the problems I have with the show are technical. But a little pervasive.

First, all the leads seem quite talented. The major roles number four: Salome (Deneen Melody), her mother Herodias (Jennifer Hawkins), her stepfather Herod (Elias McCabe) and the imprisoned Hebrew prophet Jokanaan (Keith Wyffels). I say this in spite of what seems to me real trouble they (and everyone else in the cast) had with the heightened language. I could go on about the technicalities of that, but suffice to say poetry remains difficult to speak without declaiming or over-doing it. Yet for all that, the characters did speak to one another, did genuinely try to talk and react to each others' words. Frankly, I've seen lots of casts do far less well. Far less. Towards this let me single out Wyffels and Hawkins as going far beyond the cliches of their roles. This Jokanaan didn't just shout to the sky but said things to people, actually had thought and intention behind his words. Likewise he genuinely reacted to Salome. Too often actors in this part ignore her utterly, or at best treat her as a prop. Not so this time! Likewise this Herodias seems a richer, more rounded character than the whining harridan we usually get. The fact she nearly cries as her daughter dances, yet remains rigidly dignified, impressed me deeply. So too did some hints between herself and Herod that this couple were (and perhaps still are) passionate about one another. At least she still is. Sometimes.

Melody likewise does a fine job of portraying a very troubled young woman, someone who frankly in another era with very different circumstances might have been bulemic. Or a cutter. Instead her Salome is the ultimate tease, wielding the tiny power she has with fierce, ruthless whimsy. Someone who ultimately has nothing, and craves she knows not what. That tension destroys her none-too-firm grasp on sanity by the end. That she carries that potential with her from the time she enters helps make her compelling.

The costumes are lovely. The setting and set interesting, conveying a very specific sense of place. Kudos!

As far as the direction goes, I personally found the blocking eschewed tension in favor of being busy. Visually the effect was often interesting, but rarely served the story. Yet it never committed that cardinal sin of even once making me bored. Even at its least-good, the production and cast kept my attention.

But I must return to something that bears repeating. Something of a rant, really. Naturalistic acting is a style, despite the name. It remains the overwhelmingly common one used in films and television, and most contemporary theatre. Yet it doesn't really work for some kinds of material, like Salome. Far too often American actors (the kind with which I am most familiar) stumble and grope their way when confronted with this very different style of material. The leads in general found their way in this production. Not surprisingly, they shone most at moments divorced from Wilde's heightened language. Everybody for example, listened extremely well to what was going on. NO SMALL THING! When having to respond to something physical, like blood on the floor for example, the actors did very well. But many clearly found genuine trouble with the language and a few fell into the traps too many actors do. One person emoted their lines, rather than feeling while they spoke. Another settled for an attitude rather than making much of a character. Still another pretended they weren't speaking heightened language at all! Which sounded and felt 'off.'

For all that, let me recommend the show. The leads, upon whom the play depends, bring those characters to life. The story is told, its momentum and emotional power genuinely growing to the play's climax. The cast interact with one another for every moment of performance. And we are sucked into the show, the situation, the events as they unfold. In this the cast and crew and all involved succeed--and we the audience reap the benefit.

Salome Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm through May 11 (no performance April 20), 2014 at the Archway Theatre, 305 South Hewitt Street, Los Angeles CA 90013. Tix are $18 and can be purchased here.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Manicomio (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

"Manicomio" is Spanish for "insane asylum." No one told me that before seeing the play of that title, the latest offering from Zombie Joe's in North Hollywood. Methinks folks were having a tiny bit of fun at my expense. In fact, it probably soured my mood ever so slightly towards the work. When a title is a word I don't understand (and my own vocabulary stands up pretty well, thank  you) experience tells me the work is all too often pretentious in some way.

Which made for a very pleasant surprise. Manicomio isn't really a script per se, but more like a piece of group performance art. The director Sebastian Munoz explained to me much of what was happening on stage came from ideas put forth by cast members. Unlike some (and here I get to be pretentious) it didn't surprise me that out of such a story emerged.

For make no mistake, this play does indeed have a story.

In essence the setting is a madhouse. Everyone we see, pretty much from the moment we walk into the space, is a lunatic. Someone who sees the world in a way extremely different from the way you and I (presumably) do. One person (Jackie Lastra) has an intense relationship with her doll. Another (Kevin Van Cott) seems to lack the ability to grasp speech.
Credit: Adam Neubauer

Now, the classic (or if you prefer cliche) reaction to insanity is fear. A withdrawal at full speed. Our culture permeates with the image of the dangerous madman. The Joker. Hannibal Lecter. Drusilla the Vampire. Ophelia. Alex in Fatal Attraction. The title character in Betty Blue. Not even particularly malevolent, but...perilous. More rare, but perhaps more telling, are positive portrayals of the mentally ill as perhaps knowing something we do not. Don Quixote makes for the most obvious example--the divine madman who knows what you do not, sees the possibilities others sadly need but cannot imagine. Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. Renfield.

The denizens of Manicomio follow into the divine madmen category. Not that they necessarily know something you do not, but that they achieve something at which the "sane" all too often fail. Miserably. They come together. They unite.

Details aren't really the point. And I don't want to spoil the surprises in store for those interested in viewing the show. Let me instead simply point out the cast--including Jared Adams, Charlotte Bjornbak, Jahel Corban Caldera, Joachim De La Rua, Samm Hill, Tyler Koster, Leif La Duke, R. Benjamin Warren, Jessica Weiner, Ramona Creel, and Ann Wescott--off a kaleidoscope of fractured personalities and perception, often  hilarious and sometimes disturbing. Nearly always entertaining. Yet all understandable--even the segments not in English still come across, as do the ones without words at all. This whole piece is about thinking, and seeing, outside the box. Not necessarily discarding the box, nor never returning, or even disdaining the box in which we all keep stuff after all. But remembering the box is there to serve us, not for us to serve it. It is to be our tool, not our straightjacket.

Did I mention this is something of a musical?

Manicomio runs Fridays at 8:30pm until May 23, 2014 at ZJU Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim (north of Camarillo, across the street from KFC) North Hollywood Ca 91601. Tix are $15 each. You can make resevations by calling (818) 202-4120 or going online:

Friday, April 4, 2014

Recall (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Horror has many genres. Torture porn, for example--which focuses on pretty much what it sounds like. Another is the gothic, a different sensibility surrounding an erotic intimacy with death and sin. Perhaps sadly, less popular these days is the dystopia--and extrapolation of just how horrible our own actions might shape the future. Most famous books/films in the genre include 1984 and Brave New World as well as Fahrenheit 451. Yet let us not forget The Hunger Games...although that trilogy goes against the 'horror' aspect of the dystopia by showing a successful revolution.

Recall from the Visceral Company does not stray into that direction.

Which isn't to say all dystopias should make that choice, but if they also belong in the subcategory of horror, they probably should not.

Eliza Clark's full-length Recall plays some very interesting mind-games on the audience. We do not, for example, notice at first this is science fiction, that its setting must be in our future. After all, the elements that make up the story as we begin don't contain many tropes of science fiction, if any. Two women are in a motel room. Teenaged Lucy (Madeline Bertani) cleans blood off the floor while her mother Justine (Karen Nicole) watches a reality t.v. show. Said blood we soon learn came from Justine's now-former boyfriend. Lucy spilled it. She does that.

Photo: Amelia Gotham
The first hint we're in another world? David (Mark Souza), member of what seems like some kind of underground "helping" people like Justine and Lucy. He says he likes doing good, helping people. Sooooooo...what does that mean? As the play progresses, we find out. In this America, children identified as too problematic are recalled (the slang is to be "fishtanked"). The government's authority in this matter seems draconian at best, exemplified by Quinn (Kevin Grossman) a quasi-goth/semi-punk loner in the school where Lucy begins to attend. He's on "The List." With his parents' full consent, he is being watched and tested constantly. Perhaps more telling is Charlotte (Lara Fisher), David's contact in the government department in charge of recalling, for all practical purposes his runner and controller. Because it comes out David was recalled, and struggles to recall anything of his youth. Why was he recalled, given that he seems so kind? So brave and even courteous? Good question. Incidentally, we pretty soon figure out Charlotte had been recalled as well--and again, we don't know the details.

A word or two here about names. "Charlotte" means "manly." Quinn is "counselor," David "beloved." More of course David echoes the Biblical story of a small boy standing up successfully to a giant. "Justine" makes me think of the infamous novel penned by the Marquis de Sade. "Lucy" on the other hand summons images of C.S.Lewis' Narnia as well as the first and most beautiful of angels, the fallen one, Lucifer.

Maybe I'm overthinking that. Wouldn't be the first time.

Photo: Amelia Gotham
Ultimate, what we see unfold is a tragedy, hence the horror. How, after all, can this story end well? Lucy seems to be a killer, and quite possibly a sociopath. Quinn clearly is not, yet the world has decided he might be so they'll treat him as if he were. Who can blame Justine for loving and protecting her own child, yet who among us can feel safe as long as she succeeds? David perhaps more than anyone comes across as a victim, a man of genuine compassion given the illusion of power but in fact totally at the beck and call of another seeming-sociopath (who routinely takes notes about how to behave in a more human manner).

The result disturbs not a little bit, mostly because of something we might want. Something we might well expect in what is after all a cautionary tale. But Recall lacks to almost any degree.


Quite remarkably--and with a brutal honesty--the play refuses to tell us everything, refuses to spoon feed us any kind of "solution." The playwright does not pretend to know exactly what we should do about troubled, sometimes violent youth. But her work offers an example, a plausible scenario where a society got it wrong. What they do, doesn't work. But one can totally imagine how seductive the idea might be.

Honestly, the play starts off just a little slow, but that soon corrects itself. The set, a somewhat complicated business involving swinging doors, looks great and works well, but I wish it were just a tiny bit faster. Each member of the cast does a fine job, leaving behind a powerful impression. I in fact found myself feeling a whole range of emotions towards each. At the same time, I came to feel a genuine distaste for the society portrayed, a nation that of all the options available to them chose this one. Which means, as a dysptopia, the play hit its target, and got at least this audience member thinking.

Recall plays Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm, Sunday matinees at 3pm through May 4, 2014. Performances are at The Lex Theatre (one block east of Highland and Lexington) at 6760 Lexington Avenue, Hollywood CA 90038. Tickets are available here or at the box office.

Urban Death 2014 (review)

Spoilers ahoy! (kinda)

For some years now Urban Death--a performance art/variety show about death and horror--proudly served as the signature piece of Zombie Joe's Underground Theater Group in North Hollywood. The current incarnation marks my third exposure. Writing about it remains tricky, not least because it really does depend upon surprise for maximum impact. Spoiler warnings to the contrary, my job as a reviewer is in no way to to "spoil" an audience member's experience!

So what follows is an attempt to give you some idea of what the show is like, without ruining it should you elect to go.

For the record, if you enjoy the gothic and the macabre, or enjoy horror that disturbs rather than grosses out, methinks this might be for you.

If you're among those who've seen previous entries of Urban Death, a little bit of a head's up. Quite a bit less gore this time. The show previously often focused on stuff meant to turn the stomach or make you flinch. Case in point--the pile of half-decomposed corpses that began to slowly, disjointedly stand up, then turn and devour an innocent looking young girl who wanders by. Well, the pile of corpses is nowhere to be seen. Neither are the kind of in-your-face stuff about serial killers, necrophilia and the like.

Jana Wimer directed this edition (she recently did another of the show in Cape Town, South Africa) and for this one the focus is less on blood or even flesh (decomposing, dead, about to die, etc.). Rather here we end up seeing more about faces--faces that show horror, fear, vanity, grief, lust and (sometimes) absolutely nothing at all. A quick glimpse of something horrible, then another of someone seeing it for the first time. A seemingly happy family (Karen N. Kahler, Mark Hein, Lauren Velasco) portrait that subtly but vividly changes as we watch. A woman in a straightjacket (Denise Devin) looking directly at you, a range of powerful emotions you don't understand rippling across her face--emotions you ultimately don't want to understand.

As before, we see one tiny vignette after another, an increasingly odd and nerve-wracking series of mini-scenes. Some are frankly hilarious as well as disturbing. One involves only what one hears in the dark. Another shows a flapper dancing, a seemingly innocent enough thing to watch yet which makes one recoil while never looking away for one second!

No small feat, any of this! In fact, the whole cast including Gloria Galvan, Wyn Harris, Abel Horwitz, John Lewandowski and Tina Preston (who makes brushing her teeth somehow chilling) all accomplish a great deal. The final result is much as if one had gone through a psychological haunted house for Halloween. This is less Saw and more Portrait of a Serial Killer. Layers of the psyche rather than of the flesh peel back, and bleed. And we watch.

It is not for the squeamish. Nor for the overly sensitive. Nor frankly for those seeking nothing but thrills a la torture porn. If anything I'd compare this show (in terms of cinema, anyway) to Dario Argento at his height, rather than George Romero. Not judging either one, just noting the differences. Don't think anyone in this Urban Death eats human flesh for example. Not literally. But without actually seeing the act, one knows a fair number of these characters have been raped. Or are going to rape. Or both.

Urban Death runs at 8:30pm on Saturday nights thorough April 26, 2014. The venue is Zombie Joe's at 4850 Lankershim, North Hollywood CA 91601 (north of Carmarillo & 101/135 Freeways, across from KFC). Tickets are $15. Reservations available at (818) 202-4120 or at

Disclaimer: I myself recently directed a show at ZJU, titled Carmilla. And I in fact personally know nearly all the cast and crew of this show.