Monday, June 30, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Dream (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Quick disclaimer: I know the director, who is a friend, and who asked me to design the postcard for this production, which I did. Yet at the time I'd not seen one split second of any performance.

Zombie Joe's Underground Theater Group enjoys a reputation for the grotesque and edgy, but in truth also does such diverse works as A Christmas Carol and Bob Hope's Birthday. They also regularly (as in, at least once a year) put on a Shakespeare or some other classic.

This time director Denise Devin tackles what counts (in my opinion) as the Bard's silliest comedy--A Midsummer Night's Dream. More than any other of Shakespeare's works, this play is all about how ridiculous human beings can be and usually are. Like all his comedies, there's a streak that could lead to tragedy! Hermia (Arielle Davidsohn) and Lysander (Robert Walters) are in love, but her mother would literally rather see her dead. She begs Prince Theseus to heed Athenian law and allow him to execute his daughter for refusing to marry Demetrius (Dorian Serna). The Prince cannot but agree, giving a deadline (one hopes he thinks some time will let things find their own natural solution).

Lysander has a plan! A good one, or at least it sounds good. They will elope by fleeing into the woods to his aunt's house. Of course it won't go as planned. If it did, where is the play??? They get lost! And on top of that they were stupid enough to tell someone--Helena (Nicole DeCroix), whom they know is so desperately in love with Demetrius she's bound to tell him all! Which she does!

Photo Credit: Zombie Joe
More complications follow! Within those very woods (where all four lovers soon get lost) King Oberon (Lamont Webb) and Queen Titania (Ashley Fuller) of the faeries are fighting, with the former willing to go to extreme lengths to get his way. But he's not without compassion. Spying Helena following a scornful Demetrius, Oberon decides the  young lady deserves love. So he orders Robin Goodfellow aka Puck (Katherine Bowman) to use the juice of an enchanted flower to make Demetrius fall in love with Helena.

Naturally it all goes wrong, since Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius!

In the meantime a group of "rude mechanicals" (i.e. very amateur dramatists) decide to put on a play and have a rehearsal in the very same forest! Thus Bottom (Quinn Knox), Flute (David Wyn Harris), Snug (Emily Cunningham) and Quince (Sarah Fairfax) enter into a plot to further complicate matters!

Not going to explain every single plot permutation, but rather note it becomes a wild parade of mistaken identities, people getting lost, over-reacting to pretty much everything--all with a couple of modern pop songs turned into production numbers! Sexual innuendo and sight gags abound. Characters run on and off stage with great energy, their costumes increasingly bedraggled (and revealing). All under a summer moon of cardboard tapped to the black stage wall. How appropriate!

Like the rest of the audience, I laughed out loud again and again. One can make AMND into a slightly heavier or darker piece. Such can work. It can seem a bit nightmarish, or touch upon a sense of wonder. But at its heart the whole thing centers on its most famous quote: "What fools these mortals be!" Yep, we are. Especially when we fall in love. Isn't it grand?

A Midsummer Night's Dream plays Fridays at 8:30pm at ZJU 4850 Lankershim (just north of Camarillo, across from KFC), North Hollywood CA 91601. Tickets are $15. Call 818.202.4120 or visit

Riot Grrrl Saves the World (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I was supposed to see Riot Grrrl Saves the World earlier in its run, but got sick. Not that the show from Will Play for Food Theatre needed any help from yours truly! They won an encore award as part of the Hollywood Fringe and are getting an extension (details not yet available).

Kudos to them!

While enjoying the play, I didn't like it as much as others clearly have. That sounds as if I'm putting it down--not at all! The play has charm, wit, sincere and energetic performances, snappy direction as well as a message that combines truth with hope amid the tears.

Yet when some spontaneously rose to their feet during the curtain calls, must admit doing so never entered my mind. My own applause was far more than mere politeness, but a standing ovation? Really?

Part of this may well be contextual. The whole Riot Grrrl Movement remains something outside my knowledge, save that it existed and seemingly still does. From the play I get the impression of a gleefully angry rebellion against sexual stereotypes most especially regarding women and a social structure that encourages same. Okay. Brava on that one. But since I'm not caught up in that idea already, methinks the production inherently is pressing buttons that remain absent inside my head.

Whether the play should take the time to place them there, even temporarily, is a personal choice. I do believe doing so would read a larger audience, maybe even helping change some minds.

Honestly, the whole play really feels unfinished, an early and extremely promising draft of something that feels like it should take at least ninety minutes to really explore. Too much of the dialogue feels generic. A lot of story points and character arcs happen too fast to follow. It would be a shame to take this subject matter and this context only to make it mundane, a "well made play" in some sense, but I feel certain these very elements can be revealed in keeping with the sensibilities of Riot Grrrls. If anything the play seems a tad too naturalistic for my taste. The title itself even begs for stuff from the Book of Revelations, from tales of the Viking Ragnarok, from pamphlets about the Rapture, etc. Or maybe just a deeper diving  into the emotional dynamics of the characters. Again, this translates into more time. Not a mere hour. Either that or a far greater focus on fewer characters (which seems a shame--I want more, not less of them)!

Essentially the play deals with a group of teenage young women and what happens about the time they form a band. It isn't about the band, not really, although it does show the positive impact the band's music has--most especially by letting someone know they aren't alone in feeling rage, frustration, a need to shriek out at a world too narrow and uninterested in those outside the mainstream. The initial three are Josslyn ( Zoƫ Lillian ), Steph ( Emma Servant ), and Harriet ( Tiffany Mo ). Their bare-bones meeting gets a surprise visitor, Darla ( Poonam Basu ) a Jehovah's Witness who isn't trying to convert them but just wants to talk. Needing to get stuff off her chest, she finds barely concealed tolerance from everyone save Josslyn. Given she can play bass, she even ends up in the band. In time, Darla and Josslyn fall in love.

The entire cast demonstrates a consistent excellence in terms of energy, listening, commitment and (no small thing) a kind of charismatic simplicity of doing things on stage that arrest attention. Indeed, during the initial scene or so that alone kept my attention. But by the time Darla shows up, the masks of stereotypes crack and start to fall away. Josslyn's heart remains in the right place, but more by talent than hard-won wisdom. Darla has courage but cannot access it very much all alone. Steph of the pain wielded into willpower, whose arrogance taints too much of what she does. Harriet, willing to do so much for her friends and for the Revolution, but reacting in an all-too-human manner when taken for granted, thwarted, used. The whole panorama of their relationships are like the human race boiled into a tiny group of four. The author Louisa Hill said she had in mind the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Honestly, I never made that connection, for better and for worse. I thought of them as the four elements, the four humours, etc. But at heart when for these characters the world does end--yet they survive--I felt for them all. Give credit to the script for that. Also for the actors and director Scott Marden.

So what am I complaining about? Because I saw something very good, and suspect it could have been great. I was moved, but maybe could have been shattered then uplifted. This whole review consists of what I call the opposite of damning with faint praise.

I seek to praise by (extremely) faint damnation.

Since Riot Grrrl Saves The World has won an extension, I urge you to check out its facebook page to learn more.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Death by Powerpoint (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Death by Powerpoint is a premier in the 2014 Hollywood Fringe. According to the program this marks writer James F. Robinson's first play. It has a cast of four, two men and two women, and an inherently interesting as well as theatrical premise.

Before I go any further let me say the show is very fun. I enjoyed myself. Laughed out loud many times. So did my guest, who's been going to even more theater than I have this month! Here's what the press release says:

TED Talks-style “Thought-Leaders” will attempt to destroy your precious Cherished Beliefs by making life-changing presentations as they compete for Money, Glory & PowerPoint immortality in DEATH BY POWERPOINT, a World Premiere at the 2014 Hollywood Fringe. “Presentation Culture” hits the stage in this comic and slightly existential attack on beliefs that 21st century moderns may hold dear.

Essential the idea of the play lies in the conceit of we the audience attending the 23rd Annual National Global Influencers Finals.  Each of the finalists has twelve minutes to destroy a deeply cherished belief held by the audience. What these four beliefs are, how they are wrong and what we should do about it forms just part of the entertainment. All four presenters come across as well as real people, whose own issues end up leaking onto stage.

All well and good!

First up is Lucy (Scarlett Bermingham), she of the fierce smile who honestly seems the most likable of the four. Or least the one who seems most on your side. Maybe. Because she also seems the most straightforward and successful liar. She seeks with statistics and (eventually) a very personal story to demolish the cherished notion "You're Not Good Enough." If that sounds like a lot she managed to convey in twelve minutes, pat yourself on the back.

Second is Mark (Eric Pierce when I saw it) who has in many ways the best punchline. Despite the warning at the top of this review I don't want to spoil it, even though both I and my guest saw it coming. Didn't take one particle away of entertainment foreseeing what would happen. Setting up that punchline was no small feat. In fact, let me emphasize here the cast throughout prove themselves excellent!

Joan (Emily Thomas when I saw it) was the finalist I felt we get to know the most. She's also the one who, as written, never admits to nor is caught at telling a lie. Which doesn't mean she isn't lying. But I suspect she is not. That is meant as a compliment to both actor and writer.

Finally we get Matthew (Michael Riffle) a previous winner and therefore at least in theory the epitome of what the other three aim for. And as such the center of the play's climax, about the effort to win and any insights the playwright may have on that issue. Riffle, like the rest, plays his part with flare and with specificity much deserving of praise.

Let me repeat. This play is interesting. And very entertaining. I'll go a step further and dub it thought-provoking.

Having said all that, let me also note it doesn't quite work at what it seems to be trying to do. Specifically I would point out three flaws that leads to a dramatic pulling of a punch that lands, but lacks as much force as the writer seems to desire. One may not have a solution, at least not easily. Quite simply, we never quite care enough about the characters and their interplay. In order to do so, frankly we'd need a longer play. Failing that, perhaps something that would intrude onto each of their presentations, a personal threatening to interfere with the professional. Except all that is already present! So maybe we just have to accept this limitation and go forward. Cast some first rate talent (as this production did) and simply do the script! But the script has a couple of points where the 'reality' of the Powerpoint presentation breaks. Twice we get some kind of background details in the form of a flashback. Neither time do we get much from these moments, not dramatically. What, did Lucy and Matthew have a thing at some point? Maybe. Frankly Bermingham conveyed that far more in a delightfully mysterious reaction she had to a story he began to tell. The flashback that went forward soon after seemed to serve no real function at all. The story it conveyed, great! But the flashback...didn't work. Matthew himself might easily have done all that, but he should have done the other voice himself rather than 'break' the flow of the performance.

Finally--and again I don't want to give too many spoilers away--let me say the ending of this show demanded much more time before a curtain call. The characters should have left the space in character (all save one) and then given the audience at least several seconds alone with might call the debris of the climax.

Still, it is fun. It is well-acted. It entertains and provokes some genuine thought. Which puts it head and above most theatre, film and television out there!

Death by Powerpoint plays June 22nd at 7:00pm ($12), June 26th at 10:30pm (Pay What You Can), June 27th at 10:00pm ($12), June 28th at 11:30pm ($12), and June 29th at 4:00pm ($12) at The Actors Company’s Let Live Theater, 916 N. Formosa Ave.West Hollywood, CA 90046

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Odessa (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Insomuch as this play can have spoilers...

Odessa at the 2014 Hollywood Fringe is a world premiere by playwright John Tyler McClain and the Ilyrian Players. For the record, I want to check out more of their productions now. Here is how their blurb describes the play:

The story revolves around the journey of a young woman named Alice who lives inside the safety of her bunker, terrified of the barren and hostile world Outside. She is visited regularly by Cliff, who brings her the Clean she needs to survive in exchange for physical intimacy. Each the other’s sole human connection, Cliff and Alice find their tired emotional contract threatened upon the arrival of Preacher, a volatile young girl, who exposes Alice to the greater possibilities of the Outside.
I went to see this play as a guest of a friend and he made an interesting comment afterwards about when theatre of the absurd works. He noted no matter how bizarre the action on stage, one needs to feel the author has some clear and focused idea of what is actually going on. We both agreed Odessa certainly gives that impression. It qualifies as absurd not so much for the post-apocalyptic setting (unspecific as it may be) nor the lack of any history the characters seem to have (their present remains vivid and dynamic). Rather, the whole thing's iconography and details evoke a weird unreality all its own. It make a kind of sense, but not. What, for example, is Clean? It comes in cans. They drink it, as well as rubbing on their skins sometimes. But one might at first assume it to be water, especially since no one ever mentions water. Or food, for that matter. Likewise the action between these characters might be explained as the result of trauma and/or insanity. Might. But somehow one feels the world itself has gone mad rather than these three human beings.

As far as the cast goes, the fact they come across so vividly as human beings makes for the basic, highest praise I can give. Even naturalistic characters often prove too much for most actors to achieve much more than pretending. Not necessarily a bad thing. These are called plays after all. But what this play has are three characters who in many says don't make sense, are probably all deranged in one way or another and the lead Alice frankly qualifies as legally insane.

Joanna Rose Bateman plays Alice, the lead simply because her presence begins and ends and makes up most of the hour-long play. More than the rest of the cast, she has the most opportunity to show her acting chops. An emotional range that shift like the wind yet remains grounded, myopia and delusion going hand-in-hand with a ruthless innocence that she keeps even as she experiments with cruelty--all in an effort to one day leave and find a fabled place called Odessa. To Alice Odessa is what Moscow is Chekhov's Three Sisters, the epitome of all hope. Her performance made me turn to my friend at the play's end, saying "So Ophelia goes in search of Godot."

Bruce A. Lemon Jr. plays Cliff (I realy like the evocative names in this script), Alice's well-meaning if brusque companion and partner. Kudos not only to the playwright for creating Cliff as a fully rounded person, but Lemon for playing him that way. A tiny detail in the very first scene that told a lot was when he arrives and wants sex, we see Cliff impatient with foreplay. Yet he wants Alice to simply enjoy the afterglow. No stereotypical roll over and go to sleep. He clearly wants more than just sex. Just as Alice it turns out wants something from their physical intimacy that startles and revolts him, not least out of what comes across as genuine concern for her. Which makes him no less a bully.

Bethany Esfandiari is Preacher, equal parts prisoner, intruder, seducer and teacher who invades (against her will) the space these two share, be it a box or cave or room or coffin (or all of the above). She has, in my opinion, the hardest job of the three in some ways--because Preacher is the least demonstrative, the most secretive and least flexible emotionally of the characters. Yet even the nuances of how she listens and watches what the others do does wonders in revealing enough to let us know she's no stereotype, no cardboard cutout. Yet up to the end she remains something of a riddle.

Odessa plays at Theatre Asylum Lab 1078 Lillian Way (cross street Santa Monica Blvd) Hollywood CA 90038 on Tuesday June 17 at 8:30pm, Saturday June 21 at 3pm, Saturday June 28 at 10:30pm and Sunday June 29 at 8pm.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Zombies From the Beyond! (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

When you plan on seeing a musical with the word "zombies" in the title, one naturally enough expects comedy. Most likely a spoof, a parody or satire of some kind. When done well, the result carries a special delight. But when not done right...well, oh dear.

Fortunately Visceral Company's Zombies From the Beyond pretty much hits a bulls-eye! Parody requires a precise mind-set, one that takes itself seriously while intending to be funny. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the best examples spring not from contempt but affection. More, it needs a strong sense of precisely what it is the parody aims for!

In this case, the target are those wonderfully cheesy 1950s UFO movies a la Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, This Island Earth, Plan Nine from Outer Space, etc. But of course a genre is not really something to be mocked, not really. Not successfully. The real target is what lies behind the genre, the assumptions around which the genre grew up.

More than anything else, this musical skewers a very narrow, complacent world-view which made up the absolute norm in the period of the show (a picture of President Eisenhower even hangs on the wall of the Space Center where the story begins). One far from gone, since the plot of Zombies From the Beyond bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the motion picture Independence Day! A flying saucer approaches the planet and comes to hover above a beauty salon. Aboard the ship is Zombina (Alison England), last living survivor of an alien world where women sparking a nuclear civil war by demanding equal rights. She has used her technology to reanimate the females of her race, but now she needs males, of which humans seem an excellent source! Cue diabolical laughter!

Opposing these nefarious plans is Major Malone (Frank Blocker), his extremely multi-talented and big-skirted and chirpy daughter Mary (Amelia Gotham), Rick (Eric Sand) the Major's second in command with an invisible but unmistakable stick up his rear, Charlie (Lara Fisher) the Major's man-hungry secretary, Professor Trenton (Daniel Jimenez) of the square jaw and broad shoulder and uncrackable face, and of course Billy (Alex Taber) the young man who delivers the sandwiches!

Already, you can tell this will either be Rocky Horror delightful or Scarey Movie 5 dreadful beyond words. Happily this turns out to be an almost textbook example of what a parody should be--the tropes taken to their logical conclusion or turned on their head to make their silliness clearer, the surprises that pop up yet make perfect (and hilarious) sense, the overdone nature of everything from Charlie's hair to Mary's reaction when someone is busy to the complete wrongness of the military uniforms and the fact the rest of the country never seems to respond to aliens invading an American city! The songs and musical numbers all fit together in marvelous, period sort of way (some of them very much non sequiturs that somehow "feel" spot on). I ended up feeling deprived, not having heard of this show before!

No less wonderful, though, are the cast and production generally. Diving into such an arch style with fearlessness and bravura is the other half needed to make such a show work. Having seen all but one of this cast in other works, I had little fear of failure in that regard.

Blocker and Gotham in particular deserve great big shout-outs (as they usually do) for their energy, talent and successful over-the-top interpretations.

Miss England I was not at all familiar with but am extremely impressed with, and count myself her fan. I even went through her entry in the program, noting with approval her previous roles while wishing I'd seen them!

Zombies From the Beyond will play Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm and Sunday matinees at 3pm from May 30 through July 20, 2014 at the Lex Theatre 6760 Lexington Avenue, Hollywood CA. Tickets are $32 for general audience and $25 for students with ID.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Wearhorse (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Wearhorse (or Wear Horse) is based on the kind of real life event that nearly always makes people go WTF????? About someone who posted pics online of them posing inside a gutted horse carcass.

Now, while a bit squeamish, I'm not adverse to a play that makes me look away now and then. Discomfort can easily be part of fascination, even entertainment and certainly enlightenment. Parts of this play actually made me squirm in discomfort, bordering on nausea. Not a lot, but bits.

Do I get something in return for this? Well, yes. But...

First let me address the script by John Hendel. Kudos for taking on such a startling, even provocative subject to explore. Ultimately it isn't clear he has much to actually say about the events. Not sure he or the play need that. If this is simply a snapshot of three people so in search of an identity they go over the edge, well and good. No complaints there! I want to also praise the way the characters demonstrate they are aware this is a play, that they are in front of an audience! This was arguably my favorite aspect of the show! But I do wonder what happened to it? Why did it simply stop? More, I thought introducing this aspect didn't quite work. Not sure why.

More problematical was addressing the audience directly in monologues. Not that this is a bad thing, something to be avoided. But experience tells me this tends to be a trap for actors. So much training of actors in our times is aimed at either physicality and/or naturalism that a monologue to the audience without a justifying context tends to become almost default akin to the intro of a song in a musical! It shouldn't be so. But that is the nature of theatre today, at least way more often than not.

Reginald (Brendan A. Bradley), the first actor to speak, begins directly to the audience. What is the context? The script as produced doesn't really give a clue. Is he telling a psychiatrist what happened? Are the audience his surrogate imaginary friends? I'm not advocating any of these solutions, but noting the actor didn't have an answer.

Along those lines, a plastic gun in his hand doesn't help. I get that maybe it is supposed to justify the unreality of events, but the fact I had to think of that afterwards shows in the moment it did not work. Here we get into the responsibility of director Ruth Du in her theatrical directing debut. She seems to have approached this whole work intelligently and very shrewdly cast interesting, appealing actors as these weird, frankly twisted human beings--people so distorted that the posing inside a dead horse ends up being the tip of a not-mentally-healthy iceberg. Anything to,  help the mundanes into sympathy. Bradley certainly shows more than appeal, but a willingness to be vulnerable.

Caroline Bloom plays Erica, Reginald's partner in extreme art. If anything she has even more charm that Bradley! Rounding out the cast is Angela Leib as Patty, Erica's totally deranged (I'd go so far as to say paranoid schizophrenic) Mom. She gave the best performance of the three, having ended up deepest inside her character.

But... (there that word is again)

This kind of story requires a real diving inside and a diving deep to really get at the meat of these characters and what they are all about. Everyone needed to enact metaphorically the central act of the play--scooping out the viscera then taking its place inside. Which is what I did not see. Now, this is hard, especially given the amount of rehearsal shows for the Fringe Festival tend to get. When the director isn't used to live theatre and the actors are not part of an ensemble which has built up a level of real trust, even harder. So it isn't as if it is at all fair to complain that this production didn't meet its ambitions. The fact remains I walked away thinking about the play but not moved. I found it interesting, not compelling. Never once did I enter into these bizarre characters' lives, see things from their view. So my experience ended up the bare minimum one could expect from a talented director and cast with a play that incidentally felt too short for the subject.

W.E.A.R.H.O.R.S.E. plays Friday June 13 at 8:30pm, Saturday June 21 at 5:30pm, Monday June 23 at 7pm and Friday June 27 at 10pm at the Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90038. Tickets are a mere $12 (less than a movie).

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Nightmaricomio (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

A play director I know was at the opening night of Nightmaricomio with me. Afterwards, she sighed and said "Everything I do is so ordinary." The reply that came from my mouth seemed especially appropriate in understanding this, ZJU's first entry into Hollywood's Fringe Festival. "Wouldn't it be a shame if all plays were Dionysian," I said, "or all plays were Apollonian? It would be like having only one gender!"

Maybe that is the key to understanding this show. Friedrich Nietzsche drew a distinction between two types of art. Dionysian is wild, primal, often rude, difficult to understand intellectually, surprising, with a logic (if you can call it that) more akin to dreams than the waking world. Apollonian art has structure, makes sense, is frankly more accessible to most because it is clearer, tells a story, has recognizable figures of one kind or other.

Nightmaricomio turns out very Dionysian indeed, possibly the most such I've ever seen from ZJU. For one thing it is a dance, pretty much never-ending from the moment the door opens to when the last audience member leaves. Not a particularly choreographed dance, but extremely organic and with the cast interacting virtually every moment. Does what follows have a "story"? Well, yes. And no. It has stories, that flow one into the other, which each player donning many roles. Three times individual cast members break out into soliloquies (one from Shakespeare) with the rest of the cast behaving/enacting/reacting to them. Likewise the players become animals, become trees or forces of nature. More than once they drop out of character, becoming actors in a play, this play. But even that isn't quite true. Because they aren't themselves but versions of themselves, enacting a play within the play that seems "naturalistic" by comparison but is just as unreal--not least in the amount of violence it contains. Unreal violence. Yet telling.

Tis a bit hard to single out people within such an ensemble that functions mostly as a gestalt. Yet one of the aspects of the Dionysian to tossing away differences, blending polarities. Everyone simultaneously becomes individual as well as collective. Sebastian Munoz struggling free from a monstrous crowd, and magically rescuing/empowering Redetha Deason from it. Hannah Kaplan just stepping out from the weirdness and dreams to tell a quick, funny, tragic little moment from life. Corey Zicari turning into a goofy little fun bird (I think) who proves only too vulnerable. Roger Weiss suddenly giving a speech about individuality from a famous play, in verse no less, for a moment becoming the STAR of the show, everyone else mere props giving shape to HIS words. Erin Treanor, Leif LaDuke, Vivi Thai as well all do what this kind of off-kilter semi-performance art show, seamlessly going from individual to cell, human to animal to spirit to shape to actor, and in this show always dancer.

One cast member is not a dancer, though. Kevin Van Cott is a musician. He is on stage literally more than any other member of the ensemble, and arguably his skills as a drummer will win your applause. But in my opinion he also stole the show, by breaking out of his role more than once, and sometimes in subtle little ways demonstrating a lot of personal power.

If I try and describe much further the content of this show, failure will be the result. Fundamentally it needs experiencing rather than explaining. Should you be in the mood for an experience as opposed to a straightforward story, or feel the attraction of having your brain pulled a little outside its usual box, then here is a show I recommend, highly. But, in the words of a friend, it is also "weird." Me, I like weird.

Nightmaricomio plays Thursdays, June 12 at 7pm, June 19 at 9pm and June 26 at 8:30pm, at the Theatre Asylum Lab at 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., LA CA 90038. Reservations can be made at 818.202.4120 or at

Disclaimer: Zombie Joe, the director and producer, is a friend of mine and he asked me to design the postcard for this show which I did based on his description. I did it, without having seen the performance.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Other Desert Cities (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I'm going to pontificate a bit with this review, out of a desire to be fair. Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz and its production at the International City Theatre in Long Beach deserves a nuanced explanation of my reaction to it.

A few words of explanation. The idea of the "well made play" really dates back to the 1940s and 50s, akin in many ways to that of the "three act structure" of screenplays heralded by Syd Field. It has much to recommend it when  handled properly, but does tend to end up with a bit too much formula, a little too much playing it safe. Other Desert Cities has nearly all the benefits but several of the possible drawbacks of the "well made play." Everything is foreshadowed, sometimes with great subtlety. No character is anything like a "walk on." It builds to a logical climax, in terms of a long-held family secret finally being revealed to a younger generation. No immediately easy answers. Everyone has a valid point of view explored in the play. No one functions as voice of the playwright, offering The Answer to questions asked. All well and good. Puts it well above many a work I've seen.

What is less good--on the nose dialogue. Part of the tension between the characters is supposed to be politics, liberal young versus conservative old, against the backdrop of 2004 and the Iraqi War. Yet instead of specific ideas, or human reaction between people who disagree fiercely yet remain permanently entwined, we get cliches. Formulaic talking points. Along with this goes name-dropping, used frankly as a short cut. For example, near the end of the play Polly Wyeth (Suzanne Ford) tries to explain herself by explaining why she has reacted to a tragedy the way she has, and gives credit to "Nancy" who has been a "mentor" to her. Such a name-dropping was distracting, like the constant mention of specific politicians or movie stars. In fact much of the play neatly avoided the real meat of the whole drama, in favor of little lectures that all often came across as preaching. The ultimate proof of this is a flaw in the whole structure--namely the climax of the whole play belonged at the end of Act One.

When The Secret comes out, the fallout from that took up a few minutes at most. It should have taken much much more. Rather than portray the actual consequences of this revelation--keeping a secret which emotionally maimed someone, nearly leading them to self-destruction--we got the daughter Brooke (Ann Noble) throwing the pages of her book and crying. No. Forgiveness for something like that should never, ever be so very cheap. The speechifying and avoidance of this story's bloody, weeping heart seriously weaken a play that for the most part shows fine ambition and some genuine skill at dialogue as well as world creation.

But no play is perfect. Actors and directors for many many decades have had to overcome problems with scripts. Yes, even Shakespeare (one reason why Richard III to give a notorious example needs serious editing). And let us give credit to the cast for presence, for emotional truth, for approaching their roles with skill. Regarding this I have to single out Blake Anthony Edwards as Trip Wyeth, the youngest member of the family while arguably the most mature. He had in many ways the plum role, because he's the character with no political axe to grind. So all his dialogue and motivations remained personal.

Yet at the same time I must fault the cast for often not diving into these characters as deeply as the drama of their situation seems to demand. Given how universal this showed up in the production, the responsibility seems to me must lie with director caryn desai. I kept seeing surface emotions, surface actions, not the raw pain and hopes and mixed feelings to make me care very much about what was happening. I felt interested. I didn't dislike the characters. But frankly, I think the story pretty much begged for us to end up hating each one of them sooner or later--and maybe loving each a little bit throughout. To achieve that, though, they'd need to bleed a lot more of their souls onto the stage. Not that anyone couldn't act! Far from it! Nicholas Horman as patriarch Lyman Wyeth and Eileeen T'Kaye as his sister-in-law (and family black sheep) both bring presence and focus to their roles--no small thing, either one--and it says much that I believed in them, every single one of them.

But--I didn't care that much. Sooner or later I cared for a few moments here and there. Not throughout.

The story essentially deals with Brooke coming home to her parents' home for the first time in six years. She's in the midst of a divorce, following a near-nervous breakdown in which she suffered an extreme episode of depression. (If this marriage was intended as a red herring about the real story, it didn't work as one.) When she was sick, her family had rallied to her side. Now she's written a new book. She's afraid how they will react to it, because the one subject never mentioned is her elder brother Henry--Brooke's best friend who committed suicide when she was a teenager. That loss left a wound in her soul, and now her book is about that loss. This book threatens to tear the house of Wyeth apart, from her relentlessly supportive but remote father to her constantly pushing mother.

Most would probably agree this sounds like the stuff of a good play. Nor can I honestly call the production a bad one. What I can say is that both script and production have not dug in to find the essence of the drama, cut open the body of these characters' lives to crack open the bone and reveal the marrow within. Playwright, director and actors have done workmanlike jobs, using above average skills and genuine talent, yet in the end they all played it safe. And the best theatre, the most fantastic and insightful theatre, is always dangerous.

Other Desert Cities runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., June 6 through June 29.  International City Theatre is located in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center at 300 E. Ocean Blvd. in Long Beach, CA 90802. For reservations and information, call the ICT Box Office at 562-436-4610 or

Monday, June 2, 2014

Sonata for Rimbaud (review)

Spoilers ahoy!
Courtesy of Zombie Joe's Underground

What is poetry? Or maybe the better question--what is a poem? Quite possibly the greatest compliment I can offer Sonata for Rimbaud, a one man show written and performed by Abbott Alexander is that thinking about this show, I found myself asking those kinds of questions.

For example, wikipedia has this definition: "Poetry is a form of literature that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language  to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning."

Looking at that I have little choice but to go with my initial thought, that Sonata for Rimbaud is in fact a poem--save that it uses movement as well, at times quite stylized, enough to maybe have it qualify as dance.

Guess that makes it theatre!

A powerful piece of theatre, to be sure. I myself was not familiar with the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, as per the title. Alexander's piece of theatre inspired me to look further. Please view that also as a compliment, a very positive judgment of both piece and performance. He seems like a brilliant but lost soul. An innocent Lucifer, if you will, never having been in (or found) God's presence and lacking any power of an angel save that of words woven into art.

Courtesy of Zombie Joe's Underground
The temptation of a reviewer at this point becomes to describe the action, give some indication of the "plot." And that is what I'm going to do, but not in a way you might expect. Our narrator/lead--who is he supposed to be? I don't know, and pretty soon even asking the question seemed beside the point. He was a man, a human, grappling with things I have known and finding in Rimbaud something of a kindred spirit. Just as I found in him the very same. By implication, I feel for Rimbaud.

He shows himself a man frustrated with mundane little problems, wavering between glorious arrogance and wise shame. A lonely man. A man who wants to rebel, wants to fit in, wants to excel and sometimes has, sometimes does, but doesn't feel it. Not really.

He seems familiar. At times very familiar.

Perhaps for that very reason I couldn't take my eyes away, and the technical part of me, the part that looks back and analyzes, wants to offer some praise  here. The best actors can convey enormous dignity--and humiliate themselves totally, fearlessly. Such was what I saw in Mr. Alexander's performance. Likewise I cannot tell you how impressed I was with the simple fact he said every word. Many won't even understand what that means! But many actors mouth words, say the sound of words, pretend to talk by pretending to say words--at least now and then. Not in this performance. He said every word, instead of making the sounds of the word.

I hope many more people manage to go see this show at Zombie Joe's. I hope they end up as fascinated and moved as myself, or even more. My greatest hope is that they'll have the same double experience, of seeing first this performance and then looking up the life of Arthur Rimbaud--then each time saying the identical words I did somewhere in my mind:

Hello. You are me.

Sonata for Rimbaud runs on Friday Evenings @ 8:30pm for (3) more Performances (Thru JUNE 20), at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601.  Tickets Only $15. Reservation Hotline: 818-202-4120.  Websites: For Advance Tickets: