Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Seagull (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Anton Chekhov authored four of the greatest plays of the modern world. Just want to state that up front. His four major plays are seminal works of literature, with astounding and complex insights into the human condition. Each forms a challenge to any theatre company. Part of this challenge lies in their status as classics. Another is a nearly funereal tone so many companies feel tempted to adopt.

The Downtown Repertory Theatre deserves many a kudo for trying to avoid both these traps. Truly. Their production of The Seagull was startling in several ways, and (importantly) I found myself moved.

But it did fall into others, and to be brutally honest a few them them can squarely laid to rest at the feet of director Michael Bernardi. The main one is a bit subtle, and frankly would tend (I think) to be missed by a film director as opposed to a theatrical one.  The Seagull, like the rest of Chekhov, tends to have three general "types" of scenes making up most of the show, at least in terms of sound and movement. First are relatively "social" scenes between (usually) two or more characters trying none-too-successfully to communicate something important, or persuading folks to a certain action, etc. But there are also the "busy" scenes wherein so much is going on it feels daunting, intrusive, and yet for the most part pretty empty. These are in counter-point to the "quiet" scenes, in which characters (nearly always two of them) find themselves in moments of amazing intimacy, revelation, deceit, betrayal, realization, forgiveness, decision. These last types of scenes form the heart, the core of the play.

But the whole reason for the busy scenes is to make us long for the quiet ones! This is the kind of ebb and flow that turns a theatrical performance into something like music, something like dance, yet distinctly itself.

This got almost totally lost is all kinds of superfluous activity amidst the scenes that need the quiet.

Which is not to say giving the characters something to do, especially during some of the exposition scenes, is a bad thing! Not at all! But running round and jumping atop furniture, or constantly pacing around stage, leaping on top of another character--these do not help an actor speak the truth. It helps them avoid doing it.

The Seagull takes place in the country household of a famous actress named Arkadina (Gillian Doyle), who is visiting there for the summer with her lover the popular writer Trigorin (Andre Engracia Mello). Her son Treplev lives at the estate, without a job and given little real support from his mother, who radiates her diva-dom with every step and glance. Treplev wants to write something new, something avant garde, full of passion and truth as opposed to what he sees as the mediocrity drowning out life. He is very much in love with wealthy neighbor's daughter, Nina, who wishes to be an actress. But a full panorama of different characters move in and out of the estate. This summer, decisions are made that will bring all kinds of crises to a head.

Some members of the cast deserve singling out. Michael Clair Sinclair (Sorin) never had a moment on stage when I didn't believe in him. Not once. That part, of a lonely man retired from the civil service and full of regrets, could so easily end up as nothing but a bunch of quirks and ticks and attitude. Instead we saw a full human being, listening and seeing far too much, emotionally attached to the world that has disappointed him so much yet unafraid and startlingly not bitter. Color me very impressed!

Other members of the cast did not fare as well, although many showed quite a bit of talent. Most, however, lacked some important skills. The Downtown Rep has a wonderful courtyard it uses as a theatre, one with good acoustics overall. Yet I literally could not understand fully a quarter of lines spoken. Jordan Jude (Nina) has a very nice presence on stage and one can see why she was cast in this role, an hope-filled innocent at the mercy of her heart, who we realize is the title character. Or at least sees herself that way. She's not alone, which leads to the climactic tragedy. But for the first act especially Miss Jude does something most actors do wrong sooner or later--she emotes instead of acts, feels instead of does. To be sure she got much better in the second half (for the record, everyone did, almost). But I don't think she or Devon Armstrong (Treplev), talented as they both clearly are, end up well-served by blocking and direction that veers between sit-com and farce. It isn't that there's no humor in Chekhov, but it emerges as bittersweet and melancholy, not guffaws and caricature.

The central conceit of this production--setting it in some kind of modern day America (I think?) with a reality show's camera crews following the characters around--deserves praise for an attempt to shake things up. But honestly, it didn't seem to work. I don't mind doing something 'out there' with the classics, but honestly I didn't see what this idea accomplished (other than making a few moments of awkward blocking work). Even more importantly, it didn't make me feel anything more. By the second half, this distracting conceit seems to have vanished pretty much, and by the end seems gone completely. Nina and Treplev play out their final scenes in ways that worked, and left me understanding what had taken place. But without a fuller context to the whole thing, its dramatic punch grazed my jaw instead of dealing a body blow.

The Seagull at the Downtown Repertory Theatre will play at 7:30pm at Pico House in downtown Los Angeles, August 27 through August 31.For the record, I hope to go see more shows at this theatre and see what else the company can do.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Echo One Acts 2014 (review)

Spoilers Ahoy! Times Six!

This marks my first time reviewing works by the Echo Theater Company in Atwater Village. Upfront I'll say this experience has me hoping to do so again. The Echo One Acts 2014 consists of six one act plays, all commissioned and set in one type of location--a bedroom.

In order...

What Are Doing on the Bed? by Shawna Casey, impressed me least of the evening's scripts. Not for any of the usual problems with new plays (at least in my experience) but a subtle one of focus. The story sounds simple, and charming enough. A cat named Sugar Puss (Sarah Jane Morris) and a dog named Rex (Garrett Hanson) discuss the former getting on the bed while the humans are away. What a fun premise! And I can find little fault in either performance. Yet neither Sugar Puss nor Rex seemed particularly real as a cat or dog, at least not as written. For one thing, they both demonstrate rather a startling degree of education! I'd accept that if only I understood it. Just as I don't quite see a cat being so terrified of a cricket. But that didn't alter the play's charm or the performers' abilities, especially in terms of physicality.

General Sherman's Hollow Body by Wesley Walker, on the other hand, has plenty of focus, albeit in a hyper-intuitive dream-like world of its creation. Fact is, I'm still not sure I understand it, but find thoughts about the play bubbling to my mind's surface. Not surprisingly given the title, it deals with General Sherman (Darrett Sanders) of Civil War fame, at a time later in life when he toured giving lectures about his exploits. He's clearly a man struggling with guilt, which somehow seems to become the focus of a pair of Irish sisters. Colleen (Alana Dietze), who acts as a surprisingly personal maid/servant to the General, and Aibhllin (Jeanette McMahon) the seeming mastermind behind what-ever-it-is that happens. Are the sisters real? What happens at the end? I don't know--but the question doesn't go away in my mind.

Note: This play rather brilliantly deals with on-stage nudity. Sherman enters from his bath with a towel before him, making his naked state obvious. We get used to it, and when the towel is discarded for a time, we've adjusted.

As We Sleep by John Lavachieli might count as the most naturalistic play offered, the most conventional in many ways. It builds upon the (if done well, very reliable) trope of WASPs poking each other to get an emotional response--motivated by frustration, loneliness, a sense of emptiness--then getting way more than they bargained for. Anne (Jennifer Chambers) is in bed at the end of a good but oddly disquieting day and starts asking her husband Ben (Michael McColl) questions as he tries to finish a novel. I've no complaints about the script at all. It worked and gave both actors the chance to really show their stuff, offering in lots of nice hints and clues what their lives are and have been. But this kind of thing really does require high quality realistic actors to carry it off--and director Kevin Hoffer wisely chose a pair well able to carry it off! Not only was I surprised (not to seem too immodest, that just doesn't happen too often) but the characters interested me so much it bothered me being unable to make out the novel Ben was reading! I really wanted to know! Kudos!

The Optimist by Brian Tanen was my favorite of the six. Not perhaps because it was objectively the best (whatever that means) but because it suited my own taste for dark whimsy. Such a simple, compelling notion! Birdy (Parker Phillips) is a British Bobby (police officer) first at the scene at a nice middle class London home where three children have vanished. Enter Detective Inspector Pye (Tara Karsian), a tough-as-nails but not at all cruel veteran of nearly two decades. She's seen a lot and finds Birdy's cheerful hopefulness childish and un-serious. What makes this most powerful is that we recognize the crime scene! This is the Darling home! The missing children? Wendy and her brothers John and Michael! To Pye, the notion of leaving a dog as a babysitter confirms her suspicions Mrs. Darling is on drugs. Birdy's half-joking suggestion the children flew out the window is utter nonsense. No, Wender and her brothers were abducted by someone who knew them, someone with a key to the front door which they subsequently locked. The reason for such a crime will almost certainly prove grisly and perverted in the extreme. What could play like an SNL skit, though, ends up much more, a means of letting we the audience feel a struggle between hope and despair, optimism and despair, imagination versus probability. No small credit for this achievement goes to the actual production as well the script!

"Say You, Say Me" By Lionel Ritchie by Miki Johnson contains what was frankly the best performance of the night, which by now you might realize is my giving high praise indeed! I refer to Lala (Erin Washington) who has the fewest lines and by far the longest stage time in this play. She is a prostitute, one who listens amazingly well and despite what is clearly a sense of vast practicality, retains a matter-of-fact compassion. That she does this all while listening proved very compelling! She didn't do anything to grab the audiences attention--no big gestures, or subtle commentary with a look. No, she simply listened and in that listening made decisions. We see her with three clients: Donald (Justin Huen) who seems to be at the point of meltdown and even suicide. Richard (Karl Herlinger) who seems to have melted down long ago, if indeed he ever was much more than we see him now--a man who reacts to Lala as a thing and brusquely rejects her tiny attempt to be human with him (she clearly doesn't think it'll work, but nonchalantly makes the effort anyway). Then there's Bill (Gareth Williams), the drunken cripple who just wants someone with whom to talk. Talk but not listen, because he clearly just doesn't expect anyone to go that far. Yet Lala does--and when she proves it at the end, he bursts into tears. I almost did as well.

Laileen on the Way Down by Jen Silverman ended the night with humor and charm, based on a simple but profound idea--the story of a young man named Jack (Jesse Fair) finally coming to see his mother Laileen (Carol Locatell) as the human being she is, rather than his expectations wrapped up in the word 'Mother.' This takes place, hilariously, as they break into the bedroom of a motor home where Laileen left her dentures after giving some guy oral sex. Jack is hardly an experienced burglar, and his mortification at everything about this wars with familial loyalty. She, on the other hand, remains very matter of fact. When Francis (Daniel Hagen) walks in on them, but tries to be a good host and offers them something to drink, this sets the stage for the two men to have a very laugh-worthy yet inspiring conversation. Francis is middle-aged, not a senior citizen like Laileen. Yet he was hoping she'd come back. Not because Francis himself is so desperate or maybe fetishistic about the elderly, but because Laileen dazzles him. With this realization, Jack sees the world a little bit anew. Including himself.

Clearly I'm recommending The Echo One Acts 2014 which show Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until August 24, 2014 at 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90039. Tickets are $25 and in this critic's opinion worth it!

Note: I could find no link to any website or page dedicated to actor Michael McColl, which to my mind means he uses a middle name or some variation of his name but I lacked time to search further. My apologies.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Festival of Living Art (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

I'm a very bright person, with a good education, a degree in theatre arts--the earning of which involved among things a pretty good overview of art history. Frankly ZJU's Festival of Living Art left me feeling distinctly ignorant.

At first.

Honestly, this had to do with expectation more than anything. One would think by this time I'd know better! Look at this show postcard graphic and read the subtitle and maybe the reason might be clearer.  "The Colorful Canvas of the Masters Pulsates to Life on the ZJU Stage!" I more or less expected to recognize the works to be represented.

But I didn't!

In fact it wasn't until the cast re-created Wyeth's Christina' World I could feel certain of an identification. Later of course I saw more and more, including Edvard Munch's The Scream (portrayed crucially and accurately as silent I'm happy to note), the famous sculpture of Eros and Psyche, Klimt's The Kiss, Picasso's Guernica, etc.

But what happened to me watching this series of still (sometimes not-so-still) lifes based on works of fine art I found myself falling into recognizing styles and periods rather than artists or specific pieces. Letting go of specific expectations was something I found myself doing as the night's show progressed. And as I did my pleasure grew. To be sure, this sort of thing isn't for everyone. But then, nothing is. To some extent, given its hour, this show does seek quite deliberately to shock and titillate at times. No more than actual Fine Art does after all, though. Consider the life and works of Henri Matisse for example (I saw two pieces possibly suggested by his work)!

So I felt myself swept along into a whole kaleidoscope of impressions, expressions, absurdities, symbols and the like. Although disorienting at time, make no mistake I was also thrilled.

I'm a bit hard pressed really to say who did what, though, so for the most part I'm forced to praise the cast in general. Not that such is a bad thing! Charlotte Bjornbak and Sarah Ceballos as well as Julian Vican and Ian Heath are new to me, and kudos to them for what the brief, fierce intensity this show demanded--often from a place of stillness. Jason Britt, Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson, and Chelsea Rose on the other hand I've seen before and continued to impress. Praise as well to Erin Poland and Sasha Snow plus of course the director Zombie Joe himself (who continues to experiment, continues to try new things as well as revisit/reinvent previous ideas).

The Festival of Living Art plays Saturdays at 11pm until September 6, 2014 at ZJU Theatre Groups, 4850 Lankershim Blvd (north of Camarillo, across the street from KFC) North Hollywood CA 91601. Tickets are $15 and you can get a reservation at 818.202.4120