Sunday, January 25, 2015

Reborning (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

When stepping into The Fountain Theatre (near Normandie)  to see the play Reborning by Zayd Dohrn I really didn't know much of what to expect.  Frankly, the subject matter is one that made me blink a few times.  "Reborning" as a movement refers to the creation and caring for hyper-realistic dolls of babies.  People's motives span a wide range--from a fascination with the craft, to a deep interest in dolls, and even recreation of actual babies no longer with us (hopefully, but not always, grown up).

Kelly (Joanna Strapp) makes such dolls.  She lives with her boyfriend Daizy (Ryan Doucette) and as the play begins has a visit from one of her newest clients--Emily (Kristin Carey), whose little girl died suddenly over two decades ago. Not bad people, nor at first particularly compelling. The situation intrigues more than what we initially know about these characters.  But that changes with all the relentless inertia of a tide.  At first we find Emily odd, not only in her desire but also her insistence on something more in her doll, something yet lacking.  Kelly meanwhile feels driven to fulfill her client's needs, despite feeling embarrassment at the older woman's praises.  The more we get to know Daizy, the more we realize despite (or more likely, because) his status as the "normal' one he's the one who understands least events.

Consider for a moment--why would anyone want such a doll? What compels Emily to this desire?  More importantly, what is it she doesn't see in the exquisite creation fashioned by Kelly?

Daizy frankly finds the whole thing about dolls creepy.  This coming from a man who creates tailor-made dildos for a living (also utterly natural and realistic)!  He seems to care deeply for Kelly, and the proof of it lies mostly in the fact he hasn't bailed on her.  For make no mistake--Kelly is messed up.  When Kelly finally reveals her back story to her uber-picky client, she recites an image of utter horror--both overt (she was tortured and abandoned as an infant, left amid
the trash) and subtle (her judgment of her foster parents proves a bit chilling).

Yet--she doesn't remember any of this happening.  Why is this so personal to her?  Why does it hurt so, so much she wont' even consider talking about having children of her own?  Secret, little-understood wounds end up as something of a bond between artist and client, which the boyfriend finally comes to understand (partially due to a quick tongue lashing by Emily--"All you have is a're no help, you can't even swim!")   But this when these two women meet, ultimately the way they seem to rip open each others' scars leads the way to something far more valuable than understanding.

Both start to heal.

Director Simon Levy chose a fine cast for this deeply individual drama which delves into such powerful material.  In fact watching their performances I found only one wrong note in the entire play--not even a wrong note such as a missed beat. A tiny nuance indeed.  Mostly I saw a believably distraught young woman whose individual torment seemed precisely that--individual rather than general.  Strapp never came across as vaguely uncomfortable or superficially upset.  Her pain felt specific, even if I lacked maybe every single vital detail.  Doucette might easily have made out of Daizy a thick-skulled asshole, yet instead he gave the audience a brash but nuanced character.  Just as Carey's Emily remained a troubled but accomplished person facing something she herself only understands in part--roiling currents under a seemingly placid sea.

That one wrong note?  A beat I would have preferred at the climax, a little more time taken as Emily realizes--not mentally but on a visceral level--what it is the doll of her long, lost daughter lacks to make it seem real. Pain.

But that is a very tiny nuance, amidst what I found a fascinating story enacted before me.  One powerful enough I found myself independently arriving at the same paranoid theory as does Kelly--although in my case I cast it off in face of some cold evidence.

Reborning plays at the Fountain Theatre (5060 Fountain Ave. Los Angeles CA 90029)  Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm with matinees on Sunday at 2pm until March 15, 2015. Tickets vary between $15 and $34.95.

2015 50 Hour Drive By Festival (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

ZJU's 50 Hour Drive By Theatre Festival entered its 14th year this week and the five plays that emerged premiered last night. The whole idea seems a blend of brilliance and lunacy.

On Thursday, Jan. 22, five writers pick three props each at random. Half an hour later, at the very same moment, each writer literally puts pen to paper. On Friday, Jan. 23, finished scripts are turned in! That evening the actors assemble and begin rehearsals with final tech/dress the next day.  On Saturday Jan. 24, the five plays have their first performance!

Like I said, equal parts genius and insanity! With startling, vivid, raw results.

Meet the Susans by Katherine Bowman (directed by Jana Wimer) began the evening. The premise here remains just this side of surreal, i.e. very odd but perfectly possible.  Three soldiers named Ed Johnson turned out to be married to three women named Susan (Elif Savas Felsen, Tanushree Verma, Michelle Moraveg).  All three Susan Johnsons live together while their husbands are out in the field.  On one Susan's birthday, a woman from the army (Caitlin Carleton) arrives with a very unpleasant bit of news--an envelope announcing an Ed Johnson's death. But which one? Much of what happens next is all about the three Susans not wanting that envelope opened. Not yet. Like most (really, all) of the entries this was a dark comedy, and to be frank needed the most polish. On the other hand, it flowed naturally and entertained while offering genuine but logical surprises throughout. Kudos!

Patient 99 (written & directed by Jim Eshom) is a weird dystopian vision of the future, in which a girl from our time (Hannah Kaplan) is held prisoner until she releases the voice of the savior contained in a ball, which she refuses to do. Believe me, it is odder--as well as being a lot funnier--than it sounds. The doctors overseeing the 'patient' (Jordyn DeMarco and Ian Heath) finally bring in her sister Dahlia (Cheryl Doyle) to try and make her save them all.  This playlet, like the first and to be honest one other, almost screams for expansion--and to be honest the climax didn't quite work because of timing. I'm sure with a little more rehearsal they'd've nailed that (timing is like that--it sometimes needs a bit more time).

Half of Infinity by Steven W. Alloway (directed by Sebastian Munoz) was very nearly my favorite of the evening, in no small measure because the cast proved so excellent (Gloria Galvan, Elena Ray and Colin Mitchell).  Essentially a riff on Frankenstein, it deals with an awkward mad scientist trying to build a dream woman with the help of a female assistant who clearly adores him.  It was very sweet, and has IMHO the makings of a very lovely short film or longer play.

The Original by Adam Neubauer (directed by Roger K. Weiss) might actually count as the single weirdest playlet of the Festival. Which makes for something of an achievement! Not that I'm complaining!  It follows three weird people--two men and a woman (Tucker Matthews, Abel Horwitz and Jennifer Chun) in search of someone horrible, a vicious mass murderer who somehow had numerous clones (Billy Minogue) made. Their hunt and the dynamic between them looked potentially very interesting and certainly grabbed my imagination, but didn't quite gell in the end.  Of all the plays in this year's Festival, this one I felt most needed expansion (as opposed to simply could be expanded to very good impact).  It seemed most dreamlike and surreal.

Forever by Vanessa Cate (directed by Denise Devin) actually made me laugh so hard I cried.  Like many a truly hilarious comedy, its humor comes from the stuff of tragedy.  A woman (Jonica Patella) meets two men (Julian Vlcan and Scott Sytten) she hasn't seen for ten years.  She loves one of them, always has.  Likewise one of them is deeply in love with her--and the third is in love with him.  A triangle not of mutual desire but mutual requited devotion, a closed loop.  This should be tragic! In fact, it is tragic, but coupled with some very sharp wit it instead becomes so darkly funny I had trouble breathing by the end.

The 50 Hour Drive-By Theatre Festival plays tonight (Sunday Jan. 25) and tomorrow (Monday Jan. 26) at 8:30pm at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre 4850 Lankershim Blvd. (across the street from KFC, just south of the NoHo Sign) North Hollywood CA 91601.  Tickets are $15.  You can make a reservation by calling 818.202.4120.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Early Shaker Spirituals (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This week the REDCAT downtown hosts a show from the renowned Wooster Group in NYC. Apart from that all I knew going in was its title--Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation. So I began, intrigued. The Shakers, for those who don't know, were (and still are) a religious offshoot of Christianity, who established themselves in North America (along with many other dissident churches) during the 1700s.  The name comes from their ritualistic dancing, but these days most associate them with beautiful (and increasingly valuable) handmade furniture. Shakers believed Christ had come again, as a woman. They live in communal lives of absolute celibacy (increasing their numbers by adoption) and gender equality.

Having heard Shaker hymns before (mostly on YouTube) these renditions felt very different. Four older women confined to a tiny, drab island in a much larger space hit the notes but seemed to feel little--or trying very much to feel little. Previous versions of (for example) "Tis the Gift to be Simple' seemed perky, fun, totally genuine. These four came across as repressed. More, despite their homespun and simple clothes, each wore a headset and mike. We become aware very soon they are singing along with the album Early Shaker Spirituals. The impact is one of cold intellectual examination coupled with a stereotype of rigid Puritanism.

At this point, I felt disappointment. The Shakers were far from Puritans. This almost robotic treatment of hymns that should (in theory at least) be celebratory even felt somewhat offensive.

But then...

Gone was the tiny wall and limiting checkerboard, the worn and ugly chairs, the microphones that helped turn these women--and so the Shakers themselves--into living antiques. With a wide open space, and more people joining them in that space (including some young men) some of the same songs repeat.  Yet this time, they sing with feeling.  And with the slightly odd (to our eyes) ritual dances of the Shakers themselves.

What a difference! I'd never actually seen such. Just woodcuts and illustrations. Now, in this context (and especially in contrast to the first half) we get to see the fiercely living energy expressed in song and dance!  Instead of flesh-and-blood robots, we view genuine worship.  Ecstasy has a sustained habit of body and voice both.  I cannot adequately relate how in watching these I understood (or maybe just got a taste of understanding) what it means to be a Shaker, on a visceral level.

No small thing. No small thing at all.

Early Shaker Spirituals will play at the REDCAT (631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles CA 90012 phone number 213.237.2800) Tuedays through Saturdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 3pm until February 1, 2015.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Half Life (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I can honestly say going to the REDCAT theatre downtown always proves a treat. Most recently my good fortune included getting to view Half Life, an enthralling performance blending a multitude of effects with performance that left a very real impact.

Amid live electronic music we watch a stage that fundamentally consists of two performers and two screens which use projection to create a series of varying yet somehow connected dreamscapes.  One initially seems urban and technological, focusing almost entirely upon the ma-made made, upon surfaces and (sometimes) attempts at communication with others.  The second gives us a whirlwind of color and nature, from forests to storm-riddled skies, to the soil where roots seem to envelope all to a beach with a rising tide--then deep under the waves.  A friend asked me to describe it in as few words as possible and my answer ended up being "Something like Cirque du Soleil and The Matrix." Which doesn't really capture the show, but gives a hint of what you might legitimately expect.

Dazzling. Compelling. Beautiful. Moving. All these adjectives and more the show earned. The story (in so much as there might be one)  seemed to me about a conflict within a woman--a modern, social, conscious and more-or-less Apollonian side living a distinct life from a side of sensations, bright colors and swirling living creatures from clouds of butterflies to fleets of various fish. They each did a kind of dance (or at least movement) punctuated by singing. All this takes place between two shifting sets of scrim onto which a wonderful moving tapestry of images are projected--with all the sometimes-disturbing beauty inherent in some dreams. It sucks you in.

Having said all that let me address something of a problem. Here is from the official description of the performance:

A highly visual and emotional experience of fierce urgency, the latest multimedia production from Cloud Eye Control is an imagistic, visceral work inspired by the nervous fear felt in the wake of natural or man-made disasters. The starting point for the creation of Half Life was blog entries by women who experienced the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis, inspiring the artists to explore the psychological fallout of global disaster, and how it affects our emotions and imaginations. The Los Angeles-based collaborators— Miwa Matreyek, Anna Oxygen, and Chi-wang Yang —bring their signature mix of projected animation, live performance and music to summon the unseeable forces that govern our collective sense of personal safety and control.
 Honestly, I cannot say this is what I saw. Which hardly qualifies as a damnation, but it does indicate that at least one viewer--one far from straight-laced, fairly intelligent, appreciative of the intuitive and a regular theatre-goer of very many types--simply did not "get' what they say was their intent. Which could be down to me, let us be fair. In terms of that, I felt the ending didn't quite work--when the two women finally meet and warily interact, they decide to go their separate ways. But why? If presented as a mystery intended for the audience to resolve to their own satisfaction--okay. Bravo even! Yet it didn't feel that way. It felt as if the piece wound down without bringing the inherent crisis to a head.

But the show was well done in so very many ways, I'm perfectly willing to admit the fault is in yours truly. Maybe.  Besides, I'm certainly left a bit in awe of the producing entity Cloud Eye Control, hoping very much to see other works of theirs in the future.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

About Dialogue

Opinions ahoy!

Forgive my pontifications, but one thing which ultimately hits a strong but subtle wrong note in stories and theatre is bad dialogue. By this (for now) I mean the lack of a genuine voice for characters.

As a playwright, I frankly regard dialogue as the single biggest aid for me to give the director and cast. Partially this comes from my study of Shakespeare, whose plays literally brim with clues and hints about how to perform them. One of the most obvious is when he either add or omits a beat from the ten beats of a typical iambic pentameter line. He always has a reason that for that. Always. Usually indicative of an extra stress somewhere, or sometimes a break in the rhythm for effect (Hamlet--the character--has a fair amount of this). Another lies in the way a regular ten-beat line is often divided between two (or more) characters--which means essentially don't take any pauses here.

But all that lies in verse. One can find countless examples in prose as well. Alas, too often you don't find them. So I'm going to pontificate and offer a guide, a series of hints to help fellow writers develop or hone their skills in this direction. Mostly a matter of questions to ask.

First, when does your character interrupt someone else? If they do such easily and often, clearly this makes them a fundamentally different person than someone who never or rarely does at all. But of course it must be more complex than that, yes? Yes! For one thing, you have more than two options--Often versus Never represents two poles, with an infinite variety in between. This in turn leads to specifics. Who will your character most likely interrupt, and why? More, under what circumstances? Even more importantly, how do they interrupt?  A polite raising of the hand coupled with the words "Excuse me, don't mean to be rude at all, but I feel something needs saying..." shows a very different personality than the sudden bark of "Wrong, wrong, wrong! You've forgotten something!" Likewise, a quick point of finger with an intense but unemotional "Question--if that were true, what prevents...?" displays a different one from a sudden rising out of the chair, eyes blazing and words spat between clenched teeth "!" All different, albeit only a few of the many possibilities. All belonging in your writer's toolbox. Kindly remember while you're at it--characters will interrupt in different ways under different circumstances. The most well-rounded of such might use every single one of the previous examples. Every single one. But--why?

Possibilities abound! A teacher, for example, might interrupt the Dean in one way, their students in another, a sibling in still a third, their spouse in a fourth, their own children in another, and so on. Ditto a student, a priest, a carpenter, etc. This is hardly about choosing one option for a character, but understanding which options they tend to use and when.

Second, consider how good is your character's grammar?  Honestly, George Bernard Shaw sometimes takes this idea to almost ridiculous lengths. In Major Barbara for example he writes out lower class London speech phonetically, and while somewhat helpful this also can generate headaches. Yet in truth the basic idea holds. A person who says "Where are you headed now?" seems not of a different class but of a different personality than someone who says "Where you going to?" It might or might not indicate amount of education, but assuming someone in our culture and era, this person's attitude to speech and language comes through. Not a matter of carelessness, either. More a taste in terms of what is technically correct or maybe proper. After all, don't you perfectly understand both examples? A fairly easy pattern to note, yet not quite obvious, lies in the use of double negatives. Again, a matter of degree rather than either/or. "I don't have any pastries" certainly sounds alien in the mouth of someone who more usually will utter "I don't have no cakes today" just as will the equally ungrammatical "Now I don't have none cakes, I done told you." But this offers yet another area of nuance. What makes someone who uses (for lack of a better word) sloppy grammar start using absolutely correct grammar? Or at least try to (and perhaps fail)? Likewise consider the circumstances that might lead a person to start using double negatives or other grammatical errors (ending sentences with a preposition, for example).  Then again, think about those obscure forms of speech which, while correct, rarely end up used in day to day speech. If I were to go there (as opposed to if I was) or perhaps To what school is Henry going? (rather than What school is Henry going to?).

Perhaps most interesting is how all these reflect not only character background, but even more importantly character attitude.  Consider John Smith. A more generic proper name in English seems hard to imagine. Give him something to say. Anything. Preferably at least a sentence or two. Now, listen to John Smith say those lines in your head--but with variations. Suppose he says those lines as an interrogator--maybe a private detective, an attorney confronting a witness, a husband suspecting a spouse of adultery, etc. Or suppose he says them as a supplicant--speaking to a ill-tempered manager, a teacher upon whom he has a crush and feels hugely intimidated, a police officer when he knows there's an unpaid parking ticket from last year in his wallet, or so forth?  Perhaps he speaks as a salesman, as a professor, as a spy, as a would-be suitor? The line changes does it not? In fact, you'll probably find yourself wanting to re-write the lines.

Did you notice what I did there? I changed John Smith's role. This needn't indicate he has any one of these professions (although he might). Rather it notes what mode he's in at the moment, identifies the context of his lines. That context will always and forever remain vital--the history, the place, the time, the other characters listening, and where John Smith is at that moment in his own mind. Ashamed? Furious? Exultant? Annoyed? Drowsy? Terrified? Some combination? (Here's a hint--it is nearly always some combination).

Finally here's a list of different speech and conversation patterns from life. Some might never occur to you. Others you'll recognize instantly. Please feel free to add to the list! No doubt you know things I do not, and I'd appreciate if you shared!
  • Some folks never ask about others, but regale people with compelling details of what's going on in their own lives.
  • Some speak rarely, but when they do their words sound awkward, as they try and find the right wording on the cuff.
  • Some immediately ask questions, presuming others can answer in detail about their own plans and hopes and long terms goals as if giving a powerpoint demonstration.
  • Some have zero patience with any idiosyncrasy of speech with others, reacting with different degrees of patience while asking what the hell someone else is talking about?
  • Some always change the subject, not to themselves per se, but to areas and things that interest them, like pet theories or specific ideologies.
  • Some long to explode in rage and pain, but have learned to control themselves, with every tiny bit of politeness a subtle moan of pain.
  • Some litter their speech with things like "as it were" or "as far as I can tell" and other clusters of words that may come across as filler (but may have some very practical purpose).
  • Some demand precision in their speech, actually working out it has been nineteen and a half years since their sister graduated high school, not twenty.
  • Some overuse certain words such as "like" "that" "whatever" "so" "then" etc.
  • Some rarely use certain words at all, such as "I" or "need" or "evil."
  • Some scatter their conversations with homilies or reworked quotes, sometimes original little bits ("How are you" "Oh fair to partly clowdy")
  • Some people argue for the sake of arguing, sometimes to the point of not really paying attention to what they're saying (like the Pro-choice college student who won't even remember claiming parents should have the right to euthanize newborns if they don't like what they've got).
  • Some hate it when a subject changes and will steer the conversation back, regardless of whether anyone else wants to return there.
  • Some change the subject seemingly with every breath, and show little or no awareness they've done it. Or maybe they know they do it and apologize every single time--while still doing it.
  • Some state their opinions as fact, acting baffled and insulted that anyone could disagree.
  • Some are so interested in hearing what other people have to say they keep stirring the pot just to get others to reveal more of their ideas.
  • Some people vent all the time--when their computer isn't as fast as they want it to be, when a lightbulb goes out, when anything begins early or late--seeing this as healthy, viewing those who don't as possibly hurting themselves.
  • Some want peace, longing to avoid conflict save in the most joking manner.
  • Some people have real difficulty grasping metaphors or hyperbole, taking things quite literally even when hardly anyone else does.
  • Some frankly state certain subjects hold no interest and expect people to then not go there. Sometimes these folks accord the same courtesy to others--once someone states disinterest, they change subjects. Sometimes they don't.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Viral (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Mac Rogers' Viral marks my first exposure both to this playwright and the Bootleg Theater which produced it. Both created quite an impression. A strong, positive, fascinating and disturbing one. But let us leave adjectives aside and go into details.

Viral tells of four (well, five but the fifth only appears in once scene) people who come together under circumstances I for one had never even considered. Geena (Mariel Higuera) and her brother Jarvis (Oscar Camacho) share a home with her boyfriend, and suddenly get a hit on a website. Not only thrilled to the point of near-panic, they get even more excited upon learning the visitor is a woman. Geena--against instructions--chats with her. The website itself has something to do with suicide. We don't know what. The boyfriend Colin (Daniel Dorr) comes back with an even more powerful reaction. Here we starting seeing a hint of what all this really entails. Geena persuades Colin to relax with some love-making, but one involving some kind of video footage they haven't watched in awhile. Something about rednecks on a porch, waiting for an ambulance.

I could feel a tiny bit of my mind go tilt at this point.

Eventually, the woman online named Meredith (Alicia Adams) arrives, someone it turns out suicidal and looking for help to end it all quickly, easily, painlessly.  The three housemates prove more than willing to do this, but they have an agenda. All three share a fetish, an intense sexual desire to see someone die. Not to kill people! Nor to see anyone hurt! They're not animals, they insist, nor sadistic. One reason to praise their performances lies in the fact I believed them. So too does Meredith. They want to record her death, the moment of release. For their own pleasure and lots of others (a little more income would make a difference too--their home we're told is pretty wretched, and the minimalist set by Aaron Francis suggests this with subtle firmness, not least because of the color scheme).

Such a scenario should make one's skin crawl. It certainly shocked, although not too much because the whole play eases the audience into realization. More, by then we've found ourselves liking these characters, or at least wishing them well. No small feat, because the entire production depends on a tricky balancing act. Dorr's Colin for example could come across as abusive and vicious. Yet he never really does, not even when he's yelling and calling people "stupid' and blaming them for things clearly not in any way their fault. The nuance we see is how this obnoxiousness stems from insecurity and myopia, not mysoginy. Not cruelty. Part of this remains how Geena clearly does not fear Colin, not even a little bit. All this without anyone ever declaring some on-the-nose dialog (or worse, monologue) about their real feelings or some sentimental formulae that makes It All Alright.

Instead, we get what happens as Meredith agrees, then has to stay with them a few days until everything is ready. Like the drug for Meredith's overdose. Plus the recording equipment to capture The Moment. Buying a dress for Meredith. All very interesting and giving lots of opportunities to peel back the onion of these persons, without ever providing a full biography. Mostly we get hints, coupled with the way they live--the moments making up of how they simply react and act. Goofy and strange, plus quite disturbing in all kinds of ways, still Jarvis and Colin and Geena never seem like cardboard cutouts nor a set of quirks.

The whole production dives into the reality and nuance so consistently I'm left very impressed indeed, not least by director Darin Anthony. Not least because this is who chose the cast!

Here's an example of what I mean. The main four characters--Colin, Geena, Jarvis and Meredith--all have really excellent actors portraying them. Anthony clearly gave a lot of thought into their casting, but the relatively small role of Snow (Mark Kinsey Stephenson)--a distributor of this specialized kind of footage--likewise got full attention. More than any other part, this one could have been nothing but a pile of stereotypes, but we saw nothing of the kind. Every single person, including slick-as-all getout salesman, remained a human being throughout. Which tends to happen far more rarely than anyone likes.

At the end--and in seeing the play you'll understand the significance--what our lead characters achieve is to push past the fantasy into the Real. One might describe it as forsaking pornography for love. Beautiful. Sad, too, because life can be like that. But also deep and for us no less than them, something that moves.

Viral plays at the Bootleg Theater at 2220 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90057 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:15pm through January 31. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at door, or $15 for students, seniors and union members.