Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

I feel a certain need to disclaim here.  Like Amadeus and Richard III, the play The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll (in my honest if perhaps not humble opinion) does not relate history, at least not accurate history. I have my own views about the persons and events involved, explored in part in this recent BBC documentary. How much attention does that merit?  An excellent question--whose answer frankly seems elusive.  Playwright Lily Blau is no more primarily an historian than William Shakespeare, after all.  Sadly, we too often suppose good dramatizations (and this is very good) represent historical truth.  But then, this version of events remains at least possible.

The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll at the Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena takes its title from Charles Dodgson's diaries, which have had a few pages cut out. We don't know who did the cutting, although most assume his family members did so after the man's death. Dodgson (1832-1898) of course was an Oxford professor of mathematics who, under a pen name, created some of the most beloved children's stories as well as some fascinating, bewildering poetry.  Scholars pondered and continue to study his relationship with the children of his Dean, Henry Liddell, whose daughter Alice (1852-1934) certainly proved the inspiration for his famous stories Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as well as Through the Looking Glass. Alice remains the focus of most such research, as well as this play--although for dramatic purposes all kinds of things ending up streamlined, real life as ever proving far too complex for anything like a linear story.

We meet Dodgson (Leo Marks) in his rooms at Christ Church, Oxford in the year 1880, as he prepares for a visitor. The spark that begins the "action" as it were is when he puts a rabbit doll away, in a trunk. Moments later, the White Rabbit (Jeff Marlow) from his story appears, to Dodgson's annoyance more than distress. We'll come to see the Rabbit as a the avatar of Dodgson's memories, hopes, fears and dreams.  Dodgson begins to relive/remember events twenty years before, when as a man pushing thirty he first met the Liddell children--Lorina (Erin Barnes), Edith (Ashley Ruth Jones) and most importantly Alice (Corryn Cummins). He proves a man in many ways more comfortable with children than adults, although in fact a charming conversationalist quite at ease discussing university business with Dean Liddell (Time Winters) or religion with the somewhat formidable Mrs. Liddell (Erica Hanrahan-Ball).

But the heart of events, which as the play progresses takes flights of fancy where dreams and desires take stage--at times to Dodgson's indignant horror--becomes this man's increasing friendship with Alice.  At one point he tells the three little girls about love, about  how it can drive one quite mad. In some ways one comes to believe Dodson sees love in precisely that way, or at least experiences it so.  He falls in love with this--to his eyes--utterly beautiful child, who in turn loves him, maybe even falls in love with him.  The subject matter ends up handled with considerable delicacy, so much so (and this remains vital) we never feel we're watching the story of a child molester.  Much praise goes to Marks as Dodgson, who retains a blend of great compassion and kindness with emotional tricks to let him avoid/define his desires. His performance lets us see this man with compassion, as someone whose love story cannot help but be tragic--not least because it ending up taking what was almost certainly the least tragic of all possible courses.  Marks--and especially also Cummins--do the story proud in their portrayal of a situation without happy options.  Technically I was also very impressed at how little things such as Dodgson's stammer portrayed so much of his inner life, just as Alice's uncomfortable transition
from girl to woman we see clearly if subtly throughout.  Cummins in particular plays several characters really (as do Barnes and Hanrahan-Ball), because her Alice is not only seen first as a child then as a young woman, we also see the dream version of Alice in Dodgson's mind--the little girl who wants to marry him, would reach out and seek his physical advances.

All the while this accompanies dream images and lines from the Alice books, perhaps most obviously when Mrs. Liddell appears more than once as the ferocious Red Queen, she of the imperious looks with a voice demanding "Off with his head!" That this woman didn't come across in the end as some kind of bitch, a cruel or heartless person, makes one more of many nuances making this such a satisfying night of theatre! So consistently superior was the entire production indicates just how skilled director Abigail Deser must be.

The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll plays 8pm through the rest of February, 2015 at Boston Court, 70 North Mentor Avenue, Pasadena, CA.  You can call the box office at (626) 683-6883 or go here to purchase tickets.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Ligature Marks (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I kinda really feel the need to emphasize the above warning this time.  So be warned.


"On to level two." Up until that line in Mac Rogers' Ligature Marks at Theatre Unleashed this last weekend, I was simply enjoying an intense, well-written work performed with great honest and skill by a pair of really good actors.  Which, honestly, would have been enough. More than enough.  Nine times out of ten, that ends up being more than most theatrical performances offer.

With that one line, I found myself in another whole emotional universe. What a surprise!  What an utterly breath-taking, wonderful, disturbing surprise.

Up until that moment, I had been following the odd, dysfunctional relationship between Terry (Sean Fitzgerald) and Jill (Liz Fenning).  He, as became clear, just left two years of incarceration at a minimum security prison.  She, clearly his former girlfriend--although he denies it--desperately wants to renew relations.  He seems to know this, expect it, allowed her to give him a ride only reluctantly, yet the two clearly have a major amount of dynamics between them.  Frustrating, sometimes funny, often uncomfortable, but real.  The details of this--from both playwright and performances--hit to the bone.  Interestingly, many details about their back story don't come out for a long time--and by the time they do, we've stopped asking.  We see and grow to understand their present.

Or think we do.  With the above line, we the audience fall through a trap door into a depth about these two which shocks.  By then, I for one thought we'd pretty much reached bottom.  To be totally honest, given Rogers' previous play Viral, I was feeling a tad disappointed.  His earlier play had so much more meat than what I'd seen so far.  But only a tad, because this was still good stuff, way above average.

Then we step through the looking glass.  And it feels totally right, utterly seamless.  Entire new facets of these people and their relationship open up to our startled eyes.  Terry and Jill seemed odd, eccentric before.  We (or at least I) liked them, sometimes in spite of themselves.  But even before that line they start peeling back some layers to a depth and individuality that shows just how much Terry and Jill "get" each other. 

More, none of this jarred.  One thing that impresses me about Rogers as a writer is he's not afraid to write what screenwriter Philippa Boyens called dialogue that is "performer dependent." Without two skilled, talented, charismatic and to some extent fearless performers this play doesn't work.  Fitzgerald and Fenning on the other hand remain totally alive, intensely "into" the undercurrents of Terry and Jill from the moment they walk onto stage.  The way one looks at the other--and how he avoids looking at her.  The hostility suddenly melting away.  How they fight, what they fight about, what they agree upon and find interesting--all adds up in a spellbinding story which blends devotion and resentment, dominance and submission, hope and despair.  More, I can tell you this production, directed by Jacob Smith, does what a lot of storytelling fails to do--earn its ending.

No small feat.

Ligature Marks plays at Theatre Unleased, at The Belfry 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood, CA 91602.  Tickets are $20, and reservations can be made at  Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm until March 7, 2015.

The 99 Seat Plan

Strong opinions ahoy!

Anyone even remotely involved in Los Angeles live theatre already knows the basics of the controversy underway.  In essence, the (very large) theater community here (400-600 small theatre companies by most counts) has for thirty years had what passes for a "showcase code' in regards Actor's Equity. This allows members of the stage actors' union to perform for a tiny fraction of what is the usual Equity standard for theatres with 99 or fewer seats. It is somewhat more complicated than that, but that captures the essence.  What makes L.A.'s situation different is a lack of limits on number of performances.

As a matter of history, Equity didn't want this plan and a lawsuit pretty much forced their hand back in 1988.

Last September, at a meeting local Equity membership (reported by several news sources), complaints were heard about how the plan lacked enforcement--namely, that actors were being taken advantage of.  Now the union has an alternate plan that scraps the old one in favor of something far more restrictive.  A "non binding referendum" is to take place in April.

Here are my concerns:

First, this new plans answers the concern for enforcement by scrapping all Equity protections of any kind from members performing for less than Equity standard! Honestly, how does this make any sense at all?  In what conceivable way is this a good thing for members? Quite apart from the fact this is precisely what the members evidently did not want!

Second, this means a lot of Equity actors are simply going to get less work.  Period.  There's no real way to get around that brutal fact.  Smaller theatre companies cannot afford to pay Equity standard.  For the companies themselves, this means not using a certain pool of actors, many of whom have individual relationships with said companies.  That is a shame, to be sure, but hardly a death blow to most (or so it seems).  But it becomes a serious blow to actors who will now have far less opportunity to practice their craft, unless they go and pay for acting classes and the like. Again, does this make any sense at all?

Third (and this is most long-term, albeit subtle point), this new plan erects a very real obstacle in any smaller theatre company from growing. Lord knows that process remains difficult enough already!  But look for example at the East/West Players.  Today they  have their own space in downtown, with major productions and name actors, enjoying a national (at least) reputation.  Yet prior to 1999 they did all their performances in a tiny black box theatre, enjoying the practical benefits of an Equity waver.  But could they have made that switch, grown in terms of budgets and prestige while never using any Equity performers? Maybe.  But it would have been much harder. Why on earth would anyone desiring more opportunities for actors create such an obstacle?

Especially in a market sorely lacking in medium-sized theatres?  Hamstringing smaller theatre companies won't create more medium-sized ones.  Quite the opposite!

So what gives?  What on earth is the actor's union thinking?  Frankly I think maybe it would have been wiser and better for Equity to have spent the millions of dollars used to build a new headquarters in enforcing protections of its members.

That is my couple of pennies.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Life, Death and the Middle (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This marks the second performance I've seen from the True Focus Theater. I adored their previous show and now looked forward to something a bit different.  Life, Death & the Middle was billed as "An Evening of Staged Poetry." In my experience, a problematical idea.  Hardly an impossible one, but...tricky.

Photo Credit: Vanessa Cate
Co-directors Vanessa Cate and Natalie Hyde took this idea and did things I've never ever seen before, things that entertained while bringing the stylized words of poetry to life.  No small task.  Poetry tends to end up a fundamentally literary form--working best on the page, where one can savor each syllable if need be, certainly re-read said poem again and again.  Dramatic forms on the other hand simply happen.  You experience each moment once, then vanishes forever. Bridging the two often focuses upon a single performer, looking effectively into the audience's eyes and speaking words from their very heart.  Not all poetry proves amenable to that, although in this case several did--"Katsu" by Cate, performed by Crystal Salas, likewise "I Would Take the Skull First But I am a Coward" by Pete Holby and performed by Tucker Matthews (in a refreshing
change of tone from the brilliant extremes he as a performer does so well).

But then, there are the less-linear or less individually effective pieces.  The night's first poem, "The Gathering" by Joseph Nichols, became a choral piece in terms of not only voice but movement--a flow of words and bodies which immediately got my attention. Likewise "Untitled" by Matt Kellegrew, performed by Cheryl Doyle and Collin Lee Ellis, performed their piece as an entwined couple--not the only time as "Excuse Me: I Am Lost" by Cate and performed by Cheryl again with Robert Walters used the same idea but with wildly different effect!  "Returning is arriving for the first time again" was another duo, friends sharing a common realization and experience performed by Matthews and
Photo Credit: Vanessa Cate
Walters (with, let it be said, a delightful cameo from Hyde and Doyle).

So the hour-long show continued--one somewhat startling rendition of poetry after another.  Hyde did Angie Hoover's "Never Have I Ever" in a touching enactment of the central image.  James Han spoke Mark Hein's simple "Mortal Tenderness (or, River's End)" with other members of the ensemble becoming a kind of scenery, or shadow.  Just as Mariana Goulart did Salas' "Basket (A Poem About Eggs)" with a single interaction from one other cast member.

I could go on, without really (despite the warning atop this review) giving much away about the content of the poems themselves.  An hour's worth of poetry with such a title?  You can guess it covers a very broad range of
Photo Credit: Vanessa Cate
feeling, realization, comment, pleas, remembrance and questions.  Better, far better, to see the show yourself and see these works brought to life than for me to seek to describe each one somehow.  I simply note my own pleasure at the entire ensemble, with hints and teases about what I liked--from Reilly Loaya's use of prop while reciting "More Than Seven Questions To Ask the Boy on Fire when Holding a Pail of Water" by Kelly Grace Thomas, or the vivid simplicity of Lauren Peterson joined by Hyde and Han in "Forever Their" by Danny Pierce.

Precisely how did the show impact me?  Rather than analyzing each one, let me share this.  At the end, I was shocked.  An hour, was my first thought.  Really?  Have I really been sitting here an hour?  Because on some fundamental level I just didn't feel it had been that long.  Which makes for about as much praise as I can offer, honestly.  

Life, Death & the Middle plays four performances only, Sundays at 7pm at ZJU (4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601--across from KFC and just south of the NoHo sign).  Tickets are $15 and can be purchased here or by calling 805-791-1503

Ghosts of the Underground (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Halfway through Ghosts of the Underground's opening night, I had the strongest sense of deja vu.  Not simply because I recognized about half the cast, nor because I've attended many a show at Zombie Joe's.  No, my imagination summoned up a series of silent movies.  Doctor Mabuse, Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and M. The words "A German Expressionist Musical" kept echoing inside my skull.

And that is what this show turned out to be.  A German Expressionist Musical.

If you don't know what German Expressionism is, go to YouTube and do a search of the above titles.  Just do it. Now.

Photo Credit:  Sebastian Munoz
Walking into the theatre, a different space greeted me than usual.  The lobby had been transformed into part of the stage, including a several piece band (Sasha Snow, Ramona Creel, Michael Guthrie). The theatre proper lacked chairs but already held the cast, white of face and stylized of dress--holding position until one of them--a kind of Gypsy (Sue Shaheen)--played her taburine and all would shift.  Then the story began, of a Detective (Ian Heath) and his neglected Wife (Sara Kessler). A strange hooded figure in a mask murders her and the Detective relentlessly pursues her killer.  Through the community, evidently in the midst of some kind of Carnival, he goes.  His only clue, the mask.  He finds a Woman who has a similar mask (Nicole Craig) and the man who made it (Emilio Andrade), questions the woman's Husband (Benjamin Warren) and the Whore he frequents (Olivia Spirz) as well as a Reporter (Mark Hein)  who's been following him, and a seductive Clerk (Heldine Aguiluz) who knows more than she should about everything.  Meanwhile a Police Officer (Jahel Caldera) follows the Detective throughout. 

Photo Credit:  Sebastian Munoz
One part murder mystery, another part fantastical odyssey, with more than a dash or two of Kurt Weill tossed in, the story unfolds with as something not quite a nightmare but not your usual dream either.  Given the title, I found myself wondering how many of these characters were already dead.  In time arriving at an answer, in now way am I sure it correct.  Rather than criticism, this makes for high praise.  Never did I stop feeling intrigued as well as (just as important) entertained--no least by the music and almost-dance of the show.  As noted before, this qualifies as a musical. And kudos to Sasha Snow as musical director, just as much as to directors Sebastian Munoz and Adam Neubauer (listed as well as the writer).

My one complaint--if it can be called that--was how much I wished the show were even longer, more elaborate, in a larger space with a bigger audience.  Several characters simply never had the opportunity to move into the foreground--like a hulking Brute (Steven Alloway) who always captured my eye, and various others making up the story's tableau (Courtney Drumm, for example).  To be sure, this does make for cheerful, light fare.  Ghosts of the Underground (have fun contemplating the meaning of that title) delves into the shadows of life, of perception, of our beliefs in what we truly are.  All the meat that made German Expressionism so powerful a genre--a warning echo of the tumult that was to come. How entirely appropriate the story has no names, but plenty of masks.  Professions but not families, not really.  People die in this story so very easily--and the fact audience blends with cast in terms of space only makes that fact more eerily powerful.

Ghosts of the Underground plays at ZJU, 4850 Lankershim Blvd. (across the street from KFC, just south of the NoHo sign) North Hollywood California 91601 Friday and Saturdays at 8:30pm until February 21, 2015.  Tickets are $15.  Advance tickets at or call 818.202.4120