Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Great War (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Hotel Modern is a Dutch theater collective that has pioneered what has been called "live action animation." In effect they use tiny dolls and props in front of small cameras which project the moving image onto a large screen. The audience is there as they do this in real time, with practical special effects and voice-overs and sound recreations thrown into the mix. If that sounds intriguing, please believe me when I say the result ends up far more than merely that!

The Great War was a piece that performed at downtown's REDCAT theater. The prologue began as little more than a relatively fun introduction to events which immediately preceded the first world war. After that, actors read letters from soldiers on the front, telling their loved ones about life in the trenches, aboard submarines, guarding POWs, etc. At the same time we watch images created to demonstrate what the letters describe.

Here's one scene that gives some idea of the power of such a seemingly simple idea. We watch on screen gigantic hands place one tiny soldier after another, face down, on an expanse of wet soil. At last, hardly any soil remains to be seen. Then hands pour some pale green gelatin over all this, then they scoop in to blend it all together into a mush. A sky in the background shows sunset. Soon, lights fade on the tiny landscape, which via the camera and screen certainly look life-size. A pair of filthy legs, wearing (tiny) military style boots and army fatigues, walk one wear step at a time through that mud. Moonlight allows us to see it. And the soldier's voice, whispering in freezing terror, recounts what happened. He got lost. At sunset. In no man's land, between the trenches of men armed to the teeth with machine guns. Wandering in the freezing cold hour after hour, not daring to make a sound. He describes most of all realizing he is walking upon the remains of countless dead, in total darkness, and how he can identify each body part as he walks. Arm. Chest. Head.  What can he do but try and not think about it?

I found myself trying to do the same.  The whole performance actually felt as if somehow I'd been plugged into some kind of virtual reality, one just real enough to become emotionally real. The visceral impact of people actually screaming over recreated artillery bursts reached my bones. So so the smell of the flames. The darkness of the theater--something so natural to me it feels like home--felt heavy, cold, full of careless and unimaginable menace.

Rarely have I felt so moved by a piece of theater, and never before by what was in effect a puppet show. But this company has found a wildly original way to create as profound an experience as a High Mass to the most devout of believers.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Macbeth (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I'm going to pontificate  here a bit. Well, no suprise there! I've seen a little less than a dozen Macbeths over the years, and have reached some conclusions. Mainly about how unusual a play it really is, compared to the rest of Shakespeare's canon. Of all his major works, this one wins as the shortest. It feels weird, the language having an odd cadence, and the feel of a brutal time (in this it somewhat resembles King Lear). It shows the supernatural interfering with human events out of malice, in a way that seems almost startlingly pagan.

It also has very nearly the only happy marriage in all of Shakespeare. Not that the Thane of Glamis (Amir Khalighi) and his bride (Melissa Kite) remain that way, but for the first third at least they come across as a passionate couple, one wed for years who depend upon one another.

Credit: ZJU
This is among many things they lose when the Witches (Arielle Davidson, Jenny Gustavsson, Angela Robitaille) utter those glimpses into the future--The Thane of Glamis shall be Thane of Cawdor and then, eventually, King of Scotland. His companion Banquo (Brian Felson) receives a similar prophecy, that his line will bring forth Kings. But he pays it little mind. "Happier" the Witches call him. One wonders if his indifference to their words might be what they mean...

Not that they would ever admit it.

Frankly, most productions of this play seem to trip over the plot or the eerie, savage world of the story. Nearly all of them seek to make a clear cut decision about the Macbeth marriage but try to keep the Witches mysterious--even to themselves! While I might niggle here and there about some details of the production, this Macbeth avoids the traps. Many kudos for that! This Macbeth is all fury and emotion, almost bipolar in his rages and fears and doubts then sudden sadnesses. This Lady Macbeth is the tempering power in their relationship, the focus and devotion sheethed in a soul of steel.

Until the murder of their king, whereupon you can see something in them fray and snap.

Credit: ZJU
A besetting problem in so many Shakespeare productions is often unimpressive performers in the supporting roles. Cannot tell you how thrilling it is when--as here--the opposite happens! Rather, the likes of Jonica Patella (one of the finest local actresses I know) and Mark Hein as well as Jason Britt fill in for the various parts. I've seen all these do wonderful work, but Hilary Freedman is new to me and performed with great skill in her handful of roles (including Lady Macduff). Another newcommer (to me) was Chandler Hudson as Prince Malcolm.

The ensemble here did wonders, creating with their voices and bodies the weird, dark world of this play. Its eerie story of two souls destroying themselves felt much like a roller coaster, which made the end all that much more effective. Not a crowing triumph by enemies of the hated tyrant, but a satisfied gloat by the three Weird Sisters, speculatively looking at the survivors as a spider might gaze a group of flies.

Macbeth plays Fridays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 7pm through May 31, 2015 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just south of the NoHo sign, across the street from KFC) North Hollywood Ca 91601. You can make reservations at 818-202-4120 or by visiting

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Boy Gets Girl (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

It sounds like the plot of a Lifetime movie. Here's the publicity blurb for Theater Unleashed's production of Boy Gets Girl by Rebecca Gilman:

What started as an innocent blind date has quickly turned into a dangerous obsession. For Theresa, an accomplished journalist, her life is now spiraling chaotically out of control as she experiences a violent terror that’s all too familiar.

Had I been unfamiliar with TU, the blurb alone would not have been enough. It does seem to echo what a friend of mine calls "victim porn" wherein some innocent is targeted by a psycho and finally ends up killing said psycho in self-defense. Slasher films lite.

Such was far from what I got when the lights came up on stage.

Instead, an awkward blind date begins. One that might just have been an opening scene in a romantic comedy. At the time I managed to think that very clever. It made me share the bewildering flesh-crawl as events unfolded--as Theresa (Ivy Khan) clearly felt no connection with Tony (Jim Martyka), sought to let  him down politely, then found herself the target of a stalker. 

Later, I realized how profound that delicate trick the playwright had pulled off. She did more than make us feel viscerally surprised at the plot. She invoked the exact memes and ideas that feed the horror of events.

She made us Tony's accomplices. His attempts to connect with Theresa at first seem harmless, a bit awkward, obnoxious the way deeply lonely folks sometimes are. We almost wish Theresa would give him a second chance. Certainly we understand why some others do--even though the guy rings warning bells of many tones and volume, even at first. An emotional piece of judo that has left me very impressed!

The script also never, ever slips into stereotype, even while the essential plot of a stalker plays out as we've come to seemingly expect. The constant flowers delivered, the endless voice mails, the escalation to threats, the calling the police (Kate Dyler) and so on. Instead of formula, however, the whole thing feels utterly real--not least because the range of humanity remains naturalistic and (even more importantly) individual. Theresa is never an ingenue nor does she ever become an action heroine. Likewise, none of the men in her life are heroes. They are friends, to be sure.
Her boss Howard (Bobby McGlynn), fellow writer Mercer (Eric Stachura), the subject of an article she's writing (Eric Cire)--all offer support. None can solve her problem. No one can "solve" it unless her stalker makes a mistake and is caught. Every single one of them try, though. More, they don't simply offer help. They also cross lines, make mistakes, sometimes fail to understand--and when a couple of them begin to really understand, that creeps them out most of all. Because they seem themselves in Tony!

And if we're brutally honest, so can we. In part because the writer led us to that point, but also because the cast did such a splendid job overall (although the lion's share of praise goes of Khan as Theresa).

That a fair amount of comedy pops up in the play also makes the grinding psychological tension (like a death of a thousand cuts) both more palatable as well as more chilling--because Theresa's plight never lets up. Even the most overtly funny character, Harriet (Sammi Lappin) in the end is just another match lit against the encroaching darkness. Because real life doesn't always have a happy ending. Sometimes the bad guy gets away. The only way to survive is total retreat and surrender. Sometimes. No matter what we want, or how unfair all that seems.

Such is the very unpalatable, powerful truth this production gives us. In a way, Theresa suffers worse than physical violence. She comes to see herself as nothing but a thing, an object of desire as opposed to a mind or soul.

Worse, she cannot forget that for some--even those not violent, not insane, not obsessed--that is all she will ever be. All she can be.

(I will admit though the scene shifts seemed to take forever...!)

Boy Gets Girl plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm at the Belfry Stage (upstairs from the Crown Theatre) 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood, CA 91602.  Tickets are $20. You can make reservations by calling (818) 849-4039 or emailing

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Urban Death 2015 (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!


Waiting in line for the box office to open at ZJU's 2015 edition of its signature show Urban Death, I chatted with a small group ahead of me. Seems none of them were veterans of either this show or this theater. Two young ladies wanted to know if it was going to be "gory" or "creepy." One liked gore, the other liked creep.

I said this show usually has violent congress with your mind.

Photo Credit: Marti Matulis
My prediction proved true. The entire audience (taking up every single seat) reacted in ways I"m sure made the hearts of the creators swell with pride. Quite rightly, too.

Urban Death seems like equal parts performance art, macabre sketch fest, halloween haunted house and maybe a fever-induced nightmare. Now in its fifteenth year or so, the show continues to evolve. Certain bits and...not sure what to call them...scenarios? That'll do. Certain scenarios return almost each year, but with new twists and turns every time. The pervasive humor is dark, perverse, often shocking, sometimes hilarious and not a few times all of the above simultaneously.  Other times the darkness lacks any shred of humor, with a simplicity that sends shivers down one's soul.  Still other times we're just plain scared!

Photo Credit: Marti Matulis
Having seen the show several times, I can tell you the versions directed by Zombie Joe tend towards greater gore and shock. Jana Wimer on the other hand focuses more on psychological horror. This year, they share the directing credit. What results blends the two with great skill and (very important) power.

What I'm not going to do (despite the disclaimer above) is give away much of what happens. Up to you, the reader, to decide is this show is your cuppah tea. If not, you probably don't wish to read many details, lest you lose sleep. If the idea of this show appeal, however, then 'tis a poor critic indeed who ruins the theatrical event for patrons!

But let me note the audience reacted with equal parts glee and shock, like grand guignol theater of old, fascinated by the emotional pit yawning before them and sometimes laughing despite themselves. Not that any of this would work without a truly splendid cast. Some I've seen before--such as Vanessa Cate, Charlotte
Photo Credit: Marti Matulis
Bjornbak, Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson, David Wyn Harris, etc. Others are less familiar to me, but also created the weirdly wonderful, horribly beautiful world of Urban Death, including Ian Heath, Kevin Pollard Jr., Elif Savas, Danny Whitehead and Melissa Whitman.

Urban Death plays Saturdays at 11pm for who knows how long. Probably as long as folks buy tickets and most of the cast remains available. Bet on four to six weeks, although try not to gamble on missing this show, unlike any other. The location is Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group at 4850 Lankiershim Blvd (across of KFC, just south of the NoHo Sign) North Hollywood CA 91601. Call (818) 202-4120 for tix or go HERE.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Grow a Pair of...Wings (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

The world premiere of Amelia Phillips' grow a pair of...wings by Fresh Produce took place last week and I had the good fortune to be there. Front row, no less. Venue was a brick-lined black box with frankly better lighting and sound than I've come to expect. So kudos there!

Here's the idea behind the play.

Our playwright portrays Sarah Klein, the lead, who we meet trying desperately to host Passover for her family, especially her parents and grandfather. Her sister/roommate Aubrey (Riva Di Paola), a successful artist, wonders why she's going to all this trouble. Soon enough Sarah's gentile boyfriend (Tyler Cook) and good friend Irving (Greg Nussen) arrive as well.

This Passover, Sarah's beloved grandfather (Barry Vigon) dies.

All this is about ten minutes into a ninety minute play. The family and relationship dominoes begin to fall almost immediately, complete with overreactions great and small. Rather than give some kind of blow-by-blow of the plot, let me instead focus on the overall experience of this play and its impact. As the title suggests, the focus remains on Sarah, upon an existential crisis in which she finally leaves the emotional nest and learns to face the world's woes. Exactly the kind of subject matter which can be sickeningly saccharine. Thankfully, that never comes close to happening!

Director Stacie Hadgikosti did the first, most vital duty of any stage director--she cast this play well, extremely so. Really, I am so used to seeing productions with at best average performers in the supporting parts to see this--a uniformly excellent cast--was like a very special dessert at the end of a meal. In particular I want to praise how the temptations to play stereotypes never seemed to catch even one performer. No small feat, especially since a big chunk of the play's humor plays on stereotypes (while its tender heart confounds them).

Along those lines Jennie Fahn as Sarah's mother and Robert Dominick Jones as her father do wonders with what really isn't much stage time--but they give us the foundation from which to emotionally understand so much of what happens throughout! The way they blindly try their best, and sometimes fail (sometimes having barely a clue they've done so) feels utterly real--as does the strained sisterly relations between Sarah and Aubrey. Kudos to everyone, really.  Even Donna Simone Johnson in what has to be a near-thankless tiny role makes that character real. I walked away hoping to see everyone in something else one day.

But I will note a problem in the script, one of inconsistency. Here is the blurb for the play:

Imperfect perfctionist Sarah Klein was a good student, a good daughter, a good girlfriend and now, at the age of 26, she's falling flat.  Guided by the whimsically opinionated spirit of her Holocaust survivor grandfather, Sarah struggles to emerge as more than just a failed artist, smothered daughter, competitive sister, unsatisfied girlfriend, and accommodating friend.  In order to define herself, it's simple: All Sarah needs to do is grow a pair of...wings.
 I hope this reads as potentially charming to others as it did to myself. Honestly, I found the play as written more complex and more moving than the blurb suggests. However--please not the underlined section. The presence of her dead grandfather sticks out like a sore thumb--not because he doesn't serve a dramatic function (he does--very much so) but his presence puzzled me. When he first appears, for example, Sarah can see him. In the very next scene, again, she can see him. After that--she certainly behaves as if he's never there until the very, very end. More, she behaves as if she never had seen him for most of the play. I don't get it.
Honestly who in an otherwise naturalistic world reacts in such a blase manner to a dead relative wandering around their apartment? At one time he wanders into the room when she's having sex and says something to her!

Now, I can well sense devoting time to this dangling plot point could easily have added another half hour onto the play. But it does end up distracting. Yet including Grandpa makes so much dramatic sense I for one hope she doesn't even consider cutting him!

Yet I hope she fixes this point. The cast and play deserve it. And even with that problem, the play moved me--not because of plot per se but because in the end I cared about all these people. No small feat!

Grow a pair of...wings plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm at The Lounge Theatre 6201 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90038 until May 10, 2015.  There are also Thursday night shows at 8pm starting April 30. Tickets are $25. All photo credits:  Joseph Bornilla

Friday, April 17, 2015

Medusa Undone (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Medusa Undone, by Bella Poynton, frankly is the kind of play near and dear to my heart. It enacts a story from Greek mythology, hopefully (successfully in my view) rendering it topical to our own lives. Medusa has popped up in many a work of entertainment, most usually as a relatively straightforward monster--a woman with snakes instead of hair, whose gaze means death by transformation into stone.

But she wasn't always so. Poynton's play deals with how this beautiful sea nymph once a priestess of the goddess Athena became so cursed. The details reveal something we don't often recall about the classic Greeks--namely, their view of the world as dangerous and unfair, plus the ingrained misogyny in their culture  we ourselves carry with us.

The nutshell of the plot tells what happened, but fleshed out to make the characters feel more psychologically accessible. Medusa (Deneen Melody) runs away from her home in sea sea, seeking a life of service to the Goddess of Wisdom (and War) Athena (Karen Wray). She's met by Echo (Carmen Guo), a former Oracle of Delphi, now High Priestess here. Eventually she meets the Goddess, and before too long also meets that lady's uncle Poseidon (Derek Long) God of the Oceans. Medusa is accepted, within two years is elevated to High Priestess, when her sister Stheno (Caitlyn Lowerre) shows up with a letter from Athena telling her to come fetch the girl home. It seems the growing friendship between Medusa and Poseidon upsets her. At a crisis, the Sea God rapes Medusa. The Goddess does not blame him, but the girl, and transforms her into a monster for punishment. The trauma, and lack of comfort from any quarter, transforms the once-naive young woman into a cruel creature as terrible as those who inflicted this upon her.

Of course her ultimate fate--to have her head cut off then given to Athena to place on her shield--cannot but be an extra dollop of vicious irony.

Most of the heavyweight acting in this play falls upon Medusa, Poseidon and Echo. No surprise then they are the three who shine most. In particular all three demonstrate an extraordinary range, each in a fundamentally different way. For example, Melody as the title character is a tiny beautiful girl who comes across as very young, but matures in all kinds of ways (some of them terrible) in the course of two acts.  She in particular listens with great power, and conveys powerful emotion from stillness. No mean feat! Long as Poseidon manages to keep a tricky emotional dynamic going on--genuine charm and blind ruthlessness, sometimes at the same time. He does it also with fairly constant movement and a subtle dignity, even gravitas. One never, ever doubts for one second he has vast powers at his disposal, that here after all stands a King.  Likewise Guo (who sadly doesn't seem to have website) does most of her action in the play by looking at others. Which should have made her last scene, one where she and Medusa do not dare look at one another, less effective. Quite the opposite!

I do feel compelled to point out the play has a very uneven tone. But no play is perfect. These figures from Greek myth wander back and forth between what might called grandness and the most mundane--up to and including contemporary slang! Not that I object to such a thing, but it does require some tricky rhythmic and emotional balances within the text--balances I did not see. Or feel. Or hear.

Some members of the cast have a bad case of wandering feet--lots of tiny steps to nowhere for no clear purpose. The set looks very simple and yet quite effective, with I must say inspired sound and lighting design. The costumes didn't always work for me, but mostly they did so that seems like nitpicking.

Overall, I should also offer some praise to director Sonja Berggren for not only bringing this powerful story to stage with the punch it needs, but along the way solving a real technical problem--since the audience is on two sides of the stage, the blocking needed to be careful and yet smooth. With exception of the wandering feet (which didn't happen that often but is pet peeve of mine as an actor and director) the whole thing flowed nicely in what is after all a small space. Yet it seemed in the end as a corner of a much vaster universe, a cruel one achingly familiar. Because in the end we've all known a Medusa or two. Just as we all grew up around more than a few Poseidons, as well as few Athenas and Sthenos. Echos too now and then. So we get the most vibrant 'message' a play an often hope to convey.

Here you are. Here we all are.

Medusa Undone plays through May 3, 2015 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays and 2pm at The Garage Theatre 251 East 7th Street, Long Beach, CA 90813. You can make reservations by calling (323) 377-2988.  All photo credits go to Rebecca Taylor.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Slings and Arrows (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This marks my first review of a work from the Monkey Wrench Collective, an experimental theater group pretty much headed by Dave Barton, director of this re-imagination of Shakespeare's Hamlet. A commissioned work, intended to be site specific, rather like The Manor in Beverly Hills, Slings and Arrows can be seen at the Casa Romantica in San Clemente. The idea is to use the lovely seaside mansion (utterly charming and gorgeous btw) and its rooms as the settings for a carefully tailored set of reworked scenes using Shakepeare's most famous play as its foundation, inspiration and (in many ways) a seed. We the audience are encouraged to wander between a certain set of rooms, where scenes take place. We all begin and end each act together.

So let me address the production in terms of three elements.

First, this moving around. I remain convinced it could work, and in many ways it did, but on a fundamental level a lot of my energy was focused on figuring out the map included in the program. I got lost. More than once. As a result I missed a scene from Act One and rushed to see truncated scenes for Act Two. This helped me not at all when it comes to entering into this world, losing myself in the story. In fact, I got lost once. Outdoors. In the dark. I applaud the whole notion of the audience becoming voyeurs into the lives of this dysfunctional family! Really--simply adored the idea! Sometimes the impact of that worked wonderfully. But mostly the raw mechanics of it distracted me something fierce--and cumulatively.

Second is the script, the re-imagination. Overall, I was pretty impressed! I'm not one to complain about re-imagining or re-working Shakespeare, far from it! This production accomplished it at times with considerable aplomb! Cutting Horatio for example--brilliant! Especially when his important scenes are transferred to others like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (expanding this characters proved a magnificent choice) and in one very crucial scene, Gertrude!  Really, I might have problems now and then accepting Horatio as a character in future productions! But I did get confused. The world of this play, as opposed to Hamlet, is explained in general terms by director Barton. Honestly, that isn't a good sign. I end up wondering why the play cannot speak for itself in performance? And the initial setup of this world feels jolting, out of sync. Maybe they intended it, but I never quite entered into this new reality, never quite understood it on an intuitive level. Many of the details were lovely or intriguing--the Mexican painted skull for Yorik, the paper cranes of Hamlet's love letters, the weirdly clownlike yet somehow mundane normalcy of Rosencranz, etc. But I was left with a fair number of problems in terms of visceral impact. Central to the conceit (we are told) is that Hamlet suffers from schizophrenia, to the point of hallucinations (these two are the skull-faced Shadow Hamlets, who take the place of the ghost and with whom he shares so many monologues--while they themselves take Hamlet's place in many scenes). But--everyone seems at most mildly surprised at Hamlet's obvious and severe mental illness. How is that possible, no one noticed until now? Who are the Shadow Hamlets, anyway? Archetypes of his unconscious somehow broken free? Demons? Echoes of his future actions? I don't know. They're intriguing, but I don't understand them--or a lot of other things in this world.

Which brings me to element three. The performances. Like the rest of this production, a seriously mixed bag.  Rather strangely, I thought in many ways the weakest performance came from Hamlet himself! He seemed to be doing an imitation of what a good Hamlet should be rather than a real character (most of the time--in fact he, like everyone, had some very fine moments indeed). Polonius and Laertes, as usual, remain cyphers although the performers at least brought an intensity that felt real and were more than cardboard cutouts (the fate of both characters in most Hamlets I've seen). Ophelia at least had a great scene with one of the Shadow Hamlets while Rosencranz had another great scene with the other Shadow. Those two were by far the best scenes in the whole performance.

I'm glad I saw this, not least because of the genuine quality that dazzled in spots, amid what frankly ended up feeling pretty murky. Lots of productions rarely even achieve that!

Slings and Arrows, Shakespeare's Hamlet Re-Imagined will play at Casa Romantica 415 Avenida Granada
San Clemente, CA 92672 Friday April 17 and Saturday April 18 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $25 and you can check availability at (949) 498-2139.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Witch Ball (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This review will seem just a bit schizophrenic. For that I apologize in advance.

Here's the thing. I can tell here we have a cast of genuinely talented people (I know a few of them, have seen them in other shows, etc.). They clearly have "gelled' the way every single director dreams of casts doing. You can tell that in about a dozen different ways, not least how they all invade each others' spaces without discomfort. They also show great trust, pushing some boundaries, and interact on a physical level that proves very impressive.

You can tell there's a "but" coming can't you? Well, yeah.  Not a very huge one, though.

Witch Ball by Zombie Joe himself, is an odyssey involving a strange glass ball created to capture a poltergeist, but one which ended up vastly more powerful that intended. Even its maker felt a little awestruck by what he'd made and tried to persuade the widow who'd commissioned the thing to reconsider taking it. He failed, of course, and therein starts the weird wonderful journey.

The ensemble plays a wide range of dramatis personae, up to and including witch doctors, gay cowboys, the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne, inhabitants of Salem, a lady lion tamer, an albino racoon, more than one witch, demons, a happily married couple, a chorus of Angels from the Mormon Heaven plus a fair number of loving couples of (very) many descriptions. All in one way or another encounter the title character in the course of about two centuries.

It is a new and original myth, a fairy tale for the mystic grown up.  Not a fable, though. Those, from the stories of Aesop to J.K.Rowling, have some kind of specific message, a lesson to impart. Here, we have a history, one from which to take whatever we can find.

Honestly the script was my favorite part of the show.

What bothered me was a lack of technique on the part of the cast. Let me be clear--they all showed lots of talent. More, some of what interfered with their performances was nothing more than opening night jitters. Here's a tip--we critics tend to see the least good performance of any play, namely opening night. Casts always get better once the show ends up on its feet.  In fact, I noticed the nervousness of the cast actually bleed away as the show went on. To give a concrete example, at the very start their timing was a bit off, but by the end was nearly perfect. Likewise when the play began, I was having trouble understanding roughly one quarter of what many of them were saying!  By the end of that initial performance, I was only having trouble making out perhaps ten percent. So I would bet money if you go see Witch Ball (which for the record I'm recommending you do) you'll see a better performance than I did.

Having said that, a play that contains quite so much direct speaking to the audience in semi-poetic language, for long speeches which set up the feel of the tale and of the different settings as well as one vignette after another, vocal technique makes a difference.  A real one.  And sadly, most of this cast doesn't have that level of vocal technique, at least not consistently.

The Chorus
Kudos btw to co-directors Roger K. Weiss and Nancy Woods for working with the cast and creating vivid characters for the three-person 'Chorus.' In fact nearly all the characterization went swimmingly, complete with accents and body language to create instantly recognizable differences between the (many) parts nearly everyone played. When the chorus members interacted between themselves was frankly my favorite. Also the choreography provided by Denise Devine really helped coalesce the whole thing--a slightly pscychodelic ensemble that reminded me of frankly some of my very favorite theatrical experiences from Alice at the Palace to Son of Semele's Our Class.

Given the dozens and dozens of characters, identifying them with individual parts would have taken about an hour of interviews after the show as well as review twice as long. Let me note the Chorus were Deirdre Anderson, Michael James Luckins and Nicole Sahagian.  The Players on the other hand were James Han, Stepy Kamei, Polina Matveeva, Lezlie Moore, Matthew Peter Murphy, Bradley Orok and of course co-director Nancy Woods.

Witch Ball plays Saturday nights at 8:30pm until May 9, 2015 at ZJU, 4850 Lankershim Blvd (across from KFC, just south of the NoHo sign), North Hollywood CA 91601. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at or by calling (818) 202-4120.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Carmilla: A Case Study in Adaptation

I recently did a general review of the 1975 play Carmilla by David Campton for magazine. You can read it here. However, I have myself written my own adaptation of precisely the same novella which you can read about right here.

Okay, no big surprise. I liked mine more. But given how many versions of J.Sheridan LeFanu's work I"ve seen--many with great praise--that does not explain my reaction. As a writer, a playwright, a theater critic and as a great fan of this novella herein is my reaction.

Yeah, spoilers if you haven't read or seen any of this.

Essentially Carmilla is a very atmospheric gothic tale of what seems to be a love story between two young women, one of whom turns out to have been a vampire. So far so good.

Apart from anything else, here are my complaints about this play adaptation:

Writing-By-The-Numbers.  Honestly, it really does feel as if the writer were phoning the whole thing in, maybe trusting to some really skilled actor to weave silk out of a sow's not-very-well-groomed ear. Consider for example the exposition--all the many ways we writers have to make exposition interesting. And Crampton decided on one character repeating something to someone else something they both already know.

But more tellingly, the characters aren't real.  They become tokens the writer moves around for purposes of plot. Instead of individuals, they are mere "types.' Nor are they even interesting types! A vaguely sinister servant of dark powers named Ivan (who really might as well have been named Igor).  The fussy Englishman who used to be in the army and has to be nagged into stepping outside his comfort zone.  The ingenue who likes dancing and gossip and other than that just does what she's told.  And so on. As an archetype from which to build, any of these might be fine. None show any building however.

Stephen R. Donaldson--an author I greatly respect--wrote once in an essay about the difference between drama and melodrama, an idea that sank deep roots into my imagination. He noted the classic story of all melodrama involves three roles--the oppressor, the victim and the rescuer. The evil landlord ties the schoolmarm to the railroad tracks unless the Mounty can reach her in time. The wolf will devour this little girl in a red cloak, but the woodsman interrupts his villainy.  And so on.  Drama uses the same three roles, but has characters switch roles. Victim becomes oppressor.  Rescuer becomes victim.  Oppressor becomes rescuer. Often the best stories involve multiple characters who each play all three roles sooner or later, with and for each other.

The play never wavers from melodrama, however.  Which brings us to second issue.

Disrespecting the Source. As it happens I am extremely familiar with Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, having written not only a play adaptation but The Annotated Carmilla full of over 400 footnotes.  I well realize that literary (i.e. written to be read) and dramatic (i.e. written to be performed) media require changes when moving stories back and forth.  Not any change, however.  Not change for the sake of change. Certainly not change away from the heart of the story!

Carmilla can well survive all kinds of changes in terms of detail. As written it takes place in summer, but might well be told during winter. Set in Austria, yet two of my favorite adaptations change the locale to Hungary and to the United States--also shifting it in time to the 1980s or the present day.

However, this is what I mean by the heart of the story--in a deft emotional slight of hand, LeFanu wrote a tale that remains a drama. Carmilla herself is both victim and rescuer to Carmilla for example, each from their deep loneliness and each to the terrible undead hunger of a vampire. Laura's father is to some sense an oppressor who keeps his child isolated from the world and under his thumb, a rescuer and victim of Carmilla, then in turn becomes Carmilla's oppressor in his helping to destroy her. Add to all this the fact Laura herself is an unreliable narrator, that she contradicts herself and sometimes misdirects--in some sense the reader is her victim, but in doing so rescues them from truths too disturbing for comfort.

Likewise Carmilla isn't truly a pure monster. LeFanu did not villainize his vampire, rather making her someone as isolated and sad as Laura herself. She tries to resist feeding upon this girl, for example. More, the point is made explicitly that upon her destruction she will go to somewhere horrible, somewhere worse than the grave. Laura can never quite stop thinking of Carmilla as her friend. Neither, therefore, can we.

All this vanishes in Campton's play. Instead, the formulaic handsome young hero fights to save the ingenue from a selfish undead evil. Period. That character, not surprisingly, does not exist in the original. Not at all. In fact Captain Field's presence in the play leads to my third major problem.

Misogyny. Honestly this one stands out like a pillar of flame! The novella's central character without question remains Laura.  She is narrator and protagonist, her emotional life forming the backbone of the entire story. In this play she becomes a completely passive, even secondary character. She exists to be a target, nothing more. All agency and decisions fall away from her, to be given to Captain Field.

Nor is this the only example. The Ivan character mentioned before explicitly takes the place of the Countess, a charming stranger who calls herself Carmilla's mother. But even the secondary villain must be given male genetalia.  The one other female character surviving from the original text (which contains five, reduced to three) becomes likewise useless. In the original at least Madame Perradon helped set the stage for the strange wonders to come. But Campton's play takes even that individuality from her, turning her into nothing but a victim who overhears what she must not.

See the pattern?  Women as victims, or if evil, oppressors.  Men as rescuers.  Not only melodrama, but wedded to sexism as well.  Meanwhile, as the few female characters are cut out or weakened, a new male character takes center stage and an extremely minor character (the Doctor) is elevated to supporting--for no good reason I could figure out. Frankly, I"m still puzzled as to why he's in the script!

Along the same lines (and this may be a minor point) in the original we meet a fairly wide range of society's levels--military, servants, nobility, peasants, etc. This play levels all that and every single character seems firmly in the middle class, save for the villain. Even the Peddler turns out to be Captain Field in disguise! Okay, that is subtle but it marks another shred of quality stripped away for no good reason I can see.

The combination of all three added up to huge disappointment. It really does count in my mind as a textbook case of how not to adapt a story (along with the first Moby Dick movie with John Barrymore--in which Ahab gets the girl!)