Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Inside Edge of the World (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Here is the official blurb for The Inside Edge of the World (Or Where Have All the Good Serial Killers Gone?):

A lonely criminal forensics enthusiast stumbles across a serial killer in his own neighborhood. With the help of his dog, they set out to study the man, but get a little too close. It’s kind of a cross between Rear Window and The Dog Whisperer.

This doesn't really convey the rather wonderful  one person show enacted by Michael Evans Lopez.I myself have a taste for the odd and beautiful, the lonely outsider who tries to do good. Which makes me very nearly the target audience for this show!

Lopez begins in a way that gives a pretty clear "taste" of what is to come. A conversation in the dark I first took as between brothers, one of them much younger. Then, as the lights arose and I saw only one figure curled up as if in bed, my mind went to the idea of multiple personalities. As the conversation proved quite human, if eccentric, and ultimately rather touching this gave promise of something special.

When I eventually learned one member of the conservation was the central character's dog--I smiled.

As it happened, quite a few smiles crossed my face as the story went on. Different kinds of smiles, to be sure. The smile that goes with hearing something so bizarre it has to be funny, a smile at the friendship between man and dog, a smile in strange harmony with sad weirdo awash with a poignant madness. And while the script did much, the bulk of the effort in generating those smiles lay with Mr. Lopez. In particular the open ended moment of revelation making up the play's climax only worked because the fifty minutes of performance that preceded. Without our understanding of the central character, it would have fallen flat.

But we did understand. And as a result another smile, as well as maybe a tear, arose.

(Quick note: I do think the title of the play is a bit dull. I had trouble remembering it. The secondary title has a lot more zing, at least to me.)

Friday, June 26, 2015

R&J (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Last year I reviewed the Mine is Yours theater's gender-swapped production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. I had a mixed reaction to it. Now they've re-imagined that production for the 2015 Hollywood Fringe with a somewhat different cast and noticeably different staging and approach.

The new R&J, about the star crossed lovers Romea (Mary Ellen Schneider) and Julian (Dane Oliver), is much improved! In fact, the chemistry between these two actors is one of the major highlights of the production--that and the often-startling ways their love is portrayed. I don't want to spoil anything (despite the above disclaimer) but the moment wherein they meet is fairly electric--and tellingly, from that moment on the hitherto rather callow Romea begins to act in a more adult manner. She starts to show promise of what a very fine young woman this teenager might grow to be, if only.

If only. Two little words that might as well be engraved on one of the two theatrical masks. We've all seen this particular Shakespeare play many times, but kudos to the cast and director Abby Craden for making us feel that tragedy in the gut. In fact, that seems to be the reason for the gender switch. It makes us see the work anew. When Julian is treated as a sex object, we aren't used to thinking of that in relation to a teenage boy. When Romea stabs Tybalt to death, the rage involved feels different when fueled by feminine energy.

This means that (for the most part) anything about the matriarchal nature of this world simply never ends up explored. Which is too bad.

But on the other hand the world of this play does exist, does feel consistent (using Julian as a maypole in a party--and his reaction--was a nice and disturbing touch), especially in the interplay of characters. The gangs of restless young women such as Tybalt (Cj Merriman), Mercutia (Taylor Jackson Ross in one of the plum roles of this play) and Benvolia (Hannah Pell) to whom Romea belongs were much better realized than the same in most other productions I've seen--which involved young men of course.

Alan Blumenfeld as the Nurse and Katherine James as Sister Laurence also stood out, lending a gravitas to older individuals who understood yet remained in some sense baffled by the leads.

I genuinely would say this is my favorite live production of Romeo and Juliet. Perfect? No. But it works, it holds my attention and twists my heart.

R&J has one more performance, Saturday, June 27th at 3pm at The Actors Company in The Other Space,
916A N Formosa Ave. West Hollywood, CA 90046.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Unemployed Finally... (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Heather R. Dowling's Unemployed Finally... got me thinking about one-person shows. Because it is one. Which you've probably figured out already. The subject matter is admirably captured in the title and poster as well as the promotion:

The story of a woman who tried on 30 jobs, in 30 years before finally doing what everyone said she couldn’t. Heather Dowling is an actress and writer who has impersonated someone who wanted a “real job” since she was 14. She has surrendered to her passion for writing and performing. But now she has dirt to dish about the odd-jobs and odd-balls she’s encountered along the way. Come see her now. Unemployed. Finally.

So how is it? Fun! Let me be more precise. One person shows pretty much need a few  specifics to work. First is an interesting subject matter, or at least an entertaining one. Dowling's story of (essentially) how she ended up making this one person show proves exactly that. It all comes down to the perennial conflict between what we want versus stark reality. Classic, really. The same as many a more famous piece of theater from Hamlet to The Fantastiks. But that proves no guarantee! More importantly, how does Dowling pull off the actual performance?

Happily she not only has genuine stage presence (an ineffable something every smart director loves to see) but a fine sense of timing as well as physical clarity. Both vital when you're the only one on stage. Literally every eye remains fixed on one person, who needs must remain focused and clear. Many will say this comes out most in terms of playing different characters. Well, yes and no. She does accomplish exactly that, with style even and enough vivid detail they all come off as individuals. As a nice touch (that frankly some actors should learn from her) lies in the fact that each character has a different attitude and a different physicality. They look at things with different eyes, sit in chairs with different bodies, listen even with different faces. Yeah, they are all Heather R. Dowling's but she makes them different. And in that lies precisely why we end up caring, why we smile when she (as she clearly does here on stage before us) achieves her dream of theater. Makes for a charming and engaging hour of theater, one that also strikes a chord in those (like myself) who in some way or other share her dream.

Unemployed Finally... plays at Theatre Asylum’s Elephant Studio, 1078 Lillian Way, Los Angeles, CA 90038 on Thursday June 25 at 8:30pm and Saturday June 27 at 1pm.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sleeping Around (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

The idea of Sleeping Around is pretty simple. It is an offering by Theatre Unleashed to this year's Hollywood Fringe Festival. In essence we start with a couple Donnie and Angela (Jim Martyka and Sammi Lappin) who are using each other for a sexual fantasy. What gives a hint something special awaits is what their fantasies turn out to be. Nun and choirboy? Hooker and john? Father and daughter? No--a happy marriage, with two people glad to see each other at the end of the day's work. Happy to see one another. Eager to find comfort and company by giving and receiving joy.

Okay wow. A scenario I expected to be gloriously tacky proved moving, and I instantly liked these people.

Then in scene two, we see Donnie again--this time with his wife Elizabeth (Courtney Bell), who adores him. And whom he adores. So why was he cheating on her? And why is she urging him to do it? These two very nearly broke my heart as the answers emerged.

Elizabeth then meets and sleeps with Ryan (Lee Pollero), who then sleeps with Sophie (Brandy June), who goes to "confess" her infidelity to an uncaring Elliott (Eric Cire) and so on. La Ronde for the 21st century in effect. We get to meet more characters--Sam (Gregory Crafts), Colleen (Jenn Scuderi Crafts), Chris (Jase  Lindgren). A tapestry of humanity, all of them realized with with and humor and most of all with honesty. I'm very pleased with everyone, although I do believe Martyka and Lappin and Bell gave the best performances--a remark meant to convey very high praise indeed.

For the Fringe, Sleeping Around has two more performances at  Theatre Asylum - 6320 Santa Monica Blvd. LA. CA. 90038, Sunday June 21 at 5:30pm and Thursday June 25 at 8:30pm.

The Blacks: A Clown Show (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Jean Genet's The Blacks: A Clown Show emerged onto the stage the same year I was born. For a time it was the longest-running non-musical on Broadway. As it begins, one might wonder why? After all, it seems a very odd thing indeed. At first. Very much like a stage performance one might come across in a dream. Therein lies a great deal of its power.

Because trying to "figure it out" soon becomes a lost cause. Who are these people? A troupe of black actors who seem to simultaneously reject and exult in the way white culture has sought to define them. They pander to the four officials who make up their onstage audience, while subtly mocking and threatening them. In fact the players themselves seem to be trying to work out their own feelings, their hopes in the face of a situation doing its best to turn them into just...things.

Tiny revelations build on tiny revelations, made vivid by the skill of the entire cast in terms of not only their individual scenes and vignettes but how they listen. They listen fascinated, enraged, puzzled, suspicious, hopeful and calculating. Violence seems in the air, not least as they describe and then re-enact the murder of a young white woman by a black man. They lack a white woman of course so one of their company undergoes a ritual to enter that "other world' for the play.

Meanwhile, the royals come across as buffoons a la characters in Alice in Wonderland, but more dangerous. Yet increasingly impotent. They come to see the power they once wielded with such arrogant abandon  evaporating in their grasp. As with their victims, despair descends. But without the rage which now seems to slowly drown them.

I cannot tell you ultimately the plot of The Orig-O-naL Theater Company's premiere production. Or, maybe I could, but that seems trivial. Rather I find myself wanting to savor the experience, to allow its seeds to grow within me, and acknowledge what the cast has wrought in my own soul. Because in the end this performance did what theater at its highest achieves--the story it depicted became not a story, but a life, and that life seemed my own.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

F*ck You Jason (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Euripides was the third great tragedian in an ancient Greece, during what has sometimes been called the first Golden Age of western theater. He proved himself over and over again the equivalent of a wild-eyed hippie. Arguably his most famous work, Medea (sadly most of his plays are lost) really challenged the status quo. For the first time (as far as we know) someone wrote the story from Medea's point of view. In Euripides' play, she is not an evil she-witch, but a wronged woman driven to the brink of madness and beyond.

Despite its incredible contributions to what we today call Western Civilization--including democracy, trial by jury, naturalistic art, etc.--Athens was also profoundly misogynistic. Women not only lacked the vote, they were barely regarded as human. Passion between a man and a woman often was thought of as a kind of inevitable madness, necessary for life but full of potential trouble. Euripides was not alone in criticizing this, far from it! But portraying Medea as a love story gone horribly wrong instead of a cautionary horror tale about foreign women was daring for its time.

Writer/director Benny Lee Harris Lumpkins Jr. thought this play topical today. Myself I would agree with him so much as to say anyone who disagrees is one of the reasons it in fact remains so. His blending of different translations with additional lines (including the words "Fuck you Jason!" as a refrain) make his viewpoint quite clear. The way Medea's pain and even humanity consistently earn dismissal from the two male characters no doubt strike a chord.

The final production, however, doesn't really work. This comes down to three reasons:

1. Mise-en-scene. I have zero notion where and when this story is taking place. The whole production offers no clue whatsoever. It doesn't even take place "nowhere" or "limbo." I have no sense of place or context. Maybe the movement piece with which the show began was supposed to establish that? If such was the intent it failed. Maybe I should have polled members of the audience for their view but that prologue-esque part of the play gave me nothing. Nor did the rest of the play. I never felt there was a specific place on stage.
2. Dialogue. I am severely prejudiced against "on the nose" lines and dialogue. Not saying it cannot work, but has to be earned. In particular we need to know these characters well enough to accept this is their natural mode of communication. Frankly, this entire play seems edited with the Idea totally eclipsing the Humanity of the characters. The result comes across as preaching to the choir with very little attempt made to keep anyone's interest. Nuance of character, for example, seemed nowhere in the script. The two male roles in particular seemed like stereotypes rather than people.

I should mention some exceptions to this. The most obvious being the Chorus (Lori Mulligan, Valeria Rifici and Stepy Kamei). When they popped their heads onstage to repeat the refrain, or entered with stylized movements speaking in erie (but clear--kudos for that!) unison, or when a lament for how women are treated by men became a discussion of mutual love between two of the women--THERE we see the potential the writer/director as well as this idea has! Loved those moments!

3. The Cast. I've only ever seen one member of this cast in anything before--a member of the chorus. I also want to offer some real praise for Lesli Harad in the lead role of Medea. She fell into almost every single trap actors find in playing stylized verse plays--but she remained at least a recognizable human being throughout. Those actors portraying Jason, the Nurse and Creon however left a terrible impression. Acting is not emoting. Nor is it screaming. Perhaps this was a performance where they were for some reason seriously "off." I don't know. The script certainly did not help them, with orations instead of speech. Yeah, this kind of stylized play is difficult to pull off, simply because it is so atypical from what our training and exposure tends to be. I'm sure Ancient Greek audiences and performers would find our modern realistic styles just as baffling. But half the cast of this show never made that stylization work. As a result, they never seemed to be people--just mouthpieces for the playwright.

Plenty of talent on that stage, maybe more than I noticed. But this production lacked enough focus and nuance to really make the ideas breathe, sing or live.

Fuck You Jason, or Medea plays at the Elephant Space at 6322 Santa Monica Blvd. LA, CA 90038 on Friday June 19 at 7pm, Sunday June 21 at 7pm, Thursday June 25 at 11:55pm and Sunday June 28 at 2:30pm.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Halfwits' Last Hurrah (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

After seeing this latest show by the Four Clowns, I kept thinking about comedy. About what makes something funny. The Halfwits' Last Hurrah should not have been as funny as it is. Yet I and the audience laughed too many times to count--often at things that should have felt tragic.

Why, I wondered?

Part of it of course consisted of skill on the part of the entire cast--which proved transcendent! Comedy, as we know (don't we?) depends so very much on timing. The entire company--Tyler Bremer, Jennifer Carroll, Charlotte Chanler, Don Colliver, Julia Davis, Jamie Franta, Elizabeth Godley, Dave Honigman, Benji Kaufman, Jolene Kim, Jamarr Love and Helene Udy--all me the standards I've come to expect from this group. Not simply a matter of timing, but just as vital is an attitude that helps us ease into the world of the show. A world in many ways quite terrible. Yet, a delight! A frolic! An uplifting dream of awkward, flawed glory.

Again--why? At heart I suppose it has something to do with the fabric of mythology. In countless myths and pantheons we meet trickster gods and sacred fools. What else is a clown show if not an enactment of precisely that?

In this case taking the idea quite far, and very deep. Not only are the characters clowns in terms of character type, they are in fact clowns by profession! Or Fools at any rate. Not-too-rude Mechanicals (except the Inderdorf twins--master and mistress of the double ententre!) trying to put on a show while facing the malignant will of an Enemy, The Real McCoy! He (she?) and his/her henchmen seek to destroy the troop for some reason. Who can say why? Adulthood trying to smother the wonder in the
heart of the child in each of us? Straight lines trying to hammer out each and every curve? An Apollonian avatar attacking a Dionysian out of automatic malice? All of these and more, most likely.

Eventually, as I got home and got ready for bed (exhaustion may have helped me reach this idea) it seemed to me looking for reasons is secondary, at best. This may have some lovely ideas within, but more than anything else the show remains a dream, an experience. We've wandered through the looking glass of our minds and seen the world entire through a different lens!

Yeah, I like it. In fact, I loved it.

For the record, I would also recommend it especially to anyone trying to perform any of the major works of Chekhov (but by saying that I'm just showing off I do in fact have a theater degree!)

The Halfwits' Last Hurrah plays at The Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way (Santa Monica is the cross street), Los Angeles, CA 90038 at Thursday, June 18 at 7:00 pm and Saturday, June 20 at 11:55pm and Tuesday, June 23 at 8:30pm and finally Friday, June 26 at 10:30pm.

Best of Albuquerque Fringe 2025! (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Let me say up front I 'have a complex relationship with "theater about theater." Not that I don't enjoy it (at least when done well, but that is true of almost everything--on the other hand I cannot bring myself to care if a football game is played well or reading new depths of wretchedness--but I digress)! But to be honest, an "in joke" by definition tends to lean too heavily on the references rather that any inherent humor.

So Best of Albuquerque Fringe 2025! left me feeling a tad apprehensive from the start.

Having said that, I actually laughed at one point so hard I couldn't stop! Nor was I alone! Pretty much the entire audience lost it so hard the players literally had to wait for us to stop! Which gives you some idea of just how funny this show proved to be at its best!

At its worst? Well, honestly a small handful of jokes didn't earn more than a smile. Interestingly, those that amused me least were the bits most referential to theater itself...

In essence the premise of this collection of (often wild, often goofy, frequently guffaw-worthy) of skits centers around...well, the title. A visit from the future of another Fringe Festival in Albequerque, California, an awards show in fact to top off the Festival and celebrate the winners of various awards. Jim Blanchette and Jacob Smith wrote the content and performed under the direction of Corey Lynn Howe

I'm not going to give a blow by blow of the various skits. I will say the writers save the best for last "Gary the Michealmas Goose" (the title role is played with simple brilliance by Lauren Flans). Other standouts include Heather Lake, Lisa K. Wyatt, Sam Tank and Liesl Jackson. And mention how everyone played multiple parts with considerable aplomb, generating a steady stream of laughs throughout. The humor varied considerably, from subtle to almost gross and in one case (The Duggars' version of The Sound of Music) horrifying at the same time. One skit was almost entirely in rhymed verse!

Best of Albuquerque Fringe 2025! plays at the Elephant Space 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038 at June 16 – 7:00 p.m., June 20 – 11:30 p.m., June 24 – 8:30 p.m., and June 28 – 4:00 p.m.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

My Sister (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

My Sister by Janet Schlapkohl marks my first review of the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival. Honestly, it sets the bar pretty damn high.

"A story of twin sisters fighting to live their dreams as the world attempts to tear them apart." reads the tagline, and that certainly proves accurate. If insufficient. We're a little too used to that verb--tear apart--to feel its full power. Imagine your hand torn apart, until flesh and bone ripped asunder. Or your tongue pulled out of your skull. Nothing that bloody happens on stage. Emotionally, however, that is precisely what happens to these two souls.

Photo cred. JD Mendenhall

Emily and Elizabeth Hinkler (real life twin sisters) comprise the entire cast--at least the ones we see. From the moment the play begins, others hover around the tiny one room flat they share in 1930s Berlin. Magda is a Cabaret performer at night, a cleaning woman in a public hospital during the day. Matilde, who has cerebral palsy (so I was told later--I wasn't qualified to say what she had but felt utterly certain she knew), writes her sister's material and by listening to her radio has managed to perceive very much what is going on in the outside world. Adolf Hitler is now Chancellor. National Socialists are cracking down on outsiders, censoring art and humor and songs. Magda just wants to survive, to get along. Matilde, she sees with increasing terror what it means that the government is now taking away the "incurables" for "special treatment" from the hospital where her sister works.

Photo cred. JD Mendenhall
Something like this could end up so maudlin and sentimental. Likewise it could show nothing but darkness ascendent. That is focuses instead on the truth of the moment, of two sisters seeing the world in different ways despite very nearly sharing the same heart. 

The Third Reich and the Holocaust seem like such gigantic tragedies, in no small part because they are! Yet for that reason maybe we lose focus. We have a hard time wrapping our skulls around what it meant as civil liberties were taken away one by one, what it must have felt like as anyone different tried to seem 'normal' out of slowly suffocating terror, to see the consequences of words airily repeated put into practice. My Sister doesn't deal with the war, or why people enjoyed listening to Hitler speak, or debate over treaties. It shows LIFE, in two gallant but flawed souls simply trying not to drown in a deluge. It shows foolishness and wisdom, joy and recklessness, wit and lots of different nuances in courage. I felt humbled and my heart took a blow that needed about seventy five minutes to land--leaving me floored.

Recommended. Very much.

My Sister plays June 4, 5, 12, 13, & 20 at 6pm, June 21 at 3pm and June 27 at 8pm at the Underground Uptown Theatre, 1312 N. Wilton Place, Los Angeles, CA 90028 (

Monday, June 1, 2015

ZJU's Othello (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Of all Shakespeare's major plays, Othello is my  probably my least favorite. Yet Josh T. Ryan remains a director I always enjoy, so when he told me that was his next play, I got excited.

He dropped a few other hints since. One, "Godzilla rises," makes perfect sense but I'm not going to explain. Don't want to spoil it. The other was when he told me with a glint in both eyes, "This is gonna be so gay!"

Well, yeah. It is. Gloriously, even hilariously so! In effect he decided to set the entire story amidst the fashion industry and models of the 1980s. Don't bother trying to figure out how. Just go with it. The result blends Shakespeare with Velvet Goldmine liberally sprinkled with Rocky Horror and even Phantom of the Paradise. The wild hair, the even wilder clothes, the patterned makeup, amazing shoes, even a red carpet which was very nearly the only set. Plus a half-mad photographer (Sebastian Munoz) who took pictures like a kind of punctuation to scenes and moments.

Photo Credit: Josh T. Ryan
It worked! In the process the whole ensemble took on re-imagined roles with the kind of gusto this sort of thing really needs to have work. Iago (Vincent Cusimano) steals it--he usually does. Honestly the whole work really seems more about him as the West's first real Antihero than about the title character. In this case he, like most of the characters, is a model (and given the opportunity a diva of the first order) and quite flaming. So much so when he even sarcastically assures the audience he does indeed have a wife. Her name's Amelia (Anna Gion) and she radiates stage presence. The entire cast does. None quite so much as Othello (Vanessa Cate) however, who comes across as the Alpha of the Pack, the one person who maintains interest with barely doing anything. She even makes her final song in a strangely beautiful surreal anthem for her crime.

Oh, did I mention this one is a little bit of  musical? Yeah, it is.

Photo Credit: Josh T. Ryan
Yeah, and a white girl is playing Othello (she did the murder scene the best I've ever seen it--the power, the lashing out at a whim, the love that survived even her Desdemona's (Kirsten Benjamin) demise. Other standouts include Hannah Mosqueda as Roderigo, Quinn Knox as Cassio, Tyler Koster as Montano and Hedy Beinert as Bianca.

Let us not forget also the live music from Kevin Van Cott, the costumes (dubbed "Othello" haute couture in the program) by Jeri Batzdorff and in this case the sound/lights operator who is a character in this production, suitably named Fineas and performed by R. Benjamin Warren. Fabulous makeup design by Natalie Hyde.

It might not be your cup of tea. Or glass of champagne. But it remained a startling nugget of joy and wonder in this writer's memory.

Othello plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm, until June 27, 2015 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre at 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just south of the NoHo sign) North Hollywood CA 91601.  Tickets are $15 and reservations can be made at (818) 202-4120 or by going to