Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Jew That Saved Christmas (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Let me make one thing utterly, absolutely clear beyond all doubt. The Jew That Saved Christmas is fun. Lots of fun. As in laugh out loud lots of times fun, not least from the irreverent humor that never turns nasty or mean.

My friend Andy Shultz wrote this one act comedy, the third of his plays I've gotten to see at ZJU, every one a kind of gem. Comedy generally proves much trickier than most folks presume, because it depends on getting a startling number of factors just right--not least timing and tone (frankly most comic plays I seem don't rise to this challenge).  As director of his own work, Shultz helps nail both.

Credit: Andy Shultz
The title character is played by Adam Neubauer, another playwright/director at ZJU, a deeply unhappy and unlucky young man named Larry who wants nothing more for Christmas that to eat Chinese food with his lesbian roommate (Kyle M. Collucci) and watch t.v.  Naturally things don't go as planned. Quite apart from his best friend (David Wyn Harris) moaning over his recent breakup and then lusting after our lead's mother (Deirdre Anderson), there's also the obnoxious neighbor (Carol Muniak)  who has a crush on Larry and won't take "Hell No!" for an answer.

Then, there are the Elves (Derrick Brooks, Jennifer Nwene, Brady Glasser). You read right. Elves. Seems an ancient prophecy insists Larry is the Jew That Will Save Christmas by defeating the evil demon Krampus. Does that make any sense? Well, as much as anything when you think about it. 

Credit: Andy Shultz
But here is where the play really works, just as a script. Fun, zany ideas aren't even a dime a dozen. More like a nickel at most. Execution lies the true test of any idea, and this one delivers! We know this because of the final clinching proof--the audience laughs. In a comedy, everything else takes second place, and yet remains nowhere near as easy as one might think. A genuinely funny play isn't just a string of jokes. Larry's personal nightmares keep growing as the story continues, but only after a specific tone of zany kvetching has been established. Then other details of plot, dialogue, character and even costume follow. By fitting together into a whole, we all get "let in" on this world and its skewy POV. Of course Larry's mother cannot imagine anyone good enough for her little boy--and of course that turns his love life into a train wreck, and always will even as she starts making out with Larry's friend, only to have Larry walk in on them. This is his world. Thank God it isn't yours. Now sit back and enjoy!

Credit: Adam Neubauer
Meanwhile the cast proves itself just splendid. Over-acting well is in fact not easy to pull off, neither are half the little bits and things done throughout--like "freezing" in place without losing any energy.

Despite the warning above, I don't want to spoil any potential audience members' joy by revealing too much. What instead I hope to do is whet your appetite. Anyone regularly reading my reviews has sussed onto the fact I love me some angst, some cranial fornication and some deep dark drama. BUT--I adore a show that is pure, unadulterated (and very slightly wicked) FUN.  That is what this show promises, and more importantly, delivers. Really, it would be a shame to miss this.

The Jew That Saved Christmas plays Sundays at 3pm through December 20, 2015 at Zombie Joe's Underground 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just south of the NoHo Sign), North Hollywood CA 91601. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at

Friday, November 27, 2015

Women w/o Walls (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Despite the disclaimer above, I generally try to avoid spoilers in my reviews. But for Women w/o Walls, that might be something of a lost cause. The central conceit at least becomes obvious (or so it seems) fairly quickly. But that doesn't matter so much with this play by Robin Rice.

A subway train, with a single passenger known only as Nurse (Kristin Carey-Hall) knitting away. She refers to herself in the plural--"we" and "us"--but this doesn't sink in at first.One more clue in fact as to where we actually are. Soon enough a young woman named Pamela (Esther Mira) becomes the only other passenger, and seems baffled about where she is going or how she got here. More, Nurse apparently knows quite a bit about her.  Inez (Jen Albert) a homeless woman with only one leg--literally on her last leg--enters and immediately recognizes Nurse. This, they agree, is her final trip, and it soon turns out she sees Pamela as her last chance at love.

In another age, the subway would be a boat crossing the Styx. We are in between life and death. Nurse (in a nice echo of the Fates) is "on staff" and perfectly willing to ease everyone's passage. Within limits. No malice here, but quite a bit of ruthless wisdom--very much needed as Tank (Natalia Ochoa) joins them, a street tough girl with at least one addiction, to music, and a hair trigger.

Of course stories about death are really about life. We all know that, right? We all know oblivion is dull, hardly the stuff of story telling. But love, regret, fear, self-awareness, memories, forgiveness, rage, imagination--these are the blood and bones of any (and all) good theatre. These things we get in spades.

Technically, this makes for quite a nice piece in many ways, not least because it will surprise you while making all the sense in the world. Higher praise rarely comes out of me than those words. In this case, there's more to come. Because like one of the very best episodes of The Twilight Zone or maybe The Outer Limits, this script builds on a myth to create a new one. I loved for example how the play eschewed the obvious trinity of virgin/mother/crone--or perhaps subverted it is a better way of describing what happens. One of our passengers for example is defined more than anything else by a troubled (but hardly vicious or even neglectful) relationship with her father. The diseased almost-hag makes her greatest impact not in terms of her age or supposed wisdom, but rather because she's in her heart of hearts still a maiden--still searching for the ephemeral connection of a soul mate. The tough grrl, she doesn't really fit any of these three archetypes. Yet she fits within this story like a glove. Likewise we conspicuously lack (to those devoted to symbolism following the usual grooves) anyone middle class--unless one counts the Nurse. One looks in vain for more than a few overt references of legends of ancient days and nights. Yet the play becomes a legend--infusing such lovely details as an imaginary tea set, or the color to be chosen amongst many balls of string with telling power.

All of which would excite only the mind were it not for the cast and direction (from Frances Loy).

Were these characters not real, I would not have cared. If Inez' basic humanity didn't touch me, how could I have found myself hoping she won Pamela's heart? Had Pamela not seemed to contain the depths to make that at least a possibility, that hope would have died pretty quickly. Tank likewise could have come across as nothing more than an annoyance--the type one often does encounter in mass transit, not coincidentally--but whatever hungers drove this girl came across as genuine, raw, and born at least in part from some pain that felt familar.

In the end, just before the play ended--and I mean less than ninety seconds before the lights faded--I saw how it would end. This is not a criticism, but praise. All the words and performances and the rest had opened my eyes to let me know what the ending would have to be, must be, naturally flowed from every detail. And my reaction? My hand went to my mouth, a tear welled in my eye, and in my mind the words "Yes, of course" echoed.  The revelation stood revealed, complete. And Was Good.

Robin Rice's Women w/o Walls runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays ata 4pm until Saturday December 12, 2015 at the Lounge Theatre 6201 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA  9003. Tickets are a mere $22 and worth every single cent. Or you can purchase reduced price tix at Goldstar.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Astroglyde 2015 (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I'm a little unclear about the rules involved in ZJU's annual event Astroglyde. At heart though, the premise is simple--and daunting. One performer who writes their own piece (a few minutes in length only). Someone else directs them. The lights rise, and we see the performer on a small platform. They speak. And we laugh. Or cry. Or bleed a little. From our souls. It all depends.

Interestingly, rather more performers than you might expect choose to play other-than-human characters. This year Melissa Munoz played a dog in "The Joint." The title refers to the dog pound, in which Munoz is a senior fellow as it were, a exchange that changed in mood (kinda sorta) 180 degrees in about three seconds.

Nicole A. Craig's "My Own Damn Hero" began a little vague, until we realized exactly to whom and under what circumstances she was speaking--then it seemed as specific as laser surgery.

Dorian Serna's "I The Amender" begins as a seemingly insane prayer by a hermit, possibly a serial killer. But rather than a sociopath, we slowly see this man as merely an outsider, whose few powerful connections to his fellow humans baffle but awe him to the bone.

"Such is My Love" by Elif Savas was one of my favorites--a monologue to someone (a nice man, evidently) who rescued her. Turns out she is playing Ophelia, and with great but simple power in every word.

"Betty Buys a Bikini" from Lee Quarrie proved more contemporary,  as the title implies. No surprise it deals (as several do this time) with women confronting expectations as well as judgments. Well, a woman, and doing it in a simple, powerful way.

Amy Kooiman's piece, "Im Mother Fucking Wonder Woman" turns out to be something of an anthem to individual if quirky power.

"This is Me" by Olivia Spirz is an utterly charming (as well as slightly heartbreaking) one-sided conversation at the start of a dinner date.

Jason Britt's "Shadowboxer" was a technical tour-de-force, a startlingly fast but meaningful monologue emerging from somone clearly in severe mental distress. And I do mean severe--his occaisional bursting into song only the mildest of symptoms.

"Over The Rainbow" by Margaret Glaccum proved one of those that kinda ripped my heart out. In the first non-comedic role I've seen her do--as a desperately unhappy woman ascending (?) into fantasy--her performance totally sucked me into her situation, even sans almost any details (any shared anyway).

Jesse Lee's "North Pole" might be the most surreal offering, only in part due to the setup--an Elf offering as suggestion of how to improve Christmas, presented to his fellows and of course Papa Noel--but also to the deliberately off kilter delivery.

In the end it all proved a fascinating little corner of the human mosaic, one I heartily recommend. Alas only one performance remains as of this writing. Astroglyde 2015 plays this  Firday November 20 at Zombie Joe's, 4850 Lankershim Blvd. (just south of the NoHo Sign) North Hollywood CA. Tix are $15. Reservations can be made at (818) 202-4120.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Cake (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Comedy, so the story goes, is harder than dying. I tend to believe as much, especially when going to see comedies on stage. To successfully generate a laugh requires vast precision. Cake, the new production at Theatre Unleashed in North Hollywood, is just such a work. Honestly, I rarely laughed. But I did smile a great deal. More importantly, I ended up caring quite a bit about these characters (frankly more important).

Wendy Gough Soroka is the playwright, creator of this ensemble of characters in and around a college--a English professor and her husband, their playwright daughter, some students of the professor, a co-worker, a husband, a member of the audience of the playwright's latest work.

At first, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the variety of characters and scenes, but as their interconnections became clear the more this 'world' felt real and even familiar. Teh network of how all these characters fit together grows before us at a very nice pace, enough so that eventually when events happen "off stage" we know who did them. Likewise it was nice to see a logical kind of progression happen, at the same time without anything as complex as over half a dozen human lives wrapped up in a tiny bow.

More, I especially loved it when someone discusses genuine issues without it coming across as a lecture. Really. Kudos for that.

Criticisms? Well, shifting the scenery too often distracted (although at times this was handled with a style and theatricality that warmed what is left of my heart). I felt the play itself sort of stopped rather than ending, but the rhythm of the scene changes methinks had a lot to do with that.

My greatest praise goes to the cast in general, but especially to Sammi Lappin in the role of playwright/daughter Cynthia. She was standing in for the talented Kire Horton, a marvelous actress I've seen before at TU. Lappin was great, script in hand--although I frankly hope to see Cake once more and get to see Horton.  Elisabeth Fenning as a reluctant mother as well as once (and future) theatre teacher was outstanding as ever (her earlier run in Ligature Marks at the same venue make me expect as much). Courtney Bell, Tracey Collins, Brad Griffith, Bobby McGlynn, Lee Pollero, Jacob Smith and Theresa Stroll filled out a cast that--this is very high praise when coming from me--never once stopped being equal parts truthful and human.

Lisa K. Wyatt directed, and I had a lovely chat with her after the show. She confirmed the play had been written for the Hollywood Fringe--and a very nice example of what kinds of shows the Fringe puts out there.

I feel this review hasn't given as much detail as I'd like. Readers cannot have much idea of the plot, for example, and I haven't addressed the themes or issues of the play much if at all. Yet while I have my own opinions on these, I increasingly suspect those are best left to individual audience members. This play is very much like history rather than a sermon.  We see lives lived, mistakes made, realizations arrived at, arguments pursued, accidents horrible and lucky occur, turning points reached, lessons learned (or not), and quite a few questions left  unanswered. To us, anyway.

Methinks the characters will get around to answering for themselves however.

Cake plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm until November 21, 2015 at the The Belfry Stage, 11031 Camarillo St. at Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91602