Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Red Velvet (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This is a play about an actor. A real one.  His name was Ira Aldridge, and in the 1860s not only did he count as a theatrical superstar but he was the highest-paid artist in Russia. He was not Russian, however.

He was African American.

Paul Outlaw portrays Aldridge in Red Velvet, by Lolita Chakrabarti, set (mostly) in 1833 London when Aldridge became the first man of African descent to play Othello on the London stage.  As you might expect, it caused a furor--not least because the British Parliament was debating to end slavery in all of England's territories.  Like most of the cast of this show, Outlaw did a wonderful job in portraying the complexity of his character.  What made it particularly outstanding is that we also get to see his Othello--not a modern Othello, but a Regency-Era Othello, with the elaborate poses and hand gestures.  But also--and this must be crucial--this was a very good Othello.

But there's a lot more to the play than that, essential though it remains that we see how good Aldridge really is, understand just how viciously unfair the critics were to him.  At least the London critics.  In fact Aldridge toured Europe for almost three and a half decades afterwards, lauded and acclaimed.  When he died in Poland in 1867, he was playing King Lear.

Yet he never returned to the West End.  As successful as he was, beyond doubt, the past haunted him, ate at him.  What Red Velvet does in re-telling this great actor's story is more than a character piece, more than a political tract made drama.  At heart it captures a real sense of the human in history, the price imposed by injustice when we allow it take place.

Of the rest of the cast I want to single out three others, who gave us a vast amount of nuance, that sense of what makes story and character feel like truth.

Nicola Bertram portrays the great actress Ellen Tree, Desdemona in the London production and very much of the Old Classical School of the time (debate among styles of acting remain ongoing and evolving over the centuries).  That she finds working with Aldridge exciting, and is willing to take his lead, could have made her no more than a stereotypical rebel.  Neither the writing nor the performer allowed that to happen.  She remained very real and complex, doing what mostly we all do, seeking to constantly thread a metaphorical needle without ending up losing some blood.

Colin Campbell plays Pierre Laporte, the manager of the Royal Theatre, whose idea it was to hire Aldridge, an old friend.  Again, this could easily have ended up a hypocrite or coward, but instead we get a full blown human being caught in what turns into an impossible situation.

Likewise Erin Elizabeth Reed plays Margaret, Aldridge's English wife.  The play gives a hint at what a remarkable woman she was--among other things, raising her husband's illegitimate children as her own--and that quiet strong patience is often under-represented in drama.  It frankly is often harder to portray, but here--again, in terms of script and performance--we see it brought to life.

All of which comes across as a bit of a lecture on theatrical form, but I'm a nerd that way--and the way this play via word as well as deed brings this story to us impresses me mightily.  Not a perfect production to be sure (the blocking was below average for example) but at its breathing heart is a subtle and powerful script the cast does indeed make real.  We are left not with a piece of propaganda about racism, but instead the kind of contradictory truth of which human beings are made--which makes the racism so central to the plot so easily recognized.  Yeah, I've seen that.  Oh, yes, that too.  From both sides, if we're brutally honest.

In the end, I"m going to keep the story of Ira Aldridge as part of me for the rest of days.

Red Velvet plays Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 5pm until April 30, 2016 at the Atwater Playhouse 3191 Casitas Ave, Los Angeles, California 90039.

Stopping By (reveiw)

Spoilers ahoy!

The title of Barbara Tarbuck's Stopping By, a one woman show by the Echo Theatre Company, comes from a character she describes, an Irish barman.  Upon a diagnosis of inoperable cancer, he closed his pub and headed back to Ireland.  He tells a friend "We're all just stopping by, aren't we?"

Personally I find a vast, simple comfort in those words.

I found even more comfort, often unexpected, in her show.  The publicity for it reads:

The world premiere of actress Barbara Tarbuck’s loving, touching and often hilarious solo show about an older woman’s encounter with the vast open space, violent dust storms, glowing night skies and uninhibited joy of thousands at Burning Man.
What interests me is how that doesn't describe the story to me at all. Yes, the character does go to Burning Man and indeed that makes up quite a bit of the show's time.  Yet the opening moments set the tone, and set an indelible mark.  To me, this was a story of an older woman seeking a way to endure, learn and grow from the sudden (but far from instant) death of her beloved husband.

That part of the tale is almost a horror story, as this man's mind shifts and twists under the pressure of a stroke, turning him into someone he absolutely loathes being.  Naturally, he lashes out.  Just as naturally, his soon-to-be widow resents it and mourns, seeks to find some way past events.  She gently floats when she can in the memory of their lives together.

Burning Man comes after she's given the ashes, and decides to take them to that event of which their son told them.

And at Burning Man, other memories bubble to the surface as she takes part in that primal festival/party/celebration.  Memories good and bad, innocent and guilty.  She comes to her resolution, her acceptance and forgiveness of her Beloved's death.  Yes, it was about Burning Man, but mostly it was about rhythm and cycles and patterns we come to understand not in our brains but in our very blood.  It felt to be about death, about forgiving our loved ones for dying, and for the universe for killing them.

Along the way, forgiving ourselves.

I liked it very much as perhaps (hopefully) you can tell.  And I recommend it highly.

Stopping By plays only Wednesday nights, 8pm, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90039 until April 13, 2016.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Blood Alley (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I imagine when theatre goers hear the name "Zombie Joes" among the things coming to mind are words like "edgy" "dark" "disturbing".  More than anything else, this demonstrates a success in marketing a brand.  ZJU remains open and producing original works for decades.  One reason is that very success in letting the audience know what to expect.

At the same time, Blood Alley offers us an example of taking that brand to the extreme.  Even more than the company's (often brilliant, certainly wildly popular) signature show Urban Death, this one pushes boundaries.  I've often called theatre at this venue "theatre of dreams" because it captures a sense of watching/participating in a dream.  Sometimes those dreams are nightmares.

This one certainly qualifies as a nightmare.  Lots of nightmares.  So much so I feel trigger warnings might be appropriate.  Anyone who has recently been the victim of any violence, especially sexual violence, might want to reconsider seeing this work. It aims to disturb, with all the power of a Dionysian ritual in Ancient Greece--and succeeds!

Credit: ZJU
Much of what the (fearless) cast produces under the direction of Zombie Joe gets under your skin.  Sometimes for reasons obvious, but other times strangely covert. Distortion, fear, a sense of decadence or subtle madness permeate many of the vignettes making up the experience.  In fact there's relatively little actual violence enacted during the hour-long performance.  What we do see is often brief, but vivid.

Sometimes it is also very simple.  Like the suitcase.  You'll find out what I mean if you go.

Or just a turnabout in ways we don't expect--a weirdly un-erotic fully nude dance which involves distortion, first by a lovely woman then a fairly handsome young man. 

Fortunately there's also some humor.  A good thing, because some release from the tension was frankly needed.  Part of the humor arose from musician Kevin Van Cott as a policeman (interestingly, outfitted as a London Bobby) who is freaking out over what he's seen or heard of this place--Blood Alley.  As far as the title goes, I immediately thought of Harry Potter's Diagon Alley but where all the dark things go and fester, where fears and neuroses scuttle amid the shadows and debris, and hungers we don't like to admit we feel emerge.

Credit: ZJU
To give an example of what this show entails, it contained the most harrowing rape I've ever seen on stage.  What made it most powerful was how Ian Heath in effect assaulted Charlotte Bjornbak via telekinesis or remote control.  They never even touched!  But my own flesh crawled.

And likewise it proved fascinating whenever the performance ventured into sexuality--be it lesbian make-out session or the strutting of some artfully posing streetwalkers (Daniel Palma, Elif Savas, Allison Fogarty, and Cassie Carpenter) that sexuality never ventures into the erotic.  Sex without pleasure, or even the hint of pleasure!

Credit: ZJU
Theatre of Nightmares.  As in waking up in a cold sweat...

I don't want to describe any more of what happens, since that might rob this amazing show of its impact, but let again praise the very brave performers--especially those not yet mentioned by name:  Liliane Laborde-Edozien, Kelly Powers,  Adam Shows,  and Alex G-SmithAn excessively brave cast this!

Blood Alley plays at 11pm Fridays and Saturdays until April 9, 2016 at Zombie Joes, 4850 Lankershim Blvd. (just south of the NoHo sign) North Hollywood CA 91601.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Shakespeare's Rose Queen (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The Ensemble Shakespeare Theatre recently completed a run of what strikes me as a very exciting project.  Writer/director Brian Elerding looked at the four plays that comprise Shakespeare's cycle about the so-called Wars of the Roses (actually at the time they were simply called The Cousins War, but never mind--this isn't about literal history)--Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III--and decided to focus upon the one character they have in common.  Margaret of Anjou, the "she wolf of France."  Like several other French brides to weak English Kings, she earned a reputation for arrogance and cruelty that had quite a lot to do with her being a woman.

What Elerding did was to radically edit all four plays to create in effect a new work--Shakespeare's Rose Queen.  It charts a young princess who finds love and comfort amid a faction-ridden foreign court, learning eventually to defend herself, becoming the leader in one side of a long Civil War.  In the end, she loses.  The tides of battle and human betrayal turn, her ever-rising rage and pride crashing against the rocks of history.  She loses everything.  Yet lives long enough to see the cycle start anew for her successor as Queen.

Now I want to make a point here.  Of late the most exciting Shakespeare productions I've seen tend to perform the plays with some kind of twist, a stepping sideways in some way that somehow brings the whole thing into sharper relief.  Be it Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Othello--when it works we see them anew, more vividly and true to themselves.

In other words, exactly waht Elerding is trying to pull off here.  Does he succeed?  Almost.  He has certainly created a fascinating piece of theatre, melding not only Shakespeare's language but also a sense of dance/movement very modern yet also timeless.  The battles in particular--enacted as beautiful but grotesque dance far upstage, two lines of performers struggling with one another without really touching--grabbed my attention and stirred my reactions.  So too did many performances, acting out scenes those of us who love Shakespeare rarely get to see.  Natalie Fryman for example as the young Richard, who will one day be the terrible tyrant.  John McCormick as Richard of York, perhaps the only person who ever loved Richard, the royal duke who gambled for the throne and just barely lost.  Sonny Calvano as Warwick, the Kingmaker, in this production an almost spider-like figure with the manner of a fussy monk.  Jay Blair as Henry VI, son of the brilliant war leader who came to the throne before his first birthday and clearly felt the burden of the crown with none of its pleasures.

Along the way, let me also praise Megan Rippey as the title character, who correspondingly shows us the arc of hopes dashed, victories stolen, frustrations stirred, revenges coming to nothing, until all she has turns to ashes.  The whole cast really did a very fine job indeed.

So why do I say "almost"?

Nuance mostly.  Shakespeare's Rose Queen works on very many levels, but the pace ultimately becomes too frantic in the second act.  Small wonder, given the source material (and presents a major challenge for anyone producing the Henry VI plays).  But that frantic pace interfered with character after a time.

At this point, as a playwright myself, I'm sorely tempted to start offering specific suggestions--which is not my place.  This is Brian Elerding's vision, and my job here is only to point out what seems the weakest part of his work--while noting I believe he can fix this, not least because of the extraordinary results already achieved.  As he himself notes in the program "There are battles ignored here, plot twists forgotten and entire subplots omitted."  Of necessity!  The result dazzled me in many ways.

I'd like to do a call out to the rest of the cast as well, including JR Davidson, Katie Peabody, Daniel Rivera and Brian White.  The original score by John Guth also melded very well with Hilary Thomas' choreography.  This particular show's run has ended.  I saw the last performance.  But I very much hope more productions follow.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Hot 'N' Throbbing (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Paula Vogel has a reputation as one of the edgiest American playwrights writing today.   Hot 'N' Throbbing, currently produced by the Illyrian Players in association with the Watts Village Theater Company, makes the case for just how disturbing--and moving--her creations can end up.  In a word, extremely.  On all counts.

This play, written in direct response to Senator Jesse Helms' 1989 amendment requiring those applying for NEA grants to forswear "obscene" art, actually explores exactly what in fact deserves that title.  Obscene.  What is that exactly?  Is it like beauty, entirely in the eye of the beholder?  Perhaps.  But might we as citizens and simply human beings come to overall working consensus on the subject?  Again, perhaps.

No easy answers here, folks.  Although, in the end at least one act portrayed in this play certainly qualifies.  Or should qualify.  What may give Hot 'N' Throbbing its greatest power is that some will argue on that point.

Which frankly counts as far more disturbing than anything on stage.

The plot deals with a very troubled family.  Single mom Charlene (Robyn Gabrielle Lee) writes erotica for a living, slipping into a trance as she pounds out scripts on her tabletop while dealing with issues involving her two children--rebellious teen "Layla" (Niki Mejia) and withdrawn bookish Calvin (Jason Caceres).  Other than Charlene's job perhaps this seems in anything very ordinary, yes?  No!  For one thing, two other characters share the stage with Charlene, seemingly unseen by her offspring.  Voice Over (My-Ishia Cason-Brown) and The Voice (Stephen Tyler Howell) appear at first to be Charlene's muses.  They even look like avatars of glamorous danger laced with lust.  As she composes, they provide the words, very nearly acting out the emotions described.

It cannot be that simple, though.  For one thing, sometimes Layla and Calvin see or hear them--but when they do, no one else does.  More, sometimes they offer advice--especially when Charlene's drunken ex-husband shows up in a rage over the restraining order she's had issued.  Clyde (Thaddeus Shafer) frankly embodies almost ever single stereotype of what used to be called a Male Chauvinist Pig. He self-righteously proclaims the most crude of gender roles, feels entitled to his wife's respect after doing all he can to lose it, thinks his violence should be instantly forgiven because he apologizes and sees all women purely in terms of sex.

Except--he isn't just a set of stereotypes.  Really.  The man has issues, sure, but his pain is real.  So too the connection with Charlene.  It is there, we see it.

Honestly, that is almost the least disturbing of many threads of desire and complexity explored in this family, with hints of incestuous desires for example (from and in directions you might not expect) and also the kind of primal sexual feelings over which we have little enough control--yet for which our society alternately condemns and fetishizes.

At the end, however, The Voice and Voice Over reveal what they are in burning fuse of real horror.  They appear to be the thoughts and fantasies of every single one of the characters in tandem.  Some alas do not listen to them.  Others, alas, do.  Nor is it as simple as saying certain types of thoughts are wrong or bad or obscene, especially when it comes to what we're told qualifies.  Yet one act is beyond any doubt in this play obscene.  One act that is sickeningly common, although the perpetrator (in a not uncommon nuance from real life) knows it and cannot live with that act.

Then we are left with a hint of an aftermath no less complex and disturbing than the rest of the play--all brought to life by an amazingly truthful cast.  Really, this kind of material involves the emotional equivalent of slicing open a vein to write a deeply held secret onto a placard.  Director Carly D. Weckstein evidently excells at creating the kind of "safe" space for actors to unsheathe so bravely.  She did it in the previous two plays of hers I've seen.  And here was yet another example.

Hot 'N' Throbbing plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm through April 10, 2016. Performances take place at Studio/Stage 520 North Western Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90004.

From the Production: Throughout the run of Hot ‘N’ Throbbing we will be collecting donations of tampons, pads, moving boxes, packing tape, coloring books, markers, crayons and colored pencils to bring to the The Good Shepherd Shelter for Battered Women with Children. Bring in items to donate and you can get a free beverage!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Cloud 9 (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 remains my favorite English language play of the 20th Century, so you can imagine how I reacted to news the Antaeus Company would be mounting a production of same.  The play makes for delightfully weird mirror of both our modern world and the Victorian Era out of which it arose.  Specifically, it deals with sex--not only in terms of sexuality (explored in a somewhat dizzying array) but more fundamentally in terms of gender as well as the troublesome/delightful fact sex even exists.

We begin in Africa, 1880, with an English family--Clive, his wife Betty, their daughter Vicky and son Edward--living on an estate, proudly striving to do their duty and save the natives from their savage natures.  Act Two picks up with exactly this same family precisely ten years later--in London 1980.

Yeah, ten years and simultaneously one century later.  Don't try and understand it, just go with the flow.

The layers in this play seem nearly infinite, to those of us lucky enough to have seen multiple productions of it, with each one revealing new insights into the situation, the characters, the ideas.  Obviously, it hardly qualifies as "realism" but like dream or myth it is all about Truth.  Not the easy truths, the comfortable truths, but the complex ones, the truths that challenge wrong (but extremely common) assumptions down to bedrock, and doesn't offer any kind of a neat solution to problems raised.  Maybe that's one reason it is remains so funny.  If it weren't the resulting disorientation might prove too much.  Then again, the humor is part of the challenge, a vital part of the experience.

In a nutshell, for Act One we get an almost Monty Python-esque pastiche of the Victorian Era, including the fact wife and mother Betty (Bill Brochtrup) is played by a man.  "I am a man's creation," she says, "and what a man wants is what I want to be."  Likewise their son Eddy (Deborah Puette) is played by a woman, while the daughter is portrayed exactly the way we might imagine such a household sees a baby girl--a doll. Well, of course.  Just as the black manservant Joshua (Chad Borden) is white.  "What white man wants is what I long to be."

 Then the homosexuals show up, in the person of the explorer Harry (David DeSantos) and Vicky's governess (Abigail Marks).  Hilarity, some of it very dark, ensues.

Act Two on the other shows what Britain has become in the next century, roughly contemporary to ourselves (one could assume the two acts take place in 1915 and 2015 without much of a stretch).  And while almost everything has in some sense returned to what we think of as normal--men playing men, women playing women--we're still left with the disorienting thought this involves many of the same individuals.

However, the five year old bratty girl is played by a middle aged man.  Just to help remind us of possibilities, and to offer comment (such as how very much she loves to play with guns).

But more than that--and here are very much in real spoiler territory--the stylization of all this makes for a ritual every bit as religious as Holy Communion. Or is that "mystical"?  Grown up Eddy and his sister Vic  each have relationship problems, then end up flabbergasted when their middle aged mother Betty leaves their father.  Vic meanwhile begins a relationship with Lin, the mother of the aforementioned bratty little girl.  A moment of contemplation between the siblings leads to a new arrangements--a bisexual incestuous triangle, sans jealousy but full of love.  And then...it happens.

The three of them get drunk one night, and decide to have a ritual, an attempt to call up the Goddess of the most ancient times, she of many names who has been forgotten but is now again appearing in human memory.  And they offer up that most brave and wonderful of prayers--Give Us What We Need!

What follows is a change in time and space, a series of genuine miracles that nudge all to where (in time) they each might come to be.  Where?  Cloud 9 of course.  For now, as the play ends, only one of them seems to make it, but they all might be heading there.  We end with hope.

Especially the closing moments of the play, oh that most splendid of tear-jerking moments, when the middle aged Betty remembers her mother and her husband, how they defined her.  And the sweet pleasure of discovering she herself is real.  More, she is free.  Then she turns around to see...herself.  From Act One.

Not going to tell you what happens next.  See it for yourself. One amazing quality of this play is just how much every single production leads me to new insights, not simply in terms of my mind but in the gut.  At least if the cast is good enough, and this one proves very good.  Every character comes to life, and even the ones most appalling ultimately come across as very human, which in this context means lost and confused, trying to find their way to Cloud 9.

I'll also say this production handled the songs extremely well, turning them into simple but quite effective little musical numbers.  Yeah, the play is a musical.  Kinda/sorta.  A little bit of one anyway.

Cloud 9 plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm as well as Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm until April 24, 2016 at the Antaeus Theatre Company, 5112 Lankershim Blvd (south of Magnolia) North Hollywood CA 91601.

NOTE:   This production has two complete casts who rotate in repertory.  I saw the play as done by  The Blighters but the other cast are The Hotheads.  I presume they are equal in quality to their fellows.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Blood (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I didn't know much about Blood when showing up at the theatre.  A musical involving Japan in some way.  My hope?  An enjoyable hour or so of theatre.

Blood proved to be all about how AIDS came to Japan back in the 1980s, when the disease remained far more mysterious.  At first, no one even knew how it was transmitted!  One of the first events chronicled on stage was the very first Japanese citizen to have died of this.  An American doctor shows up to secretly perform an autopsy.  The very distinguished Dr. Kazama (Toshi Toda) soon falsifies the death certificate, a practice we see continue for years.  After all, Kazama insists, pureblood Japanese are absolutely immune to AIDS.

Yeah, that idea had predictable results.

The production happily did not shy away from the sheer scale of the subject matter.  Named characters, for example, number in the dozens!  Settings jump back and forth across the United States and Japan, mostly the latter from Tokyo to regional hospitals and even a small fishing village. But what most impressed me (out of very many things that did) remains how the entire show remained utterly theatrical.  All too often plays I see shifting scenery or location for short scenes, stopping the action in favor of moving things around in half-light or some such.  Not here!  Three mobile screens constantly shift configuration, often with images projected onto them to suggest either actual locations (like a city street or Chinese restaurant) or sometimes events (the Hiroshima bombing) or thematic elements (red corpuscles floating in plasma).  Not only does this make for rapid, smooth pace, it highlights sometimes difficult truths the story explores.

Credit: Ed Krieger
For example, Japan is indeed the only nation to suffer a nuclear attack.  In the wake of that attack, as a country it had to give up the idea it was in a very sense divine.  Except of course that kind of notion doesn't swiftly or easily die.  Here are a people in a state of flux, and what they will become no one yet knows.

This idea--that of a people evolving, changing--shows up again and again in Blood, without however any character actually talking about it.  Even the Narrator (Andrew Nakajima) changes, his songs and speeches initially done with Kabuki-esque make-up that vanishes in Act Two.

Honestly, this review could easily end up five times the length I will allow it to become, so brimming with ideas and nuance Blood seems to me. At heart it remains a kind of epic drama, told in a fusion of Western and Japanese styles--at times with great relish.  Lawyers at one time assume stances from classic Japanese theatre to discuss the advisability of suing over thousands of innocent people knowingly given infected blood (until the late 1980s no had had ever sued the Japanese government).  Elsewhere a chorus of ruthless businessmen and government officials sing a pastiche of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado.  A trial is presented, in part, as a stylized battle complete with swords and Samurai armour.

Credit: Ed Krieger
All of which serves to help us enter into this play's world, to understand better these events and their consequences. Make no mistake, this dazzling array of theatricality could--in theory--eclipse the drama.  I say "in theory" because the combination of performances and structure of the piece instead throws the humanity into sharp focus. Standouts in the cast include Sohee Park as Yoji Kurosawa, the attorney who finally persuades those poisoned by their government to sue, Miho Ando as the child patient/plaintiff Koyo Ninomiya, and Kazumi Aihara as the Nurse Eiko Asami who secretly helps provide evidence of what has been happening.  But to be fair the entire ensemble deserves plenty of credit for this amazing show, one that felt almost bursting at the seems for a larger stage, one to more comfortably contain the sheer scale of the show.  With that in mind, I hope Takuma Anzai, Ash Ashina, Anthony Gros, Alexa Hamilton, Takaaki Hirakawa, Michael Joseph, Saki Miata, Daryl L. Padilla, Mika Santoh and Taishin Takibryashi all get to walk onto a Broadway stage and re-enact this fantastical, heart-piercingly truthful dream in song and dance, based on events all too easily proven as having happened.

Blood plays at The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood CA 90038 Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm, until April 3, 2016.

Sex & Love in the Modern Age (review)

 Spoilers Ahoy!

This review has come late, and for that I do apologize.  Sex & Love in the Modern Age is the latest exploration at ZJU of a given theme, in word (including both song and poem) as well as movement, including dance.  It consists of a ten member troupe acting out a series of vignettes.

So what we experience is a kind of odyssey, an exploration of so many pitfalls and nuances of simple (and not nearly so so simple) human connection.  Yes, the meeting of the two rare individuals in a crowd not staring into their iPhones.  Yes, the fear of intimacy amid temptations of availability.  Humor from the potential perverts might find in the internet here.  A dash of lesbian bondage there.  An almost surreal but potentially just real example of parents giving the "talk" to their gay son on prom night.

And if this sounds like the theatrical equivalent of paint-by-the-numbers, then I've given the wrong impression. Instead we get a kind of variety show which achieves more than mere entertainment.  While exploring the pitfalls and even some dangers of human connection, the performers actually make one.  With the audience.  The show doesn't simply come up with one funny skit after another (for one thing, they aren't all funny--some even are a tiny bit heart-breaking).  It hits the chord of deja vu.  These are our hopes as well, and our fears.

Photo Credit:  Sebastian Munoz
In the end, we even make a connection not just with the content, but the cast themselves.  And other members of the audience.

For the record, plenty of Zombie Joe regulars can be seen, including Nicole A. Craig, Jennifer Novak Chun (she of the cello), David Wyn Harris, Ian Heath (not naked once for a change) and Roger K. Weiss.  Others in the cast are Lee Quarrie, John Santo, Jacquie Waldman and Julian Zambrano.  I mention Callie Williams last simply because I want to praise her pipes--strong singers have their own special magic, like extremely fine dancers, and she is one.

Sex & Love in the Modern Age plays at ZJU 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601 (just south of the NoHo sign, north of Camarillo) Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm until March 26. Unless there is an extension.  I hope there is.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Brothel (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Bit of a disclaimer:  I in fact know a member of the cast of Brothel, now playing at the Eclectic Theatre in North Hollywood.  Her name is Michelle Danyn and I thought she did a very good acting job.  She was one of about a half dozen who did.  Unfortunately, the cast is almost twice that size.

Okay, I'm going to quickly discuss three aspects of the production.

First, the cast.  Some were very good, some were okay, and two could barely act at all.  Nobody gave a great performance, but several gave ones well above average, which means better than one usually sees.  My biggest praise goes jointly to Brittney Levine as Duchess, and to Terry Finn as Fanny Sweet.  Taking the silver would be the afore-mentioned Michelle Danyn as Cindy St. James, Dennis Delsing as Windy Finn and Scott Pretty as Kid Twist.  The rest were a mixed bag, in part frankly because of the writing.

Which brings us to the script.  Now, Brothel tells the story of a 1920 New York...well, brothel (duh)...its regulars and denizens immediately before and after the Stock Market Crash.  Now, that idea strikes me as full of potential.  Some of that potential came through, but in general the script rambled quite a bit.  That comprises my two complaints about the play itself--the need not so much to streamline but to focus, and the utterly saccharine ending that kicked me out of believing in these people, this story or this world.

Honestly, some of the relationships and scenes genuinely shone.  Brightly even.  I remember how powerful the 'opium den' scene came across, as well as the drunken scene between Cindy and Fanny Sweet (especially the former's deft playing of someone at different levels of drunkenness), the pleading between Madame Tremaine and Windy Finn.  Honestly, this was good stuff.  I was interested, and moved.  My heart wondered what would  become of these people, some of whom seem so clearly and inevitably doomed.  But when the script veered into stereotype, as it did more than once, it lost me.  So too when scenes meandered around--although that to some extent could also be the direction.

The ending, though, was like something out of the worst forumlaic sitcom.  I am not one to turn my back on a happy ending, nor to reject a sudden explosion of good fortune in someone's life. But...

C'mon!  Not one but two people go from almost broke to actually rich by a long-shot bet on a horse called Blind Faith?  At the beginning of the Great Depression?  While the broken down, near-penniless stock broker gets a call from John D. Rockefeller to give him a helping hand because he lent the billionaire an umbrella once?  At the same time the cynic breaks down and agrees to marry her rumrunner boyfriend who's just decided to go straight after paying off a dangerous gangster and re-connecting with his son who's done good?  At the same time the middle-aged hooker who's been saving her funds for years gets to take over the brothel and vows to turn it into a night club, so another hooker who really wants to be a singer can pursue her real passion?  Just after the abusive boyfriend and crooked cop manage to kill each other, releasing the nice Christian girl who was only turning tricks for said abusive boyfriend?

Yeah, it sounds nice.  What it doesn't sound, not even remotely, is truthful.  One or two of such plot twists would not shatter my sense of reality.  All of them together ground it into powder.

Given that, why even bother mentioning the lighting design (extremely poor--crank up those dimmers, so we can see people's faces!) or sound design (the cues were obviously "off")?

Too bad.  Brothel has some genuinely effecting scenes, some nice characters, and is well served by some quite good performances.  Performances run until April 3, 2016 Fridays & Saturday's at 8pm, Sunday's at 2pm with twowo Thursday performances: March 3 & 31 at 2pm (No show Easter Sunday: March 27) at 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd, NoHo, CA 91607.