Monday, April 25, 2016

Weapons (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

First--the world premiere play by Chris Collins now playing at the Lounge on Theatre Row is Weapons.  The program describes it as the third in a trilogy about a family in San Francisco.  After watching this play, I want to see (or at least read) those other two plays.

Second--this fits into the genre of family tragedy very much in the vein of Eugene O'Neil.  I felt reminded in some ways of A Long Day's Journey Into Night as well as maybe Mourning Becomes Electra.  This is high praise.  Higher praise is how the cast all managed to avoid the trap of such plays, at least for actors who haven't quite mastered some levels of craft.  A temptation to simply "ride the emotion" of the action exists in these kinds of works, and must be avoided at all costs.

The cast of Weapons avoided that trap.  What we see in every moment on stage are people trying--often desperately--to achieve goals, goals they long for with all their souls, but half the time have no real idea how to achieve it.  Several don't even know precisely what they themselves desire.  In other words, we see not actors performing roles but human beings struggling with life.

We see us.

The family in question consists essentially of five persons.  Paul (Cris D'Annunzio) is a retired cop now running a bar in San Francisco.  His wife died of cancer roughly a year past.  His daughters are teenage Lara (Jodi Wofford) and adult, estranged Sarah (Paige Herschell).  Living with Paul and Lara at the family home is May (Madelynn Fattibene), Paul's girfriend, when his brother Bill (Matt Kirkwood) comes for a visit at Lara's request.

Add to the brew Ellen (Katie May Porter), an old flame of Paul's from high school who recently showed up at his bar.

It made for a very harrowing night of theatre, watching this family tear itself apart, poking at open wounds often with what seemed like the very best of intentions. Sarah literally wants nothing more than to redeem herself and her father.  From what?  That is what people keep demanding of her.  Just as Paul clearly feels utterly lost, sans wife and job and one of his children--who then shows up to start making incoherent demands. Poor Lara tries to somehow keep things together while still dealing with such a tender merciless event as First Love.  Bill, at a crossroads in his acting career (he's really too old to be a leading man anymore) visits and dives into a what is clearly a sea of emotional poison--all the more deadly because he loves everyone else drowning there.

A dear friend asked me point blank what this play is about, and to my surprise a relatively straightforward answer came to mind.   This play is about a family that have never learned to forgive themselves.  Sounds simple does it not?  But like all genuine emotional states, it rarely end up that way.  Paul, Lara and Sarah in particular seem able (sometimes barely) to forgive others, but lash out in rage and self defense out of a stubborn refusal to let go and do the same for themselves.  Doing that would mean surrender.  Giving up what little power they might yet retain over their lives--losing the thorned crown of responsibility, i.e. guilt.

More, I must say the show's direction by Kiff Scholl helped achieve some real power, and the design--set by Pete Hickok, lights by Donny Jackson, sound by David B. Marling and costumes by Wendell C. Carmichael--helped enormously by creating a visceral sense of place.  San Francisco is my home town, and there is something wildly attractive in its chilly gloom, just as it remains a place of emotional isolation.  This play might take place somewhere else I suppose--Staten Island maybe, or from what some people have told me Montreal.

But if feels utterly right for San Francisco, and I felt the presence of that city from the moment I looked at the set.

Highly recommended for very good performances that get at the heart of tragedy without wallowing in the sentimental or superficial.  This is the real thing. 

Weapons plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until May 8, 2016 at the Lounge Theatre 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. (one block east of Vine).

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Devil's Bride (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Let me say right now I went into seeing The Devil's Bride at Theatre Unleashed utterly in love with the concept.  Essentially this is a sequel to William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.  At the end of that comedy, the villain of the piece--the bastard Don John--has been captured and the too-clever-for-his-own-good hero Benedick is given the power to decide his punishment.  This play is all about that punishment.  In effect it is sequel.

The result proved quite lovely!

Don John (Michael Cortez) we meet in a dungeon, under the auspices of Dogberry (Richard Abraham) and Verges (Cyanne McClairian), two of the funniest Shakespearean characters this side of Midsummer Night's Dream.  Soon enough Benedick (Jim Martyka) arrives to order his relief under specific conditions--the bastard prince is to forfeit all lands, treasure and titles unless he can persuade Benedick's sister Allegra (Sammi Lappin) to marry him.

Understandably, pretty much everyone in the play who hears about this does a double take.  What on Earth is Benedick up to?  He explains all to his new wife/once and future antagonist Beatrice (Jenn Scuderi Crafts), even as Allegra herself arrives in Messina from Padua. Generations ago, a gypsy curse decreed any girl child born of their family would see all those who agreed to marry them die before their wedding day.  Allegra, the first such child in generations, took the legend as exactly that--until she was betrothed three times in a row to men who died before the wedding.  She has resolved to enter a convent.  Benedick believes Don John might break her resolve and in the process she will temper his dark impulses.  And as a royal prince with a substantial fortune she "could do worse."

When alone on stage, Allegra reveals this is not at all to her liking. She had dreamt of love, of marriage and children.  But even though she liked none of her late fiancees, neither did she want any of them dead!  The same is true of Don John!

Naturally enough, Don John's rather dark turn of mind makes him presume that any woman so offered to him will either prove a "whore or a harpy."  Which makes good sense, as far as it goes. One of the best moments in the whole play, which you can almost see coming, happens when the two finally do meet.  And yes, sparks fly.  Allegra, wanting love so much and having renounced it for the most honorable motives, quickly finds her resolve challenged.  John, a man bitter with the hatred hurled at him for being born out of wedlock (some openly insist he cannot possess a soul for just that reason), finds Allegra a young woman captivating almost beyond words.  A meaty seed of a story!

But totally worthless unless the cast is equal to it.

Fortunately, all the leads in this play are well up to the challenge, up to an including Duke Leonato (Steve Peterson).  All throughout what might easily have been nothing more than an intellectual exercise for Shakespeare geeks (like myself) rises to an actual drama.  I will frankly say Lappin and Cortez steal the entire show, as it should be since they are the title characters and the pole around which everything turns. Lappin has turned in many a fine comedic performance before now, and I'm thrilled to see her (as I have longed for) do drama.  The genuine torment of her Allegra proved fascinating to watch, as was Cortez's turn as a would-be villain who in fact turns out to be rather un-villainous at second or third or fourth glance.  That he remains tormented by his late first wife Marisol (Molly Moran), so much so she appears to taunt him, could be cloying but remains instead a window into his man's soul.

Having said all this praise, I'll admit the secondary characters aren't really as well-served by Joan Silsby's the script as we might like, such as Conrade (Lee Pollero), Don Pedro (Matthew Martin), Margaret (Isabelle Gonlund) or Borachio (Carey Matthews). But then, we're comparing this to a play by Shakespeare after all!  That said, I found myself a bit sorry the heightened language gradually seemed to vanish altogether by the second half of Act Two.  Frankly, I will also say the sword fight needs lots more practice to achieve the kind of speed which makes a sword fight exciting!

Yet, those are quibbles. The Devil's Bride not only lived up overall to my hopes, but gave me lots of lovely surprises as well as compelling performances full of those contradictory impulses that make characters human.  I want to see this show again.

The Devil's Bride plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm until May 21, 2016 with special Monday shows May 2 and 9 also at 8pm, upstairs at the Belfry Stage 11031 Camarillo Street, North Hollywood CA 91602

Demonic Housewives (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

As I write this Demonic Housewives has only three performances to go, barring a revival (which I would not dismiss out of hand).  Should you go see it?

Well, it depends on your taste.  Do you have a somewhat dark sense of humor?  Does a story of a small town secretly ruled by a cabal of satanist housewives sound like fun to  you?  What about a pair of goth girls trying to destroy an evil talisman?  Did you enjoy the t.v. show Monsters? Tales from the Dark Side? How about Tales from the Crypt?

Because that is the kind of show this is.  Silly, fun, oddly touching in a way, not taking itself too seriously.  It all takes place in the town of Hobsville ("Hob" is an ancient name for the devil), where Wanda (Lee Quarrie) tries to work some dangerous ritual magic and ends up a pile of ashes for her trouble.

Hey, I did warn  you about spoilers!  I did!

Credit: Adam Neubauer
We soon meet the rest of cast, staring with a trio of gossips named Lucille (Anne Westcott), Ethel (Aubry Manning) and Bertha (Suzie Heaton). In a way, the whole play is about three sets of three, each a center of some kind of power.

The satanic coven consists of the local preacher's wife Millicent (Redetha Deason), her dim friend Peggy (Beth Fisher) and new recruit--naive, unemployed teacher Kim (Monet Hendricks).  This latter has no idea what she's gotten into, nor how ruthless Millicent can be.

Finally there's an ersatz trio, of Wanda niece Darcy (Lara Fisher), the only member of the family who comes to settle the late occultist's things, with her in-your-face best friend RAE (Caitlin McCormick).  Later these two are joined by the ghost of Wanda, in efforts to somehow destroy a magic talisman that could release a horde of demons held captive.  Opposing them are Millicent's coven, who seek to help the demons escape!

Credit: Adam Neubauer
Amid all of this hilarity--and it is hilarity, taken with just about as much seriousness as the Ghostbusters--the show has a violinist (Elif Savas) and cellist (Jennifer Novak Chun) offering musical accompaniment to events.  Don't know if that was in Thomas J. Misuraca's script or emerged from director Sebastian Munoz' mind, but it works!

Now, as you've hopefully gathered from this review Demonic Housewives is an entertaining comedy poking fun at religion and some of the tropes of the horror genre, well-acted and generally performed with a lot of energy.  Well and good, because it is all that.  Let me add however it is also an intensely clever work, in many ways. For one thing, how refreshing to see a play on this subject entirely about women!  Consider the works of H.P.Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson when you ask why that might be refreshing. Second, there's an underlying wit to the the whole story--the intersecting triads of power for example, which is too pervasive to be anything but deliberate, and also the clever way the play's ending remains deliciously, ominously "open."  Tribute to the fact the best comedies are more than a string of punchlines strung together into something resembling a plot.  Here, the plot and characters themselves are part of the humor, not least because one can easily see this same story told "straight" as a horror movie (probably on Lifetime).

A fine inaugural show for Force of Nature Productions--a wonderfully crafted blend of humor and horror, written cleverly and performed with comedic skill.

Demonic Housewives plays Thursdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm until May 1, 2016 at the Archway Theatre, 10509 Burbank Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 9160.

Friday, April 22, 2016

My Manana Comes (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Here's an interesting detail.  Until I saw My Manana Comes at the Fountain Theatre, it had been a long time for me since seeing a play entirely about what is a "male" world, a completely masculine POV.  Please don't see this as a complaint one way or another.  I just found it interesting, not least because the playwright in question is a woman--Elizabeth Irwin.

The play takes place in and around the kitchen of a Manhattan restaurant, focusing on the lives of four busboys one summer. 

Credit: Ed Kreiger
Peter (Lawrence Stallings) is a no-nonsense African American focused on his job and providing for his family. Friendly, fun, but very highly strung when things get very tough--as they do.  Jorge (Richard Azurdia) is a notoriously miserly worker, here illegally from Mexico. He is sending every penny he can home, building a house for his wife and children--a house he hopes Peter will one day visit and be treated as an honored guest! Whalid (Peter Pasco) is Mexican American but was born here--full of energy but not that much discipline, full of an ever changing number of plans and so insecure he boasts about every single one. Then there is young Pepe (Pablo Castelblanco), also "illegal" and too easily distracted, eager for the day when his brother can join them.

Now, parenthetically, I'd like to point out the really superb job these four did doing the job of busboy! For much of the play they are in constant motion, doing dozens of little tasks, some of them (like balancing three food-filled plates on one arm) anything but easy but they did it like it was second nature.  Having played a waiter just once on stage, I have some inkling of just how much rehearsal that took!

Credit: Ed Kreiger
More, though, they did their jobs as actors.  At first very little "action" happens, yet we are carried away by the forward momentum of these characters, their hopes and dreams and frustrations. No small feat, but vital because the real conflicts of the show grow a little slowly--and then detonate in a horrific slow motion.  Maybe even more importantly, we continue to care about them.  Yeah, Pepe is kind of stupid, Whalid arrogant jerk, Peter eaten away by envy and even Jorge can be both a prude and sometimes a bit of coward--but none of them are villains.  All are just these guys trying to get by, imperfect but not cruel.

Which makes the drama so much more intense.  Because when the sides break down--when the greed and foolishness of the restaurant owner fractures the world of the kitchen, none of these guys is wrong.  They end up in genuinely deadly conflict, these four who were and should have been friends.

My Manana Comes plays Mondays and Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm until June 26, 2016 at the Fountain Theatre 5060 Fountain Ave. (near Normandie) Los Angeles, CA 90029.

A Gulag Mouse (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The word "Gulag" refers to the brutal forced labor prison camps of Siberia used by the former Soviet Union. Under the circumstances one might expect a play titled A Gulag Mouse to be quite grim. Nor would you be wrong!  Playwright Arthur M. Jolly took one of the worse places human beings can exist and crafted an extraordinary story from that place. A tale of five women trapped, desperate, hungry, angry, terrified and also terribly alone--even when surrounded by others in the same situation.

Anastasia (Emily Goss) has had a relatively privileged life.  Note that word "relatively."  Because at the end of the second world war, faced with her war hero husband entering her life once more, she killed him.

Sentenced to the Gulag, she soon meets the other prisoners in a windy wooden shack.  Masha (Kimberly Atkinson), big and tough and perfectly willing to hurt others out of spite--who weirdly (or not) feels she belongs here. Lubov (Heather L. Tyler), once much prettier than she is now but with enough looks to degrade herself with an officer, thus suffering less in some ways--an unforgivable offense in some eyes.  Svetlana (Crystal Keith) has seemingly turned all her emotions 'off' in order to survive. No malice there, but no compassion.  Or is there?  Then there is Prushka (Dana DeRuyck), sentenced to ten years for telling a joke she refuses to repeat, who has the nickname "Mouse."

There's a clue there if you pick up on it.  I did not.  I usually do.

But picking up clues rapidly give way as the story unfolds, as the fierce, unofficial but merciless rules the Gulag play themselves out.  There is never enough food.  Weakness brings instant attention. They are trapped in a frozen wilderness dozens of miles from shelter, surrounded by guards and dogs.  Only the strong survive here to be released.  Few prove that strong.

And yet--what is strength?  How do you measure power when everything conspires to keep you weak? How far might anyone go? How much will they risk?

I will frankly say this play surprised me throughout--which remains one of my favorite experiences in theatre.  Everything made sense, though.  As time went on, and new surprises emerged, the importance of so many tiny details became increasingly vivid. But the script is dead words without the actor.  Every single person in the show proved a marvelous actor, up to and including Brandon Bales in the double role of Evgeny and Ivanov, both small yet utterly vital.  Director Danielle Ozymandias likewise achieved marvels.  First and foremost she cast the play!  I know from experience that is three quarters of the job and she did that part magnificently!

But more--and this oddly enough is where many directors do sometimes fall--she clearly kept the pace right.  Rhythm is weirdly important in life as well as art, and even the business of maintaining tension amid silence forms a huge part of that.  It engages us on a visceral level, breathing life into what is frankly a truly extraordinary set of words strung together.  This is a performance that will remain with you, I promise.

A Gulag Mouse plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm through May 21, 2016.  Extra performances are Thursday April 28 at 8pm, Sundays May 8 and 15 at 7pm at the new Sacred Fools Theater Black Box, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd. (at Lillian).

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Dry Land (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

(Heh heh...give the title that is kinda funny)

Let me begin with the title.  Dry Land by Ruby Rae Spiegel.  Seems two ways to interpret that.  The story deals with members of a high school girls' swim team.  Specifically, between a friendship that grows between two of them -- a very close, powerful bond in the end, between two girls who in some fundamental way heal and soothe each others' loneliness. So is the dry land that sense of emotional isolation, with the water functioning (as it so often does) as emotional life?  Or is dry land a haven from the currents and depths and unpredictable but heartless weather that waits out at sea?

One point of high praise I'd like offer this script is the suggestion the title means both.

We begin with Amy (Tegan Rose) chatting after school in the pool locker room with Ester (Conner Kelly-Eiding).  The former seems a bright, pretty popular girl who for some reason has decided to hang out with the latter.  At first we think they might already be friends.  Soon that seems not really true. Not yet.  Also, Amy keeps demanding Ester punch her in the stomach.  Hard.  No, hard!  Harder!

Credit: Darrett Sanders
Doesn't take too long to figure out why.  Or why she's insisting on asking a relative stranger to help.  For that matter, Ester's willingness to help her out even in such an extreme act seems crystal clear from the start.

Now, at this point let me point out something else I adore about this script.  Some have heralded it as "an abortion play" but to me that makes as much sense as calling Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a "college play."  Not exactly inaccurate, but doesn't get at the heart of what's going on.  Abortion ends up one more factor some teenage girls have to handle, pretty much on their own.  Along with peer pressure, fear of the future after high school, self esteem (or self loathing), sexuality, the temptations of power and so on.  The issue of abortion never really gets mentioned directly but simply exists as part the characters' lives.

Credit: Darrett Sanders
Which would be pretty meaningless without a cast bringing honesty and humanity in massive doses to the stage.  Between the two I suspect Kelly-Eiding has the harder task, simply because Ester turns out to be simply (or not so simply) good.  She is not without issues or secrets or insecurities or a temper.  But she comes across virtually from her first line as someone who in the pinch will try and do the right thing--i.e. to act with compassion, to help.  This part of her heart frankly remains on her sleeve--making her an obvious choice for Amy.

Amy in turn pretty much embodies that old analogy of truth being like an onion.  Layer after layer, most of them lying--often to others, often to herself, often (but not always) to both.

In essence there are only three other real characters in the play, at least whom we actually meet. A group of team members show up at one point, but they really are little more than the equivalent of spear carriers.  Which is fine and they do a good job of it.  But Jenny Soo as Reba--Amy's supposed best friend but from whom she conceals the truth fiercely--shines simply because she's given just enough to serve as an avatar for the shallowest part of high school society.  She is present at the scene that made me genuinely squirm--an act of deliberate cruelty by Amy aimed with not a shred of good reason at Ester.  Reba doesn't bat an eyelash.  But then, even from her walk we knew she wouldn't.

Credit: Darrett Sanders
But the characters of Victor (Ben Horwitz) and the Janitor (Dan Hagen) also give their actors a chance to shine--and like the rest of the cast, they do so swimmingly.

Sorry, I literally could not resist!

Without going into too many details, Victor and the Janitor do a nice job of showing the world is not so hopeless as Amy clearly feels (or fears) it is.  Whatever else they might be, including awkward, they prove the world is not high school.  And maybe that subtle point is what is most needed for the audience.  And most of all, for Amy.  This work is an open ending.  We do not really know what the future holds for these characters--no more than we can say for certain about ourselves.  And I found myself praying a little bit for Amy, the popular one, the pretty one, the oh-so-desperate one.

Dry Land runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., through May 15, 2016 at the Echo Theatre Company, Atwater Village Theatre 3269 Casitas Ave in Los Angeles, CA 90039.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Super Identity Crisis (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Not ever show is for everyone.  This goes beyond simply a question of genre or style, beyond individual preferences for comedy or drama or musicals, etc.  ZJU's Super Identity Crisis by Magnus MacDomhnail brings this very much to mind.

The play is a parody of super heroes, more in terms of comic books than the movies so popular right now.  More, it takes an almost Rocky Horror-esque twist on its tale of a confrontation between some (kinda sorta) familiar superheroes and supervillains in Singapore.

I should say right now this kind of stuff sounds absolutely fantastic to my ears!  And yet--everyone else in the theatre seemed to be laughing a lot more than I was. Which means maybe you should take my reaction with a grain of salt. Or two.

Credit:  Magnus MacDomhnaill
Personally, I found it hard to enter into the world of the play.  Mostly this is because I still have zero notion what the first scene has to do with the rest of it, other than some of the same overall zaniness.  Essentially the plot seems to involve semi-Spider-man clone Crawler (Patrick Beckstead) and generic uber-tough guy Fist (Joshua Dickinson) paired up against their will by the one-eyed Brigadier Rage (Joseph Jones).  Their mission seems to investigate goings on around some invention by a Dr. Janus (Adam Poisal) desired for some reason by the nefarious Grim Reaper (Donna Jean Siegel).  Rage doesn't think they'll succeed so he dispatches Cod Man (Edward Nyahay) and his sidekick Wonder Boy (Meedo Dapron) as backup.

Meanwhile the Grim Reaper recruits a few minions of his/her own--Dark Dwarf (David Wyn Harris) and Black Box (Isabel Espy).

Oh, and then there's Doctor Melinoe (Taylor C. Baker).  I don't want to give away precisely who she is.  In part because it is confusing.

Credit:  Magnus MacDomhnaill
There's a lot to enjoy or applaud in this show. For one thing, there's some very subversive stuff here, like the truly disturbing "relationship" between Cod Man and Wonder Boy.  Or the way Brigadier Rage really doesn't come across as much of a good guy at all.  I should also say my personal favorite character was Black Box--and not only for the rather adult story behind her name!  I just thought this one of the best acted characters in the show, but then she also got the best villain/hero battle in the play--between herself and Crawler (who gets a phone call from his wife mid-fight).

Much of the set-up was clever, often on many levels.  Plenty of archetypes got played with, for example.  While Crawler is a spin (sorry) on Spider-Man, Fist is a weird avatar of Wolverine + The Comedian + The Punisher + Lobo + Guy Gardner.  A nice tough was giving Brigadier Rage Jedi powers (think about it for a minute).

On the other hand, there just wasn't enough set-up.  More, the pace seemed too frantic, with hardly a pause to get acclimated or to allow us to recover from the previous explosion/scene full of yelling.

Credit:  Magnus MacDomhnaill
But people laughed!  They smiled a whole lot!  And it isn't as if I didn't enjoy myself (just evidently not as much as everyone else in the audience)...  I just think the show needs some work.  Given some workshoping, I think this could end up as a very popular play, one earning a well-deserved niche as a cult favorite.  But it isn't there yet.  So what you get is something full of energy and good ideas, with three or four top-notch performances, and an enthusiasm which overcomes a fair number of problems.

Super Identity Crisis plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm until April 23, 2016 at Zombie Joes Underground Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd. (just south of the NoHo sign) North Hollywood CA 91601.