Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Occupation (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I like to see plays set in the future.  Maybe because that particular surge of imagination appeals to my hopes and fears on some level.  Occupation certain appeals to both.  And that fact helps explain why it touched me so very very much.

The time is "almost now" following a series of terrible events, beginning with some kind of simultaneous terror attack on several American cities.  Sadly the military's reaction was a coup, setting in place a junta, then in effect martial law complete with people being "taken" at the word of informers.

We meet five women.  Tattoo Mother (Jenny Ashe) who longs to see her daughter once more, but that daughter vanished into an underground resistance long ago.  Patriot Mother (Brynn Alexander), a young widow and fervent believer in the new regime.  Garden Mother (Theodora Marcelline) whose efforts have been dubbed illegal--why turns out to be quite a tale.  Then we have Delivery Daughter (Monica Baker) a seemingly tough-as-nails survivor whose status becomes the central point of the story.  Finally Tap Dance Daughter (Olivia Powell) trying with odd awkwardness to retain a connection to that strange, magical world of Before.

Unlike, for example, The Hunger Games, the focus here remains firmly fixed on individuals rather than great movements of history.  The title refers to living under Occupation, until the fist and the censor.  In such a world, how do we survive?  By lashing out?  By withdrawing into dreams?  By convincing oneself what we are doing must be done for some ideal?  All of these or none of them or some combination?

Wonderful stuff from which to fashion a play.  An anti-Illiad in some ways, all about the women in war rather than the war itself or at least the men fighting it.  Stylistically, also very much theatre--the poetry spoken as if that were natural speech, the repetitions used like a chorus, the startling metaphors made concrete--tap shows, tattoos, even flowers or bricks or the beating of a drum.

At first I felt disoriented, but that faded as the mysteries began taking shape.  What had happened to the world?  More, who were these women and what had they to do with one another (it soon seemed obvious they would turn out connected to one another somehow).  Dystopias often tell of the grinding away of humanity and soul, a la 1984.  Then there are the tales of defiance, of victory over the oppressive state in one way or another, such as V is for Victory or maybe Anthem. Occupation focuses on a different victory, at least the attempt--holding on to oneself, to nurturing even the mildest of hopes, not unlike Fahrenheit 451.  That this very talented cast brought to life for an hour and a half (almost), and I left the theatre very moved.

Occupation has one more performance scheduled, for Sunday June 26 at 5:30pm at the Main Space of the Complex 6470 Santa Monica Blvd.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Winter is Coming (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

No one should feel too startled to learn somebody somewhere would do a musical parody of HBO's Game of Thrones.  My suspicion as to why no one else has done it (at least successfully, despite some quite good music videos) is one of scale.

Which brings us to Winter is Coming, the musical parody from MB productions.

Apart from anything else, this show has literally the largest cast of any Fringe show I can recall seeing!  Small wonder, given the sheer number of characters introduced (all from season one of the show:  Ned Stark (M Hayward Scott), Catelyn Stark (Emily Craig), Robb "the pretty one" Stark (Nicholas McDonald), Sansa Stark (Deanna Baker), Arya Stark (Stephanie Sandelin), Bran Stark (Casey Suddeth--who looks like Theon Greyjoy but never mind), Jon Snow (Brice Williams), etc.  And that is less than half the cast!  Other major players include Queen Cersei (Bennett Cousins), her brother Jaime Lannister (Michael Orlandi), her son Joffrey (Tony Celluci) and of course her younger brother Tyrion "The Imp" (Matt Hill).

Halfway done?  Nope.  I'm not kidding.

What with remarkably good costumes, catchy music, generally high production values and a cast that shows plenty of talent, what more could you ask for?

That is precisely what I would ask for.  More.  Because despite all the production managed to do, at just about one hour this musical cannot help but end up too short. If you are telling nothing more than a series of jokes, that becomes dull pretty quickly.  This show does not settle for that, putting it (at least potentially) alongside such successful parodies as Young Frankenstein or A Very Harry Potter Musical. But at a mere hour it doesn't have time to really explore its material.  Most of the characters don't really have anything like an arc save Daenerys (Megan Watt) and the two Stark daughters.  In a comedy and/or parody, a character arc need not make a whole lot of sense, but it still needs to be there.  As it stands, one has to wonder why most of this cast is even in the show?  Jon Snow's story goes nowhere, ditto Cersei and Jaime and even Tyrion! The stuff of character blended into comedy is there, just lacking the time to really develop.

For example, I loved Catelyn's patter song trying to warn her husband of the Lannisters, only to have him pretty much pat her on the head and say she's a woman so doesn't understand these things.  Her reply to this was a great bit on many levels.  But what was going on with Robb and Bran?  Well, nothing but a pep talk really.  Joffrey's diabolical little anthem celebrating his evil was lots of fun, but kinda exists totally on its own.  Daenerys had something like an arc, but it moved by so fast I had to think for a few minutes to realize this made some kind of sense within the context of this musical.

Again, all the elements of something first rate are there.  Some in nascent form, but present!  But this parody needs a second act to stretch out the story so we get caught up in events--especially since the plot remains rather complicated.  I want to see the full length version.  I want to see it quite a lot!  Because what I got was fun, but what seemed to be waiting in the wings of time seemed great!

Other cast members who deserve mention (most played multiple roles): Amanda Newman, Kaitlyn Abendroth, Caleb Cordis, Amber Lawson, Alex Hurren, Jesse Baldridge, PJ Megaw, and Robert Steinberg.

Winter is Coming plays Saturday June 25 at 8:30pm and Sunday June 26 at 2pm at The Actors Company 916 N.Formosa Ave (west of LaBrea, south of Santa Monica).

Sticky Fingers (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

There's a certain format for plays that can pop up fairly often in events like the Hollywood Fringe with a minimum of rehearsal time.  I call it the "serial monologues" in which several characters tell the audience their stories more or less with a similar theme, or kind of event, or a specific topic, etc.  At its best they work just fine, offering what we long for in live theatre--moments of humanity, illuminating our own and others' lives, letting us feel our common humanity.

Sticky Fingers focuses on women who have all (save one) been caught shop-lifting.  It also breaks the format of the "serial monologue" but ultimately turning into a scene where they are all listening to one another, reacting and commenting, offering support and sometimes judgment.  For the record, I like this "breaking."

All the moreso since at first we seem to be meeting well-acted and entertaining stereotypes rather than fully fleshed characters.  Then, it all slowly changes.  Not least because it deals with a more fundamental question than how much of an issue is shoplifting?  Rather, what might we lack that we feel compelled to steal in order to obtain it?  Francine Daniels, for example--there's a gulf there inside her, as she herself recognizes, even if its exact nature remains elusive.  No matter.  There lies the power in the script.  Whether it be Dionne Jones' secretary who longs for more than the most humdrum of lives, Hallie Myers' high schooler's wish to escape an embarassing family into a dream date, Breon Gorman's wife's sudden impulse for more out of her seemingly contented marriage, or Sidney Aptaker's teen with a somewhat obsessive relationship with eyeliner, we come to recognize them in us.  Nobody after all is without some unfulfilled longing, some hunger unsatiated.  We aren't talking about the violent, the dangerous, the deluded after all.  Just the mildly desperate trying to make sense of themselves.

Their stories touch us.  Well, they touched me, and the rest of the audience reacted pretty much as I did.  When Fiona Lakeland's first character--the unrepentant thief--literally runs away from this group therapy meeting, we all seemed to realize she needed more time.  Her second character, who arrives late for the meeting, proves a celebrity (although no one calls her by name, not even "Miss Ryder").  Details, as with the others, remain in most ways sparse--we get a precis of what led them to this, not a full biography.  Enough for us to feel what we all have in common, how we all in one way or another need some healing.

Finally our narrator, Maya Ferrara's undercover security officer, recounts a specific trauma.  Not one to explain her shoplifting--this play isn't ever really that narrow--but of a consequence, one horrible and not even remotely deserved (save in the view of some psychopath).  And the others, they listen.  As we listen.  They, and we, recognize themselves in her.

What more needs be said?

Sticky Fingers has one more performance, Saturday June 25 at 10pm at the Dorie Theatre in the Complex 6476 Santa Monica Blvd.

Must Be Comfortable With (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Must Be Comfortable With consists of a series of comedic sketches, all along a theme.  In this case that theme remains focused on the treatment/state of women in theatre and the acting profession especially.  Plenty of grist for the comedic mill there!

Now, my own taste isn't usually for polemic humor unless done extremely well.  You do this now and then.  At its best, the zingers not only hit target but make us laugh and sometimes even think!

The skits in this range from above average to excellent.  Perhaps the surest test of this lies in this fact--I found myself wondering whether in a recent play I'd committed the same gender-based nonsense targeted (for the record--I think not, although it worries me someone could slant a production that way...).  That and the fact I laughed.  When I didn't laugh, I was usually smiling.  Sometimes in a grimace, and/or in discomfort--but then, such does rather remain the point.

Generally the quality of the skits varied a bit.  I don't quite think the (very clever) take on the famous Four Yorkshireman sketch worked, although the audience still laughed.  The casting meeting in a reverse world where women are deciding which male actor is young and attractive enough to be the love interest for Helen Mirren lacked guffaws but made up for it with sharp wit.  Personally, I thought the glimpse into what it would be like if other professions--scientist, accountancy, dentistry, etc.--treated women the way movies do combined best the humor and discomfort.  Some of this quality lies less in the writing (although certainly there) than in the performers--but as a playwright myself that comes as no real surprise.  One rarely sees a really large cast with pretty uniformly high quality, but this one had it, so kudos to Sylvia Lohendorf, Tara Donovan, Dana DeRuyck, Lacy Altwine, Danielle Ryerson, Esther Mira, Lea Matthews, Jessica Shim, Marian Gonzalez, Natalie Ochoa, Dionne Neish and Chevonne Hughes!

Must Be Comfortable With plays Saturday June 25 at 1pm in the Ruby Theatre, part of the Complex 6476 Santa Monica Blvd.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Princes Charming (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Imagine a mash-up of all (or most) of the classic fairy tales--Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, etc.  Only this is something of a sequel, with a few original characters tossed in as well.  You might be thinking Once Upon a Time or perhaps Into the Woods.  Cannot blame you!  But this instead is a delightful play which feels a tad more in tune with Fractured Fairy Tales (if you were ever lucky to see that series of cartoons).

The Princes Charming tells of two brothers, twins born to a King Frederick (Max Marsh) and his beloved Queen Isabel (Ashley Snyder).  As a side note, this marriage seems more than a little odd, but in a fun--and kinky--way (as peasants and servants played by Mikaela Moody, Reno Muren, Cadence Whittle and Daniel Joo could evidently attest!).  Said sons are Arthur (Jared Wilson) and William (Tor Brown)--handsome, spoiled, talented and not evil but hardly very mature when it comes to the opposite sex.  The royal parents worry about this and arrange a series of blind dates with suitable princesses--which generally go hilariously wrong.

Does this sound funny?  It does to me, but the final product ended up sparking a lot more laughs than expected!  For one thing, the whole thing has a narrator, the Minstrel aka "Minnie" (Bree Pavey) and at times the character realize they are in a play--which opens up and explores loads more avenues of gags high and low, visual and witty, etc.  Much of this centered around the newest stage hand Bob (Cameron Britton).  Comedy so totally depends on chemistry and rhythm the fact all the cast so perfectly captures it remains a major reason why we the audience laughed.  And kept laughing!

Case in point--one scene has the Royal family discussing everything going on while following some kind of coach lead them in a series of movements somewhere vaguely in the manner of Tai Chi.  It added a nicely surreal touch, but I just lost it toward the end when the movements began to be those of the macarena (heyyyyy!)

Likewise many kudos to Lauren Spelling who plays all the princesses (save one) Arthur and William have to meet.  Have you ever considered for example how Sleeping Beauty would feel finding out one day she was a princess after being raised on a farm?  Or how your average person would react to a princess who claims to have conversations with birds?

As far as the plot goes, the two brothers are told the first of them to fall in love and get married will inherit the throne.  Naturally enough, this creates a sense of competition, but then the truth comes out--King Frederick and his Queen are the central characters from Beauty and the Beast.  If the boys don't fall in love soon, they will slowly turn into beasts!  Or not so slowly as it turns out...

To top all that, William has fallen in love with a peasant girl (Jordan Wynter) while Frederick's best friend King Roland (Jon Tosetti) along with his "beastly" daughter Griselda (April Morrow).  See those quotation marks?  There for a reason...

Instead of resting on the laurels of a perfectly good premise, the whole show (written and directed by Mitch Rosander) builds on it, piling one wacky gag or sly joke after another until finally our narrator literally tells us we're out of time and we have to make room for the next show.  Good thing, too, because by then we're exhausted from the amount of energy on that stage!

The Princes Charming plays at the Sacred Fools Black Box, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd. (about two blocks west of Vine) Friday June 17 2016, 8:00 PM, Monday June 20 2016, 8:00 PM and Wednesday June 22 2016, 6:00 PM.  Unlike most Fringe shows this one runs about ninety minutes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Toxic Avenger Musical! (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The title kinda tells it all.  The Toxic Avenger Musical playing at this years Hollywood Fringe Festival springs from the Good People Theater company, and (obviously) derives from the cult movie of (almost) the same name.

For those who haven't seen the flick, it tells the story of a nerd named Melvin living in Tromaville New Jersey, thrown into a vat of toxic waste dumped there by evil-doers.  Said waste transforms him into a hideously deformed mutant with more-than-human strength and endurance was well as amping up his rage.  He sets out as a vigilante to clean up Tromaville, along the way earning the love of a blind girl.

Yeah, that old chestnut.

And it plays out pretty much as you might expect, with lots of silliness and campy humor along with lots of catchy/funny show tunes.  A specific villain in the person of a corrupt Mayor (Shirley Hatton) becomes a clear-cut antagonist.  Melvin (Jared Reed) had already met the blind librarian Sarah (Kim Dalton), falling totally for her as Peter Parker did Mary Jane. She naturally only notices him once he has superpowers.  All well and good, fun to be had, but with shows like this once you have a competent script and score, execution is what matters.

Here the show really does shine.  Apart from the fact everyone can sing and act at the same time, all sell their characters 100% even at their most ridiculous.  "Toxie" (as our hero becomes known) and Sarah's first date for example.  Apart from anything else the timing of every single beat was spot on!

Likewise nearly all the supporting cast consist of the White Dude (Wesley Tunison) and the Black Dude (Danny Fetter) who play an almost bewildering array of bullies, police officers, doctors, hair dressers, best girlfriends, random citizens, etc.  More, they did it full bore and kept getting more laughs pretty much every time they re-appeared in a new set of costumes.

I haven't even mentioned Hatton's one woman duo as the Mayer and Melvin's mother, the almost deadpan stagehand who keeps holding up place cards to tell you where each scene takes place, the way Dalton sells the seemingly endless jokes about her blindness (when she whipped out a gun the audience guffawed at what we knew was coming), etc.   It all came together in the zany way this particular kind of show begs for--with superlative skill and energy in the service of making us smile and laugh.  Really what more can (or should) you ask for in a musical based on a superhero cleaning up a town in New Jersey?

The Toxic Avenger Musical plays at the Sacred Fools Theatre main stage, 1076 Lillian Way (west of Vine), Wednesday June 15 2016, 11:00 PM, Thursday June 16 2016, 7:00 PM, Saturday June 18 2016, 6:00 PM and
Wednesday June 22 2016, 10:00 P.  The runtime is two hours with one intermission.

Cold Tangerines (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I loves me some darkness.  Regular readers of this blog no doubt recognize that.  On the other hand, for every shadow there is light.  Indeed without light shadow becomes impossible.  Hence a relatively "feel good" work such as Cold Tangerines at the 2016 Hollywood Fringe bothers me not at all.  Quite the opposite!

Little Candle Productions adapted this play about author Shawna (Lynn Downey Braswell) past various insecurities and neuroses into achieving her dream of authorship.  Self-knowledge remains a desperately beloved theme in my eyes.  What too often ruins it ends up being ham-fisted "pat" answers.  Not so this work.  Yeah, we laugh rather than weep, but since when is that some kind of bad thing?  Both work.  Either one can be appropriate.  This one's tone is just right for humor, often done with plenty of panache by a very skilled cast of performers.

Other than Braswell, the rest of the cast plays Shawna as well, at least parts of her, memories of her, fragments of her personality.  I cannot say how much Maria McCann, Amanda Miller and Melissa Blue Ward make this play work.  As written (this is not a criticism) the words themselves could be end up dull as dishwater or a particularly saccharine birthday card.  But instead we get into the genuine humor of all the neurotic epics played out inside the mind of a seemingly "ordinary" life.  Note the quotation marks.  The implied premise here--one I applaud with all the power of my soul--remains that no such thing exists.  Our value and our uniqueness may be questioned, alas nearly always is (and when you look at those who never question it, that might not be a bad thing), but remains a truth we should embrace every singe day.

Cold Tangerines plays at the Lounge 6201 Santa Monica Boulevard (one bock east of Vine) Saturday June 18 2016, 4:00 PM and Saturday June 25 2016, 8:00 PM.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Women Beware Women (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Thomas Middleton is a lesser-known Elizabethan playwright, eclipsed by William Shakespeare.  Writing "Jacobean Tragedies," Middleton's most famous work is probably Women Beware Women.  This play has now been stages by the Yours Is Mine theatre company here in Los Angeles.

Producing this play has some advantages and challenges, not least the fact few theatre-goers know the plot and characters going in.  Yes, this counts as both advantages and challenge.

At heart the central character is Lady Livia (Sarah Hollis), a wealthy Florentine widow with two brothers--Fabritio (Christopher Salazar) and Hippolito (James Micheal Cowan).  The former brother is a widower with a beautiful young daughter Isabella (Chelsea Niven).  From this family stems most of the plot.  Like most Jacobean tragedies, an inappropriate love has grown.  Hippolito loves (as in lusts for) his niece, who in turn has been betrothed to the idiot ward of another nobleman.  Livia seemingly solves their dilemna with a lie that reveals no incest involved!

But, as I said, this is a lie.  Not the first lie this lady commits, nor the last. Not by a long shot.

In fact by all rights we should see Livia as a villain--a sexy female Iago destroying lives not out of sociopathy but a willingness to help out others with as few ethics as herself. Instead, and in part because of Hollis' fascinating portrayal, she seems almost innocent, relatively speaking.  After all, she genuinely wants to help others.  She has all kinds of sage advice to give -- practical, if not exactly moral.  And she retains a capacity many villains lack -- Livia can (and does) fall in love.  Totally and unashamedly.  Not that such is necessarily a virtue.

Jacobean tragedies are like that.  The mortal world remains a veil of tears, corrupt even at its best, but especially when it comes to matters of political power.  It is a world where romantic love is doomed unless isolated from wealth, power and temptation.  A world where the most "natural" response to rape by a powerful duke is to forsake the husband who could not protect you for the duke who will.  Such is the position of Bianca (Hayley Brown) who literally has the last word (at least in this production).  She, like Livia, remains strangely sad rather than villainous, even when heaping abuse on the very nice husband (Dane Oliver) who has no idea what happened--and who in a nice twist immediately wins the heart of Livia, at first sight no less.  In a different kind of story, that might almost make for a happy if decidedly dark ending.

No, it doesn't here.  Like Shakespeare's Othello and also Hamlet the real star of Jacobean tragedies is the world, a world where virtue simply cannot flourish.  Imagined, yes.  Long for?  Certainly.  Talked of, pretty constantly.  But can only exist for a few breaths.

Yours In Mine's production of Women Beware Women creates that elegant but fragile and strangely hopeless world in so many ways.  Yes, the performances entertain and enlighten, making what should be more overtly tragic into something funny!  But aiding them are an amazing fusion of light, sound, costumes and set.  The Grenada--a gem of Hacienda architecture with winding courtyards full of trees and (dry) fountains--feels perfect.  One whole office, splashed with different shades of off-white, becomes a stage with chairs surrounding the acting area.  Instead of a steady glow illuminating all, we get instead pools of light amidst what we can hope will prove gentle shadows. Likewise the patterned veil that makes up one whole wall finds itself into many a gown and robe worn by this (sometimes literally) glittering cast.  They strut and glide and dance, but the masque will have its end, its bloody climax.  Because all these people, even the best of them, remain swimming in a dangerous sea with no land anywhere in sight.  How can it end well?

The genteel nightmare that is Women Beware Women plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm as well as Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm at The Grenada Building 672 South La Fayette Park, Studio 34.  The parking lot is free and gated.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Vincent Deconstructed (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

DisclaimerI am a member of the Actaeon Players and even designed the post card for this production.  However, I took no direct part in the rehearsal, writing or direction of this play.

Vincent van Gogh remains (and hopefully shall for generations to come) one of the most famous artists in this planet's history.  Anyone seeing his works can understand why, but there's another reason--a tragic struggle with mental illness which finally cost his life. This fact too often overshadows any thought of the real man, the loving and passionate human being as opposed to the icon of insane genius.

Vincent Deconstructed, written and directed by my friend Elissa Anne Polansky, focuses on the man rather than the madman.  The man (Alex Walters) who loved others, most especially his wonderful Agostina (Tara McGrath) and was capable of making good friends like Giancarlo (Graydon Schlichter).

Despite the warning atop this, I'm reluctant to give away a great deal of what happens in the actual play.  Most simply, it opens with Vincent in the asylum, unhappy and desperate, who seemingly has a dream.  But is it?  In the end, he decides to try leaving this life behind him, to begin anew.

Credit: Sebastian Munoz
So we get to see in this play exactly what the author wanted us to understand--the human being rather than the icon. It isn't always pretty, but more than once I found it heart-rending.  Vincent tries to reconnect with the woman he most loved in life.  Agostina, whom he drove away but who still loves him.  Like Vincent himself, she remains someone divided--although in her case between heart and mind.

A word here about the cast.  First Walters really gives an amazing vision of this man we all think we know in some way.  Perhaps it is because we so often imagine him as railing or foaming at the mouth.  But of course he could not have done that all the time.  Nor does this play focus on such.  Here we see Vincent van Gogh of all people smiling,  we see him listening, but not painting.  Rather, he tries to foster that part of himself--which was always there--that reached out to others, the awkward but utterly sincere efforts of a lonely, brilliant soul.

Credit: Sebastian Munoz
McGrath has a subtler job still, because the danger of Vincent eclipsing Agostina remains vivid.  Yet we also need to see why he loves her, more why she would love him and believe in  her courage to given this man another chance.  To be sure, the script allows lots of (suble) opportunity to accomplish this but the point remains McGrath uses them.

Likewise Todd Andrew Ball really does wonders with his tiny but important role as Vidal, a dockworker whom Vincent seeks to befriend or at least help.  I don't want to reveal how that goes, but whereas their pivotal scenes could have ended up as formulaic, instead we got truth.

The fact this remained the pattern throughout indicates no accident, but some wise choices on the part of playwright/director Polansky.  One of these remains the use of van Gogh's paintings themselves--projected upon the stage wall with an ever-growing impact.

In the end, I wept.  More than once.  Because Vincent's pain echoed into my own, reverberating until it rang in my bones.  The icon vanished, the flesh and soul remained, along with the art they created.  Oh how I longed at the very end to hug this sad, wonderful man--and one reason for my tears was that remained impossible.

Vincent Deconstructed plays at the Sacred Fools Black Box Theatre (former the Elephant) 6322 Santa Monica Blvd (at Lillan, west of Vine) Sunday June 12 2016, 9:30 PM, Thursday June 16 2016, 6:30 PM, Sunday June 19 2016, 12:30 PM, Wednesday June 22 2016, 10:00 PM, Thursday June 23 2016, 5:00 PM, Friday June 24 2016, 5:00 PM and Sunday June 26 2016, 5:00 PM.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Shitty Awful Everything (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

My friend Robert Walters, who plays the lead, invited me to see his show Shitty Awful Everything by Kevin Swanstrom at the Hollywood Fringe. Here's how the press release reads:

A brand new dark comedy about life, death and everything in between. When everyman sad-sack, Mike, is diagnosed with terminal – and I mean terminal – cancer, his day only goes from bad to worse as he journeys to find life’s silver lining. But with run-ins with his amnesic wife, the mob, some surly intellectuals, a post-apocalyptic biker gang, and a couple of gay porn cowboys perhaps Mike’s quest will prove too difficult after all. Luckily there’s a couple of quarreling, omniscient narrators to help him on his way.
 Unlike some, this one pretty much captures the show as it is. A modern version of Candide, kinda/sorta, in which everything possible just falls on top of the life of our hero Mike.

Now, let us be crystal clear.  That "dark" in the description, as in "dark comedy" is very very DARK. And very very FUNNY!  The scene where the Doctor gives Mike the diagnosis alone made me laugh out loud.  My fave moment (in that scene) was when Mike asked how long he had and the Doctor looked at the chart and answered "No."

Good stuff!  No, I'm not going to give some kind long synopsis with highlights of the best gags.  I'll simply note that instead of seemingly already having an answer (as Candide did) Mike hadn't a clue.  The calamities he endures one after another with (usually) hilarious effect don't break down and disprove his world view.  Rather than give him focus to find one.  Along the way let me say the whole cast did a fine job--including Michael Sasso, Katie Scarlett, Paul Leschofs,  Chris Voss, Sam Weiner, Juliet Deem, Kimmy Shields, and Emma Laughlin--each playing a wide variety of ages, genders, professions, mental problems, etc.

But what makes this particular comedy most moving (and tolerable given the subject matter) is that it never tells you what answer Mike should find.  We are given an experience--a very funny one, brimming over with terror and death and humiliation--then left to figure out what it means for ourselves.   Some might call it a cheap trick.  I don't agree, not least because Mike's Job-esque odyssey doesn't actually measure up to some real life horrors.  He never ends up in a Nazi Concentration Camp with his loved ones for example, nor does he see his beloved homeland destroyed, his children murdered, etc.  Rather he gets talked into trying to work in the world gay cowboy porn, only to eventually get mauled by a bear.  His horrors are just slightly more realistic than a Bugs Bunny cartoon.  Deliberately so!

And in the end, when I was finished laughed, I thought a little.  And felt a little.  Which is more than many plays deliver.  So--bravo!

Shitty Awful Everything plays at the OMR theatre at the Complex 6468 Santa Monica Blvd, on the following dates and times:  Saturday June 18 2016, 12:00 AM, Tuesday June 21 2016, 9:15 PM and Thursday June 23 2016, 9:00 PM

Friday, June 10, 2016

Bloody Beautiful (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Interestingly, this is the fourth play in the last decade I've seen to feature the infamous "blood countess" Erzebet Bathory.  It is also one of the better ones.  Not without flaws, but a fair amount of real potential.  Honestly, this felt like a workshop for what could one day be a very powerful, disturbing piece of theatre.

Bloody Beautiful, written and performed by Erica Flor, has at its heart a conceit filled with promise.  Erica plays a (presumably) fictionalized version of herself, a San Diego actress who in the midst of studying the infamous "Blood Countess" finds part of her mind channeling the long-dead noblewoman.  Is the ghost of Erzebet reaching out from the other side?  Or is, as both characters seem to hint, she simply the Jungian shadow of Erica given voice and agency?

Leaving this question unanswered earns my genuine applause.

Not exploring either option in that much depth makes me kinda shake my head.

At heart the script in its current form doesn't introduce us very much to either character nor to their relationship.  The nearest thing that happens is along that way is the eerie episode when Erzebet first fully manifested herself in Erica's mind while driving a car in the wake of an act of random violence.  Likewise the climax of the one-woman-show held a genuine surprise, something inherently theatrical.  Likewise I must say Flor shows a lot of courage overall -- not least by the full frontal nudity with which the show begins and ends.

But here's the thing.  Here is how the official Fringe product play describes this work:  Fascinated by Erzsebet Bathory, the infamous Hungarian “Blood Countess,” Proboscis company member Erica Flor has developed a solo performance piece that confronts the question “how is it possible that a noble woman of the late renaissance could possibly have tortured and murdered over 650 victims within ten years?”  Okay, this play never dealt with this question once. It mentioned that question, tossing off a perfectly logical answer (wealth + power + isolation + sadist), but not once did I care about that question.  Why should I?  The relationship between Erzebet and Erica--now that I attracted my attention quite a bit!

Yet that relationship is what needs developing.  Honestly, I know next-to-nothing about Erica after seeing this play than I did going in.  Why should she find female serial killers so fascinating?  Along those same lines, why should Erzebet hold such a sway over her?  Apart from the near-total lack of detail regarding Erica, we also never get a sense of how this relationship developed, what it was at first.  Frankly one reason the ending surprises is because we have zero expectations.  Who is Erica?  I don't know.  Who is Erzebet?  Again, I don't know -- other than a shameless sadist who seems to prefer girls.

Mind you, accomplishing all this is a big challenge for one actor on stage all by oneself.  It might work better to see Erica especially interact with others.  Even if we don't see those others.  Maybe.  Either way, the real promise remains very much alive on stage and technically Flor shows some real skill at physical control (never once for example does either character seem like the other).

Bottom line--I want to see this work evolve into something more than it is at present.  I have high hopes for it.

Blood Beautiful plays three more performances, Sunday June 12 at 2pm,Saturday June 18 at 11:55pm, and
Saturday June 25 at 11:55pm at the Lounge Theatre (one block east of Vine) 6201 Santa Monica Boulevard.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Feast of Snacks (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Followers of this blog can expect me to review most productions by Theatre Unleashed, and that includes their entry into each year's Hollywood Fringe Festival.  This year certainly marks no exception!

A Feast of Snacks consists of four mini-musicals, each filling up about fifteen minutes or so of stage time, each with their own wacky score and not-very-naturalistic plot (as per usual with most musicals).  And I genuinely want to praise not only the casts but director Julia Plostnieks, musical director Deborah Berman, choreography Lindsay Braverman but especially composer Michael Gordon Shapiro for giving us so many different (and appropriate) styles of music to highlight these mini-plays.  Shapiro also wrote the book for all but the first of the four.

That first, The Charmed Life, emerged from the pen of Mark Harvey Levine.  It focuses on a young woman (Heather Lake) bewailing the monotonous good luck of her life.  Never a flat tire, forever winning every contest she ever enters, randomly selected regularly for valuable prizes, etc.  Yeah it sounds good, but it hardly feels natural and she's cracking under the pressure.  Just a little.  And then...she finds she really does have a guardian angel, albeit a flesh and blood rather than spiritual kind (Jim Martyka).  The backstory of this turn of events, plus the fallout, proved delightful and nicely surprising.

Climb the Smallest Mountain features the cut-throat world of miniature golf.  Yeah.  Really.  David Foy Bauer plays the rock star equivalent of this sport, complete with groupies and a manager (Margaret Glaccum) as well as memories of his Sensei (Matthew Martin), source of all his vast skills.  Tension arises when a heckler rival (Martyka again) manages to technically obey the rules while violating them in spirit in order to thwart our hero of his grand prize.

The Escape Artist is a world premiere, taking place in a jury selection room wherein a master of avoiding jury duty (Graydon Schlichter) his skills in that direction.  But to his chagrin--and growing fascination--a pretty woman (Braverman) who up to now seemed eager to participate, starts using all his tricks one by one. 

Special mention in this one to Foy Bauer again, who plays a member of the chorus damn near (but not quite) stealing the show.  You'll have to see it to find out how!

Finally there is HMS Headwind, the tale of an 18th century British naval vessel ensnared in a struggle against Abigail, Pirate Queen of the North Sea (Sammi Lappin).  This masked beauty and her crew of women have managed to capture one ship after another in His Majesty's Navy, returning them to port with the crew trussed up and a scathing critique nailed to the mast of their conduct.  If this sounds almost Gilbert-and-Sullivan silly, you're not far off.  Although hardly a ripoff or even pastiche, this show does have a sense of that silliness taken absolutely seriously. It might also have the best chance of being expanded to a full one act musical or maybe even full-length!  The characters are especially keen, such as the British Marine rifleman (Mark Lopez) who cannot bring himself to shoot the pirate queen, an effete nobleman (Carey Matthews) who figures out what is actually going on, etc.  It all winds up with a nicely ironic twist!

I notice my failure to single out ensemble member Lauren Holliday, which must be unfair since she did such a fine turn in a variety of roles (including a Judge who isn't the easiest of persons to fool in The Escape Artist).

My own taste often runs to the dramatic and mind-blowing (which TU often does with great skill) but this is the theatrical equivalent of a really first-rate dessert--like key lime pie, New York cheesecake, eclairs, oreo cookies and the like!  In other words, delicious!

A Feast of Snacks plays at the Lounge Theatre 6201 Santa Monica Boulevard (one block east of Vine) Sunday June 12 at 11:55am, Sunday June 19 at 10pm, Friday June 24 at 8pm and Saturday June 25 at 11:55am.