Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Blueberry Toast (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

When something horrible happens, all sorts of options await about how to react.  Tears, dumb-struck horror, rage for revenge--these are but a few.

Blueberry Toast by Mary Laws (directed by Dustin Wills) at the Echo Theatre Company invites the audience to participate in a different direction.


Walt (Albert Dayan) and Barb (Jacqueline Wright) are a married couple in what sure seems like suburbia, with a dazzlingly bright kitchen in which they decide to have breakfast one Sunday morning.  While their two precocious children Jack (Michael Sturgis) and Jill (Alexandra Freeman) are in the other room quickly putting together an existential play in several acts, a seemingly innocent question is asked.

Credit: Darrett Sanders
What do you want for breakfast?

Oh dear god.  The horror and chaos that erupts from that query!  Not caused by, mind you.  Clearly the tension inherent in this marriage have been building for oh such a long time, probably years, and been forced below the surface of day to day life, building pressure until finally...


Not all at once, of course.  Walt asks for "blueberry toast" for breakfast.  You probably guessed that already.  When Barbara makes him such, however, he insists what he asked for was blueberry pancakes and refuses to soil  his fork with the disgusting food his bride has lovingly prepared for him.  She at first accepts this in with remarkably cheerful patience, getting out the pancake batter and the various implements for making pancakes.  Walt meanwhile talks about how much he hates poetry (he teaches English poetry) and wants to get into Oil.  Plus of course there's a neighbor he wants to help fix her sliding glass door.

Credit: Darrett Sanders
Barbara serves him blueberry toast again.

The exchanges between them grow increasingly frought.  He regales her with bizarre details such as the fact he bought a gun to kill her on their wedding day--out of love of course.  They play an odd kind of sexual game, which frankly starts to get more than a tad steamy--until Jack and Jill run in to do enact the latest act of the existential play they're writing.

And every moment, it all gets more and more intense, more and more absurd, more and more violent.  Imagine a dream in which all the stress of a genuinely unhappy marriage boiled over like a volcano.  Yeah, that's not enough.  Too mundane.  Too easy-to-expect.  Instead, we get an every wilder roller coaster that should have made us feel...well, just terrible.

Credit: Darrett Sanders
Instead we just laughed.  Loudly.  Often.  With ever-increasing glee as things got more perverse, more bloody, more vengeful.  Walt just will not eat his wife's blueberry toast, no matter how many times she cuts him.  Nor will she make anything else for breakfast until the guy just tries a taste of the damned blueberry toast!  Just one bite!

Honestly, I felt so sorry for the folks who have to clean up the set afterwards.  It was like I Love Lucy a la Quentin Tarantino, almost. My jaw kept dropping, and I just kept laughing!

So did everybody else!

Blueberry Toast plays Thursday (Oct. 5 & 13), Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 4pm, until October 24, 2016 at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Anglees CA 90039.

A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I'm told Evelina Fernandez' A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story was originally a series of full-length plays, edited to become just two nights (or one very long) of theatre.  True or not, I must say the "cycle" of one Mexican-American family through various travails of the Depression, a World War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and eventually the personal devastation of the Iraq War makes for a compelling story--a powerful and moving event more than any of these individual stories do.

Not that we don't care about Esperanza, her children and grandchildren and (eventually) her great grandchildren.  On the contrary!  But we come to care for them all the more in the context of their family history, the tale of generations repeating or avoiding mistakes, often creating new ones in the process.  Yet also living, finding love and joy, earning wisdom and identity (often paying a high price), learning secrets and perhaps the greatest of all lessons--to forgive.

The program includes a family tree, but I didn't feel the need for it.  Honestly, the play made it clear enough who was who.  Director Jose Luis Valenzuela did a fine job of blending the cast and action in such a way as to help us understand (kudos to the playwright as well, who provided the essential blueprint without which this simply could not have worked).

Credit: Grettel Cortes Photography
First up is the play Faith, named for one daughter (Esperanza America) of the family matriarch (Lucy Rodriquez). For the most part, this section takes place in Jerome, Arizona from 1940-1944 as Faith's father Silvestre (Sal Lopez) tries to organize a union among the coal miners.  Meanwhile, haunted by a secret shame, his wife tries desperately to control their daughters.  Faith is the rebel, interestingly enough, who eventually breaks from the family to pursue a career in show business in Los Angeles.  Her sister Charity gets into even greater trouble, while youngest Elena ends up married at a very young age.  Throughout, wonderfully real characters full of foibles and charm, dot the stage.

Maybe that is part of the magic that kept me arrested throughout, even as plots that on some level seemed cliche began to unfold.  Because the characters never became cliche, and because of that neither were their stories.  One of my favorites was the singer/promoter Ricardo Flores/Ricky Flowers (Geoffrey Rivas), whose flirtatious ways did not play out as I expected at all.

Credit: Grettel Cortes Photography
Hope takes place in Phoenix, Arizona from 1960-1963.  Interestingly, although the previous and final plays have characters named after them--or vice versa--this does not.  Not a coincidence.  No, not at all.  Here we see a much older Elena and  her children, including Betty (Olivia Cristina Delgado) a teenaged girl totally enamored of JFK.  One of the delightful qualities of this trilogy become impossible to ignore thanks to her.  Namely, the lack of naturalism lurking within and amidst the ordinary.  In the first play, the timing seemed off somehow.  Now, as Betty has phone conversations with both JFK and Fidel Castro, learning in the process life isn't quite as simple as she believed, we venture into magic, the peeling back of the veil.  Fathers may love their children, and be bad fathers.  The bitter, angry girl may find love, in the eyes and heart of a freshman GI named Rudy (Sam Golzari) who seems to wear pink tinted goggles as he readies to head for Vietnam.  A best friend may desert a lonely woman, and perhaps that gives her the strength to break free of deep unhappiness.

A word here about the whole cast.  This is an ensemble, with pretty nearly everyone playing many parts, often the same character in stages of their lives.  I almost cannot emphasize how well these actors do so, such as the playwright Evelina Fernandez who plays the flirtatious not-quite-widow in the first play, and a clearly bi-polar partner in an unhappy marriage in the second.  By the time we reach the third, she's the one of the daughters from the second play, a wonderful portrait of a mature but still troubled character.  Just as Kenneth Miles Ellington Lopez for a short time is the love of young Esperanza's life in play one, and plays his own grandson Bobby in the play two, a closeted gay young man subject to the typical "discipline" of that era. I believed and cared about all these people, not merely in the writing but because the cast breathed life into those words.

Credit: Grettel Cortes Photography
Charity is the final play, set in Los Angeles, California in the year 2005.  Young hope-filled boys from the 1960s are now haunted, sometimes broken men in middle age, including Rudy (Robert Beltran) and Bobby's brother Johnny.  As Rudy's wife Gina watches obsessively the funeral of Pope John Paul II, trying desperately to process the death of her son in Iraq--the wonderful boy whom both parents feel should never have gone to war.  But upstairs the wizened old Esperanza can see that boy, Emiliano, who longs now to give his parents surcease somehow.  Just as she can see her late husband, waiting for her to come with him, so they can be together again.  Aunt Betty (Ella Saldana North) is still around, along with Uncle Bobby now openly gay.  And into this grieving household walks a distant relative, Juan Francisco (Xavi Moreno) from Mexico.  He wants to make a new life here, and his presence sets off ripples, some of them painful.  The truth is, he's a charming kid--the actor, btw, earlier played a true jerk in the cycle but here comes across with all the quiet virtue we sometimes attribute to Clark Kent.

In the end, there is no end.  Which is the whole point.  Characters die, and others are born.  In between the story goes on, and in the end the sequels continue without end, while the prequels stretch back.  Such cannot but be the way of storytelling, when one considers time and memory beyond that of one single life.  So it is with A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story. I felt a little bit blessed to have shared what happened to these people, and in the end wanted to give pretty much all of them a hug.

Part A is Faith followed the first half of Hope.

Part B is the second half of Hope followed by Charity.

A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story plays Thursdays (Part A) at 8pm, Fridays (Part B) at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm (Part A) and 8:30pm (Part B), Sundays at 3pm (Part A) and 6:30pm (Part B) until October 9, 2016 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center downtown, 514 South Spring Street, Los Angeles CA 90013.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Please Don't Ask About Beckett (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

When I walked into the Black Box theatre at Sacred Fools on Santa Monica Blvd, I blinked. Not sure but this might be the first time I begin a review with praise for the set.  Evan A. Bartoletti's design drew me in instantly.  The rock like shapes carefully dotting the floor and some furniture.  The furniture itself clearly doing some kind of double duty, including what looked like (and later proved to be something akin to) a bridge.  The abstract shape made from tiny white christmas tree lights winding along the ceiling.  "A memory" I thought to myself.  "I've walked into a memory."

Here's the most impressive part.  I was right.

Please Don't Ask About Becket by Wendy Graf and directed by Kiff Scholl, focuses on one American family--specifically the relationship between a set of twins and their parents.  It spans decades, in one way or another touches on what seems like the whole scale of humans trying to figure out how to love one another.

The twins are Becket (Hunter Garner) and his sister Emily (Rachel Seiferth) , children of Hollywood producer Rob (Rob Nagle) and his wife Grace (Deborah Puette). Emily serves as guide and narrator--not merely to events but on the emotional journey we share with this family as Becket proves...difficult.

There's no easy way to describe it.  Nor anything like an answer offered as to why or what can/should be done.  Becket proves very charming, very supportive and likable, full of talent.  All through childhood he is the favorite, but doesn't take advantage of this, no more than anyone would.  Probably less.  It would be far too easy to call him a sociopath.  This play refuses to go there.  The cast and director follow the playwright's lead.

So we see Rob and Grace puzzle over Becket's poor grades, his getting into trouble, his drinking (although he really doesn't show any signs of alcoholism).  Emily, struggling with her genuine love of her brother and gentle jealousy of him, becomes aware of same.  After awhile it is hard to miss, following Becket being expelled from school after school.

The parents try to figure out what's wrong.  Every single doctor they can find examines him. Not one of their many theories pans out.  Bob uses vast sums of money to help his son--well, who would not?  It never seems to work.  Beckett--charming, nice, beloved, stunningly immature on so many levels--gets into more and more trouble until a drunk driving incident cranks everything up to eleven.

All of which could be so grim, so tragic.  But while sad, this never stops holding our hearts tight.  The story simply refuses to demonize anyone, nor to sugarcoat them. No one is a saint, but they try their best to do the right thing--if only they (or we) could figure out what that is!  Everyone in the cast captures that terribly human conundrum--which after a while seems to embody all the unanswered, unsolved puzzles of all our lives.

How much they all long for answers!  Even Becket.  Maybe especially him, since it becomes clear he's the least qualified of them all to make any kind of plan or judgment or solve any important question.

Emily tries hardest, but in many ways has the least power.  Her dad Rob is the only one who (sometimes) really confides in  her.  Her mom Grace focuses relentlessly on finding some way to look at events in a way she can handle.  Don't judge--so do you.  So do I.  So does everyone else in this play, sooner or later.  We all experiment with different solutions, as does Bob.  We all act as support, feeling powerless and overwhelmed and maybe seeing things others do not.  Like Emily.  Just as we all sometimes screw up royally without any understanding of how or why we did that!

Like Beckett.

Finally there is not one answer but many.  None complete, not one satisfying or enlightening.  Just different decisions made, for better and for worse.  By everyone.  Perhaps what happens really does represent the best that could happen, under the circumstances.  Which made me bleed a little bit watching all this unfold.

Not sure if I can offer more praise than that.

Please Don't Ask About Becket plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm with a 4pm matinee on Saturday September 24 (that evening's show is scheduled as the last as of this writing).  The show is at the Sacred Fools Black Box at 6322 Santa Monica Blvd (at Lillian Way, one block west of Vine), Los Angeles CA 90038.

Angel's Flight (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Roughly at the corner of Santa Monica and Vine, a bar/night club called the Three Clubs stands as it has for years.  Within one can find a small theatre, a venue used for shows that don't require a lot of space.  The seats are comfy, the decor very nice, the feel a bit nostalgic for a Hollywood of days gone by.

Which pretty much makes it perfect for Angel's Flight, a one hour musical about a gumshoe, a dame, a criminal conspiracy and a mystery.

Sounds something like the kind of spoof we've seen dozens of times, which is fair in one sense but grossly inaccurate in most others.  Angel's Flight does the one thing that makes a parody really work best--the story essentially works on its own, as an example of the genre no less!  Yeah, some of the details are silly (you cannot overdose on "reefers" for example) for effect, but frankly the plot alone might have belonged to a classic noir film!  On top of that this joint production by Cherry Poppins and Cyanide Theatre does the other thing that proves vital for the best theatre--everyone gives it 110%

The plot centers around Duff MacKagan (Schoen Hodges) a tarnished private eye looking for one more score so he can afford to leave tinseltown and try to live with himself far from the glamor and grime.  One last case.  A missing person, naturally a dame.  Meanwhile crooked cops hint they want to frame Duff for the recent murder of one of their own--an honest cop in Internal Affairs.

Yeah, it all ties together, but what really accomplishes that is not so much the plot as the feel--and part of the feel, the atmosphere, the mise-en-scene are the musical numbers, from the very opening in which the cast is introduced to the finale--an ironic punctuation of what we've just seen.  All of it with at least a hint (sometimes way more than that) of burlesque.  Our ladies, led by Jane (Heath Butler) and Grace (Sarah Haworth) don't so much enter as slink onstage.  When not slinking, they strut and when not doing either they pose--yet as per the 110% comment above, all this done full on, with purpose, with character and emotion put into every lifted eyebrow.  It makes for an intensely entertaining show.

Likewise Big Daddy (Michael Onofri) makes for a wonderfully sleazy coward, the front man for the real Boss, while Murphy (Danny Fetter) and Wallace (Bobby Watson) create a splendid pair of gloatingly crude crooked detectives with LAPD.  Hardly anybody gets a huge amount of time on stage, but all the characters are alive even the one shots like the barber Bette (Kelly Stevenson) or dancers like those played by Brin Hamblin, Sarah Wines and Shannon Glasgow have that "larger than life" facet that makes it all work.  They believe a couple of chairs is a car, so we do.

All throughout we the audience were having a blast! The songs! The dancing!  The sultry dames and soiled souls complete with the oddly sympathetic cynical private dick--all feeling real in the world of the show!  Which makes all the difference between stereotype and icon.

The fish makes for a nice little bit of the surreal.  And foreshadowing.  I'm not going to explain that.  Go see the show.  Really.  You will be very glad you did.

Meanwhile let me praise the skill, energy and stage presence of everyone else in the cast--Madeliene Bentz, Ben Blonigan, Alli Miller et al. 

 Angel's Flight plays on Wednesday nights at 8:30pm until September 28, 2016 at the Three Clubs Cocktail Lounge, 1123 Vine Street, Los Angeles CA 90038.  As of this writing that means only two more performances in the current run. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Medea (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

In the last year or so I've seen a resurgence of Greek tragedies, the latest being Medea by Euripedes at Zombie Joe's in North Hollywood.

A word here about tragedy.  We tend to think of that word in terms of Shakespeare, the hero with a tragic flaw, etc.  No so the Greeks.  They saw the universe itself as inherently tragic, and all who live in it ultimately doomed.  Heroism and drama lay in how one meets their doom.

Medea proved ground-breaking, because it turned the usual interpretation of this myth around.  Different versions of Medea tended to see her husband Jason as the hero, the man whose attempts to do right are thwarted by the madness of his wife.

Euripdes, however, took Medea's side.  He saw Jason's betrayal of his bride as the doom with which she had to cope.

Yeah, Euripedes was not unlike the Lady Gaga of his day.

Jonica Patella plays the title character, and as fans of this local actress might expect, she turns in a powerhouse performance.  Here is a woman who fell in love, committed treason for her husband, even killed her own brother for his sake--only to have Jason dump her (and their children) to marry the daughter and only heir to the King of Corinth.  In the face of this, she literally screams to the heavens and decides to enact a most terrible revenge.

Credit: Denise Devin
Denise Devin directed and adapted this play, over twice the age of the language in which we experience it.  Think about that for a moment.  About what it takes for such a work to last!  Its style should feel archaic and difficult to grasp, yet in fact in the tiny black box on Lankershim the story very much comes alive.  A chorus of three women (Cristina Brunet, Dawn Davis, Dicle Ozcer) become Medea's confidants as the Nurse (Louise Claps) explains to them the situation.  Eventually Creon (Dale Sandlin) King of Corinth enters to banish Medea and her children--turning them into stateless refugees.

All this plays out vividly and with precision, but what really brings out the drama of it all is when Alex Walters enters as Jason.  Because Jason and Medea as a couple remain the beating heart of this tragedy.  Not until we see them together do we understand how these events were inevitable.

Credit: Denise Devin
No small feat!

Personally I'm a big fan of both these actors, and while the whole cast (including Larray Grimes in a multiple role as Aegeus, a Messenger and a Dragon) do fine jobs, with nary an off note or wrong gesture, it is Patella and Walters who carry the weight of this tragedy--carry and run with it.  We can see the passion that burned between them still!  More, we see not a deliberate cruelty but an all-too-common myopia on the part of this hero (he is after all the leader of the Argonauts, whose quest for the Golden Fleece proved successful--think of him as a combination of Frodo and Aragorn).  He feels some guilt for his so-called betrayal (that is how he would describe it) but mostly he judges his wife for daring to judge him.  But hatred and love are not opposites.  They are two sides of the same coin, and we can see that in Patella's Medea.  Once wronged so terribly, her seething and ruthless hatred becomes terrible.  She loved Jason.  Maybe part of her loves him still.  So she totally destroys him.  And destroys part of herself in the process.

A fascinating piece of theatre, a horror story not about monsters or serial killers but about the darkness petty and grand of the human heart.

Medea plays Fridays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 7pm until September 11, 2016 at ZJU 4850 Lankershim Blvd. (just south of the NoHo sign) North Hollywood CA 91601.