Sunday, February 12, 2017

Hyenas: An American Farce (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

ZJU's latest offering, Hyenas: An American Farce, at least remains typical in that theatre's efforts to present works that blow the mind.  You can call it Absurdist, Surrealist, whatever.  I myself use a more general term--Theatre of Dreams, based on the dreamlike logic of this world.

Hyenas, written by David Dickens and directed by Brandon Slezak, proves quite a bit more "linear" than many shows at ZJU.  But it certainly resembles nothing very naturalistic.  Rather we enter through some kind of modern American looking glass in which laughter is currency, laugh tracks a semi-metaphor for automation (or social media, or maybe the increasing isolation of humanity from itself), up is down, time is out of joint and violence weirdly just part of business.

Credit: ZJU
The whole thing  borders on the psychotic.  A factory that produces laughter, without actually anyone there laughing.  Yet also, somehow this factory literally keeps the workers within alive.  Thus keeping it "in business" justifies almost any act.  In theory.  Martin, our hero (of sorts) is the latest employee and never quite grasps how this weird world works, although he goes along more or less out of a combination of impulse and inertia.  Hit a woman in the face?  Okay!  Kill a man?  Well, if you insist.  Don't shoot him but use the gun as you would a hammer?  Oops.  Forgot to do that.  And so on.

The cast (they come across as quite talented, I should note) consisted of Paul Thorn Bacon, Megan Combes, David Dickens, James Ferrero, Jacqui Grilli, Jetta Juiansz, Liz Lamier, Ian Michaels, Alison Reubens and Alfredo Trueba.

Credit: ZJU
Does this sound entertaining?  It can be.  Certainly a good chunk of the show proved exactly that--entertaining.  A technical problem interfered (I cannot say "prevented") it becoming more.  The play proves so outre, so weird, the acting style itself needs something of that to make the whole thing work.  When cast members did that--poured lots of energy into specific choices, whether they seemed to makes sense or not--Hyenas became something real, something wonderfully disturbing.  But only about three or four cast members (out of ten) did this with total consistency.  Others played mannerisms, some of which were just fine.  Others more or less cruised on talent rather than focus and energy.

So--bit of a muddle.  Interesting, to be sure.  At best compelling in a real and very odd way.  At worst, just strange.  Most of it somewhere in between.

Hyenas: An American Farce plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm through February 25, 2017 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim (just south of the NoHo sign), North Hollywood, CA 91601.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Cannibals Alone (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Dystopia often seems the most dramatically effective way for fiction to make a political argument. Please forgive the dryness of that sentence and bear with me.

In the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election, the theatre community in Los Angeles (and no doubt elsewhere) wants to react.  I'm part of that community. Believe me, you can taste it in the air.  Cannibals Alone at Theatre Unleashed marks the first such I've seen in 2017 (at least one other event happened but I couldn't make it).  And as you perhaps might guess from the opening, the play makes for a powerful dystopia.

Not that it has such obvious elements as eveyone having a number instead of a name, telescreens everywhere reporting the Thought Police, calming drugs given out wholesale to keep folks from wanting to complain--not even an annual sporting event where the ruling class makes poor children fight to the death on live t.v.

It does however, portray an alternate future just a few years hence.  One that feels chillingly possible.  The play chronicles not how a police state operates, but how a single flaw turns life into a tragedy.

Rae (Courtney Sara Bell) and Mags (Heather Lynn Smith) live...somewhere in America.  Not too far from Canada--whatever that means--and aways outside some small, unnamed town.  They live in some kind of farmhouse, armed to the teeth and on edge to put it mildly.  We slowly get hints of how this world differs from our own, initially with the ominous term "Medical Police."

What the hell are the Medical Police?

That emerges slowly, as we learn "Depos" are people with "it" (presumably HIV) deported into concentration camps.  Each is forced have a D tattooed on their cheeks, with it becoming legal to shoot such on sight if they aren't in a camp.  Callie (Margaret Glaccum) is an escapee who comes to Rae and Mags' house in the middle of the night, terrified, hungry, hoping they will help.  She's also ashamed, since she was once a nice person as she puts it.  Now, she hopes members of the Medical Police will be tortured to death as slowly as possible.  From such hints--coupled with the seemingly ordinary details like Mags' parents have retired to Florida, the casual mention of the Mexican Wall, etc.--let the audience know we're in a nightmare in the very near future.

What also slowly emerges--and this depends not so much on Steph DeFerie's script but the performances coupled with Julia Plostnieks' direction--is the tragic flaw of these people and of their society.  Our society.  Literally every single character and very nearly every single act in the play stands revealed as tainted, lacking something we like to call "human."

Compassion.  It seems all but gone.

Callie, who longs for vicious revenge, seems almost the only one who has more than a drop.  Rae's younger brother was carted away by the Medical Police.  Megs is not only her best friend but his as well.  Neither really dwells on anything positive, but seethe in rage and hatred at those whom they hold responsible.  Even Megs, who seems the more humane of the two--she at least makes a kind of human connection with others.  Sometimes.  Maybe.  Both however display a cheerful sadism when confronted by others who might even seem to be a threat.  Little wonder when they finally meet Val (Ann Hurd), motivated like them by a love that only emerges as a cruel lust of revenge, she brings their own horrors to the surface.

This play, happily but also harrowingly, manages to give a political message without ever stating it, rather letting it emerge as one contemplates the characters and their story.  It results in a chilling, powerful night of theatre that might easily make your skin crawl.  After all, by defintion, a dystopia is a visit into a chamber of horrors from which its natives can find no living escape.

Cannibals Alone plays Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8pm until March 4, 2017 at the Belfry Theatre (above the Crown) at 11031 Camarillo Street (just west of Lankershim), North Hollywood CA 91602.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

3rd Rush 80s Edition - Side B (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Force of Nature Productions has this thing they do.  Like many theatres companies they have an evening of very short plays (as in approximately 10 minutes), usually along a given theme of some kind.  In this case, the lyrics of songs from the 1980s.

Well and good.  Honestly, these VSP (Very Short Plays) in general make for a very tricky form.  Akin to a haiku, really getting much in such a small amount of time proves difficult.  At most what you can usually hope for is something very entertaining.  Which is good!  Anything more is gravy.

Rebels, Candy & Cat Allergies, written and directed by Andy Shultz and based on "Take on Me" by A-Ha, concerns a get-together by three young women, each vividly portrayed by Brianne Mammana, Heather Lehigh and Ashley J. Woods.  I laughed as they pretty much tripped over each others' idiosyncrasies.  But really this seemed more like a skit than the other offerings.

Penny & Daim written by Steven J. Alloway and directed by Aurora Culver, based on "Faith" by George Michael, is more of a whodunnit fused into a mini roncom.  Samantha Pearson, Jerry Chappell and Luke Castor are two private detectives and their client.  A new case blows up emotional tensions and romantic dreams, much based on whether faith in another (heh heh) can be wise.

That Voodoo You Do written by Andy Shultz, directed by Corey Chappell and based on "Dead Man's Party" by Oingo Boingo.  This one seemed to me the most complete of the six.  It not only had a beginning, middle and end, the plot was complete at play's end while each character had a full arc!  Anastasia Elfman, John Lewandowski, and Jahel Corban Caldera play a woman, her ex-boyfriend and some poor schmuck whom she raised from the dead.  As it happens, that was a trial run.  She brought her ex back to life just to break up with him (because NO ONE breaks up with her)!  Karma raises its ugly head as the two zombies begin to feel hungry...

The Great Wisconsin Orgy of '88 has the best title, though.  Hands down.  I also think it has the best chance of being expanded into a much longer play!  Written by Ian Heath and directed by Sebastian Munoz, based on "Your Love" by the Outfield, it tells a fairly messed-up story about parental issues, revenge, sexual excess and what amounts to professional paranoia.  David Kaufman, Meghan Lewis and Cristina Castano star.

Forever's Gonna Start Tonight by Adam Neubauer and directed by Brandon Scullion, based on "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler has a round it a big in-joke that I got but I'm not sure anyone else did.  On the other hand, maybe they did!  That tune later become the center piece of a German musical Tanz Der Vampir.  Susy Vera, Lara Fisher and Steven Alloway all play people extremely interested in vampires (for one reason or another) meeting for a dark rendez-vous all about immortality and the question who was the hottest vampire in The Lost Boys.  This one also has potential for a longer work, in my opinion, but needs several more characters.

Flash Gordon: The Musical - The Play by Jonathan Josephson and directed by Will Kleist, based on "Under Pressure" by Queen, on the other hand, I think has the makings of a slightly awesome small movie. Jennifer Novak Chun, Jonathan Aguricia and Adam Shows play background interpretive dancers in an unauthorized musical based on the cult classic movie.  In between numbers they kvetch and schmooze about things, with one of them heartbroken because this is his favorite movie of all time--while the musical sucks!

As of this writing, 3rd Rush - 80s Edition - Side B has closed (alas it only ran one weekend).  But I recommend you keep an eye out for its next itineration because it is likely to be just as fun as this one.  You will laugh at the very least, and probably quite a bit.  

Monday, February 6, 2017

Grimly Handsome (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Grimly Handsome, by Julia Jarcho, won an Obie Award awhile back (this is the Off Broadway equivalent of the Tony).  Given this production marks its West Coast Premiere by the City Garage I expected strangeness, and quality.

Cutting to the chase, I was in way disappointed.

Christmas season in the Big Apple.  We find two Eastern European men (Anthony Sannozzaro and Andrew Loviska) selling Christmas trees.  Their conversation seems strange, brimming with history, the kind which might make for nightmares.  Or so it seems.  Turns out, the nightmares reveal themselves as worse than we thought--and more complex.  A would be customer (Lindsay Plake) stops by, and we pretty soon realize she's in a lot of danger being here.  Does she realize that?  Maybe.  Yet either way she is drawn into whatever is going on.

Then, from a kind of psychological grand guignol we emerge into a police procedural.  The same three actors create a few more characters--two of them police officers investigating yet another crime by the serial killer known as The Christmas Ripper.  A witness who saw the body dumped has a strange tale to tell.  Very strange.  But not outside the real of the possible.

No, really.  Odd, sure.  But within what we'd recognize as reality.  Just like the fact one of the cops has a wife, and is sleeping with her husband's partner.  Why?  Well, we get hints.  Hardly anything else really.  Strong hints, that never however congeal into anything solid.  Clues.  Hints.  But very few answers.

But when she reveals her dreams, and the dreams seem to be almost true, then we start to feel what we think of as reality begin to slip...  From a murder mystery we've entered into an existential drama triggered by the crime.  Now it gets stranger.  Why would a police officer have an old santa claus suit, one so darkly red as to look black?  And why after years of marriage would he have kept it a secret?  How then did his wife dream of such a thing?

Why would his partner mention it?  As they approach what might be an answer to the crime, is there another mystery unveiling itself?  Teasing them, whittling away at their sanity?  Or are they simply failing to come to grip with the world As It Is, instead of what everyone assumes it to be?

By play's end, we've gone subtly but firmly past the roadmarks we might recognize.  Manhattan?  No, they (and we) have entered into the weird jungle that this city truly may have become, or perhaps has ever been.  The glimpse behind the curtain proves nothing like what we might expect--yet feels weirdly right, eerily familiar.  Of course the city is this.  How could it be otherwise?  We should have known, even though this is clearly impossible.  Impossible!

Fredericque Michel's direction continues to give rise to one stunning blend of subtle and obvious after another, broad strokes that turn out to be nuanced in startling ways.  The City Garage likewise continues to prove itself an ensemble who trust each other to use the most precise realism while shedding it at will to arrive at truth.

Grimly Handsome plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm (pay what you can at the door) until February 26, 2017 at the Bergamont Station Arts Center, Building T1, 2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica CA 90404.

50 Hour Drive-By Festival 2017 (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

For those who don't know, each year the folks at Zombie Joe's in NoHo stage an event in which playwrights are assigned some actors, a director, a few props then they get a limited amount of time in which to write and produce a ten minute play.

To be honest, the results inevitably end up a mixed bag but rarely disappoint when it comes to sheer entertainment!

And 2017 is no exception.

Red Star by Vanessa Cate was frankly my favorite this time 'round.  Jana Wimer directed Michelle Danyn, Trish De Luca, Trevor Fisch and Scott Sytten in a fantasy set...somewhere.  I don't know precisely where, although (and forgive if this sound oh so very arty) it seems absolutely itself.  We are in no copy of Middle Earth, of Hogwarts or Westeros.  This place, with its huge dark forest and a dim memory of stars, sees two people run away from home--or what seems like home.  As you might expect, they meet but after that nothing really goes as one quite expects.  Personally I could not take my eyes off the stage.

Anatidaephobia: or, What the Difference Between A Duck? by Steven Alloway easily wins as the most zany, funniest and most full of 'in jokes.'  Denise Devin directed this comedy about Steven Alloway (portrayed by James Sanger) trying to write a play for the 50 Hour Drive By.  Honestly, has anyone ever done this before?  I dunno!  But it very nearly qualifies as genius, as Lara Fisher gets called in to help Steven, who is holding Matthew Vorce and Janel Corgan Caldera captive to work out the story of his play.  If that sounds zany, even a bit insane, believe me that was the least of it.  A big clue lies in the title and I urge you to look up the meaning of anatidaephobia.  You won't be disappointed!

Survivor's Guilt by Emily Charouhas and directed by Roger K. Weiss began as another comedy. Nicole A. Craig wants to hold a seance with her friends Brandon Slezak, Jason Britt and Emily Charouhas (yes the playwright actually appears herself in this one).   It certainly starts out funny as they all placate Nicole's character, then play tricks on her--and then the whole situation does a u-turn into genuinely frightening horror!  Honestly, this is the one of this year's plays that seems most complete, in and of itself.

The Forest on the other hand, written by Zombie Joe and directed by Abel Horwitz, is one of those (so typical of ZJU) that shocks and almost goes overboard, but leaves you wondering on all sorts of levels.  The Nymph of the Light (Shane Eastin) battles with the Nymph of Darkness (Michelle McGregor) over...well, I think over the Babe (Ian Heath), a seeming newborn entity albeit one fully grown.  Hermes (Daniel Palma), the Nymph of the Light's servant, steals the Babe and seeks out the Guardian of the Forest (Jetta Juriansz).  I often characterize stuff done at ZJU as "Theatre of Dreams" and this feels very much in that vein.  Not a complaint!  Not at all!

Alas the 50 Hour Drive By lasts but one weekend, but will return with brand new material in time.  I recommend you watch for it.  I am fortunate to see a lot of theatre native to Los Angeles, and Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group easily wins a place as one of the most original, experimental and thought provoking.

Wonder City (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Just by way of context, I never expected to end up living in Los Angeles.  It becoming my actual home frankly never seemed a possibility.  So Wonder City at the Son of Semele on Beverly resonated rather strongly.

An ensemble work, subtitled "The Visceral City Project," it consists of one vignette after another, increasingly intertwined, about the history and life of Los Angeles itself.  The cast--Mark Hein, Stacey Jack, Christian Prentice, Melissa R. Randel, Flor San Roman, Eric Trules and Roger K. Weiss --share stories and memories as well as enacting such quintessential Angeleno moments as driving in rush hour or the periodic rousting-out of the far-too-many homeless desperately trying to make ends meet (which in practice often means simply finding somewhere for people in poor health to sleep).  Ashley Steed directed the work, which in the end intertwines so very much into a coherent whole.  Not in terms of a plot per se.  It doesn't really have a plot.  Wonder City rather than a story ends up as a portrait.  Portraits don't have plots, because they aren't stories, not really.  But when very good, a portrait does show us something more difficult--a life.

Which turns out the most important part of this play/work/event/show.  Not biography--which remains a perfectly valid thing.  Nor a description.  Rather a slice of the life of very many characters in what is after all a very large, extremely diverse city.  And the sharing in which the audience takes part works startlingly well.  For example, at one point the cast simply addressed us, those of us sitting and watching them.  They share stories about how they came to Los Angeles for the first time.  And offer their own candidates for favorite places to eat!

Less than halfway through, I found myself waiting for my turn--then recalling with a stab of real disappointment I wasn't going to have one.

Oh well, I couldn't decide on a favorite restaurant anyway... (although that fish place near Hollwyood and Western...)

Rather than give a some blow-by-blow, I want to invite you to consider the nature of that moment.  When the audience and the players merged, or perhaps more importantly, wanted to.  A moment when we shared the most powerful of all things good theatre creates--recognition.  We understood each other.  Understood what we shared.  Wanted to go on sharing.

That, in my own not-so-humble opinion, makes for a very worthwhile collection of moments.  NOt unlike a marriage.  Or a birthday party.  Maybe an anniversary.

Wonder City plays Saturday February 11 at 8pm and Sunday February 12 at 5pm, at the Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90004.