Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Building the Wall (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The perils of moving and getting a new job--one sometimes falls behind.  I thought this show had closed, but now has been extended, so I'm kicking myself for not getting my review out sooner.

Building the Wall by Robert Schenkkan marks one of many theatrical responses to last November.  Just from the title I knew that much going in, but nothing else.  Having not read any reviews, nor more than glance at the press release, nor even having read the program (this is SOP for me--prefer to be surprised) my expectations were minimal.  Save that the Fountain Theatre does good work.

What I saw was a meeting room in prison.  A man in the orange jumpsuit of a prisoner (Bo Foxworth) meets an African American woman who turns out to be a history professor (Judith Moreland).  They are wary of one another.  The prisoner, we soon learn, is on suicide watch--a fact he finds ironic since he expects to be executed.  The professor isn't so sure, but wonders if her race is off-putting to him.

He says no.  He's impressed by her honesty.  She wants to hear his side to what happened.

But what happened?  That we don't know and don't find out for quite some time.  Here the equal skills of playwright, actors and director Michael Michetti all come into play.  They had me going several times.  Was this man a serial killer?  Someone maybe whose frustrations erupted into violence revealing some seething prejudices he now denied or tried to justify?  No, and no.  But by the time I realized this, the story had me hooked.

As might be expected from the title alone, this play functions as a polemic.  It has a point of view, which it attempts to make you share.  These generally annoy me a bit, unless done well.  As it happens Building the Wall does it very well.  For one thing each character comes across as a blend of flaws and virtues, with competing but at least to some extent justifiable (or understandable) world views.  Nobody has all the answers, which of course doesn't mean there aren't some answers.

Most of all, what I got was a microcosm of two sides of the nation I call home--not that there are only two sides, but in terms of this past election it comes across as clear.  Yeah, the professor tends towards condescension and lacks some insight into her own blind spots.  Exactly like the prisoner.  Neither of them are stupid or unwilling to listen.  They are both decent people.  In fact, were the prisoner (who we learn did commit a truly horrendous crime) some kind of monster, a sociopath or fanatic, there would be no play here.  Nothing to make us ponder or think or re-examine.

I myself wonder at how some Conservatives I know would react.  Alas, some would certainly dismiss it as fantasy--fiction, therefore meaningless.  Or would simply refuse to even acknowledge the implications of the play, because its scenario of the next few years is actually anything but crazy.  It could happen, although one desperately hopes it does not.

But it also highlights a terror of our age.  Tyranny happens because not enough people say "No."  Sadly, this often takes a partisan turn, as if assaults on human rights were the sole domain of any one political party or group.  One of the most powerful things about this play and its production lies in how that is never the point.  It paints a horrifying picture of what the Trump administration and its supports might do--a very plausible one--but never hints there is something "other" about those who would commit the worst crimes.

It would be so much more comfortable if we could believe that.

Building the Wall plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, as well as Mondays at 8pm through August 27, 2017 (there are dark nights, especially around July 4 so check the website) at the Fountain Theatre 5060 Fountain Avenue (near Normandie) Los Angeles CA 90029.  

Monday, May 29, 2017

Blood Alley 3 (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Those familiar with Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group certainly know this ensemble pushes boundaries, explores darkness and disturbing corners of the cosmos, usually amidst weird humor.

Well, Blood Alley 3 takes all that in many ways to the next level.

As in its first iteration (alas, never managed to see the second), the premise here lies in the title.  In some (presumably American) city, an alley has become what has become a "Bad Place."  The idea here is from modern horror iconography.  A spot--like the Overlook Hotel or the town of Arkham--which for some reason becomes a magnet for the preternaturally strange and dark.  In American horror literature, New England seems full of towns which have achieved this state.  Here, it is an alley.

Credit:  ZJU
Here, memories of horror and desire and perversion don't die, but seem to repeat themselves in a random loop.  A lone police officer (Kevin Van Cott) seems to more or less gotten used to this alcove of the surreal which is part of his beat.  Maybe he's even become part of it.  But we are the ones who have wandered in, who catch glimpses of things like a young woman (Nicole Craig) who seems distraught and maybe pregnant--at least her hands over her womb to suggest so--while constantly jostled by the crowd.  Which seems banal enough, right?  But still, when you think about it, horrible. Casual.  Cruel.

Then there are the more extreme acts, like the slave market and the gloating woman who takes her human chattal to do god-knows-what.  Like some one gleefully setting a man (Patrick Beckstead) bound and gagged on fire.  Like paying to rape a girl, with the others "on offer" trying not to pay attention (or worse, too numb to react).  Elsewhere--or elsewhen--a woman rips out a naked man's throat with her teeth.  And another man gets a blowjob, pulling out a gun to aim at the woman's head as he approaches climax.

Unlike Urban Death or Lost Souls, I cannot say there is anything supernatural we see in these vignettes.  Other than possibly the fact we can see them.  If anything the horror here--while extreme--remains firmly grounded in human evil, human cruelty.  Sometimes with startling humor as with the Victorian (or maybe Edwardian) bit done by Jason Britt and Michelle Danyn, in which some very very repressed people flirt--and it all goes so very very wrong.

Credit:  ZJU
On the other hand--just to keep things a tad more chaotic--the reaction these vignettes offers proves surprising.  For one thing, yeah the dark humor.  For another, scenes that one might think of as somewhat sexy (like Elif Savas in a really long lesbian make out session) end up drained of every drop of eroticism by their context.  This case was an example of mindless frenzied pleasure sans any human connection, coupled with (no surprise) drug addiction.  Other moments were just...gross.

Then there are very strange moments of beauty.  Without going into too much detail, something dreamlike happens when the lights go up and we see a lovely naked woman on stage, spattered all over with blood and seeming unconscious.  Yet then...

I don't want to spoil it.

While I"m at it, let me praise the performers such as Yael Wallace, Matthew Vorce, Brandon Slezak, Amanda McKenna, Juan Carlos Gough, Shannon Garland, and Shayne Eastin.  Their talent and bravery make this show work.

Blood Alley 3 plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm until June 10, 2017 at ZJU 4850 Lankershim (just south of the NoHo sign, just north of Camarillo), North Hollywood CA 91601.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Awful Grace of God (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Confesson time.  This review is seriously late, which sadly is something of a theme concerning the production and me.  Because of circumstances both dull and no one's business, I was also late to the show.  So I missed the first of a series of very short plays which made up the evening.

The Awful Grace of God, a little unusually, are all written by the same playwright (Michael Harney) and likewise all directed by one person (Mark Kemble). The result?  An anthology with a much more unified "feel" and sense of theme.

Again, I missed the first one.  Feel bad about that.  Especially since I enjoyed all the others.

"Surrender" stars Tim DeZarn and Janine Venable as an elderly couple with a odd, shared mutual secret.  One each does not know about the other, even though it is the same secret--about still seeing and talking to their late son.  It doesn't have a plot as we think of it, but rather a gradual reveal of their relationship.  As such this avoids a problem with many such very short plays--a lack of wholeness.

The same cannot quite be said of the third, "Willy and Rose" all about two young people played by Agatha Nowiki and Johnny Whitworth, in a model room.  Here we have a compelling set of characters in an equally compelling situation (the Willy of the title is an up and coming hitman, while Rose wants him to stop).  But it comes across as an episode of a much larger story, without much by way of resolution although it feels as if it should have one or be part of one.

"The Long Walk Home" on the other hand works in exactly the opposite way.  James Harvey  Ward and Amelia Jackson-Gray play a married couple in 1950 New York, on the night and day when a crisis forces a choice.  He is a good man, but frustrated and--as we learn--living with the legacy of a drunken, abusive father.  Now when he gets drunk, he follows that same road.  At last forced to look at himself, he has to make a choice all alone in an empty apartment, suffering through a hangover...

"Need (Shelter From the Storm)" takes place in a therapist's office in New York and is probably my favorite piece of those I saw.  Therapist Marie Broderick sees an author/client (Ilia Volok the night I was there) who confesses his love of her.  She immediately diagnoses transference--well, of course she does--and he initially agrees.  Then rejects it.  He's been in therapy for years and years before he ever met her.  And what follows is his refusal to give up, to back down.  He does not threaten, even when annoyed or angry.  Neither does he make a pass or demand she love him.  But he does want her to acknowledge his feelings are real, and valid.  Although not instantly clear, this is what she's refusing to do--even to the point of lying about her life.  One of the most impressive things about the performances here is that I knew she was lying about that detail (there's also a break in her natural rhythmn in the writing, so give kudos to the writer as well).  But, and here lies the kicker, why did she lie?  Why can she not simply admit he really does love her, and he has every right in the world to tell her so?  From this question ultimately comes the climax of this tale, which remains complete in and of itself at under a dozen minutes.  No small feat!  Kudos to all involved!

"Through" ends the evening with what makes for a virtual one-man show, with Oscar Best impressively and magnificently playing...I'm not sure.  But I think he's a man in Hell, Not a place of eternal torment, but rather of forced spiritual evolution, of getting past the residue and flotsam of a human life and through to...what?  I'm not sure.  But I believed.  Chained to a stake, surrounded by weird images and listening to voices, this man changes and accepts...something.  And in that acceptance, the chains fall away.  He goes...somewhere.  I don't know where.  But I could not tear my eyes away, while striving to hear every sound, every word.  Powerful stuff.  Very powerful.

Bottom line--an extraordinary evening of theatre that left me very pleased (and to some extent even changed) at having gotten to experience it.

The Awful Grace of God plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm until Sunday May 28, 2017 at the Other Space Theatre, The Actor's Company 916A North Formosa Avenue, West Hollywood CA 90046.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

THTR Alchemy (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Taking my seat to see THTR Alchemy I knew very little.  Yeah, it would consist of short pieces.  I knew some of the actors, directors and writers involved.  There would be only four performances.  And it had been created by the True Focus Theater.  This last meant I felt sure of something high quality.  I can think of about half a dozen theatres here in Los Angeles I simply expect to give excellence every single time (a larger group gives it almost every time, while others never do anything poorly or can be counted on to consistently surprise, or entertain, etc.).  Here is one of them.

No disappointments. 

Eight pieces in all, by a variety of writers.  Each different yet united in some subtle way that felt wonderfully attuned even if I could not put my finger on it.  All certainly felt uniquely theatrical, though—not a retelling of something literary, or an attempt to recreate a naturalistic story on stage.  Rather they each used the power of imagination, the special effects of the mind which live theatre perhaps (oh, hell CERTAINLY) uses best—for many imaginations combine to create waking dreams, i.e. myths.

“Welcome to the Theatre” written and performed by John Kenower started the whole evening off with taking the traditional words we hear at the start of every performance about exits and cell phones (which many a theatre try to make entertaining) then turning it into a mini-performance piece.  Set the tone quite nicely thank you.

“Mailbox Fairies Fear End of Magic” by Cheryl Slean and directed by Elif Savas, then let us into the world of two nonhumans—the title characters.  Truly (Gloria Galvan) and Poorly (Jonica Patella) certainly seemed alien, otherworldly, yet totally real.  Trapped and maybe dying in a box, these winged creatures spoke in metaphor, in poetic license.  Sometimes the meaning of their actual sentences escaped me, but the emotional truth proved never less than nakedly on display.  Amazing how two weird beings with hard-to-comprehend speech could in ten minutes create a drama of piercing power.  Yeah, it was that impressive.

“Let Me Be Bamboo for You” by Vanessa Cate and directed by John Kenower, proved shorter and less powerful, yet also left a more open ending.  Woman (Monica K. Ross) and Man (Rick Brown) essentially enacted a poem, about two people trying to find a way to each other. 

“The Captain” also by Vanessa Cate but directed by Elif Savas, could be described the same way—save the Captain of the title (John T. Cogan) and his wife Daisy (Ilona Kulinska) seek to find a way back to their love, a difficult thing as they are so clearly of different visions.  The ending of this, while equally open, shows a more vivid—and a bit disturbing—direction.

“Lemon Head” on the other hand, by Hank Bunker while directed by both Vanessa Cate and Angie Hoover, imagines a dream committee meeting.  From what we can gather, the Committee seems tasked with the US involvement in the Middle East.  Pete (Richard Mooney) evidently serves as Chairman, a man filled with fierce unfocused certainties on a seemingly endless quest for the right spin to explain life and purpose.  Bob (Tyler McAuliffe) would seem to be his number two, a lesser version or echo.  Marlene (Vanessa Cate) come across as an eager, clever follower whose sexuality has become a powerful tool to make her way.  Then there is Lemon Head (Roger K. Weiss), an exhausted figure whose constant work has pushed him into an altered state of consciousness.  Finally Susan (Mariana Leite) seems like a token minority sometimes noticed, often ignored—especially when she actually says anything.  What follows proves equal parts horrifying and funny.

“How to Win a Guy in One Hour” by Angie Hoover, who co-directed with Vanessa Cate, is even more so—hilariously funny and horrifying to the point of grotesque.  Lisa (Alariza Navarez) simply gives advice about how to find your one true beloved.  We know pretty much from the moment we see her she’s disturbed.  Well, maybe not disturbed.  The word ‘psychotic’ might capture it better, a person broken by specific expectations which results in her seeing men as literally things.  She doesn’t end up happy of course.  How could she?  The result may be the most compelling portrait of a serial killer I’ve ever seen on stage.

“Bridget” written and directed by John Kenower interestingly puts a couple on stage in many ways taking the place or role of the audience.  Terry (Rick Brown) and Bridget (Monica K. Ross) are in bed, with the former trying to explain a dream he’s had, what it was about, how he sees it—only it isn’t a dream so much as a t.v. commercial.  She thinks he’s talking about a different commercial.  A specific other one.  One she prefers.  Yet somehow they use this to reaffirm something.

“Huachuca Point” written by Shayne Eastin who co-directed with Vanessa Cate, is the second ten minute epic fantasy I’ve seen in the past year.  Interestingly, this leads me to believe live theatre might have done a far better job with something like Lord of the Rings or The Game of Thrones than film or television.  In what seems like some post-apocalyptic world two women/entities Fleet (Sasha Snow) and Floot (Jonica Patella) serive/protect Spring (Marietta Melrose) until two men come along, strangers named Daniel (Max Faugno) and Ezra (AJ Brody) on a quest based on legends of a huge wall that kept the hummingbirds away, while the females long for them to return.  Danger, revelation and surprise await them all as of course what they seek proves to be something other than what they believe.  Well, what else is the quest about after all? 

THTR Alchemy plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm until May 27, 2017 at the Eclectic Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Road, Valley Village CA 91607.

The Sweetheart Deal (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

One of the most exciting things I experience in terms of theatre is an expansion of reality.  Some works use the bridge of our own experience to lead us into a world-view, a reality, a set of experiences all but unknown to us.  It can be as relatively small as what it is to pretend at a gender not your own, to be a murderer, to live in a kind of family where dysfunction achieves a level of art form, etc.  In the case of The Sweetheart Deal, for me, this was to taste the history in many ways not mine.  And yet part of mine, because I am an American and a native of California, as well as someone who lived through the sixties.

Yet I honestly don’t know much about the founding of the United Farm Workers Union.  Diane Rodgriquez’ play (she also directed) brought a sliver of that struggle to life.  It proved disorienting.  And moving.

In an almost Brechtian style, the play begins with people in exaggerated costumes (including a mask) in effect dramatizing a kind of political cartoon.  The Owner, the Worker, the Teamster—broad portraits/archetypes rather than people.  But immediately we find ourselves among real individuals caught up in that not-so-long-ago struggle.  Thus the play proceeded—the living cartoons about the situation, in between the genuine lives of what really happened.

Mari (Ruth Livier) returns to her home town, the farming desert community of Delano, when her husband Will (Geoffrey Rivas) volunteers to help out the Union newspaper.  He feels a deep need to do something important in his life, to make a mark.  She feels conflicted about the whole thing, simultaneously proud and reluctant, loyalty to her husband and distaste for the actual situation, pride in the cause and fear for possible consequences.  Yet both of them make friends with the editor Chon (Valente Rodriquez) and his assistant Lettie (Linda Lopez), and eventually even get close to the Chicago organizer Charlie (Peter Wylie).  What starts the road to tragedy is when Charlie suggests they try and contact Mari’s bother Mac (David DeSantos) who served with Will in the military. 

This frankly impressed me the most—the dynamics of this man, his wife and her brother.  Mac and Will were best friends, with the latter providing some powerful emotional glue for the former in the wake of their service.  But that all changed when Will met, fell in love, then married Mari.  The brother never really forgave this desertion.  Nor has he been able to own up to his own responsibilities, not even for the temper that led him to hurt his own father.  We don’t get all the details, but we get enough.  The result is like seeing the outline of a forest that looks very real, yet we cannot really see into the depths of its landscape.  We only know it is there.  No small feat.

Such a totally human situation, amid the valid and important “Big” events, moved me very much.  The abstract became concrete, with a straightforward point of view but no easy answers.  Now, admittedly, I am no fan of polemic theatre.  But The Sweatheart Deal handled well and avoided the pitfalls of the type (the very very end seemed a bit anti-climactic to me, but your mileage may vary).  Which proves on par for what I’ve come to expect from the Latino Theater Company—good plays, performed very well but a solid and talented corps of actors.

The Sweatheart Deal plays Wednesdays at 11am, plus Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, with Sundays at 3pm until June 4, 2017 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Tom Bradley Theatre, 514 S. Spring Street (not far from Pershing Square), Los Angeles CA 90013.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Tales from Tomorrow (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Force of Nature's Tales From Tomorrow consisted of four different short plays in a repertory.  To be honest, the length of these (very) short plays--while popular--do not lend themselves to particularly riveting characters or stories.  Hence my approaching such with a grain of salt.  At most you usually can only see something fun and clever--which in and of itself is fine!  More than fine!  As per usual, FON achieved that much pretty consistently!

""A Shot in the Dark" honestly is the least successful of the five.  Interesting idea, with good performers, but requiring...something.  Maybe a technical tour-de-force or brilliance by the actors.  A man (Jahel Corban Caldera) has bought a gift and his two best friends (Melissa Munoz and Sasha Snow) advise him for as well as against it.  One is all support and in pastel blues, while the other dons vampy bright red.  Two sides of his soul, as it were, angel and devil.  But what makes up the heart of their argument?  Well, that was not explored and perhaps for this piece some stronger hints of this need viewing.  Me, I suspect writer Kelly Copeland needs to expand this into a full one act to make it really work.  JMHO.  Directed by Chris Campbell.

"Hubris & Heroism" was almost my favorite, with two brothers (Sebastian Munos and Chris Campbell) see each other for the first time in years.  The elder brother left the family business years ago, refusing to obey their Dad in all things (Dad has since retired).  The younger has run things ever since, become overwhelmed, wants to start over leaving the original firm with the 'black sheep.'  I think we'd all figured out by the end writer Chris Campbell's twist--the brothers are Michael and Lucifer.  Munoz also directed this one.

"Home for Dinner" by Robert J. Watson has Tom Jones and Jennifer Novak Chun along with Benjamin Fuller doing the most psychological piece of the evening--all about regret for a dead son, who can speak via his cell phone (maybe) and how parents react to this impossible chance.  Directed by Andy Shultz.

"Manservant 3000" was easily the funniest playlet, written by Thomas J. Misuraca,   Sasha Snow, Anastasia Elfman, Chris Campbell and Benjamin Fuller act out a weird comedy of errors involving future robotic relations amid ever-better upgrades.

Finally "Rip and Vanna Winkle" by Tom Jones again is one of those that seems to demand more time than it had.  Director Corey Chapell did well enough in this Twilight Zone-eque story, with Benjamin Fuller waking in the far future after being cryogenically frozen centuries ago.  He finds his wife, Monet Hendricks, waiting for him along with a Jennifer Novak Chun as a doctor telling him of the utopia which the world has become--a world that he views as the epitome of all his worst nightmares.

So, a fun evening's entertainment.  Mostly laughs, a little bit of real drama, some surprises and cleverness all wrapped together by a talented group of performers.

As of this writing, Tales from Tomorrow has closed but more installments in the series are in the works!

Macbeth in Rhythm

Spoilers ahoy!

Imagine an empty black stage.  Audience on three sides.  No music as the audience members come in and take their seats, all chatting away and commenting on the day, who they know in the production, what else they’ve seen at this venue.  The usual.  Only slowly do they realize three women have entered into their view—emerging quietly to walk into the playing area.  Something about them instantly registered as “Other.”  Not just their slow, quiet gate but their unblinking eyes, oddly crouched postures, not the way their staffs never touched the floor.  In recognition of how the anything-but-mundane had entered their midsts, members of the audience fell silent.

With that silence, the lights shifted.  Stark shafts of illumination replaced the general glow of a normal room.

The ritual of Macbeth in Rhythm had begun, in silence and strange anticipation.  Obviously, the three are the Witches (Lindsey Moore Ford, Emmie Nagata, Danielle O’Terry) although in time these actors will also portray a variety of other parts, including Lady Macbeth, the drunken Porter (in the single funniest version of that I’ve ever seen) and Lady Macduff.   Just as the rest of the cast (Sam Breen, James Cowan, Ben Weaver) are the title character, and Banquo, Macduff, Young Macduff, King Duncan and others.  All flowing together in a blend of dance/movement, song,  recitation and drama.  Every single moment felt charged with energy, the many silences anything at all but empty.  I felt as if I were attending mass, or an exorcism, or maybe some ancient pagan ritual re-enacting myth.

 Perhaps all three.

Purists may well complain about Hannah Chodos’ direction, to break down and reinvent the text along very modern (albeit non-Naturalistic) theatrical styles.  I found the effect rather as if someone took a Sonnet, then somehow used it to create a Haiku.  Very beautiful, very moving in these eyes.  Others might complain it takes liberties, omitting scenes and characters, boiling down the story (as opposed to plot) into its most fundamental ingredients.  All true.  Yet I heard not a whisper of complaint on opening night, now felt a drop of disapproval from anyone.  We had all shared in the same performance, and felt ourselves altered.  We had entered the cave, tasted what it had to offer, and now emerged.

I could go on and on about the dozens of tiny wonderful ‘bits’ in the play.   Breathing used as sound effects.  Shadows by the cast cast out into the audience.  Giving individual characters power over the movements of others—sometimes shared, sometimes (frighteningly) unilateral.  Percussion of flesh on wood, on floor.  Simply tossing a prop turned into a dance that functions also as battle.

But it all emerges in service of STORY.  Of myth, which is what the story of this Scottish monarch has certainly become.  A tale of damnation, intended to haunt and warn but not lecture.  Here was no lesson to be learned, but an experience to be felt.

Macbeth in Rhythm is part of the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ Year of Macbeth, and plays Friday May 5 at 8pm then Saturday May 6 at 2pm and again at 8pm at the Shakespeare Center 1238 West First Street, Los Angeles CA 90026.