Monday, November 27, 2017

bled for the household truth (review)


Spoilers ahoy!

A man.  A woman.  Both seared by childhoods no child should endure.  Both with an urge to drink far too much.  Other than that they seemingly have utterly no thing else in common save the city in which dwell. A homeless young woman from England with a free sexuality.  A grimly serious businessman in New York who cannot, will not touch others.  Not quite two decades in age between them.

If this sounds like a redemptive romance of some kind, you are both right and wrong.  Ruth Fowler's bled for the household truth turns out to contain so much more than romance, than redemption.  Watching it made me laugh out loud, squirm in fascinated horror, almost weep, certainly look away (but always look back), catch my throat in moments of intense deja vu.  That last seems especially important because in most ways my life resembles theirs even less than do each others'.  In terms of detail, anyway.

Both felt like me, though.  Or vice versa.  Even though much of their lives seem unimaginable.

Credit: Joe Perrin Flynn
Keith (Bejamin Burdick) in theory has no need of a roommate, yet has placed an ad looking to hire one.  Pen (Alexandra Hellquist) ends up his choice, willing to answer his ad which assure no sexual contact, no harassment, but requires absolute confidentiality and that his new young female roommate sometimes wear nothing but her underwear around the house. Sometimes.  Not on demand, he explains, but simply sometimes.  To give that extra something in his life.

Clearly, a man with issues. Who of course would agree to such a thing if not desperate or with complementary issues of her own? Or both.

Most of the play consists of these two alone in the apartment. For the record the set by John Iocovelli helped make this work brilliantly, along with direction by Cameron Watson.  Ditto sound design by Chris Moscatiello, which an often startling but always effective choice of music between scenes, which in a mostly two character play needing time for the players to change costume, can be (and in this case proves to be) vital.  Kudos too to dialect coach Tracey Winters.

Pen and Keith's story does not form an obvious arc, although the emotional trajectory feels like a roller coaster of the soul at times.  It delves into disturbing and very intimate elements of human experience, including talk about bowel movements.  I suspect many would find more offensive the sexuality up to and including masturbation, as well as definite acts of betrayal by them both.  Or what many would see as betrayal.

Credit: Joe Perrin Flynn
It makes for a sometimes extremely uncomfortable slice of life.  Compelling, also, if one is not too squeamish.  But at heart this one-room play consisting almost entirely of conversations between two characters becomes a version of Homer's Odyssey.  Pen even stands for Penelope! We get to know these two so well, see so many facets and nuances in them that when a couple of strangers (Rachel Brunner and Nathaniel Meek) intrude at the end, we see them with different eyes, see into some of their corners so vivid have become our senses.  More, we sense yet again how desperately our two leads really do need one another on a visceral level.

Frankly some will dislike how it ends.  No climax as we understand it happens, although a powerful threshold is reached, a corner is turned that must alter them both.  But again, not a conventional story arc.  Again, an emotional roller coaster of the soul, made possible by a pair of actors who allowed themselves to bleed all over that stage and each other.

bled for the household truth plays Saturdays and Mondays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 3pm until December 28, 2017 at The Met, 1089 North Oxford (near Santa Rosa & Western) Los Angeles CA 90029.  This play includes nudity and other elements some may find offensive.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Richard II (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Richard II is not an often-done play by Shakespeare.  One can see why.  No love story after all.  No obvious villain. The central character begins with all of us wanting to punch him in the face.  With a hammer.  Several times.

Yet it contains some of the most powerful speeches the author ever wrote, about  powerful ideas to be sure, important ones, but rooted firmly in one individual's personal love and heartache and pain.  Chase What Flies last year managed to do Cymbeline and do it extraordinary justice.  I eagerly looked forward to seeing what they might do with this one!

In essence, the play reveals England's plight under a bad king.  This sounds simple enough, and to modern sensibilities we probably bad king, so we overthrow him!  But this play eschews such melodrama for complexity. 

Richard (Frank Weidner) begins the play with a problem. Two of his nobles, his friend the Duke of Norfolk (Nicole Knudson) and his own cousin Bolingbroke (Celia Mandela) hate each other and accuse each other of treason.  Law and tradition give them the right to trial by combat. Before the battle may commence, Richard peremptorily banishes them both from England, Bolingbroke for some years and Norfolk for life.  Seems almost like something ordinary, does it not? Yet in the King's attitude and his actions we see the seeds of disaster.  That is the story of the play, how events now combine -- Game of Thrones like, minus so much sex (sorry) -- to bring a bad king down.  Because King Richard has been uncareful with his funds, and once he needs to put down rebels he needs money.  As his uncle Bolingbroke's uncle, John of Gaunt (William Dennis Hunt) feels his last breath coming, he tells Richard what this monarch doesn't want to hear.  So when John dies, Richard seizes all his uncle's estate to pay for the war.  His last living uncle, the Duke of York (Gilbert Martinez), objects.  He calls for rule of law above all else, for how save by inheritance is Richard even king?

Sure enough, not too long before other nobles (Christine Avila, Max Lawrence) feel threatened and pledge their soldiers to support Bolingbroke, who returns to claim his inheritance.

In the hands of a lesser playwright -- and a less talented, skilled and well-directed company -- at this point we might see Richard as a mere tyrant, Bolingbroke as a hero.  But no.  Calamity shows us the human side of Richard. He has been foolish, not cruel.  He is weak, not evil.  Wrong, not stupid -- and he sees his doom approaching with dreadful clarity.

Likewise Bolingbroke and his followers calmly lie to those who challenge them, claiming to be loyal to Richard even while executing his best friends (James Ferrero, Taylor Jackson Ross).  Okay, so is Bolingbroke the villain?  No.  He's much too willing to pardon given a chance, as he does to the Bishop of Carlisle (Tippi Thomas) and the Duke of Aumerle (Jordan Klompt) when they conspire against him.  This wonderful tapestry of characters including Richard's Queen (Victoria Yvonne Martinez), the Duchess of York (Debi Tinsley) and many others plays out with no obvious, easy answer to the questions it poses. Not only the play, but the entire cast weaves us this series of knots and entwining hopes in a tour-de-force of leaving an audience having to make decisions and answers for themselves.

What could have been a soap opera in iambic pentameter and cool costumes instead ends up a compelling story of power politics reshaping people's lives, for good and ill and all things in between.  Every word and deed in Richard II costs somebody something, and this production never lets you forget it! Nobody and everybody is to blame.  Everybody and nobody is a hero.  Just like real life.

Richard II plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm with a special Thursday performance on November 30 at 8pm.  Its final show will be December 3, 2017 at the Studio/Stage Theatre 520 North Western Avenue (south of Melrose) Los Angeles CA 90004.

Rotterdam (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Rotterdam, for those of you don't know, is a Dutch city, not far at all from the UK at least physically.  If the play is any guide, it would seem light years from the most conservative, stuffy aspects of England.  More importantly, the play allows the city to stand in for a kind of limbo in which the characters live.  Its story is of four people who ultimately decide to leave limbo.

Credit: Ed Krieger
Which is a terribly misleading sentence.  This play is funny!  Very funny!  Chock full of amusing and very human characters whose rough edges keep bouncing against each other to entertaining effect!

Which in turn counts as a misleading paragraph.  Rotterdam is much more than a simple comedy, no matter how funny the events turn out to be.  It also rends one's heart at what these people go through.

Anguish and hilarity.  When those two combine, you are probably in the presence of very high quality indeed.

Credit: Ed Krieger
Alice (Miranda Wynne) is a closeted gay English girl living in Rotterdam with her girlfriend Fi (Ashley Romans). They have a bet over whether Alice will ever come out to her parents, and are fiercely but playfully bickering about it all when Fi drops a bombshell.  She kinda/sorta wants to be a man.  Later, she makes that firmer.  She is a man, has always been a man. Alice quietly reels in the face of this.  Her ex boyfriend Josh (Ryan Brophy), who is also Fi's brother, tries to be supportive of them both.  Meanwhile Lelani (Audrey Cain), Alice's very flirtatious co-worker, who tellingly proves the only one to really like Rotterdam, keep trying to get Alice to relax and be herself.

Not a bad set up might say.  And here we get to the heart of what makes this not just a good play, but a powerful one.  Because all of this, while taken with some humorous sweetener, keeps getting more and more real.  The characters do learn and grow, sure, but it hurts.  Like it does!  They make mistakes, some of them remarkably stupid and in context almost everyone does something ruthless or cruel or both.  Remember -- once you leave Limbo, the next stop is Purgatory.  And what is a greater purgatory than one's self at your worst?
Credit: Ed Krieger

Again, this play is funny!  It has to be, otherwise we'd never stop crying at some point.  Which rather than feeling forced, seems perfect.  After all, what is laughter if not a balm for sadness and tragedy?  We laugh so as not to weep.  Meanwhile, as this play -- this chapter in these characters lives comes to a close -- every single person leaves Rotterdam.  Josh finally stops following Alice around to get a life of his own.  Lelani gets a nasty taste her mouth of what real consequences can be, after she's revealed to be in many ways remarkably naive.  She hates it here now and want to try Amsterdam.  Meanwhile Alice and Andrian (Fi's new name) are on a boat back to England, talking but not looking at each other.  Openly unsure of what happens next, save that going back and staying has ceased being an option.

Which means, they are where the rest of us are, or where we will be.

Rotterdam plays 8:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays, 2pm on Sundays and 8pm on Mondays until December 11, 2017 at the Skylight Theatre at 1816 1/2 North Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90027.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Uncover The Moon (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

When I saw Uncover the Moon at Zombie Joe's my reactions ended up very mixed.  The whole idea of an original myth/fairy tale about a young woman's coming of age intrigued me more than a little.  And let me state right now Susan Chambers seems a very talented writer and director.

For one thing, she genuinely had the beginnings of an original and startling myth in her script, one that felt familiar but strange in ways I love to experience on stage. Her weird tale of the Madwoman from the Moon grabbed my imagination right off.  More, she had the skill to keep the players at high energy with a great deal of theatricality throughout.

However, I have some problems, as well as (to be fair) some problems with my problems.  That will clear up in a minute.

The central character Levana (Mieko Beyer) is an ordinary girl in what seems like an (sort of) ordinary town or place whose Mother (Scathach Ashley Cotter) doesn't seem to really care all that much about her, and whose Father (Philip Sokoloff) seems to enjoy frightening with warning stories about a Madwoman who sometimes falls from the moon and drips blood that will infect others with her madness.  Sure enough, once the little girl falls asleep the Madwoman (Shalonda Shaw Reese) does indeed visit her, to seemingly bestow a blessing.  Next morning, people begin treating her with revulsion, starting with her brother (Laura Lee Botsacos) and then spiraling through various male figures (all played by Garrett Botts).

All well and good! I began watching this with a big smile on my face. Alas it quickly faded. Not because of the cast, who did a good job overall. Nor from a lack of talent on anyone's part. But I had definite problems with scope, precision and nuance.

Scope because this seems to be about a play about the power of women -- what it is, how it is both liberating and frightening, how patriarchal societies seek to negate it.  In forty five minutes.  Sorry, not enough time for all that.  To be fair Wagner's Ring Cycle might be too short that much scope.  The way around this was precision, which proved in low supply.  What precisely was this play supposed to explore and comment upon? It touched on female fears, on demonization of the feminine, on the female power of life generation, on personal courage, on hypocrisy, on female alienation from each other, on putting price as opposed to value on things, etc.  All good subjects!  But what was the main thrust, the central element to be explored, the first and last question being asked?  No idea.  And because so many subjects keep bouncing around, nothing ends up with much depth or nuance.  It cannot.  Here one simple example -- the total lack of male interaction with Levana involving anything but disapproval and disgust. So how did she become pregnant?

This comes across as a early draft of something which might eventually be a genuinely stunning work.  If the author does not pursue this piece, I eagerly look forward to what else she will do.  Because this grapples with fascinating, powerful themes in startling, theatrical ways.  Someone pointed out the playwright to me the night I saw this.  She is very young, which means I have high hopes of many more plays from her.  This one certainly simmers with promise.

Uncover The Moon plays Saturdays at 8:30pm until November 25, 2017 at Zombie Joe's Underground, 4850 Lankershim (just north of Camarillo), North Hollywood CA 91601.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

King John (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This marks the third time (including the BBC effort to do all of Shakespeare's canon) I have seen the play King John from start to finish. Not a most-produced work to be sure. Easy to see why.  Not a play with an obvious hero nor a fascinating villain. It lacks some really exciting war or startling battle, nor for that matter does it contain a love story.

Porters of Hellsgate production made me really appreciate the play for what it is, not an exciting delve into villainy or heroism (with all the complexity of either) but rather on a more subtle issue.  What makes a good king?  In fact, this theme was one Shakespeare explored time and again.  More, he ventured into the thornier question of making the right choice.

Credit: Mike Quain
This marks the first production of this play with that kind of utter focus, and makes it the best yet I've seen.

Never mind historical accuracy for now. Shakespeare never pretended to be an historian but a playwright and poet. Here we meet the title character (Gus Kreiger), younger brother of the noble, enshrined to eternal memory Richard Coeur-de-Lion, as well as the last surviving son of a brilliant mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Hersha Parady). But the play starts off immediately with a problem for the monarch. According to the law, the son of his elder brother Geoffrey should be King not John.  France has taken up the cause of this young Prince, urged on by his mother Constance (Betsy Roth). So immediately we have a contest for England's throne.

Credit: Mike Quain
Rather than give a blow-by-blow of the plot, it all comes down to a deal to keep a war from continuing when neither side has the advantage.  In retrospect, the original audiences would probably compare this to another monarch, Henry V, who braved all when outnumbered five to won, yet prevailed.  But neither John nor his French counterpart (Jacques Freydont) do that, rather insist on making a peace by wedding John's sister (Cindy Nguyen) with the Dauphin (Jono Eiland), thus betraying the widow and her son Arthur (Molly Wear)--a role that could have been so cloying as to earn the audience's hatred but proves one of the best performances in the whole work.

What follows is a crude bit of plotting, bringing in John's contest with the Pope, a deep friendship that develops (mostly off stage) between young Arthur and his jailer, Hubert (Dan White), and sudden turns of fortune. The play has its problems, to be sure.

Credit: Mike Quain
But at its heart we feel the tragedy of King John himself, not so much that he was an evil man, but that he was not worthy of wearing a crown. Kreiger bears most of the weight of this play on his shoulders, doing it with skill.  We see into this man, most especially his vanity (the bright red uniform helps) and his lack of resolve. He longed for respect, and by play's end we so wish he had done what others urged him to in scene one--give up the crown to Arthur. We sense from this seed and example the vicious Wars of the Roses would one day grow.  Just as we realize had John done this, his name would been revered for the rest of time!

A subtle point, but one that echoes in the heart, where all human history is first writ.  And that is what makes this just a fine production, that it brings the human first and foremost before the spectacle (even though--let it be said--the battle scenes are just amazing).

King John plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm through December 10, 2017 at the Whitemore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd (west of Lankershim) North Hollywood CA 91602.

Wake (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Audience expectations tend to be tricky things. To some degree this depends upon genre.

Wake by Gordon Dahlquist, if not science fiction, certainly begins and explores a pretty clear and well precedented science fiction trope. Someone wakes from cryogenic sleep far into the future and must adjust.  Buck Rogers essentially.

Except, no.

Irene (Natasha St. Clair-Johnson) had advanced pancreatic cancer and used her resources on a wild chance, that someone frozen in liquid nitrogen just might be revived in later centuries. When she wakes in a strange room to the greetings of May (Alicia Rose Ivanhoe), a cheerful young woman with a strange vocabulary, the truth dawns on her pretty quickly. It worked. Behold the future! 


At this point many a science fiction tale would begin describing the future world, if in fact the story turns out to be some kind of social commentary on the trends of human society. Or it may become some kind of adventure in which the awakened person will prove crucial to history or some such (this was the story of the second JJ Abrams Star Trek movie). I never thought the latter very likely here, but wondered how the first part of that expectation might play out. That at first May seems reluctant to tell Irene much heightened that expectation.  At first.  But increasingly, as we get to know more about this future, the less terribly important that became.  Details all proved important, but not what the story was about.

Irene began and remained the story's focus, for every moment, and she remained the only character on stage the entire play.  All seventy minutes with no intermission.  Even as we meet the sentient computer (or something like that) called The Platform (Megan Kim) that both runs and enables, nurtures and learns from the lives of those like May and her would be boyfriend Sen (Jeffrey Gardner), the more we share Irene's curiosity and frustration.  When is this?  How much time has passed?  Hints given early prove disturbing.  Her capsule? Found in sea water.  People have very odd beliefs about her own time, not least the amount of violence. No one, not even The Platform, knows what she's talking about when Irene mentions ancient Egypt or the Pyramids.

Her world is gone. Her context has vanished, evaporated over time. Hardly anyone else was ever found frozen and with enough left to be revived.  That was Sarah (Sandy Mansson) who died decades ago.

With us, Irene endures this loss -- the realization of being utterly alone, not physically nor literally, but robbed of every single detail that made life make sense. Not by anyone, just by chance.  This then proves the exploration, the odyssey of this work -- not a revelation of plot or world-building, but of human courage in the face of tremendous loss.  All in all, Wake does an astounding almost Haiku-esque job of giving us the heart, the soul of the story and very nearly nothing else.

We see someone find courage to go on. To trust the supremely unfamiliar. To begin to let go of what after all can never come again -- the past.

Wake runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm (pay-what-you-can at the door only) until Sunday, December 17, 2017 at the City Garage, Building T1, Bergamont Station, 2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica CA 90404.