Saturday, December 30, 2017

Baker's Dozen Best of 2017

Well, 2017 is over and frankly, good riddance.  Not that I didn't have some wonderful times within the last twelves months, but overall it sucked -- mostly due to the November before last and the horror-inducing consequences.  Mostly.

But now here are my twelve (actually thirteen because I could not choose) best productions I personally saw on the theatre scene in Los Angeles since this exact time last year.  And no, they are in no particular order at all. Even whittling this list to a mere thirteen was hard enough!

bled for the household truth proved the last member of this list. If you checked on Better Lemons you'll find critics evenly divided between bitter and sweet.  Nothing in between. Doesn't surprise me in the least. This marks a deeply disturbing, intimate, sympathetic and touching portraits of seriously damaged souls trying to very, very hard to heal themselves. Yeah, the process and journey can be ugly, but the struggle is heroic even if on the scale of "mere" individual human beings.

My Janis was quite simply the best one person show I have ever seen, and a powerful piece of extremely intimate theatre. No long biographical conversations here, nor a description of what happened.  Rather Janis Joplin is alone, speaking to no one until the phone rings. That conversation reveals itself as the most important one in her life, inviting her back to San Francisco where she began JANIS JOPLIN the legend.  I was awstruck.
 Normal from the Vagrancy is one of three shows on this list from the 2017 Hollwyood Fringe.  My Janis is one, and shares one thing in common --both are about real human beings.  Real as in historical. Peter Kurten was an especially grotesque serial killer executed by a Germany about to elect Adolf Hitler.  That Germany called Peter "normal."  The implications, explored with delirious showmanship, made my flesh crawl.

The Dreamer Examines His Pillow was a play I saw in New York way back in the 1980s. I can honestly say this production blew that one away, far more than the original. A man and woman love each other, and she goes to her father for advice. Out of that so supremely simple idea comes an exploration of life's meaning and how we give each other meaning along with all the pain, disappointment and yes, joy.

Blackbird left me shaken.  Truly. In common with several other choices this year, it consisted essentially of a conversation -- in this case (not surprisingly) between a man and a woman. We eventually learn here is a pedophile and the former-child who was his victim/girlfriend/lover.  I actually squirmed more than once, feeling what the play revealed proved was almost too intimate for words. I became totally engrossed, up to and including a conclusion that made my heart cry.

Macbeth in Rhythm is the best production of "The Scottish Tragedy" I for one have ever seen, certainly the most abstract while still precise, and in the end the most courageous. Six actors used their bodies in some of the most incredible ways to tell this story, to bring the play almost to the point of dance but while keeping the dialogue intact.  In the last twelve months I've seen a lot of Macbeths and this was the best of them all.
Shakes-lesque! makes the only musical on this list, and maybe the premise--a burlesque mash up of all of William Shakespeare--sounds too trivial, in fact what it turned out to be was more like a dream journey in which the Bard visits all his future works.  Yeah the show is full of puns, full of scantily clad ladies removing most of their clothes, full of silliness.  But it also delves into some darker matters, and that is one reason I believed at the end the Bard felt creatively ready.

Artificial Flowers at ZJU is another conversation between a man and woman.  The cast was amazing, the story obviously deeply personal, and frankly felt almost too honest for anything like comfort. That one of the cast not only wrote the play but directed it blew me away!  As I said in the review, here is a portrait of a certain kind of dysfunctional relationship what changes forever one night, reaches that breaking point and I cannot quite tell what direction the pieces will fall.

The Physicists is a seldom performed play anymore, although its heydey in the 1960s made it famous. This dark, even absurd comedy about madness and doom was performed for the Fringe, taking it even further than the script suggests in its examination of how humanity seems to have doomed itself.  Maybe.  It is supposed to be a cautionary tale, after all.

Cannibals Alone at Theatre Unleashed was the first play in the Los Angeles area to reply to the election of Donald Trump.  It remains one of the most simply harrowing image of a terrible future, a portrait of individuals dehumanized by policies that found compassion ultimately incomprehensible. But was this because of policies?  Or was the lack of compassion what led to this heartless life?  Or does it matter?
Cat On a Hot Tin Roof from Anteus Company followed a pattern I've noticed (and applauded) in re-imagining such a quintessentially Realistic playwright away from Naturalism and towards the surreal. Thus in this case the set seems almost like a sculpture, with perspective shifting in each act. Sounds cool but what makes it really work is the forgiveness with which the whole production treats everyone. Yeah, some of them are just awful people. But it becomes harder and harder to hate them. Instead we increasingly feel pity as the way to save themselves lies open for them -- a way none of them can or will take.
Any Night gobsmacked me. It totally put me on the edge of my seat, remained compelling every single moment, yet never stopped surprising me over and over and over again.  This makes for no small feat!  Essentially framed as one of those thrillers where deciding who to trust becomes the focal point of everything, it adds to the problem by taking away our knowledge of what we might view as real.  Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, we end up questioning everything, and until the very end the pieces never quite fit perfectly into place.  But when they do, it proves heart-breaking.
Grimly Handsome at CityGarage likewise uses the a genre -- in this case a police procedural -- and its expectations to play with your mind, re-examine premises and more, make you feel startling things about the characters (who sometimes seem to somehow bleed into one another).  The Christmas Tree Ripper is a serial killer once again on the prowl, although now (although the police don't know it) the Ripper is two men. More, the victim seemed to have a weird fascination with the idea of her own danger -- all these details echoed in the relationships between the detectives and a wife of one of one.  This one, like pretty much all my choices, haunts me still.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Beauty and The Beast (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Casa0101 in Boyle Heights is hosting the live action version of the Disney musical of The Beauty and the Beast.  To be honest, for me rather problematical.  My favorite fairy tale!  My least favorite version!

But this production wasn't aimed at me, but at the children in the audience.  They had a marvelous time!  You could feel it in the air, see it in their faces, hear it in their reactions to what went on.  Understandably so!  It was quite charming, especially in the second act.

The Disney version of course is very different from others, what with the magic rose and singing furniture plus cutting the evil sisters and creating a new (but very fun) villain, i.e. the ubermacho bully Gaston (Andreas Pantazis).  It also gives the leading lady an actual as well as logical name, Belle (Andrea Somera), which appropriately enough translates as "Beauty."  Then there's the curious business of the magic rose, which gives a ticking clock deadline to events.

The Beast (Omar Mata) lies hidden under an elaborate headgear that yet reveals his face. Honestly I think it could do with a redesign.  Casa0101 has only about 99 seats and all that brown became a blur.  Bigger pointy ears and really dark horns maybe.  But they are trying to make him look like someone animated, so...

Honestly it took me awhile to get into it, in part because Belle seems like such a snob and her father (Luis Marquez) a less interesting version of Japetto (not the actor's fault--he's written that way).  But--and this really cannot be over emphasized--the children didn't see it that way and just got totally sucked into this fairy tale world. The fact most of them have seen this before is the point!  Children like to see the same thing over and over again.  Not because they are stupid but because their senses are so hungry, because their enthusiasm remains undimmed.

I envy them that.

But the acting, deliberately just this side of cartoonish (it is based on a cartoon after all!), works and the musical numbers start off nice then get better and better.  By Act Two they had become universally splendid, or at least enormously fun! 

And here let me note the supporting cast of Lumiere (Caleb Green), Cogsworth (Jeremy Saje), Mrs. Potts (Jacqueline Schofield), and the support villains of Monsieur D'Arque (Matthew Noah) and Lefou (Sebastian Gonzalez) all did very fine jobs indeed.  In a nice touch the entire cast, in keeping with Casa0101's mission statement, reflected very well the ethnic diversity of Los Angeles.  Asian, African American, Latino, etc.  All present and accounted for. 

It was a fun show.  The designers did a lovely job creating the non-specific yet very real "world" of this musical, while at the end the power of true love and redemption shone through.  Even (and this is a bit unusual for the live action versions of this tale) the actor playing the Prince (Jesse Maddonado) who had been the Beast was no place holder for his looks but genuinely acted and had some genuine chemistry with his leading lady!

Beauty and the Beast plays Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 4pm until January 21, 2018 at CASA1010 2102 East First Street (at St. Louis St.), Boyle Heights CA 90033.

It's a Wonderful LIfe: The Radio Play 2017 (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

For a few years now Theatre Unleashed has produced Jim Martyka's lovely stage adaptation of the Frank Capra Christmas classic. If you haven't seen it yet, you're missing a delightful holiday treat build around a stunningly simple but wonderful idea -- a radio station in the years after WW2 putting on a show, complete with a story involving the cast and crew of the station which parallels that of the radio play.

Now I can go on and on (and have) about the thousand lovely touches in this adaptation (including the hilarity that ensues when the Foley Artist proves to be blissfully incompetent).  I could also compare and contrast this with last year's cast although what would be the point of that?  Rather, I praise this production with all its individual talent and style which makes it...well, wonderful.

Carey Matthews and Heather Lynn play the leads, the Station Manager and his Assistant who must step into the roles of George and Mary literally seconds before air. Their own relationship bleeds a little into the show-within-a-show, which adds one of many fascinating layers to the proceedings, up to and including people misreading their lines and at least one cast member having had a tad too much to drink!  Yet (and this proves important, not just a conceit) they all double down and give us the story  which has become an American classic -- the anti-A Christmas Carol, in which a man is not shown his terrible mistakes by ghosts, but the genuinely fantastic value of his choices even beginning in childhood.  Easy (and deserved) as it is to praise Matthews and Lynn for lovely performances, they are but the heads of a wonderful ensemble.

Richard Reich, Adam Briggs, Libby Letlow, Nick Salter, Corrine Glazer, Theresa Stroll, Jessica J'aime, Eric Stachura, Brittany Stahl, Samwise Aaron, and Emily Donn (directed by the Jenn Scuderi Crafts) all create this sweet and whimsical world to life, where we get to live for not quite two hours.  Not a sickeningly sweet world, nor a ridiculous one, not even ultimately one very much like that of original movie, where angels show up to talk you out of suicide.  But it is a world about as sweet and hope-filled as the real world can ever be, which when you think about it is rather better than we often believe.  Makes for a nice gift, for Christmas or Hannakuh or your holiday of choice.

What I could do -- and the temptation lingers -- is go over in detail just all the lovely touches the cast brings to the script.  Really, that would feel delightful to me, reliving the banter between the Actors (as opposed to actors) as well as the simple human reactions they brought to life.  But that would make up a very long review, longer than anyone wants to read.  Rather let me say sometimes I genuinely prefer this version to the movie with Jimmy Stewart.  Sometimes.  Most of the time I cannot make up my mind.

Sadly, as of this writing (and due to my scheduling) only three performances remain of It's a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play, which are Thursday December 14, Saturday December 16 each at 8pm, and Sunday December 17 s at 3pm, at The Belfry Stage 11031 Camarillo Street (just west of Lankershim), North Hollywood, CA 91602. 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Astroglyde 2017 (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Every year (at least) Zombie Joes gives us a collection of ten-minute one-person shows written by the performers. 

Astroglyde 2017 marks their latest feature, sadly for only three performances with two remaining.  Let me be frank, this is a treat just in time for Christmas (or Kwaanza or Saturnalia etc.).  Try to go catch it if you can, if this review intrigues at all.

This year's selection consists of eight tiny plays, ranging from the quite good to pretty spectatular, poignant to funny, dark to pretty light, startling to comfortable.

A Mother's Love written and performed by Elif Savas, directed by Jan Wimer, plays out as a delicious dark comedy.  Savas is a beautiful woman who makes herself into something of crone for this monologue that seems like nothing more than a mother giving her son an important recipe.  It soon turns very wonderfully twisted as we learn why she has to give it to him right now.  Seems the police have arrived...
The Space Between Us written and performed by Hunter Bolton, directed by Adam Neubauer, has a pun built into almost the very first line. C'mon!  An astronaut named Major Tom? But it hinges on the simple idea of a man's last message to those he loves. Simple but with some real emotional kick and honesty.  My only real complaint was the costume but creating a makeshift space suit is no small task so I should really shut up about that.
Out of the Closet written and performed by Ellen Bienenfeld and directed by Jana Wimer features the only non-human character to serve as the central character.  In this case, the story focuses on an old fur vest stuck in a closet for what seems like forever, pining for the days when her owner would wear her to meetings and Broadway shows.  Clever and well done, complete with an actual ending.

All the Scots meanwhile, written and performed by David Dickens an directed by Denise Devin, easily wins as the most ambitious piece this time. A period piece set at some point in history I could not identify, it gives the central character at least four locales to share with (i.e. create for) us, two other characters at least with which into interact (not counting the horse) and hints of a much greater story.  Frankly, I think this was too much for one bite.  I would urge the writer-director to expand on this, make it more precise, then maybe go do it for the Hollywood Fringe!  Lots of promise here, but I think it really needs more time to get to the heart of the story.
Squirreled Away written and performed by Esther Eden and directed by Zombie Joe comes close to being a textbook example of what such a ten-minute piece must be.  It manages to be compelling, self-contained for mulitple reasons while remaining open-ended, contains many layers of revelation including a twist that alters our perception of everything, and leaves us feeling moved but not sure in what way.  These are all compliments, and indicate an admirably adult work.
Cattle Call is just plain funny, especially if you are in theatre at all.  Written and performed by Benjamin Cramer and directed by Adam Neubauer, it comes from exploring a simple idea in all sorts of yummy unexpected ways.  An actor at an audition trying to make a single speech just right.  Kudos for this one on many levels.
A Cinderella Story written and performed by Samantha Severson and directed by Zombie Joe touched my heart most. Call it a fairy tale gone wrong, a touching and melancholy as well as upsetting vignette which sweeps us up in a character's hopes (which to be honest echo our own) then takes us further into the story, to a twist then another and finally another.  We end up feeling a powerfully mixed brew of emotion.
Mother, Brother and Will written and performed by Abbott Alexander directed by Denise Devin in the end was my favorite piece of the night. A man with...well, issues...evidently comes to see his mother about her will and all kinds of things spill out. Do not believe for one moment you know what's coming based on that description. This one is full of surprise, and the fact we remain totally sucked in to this man's world -- about whom we never know much at all but in which we totally believe -- gives proof to how fine the words but especially the performance is.

Astroglyde 2017 plays Sundays at 7pm until December 17, 2017 at ZJU 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just south of the NoHo sign, north of Camarillo) North Hollywood CA 91601.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Blood Alley Christmas 2017 (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Easy enough to tell fans of Zombie Joe what to expect from Blood Alley Christmas 2017.  The premise follow that of the brand, Blood Alley -- a strange street or neighborhood where the darkness and twisted desires (or acts) from the past somehow pool to haunt in visions.  A police officer (Kevin Van Cott) functions as Virgil to our Dante through a visit to something like Hell or maybe Purgatory.

This one is all about Christmas.

Now imagine those two concepts together.  Take it far.  Now take ti further.  No, you have not gone far enough until and unless you have some female street punks raping Santa with a strap on. I'm not kidding.

For those with the right (or wrong) and dark sense of humor, this is the show for them.  It really does spiral from the disgusting and funny all the way to to horrifying, disturbing and somehow (sometimes) beautiful. Along the way every single member of the cast eventually is totally naked.

But that nudity is sometimes beautiful, as when Michelle Danyn performs a piece I think of as simply "the red rose."  Sometimes it is hilarious, such as during the "conducting of the bells" with Shayne Eastin. At least once it proves wildly triumphant, via Vanessa Cate.

Adding to all this is gore, some genuine sacrilege coupled with some lovely disturbing images of various kinds, a funny work about one woman between two men under some mistletoe and two different but wonderful pieces involving reindeer.  None were long, nearly all proved very surprising, one (involving elves) turned my stomach while another showed Patrick Beckstead assume center stage as the biggest, baddest, bestest diva of them all.  No small feat considering some of those on stage with him!

A couple of pieces repeated from previous Blood Alleys, one as a sequel (which I'm not sure anyone but regulars would "get" but lasts less than two minutes and is fun anyway). But those who've seen what ZJU has to offer know pretty much what kind of things to expect.  I can honestly say, though, sometimes they will feel surprise.  Likewise sometimes the lack of surprise is what feels so horrible (or fascinating).  The cast -- including Jason Britt, Ian Heath, Makoa Kawabata, Jorge Lozano, Amanda McKenna, Elif Savas, Brandon Slezak and Matthew Vorce -- make up a shuffling of new performers and old hands, all showing nearly as much talent as they do skin. Sometimes more.

Blood Alley Christmas plays Fridays and Saturdays at 11pm through December 16, 2017 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just south of the NoHo sign, north of Camarillo) North Hollywood CA 91601.