Thursday, March 29, 2018

Two Gentlemen of Verona (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Lately some of the Bard's more obscure plays saw production, at least here in Los Angeles.  One of these, Two Gentlemen of Verona, honestly I have never seen before now.

Given the script, one easily understands why.  The characters lack the real charm of such Shakespearean heavyweights as Viola, Benedick, Katherine, Prospero, etc. More the overtly racist/anti-semitic language feels (thankfully) extremely problematical.  So do other details, some of them icky.

This proved an excellent production, I should say.  Rather than avoiding the above issues, Coin & Ghost as well as director Marguarite French embraced and commented upon them.  Not by changing the words, but by making sure actions continue to speak louder.  After all, plays are a much much more than words chosen and arranged by a playwright.  Much, much more.

Credit: Julian Juaquin
Adding to the brew audiences soon discover another twist, one that highlights rather than ignores the disturbing parts of this "comedy."  All the genders in the play are switched.  Thus the two gentlemen of the title, Valentine (Elisa Rosin) and Proteus (Simms Holland), are played by women--not in drag but as women.  Likewise their two love interests--Julius (Kendall Johnson) and Sylvius (Colbert Alambert)--are men, played by men.

That the ones will all the power are white, and those without are black adds yet another element in which the play embraces its issues rather than avoids them.

Essentially, the plot sounds like a dark romcom.  The two gentlemen are best friends in (of course) Verona when Valentine must go on a visit to Milan.  Proteus has fallen for Julius, hard, and vice versa.  In Milan, Valentine falls for the Duke's ward Sylvius and (again) vice versa--this despite the fact the Duke has promised his hand to another.  When Proteus comes to visit Valentine, she learns of their plan to run away together, but in the process falls head over heels in lust with Sylvius.  So she betrays them in hopes of winning the young man's favors for herself, in the process of course betraying Julius, who has disguised himself and made his way to Milan to be with his beloved Proteus.

Credit: Julian Juaquin
Doesn't sound much like a comedy, does it?  Well, nobody dies in the end.  All the pretty young people are matched up at the end.  That makes it a comedy by the definitions of Shakespeare's time (same reason Merchant of Venice, weirdly to us, gets the same category). Such a plot, up to and including attempted rape by one of the "heroes" who is then forgiven not by their victim but the victim's betrothed, isn't really that odd then (or to be brutally honest) now.  Hopefully reading about that makes you cringe a bit.

Watching it hit me in the gut.  Deliberately so, because that is what this production intended, amid all the wit and the vivid characters, the entertaining wickedness and wonderful clown bits.  We really do laugh, and then we stop laughing, stop to feel, stop to think.

Let me also note the other two members of the cast who play between them pretty much the rest of the cast--Victoria Yvonne Martinez and Kathleen Leary, who make each of their six characters so amazingly alive I burst into laughter with a mere look from each.  The whole cast earned the words "superb" and "fascinating" as well as "genuine" a dozen times over. 

Two Gentlemen of Verona plays Thursdays through Sundays at 8pm until April 8, 2018 at the Ruby Theatre in the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd (several blocks west of Vine) Los Angeles CA 90038.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Man for All Seasons (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Honestly never before have I see a live stage production of Robert Bolt's play.  The movie with Paul Scofield yes, the made for television version with Charlton Heston, again yes.

After seeing A Man For All Seasons by the Actor's Co-Op, my view is one of doubt this should be filmed.  It works far, far too well as live theatre in ways all but unworkable for other media.

Topical, as well.  For those who don't know, Bolt's script tells of Sir Thomas More, a prominent lawyer in Tudor England who became friends with a young King Henry VIII, then broke with him over that monarch's efforts to divorce his queen to marry Anne Boleyn.  This resulted in a break with Rome, the formation of the Church of England, and generations of religious conflicts which impact British life to this day.

Credit: Matthew Gilmore
The Roman Catholic Church eventually canonized More as a martyr.  In the hands of a lesser writer, his story might well have emerged dripping with maudlin sentiment.  Instead we get a vivid, nuanced and complex portrait not only of More (Bruce Ladd) but the rest of the people in his life--his fierce wife Alice (Treva Tegtmeier), their bright daughter Margaret (Elsa Gay), her eventual fiancee William Roper (Isaac Jay), More's friend the Duke of Norfolk (Sean McHugh), the wonderfully ruthless Thomas Cromwell (John Allee), etc.

Also, one feels more powerfully of the play than of either film, a more powerful feel for how these all these characters remain topical because they seem real.  Lacking the myopic focus of a camera, the whole story seems less a series of beautiful images and more slices of genuine life.

Credit: Matthew Gilmore
Genuine life and genuine evil. That actually surprised me a bit, because this play fails to take a stand on several questions.  Was it right to break away from Rome?  Did the threat of another generation mired in civil wars justify such extreme action?  The questions arise, naturally enough, but the play takes no side in that.  Rather it focuses on integrity, on doing the right as one sees the right, on the vicious power of hypocrisy as well as the difference between law and mere administration.

A vivid image of this lies in a character we only see once, but everyone talks about--King Henry (Ian Michaels) himself.  Not the overdressed whale of a man from the Holbien portraits, but the handsome and smarmy figure we soon realize has very nearly no ethics at all, just desires--including the weird desire to be seen (even by himself) as morally right.  So the wheels of church and government turn and seek to destroy a man who seeks only to be left alone, because this King remains very much a bully and a child, at least emotionally. 

Credit: Matthew Gilmore
With all this, and central to the action, lies The Common Man (Deborah Marlowe) filling, often unwillingly, a wide variety of roles in the story of More's final legal murder.  This person confides with the audience, sharing jokes and some background details, but all the while refusing to stand up and challenge authority.  More disturbing must be Richard Rich (Mitchell Lam Hau) a naive but ambitious student who learns to climb the political ladder in the most efficient way possible--via treachery.

Rounding out the cast is the Spanish Ambassador Signor Chapuys (Vito Viscuso) along with Cardinal Woolsey as well the Archbishop of Canterbury (Greg Martin)--the flawed men defending the Church, such as it is, that More feels bound by far more than honor to preserve--to a heartbreaking conclusion.

All in all, under the direction of Thom Babbes, this play portrays what Los Angeles theatre seems increasingly skilled at recreating--a very possible nightmare when the powerful lack compassion or loyalty, enslaved by desire and cowardice instead. 

A Man for All Seasons plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2:30pm until April 15, 2018 at the David Schall Theatre (part of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood) 1760 North Gower Street. Hollyood CA 90028.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Adapting Dracula (Part One)

This is a series of posts sharing my ideas/considerations while getting ready to adapt Bram Stoker's novel Dracula for the live stage. Expect one of these per week for awhile.

One: A New Vision

Anyone planning on adapting Bram Stoker's novel Dracula for the stage faces a challenge.  Why do that?  Aren't there plenty already?  I've reviewed at least four different versions myself!

So why on earth do another?

The only answer seems to me is to bring something new to the table, something unexplored in earlier versions.  So--not a zany comedy, nor a Phantom-esque musical, nor a tongue-in-cheek period piece, nor vision of Victorian London as a Feminist Dystopia, etc.  But what ultimately fascinated me was Death.  Maybe I'm showing my age...

Part of this (in my mind's eye anyway) is the medieval image, emerging in the wake of the Black Death, of the danse macabre, not only in terms of the Grim Reaper leading a dance of those who have passed but also the rather more disturbing notion of Death itself as a lover.

Not to define Dracula himself as some kind of byronic suitor to Lucy or Mina (I don't object to this, but believe that trope reached saturation point a while ago), but rather as one of many different views people have of death.  Some see it as an enemy to be fought and struggled against with every breath.  Others choose to ignore it whenever possible.  Some cultures view it as the ultimate moment of life, that by facing it face forward, even choosing the method of one's own passing, we win a kind of victory.  Many religious folk (in theory) see it as nothing but a door into eternity.  I suspect however that to those dying of very painful conditions, it can be an alluring figure--the ultimate mercy.

To be honest, this was not where I began.  Rather this emerged out of what else I found myself wanting to explore...

To be continued

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Wicked Pagan Gays (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I joked to a lot of folks at work about going to see play titled Wicked Pagan Gays, with the note that with a title like that I expected something fabulous.

And it was.

The story, set in modern day Los Angeles, centers around Jeff (Jeff Dinell), a writer/bartender who proudly wears his atheism on every sleeve--putting him in direct conflict with his over-the-top roommate Tyrell (Jordan Green) but even more with Greg (Nathan Tylutki), a former co-worker who re-enters his life under odd circumstances.  Greg has pretty much never found a New Age fad or idea he did not embrace with vigor--a fact that makes the super Roman Catholic Tyrell condemn him as a witch. 

This already hints at the silliness to come, interwoven with some genuine debate about faith and belief and tolerance as well as the weird dynamics to which we human beings are prone.

Other characters we meet along the war the super-condescending Doug (Ian Dick), nemesis to Jeff and new love interest to Greg;  New Age Guru Helene Aurora (Krista Conti) who bonds with Jeff over a mutual worship of Stevie Nicks; bitchy Jillian Stark (Emily Jerez) who worked with then betrayed Greg;  former 1990s heartthrob Jonathan Tyler Tyler (Eric Allen Smith) who becomes involved with Jeff; plus lawyer Jacob Falconberg (Will Gibson) who enters Greg's life in an unexpected manner.

The show sizzles with laughs, while characters interact in some wildly inconsistent (but very human) ways, up to and including what might be called some severe moral lapses.  Well, not too severe.  The play evokes laughter from darkness, yet not deep-space-dark only day-to-day (but studiously ignored) shadows.

Everyone for example comes across as simultaneously shallow yet deep, depending on circumstances and subject.  Just as everyone proves willing to engage on some serious issues, but never more than a surface level--although Jeff at least proves the better debater, while even though an atheist finds himself at least listening to ideas he evidently despises.  Hardly a single character fails to show real kindness sooner or later, as well as genuine spite, sometimes to the point of viciousness.

Mix in thwarted ambitions, deep-seated neuroses, uber-competition, true belief in contradicting philosophies, a lot (and I mean a lot) of sexual details and plenty of crazy (yet believable) plot twists, the result proves itself as some deliciously dark farce.

And yet.  Despite a good (if tricky) script by Dinnell, wonderful direction by Kiff Scholl, coupled with a genuinely funny and talented cast, the production fails to completely gel at the end.  Make no mistake--this show is funny!  It entertains!  It even makes one think about some things!  Yet something didn't feel quite right, and after thinking about it for awhile I've concluded the problem stems from something physical.  Multiple scenes change location again and again, but every time it happened the flow of the play stopped dead while the set shifted.  The set shifts were well done, accompanied by music and flashing lights, but the flow of the story still endured a hiccup every single time this happened. With the rhythm of the play so interrupted, it never quite reached its full potential. 

To be fair, this tends to show up as a perennial problem in live theatre, although all kinds of interesting ways exist to get around it, depending on details.  More, while the play didn't reach the heights maybe it could have, it and the players definitely achieved flight.

Wicked Pagan Gays plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8pm, Sunday nights at 7pm through March 31, 2018 at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Avenue (west of La Brea), Los Angeles CA 90046.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

No Exit (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Jean-Paul Satre wrote his play No Exit in France during the Nazi Occupation.  Given that fact, and its subject matter--three people entering Hell after their deaths--one might expect something excessively grim.

Interestingly, we don't quite get that in the current production by Real Art Daily Productions.  Rather the production feels more like a dark comedy, albeit not a farce, not at all.  Indeed, a lot of the humor remains low key, as if building upon all sorts of tiny "in jokes" as well as the cumulative repertoire of comedy--the irritating habit, the asking of stupid questions, the almost amazing pettiness in the face of dreadfully serious matters (coupled with the realization nothing really matters anyway).

Vincent Cradeau (Adam Slemon) is let into a room he does not like by a Bellboy (Marcin Mesa).  He seems surprised by the decor, displeased at the style, but on the other hand does expect thumbscrews. Upon learning there are none, he expresses surprise then tries to demand his toothbrush--even as the Bellboy points out he won't need it.  Soon enough he finds himself joined by Inez Serrano (Georginna Feyst).  The two immediately dislike one another.  Finally Estelle Delaunay (Brittany Lewis) comes in, at first mistaking Cradeau for someone else.

The door shuts, with no way to open it.  Three pieces of furniture await, places to sit.  All three expect torture.  Inez figures out the plan--each is to be torture to one another. 

Again, this sounds grim!  Yet what we get (at first) proves a kind of domestic mystery.  Why have each of these individuals come to Hell?  They must know, since all three know where they are.  Their means of death--being shot, gas, pneumonia--give barely any hint. They try to ignore one another.  It does not work, even as they resolve to avoid the torture by simply refusing to interact.  Estelle, however, tries to do her makeup and finds no mirror, not even in her purse. A sign of things to come, just as Cradeau reacted in disturbed fear at never ever getting to sleep.  Inez?  She watches, and waits.

The mystery does prove compelling--although frankly if the actors lacked the requisite ability this play would easily descend into boredom and cliche.  This script demands skill and stage presence, as well as a director on the watch to keep things interesting yet focused.  Once I looked at the program, learning the director Ye'la Rosenfeld had directed The Physicists at last year's Hollywood Fringe Festival, I felt encouraged even before the play began. Likewise the weird German Expressionist set, its distorted perspective focused on the back wall, very much helped create the atmosphere needed.  So too the three perfect paintings by Otto Dix upon the wall (look him up).  Kudos to designer Natalia Bortolotti.

As the trio's crimes eventually come to light, the play shifts to how these three live with themselves, plus what sort of individuals they must be to have committed the acts they did.  More, how do they see one another and themselves.  To what do now-immortal and ageless beings in a room together, having no longer any physical needs--to what do these being cling?  Without society, without any trace of their previous contexts, how can they function?

Well, they seek to recreate the society and context they knew before.  Class divisions rear their heads. Lifelong habits re-emerge. Competition fueled by malice.  Pleasure sought to avoid emptiness.  Excuses giving purpose and definition.  At all costs.  At any price.

One feels a little drained after a play like this, not least because we feel the growing desperation of these three people stripped of everything save themselves and each other.  The implications, however, they haunt.  Something Cradeau, Inez and Estelle all lack is a core, something authentic and real, an anchor of identity.  Lacking this, they also lack any real moral courage.  Over and over again they proclaim themselves without regrets.  What kind of life is that?

At one point in the play, the door opens and just remains that way for several minutes.  None of them leave.  Why may be the most provocative mystery in the play. At least one of them claims a reason, which while probably accurate to some extent, is not enough.

So we must contemplate, come up with answers of our own.

No Exit plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm until April 8, 2018 at the Chromolome Theatre, 5429 Washington Blvd (near Hauser), Los Angeles CA 90016.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Crack Whore Bulimic Girl Next Door (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

With a title like Crack Whore Bulimic Girl Next Door, one has certain expectations. Seems simple enough.  However, expectations will vary quite a bit from person to person.  Myself, I rather thought this would prove a pretty dark comedy.

In some ways I was proved right.  The play is funny, funny while exploring some troubling, yes dark issues about life--most especially the life of women.  Almost immediately we meet all three title characters--Crack Whore (Elizabeth Blake), Bulimic (Gloria Galvan) and Girl-Next-Door (McKenzie Eckels).  They even wear named t-shirts in case we forget who is which.

That is, until we realize all three in fact are the same person.  Three facets, shards, avatars, aspects, phases, moods, etc. of the same woman who in the course of her life story hits bottom.  Her bottom, her crash landing from which she either dies or somehow walks away. 

Interestingly, all three pretty much reject their names as pointless labels.  Which makes up one of many points to be made.  Now, plays which consist of the cast talking directly to the audience tend to prove problematical.  Too often what happens is a strange loss of focus and energy (monologues in Shakespeare often fall into the same trap).  Not this time.  Partially because the play insists they interact with one another, as well as a series of other characters (mostly male) played by the same actor (Edward Alvarado).  For another, director Jennifer Novak Chun makes sure people don't fall into that trap, so they remain talking to someone rather than reciting lines, pursuing an objective instead of simply emoting.

So we follow this female Trinity from a childhood where her questions she realizes are never welcome, where invisibility becomes desirability, to the (many) pains of adolescence.  Our society tries to elevate the teenage years to a golden age, but of course for most of us it seems a minor eternity spent in a personal inferno.  We want so much.  Know so little.  Make so many mistakes.  Our bodies change for better and for worse, most of the time seeming for much worse.  Sexuality emerges as a toxic blend of ignorance, bad luck and some amount of degradation--relatively small amounts if life goes very easy on you.

It does not go easy on our Trinity character.  Really, if this play didn't have plenty of humor it would make Strindberg look like Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Failure, frustration, self-loathing--an emotional cocktail anything but rare if you've ever even gotten to know any woman very well.  Sadly.  But the stuff of self-revelation, of drama and terrible truths first endured, then recognized and hopefully transcended.

Not perfect (as if anything really is).  A metaphor introduced early on becomes increasingly abstract, but that is not immediately obvious.  On the other hand, it leaves one wondering, thinking.  Not a bad reaction in an audience.  Likewise one wonders at the exact moment of crash-landing.  But these leave a feeling of contemplation in their wake, rather than a wrong note.  At the end of the performance, I felt vast kinship with these three-in-one women.  I looked at them and saw someone who seemed all-too-personally familiar, even with every single detail different from my life story.

Crack Whore Bulimic Girl Next Door plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm until April 6, 2018 at the Belfry Stage, 11031 Camarillo (west of Lankershim, upstairs), North Hollywood CA 91602.

The Madres (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

In the 1970s and 80ss Argentina felt the impact of "The Dirty War," an attempt by the very conservative junta to reshape the nation in their own image, by the most ruthless of methods including torture and murder and censorship.  Disagreeing with the government as well as any form of protest ended up illegal.  Even helping the poor could prove enough to earn arrest.

Credit: Ed Krieger
Against this backdrop an increasingly large group of women began to march, in the names of children and grandchildren who had gone missing. Many of these women, dubbed The Madres, went missing themselves. But they had a slow but sure impact upon history, one felt today over a generation later as the bloody wounds of that time continue to heal (sometimes only slightly if at all).

Stephanie Alison Walker's play takes place squarely in this nightmare time, but focuses upon one family only as they seek to at least mitigate their own horror story.  Josefina Acosta (Denise Blasor) lives with her daughter Carolina (Arianna Ortiz), both grappling with the latter's daughter having become one of the Desaparecidas, the "Disappeared."  While Josefina seeks to simply endure, to be as little offense as possible, Carolina feels a burning need to act. Her marching as one of the Madres spurs visits--first from Padre Juan (Gabriel Romero) who now works at a government prison, then from Diego (Alexander Pimentel) a former schoolboy with Carolina's missing daughter, now a soldier who has found his mission as a supporter of the junta, sporting a very real cruel streak and not the slightest awareness of that fact, even as he revels in emotional torture.  Padre Juan on the other hand, he seems to be fundamentally a coward.  Both come to this household to quietly warn them to stop having "dangerous associations."

Credit: Ed Krieger
The entire play takes place in one room, a seemingly ordinary parlor which becomes more and more obviously a cell in one gigantic, albeit relatively genteel, concentration camp.  It functions as a polemic, yes, but more as a portrait.  Here we see how benevolence and courage can be repressed or become mere whims, perhaps acts of manipulation.  Yet the drive for self preservation becomes eclipsed by emotional wounds, a fierce desire to prevent others from suffering as they have. 

It makes for a powerful narrative, draining and yet invigorating at the same time.  Also, it marks moments of real courage that history shows helped stop a great nation from sliding totally into the kind of horror we see today in places like North Korea.  For Argentina never became a true totalitarian state, with all decency ground down to nothing.  Even the butchers of the regime had to tell themselves they were doing good, where sacrificing for a better future, preserving and protecting others.  Hypocrisy? Maybe. But it became a tool for the brave but seemingly powerless to change their homeland.  Maybe not every Desaparecida (Natalie Llerena) will be saved. But in time, they will stop Disappearing, while some may survive.

Credit: Ed Krieger
Topical, don't you think?

Mind you, the full context of the play at times feels alien to such a total anglo like myself, but that context becomes clear enough.  So what if I don't know what that drink they all make for each other actually is?  Or I don't recognize most of the food or musicians mentioned?  Pretty soon it fades into the background, becoming the fabric of a life only alien in a few details.  The people, though--the man who means well but lacks the moral fiber to act, the conservative woman who cannot help herself when faced with deceit and viciousness, the firebrand keeping personal terror at bay, the weakling who finds a way to feel strong and smothers his former self in return, the innocent girl tortured in so many ways yet still full of kindness.  Therein lies the common humanity, which in turn gives each performance its power.

The Madres plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 2pm, then Mondays at 8pm through April 29, 2018 at the Skylight Theatre, 1816 1/2 North Vermont Blvd (next to Skylight Books), Los Angeles CA 90027.

Monday, March 12, 2018

El Nino (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The term "El Nino" refers to part of the weather cycle in the Pacific Ocean which impacts coastal areas all along the west coast of the Americas (as well as elsewhere).  A quick check of Wikipedia notes scientific belief such events go back thousands of years, with at least thirty happening since 1900.

Justin Tanner named his play El Nino presumably as a very neat metaphor.  Essentially the weather becomes more erratic and in the Los Angeles area (where the play takes place) more storms erupt.  A better description of the family at the heart of this show would be tricky to imagine!

Credit: John Perrin Flynn
Colleen (Maile Flanagan) begins watching cartoons and eating cereal in her parents' living room.  Overweight and middle-aged, she doesn't seem willing to leave even when her father Harvey (Nick Ullett) and especially her mother June (Danielle Kennedy) hint/suggest/order her to get out. She reveals in spitting rage her boyfriend kicked her out and that she quit her job as an uber driver because it gave her back problems.  Yeah, Colleen is pretty foul-mouthed and full of excuses as well as reasons.  Interestingly, that first scene sets up the rest of the play extremely well.  We think we know what is going on, but not quite.  It feels as if the story is a certain kind, but it proves not to be.  What we get as it goes on is more complex and far more moving.

Soon enough we meet the other characters, including the younger daughter Andrea (Melissa Denton) an opinionated dynamo just returned from a trip to Morocco with a strong distaste for all things Moroccan and a new boyfriend, fellow unhappy tourist and veterinarian Todd (Jonathan Palmer), who "never would have gone" to Morocco if he knew it was 95% Muslim.  Plus of course Kevin (Joe Keyes) the next door neighbor with a very sick, old cat.  The stuff of a zany family sitcom, right?

Credit: John Perrin Flynn
Yeah, and no not at all.  Yeah, funny.  Often hilarious.  But more, very human and troubling and complex and very moving.  Like much good drama, this play in many ways revealed important facets of the characters, rendering them equal parts disturbing yet also very human.  In fact their humanity was so perfectly on point I often felt like an invisible voyeur in their lives.  The amazing technical realism of the set, the weather and even the way sets were re-set between scenes increased the impact.

For example, we learn Colleen is a published science fiction author with a severe case of writers' block.  While her family decries her pain as simply being overweight, her doctors disagree and interestingly Kevin once had one of her own ailments and recognizes it. Her ex-boyfriend Toby turns out to have been physically abusive.  Plus we get to see her mother respond to her husband's severe attack as nothing but gas, at first even refusing to call 911 even when Colleen suggests it and Harvey is literally crawling on the floor.  He has a kidney stone, it turns out.  No wonder he literally screams in pain.

Credit: John Perrin Flynn
Which doesn't change the fact Colleen lashes out at nearly anyone, that she radiates anger and prone to self-destructive behavior. Or that her parents actually seem to have a really good marriage in pretty much every way.

Likewise we learn Audrey has an autistic son, and struggles to be a good mom to him. Her new boyfriend Todd is thoughtlessly arrogant, ignorant while blissfully certain, yet shows amazing patience and a startling if blase compassion. Honestly the nuances drew me in further and further, with all the characters just increasingly human and (slightly different) humane.

I cannot say the ending is happy, because no doubt the vagaries of storm and calm lie in wait, but also because it doesn't feel like an ending at all.  It feels like the start of a new chapter in these people's lives, most especially Colleen who perhaps needs it the most.  She even begins to write a new book, with a title perfect the way sometimes little things in life are.  Colleen calls it El Nino.

Honestly, kudos to the entire cast and crew, including director Lisa James, for growing this gorgeous flower of a play, complete with thorns.  This marks the second show I've seen by Rogue Machine and I continue to be very impressed!

El Nino plays Saturdays and Mondays at 8:30pm, Sundays at 3pm until April 22, 2018 at the MET 1089 North Oxford Street (east of Western and Santa Monica Blvd), Los Angeles CA 90029.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Burt...A Homeless Odyssey (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

"Odyssey" refers to the Greek hero Odysseus, the most cunning of the generals involved in the Trojan War.  The epic bearing his name tells not of his seeking out adventures or fame, but rather a decade-long attempt to return from war.

Burt...A Homeless Odyssey follows this pattern, more or less.  The title characters (Ed Dyer) of the piece frankly comes across initially as repellent. He begins by abandoning his wife and children, complete with some cynical comments about whether one of them is "really" blind.  Just before leaving he asks if his wildly enraged wife (Laura Lee Botsacos) can spare a few dollars.

Over the top, one thinks.  But the show has barely begun as far as that goes.  In fact, like many interesting but often bewildering pieces of theatre, this work feels very much like a dream. In fact, taking it as a dream (of some kind) helps in understanding what we see and hear.

How else to explain people surrounding Burt killing themselves quite so eagerly?  Well, that one does become clear. Rage permeates many of these characters, rage which seems a shield against despair.  When the shield cracks, enough, the despair overwhelms.  It does for the bartender who cannot stand folk music (Jennifer Nwene), one of the cops (Thomas F. Evans, Christopher Kelly) interrogating Burt, his disheveled and ragtag defense attorney (George Russo) and others.  Along the way we meet a homeless man (Hansford Prince) who survives being shot in the head, a vaguely Arabic immigrant (Nima Jafari) who "freelances" getting rid of those he sees as un-American, a weirdly optimistic if cynical rabbi (Raffi Mauro), a startlingly violent sunglass saleswoman (Hope Bello LaRoux) as well as a rich woman (Kelly Mullis) the former blinds then tricks into drowning herself for misusing the word "amazing."

Plus Ivana and Barron Trump.

All of which seems borderline incoherent, but not quite.  Like the kilted actor (Drew Hinkley) who hasn't worked in years, eagerly looking for his big break even though he is homeless, yet proves willing to follow a weird number and variety of suggestions, the play is a roller coaster.  Imagine a psychodelic blend of Alice in Wonderland plus Waiting for Godot but set in modern New York with a few dashes of Candide by way of the Cohen brothers.

But in the end, Burt comes home.  In a way.  The weird brew coalesces into some sort of whole, not a hodge podge of weird/funny/dark images but rather a piece of abstract art.  After all the illusions get shredded, the lies hammered out of the way--and Burt's poems slowly get better--we and Burt see something else.  Something that seems real.

But he--and we--have to figure out what to do with it.

Burt...A Homeless Odyssey plays Saturdays and Sundays at 7pm until March 31, 2018 at Theatre68, 5112 Lankershim Blvd (south of Magnolia), North Hollywood CA 91601.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Lovecraft's Cthulhu (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

H.P.Lovecraft created what can be seen as modern horror, in which mere humans confront their total impotence and unimportance in the cosmic scale of things, a cosmos both unknowable and by our standards worse than psychopathic.

Lovecraft's Cthulhu marks Zombie Joe's premiere effort to bring something of Lovecraft to the stage. Others have done something similar such as the Visceral, or Chicago's Wildclaw.  To be fair I walked in to take my seat, feeling excitement.  I hoped to be surprised and delighted.

And I was!

Credit: Brandon Slezak
The play--done very much as an elaborate Reader's Theatre event--essentially turned out to be an adaptation of a seminal tale in Lovecraft's "mythos," the long short story "The Call of Cthulhu."  If all this is new, don't worry about pronouncing the title. The word is meant to be pronounced by a being with nothing at all like the mouth of a human being.

Writer/director Denise Devin took this story and made relatively few cuts, then set up a wonderful cast (August Browning, Brian Caelleigh, Ian Heath, Susan Holmstrom, Natasha Krause, Kevin Maphis, Madeleine Miller, Jonica Patella, Enrique Quintero, Elif Savas) to take turns reciting the text, coupled with movements and a few props to create a feeling very like telling a story around a campfire at midnight--only more.  Sometimes they re-enacted highlights of the story, or followed specific characters.

Credit: Brandon Slezak
Usually, when cast members talk directly to the audience, this proves problematical.  Usually.  Not this time.  Rather, the power of the story comes across as every single actor clearly tried to explain this horrible thing they--as surrogates/incarnations of the narrator--learned and hopes no one else ever does.  So why tell it?  Because they cannot remain silent.  They must speak aloud.

Must tell of the papers and clippings found in the old language professor's things after his slightly mysterious death.  Of the shocking reaction of lunatics and artists to something one particular week in one particular year.  How the clay sculptures fashioned by one particular artist indirectly led to a horrific story of a violent cult in New Orleans years earlier--a cult worshiping entities they call The Old Ones.

The Old Ones, creatures/beings/gods from beyond the stars, who came to this earth ages past and who now sleep, dreaming.  "Cthulhu" is their high priest, who shall when the stars are right once more, awake with all his wild, unknowable kind to let loose chaos and alien joys onto the world.

Credit: Brandon Slezak
Nor was this cult restricted to New Orleans.

In fact, a random chance leads the narrator to discover more, much more, about the fate of a schooner out of Australia, of whose crew only one survived a weird event in the middle of the Pacific Ocean--an event corresponding with that one week in one year the dead scholar had studied.

All this is a challenge to dramatize, since everything "happens" well in the past, with the narrator slowly realizing just what sort of world he lives in--and shudders at the revelation, knowing he will almost certainly soon die because the Cult must have noticed him by now.  Capturing that eerie sense of realization, of seeing oneself as tiny and unimportant, of knowing all human achievement is as nothing, doomed to eventual destruction at the whim of beings beyond comprehension--it makes for a challenge.  That challenge this director and ensemble meet.

Lovecraft's Cthulhu plays Fridays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 7pm until March 18, 2018 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre 4850 Lankershim Blvd. (just south of the NoHo Sign) North Hollywood, CA 91601.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The School for Wives (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I really enjoy going to City Garage in Santa Monica, have done since first seeing a fascinating deconstruction of Othello.  This time I wondered what would happen when they did Moliere's The School for Wives, and as usual they surprised me.

Like most of Moliere, this play makes fun of human foibles, especially those who make fun of those foibles in others. In this case, the plot deals with something especially topical, albeit via a farce which lessons the sting. 

Arnolphe (Bo Roberts) is a middle aged curmudgeon who mocks husbands who allow themselves to be humiliated by their wives.  He boasts to his friend Chrystalde (Troy Dunn) of his solution--he adopted a peasant girl at age four and has been grooming her as a future bride ever since.

Yeah, that is indeed almost as creepy as it sounds.  Now that Agnes (Claire Pida) is of age--having been carefully taught nothing of the world, save reading the Bible and sewing--Arnolphe eagerly awaits "teaching" her how to be a good wife.  The lessons he focuses upon are how to slavishly obey and serve her husband.  Of course it all goes wrong, not least due to the arrival of a handsome young man named Horace (Buddy Brown).  He and Agnes meet, falling head over heels at first sight.

Helping matters proceed--i.e. making a fool (or if you like demonstrating the foolishness) of Arnolphe--are a pair of delightfully and entertainingly stupid servants named George (Jaime Arze) and Alain (David E. Frank).  Because The School for Wives is a farce, we know Agnes and Horace will end up together, via an amazing string of coincidences involving Horace's father Oronote (Tom Lasky) and his long lost friend Henriette (Tracey Taylor).

The style prove delightful--an almost dance-like version of modern day.  The acting throughout proves very good--up to and including Roberts' astonishment at how the universe doesn't do what he expects (in other words, even the most innocent and sheltered of young females never stop being human beings with their own desires and agency, IMAGINE!).  The humor is nonstop, yet never bombastic (a common problem with productions of classical comedy).  More, it all fits together like a watch.  Nobody ever seems to be in some other production of this same play. The entire cast and crew remain on the same page.

No small thing.

Do I have any criticisms?  Well, one person's hat kept falling off but this was opening night so I suppose the actor will use  a lot more bobby pins from now on.  And to be sure, while topical and insightful, this hardly counts as  "great" play.  More to the point, it remains a comedy--and when audiences laugh during a comedy, you know it succeeds.  This show had many and different styles of laughter all through opening night.

At the same time, I liked the gentle touch in this satire.  Probably the easily way to do this play would be to make Arnolphe a loathesome idiot.  Under Frederique Michel's direction and Roberts performance, however, he touches our heart.  He is lonely.  He loves or desires and has not a clue how to get his heart's desire, making him a middle aged preteen with his first crush.  Pathetic, yes, but also very much a creature of pathos.  Not evil, but immature, and as a result a terrible fool (who thankfully has little power over anyone by play's end).

The School for Wives plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays (pay what you can at the door) at 3pm until April 1, 2018 at City Garage, Building T1 (across the street from the Bergemont Metro Station), 2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica CA 90404.

Requiem (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The author of Requiem (one of three original plays now playing at Theatre68 in repertory along with three previously published ones) tries to do something admirable and interesting. He takes an act of random violence and seeks to dissect it, taking us back into events and characters that led up to the murders.

As I said, admirable.  Ultimately this play does not succeed, almost entirely from two reasons. First, at approximately an hour, it simply lacks enough time.  This more than anything gets in the way. Ultimately we don't have time to know, or much care, about these individuals. We get flashes of insight into their humanity now and then (most obviously  Lee, Moses and Emilio--played by Veniese Razo and Carlos J. Castillo) but the rest remain cyphers, given a sense of reality via a very talented cast who inform what proves at best only hints on the page. 

At least as disruptive are lectures given by the characters, all them with pretty much the same voice, which I presume is that of the author.  These speeches feel inserted into the characters' mouths rather than emerging from them as a natural part of the story.  More, each remains vague.  Most characters sooner or later use an evocative, almost poetic term, "The American Nightmare" but there's no real examination of what they mean by that.  I found myself hoping they would go into specifics and we'd receive an insight into their individual nightmares,

The combination leaves a lot of not only unanswered questions, but questions about which we don't care.  Jewel's (Becky Siocca) relationship with Jack (Peter Osterweil) baffles.  It even baffles the other characters.  Misty (Courtney Beaver) remarks on it, but her sudden shift in attitude remains as odd as her giving unsolicited advice to her boss(!).  All these could weave together into a very cohesive, even compelling whole, at least so it seemed. Likewise the clever psycho-out, using the audience's prejudices to suspect Thomas (Andrew Retland) as the shooter held great promise.  The ingredients are there, but the recipe needs some work.

I should also mention Devin Denman as Ben, another good actor frankly struggling in what feels like an early draft of a possibly really good, really compelling play.

Finally, I feel compelled to complain about how this--a stage play--felt as if it were being directed as a movie.  The script, for example, includes at least two flashbacks.  That is totally fine, because playing with time proves a valuable dramatic device in pretty much every medium.  However, both these flashbacks involve a complete change of set, a total of four times.  During those moments the action stops dead in its tracks.  I honestly wonder--why the set change?  What purpose did it serve? No set pieces were involved in either flashback, so why change what was there?  Why not leave the set unchanged, but radically alter the lighting and/or sound?  We the audience will get it.  I've seen it happen countless times on the live stage.  I've also seen this awkward way of staging a flashback as well on live stage--and it does not work.

Okay, rant over.  The cast were all good.  The playwright has talent and a very good idea, but this is an earlier draft of a really good play.

Requiem plays Fridays and Saturdays at 10pm until March 31, 2018 at Theatre68 5112 Lankershim Blvd (south of Magnolia), North Hollywood CA 91601.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Wicked, Wicked Mae West (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The Brickhouse Theatre stands just off Camarillo in North Hollywood, a lovely small venue of about fifty seats.   The Wicked Wicked Mae West marks the first performance I've actually attended here. Not quite a one woman show, it consists of a pre-show interview between CBS host/newsman Charles Collingswood (Michael Robb) and the Hollywood icon of the title (Colette Rosario).  Technically playwright William Manus did something very clever here--the focus of this biographical one-act does not speak to the audience but rather answers questions from--amidst fairly intense flirthing with--a man who finds her fascinating, but has the instincts of a very good journalist.

The result proves entertaining and informative overall.  I feel my knowledge of Mae West has tripled at least, and never once did I feel bored.  Both performers feel very comfortable on stage and (no small thing) the flirting feels real.

On the other hand, I felt the rest of the audience enjoyed it a lot more than myself, mostly (maybe) as major fans of the subject matter as well as the classic days of Hollywood in general.  I wished the play were edgier, had more conflict, its exchanges more intense and less comfortable.  But to be fair, I always felt interested and never felt bored.

Honestly, I did feel the moment when Mae West recreates her meeting with Marilyn Monroe did not at all fit--mostly because it stood alone.  Were there several more such moments (as if West were returning in memory to events) the play would feel more intimate and emotionally powerful, or so it seems to me.

The Wicked Wicked Mae West plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm until March 17, 2018 at the Brickhouse Theatre, 10950 Peach Grove (just off Vineland, near Lankershim & Camarillo), North Hollywood CA 90601.