Monday, April 30, 2018

Adapting Dracula (Part Six)

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

Six: Who is Dracula?

How many types of Dracula can you name?  The rat-faced plague-carrier of Nosferatu,Bela Lugosi's elegantly dressed predator, the aristocratic sadist of Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman's bitter lover, Louis Jourdain's acolyte of Satan?  Lots more I am sure.  

But when planning a new play adaptation of the novel, one has to decide exactly who and what the infamous Count really is.  My friend Theodore Trout decided his Dracula was delusional, believing himself Jesus Christ reborn, for Dracula, Lord of the Damned. In the comic series Helsing he is a totally alien creature, with virtually no respect or even much memory of human life.

I decided to go back to the novel and ponder what we know there, and came to an odd conclusion.

Dracula is a ghost.

All other vampires in book seem to lack almost any personality, reacting to nothing more than appetites of the moment.  Lucy feels like an extreme example of this, but then she is the youngest by far undead we meet and more, she died asleep, possibly dreaming (Van Helsing made much of this for some reason).  But even the brides behave like greedy children more than anything else.

The Count on the other hand really isn't much better, not when you consider how brilliant and powerful and individual he is supposed to have been.  Why not have his boxes of earth delivered via several different methods, for example?  Why kill the crew of the Demeter?  He focused on one or two victims while in England, which seems rather odd.  Yet he at least plans for the future, even to point of doing what must have proven years and years of research, among other things teaching himself a profoundly foreign tongue.

So here is my notion.  To be a vampire is to walk in a dream, as a ghost essentially.  Only fragments of your original abilities or skills remain, much less intelligence or will.  What makes Dracula so unique (and of course explains why vampires don't rule the world) is how much he had to start with.  The man described in the book (never mind Vlad the Impaler--Stoker knew next to nothing of that man) was a successful general, a scholar, even an alchemist and philosopher.  When reduced, enough of "him" survived he could begin to plan, begin to take control of this weird new existence.  It took him centuries, but he did it.  But the only reason our intrepid heroes were ever able to defeat such a powerful figure lay in the fractured nature of his mind.  

This gives a vivid and precise image of my antagonist--a being of vast supernatural power, with flashes of intense brilliance and character, but in a more or less permanent fugue state where nothing seems quite real, quite solid, including his own mind.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Native Son (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

I have a confession to make.  Never have I read the classic American novel from which Native Son by Nambi E. Kelley was adapted.  To be sure, this qualifies as a failure.  But on the other hand, it does allow me to judge the play more as itself, rather than comparing it to a literary (as opposed to dramatic) experience.

Credit: Geoffrey Wade
So I keep telling myself.

That, honestly, makes up part of my reaction to the play.  Guilt.  Even shame.  Not because I failed to read a specific classic, nor for events portrayed.  After all, those events are not only fictional, they "take place" decades before my birth.  Even as a representative of genuine problems, the play does not condemn me personally.

Does it?

Not directly.  The story follows one Bigger  (Jon Chaffin), a young Negro man in 1930s Chicago hired as a chauffeur for a wealthy family, the Daltons.  In a not-coincidence, the unseen Mr. Dalton is Bigger's family's landlord, one of many responsible for maintaining strict racial segregation.  Yet he gives money to civil rights organizations.

Credit: Geoffrey Wade Photography
His wife, the (again not-coincidentally) blind Mrs. Dalton (Gigi Bermingham) likes Bigger and proudly notes how she supports the NAACP.  Neither cruel nor greedy, she seems nice enough.  Bigger feels absolute terror.  She's white.  That is all that matters, one of the baffling rulers of Chicago he knows from childhood are capricious and in practice violent to his kind.  They will kill him.  Why not?  They killed his father.  Mary Dalton (Ellis Greer), the daughter, does kill him.  Not deliberately.  In fact she thought she was trying to be friends.  But when drunk and insisting he carry her back to her bedroom, Bigger's terror knew no bounds.  Upon hearing Mrs. Dalton, Bigger sought to quiet the drunk girl with a pillow.  He accidentally killed her.  Just as she accidentally killed him, by putting him in that situation.

Credit: Geoffrey Wade Photography
So the play begins.  With that one accidental death, which will absolutely lead to another, deliberate one.  Stuff of tragedy.  But this story peals back the layers, showing us Bigger and his world--his mother (Victoria Platt), sister (Mildred Marie Langford), brother (Brandon Rachel) and most of all his other self, his secret self.  Called The Black Rat (Noel Arthur), he reveals to us some measure of the depths this desperately unfortunate young man contains.  As well dressed and upright as Bigger cringes in his rags, The Black Rat speaks Bigger's thoughts.  He functions as vanity, voice of reason, self hatred, conscience all fused together.  A window into the real human being behind the strutting, terrified mask.

Credit: Geoffrey Wade Photography
Of course Bigger tries to cover up the act.  Of course he bungles it, or proves just a little too unlucky.  Of course the whites begin to hunt him, calling him a rapist and murderer--crimes he at first had not committed at all.  After all, this was just a terrible, stupid accident.  But for people like Bigger, that matters not at all.  He seeks to flee his doom into a blizzard, tries to find friends, panics again and again and eventually even becomes much of what they insist he has always been.

But what might have been just a sordid tragedy becomes more, and that ultimately made me feel the most.  In that snow storm, beset by his own imagined terrors and memories, hunted by the likes of a racist detective named Britten (Ned Mochel) and haunted by (among others) the memory of the strange white boyfriend of his victim, a "communist" (whatever that is) named Jan (Matthew Grondin), Bigger burns through his own mask.

Credit: Geoffrey Wade 
The Black Rat vanishes from stage.  Only Bigger is left, facing his doom with a kind of magnificent courage.  He becomes...bigger.  All his potential, now lost forever, radiates from him even as the hell he has lived finally snuffs it out.

Calling this play a polemic against racism cannot be enough.  It achieves more than that paltry if ethical goal. This play made real and supremely personal the tragedy of a human life, a life mine no less than the writer of the novel, or the play, or the actor who brought him forth.  It is a challenge, felt and tasted not as an idea but a visceral wound.  This.  Should.  Not.  Be.

Now, what do we do with that feeling?  What shall I do with it?  What will you?

 Native Son plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, Mondays at 8pm until June 3, 2018 (with one Thursday night performance  May 31 at 8pm) at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 East Broadway, Glendale CA 91205.

Adapting Dracula (Part Five)

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

Five: Sharp Relief

You can pause when reading a book.  You can reread a passage as many times as desired. More you can take as much time as you like reading any specific page.

Not so a play.  Any piece of theatre in a real sense happens to the audience, outside of any audience member's control.  For this reason when adapting works from a literary to a dramatic medium lots of things must be thrown into sharp relief--a sculpture term for when something is designed to stand out, boldly and distinctly as feasible.  I would argue Dracula, with its rather bland description of most characters, fairly cries out for such.

Which is why I have a (perhaps) startling vision for Quincey.  Frankly, when he's included (rarely enough) in adaptations of the novel, he almost forever comes across as some kind of vaguely comic stereotype of an American, usually with an accent that screams "hick."  What we know of him from the novel, of course, is that he hales from Texas and carries a large knife, while working for the American consulate.  More, he counts Arthur and Seward as his best friends, while he proposed to Lucy on the same day as the other two.

My own instinct is to make Quincey dangerous.  Not so much a fun-loving cowboy a la John Wayne but far closer to one of Clint Eastwood's characters in the Italian westerns which propelled him to movie stardom.  Lean, silent and deadly.  Not a yokel, tolerated in polite society out of good manners, but an almost invisible presence, who when noticed causes real discomfort.  Not any kind of a clown, but more like a panther or lion.

More, I imagine Dracula seeing in Quincey just a little bit of a kindred spirit.  After all, in life this man was also a killer, may even have seen himself as Death.  

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Noah's Cove (news)

Explanations ahoy!

In 2015 play I wrote a play in something of a white heat, after watching (and then reviewing) a performance of another play, one with a fair amount of acclaim.  Frankly it seemed bad to me, missing out on the drama of its own characters in favor of a simplistic (and totally unearned) "happy" ending.  Characterization was done with sound bytes and popular references in such a way as didn't feel coherent. Lots of potential, but it left me feeling deeply unsatisfied.

No I ended up writing Noah's Cove, which evolved into something very much like a ghost story.  It even gained as many haunted house tropes as possible--the Indian burial ground, the mysterious book left behind by the last family which lived there, etc. But at heart it felt like--and was intended as--a play akin to The Cherry Orchard, Heartbreak House or Death of a Salesman, i.e. one in which a family becomes the metaphor for a given nation's society as a whole.

It also turned out extremely mysterious.  Every single reading revealed questions people wanted answered, but in fact what emerged in the writing was ever more intriguing clues rather than facts.  Characters kept saying things and often I had little or no notion what they meant.  But what could I do?  They were determined to keep their secrets, these characters, yet eager to tease about what they refused to openly reveal.

Now I'm having another reading of this play, to get even more feedback and maybe take a swing at another draft.  We shall see.  I'm terrifically pleased with the cast taking part (see below--Josh T. Ryan, Michelle Danyn, Alariza Nevarez, Nicole Alexandra)

Noah's Cove Free Reading takes plays Sunday, April 29, 2018 at 1pm at the Samuel French Bookstore 7623 West Sunset Blvd (west of LaBrea), Hollywood CA 90046.  This will be in the green room upstairs so seating is limited (fortunately the cast is small).

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Waste Land (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Apart from the spoilers warning, as per usual, let me make something serenely clear--those lacking any interest in literary art and/or artists will probably find Waste Land by Don Nigro a slog to get through.  I quite enjoyed it, but then I'm the kind of art nerd who finds this stuff fascinating.

The title comes from the long poem with which T.S.Eliot essentially made his name in literary circles.  But the play itself focuses more upon the relationship between Eliot and his first wife Vivienne, whom Virginia Woolf (in)famously referred to as a "bag of ferrets around Eliot's neck."  This was not at all a kind thing to say, and of course she felt insulted by such words.  Eliot himself--at least in the play--seeks to downplay this and many other problems, issues and the like.

Eliot (JJ Smith) of course become one of the most famous and revered of the so-called "Bloomsbury Group," a loose association of writers and artists including Woolf (Georgan George) and Ezra Pound (Bartholomeus De Meirsman) as well as Bertrand Russell (John Ogden), Gertrude Stein (Deborah Cresswell) and James Joyce (Rich Brunner).  Into this ecclectic, brilliant but often dysfunctional assembly Vivienne (Meg Wallace) barely fits.  Not that others made zero effort to welcome her--that would be too simple--but their efforts as often as not ended up too little, too late. 

At the heart of the play, told with bittersweet humor, remains Vivianne's descent into mental instability.  What at first might have seemed moodiness, or in our own terms maybe bipolar personality, eventually became a life wandering amid delusions.  It goes to some extent hand-in-hand with her husband's fierce attempt to write his poem, the work that ultimately became "The Waste Land."  To achieve this he figuratively and sometimes literally abandoned his wife, an act he did with genuine guilt but also disarming courtesy.

Eliot grew more and more busy, exploring the sometimes-odd things which grabbed his imagination, aided by his growing fame. Vivianne, alas, found it all less and less bearable.  The play follows events up to and a little past her own death in a mental asylum to which her brother had her committed, to which Eliot himself never visited, not once. 

This might, you expect, become a story about a fragile woman destroyed by her ruthless artist husband.  But no.  For one thing, via performance and script we see Vivienne as both a good but fragile soul, yet also a force of pointless chaos and source of constant humiliation.  Likewise Eliot has something myopically heartless yet incredibly sensitive about him, wrapped up in layers of defenses.  The performers equally portray each characters' pain, sometimes with doing little more than looking at the other talk for a time.  It proves heart wrenching. More, this rampant madness is hardly the stuff of Vivienne's life only.  We watch Pound dissolve into madness as well, learn of Joyce's daughter's fate as her mind succumbs to schizophrenia, are reminded Woolf will one day do precisely as she threatens/boasts at one point--fill her pockets with rocks and walk into the Thames.

It makes for a compelling maze through which to wander, providing you don't mind the often-eccentric, sometimes unlikable company.  Most of the cast does truly wonderful jobs, even when operating under a problem--namely, the theatre in the configuration used for this production creates an echo.  Very much a problem for anyone whose voice lies in the upper register.

Waste Land plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until May 6, 2018 at the Studio/Stage 520 North Western Avenue (south of Melrose), Los Angeles CA 90004.

Romeo & Juliet (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I have a bit of trouble figuring out it the Vagrancy's production of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet marks the best or second best of this play I've seen.  That particular decision can wait for other day, but the fact of the question gives some idea of what this show may be like.

This specific play offers something of a challenge, in that it seems so straightforward.  What can one do to make it fresh or interesting, especially with some major major motion picture coming out every few decades?

Credit: Wes Marsala
The ultimate answer lies in showing the story from a different lens, as well as letting individual actors bring out their own individual and vibrant takes on the characters.  This production did this in spades, tweaking a few details along the way--most obviously by bringing Fate itself on stage in the person of three women:  Maiden (Mia Moore), Matron (Erica Ibsen), and Matriach (Toni Tinkelman).  The Fates, in other words. We hear the prologue and epilogue from them, while they pop up as different characters throughout.

But more importantly, the leads bring their characters to life in a fully realized context.  We feel them and their world real, which makes their love real and the way it ends that much more genuinely tragic.

Credit: Wes Marsala
Eddie Ramos as Romeo has something of the harder task, because as written he seems so fickle.  Seems proves to be an important word.  As ever, context turns out to be everything.  This context emerges as a place of hyper and toxic masculinity, rather like Shakespeare's own time, when making someone bleed for saying the wrong thing feels so natural any attempt to simply prevent a possible murder engenders rage.  Amidst all this seething, sneering arrogance (so perfectly portrayed by Tory Devon Smith's Mercutio and Austin Iredale's Tybalt) Romeo comes across as refreshingly sane.  We see his passion to not triumph over others, but find and win true love.  Not, as others like Benvolio (Nicky Romaniello) , merely getting some girl to come to bed.  He wants marriage, happiness, giving and receiving joy with another.

No wonder Juliet (Acacia Fisher) falls for him!  Raised by the cowed Lady Capulet (Kim Swennen) and major league bully Lord Capulet (Darrett Sanders), she sees in Romeo a stark difference.   To others, even the fairly benign County Paris (Andrew Walke), Juliet seems little more than a doll, a thing to do as it is told.  Romeo looks not at her dress or pretty face, but her.  To someone as quietly, fiercely herself as this Juliet, one can see why the impact of a genuine gaze might prove so intoxicating.

Credit: Wes Marsala
Only the Nurse (Brittney S. Wheeler) of almost any other character on stage, sees Juliet herself.  But the Nurse turns out too wedded to survival, to subservience, to ever truly be on Juliet's side.

Little wonder, then, both find in Lawrence (Dana Lyn Barron) an ally upon whom they can rely, simply because she clearly means them both well.  She has her own agenda, yes, but one without any desire to dominate.

See how the nuances all fit together?  In performance this becomes ever more clear, practically building upon every word or gesture.  The casual, cruel sexism of virtual every single male to the frozen smiles on almost every woman in public (then the cowed, sometimes terrified ones in private) help create this world, one interestingly devoid of any racism but with an embedded misogyny there for all to see.  Nor do I see this as "taking liberties" with the play.  Read Shakespeare and see how much attention his works give to the plight of women in his own society--up to and including the distrust women routinely must feel towards men from Rosalynd to Beatrice (and what happens to those--like Gertrude, Desdemona, Lady Anne--who don't).

Credit: Wes Marsala
The rest of the cast deserves praise as well, for their uniformly fine performances under Caitlin Hart's direction in creating a fantastically cohesive, powerful tale with hardly a hiccup from start to finish:  Allison Andreas, My-Ishia Cason-Brown, Kamar Elliott, James Ferrero, Schuyler Girion, Danielle Gonzales, Kolton Kolbaba, Ron Slanina, Megan Marie Thiel, Kiki Milner and Racheal Sarah Yeomans.

Come to think on it, that absolute consistency puts this production in the lead.  Yes, this is the best Romeo & Juliet I've ever seen.

Vagrancy's Romeo & Juliet plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until May 6, 2018 at The Shakespeare Center, 1238 West First Street, Los Angeles CA 90026.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Adapting Dracula (Part Four)

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

Four: Gender

Permit me to point out some math.  In the novel there are essentially nine major characters:  Harker, Dracula, Mina, Lucy, Seward, Arthur, Quincey, Renfield and Van Helsing.  How many are women?  Two.  If you wish to include Mrs. Westenra and the Brides, that would bring it up to six, but in that case you also should bring up Swales and Peter Hawkins--making it six out of fifteen (and honestly the Brides are only barely characters).

Now, here is something almost anyone involved in theatre will confirm.  At any given audition, women will outnumber men.  Yet the majority of roles are for men (all the more odd considering they make up slightly less than half of the human race).  For this reason when adapting I tend to lean toward more women and fewer men.  In the case of Dracula, one character in particular seems amenable (a lot) to change.

I mean Renfield.

Several possibilities opened things up here, with that choice. One is to bring in an Attendant who should also be a woman (only male patients were supposed to have male attendants), which is another woman character I could bring in (using an unused name from Stoker's original notes). For another interactions between her and Seward has this other level on top of it, more than patient/doctor or lunatic/sane person.

Along the way I became more interested in a minor female character from the novel--Sister Agatha, the nun with whom Harker converses as he heals in the convent after his escape from the castle.  This offered another possibility--get rid of Van Helsing and have her play the role of "vampire lore expert" but in this case someone whom the men are less likely to believe.  After all, she's a woman, a foreigner, and a member of a religious faith seen as extremely superstitious by good Anglicans.  That Transylvania was part of the Austrian Empire at the time also offers another source of conflict, in the wake of a recent war against the "Hun."

To be continued 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

L.O.V.E.R. (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The central character of L.O.V.E.R., a one woman show written and performed by Lois Robbins, proves charming.  I liked her.  She had a story to tell, which made a lot of sense and including lots of those mundane growing moments which make up life.  Dealing with her father's over-protectiveness, the family's desire she date someone Jewish, mistakes large and small--much of it tied up with her sexuality, her learning to experience pleasure, etc.

It bears repeating I liked her.

I should also point out she's rich.  At least by my standards.  She grew up in Long Island, which she treats as somewhat shameful.  (I grew up in Florida, where high schools had to institute literacy tests and where I personally saw men in white sheets light crosses with torches).  She could afford to go back and forth from west to east coasts.  At one point her boyfriend proposed to here atop a mountain in Switzerland.

So.  I don't identify with her.  But I liked her, wished her well, laughed at the stories she told about her parents (my fave--her father consoling her about an early divorce, saying "You're an actress, you needed a dress rehearsal").

Thing is, when it comes to growing up in America, my life resembles hers hardly at all.  She seems wildly, unbelievably, enviably lucky beyond words.  Because I am about as certain as I can be this character (have zero idea how much the character has really in common with the actress) has pretty much never gone hungry, not lacked the funds to treat abcess teeth so gone to an emergency room, never been homeless (even if only for a short time), hasn't lost a parent to a slow cancer that eventually ate her brain after years of alcoholism, never found out a loved one had been raped many times in childhood and another had been raped the night before last.  Didn't watch a fiancee die suddenly and then spiral into semi-suicidal depression. 

Yeah, I am sure she was upset to find her boyfriend was a genuine jerk in lots of ways.  It is sad, and great to know she learned better.  Three children in a happy marriage!  Brava!  Didn't lose any of them?  Several women I know have.  Several have had bulimia.  Been banished from their families.  Struggled with drug addiction.

She says she's been in therapy.  So have I.  I cannot imagine what she had to see a therapist about, though.  Does this sound mean?  I hope not, because it bears repeating over and over again this character is likable!  She proves charming and witty.  Her life unveils itself as a lovely one, and frankly small wonder she's happy.  I'm happy for her. 

But I don't feel much moved.  Your mileage may vary.  She seems nice, though.

L.O.V.E.R. plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm until May 12, 2018 at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Avenue (at Vista), Los Angeles CA 90046.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A Pink Chair (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

When attending events at the REDCAT rarely do I feel any disappointment.  Rather I prepare myself for delightful bafflement which most likely shall coalesce into a work to move and excite.

A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique) continues such a trend.  Oh yes.  This, the brainchild of New York's The Wooster Group, as ever challenged preconceptions from the very start.

We begin with recorded interviews with a woman discussing her late father, a famous and challenging stage director/artist.  She has agreed, as emerges in voiceover and a taped interview, to allow a theatre group access to video recordings of her father's rehearsals, especially his next-to-last play.

The press packet and program contains a lot more (and fascinating) background material but I'm just talking about the experience of watching the performance "cold."

Credit: Mary Baranov
What eventually emerges is a man playing this director taking a position on stage analogous to the director in the videotaped rehearsal--along with plenty of other actors doing the same, but for different roles.  Said video remains more or less silent, with the Wooster Group actors speaking roles and (for the most part) enacting the rehearsal with lines which may or may not have matched the original.  This fragment of a play, sprinkled with surreal details such as wrapping the director in packing tape to his chair, deals (it seems) with someone important coming--the fears, hopes, contrasting beliefs and varying emotional reactions.

Furniture is moved, characters clean or talk or pose or hold up a cross and many other things in a kind of weird dance.  Much as a dream, the flow of it all somehow seems to make sense.

Credit: Mary Baranov
Eventually, the play metamorphs into a startling re-enactment of the Odysseus' return to his home at the end of Home's The Odyssey.  But this production (which frankly I longed to see in toto) played it up as a clown show--complete with red noses and silly hats.

A theme emerged by this time, at least recognizable to me.  About one of the purposes of art--the return home.  As the daughter sought to return to her father, and her father sought to return to the Poland he thought he remembered, and others felt a judgment of themselves coming in arrival of a director, and the ancient Greek hero King finally ended his long quest after the Trojan War.  Not a simple theme.  Not a simple idea.  A wild and confused and gripping tapestry of word and sound and movement.

Credit: Mary Baranov
When the ending finally took place, media of a vast storm projected behind the cast, as the many individuals whom they each are gather aboard what for them, for now, becomes a boat or ship.  They sing.  Of course they do.  A song of journey, of sailing the sea, of braving the waves.

A song about going home.  And in the singing, they seek to belong to one another, to make a home of themselves, of this ship, of this chorus.

Such a fundamental, such a complex human urge, rendering into a new form so we may know it anew.

Bravo!  Bravo to the whole ensemble--Zbigniew "Z" Bzymek, Enver Chakartash, Jim Fletcher, Ari Filakos, Gareth Hobbs, Dorota Krakowska, Erin Mullin, Suzzy Roche, Danusia Trevino, Kate Valk,  Elizabeth LeCompte, etc.

A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique) as of this writing plays two more performances in Los Angeles, Saturday April 14 at 8pm and Sunday April 15 at 2pm at the REDCAT, 631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012.

Whoopsie Doopsie! (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Small confession time.  When I see a play doing something I've never seen before--well, that counts as a huge plus in what passes for my heart.

Whoopsie Doopsie, written and directed by Art Shulman tackles an event in lives of two teenagers, fairly typical young people who might be almost any reasonably affluent, comfortable and well-meaning pair in some suburbia.  I say "some" because this play takes place in a weird world, a place where language and sound effects helps create a slightly clown-like world.  Here people say words like "decidify" and the like--recognizable yet not.

Credit: ZJU
Billy (Nima Rad) and Joannie (Camille Aragon) are in love, and decide to have sex in the most responsible of ways.  She goes on the pill.  He uses a condom.  When you think about it, what happens next pretty much gives a notion of what kind of world the play has us visit.

She gets pregnant.  In other words, we are not in control.

Every popular, eager to be faithful, with loads of vague ambition and an almost untested conscience, Billy now must figure out what to do.  And like many a teenager in this (and other) situations, he proceeds to act with a blend of cleverness, imagination and raw foolishness.  He proves more than our central character, but our narrator as well.  In effect we get a bird's eye view almost inside his head as this event forces him into the next level of maturity--he and Joannie.

Credit: ZJU
Along the way, we meet a variety of characters such as parents, doctors, class-mates, abortion clinic protestors, a handful of doctors, etc.  Cast members Jesseal Amelia, Mary Alice Farina, Ellen Biedenfield, Warren Hall and Casey Hunter play all the other roles.  They highlight the best thing about the production, the cast's energy and willingness to simply dive into the story 110%, no holding back. Most of the time their choices work.  Every now and then some note or other doesn't, but then you soon have another to experience, then another and another and another.

For a bit, in the very beginning, I feared the play might turn out a polemic, trying to tell us what to think on the subject of abortion.  The comfort lay in how it seemed unique and entertaining in style!

Credit: ZJU
Then, the lectures on subjects from the POV of the playwright never arrived. Rather it played out with the characters trying to figure out what this might mean,  how to handle or predict the reactions of others, letting their imaginations stir up fantasies to explain the whys and wherefores. 

At play's end, we see just some characters confronted by a situation, by decisions they don't want to make, yet must decide anyway, then grow up a little bit as a direct result.  All in a quirky style including spoonfuls of Dr. Seus, Mr. Rogers and just possibly a sprinkling of The Twilight Zone.  I could make some technical notes, longing for an equally quirky set, some more stylized costumes. etc.  But those remain secondary. 

Whoopsie Doopsie plays Mondays at 7:30pm and Saturdays at 2pm until April 22, at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim (just south of the NoHo Sign), North Hollywood CA 91601.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Deathtrap (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The play Deathtrap sprang from the pen of Ira Levin, who also gave us such thrillers as the deeply disturbing Veronica's Room.  Now this latter play proves not nearly so disturbing, with its diabolical cruelty on so many levels, but does seem at least as clever.

Its central premise involves a Sidney (Robert Benedict Nello), a playwright in deep need of a hit and living essentially off of his wife Myra (Gina Yates) wealth.  Clifford (TJMcNeill), a student of his at a writing seminar sends him a copy of his new thriller, his first such play, titled (and here the cleverness really starts to kick in) "Deathtrap."  Since this is in the 1970s, he has only physical copies, and hasn't had a chance to make any xerox ones.  On top of that he's house-sitting, no one knows about his efforts at playwriting and so when he accepts an invite to Sydney's home to perhaps collaborate on improving the script, he seems to be walking into a trap.  Indeed, much of the first act builds upon Myra's fear her husband might just kill this young man for the script.

Quite simply, two writers of thrillers find themselves as the protagonist and antagonist in a real life thriller.

Clever, yes.  Frankly it gets more and more clever as the story proceeds. So much of the pleasure in the play derives from that I hesitate to reveal the twists and turns which occur.

Now this marks the third show I've seen at the Group Rep, and as a production this seems to highlight what seem to be this company's strengths.  They have the resources to put on such a physically specific production.  A staple of actors awaits, competent and of the right types, in a good venue with a very nice lighting and sound system.

It also highlights some problems. First, in this production at least, the play is treated as movie for some reason--complete with a musical score during the action.  Honestly, why?  It added nothing, while yanking me away from the pertinent "realness" of live theatre--not least because it feels so weird to have background music in a realistic play (as opposed to a musical).  But since the other show's I've seen here don't have this flaw, it hardly seems typical.

More telling is that the entire cast, including Lloyd Pedersen as Sydney's lawyer and LizAnne Keigley as a local psychic who moved nearby, proceeded to perform in a businesslike way with intelligent line readings and good timing.  But that was pretty much it.  With the exception of Myra the characters rarely felt alive (although that background music certainly did them no favors) save for brief moments.  I rarely got sucked into the story, never felt particularly tense or afraid, felt little or no investment in anyone on stage.  This marks it as different at least to some extent from Another Antigone or The Chinese Wall, other Group Rep productions in which for some characters at the very least I felt for.

So the result ends up genuinely entertaining, genuinely well crafted, genuinely enjoyable.  But not compelling.  Not exciting.  I was never once bored.  Nor did I particularly care what happened to anyone on stage.

Deathtrap plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm until May 20, 2018 at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd (near Vineland), North Hollwood CA 91601. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Adapting Dracula (Part Three)

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

Three: Steampunk?

"Steampunk" as a genre has an interesting history.  Although the term had not been coined yet, the old t.v. show The Wild Wild West really does make a perfect example in some ways.  Later of course Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen helped define it and these days it exists in video games and conventions as well as animes perhaps most of all.

The idea involves a "future than never happened."  An alternate history (usually of the Victorian Era) in which technology accelerated in a way imagined by Jules Verne or H.G.Wells, etc. Submarines a la the Nautilus, vast steam engines powering an even more hyper-industrialized London, an embrace of the mechanical even more than in our own history.

Although I didn't realize it at the time, a little notion of setting Dracula in such an England appealed to me precisely because it could show up an inherent conflict between the past and present, between the medieval and industrial, the mystical versus the materialistic.

It also offered some opportunities.  One was the notion of a fairly recent "modern" war, a small scale version of WWI of which three characters--Quincy, Seward and Arthur--might be veterans. Imagine a conflict, a surrogate of the Franco-Prussian War perhaps, in which poison gas and primitive airships, truly automatic rifles and long range artillery as well as very basic versions of what we call a tank were used!  Now think on how three friends might have reacted to such a visit to hell. PTS or "shell shock" might be the least of it. Another reaction could be a weird deadening of sympathies, or single-minded focus on a cause eclipsing who knows what else.

Likewise consider the air of those industrialized cities such as London!  In our own history flecks of coal were pretty much everywhere, soiling almost everything.  Maximize that, and all of a sudden these places become in many ways absolute places of walking death.  Lung ailments might well become rampant. In our own history, the 1950s saw horrible months of really severe smog which killed thousands.

Which means of course perhaps one of Dracula's victims might be dying already--which in turn impacts how they might view a seeming Angel of Death visiting them each night to deliver a kiss.

To be continued

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Flu Season (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

One of my best friends invited me to opening night of a play in which he performs--The Flu Season by Will Eno.  I ended up very glad he did so.  As of this writing, it has three performances left.

The play consists of six characters--three men, three women--who observe/participate in events in a mental hospital during one intense but swift winter.  The Doctor (Mark Hein) and Nurse (Heidi Mendez Harrison) of course make up part of the staff, helping Man (Joe Sartee) and Woman (Brooke Markham) as they check in.  The former two have lots of tales to tell of their pasts, tales of regret but joy, sadness but appreciation.  Meanwhile, the latter slowly (or swiftly) get to know one another, clicking despite or maybe also in part because of their mutual issues, not least an inability to handle their own feelings about...well, almost anything.

Added to the brew we also get to know two other characters, a male who identifies himself as Prologue (Nick Moss) and a female who calls herself Epilogue (Anna Evelyn).  They speak directly to the audience, one from the point of view of the present, the other speaking from the future, having already seen or perhaps lived through this play.  We, and Prologue, play catch up.

The plot, while important, takes a second place to the very challenge Man and Woman face--handling the world, events, other people, plus the many emotions arising from all of the above.  Call it the meaning of life if you like.  I would argue experiencing life hits closer to the mark.

What do we do when feelings change?  Or when consequences we did not imagine (or did not take seriously) catch up?  How do we endure hope or bafflement or change or sameness?

If this sounds hopelessly philosophical, allow me to point some salient details.  First must be the wit of language.  Truly, this playwright understands deeply the power of words to entrance, illuminate, or fail.  Second, despite all that the story for all six characters remains deeply personal.  All six grab our attentions and sympathies.  We feel with and for as well as about them all.  The cast resolutely brings all of them to entrancing life.  As a result, we find ourselves entertained amidst sadness and sweetness, eccentricity amid depression, the absurd side by side with relentless, cruel logic.

The world in the play does not change. It simply lives.  Nations' destinies feel no impact, but every member of the audience feels many things, often keenly.  Honestly something this abstract should not work as a piece of theatre--at least most attempts I've seen drown in their myopic symbolism.  The Flu Season does the exact opposite--sail heroically into our hearts, tattered sails yet catching the wind and faded banners somehow rippling in the uneven wind.

The Flu Season plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm until April 14, 2018 at the Pico Playhouse 10508 Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles CA 90064.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Macbeth: His Story, Her Tragedy (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Let me be upfront--I know some of those who put together this production and I even contributed to their kickstarter.

Now, I've seen lots and lots of productions of this specific play, especially in the last two years.  Indeed, my choices for best, second-best and third-best productions all opened within that period.

This one did not topple any of those three.  It did end up as quite a roller coaster ride in several ways--including quality.  Macbeth: His Story, Her Tragedy veers from really excellent to the merely mediocre. Honestly, this last is mostly aspects of the design--not really bad but below average.

I prefer to focus on the positive, which consist (mostly) of a fistful of performances which reached out and grabbed me by the heart.  Top of the list is Cyanne McClairian as Lady Macbeth, who in this version retains almost as much focus as possible.  Her 'take' on the role seems very much in a classical vein, that of the bitter ambitious woman who doesn't realize the moral import of what she's doing.  What the staging makes clear, however, is an achingly topical and personal reason for her actions.  Portrayed in dance, we come to understand her Lady Macbeth had been raped by King Duncan--the very monarch she later helps murder.  This act, rather than any choice by the title character, becomes the act which sets off an avalanche of slaughter and civil war.

Here is the stuff from which to create a vivid, personal production.  In her performance, it becomes vividly alive.  Elsewhere, the idea loses focus -- although a fistful of really good performances help buoy the show overall.  Brendan Cadigan Weinhold as the title character shines in the way this role has been re-imagined, as pretty much an almost childish pawn.  Witches Kathy Deitch, Josie Adams McCoy and Corinna McCoy make for an eerie trio, although this last also get the juicy role of Porter (honestly why most folks don't play this role as genuinely drunk rather than play-acting drunk puzzles me).

A lot of dance becomes part of the play, which works pretty well but doesn't feel integrated--mostly (I suspect) because most of the performers aren't really dancers (with Esther Mira as an exception, having several small roles in which she shines).  I frankly think this marks the biggest symptom of what doesn't work in the play--the director who insisted on such dance without using dancers, shows a certain inexperience or failure to take things into account.  That, and the theme of sexual exploitation of women never truly emerged save in the story of the lead (where it worked very well, very movingly).

So--a mixed bag.  What is good about the production tends to end up very good indeed and worth the price of admission.  Lots of promise here, and I've high hopes for further productions by Fearless Imp Entertainment.

Macbeth: His Story, Her Tragedy plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, until April 29, 2018, with Sunday performances April 22 and 29 at 4pm, at the McCadden Theatre, 1147 North McCadden Place, Hollywood CA 90038.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Adapting Dracula (Part Two)

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

Two: Re-examining Harker

I first read Dracula in comic book form sometime around 1966. My first copy, a paperback, my parents purchased for me within a year of that.  Since then I have seen dozens of different versions, up to and including at least seven motion pictures (actual versions of the novel) and more than that many audio as well as live theatrical versions.

One thing in time emerged as a considerable problem.  Who is the protagonist?

The title character of course is the antagonist, but who is his opposite number?  Most would probably answer "Van Helsing" which makes little sense structurally--the middle aged scholar doesn't even appear, nor receives any mention, until over third of the way into the novel!

Second choice most likely would be Mina, going all the way back to the motion picture Nosferatu.  The Coppola film, the Wildhorn musical, at least three play versions I know of go this route.  But the mere fact it has been a popular choice makes me pull away.  To be honest, I feel England to be protagonist much as Middle Earth is the pro-tagonist of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. That seems to me an extremely difficult idea to dramatize, though.

Consider this, however.  The first character we meet proves to be Jonathan Harker.  Sadly he ends up almost always portrayed as the most boring leading man imaginable, a simple clerk of no great presence or character.  Certainly that is how I viewed him.  Until I looked further.

What do we know about Harker, really?  We know Mina--a strong, intelligent and very deep-minded young woman who inspires devotion in others--chose to marry him.  He is an orphan, to the point where not a single word about his family even comes up, although he's been all-but-adopted by a successful businessman, Peter Hawkins. We also know he escaped from Castle Dracula by climbing down a sheer cliff, then wandering in the Transylvanian wilderness for several days at least until some nuns found him, almost delirious.  He says, after his wife has been bitten by Dracula, he will follow her rather than let her be in the darkness alone.  And he strikes the killing blow against Dracula.

Does this sound like some typical clerk?  I would argue not.  Rather it speaks of someone very physically strong and with vast reserves of courage, a man of great passion despite his occupation.  In fact, he sounds rather like an idealized version of Bram Stoker himself!

I began to see Harker as a Northern lad, someone sired in the hardy moors of that area of England, not far from Whitby!  Someone who instead of settling on the career of Solicitor rather lifted himself up to that position by raw talent and willpower.  I even began to hear his voice differently.  Rather than the typical London tones of Daniel Radcliff in Woman in Black I began hearing him as Kitt Harington in Game of Thrones.  A more blunt, less refined voice, less diplomatic but utterly resolute in the face of hardship.

Doesn't this sound far more like someone Mina Murray would fall for?

To be continued