Sunday, October 14, 2018

Talking Trees (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I went into Talking Trees by Lonnie Hughes knowing very little.  I got the impression it was about a difficult human relationship, especially an interracial one, and was written fifteen years before.  Mostly, though, the title intrigued.

Ended up wishing more had been made of that idea.  Trees.  Talking with one another.  In silence, so low even the breathing of other living things can drown it out.  Notice, though, how clearly the idea ended up in my mind?

In essence we pick up with some marriage counseling involving Edmund (Jahmone Duhaney) and Angolina (Amy Braddock) with their Therapist (Vince Don Vito).  At this point we come across a problem in the play, one that despite everything else good, makes for a rocky start.  Quite simply the language is elevated, yet we don't really have a chance to adjust our ears.  For another, almost the entire scene is played to the audience rather than between the characters--which is the whole point!  Here we meet two people evidently in love--or who say they are--and have problems with communication.  But it makes for a difficult start of the play.  We struggle to enter into the world of the play.  That world tantalizes but takes a bit longer to let us inside.

Once we're there, the story and characters grow increasingly vivid, real, human.  Edmund and Angolina know they have problems, yet cannot quite tell each other what they need to know.  Each becomes distracted.  There's a lot of 'on the nose' dialogue for awhile, with Edmund actually asking his best friend Thomas (Ray Tezanos) "Am I a man?"  Then there's the almost over-the-top racist Woman (Lindsay Seim) with her weirdly eager willingness to admit a desire for genocide.  Yet the elements do slowly cohere.

Eventually, a few layers peel away.  That Woman we learn was made to fit into a shape not of her choosing.  Likewise Angolina's mother (Barbara Ann Howard) whose dislike of her son-in-law seems instant, reflexive, implacable--she reveals herself a victim, someone scarred by life and so left less than she was.

I suppose that is what I took away from the play most of all -- a yearning for life as yet unspoiled, for hearts unwounded and tongues unafraid to speak true.  Much of the play becomes a melancholy lament, the actors who have a chance revealing a great deal of pathos.  Regret infuses their words and looks.  This proved so consistent one must credit director Marjorie Lewit for that particular vision, for the actors all finding that note.

And haven't we all felt precisely that odd nostalgia, often for something we've never consciously known?  Have any of us in childhood had the life of a tree, communicated as trees do?  Maybe that is what the title means. 

The play does not end happily, not in conventional terms.  Death happens, as it must, and in what seems to be beyond the veil of life our lovers meet once more, this time before a tree chopped down.

Mixed metaphors there a bit, to be honest.

Yet what seemed to emerge from the story, at least in my eyes and through my years, filtered through this heart, is that to become as talking trees is nothing we can reclaim.  Rather it is something we must find and create.  Then--here lies the biggest trick--keep. 

So, an uneven play with a few problems.  But something at its heart, something to make one feel as well as think.  A good production that teased that heart into showing itself. 

Talking Trees plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm until November 11, 2018 at the Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd. (west of Lankershim), North Hollywood CA 91601.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Cymbeline (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Porters of Hellsgate has pledged to do the entire canon of the works of William Shakespeare.  Naturally this includes the more obscure, less produced works which of course includes Cymbeline (or, The Trials of Imogen).  Honestly, the script does offer some unusual challenges, not least a very complicated if compelling plot.  Yet what the play has in abundance is interesting characters, lots of them, and therein lies the drama as well as the comedy of this convoluted tale.

Cymbeline (Debba Rofheart) is the King of Britain during the reign of Augustus Caesar, whose heir and daughter Imogen (Cameron Kauffman) has married against his will Posthumous (Will Block), a lowborn orphan raised by the King.  Part of the King's rage is spurned on by his Queen (Thomas Bigley) who hopes to make sure her own son, Cloten (Jesse James Thomas) ends up on the throne.

Perhaps you've noticed one of the more fun aspects of the show, namely that casting has been pretty much gender-blind.  The King, played by a woman, has as his wife a man.

What follows in terms of plot is a bet made between the exiled Posthumous and a knavis Italian knight (which didn't exist in this period, but never mind...Shakespeare was a dramatist not an historian) named Iachimo (Jono Eiland) over far Imogen's chastity.  The knave makes for Britain, meets the lady, and quickly realizes he has lost the bet.  So he cheats and fakes "proof" of the lady's infidelity.  Posthumous, a good guy but like many a young man in Shakespeare also a total fool, believes this and orders his servant Pisanio (Alexandra Wright) to murder Imogen--an act the servant refuses but pretends to commit.

Rather than even try to describe the cascading events that follow, let me praise the production which makes this whole plot not only flow but entertain!  In fact Charles Pasternak's direction does much to help us follow events, which frankly get more and more complicated.  For example, eventually we meet a soldier (Dawn Alden) and his two adopted sons Guiderius (Cindy Nguyen) and Arviragus (Sydney Rose Walker) who turn out to be Imogen's long-lost older brothers!  All this should be too much, but proves nothing of the kind!  In fact as fun as the plot does prove, what really carries it on remains the characters, many of whom seem variations from other works.  Imogen seems a genuinely strong Desdemona with a lot of Cordelia, just as Cloten comes across as a vain, talentless version of Iago.  The biggest villain in may ways presents an image of a young Sir Toby Belch, one who discovers and repents the price of his roguish ways.  What is Posthumous but Claudio reborn?  All brought to vivid life by a first rate cast!

Cymbeline plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm until October 14, 2018 at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia (east of Lankershim Blvd), North Hollywood CA 91601.

A Flock of Macaws (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Been trying to figure out the title of Sam Henry Kass' play A Flock of Macaws, playing at Theatre68 in Noho.  On the one hand, it might refer to the central character Daughter (Mercedes Manning) and her backstory.  She claims to have been abandoned as a baby, found in a zoo between the gorillas and a cage with (you guessed it) a flock of macaws.  At one point she expresses a half-sarcastic desire her real parents were the gorillas.  So are her parents, whoever they were (including the couple who adopted her) a flock of macaws?  Metaphorically?  Maybe.  Or maybe we're supposed to just think about it, to come up with our own theories.

In which case that is mine!

Daughter opens with a monologue, directed to the audience.  This rarely works.  In this case, it does.  Frankly, by the first sentence I felt sure this was going to be a good performance.  Because Manning didn't just utter lines or give readings--she talked.  She spoke to us, telling the truth (albeit not all of it--she is a human being after all) about her longing to find her mother.  How this quest was born out of her pain.  I believed her. 

The play deals not with her quest, but what happens when she finds the very strange woman Daughter insists is in fact her Mother (Deborah Geffner) who likewise speaks truth with every word out of her mouth--even when she's lying or deluded or trying not to say anything at all.  No small feat!  But wonderful to behold.

In fact the whole show cut straight to the bone of everything, or tries to.  Because the characters of course wiggle and try to avoid the knife!  Mother does not want to admit giving birth, dismisses the birth certificate identifying her as a mother, agrees that she might come to admit her identity all the while wandering in word and mind through her own odd inner landscape.  What can Daughter (or the audience) do but follow, or try?  Along the way we meet Actor (Hansford Prince) and Actress (Julia Valentine Larsons), who will play all parts in the almost flashbacks examining who just might be the Father.  Maybe.  Just as later they take on the roles of Daughter's adoptive parents, a withdrawn but kind enough couple in Idaho (a place Mother insists does not really exist).  The result feels something like a dream, something like an acid trip, and not a little bit like a kind of psychological descent into Wonderland.  Or maybe Purgatory.

With material like this, the temptation to simply be funny, or generically "weird" would be strong.  Not one cast member succumbed,, which serves as a nice tribute to director Ronnie Marmo.  Via coaching and/or simply by choosing these performers, he made sure the play never became about the oddity of it all.  Amid all the bizarre peaks into a damaged imagination emerges truth.  Oh most sacred and fragile Truth.  Truth about what trauma is truly driving Daughter to find a kind of anchor in her birth mother.  Truth about what Mother's life must truly be like and why she did not keep her child.

And in the end, each has heard the other's story.  Each learned the others' truth.

Thus Dionysus, patron deity of the theatre, is appeased.

A Flock of Macaws plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm until October 20, 2018 at Theatre68 located at 5112 Lankershim Blvd (south of Magnolia), North Hollywood, CA 91601.