Sunday, November 18, 2018

A Mile in My Shoes (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

To share something more than a little humiliating--I was homeless.  Only for a little while, and I generally had friends with whom I could stay.  Found a job before long and managed to end up in a nice furnished room I can afford.  In truth what happened was I tripped and got my feet wet in a puddle.

Others have been treading water in the ocean for years.  We don't like to think about them.  Understandably.  We like to pretend homelessness is a choice.  Or the result of some flaw in character.  Less than three days before I saw A Mile in My Shows, the driver of a Metro bus carrying me to another show was loudly telling everyone how the homeless did this to themselves, they chose this life, they never even try to anything to help themselves.

It is a common idea.

Lots of folks are stupid enough to believe it.

This show consists of one person walking on stage, and we instantly recognize her as homeless.  Kathryn Taylor Smith performs this show which she wrote and Zadia Ife directed.  We meet a woman in old, worn clothes pushing along a cart full of what looks like haphazard junk.  She moves slowly, pretty obviously in pain.  She becomes our guide, and shoes the equivalent of chakras as we go and see what this edge of society is like.  Not all of it, of course.  Think of how many homeless walk the streets each day.  That is how many stories there are.  No, only a fraction.  I suddenly remember for a moment when I lived at Rockaway Beach in NYC back in the 1980s.  Never had known a winter with snow before.  As it thawed out later in the year, the police found a dead body under the boardwalk.  Months earlier, he had simply crawled in there and fallen asleep.  Then died.

Nobody noticed.

Now that is an incident lost in my memory since Reagan was President.  Yet now it bubbled to the surface.  In my view, no coincidence.  Rather design.  And this one woman play, this involuntary journey into humor and horror, hope and heartlessness, designed to do exactly that.  To change me.  To move me into another mind set, another state of being, even.

I've told you all I"m going to about the specific content of this fantastic piece of theatre.  Suffice to say it got under my skin and into my heart.  I believe very strongly the rest of the audience felt the same.  I invite you to share the experience, to walk if not a mile then at least a few yards, in the shoes of those who probably terrify you, lest by osmosis they somehow pass their tragedy into your life.

Here's a hint--that is exactly the opposite of what actually happens.

A Mile in My Shoes plays Sundays at 3pm until December 9, 2018 at the Hudson Backstage Theatre  6539 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood CA 90038.

Anatomy of a Hug (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

A thought about genre. 

At a writers' conference an editor once said genre is something artists like to play with, while publishers use it to try and steer customers to a book.  I didn't and don't regard those as irreconcilable.

Anatomy of a Hug, for example, by Kat Ramsburg might find its best audience via such a descriptive.  It is in some ways a melancholy rom-com.

Which really doesn't do nearly enough to describe the play, so allow some explanation.  Amelia (Meg Wallace) is a sad young woman as we meet her, allowing a sick old woman into her home named Sonia (Kathy Bell Denton).  A social worker named Iris (Leslie Thurston) comes along, giving some hint of officialdom, of bureaucracy, the notion of some intense history.  Yet when left alone, Amelia and Sonia behave pretty much like strangers.  At the same time, they walk on eggshells.  Amelia insists "No personal questions!"

Eventually we do learn the situation.  Sonia is Amelia's mother, who has spent decades in prison for the murder of her husband and Amelia's father.  Now, as she enters the final stages of a terminal cancer, Sonia has been granted compassionate release.  In all this time, her daughter has never visited her.  Never written.  Naturally one wonders why she agreed to allow this stranger into her small apartment?

Credit: Mikel Fox
So, like an onion, the details of her life peel away.  She works selling charity memberships by phone, a charity that helps desperate, often abandoned children overseas.  It does not pay well, but enough.  Evidently she's very good at it.  Yet hardly anyone knows her.  A co-worker who also shares the same bus, a relentlessly friendly gentleman named Ben (Jo Sung), finally works up the courage to speak to her.  Amelia freaks in response.  Quietly, unobtrusively.  But still, she's freaking out.

She lives, we learn, amid a dreamland made up of t.v. shows.  She has a whole library of DVDs.  When showing the tiny apartment to Sonia, she explains about Hulu, Amazon, Netflix and her Roku (Sonia barely understands a word).  In fact, Amelia has an enormous emotional investment in these make-believe worlds and characters, seeing them as worthy of deep loyalty. 

What she doesn't want (or says she doesn't want) is for Sonia to explain anything, even though her mother insists on doing it anyway.  After all, she isn't the same human being as before.  Rather than asking for forgiveness, she wants Amelia to merely understand, to answer the questions that much have haunted her.  This will be the last chance.

Credit: Mikel Fox
So what we view and hear and feel becomes the start of real healing for Amelia, whose life clearly is about as empty as anyone's can be.  The symbol of the prisoner granted compassonate leave then setting her daughter free in an act of compassion might be a little on the nose (okay, squarely on) but one cannot deny it works.  I did not feel sucked into these lives, feeling a desperate hope for them to someone emerge from a nightmare.  But I did like them.  They seemed alive (and that is about as much praise as any actor manages to earn) and their pain quite real.  It wasn't that complex a pain and to be honest the healing was almost too easy compared to some plays.  But it felt true.  I felt a strong hope Sonia would manage to heal her daughter, or at least help her do it.  This was all she had left.  Yet would be everything. 

So kudos to this simple, moving story of broken hearts and tender hearts and dying hearts and hopeful hearts and also more than a couple terrified hearts. 

Anatomy of a Hug plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until December 7, 2018 at the Sherry Theatre, 11052 Magnolia (east of Lankershim), North Hollywood CA 91601.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Big Event: Meantime at HoJo's (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The Watergate burglary barely made a ripple in news reports when it happened in 1972.  That seems amazing now.  But ...Meantime at HoJo's by Christian Levatino takes that moment--which in hindsight seems like a crack revealing a bizarre backstage of history--and turns it into a human story of drama, tragedy and dark humor.

Our players went down in history as the Plumbers, a group of semi-professional covert ops veterans who see their job as saving democracy and Christian civilization from the horror of North Dakota Senator George McGovern being elected President.  In retrospect of course we know this danger was so great McGovern carried exactly one state out of fifty.  The leaders of this team are E.Howard Hunt (Darrett Sanders) and G. Gordon Liddy (Levatino).

What we follow then are a team of odd individuals, played very well by Patrick Flanagan, Scott Mosenson, Isaak Gracia, Adam Duarte, Jon Fusion and Hank Doughan.  The dynamics between them prove compelling and even fascinating, as the (in hindsight) clearly deluded team go all out in trying to uncover dirt and/or secrets about the Democratic National Committee.  All three plays of The Big Event (a trilogy which will eventually become a tetrology) fairly drip with irony.  Here we find no exception.  In fact these agents manage to uncover their own side's "dirt" and in the process help force the fierce Cold Warrior Nixon out of th Oval Office.

But mostly the play focuses on their interactions as we can see both their fears and complacency play out against what we know is coming.

Now here I will posit two criticisms against what is in nearly every way just an excellent piece of theatre.  One must be only visceral, because in truth we are discussing history and there were no women among the Plumbers.  Indeed, the 1970s lest we forget saw no shame at all in what we rightly today see as pretty firm, proud and entrenched misogyny.  So let that one pass.   It is telling the truth of those times.

Less easy to wave away is a premise behind the play, one referred to often and which helps  link it to the other two plays of the trilogy, especially Sunny Afternoon.  Simply, the play seems to be furthering the theory that the Watergate Plumbers were in fact the assassins of John F. Kennedy.  Honestly, I will no more debate this question than I would Creation Science, Holocaust Denial, or the Flat Earth.  I hope this inclusion is meant as a mere dramatic device, but frankly I am unsure.  This displeases me, because I am usually good at picking up on such 'signals' and these three plays seem too well-constructed to miss it.  So.  I frankly disapprove very strongly of such nonsense in terms of our current political climate, and in the face of very firm evidence (on top of what seems like an unbelievable coincidence).

Yet--the play remains a compelling story of interesting, even sympathetic characters with a darkly humorous insight into real history.  That needs saying first and last.

...Meanwhile at HoJo's plays Saturdays at 9:30pm and Sundays at 8pm until December 2, 2018 at the Flight Theatre, in the Complex 6476 Santa Monica Blvd. Hollywood CA 90038.

The Big Event: King Dick (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

For those of you who don't know, Elvis Pressley walked up to the White House one day and asked to see President Richard M. Nixon.  More, he was (eventually) let in to meet the President in the Oval Office, to have some photos taken.  "Tricky Dick" it turned was something of a fan, and gladly granted the "King's" request for a Federal Drug Enforcement badge.

To add to his collection, he said.

Yeah okay.  Whatever.  From this little known snippet of history, Christian Levantino (who wrote, directed and plays Elvis) wove together an ever escalating political farce.  Honestly, there were times I had trouble breathing.  Every single word, it seemed, as well as every action seemed to spiral more and more into a delicious craziness.  Fairly early on, it doesn't even surprise when the very drug-addled Elvis starts to have a long debate with his long-dead twin Jesse (Darrett Sanders).  From there the machinations of minor White House aides (Derek Manson and Andy Hirsch)  over whether to let Elvis in, why, whether to tell the President about Daniel Ellsberg and what will soon be called The Pentagon Papers, up to and including Nixon's reaction to learning Elvis wrote him a letter, then beyond.  Honestly, it made for a surreal snowball of ever-faster and ever-larger absurdity that kept me roaring with laughter.

Turns out the two of them have lots in common, other than a nickname and world fame.  Both have exactly two aides who appear on stage (Patrick Flanagan and Keith Stevenson  like everyone else giving top notch performances) for example.  Both have trouble relationships with their wives and daughters.  Both are fairly conservative politically, and of course both prove deeply paranoid.

It does turn out a coincidence both of them are high as kites during the actual meeting.  Jeff Doba as Nixon I really want to highlight as someone who avoids caricature in his performance--ironic, because the play remains a farce and pretty much everything in it is indeed caricature.

Honestly, I have nothing but praise for this wild glimpse of a bygone political era that sometimes seemed a kind of Cloud Cuckoo Land at the time--and now seems relatively normal.  But this play captures the dark zaniness which allows us to look at the horrible, the insane, the dangerous and dangerously self-rightous with guffaws of laughter.  Otherwise we might cry.

Quick note:  The almost silent role of the White House photographer added to it all with a fine performance from Spencer Cantrell.

King Dick plays Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 5:30pm until December 9, 2018 at the Flight Theatre, part of the Complex at 6476 Santa Monica Blvd. Hollywood CA 90038.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Skypilot One Act Festival (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

One nice advantage of attending the Panel of Critics for Better Lemons proved meeting more people in theatre!  And they invite me to shows!

The Skypilot Theatre ended up a case in point.  Their One Act Festival 2018 just opened and they very kindly gave me a ticket to attend!

Now, these days "one act" often is short hand for "ten minute plays" and this is no exception.  Their festival including a playwriting contest, asking for works inspired by three hashtags:  #Black Lives Matter  #March For Our Lives and #Me Too.

I attended Series A of their festival, consisting of three small plays:

Class Reunion blended comedy and pathos with a genuine punch in the gut.  Regular readers will probably realize that is compliment coming out of this keyboard.  Playwright Tom Misuraca crafted his tale around the stuff of cheap but very human laughs--a class reunion.  How have people changed, how do they feel about that change, why do they come here anyway i.e. what are they looking for, etc.  Gina (Kelly Goodman) shows up overweight and acutely self-conscious, getting a series of surprises as her classmates show up:  Alyssa (Patricia Mizen) who was a bit of bitch in high school but has grown up out of it.  Alex (Terry Woodberry) has aged gracefully amid success and happiness, while Gina's ex Martin (Jono Eiland) is no less good looking but has proven to be a very fine man in many ways.  Initially we think all this a bit of humor at Gina's expense.  Until they start discussing their classmates who died.  Start remember the day.  When the gunman came.  When lives were taken, destroying whole futures. 

I really like how this playlet was set up, but it heightens the problem I have with ten minute plays.  This is too short.  tI deserves more time.  The situation and characters seem to demand an hour or so at least to really explore what Misuraca created.  I hope very much he expands it, because this is an extremely promising beginning.  Hopefully someone will give him the chance and produce this as a longer work.  The cast and director (Margaret Starbuck) can come back and knock my socks off, instead of teasing me with this flower begging to become a garden.

The Assault(s) by Marilyn Barner Anselmi on the other hand is only a seed, one that could become tree or small forest but only a seed for now.  Right now, it is little more than a situation, with a few very good lines exchanged between three almost-characters.  The cast and director (Kristina Lloyd) did all the could but they had to fill all the missing pieces by themselves.  Tonya (Marissa Kimble)  lets herself be dragged by her friend into a painful, even humiliating task that needs doing for oh so many, many reasons.  Shel (Elizabeth Clary) pretty much understands that, at least in her hyper and over-talkative way.  Mrs. Withers (Taylor Hawthorne) listens, persuades, even cajoles in an effort to get Tanya to tell her story--which as one might have figured out by now involves sexual assault.

Yet we have almost no specifics here.  A few very tiny clues, but for example why are Tonay and Shel even friends?  No idea.  Likewise almost everything I understand about Mrs. Withers came through the actor--which did not prove enough.  I criticize not the cast, not at all.  In fact they impressed me with how much they brought to the table!  But this is not a play.  It is a seed of a potentially very powerful play, a story akin to Ibsen.  I really hope Anselmi writes it.

This is Not a Drill isn't really a "play" either so much as a reader's theatre.  Clearly intended not to ask questions but to scream answers we should already know but aren't giving near enough weight, writer Nick Freedson accomplished just that.  He seems to want to stir up indignation, to inspire and hopefully enrage.  Kudos to him.  The cast--Sof Puchley, Sri Chilukuri, Marissa Kimble, Emma Pasarow, and Alyssa Marie Klein--demonstrate the energy and intense passions of youth.  Well, they are playing people very young--the victims and shooter in a school massacre, as well as the single survivor.  While I think this might make a good play, what it is instead works well, certainly as a piece of theatre intended to wave a flag, march in protest, yell truths we should already know. As I write this, another mass shooting took place here in the greater Los Angeles area.  Yeah, this works.  It says something loud, clear, and full of human need, calling upon us to obey that human need.  So--good on them all.  Well done.

Skypilot One Act Festival 2018 Series A plays Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm until November 18, 2018 at Oh My Ribs Theater, 6468 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90038.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man (review)

Spoilers ahoy! 

You may or may not be familiar with the science fiction author James Tiptree Jr., but "he" was a trailblazer in many ways, helping forge the genre into something both exciting and very adult.  Via a plethora of short stories and a few novels Tiptree dealt with issues, often fundamental and disturbing ones, asking questions to which no easy answers seemed available.  But a lot of the furor of Tiptree's life focused on the fact everyone knew this was a pseudonym.  Eventually a startling truth emerged, i.e. James Tiptree Jr.'s true identity.

He was a woman.

Credit: Mauricio Gomez
Alice Bradley Sheldon, the "real" Tiptree, emerges as the subject of The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man, a musical taking place in her mind--blending memories and dreams, impressions and ideas to create if not necessarily coherent nevertheless a compelling and deeply informative whole.

Mesmerizing in fact.  Maureen Huskey's (who both wrote and directed) show eschews any mere recitation of facts in favor of exploring Sheldon's psychological life.  How many wild, wonderful details (like donning ruby slippers at one point--or the tangled ropes/threads forever present and forever used by the characters in so many inventive ways) are in the script versus created by the production never becomes clear.  Nor frankly does it ever matter.

We meet Alice as an adult (Betsy Moore) , a child (Isabella Ramacciotti) and a young adult (Paula Rebelo)--with the first looking back, all the way to her Africa-exploring mother Mary Bradley (Anneliese Euler) who had such specific expectations of her brilliant offspring.  Expectations Alice more-or-less reluctantly met, partially in an effort to simply be brave.  A recurrent theme in both life and writing, this.  Life forever seemed hard, complex, in many ways baffling.  How glorious, that her mother seemed strong enough to simply go forward and conquer!  Alice took a more baroque path.

Credit: Son of Semele
Rising to a WAC Major in WW2, she seemed to seek out danger and meaning as much as any kind of duty.  Although clearly sexually interested in--and quite capable of attracting, if not keeping--women (Emma Zakes Green, Ashley Steed), she fell in love suddenly with a much older male officer named Sheldon but whom she dubbed "Ting" (Alex Wells).

All of that, though, remains (very interesting) biography in terms of events and dates.  The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man focuses on the internal difficulty Alice suffered living in a universe stunningly beautiful, baffling and all too often petty.  Eventually as she begins writing science fiction, she creates that alter ego James Tiptree Jr. (James Ferrero) , a dashing and hyper-masculine entity with whom she can create stories bubbling in her mind.  Traveling all along this journey, though, like Virgil with Dante in The Divine Comedy, is an alien female presence, a character from her last work, Mira (Megan Rippey).  Part muse, part inner self, maybe the anima to James' animus, all of these and none, Mira leads Alice on a trip towards understanding herself.  Not everything, of course, but the essence.

Credit: Mauricio Gomez
In this kind of dreamscape, one doesn't have to justify the songs characters break out into, not at all.  They emerge as naturally as a tune one remembers for no immediately obvious reason.  Yet to call it stream of consciousness doesn't really work.  Here is a story with direction, purpose, even a target which may shift but the show's aim remains true--and that target is the also the hero.  Or heroes, since we have three, all of them the same person.

But then, so are at least two other characters.  All five, Alice aka James aka Mira aka Alice again and more yet to be?    Maybe.

The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man plays Tuesdays at 7pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until November 18, 2018 at Son of Semele, 3301 Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90004.



Thursday, November 1, 2018

Plays I Want to See - Nov. 2018

Some very nice folks suggested I start publishing lists of plays, shows I have not seen in Los Angeles but would very much like to.  Will encourage my fellow reviewers to do the same!

Equus, arguably the first bit "hit" by the late Peter Shaffer, most famous done a few years back in the West End and Broadway with Daniel Radcliffe in the role of the deeply disturbed Alan Strang.  A fantastic role for a young man, and an equally wonderful one for an older man.  The supporting roles likewise are good ones, which is pretty much a hallmark of Shaffer's work.  People are real, even as some of them are the most articulate.

The Sign in Sydney Brustein's Window was the last work by the great Lorraine Hansberry.  Deeply controversial when it premiered in the 1960s (she was accused of hating Blacks and Gays--a charge that seems utterly absurd now), it is a portrait of those who try to do the right thing amid their own weaknesses, their own limits, their own errors.  It is a tale of grave human frailty and utterly transcendent courage in the face of despair.