Sunday, February 17, 2019

Airport Encounters: Brace for Impact! (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I'm not usually a huge fan of what I call "very short plays" i.e. about ten minutes long.  This stems from my experience that they usually don't feel finished.  However, the most successful of these tend to be imaginative, fun skits with equal parts humor and compassion.  Which turns out an excellent description of Neo Ensenble Theatre's Airport Encounters: Brace for Impact!

Another 'trick' to make a collection of these work is having a similar theme or element.  In this case, every single story takes place in the waiting room of an airport.

Ordained by Mark Harvey Levine and directed by June Carryl follows a totally bizarre but ultimately heart-warming encounter between two strangers (Tracy Winters, Jerry Weil) accosted by a young woman (Starina Johnson) who insists they must get married because she is freshly ordained.  Is she just stark raving looney tune?  Or maybe, just maybe an angel?  No way to tell.

I Wish You Had Never Been Born by Scott Mullen, directed by David Bickford proves a wacky coming of age story involving time travel.  A young woman in bizarre clothes (Jennifer Cheung) approaches a lady on her way to Los Angeles (Julie Lippert), begging her not to get on the plane.  She claims to be from the future, and ultimately turns out just wants the lady never to meet her husband to be and thus give birth to the young woman's ex-boyfriend (Jason Paul Evans).

Three Syllables of Shame by Ronn Watson and directed by Richard Pierce seems vastly normal by comparison, less zany but quite moving.  A couple (Spenser Kramber, Sheila Daly) deal with their fears and hopes and random thoughts of becoming parents while trying to come up with terrible, awful names for their future child. 

His Name is Henry by Jessica June Rowe and directed by Matthew Singletary makes for delightful slight of weird life in which someone insists on taking on board a wooden duck who, she claims, is her support animal.  All the characters (well, save Henry himself...itself?) end up vividly alive on stage and was a delight to behold.  Cast consists of Jerrfy Weil, Valerie Gould, Tracy Elliott and Joan Kubicek.

Till Death Do Us Part by Elayn Heilveil and directed by Valerie Gould, is an almost classical romantic farce transformed into a haiku.  A married couple (Connie Monroe, Jason Paul Evans) fresh from the actual wedding are having a fight amid what has turned out to be an even more than dramatic series of events than one would expect.  They are hilarious and very human, while the man who ends up (literally) in the middle of all this (David St. James) after awhile understands what is going on.  So do we, by the end.

My Cellphone Says You're My Soulmate by Scott Mullen, directed by Matthew Singletary okay was a tiny bit predictable by this time in the evening.  A young man has programmed his cellphone to find his soulmate, approaches a young woman in the airport insisting it must be she--although ultimately both suspect maybe the phone means her sister?  So does the sister when she comes back from getting something.  At least at first.

Ninjas by Scott Mullen and directed by Lauren Smerkanich explores an interesting case of a two stalkers who fall in love in high school then finally connect again at their high school reunion.  Which is fairly disturbing in some ways but darkly sweet in others.  Starina Johnson and Tracy Elliott portray the night vision goggle-crossed lovers.

Charlie by Beth Polsky and directed by Joe Ochman proved my favorite (although honestly, they were all very entertaining).  The title character (Anthony Marquez) is a humanoid robot invented by a scientist (David St. James) en route to a robotics conference.  Turns out Charlie has been reprogramming himself to better obey his primary mission, to take care of David.  Who drinks much too much.  And who needs a girlfriend.  Sure enough we soon run across Marcy (Abby Kammeraad-Campbell), another robot with her inventor Violet (Valerie Gould).  What follows is equal parts silly, even ridiculous, but very funny and liberally slathered with kismet.

Airport Encounters: Brace For Impact!  plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm until February 23, 2019 at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd (west of Vine), Hollywood CA 90038.

Two Trains Running (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

For those who don't know, the late playwright August Wilson (his most famous work is probably Fences) created a "century cycle" (also called the "Pittsburgh Cycle") of plays chronicling the African American experience in the 20th century decade by decade.  Two Trains Running takes place in the late 1960s, in a Pittsburgh diner where a group of characters work and/or gather.  More, the diner itself lies in the Hill District, once a flourishing neighborhood, now run-down and in a state of decay.

Yet this remains a time when things are changing.  Segregation had not only been banned by the Supreme Court but was in the process of actually happening.  The Freedom Riders had forced a sometimes violent change, some of them becoming martyrs in the process.  Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. had risen, then fallen.

For the characters, though, they remember and live by both the world of the past and that of the present.  Simultaneously in two states of mind, history and (perhaps most importantly) hope.

Therein lies all the tension and plot of the play, not in one specific character arc.  Sure, Memphis (Montae Russell) seeks to hold on to his property, not parting with it until he gets the price he feels fair--and in that grim, fierce determination we see the anger and humiliation of half a lifetime.  Yeah Sterling (Dorian Missick) is looking for some kind of work, some purpose, some focus in his young life.  True, West (Alex Morris) wants to get a good deal, trying to buy the diner property from Memphis and probably feels he's being generous.

But it really feels like the play has a lot more to do with the so-called secondary characters, starting with Risa (Nija Okoro) who tries to endure and get by in a world that inspires equal and vast amounts of sympathy as well as distrust.  Then there's Holloway (Adolphus Ward) who keeps trying to get other characters to go see a mysterious elderly woman he says is centuries old yet has answers for those willing to play her price--which is to throw twenty dollars into the river.  He succeeds in getting some to do it, and the two who do arguably begin to have some positive changes in their lives.  Wolf (Terrell Tilford) just tries to have a good life as part of a corrupt system, and then just wants to survive when that system bites one of his customers, a customer who doesn't want to take anything lying down.

Yet most important, certainly most poignant, must be Hambone (Ellis E. Williams), a damaged old man still seeking a ham promised him by a local grocer a decade earlier for painting the man's fence.  "I want my ham," is his refrain, said over and over again--echoing characters like Gollum in Lord of the Rings or Dracula's Renfield, the pathetic and broken person who holds on amid injustice, a ruthless world, and mental fog to one specific sliver of hope.  He wants his ham.  He earned it.

I must point out one of my favorite moments, when Halloway says maybe Hambone is the wiser than the rest.  After all, when offered a chicken instead most of us would take it, right?  But that chicken would taste bitter.  That chicken and every piece of chicken for the rest of days.

Maybe he is right.  Maybe wiser.  And maybe mad.  Because hope can be seen as mad in this world.  Yet without it, without that surrender to hope, how else can the world change?  Even a little bit?

When I look at this play, that is what I come away with.  Hope in all its terrible sweetness, a siren voice which brings disappointment even heartbreak, yet not always.  As addictive as a drug, save this drug sometimes turns out to be medicine.  Actually, that was what drugs were invented as, right?  At play's end, I myself feel so much hope for all these people--and most of all maybe for Risa, whose backstory we never learn yet by the power of words and performance and staging we feel as wildly real.

Two Trains Running plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm as well as Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm through March 3, 2019 at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue (between Fairfax and LeBrea) LA CA 90046.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Too Heavy for Your Pocket (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Brief history lesson.  Well, mini-lesson.

Theatre emerged from religion.  In Ancient Greece especially it arose enshrined around worship of the gods, around what we these days call "myth" but in later centuries dubbed "religious stories."  As far as Europe and its colonies go, what we think of as theatre started as morality plays and re-enactments of stories from the Bible or of various saints.  While some might call that an entertaining way of spreading basic theology, more fundamentally it worked as a version of the Sermon on the Mount, of the parables told by Jesus, of making stories "come alive" in the same way the sacrament is recreating the Last Supper.

So theatre was and remains a temple, a church, some kind of holy ground.

Walking into the theatre to see Too Heavy for Your Pocket by Jireh Breon Holder felt very much like entering a church of some different but vaguely familiar denomination.  With the audience on three sides, viewing what appeared to be a rural kitchen complete with dirt floor, I sat in the dark waiting for a ceremony to begin, a ritual showing some truth.

I got exactly that.

Credit:   Matt Kamimura
Four people.  Two men.  Two women.  In rural Tennessee sometime in the 1960s, when the Freedom Riders stood up and walked and traveled to demand the justice which American law promised yet so very rarely delivered.  Bozie (Derek Jackson) is a very bright young man, married to the fierce and passionate Evelyn (Jaquita Ta'le).  Their best friends, whose kitchen we see, are Tony (Shane Liburd) and his wife Sally (Kacie Rogers).  In many ways their story is that of any four people with individual issues, past mistakes and future ones, with shared hopes as well as fears, plus unshared ones that lead to conflict.

But like all really fine drama, their story also proves deeply specific, individual, unique--yet we recognize those stories.  Hence the paradox of myth and faith.

Credit:   Matt Kamimura
Bozie, who seems our hero, clearly plays the role of clown, and his friends enjoy it.  Truth to tell, they all have wonderful senses of humor.  Yet there's an edge, one we see first in Bozie.  Even as they celebrate his acceptance into college, he has a brief explosion of rage amid his own pride.  What lies behind it?

More, what lies behind that same rage that one by one they all begin to show.  Something deeper than mere poverty, or life's usual struggles.  Tony has been unfaithful to his wife but turned himself around.  Evelyn still feels the searing loss of a pregnancy that ended in a still birth.  Sally holds onto her faith as if it were a life preserver, and after a time it becomes clear she's been clutching at it for a long, long time.

Everything erupts when Bozie mades a decision, one his friends think irresponsible to the point of madness.  He decides to join the Freedom Riders.  Education it seems has made him feel the bite of prejudice all the more sharply, not least seeing the alien world of college.

Credit:   Matt Kamimura
In that place, he gazes upon himself, and wants more that an adequate, even successful and happy life.  He wants his life to mean something. 

His struggle is secular, but to me he seemed to be called.  Little wonder his family and friends fear for him.  Is this not the way of the martyr?  Of the human sacrifice, walking into the lion's den? 

Evelyn more than any other feels betrayed, refusing to speak with her husband or even reveal she is again pregnant.  She will not answer the phone lest it be him.  Events prove her fears justified, as Bozie ends up in jail, tortured and abused.  Fallout from his leaving continues, not least as Evelyn seeks to deal with her terror and feelings of desertion.  Sally tries to support her, while dealing with a husband who is definitely keeping secrets from his wife, then offering some emotional support for Bozie who writes to her just to have someone to talk to--and of course Evelyn jumps to the wrong conclusion when she finds out.

Credit:   Matt Kamimura
But what I notice, the more I think on the play, was how increasingly that rural kitchen become other locations from the start of the play.  It begins itself, then becomes a bus, a prison, a nightclub, even an outdoor privy and eventually what I think might be some woods.  Each of the four are pushed and pushed and pushed.  No one thing is too hard.  Every single person seems a good person, one trying to do what they can.

Yet the world is bigger than them.  And it demands too much sometimes.  It demands far too much as it happens.  Which is why maybe some are called as Bozie was--and some do become martyrs to the cause.

For the record, Bozie does not.  He is willing in the end, but does not have to.  Someone else becomes a martyr, someone who bore even more.  After all, Bozie fought back.  Others were able to do...well, something.  But Sally, she endured more than life should be.  Because what breaks her is not even her husband's foolish secret-keeping, or Evelyn's pain-driven pride.  It is the lack of dignity.  That whittles you down.  Weighs you down.  Life has enough burdens already, is hard enough.

Sometimes it becomes too heavy, though.  That is the ultimate, most piercing and intimate thing about things like racism of all stripes in all of its ugly-to-behold forms.  It just gets too heavy for a human soul.

That is what makes theatre sacred.  This cast, this writer, this director (Michael A. Shepperd) get that.  Not only truth, but truth than uncovers the soul of the individual, which makes us recognize ourselves in someone else.

Too Heavy For Your Pocket plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until March 2, 2019 at the Broadwater Black Box, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd (west of Vine), Hollywood CA 90038.

Friday, February 1, 2019

The P.O.W. and the Girl (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Honestly this title made me think of a story.  Some German or Italian POW in the United States who gets to know some local girl, "girl" as in under 21 years old or maybe under 18, and some kind of experience they share together, an insight into the nature of the world.

I got nearly all of that wrong.

The P.O.W. and the Girl in fact proved a semi-autobiographical tale by playwright Katrina Wood about her relationship with her grandfather, who had been a Japanese POW.  To be sure (she told me in a chat after the show) events are not simply a recreation of exactly what happened.  But there's a lot there almost word for word.

The Girl is Sarah (Samantha Mallory) of the title is going to school in London, hoping to become a paramedic and living with her Grandfather Johnny (Chas Mitchell) who can seen as...well irascible.  Or a mean old coot who snarls at people and complains pretty much without stop.  He puts down his granddaughter, sneers at pretty much everything she says or does, but in flashbacks (both theatrical and psychological) some of what he endured comes out.  Clearly the man still has PTSD, which only began to be truly understood around the period of the play, the 1980s.

Credit:  Mick Wood
Sarah frankly feels trapped in her life, trying to make it out alive, seeing herself a prisoner.  One of many little ironies scattered throughout.  Later she meets Paul (Adrian Burke), a young man of similar tastes and with a kind-hearted streak.  Each, it proves, feels exactly the same way about their own lives.  Trapped.  Imprisoned.   Subject to the issues of a parental figure who doesn't seem to care.

Knowing but not knowing this, sensing it without realizing anything, maybe that is why they find each other.

Now there's a lot good to say about this play and its production.  The bottom line is that I felt moved by events portrayed.  The central characters--Sarah, Johnny and Paul--ultimately grabbed my attention and sympathy.  Rather than wishing them well in the abstract, I genuinely wanted the best for them.  For healing.  For happiness.  For peace and hope. 

Credit:  Mick Wood
I have some issues here and there.  The start (this is so often a problem) offers context but does not compel.  That come later.  Johnny's years as a POW aren't really explored much, so seem out of balance with the quiet, relentless agony felt by Sarah.  Supporting characters in the play hardly seem to exist save as cardboard cutouts--played by Lucas Helmersson, Jeffrey Gibson, and Natalia Bilbao (who does a lot with very little).

But what stands out remains my emotional reaction.  I'm too jaded to be satisfied by a play that goes through the motions or performances that don't ultimately feel like human beings talking, reacting, deciding.  Sarah, Paul and Johnny ended up a trio who touched my heart.  What happens with, to and by them by play's end feels achieved.  More it reminds us there's more to life than tragedy or regret, even if we are very lucky not to end up with lots of both. 

The P.O.W. and the Girl plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 5pm until February 16, 2019 at the Sherry Theatre 11052 Magnolia Blvd (west of Lankershim) North Hollywood CA 91601.