Thursday, June 13, 2019

Saving Cain (Fringe Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

What this show, written by Aaron Kozak, offers proves very compelling indeed.  No less important, it surprises.  Saving Cain was described to me as the story of a rebellious teenager trying to deal with his born-again Pentecostal control-freak of a mother.  I expected one of two things:  Either a dark comedy or a polemic against a certain brand (at least) of Fundamentalist Christianity.  Maybe both.

I got something a lot better.  The pair of mother (Leah Verrill) and son (Lenny Hernandez) play out a story that kept setting up plot formulas that then veered away into something more real.  And by real I often mean more touching, profound, and compelling.  For one thing, that boy is worse than sarcastic.  Not a bad kid, far from cruel for example, but one who's reacted poorly to his mother's smothering presence.  Well, he's a kid.  No doubt he started all this when a child.  We none of us make perfect choices then.  Remember that.

For another, his Mom is not quite as rigid as one might think.  She has a very narrow lens through which she views life, but for example she shows over and over again her love of her child is so very real.  More, while she overreacts way too much, she also shows genuine kindness.

Loneliness too.

But more importantly the trajectory of the story remains focused on her, and after a time we see the raw pain with which she lives every single day.  Saving her son when his life spirals into something horrible (no, really--this is bad) become a mountain she cannot climb yet never does she give up.  She even begins revealing some of the source of her pain, and how she acts in revealing that, then doing whatever she can (and some things you'd think she cannot) she earns our deep respect.  Earns it.  Even as she gives up control, forgives herself a little, opens up her heart with all the terrible potential for suffering that almost immediately comes true.  But then, the potential for joy remains.  And stays.   One of many ways the ending and the whole show startled me.

This is really good stuff.  It has a flaw though, one I see a lot of to be honest.   It isn't really a stage play.  It feels and seems structured more like a movie.  Tiny scenes with constantly shifting scenery, a cast of what feels like hundreds (covered with doubling and careful suggestion of others present), even the use of subtitles.  I don't believe for one second the story itself need be a film (although it would make a good one--just as it could be a very fine novel).  But this format was that of a film rather than a play.  Which I see again and again.

Saving Cain plays Saturday June 15 2019, 2:00 PM, Sunday June 16 2019, 4:00 PM, Saturday June 22 2019, 4:00 PM, Sunday June 23 2019, 8:30 PM, Saturday June 29 2019, 4:00 PM, and Sunday June 30 2019, 3:00 PM at the Hudson Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood CA .

Out of the Blue (Fringe Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Aging seems mundane as dramas go, especially among those who lead otherwise good lives.  Making such entertaining and genuinely moving presents something of a challenge, one met by Peter Massey in Out of the Blue with a deceptively easy skill.

Part of the charm of this show is the performer, who combines several qualities that watching and listening to him pleasurable.  Massey has an expressive voice, a limber and expressive form, and clearly understands precisely what he's saying (this is a startlingly major problem with most uneven performances).  The slideshows projected onto the wall behind him punctuate events and ponderings, and the scattering of basic furniture (painted with a lovely--and appropriate--night sky pattern) all add up into an artistic whole.  No really, not a wrong note anywhere. 

What we the audience receive therefore, amid his description of emotional tremors amid events as well as a growing awareness of his own changing physical state with time, becomes a meditation.  A meditation blended with memories, not merely of events but also of how these have shaped an emotional life.  Such so often is left unexamined, relegated into the categories of "unimportant" or "already understood with nothing more to learn."  Which one tends to cause more damage remains a matter of opinion.  I suppose it depends on context. 

In the end (of this show, anyway) I stood up and left the theatre feeling someone good and smart had shared a very personal story to which I could all-too-easily related.  He'd shared his pain, and I found it mirrored my own.  He shared likewise a source of healing, which I truly feel may prove helpful as my own body and faculties decay.  It felt like having a profound conversation with a friend.

Out of the Blue plays Sunday June 16 2019, 2:00 PM, Friday June 21 2019, 8:30 PM, Sunday June 23 2019, 6:00 PM, Thursday June 27 2019, 8:30 PM, and Saturday June 29 2019, 4:00 PM at the Valentini Theatre of the LGBT Center, 1125 North McCadden Place (between Lexington and Santa Monica Blvd), Hollywood CA.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Klingon Tamburlaine (Fringe Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

If a Klingon Theatre troupe were to start performing classical works from Earth literature, then Christopher Marlowe's Tammerlane makes for an excellent choice!  Hence School of Night (a very good production company) decided to go with this idea!

And it works!  Make no mistake!  Klingon Tamburlaine tells the story of one of the most notoriously cruel (and successful) warlords in history.  Putting everyone in Klingon gear, changing a few names here and here, adopting the stereotypical stance of Star Trek's Mongol Viking Samurai aliens makes for a fun piece of theatre!  The cast (many of whom I've seen in other plays, all showing not only talent but energy and gusto with the idea) do a great job with their roles.  My personal favorite were all the starship battles done Kabuki style, people in black moving models against a black backdrop.  I laughed out loud!

Yeah, but honestly I don't like the play.  It comes across as a blend of bombastic action flick coupled with torture porn sprinkled with the attitude of professional wrestling.  Not my cup of tea.  Were I not such a Trekkie (getting all the many "in jokes" for example) this would have been a chore to watch.  But because I am, and did, it was lots of fun to sit there and take in the spectacle.

Klingon Tamburlaine plays Friday June 14 2019, 10:30 PM, Sunday June 16 2019, 6:00 PM, Friday June 21 2019, 8:30 PM, Saturday June 22 2019, 4:00 PM, Sunday June 23 2019, 4:00 PM, Thursday June 27 2019, 8:30 PM, and Saturday June 29 2019, 4:00 PM at the Ruby Theatre of the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood CA.

Love, Madness, and Somewhere In Between (Fringe Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This will prove a very mixed review, just saying that up front.

On the one hand, Love, Madness and Somewhere In Between deals with a subject of great power.  James J. Cox explores a life which for big chunks of it counts as a train wreck--one in which he proved a fundamental victim trying his best (often very badly) to deal with a series of childhood traumas.  He dives into a bottle of Jack Daniels for decades, struggling out of it at times only to fall back when confronted by yet another trauma (because life always hurts--otherwise how could it also feel good?).  This makes for a solo play about a truly pure form of heroism.  Because he emerges from the darkness, defeating the monsters of his memories and his own worst tendencies.  No small feat.  In many ways, a glorious achievement.

But technically the show is something of a mess.

Cox gets full kudos for what is most important in this performance.  He delivers truth, the hard kind, the brutal pain inflicted on a child from many directions.  He disassociates at first, telling the story of his best friend in school, this kid named Jimmy.  Jimmy whose father drank and in alcohol fueled rage turned a home into a chamber of horrors.  Not the worst kind of horrors, to be sure.  That came later.  But Jimmy--lonely and vulnerable--proved the perfect prey for a pedophile wearing a priest's collar.  Just as James, later an officer in the US Navy, remained vulnerable enough to be haunted all his days when a friend burned to death on another ship.  Life, as I said, hurts.  And if it hurts too much too soon, healing proves challenging in ways worthy of nightmare.

That this grown-up child eventually faces his demons and defeats them is the stuff of some great drama.  I left the theatre profoundly moved.

But--to be honest, it took me awhile to get there.  At first, I cringed at someone talking to the audience telling really bad jokes.  Random scenes that took strangely long times to set up (for no good reason I could see).  The truly odd lighting choices including someone coming up or near to the stage to aim a flashlight on Cox.   It got in the way.  I found myself wishing for more simplicity, for the simple fact of this man telling/enacting his story.  Maybe with a little more careful editing.  A little bit.

Honestly, the...well, odd...production got in the way of a powerful story.  But the story arrived, and I felt its arrival in my bones.

Love, Madness and Somewhere In Between plays Friday June 14 2019, 8:30 PM, Saturday June 15 2019, 8:30 PM, Friday June 21 2019, 8:30 PM, Saturday June 22 2019, 8:30 PM, and Sunday June 23 2019, 4:30 PM at the Hudson Theatre Guild, 6539 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood CA.

The Grail Project (Fringe Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Up until seeing this show, The Grail Project, I had only seen one piece of theatre dealing with the legends of King Arthur that seemed actually "good."  Now I have seen two!

I had never also heard of this specific troupe/ensemble, the Theatre Movement Bazaar, aptly named and based on this show at least belonging in those theatrical troupes I follow eagerly!

Written by Richard Alger, directed by Tina Kronis, this show re-invents/de-constructs the tale of Camelot and the Quest for the Holy Grail through about a dozen different lenses, each complementary as well as delightful.  Folk music, elaborate dance/movement pieces, corporate planning sessions, feminist conspiracies--all fodder in a roller coaster of intertwined plotlines and character arcs.  Imagine Game of Thrones level of complexity but with a light touch (and less incest--which is to say, some but not a lot).

Having sadly lost my program, I cannot easily call out each individual cast member, but the truth is--they all were stand-outs, all gave it their all in a finely crafted whirlwind of movement, song, scenes and speeches.  The best praise I can offer is that I never once stopped feeling delighted surprise, while never once feeling anything was out of place.  Never even once. 

So far (as of June 12, 2012) this is one of my two faves at this year's Fringe.  The other is Orangutan.

The Grail Project plays Friday June 14 2019, 11:55 PM and Saturday June 15 2019, 11:55 PM at The Broadwater Main Stage 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood CA.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Orangutan (Fringe Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Imagine a fascinating nightmare--one of those fundamentally disturbing ones that blends all kinds of things in a weird brew of elements that somehow make kind of bizarre logic.  Now suppose a nightmare more-or-less fostered by the challenge comedian Bill Mahr put out for Donald Trump to prove he was not the son of an orangutan.

Now imagine someone staging that nightmare.  You now have Orangutan by Troy Deutsch.  The whole thing takes the form of a monologue by Trump's mother (Kristina Mueller), recounting a weird upside-down history of alternate timelines and supernatural intervention in which the woman gets a glimpse of what her child will be/become.  I ended up fascinated, horrified, amused, and often just challenged as my brain tried to wrap itself around what was happening.  In the end I stopped trying. Well, no, actually fairly early on.  Like a dream, I accepted it and took from it as such.

Make no mistake Mueller's performance riveted me, to the point where I cannot really know how much to credit director Tinks Lovelace.  This degree of intuitive precision hints of a powerful collaborative process.  Along those lines I several times thought the performance was nearing its end, only to find a new chapter open up with still more disturbing insights/images.  The play even ends with the mother describing to her son how she came to be impregnated by an orangutan.  Her smile during all this still makes me shudder.  Just as other moments made me almost weep.

Orangutan plays Wednesday June 19 2019, 10:30 PM, Friday June 21 2019, 10:00 PM, Sunday June 23 2019, 12:30 PM, Thursday June 27 2019, 9:30 PM, and Sunday June 30 2019, 12:00 PM at the Broadwater Black Box Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd. Hollywood CA.

Tranference (Fringe Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I do love a dose of the paranormal or mystical or science fiction to throw life into sharp relief.  Transference by Jim Blanchette proves to be exactly that.  A teacher named Jessica (Lisa K. Watt) attends a therapy session, this time trying to use hypnosis to cure her smoking.  Her therapist Dr. Herbert (Esther Mira) tries to reassure her, calming the nervous woman down.  Eventually she does hypnotize her and BOOM!  Jessica remembers all her past lives.  All of them.  And in every single one, she and Dr. Herbert loved each other deeply. 

But they also ended up murdered.

Now this makes for a lovely premise, and the script does very well with it.  Watching and listening as Jessica tries to persuade Dr. Herbert they are soul mates proves hilarious as well as fascinating.  Not guffaw hilarious but constant giggles and smiles on many levels.  It also nicely transitions into more than simple recognition and/or acceptance.  After all, the heart is rarely that simple and if it were--why would it end in murder so very, very many times?

I could wish for more time.  More like ninety minutes instead of around fifty.  But this is something of a real gem.  I am also a tiny bit puzzled about the end--but I suspect that is me.

Transference plays Friday June 14 2019, 5:30 PM, Thursday June 20 2019, 10:30 PM, Sunday June 23 2019, 7:30 PM, and Saturday June 29 2019 at the Broadwater Black Box Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood CA.

The Narcissist Next Door (Fringe Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Beyond doubt the cast of this play are all energetic, talented and possess genuine charm.  Director Susan Dalian shows skill at using a tiny space while maintaining the energy needed.

However, this script's very real potential needs work.  This is an early draft of what might well be an excellent comedy.  Right now, it wanders around the situation as well as the characters without diving very deeply into either.  Worse, it doesn't seem like a play at all, but more like a sitcom.  The same characters appear in nearly every scene, forcing the play to stop dead while costumes (and sets sometimes) change.  Its story does not really end either so much as stop.

Nothing wrong with the ingredients, so far as that goes.  Sebastian (Michael Nardelli) and Kate (Kincaid Walker) are best friends--well off white white people trying to make careers in the arts in LA.  The former's new neighbor Tony (Luca Malacrino) seems to be a godsend, helping them focus on things and thus will their dreams further into reality.  Only he turns out to be the Narcissist of the title, as becomes almost instantly obvious.

Putting on my Dramaturg's hat for a moment, I think the first two scenes are unneeded and the play should probably consist of their working vacation in Mexico.  Then make the whole thing full length to really explore what is there.  Frankly no one is fleshed out enough to make that much of an impact, nor is anyone other than Tony quite grotesque enough to form the centerpiece of some very arch satire (if that is what's intended--I do not know).

Be lovely to see a much later draft of this script, because frankly the potential in it and the writer seem genuine. 

The Narcissist Next Door plays Saturday June 15 2019, 8:15 PM, Sunday June 23 2019, 12:15 PM, Wednesday June 26 2019, 6:15 PM, and Saturday June 29 2019, 10:15 PM at the Complex (Dorie Theatre) 6476 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood CA.

Sex With Strangers (Fringe Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Two character plays with multiple scenes have a problem maintaining momentum.  Sex With Strangers by Laura Eason has a potential solution to this--simply, the costume and set changes are minimal, and initially non-existent.  More, the characters as written leave us not only interested in what happens next, our interest grows.  More than our interest, our investment because this play is no polemic but rather an exploration of an intense relationship--its birth and perhaps its end.  Certainly it counts as a journey between two writers who meet at a snowbound writer's retreat once winter.  Olivia (Melissa Center) is older, a teacher whose first novel's reception disappointed her so severely she now writes only for herself.  Ethan (Jake Ferree) is a blogger, tech savvy and ambitious, who in fact read Olivia's first book and adored it down to his soul.  They make a believable couple, but more importantly they make a compelling one.

It could have been so easy for this story to portray one or the other as the bad guy.  It doesn't.  Rather it shows how individual issues, decisions, fears, mistakes and even hopes make for a difficult brew.  Humans are like that.  Human connection is like that. 

What I most adore about this production, though, is how the story finishes not at an end, but rather at an unmade decision.  We don't know what will happen next.  We only know a choice will be made.  Not only do we not know what that choice will be, we cannot be sure which choice would be right.  Rather we, like the characters, are left to ponder that question for ourselves.

Sex With Strangers will play Thursday June 13 2019, 6:30 PM, Saturday June 22 2019, 7:00 PM, Wednesday June 26 2019, 12:00 PM, and Sunday June 30 2019, 11:00 AM at the Stephanie Fleury Studio, 5636 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles CA.

The Same Room (Fringe review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I've been telling friends that The Same Room is "No Exit but with a happy ending."  This usually inspires a laugh and the question "So heaven is other people?"  Well, yes.  So is hell.  Plus the full range of everything in between.  Two young women literally end up thrown (by who? or what?) into a room.  We and they pretty soon realize they are dead, outside of time and space as we understand it.  Nobody knows what happens next, but they must somehow handle it.  In this work, the two are anything but strangers--thus both hell and heaven.  Adding to to the tension is the nice touch that the lights above the locked doors where they entered change based on what they do or (maybe) feel.  Might they escape when the lights turn green instead of red?  Maybe.

Aspid (Sam Sheeks) and Thyma (Kelley Pierre) make up the bulk of this play.  Even the situation depends entirely on whether their lives feel genuine and they themselves make us care.  This is a challenge they and director Scott Golden meet.

What I must note, however, is that the play is too short.  At about fifty minutes, it (by necessity) ends up zooming through their emotional lives and processes.  It robbed the show of some power because while we get to know and like the two characters, we don't know them very well and have not had time to really invest in them.

The Same Room plays Wednesday June 19 2019, 6:00 PM, Saturday June 22 2019, 8:00 PM and Wednesday June 26 2019, 10:30 PM at the Broadwater Studio, 1078 Lillian Way, Hollywood CA (near Santa Monica and Vine).

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Exit The King (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

City Garage in Santa Monica ends up pretty much every year on my "Top Dozen" list.  They specialize more than anything on what I call Theatre of Dream, that is, overtly non-naturalistic even non-linear works which work best (for many audience members) when thought of as actual dreams brought to life on stage.  In our television/movie saturated world (where realism makes for a powerful tool) theatre works best when harnessing the intuitive, the unconscious.  Or so it seems to me.

Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King easily falls into this category.  We find ourselves in a weird royal court, that of King Berenger (Troy Dunn) and his two queens Marguarite (Natasha St.Clair-Johnson) and Marie (Lindsay Plake).  This palace has precisely one servant, the overworked maid Juliette (Kat Johnston).  A Guard (David E. Frank) seems to be the whole military, while a Doctor (Anthony M. Sannazzaro) completes the royal staff.

We soon learn--or at least are told--the kingdom has decayed into shambles.  Population declining from billions to thousands, crops dying, the sun refusing to show its face--these seem the least of it.  Even time has slowed down.  Queen Marie weeps, full of foreboding what all this means.  Her fellow Queen is positive the process is coming to its natural conclusion, and the Doctor agrees.  Despite Marie's begging, when the King appears they brusquely inform his Majesty of his imminent death.  He will die, they tell him, in an hour and a half.  At the end of the show.  Yes they say precisely that.

And he naturally enough goes into denial!  He argues!  He insists he's in perfect health, except for a little stiffness in his back, and some difficulty getting into his throne, some more difficulty standing, even more not falling down, still more getting up again, and so on.

Some fairly obvious possible interpretations present themselves.  None, though, really satisfy.  Is the King all of us, facing our end with the members of the court representing aspects of human life--mind, desire, body, hands, etc?  Or might this play chronicle the collapse of a nation, bleeding out its essence as a nation loses its peoples, its institutions, its self-awareness?  Maybe the whole thing is nothing more than a kind of epic romantic triangle, of a mortal man's struggle between youth and life versus time and death?

All of the above.  None of them.  Both.  And more.

Because we are in the realm of dreams after all, with shifting identities and truths born out of perhaps not chaos but a pattern we don't really comprehend.  For example, the so-called five stages of grief turn into more like five dozen such stages--a fair number backtracked at sometimes dizzying speed.

Such a wild emotional roller coaster works, even amid the absurd details (like the claim this King is hundreds of years old and invented the wheel as well as the atomic bomb) because the cast under the direction of Frederique Michel breathes vivid life into what might easily have come across as utter chaos.  Every detail makes sense.  More, every details forms part of  a dynamic drama/comedy taking place.  From the Doctor's bizarre method of walking, Marguarite's empowered way of watching, listening, and waiting, the King's yo-yo style of ever increasing panic, even the Guard's barely-successful blowing of his trumpet--all are played to the hilt and given meaning in each moment.  We don't understand, yet we do.  We cannot say why it all makes a weird kind of sense, but it feels somehow cohesive amid the slippery nature of reality itself.

Not an easy task, but then Art rarely proves easy.  The better the art, the more effort and precision it takes. This production shows the results of massive effort and incredible precision, so much so we even go on a journey of feeling very differently about every single character from beginning to end.

Exit the King plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 4pm (pay what you can, at the door on Sundays) until July 14, 2019 at the City Garage, 2525 Michigan Avenue, Building T1, Santa Monica CA 90404 (right across from the Bergamont Expo Train Station).

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Bronco Billy: The Musical (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

A young orphan from a cold, unfeeling situation finds themselves an heir to a fortune, and thrust into a place full of strangers.  In this this orphan finds real friends for the first time, and eventually love, as they learn new things.  In the end, the orphan's new family saves the orphan's life, even as the orphan saves them.

No, this is not Harry Potter.  It turns out to be Bronco Billy: The Musical, based upon the movie which starred Clint Eastwood and his then-paramour Sandra Locke.  Perhaps you remember seeing the film when it came out?  Not a bad show, not at all.  But--in the form of a stage musical this story found its proper milieu.  The movie may have been fun, but the whole thing works so much better live, with song and dance, and without the kind of precise realism at which film achieves so well.

The story certainly fits into what we expect from most musicals.  Bronco Billy's Wild West Show is a traveling show in the American West during the late 1970s.  Something about that period feels right but not necessarily essential.  Members of the company are weary, since their dream is fading.  Everything is breaking down.  They cannot afford to fix things.  Nobody has been paid for months.  Then, a random meeting changes everything.

Credit: Ed Krieger
Antoinette Lilly (Amanda Leigh Jerry), heiress to a candy bar fortune now that her beloved father has died, came to Kansas to spread his ashes.  Along the way her sleazy husband John (Chris M. Kauffmann) tries ineptly to murder her.  He even blabs the truth--he is in cahoots with her stepmother Constance (Michelle Azar), because if Anoinette dies within 30 days the entire fortune goes to her instead.  The young woman decides she needs to disappear for a month, and as it happens Bronco Billy (Eric B. Anthony) is looking for an assistant in his act.  Kismet!  Karma!  Fate!  Call it what you will, amid this group of bohemians she at first sticks out like a sore thumb.  But then, she becomes part of them, enjoying her time, giving suggestions that improve the show.  Along the way, she finds a real home, a genuine family, and in the person of Bronco Billy himself, true love.

Credit: Ed Krieger
The songs pretty much make the themes and ideas of the show about as explicit as one can ask.  "Ride With Us" is a recurrent song, inviting the audience to come with the troupe and live their own dream.  "When Everything is Real" is an anthem of hope, of living without lies and trusting others, especially if you find someone to love who in turn loves you.  That Bronco Billy's troupe is full of people who've been hurt and down emphasize this.  Lasso Leonard James (Kyle Frattini) was trying to steal the troupe's truck when he joined the group.  Lefty (Randy Charleville) is a former bank robber, who met Billy when they were both is prison (the latter when his wife accused him of trying to kill her when he walked in on her adultery).  Doc (Benai Boyd) is a former nurse, who now walks with a cane, and who functions as the glue holding the troupe together.

So when you think on it, Antoinette really does fit it--the orphan who doesn't believe in herself, on the run from a so-called family who wants to kill her for money.

Credit: Ed Krieger
But more--and more than the good songs, the consistently fine performances, the clever staging, the general paraphernalia of the musical--it is how the hint we all belong here, we are all misfits looking for a home, for family, for love that gives this show its power.  Silly?  Maybe, compared to the most gritty of real world details.  But a joke works because you laugh, not because it works as some kind of journalistic history file.  A song lifts your heart not by proving as accurate as a math equation.  Just as a story can give comfort, nurture hope, bring a smile to a sad face, a tear to an eye that needs to cry. 

And that is what this show does.  It is fun.  It gives no vast insights into the ambiguity of the human condition (although I love stuff like that).  Rather it breathes on the embers of flames we sometimes need.

Bronco Billy: The Musical plays 8:30pm Fridays and Saturdays, 2:00pm Saturdays and Sundays through June 30, 2019 at the Skylight Theatre (at the end of the alley) 1816 ½ North Vermont
Los Angeles, CA. 90027 (right next to Skylight Books).