Saturday, July 6, 2019

Siren Call (Catch Up Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Realism in dramatic art began in theatre.  I genuinely believe it no longer really belongs there.  Movies and television can far more easily recreate a naturalistic place or time than can any theatrical production.  By the same token, I hold that fantasy naturally belongs to live theatre.  Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Dracula, etc. belong where the human imagination can be wielded with greater impact than any amount of CGI (no matter how well done).

Siren Call proves an example of precisely what I mean.

Written by Jola Cora, who joins Annalee Scott and Paul Louis Harrell on stage, this play posits what at first seems only a quirky bit of drama in some side shadow of Hollywood.  An actress/movie star wannabe feels hopeless and despondent, urging her sometimes boyfriend to help her see or somehow touch the movie star with whom she is obsessed just once before she gives up.  He agrees, knowing someone who knows said movie star's gardener.  While she is out, attending a premiere, they sneak into her home to feel what it is like to be there, to touch and experience a few drops of her life.

So imagine how they react when she walks in on them!  Walks in, does not panic or scream, but merely seems curious.  She insists she is not the movie star over whom they both one way or another obsess.  And they assume she's playing some game.

But what if she isn't?  What if she is not whom they think?  What if she is some one--or some thing--else?  This play does not go overboard in giving answers.  Rather it asks fascinating questions and gives hints--much as genuine encounters with the uncanny seem to.  Here we have a story that fascinates because it is a puzzle wrapped up in human desires frustrated, yet the "solution" is only another puzzle, one (maybe) more fascinating than the first.

Siren Call has been granted an extension, so can be seen  Sunday July 7, 2019 at 9:30pm at the McFadden Theatre 1157 N. McFadden Place (one block east of Highland, one block north of Santa Monica Blvd) in Hollywood.

Shiva For Anne Frank (Catch Up Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

"Shiva," as explained by writer/performer Rachel McKay Steele, is a Jewish ritual of mourning, to help the bereaved embrace and thus get past their grief.  Doing so for a girl one never met, who has been dead for many decades (she would have been ninety years old in 2019) may seem bizarre.  Until one thinks about it.  Ultimately shiva is not "for" the deceased.  It is for those who feel the pain of their loss.

So, Shiva For Anne Frank makes plenty of sense, really.  Her diary lets us know her, and in retrospect grieve.

One does expect such a one woman show to feel solemn, even tragic.  Steele instead opts to make it funny!  Irreverent!  Racy, even!  Which, again, makes plenty of sense given the contents of the famous diary (especially the unedited version, revealing the teenage girl's more "adult" thoughts, including her attraction to women).  So what we experience emerges as a life story, that of Steele herself, growing up Jewish in the American South who after moving to New York and also re-reading Diary of Anne Frank sans edits, found a kindred spirit as well as validation for all the things about herself which spark condemnation. 

It is indeed funny, with a sharp-tongued humor one expects of a good comedienne.  It is indeed racy, with her frank discussions of sex.  More, the humor increasingly reveals itself as what humor so often is--our way to keep from screaming, or weeping, or both.  For this performer/writer, as for all of us, that humor feels needed more than ever.  Because as she does in fact unmask towards the end of this solo play, her rage is very real.  Very justified.  Anne Frank is very much like Steele, and the mind set which fashioned the atrocity of her casual murder--just one more innocent teenage girl among millions--are very much like what is happening today.  In fact, one of the most powerful aspects of this performance is now we ourselves feel the same tear-stained rage as Steele by the end.

Because shiva is not for the dead.  It is for the living.  Not for the past, but the present and the future.  The talented glory that was that girl hiding in an attic in Amsterdam was snuffed out long before her time, but the evil that did it remains.

And we have no excuse any more for not recognizing it.

Shiva For Anne Frank has completed its run in the 2019 Hollywood Fringe Festival.  However, I strongly believe and hope it will be mounted again in other venues.  Keep your eye out for this powerful, entertaining, moving and yes, funny work of theatre.

Cell 41 (Catch Up Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The Son of Semele 2019 Solo Creation Festival gave us some amazing one person shows.  One of these was written by one of my very best friends, was directed by one of the talented directors I know, and performed by a friend who is also IMHO one of the most astonishing performers I have ever seen.

Yet I had no expectations going in, save one of quality, and what might be gleaned from the title, Cell 41.

In what seemed a prison cell, a female Prisoner (Vanessa Cate) sat, looking exhausted and worn down but still vital.  She catches the gaze of the audience and smiles a smile full of history.  "Hi there" she says.  At first, the obvious scenario seems to be the case.  Here is someone in a prison, a jail cell, hoping to hear from the governor but has gone through this time and time and time before now.  She seeks to maintain her sanity, maybe some fragment of hope amid loneliness and frustration. 

Then the odd details start creeping in, like the total absence of any clue for what crime she might be imprisoned.  She never mentions execution, or visitors, or her lawyer.  She notes how the cell on one side, number 40, seems warm.  Almost like a womb.  "Life begins at forty" she jokes.  That, coupled with Cate's vividly fearless performance, helps make it clearer where we are.  Not a genuine prison cell, or at least not a literal one as we understand it.

Cell 41 is Life.  The Prisoner believes once she was held in Cell 40, and might eventually end up in Cell 42.  What would that be like?  As a prisoner she she cannot leave her cell, not without destroying herself.  Does not really know from whence she came, nor to what next destination (if any) she may yet go.  Some nameless, faceless governor makes vital decisions for her, with a presumed legion of bureaucrats or others between the two.  She has been here a long, long time and feels weary but unbeaten, a heroic figure in constant gnawing pain of the soul.  Worse (or better) she is haunted by a vision (of herself?) as someone in control, someone beautiful and wise and free.  Every time it appears she feels hope, longing beyond words, and as it vanishes her rage at herself for believing feels palpable.

The raw simplicity of the idea of Mark Hein's script seemingly needs little enhancement.  In fact the words are very nearly dead without the actor, and Cate brings this Prisoner to vibrant, pained life.  Even the design and handling of certain elements (like a mirror, appearing kabuki-style) help, and in terms of that alone director Elissa Polansky also did much to bring this writer's vision to breathing life.  In the end, we the audience experienced a searing insight into a genuine (and frankly, both valid and far from uncommon) world view.  The world as a prison.  We know not from when we came nor where we are headed.  Our lives are not under our control, nor do we know what "freedom" from this would really mean, much as we long for it.  Hope and despair remain our daily bread, until we leave the Cell for...whatever is next.  If anything.

Cell 41 was part of the 2019 Solo Creation Festival by Son of Semele, of the most consistently fine theatre companies in Los Angeles (which is saying something quite a lot).  I hope it will see more productions in the future.

Friday, July 5, 2019

The Last Croissant (Catch up Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Having heard a kind of general positive buzz about the show and since it fit so neatly into my schedule, I got in line for The Last Croissant.  While waiting, the cast came out and gave us a musical pre-show which led me to half-expect a musical.

Nope.  Not a musical.  Rather one of the most delightful plays of this year's Fringe.  Absolutely in my top ten (and that is saying something, given the quality of this year).

The show takes place in a camping site in some national park in California.  Ultimately three tents serving as temporary homes to three sets of people rise in this spot.  A microcosm in some sense of...something.  I'm not that sure.  It doesn't matter.  The genre is pure urban fantasy, despite the lack of anything urban.  Also the lack of any unifying gimmick like a school for magic students, a private eye who turns out to be a werewolf, a friendly family of vampires, a pile of old photographs revealing a deadly war fought just outside our vision, etc.

Instead we get a world where we stumble across what must be called magic.  Like a talking bear.  And other things.  Like paper cranes falling out of the sky.  Nobody understands it.  Most don't try.  Explanations are not forthcoming.

Instead we get the gentle humor of human oddity, brought forth in dozens of interesting ways (such as the man and woman playing two bisexual men who are clearly a romantic couple--but may not themselves be aware of that fact).  We find two people with strange jobs clicking in some fundamental way.  And an elderly married couple (again played by a man and woman, but each playing the other gender) adjusting to retirement as well time with each other, alone.  Lots of gentle, sometimes cutting, yet generally kind and humorous examples of human folly in this play.  Also lots of love, one way or another.  Not a parable really, just a story.  A story of people who go into the words and are changed by it.  I smile.  I laughed.  I shed a tear or two while wanting to hit a couple of characters upside the head. 

And in the end, I emerged from the woods a little changed myself.

The Last Croissant has one more performance of the current run (I so hope The Attic Collective mounts it once more), on Sunday June 7, 2019 at 8pm at the Broadwater Mainstage, 1076 Lillian Way (at Santa Monica Blvd, roughly one block west of Vine).

The Bully Problem (Catch up Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Anyone who does not feel a twinge of sympathy just with the title of this show--I don't understand you.  At least, hopefully I do not.  Bullies and bullying cause so much misery, so much long term damage to children...yet solving the problem seems to involve no easy solution.

The Bully Problem is a musical aimed at children.  Refreshingly it speaks to children but does not do so by speaking down.  It lacks condescension.  Because of this, it also speaks directly to the child still inside each of us.  Especially those who didn't fit in, who were different in some way, who somehow had "target" glowing over their heads which certain other children could see--to their sadistic glee.

The plot?  Pure fantasy!  A brilliant kid in Junior High who longs to go to special high school for gifted children is (naturally enough, sadly enough) the natural prey of a gang of bullies.  In the show, most of the bullies are easy to spot--they move with a swaying gait like predators, heads down, mouths curled up in cruel contempt.  Perfect for the heightened reality of a musical.

But this kid's late father sent him a special gift, a humanoid robot of all things with a defense mode making it/him a natural bane to any threat to anything which might threaten the boy.  Yet he is also programmed to help him in other ways.  That is how he finally connects with the other bullied kids at school, and helps them by putting them under the robot's protection as well. 

Now, make no mistake--the musical is fun.  The songs are good and production clever as well as entertaining.  Kudos to everyone in the cast as well as the designers of everything from sets to costumes to sound. 

But here is my favorite bit.  Its message, given in action rather than words.  Hope for the bullied children of this world.  You are not alone.  Time is on your side.  You can endure and even win.  And reaching out to others like yourself helps so very very much.  That in the end, the bullies are not even portrayed as sociopaths or demons but rather fools who need to grow up--I liked that very much.  Honestly, I wish I had seen this musical when I was the age of its cast of characters.  It would have helped.  A lot.

The Bully Problem has been extended and will have two more performances in it current run, on Friday August 9 at 8pm and Sunday August 11, 2019 at 9pm at the Hobgoblin Playhouse, 1625 N Las Palmas Ave.

Fertile (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I can honestly say Fertile was one show in the 2019 Hollywood Fringe Festival that seemed like a no brainer.  Most such must be rolls of the dice, but of course if you know a given performer and their work you walk in with expectations.  In this case, my imagination conjured the idea of a realistic and fairly autobiographical one woman show about her attempts to become pregnant. 

My expectations were not met.  I was anything but disappointed.  In fact, I was thrilled.  

Actor/playwright Heather Dowling plays Jenny, a young woman very much like Dowling but with a different set of life details.  She wants to have a child, but there seem to be...problems.  And so begins a journey amid circumstances, friends, medical experts, advocates, and eventually God (no, not at the end, fairly close to the beginning).  She confronts all kinds of issues and opinions.  She even deals with expectations.

A little ironic that.

Jenny's is not a story of saving the world, or finding meaning in life--at least not what most think of when that term comes up.  It isn't about dealing with heart-shredding tragedy or healing from a devastating series of tragedies.  But in its intimate way and focus, it touches on the decisions, hopes, terrors, and realizations about ourselves with which we can all identify.  Quiet joys and disappointments make up most of our lives, and navigating them remains the focus of this lovely and intimate tale.  We care about Jenny and her friends.  We grow to know her (and her husband) better and better, so in this honest and startling (as well as funny) odyssey we increasingly understand.  We hopefully gain a little of the wisdom they do.  Drop by drop.  Each one precious. Each one to be savored.

Like this play.

Fertile has gotten a Fringe extension so you can still catch it Thursday June 11 and Sunday June 13, 2019 at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd (one block east of Vine), Los Angeles, CA 90038

PoeZEST (review)

Spoilers ahoy!  

I was startled to find a theatre, a venue, in North Hollywood of which I had no clue.  Yet there it was.  Home of the Ark Theatre Company, and with only a handful of very personal (and quite comfy) seats.

The show, as I knew going in, proved to be a (mostly) one man show by a friend of mine.  Edgar Allan Poe IV (that is his real name--a direct descendant of the great poet's brother).  In a nice touch, PoeZEST purports to be a one man show by a struggling actor descended from Poe, who then becomes possessed by his revered ancestor.  What follows allows us in a way to hear about Poe's life from his point of view.  Many might be startled to hear a slight Southern drawl from the manpi, but he was from Virginia after all.

Poe as a character discusses his reputation, his life, and does readings/interpretations of his works.  One of these, "The Cask of Amandillado" I've seen performed before but never so well.  Truly, in that one the full horror of the tale actually comes forth and actually engenders discomfort.  I almost squirmed in my seat!  Still more extracts and readings follow, all very well done with considerable fire.  Many interpretations have I seen of Poe, on stage and film, but this one has the most passion, the most genuine darkness and yet the most pathos.  This Poe is not some emo, but a fierce and arrogant genius whose life drowns in tragedy, while he himself wears a mask of witty rage to keep his own despair at bay.

PoeZest runs three more performances (for now)--Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8pm until July 7, 2019 at the Ark Theatre, 5708 Lankershim (about four blocks north of the NoHo Metro Station), North Hollywood, CA 91601).

Deer Woman (catch up review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I first saw Megan Rippey perform in a brilliant three-person musical at Son of Semele.  Since then I've seen her in several wonderful performances and followed her career as a fan.  Only last year did I learn she is also a burlesque dancer, and a little later that she had for some years found within herself a kind of avatar of feminine power.  Part muse, part animal spirit, part divine patroness.  She called this being Deer Woman

Her entry in the 2019 Solo Creation Festival at the Son of Semele explored this entity and her relation to it.  Deeply personal, it starts as a slice of life in terms of her life as a dancer.  A slice in which something is going on, something she struggles to understand.  It begins (or at least begins to make sense) with a dream--a creature/goddess walking through the woods, towering over the trees, her hooves like thunder, her face too human to be animal, her antlers like some kind of Jungian crown.

Few and far between have I found those pieces of theatre which manage to create a religious experience.  Some try and fail.  Others seek only to convince you one has happened.  A tiny handful actually achieve the same kind of experience we are supposed to feel in a High Mass, or what perhaps our ancestors felt the sun rose atop a specific stone on the Summer solstice in Stonehenge.  As a Muslim may feel when taking part in the haaj, as the worshippers of Dionysis felt when running in the woods, as some Christians feel when they start speaking in tongues--this one woman show achieves precisely that.  No small feat in a full length play.  She did it in half an hour. 

After Rippey allowed Deer Woman to speak through her just once, the final moments of the play transported me (and I think the rest of the audience as well).  Via sound and lighting what had been but a black box theatre doubling for a bar with burlesque dancers became a primordial forest, sometime between day and night.  In that perpetual dawn and dusk, we waited and felt who was to manifest before us.

She entered.  And for a moment, I felt the presence of god.  Not my god to be sure, but a fragment of the transcendent Source through the lens of an artist who shared her vision to the world.

Deer Woman has already closed as of this writing.  However, I have high hopes Rippey shall mount it again and again.  Watch for it.