Thursday, August 22, 2019

Los Angeles Collegiate Playwrights Festival (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The Los Angeles Collegiate Playwrights Festival is a collection of tiny plays, approximately ten minutes each.  "Geared toward bringing college playwrights together with industry professionals acting in the Hollywood community" as the program states.  But like writing a very good haiku, the short play format generally proves challenges--pretty good skits or very abbreviated versions of what should be much longer works often prove as good as you get.  This set of performances however rose above those expectations...

Rabbits by Michael Robinson (UC Riverside), directed by Jim Shipley, is a polemic.  I suspected as much from the moment the set revealed a government-office-styled photo of Donald Trump on the wall, so askew as to be deliberate.  Several such in this Festival are, but unusually with a simple directness sans lectures.  In this case an EPA official (Rachel Parker) has an appointment her assistant Amy (Tori Ross) says she cannot avoid, with a Mr. Walker (James Elden) who hopes to persuade her as to the environmental resource of rabbits which should be protected.  Amid echoes of Don Quixote and Mr. Smith going to the nation's capital, the brief story unfolds of an idealist who re-awakens the same in a government official.  Not in terms of statistics or ideology, but a remembrance of the world itself that deserves simple appreciation.  The world and its contents.  Even rabbits.  In the right hands (and these were) a very charming and successful piece.

He/She/They by Brooke Daniels (James Madison University) directed by Michael Massey, consists of a simple/not so simple conversation between two mothers--Celine (Amy Braddock) and Melissa (April Hobson).  Both evidently hold positions in the PTA but the former discovers after a meeting she happened to miss that everyone she knows has turned against her.  The reason?  Her child, born female, has decided they are really male--and has become happier, smarter, in practically every single way more alive.  Fiercely protective of her child, Celine has to face that even her friend thinks she should apologize for allowing other children be exposed to such an idea.  The rage, the hurt, the serious blow to her own sense of hurt stirs something in a viewer, or at least this one.  Yet Melissa never comes across as hateful, no small feat.  Just sincerely blind.  And not quite unconsciously cruel. 

A Flame From Dying Embers by Joel Reedy (Illinois Wesleyan University) directed by Rich Cassone, frankly was my favorite of the plays presented.  It also falls squarely into a criticism mentioned earlier.  I wanted a lot more.  This could easily prove a full length, although to be fair it works as a haiku rather than a sonnet.  Peg (Jayna Sweet) and Sarah (Helen Menefee) live in the center of this fierce, sad tale--a love story between teens from two different worlds to say the least, each with a different kind of toxicity which has poisons that love.  But it doesn't come across as a condemnation of anything specific, at least not in terms of An Answer of some kind.  The wonderful trick of casting the same actor (Mary Carrig) as both their (very, very different) moms helps highlight this.  But this never gets explored very far, which frankly is a weakness in an otherwise remarkably powerful play, one that fascinates both heart and mind. 

Voir Dire by Carissa Atallah (UC Riverside) directed by Mary Carrig, makes for the third and perhaps most simply brilliant polemic.  The title also makes for a vivid, sharp (as in piercing) pun.  Four women, questioned by a government official (Michael Taylor Gray) as part of jury selection asks if they or anyone they know has ever been the victim of sexual assault.  Woman One (Amy Braddock) talks about her husband, and while it would be easy to imagine her as programmed or obviously a victim, her account proves not so simple.  She might be correct.  Or she is taking part in a horrifying desecration.  We don't know.  Woman Two (Chelsea Johnson) is if anything more disturbing, about a friend who was drunk and so was she at a party.  Woman Three (Heidi Kendrick) snorts and says what woman doesn't know another who has been raped.  Her story is a graphically horrible one like the first two, but one about male power and her own sneering cynicism about it.  But Woman Four (Carmen Scott) says almost nothing.  At first.  Instead she listens and freezes up, but inside we can see the volcano brewing as she stares with an spiraling intensity, her body growing more and more rigid (to the point of actually shaking) as she listens to others.  When her words finally spill/spit out, the rage and hurt tell us all we need to know.  Since her words were in Spanish, a language I do not speak, the details were lost on me.  But not the heart of it.  No, that came out crystal clear.  And then of course all four are deemed unfit for jury duty.  Then came the kicker.  Four men (James Elden, Matt Gottlieg, Roy Oraschin, Don Tiffany) come in, asked if they know anyone who has been sexually assaulted?  Three refuse to answer, showing barely any discomfort.  Number Four just says "Not that I know of." 

Take Five by Bryan Harris (Orange Coast College) directed by James Elden, honestly was my least favorite of a well-above-average slot of short plays.  Frankly, I thought it too short.  A slice of life that frankly seemed too thin, but maybe only barely so.  The characters proved vivid, even if I did not quite understand the stakes involved, especially for the lead Michael (Matt Gottlieb) who seems to be a poet wandering around New York.  He meets up with a homeless man named Lester (Roy Oraschin) who frankly seems amazingly chipper, cheerful and wise which can work but I don't have much more I can say about him.  The hooker Candy (Sarah Louise Kane) was a little puzzling, but I got a sense that she was only showing part of herself to others, relaxing as it were with people she liked.  Vinnie (Don Tiffany) on the other hand proved vividly, nastily alive and vital.  He appeared crystal clear in his casual cruelty, his bitterness, his misogyny and his fundamental sadness.  I never liked him, but wow I could not take my eyes off him while he was on stage!  Sarah (Helen Menefee) brought life into what is something of a stereotype--the gorgeous girl who likes the victim of a bully.  But while that has potential, the play doesn't give us enough to say or even hint much about her.  The Bouncer (James Elden) is pretty much a walk on.  I found myself wanting lots of little clues, lots of little hints about these people, or some really startling choices that would put them into sharp relief.  There is nothing wrong with this play, but like a perfectly good sandwich needs some condiments or maybe an interesting choice of bread. 

I walked away quite impressed with all five playwrights and with the casts as well as directors.  Will be on the lookout for them all.

The Los Angeles Collegiate Playwrights Festival plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm until August 25, 2019 at the Dorie Theatre in the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood CA 90038.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Eurydice (review)

Credit: Paul M. Rubenstein
Spoilers ahoy!

Mythology gives such fertile ground with which to shape our individual dreams.  Artists perhaps more than anyone do this constantly.  Playwright Sarah Ruhl for example took the Greek legend of the great singer Orpheus and retold it in a way both fresh yet familiar in her play Eurydice now playing at the CityGarage in Santa Monica.

Usually the focus remains squarely on Orpheus, greatest musician in the world, whose wife was murdered on her wedding day.  In grief, he made his way to the Underworld, and sang so beautifully that Hades, God and King of that realm, granted that he might lead his bride back to the world, on condition that he not look at her till both had returned to the land of the living.

Of course, like Lot's wife, he did look.  Just one moment too soon.

Credit: Paul M. Rubenstein
But what Ruhl does, and this wonderful cast does under the direction of Frederique Michel, is focus not upon Orpheus but what this story from Eurydice's point of view.  To emphasize this, the murderer is cut from the story altogether--instead the person responsible for Eurydice (Lindsay Plake) having an accident which leads to her death is none of than Death himself, or at least the Lord of the Underworld (Gifford Irvine)--a startlingly metamorphic character, of weird power and otherworldly motives.  For this is not a tale of someone trying and failing to win back his love, but rather about our relationship to death, to memory, to regret, and maybe even to the sweet oblivion of eternal sleep.

Interestingly, one of the pivotal characters proves to be Eurydice's father (Bo Roberts, in what is frankly my fave performance of his so far at this theatre) who died long ago, but whose hopes for his beloved child have kept him more active, more aware than most of the rest of the dead.  He welcomes her when she arrives, having lost so much of her memory in "the river."  Confused, she looks for her hotel room, and only very gradually starts to recall who this nice stranger might be.

Credit: Paul M. Rubenstein
All this is observed by three Stones (Marissa Dubois, Emily Asher Kellis, and Brandon Reed), who clearly do not approve (insomuch as they "feel" anything at all) of all these feelings, this talk, this dredging up of what was before. The fact these three inanimate objects work as characters speaks a lot about both script and performers.

So instead of watching Orpheus (Johanny Paulino) seek for some way to retrieve his wife, we share the weird journey she endures amongst the dead.

When in fact Orpheus makes his way to the Underworld, we find his music does not move anyone with its beauty.  Rather, the Stones scream in pain as he makes them feel.  More, he does not turn and look back at Eurydice in a moment of weakness at the last moment, but out of habit from the troubled nature of their relationship.  Life was not, after all, perfect any more than was their real love of one another.  No more than her father's seemingly infinite, sad patience with her.  Maybe that is what we can take away most from this dream-like story enacted on stage, that it is the nature of time and life to be tainted by regret.  Which makes death not something horrible in the end, not really. 

Credit: Paul M. Rubenstein
Or maybe it is horrible.  Just not as horrible as one thinks.  The river of forgetfulness is not a torture, but a release.  It can be, anyway.  If someone is ready, has reached that point.  And until then...?

That is the unanswered question.  Left up to you to answer for your own life, informed and perhaps haunted by tales such as this.

But let me say this--words alone by a playwright rarely haunt or move.  They are meant to be acted out, and this cast captures the eerie and quietly human voyage of these characters (except of course the four characters who are not human--the majority of the cast come to think on it).  City Garage can and often does perform outrageously stylized works.  They do these so very well.  But my favorites have always been when the simple life of the characters shine through, the decisions and consequences and experience of what is happening.  Eurydice counts as one of my favorites from this company, because even a Stone, even a God, still seem somehow human.  The humans meanwhile make me ache for them.  Especially the title character, due in large part to the actor who portrays her.

Eurydice plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm Sundays at 3pm until September 15, 2019 at the City Garage, Bergamot, T1 Space, 2525 Michigan Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90404.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Boeing Boeing (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I can remember as a teen hearing about this comedy, which was done at my local community theatre in Pensacola Florida.  That was in the 1970s.  Marc Camoletti's farce continues to find producers, which certainly indicates there's something there.  And there is.

Boeing Boeing takes place at the dawn of a new world, when international airflights were becoming commonplace, and in the wake of WWII the world was trying to relax, have a good time.  The Cold War or any number of serious historical events go unmentioned.  Instead, we are greeted with a farce.  One of the first things one notices about the set are six different doors in the same apartment.  Sure enough, all those doors will be opened and shut in a dizzying array of combinations before long. 

Bernard (Oscar Fleming) is an architect who lives in Paris.  As the play begins his American fiancee, American air hostess Gloria (Emilie Owen) eats breakfast with him before leaving on the next leg of her job.  As a rule, she can only spend three days a week here.  Berthe (Katrine Fenger), Bernard's maid, doesn't much like her--in part because she eats pancakes with ketchup.

Okay, she has a point.  Yeeeeecccchhh.

Soon, another American shows up--Bernard's college friend Robert (Matt Torczon), paying a surprise visit and honored to meet his pal's fiancee.  Before long, we and he learn the truth--namely that Bernard has three air hostess fiancees who each stay with him two days a week.  No, they don't know about each other and he focuses a lot of his energy on keeping it that way.

Naturally, this is all going to fall apart on stage.  Planes get turned back due to bad weather.  A shift in schedules or two, with first the German Gretchen (Theresa Philomena) then Italian Gabriella (Celine Rosalie Zoppe) ending up at the apartment at the same time!  Cue massive and increasingly frantic efforts by Robert and Bernard to somehow keep all these plates spinning in the air as the we the audience realize Gloria is bound to show up soon as well.

Now the thing about comedy--you laugh or you don't.  If you don't laugh, or at least smile a lot and sometimes chuckle, it does not work.  A good script is only part of the recipe, because without a director with a good eye for comedy it will fall flat.  Ditto for the cast sans the special sense of timing and slightly heightened attitude needed.  Director Betty Karlen clearly did two thirds of her job in selecting a charming, funny cast who gave us a very nice couple of hours of entertainment.

More, the comedy continues to prove its legs because it turns out to be more than just a collection of jokes.  Boeing Boeing is at heart about growing up, about the kind of frenzied energy the young can somehow sustain, versus the trouble that mounts as we seek to avoid responsibility.  Bernard tries to maintain a perfect balance, giving himself the maximum amount of fun with the least responsibility.  Well, that little plan falls apart eventually, as any adult would realize it must do.

Mind you, he gets off more than easy.  He dodged a bullet that might have left his personal life (of which he seems to have almost none) in ruins.  Robert on the other hand learns faster--offered an opportunity to have this kind of "fun" himself, he feels temptation but ultimately prefers love.

The result is a charming dance of zany mistakes and almost-disasters, sprinkled with a little bit of seemingly hard won (albeit actually fairly inexpensive) wisdom.

Boeing Boeing! plays until Sunday Aug. 4 at 7pm at the Dorie Theatre in the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90038.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (Catchup Fringe Review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Contrary to all sorts of "common sense" you can quite practically put all sorts of spectacle onto the live stage.  Sea battles, exorcisms, poisonings, gunshots, sword fights, etc.  If you have the budget, dragons and falling chandeliers are not out of the question.

But who cares without the human connection, the power of the human soul coming to terms with itself via contact with another human soul?  Movies and video games cannot help but eclipse live theatre for spectacle.  It can almost never approach the power of an actual human presence.

Such is the power of John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, and brought out so vividly in the production starring Martha Prosper and Rob Smith.  It starts in a bar and ends in a bed.  Along the way two lonely, hurting people run the gamut of guilt, rage, shame, joy and finally hope which flesh is heir to.  Like a drop of pure concentrated plutonium in its power, but in this case that drop contains undiluted Life.

A man and a woman, all by themselves.  To be fair, maybe others are visiting this bar, but we don't see them and honestly they don't matter.  Our story is their story--two people with secrets, secrets that cannot but emerge.  Secrets do that.  They leak out.  They bubble up under pressure.  We were mere thinking machines that would not happen, but humans have passion.  Or the capacity for it.  The need to feel something, like a thirst to be slaked.  What these two actors do is reveal the full range of those passions, wrapped up amid feelings of horror.  Yet also, they feel hope.

So the two hurting souls use each other like bandages, bleeding into each other and in the process letting a little bit of healing take place.

But then...oh, but of them refuses to let go of that hope.  They had pretended for a time, wallowed in the joy of what this encounter might become.  In the morning, one of them does the most powerful thing they could do under the circumstances.  One of the two refuses to sink back into hopelessness, simply because it is expected, even "normal."  It should read as pure sentimentality.  A naive twist we should find unbelievable.  Yet these characters are well written, so specific in who they are and what they want and how they react to the world around them--and the cast of actors combine enough skill and talent to breathe them to such life--we believe it utterly.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea was part of the 2019 Hollywood Fringe Festival and I eagerly await the next shows done by these actors.