Saturday, September 28, 2019

Last Swallows (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Okay, must confess right from the start playwright Cailin Maureen Harrison and director Kiff Scholl are friends of mine.  My respect for their respective abilities led me to expect quality when going to see Last Swallows.

Mind you, I have felt disappointment this way before...

Not this time though!  What I found going in, to my ever-growing pleasure, proved a profoundly moving family tale, a mini-epic focusing on the intimate, the little stories and dramas (and comedies) which make up most of our lives.  The experience felt poignant, infuriating, often funny, but in the end hopeful and forgiving.  Even grateful.

Which frankly seems what the characters went through as well.

Essentially the plot deals with elderly couple Elizabeth (Shaw Purnell) and her bird-watching husband Robert (Bob Telford).  The latter's periodic references to swallows, their migratory patterns, as well as his concern (to the point of some real confusion now and then) for some individuals gives the play its name.

They have three children--Julia (Tina Berckelaer), Caroline (Abby Eiland), and a middle brother Thomas (Ty Mayberry).  As with some families, sibling relations in this case veer towards combative, assigning blame, almost deliberate miscommunication, with someone functioning as a mediator (and in the process somewhat stifling their own maturity).  Each has a spouse--Edward (Matthew Downs), Simone (Leah Zhang), and Moira (Leilani Smith) respectively.  Each act focuses on how this believable, often amusing, at more often infuriating dynamic plays about as their mother seeks to get the whole family together for a vacation together this year.  She feels keenly, and sadly the tensions that keep them apart.  Besides, as becomes gradually obvious, a ticking time bomb awaits which means their possible time together must approach an end.

Now, the content of this deeply human family drama/comedy generated more than a few moments of personal recognition.  Let us say I am middle brother between sisters myself, and saw my own family's tension go unaddressed for too long.  But that is me.  Other specific details methinks resonates with others, because it highlights a wide variety of how humans interact with each other, especially when close (or hoping to be, or hoping to be less so).  I am notoriously stingy when it comes to standing ovations, while other members of the audience felt otherwise.  Small wonder!  The cast, directed by someone I already know superb at his job, brought this script to life with great skill and emotional truth.  This last frankly makes up a lot of what acting skill must be.  Telling the truth.  Even if that truth is make believe.

(Paranthetically a friend recently asked how good actors manage to create some powerful real moments which do not reflect anything of their own lives?  I answered "Actors pretend really, really hard--the way children do, but with the discipline and experince of adults."  This cast show off exactly that.)

I really want to also praise the play's style.  Eschewing anything like a box set with its nailing down of all action to one location, this play goes much further than a mere black box.  Rather the suggestive, rather lush set suggests a rich tapestry of life and homes.  People shift from location to location with minimal shifting of set elements--and often with scenes happening simultaneously!  This, the kind of thing only live theatre can really pull off, added to the power and beauty of the experience.

What I am not doing is telling how the story proceeds nor how it concludes, despite the warning above.  Rather let me say the odyssey of this family left me feeling I had taken the journey with them.  As the lights faded at the very end, I genuinely felt a tiny bit older and wiser for having lived a little bit of their lives.

Even though, of course, these lives never happened.  But that is what we mean when we talk about the Magic of theatre!

Last Swallows play Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm until October 20, 2019 at The Other Space (part of the Actor's Company) 916 A North Formosa Avenue, West Hollywood, CA 90046.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Deadly (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Something about serial killers.  Like demons or dark lords or James Bond villains, they fill the role of charismatic antagonist in a way both over-the-top yet grounded in reality.  They make for excellent sources of theatre, from Sweeney Todd to The Vagrancy's Normal (about Peter Kurten) as well as lots of plays of Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer, etc. Now Sacred Fools offers a musical based on H.H.Holmes (also the subject matter of the best-selling Devil and the White City).

Deadly, however, takes a whole new--and entirely welcome, even thrilling--take on the whole idea.  Writer Vanessa Claire Stewart chose not to focus on the admittedly fascinating Holmes (who does follow the pattern of such being dysfunctional in the extreme) but rather on a handful of his victims.  The all-too-often forgotten ones, in part because there are so many, plus being so ordinary (in other words like you and me), and then there's the worst part.  They were women.  No a particularly prized commodity in our society at its worst.

Holmes (Keith Allan) was a doctor/pharmacist/mostly con man who owned and ran a building in a town outside Chicago during the 1892 World's Fair.  This building, in theory a hotel, earned a different title before burning to the ground in the wake of his arrest.  Murder Castle.  Full of traps and implements of murder, it included a chute taking bodies to the cellar.  He sounds rather like a figure in some horror movie, probably torture porn.  Most histories of the man and his crimes tend to assume he had sex with most of his victims.  In this, they are taking the murderer's word.  This show assumes he was lying a fair amount of the time.

Central to the entire piece breathes and sings (it is a musical recall) an amazing metaphor on many, many levels.  Holmes' Castle remains haunted by those he has slaughtered, at least some of them.  They turn out to be our protagonists.  Emiline Cigrand (CJ Merriman) was a nurse, helping those suffering from alcoholism, then looking to move up in the world.  Her favorite patient, a weak man under Holmes' control named Benjamin Pitezel (David LM McIntyre) developed a crush on her.  She did not reciprocate--an excuse for Holmes to kill her.  Just as Pitezal's temporary replacement Evelyn Stewart (Kristyn Evelyn) proved immune to Holmes' charms so he gassed her to death in her room. 

Not that it mattered.  Julia Connor (Erica Hanrahan-Ball), bored by her husband, did willingly go into his arms, believing his words of love.  He stabbed her to death, then pressued Pitezel to poison her daughter Pearl (Ashley Diane).  None of these are the first or last.  Indeed the chronological first victim of those we meet, Lizzie Sommers (Britney S. Wheeler) begins the show as a shade, sadly welcoming others as they cross the veil.

As their numbers grow, so too their rage and indignation.  Hopes and ambitions destroyed.  For what?  Lives snuffed out.  Why?  Human beings reduced to rotting flesh and broken bone, half-remembered names on ledgers here and there.  Spirits gather and seek to make their voices heard.  Eventually, they begin to succeed.  Pitezal begins to hear them, vaguely.  So does Holmes, although he fiercely insists otherwise.  Pinkerton Detective Frank Geyer (Eric Curtis Johnson) never manages to, although he at least tries to find some of them--and in the end does discover the remnants.

Perhaps most poignant of all is how these ladies grow as people, in the company of each other and in the wake of what they've experienced.  Julia's sad lament on the Other Side, asking forgiveness of Pearl for not being a better mother almost broke my heart.  Anna Williams (Rebecca Larsen) and her sister Minnie (Samantha Barrios) weirdly, funnily, sweetly reconcile. 

But the refrain of their names, their demand to be found, to be remembered--this becomes a thread to unite the story especially in Ryan Thomas Johnson's tunes titled "Find Me Now" "Light a Fire"  "Herman Can You Hear Me?"

Clearly, Holmes (that wasn't his real name, btw) was caught in the end.  A true psychopath he never stopped playing his games, even when admitting guilt.  One of many strengths in this show is how some hints of the child he once was do emerge, yet excuse nothing.  Casual, calculated cruelty remain his hallmark--and we never ever forget it.  He never becomes a protagonist.  Never earns a drop of forgiveness, as perhaps he might have.  Pitezal does, in large part because of his eventual horror at his own actions.  Not so Holmes.

In fact, that brings up perhaps the best thing about the musical as a whole.  Director Jaime Robledo and Choreographer Brin Hamblin pull off a wonderful moment as, at long last, Holmes leaves life and meets his victims again.  He of course does not acknowledge them by name.  Nor apologize.  He gloats they'll never get rid of him now.

But--he is wrong.  Very wrong.  As they simply and profoundly demonstrate.  In a theatrical performance that cover quite a lot of ground, those final moments pleased me the most.  The simple but hard-earned victory of what should be over what should never exist.

Deadly plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm (with an exra performance Monday Oct. 21) until November 2, 2019 at the Broadwater Main Stage,  1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood, CA 90038.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Midsummer Night's Dream (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

There's a reason Shakespeare remains popular (actually, several) and likewise why so many theatre companies like to mount the sprawling comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream.  ZJU's current production is the second such I've seen there, and probably the tenth individual production I've seen ever.  Given its ambiance (consider the title alone) this play lets the cast just let loose in an energy-packed dance of confused identities as well as delicious, weird contrivances. 

Still, it can be dull.  One needs a good director and a good cast to pull it off.  In this case co-directors Zombie Joe and Brandon Slezak put together a very talented troupe then went with a delightful set up.

Credit:  Brandon Slezak
Trimmed to the bone, our story deals with three groups.  First are the Lovers:  Hermia (Samantha Gordon) loves Lysander (Coralie Bastiaens), but is loved by Demetrius (Mackenzie Martinez) who in turn is beloved by Hermia's friend Helena (Eileen Chase).  Next are the Players--a group of "Rude Mechanicals" getting ready to put on a (very) amateur performance in celebration of the Duke's wedding.  Leaders of this troupe are Quince (Steve Alloway) who organized the show and his lead Bottom (Laura Fodera), plus various others including Flute (Mike Targus) as the female lead.  Finally there are the Fairies, whose King Oberon (Victoria Saitz) is at odds with Queen Titania (Rebeca Del Sesto) and plots to win a changeling child via a devious scheme with the mischeivous Puck (Rosalie Aslpach).

Credit:  Brandon Slezak
For plot purposes we need not explain now, all three groups end up in the woods outside Athens on the same night.  Hence hijinks of various kinds take place, involving love potions and magical transformations, mistaken identities, mismatched lovers, chases, all culminating in a wonderfully bad performance by the Rude Mechanicals at a grand wedding.  If you know the play, you may or may not remember how all that happens but it doesn't matter if you don't.  The plot, while complex, is thin as a fairy's wing.

This specific production feels more than anything like some version of a 1960s hippie rave, complete with one character played by a puppet (!) and the entire cast sooner or later becoming trees, fairies, even hills.  Honestly, a few more bell bottoms and beads, and one would expect maybe a Jim Morrison song.

Or no.  Honestly it feels more like the Mammas and the Pappas, with few dashes of Pippin thrown in for seasoning.

Credit:  Brandon Slezak
Most of all, the whole thing flows together as this organic and quite fun-filled whole, with an emphasis more than anything else on the feel of events--one where everything matters and nothing, where love is delightful but baffling, where humor and good cheer prove an excellent way to meet life's challenges.  Meanwhile, never forget foolishness remains our birthright as mortals.  With a sense of wonder the play comes to its end, and we leave the world of magic behind.

Until we next enter a theatre to see a show.

Midsummer Night's Dream plays Friday and Saturdays at 8:30pm until September 28, 2019 at 4850 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood, CA 91601.