Thursday, November 28, 2019

Romeo and Juliet (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Shakespeare's second tragedy remains one of his most-produced, so small wonder Porters of Hellsgate would get around to it sooner or later (even without their avowed goal of doing the entire canon). 

Under the direction of Gus Kreiger, this specific Romeo and Juliet focuses on the pointless but pervasive conflict between the families.  Along the way, we are treated to some amazing sword fights on stage--thanks in so small part to fight choreographer Jesse James Thomas.  Really, so many sword fights on stage don't look good at all, but this one clearly shows the cast rehearsed those scenes exhaustively and kept up their practice.  Kudos!  I literally felt myself at the edge of my seat at times!

So that tells you right off this production is exciting!  More, and this could use lots of emphasis, the leads and several key characters end up emerging from some very fine performances.  We believe Romeo (Will Block) and Juliet (Rachel Seiforth) are not only in love, but we believe their full context of their characters' lives.  For the latter we get a vivid sense of the Capulet household, from her onery father (Ted Barton), chilly but obedient mother (Jordann Zbyliski), the latter's hot-headed nephew Tybalt (Evan Lipkin), and finally the kindly but ultimately subservient Nurse (Thomas Bigley--the second time I've seen a man cast in the role, which works very well indeed).  Romeo of course is more defined by his friends, especially the wild and dangerous Mercutio (Dana DeRuyck) and the much more level-headed Benvolio (Amanda Noriko Newman--who also functions as Fight Captain).  These last two give a pair of the best performances in the whole show, vital if we are to understand why other characters around them react as they do.

The whole show ends up very fast-paced, which brings it in at just about two hours.  Among other things the design itself proves clever and extremely practical--clusters of red and blue roses, mirroring the red and blue costume scheme dividing up the cast between Capulet and Montague.  Meanwhile, swords and weapons literally hang all over the set, just waiting to be used.  And they are, of course.  This play has less of a body count than some (Hamlet, King Lear, Richard III for example) but we get to know every single corpse before they die.  Know and not wish their deaths, even the relativeyl oafish Paris (Michael Bigley).  We share the reaction as each living human being is snuffed out, gone forever.

All of which means this makes for a production that works, no small thing!  We feel engaged, even fascinated by the situation and nearly all the characters.  The plot ends up straightforward, amid the emotional roller coaster the characters endure.  Its focus extends to all kinds of nice details, even the reading of almost throwaway lines.  Coupled with the integrated scenic and costume designs by Drina Durazo and Jessica Pasternak respectively, the story and the drama flows smoothly to sweep us along.

Romeo and Juliet plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm until December 1, 2019 at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 W. Magnolia (east of Lankershim), North Hollywood CA 91601.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Unraveled (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This marks the fourth play production I've reviewed from the Collaborative Artists Ensemble.  I can honestly say each one has proven enjoyable, sometimes even powerful.  Unraveled by Jennifer Blackmer makes for something of a return to themes, in that it mirror's last years' Anatomy of a Hug in tracing a young woman's journey to letting go of the mother, with all complex emotional landscape that involves traversing.

Joy (Meg Wallace), the lead character, is a single professor of physics and philosophy whose intellectualism seems of very little use in dealing with her mother's dementia.  She hires a hospice nurse named Anna (Heidi Shon) but tries fiercely to keep her professional and personal lives distinct, even segregated.  This even dovetails into a personal relationship she's developed with a graduate student.  As if to emphasize the issues with which she's dealing, Joy interacts with two different actors portraying her mother.  Carolyn Crotty plays her as Joy remembers her, a vivacious and beautiful woman full of spit and vinegar.  Kathy Bell Denton has the (frankly) more fun job of  the dying version, the half mad but determined and extremely confused remnant of what was once there.

This rather sounds, does it not, like what used to be called a "Movie of the Week" or a "Lifetime Movie"?  Well, there is some justice in that.  To take what feels or at least looks like very melodramatic fare and elevate it to drama takes a great deal of concentration on pretty much every level.  For this reason doing larger than life characters, even insane ones, in many ways are easier for talented actors.  Unraveled seems to have those challenges in spades.

As a result, the whole production feels more spotty, less consistent.  Flashes of moments, often good ones, end up sprinkled amid perfectly workmanlike blocking and reasonable line readings.  The women in the cast seem to get all the good scenes and lines, but (and this seems on par with the subject matter) a lot of those are on the nose. 

So I walked away, thinking I'd seen better from this company (which involve several of the same actors).  Honsetly, I cannot say it was anywhere near bad.  Nor can I call it mediocre.  But it rarely excited me.

Unraveled plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sundays at 7 p.m until December 8, 2019. at the Sherry Theatre, 11052 Magnolia Blvd. (east of Lankershim), North Hollywood, CA 91601.

Growing Gills to Drown in the Desert (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Okay think about this title for few moments.  Playwright Zeb Elliott certainly came up with something intriguing here.  Growing Gills to Drown in the Desert.  It feels funny, doesn't it?  In a dark kind of way?

Well, yeah.  That is pretty much precisely what we get.  Indeed, this play is a fine example of what I call "Theatre of Dreams" in that it makes more sense on a visceral level to interpret the play as a dream rather than a linear story.  Because while Growing Gills certainly has a beginning, a middle, followed by what certainly counts as an end, linear it ain't.

Instead what we get is quietly wild blend of Paradise Lost, with Waiting for Godot, and liberally sprinkled with Disney's The Little Mermaid.  Maybe a bit of Hans Christian Andersen's original version as well.

Hopefully, that description intrigues.  Because honestly I want a lot more people to see this lovely, touching, sometimes painful, ultimately moving piece of theatre.  The cast, not so incidentally, laughed and agreed with my description when I shared it with them.

We begin in a room.  Probably a basement.  And a well-dressed person arranging it 'just so' before seemingly creating or summoning a youing man.  The creator introduces himself as Deuce (Kristian Maxwell-McGeever), which is the kind of pun I myself tend to adore.  He wants to call the young man "Adam" but the has opinions of his own in a quiet innocent way, preferring Ira (Marc Leclerc).  Ira's imagination in effect summons/creates a girl, Libby (Celine Rosalie Zoppe).  Since Deuce never really wants her, he has no name planned. If he had, presumably it would have been "Eve."  But he didn't.  And doesn't.

As dream symbolism goes, this feel fairly straightforward, but instead of acting out some ritualistic series of events what follows feels very natural, if bizarre.  Libby grabs chalk and begins drawing on the walls.  Deuce tries to get Ira to focus only upon him, ultimately failing because while Ira loves Deuce, Libby is so much more interesting.  So they chat, watch some t.v. together (and get royally freaked when the future selves kinda/sorta give them all sorts of rubbish advice they don't understand), followed by Deuce getting all upset with some violence that follows, then Deuce gets surprised when (yet again) things don't happen how he wanted.

But again, it remains a dream.  Like life in some ways, not least all are aware they will die.  After all, they say, how long is a play these days?  Ninety minutes?  Yeah, that sounds right.  So their whole world will end, and them with it, when the play ends.

Metaphors just piling up here.  Or maybe flooding the space would be a better way to describe it.

Can you tell I really liked this show?  And what makes it work is how seriously (and not-so-seriously) the whole cast approaches the dream-like cloud cuckoo-land of this play with Max Marsh's direction.  All three touched my heart, made me angry (or at least annoyed), inspired frustration and/or dread.  I liked the symbols and metaphors, the semi-obscure puns and odd story twists, but what made me really enthusiastic remained the characters.

Growing Gills to Drown in the Desert is the first production in the Loft Ensemble's new digs in NoHo.  It plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm, with Sundays at 7pm at the upstairs theatre of new home of the Loft Ensemble, 11031 Camarillo Street (west off Lankershim), Los Angeles, California 91602.

Art of Dining (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Tina Howe's The Art of Dining (directed by Glora Gifford) makes for an eccentric little slice of life, located in a private home transformed into a tiny but very high end restaurant by a young couple.  This couple and the guests at their three tables showing up in the midst of a heavy snowstorm make up the cast of characters.

I am honestly somewhat at a loss to write this review because there is a rotating cast of actors involved.  Not two sets of same, as the Anteus Company routinely does, but a true shuffling of the cast for each single performance.  So, there exists no way to predict which cast you the potential audience member will see.  This impacts things profoundly, not least because the other cast members acted as ushers and they have quite vivid personalities of their own, which no doubt impact performances.

So, what am I reviewing?

Well, the overall script and the general direction seems most obvious.  Howe's play has a very specific feel and flavor (if you will).  Does this production achieve that?  I don't think so, but its general direction of borderline sitcom/almost slapstick comedy still works!  It remains funny!  So this achieves and retains that precious commodity in any comedy or show in general--it entertains.  A lot of talent, energy, even fearlessness and skill reveals itself on that stage (at least in the show I saw).  Getting into much detail seems pointless, since I cannot guarantee or even reasonably suggest you will see the same performers I did.  But the consistency of the skill, the energy, the timing, etc. bodes very well.  That kind of consistency rarely proves an accident. 

My ultimate reaction to the show ended up twofold:  I did enjoy myself (and the nice snacks during intermission as well as after the show were a pleasing bonus), and I also found myself curious as to other shows done by the Gloria Gifford Conservatory.

The Art of Dining plays Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7:30pm until December 8, 2019 at the Gloria Gifford Conservatory Theatre, 6502 Santa Monica Blvd (near Wilcox), Los Angeles, CA 90038.

Defenders (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

On an island off the coast in Iceland during World War II, a trio of US soldiers barely make it to shore.  Fearing a German invading force after several U-boats were spotted, the Allies want to defend this place from being used as a base for attacking convoys.  The storm forces them to take shelter in an old abandoned church, with a broken radio and equally broken artillery piece.

So begins Defenders by Cailin Maureen Harrison directed by Reena Dutt.  It focuses on these three serviceman, all alone in a strange place, in contact with none save a local minister and his young daughter.  The storm never seems to end.  The island itself remains extremely dangerous for totally natural reasons.  As far as they are concerned, this has become a near suicide mission with little hope three individuals might stand against an invasion of Nazi troops.  Worse, something maybe not-so-natural is going on.

If this sound a bit like an episode of The Twilight Zone, you have figured out what kind of feel this show conveys. And a pretty masterful example of such, as three soldiers of very different backgrounds try to cope with conflicting ideas of what the world really is. 

Lieutenant Jansen (Bryan Parter) proves a very junior officer to handle what seems like a huge responsibility.  Almost immediately, though, a problem emerges.  Subtle, but profound.  He feels the need to show his Sargeant (Tavis Daucette) who's boss.  Noncoms are the glue that hold military units together, among other things supporting their officers--which we see this Sargeant do, if not always for the most noble of motives.  Caught up in this is Private LeFleur (Spencer Martin), a Cajun lad with a sense of the mystical and paranormal the other two soldiers lack (that the three comprise examples of Upper, Middle, and Lower classes is just a nice touch--both actors and writer do not make much of this fact, just letting it speak for itself).

Geir Styrssen (John P. Cannelly) is this tiny island's Minister, as well as an amateur meteorologist who feels baffled by the current storm, which seems centered on the island itself, specifically the abandoned church where the GIs have taken shelter.  The Lieutenant, obeying strict protocols, will not abandon his "base camp" but insists they need to stay there while fixing the radio and the gun.  Yet the Minsiter and his daughter Vigdis (Una Eggerts) do what they can to make the three men comfortable.  This includes food and some powerful spirits to drink, which proves a perhaps unfortunate ingredient to the brew of events.

The power of the piece lies in the reality of it.  Not physical--afterall, while the uniforms look period, they remain quite dry and even the set is far more suggestive than anything remotely naturalistic.  It lies in the emotional reality.  We believe each of these five characters as real people.  Even when they seem to be at least leaning in the direction of a stereotype, acting and writing do not in fact go there.

Which means the spiral of disaster feels both inevitable yet full of surprises.  Neither we nor the characters ever know everything.  Just like life.  Freak storms do happen, and whether anything paranormal might be involved remains a question.  Battered radios fixed piecemeal work erratically, and may pick up some odd, distorted signals.  If some of them sound as if a message from...someone or something not of this world...that happens.  Truth, as often seems the case, remains a question.

Defenders plays Saturdays and Mondays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm until December 8, 2019 at the Black Box Broadwater Theatre 6320 Santa Monica Blvd, (at Lillian), Hollywood CA 90038.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Romeo and Juliet in Hell (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

With a title like Romeo and Juliet in Hell, one expects comedy.  If any doubt remained, all one has to do is glance at the poster.  Serious drama?  No.  Existential drama sipped in surrealism?  Maybe!  But, not.

But what follows in this show written and directed by Matt Richey proves far more clever than one might have guessed.  A delightful surprise that, not least with the very start when the title characters wake up after death in some place they don't recognize.  Seeing each other, Romeo (Colton Butcher) and his beloved Juliet (Lauren Diaz) immediate go into an embrace/make out session so fierce neither once notices the dagger sticking out of the latter's chest!

In fact it takes a bit for them to calm down and wonder what's going on.

Enter Tybalt (Carlos Chavez) and Mercutio (Nick Ley) to greet the pair.  No hard feelings as it turns out, but they are here to give our title lovebirds the lowdown.  This is, indeed, Hell.  And their personal Hell involves Tony (J. Elijah Cho) from West Side Story singing "I Just Met a Girl Named Maria"...forever.  They don't understand--which makes sense.  Cackling, the other two characters from Romeo and Juliet inform them of the truth.  They are all imaginary characters, sent into the Pit of Fire solely because they didn't survive the story in which they appear.

Okay, that is simply a delightful and weird premise, which is then milked for every laugh, as our two heroes seek to find a way to navigate out of their personal Hell into...well, somewhere else.  Anywhere else.  Along the way we meet plenty of other Shakespearean characters, generally coping as best they can (which sometimes means very poorly) with their situations.  King Lear (Ron Gabaldon) remains insane, as does Lady Macbeth (Therese Olsen), while her husband (Graydon Schlichter) just tries to cope, having bonded a little bit with Othello (Brenton Sullivan), while everyone male pretty much lusts after Desdemona (Chloe Zubiri).

Did I mention the Devil is Bob Fosse?  Yeah.  The Devil is Bob Fosse (Kawika Aguilar).  Rounding out the cast is Hamlet (Mikael Mattson) and Laertes (David Chernyavsky) along with a Violin (Jennifer Novak Chun) who leads us into the Infernal Regions.  All of which combines in what amounts to that relatively rare thing--a genuinely funny farce.  Most are nothing more than a string of jokes and pun strung together but this one hangs its humor upon plot and character--focusing most clearly on the teenagers at the heart of the story.  Teenagers, as in "inexperienced but honest" hence gullible and overreacting but genuinely feeling strong things.  In the hands of a good cast--as this is--the comedy holds together and remains with us as we leave the theatre.

Romeo and Juliet in Hell plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm until November 23, 2019 at the Actors' Workout Studio, 4735 Lankershim Blvd (just south of Camarillo), North Hollywood, CA 91602

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The 7 Stages of Grieving (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Forgive the mini-lecture, but theatre has its origins in religion and ritual. I have said this again and again, when given to pontificating and/or while directing.  But The 7 Stages of Grieving demonstrates this almost perfectly.

Originally presented in Australia, written by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, this one person show focuses on the Aborigine experience in the wake of English imperialism.  It is anything but a lecture however.  Nor does it come across as some esoteric recreation of an ancient culture.  Rather Chenoa Deemal portrays a young woman living in today, haunted and shaped by yesterday, not knowing yet what tomorrow may become.  Her story is not about the past, or present, or future but all three.

We begin with a circle made of shining sand, poured onto the stage by Deemal.  She will make more circles as her story reveals itself, her history peaking through mundane details.  Some of the sacred (as ever) remains unseen one way or another.  A box of photos amid a vast gallery of family members, that box of those who have left this world--and wait to be remembered.  Tiny piles of aqua stones representing families and bloodlines, one pile chillingly taken away and outside the circle.  They are the children stolen by the English, denied their past and families.

Oh, would it not be wonderful to think that something we could no longer imagine happening!

The performance does not enumerate any specific seven of anything at all.  For one thing, seven seems too tiny a number.  Surely each human person, not to mention each human culture, contains many multitudes of such.  So we see.  Fear and horror.  Rage and despair.  Remembering the terrifying strangers who came and took your children away.  Discovering an old woman who, lacking a family she knew to be her own, cheerfully goes to funeral after funeral after funeral of strangers.  They might be hers, after all.  Who's to say?  An American pop song of loss and melancholy delusion.  The memory of a nation officially apologizing for its past acts of evil.

Calling this performance a tapestry feels right.  But so too does it seem a nebula, or even galaxy of life and longing, memories sweet and bitter.  Just as it is also an explosion of too much history, pain, and loss for anyone to grasp.

As well as a series of circles and patterns of brightly colored stones, a shape created from the interplay of the world and human experience.

All of which boils down to saying the whole performance resonated with me as a Christian Mass is supposed to, as well as the Haaj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca), or the telling of the bondage in Egypt on nights of the Passover.  It was the sacred, the ineffable, but rendered in word and movement with light and sound and color.  A ritual, in other words.  Purely that, with all the power such is supposed to invoke.

The 7 Stages of Grieving plays at  8:00pm on Thursdays, 8:30pm Fridays and Saturdays, 3:00pm on Sundays through November 24, 2019. Skylight Theatre is located at 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave, LA, 90027.