Friday, November 26, 2021

A Journal of the Plague Year (review)


Photo by Anne Mesa

Spoilers ahoy!

Daniel Dafoe's novel A Journal of the Plague Year came out in 1722 and takes place in 1664, the last time the Black Death ravaged the city of London.  Rightly viewed as a classic, it recounts a single fictional individual's experience of the disaster.  Quite topical, as I'm pretty sure most would agree. 

The radio play-style adaptation of this novel does a competent if not thrilling job of retelling the tale for a different era in a radically different medium.  Now, to be honest, the script seems to me full of traps.  Most of all, the narrator is not speaking to anyone specific, not even a hint as to whom these words are addressed.  I call this a trap because when it comes to acting (and indeed much of art in general) specificity is an enormous aid.  Thus the film of Amadeus imho worked so well in part because Salieri is not talking into the camera but speaking to a specific character who their own reaction to the words spoken, a fact Salieri knows and to which he responds.  Nothing like this here.  But--the essential story remains.

Yet it does not work.  I know  one or two members of the cast, and these are not incompetent performers by any stretch of the imagination.  Yet the production fundamentally does not work.  Honestly, again, it seems to come down to specifics.  When is this radio production taking place?  I have no idea, not least because the costumes are all over the place in terms of period, yet there is no foley artist.  The sound design was bizarre, with sudden blasts of inappropriate music and sound effects coming out of nowhere (arctic winds and wolf howls?  In London?  In 1664?).  The central character undergoes a crisis of faith, which is talked about rather than experienced.  A love story woven through the plot has not beginning, middle, or end--it just suddenly exists, with zero set up and zero follow through.  Meanwhile several players kept yelling their lines for some reason.  

I don't claim to know what went wrong.  But something did, and it ended up putting all the heavy lifting of imagining this story and its implications squarely on the audience, with very little help from the production.

This show can be seen at The Brickhouse Theatre, 10850 Peach Grove St., North Hollywood, CA. 91601 from November 13th through December 19th, 2021 Saturday nights at 8pm, and Sunday afternoon at 3pm

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

The Children (review)


Spoilers ahoy!

A cottage on the coast of England.  There lives an elderly couple, Robin (Ron Bottitta) and Hazel (Lily Knight).  An old friend stops by, pretty much unexpectedly, named Rose (Elizabeth Elias Huffman).  They all used to work together years and years ago.  All three are nuclear engineers.  Retired, now.

Seems so domestic at first.  Or, almost.   Catching up.  Sharing a few stories.  Some awkwardness.  Plus some resentment, about what we will learn.  Eventually.

But one of the earliest lines gives this play its title.  "The children?" asks Rose of Hazel.  Just how poignant that question proves as bit by bit we learn a context.  The nuclear generator nearby, the one where all three friends once worked, is now at the center of an Exclusion Zone.  As in Japan, an underwater quake or landslide triggered a huge wave, one that came crashing down and flooding the reactor.  The backup power was in the cellar.  No way to activate all the last-ditch safety protocols. 

A nuclear disaster, in other words.  So...The ChildrenLucy Kirkwood's just under two hours traffic on the stage, set in the wake of a disaster that has changed everything.  And have forced some elderly baby boomers to re-assess, re-evaluate.  Their own personal demons come back to haunt, to gnaw, and to demand if not some exorcisms, at least some kind of response.  

Which could come across as dreary beyond words.  Instead, it remains entertaining, often funny, consistently compelling, and sometimes life-rattling.  Especially when Robin and Hazen finally learn why Rose is here.

Debates emerge, to be sure, but mostly amid the way these three very different people--different yet bound together with chains of memory, past mistakes, shared hopes and accomplishments, and pain--interact with one another.  More, script and cast (under the direction of Simon Levy) breathe life into these people, such wise fools all three, such elderly, deeply experienced children.  The almost drab, uber-ordinary details of their lives eventually emerge as more.  The bells of the vanished village that stood here in medieval times.  The cows that somehow survived the initial dose of radiation.  The broken toilet, even.

It was like a poem, one bringing laughter and tears, then eventually getting past that.

Because there is so much at stake, really.  Nobody wants to talk about that.  Well, who would?  Except...the children.  Not just the individual offspring of our couple.  Everyone younger than them,  

It it weren't for the children, they could go on pretending.

One more word about Jen Albert, who worked as both fight and intimacy choreographer for this production.  She did a very fine job, and that fact those were her titles might give you yet another clue as to the range of this excellent play (how the hell Harry Potter and the Cursed Child beat this our as "Best Play" on Broadway is frankly an indictment).

The Children plays through Jan 23 on Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.; and Mondays at 8 p.m. (dark Dec. 20 through Jan. 7). The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Avenue (at Normandie).