Thursday, May 26, 2022

Cabaret Macabre (review)


Spoilers ahoy!

The last show I reviewed prior to start of the pandemic was an earlier iteration of this very burlesque, at the same venue.

Cabaret Macabre at ZJU consists of a series of dance pieces, most of them ensemble in some way (with some dazzling, disturbing solos) with a very gothic sensibility and sense of humor.  Under the direction/choreography of Brittany DeWeese, the entire cast offers a real tour-de-force not only of dance skill, but acting, and integrating both together.  This makes for no small feet!

Previous viewers of this show will probably recognize two pieces which have been done before--a triangle of preaching and temptation involving a preacher and two women (one of whom might be a lesbian succubus, maybe kinda/sorta), and the wonderful tangle of danger coupled with sensuality titled simply "Poison" (to a personal favorite tune).  

There are so many wonderful things I could try and describe about this show, the naughty hautiness of the our mistress-of-ceremonies, the ballerina whose insane smile hints at her spider-esque contortionist skills, the amazingly spooky solo between a dancer and a shadow, all done to a slew a songs such as "These Boots Are Made for Walking" and "Hotel California".  In fact I just did that.  Just as I will praise all the cast:  Michael Baker, Suzette Labra, Elle Martinez, Samantha Steiniger, Darian Stranix, and Bailey Swogger.

But the bottom line remains this is an amazing one hour show for anyone with an appreciation for dance and a wicked sense of humor.  I took a friend when seeing it this time, someone who's fairly new to Los Angeles.  He was dazzled, amazed, and delighted.

Odds are your reaction will be the same.

Cabaret Macabre plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm until May 28, 2022 at ZJU Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim, North Hollywood CA 91601.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Hamlet at Antaeus (review)

 Spoilers ahoy!

Antaeus Theatre Company remains something of a jewel in the Los Angeles Theatre community, a highly (and deservedly) respected group with lots of support and which produced marvelous classic works.  I  have certainly found their shows just lovely, wonderful, touching.

So they have created some mighty strong expectations.  Which means the current production of Hamlet suffers by comparison.  Unfairly.

I want to start with the good, which is very good indeed.  This show has literally one of the best Laertes (Michael Kirby) I have ever seen, especially since that remains one of the most difficult roles in the whole play.  Unlike most Shakespeare productions, I understood almost every single sentence spoken--which to be honest is the norm for Antaeus.  Several "lesser" characters were not only good, but excellent such as the Player King (Joel Swetow), and Guildenstern (Sally Hughes).  Also, and this is no small thing, the sword fight was good.  Cannot tell you how much a bad or poorly rehearsed sword fight has ruined many a Hamlet or other play I've attended over the years.  Plus I was genuinely impressed at how this edit retained so much of the play (like Fortinbras!) so often omitted from what is after a very long play.

This makes it sound like I'm about to damn the rest of the production with faint praise.  No!  Nor will I even praise with faint damnation.  I will simply say--it is not uniformly excellent, while never once stopping anything but a good performance.

In fact the only solid criticism I have is that the costumes were a little bland.  A little.  Not even solidly bland, just kinda/sorta.

On a more subtle point, I did not personally feel or perceive any specific theme or idea in the production, especially in the first half of the first Act.  The director's note in the program identifies Hamlet's dilemma in rather boring terms of plot, rather than emotional life of the character.  In the very best productions of this play, I know for sure whether Hamlet (Ramon de Ocampo) and Ophelia (Jeanne Syquia) have slept together.  In this one, I have a strong suspicion only--which still places this above the vast majority of productions.  Likewise I was very impressed with Gertrude (Veralyn Jones), and I thoroughly approve of casting one actor to play both Uncle and Ghost (Gregg T. Daniel).  Polonius (Peter Van Norden) remains the most difficult role in the whole play, and I have still seen only two performances in the role I totally believed.  One of those was Ian Holm.  But this time at least he was genuinely charming, which is a vast improvement.

All of which boils down to complaints about nuance in a production I think otherwise quite good.  

Hamlet plays Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, Sundays at 2pm and Mondays at 8pm at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 East Broadway, Glendale, CA 91205

Metamorphoses (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I'm going to cut straight to the chase.  Go see Metamorphoses at A Noise Within theatre if you possibly can.  Never mind about movies with great CGI or retellings of fun legends in a comic book vein.  Those are not bad things, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But this, this is genuine magic.  Real magic.  Transformation.  Watching and partaking of this performance is the very act inherent in the title.  You will no longer be the same person when you leave.

When you walk into the theatre, almost immediately the scent of chlorine makes itself known.  Much of the stage consists of a pool--a body of water which in the course of the show will become a wild variety of places and things and acts and states of being.  Sometimes it even becomes a simple pool of water. 

Here myths come alive, starting and ending with the seemingly simple but mighty act of granting a wish.  Under the direction of Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, a nine member ensemble breath themselves into a wide variety of characters from Greek Myth in this play by Mary Zimmerman.  Aphrodite, Orpheus, Phaeton, Myrrah, Ceyx, Hades--a long, long list.  If you don't recognize some of these names (I did not), worry not.  You will get to know them, maybe even love them, celebrate some, weep for others.  Grief and hope, arrogance and lust, revenge and gratitude, even incest and cannibalism wander on stage--becoming as much a part of the audience as Psyche and Eros (the Soul and the Heart) or Midas and Bacchus (for all intents and purposes a djinn who grants a terrible wish).

It begins with the creation of the world, and ends with a song about love.

Sydney A. Mason, Cassandra Marie Murphy, Eriko Soto, Trisha Miller, Nicole Javier, Rafael Goldstein, Kasey Mahaffy, DeJuan Chrisopher, and Geoff Elliott are the actors who become in turn gods and men, women and monsters, spirits and children.  Describing the stories would do them a disservice.  I can only urge you once more--take part in this journey if you possibly can.  And don't complain about the lack of air conditioning.  The entire cast ends up soaking wet sooner or later.  Nobody wants them to get sick!  Right?

Metamorphoses plays Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm until June 5, 2022 at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd, Pasadena CA 91107.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Wakings (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble thankfully survives despite the pandemic, and as ever offers up quality examples of fine writing.  Never once have I found their productions poor or mediocre.

Wakings continues that trend--a collection of four short pieces by Harold Pinter, Robert Coover, and Hermann Hesse,   

All four seem to be very well directed by Ron Sossi, with a marvelous ensemble consisting of Ron Bottitta, Diana Cignoni, Kristina Ladagard, Darrell Larson, and C.J. O'Toole.  Have seen a bunch of these in other plays, and been impressed.  Add Pinter to the mix and I was excited.

I was not, quite, disappointed.  Not quite.  The idea, as expressed in the program (and pretty clearly onstage), was about...well, waking up to some new experience, a new state of being.  In two cases this involved literally waking up from a very long sleep.  The other two were more about a kind of enlightenment.  More, the pieces in the order presented worked almost like a four-pronged ladder of consciousness, four chakras as it were.

Victoria Station by Harold Pinter shows an angry, frustrated Controller in a taxi company in London forced to deal with a Driver who pretty much seems insane, and (as a result) free, even happy.  Said Controller goes into a feeling of intense, violent rage which leads him out of the tiny room into which he has been confined.

Rip Awake by Robert Coover is a one man show about a now-ancient Rip Van Winkle of the old Washington Irving story, who contemplates what he has lost by being asleep (not an subtle metaphor) and his realization what is left for him now. 

A Kind of Alaska by Harold Pinter is the probably the longest piece.  It is certainly the most complex in terms of plot.  A teenage girl wakes up, her memory fuzzy and so her imagination filling in the very many holes.  The man who seems so thrilled she is awake, he tries to break it gently she is now well into middle age.  She both believes and does not believe him, just as she knows yet does not recognize her own sister.  In the end, it is all too much and what can she do but sleep once more?  But is that not in fact what we all must do, when life really get to be too much, and something wears away enough so that we "sleep perchance to dream"?  

But Siddhartha by Herman Hesse shows an alternative, not sleep but wakefullness dialed up way past eleven to somewhere in the three or four figures.  

Personally, I do not feel these four works "click" together.  The first is so short methinks it belongs in an evening of very short plays, in which the audience becomes attuned to such.  As it happens, we come in expected sonnets and the show begins with a haiku.  Likewise the last, which consists of actors seeking to enact a change in consciousness sans any dialogue or action, ultimately feels unsuccessful.

Some ineffable nuance is missing, where and what I know not (which means this might be a reaction unique to myself--a very real possibility), preventing me from feeling the connection between all four works.  I understood such intellectually.  I cannot point to many specific problems.  Quite the opposite!  The individual pieces work fine.  Somehow, though, these four did not gel for me personally.  Despite the good performances in each of the four.

Wakings will play Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm until June 5, 2022 (with a special performance at 8pm on Wednesday May 25) at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. Los Angeles CA 90025.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Parliament (review)

 Spoilers Ahoy! 

From the makers of The Rage Fairy (which I adored) comes another flight into the meaningful absurd, a hilarious and biting nightmare titled Parliament.  Written and directed by Max Zumstein, whose talent I envy.

The press release gives us the basics:  Since 670 BCE, an imperially-appointed body of shadowy and eccentric figures has secretly controlled the globe. In ever-changing locations throughout time and space, the 13 members of the One True Parliament meet to debate, discuss, and decide on the events which will shape the story of human history. Their penchant for prudence and zeal for oratory has led them to some of the most important worldly contributions known and unknown to man. But this meeting may change the face and fate of the One True Parliament for good... Parliament is an absurdist and fantastical ensemble-driven comedy of prudence, etiquette, order, and fiscal responsibility. Those attending the meeting will bear witness to high concept skullduggery and the folly of erudition.

Please believe me, this does it little justice.  Ballview Entertainment seems to downplay its amazing material, in my view.  I wish they'd stop and revel in their achievements.  For one thing, we the audience are very much a part of the show, as "junior" Senators present for this special, emergency meeting of the One True Parliament which secretly rules the world.  I had a lovely time as we waited, with some members of the cast greeting me, one entering into a brief conversation as it became clear we were both enjoying the pre-show music.  We talking about making planets.

But, who are the "senior" members of this Parliament?  They make a delightfully weird and motley group, in a variety of costumes, many of them quite odd and also deeply indicative of character.  The Founders Three, who greeted us as we entered, are The Impressario (Zumstein), The Maestro (Freda Yifan Jing--who does an amazing job of characterization with her cape) and The Lothario (Ty Aldridge).  The Junior Parliamentary Floor Members are Constance Fidget (Liz Mina, who frankly pulls off one of the most bizarrely impressive feats in theatre history involving a very long tongue twister and juggling), Nathaniel the Usual (Rachel Banks), Apex Zenith and Orgonon Langley (Tullia Ferraro and Jenna Hogan respectively--a strange pair of eerie, frightening power).  Much of the action of the play centers around The Interlocutors--Professor Tiberius Emeritus (Ian Michaels), Temperance Tempest (Megan Colburn), Esquire Esquire (Dan Masso), Dr. Abigail Season (Lauren Adlhoch), Senator Vicarious Meadow (Morgan Lorraine), and Alonzo Fist (Tristan Rewald) who interestingly possesses a gun that will only fire if the target is telling a lie.

Co-director David Kickens plays Leopold Thackery III, listed in the program simply as The Disruption.  As indeed he proves to be, initially as a possible solution to the crisis which spurred this emergency meeting of the One True Parliament.  He eventually emerges as instead an existential threat to the Parliament and every single member, along with quite possibly the human race.  Mind you, he himself is not to blame.  Rather, the Parliament itself has accidentally fashioned him into a weapon capable of shredding any human mind into a zombifying vector of horrific enlightenment.

Baroque, am I right?

More than baroque, this whole show began as startling then cranked up to mind-blowing.  Both hilarious and disturbing, it managed the trick of entertaining while at the time sending a chill down one's brain.  Imagine if you will a secular Good Omens liberally sprinkled with Monty Python and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but done by Americans.

As of this writing Parliament (at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre on Magnolia in North Hollywood) has closed.  Unfortunately.  But I eagerly await news of their next efforts, and following this cast's further performances.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

'Night Mother (review)

 Spoilers ahoy! 

What better way to spend Mother's Day than watching a friend star in a play about a woman telling her mother she's going to commit suicide?

Such makes the premise of 'Night Mother by Marsha Norman, a searing bit of human drama.  

Many plays in our time (and others) are presumed to have a "message" or "moral" to impart.  This play does not, at least not beyond awareness of suicide and depression.  Rather, it functions as an experience.  We are not supposed to get any pre-determined lesson.  Like history or simply life, you can get whatever you can from these two people and what we witness between them.

Jessie (Emily Asher Kellis) is a middle-aged divorcee living with her mother Thelma (Kimberly Demmary), and one evening as the two putter about with all the little tiny things making up their lives--gossip, what groceries are running low, etc.--Jessie tells Thelma her plan.  She's going to shoot herself later that evening, and doesn't want Thelma to be prepared. What follows is the mother trying desperately but not at all brilliantly to get Jessie to change her mind.  Along the way, much of this daughter's life and her mother's as well emerges.  Not all.  No, not at all.  Because how could it?

Naturally enough Thelma pulls all kinds of cards to play, including guilt and rage, propriety and ideas about hope.  But Jessie has been thinking about this for a long time, and planning it for months.  What one cannot quite grasp, and the other hopes she can (pretty much the only real hope she has left) is Why?  Thelma naturally enough is looking for a specific reason, for something concrete.  Jessie on the other says these brutally simple things.  She doesn't like living.  She dislikes her life and sees no way it can get any better.  There isn't anything she really likes, the way some folks love sports or blueberry scones.  She still loves her husband, that is crystal, but also that the marriage is over, even dead.  Her son, whom she says is so close to her in type, is a drug addict on a spiral she believes will end in prison at best.  But those are surface details.  Almost trivia.

Why does she do it?  It says much about the performances as well as the direction by Brian Robert Harris that I left their theatre both knowing and not knowing.  It hurt watching the sadness of these two women, but in my own heart the one I felt most akin to was Jessie.  More than once I heard her speak and the hopelessness, the emptiness was so naked it stirred something in me.  My heart broke, not just for Jessie (although, yes, for her) but for myself and for every depressed, sad individual I've known or heard of who roamed into these kinds of shadows.

But I did feel also for Thelma, feeling her own hopelessness and bafflement and fierce terror despair when Jessie finally says the title of the play.

I wept more than once.

'Night Mother is playing at the Elite Theatre Company, at a beautiful waterfront area at 2731 S Victoria Ave Oxnard, CA 93035 Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm with a special performance at 8pm on Thursday May 19, 2022 until May 22, 2022.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Unsackable Man (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Okay, let me begin by noting how much I hate and loathe football.  It is a worthless waste of effort,  a false religion which in the end is little more than war porn.  Americans treat football like a religion, in part to avoid having to think about how un-Christ-like they are while calling themselves Christians.

That having been said, I loved and adored The Unsackable Man, a musical comedy set in the world of the NFL.  But wait!  Let us note the weirdest and most wonderful thing about this show.  Well, maybe not either the most weird nor most wonderful, but pretty foundational.

It is re-telling of Moby Dick.  

And I don't mean that in a vague kind of way.  In this tale, Captain Ahab (Jonica Patella) of the Buccaneers has spent their entire career in football trying to bring down a former best friend, Wally White (Nick Salas) the oft-worshipped quarterback who has never been successfully "sacked."  The musical begins with the recruitment of Queegqueeg (Zeke Jones) and his best friend Ishmael (Larry Grimes) by Coach Starbuck (Steve Alloway).  So far, so good.  Nice parallels, am I right?

But let me make it clear--this actually captures the heart of Herman Melville's novel.  Writer/composer Dan Waldkirch somehow created an hour-long musical full of charm and laughs but which also somehow captured something real from the book!  Then this fantastic cast (including Laura Van Yck, Tosca Minotto,  Dekland Jones, and Gina Rizzo Bishop) with director Denise Devin brought it to glorious life.  It should not have worked.  Somehow, though, it does.  A big part of that is how it captures something vital, usually overlooked or misunderstood in versions Moby Dick proper.  Ahab may be insane, but Ahab is also great.  Ahab feels a personal slight and that spurs his revenge, yes, but there is more to it than that.  A lot more, which helps make the original tale so compelling.  It has never been the Whale Ahab chiefly longed to strike down, but something behind the whale, something that spoils and ruins men's lives in some fundamental way.  So it is with our Ahab, who will not allow betrayal and cruelty stand.  Nor should we.  

As of this writing, The Unsackable Man has closed at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group in NoHo.  I hope very much one way or another we shall see it mounted once more.  I vote for the Hollywood Fringe Festival next year.  Let us all hope.