Tuesday, July 12, 2022

A Midsummer Night's Dream (review)

Photo by John Dimitri
 Spoilers ahoy! 

I love a good re-interpretation of a classic piece of theatre.  This includes a gender-swapped Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew in the Old West, and Tamberlane as performed by Klingons.  Personally, I find this usually works best when one dives further into the play rather than spiraling off in a possibly interesting direction.

Open Fist's latest production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is such a dive, centered around a simple question (confirmed to me by director James Fowler) that almost seems obvious but I've rarely heard (or in this case, seen) asked:  Whose dream are we seeing?

The answer here--the dream of slaves in the pre-war American South.  Now, this has at least one vast advantage from a technical side.  It has another advantage (but also disadvantage maybe) on a purely artistic side.  Technically, Shakespeare's meter lends itself very well to Southern accents, the drawl and rhythm, the use of dipthongs and the like blending with iambic pentameter very smoothly.  Artistically, this both echoes the world of the play (Ancient Athens) and the play's original production (the police state known as Elizabethan England) as well as our current world (the Civil War having officially ended less than two lifetimes ago, and its aftermath all too vividly alive today as a simple glance at the news can show).  For this very reason, the production will strike a chord with some, yet feel jarring to the least with others.  

Essentially, at the start we see Theseus and Hippolyta (Bryan Bertone and Heather K. Mitchell respectively) as Southern Bourbons, casual and arbitrary masters of all they survey, expecting and receiving instant subservience.  In such a world, when Hermia (Sandra Kate Burck) wishes to marry a man she loves, i.e. Lysander (Dylan Wittrock), rather than the man her father Egeus (Alexander Wells) it seems to make a horrible sense said father has the right to have her executed or forced into a nunnery.  

But when the dream begins, its the slaves who suddenly take on entirely new roles.  The Rude Mechanicals become artists, albeit amateurs, who have the leisure time to put on a play (within the play).  Likewise other slaves become otherworldly powers, fairies of immortal power and glory, able to fly or dance amid moonbeams.  Central to the latter is Queen Titania (Ash Saunders) and her husband King Oberon (Phillip C. Curry) whose marital strifes lead to an entwining of the Rude Mechanicals with their Court, along with the silly shennigans of the Hermia and Lysander, along with Helena (Ann Marie Wilding) and the man who loves fanatically, Demetrius (Devon Armstrong) who is himself the official betrothed to Hermia.  All end up in the woods, i.e. the domain of the fairies, who play tricks on them but ultimately seek to make their lives better.

Central to all this proves Puck, played by Monazia Smith, in many ways THE role in the play, loyal and mischievous servant to the Fairy King.  She does a splendid job, becoming quite possibly my favorite Puck of any I've seen.  The whole cast overall is very fine indeed--Syanne Green,  Erica Mae Mcneal. Azeem Vecchio,  Malik S. Bailey, Debba Rofheart, and especially Michael A. Shepperd as Bottom, the male prima donna among the Mechanicals.  Frankly, many might object to the folding into what is obviously a farce such heady subjects as the thwarted desire for human liberty, but methinks all that remains in the text.  Indeed, one reason we still do Shakespeare's comedies so much more often than many comedies of his peers lies in this.  He knows the stuff of all comedy is also the stuff of tragedy (and vice versa).  This is literally a play where a father threatens to have his own daughter killed for falling in love after all.  And the free will of at least one character is ripped away, pretty much forever.  

A Midsummer Night's Dream plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until August 13, 2022 at the Atwater Theatre Village, Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90039.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

The Birthday Party (review)

 Spoilers ahoy! 

Way back in the 1980s, as a theatre arts major at my University, I was cast in a production of The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter.  My advisor felt this was a good experience for us all, doing such a challenging play, stretching out creative muscles.  To this day I believe she was absolutely right!

Still when I learned City Garage was doing the same play I eagerly anticipated seeing it done right, but folks better than a clutch of talented twenty-somethings with little real experience.

Yep.  I was right.  This production knocked it out of the park.  Pinter can be a strange writer, and it isn't immediately clear to some what his plays are about.  This one focuses on an older married couple--Meg (Peggy Flood) and Petey (Andy Kallok)--who run a tiny boarding house in a seaside town.  They have one boarder, Stanley (Isaac Strackonis), a surly young man whom Meg clearly has something of a crush upon, a fact he uses in some mean but hardly psychopathic or even very extreme ways.  He's the big mystery at the beginning.  Why is he here?  Where is he from?  And why, oh why, does he react so strongly to the random gossip of someone asking about some gentlemen asking about letting the other room?  He ends up denying such men exist, could exist, evidently in his mind they dare not exist so they must not!


Under the direction of Frederique Michel, all this set up wonderfully brings out that sense of mystery, that sense that Stanley does not belong here, that his behavior does not match this situation.  The pretty neighbor/visitor Lulu (Savannah Schakett), for example.  Something about the way she flirts with him, or more accurately the way he responds, feels very off.  Something about the whole situation feels as there's a missing piece, some secret that might explain it all.

Then, the gentlemen do arrive.  Goldberg (Troy Dunn) and McCann (Gifford Irvine) show up while everyone else is out.  Is this the place?  Yes.  This job is a little different.  Still Goldberg assures McCann he personally chose him.  There'll be no trouble.  Not really.  McCann feels jittery but says he'll calm down once they begin.  Goldberg it seems has a certain "position."  All rather vague, with hints of...well, an organization of some kind, a job that must be done.  Pretty soon we start to believe these are not their real names at all, but rather aliases.  That sense grows as the story proceeds.

Stanley's reaction upon seeing them confirms something we already suspect--one way or another, the "job" is Him.  He doesn't come to pieces, cry, beg, or even run.  Rather, he tries to bluff and/or negotiate, even insisting there's been some kind of misunderstanding.  But neither Goldberg nor McCann rise to any of this.

Meg of course welcomes them with open arms when she gets home.  Goldberg proves a charmer in the presence of a woman.  Stanley goes back to his room, while the Gentlemen persuade Meg that Stanley's birthday is nigh and they need to throw him a party.

Hence the title.

And ultimately what almost surreal, deeply uncomfortable on many levels the build up and then the actual events of that birthday party prove to be.  Anytime these men are alone with Stanley, they grind on him in a variety of strange and ultimately distracting ways.  They clearly mean him no good.  He recognizes who they are, or at least who they represent, and is terrified.  Yet no one actually reveals any details.  Ever.  I felt certain the actors had some precise idea of what lay behind all this, but it is never quite revealed.  A hint or two about Ireland, but that might be misdirection.

Because this entire play focuses on fear.  Fear in many if not all its many avatars.  Of death or revenge or punishment of some kind.  Of failure.  Of living on the edge with nothing but luck and personal wits to keep from falling.  Of aging and making mistakes.  In one case, fear of learning too much, of having some illusions stripped away, losing a kind of innocence as it were.  Terror of one little mistake, and maybe someone noticing it.  An aching fear of realizing something unsuspected, against which one is impotent.  Fear of all things malign and inevitable, from decay and time to consequences from the past.

Ultimately how does it matter exactly who Goldberg and McCann are, in their terrifying reality, each of them also afraid not that it matters to their victims?  What was it Lulu learned that night with Goldberg?  Details are hardly important, just what we see of her the next morning, self-righteously trying to blame others for a glimpse she got of herself (although, to be sure, she too was a victim).  For that matter, it cannot matter what Stanley did.  He knows.  He reacts to it, to his situation, and crumbles under the weight.  That is what we see, made all the more vivid because the context remains hidden.  In the best horror stories the monsters stays in the shadows after all.  

The entire cast escorts us through a maze of monsters, expertly making our skins crawl without once needing any masked killer to spring out with a plastic set of claws.  By stirring our imaginations, the terror ends up being very personal--and thus, fascinating.

The Birthday Party plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 4pm until Saturday July 23, 2022 at City Garage, 2525 Michigan Avenue. Building T1, Santa Monica CA 90404.