Monday, February 27, 2023

King Lear 2023 (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The story goes that Richard Burton spent part of the last years of his life trying to summon the courage to play the lead in King Lear.  Don't know if that is true, but I can well believe it.  One of the most powerful and challenging of Shakespeare's plays, the layers and complexities of it easily rival Hamlet.

Essentially the plot deals with a very old, formerly great and powerful monarch (Ari Agabian) who has no sons.  He determines to divide his realm between his three daughters, thus avoiding possible conflicts in the future.  That he imagines this would somehow work is one of many reasons to suppose he is not the man he once was.  Even more worryingly he asks his daughters to say how much they love him before he doles out their inheritances.  Of course his two eldest Goneril (Aura Rico) and Regan (Jessica Wienecke) begin to lay down the flattery for all they are worth, while the youngest Cordelia (Jahnavi Aithal) insists on saying she loves her father, but hopes to also love her husband.  Enraged, Lear disinherits his hitherto favorite, bidding her two suitors the Duke of Burgundy (Ryan Hollow) or the King of France (Bobby Brodney) take her sans any dowry.  The latter, interestingly, is perfectly willing to do so.

And the instant Lear's back is turned, Goneril and Regan note how unstable the old man is.  They needs must protect themselves from him, pledging to be allies.  

Parallel to all this is the Earl of Gloucester (Eduardo Mora) with his two sons--the elder, legitimate Edgar (Rafael Hernandez Roulet), and younger bastard Edmund (Erin Manker).  This last--one of Shakespeare's truly great villains--decides to frame his brother, in the end forcing him into exile.  This he swiftly accomplishes, not least due to their father's gullibility.  In fact, as the play proceeds, eventually both the older royal sisters fall out in part because they both want Edmund for themselves!

I have seen over a dozen productions of this play, and to get all the dramatic lined up in a successful row is very rare.  So that this one has it flaws is hardly unusual.  Some extremely high end such have had them.  I would note only a very few real problems here.  The stage combat is not very good.  A couple of actors seem not to understand their roles at all, at least imho.  One or two costumes or blocking choices made me go "huh???"  

But I would rather note that this production has one of the best Edmunds I have ever seen, and also the director Holly LeVeque had a hand in this--especially the "eye" scene.  The moment when the Duke of Cornwall (Andres Tyrell-Smith) actually flirts with Edmund proved startling and delightful--but then the villains are so often the most fun to play as well as watch.  The Duke is husband to Regan, and they seem well matched in casual cruelty.  Lear himself seems a bit young for the part, but he listens and reacts with a genuine intensity that works very well overall.  

Most importantly, the audience was rivetted, and I'm more than happy to note that it was clear the cast understood their lines and sought to genuinely speak them as part of the action (I have seen plenty of Lears where actors pretended, and it was obvious--just as it was cringeworthy).  This production grabs your attention and keeps it.  Few things bore me faster than Shakespeare done by those who have zero clue or refuse to dive into the actual drama (or comedy) of the text.  

King Lear at the Long Beach Shakespeare Company has four more performances--Saturday March 4 at 8pm, Sunday March 5 at 2pm, then Friday March 10 and Saturday March 11 at 8pm at the Helen Borgers Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach CA 90807

Cardenio (review)

Spoilers ahoy!  

There are tales of "lost plays" by William Shakespeare, of which the most famous is Cardenio.  At best we only have a few fragments, turned into new play by Stephen Greenblatt and Charles L. Mee.  City Garage has just produced the West Coast premier, directed (as ever) by Frederique Michel.

So how is it?  First, this is not a Shakespeare play.  It is a contemporary play entwined with the fragments of the Shakespeare, in so very many ways and forms.  Anselmo (Anthony Sannazzaro) and Camila (Devin Davis-Lorton) have just gotten married--a second time.  First, they wed before relatives in front of a judge and now have done so again in lovely Umbria (a province in Italy) and with friends are now spending a week at Anselmo's mother's villa.

With them are the married couple Sally (Angela Beyer) and her husband Edmund (Jason Pereira), along with Camila's dour, sarcastic sister Doris (Kat Johnston) and the groom's best friend Will (Gifford Irvine).  The former two are having some problems, although we only get hints of that at first.  Amusingly, some semblance of what's wrong pops up when Edmund toasts the newlyweds and proceeds to spew forth the issues he's facing from his own marriage, much to the deep discomfort of everyone except Doris.

Meanwhile, Anselmo has asked Edmund to do him a huge favor.  Given to overthinking and worrying, Anselmo fears Camila will cheat on him.  He wants Edmund to try to seduce her, to prove she will remain faithful.

Which is nuts.  This is exactly the kind of thing that leads to mountains of trouble, and most certainly does!  Making things really funny and weird is when Anselmo's mother Luisia (Martha Duncan) and father Alfred (Bo Roberts) show up, with Susanna (Natasha St.Clair-Johnson) in tow--a former classmate of Anselmo whose presence clearly thrills and upsets him.  The parents, actors both, will be performing some version of the lost Shakespeare play Cardenio in a few months and want to have a reading of it with the guests at the villa, as a kind of wedding present.  And here's the kicker--the plot of Cardenio tells of a man who doubts the faithfulness of the woman he loves, asking a friend of his to try and seduce her while he is away.  

From hence, mischief and misunderstandings commence, splashed with copious amounts of self-deceit, questioning, art, and that most dangerous of all substances in this world, Truth.  

Rounding out the cast Simonetta (Loosema Hakverdian), a servant at the villa, Melchiore (Andy Kallok) the chef, and Rudi (Troy Dunn) the handiman and Simonetta's husband.  This last is the nearest thing the play has to a philosopher, and he turns out to be a pretty good one, but also more than anything reminded me of Bottom from A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Indeed when left alone on stage at one point, he decides to enact the entire original play by himself, Dunn delivers a tour-de-force which nicely portrays how art can impact life for the better.  See the play to understand what that means.

The core characters of Anselmo, Camila, Will, Susanna, Sally, Edmund, and Rudi carry much of the play--and it is due to this cast as well as the direction we the audience care about what happens, and cannot quite guess what will happen next.  Although in theory a romcom, Cardenio proves a little too grounded, too nuanced, too melancholy to fit into that formula.  As a result what happiness there is feels deeper.  Same with the regrets.  And the confusion.  Like life, but distilled.  Such after all, is art.

Cardenio plays Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 4pm until March 26, 2023, at City Garage 2525 Michigan Ave. Building T1, Santa Monica, CA. 90404.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Lifespan of a Fact (review)

Photo by Jenny Graham
Spoilers ahoy!

How do we make sense of the world in which we live?  Especially those parts in which we are not directly involved?  Sounds like a heavy subject, doesn't it?  Well, yeah.

All the more reason to turn it into a comedy, am I right?  I cannot remember offhand if Oscar Wilde or G.B.Shaw said "if you tell the truth, make sure you make people laugh, or they will kill you."

The Lifespan of a Fact is long (circa 80 min) one act comedy about this issue.  Written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell  based on a nonfiction book by  John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, it follows the misadventures of when an intern Fingal (Jonah Robinson) for a magazine is tasked to do the final fact check on an essay about the suicide of a young man in Las Vegas.  He takes the job very seriously.  I think few would doubt he goes too far.  I mean, who cares if the moon is closer to a quarter than half full?  If that detail made a difference, sure, but it boggles the mind how that detail might.  The exact color of some bricks?  Exactly how many strip clubs are in Las Vegas on a given date?  

He even ends up flying to Las Vegas and meets the famous author of the essay, John D'Agata (Ron Bottitta), which goes rather worse and better than one might expect.  Not least because Fingal drew up charts to show a traffic jam one witness described could not be possible with the numbers described.

All this about an essay, not an article.  In fact D'Agata seethes in anger when anyone calls what he wrote an article.  

D'Agata calls up Fingal's editor, Emily Primrose (Inger Tudor), who in turn ends up flying out to Las Vegas from New York, just in time to find D'Agata's hands around Fingal's throat.  If this sounds like the stuff of comedy, you have hit a bullseye.  All this is extremely funny, not least the inherent conflict with this frankly entitled but honest and intelligent young man and a weathered, deservedly-renowned writer a long way from being young in almost any way.  They rub each other the wrong way, and their mutual arrogance smooths over exactly nothing.  

Yet, as Primrose stares agog at Fingal's 130+ pages of spread sheets to fact check a 15 page essay, she also spots some genuine problems.  Things that are inaccurate in ways that do matter, which D'Agata resists.  Adding to the conflict, which gets increasingly serious, increasingly passionate and confusing, is one consensus shared--namely, here is an essay of great power about modern life and the human condition.

The deadline looms, one that cannot be changed under any circumstances, and they continue to debate, passionately.  Will nitpickers descend upon the piece, insisting the exact number of cancer deaths that day must be precisely correct or else every word D'Agata wrote is worthless?  Fingal eventually becomes so frustrated he notes there's no real proof the young man in question is actually dead--his body was smashed by jumping off a building and there was no DNA test on the remains.  Likewise, he continues to make a strong point that facts are indeed truth, which means dismissing them corrodes trust as well as judgment.  Well, does he not have a point?  

While Fingal flails around, facing an existential crisis about his most dearly held beliefs, D'Agata finds himself having to defend himself in ways he perhaps never has, and in truth he clearly is in the wrong sometimes.  While Primrose, who must make the final decision, listens to both and fends off both sometimes fighting dirty (at least emotionally).  

It makes for very good comedy, but even better drama.  

The Lifespan of a Fact plays through April 2: Fridays, Saturdays & Mondays @ 8 p.m. / Sundays @ 2 p.m. (dark Monday, Feb. 20 & Monday, March 13) The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave. Los Angeles CA 90029 (Fountain at Normandie). Patrons required to wear masks throughout the performance.

The Dreamer Examines His Pillow 2023 (review)

 Spoilers ahoy!  

I saw a remount of the original production of John Patrick Shanley's The Dreamer Examines His Pillow back in New York when attending the National Shakespeare Conservatory.  That was in the 1980s.  I recall it vividly to this day.

The current production at the Odyssey Theatre is the better production.  It tells an intense, vision-laden tale of a moment of crisis in three people's ultimately entwined lives.  Tommy (James Liddell) is a mess, living in a rancid New York almost-apartment (probably a studio, certainly roach-infested), doing things he doesn't understand and trying to somehow get his life back in control.  He's not a drug addict or anything like that.  But he is, by any definition, a mess.

Enter Donna (Pamela Portnoy), his ex-girlfriend.  We pretty soon figure out their breakup occurred as part of Tommy's spiral.  She has heard he's been seeing her sister!  And he admits he has.  The longer the scene goes the more we realize Tommy's problem is somehow existential in nature, he having little or zero notion why he's acting the way he is.  More, no matter what either one of them says, he and Donna are not in any way over.  Both continue to dream about each other.  Both daydream about touching each other, about feeling the others' skin.

This gets a lot more graphic (and poetic) than my words suggest here.

Donna in particular quietly but deeply freaks out when she sees Tommy has tried to paint a self portrait.  It is terrible (and he admits it).  But...Donna's father is an artist.  

She leaves to talk to her father, with whom she almost never talks.

Her father (we never learn his name but he's played by Eric Larson) is sitting alone, drinking in his big house, having sold almost all his own paintings.  When Donna shows up, he groans.  But...he talks to her.  He answers her questions.  More, when he talks he tells the truth.  Make that The Truth.  As he sees it.  Gloves off.  This in fact may be one of the most vivid facts about this three-character play.  All three tell unpadded, un-masked, unvarnished truth to each other.  Donna bluntly tells Dad the basics of the messed-up basics of what she has with Tommy, but says she can handle all that.  Until...Tommy began to act even a little bit like Dad, and her in turn like her mother.  Her own crap is her responsibility, and she accepts it.  But is it hers?  Or is she simply reliving her mother's life and mistakes?

Revelations follow.  Some really raw and powerful ones, especially about desire and sex, about identity and how people are stupid yet try to be wise, sometimes eventually achieving it in bits and drops.  For the first time, Donna begins to actually know her father, understand him.  It rocks her world.  Just as her questions make him say things about himself he doesn't like but must face.

The final scene is when Dad goes to meet Tommy.  It, like all the others, threads a series of very tiny needles of language about things, real things.  Without being in verse, the whole play is in many ways poetry--heightened language to dive deep into who we really are, what we want, our glories and despairs, the stuff of passion.  All in the mouths of hardbitten, profane New Yorkers sans any sentimentality or much refinement, yet full of blunt nuance.  In particular the cast do the most fundamental thing needed in any play, but especially one where people talk about Truth--they know exactly what they are saying, and say it.  Every word.  That sounds easy, but is not.  Not on stage, nor for that matter off of it.

So massive kudos to the cast, and to director Anne Kathryn Parma (when the entire cast is so good in such a consistent way, that is rarely an accident).  Shanley qualifies as a major American playwright, and this story remains one of the reasons why.  This production did it justice!

The Dreamer Examines His Pillow plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 1 p.m.  until February 26, 2023 at the Odyssey Theatre,  2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025.  It runs approximately 75 minutes without an intermission.