Wednesday, April 19, 2023

The Slippery Knot (review)

 Spoilers Ahoy! 

This marks (I think) the fourth production I've had the pleasure of seeing from Ballview Productions

The Slippery Knot by David Dickens and directed by Brandon Slezak is described in their press release as an "absurdist Dickensian dark comedy" which is accurate, and rarely I will urge you to pay attention to those adjectives.  All apply most acutely.

Let me be brutally frank--this play is hard to initially get "into."  The opening scenes are very busy and frantic, also so fast with characters speaking such odd things one has trouble following.  

Mind you, the scale (especially in cast size) and weird background make up a lot of the show's charm.  Dickensian, yes, but also a bit of Dr. Seus plus Lewis Carroll, soaked in absinthe and sprinkled with J.M.Barrie.  We never really get explanation of how Lord Montsume (Ian Michaels) ended up having to live/dwell in his School for Demeaning Boys, where his viciously loyal Colonel (Talin Vartanian) routinely degrades and punishes a band of children who've evidently never known anything else (or maybe have forgotten--evidently this place has been in operation for centuries).  Our entire story is a flashback, though.  One Robert Gardener (David Dickens) is missing and his wife Martha (Megan Colburn) has seemingly hired or at least become allied with The Inspector (Ayanda Dube) to find him, looking up the retired Mr. Skeams (Jay Rumor) to help figure out what they can.

It all goes back to when Robert was a demeaning boy named Speedy Gardener (Lauren Adlhoch) along with other boys/prisoners such as Pip (Fatima Camacho) and Poor Nicholas (Alex Rhind).

NOTE:  I am not at all sure I've got all the names right, simply because the cast of characters was so large.  Yet it is easy enough to recall the major characters.

When the once-in-a-century visit to the school of a circus occurs, a complex plot emerges to let Speedy escape.  Much of this depends upon the so-called wild girl Mental Martha (Natalia Ortega) who will one day grow up to be Martha Gardener.  Seems the Circus' Magician (Jayden Jack) vows revenge on his wife (Libby Rose) who is having an affair with Lord Montsume.  Urged by Mr. Skeams, he uses a magic door to free/hide young Speedy in what seems to be a pocket dimension or realm of some kind.  Other people are trapped there, most of them totally mad.  Once released, they go rampant.  Aided by the Circus' former owner Mr. Whistle (Alec Schiff) Mental Martha and Speedy steal the train which brought it to this location, along with the Emptiness Clown (Isaac Tipton-Snyder) and a former prisoner of the Circus called Mr. Plank (Max Zumstein).

The Lord and the Colonel are soon in pursuit, sparking a quest/chase in which some really odd aspects of life take weird shape.  I don't want to spoil the thought-provoking details, but the two act fever/opium dream really does embody what I sometimes like to call Theatre of Dreams.  Not so much a plot or story, really, as a dream mounted on stage, full of powerful images and meanings it will take time to digest and decide for yourself what it all might mean.

The Slippery Knot plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 pm, Sundays at 4pm until April 30, 2023 at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd, North Hollywood, CA 91601.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Battlesong of Boedica 2023 (review)

 Spoilers ahoy!

(and lots of misspelling of the name "Boudica")

First mounted for the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2022, Battlesong of Boedica impressed me so much I put it on my "Top Ten" for that year.  It has been remounted, and my short review comes down to one sentence:

They did it even better!

If you don't know, Boedica was a Queen (or War Chieftan) of a Celtic tribe in Britain during the reign of Nero.  Faced with oppression more than she and her people will tolerate, she raised tribes in revolt, destroying London then slaughtering hordes of Romans until at last falling in battle.  The stuff of great story-telling, indeed.  More, though, in this case that story is told with all the matter of theatre one could hope for.  Dance plays a major role, as do masks (telling of course how ALL the Romans wear them, while the Britains do only rarely).  Combat itself becomes a dance, while the raw theatricality of it all keeps growing and growing.  At one point, Boedica herself (Jen Albert) dares to summon a Goddess of Battle, brought to more-than-life in a uniquely theatrical manner (and btw better than anything Weta Workshop or CGI could ever hope).  

What I describe sounds like spectacle, and indeed this show is that and more.  Be warned--plenty of violence, some extremely gruesome, some of it frankly triggering (the worst, thank all the gods, off stage--yet just as horrific).  

Yet without a story full of real people, what's the point?  Boedica begins as a harshly practical ally of Rome, having to persuade her husband Prasutaugus (Daniel Admonian) to put up with the company of a Roman Governor.  But in the wake of her husband's death in battle, fighting Druids in the name of "civilization" which kills its own citizens for sport, Boedica's home is looted, herself literally whipped and her daughters sexually assaulted.  

And war erupts.  I want to emphasize how almost every named character, from the Roman officials in their careless arrogance to Boedica's daughters who embrace yet sometimes question their mother's quest, even to relatively minor characters like a Celt challenger to Boedica's leadership, the young warrior in love with one of the Chieftan's daughters, the official looking at the wreck of all he believed permanent and inviolate, all have individual arcs, all we see live emotional truths--see and recognize those truths (in once instance, startlingly funny). 

The consistency of all this earns kudos to the writer/director Christopher William Johnson, as well as the entire cast--Christopher Neiman, Tristan Rewald, Dawn Alden, Allegra Rodriquez Shivers, Colin A. Borden, Lucy Schmidt, Tom Block, Jack TenBarge, Payton Cella, Jesse James Thomas, Sara Gorsky, Frank Tirimacco, Brad. D. Light, and Dan Wingard.  All to this Chloe Madriaga who accompanies the entire show with drum and other percussions.

More than Lord of the Rings and the entire Star Wars saga, more than Game of Thrones this grand performance deserves the epitaph "epic" not least because it stirs the imagination the way film almost never can.  I actually found myself moving in rhyme and rhythm with the the dance of war.  Likewise the hair on my skin rose more than once, and I tasted the despair of both the Romans and the Celts as each approached their doom.

And one leaves the theatre, remembering Boedica.  As one should.

Battlesong of Boedica plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm until April 29, 2023 at the Hudson Backstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038.

Content warning -- Blood violence, whipping, suicide, depiction of animal sacrifice and verbal description of sexual assault.