Monday, July 24, 2023

The Turn of the Screw (review)

Photo credit: Kelly Frisch
Spoilers ahoy!

Henry James' novella is arguably one of the absolute top tier ghost stories of all time (most would probably make it along with The Haunting of Hill House and The Shining as something of a haunting trilogy).  

The Sierra Madre Playhouse now hosts a new adaptation, The Turn of the Screw by Jeffrey Hatcher.  Like some other versions, this boils down a medium-sized cast of characters to a duel of actors -- Shayna Gabrielle as the unnamed governess who is by far the central character, and Michael Mullen as everyone else, including a wealthy but callow gentleman, a ghost, the housekeeper at a manor house, and a little boy named Miles.  Essentially the plot centers around a sheltered young woman, a clergyman's daughter, seeking employment as a governess.  The position she finds has been rejected by many others, not least because her employer--who has become the reluctant guardian of his young niece and nephew following their parents' deaths--wants to be left alone.  He is not to be contacted ever or at all, no matter what the circumstances.  

The fact she accepts this position, her first, actually hints at much.  Herein lies the key to the story's great appeal.  Hints abound, which even when explicit seem less than crystal.  She learns her predecessor committed suicide following a wildly passionate affair with another servant which resulted in pregnancy.  He killed himself soon after.  But...the governess begins to see them.  Even hear them.  She becomes convinced the manor house is indeed haunted and the ghosts are targeting the two children.

Gabrielle and Mullen bring all this amazingly to life.  The latter must readily and often play a wide variety of roles, each with a strong personality.  Yet the former literally contains the meat of the ninety-minute play.  We soon realize that whether the ghosts are real or not (and they may not be), the spanking new governess has some profound issues which now distort every moment of her life.  Her imagination clearly reshapes reality more or less nonstop.  By the end of her interview with the children's uncle, for example, in which he demands never to hear from her ever again, she is imagining herself as his wife.  In her eyes the two children are perfect, must be perfect, so if they do anything im-perfect there must be literally demonic forces at work. Increasingly she sinks into a labyrinth of fierce, protective paranoia.  

At last the results of course prove tragic.  More, under the direction of Jeramiah Peay these two actors weave a spell of imagination equal in power to this repressed governess' wildest fantasies.  "Compelling" is almost the least way to describe the performance.  Quite literally, I was on the edge of my seat and gripping the arms of my chair within twenty minutes!  Almost every word and gesture, every single silence and look did indeed turn the screw a little tighter.  That we in the end don't know the final answer to almost anything makes up part of the horror.  More, the cast by never for a moment letting up on living these moments, terror and hope and ambiguities intact, brought the story to life.

As of this writing, The Turn of the Screw has three remaining performances.  Friday July 28 and Saturday July 28 at 8pm, with a 2pm matinee on Sunday July 30, 2023 at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 West Sierra Madre Blvd, Sierra Madre, CA 91024.

Monday, July 10, 2023

War of the Roses (review)

 Spoilers ahoy 

The idea behind Queen Margaret's Version of Shakespeare's War of the Roses (which is major mouthful) seems to me an extremely clever and admirable one.  Take a major female character who exists in three or four of the history plays and edit the scenes together to create a play about a queen, rather than a king!  Very good idea!  In fact, I know it has been done before with precisely the same character--Henry VI's queen Margaret of Anjou

This version does not work.  I want to note right off the bat this is not in any way a problem with the cast, many of whom do very fine jobs.  No, I have put it down to three specific errors.

First, the script is unfocused in a big way.  It seems to entirely seek to put as much of the plot of all four plays as feasible on stage--a nice lesson in why such total devotion to plot is often a bad idea.  In theory this is Margaret's story, but most of the action takes place without her presence or even mention, especially in Act Two.  Because the script tries to tell the story of the Wars (notice the plural? And as a matter of historical trivia, no one at the time or in Shakespeare's lifetime ever called them that) in total, rather than tell Margaret's story amid that conflict.  We don't get to know Margaret very well at all, or indeed anyone.  Character and drama was sacrificed in favor of plot.  

Second, the direction leaned into this problem.  There was hardly a single pause in close to two and a half hours of theatre.  Everything was not only at breakneck speed to get every single plot point (whether it mattered or not) on stage, without a seeming moment to react with any kind of depth, but they have clearly been directed to portray only two emotions for over nine out of every ten minutes.  Mostly, anger, the cheapest and least nuanced emotion one usually sees on stage.  The other is wailing grief, all like the anger we see, pretty much one note.  

This was boring.  And grating.  I liked very nearly no one on stage, with the possible exceptions of Henry VI (Emoria Weidner) and Duke Humphrey (Franc Ross).  I almost liked Lady Anne (Claire Simba).  There was a lot of talent on that stage but it seemed like it was written and directed to only give those three moments of sympathy.

Never once did I feel for the central character, Margaret of Anjou.  Not once.  That is a problem.  I did not even hate her.  

Finally, this show desperately needed some good fight choreography.  One half of one fight (out of at least ten) seemed interesting at all, namely the last one in which people froze and moved in slow motion in between some great lines by Richard III (note--NOT Margaret).  The rest of it looked awkward at best.

I hate writing a review like this.  

War of the Roses plays Sunday, July 16 at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, July 23 at 7:30 p.m.,  Sunday, July 30 at 7:30 p.m.,  Saturday, Aug. 12 at 7:30 p.m.*, Friday, Aug. 18 at 7:30 p.m.**, Sunday, Aug. 27 at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 3 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 9 at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 17 at 3:30 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 24 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023 at 7:30 p.m. at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga CA 90290

*Prologue (pre-show discussion):Saturday, Aug. 12 from 6:30 p.m.–7 p.m.

**Pay-What-You-Will performance on Friday, Aug. 18 at 7:30  p.m. (cash only at the door)

Garden of Alla (review)

Spoilers ahoy! 

Quick question--have you ever heard of Alla Nazimova?  If the answer is "no" frankly you've missed out on a fascinating historical figure.  A genuinely great actress of the stage and screen, a pioneer in Hollywood where she was not only a movie star, but a director and screenwriter.  Her home was an elegant mansion on Sunset, with the appropriate name "Garden of Alla."

Add to that an LGBTQ icon.  Openly bisexual, with evidently a preference for women, talk of such generated massive scandals (eventually).

Romy Nordlinger stars in a her own one woman show, appropriately titled Garden of Alla, which to be sure should be welcomed by everyone who's heard tell of the lady in question (which, now, includes you).

So, how is it?

Fun.  Entertaining.  Educational.  Clearly a passion project by someone who has done loads of homework!  The premise here is of Nazimova speaking to us from "beyond the veil."  Thus she sees her entire life and comments upon it.  Here we get into a series of tiny nuances that keep this one woman show from being as good as it could be.  Which should not distract from the very many fine things it (and she) achieve.  It seeks to cover an entire life in about 90 minutes, which would be not enough time had she died young.  She did not.  As a result some things never quite fit together the way they perhaps should.  For example, Nazimova had a long term partner for the last decades of her life.  We hear this woman's name once, very early on, and she never comes up again.  Nazimova married, and her husband pretty much betrayed her.  Yet why did she marry him?  No real clue, not from this show.  There was a long section where she recounted, in a very journalistic winking fashion, the many illicit/fun goings on at and within her estate.  But what was she doing?  Who did she love, even as a friend?  I don't really know, not least because she--Nazimova--is the only character (other than her parents) who get any kind of development.  

So the effect is one of a genuinely interesting, even fascinating history described.  Not experienced.  A woman who must have been nothing less than amazing, but who never seems to stop boasting--and we hardly ever see any of her achievements.  It all reaches a conclusion, a piece of wisdom that sounds rights and should inspire a lot more emotion than it does.  I nodded, agreed with her words, thought this made all kinds of sense--but I didn't feel emotionally involved any time in the last half of the show.  Just interested.  

Which means I liked it.  But I wanted to love it.  Not because of the acting nor the directing (kudos to Lorca Peress btw).  Rather, the script eventually doesn't allow Nazimova to be vulnerable, to metaphorically bleed, to drop her veil.  It simply is a very entertaining trip through some of the highlights of a wildly interesting and talented life, full of passion and pain, triumph and collapse.  But we only wade in a little, not dive into it all and swim with her.

Garden of Alla (which, again, I enjoyed) plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm until July 23, 2023 at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Los Angeles CA 90068.