Friday, September 15, 2023

Ghost Land (review)


Spoilers ahoy!

We all know a terrible war (well, most of them qualify) is taking place between Russia and Ukraine.  CityGarage commissioned a play about this horrible series of on-going events from Ukrainian writer Andriy Bondarenko.

Ghost Land, directed by Frederique Michel, emerges as a series of vignettes which at first seem to have little in common.  Yes they all deal with this particular war, and from the side of those whose nation has been invaded, but other than that...

But this is almost deceptive.  Increasingly we see how all these emerge naturally from one another as naturally as the denizens of a forest.  Eventually.  When the final revelation comes, it hits like thunderclap.  

No, I'm not going to tell you what it is.

Instead I will recall and paraphrase a quote from Joseph Campbell.  "Dreams are the mythology of the individual.  Just as mythology is the dreams of the society."  I agree with this, noting it is even true of day dreams.  Even more of nightmares.

The first vignette is "The Butterfly" and initially features Lura (David E. Frank) and a Doctor (Andy Kallok) discussing the former's trauma on the battlefield.  Or at least this vignette's prologue does, before it switches to the battle, the trenches, the horrific flashbacks of sudden death and wild fantasies coupled with strangely fantastic messages, with fellow soldiers and his girl friend--a character that may or may not return later.  Each of these ends with a twist worthy of the Twilight Zone.  I will note the first one involves H.G.Wells' The War of the Worlds.

Lot of little references like that in here.

"The Dowry" involves Kallock as a father in small Ukrainian village who didn't get out before the snows or before the Russian troops arrived.  He and his wife Maria (Juliet Morrison) look after their silent, pregnant, and ever-knitting daughter Halia (Léa De Carmo).  Almost instantly I saw the red thread Halia was knitting, making something her parents cannot fathom, and wondered if she were somehow channeling the Fates of various mythologies.  Especially amid discussions of wolf-like ghouls of legend in the nearby woods.  When two soldiers (Anthony Sannazzaro and Isaac Stackonis) working for the Russian Army--even though one of them is a local Ukrainian--I got my answer.  Yes.

"Crime and Punishment" ends the trilogy of vignettes, with Iulia (Angela Beyer) arriving in a room and matter of factly putting down her backpack then sitting down.  Soon enough Gennadiy (Gifford Irvine) shows up with a small suitcase, radiating a sadistic glee.  He is here to torture her, get her to confess to crime that she obviously did not commit, in fact never happened.  But...something is off.  She is strong, with a courage worthy of the greatest heroes.  He revels in what is a fantastic portrayal of vicious evil.  Yet something feels not quite right, somehow out of balance, something is not as it seems.  When we learn the truth, it is a revelation and starts to put the entire play into a new, vibrant perspective.

This last vignette functions with an epilogue, again with the same Doctor as before, and here the full context of all we've experienced since the lights came up at the start becomes clear.  I was shaken.  Among other things, the play ceased to be about just what is happening in Ukraine or even about the hell of modern war.  It became about me, and you, and everyone who has ever had to endure the trauma of real evil.  Of those moments when the worst of us turn this earth into a real Hell.

More, how do we heal after that?

Be warned--this play is often grim, disturbing, and deeply depressing.  As it must be.

Ghost Land plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm until October 15, 2023 at Bergamot, T1 Space, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Freud on Cocaine (review)

 Spoilers ahoy! 

I do love a double entendre.  The play now playing at the Whitefire by Howard Skora has a good one.  Freud on Cocaine does indeed refer to the great scientist expounding about the benefits and (eventual) dangers of cocaine.  But he also does so while "on" quite copious amounts of the stuff.

Sounds funny?  Good, because it is!

The story, essentially told in flashback, focuses on a young Sigmund Freud (Jonathan Slavin) and two of the most important people in his life--his best friend Ernst (Aaron LaPlante), and his soon-to-be fiancee then wife Martha (Sara Marafino).  These three form the beating heart and core of the whole story.  Indeed they almost carry it, because their parts contain the drama as well as most of the multi-ranged humor.

Freud, brilliant but insecure and also desperate to make something of himself to he can marry the woman of his dreams, stumbles across some papers on the medical benefits of cocaine.  Ernst, who has lost this thumb in an accident, is in such pain he's addicted to both morphine and heroine, spending much of his time drifting off.  So, upon trying cocaine as a cure for his addiction, Ernst perks up, feeling full of energy again!  Freud believes he's found an area of expertise that might have great possibilities.  He feels that even stronger after trying some himself.  He introduces Martha to it, and she certainly thinks THIS is FANTASTIC! 

So Freud begins a journey into becoming "The Cocaine King of Austria."  With what he openly calls "happy powder" he stands up to his dour, disapproving mother-in-law (Sigute Miller), almost overcomes the overwhelming memories of a father who thought nothing of him, forges a wildly successful career as a consultant to drug companies manufacturing cocaine--with the help of an almost over-the-top executive (Barry Brisco)--coming in time to try and cure a female patient (Amy Smallman-Winston) of deep depression with said happy powder.

With hindsight, it was bound to start crashing.  In fact, it does in a harrowing manner.  Ernst it turns out was not cured of his addiction.  He dies, in front of Freud, who literally cannot bear the guilt.  But Ernst also returns as his own ghost/shadow of Freud's guilt who comes and keeps having invisible conversations.

I wish my words could easily portray just how dizzyingly fun this play is, especially given what is after all some extremely serious subject matter.  Yet after all do we not laugh in order not to cry?  Or, sometimes, to let ourselves go enough to allow a real weeping bout when we need it?  Anachronisms abound, often delightfully so.  While we laugh often and loudly we also feel the pain of these people who keep trying to win, to make it right, to learn, to escape and yet accept responsibility.  It makes for a deliriously dysfunctional mess, both comedy and tragedy in equal parts.  

To be honest, though, there was a character who kept wandering in and out of the scenes in a top hat.  She smiles, comments on the action, hints at who she is (Anna--Freud's last daughter, as yet unborn during this story), but to be brutally honest I could not figure out why she was there.  She is the only character with no arc, who almost never interacts with anyone else, and offers little by way of insight.  No offence to the actress (Kim Hopkins).  I just never noticed what this character was doing in the play--which is in pretty much every other way delightful!

Freud on Cocaine plays Saturdays at 8 p.m  until Nov. 4 2023 (dark Oct. 21) and Sunday at 2 p.m. Sept 10 ONLY at the Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91423

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

FANGS (review)

 Spoilers ahoy!

No one who knows me will feel surprise that I jumped at the chance to see a play about vampires.

Fangs from the Downtown Repertory Theatre makes for an almost startlingly good night of immersive theatre.  "Good" mostly because it treats the subject matter seriously.  "Immersive" because it really is that.  Each attendee will experience a slightly different set of scenes as they are led to varying locations, watching the story unfold from individual perspectives.

The town is Strigoia, some time in the last century most likely, in some Eastern European country (the name suggests Romania or nearby).  The first character we meet is Florin (Sarah Lee Harter) awakened in the middle of the night by a possibly prophetic dream.  Her father Vasile (Taylor Flowers), one of the local fishermen, tries to soothe her but she remains terrified.  Soon the town will vote on which girl will become the Harvest Queen, and Florin does not what to win.  Why is not immediately clear, although we see most folks seem to regard this as a honor.

From Vasile's brother, Presbyter Calin (Kevin Cook) as well as the Alderman Andreu (Christopher Karbo) plus his wife Ruxana (Erika Godwin) we get some idea of how things work here.  A century ago, the town was under attack by some kind of threat, some horror devouring people.  Until the Baron Luca (Aidan Collett) saved them, and continues to protect them on the condition every year one Harvest Queen would be chosen "for" him.  

Along the way, the town--they insist--is prospering, while Vasile knows people are getting poorer and poorer.  Watching all this is Vadoma (Georgan George), a Traveler woman who cleans things and pretty much is tolerated so everyone can always have a target below them.

Finally, we find out Florin feels deeply for Narcissa (Caroline Quigley), the Alderman's daughter who used to be her friend but is now a bully, partially from the pressure from her family to be Harvest Queen.  The third candidate, Viorica (Danielle Fraser) has a hard-working boyfriend Bogdan (Markus Jorgensen) with grand plans for a happy life.  Watching over them is the teacher Alina (Rachel Levy) from outside the town, and a very mysterious young woman named Mjircalla (Chanel Castañeda) who secretly befriends Florin.

Yes, the Baron is a vampire.  Obviously.  Almost as obviously, so is Mjircalla.  Everything is about to change.

Now that description of the setup hopefully might whet your appetite but what I really want to focus upon is the quality of the show overall.  Devon Armstrong who directed and co-wrote (with John Armstrong)  the piece chose a truly excellent cast, and fashioned a story with an exciting narrative which genuinely plumbed the characters' lives in a compelling vision.  Here is love and tragedy, sorrow and terror, raw evil and real virtue all walking and talking on stage.  Supernatural horror meets human terror, frailty, and heroism amidst more than one love story which very much touches the heart.

Starting September 29, Fangs will being a new series of performances at the Mountain View Mausoleum, 2300 North Marengo Avenue Altadena, CA 91001 Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 7:50pm from September 29 through November 7, 2023.