“Trojan Women” Makes Us Feel the Agony We Cause

Fringe, as I said in my last review [June 15, below] is a place where a small new troupe can try their hand at staging a classic. This year, Project Nongenue, a relative newcomer to LA, is taking on one of the most challenging plays of antiquity, Euripides’ Trojan Woman.

Among the Greek playwrights, Euripides most often retells mythic stories from a woman’s point of view (Medea, Iphigeneia in Aulis). But in handling the Trojan War, he goes all-out — instead of Homer’s 10 years of epic battles, Euripides turns our attention to a group of women on the day after it’s over.

Here, he says, is the real story; here you can learn all you need to know about war.

Elizabeth Jane Birmingham, Avrielle Corti, Celia Mandela, Taylor Jackson Ross, Liz Eldridge (photo: Olivia Buntaine)

These are Troy’s noblewomen, their fathers and brothers, husbands and sons all slain. As the Greeks torch their city, they lament their losses — and learn to which Greek each of them will be awarded.

It’s the worst day of everyone’s life. In this unimaginably bleak prison camp, the world has lost all its meaning, lost even its shape. The worst arrives when the last surviving child, a baby, is torn from its mother’s arms and taken away to be killed.

A lot like what’s happening today in Texas and California, or in the lands around Syria or Myanmar. But like Euripides, Nongenue’s artists don’t point the lesson; they focus on the women of Troy. It’s up to us to make linkages. (The play was created for Athenians to watch after their soldiers had ravaged a neighboring city.)

Hecuba the deposed queen (Taylor Jackson Ross), will be a slave to the despised Odysseus; her daughter Cassandra (Kyra Morling) foresees herself and her owner, Agamemnon, being murdered; she laughs. Hecuba’s daughter-in-law Andromache (Celia Mandela) has her baby ripped away, and learns she is claimed by his executioner.

As the day of bitterness draws to a close, Helen (Daphne Gabriel) appears, given back to the Greek husband she had fled to become a Trojan. The others vent their rage on her, whose rash infidelity caused the war. But finally, they face their common fate together.

In bringing this this play to our city, adapter and director Olivia Buntaine makes some quiet, bold choices. She makes Eris, the goddess of strife (Kay Capasso), the narrator who frames the tale; her ironic coldness shocks us, as we share the women’s suffering. Buntaine sharpens moments of love and loss with lines from the poet Sappho. And, with movement director Christine Breihan, she creates an unobtrusive ballet that ends in a breathtaking image.

Designer Cameron Rose uses a simple, powerful metaphor to shape the space — washtubs, and cloth hanging on clotheslines. This lets Eris introduce the others in a memorable device, and keeps the women busy repeating tasks from their vanished world.

Each actor carves a distinct character from clear choices, and most handle the poetry with clarity and force. Ross, Morling, Capasso and Elizabeth Jane Birmingham (as Iris) especially command attention, and Mandela, brilliant in Andromache’s long aria, gives the play its heart-rending centerpiece.

Trojan Women is a formidable challenge –the characters are from a world 3,000 years gone, they speak in elevated poetry, and their story is relentlessly painful. Project Nongenue meets the challenge; their dedication and artistry give us an hour of terrible empathy that will not allow us to forget these women — nor the ones who suffer in refugee camps and prisons all over our world.
Trojan Women, by Euripides (translated by Gilbert Murray), adapted and directed by Olivia Buntaine.
Presented by Project Nongenue, at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

June 22 (Friday) at 8;00.

Tickets: <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/5123>

Terrific, Witty Turn on a Classic — See “An Odyssey”!

At the Fringe, a small new company can take a shot at staging a classic. Better yet, they can twist it, shift its elements (e.g., gender, era, outcome) and turn it on its head. Best of all, this creative reshaping can sometimes let new light emerge from an old lamp, breaking out from underneath its dusty patina.

This is happening to Homer right now; at the Asylum, An Odyssey is bursting the bonds of the ancient epic. Playwright Patrick Denney twists the 3,000-year-old tale into something new, yet sharply wise. And the Ungovernable Theatre Company gives it a simple, smart production as fresh (and darkly funny) as Comedy Central riffing on the day’s news.

We first meet Austin Kottkamp’s remarkable, apparently artless set. It puts us in an Army base housing unit, all prepared for a “welcome home” party. Torn paper letters droop on a clothesline; comical, until we learn they’ve been there for years. A dog sits disconsolately by the trash can.

Penelope, the soldier’s wife, uses songs and slogans and spousal support groups, makeup and a summer dress and coffee (and at times something stronger), trying to be ready for when “O” returns.  Her son, “T,” an Eagle Scout, eagerly scans the horizon while sharing  photos and deeds of his famous father. Whom he’s never known.

Then we meet the dog. Argos loves “O” completely, incapable of second thoughts or doubts. This simplicity is charming, and it’s the source of Argos’ fidelity (which Homer uses for a single touching scene). But it also means Argos can’t be talked out of what s/he observes — so the dog’s view becomes ours, the ground on which the story stands, the soil from which its ironic wit grows.

And this play is rich in irony. (Is it a coincidence that “T,” meeting us half-clad, whips out an iron to press his shorts? I think not.) Many artists are adapting classical stories as America’s empire crumbles, letting things said about Athens or Rome or Scotland resonate with double meaning for our time. Denney’s Odyssey is a quiet domestic scene — no battlefields, no corridors of power — yet its echoes for our imperial age are fierce (and often funny; we wince as we laugh).

Yes, this Odyssey is a quiet domestic scene. It doesn’t take us to Troy (or Iraq or Afghanistan), to the royal palace (or the Pentagon), nor  to whatever places have detoured “O’s” homeward journey. It’s an odyssey that never leaves home (irony, anyone?).

This, I believe, is Denney’s greatest stroke — boldly, brilliantly, his adapter’s axe has cut away 95% of The Odyssey, leaving us a single focus. (The108  suitors for Penelope’s hand, who are the dramatic heart of Homer’s “home” scenes, are gone. Gone, too, is the tapestry she weaves by day and unweaves by night — there’s just an ever-growing stack of photo albums.)

Denney’s bold reshaping also turns the Odyssey (of all texts!) into a feminist story, centered in the heart and hearth. All the battle and bluster of The Iliad are reduced to  a handful of newspaper scraps; the wandering male libido that powered Odysseus’ picaresque epic comes down to the only thing that matters to his family — absence.

An Odyssey is a remarkable work, perhaps even a great one. It is enhanced by Turner Munch’s spare, forceful direction (no movement is unmotivated, no focus ever dropped), Catherine Elrod’s sly, clear  costuming, and Maxwell Denney’s quietly evocative score.

Julia Davis brings unflagging drive and variety to harried Penelope. Joe DeSoto’s Telemachus grabs us and holds us close, through all his growing pains and permutations (clown school is a great place to learn acting).

But the crowning achievement — in writing and in performance — is Argos. Making the undeceivable dog our narrative center is genius. Carolina Montenegro matches this with genius of her own. Looking like a giant muppet, rooted to one spot, she nonetheless manages to carry the show. Using a vocal range like a clarinet, and quiet gestures every canine lover knows, she delivers an astonishing tour de force of the actor’s art — wry, riveting, hilarious, and (yes, Homer) ultimately heartbreaking. When Argos falls, our world has ended.

An Odyssey, written while Denney was at UC Santa Cruz, is a helluva thing for a student to pull off. But hey, Mendelssohn, at 17, turned Midsummer Night’s Dream into music in a way no other composer has ever surpassed. So let’s just be glad we have this play — and for heaven’s sake, tear up your schedule if you have to and go see it! (Should the seats run out, as they will, leave your  name and email for any extensions — this play should make many “Best of the Fringe” lists.)
An Odyssey, by Patrick Denney, directed by Turner Munch.
Presented by the Ungovernable Theatre Company, at Theatre Asylum’s Studio C, 6448 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

June 15 (Friday) at 7:00,
June 23 (Saturday) at 7:30.

Tickets: <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/5093> .






Wilde’s final reckoning arrives in “Being Oscar”

Just over 120 years ago, the playwright and poet Oscar Wilde was released from a British prison and departed for France. There he spent the last three years of his life, separated from his wife and sons, visited by a few friends, largely alone.

At this year’s Hollywood Fringe, playwright Brandie June takes a look into Wilde’s exile. The Importance of Being Oscar began, says direct/producer Matthew Martin, as a 10-minute sketch with Oscar and one other character (his literary creation Dorian Gray). Now, at almost an hour, it also features his wife Constance, and his faithful friend journalist Frank Harris.

Richard Abraham (photo: Fearless Imp)

The three interviews succeed one another, stretching across the poet’s years in Paris (where he wrote and published The Ballad of Reading Gaol).

Harris arrives early on, commiserating, urging Oscar to reconcile with his family, and offering money. He leaves promising to approach Constance — who arrives next scene. (Harris did, in fact, work to bring them together; there’s no evidence he succeeded, though  there is lively speculation. June adroitly sets Constance’s visit in 1898; she died that April, so the Constance we see could even be a ghost.)

In June’s imagining, the estranged pair gingerly arrive at being able to admit their continuing love, although his infidelity has wrecked their marriage. But they cannot sustain the peace: Oscar won’t promise never to see his former lover, and Constance leaves.

In the final scene, a much depleted Oscar (it’s now 1900, the year of his death) is visited by Dorian, the handsome young rake who lets his portrait do the aging while he pursues a wasted life. Impervious in his egoism, Dorian (an alter ego who can’t be fooled) dishes out hard truths to his creator, who tries not to hear them.

Richard Abraham’s Oscar, clearly once an imposing presence, has lost the will for social swordplay; he is now fencing for his life against depression and drink. Patrick Censoplano’s energetic, commanding Dorian nicely reveals a few flashes of petulance and fear beneath his swagger; and Cyanne McClairian gives us a Constance struggling to advocate for herself in the face of the temptation she has never been able to resist. (In a future iteration, she might perhaps show us a little more of the crusading feminist and author who intrigued Wilde.) As Harris, Richard Lucas is given the least to do, and does it serviceably. (In the next draft, I’d hope to see the complex, world-traveling journalist and “fixer” that Harris was.)

As it is, The Importance of Being Oscar is literate, funny, interesting and lively. (June deftly uses several of Wilde’s best bon mots, and throws in a few of her own.) It still has some rough edges, and isn’t tightly woven together. But in brief compass, it explores the many  difficulties — and discovers the real importance — of being Oscar. And it seems clear that this story wants to grow further, into a full-length work. I can’t wait to see what June does with it next.
The Importance of Being Oscar, by Brandie June, directed by Matthew Martin.
Presented by Fearless Imp Entertainment, at the Asylum Stage C, 6448 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

June 11 (Monday), 7:00;
June 15 (Friday), 10:00;
June 20 (Wednesday), 8:30.

Tickets: <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/5152>



“Midair”: a mother’s grief leaves us hanging

You in Midair is subtitled An Elegy for a Daughter. The daughter is Rebecca Schaeffer, a bright young actress who was murdered on her doorstep in 1989. This one-woman show is written and performed by Rebecca’s mother, Danna.

The title and subtitle set up some powerful expectations — powerful enough to pull me into the theatre. The phrase “you in midair” comes from a well-known Sondheim classic, Send in the Clowns. It’s a lament for mistimed love that begins:
Isn’t it rich?
Aren’t we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
you in midair …
It’s hard to imagine a more poignant image for the heart-rending situation of a parent grieving a lost child. And “an elegy” promises to take us there, invoking a poetic tradition for dealing with loss that goes back to Sappho and beyond.

Danna Schaeffer (photo: Owen Carey)

Danna Schaeffer has our empathy the moment the lights come up. She soon widens the connection with humor, a gentle, self-mocking irony. She recalls the joy she and her husband take in Rebecca, and in her brave determination to become an artist; she regales us with a mother-daughter trip to Venice taken while Rebecca is on a filming break.

But we know what’s coming. And it comes. A stalker lurks in the bushes, Rebecca answers the doorbell expecting a courier with a script, a gunshot. The bright young life is torn away, rending all the lives close to her. Schaeffer holds us mesmerized as she recounts
the stunned pilgrimage she and her husband make to the places — West Hollywood, an apartment, a body — where their daughter has just been.

Schaeffer also tells of the days and slow years after, and how she eventually enters her new life, the one with the hole in it. Doing all this, she takes what was a brief piece of celebrity news and gives it context, makes it a human story (far more real than the legends woven about media heroes). This she does well.

What Schaeffer does not do is deliver an elegy. Like its sister word “eulogy,” an elegy focuses on the person who has died; it draws us into their living (or at least remembered) presence, making us feel them and thus appreciate what we — and the world — have lost. In You in Midair, we learn some things about Rebecca, but we do not come away feeling we know her. She is not the focus.

We do come to know her mother. This play is about her, and her experience — less an elegy than a lament, like Demeter recounting her wanderings in search of lost  Persephone.

Another thing Schaeffer does not do is “lose it.” Demeter tears her hair in grief, and lays the earth waste in her anger; Schaeffer (as writer and as actor) veers away from emotional extremes. But we know grief is one of the most extreme states we humans ever experience — and when this mother tells us about it, rather than walking us into it, we feel cheated. No catharsis, no relief.

In one of the most effective moments, Schaeffer segues from a friend’s well-meant advice, urging her to cry more, into an excellent reading of Hamlet’s “I know not seems” speech (Act 1, Scene 2). This gives us, I believe, the key to Schaeffer’s own character. Forced to carry an enormous and laceratingly painful burden through life, she will talk about it, and not keep silent; but she will not engage it. It feels not only too large for anger (as she says), but too large to survive if let loose. This is not at all an unusual response to overwhelming trauma, and she can hardly be faulted for it.

It does, however, set definite limits on what the play can be and do.
Because it is not an elegy, a more accurate subtitle —  “A Mother’s Lament,” “Life with a Hole in It” ? — would better prepare us for what we experience. And the main title is so elegant and delicate a choice that it really demands to be addressed in the text; delicate though it is, it is a strong enough metaphor to carry the whole story.
You in Midair, written and performed by Danna Schaeffer, directed by Julie Akers.
Presented at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

June 14 (Thursday), 10:00,
June 16 (Saturday), 8:00,
June 17 (Sunday), 4:00.

Tickets: <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/5036>

“Wounded” takes the toll of war-damaged lives

War, like a plague, never strikes just one person — it damages everyone around them.

We’re learning this anew in our generation, as veterans come home from America’s adventures in the Middle East. Some have lasting physical injuries, and all carry inner wounds that earlier generations knew as “battle fatigue” and “shell shock.”

We call these inner  wounds PTSD, “post-traumatic stress disorder.” This recognizes that men and women who live through a war have undergone shocks and stresses so severe that human beings can  barely withstand them. And it acknowledges that surviving may have cost large chunks of sanity, including the ability to “come home” — to ever feel safe or normal again.

Kyle Felts, Scott Kuza (photo: Kerry Kaz)

Wounded, by Kerry Kaz, takes an up-close look at these and other “collateral damages.” All three of the play’s characters have had their lives violently reshaped; each is struggling to make some kind of progress into what’s left.

Thomas, his brain torn by shrapnel, has come home as “Tommy.” Unable to register most of what’s going on around him, to speak, or to walk or sit or stand (or use the toilet) without assistance, Tommy is a one-year old in a man’s broken body.

Angelica, Thomas’ wife, has become Tommy’s full-time caregiver.
In the explosive shock of his return, she has quit her architecture studies and lost their unborn baby. Now, after a homebound year, she’s asking for some help.

Enter Sam, a regular at the vets’ clinic who’s in love with Angelica
(a backstory we never get). He’s eager to help care for Tommy, and quickly learns the routines. Angelica is eager, too, and all goes well. Sam and Tommy bond, she’s taking a “catch-up” seminar … and then an IED goes off. Tommy tries to walk one day and falls, his loud yells trigger Sam’s PTSD, and the trio’s budding “home” is shattered.

Where their story goes, I’ll let you find out. I want to note that not just these three, but everyone in their world has suffered the costs of war. The baby has died; Tommy’s distraught parents cannot bear to contact him; and Angelica’s mother has all but disowned her. Sam, it turns out, has lost a wife and baby in the aftermath of his return. We never meet these people, but in them Kaz makes it quietly clear  — war knows no boundaries, and no one escapes unharmed.

Wounded is not, however, an anti-war play. It is a quiet, respectful examination of three intersecting lives. Indeed, respect — and love — for his characters is one of Kaz’s strengths as a playwright. He also has a good ear for how people use the same language differently, and how we often expect another to catch what we don’t (or can’t) say — yet may be surprised, even offended, when they do.

The performances of Kaz’s script are uniformly strong and real, filled with subtext and the subtle gestures that intimate theatre allows.  Kyle Felts, as Sam, gives us a big man dancing among eggshells, meaning well and often doing well but afraid of the rage — and vulnerability — that get unleashed when he’s triggered. Scott Kuza’s Tommy floats  uncomprehendingly in a narrow world, at times afraid, at times frustrated; the actor makes his every sound and movement carry meaning, even if we aren’t sure what it is. And as Angelica, Jesse Holder Tourtellotte takes us on a tortuous ride through conflicting emotions, conscious and unconscious, in a world she never bargained for yet into which she keeps falling deeper and deeper. We may hold our breath at some of her choices, but we’re never tempted to withhold our empathy. Director Liz Lanier holds a steady pace amid the ups and downs, fasts and slows, and keeps our focus on what’s important.

Wounded takes a close look at a morass into which more and more Americans are falling (as is nearly everyone in the countries our wars are ravaging). It proposes no solutions, and lays no blame; it doesn’t even offer a resolution to comfort anyone. But, alas, that’s where we are.
Wounded, by Kerry Kaz, directed by Liz Lanier.
Presented by Kerry Kazmierowicztrimm and Fierce Backbone, at The Lounge Theatres, 6201 W. Santa Monica Blvd., LA 90038.

June 8 (Friday) at 7:45,
June 11 (Monday) at 9:45,
June 17 (Sunday) at 7:45,
June 23 (Saturday) at 3:45.

Tickets:  <hff18.org/projects/5189>


“When Skies Are Gray” Puts Us in Grief, Acts of Mercy

“It’s so good to see something serious at The Fringe.” “Way serious — I mean, death. “And yet it’s so beautiful, so tender.” “Yeah, I’m still crying.” “I’ve never seen anything like it.” “Never.” “Not anywhere.”

This was the talk in the hallway after a performance of Ashley Steed’s newest work, When Skies Are Gray. It’s a quiet yet intense immersive/interactive piece that no one seems to leave unshaken.

In early 2017, Steed, artistic director of the Visceral City Project, lost her mother. “Lost” is an odd way to put it, as if she’d misplaced the most important person in her life. “Said a last goodbye to…”? “Was deprived of…”? No words are adequate for such a thing  — yet in this simple experience, with very few words, we feel it. All.

Ashley Steed, Melissa R. Randel (photo: Christina Bryan)

When Skies Are Gray begins as a Head Nurse (Christina Bryan) asks us to don masks and badges and enter a white-draped room. Inside, a woman lies  half-conscious on a mattress. A wheelchair stands nearby. We are in a hospice, and the woman — Mother (Melissa R. Randel)– is dying.

Soon, a younger woman — Daughter (Steed) — enters and goes to her, crouching and cooing, whispering, smoothing her hair. She sings softly; when Mother is seized by pain, Daughter cradles her. She lifts Mother into the chair, helped by one of us wearing a “Nurse” badge, and the pair walk the halls. She and Nurse put Mother back in the bed; Daughter kisses her and leaves.

Visits continue. At times, Mother recognizes Daughter and speaks, or tries to; at times, she does not. Others of us become involved in the small acts of mercy, as medications and meals are needed. But always, we are hushed, focused. Tears often spill onto our masks.

In a brief hour in this small room, Steed’s artwork takes us far, on journeys deep into our own lives — our fiercest loves and losses, our unspoken fears, our regrets. Ghosts fill the space, charging the air with emotion and meaning. It’s no wonder we feel a bit unsure on our feet as we rise to leave.

But this is what the best art does — takes the most crucial moments in life, strips them to the essentials, and invites everyone in. A year and a half ago, Steed led a group in devising Wonder City, a brilliant, noisy evocation of life in LA. (She commuted between the rehearsals and her mother’s bedside.) Now, she offers a meditative, powerfully emotional hour beside death’s shore.

We are fortunate to have this “professional make believer” (as Steed describes herself) making her art in our city. And fortunate that she can find collaborators like Bryan, who gently but surely holds us all together, the exquisite Randel, Dave McKeever (whose delicate yet urgent music embraces and impels us), and Brandon Baruch (whose spare use of light evokes the shadows of dying, yet helps us carry our warmth there).

When Skies Are Gray occurs six more times this month. But each time, it only brings 16 guests into the room. Act quickly, and you’ll share in an experience like no other at Fringe. Or anywhere.
When Skies Are Gray, written and directed by Ashley Steed.
Presented by The Visceral City Project, at Thymele Arts, 5481 Santa Monica Blvd., LA 90029.

June 8 (Friday) at 7:30,
June 9 (Saturday) at 4:30,
June 15 (Friday) at 8:30,
June 16 (Saturday) at 5:30,
June 22 (Friday) at 9:30,
June 23 (Saturday) at 4:30.

Tickets: <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/5170>


Shootings’ Unseen Victims Step Forth in “Ripe Frenzy”

As we endure the slow holocaust of our schoolchildren, the media  are reporting exhaustively on each killer — and briefly on several of the victims. They even give us sound bites from a few of the victims’ families. We rarely hear from the killer’s family.

With Ripe Frenzy, now at the Greenway Court,  playwright Jennifer Barclay does what the news doesn’t. The play’s set in a  high school theatre that’s busy preparing its 40th annual staging of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. But rather than follow a latter-day George and Emily, Frenzy lets the mothers speak.

Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson, Liam Springthorpe, Elizabeth Ann Bennett (photo: Michael Lamont)

Miriam (Melody Butiu) and Felicia (Renee-Marie Brewster) are the moms of infatuated teens, who are in fact playing the two lovers. Best friend Zoe (Elizabeth Ann Bennett) has a son who’s up in the booth, running sound and lights. Each woman shares stories of her child, and of her motherhood, as they together repeat rituals they’ve known all their lives.

But the story belongs to Zoe, Our Town’s Stage Manager years before, who takes a  similar role in this play. She greets us as it begins, narrates it, and says farewell as it ends. Unlike Wilder’s relaxed, forthcoming narrator, however, Zoe seems anxious, repressed. She keeps tossing us “bright side” bon mots, making us wonder what she can’t say (and won’t let  let anyone else say).

Ripe Frenzy shuttles back and forth in time, between the giddy  preparations for tech rehearsal and a somber, reserved moment after Our Town is cancelled in mid-performance and plans are announced to tear down the theatre.

We wonder, but we know. We do not have the innocent pleasure of suspense. As in our lives, the characters’ pre-show excitement is damped, again and again, by news flashes, memes, and texts about a school shooting in a Michigan town. That shooter even appears, like a ghost, at the beginning, to be shooed offstage by Zoe; yet his name echoes through the play like a mantra.

The Event inevitably occurs — but we only experience it through disturbing projections (by Jared Mezzocchi), jerky images from the shooter’s cell phone. We do see the horrid copycat pattern unfold, and hear all the questions, second-guesses, blamings, and arguments that attend such an event. But Ripe Frenzy reaches its climax in uncertainties — the most lacerating of which is Zoe’s struggle with the question: “Wouldn’t the world be better if he had never been born?”

Leaving the theatre, I saw what I’d learned: The “answers” and “solutions” we ardently seek are just attempts to get out of a crisis. But once we’ve lived in it, the crisis will be with us  and in us, and we will be in it, for the rest of our lives.

Ripe Frenzy powerfully and deeply examines a crisis we’re living in,
as our our society rips itself apart. It’s delivered in a calm, steady, colloquial poetry much like Wilder’s, though it comes to a rest at a much less comfortable place.

The performances are alive and nuanced, the mothers standing out (as they should). Butiu and Brewster give us two clear, very different women, bound together by lifelong intimacy (and isolation). Bennett gives us the tragic crumbling of a person who has given all in love, yet is overwhelmed by forces she can’t foresee or forestall.

Liam Springthorpe, besides playing Miriam’s son Matt, gives a chillingly uncontained turn as the Michigan killer. Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson, who plays Felicia’s daughter Hadley, also creates a deeply disturbing cameo of a bright, unmoored girl who adores the killer. Director Alana Dietz rides herd on the time warping and the poetry,
and injects tension and movement into a play which — like a Greek tragedy — puts almost none of its central action onstage.

Amanda Knehans’ striking set neatly makes the “town” of both plays strongly ubiquitous and at the same time feebly small. And Azra King-Abadi’s lighting draws our attention where it needs to be, subtly signaling mood shifts.

The text and staging of Ripe Frenzy have benefited from several rounds of reworking. (Though I am baffled by the title — it’s never spoken, and tells us nothing about the story.) This strong, honest play takes us into a dimension of our common suffering that we need to understand. Like the Greeks who experienced Sophocles’ works, Americans who see this play will be better able to handle what we’re going through.
Ripe Frenzy, by Jennifer Barclay, directed by Alana Dietz.
Presented by Greenway Arts Alliance, at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., LA 90036.

Fridays at 8:00,
Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00,
through June 16th.
Final performance Sunday June 17th at 4:00.

Tickets: <http://greenwaycourttheatre.org/now-playing>



“wood boy”: puppets shine in dark extravaganza

We all know the story — or think we do.

Pinocchio, the puppet who wants to be a real boy. Geppeto the carver, Jiminy Cricket, Monstro the Whale … oops. That’s the 1940 Disney animated film, which took a dark , convoluted Italian children’s book and turned it into a sweet, simple fairy tale.

Chelsea Sutton, a playwright with a taste for the macabre (Kaidan Project, The Dead Woman), went back to the source. In Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel, she found the darkness Disney tried to brightwash.
She also added some filthier shadows we’ve since cast across the world, our  Puritan-capitalist colonizing culture being even more repressed — and monster-filled — than Collodi’s.

Fire Eater (Keiana Richard), Wood Boy (Rudy Martinez, with Mark Royston and Sarah Kay Peters).Photo: Chelsea Sutton. 

From this morass arises Shoreside, a failed city built around the lair of the malevolent Dogfish (not placid Monstro, but a fierce giant, as in the original). It periodically ravages the city, seeking to eat the inhabitants’ fear; they struggle to contain it, and make money off its presence by creating festivals and a carnival ride.

This is the world into which Sutton’s “Wood Boy” is born. We enter this world outside the theatre and in the lobby, where the Rogue Artists and the Garry Marshall Theatre have created a museum of Shoreside memorabilia along with live acts — music, magic, and fortune-telling. (And, of course, there’s a bar). Guests are urged to arrive an hour early to take it all in.

In Shoreside, we notice signs and stickers that say “Kill the Cricket!” This is a shock (but faithful to Collodi’s tale, where that’s the first thing Pinocchio does). In the show, we soon share the lethal impulse — this cricket keeps interrupting the action to spout commercials.

Again and again, we meet nasty surprises that were in the story at the start, now embellished by Sutton’s dark imagining. Wood Boy becomes a captive performer at the Fire-Eater’s Theatre (it’s Signor Mangiafuoco in the novel — here, a terrifying full-body puppet). Wood Boy’s feet are burned off (in the novel, through sleepy carelessness — here, as a cruel torture).

Wood Boy Dog Fish sounds grim, but it magically combines its vision with buoyant comedy and colorful spectacle. This is the happy result of a gift neither Collodi nor Disney enjoyed — the Rogue Artists’ mad inventiveness. They fill the space to the back doors and the rafters with characters, music, day-glo colors, balloons, sounds, puppets …
It’s an overwhelming sensory feast, a baroque wedding cake with a dark chocolate center.

This production also benefits from the intimate 130-seat house.
I recently saw a triumphant new musical at the Ahmanson (Soft Power, review below) — but for all the big theatre’s resources, it can’t achieve the immediacy of having tickets and candy land in your lap, or seeing a lynched puppet swing from a noose right above you. The small box also acts as an amplifier, reflecting and re-reflecting sound and light, intensifying the excitement.

Wood Boy Dog Fish is as collaborative as theatre can get. Every group — from the half-dozen puppet designers to the two scene designers, the two costume designers, the three lighting and video designers, the two sound designers (plus composer), two stage managers, half-dozen puppeteers, and the actors — works as a closely sychronized team. And the teams must come together as one. Which is the impressive achievement of director Sean T. Cawelti (who’s also a puppet and mask designer).

A puppeteer trio — Rudy Martinez, Mark Royston, and Sarah Kay Peters — come onstage in black to operate Wood Boy, a most versatile and expressive creation. The show also deploys full-body puppets (Fire Eater and the Terrible Dogfish), stringed marionettes, and hand puppets — and a dizzying variety of masks.

Among the actors, Martinez deserves note for fine voice work while draped in black and helping to operate Wood Boy. Keiana Richard likewise develops a strong character unseen, inside the grinning but unsettling Fire Eater. Paul Turbiak takes turns with Ben Messmer (as Geppetto) operating the Terrible Dogfish puppet; Turbiak stalks with wordless menace, while Messmer/Geppetto wanders with the carver’s sad uncertainty.

Amir Levi (Fox) and Tyler Bremer (Cat) pounce in and out, carrying much of the narrative work in their paws, as well as being sly villains. (It’s a delight that Cat, whose tongue Fire Eater tore out, uses ASL.) Lisa Dring creates an endearing friend for Wood Boy in the lost gamin Wick, and Miles Taber gushes fake glee like a geyser as the alarmingly ebullient MC of Funland.

Messmer, as Geppetto, gives us an inept, depressed, drunken artist who abandons his magical child soon after they connect. But he  has somehow won our empathy, so his failures of judgment and nerve dismay us but do not disconnect us. Finally, as Blue (Collodi’s and Disney’s Blue Fairy, here the ghost of Geppetto’s partner), Tane Kawasaki gives a bravura performance, painting a wide range of emotional colors in words and song, carrying magic for healing and gravity for holding Geppetto and Wood Boy on Earth. (Note: Her costume alone is worth the price of admission; Lori Meeker and Jazz Hager deserve any awards out there.)

Of course, such immersive, high-speed, multisensory storytelling can feel almost chaotic. Add the pervasive darkness of Sutton’s vision, and her lightning-quick puns and allusions, and it can be overwhelming. Unlike Disney’s version, Wood Boy Dog Fish is not aimed at children, though a  very bright (and emotionally resilient) child might relish the ride, even without getting every reference.

For the rest of us, Wood Boy Dog Fish offers a dazzling romp through the dark side of life, a carnival ride of rare energy and brilliance into the byways of our individual and communal souls. The script is a stunning achievement. This production (and edition), the fruit of years of working and reworking, testifies powerfully to what dedicated working at one’s art can accomplish.
Wood Boy Dog Fish, by Chelsea Sutton, directed by Sean T. Cawelti.
Presented by Rogue Artists Ensemble at the Garry Marshall Theatre, 4252 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank 91505.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00
Sundays at 3:00 and 7:00,
through June 24th.

Tickets: <web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/19/1525147200000>





“Soft Power” pokes fun at US, China, musicals – See it!

OK, a musical that satirizes musicals. Or current US politics. Or one about how folks in China might view (and misunderstand) America — set 50 years from now.

OK, these ideas would get thrown out of the elevator in mid- pitch. But in this elevator are playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), composer-lyricist Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), and director Leigh Silverman (Violet). All are musical-theatre heavyweights, successful enough to get away with crazy. Or at least try.

When the doors open, out steps Soft Power, a wildly ambitious musical satire that achieves every impossible thing it sets out to do. It pokes fun at musicals as a way to tell stories, taking special aim at the stories we tell ourselves about other cultures — and our own. For his musical target, Hwang chooses The King and I, which he loves. But it’s a guilty pleasure, because it so painfully embodies American (and British) arrogance toward — and ignorance of — Asian culture.

Conrad Ricamora, Austin Ku, Francis Jue, Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante and Raymond J. Lee (photo: Craig Schwartz).

In Soft Power, Hwang stands the classic tale on its head. Instead of British schoolmarm Anna teaching “civilized’ ways to Siam’s King Mongkut, he has Chinese film producer Xue Xing fly to Hollywood to teach Americans how to make a musical — and unexpectedly meet presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Then Xue’s stateside collaborator, a playwright named Hwang, is stabbed by a mugger. In a hospital delirium, the playwright dreams an “American  style” musical that Chinese storytellers, by 2068, will have fabricated from Xue’s journey.

This tale-within-a-tale lets playwright Hwang (the real one) stand between his two cultures, tossing satiric barbs at both — and at how we humans transform our experience into stories that may be art, fable, entertainment, propaganda, or an indistinguishable mixture.

A satire aimed at musicals is, of course, musical as well as verbal. Here, Hwang’s partner Tesori takes the lead, directing the heavy archery with masterful skill and hilariously bad taste. She serves up every song moment a musical buff could hope for, each done in top form — and each just over the top, mocking both the form and itself. The songs are necessary, effective, often beautiful. They move us, yet also make us aware of the innate silliness of what we’re doing.

Soft Power‘s comic arrows land every time, and we laugh gratefully  to see so many foibles so neatly punctured, even if they’re our own. We smile at the stereotypes the characters enact (in this play, they do it with a wink), and chuckle at their inability to see each other. Yet such is the skill of Hwang’s and Tesori’s writing, and the company’s performing, that we see them not merely as comic figures, but as people we care about.

This is no mean trick. And it lends the play, for all its fun and frolic, a sense of gathering melancholy. Beneath each sally of wit lies a wound, and as things progress, we are led to our tears. Still, we’re kept laughing; and finally, we cheer for the achievement. (We also cheer because we so terribly need this catharsis, a chance to laugh at and mourn for our confused, collapsing culture.)

Center Theatre Group stages Soft Power, which it co-commissioned, with no holds barred. Every moment of the story is brought to vivid life in a bravura display of theatrical resources. David Zinn’s scenic designs range from modest minimalism to brash opulence, with wicked humor, revealed by Mark Barton’s lighting. Many scenes open to delighted laughter and applause before a line is spoken.

Under David O’s direction, the pit orchestra is energetic, clear, and flawless; and what’s a musical without dancers? Sam Pinkleton (choreographer) and John Clancy (dance arranger) make every number move, from soft waltzes to exploding high-kick climaxes, recalling — and deftly mocking — dance moments we have loved.

Thanks to  the precise designs and swift changes created by Anita Yavich (costumes), Angelina Avallone (makeup), and Tom Watson (hair and wigs), we instantly recognize our characters, their social places, and even their current moods.

All this artistry gives the actors a perfect world to perform in — and perform they do. As famous playwright Hwang, David Jue gives us a sweet, wisecracking fool who stumbles into wisdom and takes us with him. Conrad Ricamora’s Xue Xing gently but firmly impels the journey, and slowly unbuttons his mental Mao suit as he falls toward love. Austin Ku nicely creates Billy Bob, a hapless young hillbilly who keeps somehow being a hero; and Raymond J. Lee and Jon Hoche deliver a fistful of those outsize secondary characters who move the plot along while mugging, dancing, and singing.

Then there’s Alyse Alan Louis, who plays Xue’s girlfriend Zoe, a nice turn — and Hillary, the hardest character to do, being a world-class media celebrity. Louis, wisely, does not imitate: She gives us a fair resemblance, then unpacks a suitcase full of intense, conflicting (and wholly understandable) emotions.

And she sings. When Hwang was first imagining this story, in 2014, the idea was that Hillary, like Mongkut, would be running a country. The cataclysm of 2016 gave a tragic underscore to Act 2 — and gave Tesori a show-stopping song to write for Hillary. It’s a number few singers can deliver, but when Louis delivers its opening note, the house erupts.

Leaving the theatre, I overheard a group of guests exclaiming, “These actors! Where have they been?” “How did they find them?” “Why aren’t they on Broadway?” Well, they are. Often. Jue did M. Butterfly there, Ricamora did (wait for it) The King and I there, and Louis did Amalie and Mama Mia! there. Even Kendyl Ito, who charms in a small scene as Xue’s daughter, did the world tour of Matilda.

This astonishing array of world-class talents is brought into unity and coherence by Silverman, who not only directed Tesori’s Violet on Broadway, but has helmed a half-dozen of Hwang’s major works.
A friend who specializes in directing musicals says the job is like leading an army, a navy, and an air force, each from a different country, in total darkness. Under Silverman’s eye and hand, all the forces work together seamlessly and arrive in triumph.

Soft Power was a risky project to bet on. But the risk pays off richly, thanks to CTG’s lavish resources and the remarkable artists who have gathered to create it. It’s a constant surprise and delight, one of the best things I’ve seen at the Ahmanson (where I’ve been going since it was built). Catch it before it heads to Broadway. Or Beijing.
Soft Power, by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori, directed by Leigh Silverman.
Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 Grand Ave., LA 90012.

Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00,
Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00,
Sundays at 1:00 and 6:30,
through June 10.

Tickets: <https://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets> or
(213) 628-2772.











“Giant Void” hits search for meaning on the nose

On the nose.

It’s what theatre folks call a text that says too clearly what the play (or the moment) is about, that gives away the subtext, that leaves the actors — and the audience — nothing to discover.

It’s also where a clown puts a red-orange ball that signals “comedy,” that turns a face into a mask, that says this character isn’t exactly a real person — or perhaps has a reality deeper than anybody’s face.

Kim Hamilton (above), Karla Moseley. (photo: Ammo Theatre Company)

The Giant Void in My Soul is on the nose, in the first sense. Bernardo Cubría’s text is not subtle, not clothed in metaphors nor wearing a skin of naked realism. It shows you the bones, all the time. In it, two fools encounter the existential question — the great void in the soul that can’t be named, but also can’t be forgotten, once seen, nor successfully evaded.

The Giant Void is not on the nose in the second sense — that is, the two fools (and two more who ably assist them, taking several other roles) do not wear red noses. They don’t need to. Their evocative clown makeup, their baggy white coveralls, and their nimble capering and posing put us instantly in the familiar world of clowning that goes back to Italy’s commedia dell’arte troupes (and beyond, through medieval mummers, to the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome).

While the fools clown along, assembling and reassembling a half-dozen sawhorses to create the places in their world, they speak dialog as spare and contemporary — and funny — as the best of Samuel Beckett. It’s exactly what we’d say if we could drop all the trivia and pretense, and just say what’s going on in our inner lives, what’s bothering us, what we’re hoping and fearing. The language isn’t fancy, but its accuracy makes us ache — when we’re not laughing. (And sometimes when we are.)

Yes, I did say Beckett. Cubría (whose ear was tuned on Mexican Spanish) has found the same mother lode of plainclothes English poetry that the Irishman did. And he mines it masterfully.

The troupe, in turn, gives his script a splendidly simple production. Mark Kanieff’s inventive set design creates a world of comic mystery from sheets and sawhorses. Lauren Wemsichner’s lighting and the sound score by Mischa Stanton and Arian Saleh likewise weave magic from the simplest things. And, as mentioned, Sami Rattner’s costumes and Erica Smith’s makeup are minimalist gems, summoning millennia of tradition by using nearly nothing.

The actors, on the other hand, are nonstop dynamos. They use everything they’ve got to propel themselves through their world as they try to attack, escape, and finally face the Giant Void.

Kim Hamilton paints Fool 2 in a shifting array of slightly muted colors: hesitant, hopeful, humorous, hurt, ever faithful. This common-sense Sancho holds — or at least, keeps re-finding — the gravity in the room. Karla Moseley uses a lighter palette for Fool 1, the quixotic dreamer who first finds the Void, then leaps headfirst down every escape route, learning  by bruising. Liza Fernandez juggles five roles, an irascible wise drunk and an inconsolable baby being standouts. And Claudia Doumit morphs through four disparate characters, at one point catapulting from a jaded bartender to a seductive swami. Each is a delight to watch (and listen to — clarion-clear diction is a hallmark of these players).

The hand of director Felix Solís is, as it should be, everywhere but invisible. He leads the troupe through an 80-minute ballet of vigorous, precise movement — punctuated by posed stillness in which every turn of a hand or a head, every lift of an eyebrow, has meaning.

I’m sad to say that until now, I have not seen a production by Ammunition Theatre Company. I will not miss another: these are artists to be reckoned with. Cubría’s The Giant Void in My Soul is a remarkable playwriting achievement, and Ammo is giving it a delightful, virtually perfect production.
The Giant Void in My Soul, by Bernardo Cubría, directed by Felix Solís.
Presented by Ammunition Theatre Company, at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., LA 90064.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through June 3.

Tickets: <https://www.goldstar.com/venues/los-angeles-ca/pico-playhouse>