“Starry”: A Musical Image of two Van Goghs

A van Gogh painting is energy, color, movement — thousands of brush-strokes taking your eye on a dizzying ride, so lively it  seems they were whipped onto the canvas at lightning speed. What doesn’t show at first is the precise composition, the careful color choices, and the long years of study and sketching behind each image.

Similarly, musical theatre uses energy and spectacle to carry us on a whirlwind ride. We don’t see the countless months of writing and rewriting, rehearsing and workshopping, under its dancing surface.

Starry: A New Musical is in town, and it’s about van Gogh. The show, by Kelly D’Angelo and Matt Dahan, just bowed at the first SHE L. A. Arts Theatre Festival, and it now moves to the  Rockwell on Vermont for two more performances.

Let’s be clear:  Starry is not a finished musical, swinging inevitably from each moment to the next, all its seams tucked and hidden. It’s in the workshop phase. The performers have had solid rehearsal and direction, and now they’re showing the creators (and themselves, and early audiences) what works, what doesn’t, and how things may need to be tightened or even rewoven.

Many things in Starry already work — others can work, and likely will.

The concept is bold. Vincent van Gogh could be a poster boy for introverts — it’s hard to think of anyone less likely to burst into song, or to belt out his emotions backed by a chorus. But we buy it. In large part, that’s because we start with Vincent singing alone, then joined by his brother Theo, who leads him reluctantly into society.

Theo is another thing about this show that works. Vincent and his younger brother,  an art dealer, are (as in real life) as tight as twins. By starting with them, singly and then as a duo, we’re led right into the story’s heart. And Theo, we find, is well worth knowing.

Starry also wisely uses Theo’s wife, early and often. As intimate  with them as if she were their born sibling, Jo gives us a reliable view of the brothers. She also gives their story a larger context: After the two die (young, and in the same year), Jo devotes the rest of her long life to promoting Vincent’s work, making him world famous.

Another major part of Starry is the art world of the time. Several ambitious but unknown painters — Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Morisot, Pisarro, Degas — meet regularly in a Paris saloon to drink and argue. Vincent gains a place among them, as they wrestle with everything from how to capture light to how to win wealthy patrons.

But with so many characters and concerns, the Paris scenes do get muddled. The artists are distinguished more by their characteristics than by their characters, and the drunken revels don’t reveal much about their individual goals and points of view. (I wish these scenes felt more like Survivor, and less like Animal House.)

Then there’s Gauguin. He leads the bohemian chorus, sizing up the newcomer, initiating him, and urging him along. Gauguin becomes Vincent’s painting partner and closest friend — but along the way, we lose him. He grows oddly cynical, pulling away from the story and into a pirate-like amorality. We don’t need a Brechtian narrator; we do need the mystery of the man who tried to be Vincent’s friend.

Finally, there’s the music. The songs are pleasant and numerous, but not yet differentiated enough musically. (One patron said afterward, “I feel like I’ve been listening to the same song for two hours.”)

“A New Way to Love” can be a strong love theme — if we’re clearly told (in dialog as well as lyrics) what the new way is. The song also merits a second reprise in Act 2; like the painters’ lively anthem, “Where Are We Going?,” it can gain meaning each time it’s sung. And the art critics’ acerbic “United in Distaste” begs to recur each time they take the stage (perhaps with a “patter song” refrain?).

Vincent and Theo’s “A New Horizon” is not as effective — it’s more a vague metaphor than a compelling statement of their specific hopes. Jo’s “Enlightenment” tells us better who she is. (An Act 2 reprise would let her say how her life goals have shifted.)

One song works perfectly — the show’s title song. All I will say is that it’s an elegantly simple piece of theatre magic, and it’s executed irresistibly.

Among the performers, Derek Carley carries the role of Vincent comfortably, holds the stage with authority, and is a fine singer. He’s well matched by Matthew Sanderson, who carves out a Theo we immediately trust, and whose love for his troubled brother we fully understand. As Jo, Mariah Rose Faith brings a strong lyrical voice and a gently commanding presence to every scene; we relax when she’s onstage, eager to hear where she’s going to take us.

Jeff Blim’s Gauguin always draws our attention, and overflows with infectious energy. To his credit, Blim strains his powerful gifts to make sense of his character’s drift toward cabaret emcee — but it’s a problem only a writer, not an actor, can solve.

In a small role, Lovlee Caroll stands out, bringing focus and intensity to every encounter, making us want to know this Emile Bernard better. Natalie Llerena, on the other hand, underplays the saucy saloon proprietor Agostina, so that Vincent’s only requited love feels as if it never quite happens (this, too, may be a writing more than an acting problem).

The artists bringing Starry into the world have work yet to do. But the skills and dedication they’ve invested in this striking idea are paying off. SHE L.A.’s producers (Nakisa Aschtiani, Natalie Margolin, and Kristy Thomas) are to be congratulated for giving us  a chance to see this work (and several others, all by women) in progress. If you want to watch Starry continue growing, stop by the Rockwell.
Starry: A New Musical, by Kelly D’Angelo and Matt Dahan, directed by Michelle Kallman.
[Premiered by SHE L.A. ARTS Summer Theatre Festival, at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., LA 90046. CLOSED.]

Presented at the Rockwell Table & Stage, 1714 N. Vermont Ave., LA 90027.
Sunday, Aug. 12, at 7:00,
Sunday, Aug. 19, at 7:00.

Tickets: <www.rockwell-la.com>



“Arrival” paints a world just beyond our grasp

Seventy-five years ago, a quiet British love film with a noir look was impressing critics in  both England and America. At the same time, on Broadway, the cast and crew of a smash hit turned their show over to Deaf actors for a night — it was the major-theatre debut of  American Sign Language.

The film, Brief Encounter by Noël Coward, went on to be hailed as a classic, one of Britain’s best. The troupe who took over Arsenic and Old Lace were lauded, then went home to Gallaudet University in Washington DC and were forgotten. ASL wasn’t seen again on Broadway for a generation.

[In 1968-69, the National Theater of the Deaf brought a trio of short plays to the Great White Way. Then came Children of a Lesser God  (1980) and, in this century, Deaf West Theatre’s two hit musicals,  Big River (2003) and Spring Awakening (2015).]

Now, at Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre, the two long-separated streams from 1942 are at last flowing together. In Arrival and Departure, Stephen Sachs has adapted Brief Encounter for the stage, and for actors who use both ASL and English — and cell phones.

Deanne Bray, Troy Kotsur (photo: Ed Krieger)

The result is a lively, often complex comic drama about a woman whose quiet life is disrupted by a sudden mutual attraction with a stranger. This is the movie’s story, too — but now it’s set in the bustle of New York, not a small London suburb; and now Emily’s tween-age daughter Jule is having her first internet crush, which her mother must deal with while navigating her own nascent affair.

And Emily is Deaf. As is Sam, the man she meets in a subway station. And in this world, no one particularly notices that Emily and Sam are signing — in fact, the other actors slip easily into voice interpreting the couple’s ASL conversations.

But Emily’s Deafness doesn’t fit so smoothly in her marriage. Her hearing husband, happy to lead her into his church, balks at letting her teach him to sign. (She’s adept at lip-reading and speaking, so he feels no pressure.) We feel her frustration, having to enter someone else’s world while no one shares hers; but it simmers beneath her consciousness until she meets Sam.

In Brief Encounter, the woman’s isolation comes from living in the prison of suburbia. In Arrival and Departure, Deafness intensifies her loneliness — as well as the explosive effect of meeting a man who cherishes her, awakens her sense of adventure and play, and draws her back into the Deaf culture she has drifted away from.

It seems natural that Sachs, a co-founder of both the Fountain and Deaf West, would want to write a play in which Deafness is central. Far less predictable is his choice to adapt Brief Encounter; but it works. Coward’s story focuses on the characters’ emotional lives, and by keeping that focus, Sachs gives us a play that’s not about Deafness but about people in crisis — some of whom are Deaf.

The Fountain’s staging likewise creates a modern, urban world in which Deafness is simply and unremarkably a part of things. Kudos go to the design team: Matthew G. Hill (scenery), Donny Jackson (lighting), Peter Bayne (sound/music), Michael Mullen (costumes), and Michael Navarro (props).

Video designer Nicholas E. Santiago earns a special note for the vibrant city projections, above and below ground, and for the illuminated wall panels that stream the English text — for Deaf viewers during spoken dialog, for non-ASL hearing folks during signed dialog, and for all of us when Jule’s friends are texting her. Finally, Sachs’ direction and Gary Franco’s movement direction create a playful dance of constantly shifting energy.

This is Emily’s play, and Deanne Bray carries it with no visible effort. She and Troy Kotsur (Sam) are both brilliantly fluent in ASL, using its facial and bodily grammar to enrich each sign’s meaning. Bray, also a successful screen actor, gracefully lets micro-gestures convey subtle shifts in her thought and feeling. Kotsur’s Sam is more ebullient and impulsive, almost immune to the doubts Emily suffers — but quickly empathetic when she does. Together, Bray and Kotsur show us new lovers trying to move with delicate care even as love’s awful gravity pulls them out of their lives.

The third main role is Emily’s daughter. Sachs has created her from a mere walk-on in the film, and has set her budding infatuation as a counterweight to Emily’s. Aurelia Myers delivers a fully believable Jule, intelligent yet innocent, torn between needing her mother and hating her, desperately eager for affirmation from peers with whom she doesn’t fit. Though young, Myers already owns one of acting’s hardest skills — listening, and discovering her response.

Finally (in a modernization of Brief Encounter‘s main subplot), Jessica Jades Andres and Shon Fuller perform a delightful courtship waltz as a donut-shop counter girl and a subway cop. And Stasha Surdyke, besides voicing elegantly when Emily signs, gives a sharply wry turn as her blithely unperceptive suburban friend.

Arrival and Departure is a lovingly conceived adaptation of a classic tale, and a well-wrought piece of theatre. But in these difficult years, we must also ask of each new work, “Why this story, and why now?”

In the brutal early years of World War II, Brief Encounter was a tonic, urging people to hold to their sworn commitments, to keep a rapidly exploding world together. For us, struggling against fascism from within, Arrival and Departure seems less about a renounced love — and more about the vision of a world where people of all  kinds combine readily, shifting into one another’s languages, eager to share. That world looks so like our own, so near our reaching hands … and yet so far that we may never arrive.
Arrival and Departure, written and directed by Stephen Sachs (adapted from Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter filmscript).
Presented by The Fountain Theatre, at The Fountain, 5060 Fountain Ave., LA 90029.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
Mondays at 8:00,
through Sept. 30.

Tickets: <www.fountaintheatre.com/event/arrival-departure>











“Tempest” in a Black Box Gently Opens Our Hearts

Right now in San Diego, the Old Globe is doing The Tempest. In a small Glendale warehouse unit, the Liminal Space Players are also doing The Tempest. Both shows star a woman as Prospera (not –o).

If you like Shakespeare, see the one in Glendale.

The Old Globe marshals hundreds of thousands of donor dollars to create lavish sets and costumes, including half a sailing ship for just the first scene. The Liminals deck their hall with ladders, milk crates, cinder blocks, and sheets. One reaches for the grandeur of Milan’s royal court. The other reaches for the play’s heart — Prospera, cast out of the court, crafting a world for herself and her baby daughter from her skill at magic and the rude materials on a desert island.

Charissa Adams

The Liminals’ magic fashions a world for us, and swiftly draws us in. We start in a storm at sea: all hands are lost. We then meet, scene by quick scene, the folks who inhabit the island — and those cast ashore by the waves. Everyone on board, it turns out, is saved. We smell a fish; Prospera explains. She has raised this storm not to kill, but to capture those who exiled her. (They were all sailing home from a royal  wedding.)

But let’s back up. After the shipwreck, the first being we meet — the first — is a young woman wild with grief because she has witnessed the offshore disaster and felt its victims’ terror. She is Prospera’s daughter, Miranda, now 15. Her home schooling may be rough, but she has clearly learned empathy.

The second person we meet is Prospera.  For generations, male actors have played a father’s protective strictness, and a duke’s anger; but Prospera is a mother first, a magician and royal exile after. Love for her daughter is her animating concern. All her creations flow from that love.

In the original play (the First Folio text), Prospero is a loving but jealous parent who journeys from revenge to forgiveness. At the end, he pardons all  who have wronged him, giving up his magical powers in apparent remorse.

In this Tempest, Prospera is plotting with her daughter’s future in mind. The storm she creates brings Prince Ferdinand (heir to the king who deposed her) face to face with Miranda; when the two fall in love, Prospera is so overjoyed she must be reminded of the justice she has yet to mete out. (Similarly, her stern parental  warnings to the pair are almost tongue-in-cheek.)

And when the lovers share their “island wedding,” Prospera speaks the first half of the famous farewell speech (usually all said at the play’s end). Thanking the natural world’s elves and fairies for their help, she bids them return to their wonted roles. Her prime goal achieved, she begins  letting go; hence the growing weariness with which she finishes her project. (The tiredness is in the text, but usually — unconvincingly — blamed on advancing age).

This Tempest is about empathy, the quick movement of the heart toward others. This is what powers Prospera’s love, Gonzaga’s secret actions to spare her and her baby, the romance of Miranda and Ferdinand, and the new friendship budding at the end between King Alonso and Prospera. It leads Prospera, seeing the miseries of those who plotted to destroy her, to embrace them. It may even be what binds the drunken fools Stephano and Trinculo together.

Empathy is a medicine we sorely need in our time, if we are to keep our civil life together. Bringing this medicine has been the theatre’s task since the Greeks, and even before. (More than 4,000 years ago, Sumerians enacted the drama of the goddess Inanna’s descent into the underworld to comfort her grieving sister.)

This Tempest, barely cobbled together in a tiny black box, reminds us poignantly how fragile our human world is, its fabric woven from our souls and any humble gifts we bring. Director Riley Shanahan and his players are to be congratulated for finding the play’s heart, and for delivering it to ours.

The bold minimal set and clever costumes (most actors do double roles, needing flash-quick changes) are uncredited. So is the text editing. It all seems to have been collaboratively arrived at — bravo!

As for performances, aside from a bit of first-night nerves and early line-rushing, the actors all are solid, and many are impressive. Charissa Adams’ graceful, intelligent Prospera is both vulnerable and firmly rooted; capable of being moved to tears, yet able to strike fear with a glance, she orchestrates the world. As her servant Ariel, Kyla Kennedy’s tall athleticism and fierce (often mischievous) inner power contrast delightfully with Adams’ physical delicacy and calm, emphasizing both the magician’s power and the sprite’s restraint.

Christopher Morson gives us Alonso, king as timid bureaucrat, and a magnificent Stephano, inebriated on wine and ego. (Actors usually play drunks by trying to appear sober; Stephano is so far gone he doesn’t suspect it.) Harriette Feliz creates a Miranda who’s clear-minded and strong-willed — no dewy innocence on this virgin; her Gonzaga also  commands attention, and often makes sense, but is a hapless Humpty Dumpty, unable to stay upright. Both Morson and Feliz shift shape so deftly that I didn’t realize they were doubling until the end, when all four characters were onstage together.

Caliban is a prize role, and Benjamin McFadden brings boundless physical skills and energy to it; his monster is sweetly comic, only menacing when instincts overpower his weak intellect. McFadden also delivers an ineffectual plotter in Sebastian. Paige Henderson, an apt second fiddle, plots with him as Prospera’s treacherous sister; as Trinculo, she tipples goofily with Stephano.

If I had a couple of hundred dollars to waste, I might check out the Old Globe’s version. Happily, I do not. The Tempest, as mounted by Liminal Space Players, is the kind of theatre I live in LA for.
The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, directed by Riley Shanahan.
Adapted and presented by Liminal Space Players, at 820 Thompson Ave., Glendale 91201.

June 24, Sunday (today) at 8:00,
June 29 (Friday) at 8:00,
and June 30 (Saturday) at 8:00.

Tickets: at the door.











“Tar” Tackles a Sticky Topic with Vivid Wit, Honesty

What can be removed, and what cannot?
Odd question for a play to ask, but central to Tar, the middle piece in Tom Jacobson’s Bimini Trilogy. [The trilogy’s world premiere is at Son of Semele (Plunge, part 1), Atwater Village Theatre (Tar, part 2), and the MET (Mexican Day, part 3).]

In Tar, two men whose skins bear ineradicable colors face a daunting task — removing the color from a third. Amen Headley, a black man, and Zenobio Remedios, a Mexican-American, are bath attendants at the Bimini — a whites-only, no Jews allowed, luxury spa. The third man has turned pitch-black by falling in to the La Brea Tar Pits five miles away. (Because he’s so black, no local hospital will accept him.)

Noel Arthur, Tim Ryan Meinelschmidt, Adrian Gonzalez (photo: Playwrights’ Arena)

When we meet Amen and Zenobio, they’re sharing a sparring game — hurling racial slurs at each other, Amen trying to trick Zenobio into saying “nigger.” They’re also under pressure: This is an unusual job, on overtime, and Amen is dying to get to the neighboring Palomar Ballroom, where Count Basie is making an historic appearance as the first black entertainer to perform there. (An actual 1939 event.)

With turpentine-soaked rags, the two wipe tar from the body and wonder how and why he died. When the corpse sits up and coughs, their world shifts. Turns out  Donald Walter, of German descent, has tried to kill himself after his wife’s death. As his black skin is erased, his white racism emerges — as do clues to a secret.

Amen and Zenobio’s  game of epithets gives way to more serious matters; soon, they’re rapidly tossing wry insights about racism in a sort of sociological ping-pong match. At the same time, they wrangle over how far to pursue the story “Brother Donald” is concealing. As at a pro sports match, the tension grows palpable.

Jacobson’s smart writing and his ear for dialect shine in this piece, especially in opera-like duets and trios, when everyone speaks at once and we must decide how to listen. Playwrights’ Arena matches his skill with a polished production: Justin Huen’s pitch-perfect set, Derek Jones’ subtly shifting lights, Howard Ho’s pleasingly period music, and Mylette Nora’s precise costumes tell us where and when we are.

Adrian Gonzalez gives Zenobio a nice balance between ambition, circumspection, and courage (he fought to have Amen hired); he’s a good fellow trying to make his way in an unjust system. Tim Ryan Meinelschmidt takes us on a chilling journey, from Donald’s initial embarrassed confusion to his sucking up all the power in the room. And Noel Arthur’s Amen — who gets the lion’s share of the fun lines and more than a few serious shots — brilliantly delivers a witty, self-educated man of the world who knows which social masks to wear, and when to take them off. Finally, Edgar Landa’s direction keeps us running just a half-step behind all three, and breathless at the end.

Speaking of the end (no spoiler here): When they realize that the Palomar Ballroom is on fire, Amen rushes to help, shouting, “I can’t just stay here and do nothing!” Zenobio, unwilling to abandon his post and risk his career, quietly says, “It’s not nothing.” This poignant exchange drew tears from many of us who spend our days struggling with how to live our lives, yet do enough to avert a holocaust.

Tar handles the stickiest of American subjects with wit and honesty, feinting and jabbing at race like Br’er Rabbit punching the Tar Baby.  It’s a rapid, bracing, often delightful ride into our city’s — and our nation’s — darkest shadows. This play deserves a long life.
Tar, by Tom Jacobson, directed by Edgar Landa.
Presented by Playwrights’ Arena at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 4:00,
Mondays at 8:00,
through July 2nd.

Tickets: <https://tarplay.brownpapertickets.com>

“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.

(art: Carolina Montenegro)

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>