Truth, Lies, Consequences: “Gray People” Has ‘Em All

Kerry Kazmierowicztrimm (who sometimes trims his classic Polish handle to “Kerry Kaz”) is a playwright who bears watching. His
Wounded, an award-winner at the recent Hollywood Fringe, deserved its praises. He has a knack for setting people in tight situations, where their rubbing up against one another will produce not only friction but insight, as each one’s outer layers fall away.

Wounded investigates the deep injuries everyone suffers when there’s a war on. His newest work, Gray People, occurs in a more abstract, less specific world; think of the distance between one of Pinter’s precise domestic settings and the somewhere in which a Beckett play happens.

Olivia Lemmon, Walter Kartman, Kyle Felts (photo: Carlos R. Hernandez)

The characters in Gray People stand — literally — on the edge of the grave. But it’s one they’ve dug, for unknown occupants. The corpses are to come from their employer, whom they know only as “Mr. Z.”  People who work for him aren’t supposed to know each other’s names either, or anything about one another.

Thus far, Kazmierowicztrimm has set us a familiar conundrum rather like a Kafka tale. We recognize this reduced world, folks poised like us between life and death, working like us at jobs that fit into a system we may not understand, for purposes we might not like.

We also connect with the simple-hearted character who can’t hide his name, nor his eagerness to connect with the others. And we feel the veteran gravedigger’s fierce attempt to hold within the rules. And we can’t help liking the newcomer’s plucky willingness to challenge the others, and the mysterious rules of this grim game.

Of course, they rub each other raw, and everything comes out. The climax, and the steps on the journey to it, are never predictable — what each person reveals changes the game. And the outcome is, if not satisfying, one we can accept as necessary, perhaps inevitable.

Kazmierowicztrimm’s investigation here is into truth-telling, hiding truth, and outright lying — and the consequences of all of the above. Once having seen his inquiry unfold, you may want to watch it again to see what you missed or overlooked.

The folks at Force of Nature give this tight script one of their best productions so far. The set — by Jeff G. Rack, Redetha Deason, and Jerry Chapell — is understated and brilliant: gray flat tree shapes repeated so we see a forest, but also see it as off, wrong, ominous. Jonathan Agurcia’s  costumes deftly denote each character both socially and personally. And Sebastian Muñoz’s direction keeps everything moving, and the lines of tension tightening.

The actors are all highly skilled (that deep, deep LA talent pool again!). Kyle Felts, who always seems to anchor the stage, was diffident and vulnerable in Wounded; here, he seethes with barely caged rage as a man pressed into a life he did not choose. Walter Kartman exudes innocent energy, blissfully unaware of his impact; his defenses can shatter like candy shells, but he rebounds like a puppy. And Olivia Lemmon slides among them like a leopard in a tree, at  times disappearing, at  times insisting on being seen, taken seriously, responded to.

Gray People is part Beckett, and part Coen Brothers: Nothing human goes as planned. And why should it? If there were gods, they would be laughing. Instead there’s us, often laughing, often (unlike the gods) surprised.

Kazmierowicztrimm is a prolific writer, so we can expect to see more from him. And we certainly hope to again see Force of Nature so sharply on their game. As for Gray People, it merits a longer life on stage than the current half-dozen performances. (Perhaps Force of Nature will extend it? To be safe, get to The Belfry quickly.)
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Gray People, by Kerry Kazmierowicztrimm, directed by Sebastian Muñoz.
Presented by Force of Nature Productions at The Belfry Stage, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood 91602.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30
through Nov. 16.

Tickets: <www.fonproductions.com>

“Letters from Home” Discovers A World

Every now and then, a work comes along that redefines a genre.
It opens our eyes — and imaginations — to a wider vision of what a particular art form can do. I’ve been privileged to watch this happen to the solo show, twice in the last year.

At the 2017 Hollywood Fringe, Arianna Veronesi distilled her story (not her own life, but Janis Joplin’s) to a mere 30 minutes, half of it with no words, all of it with no singing — yet she overwhelmed us with the essence of the late great blues singer. What she did with severe minimalism, Kalean Ung is doing with astonishing opulence.

Kalean Ung (photo: Grettel Cortes)

In Letters from Home, Ung speaks, sings (accompanying herself on the crotales), and dances for the better part of two hours. Holding us spellbound, she weaves an ever-larger web of intense connections among people torn apart by genocide.

You see, her father, Chinary Ung, is one of the world’s most famous composers. In 1975, as he’s studying in the US, the Khmer Rouge seizes Cambodia, his home country. Like today’s ISIS, they set about to eliminate thousands of years of culture — art. music, literature, and architecture — and more than two million people.

The young composer, his home and family suddenly gone, sets aside  his music; yet after 10 years, he releases his first master work, Inner Voices.  At about the same time, Kalean is born. Gifted in many arts, she takes degrees in vocal performance and acting.

Eventually, Kalean decides to create a one-person show. That’s  when she first learns of the letters — desperate appeals from family members in refugee camps. For the last forty years, they’ve been in a box in her father’s closet.

As the texts are translated, a story emerges — of a young couple in New York begging, borrowing, running up credit cards to pay for guides and for passage to America for everyone they can. Each letter also bears the story of another group of relatives — enduring slavery, somehow escaping, losing loved ones, yet holding on to hope.

Letters from Home unspools these long-hidden stories in a fast-paced, complex mystery tale (far more material than you’d think a one-person show could contain). At the same time, it weaves together all that this second-generation daughter is learning about who she is, and where she comes from — her “home.”

I’ve spoken of the individual stories as if they’re the center of the work. But they’re not — nor is their common tragedy, pitiful and terrifying as it is. For beyond pity and terror, this is a tale of the unveiling of love. Love long hidden, because loved ones’ sufferings are too painful to recall. Love that spares nothing in reaching for the other, love that affirms and reweaves a shattered family, and a nearly lost culture. Love that makes life worth living.

The beauty and richness of this emerging love are expressed not only in the score (by  Kalean’s father, of course), and the many movements and styles of dress she flows through,  but also in the breathtakingly elegant stage set. Hanging screens bear abstract images reminiscent of scroll paintings; history and its horrors are projected upon them (in black and white), but cannot stain them.

Letters from Home is a magnificent production of a truly remarkable piece of writing (and workshopping and rewriting — kudos to Marina McClure’s eye and ear, and her boldness with structure). It evokes a world we’re not familiar with, yet soon has us living comfortably in it — not in its surface details, but in its vibrant heart, the passionate connections that bind us together.

This is art we desperately need, art that makes the life and suffering of an immigrant community real for us — not by lecturing, but by letting us share a voyage of astonishing discovery. As we feel this family’s living bonds re-knitting, they become our own. And we become unable to separate, look down on, cast out.

You do not want to miss Letters from Home. Kalean Ung and her collaborators have created something far richer and more complex, more rewarding, and more necessary than the phrase “solo show” brings to mind. (And now that they’ve done it, who’s next?)
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Letters from Home, by Kalean Ung, directed by Marina McClure.
Presented by the Independent Shakespeare Company, at the ISC Studio Theatre, 3191 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30,
Sundays at 3:00
through Nov. 18.

Tickets: <www.iscla.org>

 

 

 

Dancing into LA’s Past with Señor Plummer

What was LA before the Dodgers? Before the film industry? Before the orange groves?

For several thousand years, it was an array of Tongva villages — Apachianga, Cahuenga, Nacaugna, and more. When the Spanish arrived, they gave it the collective name El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora La Reina de los Angeles, de Porciuncula — “The City of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels, of the Little Portion.” (“Our Lady” being Mary the mother of Jesus, and “Little Portion” being a Franciscan chapel in Italy.)

Until 1849,  “Los Angeles” was a small, quiet community of natives, scattered rancheros, and in-town tradespeople. They referred to themselves as Californios, an isolated, comfortable people. Then came gold — and  fortune hunters from around the world — and Americans.

Ensemble and audience dancing in the courtyard (photo: Chelsea Sutton)

At that moment, Eugenio Plummer was born. His half-Mexican, half-Irish mother had inherited a large piece of the pueblo, and he grew up to be a proud ranchero. Famous for lusty tall tales, he defended his fellow Californios as the Americans set up their courts and took away their land.

Señor Plummer’s Final Fiesta takes place near the end of Don Eugenio’s life, in the early 1940s, when the 90-year-old Don’s tales and reminiscences are gathered into a book. We are guests at the publication party, as the proud editor presents a slide show.

But then Californio magic begins to work. Don Eugenio (a lifesize puppet brought to life by four masked artists) arises from his deathbed and takes the stage. His family members (live actors) appear, inviting us to choose one of them as our guide, and before we know it we’re whirled into the past, which awaits in the interior of the hacienda. (Miraculously, it still stands, in the middle of West Hollywood’s Plummer Park.)

For the next hour and a half, we plunge into one room after another; each is the site of another of Don Eugenio’s picaresque adventures. Most are light, a bit satiric, perhaps a bit ribald, though the era’s violence is always near at hand. In some rooms, darkness gathers into fearful myths, or the kind of shameful memories a community likes to forget — but cannot.

It all culminates in a fiesta in the courtyard, thrown by Don Eugenio and his mother to celebrate a temporary victory over a land shark, and America’s 100th birthday. It also marks a moment when the many peoples crowding into Los Angeles are able to live in harmony. Dancing and singing with them, we, too, yearn for a city of harmony.

Final Fiesta isn’t stopwatch-precise. Events feel almost impromptu, in the easygoing style of these Californios. In their company, we sense the life out of which LA grew, not just history’s dry names and dates. But then, Don Eugenio always loved a lively tale — and some tongue-in-cheek humor — more than mere facts.

As always with Rogue Artists, we’re surrounded by playful invention. We meet puppets and masks of all kinds and sizes (thanks to Jack Pullman, Morgan Rebane, Mark Royston, and Brian White). Matt Hill and his scenic team create fantasy locales from cave to courtroom, and Elena Flore’s costumes include an evocation of a 19th-century hoop skirt that’s (literally) a sheer delight. This is an immersive experience you’ll want to enter again, to see what you missed.

It’s been 75 years now since Don Eugenio walked the land. He and the Californios may be gone. But let Final Fiesta works its gentle magic on you, and early LA’s way of loving life will not end.
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Señor Plummer’s Final Fiesta, by Diana Burbano, Tom Jacobson, Chelsea Sutton, and the ensemble; directed by Sean T. Cawelti and Julia Garcia Combs..
Presented by Rogue Artists Ensemble, at the Theater in Plummer Park, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood 90069.

Thursday through Sundays at 7:30,
until Nov. 18.

Tickets: <www.rogueartists.org>

Politics Got You Down? Try “K*** the President”

I saw a pair of overtly political plays this last week (and passed up the opportunity to see several others). The two plays are wildly different in style, one serious and one comic, one traditional in form and one fooling freely with immersion and the fourth wall. But they’re equally pertinent to the political times we’re in, on the verge of what may be the most crucial midterm federal election in our history. This was the second play.

*****

The folks who call the tune in our political conversations lately may appear to be buffoons, but they’re masters of misdirection and psychological warfare. Their serious steps toward fascism, and the snow flurry of outrages they emit to conceal each one, can make us feel exhausted and ineffective.

This affects folks who do comedy, too. Many complain that the outrages are so extreme they can’t be exaggerated; others say they can’t satirically embarrass people who have no sense of shame.

[NO PHOTO AVAILABLE]

An unnamed company of actors, led by an elusive artist who appears on the internet as “Hieronymous Bang,” have hit on a remarkably effective way out. It’s a bouillabaise of guerrilla theater, commedia dell’arte, vaudeville, immersive escape room approaches, and standup — with a bit of Brecht in the sauce. And it’s funny.

But it’s also unsettling. To start, we have only the in-your-face title — I’m Gonna K*** the President: A Federal Offense — and a phone number. No venue, no date, no headshots, no names. If we’re feeling curious (and brave), we call. We get a reservation, with instructions. Be on a dark  corner, at a certain hour.

By the time we reach the makeshift theater, we’ve been assaulted by suspicion — unknown people challenge us, and we feel unsure whom to trust, unsure of ourselves. This evokes the darker realities of our public life, and the discomfort lingers. But now we’re on folding chairs, facing sheets hung over clotheslines, and a musician is playing a brief pre-show. We’re pretty sure we know where we are.

I will not describe — or even outline — the show/story that unspools itself jauntily before us. I will say that it manages to touch on very many elements of our civic winter of discontent, always with sharp accuracy and mordant humor, within a tale of misadventure that would be taut if it weren’t also comic. (Whoever this “Hieronymous” is, he’s a hell of a writer — the humor is “Bang” on.)

K*** the President is also cathartic (hello, Aristotle). Not only the laughter but also the audience’s active role releases the tension in the story and the world of creeping paranoia it evokes. Taking part in the zany drama, we feel a healing that’s been denied us by the surveillance state and our own self-censorship.

I’d praise artists by name, but names are redacted — blacked out — in the program. The pair playing Skip and Fifi, our leads on this merry chase, are clear and focused; they create characters — and grow a relationship — we believe in, despite all the theatrical alienation going on. The actor who plays The Man exudes menace and wit in equal measure, and delivers a bravura solo quartet (you have to be there). The others — playing Bess, Graciela, Hippie and Chet as well as smaller roles — are energetic and intelligent, and always serve the story.

You will not leave K*** the President entirely comforted. But you will, thanks to the daring humor and your being a part of it, feel a bit stronger, readier to step forward and take your part in rescuing and reshaping our communal life.

K*** the President is a fugitive production, arising here and there around LA in the next several weeks. Your only point of access to this truly remarkable piece of theatre, which brings release and healing in a perilous time, is to find it on the internet — or call the phone number. Find it, and step into it. You’ll be amused, bemused, a bit confused perhaps, and amazed.
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I’m Gonna K*** the President, written and directed by “Hieronymous Bang.”
Presented by [NAME REDACTED], at  various locations around Los Angeles.

Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 7:00,
through Nov. 18.

Tickets: (209) 375-0411.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Story We Dare Not Forget: “Oppenheimer”

I saw a pair of overtly political plays this last week (and passed up the opportunity to see several others). The two plays are wildly different in style, one serious and one comic, one traditional in form and one fooling freely with immersion and the fourth wall. But they’re equally pertinent to the political times we’re in, on the verge of what may be the most crucial midterm federal election in our history. This was the first play.

*****

Mark Jacobson, Kenney Selvey, James Liebman, Brewster Parsons, Zachary Grant (photo: John Perrin Flynn)

You’ve heard of “American exceptionalism.” The notion that our nation is somehow different from — and better than — the rest.

We speak proudly of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution  (not of their being written by rich white slaveholders). We point out our continent’s natural wonders and wide-open spaces (not the 400-year genocide that made it empty, and ours).

We brag about rebuilding Europe and Japan after World War II (but not about why Japan — where there was only one land battle — had to be rebuilt).

Oppenheimer, getting its US premiere from Rogue Machine, lays out  the answer to that last question and opens several others. It also tears American exceptionalism to ribbons, and in its place weaves a far more complex picture.

The play traces a decade in the life of a young physicist, who goes from a modest teaching post to being world famous. What makes his career (and perhaps unmakes his life) is the creation he shepherds into being — the atomic bomb.

Among the theorists chasing down the atom in the 1930s, Robert Oppenheimer is not a leading light — but he’s bright enough to grasp all their work. He’s also a social leader, charismatic and ambitious. So when the US joins World War II and realizes Germany may discover nuclear weapons, Washington turns to Oppenheimer. His job is to hold the loose, often fractious debating club of physicists together and focus their minds on a single task — building a workable bomb.

Oppenheimer tracks his progress, starting with bohemian parties in Berkeley to raise funds for the Spanish Civil War, and ending in the New Mexico desert where the bomb emerges from the paranoid wrappings of military security.

The play moves rapidly — director John Perrin Flynn sets the swift  pace early — yet it still takes two hours. (It could be trimmed to 90 minutes without losing any storylines.) It also deploys 24 actors in more than 30 roles — a lot of traffic onstage, and backstage, and a lot of audience program-flipping. (Several characters could be dropped.)

As usual, Rogue Machine’s artists mount a polished production.  Stephanie Kerlie Schwartz’s spare, flexible set uses benches — and  Nicholas Santiago’s projections — to sketch the story’s shifting locales, and Dianne Graebner’s costumes keep us firmly in the period. Matt Richter’s lighting and Christopher Moscatiello’s sound create the many ambiences (including a wry nod to Dr. Strangelove and a jarringly effective bomb blast).

As Oppenheimer, James Liebman creates a likable genius with one  toe on the autistic spectrum. He’s often so inwardly focused he  seems aloof; he’s stubborn when faced with change; yet he can be lively and engaged in all kinds of relationships, from military to intimate. Liebman grounds his character by bringing intense stillness to the many solo moments playwright Tom Morton-Smith gives him; we find ourselves watching closely for his smallest facial gesture.

As Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer’s unstable lover, Kirsten Kollender has an opposite challenge: Every feeling and thought pours out unchecked. Kollender delivers this without losing her character’s core, or her besieged intelligence. Ron Bottita gives a similarly  strong performance as Gen. Leslie Groves,  a logistical genius who summons the Manhattan Project into being. Bottita’s Groves moves, with credible effort, from a world where his orders can build a city to tolerating the unruly band of academics (most of them leftists) under Oppenheimer.

Among the unruly band, Dan Via is both charming and scary as the naive Hungarian genius Edward Teller, who sees a clear path to the hydrogen bomb and wants to go there. Mark Jacobsen is effective as Oppie’s loyal lieutenant, Bob Serber; and Michael Redfield portrays the German refugee Hans Bethe as perceptive and wary.

Oppenheimer takes us comfortably into the mysteries of nuclear physics, but only as far as we need in order to follow the story. It goes a good deal deeper into moral quandaries, from marital (and filial) fidelity to militarism and weapons-making, and how politicians calling “War!” can shrink civil and personal liberties.

In this era, we are urged to revive the American exceptionalism myth and make our nation “great” again. Oppenheimer is a play we need. It quietly but firmly reminds us that we have as much darkness in us as anybody and that, as Nietzsche said, whoever fights monsters must risk becoming one. As we enlist in this generation’s worldwide fight against fascism, we need first to stand with Oppenheimer at the test site, repeating with him the awful truth from the Bhagavad Gita —
“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
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Oppenheimer, by Tom Morton-Smith, directed by John Perrin Flynn. Presented by Rogue Machine Theatre, at The Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice 90291.

Various dates and times
through December 30.

Tickets: <www.roguemachine.com>

 

 

 

 

“I Go Somewhere Else”: A Great New American Play

A girl and her mother. What could be simpler?

Almost anything. To start with, in Inda Craig-Galván’s I Go Somewhere Else, the girl splits.

This isn’t the usual fragmenting of a personality, where “alters” form like defensive shells around a besieged child core. Instead, it’s as if that familiar question — “What would I tell my younger self?” — has come true.

With the girl in her room are two women who are intimately familiar with each other, and with her. They’re who she becomes, in her 20s and at 50. They’re also her “imaginary friends” — she consults them, and they tend her.

Donna Simone Johnson, Inger Tudor, Kita Grayson, Cheri Lynne VandenHeuval (photo: Playwrights’ Arena)

But when Mama enters the room, they withdraw into the shadows. That’s because mercurial, demanding Mama is the force they’re all contending with, and struggling to understand.

The play’s first half is an inventive, elegant, often funny, and deeply moving portrayal of a child’s breathless efforts to predict, placate, and survive an abusive parent. It stands among the best such portraits our literature has produced.

Then the story shifts, imperceptibly, from trying to deal with Mama to trying to understand her. “Mama,” seen from outside, shifts to “Reda,” seen from inside. And I Go Somewhere Else shifts from excellence to greatness.

Without abating the fierce storm of her madness, it takes us into the world where young Reda has come to grief. And we more than understand, we feel, wrenchingly. (We also sense, if only dimly, how we are accomplices in her undoing.)

I do not want to say more. I Go Somewhere Else is an artistic triumph,  one you deserve to experience firsthand.

I will say that this remarkable achievement in playwriting receives an equally remarkable production from Playwrights’ Arena. The spare minimalism of the set (Austin Kottkamp), the lighting (Derek Jones), and the subliminally powerful sound (Matt Richter) all focus attention on the actors (clad in Mylette Nora’s deftly chosen costumes).

And what actors these are! Kita Grayson (young Lanny), Donna Simone Johnson (20-something Langree), and Inger Tudor (50-year-old Tabitha) have each carried major shows. Here, they create distinctly etched versions of the same person, moving seamlessly from hand-jive to heartbreak and back.

They also make the world through which Mama/Reda moves like a tornado, stirring chaos everywhere and touching down with precise,   devastating force.

In Mama/Reda, Craig-Galván has written one of American theater’s great “terrible mother” roles, worthy to stand beside Glass Menagerie‘s Amanda and Gypsy‘s Mama Rose. And Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel gives it a definitive performance, delivering every moment and nuance with almost superhuman range and power. Her achievement drew a leaping ovation, and made one patron sit down again, breathlessly asking, “What did we just see?”

As if all this were not enough, Craig-Galván also quietly interrogates the racially structured world this mother and daughter — and all the rest of us — must try to live in. (Kevin Coubal’s steady, accurate Cliff contributes effectively here.) No lectures, no villains; just facts, heartbreaking facts.

More than half a century ago, I was privileged to see Glass Menagerie and Gypsy when they were new. Seeing I Go Somewhere Else (now in its world-premiere run) is an equal gift. You owe it to yourself.
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I Go Somewhere Else, by Inda Craig-Galván, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Presented by Playwrights’ Arena, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Mondays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 4:00,
through Sept. 17th.

Tickets: <www.playwrightsarena.org>

 

 

 

“Sea Marks” Reveals Deep Costs of Attempting Love

How do we do love?

After the sparks fly from eye to eye, after delirious kisses, after the morning after… what next?

When we’re young,  we want to fly off somewhere to be alone. When we’re a bit older, we have to puzzle out how to put two lives together.

Bill Wolski, Holly Baker-Kreiswirth (photo: Mickey Elliot)

That’s the knot that Sea Marks works at. It begins as an almost cute tale of two people used to living alone who  start a shy friendship in letters and fall into love. After they joyously join, they spend Act 2 trying to deal with the changes this brings, and fit the lives they’re accustomed to into a single pattern. It’s not clear they’ll succeed.

I said “almost cute.” Playwright Gardner McKay and the Little Fish troupe are skilled enough to avoid the trap. In their hands, we quickly connect to Colm, an Irish fisherman who’s never caught a girlfriend, and Timothea, a Welsh farm girl who’s landed a career in the big city of Liverpool. We sense that each has a rough edge here, a dark corner there, yet we’re charmed (as they are) by the letters, and hope (as they do) for a connection.

As Colm, Bill Wolski creates a powerful, complex character. We’re won by his lengthy opening monolog about living with the sea, yet for all his strength we’re wary of Colm’s innocence; there’s much he doesn’t yet know about the wider world — and his own deeper self. As he follows love’s rose into the world, he’s surprised by the thorns — and by his responses to them. This role is no easy task for an actor, but Wolski handles it masterfully, subtly letting the untried inner Colm emerge bit by bit, keeping us uncertain but hopeful.

Timothea, too, holds much below the surface; but she’s aware of it, a keeper of secrets, not an innocent. When we learn of her hiding, though, we trust her — we know it’s about timidity and tenderness more than power. Holly Baker-Kreiswirth offers us Timothea  so delicately that we delight in the shock of her assertiveness when it’s time for lovemaking. Later, we fear her faith in some of city culture’s values; still later, we share her anguish at having to reveal and stand by the costliest and best of her learning. Baker-Kreiswirth makes it all happen, revealing color after color like a revolving Tiffany lamp. (It seems improbable, but she stepped into the role only a week before opening.)

The production is simple realism — a versatile set by Caitlin Chang and prop designer Teresa Stirewalt, clean lighting (Stacey Abrams) and sound (Christopher Moore), and nicely chosen costumes (Diana Mann). Like the text, however, it conceals more complex depths.

We’re not simply watching a publisher’s assistant and a fisherman fall in love; we’re joining them in the attempt to understand and combine two lives. And these lives are not mere patterns of habit — each has passion at its center, has been found and chosen at cost. Each also carries with it assumptions and beliefs that stepping out of the box will sorely challenge.

Yes, this is a task that confronts any two people who undertake to become partners, in a marriage, a love affair, or even a friendship.
It also looms before us in our civic life, where two disparate cultures, like twins separated at birth, engage in a brutal political war. Can we bring these two worlds, with their passionately believed-in separate realities, into a workable friendship — or at least into dialog?

Theatre, even when it looks like romantic comedy, can bring us to confront ourselves at every level. If it’s doing its job. And in a black box in San Pedro, the artists of Little Fish are using McKay’s Sea Marks to accomplish theatre’s deep work with elegant skill.
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Sea Marks, by Gardner McKay. directed by Richard Perloff.
Presented by Little Fish Theatre, at 777 Centre St., San Pedro 90731.

Aug. 29 (Wednesday),
Aug. 31 (Friday), at 8:00 pm.

Tickets: <www.littlefishtheatre.org>

 

 

“Assassination” lets us find our own, human Poe

You surely know Edgar Allan Poe. And you know he died, a long time ago. You may have heard it had something to do with drugs, or alcohol.

You probably haven’t heard he was assassinated. But he was — and your feeling he may have been an addict is the hand of the assassin, still doing its work 170 years later.

The assassin was a fellow named Rufus Griswold, a failed poet, writer, and editor — who hated Poe for being brilliant in these very arts. So he offered to be Poe’s literary executor, the person in charge of all Poe’s writings after his death. And he wrote the first biography of Poe, the “authorized” version.

Griswold murdered a dead man, who could not defend himself.  He painted Poe as a half-mad drunkard, whose addictions wrecked his writing and career and finally killed him. And that’s the Poe most of us have heard of.

In The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe, the artists of Downtown Rep help us to paint a different, far more complex picture. Using the historic Pico House hotel as their stage, they lead us on an immersive tour of Poe’s life, from his mother’s sudden death when he was three to his own death in a Baltimore hospital at forty.

Guiding the tour are Griswold, a Salieri-like narrator, and Dr.  Moran, the devoutly Christian medic who tended Poe’s last illness. They battle for the poet’s soul as they lead us from scene to scene of his turbulent, brief life. Moran urges Poe to claim responsibility for all that befalls him, disown his “wicked” art, and be saved. Griswold oozes sympathy and understanding for Poe as the hapless victim of a cruel fate.

Assassination‘s authors (presumably co-directors Ivan Rivas, Frieda de Lackner, and Devon Armstrong) thus face us with an insoluble dilemma. And their tale enables us, with Poe, to find a path between the false opposites toward a truth we can hold onto.

The path we find is up to us: At key moments, we must choose to follow either Griswold or Moran into the next scene. There are thus six different paths through Poe’s life, though they all begin and end at the same place (and each includes enactments of “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Annabel Lee”). But whichever path we follow, it’s impossible to end up believing either Griswold’s or Moran’s version.

As an author who’s worked for years on a biography of Poe, I can attest to the playwrights’skill in selecting the pieces from which we make our individual collages. As a producer and director, I am also impressed by their excellent use of the innately dramatic setting. (And laurels to the actors  who firmly override urban noise — sirens, airplanes, mariachis — to keep us in the story.)

Alison Korman costumes the large cast, many of whom play several parts, and flawlessly invokes the era. Stage manager Milan Levy and crew invisibly handle an almost impossible challenge.

Among the performers, Tiana Randall-Quant moves easily from Edgar’s adoptive mother to his teenage fiancee; and Christopher Karbo inhabits Edgar’s unwittingly harsh stepfather as well as his kindly mentor and publisher.  Rachel Levy, Arielle Uppaluri, and Dylan Diehl create a distinct trio of the literary ladies who filled Poe’s later life (with Diehl as a bracingly modern feminist).

Four actors give us Poe. PJ Diaz makes us believe both his diffidence and his precocity as a youth, while Alec Gaylord and Garrick Lewinter nicely distinguish his hopeful, energetic young adulthood from his wry, tired later years (especially after the loss of his cherished wife). And Armstrong shows us Poe’s fierce yet vulnerable soul, wrestling an angel and a devil to achieve his own view of his life and art.

At Poe’s side (and ours), Henry Kelly’s Moran is a chilling angel who slips all too easily from empathy into punitive preaching (the Puritan paranoia that infests American religion). Dan Lench, meanwhile, delivers an award-worthy star turn as the mercurial Griswold, using every trick of rhetoric and emotion to twist Poe’s story into his own — a false friend (to us as well as Poe) who speaks only of “truth.”

Finally, there is Chanel Castaneda. The script gives Virginia, the love of Poe’s life, little to say or do before the final scenes, but Castaneda does it so well that we utterly understand Poe’s devotion. Then the playwrights give her a tour de force monolog at the end; rising from her bier, Castaneda delivers it eloquently, carrying us away.

The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe is an heroic assault upon a most difficult story; telling it as an immersive journey throughout the century-old hotel multiplies the challenge. The artists of Downtown Rep meet their challenge triumphantly, weaving a complex and satisfying design. This show deserves to  be extended (strenuous as that will no doubt be for the company), and to become a regular feature of Downtown Rep’s offerings.
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The Assassination of Edgar Allan Poe, written and directed by Ivan Rivas, Frieda de Lackner, and Devon Armstrong.
Presented by Downtown Repertory Theater Company at the Pico House, 430 N. Main St., LA 90012.

Friday (Aug. 24th) and
Sunday (Aug. 26th),
at 7:15pm.

Tickets:  <www.downtownrep.com>

 

“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.
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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.
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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>