Shootings’ Unseen Victims Step Forth in “Ripe Frenzy”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

“wood boy”: puppets shine in dark extravaganza

We all know the story — or think we do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Giant Void” hits search for meaning on the nose

On the nose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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