“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.
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Trojan Women, by Euripides (translated by Gilbert Murray), adapted and directed by Olivia Buntaine.
Presented by Project Nongenue, at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

June 22 (Friday) at 8;00.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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“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.
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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.
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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.
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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>