“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>