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>