Brontes Take Surreal Romp in “Sisters Three”

The title summons powerful ghosts — Shakespeare, maybe Chekhov. Will these sisters be wrestling with the three witches who guide Macbeth’s fate? Or with the Prozorovs, who yearn for Moscow?

Neither, it turns out. These are the Brontë sisters — Emily, Anne, and Charlotte, early Victorian poet/novelists who burst into fame when Charlotte’s Jane Eyre hit print. But in this telling, they’ve morphed into modern women. Emily’s a math genius on a PhD fellowship, who prefers to be called E.J.; Anne’s camped in Emily’s dorm room while trying to start a PR career; and Charlotte has gone off to join an island commune.

Kara Hume, Dana DeRuyck (photo: Rachel Rambaldi)

They’re all struggling with their beloved brother’s sudden death. With him, they had shared a tight-knit childhood, centered on an imaginary world where they ruled adjacent realms.

This  closely mirrors the historic Brontës, who for decades escaped their impoverished Yorkshire home for adventures in the Empire of Angria and the island continent of Gondal, recounted in secret illustrated volumes. Their brother, a gifted painter, died an addict at 31; without him, the sisters declined swiftly. Emily and Anne were dead within six months, and Charlotte only lived five years longer.

Without their brother, the modern sisters are also at sea. They still resort to the game in times of stress. And the island Charlotte has fled to is named Gondal. What’s at stake is whether these three can somehow navigate loss better than the originals did.

The plot is driven by Anne’s plan to build a canoe, row to Gondal, and rescue Charlotte — and by E.J.’s dogged effort to solve the famous Riemann Hypothesis. But when their fragile facades clash, both fracture, and we see the roiling lava underneath. We come to care more about these sisters’ inner lives, and their survival, than about their quixotic quests.

As Anne, Kara Hume rides the edge of ADHD like a butterfly, pulsing with the electricity that powers her precious phone. Dana DeRuyck as E.J., meanwhile, exerts every ounce of energy to hold her rage and grief silent — but erupts, to her chagrin, again and again. Charlotte (Robyn Cohen), when she appears, brings yet another kind of near-madness to the mix, in a bravura monolog.

When the play ends, we know these characters far better, and care about them far more, than we did at first. What we don’t know is any answer to the central question, how they will fare. It’s a testament to playwright Jami Brandli — and to the company of artists — that rather than feeling cheated, we feel satisfied.

Sisters Three raises the ghosts of the historic Brontë sisters, yet I do not see it wrestling with them or their legacy. Nor does it appear to be commenting on differences between the two eras. As a longtime Brontë fan, I enjoy the parallels between the two sets of siblings — yet the modern trio are crafted well enough that this would be a fine, funny play even without the historical underlay.

The Inkwell Theatre mounts this fairly energetic play in a tiny black box. Set designer Lex Gernon uses it to evoke a cramped dorm room — made infinitely worse by the bulky presence of Anne’s canoe. Director Annie McVey keeps the action contained so that when an enraged E.J. stomps into the boat to get to Anne, we feel the violation. And when the two, in their royal personas, fall to angry swordplay, Collin Bressie’s fight direction — and the canoe — keep the stakes high and the action credible.

Sisters Three tells an emotional family story, but not as a kitchen-sink weeper. Instead, it’s a lively, intelligent comedy, half realistic and half surreal. And the smart, energetic performances are worth the price of admission.
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Sisters Three, by Jami Brandli, directed by Annie McVey.
Presented by The Inkwell Theater, at VS. Theatre, 5453 Pico Blvd., LA 90019.

Thursday (Dec. 27) at 8:00;
Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
Mondays (Jan. 7 and Jan. 14) at 8:00,
through Jan. 20th.

Tickets: <inkwelltheater.com>

 

 

 

“Clarissant” sets Arthur myth in apple-pie order

Back in the late Middle Ages, the hottest new serial drama was “The British Matter” — tales of King Arthur and his Round Table knights. The GOT-like stories were being invented, borrowed (no copyright laws), reinvented, and performed by troubadors at royal courts and  inns all over Europe. The Arthur craze lasted almost 300 years.

As a result, the countless tales don’t mesh very well. This has kept Camelot fans — and scholars — busy for centuries, trying to sort them out. Now along comes Hailey Bachrach, a young troubador (okay, playwright) and scholar who sees a new way to fit the myth’s main pieces together.  From a woman’s point of view, natch.

Paula Deming, Olivia Choate, Dawn Alden, Whitton Frank (photo: Melissa Blue)

Clarissant tells of King Arthur’s niece, who survived the fall of Camelot (where all five of her knightly brothers died). The play is driven by Clarissant’s urgent quest to learn the story aright, before she can accept — or reject — the crown. She doesn’t invent anything; she simply turns the puzzle pieces this way and that, until they fit.

Because Clarissant’s inquest is the matter of this tale, I won’t recount it. I will note that the princess inquires by using magic — which, for her, is summoning stories — and her intuition. You might not notice, while watching, that this is exactly what Bachrach the modern troubador is doing. (I admit I didn’t, until this writing). But such layered elegance is one of the joys of Clarissant.

Lest you think the play’s pleasures are purely intellectual, let me hasten to add there’s lots of fan service. If you’re feeling XY, you get sword fights aplenty; if you’re feeling XX, all the powerful knights are portrayed by women. (Indeed, the only male actor steps briefly on and off as a servant.)

Little Candle, a small company that essays one show a year, gives Clarissant a smart, smooth production for its world premiere.

Set designer Kate Woodruff (and director Allison Darby Gorjian) provide an immediately recognizable world, with clever tapestries and a tree that looms like a ghost yet functions as an umbrella stand for swords. Betsy Roth’s costumes also invoke the imaginary era of chivalry’s birth, and allow actors — most of whom are double-cast, and move between life and afterlife — to shape-shift instantly. The lights (Rob Van Guelpen) and sound (Katie Powell) guide us along unobtrusively, and fight master David Chrzanowski’s stylized battles are swift and clear.

Among the performers, Olivia Choate is a treat as the buffed-up, fiercely loyal Gawain, then as a wry, avuncular (but still macho)  Lancelot; and Whitton Frank darts and plots craftily as Mordred, while wielding confident gravitas as Arthur. Dawn Alden portrays an irascible Agravain who’s just a step behind things, and a surprising Guinevere who has gone beyond the world into grave wisdom. Kym Allen brings irrepressible vitality to Gareth, and crabbed mystery to Lady Ragnelle, while Renée Torchio MacDonald’s Gaheris leaps innocently into each fray, looking for the side of right. And almost everybody gets a ghost turn, including a moment as Morgaine, the sorceress in whose web this whole world seems entangled.

Linzi Graham (the tart, worldly Lynette) and Karissa McKinney (gentle, accepting Lyonor) are Clarissant’s quest companions. Reluctant conscripts, they constantly urge their sister-in-law to put down her visions and rejoin the present. As Clarissant, Paula Deming shoulders what is perhaps the play’s most daunting challenge — to remain unresolved in a world where everyone else is full of certainty. (Like Hamlet, that other hesitant royal heir, she might benefit from a bit more steely resolve and a bit less dreamy self-questioning, either in the writing  — a soliloquy, perhaps? — or the performing.
A bit of tweaking only.)

Overall, Clarissant is a worthy unveiling for a happily fresh take on Arthurian myth. Bachrach’s use of the Lady Ragnelle legend is especially adroit — this oft-neglected corner of the  tapestry of Sir Gawain stories turns out to have held the key to Camelot’s collapse for all these centuries.

If you’re an Arthur fan, a lover of quasi-medieval romances, or a player of sword-and-sorcery games, you will find much delight in Clarissant. If you are a woman, a feminist of any wave, or an ally, you will enjoy it even more. This is the angle from which we need to see and tell these stories, from now on.
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Clarissant, by Hailey Bachrach, directed by Allison Darby Gorjian.
Presented by Little Candle Productions, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through December 23rd.

Tickets: <www.littlecandleproductions.com>

 

 

Chalk Rep’s Comic Swipe at “Death & Cockroaches”

Domestic comedy. It’s a huge and burgeoning genre, because everybody’s got a family — and if they don’t, well, that’s a fairly popular subgenre. There are two tricks to writing this kind of play: (a) Ground the universal in specifics, particularly ones we care about, and (b) Handle them in a new and interesting way.

In Death and Cockroaches: A Family Play, Eric Loo does pretty well at both. His family is a very specific one, and his characters — two brothers, their mother and father — are distinctly etched. Eric, our narrator, is self-deprecating and quirky enough that we can’t help but feel attached, and that makes everyone else matter right away.

Sunil Malhotra, Kelvin Han Yee

Besides family, Loo adds two more universals that arouse our fear and loathing (with no complicating feelings of love) — death, and cockroaches. Eric’s father is dying, and his mother’s slovenly house is overrun by roaches.

Loo also handles his tale cleverly. One of the cockroaches becomes a lead character (hello, Mr. Kafka), depicted in a surprising manner. Eric’s addiction to men’s room glory holes inspires a vivid comic scene. And director Jennifer Chang and the Chalk Rep creative team extend the playfulness: Set design and puppetry (Sarah Krainin), projections (Anna Robinson), and even scene changes all provide quietly ongoing sources of amusement.

As always, Chalk Rep’s performers rise to the task admirably. Sunil Malhotra arches, twists, and dances through Pat’s journey, constantly re-engaging us. Justin Huen makes “successful” brother Eric (wife, children, job, house) more than stolid, slipping us into his emotional space with no overplayed — or overwritten — “reveal” moment. Veteran artists Kelvin Han Yee and Eileen Galindo shine unobtrusively:  Yee tosses hints of complexity that make us curious about Dad’s story (which Loo wisely never provides), and Galindo draws us past our irritation to feel the fierceness behind her facade of incompetence. Walter Belenky and Claudia de Vasco likewise make us sense stories behind what we’re told.

The story resolves, as stories do (most of them, at least). And we’re left to ponder our own versions of the universal family story; also perhaps to question our frightened antipathy to the mortality and roaches that are always with us.

I also found myself wondering how much this play’s quiet success owes to Loo’s writing, and how much to the skill and brio with which the company stages it. No matter — it works. I’m curious to see Loo’s next offering, and eager to experience whatever Chalk Rep does next.
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Death and Cockroaches: A Family Play, by Eric Reyes Loo, directed by Jennifer Chang.
Presented by Chalk Repertory Theatre, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Final performance:
Saturday, Dec. 1 at 8:00

Tickets: <www.chalkrep.com>