Watching “Blood Sugar” Could Save Your Life

Diana Wyenn does life in a way most folks don’t have to. She performs a daily — almost hourly — balancing act between two substances. Each is something she needs in order to live, but each can also kill her.

The two are food and insulin; Wyenn has diabetes. In Blood Sugar, she takes us on a hair-raising journey that began 15 years ago on a London subway train. Along the way, we learn facts that come laced with pain, fear, and sometimes hope. We feel the constant terror of a disease that can’t be healed, but can throw you with a moment’s warning (or none at all) into a coma or death. We hear lines from Shakespeare as if we’ve never heard them before.

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(photo: Mae Koo) 

How does Wyenn do all this? An actor, dancer, and vivid storyteller, she weaves the experience from her body, voice, and soul. Her fierce, subtle artistry is augmented by lights, projections, recorded sound, and a live handheld camera (which she at times brings with her in leaping, spinning, rolling on the floor).

What is so powerful about Blood Sugar is that we are swept up by  Wyenn’s magic art (and the deft help of her assistant spirits) and we’re taken on this fight-for-your-life journey with her — whether we want to go or not. Just as she was.

This is not a victim story. Moments will terrify you, and what must be endured may make you weep; but this is a triumphant tale, the confession of a canny survivor who’s had to take a breath and improvise at every step — and who emerges laughing, with victory in her teeth, each day.

In an hour, those of us who don’t live with a chronic deadly disease come as close as humanly possible to understanding how it feels. Those of us who do wrestle daily with mortal illness feel, “Ah! Someone knows what we suffer.” And all of us begin to see that we’re living in the face of our own dying, waking gratefully and using whatever we have to win another day.

Wisely, a talkback (with Wyenn and a diabetes professional) is part of each performance, giving audience members a chance to discharge the energy the show has summoned.

The program credits nine assistant magicians. Chief among them is Laban Pheidias, who orchestrates everything from an onstage booth (and as her husband, partners Wyenn in each day’s improvisations). Joey Guthman’s simple set and explosive lighting, Jason H. Thompson’s engulfing projections, and John Zalewski’s impeccable sound, create an omnipresent, ever-shifting context. To Wyenn’s masterful Prospero, they are invisible Ariel.

Blood Sugar is a powerful, harrowing, joyful piece of theatre — true theatre. Created from suffering, it brings us together, our souls trembling as they touch.

WARNING: You have only two opportunities to share this unique experience — tonight, and tomorrow night. It may change your life.
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Blood Sugar, written and directed by Diana Wyenn.
Presented by Plain Wood Productions, at the Bootleg Theatre, 2220 Beverly Blvd., LA 90057.

Tonight and Friday at 7:30.

Tickets: <www.bootlegtheater.org>

 

 

 

 

“Sunday in the Park”: No Picnic, But Art Isn’t Easy

Sunday in the Park with George is great art, and it’s about great art. Master composer Stephen Sondheim’s multi-Tony (and Pulitzer Prize) musical brings to life a classic canvas by master painter George  Seurat, inventor of pointillism.

Of course, as one of the main songs says, “Art isn’t easy.” Sondheim writes complex music and  lyrics. Seurat made complex paintings. Their works demand close attention — and they’re worth it

[Rachel Berman, Brian Pinat (photo: Shari Barrett)]

The Kentwood Players stage this masterpiece with energy and taste — and considerable resources for a small theatre. (They’ve been in the game for over 60 years.) Music Director Mike Walker leads a 7-piece orchestra, and the 18-member cast has enough skillful singers to fill the major roles and several smaller ones.

Rachel Berman plays Dot, George’s hapless (and wryly named) model in Act 1, then plays their daughter in Act 2. With a clear, versatile soprano, crisp enunciation, and smart acting chops, she carries the lion’s share of the story — and our sympathies (even the play’s title is from her point of view). It’s an impressive turn.

As George, and his namesake great-grandson in Act 2, Brian Pirnat works within strict limits. Laconic by nature and obsessed with his art — traits now seen as signs of autism — George rarely takes the lead, even in private with Dot. Nor does he reveal much  in his solos, beyond a confused lack of insight. His great-grandson, a multimedia artist struggling with self-promotion, isn’t much better. Pirnat handles them well, emerging briefly to assert something (often awkwardly), and muting the force of his light tenor.

Janet Krajeski, as the painter’s mother (Act 1) and an imperious art critic (Act 2), creates strong, complex characters and sings them with power and clarity. Don Schlossman, a rival painter in Act 1 and an art buyer in Act 2, similarly commands the stage, moving and singing with stately strength.

Vincent Paz-Macareno’s comfort onstage, and his rich baritone, make us look to his characters as reliable sources of insight and feeling. Roy Okida likewise gives us characters we believe (even when they’re not being fully honest). And a talent about to emerge is Genevieve Marino: She speaks and moves with authority, and wields a bell-like soprano we can expect to hear often.

On the Westchester Playhouse’s small stage, director Susan Goldman Weisbarth deftly moves her cast through action scenes and song/dance numbers with fluid clarity. And then there are the tableaus, culminating in the evocation of Seurat’s masterwork, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grand Jatte.

Walker’s music direction (after finding the balance between singers and orchestra) shows to fine advantage in the multi-layered choral numbers, notably “It’s Hot Up Here” and “Putting It Together, ” as well as in such duets as “Beautiful” and “Move On.”

Finally, costume designer Ruth Jackson and her team deserve special applause for meticulously dressing the famous figures of Seurat’s grand canvas, as well as the poseurs and careerists of the modern art “industry.”

Sunday in the Park with George asks a great deal of its performers — and audiences. (Seurat’s ambitious paintings also grew slowly toward the acclaim they now enjoy.) The current Kentwood Players’ staging  offers a rich, rare work of art, faithfully and delightfully mounted.
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Sunday in the Park with George, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine; directed by Susan Goldman Weisbarth.
Presented by Kentwood Players at the Westchester Playhouse, 8301 Hindry Ave., LA 90045.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through April 20th.

Tickets: (310) 645-5156 or <www.kentwoodplayers.org>

 

 

 

“Breaking Legs”: Simpler Times, Simpler Crimes

When “high crimes and misdemeanors” are making headlines, we may need to get away and laugh a bit. Currently, Oxnard’s Elite Theatre offers a retreat to a simpler (if only imaginary) world where crime may pay, but it definitely isn’t organized.

Tom Dulak’s Breaking Legs throws together a play-writing college prof and three goombahs; he’s hoping they’ll finance his latest script. They meet in a restaurant one of the fellas owns, where his daughter (who’s near 30 and unwed) is the manager.

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Larry Shilkoff, John Comstock, Reef Noelle, Ray Mastrovito (photo: LJ Stevens)

The story shows us the clash between their worlds, and the little bits they have in common. One thing they share is the title phrase, a tradition in both the theatre and the mob – but with very different meanings. Another is murder: The prof’s latest play examines it philosophically, while the would-be investors have, um, more hands-on knowledge. Indeed, the play’s turning point comes when they enact a murder before his eyes (but, mercifully for us, offstage).

Two worlds colliding is the basis of this comedy, but the best of it comes from the characters. They seem like familiar cartoons – yet each bounces like a pinball between who they are and who they imagine themselves to be.

The professor (Will Carmichael) thinks he’s superior but flounders in every scene, trying to swim in shark-infested waters and salvage a scrap of dignity. Lou (John Comstock), the restaurant owner, likes to play the genial host – but he’s so charmed by his own voice that he can barely hear anyone else. And Tino (Ray Mastrovito), the senior mobster, tries for the silent wisdom of a don but can’t hide his timid naivete.

Mike (Larry Shilkoff) is the one the others actually defer to – he’s clearly the smartest, and has an unsettling ability to play hardball. But given a shot at Broadway, Mike also reveals a hidden side – a secret showbiz fan, he itches to get his hands in making art. Mike drives most of the play, and Shilkoff makes the ride worth the price of a ticket.

Lou’s daughter Angie (Bethany D’Ambra) is a part waiting to be written. Typical of playwriting 30 years ago, Dulak has thought about how others see the play’s only woman, but not about how she sees herself (and them). In her stage debut, D’Ambra tries steadily to let Angie emerge – but the playwright has her boxed in.

Frankie (Reef Noelle) has a similar problem. He’s a deadbeat, who’s been invited here to be whacked, so we don’t get to know him or see him change. Noelle, an opera singer, throws all he’s got into it, but the container’s too small.

Despite these weaknesses, Breaking Legs is an amusing, fast-paced tale. These artists have tucked some fun Easter eggs into the mix, nods to classic comedy. And it’s a welcome relief to spend an evening with folks whose moral failures don’t threaten the republic.
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Breaking Legs, by Tom Dulak, directed by Allan D. Noel.
Presented by the Elite Theatre Company at the Elite mainstage, 2731 S. Victoria Ave., Oxnard 93035.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through March 24th.

Tickets: <www.elitetheatre.org>

 

“America Adjacent” shines light in a hidden corner

Immigration is a hot political issue. Theatre must, of course, address it — but not by lecturing or arguing. Theatre’s way is to bring together characters and audiences, and let the characters’ stories become part of the audience’s lives. It’s a kind of magic.

Seven women are performing that magic right now, at the Skylight Theatre. In America Adjacenta smart, densely packed new play by Boni Alvarez, they’re creating the experience of a group of women who’ve come to America from the Philippines.

[Sandy Velasco, Toni Katano, Arianne Villareal (photo: Ed Krieger]

But these aren’t your usual immigrants. In fact, they’re not immigrants at all. One is a US citizen, and the other six have arrived not to become Americans — but to give birth to them. They’re pregnant, and  babies born here have automatic US citizenship. For mothers-to-be from Asia, LA is the place to come. This semi-clandestine practice, called “birth tourism,” isn’t actually illegal — but ICE swiftly deports any woman they suspect.

Of course, we don’t know any of this when the lights come up. We just watch woman after woman enter an apartment living room jammed with recliner chairs being used as beds. The five of them are pregnant and keeping a low profile — no noise, no going out except to the back yard. They remind each other of the rules, bicker when one returns from a forbidden off-site jaunt, and invoke the feared power of “The Administrator.”

Then there’s a knocking at the door. Everyone hides. The administrator bursts in, bringing food, housekeeping supplies and a newcomer, a “country girl” who gets teased by the others (who are from cities – Manila, Quezon, Davao, Cagayan.) The administrator, no older than they are, chastens and warns them while taking the new resident’s money and passport “for safekeeping.” They complain that they haven’t seen Hollywood or Disneyland, as promised. We wonder — as do they — whether the administrator is honest or running a racket.

Later, when the newcomer follows the rule-breaker out the back gate and into the wilds of LA, we begin to realize just how innocent and at risk these women are. And we learn, as they talk and wonder, how profoundly going to America to have a baby has disrupted every one of their lives. None of them is sure what she will find when she returns home (and none can imagine the “reverse culture shock” that awaits).

Enough plot. The heart of this play is the women – the state of anxiety they live in, triggered by everything from jets flying over to sirens and door knocking. And the threads of pleasure they grasp – sharing memories and songs, choosing baby names, peering over the back fence into the lives of a neighboring couple.

The actors, who work together as smoothly as an ensemble company, bring the women clearly to life. Toni Katano floats as a languid courtesan who may be losing her position, while Samantha Valledon’s country girl vibrates with fear but drives the group to hard questions. Evie Abat, as the rule breaker, nicely hides the anguish of postpartum depression beneath her daredevil exterior; Arianne Villareal’s timid piety, meanwhile, concealsan awful, complex secret. Angela Baesa deftly portrays the anxious peacemaker, while Sandy Velasco shines at injecting playfulness – and hope – into the stress-filled mix. Hazel Lozano’s administrator surprises us with her youth, her briskness, and her caring.

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera keeps these several brooks running swift and clear; his pace allows the moments in Alvarez’s text to pop like fireworks, keeping us as off-balance as the anxious women. Christopher Scott Murillo’s set gives us familiarity and discomfort, and Mylette Nora’s costumes mark the characters and their uncertain perch in an unknown world.

America Adjacent is a world premiere that addresses an explosive political issue. “What an indictment of our messed-up system,” a seat mate said afterward. But Alvarez’s text, and Skylight’s lively, skillful staging, introduce this American story – one few of us are aware of – by letting us live in a hidden corner of the immigrant experience. Come to the little theatre in Los Feliz and let it open your world.

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America Adjacent, by Boni B. Alvarez, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.

Presented by Skylight Theatre Company, at the Skylight, 1816-½ N. Vermont Ave., LA 90027.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30,
Sundays at 3:00,
Mondays (in March) at 8:00;
through March 24.

Tickets: <http://SkylightTix.org>