“See You at the Funeral” — It’s Not What You Expect

This is not a funeral.

It’s a 90-minute, one-woman show in three parts. And yes, the third part takes place after a death — but not in an undertaker’s parlor. You don’t need to wear black, or bring flowers.

In See You at the Funeral, Tova Katz offers a dynamic triptych, visits from three intense, intriguing figures. They appear in a sequence somewhat reminiscent of the “mother – matron – crone” archetype: the first is a young singer/songwriter, the second a mature star entertainer, and the third … well, a being for whom gender seems irrelevant, a “tutelary presence,” a sort of guide to the Underworld like the ghost of Virgil was for Dante.

Photo: John Klopping

In Part I (the program calls it “Take the Candy But Don’t Get in the Car”), a diffident chanteuse takes the stage, guitar in hand, to begin a song. But she interrupts herself to explain — which, it turns out, is her besetting weakness. In and out of a half-dozen angsty ballads, as she accompanies herself on guitar or piano, words of explanation erupt from her like water from a broken hydrant. Amid the torrent, we learn that she has escaped Texas to make it in LA, she’s gay, she loses all her loves, and she’s so engaged in the story of “a friend” who unwittingly became pregnant that she shatters completely and must leave the stage.

photo: John Klopping

In Part II (“The Diva — The Legend”), an insouciant superstar manages to both slink and stride as she walks on. She peels off her furs and cape to reveal a dress of rippling sequins, which barely outshines her massive, glittery, sinuously woven coif.  She does not take off her dark glasses. She has been cursed, she explains (while singing and tap-dancing), by a jealous Athena, who turned her hair to coiled snakes and gave her the power to turn to stone anyone who looks into her eyes. A power which, unfortunately, she cannot control. Hence the glasses. But her greatest need is to feel the connection with her audience, by looking them in the eyes — what’s a girl to do?

Photo: John Klopping

Part III (“In the Deep End”) introduces us to an unnamed figure, hunched over a cane, whose duty it is to greet newcomers like us and explain the rules of the afterlife. Her most important instruction is to turn sadness, a debilitating emotion, into anger, an active state one can control. But midway through explaining how she came to this, she glimpses — for the first time — the possibility that despair might, somehow, be transmuted into joy. Cast into doubt (and perhaps hope), she bids us farewell and shuffles off to the seashore to meditate.

All of this takes place on a bare set (deftly assembled by Romy Aura from elements left from a prior show) made crepuscular by smoke and fog. The costumes and wigs by Jay Kuhns unmistakably tell us who we’re meeting, and where doesn’t matter (except in Part III), so the design works perfectly.

The what lies in Katz’s performances –one of this show’s most fascinating dimensions. Her ex-Tex chanteuse is not a skilled musician, nor singer, nor even songwriter; her work is too often cryptic, self-referential, and blurred by her loss of emotional control and her obsessive interruptions. But they do deliver the character.  Katz’s diva could never become famous as a dancer, though she’s a pretty good belter; but again, it’s the character that matters. And the crone’s only stock in trade is her odd wisdom, which she herself recognizes is precarious. She

gives us little useful techne knowledge, but reveals who she is.

All three of Katz’s characters take us deeper than they mean to, beyond the tale itself and into why it’s being told.  The collision between expectation and experience, between dreamed-of perfection and all-too-human imperfection, is a constant theme.  So is what to do about the resulting disappointment, and the depressing force with which it can disable you. Or me. Or us.  Imperfections in the characters’ own performances beautifully underscore this theme.

There’s even a structural imperfection: The third part does not quite fit with the others, as if a hinge in the triptych has broken, and the last painting dangles loosely. Didn’t the playwright notice this, or try to fix it?

I didn’t notice all this, or see its coherence, while I sat in the theater.
I was caught up in the performance, and in my role as audience member. Meanwhile the back of my mind was tied up with dissatisfied questions — “Why isn’t she singing any better?” “Could such tap-dancing ever make a star?” “What kind of unhealthy wisdom is this?” The best theatre, they say, sets unresolved questions in motion, so that you’re still thinking about them afterward, and talking about them over coffee. As my friend and I did until the café closed.

See You at the Funeral, we concluded, is a work of remarkable artistry. It addresses the thorns of life that catch and tear at us, and often deeply wound us. And it does so indirectly, by suggestion, using apparent ineptness to create in us the same dissatisfaction and discomfort that the characters complain of. The show calls to mind the Greek notion of hamartia, falling short, like an arrow that fails to reach its target (which the Bible’s translators horribly misconstrued as sin, an intentional misdeed). This play’s falling short is intentional, on the artist’s part — not to transgress, but to help us see and have compassion for our own unmeant failings.

Katz, in designing all this and bringing it to life, is rather brilliant. So are director/choreographer/ dramaturg Diana Wyenn, who lets it live and breathe and stumble just right, and the almost invisibly effective lighting (Avery Reagan), sound (John Zalewski), and music (Brenda Varda and Richard Tuttobene). And stage manager Courtney Rhodes nicely carries off her appearance in the house when things start going awry.

Theatre, I find myself saying over and over, is the place we go to learn empathy — for ourselves, as well as one another. See You at the Funeral is an unassuming but very effective demonstration of what our art is all about.

WARNING: You have only one chance to see the current production — unless you can badger the producer into extending it!
See You at the Funeral: A Dark Musical, by Tova Katz, directed and choreographed by Diana Wyenn.
Presented by Jer Adrienne Lelliott at the Broadwater Mainstage, 1078 Lillian Way, LA 90038.

Saturday, Nov. 30, 8:00 pm.

Tickets: <www.eventbrite.com> or at the door.






Fun with Dead People: “Romeo and Juliet in Hell”

“This,” said one exhausted but happy performer afterward, “is a play for theatre people.”

Romeo and Juliet in Hell delivers plenty of laughs — and groans — to folks who know theatre well. But the fun is open to everyone. It’s not deep or subtle, it’s fast and foolish. And like all good comedy, it’s driven by the familiar foibles of folks who may be famous but are actually just like us. (“Say, doesn’t that fit tragedy, too?” Another conversation.)

The premise: Romeo and Juliet awaken to find that they’re (a) dead, and (b) in Hell. Worse yet, this corner of Hell is populated by all the Shakespeare characters who die in their various plays. (The others are in Heaven, with the Bard. ) The young suicides’ personal torture will be to listen to the West Side Story soundtrack on eternal replay.

Colton Butcher, Lauren Diaz (photo: Patty Mo)

Fortunately, they discover an option: They can sit through a staging of their own story, just once, performed by all the other dead characters. But it has to be a musical. (The Devil, it turns out, is Bob Fosse.)

Romeo and Juliet in Hell is a swift, silly romp in which the characters take turns stealing center stage and chewing the scenery. And it requires an impressive array of talent — actors who can play, for example, a ham actor who’s playing Lady Macbeth who’s playing a parody of Juliet. But in every case, this matryushka doll trick works. No surprise: As so often in LA, the program’s cast bios are a goldmine of  top-notch training and experience.

Carlos Chavez as Tybalt and Nick Ley as Mercutio gleefully introduce the slain couple to their mad new world, Chavez with a protean energy that bubbles and flows like lava, and Ley with a naive dignity that recalls Stan Laurel. And the pair work as smoothly together as any of the great two-comic acts.

Fosse, being Satan, shares the story-driving tasks. Kawika Aguilar sustains this drive while showing us a welcome-masked host with a very dark interior (reminiscent of Cabaret‘s Emcee — or Fosse himself as a director).

Ron Gabaldon (Lear) and Mikael Mattsson (Hamlet/”Romeo”) do two nice — and quite distinct — takes on the actor who bathes his role in Elevation and Nobility. Meanwhile, Chloe Zubiri (Desdemona/Nurse) and Therese Olson (Lady Macbeth/”Juliet”) create a similarly matched yet separate pair of women who’ve gone beyond the pale.

Graydon Schlicter surprises us with a Macbeth who’s hail-fellow-well-met and chats in a Scots burr, while Brenton Sullivan’s Othello exudes a genteel calm we hardly expect from a military man who’s just murdered his wife. Speaking of gentilesse, David Chernyavsky as Laertes exhibits an easy elegance onstage that makes us wish for more.

Romeo and Juliet are, for all their quirks, the sane ones, our fellow explorers in this unknown territory. Colton Butcher and Lauren Diaz skillfully win our sympathies at the outset, and then keep them through all the slings and arrows of an outrageous adventure.

Music opens and closes this show. A flirty yet menacing demon, the redoubtable Jennifer Novak Chun, brings us in with her violin (including “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”), and J. Elijah Cho, whose turn as an egregious Tony crooning “Maria” greets the newly arrived Romeo and Juliet, says farewell to us all at the end with four bars of song that bring down the house.

Playwright Matt Ritchey has deftly raided Shakespeare and modern theatre, from Stoppard to Lloyd-Webber, for this delightful pastiche. And as director, he keeps his 14 actors (and two dozen characters) in balance, in motion, and in focus. The costumes (Gail Murray, Leanne Hall, Melissa Muñoz) are spot-on, and the simple, clever set (Jerry Chapelle) and lighting (Sebastian Muñoz) interact to produce fun infernal effects.

Romeo and Juliet in Hell sets out to amuse and surprise, and does so delightfully. If I ran a Shakespeare company (ahem, King’s Men, Porters of Hellsgate, Shakespeare by the Sea), I’d lock up the rights to this as an annual fundraiser. Until that happens, Force of Nature will continue operating their laugh-filled infernal joyride through November 23rd. Grab a seat!
Romeo and Juliet in Hell, written and directed by Matt Ritchey.
Presented by Force of Nature Productions at the Actors Workshop Studio, 4235 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91605.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30,
through Nov. 23.

Tickets: <www.fonprods.tix.com>