Woman as daemon: 2. “Carmen”

A mystery:  In Highland Park a few weeks ago, a cigarette-factory worker seduced a soldier.   Their brief, torrid affair ended with the soldier murdering her.  Although 200 people witnessed the killing, the LAPD was not called.

We bystanders were watching the Pacific Opera Project perform   Carmen, a Romantic-era story that — set to Georges Bizet’s music — has been a worldwide favorite for well over 100 years.


There’s no mystery about Pacific Opera’s production — it was a triumph.  With just a week’s rehearsal, the young singers (led by music director Stephen Karr from the piano) created a lively, colorful staging of the world’s best-known opera.  They enthusiastically filled the cabaret-style house with romance, humor and tragic drama.

And music.  As an ensemble, the POP singers summoned Bizet’s rich musical world, drew us in and kept us there — without an orchestra.  That’s a stunning accomplishment few opera troupes would dare, much less achieve.

Vocally, the cast ranged from quite good to quite remarkable.   The two leads — mezzo Norah Graham-Smith (Carmen) and tenor Adam Cromer (Don José) — were comfortably equal to their lengthy, demanding roles, and each delivered clear, moving arias.  They both excelled at singing in dialogue with (not simply at) other characters.  Graham-Smith also managed the ceaseless flow of energy, sexuality, wit and emotion with which Carmen propels the entire story.

The two second singers — soprano Aubrey Scarr (as Micaela, Don José’s fiancée) and bass-baritone Babatunde Akinboboye (as the bullfighter Escamillo) nearly stole the show.   Granted, their roles are shorter, and the script doesn’t require as much action from them — though Escamillo bounced through the house, working the room like a rock star.  Nonetheless, each displayed vocal purity and power, and verbal clarity, that was a delight to hear.

In smaller roles, mezzo Meagan Martin (Mercédès) and soprano Nicole Fernandes (Frasquita) sparkled — but with due restraint — in their duet work, and in trio with Graham-Smith.

Director Shaw created an open, versatile setting (with highly dramatic lighting) and Maggie Green’s colorful, clearly readable costumes suggested the period without getting lost in it.

It’s easy to understand why the audience punctuated the show with vigorous applause, and stood cheering at the end.

There’s also no mystery about Bizet’s score.  Its major themes have become part of our popular culture.  If you stop a stranger in a mall and hum the first few bars of Carmen’s habanera, or of  Escamillo’s “Toreador Song,” they can probably join in — though they may never have been to an opera.

The mystery about Carmen is the story.   Do we just put up with it in order to have the music?  No — when that’s the case, the opera stops being performed and the music survives without it.  Look at Handel’s oratorios, and most of Baroque opera.

It seems that the story itself — an amoral femme fatale who nearly tears apart the society she lives in, and does destroy her lover — touches a chord with us.  With audiences worldwide, for that matter.

My guess is that she embodies what’s pushed away, out of  society and out of mind — woman’s sexuality, and her ability to enjoy and own it.  Carmen became popular in an era when sex was, as the Victorian saying had it, “something men enjoy and women endure.”   “Good women” did not desire sex, and such things were never discussed in polite society.

(We’re not as far from that era as we like to think.  My grandmother first offered to tell my mother about sex as they were riding the train to my parents’ wedding;  and just last week, a friend with two teen children admitted she’s never had an orgasm.)

I suspect we’re still fascinated by Carmen not just because she’s sexy, but because in her fierce independence and amorality she embodies something we know is still missing from our world.  A force we, like the Victorians, fear will erupt and shatter our social order.

Moralist preachers and politicians keep trying to harness women’s bodies; and Don José keeps murdering Carmen, every time Act IV comes around.  But she keeps returning, and we keep flocking to see her, hear her, feel her vitality.  Want a  tip?  Don’t bet on Don José.


Woman as daemon: 1. “Salome”

In a small space before a pair of brick arches, the Archway Theatre re-creates the palace of Herod Antipas, in the time of Jesus.  Or perhaps I should say they re-create the palace’s balcony as an Irish poet and playwright imagined it, late in Queen Victoria’s reign.

But that’s not quite right, either.  The story we saw Friday probably couldn’t have happened 2,000 years ago.  And the Queen’s censor permitted no public staging of Oscar Wilde’s Salome at all  in 1892 London.  (It opened in Paris, a few years later.)

Deneen Melody

Salome is only a one-act, but it’s a complex, difficult play.  Even a dangerous one.

It’s difficult for several reasons.  It leaps in media res, with little exposition, trusting us to know the Biblical tale; the two main characters shift attitudes and emotions mercurially; the style slips between masque and realistic drama, and the language is both poetic and stunningly frank.  These are not easy assignments for a troupe to take on.

Salome is dangerous because … well, the Victorian censor didn’t fear  the play’s image of John the Baptist, as he claimed, but its sexuality.  Herod lusts after his stepdaughter openly and often.  She in turn plies her seductive skills on the Syrian captain Narraboth, on the imprisoned prophet (whom Wilde calls Jokanaan) , and finally — in her famous dance — on her lascivious parent.

Salome is also bloody.   The prophet’s severed head spends the last several minutes onstage, as Salome enjoys a revenge even more brutal and shocking than anything recounted by the gospel writers (or the Roman historian Josephus).

Most of all, though, Salome is subversive.  Wilde brings vividly to center stage the power struggle between Herod  and Salome that’s latent in the gospels (they focus instead on Christ’s deputy vs. Caesar’s).  Wilde sets forth an iconic battle of child against parent, victim against abuser, subject against the crown — in sum, woman against the patriarchy.

Directed by Steven Sabel, the Archway players deliver a briskly paced performance, handling the language with nearly uniform clarity as they gather outside Herod’s feast hall to admire the moon.  It’s almost a tableau vivant, given the small space and Wilde’s lack  of interest in having his characters move (a cause of friction between him and the director of his prior play, Lady Windermere’s Fan).

In bursts Salome (Deneen Melody on  opening night) , fleeing her stepfather’s attentions, bristling with unsettled emotion.  The half-clad princess hits this small, static world like a tornado, unbalancing everyone.  She resolves to meet the prophet although — or perhaps because — Herod has forbidden it, using her sexual and royal powers to make the smitten Narraboth (Avi Nash) free him.

She then engages Jokanaan (Keith Wyffels) in an erotic love-hate dance, drawn to him, fiercely rebuffed, recoiling, then returning.  Each time, she poetically proclaims her infatuation (“thy body,” “thy hair,”   “thine eyes,” “thy mouth”) then retreats, reviling what she had praised.  Made frantic by this escalating madness, Narraboth slays himself — a soldier (Wali Habib) hides the body and the prophet flees back to his cell.

Enter Herod (Elias McCabe) and his queen (Jennifer Hawkins).  He’s drunk and prowling for Salome, she’s trying to hold him back and placate their guests.   He keeps wheedling his daughter to dance; Salome, shamed and disgusted, keeps refusing.  Finally, he offers to pay her anything at all; she seizes the opportunity, making him vow.

With the Dance of the Seven Veils, Salome’s eroticism reaches its peak, and she decisively wrests the power from her king/father.  Refusing all his counter-offers, she insists on her  chosen payment: the prophet’s head.  But her triumph is tragic and  brief.   Lifting her grisly trophy, she laments her life as an unseen, unloved girl, made into an object of political and sexual desire.  Kissing the lips that spat at her, she descends into a mad, explicitly sexual pas de deux with what remains of the one man she tried to love.  Herod, retrieving the reins, orders her execution: the sword falls as the play ends.

In the demanding title role, Melody draws on her experience as a ballerina and a horror film actress to deliver a bravura performance.  Her Salome wins our empathy even as she shocks and appalls us, shattering our comfort and our hearts.  She soars and drops through the princess’ manic changes, tirelessly shifting shape both physically and vocally.   Hers is a definitive Salome.

McCabe, as her main antagonist, gives us a Herod of commanding presence, almost too drunk to marshal the shrewd intelligence of a client king skilled at navigating the uncertain seas of Roman rule.  His greedy lust for his stepdaughter, and the self-indulgence and  self-deception that enable it, are chillingly embodied.

Wyffels, as the princess’ secondary antagonist, must deliver most of his lines offstage (most of them written not by Wilde but by the King James translators).  Onstage, he shows us a man of spiritual and physical power, baffled by the onslaught of Salome’s emotional need and sexual manipulation.

Also worthy of note are Hawkins’ ability to chide and even rage at her husband while still showing us their strong emotional bond; the clarity and easy authority of the Roman envoy (Luke McMahon); and the dry, world-weary wit (a homage to Wilde himself) with which Daniel Krause endows the envoy from Cappadocia.

Sabel and his production team make good use of the theatre’s small, shallow space, creating a readily believable setting and working bravely against Wilde’s tendency to write a “stand and deliver” play.
Wilde’s poetry is spoken with understanding, though his frequent use of repetition does invite more variety of delivery — and accumulated meaning — than it at times receives.  Sabel also at times allows a modern sense of physical boundaries to overwhelm the text, as when Salome tempts Narraboth by promising a smile and a flower tomorrow, while she is already fondling him.

Today, more than a century after it appeared, Salome remains a shocking, powerful play.   Back in 1892, Wilde was hugely famous as a salon wit, and was growing rich as a writer of hit drawing-room comedies.  What drew him to this lurid tale of lust and violence?

Did he intend to publish — one year into their disastrous affair — a parable of how the young nobleman Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas was ruthlessly degrading Wilde and goading his own father into outing them?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  Did he mean to suggest symbolically that his own closeted desire was fatally threatening his hard-won image as a witty intellectual prophet who exposed Victorian society’s prim hypocrisy? Perhaps, perhaps not.

What’s certain is that less than four years after writing Salome, Wilde was in prison for sodomy, his career destroyed, his wife and family alienated.  What’s also certain is that the text he created still offers a shattering indictment of the sexual and political exploitation that lies uneasily beneath the seeming order of patriarchy — Biblical, British imperial, or American modern.  Congratulations to Archway Theatre for presenting it to us.

Salome, by Oscar Wilde.  Produced and directed by Stephen Sabel, at the Archway Theatre.  Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays (except April 20) at 2 PM, through May 11.

Disclaimer:  I have acted with Ms. Melody, and directed her recently in Carmilla at ZJU Theatre.


Among Mad People: “Mancomio” at ZJU

Zombie Joe’s Underground is known for pushing envelopes — right into our faces, confronting us with lost, dark and hidden things that unsettle us.  Drop into the rabbit hole on Lankershim any Friday until May 23, and you’ll find a new show doing just that.


This supple word, in Latin languages, can mean many things:  a mad person, an asylum for mad people, or madness itself.   Director Sebastian Muñoz and his crew bring it all, in an hour of non-stop shocks and surprises.

photo: Adam Neubauer

To begin with, the house doesn’t look right — a large oblong box sits where the heart of the front row should be.  A row of seats spreads along what’s usually the back of the stage.   And we’re not alone.

“Some of these folks don’t seem to be … ah, paying guests,” my companion whispers, as a disheveled woman in a housecoat wanders up, eyes us, then veers off.  Behind her stands a strapping young man in shorts and T-shirt, not entirely clean, looking lost.

I begin to feel I know this place.  It brings back the years I spent, before returning to theatre, as a therapist in clinics for the mentally ill.   And indeed, before the lights dim, it’s clear that’s where we are.

In place of a story, this Manicomio offers — as a visit to a real one does — a gentle shove into several stories, as one by one the residents collar our attention and erupt with what troubles them.  Some ramblings are sung, some spoken (in various languages), some mimed or moaned.  Some are poignant, some are indigestible word salad, some have moments of humor.

All of these madhouse tales are non-linear and disturbing, evoking our confusion and our empathy.  Uncomfortably often, they also elicit the chaos bubbling beneath our own socially correct surfaces.

As Alice says in Wonderland, “I don’t want to go among mad people.” It’s easier to look at involuntary suffering from the outside, and label it “illness.”  That’s how we deal with the visitations of fate upon our neighbors — a diagnosis and some pills.  Whether they work or not (usually not), at least they keep us at a safe distance.

The ZJU actors don’t cut themselves that kind of slack. They don’t talk about mental illness, or perform a “movie-of-the-week” melodrama to wring a little pity or a donation.  Instead, they throw themselves into an unscripted, frightening worlds they’ve allowed to arise from their own fears and compulsions.

Although it’s carefully crafted, Manicomio is disorganized, disturbing and unresolved.  It simply ends.  And the actors’ exit reminds us that in a real manicomio, only the visitors get to leave.

I confess:  I’ve spent half a lifetime dealing with mental illness, and Marat/Sade is one of my favorite plays.  I’ve also worked, as actor and director, at ZJU many times over the last 10 years.

But Peter Weiss’ madhouse masterpiece has a political axe to grind, and it’s set two centuries away from our daily world.

Manicomio is not a masterpiece.  But it is a theatrically daring, emotionally honest attempt to explore the tortured solitude that descends daily upon too many of us.  Not to poke fun or ostracize, not to analyze or explain.  Just to remind us — with the humility of art — that this confusing, painful mystery is a part of our lives.

, at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, 8:30 pm Fridays through May 23.  Produced by Zombie Joe, directed by Sebastian Muñoz.

CastJared Adams, Charlotte Bjornbak, Jahel Corban Caldera, Ramona Creel, Joachim de la Rua, Samm Hill, Tyler Koster, Leif LaDuke, Jackie Lastra, Kevin Van Cott, R. Benjamin Warren, Jessica Weiner,  and Ann Wescott.

Tickets: (818)420-2120, or <zombiesjoes.tix.com>

On the Bodies of Women: 2. “How I Learned to Drive”

In recent weeks, I’ve witnessed — no, participated in, from the seats — two stage productions focused on the bodies of women. Here’s my attempt to thread my way through these engaging, disturbing experiences.


This unassuming play premiered in1997, winning a Pulitzer and shelf of theatre awards, and has become a familiar feature of our theatre landscape.   Now the Illyrian Players, on the Theatre Asylum stage, are giving full, chilling life to this modern classic. 

Thadeus Shaffer and Elitia Daniels

It’s the story of a girl, Li’l Bit (Elitia Daniels) who learns driving — and drinking — and sexuality — from her alcoholic uncle Peck (Thaddeus Shaffer).  It’s simply told:  two chairs on a bare stage, at times two more and a table, in one scene a bed.  Only the two main characters are drawn full; the others are sketched by three supporting actors (Anna Walters, Jonny Taylor, and Cassandra Gonzales).

With these bits of yarn, Paula Vogel (now Yale’s playwriting prof) weaves a mesmerizing tale.  In fact — as Ben Brantley noted in his NY Times review of the 2012 Broadway revival — she also slips in “Brechtian scene titles … self-conscious use of illusion, strategically scrambled chronology [and] cartoonish comic exaggeration.”  But it feels familiar, swift and stark, just like a classical tragedy.

Indeed it is a tragedy, one to stand alongside Death of a Salesman or Long Day’s Journey.   Or Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis.  In clear language and images we cannot fail to recognize, How I Learned… reveals the web of half-conscious complicity that surrounds us all, as we struggle to survive our culture’s “design for living.”

By the time this tale is told, we have felt the desperate attempt of each character — even Li’l Bit’s comic-strip grandparents — to make sense of the unspoken rules, to find a way to be a man or a woman. We’ve felt their need to anesthetize the loneliness and pain, to ignore the horrors we endure and, in turn, inflict.

All are ensnared in the gender trap.  No one gets free.  Not even those of us who applaud and leave the theatre.  That’s what makes it tragic.

Vogel knows what she’s doing (we never hear the family’s last name; the three backup players are listed as “Greek Chorus”), and her achievement is remarkable.  She deserves the awards.

Equally worthy of praise is the direction of Carly D. Weckstein (who led Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine last year), and the work of the cast  and crew.   By daring to stay close to the harrowing ride mapped out in Vogel’s script, they lead us on a painful but necessary journey.

Touches of faithful genius fill this production.  The pre-show shocks us with recognition as we hum along to the pedophilic “love songs” of the era (“You’re 16, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine”; “Young Girl, Get Out of My Mind”), suggested by Vogel and selected by Weckstein.  William Herder’s set wears the face of a ’50s model female emerging on a peeled billboard, torn scraps leaving her with only one eye.   An electronic projection writhes anxiously upon it before the play starts … at the climax, its  white garden-lattice base falls open to become a hotel bed.

In one scene, Uncle Peck “grooms” a young nephew by teaching him to fish.  All the while, Li’l Bit lies under a blanket nearby where (in the previous scene) she’d fallen asleep, drunk, in Peck’s car.  In another scene, as Li’l Bit recounts his relapse and swift alcoholic decline, Peck downs several shots then steps to the edge of the stage, poised as if to take flight;  seconds later, she tells us he died by falling down the cellar stairs.

Many such moments grace the performance.  But it’s the artists Weckstein has chosen who shape its core, sustaining it throughout.

Elitia Daniels displays impressive range, bringing all of Li’l Bit to life, especially eloquent at embodying her often unspoken conflict and discomfort.  Though the play is decidedly non-linear, she clearly shows us her character’s evolution from a child seeking acceptance and love, through confusion and anger, to a young woman struggling for a sense of control in her life.  She reveals flashes of wit and wile that brighten and darken her character.  And Daniels’ own zaftig beauty  (quietly overplayed by Janet Leon’s costume design) makes Li’l Bit’s pre-teen precocity and anguish fully credible.

Thaddeus Shaffer is another felicitous choice.  Laying aside easy  choices (leering lout, Southern gentleman), he delicately crafts a man who has barely survived, long before the scarring war he can’t discuss.  Peck almost visibly trembles with the effort to live within his skin.  We know what he will do, yet we feel his desperation for the empathy his niece gives — and for the devil’s bargain she offers, intimacy in return for his going on the wagon.  Shaffer always shows us, subtly, that Peck’s genuine love and his specious assurances deceive him as well as Li’l Bit.  By the end, he has taken us far from easy judgment and socially approved hatred to a much different, more painful place.

The Greek Chorus trio handles widely varied, often very brief roles.   They carve them clearly, and keep them distinct.  And they move easily among the many styles the script demands.  Anna Walters, as Li’l Bit’s mother, slides from satiric realism to Lucille Ball buffoonery in her multi-stage monologue on how a lady drinks.  Jonny Taylor and Cassandra Gonzales shift smoothly from teens to a pair of sex-obsessed sexagenerians straight out of commedia dell’arte.  Taylor also adroitly twists and curves his tall frame into a short middle-school geek’s sad  self-image.

How I Learned to Drive is, as Weckstein has said, an important play.  It needs to be performed often, as our culture begins the long ascent from patriarchy toward humanity.  And the Illyrian Players, under her direction, are performing it with the artistry, power and immediacy it deserves.

How I Learned to Drive, by the Illyrian Players, at Theatre Asylum; Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8 pm, through April 13.<www.illyrianplayers.com>



On the Bodies of Women: 1. “The Vagina Monologues”

In recent weeks, I’ve witnessed — no, participated in, from the seats — two stage productions focused on the bodies of women. Here’s my attempt to thread my way through these engaging, disturbing experiences.


In the 18 years since it debuted on a small New York stage, this set of monologues and choral episodes has become a phenomenon. Drawn from Eve Ensler’s interviews with women and girls, it gets countless productions worldwide each year during V-Day (now a three-month season), and the film still runs on HBO.
I’ve always found its expression of women’s diverse experiences of their sexuality intensely moving — drawing laughter, winces of pain, and tears. I’ve also kept participating because I believe it’s a salutary work, one we need to keep living in. Before visiting the Whitefire Theatre in March, I’d worked backstage in three productions, and been in the audience for two others.


But this was my first time.
This time, it happened in Deaf World.
Of the nine women (all seasoned theatre professionals) seven were either Deaf, or hearing American Sign Language interpreters.  (Two, amazingly, knew no ASL before taking part — yet in performance, it was impossible to discern.)  Together, they were telling stories I’d heard often, yet they took me somewhere I’d never been.
ASL, you see, is visual — a language of gesture and movement, not speech. As such, it is beautifully at home on the stage.
Sign language is always moving, flowing through the human face and body and into space, like mime or dance. But unlike mime or dance, it also has a fixed lexicon of meanings, and a complex grammar.
So each story got told twice, in ASL and English simultaneously. Each choral episode rippled around the stage in two languages at once.

The result?
First, a Vagina Monologues accessible to Deaf theatregoers.
That, of course, was the goal — along with raising funds for DeafHope, a project to end sexual violence against deaf women and girls.  Both were impressively achieved.
Second, this production gave “hearings” — English speakers who don’t know ASL — a unique opportunity.  Like other audiences, they heard each segment spoken, with emotion and wit and wonder.  But they also saw and felt it moving, sometimes gracefully, sometimes painfully, through the body and face and hands of a sign language performer.

Finally, several in the audience were “third culture” people, with some fluency in both languages.
I can’t speak for the others; but for me, this was a surprisingly powerful experience.  At times, it was overwhelming.
The stories and choral pieces ranged, as always, from humorous to heart-wrenching.  But this time, they landed on me in stereo — and cut through my unconscious defenses.
Taking in spoken words seemed to hold the attention of whatever part of my mind seeks meaning through thinking.
At the same time, I was seeing and feeling the same story told in sign — embodied, moving physically through another human being, toward me.  I was caught.  I wasn’t just told about this woman’s experience, I was flooded by it.

The monologue “My Vagina Was My Village” is a heart breaker. In a mixture of simple poetic language and harsh factual description, it represents the sufferings of women held in “rape camps” during the Bosnian War of the early ’90s.
I know this piece well.  I have seen it done by a woman who survived such a camp.  I have wept openly at hearing it, seeing it.
This time, as a Deaf actor performed it — and another Deaf actor spoke it, it flowed into me on a much deeper level than mere understanding.  I was overpowered. Tears poured out of me — struggling not to bother my neighbors, I was sobbing so hard I could barely keep from throwing up.

In hearing theatre, we always expect (or at least hope) to be moved.  We assume that what we hear, together with what the actors do and undergo physically before us, will reach out and touch us, in our understanding mind and also more deeply.
But the words — the text, the language — are usually so primary, so dominant, that the visceral experience can remain secondary.  I think we are even able to mute it, hide from it, by focusing on the words and the thoughts.
I suspect that’s why Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty” and Brecht’s confrontational realism arose in the last century.  To break through not only the “fourth wall,” but the defenses our “language brain” unconsciously erects against our visceral connection to the people presenting the story.
These people —  whom we call not “speakers” but “actors” — act in their mock world onstage, true.  But more important, they also act  directly upon us, we fellow humans in the flesh who are sitting near enough to feel them.

Re-awakening our sense of ourselves as live, enfleshed beings is what The Vagina Monologues is all about.  That’s why it exists.  Our need to know our embodied selves — trapped as we are in the verbal fences and intellectual fantasies of “civilization” and its discontents, its cruelties — is why this play has endured and grown, as unstoppable as kudzu.
I still feel strongly that The Vagina Monologues is a necessary work, a major achievement of modern theatre.  And experiencing it in Deaf World is like drinking whiskey neat.  You’ll never feel it more sharply, nor ever forget it.


(1)  The Vagina Monologues at the Whitefire Theatre was produced and directed by Alek Lev (a master ASL interpreter and longtime theatre professional).  Of its profits, 10% went to the global V-Day effort, and 90% went to DeafHope.
The actors were:  Hillary Baack, Cherie Broussard, Jules Dameron (ASL master), Emily Eiden, Catherine Kresge, Zendrea Mitchell, Jonica Patella, Alexandra Wailes, and Amber Zion.

(2) In this text, “Deaf” (capitalized) denotes people whose primary language is ASL and who identify themselves as part of Deaf culture.  The word “deaf” (uncapitalized) includes anyone who has partial or no hearing, whichever language or culture they identify with.




“Hair” to “bare” — Peering beneath the surface

Forty-five years ago, I took a class of college students to Hollywood to see Hair.  Billed as “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” — with a multi-racial cast, drugs, sex, nudity, draft-card burning and live chickens —  it had just opened here, early in its first Broadway year.  Soon it was “premiering” simultaneously in nine US cities, the only theatrical production ever to do so.

Hair became a catalyst and anthem in the change movements sweeping across 1960’s America — youth  culture, sexual liberation, psychedelics, civil rights and the Vietnam War protests among them.  My wide-eyed science majors were shocked, exhilarated and changed by their first taste of live theatre.  They’re now in their 60s,  their careers and families winding down, but I doubt any of them has forgotten it.


Last weekend, I watched bare: a pop opera.  This musical drama about students at a Catholic prep school also focuses on the crucial but hidden issues in adolescent life — identity, love, sex, drugs, bullying, homosexuality, suicide.  It’s a strong piece of theatre, a necklace of well-written songs strung on a well-woven story.

In 2001, bare — created and premiered here in LA — swept awards from LA Weekly, Backstage and the LA Drama Critics Circle.  But it seems to have been seldom produced since then.

Under Fred Helsel’s direction at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, bare returned to life (briefly — alas, it’s already closed) on a striking set by Seth Kamenow, expressively lit by Jackson Miller.  The production deftly evoked the enclosed world of St. Cecilia’s boarding school.  The actors (local professionals, most not far out of their teens) created clear characters who struggle — while they  rehearse Romeo and Juliet — to find roles beyond those offered by their parents, their peers, or their drama teacher.

As an opera, bare doesn’t dare the musical heights of, say, Puccini.  Nor did I go home humming any of the tunes.  But from introspective arias (“Quiet Night at Home,” “Warning,” “Portrait of a Girl”) to duets (“Are You There?” “Touch My Soul”) to rousing choruses (“Birthday Bitch,” “911! Emergency!”), the songs comfortably inhabit the idioms of pop/soft rock, delivering their story moments with vocal and emotional accuracy.  Sound designer Chris Grote held the band and singers in balance– and wrung near-perfect clarity from the head mics, a rare but  crucial coup.

Musical theatre needs triple-threat players, and all 18 cast members brought the skills.  Julia Williams (“Plain Jane Fat Ass” Nadia) and Brittney S. Wheeler (drama coach Sister Chantelle and the Virgin Mary) can take over any stage — but wisely didn’t when it wasn’t their turn.  Hunter Larsen (“popular” girl Ivy) contained her complex character and her bell-like voice in a stereotype, then let them emerge gradually.  And Julian Comeau (Peter) held our empathy as he found his character’s sexuality and then his strength.

Culminating in a pregnancy and a suicide, bare embraces the tragic thorns of adolescent life.  It doesn’t back away, and doesn’t offer solutions.  It pleads instead for empathy, and wisdom.

Perhaps that’s why bare hasn’t taken the country by storm the way Hair did.  On the surface, it’s  enclosed in the school and church, while Hair dances in the streets.  And in the 21st century,  the Catholic Church makes a poor, straw-filled substitute for “The Man” — giving bare an antagonist whose power nobody believes in.

Yet bare portrays a more complex world, where difference still is not celebrated as readily as it is attacked or ignored.  Where drugs have become an industry, turning classmates into cynical dealers and endangered dupes.  Where coming out isn’t as easy as tearing off your shirt, and where the girl still gets stuck doing pregnancy solo.

Hair was a song and dance of optimism.  It saw the world beyond the “tribe” entirely from their point of view, as the street kids mimed and mocked adult figures.  It came at a moment when so much was starting to change so fast that it was possible to hope, even in the face of violence.

A generation later, bare peers into the teen world from outside.  It also peers beneath stereotypes, seeking the inner reality of each character, adults as well as teens.  And it comes as the world is changing even faster, often in directions too dark for easy hope.

Hair, like the Rolling Stones, is an aging cultural icon with great  songs.  (Plus nudity and live chickens.)  At 13, bare is less imposing. But it’s more moving, because it reveals people beneath their skins.  And it offers something we need for negotiating the difficult future that we — like teenagers — all must face.

Playing in Space & Time, part 2: “50 Hour Drive-By”

This past weekend, I took part as two theatre companies invited us to play with them in ways that stretched — or shrank — space and time.   Each deserves its own review, but I think they shed light on each other.

50 HOUR DRIVE-BY at Zombie Joe’s Underground

ZJU is the quintessential black box.  In the back half of a narrow North Hollywood storefront, 40 seats (in an “L”) surround  a stage of perhaps 300 square feet.  Space is shrunk as far as can be.

drive-by writers

Writers ready their pens at the 13th annual “Drive-By”

Once a year, Zombie Joe invites a handful of writers and directors, and a passel of actors, to a mad challenge.   Given (by lot) three or four actors and a few random props, each writer has 25 hours to weave a new play.  Then the directors each get 25 hours to bring their play (chosen by lot) to stage.  Time is shrunk as far as can be.

At this year’s “Drive-By,” the five offerings are (as usual) a rapid, ragged romp, wildly varied in subject, but not so dispersed in style.

The black box and L-shaped audience space impose a discipline.  They nudge actors to play “full out” to the L’s apex — not facing each other, discreetly “cheating” toward folks behind the fourth wall.

The abbreviated time likewise urges a certain style.  Things can’t develop slowly, with foreshadowing.   They’re more likely to pop, flick past quickly, and be replaced.  What develops slowly may be the audience’s understanding.

Take this year’s opener, “Doodlebug’s Lament” (Jim Eshom,  dir. Jana Wimer).  Amid a flurry of instant, near-identical scenes, I have an “Aha.”   This demented dentist (Daniel Camacho) will keep torturing his hapless patient (Ronnel Ricardo Parham) at the whim of this mad woman (Anne Wescott) who consults her floppy dog doll.  But why? Suddenly, the characters try to break out, and I see it’s a love thing, and maybe … then it ends.

An addled troubador (Leif LaDuke) starts to capture it all in a song, but wanders offstage too soon.

Then “Fran’s Home Version” (Jeri Batzdorff,  dir. Vanessa Cate) erupts.  Thoroughly modern Fran (Corey Zicari) invites her two unwitting suitors to a face-off,  dueling for her favors in quizzes, a thumb-wrestle, a duet (crooning “our song”) and mano-a-mano slapstick.  The boys (Willy Romano-Pugh and Matt DeNoto) evoke Laurel and Hardy as their daft competition drifts into camaraderie.

Then the troubador returns, knowing more than he tells.

“Tartine” (Kerr Lordygan,  dir. Sebastian Munoz) develops another triangle, as dependent Gelle (Caitlin Carleton) wavers between her passion for the wise, aloof Yeulah (Ellen Runkle) and her possessive TweedleDee of a brother (Steven Alloway).  Ah, it seems they’re fighting over Mom … or is this an internal trialogue … or …

On the swift heels of death, the singer stumbles in.  Then out.

Jennifer (Eunice Viggers) and Samantha (Mary Rachel Gardner) are marooned, faintly recall an accident … A zaftig bubbe (Ann Hurd) says she’s St. Peter and they’re at “The Pearly Gates” (Denise Devin, dir. Denise Devin).  Gifts from their late mother revive their memory of being loved, their desire to love and try again …

The guitar man enters, strums, hums, and leaves.

Leaping on last comes “My Lady” (Adam Neubauer, dir. Jim Eshom), on the shoulders of three energetic young men in tighty whiteys (Tyler Koster, Billy Minogue and David Wyn Harris).  Each vows his prowess and devotion to the unseen Lady.  Enter her aged husband (Roger K. Weiss), wielding a ball-cutter that cowers them all.  But his revelation that Lady is 94 years old doesn’t cool their jets …


When you condense time and space so radically, the devil whispers, “Make it simple, easy, clear.”  The ZJU crowd pays that fool no mind.  For them, compression works as in nuclear physics — it begets explosive energy, with possible meanings whirling off at light speed.  And gasps and groans and laughter in the seats.  As it should be.

A final note about time:  By its nature, the “50 Hour Drive-By” has a short half-life.  It’s performed three times, then closes.  Drop by next year …



Playing in Space & Time, part 1: “Elephant Man”

This past weekend, I took part as two theatre companies invited us to play with them in ways that stretched — or shrank — space and time.   Each deserves its own review, but I think they shed light on each other.

THE ELEPHANT MAN at St. John’s Cathedral

This is not a theatre.  It is the absolute opposite of a black box — a gigantic oblong carton, six or seven stories high and a city block long, empty save rows of long wooden pews clinging to the stone floor.  Halfway down its immense length, a flat wooden stage.

Merrick church

Cathedral model built by Merrick

Far above the stage’s lights, in the vast penumbra that fills this void, a figure two or three times the size of a man hangs on a flat cross.   This, and the gilded altar a half-block farther on, remind us of the building’s purpose — to tell a much older story than the one we will witness tonight.

Tonight, the actors tell of a young man, John Merrick, whose life was shaped by  a disease — and people’s reactions.  The illness twisted his bones and grew the tissues of his head, torso and arm at a cancerous rate.  Shunned, he survived by being “the Elephant Man” in Victorian freak shows.  When his agent robbed and abandoned him, a London doctor took him in.   At the hospital he had a home and education, friends and an art (model building) for four years, until he died.

Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 play (and David Lynch’s 1980 film) took   this story to the world.  But that was a generation ago, when half the people now alive were not born.  Director Patricia McKee’s staging is thus timely.

And her choice of venue pushes the subtext forward, making it larger than the play itself.

We feel Merrick (Mark McClain Wilson) suffer piercing indignities and unthinkable pain, while the massive Crucifix hovers above.  We hear character after character confess — they use Merrick as a mirror into their own souls, though few peer deeply.   And we dare not breathe as Mrs. Kendal (Maria Olsen) boldly touches Merrick’s isolated life with love.  Surrounding this small naked moment, embracing it, are acres of silent stone and stained glass, gold leaf and velvet drapes — all shaped to draw attention to Christendom’s central act, the communion of one body given to and for another.

Like the actors’ voices echoing into the vast stone chamber (a challenge not always fully met), the story’s heart resounds in this sacramental space.

This makes the play’s last scenes,  an earnest critique of patriarchy, a genuine anticlimax.  As his awareness emerges, Dr. Treves breaks apart (though William Kidd’s physicality peaked early).  The bishop (Paul Anderson) and hospital administrator (JimTaylor) remain obtuse and self-admiring, as unaware as the feckless Lord John (Michael McConnell).  The world is little changed.

McKee has chosen boldly.  The cathedral’s reverberant meanings are worth the struggle with its physical echoes.  Her wisely spare stage (a table, a desk, a bed, three chairs) is simply lit by Sergio Crego, who uses blackouts to good effect.  And it’s a fine touch to reveal some  characters early, at the candlelit altar, and let them traverse the long aisle down to the stage before entering.

Daring to throw this play into acres of space, McKee allows it to connect across millennia of time.  Yet she keeps its onstage body small and simple.   This lets us stay attached to the players and the tale, while feeling the deeper levels of our shared experience.

A further note about time:  This play was afforded a very short run — eight performances — and has closed.  But McKee is hopeful …

The Battle of the Ghosts

Saturday night, in a black box in NoHo,  the Ghost of Theatre Past attacked the spirits of theatre present and future.   Some of us didn’t survive.

ghost furniture

As 40 eager people filled the seats, a band of actors and their crew mounted a comedy by a living master.   Or they they tried to.

But when the lights rose, the air grew thick.  It got hard to breathe.

Floor-to-ceiling flats had crept onstage and loomed ominously.  Heavy pieces of furniture were eating up the floor space, swelling like malevolent balloons.   Dozens of props and tchotchkes burgeoned into what little air was left.

Two actors bravely fought for room to deliver their lines.  A man fended off pesky playing cards, cigarettes and matches while discovering his wife’s infidelity.  She was so busy struggling free  of costume items — and then trapping wayward bags, bottles and glasses — that her husband’s questions slipped by her.

The scene ended.  The lights dimmed, and work lights came on. Then the monsters began to move.

Two flats wheeled slowly about, and one came downstage.  Tottering toward us, groaning, it revealed yet another massive blob of furniture stuck to its back.  A bloated couch nudged forward.

A pair of courageous stagehands tried to contain the attack.  For two minutes, they wrestled flats and hassocks, suitcases and pillows, but in vain.  Finally, the director leaped up, threw open the lobby door and rushed to the light booth.  A blackout ensued — or would have, but the flood of lobby light held the soulless creatures at bay.

Spared for the moment,  we took a deep breath and focused.  Another scene began.

For nearly three hours, this battle continued.  Some of us, alas, were casualties, carried out quietly during  intermission.  The survivors applauded at the end, deeply touched by the actors’  heroic attempt.

They had stood up for the human right to explore art and love, in the face of an overwhelming onslaught.  But when they left, the boards belonged to the aliens, who slumped and squatted, grinning inhumanly.  They had won.

The play was well written, witty and wrenching by turns.  The actors’ work ranged from solid to scintillating.   But they were all defeated — by mountains of material goods,  the 45 minutes it took to shift them about, and the 25-minute interval.

The Ghost of Theatre Past.

Twice in the last month, I’ve seen it choke plays to death.

Once it was alive — before radio and film, TV and the Internet, before Las Vegas and Disneyland and the Super Bowl.   Back then, it  provided  everything — story and spectacle, news and context, drama and all the details.  But, as the bird says, nevermore.

Today the Ghost stalks the night, looking for undefended stages.  Trying to do what film and other media do better, it crushes and dismembers plays.   Theatre lovers must watch, helpless, as each torn scene is lifted up and almost brought to life — then flung aside and forgotten.

We don’t need flats and furniture.  We have imaginations.

Theatre is about our imaginations — and using them.   We gather, actors and crew and audience, to imagine a  story.   We don’t need realistic details in every corner.  We don’t want them.

And we don’t want the interruption of shuffling them around.  We want the story.  Give us a couple of risers or boxes, tell us they’re an apartment or a throne room, and we’ll do the rest.  That’s what we came for.

It’s time to lay this murderous old Ghost to rest.  At least in the intimacy of our small theatres, where spectacle is out of place and steals our time.



Hello world!

Welcome to Theatre Ghost!


I’m a lifelong theatre artist, and I’ve been haunting LA’s small theatres for decades.

Besides acting in plays, and writing and directing them, I attend them … 50 or more each year.

That exhausts my pocketbook.  But it hardly touches the more than 400 productions staged each year in our city’s black boxes and storefronts.

(Equity calls us the “Under 50s,” looking gently down its nose at the maximum number of seats we’re allowed, and the most we’ve ever paid an actor.)

We’re small and poor, but I think we’re where theatre really lives.

Big budgets beget big headaches — and draw big egos hungry for money or power or fame.  Such worries we don’t need.  They clog the arteries and stifle the art.

Small spaces and budgets challenge creativity.  And our inability to mount a spectacular illusion keeps us focused on story, on people.

The magic of theatre — the thing film, TV and the Internet can’t do — is human contact.  The way bodies in a room affect each other.  You feel, viscerally, what an actor is feeling a few feet from you.  The actor feels your reaction.  And that makes a shared story.

You can’t get that from a screen, not even 60 feet wide with 3D and DoubleDeafDolby.

You can’t avoid it in an Under 50 theatre.  So that’s where I’ll be writing from.

(Well, “writing about.”  I’m actually writing from a tiny room above a wooded canyon, the morning after.)