Shootings’ Unseen Victims Step Forth in “Ripe Frenzy”

As we endure the slow holocaust of our schoolchildren, the media  are reporting exhaustively on each killer — and briefly on several of the victims. They even give us sound bites from a few of the victims’ families. We rarely hear from the killer’s family.

With Ripe Frenzy, now at the Greenway Court,  playwright Jennifer Barclay does what the news doesn’t. The play’s set in a  high school theatre that’s busy preparing its 40th annual staging of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. But rather than follow a latter-day George and Emily, Frenzy lets the mothers speak.

Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson, Liam Springthorpe, Elizabeth Ann Bennett (photo: Michael Lamont)

Miriam (Melody Butiu) and Felicia (Renee-Marie Brewster) are the moms of infatuated teens, who are in fact playing the two lovers. Best friend Zoe (Elizabeth Ann Bennett) has a son who’s up in the booth, running sound and lights. Each woman shares stories of her child, and of her motherhood, as they together repeat rituals they’ve known all their lives.

But the story belongs to Zoe, Our Town’s Stage Manager years before, who takes a  similar role in this play. She greets us as it begins, narrates it, and says farewell as it ends. Unlike Wilder’s relaxed, forthcoming narrator, however, Zoe seems anxious, repressed. She keeps tossing us “bright side” bon mots, making us wonder what she can’t say (and won’t let  let anyone else say).

Ripe Frenzy shuttles back and forth in time, between the giddy  preparations for tech rehearsal and a somber, reserved moment after Our Town is cancelled in mid-performance and plans are announced to tear down the theatre.

We wonder, but we know. We do not have the innocent pleasure of suspense. As in our lives, the characters’ pre-show excitement is damped, again and again, by news flashes, memes, and texts about a school shooting in a Michigan town. That shooter even appears, like a ghost, at the beginning, to be shooed offstage by Zoe; yet his name echoes through the play like a mantra.

The Event inevitably occurs — but we only experience it through disturbing projections (by Jared Mezzocchi), jerky images from the shooter’s cell phone. We do see the horrid copycat pattern unfold, and hear all the questions, second-guesses, blamings, and arguments that attend such an event. But Ripe Frenzy reaches its climax in uncertainties — the most lacerating of which is Zoe’s struggle with the question: “Wouldn’t the world be better if he had never been born?”

Leaving the theatre, I saw what I’d learned: The “answers” and “solutions” we ardently seek are just attempts to get out of a crisis. But once we’ve lived in it, the crisis will be with us  and in us, and we will be in it, for the rest of our lives.

Ripe Frenzy powerfully and deeply examines a crisis we’re living in,
as our our society rips itself apart. It’s delivered in a calm, steady, colloquial poetry much like Wilder’s, though it comes to a rest at a much less comfortable place.

The performances are alive and nuanced, the mothers standing out (as they should). Butiu and Brewster give us two clear, very different women, bound together by lifelong intimacy (and isolation). Bennett gives us the tragic crumbling of a person who has given all in love, yet is overwhelmed by forces she can’t foresee or forestall.

Liam Springthorpe, besides playing Miriam’s son Matt, gives a chillingly uncontained turn as the Michigan killer. Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson, who plays Felicia’s daughter Hadley, also creates a deeply disturbing cameo of a bright, unmoored girl who adores the killer. Director Alana Dietz rides herd on the time warping and the poetry,
and injects tension and movement into a play which — like a Greek tragedy — puts almost none of its central action onstage.

Amanda Knehans’ striking set neatly makes the “town” of both plays strongly ubiquitous and at the same time feebly small. And Azra King-Abadi’s lighting draws our attention where it needs to be, subtly signaling mood shifts.

The text and staging of Ripe Frenzy have benefited from several rounds of reworking. (Though I am baffled by the title — it’s never spoken, and tells us nothing about the story.) This strong, honest play takes us into a dimension of our common suffering that we need to understand. Like the Greeks who experienced Sophocles’ works, Americans who see this play will be better able to handle what we’re going through.
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Ripe Frenzy, by Jennifer Barclay, directed by Alana Dietz.
Presented by Greenway Arts Alliance, at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., LA 90036.

Fridays at 8:00,
Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00,
through June 16th.
Final performance Sunday June 17th at 4:00.

Tickets: <http://greenwaycourttheatre.org/now-playing>

 

 

“wood boy”: puppets shine in dark extravaganza

We all know the story — or think we do.

Pinocchio, the puppet who wants to be a real boy. Geppeto the carver, Jiminy Cricket, Monstro the Whale … oops. That’s the 1940 Disney animated film, which took a dark , convoluted Italian children’s book and turned it into a sweet, simple fairy tale.

Chelsea Sutton, a playwright with a taste for the macabre (Kaidan Project, The Dead Woman), went back to the source. In Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel, she found the darkness Disney tried to brightwash.
She also added some filthier shadows we’ve since cast across the world, our  Puritan-capitalist colonizing culture being even more repressed — and monster-filled — than Collodi’s.

Fire Eater (Keiana Richard), Wood Boy (Rudy Martinez, with Mark Royston and Sarah Kay Peters).Photo: Chelsea Sutton. 

From this morass arises Shoreside, a failed city built around the lair of the malevolent Dogfish (not placid Monstro, but a fierce giant, as in the original). It periodically ravages the city, seeking to eat the inhabitants’ fear; they struggle to contain it, and make money off its presence by creating festivals and a carnival ride.

This is the world into which Sutton’s “Wood Boy” is born. We enter this world outside the theatre and in the lobby, where the Rogue Artists and the Garry Marshall Theatre have created a museum of Shoreside memorabilia along with live acts — music, magic, and fortune-telling. (And, of course, there’s a bar). Guests are urged to arrive an hour early to take it all in.

In Shoreside, we notice signs and stickers that say “Kill the Cricket!” This is a shock (but faithful to Collodi’s tale, where that’s the first thing Pinocchio does). In the show, we soon share the lethal impulse — this cricket keeps interrupting the action to spout commercials.

Again and again, we meet nasty surprises that were in the story at the start, now embellished by Sutton’s dark imagining. Wood Boy becomes a captive performer at the Fire-Eater’s Theatre (it’s Signor Mangiafuoco in the novel — here, a terrifying full-body puppet). Wood Boy’s feet are burned off (in the novel, through sleepy carelessness — here, as a cruel torture).

Wood Boy Dog Fish sounds grim, but it magically combines its vision with buoyant comedy and colorful spectacle. This is the happy result of a gift neither Collodi nor Disney enjoyed — the Rogue Artists’ mad inventiveness. They fill the space to the back doors and the rafters with characters, music, day-glo colors, balloons, sounds, puppets …
It’s an overwhelming sensory feast, a baroque wedding cake with a dark chocolate center.

This production also benefits from the intimate 130-seat house.
I recently saw a triumphant new musical at the Ahmanson (Soft Power, review below) — but for all the big theatre’s resources, it can’t achieve the immediacy of having tickets and candy land in your lap, or seeing a lynched puppet swing from a noose right above you. The small box also acts as an amplifier, reflecting and re-reflecting sound and light, intensifying the excitement.

Wood Boy Dog Fish is as collaborative as theatre can get. Every group — from the half-dozen puppet designers to the two scene designers, the two costume designers, the three lighting and video designers, the two sound designers (plus composer), two stage managers, half-dozen puppeteers, and the actors — works as a closely sychronized team. And the teams must come together as one. Which is the impressive achievement of director Sean T. Cawelti (who’s also a puppet and mask designer).

A puppeteer trio — Rudy Martinez, Mark Royston, and Sarah Kay Peters — come onstage in black to operate Wood Boy, a most versatile and expressive creation. The show also deploys full-body puppets (Fire Eater and the Terrible Dogfish), stringed marionettes, and hand puppets — and a dizzying variety of masks.

Among the actors, Martinez deserves note for fine voice work while draped in black and helping to operate Wood Boy. Keiana Richard likewise develops a strong character unseen, inside the grinning but unsettling Fire Eater. Paul Turbiak takes turns with Ben Messmer (as Geppetto) operating the Terrible Dogfish puppet; Turbiak stalks with wordless menace, while Messmer/Geppetto wanders with the carver’s sad uncertainty.

Amir Levi (Fox) and Tyler Bremer (Cat) pounce in and out, carrying much of the narrative work in their paws, as well as being sly villains. (It’s a delight that Cat, whose tongue Fire Eater tore out, uses ASL.) Lisa Dring creates an endearing friend for Wood Boy in the lost gamin Wick, and Miles Taber gushes fake glee like a geyser as the alarmingly ebullient MC of Funland.

Messmer, as Geppetto, gives us an inept, depressed, drunken artist who abandons his magical child soon after they connect. But he  has somehow won our empathy, so his failures of judgment and nerve dismay us but do not disconnect us. Finally, as Blue (Collodi’s and Disney’s Blue Fairy, here the ghost of Geppetto’s partner), Tane Kawasaki gives a bravura performance, painting a wide range of emotional colors in words and song, carrying magic for healing and gravity for holding Geppetto and Wood Boy on Earth. (Note: Her costume alone is worth the price of admission; Lori Meeker and Jazz Hager deserve any awards out there.)

Of course, such immersive, high-speed, multisensory storytelling can feel almost chaotic. Add the pervasive darkness of Sutton’s vision, and her lightning-quick puns and allusions, and it can be overwhelming. Unlike Disney’s version, Wood Boy Dog Fish is not aimed at children, though a  very bright (and emotionally resilient) child might relish the ride, even without getting every reference.

For the rest of us, Wood Boy Dog Fish offers a dazzling romp through the dark side of life, a carnival ride of rare energy and brilliance into the byways of our individual and communal souls. The script is a stunning achievement. This production (and edition), the fruit of years of working and reworking, testifies powerfully to what dedicated working at one’s art can accomplish.
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Wood Boy Dog Fish, by Chelsea Sutton, directed by Sean T. Cawelti.
Presented by Rogue Artists Ensemble at the Garry Marshall Theatre, 4252 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank 91505.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00
Sundays at 3:00 and 7:00,
through June 24th.

Tickets: <web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/19/1525147200000>

 

 

 

 

“Soft Power” pokes fun at US, China, musicals – See it!

OK, a musical that satirizes musicals. Or current US politics. Or one about how folks in China might view (and misunderstand) America — set 50 years from now.

OK, these ideas would get thrown out of the elevator in mid- pitch. But in this elevator are playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), composer-lyricist Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), and director Leigh Silverman (Violet). All are musical-theatre heavyweights, successful enough to get away with crazy. Or at least try.

When the doors open, out steps Soft Power, a wildly ambitious musical satire that achieves every impossible thing it sets out to do. It pokes fun at musicals as a way to tell stories, taking special aim at the stories we tell ourselves about other cultures — and our own. For his musical target, Hwang chooses The King and I, which he loves. But it’s a guilty pleasure, because it so painfully embodies American (and British) arrogance toward — and ignorance of — Asian culture.

Conrad Ricamora, Austin Ku, Francis Jue, Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante and Raymond J. Lee (photo: Craig Schwartz).

In Soft Power, Hwang stands the classic tale on its head. Instead of British schoolmarm Anna teaching “civilized’ ways to Siam’s King Mongkut, he has Chinese film producer Xue Xing fly to Hollywood to teach Americans how to make a musical — and unexpectedly meet presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Then Xue’s stateside collaborator, a playwright named Hwang, is stabbed by a mugger. In a hospital delirium, the playwright dreams an “American  style” musical that Chinese storytellers, by 2068, will have fabricated from Xue’s journey.

This tale-within-a-tale lets playwright Hwang (the real one) stand between his two cultures, tossing satiric barbs at both — and at how we humans transform our experience into stories that may be art, fable, entertainment, propaganda, or an indistinguishable mixture.

A satire aimed at musicals is, of course, musical as well as verbal. Here, Hwang’s partner Tesori takes the lead, directing the heavy archery with masterful skill and hilariously bad taste. She serves up every song moment a musical buff could hope for, each done in top form — and each just over the top, mocking both the form and itself. The songs are necessary, effective, often beautiful. They move us, yet also make us aware of the innate silliness of what we’re doing.

Soft Power‘s comic arrows land every time, and we laugh gratefully  to see so many foibles so neatly punctured, even if they’re our own. We smile at the stereotypes the characters enact (in this play, they do it with a wink), and chuckle at their inability to see each other. Yet such is the skill of Hwang’s and Tesori’s writing, and the company’s performing, that we see them not merely as comic figures, but as people we care about.

This is no mean trick. And it lends the play, for all its fun and frolic, a sense of gathering melancholy. Beneath each sally of wit lies a wound, and as things progress, we are led to our tears. Still, we’re kept laughing; and finally, we cheer for the achievement. (We also cheer because we so terribly need this catharsis, a chance to laugh at and mourn for our confused, collapsing culture.)

Center Theatre Group stages Soft Power, which it co-commissioned, with no holds barred. Every moment of the story is brought to vivid life in a bravura display of theatrical resources. David Zinn’s scenic designs range from modest minimalism to brash opulence, with wicked humor, revealed by Mark Barton’s lighting. Many scenes open to delighted laughter and applause before a line is spoken.

Under David O’s direction, the pit orchestra is energetic, clear, and flawless; and what’s a musical without dancers? Sam Pinkleton (choreographer) and John Clancy (dance arranger) make every number move, from soft waltzes to exploding high-kick climaxes, recalling — and deftly mocking — dance moments we have loved.

Thanks to  the precise designs and swift changes created by Anita Yavich (costumes), Angelina Avallone (makeup), and Tom Watson (hair and wigs), we instantly recognize our characters, their social places, and even their current moods.

All this artistry gives the actors a perfect world to perform in — and perform they do. As famous playwright Hwang, David Jue gives us a sweet, wisecracking fool who stumbles into wisdom and takes us with him. Conrad Ricamora’s Xue Xing gently but firmly impels the journey, and slowly unbuttons his mental Mao suit as he falls toward love. Austin Ku nicely creates Billy Bob, a hapless young hillbilly who keeps somehow being a hero; and Raymond J. Lee and Jon Hoche deliver a fistful of those outsize secondary characters who move the plot along while mugging, dancing, and singing.

Then there’s Alyse Alan Louis, who plays Xue’s girlfriend Zoe, a nice turn — and Hillary, the hardest character to do, being a world-class media celebrity. Louis, wisely, does not imitate: She gives us a fair resemblance, then unpacks a suitcase full of intense, conflicting (and wholly understandable) emotions.

And she sings. When Hwang was first imagining this story, in 2014, the idea was that Hillary, like Mongkut, would be running a country. The cataclysm of 2016 gave a tragic underscore to Act 2 — and gave Tesori a show-stopping song to write for Hillary. It’s a number few singers can deliver, but when Louis delivers its opening note, the house erupts.

Leaving the theatre, I overheard a group of guests exclaiming, “These actors! Where have they been?” “How did they find them?” “Why aren’t they on Broadway?” Well, they are. Often. Jue did M. Butterfly there, Ricamora did (wait for it) The King and I there, and Louis did Amalie and Mama Mia! there. Even Kendyl Ito, who charms in a small scene as Xue’s daughter, did the world tour of Matilda.

This astonishing array of world-class talents is brought into unity and coherence by Silverman, who not only directed Tesori’s Violet on Broadway, but has helmed a half-dozen of Hwang’s major works.
A friend who specializes in directing musicals says the job is like leading an army, a navy, and an air force, each from a different country, in total darkness. Under Silverman’s eye and hand, all the forces work together seamlessly and arrive in triumph.

Soft Power was a risky project to bet on. But the risk pays off richly, thanks to CTG’s lavish resources and the remarkable artists who have gathered to create it. It’s a constant surprise and delight, one of the best things I’ve seen at the Ahmanson (where I’ve been going since it was built). Catch it before it heads to Broadway. Or Beijing.
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Soft Power, by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori, directed by Leigh Silverman.
Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 Grand Ave., LA 90012.

Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00,
Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00,
Sundays at 1:00 and 6:30,
through June 10.

Tickets: <https://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets> or
(213) 628-2772.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Giant Void” hits search for meaning on the nose

On the nose.

It’s what theatre folks call a text that says too clearly what the play (or the moment) is about, that gives away the subtext, that leaves the actors — and the audience — nothing to discover.

It’s also where a clown puts a red-orange ball that signals “comedy,” that turns a face into a mask, that says this character isn’t exactly a real person — or perhaps has a reality deeper than anybody’s face.

Kim Hamilton (above), Karla Moseley. (photo: Ammo Theatre Company)

The Giant Void in My Soul is on the nose, in the first sense. Bernardo Cubría’s text is not subtle, not clothed in metaphors nor wearing a skin of naked realism. It shows you the bones, all the time. In it, two fools encounter the existential question — the great void in the soul that can’t be named, but also can’t be forgotten, once seen, nor successfully evaded.

The Giant Void is not on the nose in the second sense — that is, the two fools (and two more who ably assist them, taking several other roles) do not wear red noses. They don’t need to. Their evocative clown makeup, their baggy white coveralls, and their nimble capering and posing put us instantly in the familiar world of clowning that goes back to Italy’s commedia dell’arte troupes (and beyond, through medieval mummers, to the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome).

While the fools clown along, assembling and reassembling a half-dozen sawhorses to create the places in their world, they speak dialog as spare and contemporary — and funny — as the best of Samuel Beckett. It’s exactly what we’d say if we could drop all the trivia and pretense, and just say what’s going on in our inner lives, what’s bothering us, what we’re hoping and fearing. The language isn’t fancy, but its accuracy makes us ache — when we’re not laughing. (And sometimes when we are.)

Yes, I did say Beckett. Cubría (whose ear was tuned on Mexican Spanish) has found the same mother lode of plainclothes English poetry that the Irishman did. And he mines it masterfully.

The troupe, in turn, gives his script a splendidly simple production. Mark Kanieff’s inventive set design creates a world of comic mystery from sheets and sawhorses. Lauren Wemsichner’s lighting and the sound score by Mischa Stanton and Arian Saleh likewise weave magic from the simplest things. And, as mentioned, Sami Rattner’s costumes and Erica Smith’s makeup are minimalist gems, summoning millennia of tradition by using nearly nothing.

The actors, on the other hand, are nonstop dynamos. They use everything they’ve got to propel themselves through their world as they try to attack, escape, and finally face the Giant Void.

Kim Hamilton paints Fool 2 in a shifting array of slightly muted colors: hesitant, hopeful, humorous, hurt, ever faithful. This common-sense Sancho holds — or at least, keeps re-finding — the gravity in the room. Karla Moseley uses a lighter palette for Fool 1, the quixotic dreamer who first finds the Void, then leaps headfirst down every escape route, learning  by bruising. Liza Fernandez juggles five roles, an irascible wise drunk and an inconsolable baby being standouts. And Claudia Doumit morphs through four disparate characters, at one point catapulting from a jaded bartender to a seductive swami. Each is a delight to watch (and listen to — clarion-clear diction is a hallmark of these players).

The hand of director Felix Solís is, as it should be, everywhere but invisible. He leads the troupe through an 80-minute ballet of vigorous, precise movement — punctuated by posed stillness in which every turn of a hand or a head, every lift of an eyebrow, has meaning.

I’m sad to say that until now, I have not seen a production by Ammunition Theatre Company. I will not miss another: these are artists to be reckoned with. Cubría’s The Giant Void in My Soul is a remarkable playwriting achievement, and Ammo is giving it a delightful, virtually perfect production.
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The Giant Void in My Soul, by Bernardo Cubría, directed by Felix Solís.
Presented by Ammunition Theatre Company, at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., LA 90064.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through June 3.

Tickets: <https://www.goldstar.com/venues/los-angeles-ca/pico-playhouse>

 

 

 

 

“Threat”: a tense journey beyond the boundaries

Marking boundaries isn’t easy. It’s hard to find the border between two states when a flowing river  separates them. It’s far harder to find the boundaries between two human beings in a fluid, shifting, emotionally charged relationship.

Louis Felder’s new play, Threat, looks at humans pushed to their limits. And it lets us experience the interplay between boundaries we define for ourselves and those that are publicly defined — by laws, and by the ethics codes of professions.

Mason Conrad, Pagan Urich (photo: Magdalena Calderon)

At the center of this story is Margaret, a woman involved in two relationships where she must find the borders. The first occurs in the opening and closing scenes; in it, she holds the less powerful position, as student and then protegée. In the second relationship, which occupies the heart of the play (and most of its running time), she holds a dominant role, as therapist to an agitated student.

Both relationships push her up to and past the edge of the world marked out by ethics rules, because the other person is unwilling —  or unable — to respect them. This leaves her in uncharted territory, relying only on her inner moral sense and whatever courage she can muster.

Felder, who developed Threat from his 10-minute play Dark Matter,  knows the landscape he’s leading us over. His characters are familiar and their conflicts are outlined with accuracy; they also speak as we do, or would. The conflicts reach resolution, but the play’s world is real enough that while things end, they don’t end comfortably.

Producer Bree Pavey and the Whitefire Theatre are giving Threat a serious, focused production. Every element is skillfully handled. Madylin Sweeten’s simple set design, and Matt Richter’s ink-art projections and pre-show music, welcome us to an everyday world that’s somehow quietly ominous.

Dr. Westbrook (John Posey) enters that world — his office — with unmistakable self-satisfaction before he says a word. Margaret (Pagan Urich) gives us in her body language her progress from  diffidence to comfort, then to alarm; her angry outburst comes as no surprise. What does surprise is the choice she makes, violating herself in order to stay in the game.

In the second scene, Margaret sits at the desk, which is now hers .
In comes David (Mason Conrad), a physics grad student who’s very disturbed: His professors haven’t nominated him for a Nobel Prize. We soon suspect his “work” is not a breakthrough, but a breakdown. He grows more and more frantic, drawing Margaret into a quandary for which no one has trained her.

The acting in this play is equal to the writing, which makes for a challenging and satisfying experience. Posey’s solid presence reveals cracks through which things leak — crass exploitation at one point,  genuine sympathy at another. Conrad’s bravura turn moves steadily — no, jerkily, a wiser choice — into his paranoia, yet never lets us break our empathy for him even when he grows irrational and violent. Instead, he poignantly portrays the battle between the person he wants to be and the one his fear and rage make him.

Urich’s role is the most complex, and she handles it with delicacy and precision. She does not at all telegraph her first major decision; later, she moves through a series of sudden changes, never once betraying whether she is being guided by emotion or calculation. When she reaches the final crisis, we know her motives and options, and feel her terrible distress, but have no certainty what she will do.

Director Asaad Kelada also deserves a nod for the show’s tight pace and focus. No movement is without strong motivation, the power shifts and emotional transitions are clear and swift. Kelada’s TV career seems to have taught him sharpness and speed, without seducing him into the tube’s love for oversimplifying or underlining.

Threat is slated for only two more performances during this run at the Whitefire. The tautly writen play, and the skilled production it’s getting, make me hope for an extension.
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Threat, by Louis Felder, directed by Asaad Kelada.
Presented by Bree Pavey and Whitefire Theatre, at the Whitefire, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks 91423.

Thursday and Friday at 8:00,
through May 4th.

Tickets: <www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3343157>
or (818) 990-2324

 

 

 

 

“Waste Land”: a poem’s birth, a marriage’s death

Most of us didn’t spend a whole spring of lovely mornings stumbling and struggling through T.S. Eliot’s massive poem, The Waste Land.  (Those of us in Ms. MacLeish’s senior English class did.) So for most of us, a play about Eliot’s life while he wrote the history-making ode might seem a bit daunting, with thin rewards likely at journey’s end.

Nonetheless, playwright Don Nigro and the Collaborative Artists Ensemble take on the challenge, giving his Waste Land its world premiere here in LA, at the recently renovated studio/stage.
The poem — despite the immense difficulties it  presented to its early 20th-century readers — has become a classic of modern literature. The play faithfully rides its coattails, full of quotations and Easter eggs, but can hardly expect a similar fate.

Meg Wallace, JJ Smith, John Ogden, Bartholomeus De Meirsman

Nigro is prolific, at 400 plays and counting, and one of the most produced living playwrights. As in racing, however, you gain speed by sacrificing weight. Though Nigro’s well-read and witty, his play does not reach the depth and resonance of its subject.

It needs the firm editing Tom Eliot got from fellow poet Ezra Pound. And the rewriting Pound demanded. (Eliot dedicated The Waste Land to him, saying, “He made it better.”) Nigro raises meaty issues — love, war, protest, classism, mental illness, the role of art in modern society — but tends to brush by them, rather than digging in. This may be in part because there are so many lines to get through (the piece runs over two hours); it may also reflect the way Eliot’s fashionable London friends liked to reach for bon mots rather than  serious thinking.

In place of depth, we get repetition. Characters make the same point several times over, and whole scenes often sound as if they’re being repeated. But the matter at hand is important, and we want to work our way below the surface, not keep skating on it (however cleverly).

Vivienne, Eliot’s wife and arguably the play’s main character, suffers most from this. Slipping into mental illness, she ends up in a “home”; yet her whole psychological life seems to have begun the moment she met Tom. Speech after speech repeats her distress, but adds nothing to our sense of who she was before, what made her so vulnerable to this situation, and who she is or might be when she’s not being driven mad by severe neglect.

Ironically, Tom, who pushes neurotic repression as far as it can go (and does at one point seek treatment), is more accessible. This is largely because we see him repeatedly dodge disclosing anything — and because we meet his mother, a terrifying American matron.

If the two major characters are underexplored, the secondary ones are nearly cartoonish. For all the time Ezra Pound spends onstage,  we only know that he writes poetry, loves art and swearing, and is a goofball. Bertrand Russell, the famed philosopher, mathematician, and anti-war activist, is a bundle of mannerisms — amusing, but not very human. Ditto James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein. We get to know the most about Mr. Jaynes, a retired detective who hangs about the house, because Vivienne asks about him — and he answers. Who were these people? Who are they when they’re not onstage? Nigro seems not to care, or not to have held onto the play long enough to notice what’s missing.

As they say in the restaurant business, you can’t fix a dish between the kitchen and the table. Given this half-baked cake, the players do what they can. But they’re hamstrung by the playwright’s unfinished work — and by some of their own limitations.

Several actors do rise above the script. Rich Brunner infuses James Joyce with a wise melancholy, and doesn’t breeze past Joyce’s loss of his daughter to schizophrenia; we feel him as a person, and relax when he’s onstage. Deborah Cresswell does similarly fine work making Gertrude Stein and Mother Eliot believable, endowing them with depth beyond the lines (though Stein is given some nice witticisms and absurdities). Georgan George lets us feel Virginia Woolf’s tenuous, often confused encounter with common reality, hinting at the courage behind her quizzical humor. And John Ogden uses his tools — voice, accent, posture, pace — to create a very clear etching of Bertie Russell, and a more rounded portrait of Mr. Jaynes.

In the major roles, Bartholomeus De Meirsman commits ebullient energy to the role of Ezra Pound (he’s one of the few actors who can wheel a bicycle onto and off of a tiny stage with elan). But the part’s not only underwritten, it ‘s also insufficiently spoken. De Meirsman can be clarion clear, and when he takes the time to be so, his Pound is engaging and wry; however,  he rushes a good half of his lines, making us lose most of a character we urgently want to know.

As Tom Eliot, JJ Smith faces a massive challenge: To communicate to us the thoughts, feelings, and inner life of a person who is at great pains not to communicate them to anyone, not even his wife. That Smith does so is an impressive feat: Using stillness, and a tightly closed body, he forces us again and again to read what the muscles in his face involuntarily reveal. It’s an acting coup, fully delivering the one  character who should be underwritten.

Meg Wallace has an equally imposing task. Vivienne is onstage more than anyone else, has more lines than anyone else, and yet we can’t rely on the words to get to know her very well. It’s up to the actor. Wallace is an intelligent and attractive actor, someone we want to connect with; but alas, Vivienne reaches her emotional peak early and keeps hitting that note over and over. (This is more a directing than an acting fault.) Overfast delivery and slumped, beseeching posture serve well to portray Vivienne at her nadir — but they’re present throughout, making us unable to feel what draws Tom to her so strongly, or keeps him there. (To be fair, these are mysteries to which Nigro leaves few clues in the text).

I suspect that in their decade together (this is Collaborative Artists’ 11th season), the company may have fallen into some bad habits, which they may excuse in one another. Director Steve Jarrard, while making some strong choices, allows lapses that also marred the company’s prior show (Afterlife: A Ghost Story, reviewed last October).

One is letting actors face each other while talking, excluding the audience; this costs us much of Ezra Pound. Another is not demanding more work on vocal production and pacing. These are long, hard speeches to learn, but the work is wasted if we can’t understand them. Finally, I wish Jarrard had felt free to discuss rewriting, or editing — or at least trimming — some of the text with the author. It’s a tough talk to have, especially with a world premiere offered as a gift, but it will have to be done someday if this play is to survive.

And I do hope Waste Land survives. It’s a story that demands telling, especially now that gender, sexuality, and mental illness are hot on the table. Michael Hastings’ 1985 play, Tom and Viv, and Carole Seymour-Jones’ 2002 biography, Painted Shadow, have started the process — but Vivienne still hasn’t had her innings. (I admit, I also want others to be tempted into reading Tom’s masterful poem; it deserves its reputation.)

For Collaborative Artists Ensemble, I wish not only survival but thriving. They consistently choose interesting material that challenges them, and challenges us; we need that more than we need another re-staged popular musical. The plucky troupe’s dedication shows in their managing to exist without an endowment, crowd funding, or mayonnaise jars at the door.
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Waste Land, by Don Nigro, directed by Steve Jarrard.
Presented by the Collaborative Artists Ensemble, at studio/stage, 520 N. Western Ave., LA 90004.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through May 6.

Tickets: <www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3321593>

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Lost in the Light” blazes trail for blind theatre

Among its hundreds of theatre troupes, LA now has one composed of artists who are blind, or are losing their sight. Theatre by the Blind (TBTB) also has a lovely new theatre, The Blue Door, in Culver City.

TBTB’s initial offering, Lost in the Light, showcases the many skills that sightless actors and musicians bring — and the often clever means by which they make the stage their oyster.

Lee Pugsley, Magally Ocampo; background – vocalist Jennifer Bevans, keyboardist Rex Lewis-Clack. (photo: Dave Mejia)

The musical revue’s scenes (by Pelita Dassala, from company brainstorms) are punctuated by choral songs (by composer/lyricists Laurie Grant and Chloe Copoloff). They weave the tale of a blind woman, Angel, who’s offered a surgical chance to acquire sight.  We’re shown her colorful family’s responses, her loyal partner’s reactions, her comic conflicts with medical egos, and her first job as a journalist — which leads to an ethical conflict that’s sure to shape her career (and her personal life).

Lost in the Light tackles stereotyped expectations head-on, as Angel (Magally Ocampo) rides her skateboard into the opening scene. It also teaches us to accept a pace in which some actors find their way by touching walls and furniture — and by reading texture changes designed into the stage floor (bet you didn’t see that coming!).

The songs help focus on the themes of ability (“I’m not as small as you think, I can do anything”) and moving out of a family’s embrace (“I’m ready to explore — it’s all through that door”). In a nice touch, Angel’s  later career dilemma echoes her initial conflict: whether to move out, trusting herself in an unknown world.

Lost in the LIght lets some characters’ inner lives shine, notably Grandpa Buck (Enest Pipoly), and the surgeon (Melanie Hernandez). Others — Angel’s parents (Kenny Lee and Sylvia Taylor), her brother (David Sandoval), and her boyfriend (Lee Pugsley) — are written with less complexity, though the actors clearly could deliver more. As the play evolves, time for deepening these characters might be won by gently pruning some songs (which consumed more than half the run time). This show is a promising start for this new company, and could well develop into a powerful theatre standard.

Beyond the play itself, Lost in the Light is an exemplary theatrical achievement. Director Greg Shane and his crew (Grant, assistant director Cosette Ruesga, and stagehand Maria Acosta) have planned, rehearsed, and now stage a musical show in which all 23 performers — 16 actors, a keyboard artist (Rex Lewis-Clack) and six vocalists — require special accommodations. And most companies quail at taking on one “special needs” actor!

A word also must be said about The Blue Door itself. Converted from a storefront with donated materials and labor, the well-equipped house, with its crisp tile front, makes a handsome addition to its urban neighborhood. More important, Shane and the team from CRE Outreach, the sponsoring agency, have made it a warm home for a community of actors who richly deserve one.

Expect to see and hear more from behind The Blue Door.
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Lost in the Light, by Pelia Dasalla and the company, words and music by Laurie Grant and Chloe Copoloff; directed by Greg Shane.
Presented by Theatre by the Blind and Rex & Friends, at The Blue Door, 9617 Venice Blvd., Culver City 90232.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8,
Sundays at 3,
through May 12.

Tickets: <www/creoutreach.org>

 

 

 

 

“Of Government” Is Less — and More — than it seems

Son of Semele not only creates consistently high-quality theatre, they are a scrappy bunch. They tackle difficult topics, and plays that are challenging to produce. And they keep coming up winners.

With the current Of Government,  they’ve done it again. Alexander Borinsky’s piece looks slight — simple pieces of story very loosely tacked together. (The first scene change, for example, whisks us from a mermaid kingdom to a small town in Montana.) And the SoS gang handles it all with a light, swift touch.

​Brenda Varda, Hazel Lozano, Olivia J. Fox, K Butterfly Smith, Anneliese Euler, Lauren Flans, Melina Bielefelt, Christine Avila, and Jessica Salans.

But what’s in play here is, like the sea, deeper than it looks. Ariel the Mermaid Princess may start as an amusing  parody, yet she leads us into a voyage as deeply serious (and as picaresque) as Voltaire’s Candide. Like the French philosopher, Borinsky is worried about human nature: “Can we govern ourselves?” he asks, “and if so, how?”

Nobody asks this question outright, of course. When Ariel leaves to seek healing for the world, the focus is on her father’s fears for her — not his inability to improve his collapsing kingdom. When a wise and beloved  teacher’s school dwindles, no one can find a way to keep it from closing. It’s rare that a world, or a corner of it, holds up. Instead we get unwed motherhood, ruinous medical costs, being stalked by a control freak — not such stuff as rom-coms are made on.

You may get pretty far along, as I did, before noticing that all the characters and actors are women. You may also be so busy following the stitched-together stories that you don’t note familiar patriarchal systems failing, again and again, and even endangering the one human enterprise that does succeed — the quiet, steady “emotional work” that men leave mostly to women.

But by the end, what has been unobtrusively woven is a sense of community (including the audience, as an easygoing piano player keeps asking us what things we have in common, what songs we know). The stories’ conflicts aren’t neatly resolved, and the issues underlying them certainly don’t get analyzed or fixed. And yet we feel fairly safe, almost able to hope. (One character even dares to run for local office.)

What emerges from this journey — which is often intense, always engaging — is no plan or system by which we can govern ourselves. Instead, we become aware of a resource we almost forgot we had.

The ensemble gives this deceptively simple piece a poised, lively presence, letting its depths and complexities emerge quietly. And they employ immense skill and energy making it seem so relaxed. Their work calls to mind a circle of Shaker women, creating masterpiece quilts while singing “‘Tis a Gift To Be Simple.”

It’s hard to single out anyone in this group, who listen and respond to each other so fluidly. Jessica Salans does accomplish a couple of remarkable transformations, Christine Avila exudes a deep calm that holds her world together, and Suzanne Scott’s costumes are a delight. But everyone feels caught up in the story, yet comfortable telling it even when it has harsh edges — and so we are, too.

It would be very healthy for our beleaguered country to have Of Government performed widely and often. We are fortunate that Son of Semele is offering its West Coast premiere here.
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Of Government, by Alexander Borinsky, directed by Kate Motzenbacker.
Presented by the Son of Semele Ensemble, at Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., LA 90004.

Tuesdays at 7:00,
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 5:00,
through April 1.

Tickets: <www.sonofsemele.org> or (213) 351-3507.

 

 

 

“Last Session”: Freud and C.S. Lewis Debate, Don’t Dig

In a quietly elegant London office, two highly educated men meet. One is a cynical atheist, the other a recently converted Christian. Both care passionately about where human life is going, but they disagree about almost  everything in Earth and heaven.

While they argue, hell arrives. It’s the first week of September 1939, and World War II interrupts them — first with radio broadcasts, then with air-raid sirens.

It’s a great moment. And these are great characters — Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, in the final weeks of his life, and C.S. Lewis, one of Christianity’s most effective modern spokesmen, months before his sudden rise to fame.

Martin Rayner, Martyn Stanbridge (photo: Enci Box)

Playwright Mark St. Germain brings them together (they never met in real life). The Oxford don isn’t seeking Freud’s counsel about his life, professional or intimate. Nor is the Viennese doctor, ravaged by oral cancer,  looking for spiritual guidance.

Herein lies the play’s one weak spot — and alas, it’s a major one. The characters are compelling, but they do not meet for any compelling reason; there’s not much at stake. They simply meet to debate. Mind you, it is fun. Their uniquely forceful ideas — and their equally distinctive personalities — almost lead us us ignore the dramatic void at the center.

Once upon a time, gentlemen debated (yes, gentlemen: no women invited, no one from the underclasses either). They politely crossed verbal swords, not to vanquish one another but to expose their ideas — and their skill and wit.

That happens here, and the two gain respect for each other. But it isn’t enough. The issues they raise — which the Nazi bombers brutally
underscore — are too large and too serious for polite dueling in a gentlemen’s club.

At one point, Freud is strangling in his own blood and Lewis must reach into the doctor’s  mouth to remove a prosthesis. At another, Freud probes swiftly and ruthlessly into the heart of Lewis’s complex living arrangements and the emotional conflicts they embody. These moments open doors into a deeper reality, the one that has bred the mad horror being unleashed on the world — but the play doesn’t enter either door. It turns back.

What we get, in the end, is the mutual respect of two adroit debaters. What we need — and what the world we’ve lived in since World War II cries for — are the deeper forms of love (agape, philia) these characters move toward, but from which they get pulled back. This is the playwright’s failure of nerve.

The creators of this production, on the other hand, do not hold back. Set designer Pete Hickok and prop master Josh La Cour place us at once in the civilized comfort of Freud’s book-lined, artifact-laden study; the lights and sounds wrought by Derrick McDaniel and  Christopher Moscatiello establish and then gradually destroy that peace. And Kim Deshazo’s costumes set the Viennese’s habitual formality against the Oxonian’s more casual (even careless) style.

The performers likewise bring everything to the task. Martin Rayner animates his striking likeness of Freud with an emotional volatility we don’t often imagine. Martyn Stanbridge’s diffident Lewis nicely gains confidence as he gets to know his world-famous senior. Both are kept moving – with purpose — by director Robert Mandel, so this two-hander never loses energy or focus.

As usual at the Odyssey, the production values are high. The writing is intelligent, witty, and often surprising; it’s a shame St. Germain doesn’t dig deeper than a debate and venture into the depths that Freud — and Lewis — would surely have braved.
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Freud’s Last Session, by Mark St. Germain, directed by Robert Mandel.
Presented by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Ave., LA 90025.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through March 4th.
Special shows:
Wednesdays, Jan. 24 and Feb. 21, at 8:00;
Thursdays, Feb. 8 and Mar. 1, at 8:00.

Tickets: <www.odysseytheatre.com>

 

 

Troupe Boldly Goes into “Klingon Christmas Carol”

There are as many Christmas shows as there are stars in the winter sky. But there’s not another one like this.

In A Klingon Christmas Carol, Dickens’ classic is transposed into the language of Star Trek‘s best-known alien race, the proud and fierce allies of the Federation. This sounds like a sweet Yuletide treat for fans. And it is.

But a funny thing happens on the way to Qo’noS, the Klingon home planet. When you tell a story in another language, it morphs under the pressure of that culture’s values and perceptions. So not only does Scrooge become SQuja’, but the miser’s lesson in Christian charity becomes a coward’s discovery of courage and honor.

Playwright Christopher Kidder-Mostrom deserves a deep bow — not merely for writing the lines in fluent Klingon, but for recognizing that the story itself had to become Klingon. (Indeed, the narrator tells us, folks on Qo’noS consider this the original.)

Since few in the audience know  the Klingon tongue, projected supertitles — like those used in operas — kindly give the English for each line as it’s being spoken. (Or growled, or barked, as Klingon rings hard on human ears.) The supertitles also provide a rich field for humor, as the author hides many an Easter egg where the two cultures clash.

You may already begin to suspect that light as it sounds, this is no mere Christmas bonbon. And yes, in putting A Klingon Christmas Carol onstage the folks at Lit Live have taken on a task about as daunting as Handel’s Messiah.

The hardest part, interestingly, comes from the language. As an actor, you face a string of unfamiliar sounds to memorize; at the same time, you must learn what these sounds mean. This takes longer — and uses more areas of your brain — than learning lines in your own tongue. And it takes even longer to color these alien words with the shades of emotion your character is feeling.

Not every actor in the company reaches this level; many simply indicate one or two basic emotions, resulting in a lot of angry shouting (which was often true in Star Trek, too). But some meet the challenge admirably. The nimble Nick D’Alberto, as SQuja’, plays a full hand of exaggerated emotions like a silent film star; Paul Carpenter, as the Ghost of Kahless Present, ranges from booming authority to wheedling humor and melting empathy. And Larry Shilkoff moves clearly from reluctant ferocity as marlI (Marley’s ghost) to jolly hospitality as veSIwiq (Fezziwig).

Genevieve Levin’s costumes neatly capture the Mongol/Samurai look familiar to fans, and Morgan Keough, Bill Hedrick, and Kenosha Renay create a satisfying variety of Klingon visages. And an uncredited backshop genius gives us a Klingon bed that’s an even more exquisite instrument of torture than the TV series’ artists could devise.

The playwright and director have wisely opted to stage the tale (like most Carol  versions) as a series of scenes that are almost tableaux. This makes demands on the stage crew, who must shift some hefty set pieces between scenes, and the light and sound operators — who must hit all the cues, and pop each English supertitle onto the screen as the line’s being spoken in Klingon. The scene transitions and screen projections, a bit wobbly in preview, should be well tightened by opening night.

As you’d imagine, A Klingon Christmas Carol produces squeals of glee and long bouts of laughter from the fan base. And for those of us only passing familiar with the Star Trek franchise, the playmakers make shrewd use of English narration and supertitles — and our cultural knowledge of Dickens’ version — to take us on a delightful romp. (And perhaps nudge us to think about the need for courage and honor, as well as charity, in these times.)

A Klingon Christmas Carol is a West Coast premiere (and the author is in the cast!). But it’s only booked to run one weekend — so call at once to get on board for this journey to a distant star.
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A Klingon Christmas Carol, by Christopher Kidder-Mostrom (after the Charles Dickens story), directed by Robert Reeves.

Presented by Lit Live, at Santa Susana High School Performing Arts Center, 3570 Cochran St., Simi Valley 93063.

Friday (Dec. 15th) at 8:00,
Saturday (Dec. 16th) at 2:00 and 8:00.

Tickets: <www.litlivetheaterco.com>