Into Her Wounded World: “A Spell for Fainting”

Symptoms … are in reality nothing but a cry from suffering.
We see only what we are ready to see.
–Jean-Martin Charcot

This is not a review.

The artists, WaxFactory, have left LA (after only three nights) for other countries, and are based in New York.

This is a meditation on — and, yes, an attempt to capture in a more durable form — their brief, disturbing work named (in postmodern orthography) #aspellforfainting.

Gillian Chadsey

Gillian Chadsey

You enter Son of Semele’s black box to see seats arranged in a single U-shaped row around an oblong white floor.  On it stands a woman in white.  Arms held behind her back, she wears a black blindfold.  You move past a large installation of equipment (where the audience usually sits) and find a seat, your feet on the white mat.  Beat.

The woman shuffles silently back to the wall.  Beat.  A tall man in a  hooded silver coat steps out of the dark (where the equipment is), goes to her and unties her blindfold.  He returns to the dark.

Soon, she sees you and begins to speak — but is cut short by a deafening, percussive assault.  It sets her vibrating around the floor like an iron filing on an electrified plate, trying to cover her ears. When the onslaught at last relents, she tries again to speak.

But for the rest of this 40-minute interview, her train of thought will be derailed.  By sudden roaring noise, by music, by items the man in silver silently sets on the mat, by an unnamed pain, a moment of memory …  while a constant stream of projections flows over her, painting her face and body with ever-shifting tones and textures.

Her story never finds the shape it begins by losing.  Nor does it end.  It simply runs out, like a desert river disappearing into sand.

Along the way she seduces, complains, jokes, sings, explains, wonders and wanders everywhere in the space and in imagined time.  She pulls a hidden liquor bottle from under your chair, downs a plastic bottle of bills, sleeps, dances, contorts, moans, prosecutes, confesses, convulses …

Prompted by the silent man in silver, talking at times with a man who mumbles scraps of therapist talk from a plastic toy tape recorder, she returns again and again to seek you, engage you, flee from you, caressing, recoiling, lap-dancing, collapsing …

She takes you on a harrowing Cook’s Tour of schizophrenia.

Or, more accurately, the woman (Gillian Chadsey) and her cohorts — the man in silver (Ivan Talijancic) and the unseen video artist (Shige Moriya) — create a journey that is both a simulation and a satire.

Having been a therapist, working mostly with people in long-term care for such chronic conditions, I know this land of agony too well.

What these artists are simulating — with license — is a process that went on for more than 30 years in the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris.  At weekly lectures, professors Jean-Martin Charcot and Pierre Janet demonstrated how hypnosis could be used to explore the baffling disorder known as “hysteria.”  Doctors came from all over Europe, the Americas and Asia to watch and listen — among them Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

What they’re criticizing satirically — without laughter — are the unwitting prejudices that saturated Charcot’s and Janet’s work, and the work of generations of neurologists, psychologists and psychiatrists who have revered (and fought) them as the “fathers” of their fields.

At root, these unconscious assumptions are patriarchal.  That life is a mysterious mechanism to be understood by rational analysis (which  includes killing and dissection).  That men are reasonable, born to be scientists, doctors.  That women are emotional, born to be patients, experimented upon, studied.

We recognize — and repudiate — these assumptions, being proud heirs of the  feminist revolution in academe, the arts and public policy.  We’re willing to agree that the Salpêtrière lectures were the late 19th century’s longest-running and most important freak show.

But we don’t get to enjoy the freeing distance that would let us laugh.  We’re in this woman’s space, she’s in ours, and we’re uncomfortable.

Like Charcot and Janet, Freud and Jung, and the thousands of doctors who joined them, we who attend #aspellforfainting are invading a woman’s suffering, violating her deepest privacy.  We can’t help feeling that.

We can tell ourselves we’re doing this in the name of art, not science.  We can say she’s an actor, who’s  agreed to become a spectacle, where Charcot’s and Janet’s patients couldn’t.  She’s not a patient but a performer, a co-author of this experience.  But then, the Salpêtrière women became performers and co-authors, too, displaying their symptoms and falling into trances week after week.

And in the century since, have things changed?  Therapists (like the one in the tape recorder) and artists (like Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams, whose portraits of “mad” women appear in the text) have continued to exploit suffering women even while empathizing with them, telling their stories in case histories and novels and plays, trying to love and heal them.

Is this play the latest violation in that long sequence?  We may hope to take away empathy from a simulation, rather than scientific knowledge from an experimental demonstration.  But perhaps we, too, are simply voyeurs who have paid to take part in a woman’s agony.

Suddenly,  words begin to unfold in my mind. “Demonstration” reveals demon-stration, peeling back the layers beneath which a demon lurks.  And de-monstration, removing the monster.  Then  “demon” reveals daimon, a divine energy animating a human, whether creatively or destructively.  And “monster” is the noun-child of the Latin verb monstrare, to show or reveal.

I now feel we are treading on holy ground, facing a mystery.

Women, the bearers of suffering throughout the patriarchal millennia that continue unbroken in most of the world, will continue to tell their stories.  In the mute language of symptom, or in the articulate speech of intellectual and political debate.

And in the ambiguous language of art, that draws us into raw  experience — no, make that deftly cooked or prepared experience — where we meet the mystery, and our own history.  And leave the theatre carrying it, heavy on our hearts and minds.

Comfort?  I take comfort in knowing that Chadsey’s fellow artists are males who collaborate with her, not — I hope — using her to make their art, but joining in art that grows out of her (and their) living struggle to confront the mystery and history we all share.

#aspellforfainting, created by Gillian Chadsey, Ivan Talijancic and Shige Moriya.
Presented by WaxFactory at  Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., LA 90004.



An Only-in-L.A. Family: “Blackstreet” Puppets

This is not a review.

It’s a meditation, and a call.  It was inspired by seeing a unique piece of LA theatre so rare it’s not yet booked for another performance.

I’m talking about the Blackstreet USA Puppet Theatre, and its creator, Gary Jones.

The Blackstreet family

The Blackstreet family

You may have heard of them — or seen them, at their former theatre on Washington Blvd., at a school, at a birthday party — some time in the last 30 years.   Jones and his puppet actors, numbering nearly 200, like to stay busy.

Last weekend, they performed just down Washington from their old digs, at Ebony Rep.  In the rehearsal hall of this fine modern facility, which is now their home, Jones and 10 of his troupe did two shows — a matinee for children, and a later cabaret for adults.

The evening show has some gently “adult” material, but it’s clearly aimed at grownups who still carry little kids inside.  A house slave tells a wicked tale on her master, a ballerina joins Jones in a flowing pas de deux, a chanteuse in gold lamé vamps Roberta Flack’s classic cover of “Impossible Dream” — and between numbers, a cheeky young teen sits on Jones’ knee, tirelessly angling for the spotlight while accepting (with a sigh) her role as co-emcee.

All the puppets are Black.  They wear the many skin tones we lump together with that word.  They share pronounced features — full lips, flat noses, nappy hair — that announce their African genes.  Their humor, from the house slave’s sly wit to the little girl’s pleading and tricking, has the distinct “up from under” flavor of Black experience in America.  And their art, when they yield their two-foot-high bodies to dance or song, is … human.

Jones’ work is both a passion and a mission.  When he fell in love with puppets as a boy, at Chicago’s famed Kungsholm Miniature Grand Opera, he apprenticed himself there and created a puppet Porgy and Bess.  On the strength of its success, he founded Blackstreet in 1974, and started to train young puppeteers; soon, they were touring the US and Europe, Latin America and Asia.

But after 10 years, exhausted by his non-art duties, he closed the Chicago shop and moved to L.A.  He thought he’d try TV and film. Once here, he found himself trying to help mend a community torn by police and civilian riots, trying to rebuild its children’s self-confidence.

Working alone — or, as he puts it, “as Blackstreet’s sole human member” — Jones took his fellow artists of fabric, wood and resin into schools all over LA and then around the country.  They get into scrapes kids recognize, learning to deal wisely with sex, with drugs, with bullying and conflict.  “In the two weeks he was here,” says one  principal, “we didn’t suspend a single student for fighting.”

He also created “The Yuppets,” a dozen young urban adult puppets who perform a satiric play for grownups.  It reminds us to keep our eyes on what matters — not on the money prizes offered for going up the corporate ladder or down gangster alley.

And always, since he started working in that theatre above the  Chicago restaurant, Jones celebrates Blackness.  His puppets reflect the endless varieties of physical beauty — and the endless wealth of story, dance and song — manifested by Africa’s great-grandchildren.

Gary Jones

Gary Jones

How rare is Gary Jones’ work?

With my limited skills, I could not google a single “Black” or “African-American” puppet theatre.  I did easily find several dozen puppet troupes, and a national organization with more than 100 member companies.  I also found two Massachusetts profs who got a grant this month to create a theatre piece about local Black history.  No puppets — but they came up third on an image search.   Go figure.

What I figure is, Jones’ Black puppet troupe is as rare as hen’s teeth.

And even if it were not rare, Blackstreet is unique.

Jones is one of the leading creators and refiners of “wand puppets,” moved from underneath by wands instead of from above by strings (“marionettes”).  This and his lifelong love of dance have also led him to develop an unprecedented performance style: While he does at times hide beneath a tiny puppet stage, he can usually be found dancing in front of it with his puppets.

“I love the way he involves himself,” says Bob Baker, impresario of LA’s oldest and largest marionette theatre.  “He gets on the floor and dances, and becomes part of the show.”

At past 70, Gary Jones is still trim, and moves with easy strength and speed.  But I’m of a similar age,  and I know what that costs.  I know, too, that we won’t last forever.

Someday — decades away, if we’re lucky — a family of 200 will lose their father.  It has to happen, and we can’t stop it.

On that day, the Black puppets of LA — who may be the only Black puppet theatre troupe in the nation — will sit motionless, silent.  They may or may not shed tears, but they will begin to gather dust.  And the life work of a rare, unique artist will begin to disappear.

That does not have to happen.  We can do something about it.

We can call Ebony Rep and ask when the next shows are planned, and then go to them.  And take our children or grandchildren, or our friends’ children.

We can visit the Washington Street theatre even when there’s no show, and see the puppets in their gallery.  We can check out Jones’ sculpture, in the lobby.  (His graceful bronze and resin-clay dancers recall Degas, but with a sense of humor.  And Black.)

And somewhere in LA, there must be a kid (or a grownup) with a camera — or an iPhone or an iPad — who loves taking pictures.  Who’d like to meet and shoot portraits of 200 amazing actors who promise to sit still.

Maybe that portrait artist will learn their stories.  Maybe even learn how they’re made, how they’re operated.  And just maybe …

The Blackstreet USA Puppet Theatre, created by Gary Jones.
Presented — and housed — by the Ebony Repertory Theatre, 4718 W. Washington Blvd., LA 90016.  (323) 964-9768.

To contact Jones:  <> or (213) 308-4805.

Classic Site, Modern Bite: “Lady Windermere’s Fan”

Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.
                                                             — Oscar Wilde,  Lady Windermere’s Fan

In modern LA’s heart (or whatever inner organ the south side of downtown may be) stands a century-old mansion of brick-faced marble.  A tall brick wall guards its two city blocks of gardens and garages.  It was built as a family home.

It’s now one of UCLA’s libraries, housing rare books and documents from the 17th and 18th centuries.  It also holds the largest collection anywhere of materials by and about Oscar Wilde, the 19th-century Irish wit who remains one of England’s most celebrated comic playwrights.

And just now, on the library grounds, the Chalk Repertory Company  is remounting its hit version of Wilde’s first major success, Lady Windermere’s Fan.  (His manuscript, meanwhile, lies locked inside.)

Allie Jennings, Scott Keiji Takeda, Teri Reeves, Peter Wylie, Tess Lina, Jacques C. Smith, Amielynn Abellera, Brian Slaten, Feodor Chin, George Wyhinny, Amalia Fite, Amin El Gamal

Allie Jennings, Scott Keiji Takeda, Teri Reeves, Peter Wylie, Tess Lina, Jacques C. Smith, Amielynn Abellera, Brian Slaten, Feodor Chin, George Wyhinny, Amalia Fite, Amin El Gamal

Really, Lady Windermere’s Fan shouldn’t work anymore.

Like the elegant site, with its manicured lawns and hedges, it comes from the very end of a long, long period of social order.  Almost 350 years, in which England went from Queen Elizabeth I’s sleepy island to Queen Victoria’s world-girdling empire, while its internal social structure stayed almost unchanged.

But a dozen years after Victoria (and Wilde) died, Europe tore itself apart.  World War I shattered centuries of continuity, erased kings and nobles and empires, and collapsed society into a boiling ferment.  Rapid change became what we all expect — yet are still surprised by.

A comedy about a married noblewoman who risks ruin by leaving her fan in a man’s apartment?  Oh, please.  But it works.  Splendidly, in fact.  How, for heaven’s sake?

Partly, it’s due to sheer skill.  Wilde knows how to keep a plot moving, and studs it with jewels of wit (“We are all in the gutter, but  some of us are looking at the stars” – or –  “I prefer women with a past: they’re always so damned amusing”).

Director Jennifer Chang (Chalk Rep’s artistic producing director) and her crews make clever, apt use of the site.  Starting on a sunny terrace, the play moves to a wide lawn for a garden party, to a small half-enclosed recital studio for the climax, and back to the  terrace — now awash in sunset — for the end.  The time it takes an audience to shift settings is just enough to begin chatting about the play, then be interrupted by the actors.  (Though at preview, the Act2-Act3 interval was longer than need be .)

The characters are immediately at home in the grand setting.  Lady Windermere (Amielynn Abellera) is both loveable and irritating in her slightly puritan innocence.  She and her husband (Jacques C. Smith) easily own the terrace and graciously manage their guests out on the lawn, tuning their voices to the open space comfortably.

Brian Slaten (Lord Darlington) creates a strong, slightly modern friend and suitor, stylistically stirring the waters in much the same way as his imperious love for Lady Windermere stirs the plot.  Tess Lina begins with mysterious allure then gathers emotional depth and authority as Mrs. Erlynne, whose secret drives the drama  and whose sacrifice resolves it.

Besides bright epigrams, Wilde sprinkles his script with colorful minor characters.  Spicing his social stew are Feodor Chin (Cecil Graham) as a peppery, amoral politician (“A cynic is man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing”); Amin El Gamal (Dumby) in a dry, jaded homage to Wilde himself; and Teri Reeves (the Duchess of Berwick), wickedly funny as a socialite whose kisses and brains are air.  (There were groans of recognition in the crowd.)

Art Betanzos uses an artist’s restraint, with just enough items to evoke an opulent drawing room (on the terrace) and a bachelor apartment (in the recital studio).  And Rebecca Bonebrake hides lights in the most improbable places, discreetly making the later scenes as clear and gently hued as the sun-filled opening.  Halei Parker’s costumes are accurate and often funny, ranging from quiet elegance (Lady W., Mrs. Erlynne) and tasteful excess (the Duchess) to the modern mashup in which the clueless arriviste Australian (Scott Keiji Takeda, as Hopper) decks himself.

So yes, the intense application of an immense range of skills is most to blame for making Lady Windermere’s Fan flutter and float when by rights it should lie broken in the corner.  Wilde knew how to write a play — and the Chalk Rep artists know how to stage one.

And the play’s ethical center holds, though the world around it has disappeared.  Even in the most cynical times, love is a power to be reckoned with.  It may, when mixed with hormones, lead intelligent people to commit folly; but it also, in its purer forms, guides us to wisdom and sacrifice.

But there’s still more, I suspect, making 21st century audiences so responsive to Wilde’s satiric comedy.  We may have to thank those among us who yearn  for the lost era of great families and estates.  As they’ve amassed their fortunes and gated compounds, they have created a society with layers as distinct — and as impenetrably separated — as those of Victoria’s England.

This time, however, most of the 98% can read, and we go to plays.  Oscar Wilde is no longer the snappy lapdog of the upper classes — but he may have become the biting critic who pulls off the emperor’s new clothes (and the billionaire’s) and exposes them to our ridicule.  Possibly even to themselves.

Lady Windermere’s Fan, by Oscar Wilde, directed by Jennifer Chang.  Presented by the Chalk Repertory Theatre, at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 220 Cimarron St., LA 90018.

Saturday, Aug. 2nd and Sunday, Aug. 3rd, at 6:00.
The grounds will open at 5:00 for picnicking.

Tickets:  <>



Scenes from a Marriage: “Sacred Elephant”

A one-person show is not a one-person show.

Other artists are always involved — directing, lighting, creating costumes and  set and sound, even writing.

And the artist we see onstage invites yet others — the story’s characters, who appear through his or her body.  When these  characters are many, this can be impressive.

eleph 1

Jeremy Crutchley

Jeremy Crutchley

Jeremy Crutchley, in his one-person show at the Odyssey, invites only one other character onstage.   But this character’s appearance is impressive indeed.  It’s an elephant.

Stepping with ponderous care on a dusty field of off-white burlap, draped in a heavy overcoat thick with dust, the actor patiently summons the largest of Earth’s land beings.  And before our eyes, the elephant arrives.

Using his body and voice — and Heathcote Williams’ words —  Crutchley introduces this majestic, ancient being.  We begin to see and feel its awesome size, its remarkable intelligence, its peaceful holding of a world — in its mind, in the web of its migrations — where it has walked, invulnerable, for more than two million years.

As he unfolds the wonder of this creature, before whom every human culture has knelt in religious awe, Crutchley weaves a pattern of subtle alteration, slipping from human to elephant and back again.  Both presences are in the room.

We share in the innate human response:  standing  awestruck before this numinous, gentle presence, painting it with our prayers and with powder and pigments, carving its image into our hearts and our houses of worship.

We also must share, inexorably, in the other human response.  Thrust by thrust, we endure a piercing litany of hunting, imprisoning, enslaving and the currently  preferred perversion — wanton murder for a tusk or an organ, leaving piled-up carcasses we pretend are “elephant graveyards.”

All the while, however, Crutchley is also guiding us deeper and deeper into elephant’s experience.  We begin to feel the emotional life of beings who sense one another’s presence 10 miles away (and recognize a loved one after 30 years apart), who pet and caress each other constantly, who tend one another through the pangs of birth and illness and loss, who mourn inconsolably at another’s death, who guard and inter the cherished body (carrying away the tusks for a final, secret rite).  Who can include trusted humans as family.

As a result — even while we wince and weep at what we have done — we remain in the numinous presence of a mystery.  The animal, the being with soul (among whom we, too, are numbered).  The greatest among us who go upon the land, and the oldest of the Old Ones of the Earth.

Many a theatrical performance recounts an intense relationship;  the best of these tell the story from both points of view, honoring both experiences.  Usually, such a tale involves two humans.  Sacred Elephant takes us into the long marriage between the two species who dominate the Earth.  And it prods us gently, but with restrained power — like a trunk softly nudging a human shoulder — asking us how we wish to proceed.

Jeremy Crutchley’s work in this piece is astonishing, as he manages with the simplest of means to evoke the elephant as a living, felt presence.  At the heart of his achievement, surprisingly, is humility — the essence of elephant’s way in the world, and the virtue we humans must work hardest to find and hold.  Our guide rises from the dust, walks in it, and is covered with it.  His awe is palpable, and his authority is subtly magnified by the gentleness of his assertion; his withheld power releases fully only in elephant’s crises of terror and mourning.

Director Geoffrey Hyland’s work is everywhere yet invisible, the signature of a true collaborative artist.  With two exceptions.  Hyland is responsible for the stunningly simple, evocative set; its silence speaks, movingly. And he designed the sound, a hushed river of wilderness sounds and human music.

Ilka Louw’s brilliant, quiet costume is of a piece with the set, as if snipped and sewn from it, an animal’s skin woven of Earth.  And the lighting (by Luke Ellenbogen and Maria Maria Viterelli) leads us about the space with the actor, in and out of the emotional places he finds.

Williams’ poetic text seems at first to wander, but slowly sews together a vision.   Like elephant growing a mental image of the wide lands it tends and meanders through.

Together, these artists create a shamanic exploration of a mystery. They weave a spell that never falters, at last bringing us to a hilltop of enlightenment (complete with the shared pain of another’s suffering, and our own responsibility).

In this crucial era of Earth’s history, the greatest lesson before the human race is habitat sharing — how to live among our fellow Earthlings.  Sacred Elephant addresses that lesson, not lecturing, but letting us learn to love another ensouled being.

Sacred Elephant, by Heathcote Williams, adapted by Jeremy Crutchley and Geoffrey Hyland; directed by Geoffrey Hyland.
Presented by SheerNerve Productions at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00, through August 17th.

Tickets:  <> or (310) 477-2055


Laughter in the Park: “Twelfth Night,” “Feste’s Dream”

“Twelfth Night,” or What? You Will?

What is Twelfth Night?  A trifle, a bauble, a romp.

How do you handle it?  Lightly, for fun.

The Independent Shakespeare Company is doing exactly that, on the outdoor Festival Stage in Griffith Park.  And they’re doing it for free.

Danny Campbell, Andre Martin, David Melville, Julia Aks (photo: Grettel Cortes)

Danny Campbell, Andre Martin, David Melville, Julia Aks (photo: Grettel Cortes)

Twelfth Night was written to amuse audiences at Christmastide, the longest festive season in the Elizabethan year.  ISC serves it up as a feast for families, during our three-month holiday from school.

On a grassy hillside, several hundred people sit on blankets, talking, laughing and eating.  Children sit and squirm, or get up and run.  A few toss frisbees.

Before them,  on a  wooden stage, stands a rickety-looking set of walls. It has staircases at each end, connected by a balcony.  A man in ill-fitting clothes comes out, plays a ukelele (or is it a wee guitar?) and sings, while wearing … a drum set?  Yes (boom).

He leaves, and a tall handsome man in a bathrobe weeps loudly, while his servant (in a French maid’s uniform) plays a record on a gramophone.   “If music be the food of love,” he sobs, “play on!”  Adults chuckle, recognizing the line.  Children giggle at this man’s  un-grownup behavior.

The twelfth night after Christmas, in Shakespeare’s time, was a boisterous costume party.  It was all about dancing, drinking, flirting — and trading places.  In a game that went all the way back to ancient Rome, men and women swapped clothes, servants and masters dressed as each other, and anyone could get away with anything.

So Twelfth Night gets right into it.  A lovely young woman has just survived a shipwreck and landed in a strange land; she dresses up as a man and gets a job working for the local duke.  (The fellow in the bathrobe, who’s pining for the neighboring duchess.)

Alas, no sooner does our girl-in-disguise see the duke than she falls in love with him.  Oops!  A man (even a fake one) in love with a man?  Well, this may be Illyria, but the folks on the grass live in LA.  The kids don’t need it explained.  And on we go, into the (wild and crazy) night.

A top-hatted drunk named Sir Toby Belch farts loudly, and the under-12 crowd faints with laughter, knowing this is their night (and he’s their knight).  A sour-faced puritan official — they had ’em in Shakespeare’s day, too — is tricked into putting on long yellow socks and a Cheshire cat grin and prancing in front of his boss (the duchess, who’s fallen for  the girl pretending to be a boy — a girl in love with a girl — oh my!)

The ISC troupe creates all this confusion swiftly, with crisp verbal and physical clarity, making 400-year-old jokes fly like feathers (or  farts).  Director Melissa Chalsma (a company co-founder) organizes the craziness like a hidden clockwork, and makes several splendid choices — such as dressing Sir Toby like the “man about town” in the Monopoly board game.

As Feste the Fool, David Melville (ISC’s other co-founder) leads us reasonably through the madness with a sure hand, deftly mixing new comic wine with old.  Meanwhile Luis Galindo — as Malvolio, a would-be reasonable man who turns out to be a fool — gives us a villain we can resent, laugh at, and (almost) feel sorry for.

Kalean Ung’s shipwrecked Viola grabs our attention at once — and holds our loyalty throughout — with her bell-like speech and precise, light intensity.  She ably fulfills her costume’s subtle echo of the master modern clown, Charlie Chaplin.  Ryan Vincent Anderson (the lovesick Count Orsino) and Danny Campbell (as Sir Toby) take turns keeping this hot-air balloon grounded with weighty dignity — even though Orsino’s weak with love, and Toby wobbles from drink.

André Martin, as Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a role too often muddled), brings a clarity of speech and character to this natural fool that makes us love him, as he unwittingly reveals himself again and again, unable to wear a disguise.  Like Ung’s Viola, this is a performance that lights (and lightens) the way.

Speaking of light, casting light on an outdoor stage — while the sun blazes, fades, then disappears — is a daunting challenge, boldly met by Bosco Flannagan and crew.  The raggle-taggle set by Catlin Lanoff shouts “Let’s make a play!” irresistibly, and then proves, like the play itself, deceptively serviceable and sturdy.  (Love that gramophone — “His mistress’ voice”?)  Garry Lennon’s costumes fit the tale-telling perfectly, blending Elizabethan and modern idioms with ease.  (Were Viola’s Chaplin echo and Toby’s “Monopoly” suit his idea?)

The best compliment I can pay this Twelfth Night is to say that while it’s planned and performed with precision, it feels like the loose play of make-believe.   But the Angelenos (and guests) who gathered in Griffith Park paid it an even higher honor — they loved it.

Wit Without Words — “Feste’s Dream”

Six lucky Twelfth Night audiences won a marvelous extra treat.

On  three July weekends, the Invertigo Dance Company has been serving a tasty appetizer they whipped up for the feast — a 20-minute dance and movement escapade called Feste’s Dream.

Sarah Nordquist, Corina Kinnear, Louie Cornejo, Jodie Mashburn, Sofia Klass.

Sarah Nordquist, Corina Kinnear, Louie Cornejo, Jodie Mashburn, Sofia Klass.

Inspired by the wise, witty Fool, and wondering what might go on in his mind when he isn’t playing with words, director Laura Karlin and five dancers step into the world of his dreams.  When Feste (danced by Sarah Nordquist, nicely extending the play’s gender bending) is visited by a clutch of balloons, s/he cannot resist, and flies into a whirlwind fantasy.

In a lyrical interlude full of flight and lightness, Feste invites the others into the dream, where they lift one another and float, following the elusive balloons.  When the music shifts to a tango, the dancers drive and slash and spin, building to a climax when Sofia Klass leaps from the balcony into Jodie Mashburn’s arms  (gasp!) and the momentum flows her around his shoulders and down (aaah!).

The third part is highlighted by a sequence made from audience suggestions.  Before the show, at Karlin’s bidding, four viewers shouted out moments they recalled from their own dreams.  These were translated on the spot into movements — which now appear, magically woven into the dance.

At last, the balloons escape.  Feste thanks the dream figures, ready to return to sleep (where we will all dream Twelfth Night together).

While the dancers told their tale in the mute language of movement, their audience was quiet, transported.  And dozens of children sat speechless on the grass, inhaling a new love.  Invertigo’s artists, known for their energy and wit, have once again created a fresh, fun experience — one that enriches the language of our theatre.

Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare, directed by Melissa Chalsma.
Presented by the Independent Shakespeare Company, at the Festival Theatre in Griffith Park, 4730 Crystal Springs Drive.

Saturdays at 7:00, through Aug. 31.

Free.  (Donations welcome.)
Feste’s Dream, by Laura Karlin and the Invertigo Dance Theatre.

Sunday, July 27 at 6:30 .

Free.  (Donations welcome.)
NOTE:  One of the deans of LA theatre critics, Steven Leigh Morris, has used his review of this Twelfth Night to reflect upon the meaning — and survival — of stage arts in our city.  His essay can be read at <>. It is, like the show, not to be missed.





Daring the Bloody Sea: Coeurage’s “Andronicus”

Titus Andronicus is the hardest of all Shakespeare’s plays to stage.
It went unperformed for 300 years, because its extreme bloodiness and cruelty baffled theatre makers — they couldn’t see a way to do it without completely alienating their audiences.

In the 20th century, led by Peter Brook’s 1955 breakthrough at the Royal Shakespeare (starring Laurence Olivier), artists began to tackle Titus again.  Everyone has had to start with a crucial choice — realistic or symbolic?  Both have worked, and both have failed.

The Coeurage Company, fresh off their triumph at floating The Yellow Boat without sinking in sentimentality, has launched Andronicus at their new home, the Lyric/Hyperion in Silver Lake.   Alas, it doesn’t quite sail the seas of blood successfully.

Brian Abraham, Ted Barton, and Katie Pelensky.

Brian Abraham, Ted Barton, and Katie Pelensky.

Not for lack of making choices.  Director Jeremy Lelliott opts firmly for realism.  We watch stabbings and sexual couplings, and Lavinia, after being raped and mutilated, returns to the stage oozing and drooling blood.  (These are all simulated, of course.)

The problem is that the choice doesn’t fit the theatre.  With only 35 seats, the Lyric/Hyperion is one of LA’s smallest houses — it’s also probably the shallowest, from back row center to the back of the stage.  This makes a wonderfully intimate space, greatly enhancing the emotional and bodily connection between actors and audience.

But there’s a tradeoff.   In this house theatrical illusions, however well made, may not convince.  From 10 feet away or less, you can’t make us believe an actor’s hands have been sawed off.  Lelliott (probably wisely) avoids plastic or latex stumps; but wrapping the actor’s hands in bloody gauze doesn’t work either.  We’re so close we can see how it’s done.  (And are we supposed to think her brutal assailants paused to gently bandage her?)

The Lyric/Hyperion is not the place for a realistic Andronicus.  But theatre magic can work here — when it’s symbolic.

For example, Lelliott has added a silent dance/mime in which the  Emperor and Tamora have missionary sex and then, when he falls asleep, she couples passionately with her aide Aaron.  This works excellently — no need for anyone to strip and try to persuade us actual intercourse is going on.

In fact, by not distracting us with skin, the dance (choreographed by Tifany Cole) focuses our feelings sharply on the queen’s cynicism.
I suspect streaming red ribbons — following the dance’s symbolic lead — would have worked similarly to keep us connected with Lavinia’s mute agony.

Like the director, most of the actors make clear choices.  Ted Barton uses his powerful voice and presence to create a Titus whose obsession with honor is really overblown pride, humbled briefly by grief, but reviving cruelly in the quest for revenge.  It’s a bold choice: a protagonist whom we see and understand, but do not get to like.   Rebekah Tripp’s Tamora exudes a similar boundless self-confidence — as military leader, seductress, conniving politician — and also bars us from feeling any empathy.

As Aaron, Anthony Mark Barrow uses terrific physical energy to make his Iago-like plotter into a vicious Puck, flying hungrily twixt rape and murder.  Mark Jacobson aims at — and hits — a mewling, self-centered Saturninus no more fit than Caligula’s horse to rule an empire.

All these major characters, but not one we can like or even pity!
This is the second major problem Titus Andronicus poses.  Blood and cruelty abound, but for human sympathy we must turn to the minor characters.  Who get fewer lines and less stage time to do the job.

Lavinia’s sufferings win our sympathy automatically; but it takes acting to make a mute, handless character real.  Katie Pelensky, in a quiet virtuoso turn, uses her face and body to move from a rigid, traumatized ghost to an eager conspirator in the revenge plot, creating emotions from grief to rage, from  hesitation to glee.

Marcus, Titus’ saner brother, offers our main chance for human connection.  He’s a man of feeling, responding to events with open (and appropriate) emotions, and an homme raisonable, able to make sense of what’s happening, what’s next to do.  Brian Abraham can take space and speak forcefully, but cuts Marcus’ whiskey with the water of hesitation.  To be fair, his main speech (on finding Lavinia) is the play’s longest and most problematic — the Bard has written an ambivalence into it that few artists have been able to handle.

Titus’ son Lucius alone knows what real honor is, and has the clarity and courage to oppose him.  Almost the only son (out of two dozen!) to survive, he’s named emperor at the end.  TJ Marchbank delivers his lines intelligently and clearly, but does not exert enough  vocal and physical authority to balance his unbalanced father, or let us hope the empire’s in strong hands.

The tech team performs admirably.  A few benches are carried on and off Dean Cameron’s simply draped stage, to keep it open; the lighting (Tito Fleetwood Ladd) and sound (Joseph V. Calarco) are unobtrusive, emotionally effective and timely.  And the costumes (Kara Mcleod) use a wise restraint — simple, muted modern clothes with classical signifiers (capes, a dress, a helmet).

A note about language:  Even in Shakespeare’s most accessible plays, it’s a challenge.  Given 400-year old poetry, it’s not easy to know what you’re saying and why, and to make it distinctly clear to the audience.  But it’s essential.

Barton’s Titus is a clarion trumpet.  Jacobson, as Saturninus, may grate with his whining but he’s always understood.  Pelensky’s few words before Lavinia is silenced, and Katelyn Gault’s brief scene as the royal nurse, are limpid.

Most of the rest have work to do.  As Aaron, Barrow knows his text and has a fine instrument, but he rushes far too often into muddled noise.  Tripp always knows what Tamora’s saying and why, but she drops into inaudibility at times.  And Abraham, as Marcus, and Marchbank, as Lucius, are almost always clear — but not always.

Director Lelliott played a hunch that didn’t pay off — going realistic with Titus Andronicus in a tiny theatre.  He hasn’t yet harmonized his cast into an ensemble telling a single story (Barrow’s Aaron and Jacobson’s emperor, in particular, seem stylistically out of register).  And there’s still more work for text coach Sammi Smith.

But these folks don’t call themselves the Coeurage Company for nothing.  They’ve tackled  two immense theatrical challenges in a row.  And they choose to live with the constant uncertainty of being “LA’s pay-what-you-want theatre”.  We need them to keep making their bold choices, and playing in our town.

Note: We also need the Lyric/Hyperion to stay in business.  The tiny house is well-appointed, and the sandwich/deli restaurant serves personal charm and smashing food.  Every theatre should have such an amenity.

Shakespeare’s Andronicus, adapted and directed by Jeremy Lelliott.
Presented by Coeurage Theatre Company at the Lyric/Hyperion Theatre, 2106 Hyperion Avenue, LA 90027.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays (except July 27 and Aug. 10) at 7:00, through August 17.

Tickets: <>


Daughters of Semele: Solo Creation Festival

You may not remember Semele.  She was a mortal woman Zeus impregnated and later killed with a lightning bolt.  Their child survived — to become Dionysos, god of wine, of theatre, and of all forms of ecstasy.  He was known for inviting his women followers into a divine, dangerous madness.

Son of Semele, a local troupe named for their ancient patron, has asked three women to step into the wild — alone — this weekend.   These intrepid “daughters of Semele” do so, and each one finds some fine and fearful things.

Melissa R. Randel

Melissa R. Randel

The first is Melissa R. Randel, in The Women of “The Hat”.  On a black stage are a clothes rack (occupied), a wingback chair (empty), and a small bandbox table and stool.  Out strides a dancer in rehearsal tights, who grabs a top hat from the rack and narrates us through the opening few moves of Chorus Line.

Before her Broadway memories can unwind, she shifts costume and becomes — her own mother.  A Southern girl who was given dance lessons to teach her posture, but fell in love with the art.  Who began her career dancing to a hotel jazz band, but fell in love with the  trombone player.

Randel moves us steadily through two lives shaped around a missing man.   Mother forms hers around his retreat from marriage into music, drinking and at last illness; daughter’s is formed by his distance, then his death.  Randel creates quiet alarm in us as she sips  from smaller and smaller teacups, and shocks us when each woman tries to dance a duet with the empty chair.

The trip through the past leads to a triumph both lives have earned, as the daughter flings herself joyfully into space in Chorus Line‘s choreography.  Elegant and poignant, Randel’s piece — edited deftly from a two-hander to this more powerful solo — takes us deep into the life of passion found, fettered and finally freed.

Abby Schachner

Abby Schachner

In You’re Not Nothing, Abby Schachner brings us a woman who lives entirely, urgently in the present.  She bursts into a bright-lit space that’s decked out like a kindergarten room, singing of self-esteem.  She pops a few math questions, rewarding right answers with a gold star (we must pass it about: there’s only one).  Then she anxiously shares songs and poems she’s made to teach children the alphabet.

They betray a rather sardonic mind, a bit preoccupied  with sex, violence and death.  And when her slips in composure cause us to avert our eyes, we notice what we may have overlooked — the bright yellow border of her space is police caution tape.

By the time we’re through the alphabet, she’s pretty well unraveled. She shows us her stuffed sleepy toys, a giant question mark and an even larger cigarette (!), then succumbs, curling up with them on the floor and drifting off.

Schachner creates a swift, amusing and unnerving sketch — not quite a portrait.  With no name, back story or relationships, this character feels so  unrooted that I wonder if she’s unfinished.  (The festival’s for developing works, after all, not completing them.)  At the same  time, I’m reminded of mental patients I’ve known.  And I wonder — as with them — how much her anxious instability has infected me.

Susan Tierney

Susan Tierney

The scene changes again.  A long table, a single chair facing us, a microphone, and a light box illuminating the back wall.  It calls to mind a witness table at a hearing … or a home recording studio? Susan Tierney enters and drapes herself across the chair and table.

Without props or costume changes, only an occasional change of posture, she unfolds Susan Tierney.  The story of another dancer,
who also lost her father early — and a life propelled by a voracious hunger for experience (another father-shaped hole?)

Calmly, she tells a picaresque tale of an artist’s life.  Struggling to conquer New York,  being emotionally shattered by her mentor’s suicide, being physically wrecked in a sky-diving accident, drifting downtown and downscale  from ballerina to lap dancer, living with the wrong lovers, at last choking on smoke while people fall from the nearby Twin Towers.  And finding a quiet epiphany.

With her pale skin and close-cropped pale hair, Tierney almost disappears into the background, then leaps forward to reconnect with sudden intensity.  Her humor, wryly accepting circumstances (and her own lapses of judgment), holds us engaged. Her frank courage keeps us a little in awe.  At the end, we realize we’ve been mesmerized by a master storyteller.

This is the third — and final — weekend of the 1st Annual Solo  Creation Festival.  The solo explorations these three women share will not tear you apart as Dionysos’ ancient devotees did,  but they will enrich your sense of what theatre can be, and what a life is.

Solo Creation Festival, curated by Artistic Director Matthew McCray and Festival Coordinator Ashley Steed.
Presented at Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., LA 90004.

Friday and Saturday at 8:00, Sunday at 5:00.

Tickets: <>

An Impossible Dream: “Boom Boom Room”

On this day 225 years ago, Parisian crowds stormed a hated prison where those who didn’t fit society’s dream had long been hidden away — criminals, critics of the regime (including the Marquis de Sade), mentally challenged and mentally ill people .

Last night, I watched a 40-year-old play in which, I think, playwright David Rabe and the 2Cents Theatre Group were trying to do the same thing.

Juan Lozano, Kate Bowman, Eric Geller

Juan Lozano, Kate Bowman, Eric Geller

In the Boom Boom Room tells the tale of Chrissy, a South Philly girl who dreams of being a Broadway dancer.  She’s naive, uneducated, not very intelligent, not gifted with a dancer’s body, and untrained.
She pursues her vision (and her hopes of being loved) in a sleazy go-go bar.  She fails.

Kate Bowman, an appealing, energetic actor with a strong resumé, has dreamed of playing Chrissy “for several years.”  She and director Kristin Boulé share a vision — of Chrissy’s story as  “an exciting exploration [of a] magical world.”  They pursue it by staging Rabe’s script.  They fail.

From what I saw of it, the script is as lousy and dishonest as the go-go bar.  Their chances were no better than Chrissy’s.

[Disclaimer:  I only saw the first half of this production.  For only the second time in my life, I decided not to return after intermission, so  disheartened was I by what I had already seen.]

I think Rabe envisioned Chrissy as a valiant innocent, deprived of all the advantages her society confers upon others.  I think he imagined — with a bit of hubris — that he could tell her story, raising a flag to help free poor women from the misogynistic prison of patriarchy.

Being a playwright, I know you need a bit of hubris to tell someone else’s tale.  But you also need empathy — understanding, feeling and respect for the people you write about.  Rabe didn’t have it.  Or if he did, he left it in his desk drawer.

His characters — all of them — are caricatures.  Susan the kindly whore (faithfully rendered by Kristin Miller);  the vapid but sweet dancers; Chrissy’s intrusive father (Cris D’Annunzio, who tries nobly and gets close); her flagrantly nelly neighbor Guy (come on, David — Guy?), into whom K.C. Lindley pours everything he’s got.  Her date Eric (Chris Lanehart), a dime-store Woody Allen.  All are merely  sketched in, stereotypes without depth or subtlety.

The closest Rabe comes to exploring character is with his homage to Of Mice and Men — the sex-addicted alcoholic Al (Eric Geller, who does “menacing” well) and his deranged homicidal sidekick Ralphie (an equally unnerving Juan Lozano).  But Steinbeck’s George and Lennie have become stock figures, and Rabe’s stick-figure copies  share no trust or love, show no vulnerability.

Chrissy’s our protagonist, onstage so long and undergoing so much that surely … but no, she learns nothing from her picaresque misadventures.  (Rather like De Sade’s dim victim heroines.) Bowman makes an unyielding effort to fill the stage, and her character.  She’s nonstop, and easily connects us to Chrissy’s big, hopeful heart.  But there’s nowhere for her to go.

Director Boulé woefully compounds the problem.  She has her actors wandering all over the stage without motive,  shifting acting styles without notice.  Unfortunately following Rabe’s jerky, unfocused writing, she creates an experience as scattered and strewn as Christy’s bedroom.

The set doesn’t help.  Designer Tom Buderwitz solved the problem of shifting between bar and bedroom by making a bed and hassock slide niftily out from under the bar’s upstage platform — which alas, has little other purpose.  It takes up a third of the stage, but goes almost unused.  Save when Chrissy’s visitors take a notion to  wander through her bedroom’s back wall and drape themselves upon it.

Buderwitz’s clunky, square set turns a ton of thick plywood (no wonder Anawalt Lumber leads the “Special Thanks”) into relentlessly symmetrical huge boxes, making the go-go bar as unappealing as a stalag.  Three dance poles, with hanging mics, are set right at the audience’s feet; nobody uses them in Act 1.  They do use the doors, one of which crashed through its wall and had to be prized out by an actor trying to exit.

And Chrissy delivers many lines while pulling a heavy frame out of the top of one large box, to reveal her bedroom mirror — then  pushing it back down as the scene ends.   (In addition to constantly turning over a wall hanging that doubles as her bulletin board.)

In this story, Chrissy’s dancing — and her attempts to win love — are inept.  Nothing else should be.  The artists who gather to tell Chrissy’s story must be skilled, focused, at the top of their game and working together as one, in a clear direction.   Only some them of them are.

But the one most to blame is Rabe. His lazy, self-indulgent writing makes everyone else’s job almost impossible.  He was on a career roll in 1974, Broadway demanding more scripts after the success of his Vietnam plays — and maybe, under pressure, he blew it.

As long ago as 1994, a Chicago critic called In the Boom Boom Room “a three act dinosaur” without “anything of importance to say,” long since dismissed as “a tedious exploration of a well-worn theme … like an episode of Geraldo.”  Ironically, he was writing to praise a troupe who had somehow lifted this clunker into “a soaring evening of theatre … [a] delicate blend of satire, lyricism and pathos.”

The 2Cents Theatre Group couldn’t pull it off.  Like Chrissy, they tried.  But like Chrissy, they had the odds stacked against them.

Forty years ago, there was work aplenty to be done in exposing our patriarchal culture and storming its prisons.  There still is.  Trying to make a viable play out of In the Boom Boom Room is one of the least promising ways I can think of.

In the Boom Boom Room, by David Rabe, directed by Kristin Boulé.
Presented by the 2Cents Theatre Group at the Hudson Theatre Mainstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd.

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

Tickets:  <> or (323) 960-7785.




Playing with Shakespeare: “Midsummer” at ZJU

Challenge:  Trim a Shakespeare play down to an hour, and do it in a black box that has only two entrances (both stage left).  Ready?

Director Denise Devin has been taking this dare for a few years now.  Her latest response, a madly compressed Midsummer Night’s Dream, erupts Friday nights in North Hollywood.

Lamont Webb, Ashley Fuller, Quinn Knox, Katherine Bowman, Melissa Virgo, David Wyn Harris, Emily Cunningham

Lamont Webb, Ashley Fuller, Quinn Knox, Katherine Bowman, Melissa Virgo, David Wyn Harris, Emily Cunningham

Midsummer is a fairy tale.  It has wings — half of its characters are fairies, including the Fairy King and Fairy Queen, and it’s narrated by that most mischievous of fairies, Puck.  It also has weight — all its mortal characters must walk, run, stumble and sleep on the ground.  The more you reduce its weight, the higher it will fly.

Keeping her eye on the wings, Devin scalpels the text neatly.  The play gets lighter and lighter, lifting into the breezy airs of comedy.

What disappears is almost unnoticeable.  First goes an amazing amount of repetition.  Shakespeare was playing in a large open-air theatre, to a boisterous crowd ordering and consuming lunch (with beer).  His actors couldn’t just say something once and expect to be heard.   They couldn’t do something in Act I and trust the onlookers to remember it in Act III.  Devin’s actors, in a quiet 48-seat box,  can.

Also excised is most of what the Elizabethans prized as “wit” — nimble wordplay, and the twisting and turning of ideas. These intellectual puzzles, parallels and paradoxes amuse (if the actors can “understand and deliver”).  But they take time, add weight.  Out.

What’s left is fast and furious — and fun.  Consider the opener.

Duke Theseus and Hippolyta stand shoulder to shoulder, facing out.  In an adjacent cluster stand Egeus, daughter Hermia and the suitors Demetrius and Lysander.  Egeus explains the problem, the Duke tersely lays out the options, and we’re off!  With 58 lines of dialog  on board, instead of 122.

Hermia and the boys have said with their faces and bodies what their feelings are.  An equally silent Hippolyta has used a sudden shrug and turn to make clear where she stands, unearthing a laugh where none was before.

Devin not only reduces the lines, she cuts the body freight.  Of her dozen players, only four play solo parts (the lovers).  The rest all juggle two, three and even four roles.  This makes changing in ZJU’s  tiny backstage even more frantic than usual, but far less congested.

Some things, Devin expands.

She uses multi-part casting to enhance the story’s built-in symmetry.  Duke Theseus and his bride become fairyland’s King Oberon and Queen Titania, and the tradesmen rehearsing “Pyramus and Thisbe” turn into the fairies who attend the royal pair.

She also extends the text’s cross-gender playfulness.  Shakespeare tweaked his era’s all-male casts by making Flute reluctantly portray the lady Thisbe.  Devin also puts the same actor (David Wyn Harris) in a wig and tutu as the largest — and hairiest — of the fairies.  She adds a decidedly female Puck (Katherine Bowman), women as tradesmen Snug (Emily Cunningham) and Snout (Melissa Virgo), and a distaff Peter Quince and “Mother” Egeus (both by Sarah Fairfax).

Devin further tickles our expectations with the cast’s ethnic and age diversity, which I was gratified to see.  Her equally modern musical choices, swapping motets for Motown ballads, inspired the audience to clap and sing along.

Shakespeare doesn’t come easily to today’s actors — or audiences.  Whipping at lightspeed through such a tangled plot can be perilous for both.  But this troupe has their tongues (and minds) well tuned — they know what they’re saying, and why, and they almost always  take the breath and time to say it.

Lamont Webb (Oberon/Theseus) fills his royal characters with commanding power, and makes his Fairy King a charming but unaware “player” heading for a fall.  Ashley Fuller creates a lush, laughing, mature Titania far too wise to be fooled, who will always win her way to parity.  (She is only overmatched in singing, a gap a coach could help her quickly fill.)

As Puck, Katherine Bowman makes a daring, difficult choice.  Her costume and movement make it clear she is a nubile young woman; but she sing-speaks in a high, nasal voice that recalls the voice-overs used for young boy characters in animated films. This summons Puck the irritating imp, infamous for acts of vandalism.  It also dampens (but does not erase) the sexual energy between her and Oberon.

Robert Walters gives Lysander an energy and verbal clarity that drive the lovers’ scenes.  Arielle Davidsohn’s colloquial Hermia, controlling and combative, reaches through the fourth wall to enlist the audience.  Dorian Serna brings physical comedy to Demetrius (plus a few seconds of unintelligible shouting), while Nicole DeCroix’s Helena suffers genteelly until finally goaded to anger.

Among the rude mechanicals, Quinn Knox stands out.  Of course, Bottom’s is by far the largest part.  But instead of a bumptious egoist, Knox gives us a sincere, intelligent enthusiast, a sort of Elizabethan geek, sweetly unaware he’s overriding his fellows (who do love and admire him) and enduringly baffled by Titania’s love.

There are no small roles.  Emily Cunningham’s timid Snug wins us over at once, then descends into an excruciating — yet irresistibly funny — portrait of abject terror as she faces the royals, helpless and overwhelmed.  I’ve seen (and done) this play often, and have never seen an audience interrupt the Moon’s exit with applause.  (Director Devin earns a special kudo here, for intensifying and symbolizing Snug’s plight by having her do both Lion and Moonshine at once.)

Angelia Weitzman’s simple, evocative set design evokes Chagall’s night skies and wonderfuly signals scene changes with the turn of a column (created by R. Benjamin Warren).  And Devin’s costumes range from plain and frangible (the two suitors) to lavish yet fully workable (Oberon and Titania).

Those who love and revere Shakespeare’s texts as classics — which, of course, they are — may find such radical alteration blasphemous, or at best uncomfortable and unwarranted.  I have relished many  “traditional” stagings of the Bard, from both sides of the apron.  But I don’t want his art to slide out of view due to linguistic and historical drift, or well-intentioned but dead performances.

Shakespeare’s plays were always new and often shocking when written.  So for me, this kind of radical experimenting will always be an important way to engage the master, and keep the play alive.

If you like such playing, you will surely enjoy being a part of Denise Devin’s swift, winged Midsummer Night’s Dream.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare.  Edited and directed by Denise Devin.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Fridays at 8:30 pm., through August 15.

Tickets:  <> or (818) 202-4120.

Disclaimer:  I consider ZJU my home theatre, and count Denise Devin and several other artists in Midsummer Night’s Dream as friends.   I have not participated in one of the ZJU Shakespeare productions.


Friends in Small Spaces: Chalk Rep’s “Fool for Love”

Two hot theatre terms: “immersive” and “site specific.”

Put ’em together and what’ve you got?  Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, as staged by Chalk Repertory.

Teri Reeves, Brian Slaten, Richard Wharton (Nick Parker photo)

Teri Reeves, Brian Slaten, Richard Wharton (Nick Parker photo)

In a cabaña behind a home in Beverly Hills, 16 people line the walls, seated on folding chairs.  We take up about one-third of the space.
One actor sits in a rocking chair, staring ahead, grinning slightly.  One is kneeling, folded over beside the bed, her long hair hiding her.  A third enters by the door we just came in.

And suddenly, we’re stuck — in the middle of a very private, very volatile situation.  We don’t know these folks, we may not like them, but we’re too close not to feel what they’re feeling.  One lifts a hand to strike another, and we flinch.  Two kiss and we squirm, feeling we’re intruding.  One rushes to look out the window, and we have to  lean aside.  A door slams, jarring us all.

This is exactly what’s meant by “immersive.”  It takes to the highest possible degree what theatre does that screens can’t.  It brings live actors and their actions so close to us that we’re awash in their world, as their bodily tensions and emotional states transfer physically to us with a visceral shock.

Fool for Love is a fine choice for going immersive.  Shepard’s four characters live locked in their own little world.  Their clothes and speech, their occupations and habits, are all clearly marked by the larger culture of America’s vast, desolate intermountain West.  But they’re totally enmeshed in a tiny web, arguing over the facts and meanings of their interwoven stories.

“Site specific” often means a play is written for a particular space. Sometimes, as here, it means the producers eschew the stage and place the play in a site that fits it, helping to locate and tell the story “naturally,” with no sets (as, say, Twelfth Night in a park).

Shepard put Fool for Love in a motel room.  This cabaña doesn’t just look like a Mojave Desert “motor inn,” it feels like one.  We’re in a space designed for people on the road to somewhere else, staying a night or two, all intimacy and no privacy.  It’s 100 degrees outside and there’s no AC, only a floor fan.

The audience doesn’t sweat alone.  These are demanding conditions for actors — tiny space, people to move around, no backstage.  (One waits in the bathroom while two others do a scene.)  But the Chalk Rep troupe carries it off admirably.

Brian Slaten’s Eddie creates unrelenting pressure, as he vacillates unpredictably from lovesick boy to violent alpha male, never able to see ahead but never relaxing his grip.  Terri Reeves gives us a May whom we feel for but are dismayed by, as she struggles like a moth (or mayfly) to stop repeating bad choices.  Richard Wharton, the wry Old Man, joins us in the liminal space most of the time, before throwing himself into the final battle.  And Desean Kevin Terry, as Martin, is caught in their web as uncomfortably as we are — though unlike us, he fights to find a place or get free of it all.

Director Charlie Oates has led his team to find movements and ways to use the space that deliver the story with fierce economy.  No flourishes needed — the setting and intense intimacy do their work.  And it’s a high compliment to Hale Parker (costumes) and Art Betanzos (scene and props) to say their work is so flawless as to be virtually invisible.  Nicholas Drashner’s sound, on the other hand, is often appropriately intrusive as it brings the outside world suddenly, harshly in.

Fool for Love is part of a five-play cycle.  Like the others, it’s almost  hermetic, tightly focused on its characters’ domestic life, referring to but never interacting with the world outside.  Some have likened this to Chekhov’s isolated provincial families (Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard), and rightly so.

But Chalk Rep’s production pushes both the family’s isolation and our participation in their feelings to a new extreme.  In so doing, it reveals a powerful kinship between Shepard’s linked family tragedies and Sophocles’ Theban cycle, or Aeschylus’ Oresteia.  Isolated and intensified, the characters begin to feel iconic — as if they’re archetypes of our ways of being in the world, our ways of dealing with life and each other.

I went to this play with some hesitation.  I’d been overdosed by Shepard’s intimate violence (the film version of True West), and though I’m passionate about black boxes, I was unsure how any play would work in such a tiny space.  I came out shaken and moved.

Driving home, I started to wonder if Shepard’s plays may portray not just some dysfunctional family, but our whole culture — the “true West” rather than the false “Old West” we invented and can’t stop prating about.   I’m still wondering.

But I’m fully convinced that immersive, site-specific theatre can deliver a powerful, meaningful experience.  And that Chalk Rep knows how to do it.

Fool for Love, by Sam Shepard, directed by Charlie Oates.
Presented by Chalk Repertory Theatre at a private home.