“Bat Boy” Flies at Northridge

I find Bat Boy: The Musical to be a fun-house ride, more than a little silly.  But I figure that what it’s meant to be.

Bat Boy himself flew out of a supermarket tabloid in 1992, when the editor dreamed up a half-human, half-bat child discovered in a cave.  The issue with his face on it was a best-seller, and he became a minor cult figure.

By 1997, the Actors’ Gang in LA had created the play about him — which played off-Broadway and on London’s West End.  Recently, it  appeared in the Experimental Theatre at Cal State Northridge.

bat boy

Bat Boy is all about tongue-in-cheek.  It belongs on the shelf next to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Little Shop of Horrors.  All three shows are satires, poking fun at horror stories, and at our liking for them.  They also make fun of what they are — musical comedies — and of our fondness for a distinctly odd way of telling a story.

This sounds like fun, and can be.  But it requires an immense amount of skill.

The actors have to be triple threats, as in any musical, able to sing and dance as well as act.  More, they must be able to pull off satire, one of the toughest kinds of comedy.

The CSUN actors, all of them students, are a delightful surprise.
The leads all sing well, almost always strong and clear in the lyrics and in their emotions. (And all the men can sing!  A minor miracle.)

Skylar Keck, in the title role, moves from chiropteric shrieks to ballads and belting with ease.  Aubrie Alexander and Jared Tkocz,
as his adoptive parents, handle huge singing demands well; so does Jessica Patterson, as the girl who falls in love with the alien guest.

Among supporting roles, Nick Bruno (playing both a rancher and the god Pan) and Rachael Johnson (as the Town Council leader and one of the local boys who discover Bat Boy) stand out for the power and clarity of their singing.  Matthew Kesner as Rev. Hightower anchors the revival scene effectively, and Chelsea DiBlasi provides  strong leadership in the ensemble chorus.

The actors also create their characters with consistency, which we  need in order to follow a fast-moving story with so many people.  And they create their characters with belief, which is crucial in a comedy.  Keck and Tkocz are of special note here, creating (in turn) a protagonist and an antagonist whose arcs are as convoluted as  amusement-park rides, but with total commitment.

This is a key point, one sadly missed in the feeble sketch comedy
swamping our screens.  Comic characters must give themselves fully to what they’re doing, and why.  It’s up to us, the audience, to notice the contrast between their earnestness and the follies they’re pursuing.  That’s what makes us laugh.  (Not some celeb bozo breaking the fourth wall and winking, “I’m better than this.”)

In a satire on horror stories, we need characters who totally believe their story, and are utterly horrified by its horrors — leaving it to us to see how silly they are.  (And how silly we are, for sometimes being scared by such things.)  In a satire on musicals, we need actors who sing and dance as if this is what people always do in a crisis — letting us laugh at this preposterous notion.  (And at ourselves, for putting up with it when we watch Wicked.)

The CSUN ensemble does exactly this, and makes their improbable tale work.  We actually weep at the “Let’s learn to love one another” ending, even as we’re smiling at its Hallmarkiness.

Another skill is needed in a musical.  The musicians have to be able to deliver the score — not as a mere performance, as they would in a concert, but as an accompaniment to live singers.  They must be flexible improvisers, adjusting to what’s happening onstage.  (Which is why recorded music works so poorly with live musicals.)

The band, led by music director Philip Matthew Park, plays clearly and well.  And they adjust to the singers well in timing.  However, in many ensemble numbers and a few solos, they overwhelm the singers in volume, making us lose the lyrics.  This seems to be a constant problem when rock bands play behind singers who aren’t doing pop hits the audience already knows.

Given this ensemble’s high level of commitment and performance,
I also find myself wishing for a bit more adventurous choreography.
I suspect this cast, if asked, could do some fun riffs on, say, Agnes DeMille’s balletic square dances in Oklahoma, or Bob Fosse’s tropes and tricks in Cabaret and Chicago.  But alas, as a director I know  there’s not time for everything.  So I say this in tribute to what the company makes me feel, rather than as a critique.

Headline: “Bat Boy flies at Northridge.”  Silly and implausible? Yes, just as it’s meant to be.  Fun, exciting and even a bit moving?  Yes, because the young troupe knows what they’re doing, and they do it well.

Bat Boy: The Musical, by Keythe Farley, Brian Flemming and Laurence O’Keefe, directed and choreographed by Janet Miller.
Presented by the CSUN Department of Theatre at the Experimental Theatre, Valley Performing Arts Center, 18111 Nordhoff St.


Kaleidoscoping the Past: “99 Histories”

There used to be a popular toy called a “kaleidoscope.”  It was a tube with lenses at both ends, a half-dozen mirrors glued inside at different angles, and bits of colored junk lying loose in there.

When you held it up to the light, you’d see a lovely pattern like a stained-glass window.  Turn it, and the pattern would change.

Memory is like that.  So are the family histories we weave out of memories and old photos, objects, letters …

Julia Cho, Sharon Omi (photo: Michael Palma)

Julia Cho, Sharon Omi (photo: Michael Palma)

99 Histories, now playing at the Lounge Theatre, peers into one family’s memory tube.  Sah-Jin and her daughter Eunice, a cello prodigy silenced by a nervous breakdown, are its living members.
As they take turns looking into the past, the others appear.

Early on, we find out that Eunice and Sah-Jin see sharply different patterns.  And that Sah-Jin would prefer not to look at all.

Gradually, however, as they struggle with their present situation (Eunice has come home unwed and pregnant, Sah-Jin is struggling to be supportive) they look at the past, again and again.  Each viewing comes after something — a present event, a recovered memory or artifact — has turned the tube, altering the perspective.

We hear their stories, watch them conflict, and hear them revised.  Sometimes, a story is reluctantly confessed to be fiction and tossed out, revealing a new one underneath. Sometimes, two radically separate stories suddenly merge, giving birth to a new pattern, a new meaning.

There is no final view.

But by the end, Sah-Jin and Eunice are weaving a shared history.
And we realize that their family — like every family — has countless  histories, and the telling and revising of them will never end.

99 Histories is the fourth annual mainstage offering of Artists at Play, a collective founded to give underrepresented communities a voice.  The play isn’t new — it was a breakthrough work for LA native Julia Cho in 2002 — but this its first full production here.

Its quality is something the young company can be proud of.  Cho’s script specifies complete fluidity between present and past, and veteran director Leslie Ishii and her crew deliver it well.

On Art Betanzos’ set, different times dwell together easily in space and decor.  Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s lighting  moves us seamlessly among the shifting stories.  The sound design by Steve Garbade (a cellist doing sound for a play about a cellist!) interlaces Korean and Western music, classical and folk as well as children’s songs — and helps us believe the actors as accomplished musicians.  And prop master Sasha Monge flawlessly provides the highly specific objects that carry the family’s many stories.

As Eunice, our narrator, Julia Cho (the actor,  not the writer) creates a charming, complex woman who carries a sharp ironic awareness, a history of pain, fragmented memories, and an almost-hidden yearning to be seen.  Sharon Omi embodies Sah-Jin as equally complex, both protected and imprisoned by her “simple mother” facade and by the canonical history she has created.  With piercing accuracy they enact the slow, often hurtful tug-of-war by which estranged people work their way back toward each other.

All the other roles are secondary to this mother-daughter dyad. Among them, David Huynh stands out; as Eunice’s engaged “gentleman caller,” who remains her doctor and friend, Huynh finds an independence that the gentle, devoted Paul might easily lack.  Brendan Bradley skillfully separates his mirror roles as Daniel, the American who enters Sah-Jin’s world in postwar Korea, and Joe, the father of Eunice’s child.  Janice Pak and Jolene Kim radiate intensity and mystery as “ghosts” who inhabit the family’s past.

As she talks to us and writes in her journal, Eunice wryly likens herself to the title character in Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.”  Later, Daniel’s gift of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet becomes a family treasure.   These literary references — along with one to Williams’ Glass Menagerie and one to a Lawrence short story — have been criticized as marks of Cho’s apprenticeship, quoting the books she read in college.   But as performed here, they speak clearly about how young people — Daniel, and later Eunice — strive to locate themselves and their experiences in a larger world.

Although it is intensely focused in a single family, and occurs on the axis of a single relationship in that family, 99 Histories dwells in a much wider world.  The Korean War, the harrowing process of changing countries, the lives of Koreans in America, urban violence and racial tensions, mental illness and its stigmata … all of these are powerful forces in this family’s life.

But Cho isn’t preaching.  She just lets us see and feel — from inside — how the larger world reaches into private lives, shaping them, distorting them, sometimes destroying them.  And how the survivors, peering into the kaleidoscope of memory, find patterns and stories to keep alive everything that has been, everyone who has mattered.

99 Histories, by Julia Cho, directed by Leslie Ishii.
Presented by Artists at Play at the Lounge Theatre,  6201 Santa Monica Blvd.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm,
through Oct. 5.

Tickets:  <www.brownpapertickets.com/events/756058>






High Stakes Get Left “Somewhere”

The stakes have to be high, or there’s no play.

In drama, the characters feel the stakes are high and so do we — and  we follow along, biting our nails.   In comedy, the characters feel they’re high but we don’t — so we  laugh at how much they’ll  do for so little.

Somewhere, now premiering at the cozy Meta Theatre off Melrose, is something else.  The stakes look plenty high to us — life and death, loss of several kinds — but the characters don’t seem to think so.

Josh T. Ryan, Amir Khalighi, Melissa Kite, Tammy Minoff  (photo: Nikki Eva Kentor)

Josh T. Ryan, Amir Khalighi, Melissa Kite, Tammy Minoff (photo: Nikki Eva Kentor)

The play, a first outing by Australian novelist/screenwriter Antony J. Bowman, moves along briskly under the direction of Jeanie Drynan.  The characters are clearly drawn, and interestingly revealed by very skilled actors.  We connect with them and their situations, and we care.

There’s Michael (Josh T. Ryan), a rising architect who’s just died.  He’s our friendly ghost narrator, unseen and unheard by the others.  Back home after his funeral, he learns that his wife Vivian (Kristen Hansen) is pregnant with the child they’ve tried for years to have.

Consoling Vivian are her college friend Claudia (Melissa Kite), a high-end realtor, and Michael’s prim business partner Russell (Amir Khalighi).  Also present are Michael’s comely protegée Nikki (Tammy Minoff) and his mildly autistic younger brother Albert (Willy Romano-Pugh).

As things unfold, lubricated by free-flowing liquor, we get to know these folks and their hopes.  Claudia, despite her jet-set life, has always wanted a baby.  Nikki’s been desperately in love with Michael (who had fantasies he didn’t act on).  Russell can’t wait to replace Nikki with a comely male apprentice.  And Albert catches more social and emotional cues than everyone supposes.

We also see their losses.  Michael loses his life, his wife, his home,  his future — and his illusions, as he hears what people say about him.  Vivian loses her husband, the shape of her life — and, yet again, her baby.   Albert loses his home and his big brother, the only person who sees him.  Claudia loses her only confidant (though she may regain the link with Vivian), and Russell loses his partner, his mask of honesty, and all his friendships.

These are huge losses.  The stakes are obviously very high here.  Yet we see almost no suffering.

Except for Vivian, the characters react to these devastating blows as if they were slaps in the face.  They take a deep breath, or pass out drunk, and then move on.  Even Vivian’s grief at losing her husband, and then her baby, occurs mostly offstage.

Unseen and unheard, suffering in this play is obscene — in the original sense of the word from Greek tragedies, where things too awful to see were told about rather than shown.

In a sitcom or commedia dell’arte, there is no suffering.  We laugh when stick-puppet characters get hit with a club or a pie and then rebound, unfazed.  In a comedy of manners, we chuckle at the characters’ ability to keep up their social facades.  But in Somewhere, the  characters are well-enough drawn — and acted — that we can’t laugh.  Instead, we’re left with a sense of discomfort, incompletion.

We know these people.  These losses will cut deep, cost them dearly.   And as things wrap up — too quickly, too neatly — we can’t believe what we’re seeing.

Somewhere enjoys high production values.  Nikki Eva Kentor’s scene  design makes thrifty use of limited space (though a smaller bed might help).  Brian Barrazza’s lighting leads us smoothly among overlapped acting areas and through time.  Katie Jorgenson’s smartly contemporary clothes locate this world and each character, from Claudia’s soignée to Albert’s shamble.  And Edward Salas’ sensitive sound design quotes themes and passages from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto at key moments, then pulls out threads and weaves them into a quietly moving background tapestry.

Then there’s the acting.  In Michael, Ryan gives us a narrator we can trust and laugh and rage with, a ghost we can at times see through,
a man whose loves — and shocks — we feel.  Hansen’s new widow Vivian draws our empathy, wobbling and stunned; we cheer her growing grasp on herself, and her ability to release anger at Nikki and Russell.

As Nikki, Minoff creates a young woman of intelligence and spunk up against more seasoned players, betrayed by her wayward heart.  Kite’s Claudia, while instantly recognizable, suggests even more depth than the script reveals.  Khalighi crafts a quietly protean Russell, flicking between bottom-line businessman and dishy gay friend, then collapsing among his deceptions.  And Romano-Pugh’s  diffident, immature Albert gains our trust as the play’s homme raisonnable, though he shatters glassware and social graces.

In the program, Bowman says his play was inspired by the question,  “When I die, what will they say about me?”  This leads into familiar enough theatrical territory, but Bowman has made a serious venture beyond the light comedy of Ghost (or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) by creating characters and conflicts that have weight.

What’s missing from Somewhere — despite its having been read and workshopped in London and Sydney — is the agony.  Bowman’s characters have earned the right to suffer, have become real enough for us that we want to accompany them through the valley of the shadow.   Somewhere is, in my eye at least, a drama, maybe even a tragedy — and swift, almost comic resolution robs it of its full life.

Somewhere, by Antony J. Bowman, directed by Jeanie Drynan.
Presented by the Crossbow Theatre Company at the Meta Theatre, 7801 Melrose Ave. (actually a few doors north on Ogden).

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 7:00 pm,
through Oct. 26.

Tickets:  <www.somewheretheplay.com>

Will You Altar Your Life? “(un)bridaled”

“There comes a point in every girl’s life …”  Well, maybe not every girl.  And it’s hard to say whether the emerging person is, at any given moment, a girl or a woman.

But culture — and family, its main carrier — pays no attention to such fine points.  It wades into your life with a handful of “one size fits all” assumptions, pushing you into the gender and role containers it has on the shelf.

The blossoming of the individual and the pushy efforts of the culture come to a head in a splendid collision known as: marriage.

Photo: Jorge Vismara

Photo: Jorge Vismara

That collision — or the moment just before it happens — is where Marina Magalhäes locates her powerful new work, (un)bridaled.
With five gifted dancers, the Brazilian-born choreographer leads a  poignant journey into the soul space all young women share when they confront the issue(s) of marrying.

(Un)bridaled‘s driving energy comes not only from its eclectic blend of music (from samba and batuque to rock and hip-hop) but also from the voices of virgins — girls on the verge.

Freed from silence, their voices explode into the familiar rites and ceremonies.  They cry “No!” when dancers enact a homage to women’s traditional roles, they shout “I don’t give f***!”  in a hilarious rap retort to the advice of abuelitas, and they hum a haunting polyphonal distortion of Wagner’s Wedding March while two brides strike photo poses that keep melting into twisted masks of anguish and abuse.

To Magalhäes’ credit, this is not a screed.  She is giving voice, not lecturing.  (Un)bridaled‘s overall movement is fast, fluid and often funny (though its moments of elegy can be excruciating).  She lets young women’s fears and angers speak, setting everything from coy uncertainty to  terror and rage into the language of movement — which usually holds more possible meanings than the spoken word.

At the work’s center, Magalhäes erects a painful image.  A young woman stands stunned, interrogated by an immigration officer.  She haltingly offers answers (which we’ve just heard as responses to marriage), and is refused, told she will be deported.

Then, as dancers daub her white dress with green paint, a recorded voice speedily babbles instructions for the forms you must fill out to immigrate as a spouse.  When the painting is done, the girl takes the brushes and paces forward, holding them as a bouquet, in a cruel parody of a bridal march.

This disturbing image is not explained.  It is left to resonate.  For me, it suggests the color of growing things — and of money.  As in an immigration fee, or a dowry.  What she must cover herself in, sacrificing her purity, her identity, to be acceptable.  The disfiguring disguise she must wear to enter a country.  Or a family.  Or adulthood.

Some 2,500 years ago, the Greeks acknowledged the importance of the cusp between “girl” and “bride” (the only adult role open to a woman) by imagining a goddess in that gateway.  Artemis stood as protector of sacred  wilderness and all that lives in it, including unmarried girls in the full flowering of their youth.

In (un)bridaled, Magalhäes acts as a modern Artemis, setting her half-dozen artists in motion.  Dancing and singing (and speaking, as an iPhone screen scrolls wedding-industry images) they portray — and evoke in us — the complex emotions of life hanging in a balance, poised on a threshold.

Cameron Pieratt’s lighting helps deftly to tell the story, as does  Sophia Stoller’s projection.  Costumer Katie Jorgenson magically transforms a simple white dress into everything from a girl’s shift to a bridal dress and — at the end — a candomble dancer’s floating form.   Of special note, too, are dancer Erica Rey’s vocal and mixing skills, adding emotionally rich musical moments to the mix.

Finally, underpinning the creative team’s imaginative artistry is Magalhäes subtle mastery of the language of dance.  Again and again, she surprises us by injecting undercurrents and counter-rhythms, setting — and then quietly breaking, or enriching — patterns and expectations.

This occurs movingly in the finale, as an energetic duet widens into a full-company bacchanal set to Las Cafeteras’ tempestuous Ya Me Voy (I’m Leaving Now).  Within it, the early “traditional” sequences to which watching dancers had shouted “No!” are reprised, amid the widening whirling of the other, liberated dancers.  At the same time, in their floating grace, these dancers suddenly stomp like peasant women  pounding wine out of grapes.

Magalhäes has a rich, complex vision.  She and her collaborators bring it to life powerfully in their music and media choices, in the dancers’ movements, in the emotions they evoke in us, and in the reflections they lead us to.

These are artists to be reckoned with, and (un)bridaled is an unrivaled dance theatre experience.

You have only one weekend left to catch it at the intimate Le Studio.  If Artemis is watching, it should appear again on a larger stage somewhere in LA.  But the gods can be capricious –so  see it now.

(Un)bridaled, created by Marina Magalhäes, with dancer-collaborators Stephanie Castro, Rachel Hernandez, Veline Mojarro, Mariana Reis, and Erica Rey.
Presented at Le Studio, 9500-B Jefferson Blvd., Culver City.

Thursday (Sept. 25) through Saturday (Sept. 27) at 8:30 pm.

Tickets: <www.brownpapertickets.com/event/840713>

Southern Discomfort: “Dummies” at ZJU

Once again, there’s something new going down at ZJU.

Zombie Joe’s Underground, the home of Urban Death, is known for pushing the theatrical envelope, finding new places theatre can go that we hadn’t thought of.  Sometimes, they find places we’d have been more comfortable not knowing about.

They’ve found another one.  In Dummies, director Zombie Joe hops into  playwright Robert Riemer’s latest feverish vehicle, kicks the starter and roars off into a new, disturbingly comic country.

Adam Neubauer, Deneen Melody, Gloria Galvan

Adam Neubauer, Deneen Melody, Gloria Galvan

Y’all know the South?  Of course you do.

Throughout the 20th century, at least half America’s major writers told tales dripping with racial guilt and Spanish moss, fragrant with magnolias and incest.   No matter where we lived, we knew the South.  It held the darkest shadows of our world-saving empire.  The characters of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams,  Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee, stood large in our imaginations, telling us who we really were.

We’re not in Arkansas anymore, Toto.  The perfect storm of the post-modern world has torn us up and, with Dummies, sets us down in another country.  Here, the icons our parents and grandparents  earnestly wrestled with have morphed.  They’re now stock comic characters, in predictably — and laughably –grotesque situations.

The lights come up on a pair of lightly clad young women, locked in an intense, protective embrace.   Clair (Deneen Melody) slathers cartoonish makeup on the gauze-wrapped face of Claudia (Gloria Galvan) while delivering a monolog that lets us know this is a house of ill repute in a backwoods land of poverty and incest.

We never leave.  For the next hour, at breakneck speed, the family romps and wrangles through its dysfunctional history, piling shock upon insult as gleefully as a server mounding spaghetti on a plate.  Innocence and honor are swiftly raped by lust and greed, and arise from their grave-beds pregnant with revenge.

But this hapless, conscienceless clan descending into hell is funny.  The hour sparks more laughter than three nights at a comedy club.
Characters who were our culture’s tortured heroes have become Punch and Judy, Harlequin and the Old Lecher; classic tragedy has turned the corner into commedia dell’arte.

We ‘re laughing at ourselves.  We used to cry.  Any news blog will tell you it’s not because we’ve conquered our demons (“Ferguson,” anyone?).  Are we giving up the heroic folly, and learning instead to live with them?  I don’t know.

What I do know is that Dummies is a disturbing, raucous ride into this unnamed country.   Zombie Joe clusters his actors, family members crawling over one another as if in heat, even while arguing fiercely.  He maintains a breathless pace.

And he has (as always) bold, talented actors.

Galvan and Adam Neubauer (as the patriarch’s heir, J.J.) show what utter fearlessness can accomplish.  John Lewandowski (the randy,  sociopathic patriarch), Sebastian Muñoz (his spineless brother) and Anne Westcott (the brother’s wife) tear at their triangle with terrific energy, whipping through changes.  And Kristi Ellingsworth (the briefly innocent Grace) carries us through her arc with strength and focus.

Amid such highly achieved work, two performers demand special mention.  One is  actor-dancer IAM Z33RO, who creates riveting, unexpected presences in both sexes, with delightful speed and brio.  The other is the redoubtable Melody, who can take exposition monologs that would make Hamlet quaver and pour them out in a honeyed drawl, purring and pawing herself (and anyone in reach), without losing a syllable.  She can hold a tale together, and Zombie Joe uses her wisely to do just that.

I confess, I don’t take easily to Riemer’s scripts.  Though I share his loathing of the patriarchy, his plays often seem to me more rant than story.  But in Dummies, he and Zombie Joe have joined forces to discover something new, disturbing, and very funny.  Don’t you love farce?

Dummies, by Robert Riemer, directed by Zombie Joe.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Saturdays at 8:30 pm, through October 4.

Tickets:  <www.zombiejoes.com> or (818)202-4120.


Sort of Weighing a Life: Semele’s “Eric Argyle”

What’s the measure of a life?  How — if at all — do we matter?

A century ago, two minor classics of American writing — Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915) and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) — addressed this question.  So did a stage classic, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, 20 years later.

Masters’ poems, Anderson’s short stories and Wilder’s play are all set in small towns.  All three find isolation to be the great enemy.  Although the characters are surrounded by people most of them have known all their lives, nearly every one of them feels alone, cut off, unmet.

Melina Bielefelt, Craig Fleming, Bruce A. Lemon Jr., Don Boughton.

Melina Bielefelt, Craig Fleming, Bruce A. Lemon Jr., Don Boughton.

Fast forward to 2012.  Playwright Ross Dungan takes a look and finds that isolation still dogs most people, making them feel their lives may be pointless.  In small towns, anyway, since that’s where he sets The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle.

Which is a curious choice.

A century ago, America was — or could imagine itself to be — a small-town culture.  The small town was where most folks lived, or at least came from, even in the few big cities like Chicago or New York.   Artists naturally looked to small towns to take the pulse of our lives.  (So did scientists, as in the classic sociological study Middletown, published in 1929).

But by the late 20th century — the time of Eric Argyle — 85% of Americans were living in huge cities.  We’re a global urban culture, tied together by electronics and popular media, and there is no more corner store.

Yet that’s where Eric works for his whole life, starting as a teenager.   (Like George Abbott in the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life).  The corner store is where Eric  falls for the girl of his dreams (like George) , and where he dies — well, actually on the street out front, stepping into traffic.  (George dies by jumping from a nearby bridge.)

Dungan frames his story with an afterlife review, as did Masters and Wilder (and Capra & Stern in Wonderful Life.)  And here, our author does a new thing.  The review is not to send Eric to heaven or hell, nor even to weigh his earthly life.  It’s for quite another purpose.  (You’ll have to see it to find out.)

The other original feature of Eric Argyle comes from the director.  Matthew McCray says he was  “intrigued by the way the objects we accumulate can chronicle … our lives.”  Much rehearsal time thus went to letting actors find relationships with the various objects,  so they might give the items “a larger role in the storytelling.”

Set designer Sarah Krainin and production manager Alexander Wells leaped in with gusto.  The small stage is crammed with items and furnishings, making actors step over them at times.

Yet, as the play unfolds, the objects don’t seem any different than those in any other play.  What’s wanted, I suspect,  is a way for the audience to feel related to them, to become familiar with their look and heft (perhaps even holding or touching them), to know their stories, sense their meaning.

Eric Argyle is about human relationships, after all, and the ensemble does a fine job of weaving a complex web — with some considerable challenges.  Every actor but one (the ever interesting and believable Craig Fleming, as older Eric) must not only carry a character or two, or three, but must also take on large chunks of the near-constant narration.

Son of Semele newcomers Inga Wilson (Eric’s love, Gillian) and Rick Steadman (as young Eric) acquit themselves particularly well.  Also strong are Bruce A. Lemon Jr. (the lead “interrogator”), Sarah Rosenberg (a cellist and a child) and Dan Via (who differentiates subtly but strikingly between Eric’s best friend, Craig, and his mentor, Mr. Downey).  Don Boughton is creepily forceful as Eric’s authoritarian uncle (despite some opening-night line fluffs), and Melina Bielefelt moves easily between a sympathetic “good cop” and a light comic role.

Tricky cues in the sound (Noelle Riad Sammour) and light (Jeremy Pivnick) designs are played sharply.  Lights effectively distinguish life on Earth from the afterworld.  And the soundtrack, with midcentury pop that endured (think Sinatra), keeps us somewhere under the late 20th century’s cultural umbrella.

The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle is an engaging, rewarding evening of theatre.  The story is told with complexity and style.  Yet it feels a bit light, not as challenging or deep as the questions it raises.  These are small lives, facing trials that seem manageable, shaped by decisions that seem timid.  Like a small town in our mega-urban world, or an argyle sock, it seems a bit lost, out of its time and place.

The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle, by Ross Dugan, directed by Matthew McCray.
Presented by the Son of Semele Ensemble, at Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd.

Mondays (Sept. 8 and 22) at 7:00 pm.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm,
through Sept. 28.

Tickets: <www.sonofsemele.org>





Shaping Sacred Space: “Animals Out of Paper”

We begin making theatre by entering space.
Performers show up for an audition or rehearsal.  A director or designer sits in the dark house, imagining how the story will fill the    empty stage.  Audience members arrive, finding their places, eager for the show.  An actor walks into the scene.

The space we enter is sacred.
It may be a gold-leafed and chandeliered opera house,  a 40-seat black box, or a chalk circle on a sidewalk.  But it has been set apart from the world and its uses, to contain a story.

In the handsome 240-seat David Henry Hwang Theatre, the  East-West Players are gathering five times a week to perform a play about sacred space, its magic and its delicacy.

C.S. Lee, Tess Lina

C.S. Lee, Tess Lina

Animals Out of Paper, by Rajiv Joseph, is clearly about origami, the classical Japanese art of paper folding.  The theatre is filled with origami art — on the walls, hanging from wires, all over the stage.  And all three of the play’s characters are origami artists.

Yet — just as origami is deeply about space, the way folded planes of paper move into far different spaces  than a flat sheet can — Animals Out of Paper is deeply about space.  The space of a person’s life, and how we enter and leave one another’s sacred precincts.

The script itself is a stunning achievement.  Simple, swift, often highly comical, yet heart-wrenching, it compactly tells the story of a wounded artist, an eager teacher and the student they share.

In words on paper, Joseph has made a piece of fractal art.  Almost every part contains the whole, and could stand alone as a metaphor for it.   The enormous paper hawk (by master folder Robert Lang) that dominates the stage at the start; the fire extinguisher on the kitchen table; the apartment intercom, and on and on.  Each thing fits, tells the story.

Director Jennifer Chang has sensed the intricacy and delicacy of this story — and the people in it — and has created a half-magical world.

Rooted in the everyday of rain-soaked clothes and crusty take-out cartons,  its spaces (a messy studio, a restaurant, a hotel room) stand at the foot of a bridge between here and everywhere, now and always.   When characters step on that bridge, composer Melanie Chen hangs a soft arpeggio in the air, like an origami balloon.

But most of the story inhabits daily reality.  Each character can lift up — Ilana (Tess Lina) and Suresh (Kapil Talwalkar) on the wings of art,  Andy (C.S. Lee) on the winds of spiritual insight.  But they still walk flat-footed into each others’ lives and hearts — at times with care, but often with an unaware clumsiness we each know too well. 

When we enter one another’s sacred space, we find surprises.  Hurt feelings … a warm welcome … an angry rebuff … an unexpected kiss.  Love and, inevitably, loss.

As master folder Ilana, a woman cut open by loss, Lina gingerly lets us share her struggle to hold herself together, driving the story like a wounded bird seeking refuge yet needing to fly.  In Andy,  Lee crafts a loveable, self-deprecating innocent, unskilled at folding, who has laid his deepest self open across the flat pages of a journal.  And as the student Suresh, Talwalkar offers a gentle genius hiding behind a hip-hop mask, betrayed by his as yet simply folded heart.

The actors move from collision to comedy to anguish like skilled dance partners, like a string trio soaring through a sonata.  They’re supported by Naomi Kasahara’s daringly complex set design (with several very large folds, accomplished deftly between scenes) and Halei Parker’s spot-on costumes (Ilana: grace pulled from a laundry basket, Andy: comfortable yet about to burst, Suresh: colorful and shedding).

Chen’s music ranges from assaultingly loud rap to a brief, elegant keyboard signature that grows subtly toward a fugue by the end.  Tom Ontiveros’ shrewd, understated lighting also helps weave a world where magic is always ready to break through the chrysalis of hard-edged reality.

This piece of theatre enters into our sacred, private spaces.  While we watch and listen, laugh and weep, it reaches deep, touching the loves and losses that have creased our own lives.

In New York, Animals Out of Paper was justly acclaimed by a Times critic as “pitch-perfect” writing.  In its LA premiere — as the flagship theatre for Asian-American artists opens its 50th season — Chang and her cohort create a delicate, stunning artwork  from simple-seeming materials.

Note:  During the rehearsal process, I had the opportunity to watch this production develop, thanks to the generosity of the company and Jennifer Chang (whom I’m honored to call a friend).
Under her intensely focused yet always gentle stewardship, this group of artists took a beautiful sheet of paper and found the folds and creases to give it space-filling, breathtaking form.

Animals Out of Paper, by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Jennifer Chang.
Presented by the East-West Players, 120 Judge John Aiso St., LA 90012.

Origami artists:  Jim Cowling, Joe Hamamoto, Robert Lang, Marti Reis, Michael Sanders, Joyce Sandler, Joel Stern, Carol Stevens and Hisako Tanji.

Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm, through October 5.

Tickets: <https://eastwestplayers.secure.force.com/ticket#details_a0Uo0000000dw59EAA>