A Dickens of a Dickens: ZJU’s “Christmas Carol”

There will be many versions of A Christmas Carol this season.

There will be none like — or more delightful than — the one at Zombie Joe’s Underground.

Yes, the little black box that specializes in grim amusements (such as Urban Death and the Hallowe’en Tour of Terror) is also the place for a dickens of a Dickens.

Carol ZJU

In a swift hour, a dozen merry pranksters whirl and spin us through the classic tale of ghosts scaring the miser out of Ebenezer Scrooge. Singing and dancing to Denise Devin’s baton, the troupe so deftly juggles our emotions that we find ourselves weeping at this old chestnut, and laughing through our tears.

Skillful, energetic staging bounces us madly along, from the opening mini-concert by a demented Steam Punk Chorus to the redeemed Scrooge’s effervescent ending.

But what captures us as if we’d never heard this tale before is the astonishing acting.  Each moment, and almost every character, bursts onstage with absolute focus, intensity and belief — creating an emotional pressure as unrelenting as the physical energy.

With every performer (but one) handling at least three roles, and some as many as six or seven, this is a remarkable achievement.  It’s a tight-knit, closely timed ensemble performance — as it must be, to manage the constant flow of backstage traffic alone.

Still, there are standouts.  Among the mad singers, a twisted violinist (Lara Lihiya), a barely controlled  tambourinist (Gloria Galvan) and a stark-staring soprano (Kelly Rhone) help make “comfort and joy” quite unnerving.  The chorus master (AJ Scalfani) sets the scene with ringing clarity.  Then Jacob Marley’s ghost (Patrick Albanesius) gets us off on precisely the right foot — coming not to terrify but to warn, himself utterly terrified by having met divine justice.

As Scrooge, Sebastian Muñoz makes a well-worn role startlingly fresh.  This Ebenezer’s not crabby or bitter, he’s smug.  He oozes self-satisfaction, as oily and clueless as a Macbillionaire.  Shocked out of his shell by his dead partner, stirred into feeling by his own buried memories, he struggles wildly, at last grasping the thin straw of transformation.  It works — and pregnant with new life, he explodes in a joy that’s earned and infectious.

Finally, though, the holly wreath must go to Devin.  As the director (and adapter of the text), she is the master designer of these revels. And as all three Ghosts of Christmas — past, present and future — she unleashes a triple tornado, driving the very heart of the story with energy, wit and grace.

Like Scrooge, we become complacent.  We think we know this old story too well to be really moved, and approach it as theatrical comfort food.  But a great clown can take you, even as you laugh,  where you hadn’t  expected to go.

Zombie Joe’s jesters do exactly that, reminding us gently but firmly that our mortal time for loving is all too brief.  You couldn’t ask for a better gift.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, adapted and directed by Denise Devin.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Company, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Saturdays at 8:30 pm, Sundays at 7:00 pm, through Dec. 28th.

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






Playing in Space & Time: (3) “A Silver Lining”

Back in February, I wrote about a pair of unrelated shows (50-Hour Drive-By at ZJU, and Elephant Man at St. John’s Cathedral) that played creatively with space and time.

A Silver Lining, now at ArtShare downtown, doesn’t just play with space and time — it’s about them.

silver lining


A Silver Lining runs through it.  Where most plays present themselves to seated audiences, this one moves from space to space (I counted at least seven) through the dimly lit warren of caverns that once was  a warehouse.  And it takes us along — or sends us ahead, into the unknown.

At several points,  where we wander — and what we experience — depends upon choices we must agree on, tasks we must complete,
or questions we must answer.    A Silver Lining is not only “immersive” theatre, it is “interactive.”


The story — which we first watch, sitting comfortably, and then become  implicated in and actively part of, less and less comfortably — involves characters who travel through time.  They cross and recross their paths, disturbing the past and reshaping the future.

Hmm.  Not unlike the way we at times enter a room we’ve been in, but find it’s part of a different reality than when we left.  Or the way our choices create our subsequent experiences, but in ways we may or may not learn about.

A Silver Lining moves us through its worlds swiftly, with considerable wit and humor — but along the way, we encounter serious ethical questions.  And we’re compelled to make choices where no outcome is certain, and none may prove satisfactory.

I’d like to say more.  I’d like to praise a beautiful metaphor in which the two main issues of the tale become one.  I’d like to describe at least one of the delightfully imagined chambers we find ourselves in, and who we meet there.  But this is an experience of constant surprises, and I’ve had to give away a lot already.

What I can say is that we were a dozen adults, thrown together in a company, making our way through an experience you’d have to classify as science fiction (but with some serious ethical weight).  Yet it also felt like we were children wandering open-mouthed with Alice, through Wonderland.

In creating A Silver Lining, the audacious young A Working Theater company has taken on an immense challenge.  Their main resources are themselves: their imagination, their skills and their energy.  With these and a fistful of shoestrings they’ve put together a unique and delightful experience — theatre as a multi-character role-playing game — that will send you into the night talking and laughing.

A Silver Lining, by A Working Theater.
Presented at ArtShare L.A., 801 E. 4th Place.

The Company:  Mikie Beatty, Karel Ebergen, Madeline Harris, Shery Hernandez, Ben Huth, Matt Jones, Amy Kline, Kevin Railsback, Jessica Salans, Taylor Solomon, Matt Soson, Erika Soto, Vika Stubblebine, Emily Yetter.

Performances:  Nov. 11th, 12th, 15th, 16th,  and 18th – 21st.
Two shows each night, at 7:00 and 8:30 pm.

Tickets: <http://aworkingtheater.ticketleap.com/a-silver-lining>
NOTE: Only 12 patrons per showing.


A Box of Surprises : Unleashed’s “Stage Fright”

There’s some good writing going on at Theatre Unleashed.

In their little black box, they’re hiding some jewels.  Well, they are putting them on display – but only for intrepid souls who find their way upstairs at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church this weekend.

Stage Fright, the current offering, lays out five short pieces (some restaged from the annual 24-hour-play fest). Each starts on familiar terrain, then wanders into realms that are less expected.

Under Ann Hurd’s direction, each play finds its own voice and style. Being very short, they all must capture our attention at once, and each does. Each also involves a quick twist or two, as short plays often do. But otherwise, they’re all over the map.

Lee Pollero, Eric Stachura, Melita M. Camilo

Lee Pollero, Eric Stachura, Melita M. Camilo

The Affair, by Liesl Jackson, looks most familiar. A busy executive (Mandy Muenzer) calls in a junior employee (Alex Bonetti) for a reprimand. A tense moment too many of us have known. But soon, the restraint crumbles, and we experience far more with these two women than we planned. Jackson’s writing, and Muenzer’s and Bonetti’s focused acting, take us from an office onto a roller-coaster easily and credibly. Hurd, wisely, stays out of their way, keeping things spare and effective.

Eric Cire’s All There Is to Say About the Floor also begins on home turf. In a trashed apartment, a man with a bottle (Carey Matthews) mourns the end of a long affair. A shadow in the corner moves slowly toward him, becoming a woman (Liesl Jackson) who throws his story into limbo. As they struggle over whether they are – or were – lovers, they draw closer. And behind them … . Both actors shift often, subtly, between certainty and doubt, anger and affection; and Hurd paces the darkening mystery just right.

The least familiar setting is a post-apocalyptic sewage tunnel, in Famous Last Words. But Gregory Crafts equips it with shards from our world, including the deathbed quotes traded by the three last-standers (Melita M. Camilo, Lee Pollero and Erich Stachura).  Facing assured extinction, they react to their plight — and each other — in a swift, dark comedy of character. Hurd keeps it sprightly, and Crafts also shines (pardon the pun) as creator of a shadowy, shifting noir light design.

In Hang a Lampshade on It, Crafts switches to a prosaic mis en scene – two women in a stalled car, at night, on an empty road. He then plays hilariously with what we know, or think we do, and why we think so. Courtney Bell inhabits a loveable but loony certainty, which Liesl Jackson foils perfectly with sanity slipping from patient to pissed. Again, Hurd shows sure comic timing, and an economic use of movement. As set designer, she also finds a delightful solution to a perplexing challenge.

Finally, in UFOh NO You Didn’t!, Ben Atkinson enters the well-known world of a cable TV studio. Our host, Nicole A. Craig nicely sends up the sexualized pitch of  a Chelsea Handler, while her guest Lee Pollero pushes a stereotype toward an actual character. Both are full of energy and absolute conviction – which, as we know, seldom ends happily.  Hurd, with sure hands on the burner and the whisk, heats and stirs this delicate froth til it pops.

Aside from some oddly irrelevant titles, the Stage Fright writers reveal a high level of skill – and, in various ways, daring. This pleasant surprise is reason enough to go where Camarillo, Lankershim and Vineland meet, and seek out the upstairs loft.

Hurd’s direction, which grows increasingly assured, is another.  And then there’s the acting, a world away from the showcase posing we all wish weren’t so familiar. The Unleashed actors show what focus and intensity can do — even in very small  containers.

Stage Fright, by Liesl Jackson, Eric Cire, Gregory Crafts and Ben Atkinson, directed by Ann Hurd.
Presented by Theatre Unleashed at the Belfry Theatre, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood.

Friday at 8:00 pm, Saturday at 10:30 pm, Sunday at 9:30 pm through Nov. 9.

Tickets: <https://theatreunleashed.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0OF000000DpjToMAJ>

Tragic in Black and White: The Illyrians’ “Othello”

Othello is a rich text, full of polarities.  It can be a play about love vs. jealousy … or honesty vs.  deceit … or passion vs. reason, chaos vs. order.  Or race, as it so often is in America.

Because of its richness, Othello can be confusing.  On the page or the stage, we need a focus, a thread to find our way through it all.

The lllyrian Players’ current Othello is the most tightly focused I’ve ever seen.  And therefore one of the best.

Emma Servant, Katelyn Myer, Angela Sauer

Emma Servant, Katelyn Myer, Angela Sauer

Director Carly Weckstein and her troupe have seized on the little “vs.” that sits almost unnoticed at the heart of all the polarities, and revealed that as the story behind the story.

We all know “vs.” — the short form of “versus,” used to pair (and separate) the two sides of a debate.  We’re so used to it, though, that we may not notice its deeper meaning.  Wherever it appears, that little “vs.” signals that we’ve reduced everything to two options.  One must win while the other loses; one must be entirely true while the other is utterly false.

It’s “either/or,” a pattern of thinking that permeates our culture, from sex and race to sports and election campaigns.  And wars.
“Two sides to every story,” we say.   “Either us or them.  Heaven or hell.  For us or against us.”

Anyone in recovery from addiction recognizes this as “black and white thinking” — the most treacherous morass we can fall into as we try to find our way through the real world.  Nothing is so simple.   And thinking it is, is suicide.

The Illyrians stage their Othello inventively, and with forceful clarity.  On the black back wall a white moon hangs, dripping its whiteness toward the earth.   On the black floor lies a bloody white sheet.   Black, white, and blood.

The play begins, as it did in Shakespeares’ day, with a “dumbshow” — a wordless pre-enactment of the tale.  Black-clad figures dance, donning horned black-and-white masks, miming out what seems a steady, irresistible triumph of the demonic over the human.

In the play proper, Katie Jorgenson’s striking costumes play a fugue on black and white; mashing military with motorcycle gang, the leather-like uniforms’ epaulettes sprout spikes.  All are in the dark, and at arms — offense or defense, fight or flight.  Only Desdemona (Katelyn Myer) carries color, the green of living things.

This is a bleak, unsparing vision.  Set in the midst of religious war (Christian West vs. Islamic East) it starts with a race-baiting  and ends with murders and suicide.

Yet the milk of human kindness has not wholly dried.  It still flows in Desdemona and Othello’s early love, in Maggie Blake’s bright turns as the Clown and the Duke (the latter a comic capriccio upon stairs, chairs and hierarchies), in the honest loyalty of luckless Cassio (Gerard Marzill),  and in the unbreakable bond of love that links Emilia (Angela Sauer) to Desdemona.

This Othello takes us (or me, at least) to some unexpected places.  As character after character falls prey to polarized thinking, most often led there by Iago, I sadly feel, “Alas! This is how we are.”  But when  Cassio, attacked by adversity (and his own weakness), struggles to remain faithful, I feel, “Ah! This is how I wish we were.”  And at the climax, it is not innocent Desdemona who brings me to tears but Emilia.  Her world is swiftly and sharply torn from her, yet she holds true to herself and her one surviving love, amid disillusion and death.  “That,” I realize, “is how I hope to live — and die.”

Among the principals, Hamra, Myer and Zach Brown (as Othello) all know their characters and their arcs, and carve them out well.   Supporting players Blake, Marzill, Daxon, and Michael Watterston (as Lodovico) all likewise create clear, believable personages.  Everyone does slip at times into the bane of Shakespeare actors, rushing their lines.

Everyone, that is, except Emma Servant, whose saucy Bianca never leaves us guessing, and Luis Ordaz (Montano), a solid and steadying presence.  And of course Sauer, whose flawless clarity and steadily growing intensity make Emilia — properly — the heroine of the tale.  She is an actor I cannot wait to see again.

Othello presents, at its core, the tragedy of opposites — of “versus.”  It dramatizes, painfully, our human habit of seeing everything as either/or, of bleaching the beautifully colored world and our magnificently complex selves into mere black and white.

Weckstein and company are to be congratulated for finding the heart of this many-themed 500-year-old play, and bringing it so forcefully to life in modern terms.

NOTE:  There’s been a lot of talk lately about the 99-seat plan, with many questioning whether non-profit, non-paying companies can really create quality theatre on a shoestring.  In a little black box on Santa Monica Boulevard, the Illyrian Players are giving a definitive answer.

Othello, by William Shakespeare, directed by Carly D. Weckstein.
Presented by The Illyrian Players Theatre Company, at Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, through Nov. 22.

Tickets: <https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-illyrian-players-othello-tickets-13545449805>