“Friends with Penalties” Scores Mostly Hits

The title for Theatre Unleashed’s latest bouquet of short plays is clever and ominous (and fits well alongside the troupe’s main play, Boy Gets Girl, reviewed below).  The late-night playlets are all clever, though only a couple fulfill the title’s ill omen.


In Sammi Lappin’s Time to Run, a tense couple tries to tackle  a topic that may split them.  Poised twixt fight and flight are Jase Lindgren’s comic coward and Kire Horton, who finds many colors in “I’m almost out of here.” Lauren Holiday adds a sweetly unhooked third wheel.

Pacific Rain, by Gregory Crafts, stages another tense dialog.  On the eve of World War II, a blasé President Roosevelt (Jennifer Hood) misleads a surly reporter (Kimberly Jürgen), briefly interrupted by FDR crony Harry Hopkins (Lindsay Anne Braverman).

These two plays show how tricky tension can be.  In Time to Run, it’s kept so tremblingly high that the payoff almost fails to balance it.  In Pacific Rain, it’s too low: Everyone’s overly polite, and FDR’s mask of calm not only hides the truth, it also helps hide the stakes.

Both plays also pose the query of what a third party adds to a dialog. Comic relief (Time to Run)?  OK, but they’re funny already. Exposition (Pacific Rain)? Hopkins tells us nothing we don’t already know.

(And I wish director Carey Matthews would do something with Pacific‘s cross-casting:  It sits on the mantel, intriguing us, but is never fired.)

Jim Martka’s I Got a Woman does away with both the tension and the third character.  Instead we get a bleary romp, as a well-baked pair struggles to decode classic Beatles lyrics. Jude Evans’ loopy JoJo is deliciously grungy, and Elise Golgowski’s Julia slips from Caterpillar  bliss to sudden shrewdness in a way that’s endlessly amusing.

Things finally go dark in Now We Wait, as two men find themselves stuck — perhaps forever — in an anteroom. Sean Fitzgerald subtly crafts a mercurial Mark, who slowly grasps the situation, while Kyle (author Lee Pollero) seeks zen-like peace in an online game.

Brandie June’s Nights Like This also dwells between worlds. But Belle (Parissa Koo) and her idol, Lavacious Choice (Gordon Martin Meacham, in fine drag), share a lively comic encounter, throwing life in death’s face.  Belle’s friend (Braverman again) and mother (Denise Nicholson) embody more conventional responses to our mortality.

Liesl Jackson’s Are There Selfies in Heaven? stays on the afterworld’s front porch, pitching a wild farce. In mall-bred Jenna, Madeleine Miller sustains a commedia-like caricature that drives the tale — while driving us, her butler David (a prim Lee Pollero), and Satan himself (a volatile Tim Cakebread) to distraction.

As a company, Theatre Unleashed has made a serious commitment to new plays — in its Writers’ Group (which hatched all six of these plays) and its several short-play festivals. This supports not only writers, but also actors and directors, giving theatre artists ample opportunity to test and grow their talents, and be seen doing it.

Friends with Penalties offers no more than you would expect from brief plays, quickly crafted and swiftly brought to the stage. But it also offers no less — its six clever pieces provide a heady sampling of the ridiculously rich talent menu at LA’s best small theatres.
Friends with Penalties:
Time to Run, by Sammi Lappin, dir. Bobby McGlynn.
Pacific Rain, by Gregory Crafts, dir. Carey Matthews.
I Got a Woman, by Jim Martyka, dir. Jeffrey Wylie.
Now We Wait, by Lee Pollero, dir. Jeff Soroka.
Nights Like This, by Brandie June, dir. Sean Fitzgerald.
Are There Selfies in Heaven?, by Liesl Jackson, dir. Brandie June.
Presented by Theatre Unleashed at the The Belfry Stage, 11031

Fridays and Saturdays at 11:00 pm, through May 9th.

Tickets: <www.theatreunleashed.org>

Love’s Lies Laid Bare: Unleashed’s “Boy Gets Girl”

Falling in love is wonderful.

So the songs say. (And the poems, and movies, and novels and plays and magazines and ads — the culture’s thousands of voices that promote romance and attraction, and are never silent.)

Rebecca Gilman calls bullshit.

Eric Stachura, IvyKhan.

Eric Stachura, Ivy Khan (photo: Jase Lindgren).

In Boy Gets Girl, now onstage at Theatre Unleashed, she simply and incisively lays bare the fatal danger at the heart of romantic love.

Tony, an anxious fellow, waits for a blind date.  Theresa, a busy editor, almost doesn’t show up. They meet, acknowledge their unease, share the one beer they’ve agreed to, and she leaves.

Too late.  He’s fallen for her.

By the play’s end, she’s had her home trashed, her career derailed, and must change her identity and move across the country to save her life. The police can’t protect her any more than her friends can.

Tony is deranged –a stalker, psycho, perp. But it’s not that simple.

Along the way, Theresa’s young secretary, totally engaged in being “girly” and attractive, falls into the predator’s trap and betrays her.  Theresa also painfully examines her own desire to feel attractive, to be the object of someone’s desire. Women, we see, are entangled in a culture that pulls them from themselves and makes them prey.

Meanwhile, Theresa’s male colleagues — her sympathetic boss and a writer she’s been mentoring — face their own complicity. They leap to defend her, and deride a porn filmmaker Theresa is interviewing. But they also cop to “checking out” women’s body parts, and wonder whether they can see the person inside, or find their own emotions.

The play leads us through Theresa’s harrowing experience, but she’s not the only one who’s trapped. So is Tony.  And so are we all.

We “fall in love” by throwing a tangled net of needs and desires over someone who pushes our buttons.  We don’t plan to; it just happens.  So suddenly and unconsciously that we speak of it as involuntary — falling happens to us — it’s not something we do to another person.

There’s a tragedy here.  The Greek kind, where all our human efforts are overthrown by fate. In Boy Gets Girl, what’s tragic is how we’re trapped inside our psychological makeup, stuck with the way our feelings and our minds work (and our culture works on them).

Gilman offers no solution. It’s not clear whether we’ll ever find one. The Greeks knew the struggle to become something more than creatures of our primal drives and unconscious needs; we’re still in the middle of it. We can do our best, but it may not be enough.

Boy Gets Girl offers a grim vision, but an honest and needed one.  And Theatre Unleashed gives it a very respectable production.

As Theresa, Ivy Kahn takes hold of the play at once, and never lets it slip. We know and believe her every second, as the center around which the story grows. Jim Martyka’s portrayal of Tony is also adept: He wins us gently and swiftly, then shakes us loose bit by bit with hints — then moments — of anger, until we are horrified.

Eric Cire, as the pornmeister, uses deft restraint: The unlikely quiet at the center of this brash self-promoter makes us — and Theresa — look deeper.  Kate Dyler likewise uses stillness well, creating a cop whose presence calms the terrified victims she meets each day.

Sammi Lappin goes in the opposite direction, pushing the young secretary to the giddy edge of believability.  And Bobby McGlynn and Erich Stachura, as Theresa’s boss and her protege, work the middle ground, embodying men who have yet to find their centers but are honestly looking.

Director Jacob Smith moves his cast simply and clearly, and brings distinct, sustained performances from all his actors. (His  set design, however, wastes time on shifting furniture; a simpler set would help sustain the play’s momentum.)

Boy Gets Girl is a timely, necessary piece of theatre, and Theatre Unleashed stages it compellingly.  Hard on the heels of Unleashed’s equally provocative Ligature Marks, this is yet another example of what LA’s small theaters can do — and why we love them.
Boy Gets Girl, by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Jacob Smith.
Presented by Theatre Unleashed, at the Belfry Theater, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood.

Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm, through May 9th.

Tickets: <www.theatreunleashed.org> or (818) 849-4039.

“Grow a Pair … of Wings” Rises from the Cocoon

It is, as the author acknowledges, every young artist’s story.

Struggling for a foothold in the Big City, still getting advice — and checks — from The Parents, trying to sort out what heart and mind and body seem to want. Pulled by tides of  vision and despair, needing hugs and solitude, sick of home yet homesick.

We meet Sarah Klein swimming as hard as she can in this larval soup, a caterpillar who’s lost her familiar form on the way to becoming — what? — something she can barely imagine, mostly just feel. Another actress from the Midwest, furiously treading water in LA.

Her story is so well-known we’ll need something fresh in the telling to hold our attention and make it worth staging. Happily, author Amelia Phillips finds part of it in Sarah’s Jewish heritage — and director Stacie Hadgikosti finds the rest in a cast of remarkable skill.

Barry Vigon, Amelia Phillips (photo: Joseph Bornilla)

Barry Vigon, Amelia Phillips (photo: Joseph Bornilla)

As lights rise, Sarah (Phillips) is anxiously preparing for a Passover Seder that nearly overwhelms the small stage. Her family flies in for the feast, an unstable mix of tradition and improv at which they meet the goyfriend (Tyler Cook). But what makes this night different from all others is the sudden death of Grandpa (Barry Vigon).

From here on, as Sarah navigates her life — auditions, love tangles, the loss of her parents’ subsidies —  Grandpa joins the journey, a guardian ghost seen only by her.  This device works well, giving scenes a third dimension: unsettling but not eerie, a kind of emotional grounding. (I’d like to see even more made of it.)

Another device Phillips and Hadgikosti use to good effect is Sarah’s having to stand at attention, almost in the audience, at a series of auditions. They make us feel her nakedness as she scrambles to say, and embody, what if anything makes her unique.

Phillips’ script has evolved over several years into a story well worth telling.  In future iterations — which it definitely deserves — it will no doubt become tighter and swifter.  (Her final audition, for example, blends earned discovery with subtext, and thus needs pruning.) But as a first effort, it’s quite an achievement.

Equally impressive is the uniformly high quality of the acting.  Phillips (riskily playing the lead in her own work) gives Sarah an intensity we can’t turn away from; careening through many moods and moments, she stays real and reachable. As her sister Audrey, Riva Di Paola lets fascinating layers of complexity peek out without eroding focus; Tyler Cook makes Gabe, the musician boyfriend, a heel we can’t hate because we see the good guy trapped inside; and Greg Nussen creates a winning BFF who trembles on the edge of becoming more.

Jennie Fahn, as Sarah’s mother, deserves a special note.  From pre-show to curtain call she walks a tightrope, with the abyss  of caricature yawning beneath her. Yet she never falls.  Her character is a Jewish mother so familiar we can almost say her lines — but Fahn brings such energy and specificity to every second that we are always touched by the woman Mama Klein knows herself to be.

Murray Burn’s flexible set design evokes a variety of places we’ve lived in, and the lighting (Benjamin Robert Watt) and sound (Daniel Tator) lead us seamlessly where we need to go.  Like Hadgikosti’s movement of the characters, Lyndsay Lucas’ calling of the cues is deft enough to be invisible. This “only in LA” production quality is a gift new works seldom get anywhere else.

LA has birthed more scripts about making it as an artist than it has coffee shops.  But grow a pair … of wings has fought its way out of the cocoon, and taken form as a real play. Its wings may not be fully dry yet, but it’s already well worth staging — and seeing.
grow a pair … of wings, by Amelia Phillips, directed by Stacie Hadgikosti.
Presented by Amelia Phillips and FRESH PRODUCE’d L.A. at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd.

Thru April 26: Fridays and Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 2 and 7.
April 30-May 10: Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 7.

Tickets: <www.ameliap.com/wings> or




we can almost predict every word she says
energy and specificity
the person she knows herself to be


Pages from a Forbidden Book: “Urban Death”

You enter a common-looking place with friends, talking and laughing.  The host is friendly, the decor is a little odd — well, a lot odd — but it’s time to go to the inner room. You sit. You wait, chatting, while music plays. Suddenly, the place goes dark.

Someone giggles nervously. It stays dark. The giggle dies. You begin to feel alone, to wonder if something may be creeping toward you, when —

Flash! Lights reveal a . . . is that a person? . . .  And what are they —   Oh my god!

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(Photos: Marti Matulis)

And then darkness.  Utter darkness.  Some sort of sound . . . music, circus music, and people start to laugh, and —

Flash! What –?  That’s not — ugh — you can’t look — nooo . . .

ud 2015c


And so it goes at Zombie Joe’s classic, Urban Death.  An hour in a small blackbox theatre that’s like being let into a dungeon to peer at pages in an ancient portfolio of horrors.

Except that these horrors are sometimes modern.  Some make you laugh as well as squirm. Some make you almost leap out of your chair and run. And a few bring you close to tears.

ud 2015a

A gruesome death.  A family moment slowly going painfully awry, like a candle melting.  A gleeful trio taking pleasure in a way that has you trying not to look, while people near you cry “Please,  no! Not that!” A familiar children’s game ending with an unimaginable shock.

Urban Death is a compilation of disturbing moments, a candy box of terrors individually wrapped in darkness.  The flavors are familiar, yet always changing.  In an hour, the actors of this year’s incarnation bring to life (or death) more than three dozen sudden, wordless scenes. The pace seems impossible, and the performers’ intensity and precision are inescapable.

ud 2015d

The elements and the setting are so simple you are deceived.  Because the artistry that unfolds is swift and effective, assaultive and anxiety-producing, yet amusing.  You leave still gasping for breath, laughing with relief, and musing privately on what these moments have stirred up inside you.

Urban Death shows what a dozen years of practice by dedicated professionals can create.  In a tiny storefront theatre, with only half a hundred seats.  (Reservations advised.)
Urban Death, created by the company, directed by Zombie Joe and Jana Wimer.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

The Company: Charlotte Bjornbak, Vanessa Cate, Shayne Eastin, Elif Savas Felson, Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson, David Wyn Harris, Ian Heath, Kevin Pollard Jr., Danny Whitehead, Melissa Whitman.

Saturdays at 11:00 pm, through May 17th.

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

Disclaimer: I am a longtime member of the ZJU performing family, and have appeared in several installments of Urban Death, but I had no part in this production.

A Blinding Truth — “Medusa Undone”


It’s a horror that’s been with us since we climbed down from the trees, and we still don’t understand it.  But a powerful drama can make us face and feel a painful mystery, as the Greek tragedies did.

Bella Poynton sets out to do just that, by telling a mythic monster’s little-known backstory.  (Because that story is so unfamiliar, almost never told even in books of mythology, I will depart from my usual reviewing practice and sketch it out here.)

medusa deneen poster

Act I begins as the sea-nymph Medusa, fleeing her abusive family,  seeks refuge at the temple of Athena, goddess of justice.  After a trial by questions, the girl is taken in; soon, she becomes a priestess.

But the gods are not simply what we wish, nor do they come alone.  Athena cherishes her uncle Poseidon — god of the sea and storms, ruled by his own untamed desires. Medusa, having fled his realm, fears him.  Yet when they meet he is charmed, and they begin a relationship that’s one part mentoring, two parts her deflecting sexual overtures.  Eventually, he tires of the game, takes what he wants by force, and leaves. In the dark, we hear Medusa weeping.

In Act II, a ravaged Medusa pleads for justice — but instead of the gentle deity she has served, she is met by Athena the war goddess,
in full armor.  Athena (who has yearned for her uncle’s love) refuses to believe Medusa’s story; when at last she does, she lashes out at Medusa, blaming her.  Enraged, the goddess grants a final, cruel gift,  as thunder crashes and the lights go black.

In a hidden cave by the sea, Poseidon appears to ask forgiveness.
But the snake-haired Gorgon he meets can see through him, though  her death-dealing eyes are covered in cloth.  She sends him away,
then dismisses her faithful companion Echo.  Alone at last, she unveils her heart and her ice-like eyes, swearing to live immortally in the power of hate Athena’s curse has given her.

It’s a rough, rugged story.  Poynton’s instincts are true — what we learn as a brutal private invasion, a most intimate tragedy, lives also in the public archetypes of our culture.  The immortal figures of Greek myth insist on a terrible truth that more than a thousand of us in America  discover each day.  Telling Medusa’s story tells our own.

Much in Medusa Undone is strong, powerful, and potentially healing.
Its psychological truth is stunning — from the child’s innocent hope for justice to the adult’s angry defense of being less than perfect, from the victim’s discomfort at inappropriate teasing to shocked disbelief at being blamed, from the blind selfishness of the rapist’s desire to the equally self-centered wish to make it all better.

As a modern play enacted by Classical characters, Medusa Undone blends styles — the heightened language at times mixes with (or uncannily echoes) what you’ve heard a friend or family member say.  This can be disconcerting at first, but I think it’s ultimately part of the play’s virtue, the very reason it was written.

In its current incarnation, the play also boasts the remarkable talents of Deneen Melody, one of the Southland’s best young actors.  Doubling down on last year’s searing Salome (at LA’s Archway Theatre), she drives this Medusa with relentless energy, terrible honesty, and a graceful integrity that completely enmeshes us in her experience.  Never miss a chance to see this woman work.

The two cast members with the unenviable task of portraying gods also acquit themselves well.   Derek Long’s Poseidon is uncouth from the start, yet boyishly innocent and huskily arousing as well; we recoil at his repugnant selfishness, yet we cannot disclaim him.  Karen Wray finds an eerily elusive aloofness in Athena, and makes our hair stand up (like her feathered war helmet) when she turns on Medusa for bearing bad news.  And Carmen Guo creates Echo — whom we usually meet as a mindless maid with a crush on Narcissus — as an elegant yet vulnerable wise woman.

Also unenviable is the challenge facing director Sonja Berggren.  Faithful to her Greek models, playwright Poynton makes her drama out of much talking and a little sudden action (with the climactic violence mostly offstage).  This taxes the ingenuity of the artist who must design the play’s movement — most of which, in the dancer-like elegance of Melody and Guo, in Wray’s fearsome stillness, and in Long’s tidal rushings and retreats, is economical and effective.

In the tiny 30-seat storefront, Panndora Productions marshals its modest resources to create a simple, clearly Classical set (by Yuri Okahana), with impressive thunder and lightning (thanks to McLeod Benson and Caitlyn Dominguez).  Rachel Engstrom’s costumes are also simply, clearly Classical — yet touched with modern vernacular, like Poynton’s language.  (And her monster headdress does the job, without excess.) T.J. Marchbanks’ fight choreography is likewise understated, and therefore sickeningly effective.

Will we ever succeed, as a species, in coming to terms with our ability to force violent sex upon one another? Medusa Undone helps to lead us there.  Not because it is well-intended, but because it is (for the most part) professionally executed.  As Actors’ Equity votes on whether to eliminate the decades-old “99-seat” plan, this West Coast premiere reminds us of why our small theatres exist.
Medusa Undone, by Bella Poynton, directed  by Sonja Berggren.
Presented by Panndora Productions at the Garage Theatre, 251
E. 7th St., Long Beach.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm, through
May 3rd.

Tickets: <www.panndoraproductions.com>

Disclaimer: I have acted with and directed Deneen Melody, and am privileged to have her as a friend.  If you think this might bias my view of her work, see it for yourself.   

Eerie, Fun, Not a Dance: ZJU’s “Witch Ball”

Expect surprises.

That’s pretty much the motto for Zombie Joe’s Underground.  They’re famous for grinding all kinds of guignol — from disturbingly gruesome to wonderfully goofy.  And always something shocking.

In addition, ZJU stages upwards of 35 shows each year, most of ’em original.   So they’re constantly pushing their boundaries, as well as ours, venturing into new realms, new ways to tell stories onstage.

Matthew Peter Murphy, Polina Matveeva (photo: Zombie Joe)

Matthew Peter Murphy, Polina Matveeva (photo: Zombie Joe)

Witch Ball, the newest offering, is a case in point.  Given the title, you might expect a devilish dance fest, perhaps a distaff up-do of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.  The sort of thing you’d see on October 31.

But no.  The ball in question is small and round, made of bluish glass.  And it gets its name from its singular property: It’s a Venuts fly trap of the spirit word, attracting  — and imprisoning — demons.

Our story is a picaresque.  We follow the ball as it travels around the world and through the centuries, going from hand to hand (or paw), gathering malevolent spirits.  And sometimes releasing them.

A picaresque is like a travel tour, exotic adventures strung together by the hero experiencing them.  (Think Don Quixote, or Candide.)  In writing Witch Ball, Zombie Joe swaps the hero for a glass ornament.  Since it can’t talk, the storyteller must weave things into coherence.

Three narrators stitch together Witch Ball‘s brief tales, tossing the story back and forth with speed and skill.  Each creates a distinct character and voice, yet the three achieve a steady unity.

Enacting the tales — and dozens of characters, human and animal and supernatural — are seven players. Their roles are far too many to recall.  But the seven pull it off, morphing into beings and personages that are recognizable and distinct, even at high speed.

The playing space is remarkably small, reduced from its usual tiny size to accommodate a thrust stage.  Yet with lively blocking by Roger Weiss and Nancy Woods, and fluid choreography by Denise Devin, the constant action flows clearly — and always interestingly.

I can’t think of any theatrical experience that will prepare you for Witch Ball; nothing to compare it to. But then, that’s what we expect when we walk into the little NoHo storefront.
Witch Ball, by Zombie Joe, directed by Roger Weiss and Nancy Woods.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Narrators: Deirdre Anderson, Michael James Luckins and Nicole Sahagian.
Players: James Han, Stepy Kamei, Polina Matyeeva, Lezlie Moore, Matthew Peter Murphy, Bradley Orok and Nancy Woods

Saturdays at 8:30 pm, through May 9.

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