Side-splitting Moliere! Zombie Joe’s “Don Juan”

I’ve seen a bit of Molière (and read more), but I didn’t know he’d taken on Don Juan.  And I’ve smiled and chuckled at his comedies, but I’ve never been in audience that couldn’t stop laughing out loud.

Until now. At Zombie Joe’s Underground, the Frenchman’s cautionary comedy has us guffawing for the entire hour.

Amy Muszynski, Robert Walters, Dorian Serna, Jason Kaye.

Amy Muszynski, Robert Walters, Dorian Serna, Jason Kaye. (photo: Adam Neubauer)

I think Jean-Baptiste meant Don Juan as a morality tale, rapping the knuckles of his era’s licentious nobles, with amusement sprinkled in. But under the baton of Alex Walters (ZJU’s newest director), the play becomes a nonstop caper of mocking and madness.

Don Juan is, of course, the prototype of a “love ’em and leave ’em” lothario, using irresistible charm to leap from bed to bed. But Robert Walters does not simply let callous egotism leak out the seams of a courtier’s elegance — he explodes, pouring out lust upon every warm body that crosses his path. An addict with an attitude, he blithely buttresses his bad-boy behavior with memes of  mindless hedonism.

His valet Sganarelle — a favorite character Moliere uses to reveal and reflect on the subtext — can’t tell us anything we don’t already know about this tsunami of shamelessness. So Dorian Serna gives us the dilemma of all who serve the great — to keep his job by servilely condoning ever crueler violations, or blow the whistle and walk out.

Then there are the women.  From the virtuous Donna Elvira (NJ Ambonisye) to the scheming Charlotte (Amy Muszynski), they reveal beneath their varied surfaces an appetite that answers the Don’s.
So do a couple of the men he meets (Jason Kaye, Irwin Moskowitz).  Putting everyone — including Juan — in commedia clown makeup nicely underscores this point.

Other high-intensity performances round out this fantasy (which comes to resemble an ecstasy-fueled rave): Kaye’s abandoned Pierrot, Georgan George as Juan’s hapless (and rather heartless) mother, Moskowitz’s ineffectual Dimanche, Mariya Pesheva’s terrified Porter.

Finally, of course, the mysterious and implacable Commander (Kaye) and attending Ghost (Pesheva) lead Don Juan off to Hell.  But he is, in this incarnation, utterly unrepentant.

In writing Don Juan, Molière of course was twitting the hypocrisy of Puritan and counter-Reformation attempts to corset sexuality; yet he also had in mind a serious critique of what we call sex addiction– as suggested by his biting subtitle, The Feast of Stone.  But 340 years later, the corsets are off; and at Zombie Joe’s, the moral satire gaily gives way to farcical fireworks.
The Many Adventures of Don Juan, by Molière, directed by Alex Walters.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Saturday at 8:30, Sunday at 7:00, through May 24th.

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

An Astonishing Debut: Helsinki West’s “I Gelosi”

There’s a new kid in town.  Watch out.

Helsinki West, born recently in a tiny Glendale studio, is presenting their first show in a warehouse beneath the 5 freeway in Burbank.
If this is how they’re gonna play, LA theatre will never be the same.

I Gelosi is the story of an early commedia dell’arte troupe, one of the first to include women.  David Bridel’s script is swift and spare, filled with humor and pathos, peopled by the genre’s sharply drawn characters and clear arcs.

i gelosi 1

But it’s the work of the ensemble that will rip the breath out of your chest, pull the laughter from your belly, and wring the tears from your eyes.

First, there’s the setting.  With simple drapes, parabolic sheets and candles, Alex Choate and impresaria Marjo-Riikka Makela invoke a cathedral of art.  Ellen Burr’s music, blending simple percussion and flute in period and original pieces, holds the sacred space.

At one end of the playing area are worn trunks and a small plank platform; a traveling troupe lives here. At the other, atop a gilded dais, sit a  pair of imposing ornate thrones. The game’s afoot.

Enter the actors. Francesco (Sean McConaghy) is a dynamic dreamer,  Giulio (David Ryer) a stolid fellow and Simone (Joseph Santos) a willowy naif. Guess who writes the plays, who counts the day’s coins, and who performs in a dress. But their company is struggling.

Enter Isabella (Milly Sanders) a woman and poet born, who both writes and acts. Soon, the galvanized troupe attracts the lovesick, stage-struck Orazio (Victor Manso), the femme fatale Vittoria (Kristyn Chalker), the shrewd maid Sylvia (Jessee Foudray) — and the patronage of the Duke of Mantua (Richard Garnett).

The magnificent seven meet their fate in Paris, performing for the fool-king Charles IX (Choate) and his virago mother, Queen Regent Catherine de’ Medici (Ann Levin).  Unraveled in the denouement — at tragic cost — are knotty questions of love and art that have dogged the players from the start.

This is a homage (or femmage?) to commedia, so all the characters seem familiar, as do the polar dilemmas with which they struggle. But the stunning achievement of this troupe is that these are also real people.

Orazio the innamorato, in Manso’s masterful hands,  makes us chuckle (as we should) at his defenseless heart — yet he becomes the play’s emotional center, to whom we look because we trust his intuitive nature and guileless honesty.  Chalker’s Vittoria is not only a temptress but a talented, ambitious woman whose brassy heart is broken on the wheel of fate. Santos colors the simple, appetite-driven Simone with a yearning soul that touches our own.

Down the list, each actor works this kind of wonder with a stock character.  (Except the Queen, who’s stuck with delivering the tale’s evil energies.) And we end our brief time among them having been led through a full range of emotions, by a story whose artifice glows with the internal fire of art.

I Gelosi and this remarkable ensemble are the fruits of Makela’s Chekhov Studio International.  One thing’s certain: Watering the cardboard cutouts of commedia with the close character and scene study actors usually give Chekhov yields a bountiful harvest.

And in the warehouse space under the freeway, the whole company together — with Amanda Maciel Antunes’ simple yet evocative costumes, Choate’s bold lighting, and Tim Reese’s subtle projections — brings a daring vision into glorious reality.

Want to see “theatre magic”? I Gelosi offers an example you won’t forget. Experience it — whatever you must do to your schedule.

And welcome Helsinki West to our town.  These are artists who will, without doubt, continue to amaze us — and challenge us to do our best in turn.
I Gelosi, by David Bridel, directed by Marjo-Riikka Makela.
Presented by Helsinki West, at Six01 Studio, 630 S. Flower St., Burbank.

Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 and 8:00, through May 31.

Tickets: <>

[Note: Roles are double- and triple-cast; these are the players I got to see.]

“Ariadne” is Mad Magic: Pacific Opera Pulls It Off

This ain’t your grandma’s grand opera.

Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos is one of the most playful, self-mocking romps in all of opera. And when it comes to having fun while putting world-class new talent on the stage, nobody beats Pacific Opera Project.

Put the two together and you have an evening of music that rocks from madcap to majestic and back, taking your breath away one moment and tickling you silly the next.  It’s a dont-miss event.

Tracy Cox (on poster), Robert Norman, Sarah Duchovnay, Keith Colclough, Jon Lee Keenan

Tracy Cox (on poster), Robert Norman, Sarah Duchovnay, Keith Colclough, Jon Lee Keenan

A century ago, at the height of his fame, Strauss decided to mix the “low art” of the music hall and the “high art” of Wagnerian epic in a single show. So he and his librettist cooked up the tale of a young composer whose Ariadne ends up onstage not before or after but at the same time as a racy burlesque revue. Strauss wanted to poke fun at the self-absorbed seriousness of the classical-music world — and to show off his mastery of every kind of opera there’d ever been.

He pulled it off.  And in so doing, he created an enormous challenge for  opera companies. To do Ariadne, you need not one, not two, but three top-of-the-line sopranos — a Wagnerian power singer, a lyric mezzo, and a coloratura with the endurance  of a marathon runner. And they must all be able to do comedy.

P.O.P. pulls it off. In the title role, Tracy Cox deploys a rich voice with the dynamic range of a pipe organ to awe us or touch us to tears — and flicks her fingers or an eyebrow to bring down the house. Claire Shackleton poetically portrays a callow Composer whose world is turned upside down twice. And Sara Duchovnay not only makes the saucy Zerbinetta irresistible, she leads her chorus of clowns and water nymphs through dizzying bel canto labyrinths, turning one of opera’s most demanding roles into a seemingly effortless delight.

Of course, Ariadne takes even more than three wonderful sopranos. Baritone Ryan Thorne holds the chaos of Act I together with his firm, clear voice and presence; rising young heldentenor Brendan Sliger, as Bacchus, meets Cox’s commanding power and balances it.  The clown quartet (tenors Jon Lee Keenan and Robert Norman, baritone Nicholas LaGesse and bass-baritone Keith Colclough) season their  fine-tuned ensemble singing with Marx Brothers slapstick. And the three water nymphs (sopranos Maria Elena Altany and Kelci Hahn, and mezzo Sarah Beaty) create witty comic moments, as well as a rendition of “Töne, töne” that would have made Schubert weep.

Credit must also go to maestro Stephen Karr and his 11-piece orchestra, who comfortably handle Strauss’ difficult score, which calls for everything from music-hall band to string quartet to full symphony. Impresario Josh Shaw’s design includes some achingly funny visual jokes. And costumer Maggie Green’s inspired notions set the period and tone perfectly — the clowns caper in matching checked suits, the nymphs in color-coordinated swimwear, while  Ariadne (afloat in a veritable cloud) and Bacchus (strutting in toga and leopard skin) underline Strauss’ loving parody of Wagner.

The effort invested in a translating Act I to English may not have been fully repaid, and some opening-night quirks in the supertitle projector need fixing.  But these are gnats on a summer evening, unable to dim the glories of this luminous production.

In writing Ariadne auf Naxos, Strauss demonstrated — even as he poked gentle fun at opera — his love and mastery of all its forms.
In staging Ariadne, Pacific Opera Project likewise displays a witty  playfulness and a maturing mastery that make for an unmatched theatrical and musical experience.
Ariadne auf Naxos, by Richard Strauss, directed by Josh Shaw, conducted by Stephen Karr.
Presented by Pacific Opera Project at the Ebell Club, 131 South Ave. 57, Highland Park.

Thursdays, Friday, and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, through May 23rd.

Tickets: <>


Stripping Away Our Surfaces: “Circus Ugly”

Who hides inside our skins?
What lives beneath the surfaces we can see?
And how do we summon — or reveal — that mystery?

These concerns animate Circus Ugly, a surrealistic peek through the fourth wall into the lives of … freaks? Well, perhaps. People who are physically unusual, anyway, and who live in and around a nightclub where some of them perform as strippers.

We enter this world via a trash-lined hovel where Neto, a shy young man with one deformed hand, pursues his passion for painting. The extraverted, energetic Adrian bounces in, bringing supplies and menace; he disappears. Then a young woman wanders in, searching for something; her skin is made of exfoliating layers of paper — the result, she says, of her father mating with a tree.

Bianca Lemaire, David Huynh

Bianca Lemaire, David Huynh

The one-armed painter and the girl with paper skin gingerly move toward a relationship; he shares his pad, she tries to aid his art. As Neto paints, he repeats the tale of his mother dying in the fiery crash that disfigured his arm; meanwhile, a woman dances through the curtained back wall, chiding and encouraging him like a conscience.

This world’s other location is an office/dressing room where Adrian and his boss, a bearded lady dwarf, run the strip club. They assume everyone is a freak, and has a price, and will end up performing for them.  Neto and the paper-skinned girl try to resist this fate, while he seeks redemption and she looks for her mother.

Like any play, Circus Ugly is meant to be lived through, not read. So I’ll leave telling the story to the actors, who do it admirably.

As paper girl, Bianca Lemaire creates an instantly winning persona  and drives the tale with her energy, carrying us with her (as she did in last year’s Bulrusher) while displaying a range of colors.  David Huynh makes Neto’s anguish physical, a visceral demon that twists him and discomforts us; he almost renders the shadow woman (his angst’s external form) redundant.

But Anita Dashiell-Sparks gives the specter a leering intimacy that’s skin-crawlingly familiar; and later, her lap-dancing hedonist Grace makes the strip show as compelling as its owners say it is. In Adrian, Ross Gallo stirs a Puck-like mix of impish charm and servile cruelty. And bearded impresario Ann Colby Stocking juggles a fistful of qualities — sexual power, cynical charm, an unnamed wistfulness, wit, empathy, rage — all flickering at once like the tongues of a fire.

The technical artists are also adept. Christopher Scott Murillo’s set evokes a desperate confusion, Justin Huen’s light design joins gaiety with garishness in persistent shadow, and Cricket S. Myers’
soundscape subliminally sustains the world. Costumer Mylette Nora meets stunning challenges with style, and video designer Naomi Bennett’s fluid projections become a living character in the story.

Jon Lawrence Rivera has a sure, quiet directorial hand, letting actors be still and moving them with meaning. Even the scene changes add to the story, hinting that these folks make the world they inhabit.

As fine as all this is, Circus Ugly feels incomplete to me; and the issues lie mostly in the writer’s domain. Three problems that  seem like mere niggles are persistent and, I think, ultimately weaken our hold on the story.

The first is the title.  It denotes an extreme of ugliness; but there’s no circus here. Instead, there‘s a freak show of a very different kind. And while owning your “ugly” and making it “sexy” is a main theme, this title doesn’t take us there.  It misleads us.

Second, the main character is anonymous. We only know her as “the girl with paper skin,” and hear her name so seldom I didn’t recognize it in the program. She (and other characters) could be made to use her name — or the title could be changed to The Girl with Paper Skin, solving both problems at once.

This would also solve a third problem: We can’t tell by looking at it that her “skin” is paper.  No costume, however clever, can be relied on to convey that.  So we assume her clothes are unusually ragged. If we knew about her skin from the top, we’d see what we’re meant to see.

A final problem lies deeper. Neto’s struggle to find and confront what really happened to his mother, and the girl’s quest to find and confront her mother, are both about discovering the reality hidden by an accepted story. (Which neatly parallels and supports the theme of finding the person underneath one’s perceived surface.)

But in the final moment, the girl seems to be encouraged to spin a new fiction to cover the truth she has finally found. If this is so, it is a major shift — contradicting the play’s other themes — and can’t be left until a few seconds before the curtain. If this reversal is not what’s meant, the ending scene needs a rewrite.

Gabriel Rivas Gomez has been writing Circus Ugly for several years, nurtured by the unique support of Playwrights’ Arena. I hope it gets further fine tuning,  but it’s already a strong, disturbing play, and the Arena is giving a powerful premiere.
Circus Ugly, by Gabriel Rivas Gomez, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Presented by Playwrights’ Arena, at the Atwater Village Theater, 3269 Casitas Ave.

Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 3:00, Mondays at 7:00, thru May 25th.

Tickets: <>
or (800) 838-3006