Dancing Bodies Speak — “Grace Is High and Low”

Dance is the language of the body.

And in Grace Is High and Low, at the Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica,  outstanding dancers extend that language in ways you probably haven’t seen before.

At the center of the action is New York choreographer Maria Bauman, who set all three of the evening’s pieces.  Close beside her is LA choreographer Marina Magalhäes, who invited Bauman to display her work in a West Coast show.

Both artists are deservedly celebrated, having created companies that work across boundaries.

Maria Bauman,

Maria Bauman, Nehemoyia Young

Bauman solos the title piece to Roberta Flack’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.  In her work, Bauman has come to excel at displaying the way emotions and urges can arise from within and struggle to inhabit the body, fighting to find form in new shapes, new  gestures.

Enacting the classic song of a lover discovering the layers of love, Bauman’s hesitant tremblings, surprised spasms and half-hopeful grasps summon the viewer’s body and wrench the heart.  In the last 40 years, no one has sung the song better than Flack; in the next 40, no one will dance it better than Bauman.

The second piece is a solo by Magalhäes, with no music, created for her by Bauman.  At first, Magalhäes flows silently around and through a minimalist set dividing the space that suggests the title, Limbs.  When she announces, “This is a dance about trees,” we laugh — she has already made that plentifully clear. But she adds a few more words, and a river of movement, and leads us into a moving exploration of boundaries, borders, aging and death.

Words play a role in both pieces — Flack’s song, Magalhäes’ few lines — but they always serve the body’s language.  It is Bauman’s body, bursting with new love’s timid eagerness, that touches our bodies to tears. It is Magalhäes’ elegant form flowing up against, into, and at last through limits that makes us feel triumph … and then mourning.

In the third piece, Attend Me, words (Audré Lorde’s Love Poem) play a larger role.  Ashley Brockington enters and conquers the space while speaking.  Then she retreats; Bauman and Nehemoyia Young dance the poem in a long, languorous pas de deux while its words flash on and off a screen.  Finally, Brockington rejoins them, and the three end chanting Lorde’s “Black Mother Goddess” prayer.

[Unfortunately, the projected words keep pulling my attention away from the dancers, in a way that neither sung nor spoken words do.  The piece breaks into fragments, and I keep missing things.  I wish Brockington could speak the poem while we all watch the lovers.]

Words and dance also interact, in a way, in the evening’s opening number, a pair of bright, brave monolog selections by LA street poet Karen Anzoategui.  She does break into song, but her rhythms and emotions are so strong that I keep wanting her to erupt into a dance move or two as well.

Bauman and the Brazilian-born Magalhäes share a love of capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian dance tradition.  Magalhäes has used it in her award-winning long-form dance story, (Un)Bridaled, and Bauman seems to have reached deep into its abrupt movement patterns to find her way of portraying the psyche’s emergence in body.

Both are artists to watch, and Grace Is High and Low offers a rare opportunity to see them together.  It only runs one more night — so if you care about the language of dance, you must seize this chance.
Grace Is High and Low, choreographed by Maria Bauman.
Presented by Highways, at the Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th Street, Santa Monica.

Saturday, Aug. 16 at 8:30 pm.

Tickets: (310) 315-1459.





Madcap Radio Mystery: “Lonely at the Top” at ZJU

How much fun can you have telling a story?

If you’re telling a well-known kind of story — say, a noir detective tale — and you’re doing it in a well-known style — say, as a radio play — the sky’s pretty much the limit.

And the latest gang of players to tread the boards at Zombie Joe’s Underground reaches for the stars, in a wild and wooly whodunit,  Lonely at the Top.

David Wyn Harris, Adam Neubauer (photo: Andy Shultz)

David Wyn Harris, Adam Neubauer (photo: Andy Shultz)

Their tale unfolds in that metropolis of amorality, Hollywood.  The world’s greatest film director lies dead on the cutting room floor — and who ya gonna call?  Why, the famously inept private eye Rex Fontana (Adam Neubauer) and his comely, brainy assistant Babs (Aling  Zhang).  Of course.

We meet all the usual suspects — the sexy, wailing widow (Marilou Rabahi Seaton), the decedent’s arch-rival (Vincent Miller), the spurned protegée (Casey Ellings), the mafia-linked club owner (David Wyn Harris), and the sultry songbird (Margaret Glaccum).  Bumbling along, a step behind our hapless hero, is the PR-conscious top cop (Shawn Davis).

And punctuating the tale are announcements — some genuine, some spurious — from the glory days of shameless advertising, pumped over the airwaves by tireless announcers (Doug Haverty and Davis).

With a lively script (Andy Shultz) and brisk direction (Shulz and Harris),  Lonely at the Top frisks through a forest of  familiar tropes and a few sweet surprises.  The actors have contagious fun with their roles,  and the bouncing balloon of comedy is never dropped.

It’s a hugely successful light entertainment.  What better way to spend a hot summer night in the City of Lost Dreams?
Lonely at the Top, by Andy Shultz, directed by Andy Shultz and David Wyn Harris.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Fridays at 8:30 om, through August 28th.

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



“Love Sucks” — A Fast Ride on a Breakable Heart

Love has been pushing us around for a long time. The Greeks knew that not even gods or goddesses could withstand the boy with the bow and arrow.

True Focus Theater, with just two full-length shows under their belt, has decided to take on Cupid and his antics. But Love Sucks, their third show, isn’t a blues singer’s jaded complaint.

It’s a light-hearted, even-handed — and sometimes sharply moving — tour through love’s infinite varieties. (Its full title might be imagined as Love Sucks … Us All In.)

(photo: Vanessa Cate)

Tucker Matthews, Natalie Hyde, Mark Nager, Cheryl Doyle, Dorian MacNeil, Tasha Porche (photo: Vanessa Cate)

Led by Vanessa Cate and her close collaborators Natalie Hyde and Angie Hoover, the True Focus troupe has a distinct approach to theatre. They weave together bits of story, vignettes, poetry, song and dance — and come out with a unified whole.

Love Sucks is a prime example, and it shows how much the company has matured in just a couple of years.

After a cutely choreographed kaleidoscope of couplings, using 10 actors, Tucker Matthews gets uncoupled and delivers an almost wordless, writhing embodiment of loss.  Then comes a trio dance unsparingly dramatizing love’s wanderings. Then a direct poetic assault (written by co-director Hoover) on our culture’s confusions about polyamory.

And on it spins, the hour’s 21 episodes including a delightful brief farce (recast by Cate from her 50-Hour DriveBy playlet), a monolog exploring postcoital tristesse, solo songs, a couple’s comic S&M discovery, a chaotic blind date, laments for loneliness, and a wiggy chanteuse (Cate, with keyboardist/backup singer Evan Hillhouse) twisting a misogynist rap rant into a torch song.

A few special mentions are in order.  Hillhouse, as accompanist and performer (and songwriter), is a welcome addition to the company.  Hyde, as dancer and choreographer, has been steadily pushing her (and her dancers’) limits into more and more breathtaking work.  And Cate, Hoover and their cohort have evolved a recognizable “True Focus style.”

Love Sucks is a fast ride on a variety of vehicles, constantly changing focus and direction.  But it’s governed by a consistent point of view, shared by the artists — an honesty that acknowledges vulnerability and pain, which in turn makes possible both wry humor and gentle acceptance.  Indeed, True Focus looks at love with a sharp wit, generosity, and precision that calls to mind  the young Shakespeare.

Keep your eye on these folks.
Love Sucks, written by the company, directed by Vanessa Cate and Angie Hoover.
Presented by True Focus Theater and Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Sundays at 7:30 pm, through August 30th.

Tickets: <lovesucks.brownpapertickets.com>

The Company:  Vanessa Cate, Cheryl Doyle, Anna Gion, Evan Hillhouse, Angie Hoover, Natalie Hyde, Tyler Koster, Mariana Leite, Dorian MacNeil, Tucker Matthews, Mark Nager and Tasha Porche. 

“No Homo” Returns to LA in a Polished Production

Not many plays jump from the Hollywood Fringe to New York, but last year’s popular hit No Homo did.  It was the NY Fringe, not Broadway, but still …

Now it’s back in town, in a full-scale production at Atwater Village Theatre complex.  It sports big flashy (and probably costly) sets, far more complex lights and sound than at the Fringe, and snappy direction from Jessica Hanna.

But the play’s the thing. A timely topic, a sharp-edged story, and witty dialog powered its Fringe success, and they’re all still there (with a little polishing by playwright Brandon Baruch). In its fancy new clothes, it’s wowing audiences.

Jonny Rogers, Elizabeth Ellson, Lauren Flans (photo: Corwin Evans)

Jonny Rogers, Elizabeth Ellson, Lauren Flans (photo: Corwin Evans)

No Homo follows two young men struggling through identity crises — sexual identity, to be exact.  Though Luke and Ash are loving friends, living together since college, they identify as straight.  Not everyone agrees, starting with Luke’s sister and including the new partner of Ash’s gay brother.

We open at the new couple’s housewarming party, in a gay bar;
it collapses in shouting and name-calling, all the relationships fray, and by the final blackout some things have started to clarify. But this isn’t a romcom (though it plays with our expectations) — things don’t neatly resolve.

The revised cast is as impressive as the new staging.  Jonny Rodgers creates a beautifully nuanced Ash, and Michael Lutheran’s Luke is as frustrating as he is frustrated, yet he holds our sympathy.  AJ Jones (from the original cast) has sharpened his focus and energy as Serge, Ash’s brother; and Henry McMillan (also a holdover) has deepened the flamboyant Kris away from caricature and into our empathy.  Elizabeth Ellson, as Luke’s girlfriend Beth, has likewise tightened and grounded her performance since 2014.  And Lauren Flans (who helped power Best of Albuquerque at this year’s Fringe) makes Luke’s sister Chrissy the irrepressible driver of the tale.

All of this implies the sure hand of an actors’ director, a title Hanna has clearly earned.  At the same time, the design team takes the play to a new level. The garish pre-show (a gobo bouncing on a scrim and mylar panels, blaring dance tracks) yields to the bar (the same, plus a clever high-platform men’s room).  Then the set opens to reveal two bachelor apartments, one tasteful and clean, the other piled with moving boxes.  Kudos to David Offner (scene), Baruch (lights)  and Corwin Evans (sound).  Costumer Laura Wong also quietly gives us a wide range of clearly delineated modern characters.

This team has made No Homo into what it gave promise of being a year ago.  It’s the modern equivalent of a bright Noel Coward comedy, with much to say about the ethics of relationships, and it’s ready for the big time.

[A caveat:  As in Coward’s plays, everyone in No Homo drinks, almost all the time.  So all important conversations and decisions are handled while drunk or hung over.  (No wonder they mostly fail.)
Another: While the topic of sexual identity is a hot one, and it’s deftly handled, No Homo still lives entirely in a world of gender as either/or, all one thing or all the other.  In recent years, our culture (or at least its cutting edge) has moved toward seeing gender as fluid.  Soon, Baruch’s fine play may look as dated as Coward’s. }
No Homo: A Bromantic Tragedy, by Brandon Baruch, directed by Jessica Hanna.
Presented by Be Flat Productions and Praxis Limited, at the Atwater Village Theatre Center, 3269 Casitas Ave.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm, Sunday at 7:00 pm, through Aug 23rd.

Tickets: <www.nohomoplay.com>


100 Ways to Tell a Story: Sacred Fools’ “Astro Boy”

Comics haven’t been around long — maybe 200 years (unless you count Ancient Egypt’s hieroglyphics), while theatre reaches back into prehistoric times.

But that doesn’t mean we playmakers can’t learn from our much younger siblings.  Take Sacred Fools’ current creation, Astro Boy and the God of Comics.

Jaime Puckett, Anthony Li, Zach Brown, Heather Mills (photo: Jessica Sherman)

Jaime Puckett, Anthony Li, Zach Brown, Heather Mills (photo: Jessica Sherman)

Natsu Onoda Power’s play introduces us to Osamu Tezuka, the first great genius of Japanese comic art, or manga.  What better way than through his most famous character, and in his storytelling style?

Astro Boy is the Mickey Mouse of Japanese cartoons. His stories are told in a sequence of dramatic panels, with readers often having to imagine the moments between.  The panels often burst with energy,  and the story moves through them speedily.

So Onoda Power gives us a dozen scenes, some many years apart … and just for the fun of it, presents them in reverse order, ending with Tezuka’s birth.  She also puts most of the actors to work as illustrators, swiftly drawing images (usually on a giant paper tablet that doubles as a cyclorama) as each scene unfolds.  And — perhaps reflecting the fact that Astro Boy, like Mickey, is a superstar in movies — filmed projections are an ever-present part of the mix.

All of this sets a massive challenge before the directing-design team.  Jaime Robledo and stage manager Heatherlynn Gonzalez display a sure hand at herding kittens, keeping the story’s flow smooth, clear and real.  (Robledo also contributes a lively, at times moving, sound design.)  Aviva Pressman — with the unusual title, “Live Art Director” — turns actors into cartoonists, while Jim Pierce and Danielle Heilmuller give us Tezuka’s style in a panoply of projections.

The actors, for their part, never let a line — spoken or drawn — get lost.  Heather Schmidt uses a piping voice and patterned movement to embody a thoroughly engaging Astro Boy, and West Liang diffidently delivers the gentle, obsessed Tezuka.  When not busy making miracles with their pens, the ensemble creates everyone else, from Tezuka’s assistants and publishers to his wife (a fine turn by Megumi Kabe).  Marz Richards narrates several scenes with a nice blend of salesman brass and a slight, hidden  embarrassment.

In a fast-moving “comic” tale, I do not expect to brought to tears — but I was, twice.  The first time was for a mechanical puppet.  The second was for a scene from Tezuka’s youth:  When he was a teen, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated by atomic bombs.  Astro Boy (whose name in Japan is “Mighty Atom”) arose from the ashes —  a robot who uses his superpowers only for the good of humanity.

Astro Boy and the God of Comics tells an interesting, moving story with amazing energy and cleverness.  But more than this, it’s a remarkable achievement — a feast of the senses that greatly widens our awareness of how theatre can tell stories.  Just as (my seatmate pointed out) comics added a visual dimension to literature.

Astro Boy isn’t just a festival for fans, though manga lovers will surely be entranced.  It’s an invaluable experience for anyone who loves — or makes — theatre.
Astro Boy and the God of Comics, by Natsu Onoda Power, directed by Jaime Robledo.
Presented by the Sacred Fools Theatre Company, at their theatre, 660 N. Heliotrope.

August 7th and 8th, at 8:00 pm.

Tickets:  <www.SacredFools.org> or (310) 281-8337.