Bring On the Sad Dragons: “La Melancolie” at REDCAT

The capacious, well-equipped theatre at REDCAT (in the basement of Disney Hall) may not be easy to find, but its mission is clear.  REDCAT hosts theatre, dance and music artists of wildly varied styles, from all over the globe.

The one thing they have in common is experiment — they all push envelopes, raise questions. About our world, and about the artistic media they use to explore it.

Enter Phillipe Quesne. For a dozen years now, his Vivarium Studio in Paris has been probing theatre — and its funhouse-mirror twin, reality — and what we expect from both.  A scene designer, Quesne is known for creating (or suggesting) a world, then looking at what humans do in it — acts often “too small” for theatre to notice.

(photo: Pierre Grosbois)

(photo: Pierre Grosbois)

La Mélancolie des Dragons, on stage at REDCAT this weekend, offers Angelenos a fine introduction to Quesne’s work. There are no dragons (though they are mentioned) and the melancholy — well, beneath the gently humorous tone, there’s a  hint. But just a hint.

There are no lectures, no monologs. Quesne’s work lies closer to theatre’s comic, physical roots: commedia dell’ arte, clowning, magic, the players’ wagons of the Middle Ages.

Indeed, a wagon’s on center stage. Pulled by a rabbit (the VW kind, not one from  a hat), it sits in an undisclosed location, covered with what appears to stage snow, surrounded by leafless stage trees. For several minutes, people in the car are busy eating snacks, drinking sodas, and changing stations on the car radio. (Small acts.)

A bicyclist arrives, behind the trees, and circles the stage. The people in the car begin to emerge — and we see there are more of them than we thought. (The classic clown car trick.) We also see, despite the long hair we’ve been reading as female, that most or all of them are men. This kind of punning permeates La Mélancolie: Cues elicit our half-conscious assumptions, then the actors puncture them.

The travelers treat the cyclist to first one then another element of the itinerant “entertainment park” they mean to offer. Countless small actions, most of them diffidently begun, make up this story; so it seems very loose, wandering without aim or intention.

But by the end, of course, we’ve seen the whole show they hope to put on. From its modest, silly beginnings (a pile of books, wigs hung on strings) to a stage-filling and ominous finale. And it has all emerged from the wagon and car.

Quesne and his crew never name anything. (Indeed, there’s a running joke about what to call their “entertainment,” with possible titles projected on the trailer, the trees, and even the walls of the theatre.  And they do tip a hand at the end, briefly flashing “Artaud Park” on the wall as an option.)

Instead of naming, these performers elicit and suggest an enormous amount. Their grandiose plans, for example, mock the human need to make spectacles and monuments, from ancient Persepolis to Disneyland Paris. And throughout, they not only honor the roots of theatre, they gently poke fun at them, teasing us to wonder why we do this thing we are in fact at that very moment doing.

It’s all handled gently — the show-makers constantly ask the cyclist’s permission to show her something, and are always solicitous of her comfort and safety.  It’s in the best tradition of clowning, no pie in the face, no cruelty (despite Artaud’s most famous phrase).

Yet it is assaultive, and in exactly the way Artaud intended. These genial fellows and their bumbling actions manage to draw from us every preconception, every unthinking assumption we walk around with.  And they always manage to twist them, undercut them, deflate them, pulling us away from our certainties toward the towering, shadowy uncertainty of their show’s final image.

This is a wonderful piece of theatre, intense and probing artistry hidden under the simplest, gentlest surfaces.  If you want to see it, you may, alas, have to travel to Paris.  REDCAT tends to book painfully short runs.

But surely several LA theatre artists who saw La Mélancolie are already wondering. Where can we get some nonexistent dragons, and how can we put them on our stages?
La Mélancolie des Dragons, written and directed by Philippe Quesne.
Presented by Vivarium Studio and the French Embassy, at REDCAT: The Roy and Edna Disney/ CalArts Theatre, 631 W. Second St.



“Red Moon” Rising, but not Quite Full at Zombie Joe’s

One of the things I love about LA’s black-box theatres is they way they invite experiment.

Without overhead costs, union scales — or the tastes of subscription audiences — you can try something off-the-wall and see if it sticks.

The Red Moon, now in its inaugural run at Zombie Joe’s Underground in NoHo, is just such a venture.  For his maiden effort, librettist/ composer Ramon Sanchez  has penned a vampire rock opera — an art form at least as rare as the “blood moon” its title invokes.

Lara Lihiya, Jason Britt.

Lara Lihiya, Jason Britt.

Not many theatres would tackle such a project.  But veteran ZJU director Denise Devin — who routinely implodes Shakespeare’s massive works into one-hour fireballs — takes Sanchez’s lurid lunar fantasy in hand and lifts it high enough for us to see.

The story’s a somewhat unusual take on a vampire tale.  It’s told, from start to finish, not by a blood-drinker or a victim but by a vampire’s sister — making it as much about filial love as about feral hunger. This also makes it a rescue story, like the secondary plot line of Bram Stoker’s original Dracula.

And into the rescue comes religion. It’s an urban church of a vague, non-sectarian Christian sort, but its members are a force for the vampires to reckon with. Faith, in The Red Moon, is far more serious and effective than the crosses routinely waved in fanged faces.

Finally, of course, this is a musical — or rather, a rock opera. You won’t find rows of synchronized, singing dancers in Sanchez’s script (nor in ZJU’s tiny black box). What you will find are songs  carved out by the main characters, like arias — plus a duet here and there.

Out of these elements, Sanchez has constructed an engaging tale; but he hasn’t yet thought deeply enough about his characters.

The three principals — the vampire Roxana (Lara Lihiya), her sister Lauri (Nicole A. Craig) and Roxana’s lover/protege  Anthony (Jason Britt) — bring consistent intensity to their parts, find relationships, and ring the emotional changes well.  But their relationships, once stated, don’t change or develop much — they’re just put into conflict and then, eventually, resolved.

As for the other characters … well, Paul Carpenter works to give the church’s lay minister some complexity.  And Steve Alloway, Jackee Bianchi and Miriale Chiribao pour energy and conviction into their brief appearance as demons. But in their other roles, they simply come onstage and get killed.

Sanchez’s musical ideas are similarly underdeveloped.  Each song is interesting in itself, and states a character or situation — but nobody changes or grows during a song (a key part of an aria).  And none of the songs relate to each other.  They aren’t repeated, nor are their themes taken up and echoed or developed later.

The Red Moon is well begun.  Devin and her actors keep it lively and interesting, and we care about these people and their story.  But as the play goes on, we feel a bit cheated — as if someone is pulling a sleight of hand on us.

Where are the insides of these three people, their self-doubts, their uncertainties, their lifelong issues? Who are the stick figures around them ? (Sanchez might look at Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — it’s all about the question, “Do the minor characters have lives?”)

As he works this out dramatically, I feel sure Sanchez will also find his opera’s musical structure — its recurrent themes, its high-conflict moments, its ultimate resolution.

I look forward to seeing The Red Moon the next time it rises.
The Red Moon, by Ramon Sanchez, directed by Denise Devin.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Fridays at 8:30, Saturdays at 9:30, through Sept. 26.

Tickets: <> or (818) 212-4120.


Patriarchy’s Fall, and the Kitchen Sink: “Grace Note”

Kitchen-sink realism is dead.

A century of exploring “small” lives lived in small spaces has yielded some masterworks, from Williams’ Streetcar and Miller’s Salesman to August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, and many more. But in the 21st century, English-language theatre has moved away from realism.

Yet LA playwright Robert Riemer — who’s certainly made some out-there explorations into fantasy and myth — seems to want to bring along the kitchen sink, too.  His latest offering, Grace Note, evokes  a realm we might call “kitchen-sink surrealism.”

Jennifer Novak Chun, Tyler Koster, Paul Thomas Arnold

Jennifer Novak Chun, Tyler Koster, Paul Thomas Arnold (photo: Stephen Rack)

Lights rise to reveal an almost tediously familiar setting: a dreary urban apartment. (Made subtly powerful by scenic designer Eric Rodriguez’ use of 12-foot beams to frame the space).  It’s inhabited by the fragments of a family, a blustering father and his timid son. And the ghost of the  boy’s mother, whom only the father can see.

Into the scene come the boy’s homeless older brother, who’s an even more full-blown schizophrenic than Dad, and a neighbor wielding a wheelchair who rolls in every night and falls asleep in the kitchen.  Everybody drinks booze or beer constantly (Is the water that bad in New York?), and everybody argues.

Their brawling reveals a sordid family history, which has caused the deaths of all three females — Mom, the youthful Lauren, and her baby. Their ghosts watch, like indulgent fates, while the so-called men battle over whom the three belonged to.

Grace Note’s concerns echo those in Riemer’s recent works (the pseudo-Biblical nightmare Whore’s Bath, the Appalachian fable Dummies).  Foremost is his fiery hatred for the patriarchy: Like an Old Testament prophet, Riemer depicts male-dominated culture as a way of death that destroys every life within it.

He clearly has empathy for the people crushed in its gears — even the hapless and ill-equipped males, who imagine it’s a man’s world.  But empathy won’t save the day, nor will these staggering wrecks become the family they fantasize.  Riemer doesn’t even let survival of the species emerge from the rubble.  Humanity has blown its chance, it seems, and won’t likely get a second one.

Riemer’s writing style — which he has described as “yelling and screaming” — makes serious demands on the performers.  Director Sebastian Muñoz has managed to harness the intersecting realities and colliding energies into a coherent, comprehensible story with a consistent, slightly elegiac tone. This is no mean feat (and Muñoz is no average director).

As for the actors, well, the women do amazingly much with very little.  Courtney Drumm creates both Lauren (the easily omitted “grace note” of the title) and her baby out of scraps of cloth and a few lines, while Jennifer Novak Chun weaves  the nearly silent Mom (who almost never leaves the stage) from gentle looks, gestures, and the actor’s gold: reactions.

Ian Heath grabs our sympathy with his guileless awkwardness as  Michael, the introverted postman the others see as “normal”; and Tyler Koster ranges from cowering fear to towering rage, visiting several planets in between, as the never-to-return prodigal Chris. Roger Weiss also offers a nicely occluded bitterness as the old pal  who hides a grudge the size of Long Island.

But the palm goes to Paul Thomas Arnold as Dad, the drunk and deluded alpha male who unwittingly destroys everything he tries to touch.  Arnold somehow contains Dad’s roaring rages, his paranoid seizures, and his tremulous tendrils of feeling in the flesh of a whole, real person.  For all the wreckage in his wake, we see the utterly unprepared, confused fellow trying to hide behind the curtain.

Riemer is not an easy playwright to perform, nor to appreciate.  His prophetic rants can wander into obscurity — but not in the hands of Muñoz and his cast.  Their outstanding work makes Grace Note seem  worthy to set alongside plays by Sam Shepard and Harold Pinter.
Let’s hope for a longer run in LA soon.
Grace Note, by Robert Riemer, directed by Sebastian Muñoz.
Presented by the OC-Centric New Play Festival, at Chapman University.