Go to “Blood Alley” to See a Master Stretch His Art

For the last two decades, one LA theatre has consistently focused on combining horror and humor, terror and titillation in a modern grand guignol. (There was another, briefly, til the Visceral closed last year.)

The standby is Zombie Joe’s Underground, where the signature creation, Urban Death, delights and distresses packed houses year after year. Recently, the hourlong flash-by of wordless scenes and cameos gave birth to a small but equally popular Halloween version, Urban Death: Tour of Terror.

At the root of it all is Zombie Joe’s peculiar gift for imagining — and staging — very physical, visual moments that reach deep inside us.  Of course, like any artist, he’s never done; it’s always time to move on.

(photo: ZJU)

(photo: ZJU)

A dozen years ago, he challenged himself to stage the poems and tales of Edgar Allan Poe. This yielded a string of brilliant, inventive  successes that remain unequalled. At the end of that journey, in Masque of the Red Death, he began exploring a more immersive, expressionistic approach — which eventually produced Nightmares, Manicomio and the striking noir opera Ghosts of the Underground.

Now, Zombie’s reaching for something else. Something that lies beyond Urban Death, but on the same path. In fact, the newest late-night offering, Blood Alley, is somewhat playfully billed as “the evil stepchild” of its famed ancestor.

The family resemblance is clear. Blood Alley hits us with a rapid-fire sequence of perhaps 50 vignettes, fired out of the total darkness the little black box achieves. A few are violent, many are shocking, some provoke laughter, most stir distress.

All the scenes are carried off with incredible intensity, by actors for whom risk is second nature. A shrouded woman, quaking with terror, tries to ask for help but rushes away, mute, hopeless; a circle of dancers subtly shift from erotic rope-dancing to suicide; a sprawling, long-limbed form twists and contorts silently down the narrow stage, almost touching us as it passes. A couple slump together, sharing a cigarette as if it’s a gruesome murder plot.

It’s not only the actors who risk. There are two rape scenes, one crassly realistic, one done as if by telekinesis — either may trigger trauma memories. Blood Alley pushes the abruptness of shock, the stab of discomfort, deeper into us than any prior ZJU offering.

This offspring of Urban Death seems to have thrown away human comfort like an ill-fitting hand-me-down. There is humor, and at least one lyric moment. Yet, where Urban Death and Tour of Terror achieve what I’ve called  “the poetry of horror,” playing skillfully upon our expectations and reactions, this show seems to say, with no apology, “These things are. Deal with it.”

Not that there’s no skill involved. Charlotte Bjornbak, Ian Heath and Elif Savas achieve levels of effort that are fearsome to watch, and Allison Fogarty has found the true horror in stillness. Not one of the  actors in this consistently impressive ensemble — Cassie Carpenter, Alex G-Smith, Liliane Laborde-Edozien, Daniel Palma, Kelly Powers, Danielle Reverman, Adam Shows, Morgan Allyce Smith, musician Kevin Van Cott — settles for what they knew they could do.

Like Zombie Joe, they are pushing the limits, seeking. I don’t know whether Blood Alley has found new ground to stand on, or a way station on the road to something farther off. But it’s a disturbing, fascinating piece of theatre — part of an ongoing artistic process that’s too important not to watch.
Blood Alley, written and directed by Zombie Joe.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Fridays and Saturdays at 11:00,
through April 9.

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

“Red Velvet” Uncovers Hidden Black Superstar

Who was the world’s highest-paid actor in the mid-19th century?
A black man from New York.

You’ve probably never heard of him. He was the first African-American actor on European stages, the first black artist who ever  played Othello. Invited to share his classical repertoire at Russia’s Imperial Court, he was paid the equivalent of $2.5 million.

His name was Ira Aldridge. At 17, when a mob burned down the all-black Manhattan theatre where he got his start, he left the US.
At 60, he planned an American tour; he never made it back. Poland, where he died, gave him a state funeral — but in his home country, he was invisible, like most black people.

Nicola Bertram, Paul Outlaw (photo: Ed Krieger)

Nicola Bertram, Paul Outlaw (photo: Ed Krieger)

English playwright Lolita Chakrabarti has worked for almost 20 years to make him visible again. Three years ago, her Red Velvet debuted in London. Now, LA’s Junction Theatre is putting Aldridge on stage in Atwater.

Red Velvet (named for old-time theatre curtains) tells Aldridge’s story by juxtaposing two moments: his final appearance in Lódz in 1867, and the historic Othello at Covent Garden in 1833, when he stepped in for the mortally ill Edmund Kean.

We meet Aldridge when he’s old, famous, and a mix of crotchety and gentle, and we identify with him readily. Then, transported to London three decades earlier, we feel the shock and pain of the press’ viciously racist reviews (though the public loved him).

What’s hard for us to appreciate is the Victorian acting style. But Paul Outlaw (as Aldridge) and Nicola Bertram (as actress Ellen Tree) are masters of their art. Incredibly, as Aldridge and Tree rehearse, their stylized poses and declamations make us feel an electrically real relationship between Othello and Desdemona, both in its early bloom and in its tragic end.

This is a wonderful accomplishment (and the hardest challenge the script presents). A biographic play will tell us Aldridge was a great actor. But thanks to Outlaw and Bertram, we know it — despite the passage of nearly 200 years.

Credit is also due to scenic artist Kiley Hannon, who evokes with three drapes in a black box the plush grandeur of the 19th-century stage (though the furniture does push scene-changing to its limit). And Kristina Moore’s costumes are nicely accurate — even to the occasional difficulty of managing so many layers of fabric.

This production could be improved by more directorial attention to motivating every onstage movement, and to where characters face when they speak. More than once, scenes full of rising energy lost momentum when these were ignored.

Red Velvet is a strong play, however, well-focused in the writing and lifted above the merely historical by its principals’ performances. Nor are they alone: Erin Elizabeth Reed  (as Aldridge’s wife Margaret) and Dee Dee Stephens (as the black maid Connie) bring two interesting women to full life in very short scenes. Would that Chakrabarti had found more for them to do — as she did for the audacious Polish reporter Halina, deftly portrayed by Kailena Mai.

Because it brings back to life a great artist made invisible by his blackness, and because it lets us actually experience his greatness (despite the gulf between his artistry and what we’re used to), Red Velvet deserves to be seen. It won’t always be easy to cast — but here in LA, Junction Theatre has found actors who make it sing.
Red Velvet, by Lolita Chakrabarti, directed by Benjamin Pohlmeier.
Presented by The Junction Theatre, at the Atwater Playhouse, 3191 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles 90039.

Friday and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 5:00 –through April 30.

Tickets:  <http://redvelvet.brownpapertickets.com> or (800)838-3006.

In “Death Play,” an Artist Shares Her Mortal Dances

Live theatre doesn’t just tell a story, it makes us live it.

In Death Play, solo artist Lisa Dring (with her offstage collaborators) does just that. And surprisingly. Because her story is about the ways death has entered — and transformed — her life.

But she’s obviously young and vibrant. What can she know of death? Well, hers is no heroic tale of fighting a dread disease that invaded her youth. Her congenital “illness” — what’s made her vulnerable to death’s incursions — is one we all share. She was born into a family.

Lisa Dring

Lisa Dring

And death — shattering her expectations — early began plucking away that family. Before she was 30, both her parents and her grandmother were gone. Each death shocked her, and each taught her things she had not imagined she’d need to learn.

Dring’s tale is rich in the particulars of her many-sourced heritage, yet each detail has a universal ring. By opening her highly individual dance with death to us, and inviting us in, she makes us feel the breath of the Grim Reaper, intimately close, in our own lives.

Just as death shocked her, Dring and her crew shock us. Kirk Smith’s set startles us with a fantasy in white (no black moods here), and his chthonic time machine is an unsettling delight. Clad in outfits half diaphanous and half street-practical (by Ann Closs-Farley), with sounds far more whimsical than dirge-like (by Jeff Gardner), our narrator- protagonist leaps, whirls, falls and kneels, seemingly free of the gravity of grief.

Yet her losses do reach into us, as they have into her, and we share the awful vertigo of being cut loose from what had felt like roots, with no clear sense of where to turn. We even share the concussive slap of one death after another, with never enough time to get our balance back. We take a fine, subtle journey to the darkest place.

Death Play is not a complaint, though, nor is it mourning. It is a play. Ever engaging, Dring takes us into her life, where she (and we) must  accepts the stones of grief. But then she tosses them like paper, or at least carries them lightly like papier maché. For all her serious depth, Dring’s persistent lightness bespeaks survival, overcoming; her tale, and her enactment of it, suggest that until death takes us, it can help to make us.

All this is no small achievement for an hour-long solo work. Producer Camille Schenkkan, director Jessica Hanna, and Circle X are to be congratulated for reviving this  successful offspring of last year’s Son of Semele Solo Creation Festival, and bringing it to wider audiences.
Death Play, written and performed by Lisa Dring, directed by Jessica Hanna.
Presented by Circle X Theatre Co., at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles 90039.

Thursdays (April 7 and 21) at 8:00,
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays (April 3 and 17) at 7:00,
Monday (April 11) at 8:00 —
through April 23.

Tickets: <www.circlextheatre.org/nowplaying/>



Illyria’s “Hot ‘n’ Throbbing” Hits Hard, Hurts as It Must

Paula Vogel dives into life’s painful parts without flinching. So do the Illyrian Players.

After a delicate, wrenching version of Vogel’s classic How I Learned to Drive [see my review, below], Carly D. Weckstein’s troupe is now joining with Watts Village Theater to perform the lesser-known but even more challenging Hot ‘N’ Throbbing.

It’s about intimate violence — and it isn’t pretty. There’s lots of humor, and pathos, and even lyricism along the way, but it ends just as badly as we know it must.

Jason Caceres, Robyn Gabrielle Lee, Thaddeus Shafer, Nikki Mejia

Jason Caceres, Robyn Gabrielle Lee, Thaddeus Shafer, Nikki Mejia (photo: Jonny Taylor)

The Illyrian-Watts ensemble takes us on this difficult journey with skill and taste. Will Herder’s spare set sketches the kind of home we’ve all lived in, when we were “in transition” or perhaps for longer. Like Katie Jorgenson’s costumes, everything is serviceable, nothing is fashionable (except the teen daughter’s outfit). James Ferrero’s sound design hooks us with comic irony, then grows steadily darker.

The odd thing in this familiar setting is a pair of actors — a woman clad in black leather, a man in a dark suit — on cubes at the stage’s front corners. They start off like snarky narrators, but evolve into unconscious voices — she as the main character’s inner voice, he as a TV-like voice of the culture.

Charlene, a single mom, struggles at her keyboard (she feeds the family by writing soft porn); Layla, her daughter, wants to spend the night at a friend’s house but is dressed for the clubs; her pubescing son Calvin just wants to read. Layla leaves, Calvin goes to his room, and then a knock at the door announces Clyde, the ex.

Robyn Gabrielle Lee connects us with Charlene at once, and rings her emotional changes so precisely that it seems simple. Thaddeus Shafer stumbles through Clyde’s shifting ego states, making us believe every moment of his inarticulate flailing. Together they paint an indelible image of the hell that a failed intimacy can become.

My-Ishia Cason-Brown and Stephen Tyler Howell, the two-voiced chorus, keep raising the stakes as the tragedy moves inexorably forward. Nikki Mejia and Jason Caceres create spot-on portraits of the almost innocent young upon whose lives it falls.

Hot ‘N’ Throbbing is a stark, real drama; the Illyrian-Watts production is focused, often funny, finally horrible and heartbreaking. It’s not easy to be part of this modern — and, alas, timeless — tragedy.  But it’s worth it. If we don’t do this with our theatre, what are we doing?
Hot ‘N’ Throbbing, by Paula Vogel, directed by Carly D. Weckstein.
Presented by The Illyrian Players in association with the Watts Village Theater Company, at Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles 90004.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,,
Sundays at 7:00,
through April 10.

Tickets: <www.illyrianplayers.com/tickets.html>


“Blood” Opens a Wound, Lets Us Laugh as We Bleed

Politics are hard to handle onstage. The audience needs lots of background, which can be tedious. Yet we also need our own experience of an issue, to find what we think and feel about it.

Almost a century ago, Bertolt Brecht, Helene Weigel and their Berlin collaborators developed a way to exploit this contradiction. Using direct address, placards, marches, and musical numbers, Brechtian playmakers force our conscious minds to analyze what we’re seeing at the same time as we identify with it emotionally.

A scrappy young company, The Garage, is using these techniques — and more — to put a powerful political story onstage in Hollywood. Blood, in its world premiere, tells how American “big pharma” firms colluded with Japanese officials to offload human blood tainted with the HIV virus onto that country in the 1980s — causing an outbreak of AIDS among hemophiliacs and other unsuspecting recipients.

(photot: Ed Krieger)

(photot: Ed Krieger)

The tale is a harrowing one, and the ensemble deploys an array of highly theatrical techniques (including several from the classical Japanese stage) to tell it. Indeed, given their limited resources, what they make happen in the tiny black box is simply amazing.

Speed and energy are the backbone of their storytelling: We barely absorb one moment before another, in an utterly different style, succeeds it. While actors whirl the set’s three panels into a new configuration, a new scene — in a new setting — gets underway.

The experienced hand of writer/director Robert Allan Ackerman (who’s led a galaxy of stars in award-winning shows in New York and London) is evident here. As playwright, he distills the complex events of a decade into a drama of a few characters within a few months. As director, he keeps the show’s incredible clockwork moving at a breakneck pace, never losing the intensity of outrage — yet always keeping open our ready access to feeling, and to humor.

At times, we gai-jin must wait through a dialog or song in Japanese (we’re always filled in swiftly);  at times, characters speaking English with Japanese accents can confuse us. But this only accents (pardon the pun) the difficulty in two cultures trying to understand each other — especially when so much is being concealed.

In such an ensemble work, it’s hard (and almost foolish) to single out individual performers. Yet Sohee Park’s half-Korean lawyer and Kazumi Aihara’s conscience-stricken nurse give us a pair of reluctant heroes to follow, Miko Ando deftly creates the child victim who turns private disaster into public protest, and veteran Toshi Toda fills his stern antagonist with weight and feeling. Andrew Nakajima’s fearless singer/narrator pulls us through the weave, and Takuma Anzai injects a handful of roles with wicked energy.

These performers are ably supported by the brilliantly simple set (uncredited – Dona Granata?) and ever-changing lights (Donny Jackson), the astonishing costumes (Wendell C. Carmichael), and the nonstop sound design (Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski, with original songs by Nakajima, and by Ackerman & Chris Cester).  Cavils? Only the wish for a little more space, and the feeling that the new Health Minister might have been played by an Asian ensemble member.

Blood, for all the outrage it stirs, also surprises and delights us constantly. The moment when Park’s lawyer leaps onstage howling, as a samurai from a kabuki drama; the way a courtroom debate becomes a stylized swordfight; the insanely bold use of a song from Gilbert & Sullivan’s yellowface Mikado to portray corrupt government ministers … these shocks add power and joy to what is, after all, a heartbreaking and enraging story.

The theatre you sit in, on Hollywood’s Theatre Row, is small and not elegant. But the theatre you experience, in Blood, is riveting and moving and confusing and hilarious and angering all at once. The Garage has reached madly for the moon — and they’ve achieved a theatrical tour de force that is not to be missed.

This play deserves to go to a bigger venue in LA — and one day, to Broadway.  It’s a perfect example of why I gladly spend my career in LA’s small theatres. Domo  arigato, Garage.
Blood, written and directed by Robert Allan Ackerman.
Presented by The Garage, at The Complex Theatres, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 3:00,
through April 3.

Tickets: <www.plays411.net>

Antaeus’ Comic Flight Alights on “Cloud 9”

You don’t want to go to a Caryl Churchill play after a heavy meal. The dean of modern British playwrights tells very funny, bawdy jokes — but you have to be wide awake to get them.

Her Cloud 9 is as zany as a music-hall revue, as witty as Oscar Wilde, and bawdy? — well, the whole damn thing is about sex. Yet it’s also one of her most complex plays, an intricate clockwork that has defeated more than one acting troupe in the last 35 years.

Act 1 begins in colonial Africa circa 1880; Act 2 ends in a London park, 100 years later.  Most of the characters are in both acts — ’cause they only age 25 years. Moreover, each is played by a different actor than in Act 1. And sex? In both worlds — Victoria’s and Thatcher’s — they explore every combination, licit and illicit.

Bill Brochtrup, Bo Foxworth (photo: Geoffrey Wade)

Bill Brochtrup, Bo Foxworth (photo: Geoffrey Wade)

Antaeus, a company focused on classics, has declared Cloud 9 a classic and taken it on. And they’re making a lovely job of it. Their Cloud 9 is clear, fast-moving, bursting with humor from slapstick to intellectual … and rich in things to talk over afterward.

Much of this is due to the sure hand of director Casey Stangl (who recently staged Churchill’s most complex play, Love and Information, for San Francisco’s ACT). On Stephanie Kerley Schwarz’s instantly readable set — with a brilliantly used platform —   Stangl deploys her characters swiftly, smoothly and with purpose.

Like the set, Leigh Allen’s lighting and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes are immediate and clear, and Peter Bayne’s sound design puts us in both worlds with occasional witty asides.

And then there’s the cast. (Antaeus always uses two, and often mixes them; I can only speak to the ensemble I saw.)

Bo Foxworth’s colonial governor Clive anchors Act 1 with naive stolidity, blind to his own contradictions; in Act 2, he is the imp of chaos as a pinafored pre-school girl. Bill Brochtrup steers a storm of stifled emotions as Clive’s wife, Betty; then portrays her son Edward, finding his sexual and spiritual self in a menage a trois. Deborah Puette deftly creates the pre-pubescent Edward in Act 1, then  transforms dazzlingly into Betty as a grey-coiffed divorcée. Liza de Weerd begins as Betty’s utterly Victorian mother, and ends as her daughter, a woman emerging into her identity (who was portrayed by a rag doll in Act 1.)

Abigail Marks accomplishes the most breathtaking changes, shifting suddenly throughout Act 1 between Ellen the lovesick governess and Clive’s powerful mistress, Mrs. Saunders. David DeSantos turns a quieter metamorphosis, from a barely closeted dashing explorer in Africa to a smothering, pseudo-feminist husband in modern London. And Chad Borden, with delightful restraint, gives us the deeply hidden black-hating black servant in Act 1, and a completely open and  assertive gay man in Act 2.

As this list of characters makes obvious, Cloud 9 is more tangled than a French farce. But the Antaeus troupe leads us through the twisting roller-coaster with perfect clarity and high humor. Of course, the laughs are on us — on our half-conscious, inherited notions of sex and power and race, our fantasies of “family” and “nation.”

Which is what Churchill intends. But  a zany comedy goes down so much better than a lecture, and lets us find the insights rather than being told them. Sometime in the next six weeks, swap your three-course meal for something lighter, and fill up on the hilarious adventure Antaeus is serving.
Cloud 9, by Caryl Churchill, directed by Casey Stangl.
Presented by Antaeus Theatre Company, at the Antaeus Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00,
Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00, through April 24.

Tickets: <www.Antaeus.org> or (818) 506-1983.

“Past Time” Gently Opens Sacred Fools’ New Era

Sacred Fools has become known for the “theatricality” of their shows. They often do things you simply can’t do anywhere but on stage, as in the storytelling tour de force of last year’s Astro Boy. They also often select stories that are difficult, yet compelling and important, such as 2014’s chilling Taste.

This year, they’re inaugurating their new home (the Lillian-Elephant complex, on Hollywood’s “Theatre Row”) with a quirky romantic comedy, Past Time. Seems a surprising choice — perhaps a way to draw folks to the new venue, as the casting of TV-famous French Stewart is also sure to do?

Leon Russom, French Smith (photo: Jessica Sherman Photography)

Leon Russom, French Stewart (photo: Jessica Sherman)

Past Time lives in present-day America, where mall shops and kiosks have replaced downtown. It opens with two old friends gently squabbling; the title’s “past” arises in their shared history, the memories they invoke. One friend is afire with his latest passion, painting  ceramic unicorns. The other (joined by his wife) suggests it’s “past time” for one of the pal’s projects to bear fruit.

Shift to a young couple squirming on a date. Their “past” consists of prior dates — were there six? seven? In any case, too many for her, and it’s “past time” for him to show some personality. He begs one last chance; she relents.

Within the hour it takes to tell the tale, the unicorns get painted and put up for sale; the young pair and the old couple do some pretend place-switching; and each character finds something different — yet  better — than they expected.

Past Time may seem slight, but it’s produced and performed with panache. DeAnne Millais’ whimsical set (stuffed with props by Lisa Anne Nicolai) and Ben Rock’s projected scene titles draw laughs, setting and holding the tone. Dan Hoal’s sound design evokes both romance and slapstick, and Jaimie Froemming’s costumes locate each character precisely.

In the slightly manic Lou, awakened by art, Padraic Duffy has written a character who almost breaks the story’s  frame. But Stewart, mixing energy and restraint, keeps Lou in the same world as the others while taking us on a funhouse ride inside his mind. Whoever plays the quieter James might well be overmatched; but not the veteran Leon Russom, who brings easy, quiet power to the part, along with ironic reflection and a growing emotional openness.

Josh Weber, as James’ grandson the inept suitor, balances nicely on the knife edge between inability and clinical disability; and Julia Griswold lets herself be drawn all the long way from exasperation to enchantment. Ruth Silveira, another seasoned pro, adds colors and warmth to Delilah, James’ wife (the least fully written of the roles). And director Jeremy Aldridge floats the tale in a swift current between reality and fantasy.

Since Aristophanes, comic writers have grabbed serious, insoluble problems and worked them as if a little magic might put them right. Past Time brushes up against unemployment, aging, the edges of  diagnosable mental illness, and the perennial puzzles of love and art. And, it suggests, we’ll come through it all somehow.  Sacred Fools thus steps into a new phase of its history with a little magic, and a lot of buoyant confidence.
Past Time, by Padraic Duffy, directed by Jeremy Aldridge.
Presented by Sacred Fools Theater Company, at the Lillian Theater, 1076 Lillian Way, LA 90038.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 3:00,
through March 26.

Tickets: <www.sacredfools.org> or (310) 281-8377.