“Devil’s Bride” Charmingly Twists the Bard’s Tale

At the end of Shakespeare’s classic rom-com, Much Ado About Nothing, the reluctant lovers Beatrice and Benedick are united.
A happily ever after if there ever was one — and if you don’t mind the the assertively intelligent pair’s constant squabbling.

They also help to repair the badly torn trust between Hero and Claudio, creating the double wedding with which love comedies love to end. But what of the wicked Don John, illegitimate brother of the Prince, whose merciless plotting nearly cost loves and lives?

Sammi Lappin, Michael Cortez

Sammi Lappin, Michael Cortez

In 2004, novice playwright Joan Silsby pursued that question with The Devil’s Bride. Her witty notion is that Benedick persuades the Prince to treat his brother with the same medicine that has healed everyone else — marriage.  In this case, to Benedick’s sister, Allegra.

Of course, there’s a catch. Allegra, thank to a gypsy witch’s curse, has had three fiancés die before wedding her. Not that she — or anyone else — would mind Don John suffering that fate.

But then there’s another catch. Love. Yes, Allegra sees through John’s angry mien, and he sees her inestimable worth, and they’re both caught — she not wishing to kill him by consenting, he unable (or at least unwilling) to live if she does not.

Thereby hangs a very merry tale, with some fine performances by several Theatre Unleashed tried-and-troupers and one sterling newcomer. In this irreverent sequel, author Silsby playfully mixes the social, sexual and linguistic sensibilities of Shakespeare’s era and our own.  Purists may wrinkle a nose or two, but it’s part of the fun intended.

The bride atop this wedding cake is Sammi  Lappin, whose subtle and marvelously still Allegra becomes the play’s center and anchor the moment she steps onstage.  Clad in black (a splendid, flexible costume by Lauren Billingsley Florence) and headed for a nunnery, she nonetheless radiates irresistible charm and reined-in sensuality. Lappin also gets to utter the lioness’ share of Silsby’s best dialog.

Matching her in intensity and clarity is Michael Cortez as Don John, the only person onstage who can stand toe-to-toe with Lappin. As he grudgingly reveals the convoluted layers beneath John’s angry-bastard persona, Cortez marks our way; and we trust him because we, too, know Allegra is worth any sacrifice.

As the garrulous, meddling Benedick, Jim Martyka creates a self-admiring yet self-mocking fellow who really is smarter than almost anyone else.  Almost — but Jenn Scuderi Crafts gives us a tolerant, amused Beatrice who can pull his leash when needed.

Richard Abraham and Cyanne McClairian do sweet clowning as the malapropping Dogberry and his fawning lieutenant.  Molly Moran’s Marisol is by turns flirtatious and fearsome; and Isabelle Gronlund lights up the space as Margaret, Beatrice’s maid, who can’t stop loving that bad, bad man of hers.

Ann Hurd and her paint crew must be noted for transforming a black box into Renaissance Messina.  And topping off the treats, director Wendy Gough Soroka (and an uncredited musical director) drop polyphonal sweetmeats into a few scene changes — and the (yes!) ghost sequences.  The joyful aftertaste of The Devil’s Bride will linger  for a long time.

It will be a good thing for Silsby to keep on writing plays.  And a very good thing for Theatre Unleashed to keep on finding and performing them.
The Devil’s Bride, by Jean Silsby, directed by Wendy Gough Soroka.
Presented by Theatre Unleashed, at the Belfry Stage, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood 91602.

Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8:00,
Mondays (except May 16) at 8:00,through May 21.

Tickets:  <www.theatreunleashed.org>


“End Times”: One Man’s Path from a Cult to the World

Religious cults are secretive by nature, so there are always people who want to unveil their secrets.

An HBO documentary, Going Clear, drops the dime on Scientology, one of the world’s largest cults. An indie hit at this year’s Sundance, Holy Hell,  reveals the life of the much smaller Buddha Field. Each seeks to tell — and understand — the story of the group as a whole.

The End Times, now onstage in Los Feliz, takes a different tack. Playwright Jesse Mu-En Shao focuses our attention on a single member’s crisis of faith, leaving the larger group’s story offstage.

Christian T. Chan, Nick Cimiluca, Mariah Robinson, with Joe Spano in projection

Christian T. Chan, Nick Cimiluca, Mariah Robinson, with Joe Spano in projection

Tim arrives at college to live in a house owned by a community known as “The Lord’s Restoration.” He has never lived outside the community — his parents are members. Tim shares a bunk-bed with a lifelong friend, Evan; the girl he’s loved since childhood, Ruthann, lives in the nearby women’s house.

Cracks begin to appear immediately, as Evan balks at signing the lease — really a behavioral contract — proffered by the slightly older house supervisor, Jamie. Soon, Evan disappears, and no one in the house will speak of him. Tim pleads to be allowed to seek his friend;  Jamie agrees, if Tim will report whatever he learns.

Finding the distraught Evan, and learning the real reasons for his absence, Tim starts to lose his hold on his lifelong faith. Meanwhile, Evan’s bed is taken by an eager convert, Seth, who also displaces Tim in Ruthann’s affections. At the climax, Tim leaves the house forever, and finds himself in a world he’s never really seen before.

The End Times risks making us feel dissatisfied — the questions we have about what a cult is, how it works, are never discussed. Instead, it offers us Tim’s journey, from happy childish dependency through uncertain vacillation and fear, to a final desperate assertion that feels more like suicide than freedom.  Instead of telling us how a cult exerts its hold, and what the damaging effects are, it shows us.

This demands delicacy and skill from the artists performing it.

Nick Cimiluca, as Jamie, deftly shows us a half-adult trapped in the adolescent world he governs — a nice guy with an iron hand who utterly defers to the unseen elders yet makes unguided decisions  when he can get away with it, unable to form relationships outside the faith’s endless rituals  and childhood games. The role is a daunting one, and Cimiluca handles it remarkably well.

As Tim, Christian T. Chan faces an equal challenge:  We must see (without being told) how his faith has sustained him, yet failed to equip him. Chan creditably embodies Tim’s naivete, his need for the cult’s “comfort food,”  and his awkward attempts to express his feelings and assert his questions. But every youth at college is immature, and playwright Shao may need to give us a clearer way to see how Tim’s immaturity  differs from that of his non-cult peers.

The role of Evan — to which Matt Pascua brings honesty and energy — demands rapid shifts from shy questioning to an open challenge of Jamie’s authority (which we never see), to hard-drinking despair in a rented room just a few days later. Shao must do more to motivate  and explain these precipitous changes.

Mariah Robinson (as Ruthann) and Alexander Pimentel (as Seth) do what they can with roles that verge on being one-dimensional. Both actors are called upon to display ambivalence, and do so. But what else is going on for this fresh (and opportunistic) convert? Or for this young woman who suddenly casts aside her lifelong fiancé? The players may have backstories in mind; but until the playwright says something, we’ll never know.

Finally, a word about Nelson, the cult’s leader. He’s played by Joe Spano, a veteran actor, who gives us  a heady brew of loving concern, bristling authority, and sly casuistry all at once. And in a brilliant choice, he never appears onstage — instead, he arrives (usually unannounced) in multiple project images on all three walls, his face and voice engulfing the house and its residents. These harrowing moments give us a visceral metaphor that responds to all our unanswered questions. Praise to projection designer Lily Barnstein, set designer Christopher Scott Murillo, and director Jon Lawrence Rivera for pulling off this thrilling — and chilling — coup de theatre.

The publicity materials and Facebook page for The End Times make clear that Shao’s been wrestling with this material for several years, and that it’s autobiographical. (Oddly, the printed program omits this.) By determinedly pursuing what could have been mere self-indulgence, Shao has opened a distinctive and valuable window into the secret world of religious cults. The play may not yet fully embody its promise, but it’s already an engaging tale and fully deserves continued effort.
The End Times, by Jesse Mu-En Shao, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Presented by Skylight Theatre Company and Playwrights’ Arena, at the Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave., LA 90027.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30,
Sundays at 3:00,
through May 15.

Tickets: <www.SkylightTheatreCompany.com> or <www.playwrightsarena.org>



Reinforcing Jamie, the only live presence of the cult’s authority,



Their basic belief is that Jesus is returning very soon, and they are to meet him as his bride.


is a  fairly Skillfully used projections give us enough glimpses to recognize that


a play several years in the making (via LA Playwrights ArenaJe),

This “Othello” Isn’t Other, but One of Us: Too Human

In the four centuries since he wrote it, Shakespeare’s Othello has almost always been two plays at once. One shows us a complex, tragic collision of human emotions: love and hatred, trust and jealousy. The other shows us a tribe of people reluctantly accepting and then expelling the “other.”

This time, the Independent Shakespeare Company has decided not to tell the second story. By choosing a multicultural cast, they have all but erased the racial imagery that – like a weaving cobra – entrances audiences who live in a racist culture.

The ISC has thus cleared the way for us to see the tragedy in our lack of emotional wisdom. We watch aristocrats and commoners alike, men and women alike, ignorant of their own deep motives, believing the selves they parade before the world – and thus wide open to manipulations, shocks and horrors.

Kalean Ung, Evan Lewis Smith (photo: Grettel Cortes)

Kalean Ung, Evan Lewis Smith (photo: Grettel Cortes)

Othello is a hero, wise in the ways of war; but, like Desdemona, he imagines that he is his actions. In all his years, he has learned little of his inner self; his love and trust are childlike, and he proves helpless before Iago, a rabbit in the paws of a tiger.

Desdemona is the hero’s mate, but no heroine; she, too, is an innocent, and most of her seeming strength is privilege. She, too, “loves not wisely but too well,” and has no way to meet a predator but to plead and then submit. Emelia, the lady’s maid, sets the plot in motion by trusting her abusive husband Iago instead of her own experience; she is the one character who gains insight and does something with it – but alas, too late.

Venice’s aristocrats are no better. Like Bassanio, Desdemona’s feckless father, they’re so busy keeping their eyes on the prize (wealth and power) that they miss what’s under their noses. Cassio, a model of their culture, is honest and courteous – and knows he should not drink. But he has no idea why he drinks, and that undoes him. Roderigo also understands the nobleman’s code, but not why he does anything he does; so he becomes Iago’s fool, and dies for it.

Then there’s Iago himself, who knows in detail what he’s doing, and for what purposes, and blithely says so. But of the causes of the anger and hatred that drive him he has no idea, and never asks. For all his manipulative skill, he is a powerless addict, whose illness destroys all around him.

This is a bleak and deeply tragic tale, with no Fortinbras at the end to sound a hopeful note. The ISC tells it about as well as it can be told.

Sticking to the text, stripping the stage of ornament (design uncredited), keeping costumes indicative but minimal (Houri Mahserejian), with lighting (Bosco Flanagan) and original music (Chris Porter) that build – and hold – the tension, director Melissa Chalsma’s team delivers expertly in the modest, modern space.

As Othello, Evan Lewis Smith brings a buoyant, confident energy (and consistent clarity). He lets his defenseless confusion emerge, until we feel the huge energy tied in knots, twisting helplessly against itself. As Iago, David Melville gives us a cool standup comic who dotes on the audience’s attention, and will not peer – even facing death — any deeper than the rage that fulminates just under his smooth surface.

Kalean Ung nicely traces Desdemona’s devolution from a witty, outspoken noblewoman to a woman in shock who, “as a sheep before her shearer, is dumb.” Fiona Cheung’s Emilia follows an opposite path, from murmuring obedience to furiously denouncing corrupt power; while Danny Brown makes the small role of Bianca a counterpoint to both, flying anxiously between seduction and submission, never finding any power of her own.

As Cassio, Sean Pritchett makes strikingly clear how well matched he is with Desdemona – both handsome and noble, both honest and loving, both oblivious to their vulnerability. And Faqir Hassan keeps us connected to hapless Roderigo, so that instead of disdain we feel compassion.

The emotional tragedy of Othello, as presented by this troupe of highly skilled professionals, is a powerful and dismaying monitory tale. As tragedy should be.

But make no mistake: The second story’s still there. Shakespeare lived in a racist society, and knew it. And he wrote it. It’s all in the lines, as Bard lovers are always saying; and there are lines enough in Othello to force us to recognize that these folks are racists. They freely spew the very same thoughtless calumnies that we allow ourselves (or our relatives and neighbors) to voice unchallenged. And those slurs betray a society built on racial exclusion.

The artists at Independent Shakespeare have laid bare the emotional tragedy of Othello. Now, can someone find a way to shed equal light on the racial story at the same time – and on the feminist awareness that helps to shape the play? It’s all there, waiting to be played.
Othello, by William Shakespeare, directed by Melissa Chalsma.
Presented by Independent Shakespeare Company, at Independent Studio, 3191 Casitas Ave./ Suite 168, LA 90039.

Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30,
Sundays at 2:00,
through May 7.

Tickets: <www.iscla.org> or (818) 710-6306.


Fornes Fest Reminds Us: We Are “MUD” — and Stars

A rare and important theatre event took place in LA last week.

“Festival Irene,” at Inner-City Arts, spent 10 days of play readings, panels and a mixer or two celebrating the work and legacy of María Irene Fornés, one of America’s foremost modern playwrights.

Her works — which gained an unequalled 9 Obie Awards in her 40-year career — were richly represented.  Onstage were Fefu and Her Friends (1977), MUD (1983), The Conduct of Life (1985), Summer in Gossensass (1995), and Letters from Cuba (2000).

Fornes Fest

Her legacy — from a lifetime nurturing playwrights — was even more abundantly on display. Audiences saw a panoply of plays by marquee authors:  Cherrie Moraga’s Giving Up the Ghost; Migdalia Cruz’s FUR; Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas’ Queer Is Not Yet Here;  Luis Alfaro’s The Golden State, Part One: DELANO; Eduardo Machado’s The Cook; six short pieces by Lisa Loomer and one by Octavio Solis; Caridad Svich’s Any Place But Here, and Nilo Cruz’s Beauty of the Father.

The evening I was able to attend offered the Loomer and Solis shorts as hors d’oeuvres, and then a full reading of Fornés’ MUD. This stark   three-character tragedy won an Obie (though it premiered at LA’s Padua Hills Festival), and shows Fornés at the height of her powers.

In a house that seems made of the mud around it, Mae and Lloyd live alone. She cooks, cleans, irons, and attends a literacy class. He feeds the pig (and has sex with it, though he is impotent with Mae). She keeps trying to get Lloyd, whom her late father brought in as a foundling, to the local clinic for his illness, but he demurs.

Mae brings home a pamphlet, but must ask neighbor Henry to read it. When Henry says grace before their meager supper, something erupts in Mae; she takes Henry as her model and mentor. She also takes him to her bed, feeling love and desire for the first time.

Later, when Henry is disabled by a fall, Mae finds herself taking care of two needy, infantile men. She resolves to leave, packs and goes. Both men howl after her and Lloyd, picking up the shotgun, kills her.

MUD is not fun, though it is often funny. (Fornés has a fine sense of humor.) It isn’t easy to watch. There’s no pastoral romanticizing in this dirt-farm tragedy, and the inevitable outcome doesn’t hurt any less because we foresee it.

But we also get no lamenting (a la Miller), no lectures (a la Brecht). Fornés stays outside the work (though her sensibility saturates it).   Using the simplest language — much as the characters use the mud to shape their home — she lets people say what they will and do what they can. Their frankness is often shocking, but just as believable as their moments of obtuseness, their attempts at deceit, or their flashes of hope.

If a playwright doesn’t love the characters, the play isn’t worth watching (or even writing). Fornés’ plays are always worth watching. And I think she loves her characters best by truly respecting them, letting them be whoever they are, not moving them about in a plot or allegory. This way of working opens for us a powerful experience of who they are — and makes us ask , in turn, who we are.

Though it’s “only” a reading, the three actors — the lucent Shannon Lucio, the quietly subtle Darrell Larsen, and the tragic clown Pete Laughlin — do sterling work.  Each brings a fully imagined character to the stage, and moves delicately through their arc.

Huge congratulations to the five-year-old Hero Theatre and its founder, Fornés protegee Elisa Bocanegra (who also sang classic romanticos between the short pieces).  And thanks to Inner-City Arts and the festival’s sponsors. Fornés’ dedicated life, and her powerful plays, are a river of lifeblood flowing into our time and beyond.
MUD, by María Irene Fornés, directed by Yetta Gottesman.
Presented by Hero Theatre as part of its 10-day “Festival Irene,” at Inner-City Arts, 720 Kohler St., LA 90021.


Superhero Mashup Almost Cooked in “Identity Crisis”

Farcical comedy , as many have observed, is like quiche. It takes a lot of ingredients, measured perfectly, mixed skillfully, and baked just to the point of perfection.

Super Identity Crisis, now playing at Zombie Joe’s Underground, has many of the ingredients and just needs a little longer in the oven. The premise is a good one: a melange of superheroes (based, to varying degrees on copyrighted characters we know), mixed up in a melee of conflicting intentions, most of them under the power of a dark master.

Joseph Jones, Edward Nyahay, Meeko Daphron (photo: Magnus McDomhnaill)

Joseph Jones, Edward Nyahay, Meeko Daphron (photo: Magnus McDomhnaill)

The players bring energy and clarity to this mashup. As the Crawler (a spidey clairvoyant), Patrick Beckstead flies and mugs about the stage, yet delivers a range of extreme emotions from self-doubt to delirious joy.  As The Fist (his reluctant, metal-clawed partner), Joshua Dickinson wavers a bit in focus, but finds good moments.

Isabel Espy creates an explosively libidinous lasher as Black Box; the irrepressible David Wyn Harris overplays just enough as the sexually dimorphic Dark Dwarf/ Nurse; and Meeko Daphron keeps us wondering about Wonder Boy. Finally, Joseph Jones, as the eye-patched Gen. Rage, holds a menacing frame around it all.

The costumes (by Harris and Adam Poisal) are inventive and often brilliant. The text itself needs a little more work, to keep us clear about what these attention-grabbing characters are seeking, and why they find themselves in each other’s way. And the direction — strongest when scenes flash and freeze like comic-book panels — almost achieves  liftoff. (A quiche must be just firm enough so it doesn’t fall.)

Super Identity Crisis isn’t a finished work; they’re still fiddling with the recipe. But that’s one of the strengths of Zombie Joe’s — it offers a shot at the stage for new ideas and newcomers, a place to play and experiment.  SIC delivers a playful hour with many laughs, abundant energy, and a promise of more — and better — to come.
Super Identity Crisis, written and directed by Magnus MacDomhnaill.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30,
through April 23.

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