“Urban Rez” Gathers Up Erased People, Tribes

Folks who work in theatre are used to a show bringing them  together into a sudden new family. Sometimes, audience members also feel the magic of a living community called into being by a play.

Rarely, though, is creating a family the main purpose. Except at Cornerstone Theater Company, whose mission is not simply to learn and tell the stories of marginalized people, but to bring them together and help them find their power.

Cornerstone’s most recent project, Urban Rez, accomplishes this heartwrenchingly well.  This time, the community includes any person who identifies as Native American and has been excluded, erased or alienated from the family of First Nations — whether by government policies, or by their tribe or family, or simply by the social mobility that so easily distances us from our homes.

urban rez

As standard-bearers for these varied stories, author Larissa FastHorse found the native peoples of what are now Los Angeles and Orange counties. Not one tribal family from this vast region is recognized by the federal government; they are all listed as “extinct.” No matter how many they are, or how they try to hold their heritage.

Urban Rez stages a pow-wow for these “nonexistent” tribes, and  welcomes any neighbors who want to come. Under the venerable trees at Kuruvungna Springs* (an ancestral Gabrieliño/Tongva site  reserved on the grounds of University High School),  the booths are up and the dancing ground is ready.

*[Urban Rez also took place the preceding weekends, under the viaduct at Los Angeles State Historical Park.]

But before the party gets going, a federal agent (garbed and bearded like Uncle Sam) interrupts to arrest a young artist for selling “Native art” without a license, and pulls down his booth. From the ensuing conflict it emerges that his (fictional) “Nicoleño” tribe has a brief window to become registered.

The members and friends of the Nicoleño family scatter.  One lands at one booth, others at other booths, in syncopated rhythms that make it impossible to follow all the story’s parts. Yet somehow, like news moving through a village, we hear it all.

Eventually, the fair comes to a standstill as everyone gathers on the dancing ground to witness the drama’s outcome. There never were any Nicoleños, of course, and it’s only a made-up story. Yet when we find ourselves chanting, “Nicoleño! Nicoleño!” to assert the tribe’s right to exist, many of us are laughing, many are in tears.

It runs deep, this desire to belong to a family, to be sprung from a people and a place on the land. When such ties are broken — or never had — mending is difficult. Urban Rez employs incisive satire, gentle storytelling, frantic argument, and releasing humor to give us  a taste of exile, and a hint of healing.

This play is so thoroughly ensemble, so spread across its micro-locales, and so mobile, that assessing individual performances isn’t possible. The actors, representing more than a dozen tribes, convincingly create the Nicoleño family; and in the booths, they offer an array of delightful, challenging and informative experiences. (I wanted to come again, to see the booths — and story parts — I missed.)

A nod is due to, too, to the set designers and builders, who erected an elegantly simple environment, open to the natural setting.  (And did twice, in two very different locations.)

Urban Rez has had its initial run. But the Cornerstone artists — and the many groups and individuals who joined them for this project — have created a moment of insight, joy and healing that LA dwellers, most of us so far from home, need access to again and again.
Urban Rez, by Larissa FastHorse, directed by Michael John Garcés.
Presented by Cornerstone Theater Company, at Los Angeles State Historical Park and at Kuruvungna Springs.






“Lunatics & Actors” Plays on the Edge of Madness

We try hard to hide it, but people have been noticing for centuries that actors and mentally ill folks have a lot in common.

Currently, Four Clowns is tossing that notion in the air, juggling it, and seeing where it lands, in Lunatics & Actors. The piece, by David Bridel (the group’s Associate Director), looks playfully into an area we usually think of as fraught with suffering and seriousness.

To free our minds, the troupe flips us backward a century and a half to a time when Europe’s scientists were first eagerly learning about the human nervous system. In an empty utilitarian space, we meet the urbane Dr. Duchenne. We’re here, he explains, to watch him demonstrate his scientific discoveries.

Andrew Eldredge, Thaddeus Shafer, Alexis Jones

Andrew Eldredge, Thaddeus Shafer, Alexis Jones

(The real Duchenne is now generally regarded as the father of neuroscience. His protegé, Jean-Martin Charcot, ran a world-famous “science theatre” in the Salpetrière, the Parisian insane asylum, using his patients to demonstrate. Among Charcot’s most famous students were Freud and Jung.)

Our Dr. Duchenne is a witty performer, confident in his work and comfortable onstage. He’s most eager to share his findings about portraying human emotions. He claims he can stimulate his patients to produce them perfectly — better than actors can. He challenges any actors in the audience to come onstage and join the test.

Much clowning ensues — not with clowns, but with remarkable and fearless physicality, and comical deflation of our ego balloons.
Duchenne’s increasingly manic trials may not persuade us of his discovery, but we are utterly (and uncomfortably) convinced that a thin membrane guards us all — not just the actors among us — from the loss of self we call madness.

As is usual with Four Clowns, all the performers deliver full energy every moment. Dr. Duchenne (Thaddeus Shafer), for all his self- assurance, never stops scanning the horizon for … something. A rival, come to dispute him? The patients, meanwhile (Tyler Bremer, Andrew Eldridge, and Alexis Jones) never just watch one another perform a test; each is also engaged in advancing an agenda, sometimes secret, sometimes obvious. Director Jeremy Aluma shows what a master juggler can do with a stageful of actors.

Four Clowns has won an enviable reputation for taking the skills of clowning and building new kinds of storytelling from the oldest of theatricks. Lunatics and Actors  extends this work with a lively amusement that entertains the mind as well. It also takes us where the best clowning goes — to places where we hide things.
Lunatics & Actors, by David Bridel, directed by Jeremy Aluma.
Presented by Four Clowns, at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 1238 W. First St., LA  90026.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
through May 28.

Tickets: <www.artful.ly/store/events/8836>

“Archer”: Ancient Tale Hits Us Right in the Heart

Why stage a play that’s more than 2,500 years old?

Can the struggle of a forgotten Bronze Age warrior possibly say anything to us?

Few of us have ever heard of Philoctetes.  We do recognize his war — the Trojan War, when the Greeks besieged Troy for 10 years before it finally fell. We probably don’t know that Odysseus and the Greeks marooned their greatest archer on a desert island when his wound — a snakebit foot — grew infected and smelled so bad it made them ill.

Sophocles wrote a play about him, called Philoctetes, and now Malik B. El-Amin, the ambitious founder of Griot Theatre, has adapted it for the modern stage. “The modern stage” — in Griot’s vision, that means a stage filled with actors who reflect our culture’s diversity.

Lester Purry, Regan Linton (photo: Nikki Eva Kentor)

Lester Purry, Regan Linton (photo: Nikki Eva Kentor)

For The Archer from Malis, Philoctetes and his mentor Hercules are both black men. All the other characters — from the great god Zeus down to a nameless soldier — are women, one of them black (born in Korea), one Iranian-American, one in a wheelchair.

Aside from slight name changes (to feminine endings), this element of Griot’s staging doesn’t much alter the characters, or their story. But it does profoundly alter our sense of the story’s world, and its relation to our own.

When Zeus, as a powerfully handsome woman, calls dapper-suited Hercules at his hi-tech monitoring station, we’re more in our world than the Greeks’. The capricious father of the gods, a distant figure hard for us to imagine (except as a cartoon superhero), suddenly feels as familiar as a woman CEO or presidential candidate. The god’s uneasy relationship with the hero (an illegitimate human son) slips smoothly into the boss-lieutenant model we know well.

When young Neoptolema wheels onstage, hectored by sly Odyssea, we see the youth’s wounded honor physicalized, and we feel the seductiveness of the wily Wanderer’s arguments. Ultimately, this will matter: Philoctetes is often read as a drama of the wounded archer’s inner conflicts, but in The Archer, it’s Neoptolema’s ethical dilemma that takes the spotlight.

El-Malik is to be congratulated for an adaptation that trims and focuses the story, adding to its intensity while cutting away detail we don’t need. The cast, too, earn fierce applause with their work.

Lester Purry uses his immense presence to keep Philoctetes at or near the center of our minds every moment, while weaving the archer’s volcanic, conflicted emotions into a wholly believable human person. Elmira Rahim’s superhuman Zeus, on the other hand, feels immediately accessible and lets us in on every plan — yet we sense the fearsome power she is withholding.

As Odyssea, Leilani Smith crafts a beguiler who’ll try any tactic, from sexy wheedling to a witty joke to barking military orders, yet always leaves herself an out (plausible deniability is her middle name). And Rosemary Brownlow conveys a chorus of ordinary folk in just two characters, an obedient soldier and a would-be clever sea captain.

But the performance that makes this play is Regan Linton as Neoptolema, the young hero-in-training trying to follow in the footsteps of an idealized father (the great Achilles).  When we meet her, she already bears a wound — her superiors are coercing her to attempt a most dishonorable act. We see how this hurts and confuses her. And how it enables her to understand and respect the wounded hero the Greeks now want to bring to Troy.

Linton and Purry create duets, as the warriors come to know and trust each other, that are beautiful and sad, for we know what she is doing — and what it will do to her. And I cannot imagine this play without Linton’s skilled use of her chair — darting, whirling, creeping up, falling back — she creates almost a ballet of the thoughts and feelings tearing at her character.

I came to the theatre ready for the familiar experience of seeing a classic well-performed, yet not being moved by it. The Archer from Malis is excellently performed — and it transforms an ancient ethical debate into a vivid, personal experience of the wrenching some people feel between love and duty, while those who succeed in the world do not feel it at all. It’s a text for our times, beautifully made alive.
The Archer from Malis, adapted (from Sophocles’ Philoctetes) and directed by Malik B. El-Amin.
Presented by Griot Theatre, at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 3:00,
through May 22.

Tickets: (323) 960-7822 or <www.griottheatre.org>









“Gulag Mouse” Asks: What Lies Beyond Survival?

The Russian gulags — prison camps in the frozen north of Siberia — operated for more than four centuries, swallowing hundreds of millions of lives into forced labor.

The camps (known as katorgas under the Tsars) were the standard punishment for anyone accused of a crime, from plotting a revolt to stealing a loaf of bread — or merely irritating a well-connected neighbor.

Most prisoners, of course, died of starvation, cold, and constant physical abuse.  Some survived. But what could emerge from such inhumane hells?

Kimberly Atkinson, Emily Goss, Crystal Keith

Kimberly Atkinson, Emily Goss, Crystal Keith

Arthur M. Jolly’s A Gulag Mouse considers this question, taking us to a primitive camp building where five condemned women share two bunks, a cot, and an iron stove. We arrive with Anastasia, a young woman who has become a widow by killing her abusive husband.

We share in her discovery of the others — angry, bullying Masha; quiet, street-tough Svetlana; cowering Prushka, the “mouse”; and pretty Lubov, who sells sex to buy them all food and protection from a guard. When Masha critically injures Lubov, the group demands that Anastasia, also young and pretty, take up her duties.

In prison, there are only two things to do: fight to survive, and plan to escape. Soon, this beleaguered dysfunctional family turns their attention to escape, and the story ends with their attempt.

But the play continues. A final, dreamlike sequence calls into question everything we’ve seen. Only stories, we realize, are left — the ones survivors tell, the memories they wander through while staring out a window, and of course the official records.

As anyone living with PTSD knows, it’s impossible to emerge from hell merely sane. Who will ever know — not simply what happened, but what it cost, what surviving it demanded?

A Gulag Mouse offers an intense, sobering hour amid the worst we can inflict on one another, and in the aftermath. The play’s simulated inferno is gentler than the real thing (as it must be), but it affects us — because the artists do focused, felt work.

Emily Goss (Anastasia), in an open and honest portrayal,  gains our trust in the early scenes and leads us into the depths and beyond. Kimberly Atkinson (Masha) magnificently terrorizes the room, while letting us see the deep uncertainty that keeps her from actually leading.  Crystal Keith jabs and retreats as  Svetlana, slowly establishing her emotional authority; and Heather L. Tyler gives the jaded Lubov a full range, from sweet nobility to frank viciousness. Meanwhile, hidden under a blanket, Dana DeRuyck quietly gathers power, making the mouse into this tiny world’s moral arbiter.

The hand of director Danielle Ozymandias is (like the mouse) unobtrusive but effective, holding us firmly in this hermetic space.
Set designer Aaron Francis transforms the Black Box into a drab, uncomfortable space, while Matthew Richter and Adam Earle’s  lighting fascinates and focuses us.

Playwright Jolly has described writing A Gulag Mouse as a “desperate attempt” to honor women who survive suffering. In choosing the Siberian prison camps as his metaphor, he has given us a painful but crucial reminder of our common history — and a  keen sense of what every abused human being undergoes, and loses.
A Gulag Mouse, by Arthur M. Jolly, directed by Danielle Ozymandias.
Presented by Sacred Fools Theater Company, at the Sacred Fools Black Box, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., LA 90038.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through May 21.

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