“Farragut North”: A Taut, Timely Political Tragedy

‘Tis the season to be cynical.

Election season, when billions of dollars flood the country in search of votes, when TV and internet screens are clogged with ads and arguments.

Just the time for a slick, smart play about politics.  And that’s what Farragut North seems to promise. We’re in Iowa, days before the caucuses, with the campaign team of the Democratic front-runner, a progressive from Vermont.

At first, it’s hard not to look for the real-world parallels.  The governor is raising his money from small donations. Sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders — or Howard Dean (also from Vermont), who pioneered populist funding in his 2004  White House bid.  And our playwright, Beau Willimon, worked on Dean’s staff.

So the first half of Farragut North weaves the frantic, tangled web of high-stakes politics.  We follow press secretary Stephen Bellamy as he angles for coverage from a New York Times reporter, takes an intern to bed, then gets a secret call from the opposing camp.

The call turns everything upside down.  We now see the seamy side of the process — the fakery, the backroom deals, the dirty tricks.  But we see Stephen do the right thing: He tells his boss.

So Act I sketches a swift, savvy picture of politics — its bright, busy surface and its dark, mean underside.  Act II gives us an equally swift, equally dark tragedy: The fall of a man undone by the flaw in his character.  Each scene reveals a surprise, and by the end there’s nothing left of Stephen, not even a lesson learned.

Willimon can show the dark side — he’s the creator of the bleak Netflix hit, House of Cards, about a Macbeth-like couple who reach the White House by stepping over corpses.  But he also shows us more — the deep, complex story of human yearnings and failings beneath the cynical shell. We care about Stephen, even as we loathe his weakness, and what it drives him to do.

Staging this fast-moving, many-layered drama is far from easy.   But Conejo Players Theatre, known for big musicals, does a crisp, compelling job.  Designer John Eslick starts us off with a set that looks simple and familiar — yet eerily foreboding.  Director Elissa Anne Polansky puts it all in motion and keeps it there, never letting the pace or focus drop; she makes juggling knives look easy.

The players rise to the occasion commendably.  Eslick, as the opposing campaign manager, uses his power gently but firmly, a helpful uncle who’s seen it all yet hasn’t become bitter.  Bryan White, as Stephen’s harried boss, nicely hints that he may be in a tad deep, then delivers the first of Act II’s hammer blows in a strong, finely balanced monolog.  And Allison Klinker creates a polished pro of a reporter who’s comfortable sinking to any level.

Parker Harris brings to Stephen the troubling combination of intelligence and unthinking privilege, wielding his wits with charisma but little wisdom.  And Katy Jarvis’ precocious, coltish Molly circles him like a moth entranced by a flame.  Both make us wince at what their characters don’t know they don’t know.

Fred Saliba also deserves a word for his humble monolog as the Waiter, and Beth Glasner for costumes that are invisibly apt, even when clothes become part of the story.

This is a play that leaves you thinking — and talking.  Beyond the razzle-dazzle of power flowing back and forth, there’s the real point of it all: Whom does the power serve?  Beneath the snappy cynicism, there’s a timeless question:  What is virtue, and how do we live it?

Farragut North is as tight and deep a political drama as we’ve had in decades.  Conejo Players are doing it proud.  See it before you vote.
Farragut North, by Beau Willimon, directed by Elissa Anne Polansky.
Presented by Conejo Players Theatre, 351 S. Moorpark Rd., Westlake Village 91361.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through September 17th.

Tickets: <www.conejoplayers.org> or (805) 495-3715.





Horror Shot: ZJU Serves 2,400-year-old “Medea”

The ancient Greeks wrote tragedies and comedies, right?

Medea is neither — it’s a horror story, pure and simple.  And it may be the world’s oldest one, having debuted in Athens some 2,400 years ago.

For its most recent appearance — at Zombie Joe’s Undergound — director Denise Devin has pared Euripides’ full-length play down to a swift and sudden hour of terror.

Medea is not about a man who, like Oedipus, tries to counter his fate and loses to the gods. It’s about a woman who is betrayed by a man, and plans a terrible revenge.

Medea, a princess in a “barbarian” land, is swept away by her husband Jason to the Greek city of Corinth.  After they’re settled long enough to have two sons, Jason has the opportunity to wed the daughter of King Creon, removing the stain of foreignness his wife has brought.

But this will reduce Medea to the status of a concubine, and she will lose her sons to the royal family. She refuses, but cannot change the plan. So she vows revenge on all concerned.

Surprisingly, the gods don’t get in her way, or punish her afterward. Medea swiftly accomplishes her plans, and we are horrified — by her increasingly inhuman actions, and by her apotheosis as a superhuman figure at the end.

By compressing this drama into a single hour, Devin has created a superhuman challenge. The actor who plays Medea must be at a high pitch of ferocity from start to finish, swelling to a climax beyond human — and  with no “recovery time” between scenes, while the Chorus and others debate the action (as in the original).

Fortunately, ZJU has Jonica Patella.  A force on any stage, Patella drives toward her revenge with operatic power, yet along the way reveals a full range of emotions (and dynamics, from triple forte to pianissimo). She is by turns confused, contrite, reasonable, seductive, and overcome by love  — yet implacable in her hatred. Patella’s Medea is so human we can’t help but feel her sufferings; yet so obsessed that by the end, we feel we’re losing our contact with her.  As we should: She has become a monster.

As her well-intentioned but clueless mate Jason, Alex Walters delivers an accurate, almost comic portrait of the privileged male who works hard to get ahead and can’t imagine what all the fuss is about. The ensemble weaves the world around the ill-fated pair: Dale Sandler’s adamant Creon bends nicely at the crucial moment; Louise Claps delivers a stolid Nurse who can’t hide her affections; Larray Grimes’ Messenger makes us feel his shock at the horrid climax; and a Comforters/Chorus trio, led by Dawn Davis, keep Corinth real.

The staging, in Zombie Joe’s tiny black box, is artful and very effective.  From the taiko drums (Xandra-Marie Gabucan and Isaku Kageyama) to Medea’s shocking makeup, to the deft way the Comforters turn into the Chorus and back, we are made to feel the swift story’s incredibly high stakes.  And Medea’s final moment — as a dragonlike apparition (kudos to Devlin and Cristina Brunet) — perfectly translates for a modern audience the awe and horror of Euripides’ ending.

On opening night one or two nerves were noticeable, but that’s ironed out by now.  If you like horror — and are strong enough to take it straight, no sweet mixer, no ice — then step up to NoHo for Medea.  You’ll be shaken, but you won’t be sorry.
Medea, by Euripides, adapted, directed and choreographed by Denise Devin.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Fridays at 8:30,
Sundays at 7:00,
through September 11th.

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



Seeking a Smart Comedy? Try “One of the Nice Ones”

For 25 years, David Mamet’s Oleanna has reigned as the queen of dark comedies about gender roles and power in American society.

Meet the new queen.

One of the Nice Ones, by LA playwright Erik Patterson, has sharp dialog in the Noel Coward tradition, lots of lively theatricality, and more sudden switchbacks than a mountain road. And you can see it this weekend in Atwater, where The Echo Theater is giving it a world premiere.

Graham Hamilton, Rebecca Gray

Graham Hamilton, Rebecca Gray

The comic conflict occurs in the offices of a weight-loss program, between a call-room worker and her male supervisor.  She’s floridly neurotic, he’s a blooming  sociopath, and both are devilishly clever.

I won’t tell you the story.  But I will tell you that this sparkling script gets a full-speed, often effervescent performance. Rebecca Gray, as the caller, shifts shape swiftly and subtly, managing to keep her suffering real while making us laugh; and Graham Hamilton gets us almost liking a guy we wish we’d never met.  Rodney To, the hapless foil, nimbly tumbles down the steps of decompensation; and Tara Karsian brings sanity into the room twice, first as a bewildered customer and then as an Athena-like judge of the furies.

Of course, a soufflé needs whipping, and director Chris Fields keeps things astir with a steady hand.  Scenic designer Amanda Knehans captures the mood with a complex visual puzzle of a set that reveals itself bit by bit, usually in the brisk scene changes; her playfully unfolding mystery creates a fine analog of the story’s action.

The Echo always delivers strong acting and high production values. In this play, they’re working with a script that’s painfully relevant yet laugh-out-loud risible, and the result is a timely comedy that deserves to be around a long time — it really is One of the Nice Ones.

One of the Nice Ones, by Erik Patterson, directed by Chris Fields.
Presented by The Echo Theater Company, at Atwater Villlage Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 4:00 and 7:00,
through August 21st.

Tickets: <www.EchoTheaterCompany.com> or (310) 307-3753.


Wicked Wit, Rending Tragedy in “The Suitcase”

“What if we do a vaudeville routine about the Holocaust?”
“No, no.”  “Bad taste.  Insensitive.”  “That’d never work.”

Never say never to a Polish playwright.  One of that country’s most accomplished comic writers, Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk, has packed vaudeville and death camps into The Suitcase — and it works.

How?  You’ve got to see it to believe it.  And luckily, you can.  Two of LA’s best theatre companies, Echo Theatre Company and The West, are giving Sikorska’s wry tale its American premiere, and it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.

Alexandra Freeman, Vincent Castellanos (photo: Eric Keitel)

Alexandra Freeman, Vincent Castellanos (photo: Eric Keitel)

It all looks so simple.  Before a patchwork curtain, the stage is bare, save an odd object that looks like leftover pegboard bits stuck together.  An ingratiating narrator sings, tells a joke or two, then offers the tale of Franswa Jackoh, a fellow at loose ends in his retirement whose wife tells him to get out of the house.

At her suggestion, he goes to a museum.  Turns out it’s a museum of the Holocaust.  Turns out (as a lively quasi-musical number reveals) that while an art museum contains art, there’s no Holocaust here. Just photographs, names, film clips, piles of shoes …

I don’t remember the last time a joke made me laugh and cry.
But Sikorska’s piercing wit — in Artur Zapalowski’s deft translation, with the troupe’s skillful delivery — does it again and again.

Ultimately, Franswa encounters the suitcase.  Like Rilke standing before the headless bust of Apollo, he realizes that he must change his life.  But that’s all the story I’ll give away.

What I’ll say instead is that this piece of art — pared down to theatre’s bare beginnings — will tickle and shock and sting and, yes, console you.  It may even make you think about changing your life.

Director Sam Hunter keeps the actors to the simplest outlines of movement, while encouraging them to find the complexity of character Sikorska’s sketches suggest.

Jeff Alan-Lee balances the narrator’s antics between amusing and irritating, slowly letting us sense what he’s trying to balance inside; Claire Kaplan, as his pierrette, juggles forcefulness and flirtation, hinting at what may be love as she nudges the story onward.  Alexandra Freeman, the “Miserable Tour Guide,” shines at the edge of sanity, struggling to hold (and hold off) the history she’s immersed in; Sigute Miller, a psychic cafe poet, wears a many-colored coat of implied stories.  Eric Keitel’s stillness lets a single gesture be a climax; and Vincent Castellanos contains so much in Franswa’s mild manner that we both hope and fear to find what’s locked inside.

The Suitcase‘s exterior is unassuming; but within lives a powerful and provocative work of theatre.  Brilliantly written and delicately performed, this play joins wicked comedy and piercing tragedy to help us confront and deal with who we are, what we have done, and whether we dare to remember.
The Suitcase, by Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk, directed by Sam Hunter.
Presented by Echo Theatre Company and The West, at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8:00,
through August 18.

Tickets:  <www.echotheatre.com> or (310) 307-3753

[Note:  Hunter and Kaplan, the two troupe members from The West, have collaborated before — most notably in their stunning Lady Into Fox, seen on several LA stages last winter.  (My review is below.)]



Living & Dying in a War Theater: “Ajax in Iraq”

Throughout our nation’s history, large numbers of Americans have lived in war zones as active combatants.  Of course, the rest of us wonder what it’s like — what living inside a war does to people, how they deal with it.

But most veterans don’t talk about it much.  Fortunately, some do — and when they do, some folks listen.  In 1994, psychiatrist Jonathan Shay’s book Achilles in Vietnam compared what US veterans told him with what Homer said about a war 2,700 years earlier; surprisingly, he found, the Greek poet’s picture of life at war was still painfully accurate, and even helpful in finding ways for soul-scarred survivors to heal.

Ellen McLaughlin’s 2011 play Ajax in Iraq sets the experience of a new generation of American soldiers alongside another ancient war story, Sophocles’ Ajax.  She does it to inquire about Americans living and dying in the Middle Eastern conflict and finds, like Shay, that the Greeks knew war with a horrible intimacy.

Ajax (Aaron Hendry) surrounded by American GIs (photo: Sean Deckert)

Ajax (Aaron Hendry) surrounded by American GIs (photo: Sean Deckert)

This month, LA’s Not Man Apart troupe is re-staging McLaughlin’s drama.  “After 15 years of deployments,” notes director John Farmanesh-Boca — this war is now longer than the American Revolution — “the Pentagon is bracing for things to get much worse.  Our veterans cannot be ignored.”

McLaughlin interweaves the experiences of a company of GIs (mostly women) with large fragments of Sophocles’ play. This may seem odd at first — the goddess Athena onstage amid grunts wielding automatic weapons — but it turns out to be a powerful way for us to understand what our soldiers experience, and how impossibly much we expect of them.

The most powerful thing we learn is that aside from the weapons, so little has changed.

Today, just as in the ancient world, war is a place where half the people are trying to kill you, and the other half are sending you out into harm’s way.  It’s a place where you quickly feel more attached to the person fighting next to you — if you can trust them — than to anyone else in the world.

It’s also a place where some people abandon ethics and rules, and put everyone else at even greater risk.  Where some officers abuse their power freely, since there’s no recourse from their authority. Where no one who’s not in the thick of it has any idea — not even the officers back at field headquarters, who make the plans and order the attacks.

These things erode the sanity of Ajax, one of the Greek army’s greatest soldiers.  And they eat away at A.J., an American soldier who is the first of her unit to arrive in Iraq.

As the Greeks’ “lightning attack” on Troy turns into a grinding 10-year siege, Ajax watches friends slain day after day, and struggles to hang on to the code of honor. Then a high-ranking officer steals his dead friend’s armor, and Ajax snaps.

A.J. is forced into sex slavery by her psychopathic sergeant, and withdraws into a deep depression.  Her buddies worry about her, and admire — but don’t understand — the way she rushes fiercely into the most dangerous assignments.

When Ajax breaks, he goes on a “berserk raid,” killing everything he can see.  A.J., pushed beyond her limit, does the same.  When this kind of psychotic break happens to a soldier — and it often does — it wins medals … if the rage falls on an enemy position.  If it falls on a local village, it usually gets hushed up.

Both Ajax and A.J. kill symbolically, however; they slaughter animals.  When Ajax realizes he is mad, and has destroyed the Greek army’s only food supply, he kills himself.  When A.J. sees what she’s done, she also commits suicide.

Ajax in Iraq premiered off-Broadway with some criticizing it as more programmatic than dramatic.  But the Not Man Apart company wears the title “Physical Theatre Ensemble” — and they earn it.  Under Farmanesh-Bocca’s intense, energetic direction, the company creates an ongoing melee of movement, noise and stress, punctuated by sudden, disorienting moments of quiet.

This production makes us feel the grinding pressure of a war zone more viscerally than a 3-D movie with blaring speakers can.  And the lead actors — Aaron Hendry and Courtney Munch — carve out blazingly individual characters, so there’s no sense of allegory.

What we’re left with is a grueling and disheartening vision of life in war.  We watch — and feel — the way it distorts and destroys human personalities, tearing individuals from their inner roots, making them strangers in their homes and families.

This is the price of war.  Not just the body bags, not just the visible wounds — but the countless young women and men for whom staying alive in a war zone makes life unliveable.  Watching Ajax in Iraq, we cannot look away from what we have done, and are still doing every day, to our fellow Americans.

The Greeks told these stories not to recruit more soldiers, nor to amuse audiences.  They told them to indict everyone, to make the whole community feel as deeply as possible the human and moral cost of policies they had voted for, or failed to oppose.   Not Man Apart, with its shocking, powerful production of Ajax in Iraq, would makes Sophocles proud.
Ajax in Iraq, by Ellen McLaughlin, directed and choreographed by John Farmanesh-Bocca.
Presented by Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble, at Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., LA 90036.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through August 14th.

Tickets:  <www.notmanapart.com>