“Blueberry Toast” Slices Deep into our Fantasies

Edward Albee isn’t dead.  And Antonin Artaud is laughing in his grave.

Because Mary Laws is alive and well and writing plays, and the Echo Theater Company is producing them.

In Blueberry Toast, world-premiering at the Atwater VillageTheatre, Laws answers the Frenchman’s  call for a “theatre of cruelty” like Joan of Arc taking up arms for the archangel Michael.  And she presses the American master’s lacerating satire to places even he didn’t go.

It starts simply enough.  A bright, cute kitchen (scene design: Amanda Knehans) and perky music (sound design: Jeff Gardner) gently mock the suburban dream, suggesting where we’re going.  Enter Walt and Barb.  He’s floating in satisfaction, she’s smiling and attentive.

Soon, though, he casts yearning glances outside their cozy domicile,  and she looks at unguarded moments as if she’s swallowed the Franco-Prussian War and been unable to digest it.  She cajoles him into having breakfast; he asks for blueberry pancakes; she serves him blueberry compote on toast.  The glove has been thrown down.

As their marital tete-a-tete escalates to mano-a-mano and beyond, their two children, Jill and Jack, rush in and out.  They’re excited to show off a play they’re creating, one act at a time, and — except for a hilarious TMI moment  when they interrupt violent sex — fail to grasp what’s happening.

Through all three acts of the children’s play, and the brutal crescendo of their parents’ warfare, the audience is laughing helplessly, loud and long — even at the end, when Jill mourns like Electra and Jack sits stunned, an infant Orpheus descending into madness.

In Laws’ hands, the layers of wishing and pretending peel off of the suburban fantasy at breakneck speed, leaving only the dark matter of blood.  What’s remarkable is that on this ride from Disneyland into hell, she has us laughing all the way.

Laws has a precise eye and ear, and a wonderful sense of rhythm and structure.  She lets every syllable mean.  Her writing gifts are amplified by Dustin Wills’ deft, relentless direction, and by the unstinting work of the actors.

Alexandra Freeman’s Jill bounces effervescently, and Michael Sturgis as Jack follows diffidently in her wake.  Neither role could be played by a child,  and these two subtly remind us of how we infantilize our offspring, teaching them not to trust what they see or know.

As Walt, Albert Dayan is delightfully self-centered, remaining blithely clueless about anyone else’s feelings to the bitter end.  His monolog about himself (a  gentle parody of his namesake Whitman?) skewers men everywhere, and his self-righteous woundedness is a joy to behold, even as we wince with recognition.  Masterfully underplayed.

Of course, the demon in this lovely machine, the unfailing source of its energy, is Barb.  And Jacqueline Wright is a virtuoso, taking us through fifty shades of crazy without missing a nuance.   As Barb allows herself to feel  indignity after indignity, then unleashes anger after anger, we howl with laughter — in anticipation of her next act, and in her execution of it.  We know her pain too well, and feel ourselves released when she lets fly.  Barb is a brilliant but terrifyingly difficult role, and Wright gives it one of this year’s great comic performances.

Artaud wanted theatre to shock audiences out of their complacency; Albee wanted it to show us the truth beneath the stories we tell  ourselves.  Mary Laws wants to be “a badassmotherfuckingwriter.”  Echo Theater Company’s production of Blueberry Toast grants all their wishes, and presents American theater with a dark jewel.
Blueberry Toast, by Mary Laws, directed by Dustin Wills.
Presented by the Echo Theater Company, at Atwater Village Theatre,  3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 4:00,
through October 24th.
Mondays (September 19th and 26th, and  October 24th only) at 8:00.

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



“Mexican Trilogy” Artfully Tells Vital American Story

Three full-length plays in one evening?  That’s ambitious.

A century in a family’s life, spanning four generations and two cultures?  Ambitious again.

The Latino Theater Company pulls it off with panache in its newest  creation, A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story. The three plays — Faith, Hope and Charity — are onstage at downtown’s LA Theatre Center.  Using a bold scenic design (by Francois-Pierre Couture) that stacks a half-dozen playing areas in an upstage box wall; powerfully dramatic projections (by Yee Eun Nam); and a daring sound design (by John Zalewski), the LTC troupe unfolds its panoramic tale with wit and warmth, punctuating the story with adroitly chosen popular songs.

Evelina Fernandez, Olivia Cristina Delgado; (rear) Sal Lopez, Sam Golzari, Esperanza America (photo: Grettel Cortes)

Evelina Fernandez, Olivia Cristina Delgado; (rear) Sal Lopez, Sam Golzari, Esperanza America (photo: Grettel Cortes)

The cycle begins in a Mexico swept by revolution, moves to an Arizona mining town and then to Phoenix, and ends in the Los Angeles of 2005.  We follow la familia as it evolves, with the twelve actors shifting characters along the way.   Yet as family members grow and change and die, we also see how some things endure, like traditions, or keep showing up, like genes or habits.

One danger in such an ambitious undertaking is overwhelm — will we lose track of the many-stranded story, or lose interest over the six hours of its telling?  We don’t.  Every element of the production is handled so skilfully that we stay effortlessly engaged, even over the break for dinner (or as we did, from one evening to the next).

Another danger is stereotyping — moving through an entire century and 30 characters in six hours, can each person appear individual and real?  Will historic events be merely quick cartoons? Again, no problem.  As swiftly as the story moves, the playwright gives each character time to reveal inner layers, and the actors make it happen.  And the projections and sound design make each crucial moment echo long after it has passed, as such moments do in memory.

In an ensemble production of such uniformly high quality, it’s nearly impossible to single out artists. Whether handling one role (as Lucy Rodriguez does throughout, and Robert Beltran does in Charity) or several (as everyone else does), the actors demonstrate  impressive  range and versatility.  Even the playwright, Fernández, steps into four roles across the three plays.

Nothing about A Mexican Trilogy leads us to expect a musical.  So we are surprised early on when the sisters Faith, Hope and Elena manage a credible imitation of the Andrews Sisters; then they get even better; and then later, we are stunned by the solos of Ella Saldaña North and Esperanza America.  Sal Lopez — who handles a handful of roles, from young priest to aged paterfamilias to a burned-out veteran — also croons romanticos; and Julio Macias and Kenneth Miles Ellington step into power rock classics with ease.

Now three decades old, the Latino Theater Company under founder José Luis Valenzuela has matured into a troupe that can take on any challenge, as their masterful handling of this epic demonstrates.  A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story is not only a dynamic theatrical  experience, it’s a vital cultural record.  It deserves to be seen all over  this country — and perhaps Mexico as well. The only question is how many companies can match LTC’s bold artistry, or will dare to try.
A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story, by Evelina Fernández, directed by José Luis Valenzuela.
Presented by the Latino Theater Company, at the LA Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles 90013.

Thursdays (Part A) and Fridays (Part B) at 8:00,
Saturdays at 5:00 (Part A) and 8:30 (Part B),
Sundays at 3:00 (Part A) and 6:30 (Part B),through October 9th.

Tickets: <www.TheLATC.org> or (866) 811-4111.




“Anais”: New Wine Bursts the Old Goatskins

When Anaïs Nin began writing, almost 100 years ago, the literary world had no way to deal with her.

To be sure, there were liberated women in Paris after World War I — performers, writers, sexual adventurers who littered the Left Bank cafés and shone at Gertrude Stein’s salons.  But none wrote as frankly and freely about the sensual life as Nin, who claimed the same liberty — in her personal life as well as her writing– that Henry Miller was carving out for men.

anais 1

Nin had to write anonymous dollar-a-page porn to support herself.  Later, as her own works were published, readers who avidly followed her tempestuous sexual odyssey denounced her in public, punishing her with puritan prudery for daring to live an unplanned, embodied life.

Not until the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s did Nin receive more than grudging respect as an artist — and still, thirty years later, she was savaged by her first biographer.  Only now are her stormy life and work appearing onstage.

To capture this whirlwind, librettist/composer Cindy Shapiro and director/choreographer Janet Roston devised a new theatrical form — a dance opera.   “Eternal Anaïs,” a narrator  garbed like the Interlocutor of a burlesque show, weaves together 17 scenes, with a song for each; meanwhile “Anaïs,” a dancer, enacts each episode.  They’re supported by a versatile five-member troupe who dance, sing and act as needed, and by the constant flow of images and words — which were Nin’s lifeblood — on the upstage screen.

Shapiro’s music is unconventional and daring, and creates a world that flows steadily through the scenes; Roston’s energetic and often lyrical choreography similarly sustains the tone throughout. And the projections, by Joe LaRue and James Levy, are a marvel — yet they always serve the story.

Still, it’s up to two bravura performers to carry the show.  Marisa Matthews (“Eternal Anaïs”) almost never leaves the stage, singing her way — often at full belt — through a solid hour and a half.  Her focus and clarity, her ability to charm the audience, and her ease at synchronizing with recorded tracks are simply astounding.  Micaela De Pauli (Anaïs) dances a full-length modern ballet with hardly a moment’s break; she creates a character we know and follow through every subtle change, and leaves us gasping.

The multi-talented ensemble members — Denise Woods, Jacqueline Hinton, Mathew D’Amico, Quinn Jaxon, and Michael Quiett — meet equally fierce demands (and handle the scene changes) with grace. In addition, Jaxon creates Nin’s first husband, a shy banker; D’Amico blusters on as her second, a film actor and outdoorsman; and Quiett shakes her world as Henry Miller, her great mentor and lover.

Putting a whole life onstage is a nearly impossible challenge:  There’s so much to tell, and so little time.  Anaïs takes us into an incredibly complex life, and does it more effectively — and poetically — than any theatrical biography I can recall.

When you arrive the Greenway Court Theatre, you may expect to be shocked by Anaïs Nin’s sexual frankness, as generations have been. Then again, in our polygendered, polyamorous era, you may not be. But you definitely will meet her — and be stunned by the artistry of the storytelling.
Anaïs: A Dance Opera, by Janet Roston and Cindy Shapiro, directed by Janet Roston.
Presented by Mixed eMotion Theatrix and Diana Raab, at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., LA 90036.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through September 18th.

Tickets:  <www.GreenwayCourtTheatre.org> .