Dreaming in Inglewood with a Chinese Family

Why Dream in Inglewood?

This cheeky question is the name of an ambitious new LA theatre company.  And they respond by making a reality out of what seems a wild idea — staging Dream of the Red Chamber in Inglewood’s Vincent Park.

What, you may well ask, is Dream of the Red Chamber?

Chinese literature lovers know it as a classic 18th-century novel, the many-stranded, meandering tale of a noble family’s decline.  LA playwright Henry Ong (Madame Mao’s Memories, Sweet Karma) has wrestled this dragon and transformed it into four hour-long plays – the first time it has been given theatrical form in English.

Krystal Torres, Taylor Hawthorne, Longo Chu, Joe Luis Cedillo, Kila Kitu (seated), Lee Chen-Norman, Juanita Chase, Bruce Lemon (photo: Henry Ong)

Why Dream…? stages it ambitiously, in both senses of the word. The saga spreads over six hours (including two intermissions and a meal), requiring the talents of 13 actors and a musician — and it wanders (or ambits) around the park, using several areas of the large outdoor amphitheater as well as the cozy indoor Willie Agee Playhouse.

Ong and company also take on the daunting challenge of creating and keeping distinct more than 30 characters.  At the same time, they must help us hold on to who fits where in the complex web of a four-generation family, its servants, and the monks and nuns (both Buddhist and Taoist) and imperial officials who enter their life.

Surprisingly, the production is simple and unassuming.  We gather informally while the cast sits above us on a tree-shaded knoll.  Ong introduces the play, the actors — even the audience (most of whom he’s chatted with before the show, borrowing a pen to write down our names).

The actors and a musician are comfortably dressed, not burdened by ornate costumes.  They move in and out of position in full view, often shifting characters before our eyes, sometimes retreating behind a tree or a row of seats.  They chat with us on breaks, while grabbing snacks and water.

Yet, at day’s end, I was astonished at how well we’d connected with these vivid characters, their intricate story, and the formal culture they lived in.  That’s a remarkable achievement, and credit belongs to everyone involved – Ong and co-director Kila Kitu, the actors, the tireless musician/composer Long Chu, choreographer Annie Yee, the minimal but clear costume choices by Benita Elliott and Shirley Nii, and stage manager Stella Ong’s unobtrusive shepherding of the troupe, the audience and the equipment.

These artists create an ensemble, where everyone pays attention and cooperates (especially in unexpected impromptu moments).  With such a true ensemble, it’s hard to single out performers.  Still, the arresting Taylor Hawthorne (as the hero, Pau-Yu) and the elfin Bianca Lemaire (as the heroine, Black Jade) carry the central love story with seeming ease.  Each also finds ways to blend modern American speech inflections and non-verbal cues with classical Chinese gestures, so we always feel  precisely what they’re feeling and know just what they’re thinking.

Joe Luis Cedillo and Juanita Chase provide the other “backbones” – he alternating (at times instantly) among family patriarchs and minor characters; she maintaining the driving force of Phoenix, a daughter-in-law who becomes the power behind the matriarchal throne.  Bruce Lemon’s intelligent portraits of rising young men in moral crises; Kristopher Dowling’s oily self-confidence as a trickster; Kori Denise’s mercurial shifting among girls, wives and servants; and Robert Paterno’s leaps between genders, all enrich the world with individuals of every class and type.

In a time when ignorance makes anything foreign look frightening, Dream of the Red Chamber introduces us to an unfamiliar, puzzling world.  Once there, we discover people who love and lose and scheme and sorrow just as we do.  They may have lived centuries ago, halfway around the world, but after we have spent a day as guests of their family, they have become part of ours.

One of theatre’s most crucial jobs is to surprise our expectations. The artists of Why Dream in Inglewood? intend to do just that.  And they succeed.  In a city park shared with children and ice-cream trucks, they take us on a comfortable, easygoing journey into the unknown world of classical China (portrayed by actors of varying ethnicities).  We end the journey delighted with where we’ve been, unable to believe six hours have passed.  This cycle of plays, and this company, deserve a long life; we need them to help us dream.
Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin, adapted and directed by Henry Ong; co-directed by Kila Kitu.
Presented by Why Dream in Inglewood? at Ed Vincent Park, 714 Warren Lane, Inglewood 90302.


Tickets: Free, at (310) 450-9522 or  www.facebook.com/dreamoftheredchambertheplay .








Open Fist 2: Declaiming poetry with Murray

Do you know Murray Mednick?  For more than 50 years, he has been an indefatigable force in experimental (read “small”) theatre.

He began on New York’s emerging Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway stages in the ‘60’s and ‘70s, then came west to found and run the Padua Hills Playwrights workshops and festivals in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In 1996, he retired to write, churning out even more plays than before.

Mednick’s lifelong quest has been to see theatre as a literary art, with language as its heart.  He was part of a generation (Miller, Albee, Fornes) who listened to the way people talk — on the street, in the park, at the office, in their living rooms and bedrooms and kitchens – and put that on the stage. It’s hard to realize, in our era of Mamet, Shepard and Parks, that this was an idea playwrights had to fight for.

The Mednick mantle has lately been taken up by Open Fist, a longtime Hollywood troupe.  For three years, they’ve been working on a six-play cycle Mednick wrote early this century.  Collectively known as The Gary Plays, the cycle chronicles the decline and fall of an unknown LA actor; disabled by chronic anxiety, existential doubt, and addiction, he collapses when his son is murdered.

This year, Open Fist is putting all six Gary Plays onstage in Atwater (where they’re guesting while their theatre is being rebuilt).  You can see the six one pair at a time, on different days, or all at once on Sunday.  I chose the Sunday marathon – six plays in nine hours, with an intermission and a dinner break.

The pre-show is promising: Scene designer Jeff Rack (a co-founder of Wicked Lit) sets before us an intriguing broken wall of large, hanging geometric shapes; upon them, Hana S. Kim (known for her work in theatre and opera) projects cloud-like marblings of color.  John Zalewski’s sound hooks us with a meandering melodic line that we follow, irresistibly, like a mystery.  Clearly, Open Fist has enlisted some heavy hitters for this project; and they’re on their game.

Amanda Weier, Jeff LeBeau, Derek Manson in “Tirade for Three” (photo: Darrett Sanders)

Tirade for Three begins with the gentle soundtrack exploding in bombast, an almost deafening visceral analog for the inflated self-importance we will meet in Gary.  Then the two-member chorus introduces him, with an irony that escapes him, as “The King.”  For the next half-hour or so, the three exchange spotlit positions every few moments, speaking in turn, facing the audience.  They unspool Gary’s story, at times arguing, bringing to mind Freud’s image of the ego, superego, and id.  They don’t physically interact, facing us in an extreme “presentational” style – like Brecht without the circus.

Tirade feels like a trio descant on a Hamlet soliloquy, as we learn Gary’s story – his life in the world (minimal) and his life inside his mind (maximal).  He and his interlocutors wield language with facility, and often a keen edge, but always in the common register (though they may pull in a word or phrase from a higher register, such as academe or psychoanalysis, for an effect – usually ironic).  Overall, this is a fun and promising beginning: quite intellectual, but a successful experiment with an extreme form of storytelling.

We expect (or at least I did) that Girl on A Bed will add more ways of presenting story; and it does.  We meet 11 new characters — a pair of high school girls, the parents of one of them, a school counselor, Gary’s wife and son and mistress, a doctor, a drug dealer, and the Angel of Death.  (We’re not going back to black-and-white Kansas realism, Toto.)  Dan Reed’s lighting leads us swiftly among playing areas, characters move in and out of them, and the eponymous girl is wheeled about the stage.  Still, the default position is facing out; and some characters do not move at all.

Peggy Ann Blow, Jeff LeBeau, Amanda Weier in “Gary’s Walk” (photo: Darrett Sanders)

Since the first two plays began Gary’s unhinged quest to find his son’s drive-by killer, I thought we’d be following his trail after the break.  The third play Gary’s Walk, does indeed focus on his pilgrimage down the LA River to the sea with his son’s ashes.

But in the fourth, Out of the Blue, although he encounters his parents and unplugs his mother from life support, it’s the girl, Laura, who takes the center of the story’s meaning.  We follow her from Valley girl disillusion into serious despair, heroin-fueled porn acting, and death by overdose.  We learn from inside the thoughts and feelings of someone who was before seen only from outside as an object of lust, fantasy, and pity.  Her insights largely shape the cycle’s guiding wisdom.

Again, the presentation is static.  Gary’s Walk is livened by such directorial tricks as having Gary and his chorus change directions every few moments on the walk to the sea, with Kim’s starkly beautiful projections shifting behind them.  But Out of the Blue plays almost like a 16th-century masque (or a 19th-century vaudeville revue, one of Mednick’s secret vices); people sit or stand facing us, only moving to step down center to address us directly.

The final plays take us to an ayahuasca ceremony (two, actually), and a Malibu rehab resort.  In DaddyO Dies Well, Gary’s stepfather gives him a ride on the soul-revealing drug as a parting gift (while Gary’s ex-wife takes a similar trip in Peru).  His hoped-for apotheosis does not arrive, at least not onstage.  (Is it ob-scene, in the Greek sense, so powerful it must occur offstage?)

We last see Gary in Charles’ Story, clean and sober, a drama therapist at the rehab center.  He gives a mangled solo version of Agamemnon (strange therapy, in which the clients take no part), then the Malibu hills burn and everyone flees.  Agamemnon — are we to note that Gary’s world has sacrificed its best daughter in order for anyone in it to move?  As for the title: Charles is the girl’s father, banished to the rehab resort by his domineering alcoholic wife.  He doesn’t reveal his story, and I can’t guess why the final play bears his name.

Yet again, the staging is unmoving — in both senses of the word.  The monologs are “stand and deliver,” while the dialog (thanks to chairs and deck lounges) is mostly “sit and deliver.”  After more than five hours, this declamatory style palls.  To be sure, Mednick uses language — and ideas, and humor — with great skill, but these begin to feel like plays whose mother was scared by a poetry reading.

Open Fist’s troupe is impressively skilled, and they make use of every conceivable piece of stagecraft to keep the story alive.  Jeff LeBeau, Kelly Van Kirk, and Darrell Larson create a remarkable continuity as Gary in successive stages, firmly holding our empathy despite his excesses.  Derek Manson and Amanda Weier maintain Gary’s complex inner gallery with specificity and wit (while also giving life to other characters); Carl J. Johnson and Barbara Schofield deftly deliver Charles and his wife, he in strangled understatement and she with wonderfully imperious egotism.

Laura Liguori, Phillip C. Curry in “Girl on a Bed” (photo: Darrett Sanders)

And there are performances that startle with their force. In Rondell, Philip C. Curry richly embodies a laconic, laughing, addicted buddha; as Antonio, Peggy Ann Blow insinuates the leering Death Angel into every life, convincing them –and us — that resistance is futile. Norbert Weisser does a lovely, layered  turn as a sarcastic yet inadequately armored film producer.  And as the sacrificed girl, the wide-ranging Laura Liguori rises from death to  embody the most compellingly alive and insightful character of the entire cycle.  (Would Mednick be surprised?  If she’s his Iphigenia, I’d guess not.)

One other performance demands mention: Guy Zimmerman’s as director.  Guiding a company through six plays at once seems an unimaginable undertaking, yet he executes it well.  Within the stylistic unity required by the author, Zimmerman deploys a full array of theatrical techniques — working imaginatively with the designers, leading his actors deepen their characters, using movement and placement wherever possible to enhance expression. The cycle as a whole may overwhelm, but each play is strong and effectively realized.  (Out of the Blue is the weakest, due to the extreme immobility and emotional flatness of Gary’s parents; Zimmerman is so inventive everywhere else that I fear the text’s stage directions may call for this.)

Murray Mednick’s legacy is secure.  We now take for granted the uses of common speech he has never ceased to champion and explore.  And while it has its limits, the presentational style is a valuable and effective storytelling tool no theatrical artist would want to be without.  If The Gary Plays are a bit too much to absorb in a single day, let us recall that they were written over a decade, amid other works, and that their author may never have asked (much less insisted) that they appear together.

Open Fist deserves thanks — and admiration — for the consistently high level of artistry they bring to this immense project.  It’s a service to American theatre, and a rich offering to the LA theatre world that Mednick has called home to 40 years.  These plays should live in the repertoire; we can only hope they’ll be so artfully staged again.
The Gary Plays, by Murray Mednick, directed by Guy Zimmerman.
Presented by The Open Fist Theatre Company, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Thursdays (Part I: Tirade for Three and Girl on a Bed) at 8:00;
Fridays (Part II: Gary’s Walk and Out of the Blue) at 8:00;
Saturdays (Part III: DaddyO Dies Well and Charles’ Story) at 8:00;
Sunday, June 4, (Parts I, II, and II) at 12:00;
through June 10th.

Tickets:  <http://openfist.secure.force.com/ticket> , (323) 882-6912.




in an open fist: a bauble and a surprising jewel

Open Fist, a longtime Hollywood company, is summering on the LA River’s eastern shore during a facility renovation.  At the Atwater Theatre Center, they’ve unfolded all five fingers at once — a trilogy by Padua Hills patriarch Murray Mednick, and two solo shows.

The solo offerings, Cemetery Man and Don’t You Ever Call Me Anything but Mother, appear together, two pieces of jewelry on an open palm.

Bruce Dickinson (photo: Amanda Weier)

In Ken Jenkins’ Cemetery Man, Bruce Dickinson shares the musings of a fellow who’s spent his life in charge of a small town’s hilltop graveyard, and has just been handed a dismissal notice.  With wry humor, he recalls many who’ve passed under his shovel, punctuating his reminiscences with sips of liquor and potshots at the backhoe (offstage) that’s ready to replace him.

Dickinson, bearded, dungaree’d, playing his larynx like a flute from whine to growl, is an enchanting storyteller.  Jenkins and director Amanda Weier keep him moving, emotionally and physically, enough to hold our focus.  But the piece doesn’t go as deep as a good grave; like the epitaphs of Spoon River Anthology, it evokes a familiar image just this side of stereotype.  It’s a charming bauble.

Tina Preston (photo: Jen-ann Kichmeier)

Don’t You Ever Call Me Anything but Mother is something else again — a baroque pearl discovered under years of dust.  John O’Keefe’s solo sonata portrays a woman fairly far gone into alcohol and dementia.  In her squalid rooms, she strings the broken beads of her day on loops of talk aimed at her absent son, while his image flickers in her mind from child to adult and back.

The play is well-written; but Tina Preston’s  bravura performance elevates it to a memorable work of art.  Delivering half her lines offstage, modulating them into every pitch and volume imaginable, letting them sometimes slide into unintelligible mumbles and slurs, Preston gives us everything a human voice can do; and she is no less masterful and unrestrained in using her body.

This enthralling lesson in full-bore acting is well supported by Jan Munroe’s bold direction and his eye (as set decorator) for modern trash.  Andrea Fiorentini and Peter Carlstedt also deliver daring, precise lights and sound. Together, the troupe wins Don’t You Ever Call Me… a place alongside Beckett’s Happy Days, as a humorous yet harrowing cameo of the human fight against despair.

Both plays, interestingly, were first created decades ago, yet they’ve held up well, with their relevance even more pointed now.  Cemetery Man gently calls to mind the millions of folks left in the side eddies of “progress,” who’ve at last been making their resistance to change felt in our national life.  And Don’t You Ever Call Me… more painfully reminds us to “call Mom” — to tend to the tens of thousands of our neighbors who are struggling like this, unassisted, unnoticed.

Open Fist is doing a service to our theatre and our community by bringing these two short plays back onstage (especially Don’t You Ever Call Me…, which deserves a long life in the repertoire).  We’re fortunate to have these artists around, wherever they call home.
Cemetery Man, by Ken Jenkins, directed by Amanda Weier.
Don’t You Ever Call Me Anything but Mother, by John O’Keefe, directed by Jan Munroe.
Presented by Open Fist Theatre Company, at the Atwater Village Theatre Center, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8:00,
through May 31.

Tickets:  <www.openfist.org>  or  (323) 882-6912.

Working toward Gold: True Focus’ “Alchemy”

The alchemists of old devoted themselves to a quest — to transform everyday metals into gold.  The artists of True Focus Theater have bravely undertaken a similar task.

True Focus, now a resident company at the Eclectic in the Valley, invited LA playwrights to submit plays (or other writings) in any style, on any subject, for an evening of short pieces.  They asked for works far outside the ordinary — and got them.

Then they applied the skills of their company members (and friends), transforming eight divergent scripts into live theatre.  None of the eight plays is “realistic” (last century’s dominant mode).  Instead, all visit realities adjacent to — or distant from — our own, most riding on waves of heightened language.

Jonica Patella, Marietta Melrose, Sasha Snow (photo: Adam Neubauer)

We begin with a welcome speech by John Kenower that pushes pre-show announcements into the realm of the risibly absurd.

Then a whimsical notion: two fairies trapped in a postbox.  A century ago, Mailbox Fairies would have been a teacup tale to set beside Peter Pan and Water Babies.  Now, it’s a dark, intense companion to No Exit and Waiting for Godot.  Directed by Elif Savas and Josh T. Ryan, the feys fight furiously to find their lost magic and flee.  Jonica Patella and Gloria Galvan fling Cheryl Slean’s webs of words into the air with urgency, fly about with hopeless abandon, and pack comic and tragic turns into a single heartbeat.

We then have two … enacted poems, let’s call them.  Vanessa Cate (True Focus’ artistic director), in language pared to the bone, has written Let Me Be Bamboo for You and The Captain, both dialogs shared by a woman and a man.  In one, they are a couple (Monica K. Ross and Rick Brown) discussing where to dine; in the other, a sea captain (John T. Cogan) and his lonely wife (Ilona Kulinska).

In each piece, the couples speak to each other — but seldom actually address one another, either verbally or physically.  This creates a sense of yearning and uncertainty, which directors Kenower (Bamboo) and Savas (Captain) stage with wrenching (and at times
hilarious) accuracy.

Then we shift to satire — Lemon Head, a sharply written sendup of modern America’s benevolent yet military foreign policy.  Author Hank Bunker names and tosses in all the parts, but stirs them in a mad-tea-party office meeting so they’re slightly off-key, comic.  The cast (Richard Mooney, Tyler McAuliffe, Cate, Mariana Leite and Roger K. Weiss) create sharp parodies of familiar types, keeping a tight, focus-switching pace under directors Cate and Angie Hoover.

After intermission, we meet a young woman (Aleriza Navarez) who’s made her own vlog about the harsh reality of dating.  But as How to Win a Guy in One Hour progresses, our suspicions about her link to any reality are raised, then confirmed.  Cate and Hoover (the author) again direct, letting things spiral ever faster out of hand.

Bridget, written and directed by Kenower, introduces a closely knit couple snuggling and talking.  Terry (Brown) starts to tell a dream he has had, then he and Bridget (Ross) cross-talk about TV ads; they end affirming their happiness as well-targeted consumers.  It’s a swift, sweet peek at a vapid dystopia we may already inhabit.

Finally, Shayne Eastin’s Huachuca Point brings us back to poetry, but of a visionary kind.  In a post-apocalyptic Arizona, three goddess-like figures (Patella, Sasha Snow, and Marietta Melrose) are kidnapped by treasure hunters (Max Faugno and Al Brody).  But the treasure they seek — like the alchemists’ gold — turns out to hold redemptive possibilities.  Directors Eastin and Cate keep us on the path as we piece the mystic mystery together.

THTR ALCHEMY is a brief evening full surprises and promises, one that makes you eager to see what these folks will do next.  True Focus skillfully takes the common metals of our lives and transforms them into something approaching gold.  If their alchemical journey is any indication of where LA’s experimental theatre is going, we’re in for a lively ride.
THTR ALCHEMY, by various authors and directors.
Presented by True Focus Theater, at the Eclectic Company Theater, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village 91607.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
through May 27th.

Tickets:  <thtralchemy.brownpapertickets.com>

The Dance You’re Part of: LA Dance Festival #5

Note: This is a partial review, in two senses.
First, this review covers only the opening night of the Festival; it closes today (Sunday, May 14), with 7 different troupes presenting avant-garde creations.
Second, I am partial to the LA dance scene because it, like our city’s theatre scene, is so deep in talent and so rich in creative invention and daring.  I regard it as one of the most valuable gifts our city is offering to the world.

You say you don’t know much about dance?  Don’t dance yourself?

Everybody dances.  Every body dances, every day, moving through the world in countless shifting postures.  Rising from bed, getting dressed, walking downstairs, kneeling to hug a child or a pet, sitting in a car, walking upstairs, passing through hallways, waving, sitting in a chair…  Even my bedridden brother dances, with his few remaining gestures and how he fixes attention on his visitors (while they and we spin on Earth’s axis, and hurtle through space at 67,000 mph).

So you do dance, moving through your part in the Great Dance, though maybe you’ve never focused on it.  Want to start focusing?  Visit the Los Angeles Dance Festival — in one sitting, you’ll see a remarkable array of highly trained artists creating patterns and stories simply by paying attention to the ways their bodies move.

Their moving bodies will move your body, perhaps to tap a foot or swing a leg.  They’ll also move your emotions, as you feel inside yourself the stories the dancers tell.

The LA Dance Festival, now in its fifth year, presents 26 of this city’s brightest dance companies, each sharing a single short work.  The dancing styles (and the musical selections behind them) are incredibly varied, from ballet to hip-hop to jazz to abstract to … experiments so new nobody’s given them a name yet.

The opening night’s five companies accurately suggested the range and quality of LA’s dance world.

No)one. Art House began, with a flowing series of abstract patterns to sounds gathered from the radio waves that surround us.  Fragments of a talk on the Q’uran, a Christian sermon, news bulletins, songs and static stitched a jagged tapestry.  Upon this, the four dancers (Shauna Davis, Charissa Kroeger, Tiara Jackson, and Alyson Van) wove all sorts of movement — graceful and awkward, swift and slow, connected and separated, fluid and static — into a steadily evolving picture designed by Sabrina Johnson.

Next came Helios Dance Theatre, with a powerful, intimate duet between two male dancers.  To Angela McCluskey’s singing, Chris Rodriguez-Stanley and John Origines moved — most of the time almost as one — through an intense, touching  paean to commitment. This physically felt reality they created, and let us share, cut through the winds of rhetoric that whirl around us.

Invertigo Dance Theatre — masters of storytelling through dance — then took the stage, with a re-imagined excerpt from founding artist Laura Karlin’s Interior Design.  To Eric Mason’s original score, Hyosun Choi and Jonathan Bryant unfolded a simple domestic tale with a harrowing center.  By turns comic, lyrical, and tragic, the duo glided smoothly from lightness to Choi’s painfully dark solo, and then to a wiser, warmer place.  Together they embodied love’s power — when acted with courage — to hold and slowly heal anguish.

Another excerpt — from choreographer Achinta S. McDaniel’s Terpsichore in Chungroos — filled the stage with vigorous action, often moving into and out of unison with fugue-like breakaway patterns. While the ankle-bells (chungroos) suggested India, the nine dancers themselves (McDaniel, Brittany Davis, Kirby Harrell, Shoshana Mozlin, Jon Paul, David Matthew Rodriguez, Rieka Toya, Adrianna Vieux, and Bridget Wilson) evoked India’s polycultural, pattern-generating chaos with an energetic kaleidoscope of movements.

Finally, we moved outside the elegant small theatre to the forecourt, where Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre displayed their mastery of site-specific dance.  With only a metronome for sound, Teresa Barcelo and Haylee Nichele, in costumes and braids paying homage to the host Lycee Francais, moved from mysterious minimalism (a hand, a leg, slowly emerging from behind a pillar) to an almost baroque duet on the open marble terrace.  The suggestion of pupils emerging from shy arrival into skillful confidence was unspoken but unmistakable.

This was but one evening, with only five of the Festival’s 26 troupes presenting.  Yet it made an indelible impression of the astonishing range and world-class quality of dance happening in Los Angeles.
If you haven’t been watching, grab your google and find a dance presentation to attend — you’ll be amazed and delighted.
Los Angeles Dance Festival #5, co-produced by Deborah Brockus and Pierre Leloup.
Presented by 26 LA dance companies at the Theatre Raymond Kabbaz, 10361 W. Pico Blvd., LA 90064.

Sunday, May 14th, at 6:00.

Tickets:  <www.ladancefest.org>  or at the door.





A Light, Swift Hour with the Bard: “Twelfth Night”

Not sure Shakespeare’s your thing?  A bit confused by the language?  Have difficulty following the plots?  You should definitely meet the Bard in the trimmed-down, sharp-focused form Denise Devin always finds for him.

This time, she’s worked her magic on Twelfth Night, a light comedy about gender confusion — and what hides under the strait-laced coats of puritans.  In this play, almost nobody is what (or who) they seem, and almost everybody falls in love with the wrong person.

Nick Abrell, Branda Lock, Zoe Canner, Kerry Kaz

We’re in Illyria, a mythical kingdom by the sea, where twins – Viola and Sebastian – have washed up on separate shores in a shipwreck.  Each fears the other is dead.  He, rescued by the sailor Antonio, resolves to search the city; she, knowing she’ll be vulnerable as a woman, decides to mourn her brother by taking on his appearance, complete with mustache.

She quickly finds a job (this is a fantasy, after all) with the local Duke; he sends this handsome new page to woo the ice queen Olivia on his behalf.  Alas for Viola, her heart isn’t in it; she’s fallen in love with her employer.  And of course, when she, as Cesario, makes the Duke’s plea, Olivia melts — with love for the messenger.

Meanwhile Sebastian, innocently mistaking Antonio’s love for intense friendship, lets his new pal guide him into town (Antonio’s been here before, and fled under a death sentence, but – all for love).

Carlos Chavez, Tomas Dakan

We also get to know some less noble folks in Olivia’s house – Sir Toby, her carousing cousin; Sir Andrew, a rich young fool in his clutches; Maria, her lady’s maid; and the steward of the estate, a humorless prune named Malvolio (“ill will” in Italian).  Malvolio tries to evict the drunken sirs, but shrewd Maria turns the tables.  She plants a forged letter confessing Olivia’s love for her servant, urging him to seize the day by dressing gaily, dancing, and madly smiling.  Which Malvolio does, goaded by his ego and his lust — for his mistress, and for the power that would come with sharing her title.

All things collide in near disaster; and all is happily resolved, in a round-robin of love and marriage (for everyone but Malvolio, who vows revenge; and Antonio, who’s 400 years ahead of his time).

The proceedings are fun, fast, and – here’s the miracle – easy to follow.  Devin manages, yet again, to edit the Shakespeare and prepare her actors so that hardly a line is lost.  The performers are lively and persuasive; they know what they’re saying, and why they’re saying it.

Branda Lock and Tomas Dakan actually look like twins, and share contagious affection when onstage together; Nick Abell gives a crisp, calmly commanding Orsino; and Zoe Canner’s Olivia is a flute-voiced vision in a cloud of lace ruff (tip o’ the hat to Devin, Lisa Peters and Jeri Batzdorff for the costuming).

Sir Andrew and Sir Toby are usually played as plastered, crude buffoons; but these fellows are more like Laurel and Hardy.  Roger Weiss’ Toby has enough wits about him even when drunk to try to manipulate things, and Zack Zoda’s Andrew is wonderfully puffed up, and sweetly oblivious to his shortcomings.  Kelsey Arnold is a bit subdued as the tart-tongued fool, Feste, while Nicole A. Craig’s Maria is anything but, stepping in boldly and wittily to manage the lesser minds around her (and win her secretly sought prize).  As Antonio, Carlos Chavez brings bouncing energy and touching sincerity to his hopeless love.

Finally, there’s Malvolio.  (Many have said the play might better wear his name.)  Kerry Kaz creates not the sour, moralizing outsider we so often see, but a bustling, officious fellow at the center of things who’s blithely confident that he deserves his power – and sure that we and all reasonable people must share his prejudices.  Kaz cuts a figure more unreflectively foolish than joyless or bitter, like a game-show host who’s egregious and doesn’t know it.

When it was written, Twelfth Night – like its characters – was other than what it seemed.  A madcap comedy set in fantasyland, it nonetheless sharply mocked the Puritans who had seized control of London’s political life, and painted a less than flattering picture of the gentry they’d elbowed out of power.  And it played havoc with the gender rules of the day.  In many ways, it’s just as subversive today, as our times have come to resemble Shakespeare’s more than we wish they would.

But Devin – like the Bard – knows how to float swiftly past the barbs, so you hardly notice they’ve landed.  And the result is a light, swift hour with Shakespeare that you will understand, and enjoy, and most likely remember long after the Puritans have given up and gone home.
Twelfth Night, or What You Will, by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Denise Devin.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Friday at 8:30,
Sunday at 7:00,
through May 14th.

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

Signifying … Everything: “MacBeth in Rhythm”

In the last two years, I’ve experienced at least five productions of the Scottish play.  Obviously, not to learn the story — it’s so deep in our culture that we know it even if we don’t know we do — but to see what new ways we can find to explore it, and to share what we find.

Until now, Caitlin Hart’s taut, spare re-imagining for The Vagrancy last fall [see my review, “Something Wicked…,” below] has stood as easily the most exciting and artistically powerful.  Among its many strengths is Hart’s reshaping of MacBeth as a physical story, making movement equal to the famous words. Her witches, for example, writhe through the world almost silently as they alter it.

Well, now Hart has a compeer — Hannah Chodos, whose small, unnamed ensemble is at The Shakespeare Center this weekend, sharing the fruits of their four-month exploration.  Chodos and her six actors began by looking at the 410-year-old text as music, focusing on its ebbs and flows — how Shakespeare’s finely crafted rhythms carry us through the highs and lows, swifts and slows of his turbulent, emotional tale.

Emmie Nagata, Ben Weaver, Lindsey Moore Ford, Danielle O’Terry (photo: Rob Strong)

(For example, most characters speak in iambic pentameter, five beats to the line, the default mode of Shakespeare and most English-language poets.  But the witches talk tetrameter — four beats to the line — an older rhythm, common in the Middle Ages, that sounds abrupt and choppy amid five-beat rhythms .  And the Porter, whose rant at the castle gate stops all the action at a crucial moment, speaks in prose, which utterly breaks up the rhythms.)

As a result of their work, Chodos’ witches move — in close rhythms, often punctuated by their wooden staffs — far more than they speak. Nearly all the words they do utter are sung, in languages few will recognize.  This makes them, and their story, unspeakably ominous, mysterious — and yet, somehow, uncannily familiar.

The other actors also do far more dance-like moving than speaking, creating dramatically lit and shadowed moments like film noir or Noh drama.  We hear surprisingly few of the play’s speeches:  But we don’t need them, for the moving dance-drama eloquently tells us (or reminds us of) each successive part of the tale.  This version also ends suddenly, at a perfect moment, as the main arc is completed.

Of course, such intense work requires incredible skills — and focus — from the tiny ensemble.  They deliver, following one another’s every move and breath with predator-like attention, coordinating and adjusting with flawless speed.  And always in rhythm.

The rhythm’s bass-line is supplied mainly by using the stage as  a drum, played on by wooden staffs or the actor’s feet.  Against this background the actors, like jazz musicians, partially improvise their movements and the rhythm of their verbal lines.  (The singing, which involves close choral harmonies, is more fixed; yet it sounds as if it’s growing organically.)

Each ensemble member accomplishes varied, stunning work. Danielle O’Terry, a Hecate-like witch, transforms (under a sheet on a table) into the drunken Porter, drawing more laughter from the role than anyone ever has.  Ben Weaver’s MacBeth rushes confidently into a world where he gets more and more entrapped, terrified by what he discovers in it — and in himself.  When, early on, Emmie Nagata’s witch turns into Lady MacBeth, she is tortured and twisted by another witch’s touch while her husband reads aloud about his prophesied kingship; as the temptation distorts and damages her, we feel in our bones where her road must go.  James Cowan, Lindsey Moore Ford, and Sam Breen likewise sing, speak, and shift fluidly from role to role.   And all six manage the minimal scene-shifting, making its noises part of the ongoing soundscape.

Supporting the actors are some excellent technical artists.  Bosco Flanagan’s light design participates forcefully, throwing our vision where it belongs and shadowing rest of the world in omens, without ever drawing attention to itself.  Amanda Wing Yee Lee’s costumes are wonders of expressive simplicity, allowing movement and adding meaning.  I smiled when the witches appeared in their black-skirted leotards; when the men arrived in longer black skirts (subtly echoing the kirtles of ancent Scots), I laughed aloud.

The striking sound design developed, Chodos says, collaboratively.
It arose in rehearsals, from the rhythms the group found in the text, from East European folk songs she encountered in her training with Poland’s Song of the Goat troupe in Wroclaw, and even from the grunts and sighs that punctuated her actors’ movement exercises.

Chodos’ compression of Shakespeare’s text is the most daring I’ve seen (even beyond Denise Devin’s hour-long version for Zombie Joe’s, just two years ago this week).  But it works — because the constant flow of movement, and the chanting and singing, have all grown from the rhythms in the language and the shape of the story.

MacBeth is an old, dark tale; MacBeth in Rhythm is a surprisingly fresh, startlingly beautiful telling of it.  Anyone who loves the Bard — or who cares at all about expanding the ways we tell stories onstage — should make a point of seeing it.  It’s only at The Shakespeare Center this weekend, so hurry.
MacBeth in Rhythm, by William Shakespeare, adapted by the company, directed by Hannah Chodos.
Presented at The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 1238 W. First St., LA 90026.

Friday (May 5th) at 8:00,
Saturday (May 6th) at 2:00 and 8:00.

Tickets:  <www.shakespearecenter.org>

Note:  MacBeth in Rhythm is also a testament to the need for the kind of resources that artists in many other countries enjoy — mainly space and time, more than money.  A two-month residency Highland Park’s PAM, and the current residency at The Shakespeare Center (as part of its “Year of MacBeth“), enabled the group to grow their work from a few scenes to an entire play, without having to pay rent.


“Awful Grace”: We Can’t Care about 2-D People

I don’t do negative reviews.  But sometimes, as critics, we encounter things that must be addressed.

Let’s be clear:  The Awful Grace of God, at The Actors’ Company, does not raise ethical issues that demand censure.  These aren’t sharks after your money, in return for phoned-in posturing.  Nor are these earnest beginners, paraded before family, friends and  “industry people” by unscrupulous “teachers.”

The folks in this show are professionals, with solid resumes.  And they’re clearly serious.  They have a story to tell (a half-dozen linked stories, actually), and everyone gives full-out effort, from designers to actors, in parts large and small.

Bechir Sylvain, Curtis Belz.

And yet … and yet … I left at intermission.

I’d come to the theatre eager and curious; but the first three pieces left me feeling drugged, numb.  Striding around outside, breathing deeply, I coaxed myself:  “Come on.  Don’t you want to see where this is going, what becomes of these people?”  The answer was “No.” Before I reached the car, I was wrestling with “Why not?”  And I still am; hence, this review.

As I considered the people I’d just met – two guys on a stoop in Queens, an older couple at a summer cabin in midwinter, a young couple in a cheap motel — I realized I didn’t quite believe in them, and felt perhaps their author didn’t either.

The actors in the first play, Off, came the closest.  Curtis Belz, as Joe, and Bechir Sylvain, as Stan, kept hooking me with little surprises; I felt like Stan, who’s unable to break off the conversation and leave.  Playwright Michael Harney turns his cards over very slowly, one by one – but Belz and Sylvain play them with panache.

Then we’re outside a cabin, while Dodge (Tim DeZarn) blusters and Ellen (Jean Venable) shivers.  They’re on an annual pilgrimage in honor of someone who’s left a hole in their lives.  But they don’t talk about him (though each, when alone, talks to him).  Instead, they chat and squabble, have sex, and drink coffee.  That’s Surrender.

Then we’re in a motel room with Rose (Agatha Nowicki) when  Willy (Johnny Whitworth) bursts in with a bagful of money.  She’s not thrilled, she’s worried.  Turns out she’s right; he got it for killing someone.  She packs and heads out.  He throws her onto the bed and forces sex with her, magically making her fall in love again.  Then a thug walks into their room, shoots them and takes the money.

“Gratuitous.”  “Unearned.”

These apply most obviously to the killing of Willy and Rose.  We’ve learned nothing about who Rose is, or why she’s with Willy, or in this motel room; we learn no more about him.  They don’t have lives, or histories.  Instead of meeting a fate that might be “awful grace,” they’re simply slaughtered.

With Dodge and Ellen, too, we only get what we can glean in the moment.  The reason they’re enduring this graceless winter is so important they can’t even speak about it.  Yet we never learn what it is, who “he” was; nor do we learn who either of them is, has been, hopes to be.  They remain strangers to us.

Joe and Stan do eke out some of themselves.  We learn that Joe’s a wounded vet, who’s never recovered his health or become a part of civilian life; we learn that Stan has given up his dreams to work as a mob enforcer.  We expect something more — we get Joe’s suicide.  With no sense of why it happens now, instead of at any other time.

Gratuitous.  Unearned.  Things that happen because they seem dramatic.  (Not only death, but also, sex:  In two of the three plays, we sit through a complete sex act.  Only one can be said to add anything to the story, or our sense of who these folks are.)

The climax of a play is dramatic — moving or meaningful — only if we know and care about the characters.  Harney’s program bio suggests that as a social worker and prisoner advocate, the people he’s writing about became very real to him.

He now must make them real to us.  If we’re to feel “awful grace” falling upon them, we need him to take us deeper into their lives.
Or else we’re just watching cardboard cutouts burn in a pretend apocalypse.  If people we care about are cruelly used by the fates, we’ll feel the abrupt injustice of it — we won’t need masked strangers with guns leaping on and offstage.

Deepening characters does, of course, take time; but this is theatre, not TV (where Harney and most of his cohort have spent the bulk of their careers).  A scene ends when you say it does, not when it’s time for an ad break.  No hurry.

And by the way, part of a character’s being real is her or his having basic human dignity, even if another character is trying to take it away.  When Willy rapes Rose into docile submission (a horrid old trope), it’s the playwright who’s taking her dignity away.  I wanted to shout, “What rock have you been living under?”  Well, he has been pushing the boulder of a hit TV show uphill every week …

A final note:  We rely on the director to integrate all the elements, like a conductor blending an orchestra.  But Awful Grace’s ambient sound competed with the actors – who were projecting just fine — and sometimes overwhelmed them.  Similarly, moving furniture between scenes slows the show’s rhythm, pulling apart stories that want to be tied together.

The Awful Grace of God isn’t yet a successful play (or series of plays). But it isn’t a failure, either.  It deserves a rewrite, one in which the author takes advantage of the time theatre allows to develop real, three-dimensional characters worthy of his actors and his other collaborators.
The Awful Grace of God, by Michael Harney, directed by Mark Kemble.
Presented by Go the Distance Productions, in the Other Space at The Actors’ Company complex, 916 N. Formosa Ave., LA 90046.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00;
through May 28th.

Tickets:  <www.plays411.com/graceofgod>  or  (323) 960-7784.