Fringe Feast #4: “Normal” asks what isn’t, and why

Normal, huh?  Intriguing title for a play about a serial killer; and it’s produced by The Vagrancy, whose work is always challenging.

The set (by Hillary Bauman) is intriguing, too.  Stairs upstage center lead to a curtain; four square pillars at the sides (where wings would be in a larger house) flash red and white light into the stage.  A man stands atop the stairs, his back to us.

In semi-abstract style, three actors (Arthur Keng, Steve Madar and Carolyn Deskin) unwind a tale that at first seems linear; but its narrative structure evolves into what you’d have if you tried to make a spiral with string and gave up.  (This is not at all a  criticism.)

Steve Madar, Carolyn Deskin (photo: Wes Marsala)

The case is unfamiliar to most of us (though it was infamous at the time, and Fritz Lang based his classic noir film M on it).  In 1929, a man terrorized the German city of Düsseldorf, murdering nine people and severely wounding more than two dozen others.  An admirer of London’s Jack the Ripper, he taunted the police with clues and letters.  Unlike his idol, he was swiftly caught and tried — having urged his wife to turn him in for the substantial reward.  Apart from her, he admitted to no feeling for any other person.

Normal pursues two questions:  (1) What might account for such utterly depraved emotions and behavior?  (2) What is the difference between a person living in such extremity and the rest of us?

These are the obvious questions, and Anthony Neilson’s text goes after them in ways both customary and unusual.

Of course, we learn about the hellish childhood of Peter Kurten (Madar), including his one human attachment — to a sadistic local dogcatcher.  At the same time, we watch as our narrator, tyro defense attorney Justus Wehner (Keng), falls prey to his client’s amoral manipulations.

While Kurten recounts losing (or failing to acquire) a conscience, gaining instead only hatred and ravening need, Wehner loses his ethical (if not his physical) virginity.  In scenes part reality, part dream, the attorney falls in love with, seduces, and murders his client’s wife (Deskin).  At his client’s behest.  By the end, Wehner is pleading empathy for the boy who became a killer.

The play keeps our interest, tightly directed (David Mancini) and performed.  The sound (Matt Richter) and lights (Jenna Pletcher) hold us close in mood and place.  Yet Neilson’s mental and moral explorations never reach outside the box like the stagecraft does.

His opening metaphor — an automated carnival machine in which Kurten stabs the children who drop in their coins — is never explored or paid off, only repeated.   He lets us hear the horrors of Kurten’s youth, but nothing makes us feel them (the suave, malicious man tells us of it, not the boy).   Wehner’s descent into his inner darkness is shockingly well staged — but it only yields a rant blaming “society,” instead of making us feel complicit.

Normal adds another fine production to The Vagrancy’s impressive track record.  I only wish the playwright had dug as deeply into his material as the performers do.
Normal, by Anthony Neilson, directed by David Mancini.
Presented by The Vagrancy, at The Lounge Theater, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

Saturday (June 24) at 8:00 pm.

Tickets: <>



Fringe Feast #3: “Nicky” Drags, “Buffy” Slays

Fringe shows often focus on the tastes of a particular fan base.
Here are two such, one for Chekhov lovers, one for vampire nerds.

Daniel Kaemon, Emily Swallow, Cyrus Wilcox, Chris Aguila, Taylor Hawthorne, Mark Jacobson, Alexis Genya, Jeremy Lelliott (photo: John Klopping)

Nicky:  Wilting in the Palm Springs Heat

Playwright Boni Alvarez loves challenges.  Last year, he told a comic horror story:  Tourists meet real witchcraft on a Philippine island (Bloodletting – see my review, below).  It worked.  We laughed and shivered, and came away with our sense of reality altered.

This time, he’s transformed Ivanov, an early Chekhov comedy, from rural Russia to a bevy of emigres in Palm Springs.  Besides ennui, these well-to-do but clueless folks are immobilized by the desert heat.  It’s a clever idea; so is turning the shirt-tail niece who seduces Ivanov into Nicky’s gay nephew, and filling out the house party with the lad’s oh-so-millennial college friends.

Their youthful energy manages to keep things moving.  But ultimately, despite some impassioned monologs, we can’t quite feel the demons that have Nicky and the other adults in their grip.  This isn’t Alvarez’s fault:  Finding the egotistic energy beneath a character’s self-deception or self-flagellation is no easy trick. Chekhov’s comedies always threaten to collapse into depressed tragedy as a result, and he and master director Konstantin Stanislavski fell out over this very issue.

Still, Coeurage Theatre Company gives this world premiere their best — and they’re some of the finest professionals on the LA stage. The set design (Benoît Guérin) and costumes (Karen Fix Curry) clearly set us in the desert resort, the lighting (Azra King-Abadi) and sound (Michelle Stann) create a blaring bright world for these poor folks to try to survive in, and the direction (Beth Lopes) is crisp and clear.  The actors pour their energy and wit into the piece.

If you love Chekhov, you’ll get tickle after tickle out of the ways Alvarez has found modern analogs for the 19th-century Czarist world.  But this isn’t probably the place to meet the great ironist: The Palm Springs heat stifles our empathy, wilting his comedy.
Nicky,  by Boni Alvarez, directed by Beth Lopes.
Presented by Couerage Theater Company, at the Greenway Court Theatre,  544 N. Fairfax Ave., LA 90036.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm,
through July 1.

Tickets:  (323) 673-0544  (Free parking in next-door lot.)

*****                                                      *****                                                     *****

Sherry Berg, Lauren Sperling (photo: Daniel J. Sliwa)

Buffy Kills Edward:  When Vampire Worlds Collide

Vampires and high school girls.   Is that a  thing?

It’s enough of a thing to propel Laura Wiley, composer for last year’s smash parody, Winter Is Coming, into taking on a bigger challenge. She’s written the book, music, and lyrics for — and produced and directed– a musical parody mashup of the two best-known worlds where campus queens consort with creatures of the night.

The title — Buffy Kills Edward — gives away the precipitating event. After the teenage Slayer from the turn-of-the-century TV series (Laura Berg) vanquishes the glittery hero of the Twilight novels and films (Casey Suddeth), all of both hells breaks loose.  (Or most of it: Fans at one point began shouting to see their favorite minor characters, and were rebuffed smartly. )

As with any parody, the more you know about the story — in this case, numerous stories in two very different fictional worlds — the more jokes you’ll enjoy.  But this story tells itself clearly, including sharp meta jokes about the telling process on the stage and in TV, books and movies.  (The retired couple next to me, who were 50 when Buffy came out, laughed and cheered.)

Wiley’s storytelling is helped by some crackerjack resources borrowed from the house’s resident troupe, Cherry Poppins. Most notable are a remarkably skilled band — Krishnan Swaminathan, Ray Rojo, and leader Sandy Chao Wang  — and the feisty acting and incredible singing of Kim Dalton.  (I confess it: After seeing Dalton, and a Wang-led band, in two shows, I’m hooked.  These are stellar talents; enjoy them as soon as you can.)

It would be foolish to try summarizing the plot of Buffy Kills Edward. Suffice to say Wiley and the troupe sustain a lively, silly romp that’s both tribute and satire at once.  Also: Wiley has a gift for songs that focus and advance the story, and makes very effective musical use of differing characters and motives.  She also has a keen wit, and an eye for a story’s weak points — her own as well as other authors’.  We may be watching the birth of a one-woman Gilbert & Sullivan here.

Buffy is great fan service, and good fun for everyone.  It may not be at the same level of complex achievement as Cherry Poppins’ stunning  Shakeslesque, currently on the same stage.  But it’s not supposed to be; and what it does, it does very well.  (And it’s good to see these highly original artists joining forces — we’ll all be the richer for it.)
Buffy Kills Edward: A Musical Romp, written, composed and directed by Laura Wiley. Presented by Wiley Original Musicals, at The Three Clubs, 1123 Vine St., Hollywood 90038.

Thursday (June 22) at 7:30 pm.

Tickets:  Sold out, but worth a try:  Get on standby and grab a drink.


Fringe Feast #2: Parodies, Puns Pop – “Shakeslesque”

If you’ve never seen a show by Cherry Poppins, this year’s Fringe has a treat you’ll savor.

The troupe, resident at The Three Clubs, has won a name for making interactive comic musical theatre that blends parody and burlesque, at a very high level of showmanship on a very small stage.  Actually, that’s “show-woman-ship,” since the company and its productions
flow from the fertile minds of Alli Miller and Sarah Haworth Hodges.

This midsummer, the daemonic duo has dreamed up a Shakespeare fantasy.  Shakeslesque: To Thine Own Cherry Be True almost beggars description.  (But I’ll try.)

(photo: Daniel J. Sliwa)

It’s an elaborate, rambunctious romp through the fever dream that supposedly gave the Bard his stories.  Stuffed full of horrible puns, it pops parody shots at a huge portion of Shakespeare’s plays and poems.  In two fast-forward hours, it dashes through a daft plot that tangles up countless characters and tales, punctuated by dozens of incredibly well-staged musical numbers, most with disappearing dress.  (And those costumes — innumerable, complex, and perfect.)

Watch for top-of-the-line burlesque dancing, powerhouse singing, constant campy humor, love and sex in all their forms — even the band (led by Sandy Chao Wang) is magic!  And if you don’t fall in love with a fairy or a witch or a prince, you need a drink.  Personally, I was swept away by Kim Dalton’s vocal and comic chops as all three witches … and K. C. Lindley’s genial, snarky, gender-fluid Fuck the Fairy … and Taylor Olshansky’s rock belting … and the way Alli Miller (as Juliewet) and Michael Shaw Fisher (as Willie and King Queer) inhabit the stage with audience-grabbing authority … and … you get the idea.

This kind of madcap fun fest can’t be done better, with higher spirits or more meticulous attention to detail, than Cherry Poppins does it. The standing O was immediate, unanimous, and deserved.

There are two more performances.  Be there!!
Shakeslesque: To Thine Own Cherry Be True, written and directed by Alli Miller and Sarah Haworth Hodges.
Presented by Cherry Poppins Productions, at The Three Clubs, 1123 Vine St., Hollywood 90038.

Wednesday (June 21) at 11:00 pm,
Friday (June 23) at 11:00 pm.

Tickets:  <>

Fringe Feast #1: “Witches” Is a Sweet, Funny Appetizer

Fringe 2017 has begun – and this is the week of previews.
Spread out like hors d’oeuvres, the previews offer an early taste
of the immense feast ahead.

My first sampling is a piece I wanted to see when it debuted at Son of Semele some months ago — Why We Become Witches, adapted from Sylvia Townsend Warner’s classic novel Lolly Willowes.

Laura, a shy, pleasant British matron, takes a breath then plunges into telling the story of her disappearance.  But it’s not a mystery.
A vibrant young country girl, she’s suddenly orphaned.  Her brother and his wife take her into their London home — and she starts fading away, shunted to a small upstairs room, given no role in the family except “Auntie” to the children.  As she ages into spinsterhood, even her name disappears, “Laura” giving way to the childlike “Lolly.”

After a series of shocks (including World War I), Lolly realizes
she must seize her life or lose it.  Over her brother’s objections,
she moves to a tiny rural town where she gradually develops an intense relationship with “Him,” the animating spirit just beneath
the surface of the natural world around her.

Lolly’s gentle flowering into witchcraft has as much to do with the Celtic Green Man as with Satan (the name she calls “Him”).  And by her tale’s end, she’s diffidently voicing critiques of patriarchy as trenchant as any by Virginia Woolf or Germaine Greer.

The versatile Lisa K. Wyatt creates a Lolly we can’t stop watching and listening to, whose unassuming discoveries, step by step, keep us smiling, at times laughing, and always convinced.  Director Kate Motzenbacker nicely uses the small space, teacups and flowers to contain and then gradually release Lolly.

Why We Become Witches is a faithful, delightful distillation of Warner’s much-loved novel; in fact, Motzenbacker and Sal Nicolazzo have achieved the impossible, bringing it down to not much more than a half-hour.  And therein lies my major criticism: It was over far too soon.  I’d love to spend longer with Lolly.
Why We Become Witches, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, adapted by Kate Motzenbacker and Sal Nicolazzo, directed by Motzenbacker.
Presented by Dana Leigh Lyman, in The Studio at Sacred Fools Theater, 1078 Lillian Way, LA 90038.

Friday, June 9, at 9:30 pm;
Sunday, June 11, at 9:30 pm;
Thursday, June 15, at 11 pm;
Sunday, June 18, at 2:00 pm;
Friday, June 23, at 9:00 pm;
Sunday, June 25, at 12:00.

Tickets:  <>

“Archipelago”: Semele’s Disturbing Dream of Love

“Happily ever after.”

We imagine love, once found, as a continuing, day-to-day process that either lasts or doesn’t.  Playwright Caridad Svich offers a radically different image:  a string of islands.

In Archipelago, receiving a masterful US premiere at Son of Semele, we follow  two unidentified characters through a series of intense, unplanned meetings.  Their paths collide in unnamed places, mostly urban, at long intervals.

Michael Evans Lopez, Sarah Rosenberg (photo: Mainak Dhar)

Each meeting, by itself, would be a memorable affair.  But taking them together — as this couple must do — raises pesky questions. Will the relationship continue?  Will it deepen?  What do they want of one another?  Does either owe something to the other?

Such questions arise in every love.  But by casting her characters adrift on a sea of chance, Svich deprives them of a past — the slow accumulation of memories, moments, and secrets that a couple creates, like a nautilus surrounding itself with a shell.

Every time these two meet, they are caught in the fleeting present, and pressed by the swiftly arriving future; they don’t get the comfort of imagining they know each other, or their relationship, very well. They reach for scraps of memory, glad even to renew an old debate; but it’s not enough to let them feel secure together.

Surrounding these anxious, amorous islands in time are all the turmoil and terrors of our age.  The lovers fight to communicate amid the roar and bustle of a metropolis, or crawl into a cave to escape the bombing of an impoverished city.  Centuries removed from Romeo and Juliet, they do not know whether their love can claim a right to exist.

It would be wrong to call Archipelago an affirmation.   Love, in this  too-familiar world, does not conquer all; it may not survive, or even really begin.  We can seek it, think we’ve found it, take terrible risks to hold onto it … but we only have the power walk away and fail. Succeeding, or even getting a second chance, is not really up to us.

At the same time, however, Archipelago is no suicide note.  It is, as its author insists, a love story.  It has no happy ending; no ending at all, in fact. Yet at the end we, who’ve seen the horrors of the last century and now face the terrors of this one, remain hopeful that love is at least possible — or worth trying for.

Svich, who adapted the “magical realism” of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits for the stage, again sets us afloat between worlds. And the Son of Semele troupe skillfully invokes the eerie, uncanny beauty the ancient Celts revered in places where the faerie realm meets our own.

For all the harsh terrors it evokes, this play flows like a magic river, or a dream.  We swim through the half-real, half-evanescent scenes created by Meg Cunningham (set), Alexander Le Vaillant Freer (lighting), Katarina Pagsolingan (projections) and John Nobori (sound).  Always, we are led by the almost invisible artistry of actors Michael Evans Lopez and Sarah Rosenberg, who grasp and recoil, embrace and avoid, in a thousand subtle ways.  (And they are led by the completely invisible artistry of director Barbara Kallir.)

Son of Semele has earned a reputation for imaginative, surprising
theatre across a widely variety of styles.  In Archipelago, they give one of America’s master playwrights a premiere worthy of her lyrical yet disturbing new work.
Archipelago, by Caridad Svich, directed by Barbara Kallir.
Presented by the Son of Semele Ensemble, at the Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., LA 90004.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 5:00,
Mondays at 7:00;
through June 18th.

Tickets:  <>  or
(213) 351-3507.