“Afterlife” takes a poetic look at death and loss

In Afterlife, playwright Steve Yockey offers not so much a “ghost story” (despite the subtitle) as a poetic meditation on death and loss. In a black box in NoHo, the Collaborative Artists Ensemble is giving Yockey’s tale an inventive, often intriguing production.

The play’s most distinctive feature is that it shifts worlds between Acts 1 and 2 — from the familiar reality of a beach house to an eerie, unnamed place that its inhabitants cannot identify. The company takes full advantage of this, turning a gigantic scene change into an opportunity for magic. The house manager and an aide swiftly strip every bit of scenery (even what I thought was paint on the walls), then create the second world from scratch. The transformation kept most of us in our seats through the break.

Joshua James Nightley, Meg Wallace

As the worlds shift, so do the characters. In Act 1, we meet a young couple who’ve lost their son. They appear in Act 2, but always separately; so does their boy (now years older), a wry but unsettling postman, a giant talking raven, and two Norn-like women in outdated clothes.

The staging of this strange new world is consistently fascinating, and elegantly supports the writer’s poetic language and complex ideas (salted with humor). You really need to experience it for yourself. I’ll just say kudos to director Steve Jarrard’s production design, Jason Ryan Lovett’s lighting, stage manager Zahra Husein’s sound, Meg Wallace’s puppet-making, and some fine costume work.

Act 1’s reality is painfully familiar -– a couple struggling, with little success, to salvage their intimacy. Both are numbed by loss, but each copes with it  differently, making them feel isolated and betrayed. The storytelling here is at least as daring as in Act 2, but less visibly so. Yockey gives us the crisis, in full agony; but he doesn’t resolve it, or even “tilt” toward either parent’s way of responding.

Unfortunately, the performance of Act 1 isn’t equal to its writing. We should be grabbed emotionally and pulled into the crisis — even while, at first, we don’t quite know what it is. That takes characters we instantly bond with.

Joshua James Knightley, a newcomer, almost gives us this. His Connor vacillates between being decisive, placating, detached, unsure, and angry, as he struggles to hang onto the shattered role of family hero. At times we feel empathy with him, and at others we feel his wife’s irritation. Wallace, as Danielle, gives us less — a seldom-varying note of complaint (in a high, nasal voice and slumped posture). This rubs out the subtle colors written for her character, and blurs them into a person we have trouble caring for, though  we pity her situation.

Steve Jarrard’s direction, so strong in Act 2, is unaccountably weak here. The two actors are left facing one another far too often, blocking us out. And it seems they haven’t had enough scene work to find the range of confused feelings the words offer, or to orchestrate them into a sequence of connected moments.

In the smaller roles, the performers shine. Edgar Allan Poe IV’s Postman slides subtly between gentle mentor and heartless tour guide (rather like Robert Frost), while his Raven is by turns humorous, frightening, and deeply chilling (suggesting a famous ancestor and his dark bird). Mary Burkin’s wonderfully mad Proprietress can  sedately pour tea one moment and flash fire like an angry goddess the next (bringing to mind Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts); and Georgan George creates a Seamstress who veers wildly between gentle, tearful crooning and manic, red-faced shouting (rather like Alice’s Duchess). In his first stage role, Buddy Handleson nicely delivers a lost, loving boy who very slowly learns his fate.

Afterlife is a gentle, complex, and unusual play. It is often ironic, even playful; it is also often emotionally harrowing, even existentially terrifying. This is much more than a ghost story, and deserves time on a lot of stages.

True to their mission – which they’ve pursued now for 10 years — Collaborative Artists brings Afterlife from the silence of print into full life before an audience. They are to be thanked for giving us a challenging, poetic look at the shifting tide line where death and life meet.
Afterlife: A Ghost Story, by Steve Yockey, directed by Steve Jarrard.
Presented by Collaborative Artists Ensemble at the Avery Schreiber Playhouse, 4934 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through Nov. 12.

Tickets: (323) 860-6569, or <www.collaborativeartistsensemble.com>





The Horror! “Darkness” is wonderfully ridiculous

At the height of Victorian imperialism, novelist Joseph Conrad was over it. Angry, furious, he took aim at Europe’s most brutal empire — the King of Belgium’s personal reign of terror in the Congo.

In Heart of Darkness (1899), a man named Marlow accepts the job of finding Kurtz, a Belgian colonial agent who’s disappeared at a remote Congo River station. Marlow’s jungle quest also takes him into the darkness of the human heart — as manifested mainly by the Europeans he meets, who are more and more casually vicious and violent the farther they are from civilization’s constraints.

Marlow does find Kurz, who’s “gone native” — even putting punished workers’ heads on pikes around his hut. Kurz says royal officials won’t interfere, because he always sends lots of ivory. Pressed by Marlow, he finally relents, shouting “The horror! The horror!” and dying, apparently by his own hand.

Conrad’s novel galvanized a campaign that led the Belgian government to strip the colony from the king’s control. But the deep attitudes and self-deceptions Conrad was attacking changed little if at all.

Fast forward 80 years: After the United States spends 20 years and 55,000 lives in a war of empire over Vietnam, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola adapts Heart of Darkness for a trenchant satire, Apocalypse Now (1979). The film, a succes de scandale,  helps lead to the publication of secret war documents and the resignations of high officials.

Taylor Hawthorne, Dan Via (photo: Son of Semele Ensemble)

But how much has really changed, even now? As German playwright Wolfram Lotz sees it, not much. His 2014 radio play, The Ridiculous Darkness, draws on both Conrad’s tale and Coppola’s exaggerated satire to attack the ways colonialism — and its underlying racial and cultural attitudes — have survived.

Now, Son of Semele, one of LA’s most daring and most professional companies, has adapted Lotz’s radio play for the stage. The result:  a highly visual, madly absurd comedy that makes you wince while you laugh.

The actors (Taylor Hawthorne, Dan Via, Sarah Rosenberg, Ashley Steed, and Alex Wells) play their often unhooked characters with intense belief.  And they work with Semele’s signature harmony, monitoring each other like acrobats.  Meanwhile, director Matthew McCray keeps it all moving (through tiny spaces) like Alice in Wonderland‘s caucus race.

Hawthorne starts us off with an engaging turn as two Somali pirates. Then Via and Steed hijack the story, taking us up the Hindu Kush River (“You’ll say it’s a mountain range, not a river — but I’ve been there!”) into “the jungles of Afghanistan.”

Dan Via, Ashley Steed, Alex Wells, Taylor Hawthorne, Sarah Rosenberg (photo: Son of Semele Ensemble)

This blissful ignorance multiplies as the pair, on a secret mission like Marlow’s, encounter a manic missionary and a loopy Italian UN officer (both Rosenberg), as well as a tribe or two of natives (Hawthorne and Wells, in coconut skirts).  They find the missing officer (Wells again), and the story collapses into a brawl over who’s telling it.

As you may surmise even from this brief sketch, every bit of zaniness has its point.  And the points strike as deep into our blind spots and pretensions as Conrad’s and Coppola’s did in their day. Let’s face it — we are no better at meeting people as equals, letting them say who they are, and leaving them to run their own economies, than King Leopold was.  We just have better weapons.

The Ridiculous Darkness is a fast, funny ride, and you’ll relish the satiric points even as you squirm. Yet it’s not any less serious about its attack than Conrad was. It just sprinkles a generous dose of ground Looking Glass and Brechtian clown makeup into the batter.

Hats off to the team at Son of Semele.  Once again, they persuade us to step off a cliff with them — and hand us parasols to float down on.

A Tech Note: Son of Semele is also known for working magic with its very small space. Scene designer Michael Fitzgerald’s set is an ironic still-life: armchairs with TVs, rolling panels with bamboo curtains and potted plants, all underlining what a fantasy the colonial view of the world is. Video designer Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh fills the screens with cringeworthy jewels of racist iconography from early TV and cartoons; and sound designer John Ruml finds songs and sound bites we blush to recognize.  Vicki Anne Hales and DorothyZhu let us off easier with costumes we can freely laugh about; as does prop master Shen Heckel, who creates a symphony of kitschy objects. Lighting designer Azra King-Abadi leads us among playing areas and moods with swift clarity, and stage manager Beth Scorzato flawlessy navigates a jungle of cues. Several of these are artists I haven’t seen before at Son of Semele; but they handily sustain its tradition of excellence.
The Ridiculous Darkness, by Wolfram Lotz, directed by Matthew McCray.
Presented by the Son of Semele Ensemble, at Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., LA 90004.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 5:00,
Mondays at 7:00;
through Nov. 12.

Tickets: <www.artful.ly/son-of-semele-ensemble>



Griot Theatre’s “Accident” reveals a delicate design

When two paths collide, lives shatter.  In a fragment of a second.

An Accident confronts us with J.R. Bruce’s symmetrical, suggestive set. A hospital bed sits on one side, a bench and a plot of soil on the other. All are empty. Above the bench hangs the twin of the bed’s cover, in shreds; above the bed hangs a crumbling mass of earth. Gradually, Stacy McKenney Nor’s lights shrink until we see only a blue vase, sitting on a pedestal, between them. As Jesse Mandapat’s music rises in a tense crescendo, the vase explodes.

Kacie Rogers

When two paths collide, one or both may be ended.  But neither will be as it was.

A woman in a robe (Kacie Rogers) takes a broom to sweep up the fragments.  A man (Kent Faulcon) kneels by the plot to add soil.

The bed is hers; she lies in it, paralyzed from the neck down, bones broken, memory concussed out of her brain.  He enters, with flowers. He is the man whose car hit her.

An Accident follows the relationship that develops between them. It’s a delicate dance, blending grief, anger, guilt, fear, despair, hope, gentleness… Tracing this dance, Stryk and her actors (and director Kate Jopson) do not miss a step — they also let us realize that each is a moment, not a resting place.

As the dance nears completion, we realize there will be no happy ending. No tragic one, either. Just the look of life as the paths go on, unwinding.

The last lights narrow, focusing on a single flower (from the garden plot) in what of the broken vase has survived.

An Accident explores a most unpoetic matter  — a human body run over by a car — but does  so with intense, careful poetry.  The artists of the Griot Theatre handle it so well that at the end, we know we have found not revenge, not romance, but grace.
An Accident, by Lydia Stryk, directed by Kate Jopson.
Presented by Griot Theatre, at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 3:00,
through October 29th.

Tickets: <www.griottheatre.org>

Ensemble Studio’s “Mice” will make you uneasy

Mice in the basement.

Does that make you squirm?  Good.  That’s a hint of what Schaeffer Nelson’s Mice intends you to feel.

The new play at Ensemble Studio Theatre blithely violates taboos and sensibilities, unsettling us on a visceral level and upending “natural orders” we take for granted.

Kevin Comartin, Heather Robinson (photo: Youthana Yuos)

We start with two women being held prisoner by a mouse in the basement.  But to say any more about the story would be to give away too much.  So let’s look at performances.

The two women are Sharmila Devar (as Ayushi) and Heather Robinson (as Grace).  Each portrays a woman in extremis.  Devar crafts a smart, feisty realist — but tips her cards enough that we can feel an intriguing backstory behind the persona.  Robinson begins by coming apart, a hapless victim who’s hard to like — then takes us slowly into her hidden depths.

The mouse is Kevin Comartin.  Like a singer who’s good enough to sing badly, he operates a puppet with enthusiastic imperfection, as his character would.  But he handles his character’s shifts and revelations with quiet, believable skill.

The designers also deserve a word.  Amanda Knehans (set) and Ellen Monocroussos (lights), award-winning heavy hitters, give us a claustrophobic world that feels too dirty to touch, with lights pulsing and fading to guide us through the nightmare.  Michael Mullin (costumes) and Mike Mahaffey (fight master), equally experienced and honored, create contributions so spot-on they’re almost invisible (except, of course, the puppet, a gruesomely comic chef d’oeuvre).  And David Boman (sound) invites us onto an eerie ride and then orchestrates the jangling journey.

Roderick Menzies’ direction also impresses by being unobtrusive.  He manages the considerable challenge of two characters held in chains for most of the play (and adds a nice touch when one, after she’s freed, remains rooted as if unused to liberty).

Finally, we come to the playwright.  Nelson’s script is strongest for what it leaves unspoken, in the subtext. Both women are pastors’ wives, for example, and religion and church life are much discussed.  But the way the captor’s delusions parody faith, or the way he binds the women to him by feeding them a perverted communion, are not remarked on.  Memory’s central to the story, and the dank cellar suggests the deep unconscious where dark memories hide; but this, too, remains unspoken.

Most notably, the play’s central conceit — women imprisoned by a mouse — stirs all kinds of echoes. Among them are the adjective “mousy,” often applied to pastors’ wives; the similarly used sobriquet “church mouse”; and the old saw, “Are you a man or a mouse?” The play (and its title) force the question, yet these responses (and all others) are left untouched, for us to come up with on our own.

It’s disappointing, then, when things do obtrude into the text.  The word “Evangelicals,” for instance, is used only once; but it’s unnecessarily specific, and evokes political conflicts irrelevant to the play.  “Christians” would do just fine, and keep us in the story.  Similarly, while the name “Grace” is allowed to do its work subliminally, Ayushi tells us to say hers “I-you-she” — a bit of needless instruction, as we’ve just heard her say it.  This undercuts a clever name choice like a bad comedian explaining a joke.

I find the ending likewise overdone.  There’s no need to tell us what decision Grace makes; leaving it unmade would preserve the ambiguity the play has been so carefully building.  Uncertainty would strengthen the importance of her choice — and the play.  Closing off the options just deflates her, the moment, and the story.

Overall, this is a fine production of a promising play. Which exactly suits Ensemble Studio’s mission — to find and develop new works and new writers.  EST/LA brings together talents any playwright would die for.  And Nelson clearly has the skill needed to polish Mice into the brisk, disturbing comic drama it nearly is.
Mice, by Schaeffer Nelson, directed by Roderick Menzies.
Presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles, at Atwater Village Theater, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 4:00,
through Nov. 5th.

Tickets: <https://ow.ly/Zo0E30fljb2>








Ensemble Studio Theatre has a mission —