“Woman in Black” Set Free by Theatre Unleashed

I have not been a fan of The Woman in Black. Despite a friend’s enthusiasm, the 1983 novella failed to hold my attention. The 2012 film felt even less compelling.

Yet a stage version has been running on London’s West End for almost 30 years now. And after seeing Theatre Unleashed’s new production, I understand why.

Playwright Stephen Mallatratt (Coronation Street, The Foryte Saga) knew how to tell a story onstage. Turning the ghost tale into a two-hander is a stroke of theater genius — it locks us in a room with just these two people. And once we know each will suddenly turn into other characters, we’re on guard, our eyes on the details, holding our breath. That level of uncertainty, that tension, is what makes a thriller work. (Not jump-out scares, which were as ubiquitous in the film as flowers at a funeral.)

Spencer Cantrell, Adam Meredith (photo: Theresa Stroll)

The other thing that makes a thriller work is atmosphere. And TU’s scene designer, Ann Hurd, has created a masterpiece — she’s turned The Belfry’s wee black box into a deep cavern of gloom, filled with suggestive fragments and shadows. Indeed, the set plays as active (and surprising) a part as the actors.

In this ominous space, a distraught lawyer (Adam Meredith) seeks out an actor (Spencer Cantrell) to help him tell a tale that’s been haunting his life. As the tale unfolds, of course, both of them must help to tell it — and so begins the constant shape-shifting that keeps us on our toes. Meredith gets the lion’s share of transformations, and executes them with speed and skill that will leave actors in the audience speechless (and rather green).

The tale rockets along, thanks to the sure pacing of Jacob Smith (who led an equally taut — and more serious — thriller in 2015’s Ligature Marks).  The mystery itself is still less than gripping, but it unfolds so swiftly and skillfully that we don’t mind. And Amanda Rae Troisi adds a touch that almost makes us feel we might be hallucinating.

The Woman in Black does not offer a deep encounter with the darkness. But Theatre Unleashed gives it a ripping good ride — and this side of London, you won’t find its equal. The play (which has closed its premiere run) definitely belongs on TU’s fall calendar as a witching-season staple.
The Woman in Black, by Stephen Mallatratt (adapted from Susan Hill’s novella), directed by Jacob Smith.
Presented by Theatre Unleashed, at The Belfry, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood  91602.

Closed (for now).


Dreamlike “Wake” Explores the Disconnected Life

Most visions of the future grow from a question that begins “What if…?”.

Wake, onstage at City Garage, seems to have been bred in the soup of conjecture that claims electronic media are  making us more and more isolated. “What if the electronics take over and AI creatures become dominant while we humans, unable to work together, destroy the planet?”

Not a bad premise for a sci-fi tale. But Wake is not about eco-disaster, nor about our fear of alien domination (whether by space invaders, apes, robots, or virtual-reality avatars). Nor is it one of the many offspring of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s dark warning about the hubris of science and technology.

Jeffrey Gardner, Natasha St. Clair-Johnson, Alicia Rose Ivanhoe (photo: Paul Rubenstein)

Wake reaches deeper, peering into the human soul. Its animating question really appears to be, “What sort of beings are we?”

Irene awakens from cryogenic suspension  centuries (perhaps millennia) from now. Greeting her is May, a chirpy, curious person who turns out to be virtual. Irene, she explains, has been retrieved by The Platform, an entity that has all the resources needed to sustain her. May is one of its avatars. So is Sen, an awkward fellow we later meet. Even The Platform itself appears in a virtual persona. They’re all gently solicitous, but …

What  this hyperspace hospital ship doesn’t have — or won’t share — is information. What year is this? Where are the others? What has happened?  Irene’s pressing questions (which are also ours) are ignored, brushed aside, deferred.

Eventually, she persuades The Platform that she can handle whatever is being withheld. Her first dose of the unknown is a meeting with Sarah, who turns out to be the only other human successfully rescued so far. And, it further turns out, Sarah died decades ago — she’s yet another hologram.

Irene is thus faced with continuing life alone, perhaps for centuries, with only her caretakers and other virtual beings for company. Or she can, as Sarah has done, decline The Platform’s sustaining embrace and walk out into the ravaged world to meet death.

Once she realizes what her options are, Irene makes her choice. To playwright Gordon Dahlquist’s credit, we don’t see what it is — we only know she’s made it.

As usual, City Garage gives the story and its apparatus an elegant, powerful production. Rectilinear walkways (Charles Duncombe), reflective jumpsuits (Josephine Poinsot), and mirrored movements (director Frédérique Michel) neatly evoke the binary virtual world with a minimum of fuss. Simple, ominous projected images (Duncombe) and sound (Jeffrey Gardner) complete this unfamiliar but very recognizable “reality.”

As Irene, Natasha St. Clair-Johnson displays the bristly confusion of someone trying to cope where she can find no ground, and brings us swiftly into sympathy. Alicia Rose Ivanhoe makes May a comic delight, bearing awful news with innocence, sharing her questions and misinformation about Irene’s gone world like an eager grad student. As Sen, Jeffrey Gardner gives us a glimpse of those same qualities unredeemed by much in the way of intellect or sensitivity.

Sandy Mansson, as Sarah, smoothly leads us  from hope to the realization that she’s but an artifact of the entity’s electronic memory. And Megan Kim, as The Platform, holds the story (and its mystery) together with easy command.  She also focuses all her power — which, in this virtual world, is absolute and at first threatening — into a genuine, intelligent concern for Irene’s welfare.

Wake brings us at once into its dream, and holds us there. It is a delicate dream, though filled with the unknown’s seeming danger; and it moves us steadily onward like a dream does, allowing us only to feel the edges of the questions beneath its surface. Yet by the end, we know where we’ve been, and are grateful.

Recently, anthropologists have recognized that humankind’s distinctive feature as a species is not intelligence or tool use, but our remarkable ability to cooperate. And neuroscientists now see “a human brain” as an oxymoron — for this organ can develop and function only as part of a living network of brains (google “Cozolino”).

In Wake, the science-fictional apparatus is not the story, but brings us to the story and its animating question: Who are we without one another? This — not a fictional “What if…?” — is what we leave the theatre pondering. As we should: It’s something, in these times, that we need to think about.

[A Note about Play: While Wake explores deep matters, its touch is gentle, light — and it’s rich with humor.
Not least is the way it plays with the tropes of science fiction. For example, all the characters are female except Sen, who’s decorative but  offers no insight or even a plot point. For another, the all-powerful Platform is nurturing, caring — not an emotionless cyborg.
And then there’s the title’s wordplay. Irene does wake — not once but three times, from cryo-sleep, and then to her situation, and ultimately to her nature. Also, she and The Platform are what’s left in the wake of an eco-disaster. And finally, she is unable to mourn the people she has lost, to hold a wake.
Such lively inventiveness keeps this work a play, even as it invites us to peer into an apocalyse and into our deepest selves.]  
Wake, by Gordon Dahlquist, directed by Frédérique Michel.
Presented by City Garage, at Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2625 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica 90404.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 3:00,
through Dec. 17th.
(Dark Nov. 24 and 25, and Dec. 10.)

Tickets: <https://citygarage.org>



“Little Women” Moves into Post-WWII Los Angeles

Almost 150 years ago, author Louisa May Alcott penned a story that became an instant classic. Little Women, a fictional portrait of herself and her three sisters growing up in the Civil War and after, has been a best-seller ever since its first printing.

Now, LA playwright Velina Hasu Houston has turned the well-loved novel into a play — giving it “a multicultural transposition” along the way.  The Civil War is now World War II, recently ended; and the March family is now the Mayedas, returning to LA after nearly three years imprisoned at Manzanar internment camp.

(top) Rosie Narasaki, Jennifer Chang, (bottom) Jacqueline Misaye, Sharon Omi, Nina Harada

They are Japanese on the father’s side, Chinese on the mother’s.  His heritage got them sent Manzanar; but Chinese culture now exerts more impact, as their mother’s well-to-do aunt gives them a place to start over — the pool house of her Leimert Park home.

Their new neighbors are a black doctor and his grandson, the US Supreme Court having just struck down racial covenants in housing (Shelley v. Kraemer, 1948).  Everyone has to adjust, giving up fears and preconceptions — and some traditions.

In this new world, the Mayeda family’s abiding concern is the same as in the novel:  whom — and whether — the “little women” will marry. As in the original, feisty Jo asserts a woman’s right to pursue a career, while gentle Beth remains an unmarried homebody and dies young. Amy weds the neighbor’s grandson, Meg marries his Pakistani tutor, and Jo at last pledges herself to a Latin American writer she meets in New York.

The multiracial, polycultural mix of modern Los Angeles thus transforms the “look” of this Little Women. But Houston’s play also deals more directly with the surrounding world’s issues. Alcott’s own family were fiercely committed abolitionists, taking part in the (illegal) Underground Railroad — yet slavery appears only by implication in her novel, like a silhouette on a backdrop. Houston’s characters directly address and argue about the social issues they find themselves in the midst of — including the father’s battle with alcohol, a kind of “war wound” not acknowledged in Alcott’s time.

Still, this Little Women remains true to the original’s gently sentimental style.  It’s not Raisin in the Sun or Allegiance, though it dwells in the same era; like the novel, the play moves rapidly past its moments of conflict, and finds a happy resolution to each strand of its story (except, of course, Beth’s).

Playwrights’ Arena, which has nurtured the script, gives it a straightforward production. Irene Choi’s spare scenic design uses a chair or two, a table, and mobile panels to define the playing spaces through which Derek Jones’ lighting leads us seamlessly. Matthew Richter’s sound evokes the period, and Mylettte Nora’s costumes flesh it out.

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera keeps things focused and moving, and he and the cast manage to show us the characters’ cultures — and unwitting prejudices — without falling into stereotype. Nina Harada’s smart, passionate Jo steals the spotlight (she is, after all, the narrator). The members of her nuclear family balance her as a group, rather than individually.

As the mother, Sharon Omi brings weight to every moment (minus the  bad temper that features in the novel); Ken Narasaki provides a loving, wise father who’s immobilized by what we now recognize as PTSD. Jennifer Chang creates a  luminous Meg, the family beauty and peacemaker; Jacqueline Misaye’s Beth emerges credibly from shy isolation into her music; and Rosie Narasaki takes Amy from a whiny youngest to a self-possessed artist.

The folks outside the nuclear family hold the stage opposite Jo more easily. Karen Huie, as the generous but traditional Auntie Ming,  nicely works her way from fearful indignation to a happier flexibility. Rif Hutton, as the neighbor, Ken Ivy, as his grandson, and Peter Pasco, as the writer, each bring formidable presence and clarity to their scenes. And Jeremiah Caleb’s Mr. Bhat gives a light comic touch to his courtship of Meg.

Alcott, writing to support her starving sisters and parents, shrewdly targeted her novel to the emerging market of “young woman” readers. Houston and Playwrights’ Arena shrewdly bring their Little Women to its climax in a family Christmas scene — just in time for the holidays. And it’s good holiday fare: light, but well seasoned and pleasing.
Little Women, by Velina Hasu Houston, from Louisa May Alcott’s novel.
Presented by Playwrights’ Arena, at the Chromolume Theatre, 5429 Washongton Blvd., LA 90016.

Saturdays and Mondays at 8:00,
Sundays at 4:00,
through November 20th.

Tickets: <https:little-women.brownpapertickets.com>