“Last Session”: Freud and C.S. Lewis Debate, Don’t Dig

In a quietly elegant London office, two highly educated men meet. One is a cynical atheist, the other a recently converted Christian. Both care passionately about where human life is going, but they disagree about almost  everything in Earth and heaven.

While they argue, hell arrives. It’s the first week of September 1939, and World War II interrupts them — first with radio broadcasts, then with air-raid sirens.

It’s a great moment. And these are great characters — Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, in the final weeks of his life, and C.S. Lewis, one of Christianity’s most effective modern spokesmen, months before his sudden rise to fame.

Martin Rayner, Martyn Stanbridge (photo: Enci Box)

Playwright Mark St. Germain brings them together (they never met in real life). The Oxford don isn’t seeking Freud’s counsel about his life, professional or intimate. Nor is the Viennese doctor, ravaged by oral cancer,  looking for spiritual guidance.

Herein lies the play’s one weak spot — and alas, it’s a major one. The characters are compelling, but they do not meet for any compelling reason; there’s not much at stake. They simply meet to debate. Mind you, it is fun. Their uniquely forceful ideas — and their equally distinctive personalities — almost lead us us ignore the dramatic void at the center.

Once upon a time, gentlemen debated (yes, gentlemen: no women invited, no one from the underclasses either). They politely crossed verbal swords, not to vanquish one another but to expose their ideas — and their skill and wit.

That happens here, and the two gain respect for each other. But it isn’t enough. The issues they raise — which the Nazi bombers brutally
underscore — are too large and too serious for polite dueling in a gentlemen’s club.

At one point, Freud is strangling in his own blood and Lewis must reach into the doctor’s  mouth to remove a prosthesis. At another, Freud probes swiftly and ruthlessly into the heart of Lewis’s complex living arrangements and the emotional conflicts they embody. These moments open doors into a deeper reality, the one that has bred the mad horror being unleashed on the world — but the play doesn’t enter either door. It turns back.

What we get, in the end, is the mutual respect of two adroit debaters. What we need — and what the world we’ve lived in since World War II cries for — are the deeper forms of love (agape, philia) these characters move toward, but from which they get pulled back. This is the playwright’s failure of nerve.

The creators of this production, on the other hand, do not hold back. Set designer Pete Hickok and prop master Josh La Cour place us at once in the civilized comfort of Freud’s book-lined, artifact-laden study; the lights and sounds wrought by Derrick McDaniel and  Christopher Moscatiello establish and then gradually destroy that peace. And Kim Deshazo’s costumes set the Viennese’s habitual formality against the Oxonian’s more casual (even careless) style.

The performers likewise bring everything to the task. Martin Rayner animates his striking likeness of Freud with an emotional volatility we don’t often imagine. Martyn Stanbridge’s diffident Lewis nicely gains confidence as he gets to know his world-famous senior. Both are kept moving – with purpose — by director Robert Mandel, so this two-hander never loses energy or focus.

As usual at the Odyssey, the production values are high. The writing is intelligent, witty, and often surprising; it’s a shame St. Germain doesn’t dig deeper than a debate and venture into the depths that Freud — and Lewis — would surely have braved.
Freud’s Last Session, by Mark St. Germain, directed by Robert Mandel.
Presented by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Ave., LA 90025.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through March 4th.
Special shows:
Wednesdays, Jan. 24 and Feb. 21, at 8:00;
Thursdays, Feb. 8 and Mar. 1, at 8:00.

Tickets: <www.odysseytheatre.com>



Troupe Boldly Goes into “Klingon Christmas Carol”

There are as many Christmas shows as there are stars in the winter sky. But there’s not another one like this.

In A Klingon Christmas Carol, Dickens’ classic is transposed into the language of Star Trek‘s best-known alien race, the proud and fierce allies of the Federation. This sounds like a sweet Yuletide treat for fans. And it is.

But a funny thing happens on the way to Qo’noS, the Klingon home planet. When you tell a story in another language, it morphs under the pressure of that culture’s values and perceptions. So not only does Scrooge become SQuja’, but the miser’s lesson in Christian charity becomes a coward’s discovery of courage and honor.

Playwright Christopher Kidder-Mostrom deserves a deep bow — not merely for writing the lines in fluent Klingon, but for recognizing that the story itself had to become Klingon. (Indeed, the narrator tells us, folks on Qo’noS consider this the original.)

Since few in the audience know  the Klingon tongue, projected supertitles — like those used in operas — kindly give the English for each line as it’s being spoken. (Or growled, or barked, as Klingon rings hard on human ears.) The supertitles also provide a rich field for humor, as the author hides many an Easter egg where the two cultures clash.

You may already begin to suspect that light as it sounds, this is no mere Christmas bonbon. And yes, in putting A Klingon Christmas Carol onstage the folks at Lit Live have taken on a task about as daunting as Handel’s Messiah.

The hardest part, interestingly, comes from the language. As an actor, you face a string of unfamiliar sounds to memorize; at the same time, you must learn what these sounds mean. This takes longer — and uses more areas of your brain — than learning lines in your own tongue. And it takes even longer to color these alien words with the shades of emotion your character is feeling.

Not every actor in the company reaches this level; many simply indicate one or two basic emotions, resulting in a lot of angry shouting (which was often true in Star Trek, too). But some meet the challenge admirably. The nimble Nick D’Alberto, as SQuja’, plays a full hand of exaggerated emotions like a silent film star; Paul Carpenter, as the Ghost of Kahless Present, ranges from booming authority to wheedling humor and melting empathy. And Larry Shilkoff moves clearly from reluctant ferocity as marlI (Marley’s ghost) to jolly hospitality as veSIwiq (Fezziwig).

Genevieve Levin’s costumes neatly capture the Mongol/Samurai look familiar to fans, and Morgan Keough, Bill Hedrick, and Kenosha Renay create a satisfying variety of Klingon visages. And an uncredited backshop genius gives us a Klingon bed that’s an even more exquisite instrument of torture than the TV series’ artists could devise.

The playwright and director have wisely opted to stage the tale (like most Carol  versions) as a series of scenes that are almost tableaux. This makes demands on the stage crew, who must shift some hefty set pieces between scenes, and the light and sound operators — who must hit all the cues, and pop each English supertitle onto the screen as the line’s being spoken in Klingon. The scene transitions and screen projections, a bit wobbly in preview, should be well tightened by opening night.

As you’d imagine, A Klingon Christmas Carol produces squeals of glee and long bouts of laughter from the fan base. And for those of us only passing familiar with the Star Trek franchise, the playmakers make shrewd use of English narration and supertitles — and our cultural knowledge of Dickens’ version — to take us on a delightful romp. (And perhaps nudge us to think about the need for courage and honor, as well as charity, in these times.)

A Klingon Christmas Carol is a West Coast premiere (and the author is in the cast!). But it’s only booked to run one weekend — so call at once to get on board for this journey to a distant star.
A Klingon Christmas Carol, by Christopher Kidder-Mostrom (after the Charles Dickens story), directed by Robert Reeves.

Presented by Lit Live, at Santa Susana High School Performing Arts Center, 3570 Cochran St., Simi Valley 93063.

Friday (Dec. 15th) at 8:00,
Saturday (Dec. 16th) at 2:00 and 8:00.

Tickets: <www.litlivetheaterco.com>





“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>

“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 —

Dancing with the Gods: VIVER BRASIL marks 20 years as LA’s Afro-Latin home

Whirling skirts in bright layered hues, drums in tappeting polyrhythms, a pair of powerful voices in threading harmonies … and bodies, leaping, twisting, embracing, departing, bending to scoop earth or water, exploding into air …

Candomble is a religion that grew up among the African slaves kidnapped and taken for centuries into Brazil’s colonial capital, Bahia state.  Its name means “Dancing with the Gods.”

Hardly the name you’d expect for a faith created by imprisoned laborers on severely oppressive sugar-cane plantations.  Yet for these people living in chains, the divine power of love was never too far to reach.  All they had to do was dance.

And dance they did, for 500 years, right past the end of the Portuguese Empire, past the prohibition of slavery, past the collapse of the plantations. Right into the heart of modern Brazil.

Just 20 years ago, Bahia sent a gift of these dances to Los Angeles — when Linda Yudin and Luiz Badaró made a dream real with their new company, Viver Brasil.

Friday night, at the Ford Amphitheater, that company  — now known throughout the US, Canada, Mexico, South Africa and (of course) Brazil — threw a birthday party.  They called it Agô Ayó (“Spirits Rising”).  For three hours, the artists opened gift after gift, works that have been created by and for the Viver Brasil family.

“Orixas” – Vera Passos (photo: Jorge Vismara)

All the works proudly and happily employ the language of candomble, its gods (orixas) and songs of worship. Each dance tells a story; some are traditional, some new.  Each is also a hymn:  The dancers’ bodies, the singers’ voices, and the musicians’ playing all invoke divine powers.  And these orixas are not only praised and summoned, they appear and they act — each dance embodies the divinely-led transformation it invites.

So it’s no surprise that Viver Brasil, while honoring the colorful traditions of candomble, also continues its historic focus on empowerment and social activism.  (Candomble began, remember, as a clandestine resistance against the obliteration of African culture.) The company’s “Community Class” has shared Afro-Brazilian dance every Tuesday for 17 years now, reaching out to more than 10,000 people.  And its free “Samba in the Streets” program, begun in Leimert Park, travels to Selma and Birmingham, Alabama, this winter.

The dances also reflect this activist tradition.

“Avaninha” – Nagode Simpson, Ashley Blanchard (photo: Jorge Vismara)

The two oldest works on the evening’s agenda, Orixas (2007) and Avaninha (2009), serve as a primer of candomble.  The former introduces its major deities, and the latter beseeches them — mainly Obaluaiyé, god of healing — to enter and repair a world in need. They were created as a gift to the newborn Viver Brasil by Bahia’s most eminent dancer/teacher, Rosangela Silvestre.  For Agô Ayó, her equally renowned protegée Vera Passos revised them to reflect our current distresses.

“Motumbaxé” – Samad Guerra, Rachel Hernandez, Laila Abdullah – in back, Emina Shimanuki, Felicia “Onyi” Richards
(photo: Gia Trovela)

Passos’ two newer works, Motumbaxé (2016) and Pra Onde O Samba Me Leva (“Wherever the Samba Takes Me,” 2017) also dwell in the present and offer “dancing with the gods” as medicine. Motumbaxé recalls the eruption of Afro-Brazilian parade teams into Bahia’s celebration of Carnaval in the 1970s, bringing reggae and Afro rhythms to samba, reviving African dance moves, and asserting the beauty and value of blackness.  Pra Onde memorializes the late master dancer Zelita’s devotion to the samba, following its undulating rhythms into every human state from anguish to ecstasy.

“Revealed” – Nagodé Simpson (photo: Gia Trovela)

Another recent work, Revealed (2016), choreographed by Shelby Williams-Gonzalez, steps boldly into the moment.  Three orixas — Ola-Iansá (warrior goddess of the winds), Oxum (love goddess and protector of children), and Oba (goddess of the hunt) — shed their crowns to mourn with human mothers at the ongoing slaughter of black and brown youths. Wielding no power but empathy, they must await the arrival of Naná (goddess of fallen spirits) and Iemanja (the mother goddess of all).

“Cor da Pele” – Ajah Muhammad, Marina Magalhaes, Bianca Medina – in back, Nagode Simpson, Rachel Hernandez, Ashley Blanchard (credit: Gia Trovela)

In the newest and most overtly political dance, Cor da Pele (“Skin Color,” 2017), creator Marina Magalhäes adds a canção from Brazilian troubador Caetano Veloso, verses from American poet Nayyirah Waheed, and angular, often staccato moves to the elements of tradition.  Her danced hymn, as old as slavery and as new as today’s headlines, demands that the gods — and we — give voice and value to people of black and mixed-race heritage, and to their life experiences.  As Linda Yudin noted afterward, with this often shocking, always entrancing piece, Magalhäes is no longer “emerging” but one of LA’s foremost choreographers.

More than 1,000 people were enraptured by Agô Ayó.   You may have missed the birthday, but the party goes on.  The Tuesday night classes at Dance Arts Academy (731 S. La Brea Ave.) are open to all, and the 45-minute “Cooking Samba” show can be hosted by any community group.  On October 21, Viver Brasil will perform at the Getty Museum’s Family Festival, and on November 5 they’ll be at UCLA’s Fowler Museum. Wherever you catch them, be prepared to dance!
Agô Ayó (“Spirits Rising”), choreographed by Rosangela Silvestre,  Vera Passos, Shelby Williams-Gonzalez, and Marina Magalhäes.
Presented by Viver Brasil, at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood 90068.

Dancers: Laila Abdullah, Ashley Blanchard, Samad Guerra, Rachel Hernandez, Marina Magalhäes, Bianca Medina, Ajah Muhammad, Vera Passos, and Nagodé Simpson.
Singers: Felicia “Onyi” Richards, Emina Shimanuki, and Katia Moraes.
Musicians: Luiz Badaró, Simon D. Carroll, Kahlil Cummings, Bobby Easton, Marco Gibi Dos Santos, Alberto Lopez, and Fabio Santa de Souza.

For future dates and ongoing programs, check <www.viverbrasil.com>