“Hour of the Tyrant”: A New Richard, a New Star

In Richard III: Hour of the Tyrant, now on Hollywood’s Theatre Row, adapter/ director David MacDowell Blue means ano ang binary to improve on Shakespeare’s original. He’s got a point: Richard III is not the Bard’s best play.

For one thing, it’s the last in a four-play cycle, and assumes the other plays have introduced the dozens of characters who pop in are binary options legal and out. They haven’t, since the four plays are almost never done together. So Richard III buries us in an avalanche of unfamiliar dukes  earls, wives, noble offspring, and plebeian thugs.

For another thing, the Bard’s play is a political hatchet job. It’s a stage version of Thomas More’s biography, which Henry VIII (the second Tudor king) ordered to “prove” it was divine justice that his rebel father killed Richard and took his throne. More paints Richard as physically and morally twisted, a cartoon villain. Shakespeare tries to improve the story, but has to stick to the best binary broker main idea (his royal patron, after all, was Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth).

Libby Letlow (photo: Richard Michael Johnson)

Shakespeare comes up with what he shows us again in Othello‘s Iago — a determined liar and manipulator we’d today call a sociopath. But Blue isn’t interested in clinical labels.  What intrigues him is the play’s label: The Tragedy of Richard III.

If it’s a tragedy, not a history (like the other three plays in the set), why? What is Shakespeare thinking?

Elizabethan artists all firmly held to Aristotle’s doctrine of the “tragic flaw” — a shortcoming in a person of noble nature, that causes their downfall. Being born evil like Iago isn’t a tragic flaw, it’s an unchosen, immutable condition.

Blue finds Richard’s tragic flaw not in being born deformed, but in a key line he speaks in the previous play (Henry VI Part III): “Love forswore me in my mother’s womb.” Told all his life that he is inhuman, disgusting to any woman — even his mother — Richard believes it. And in that belief, he pushes away every love and friendship life offers him.

Blue makes this the tragedy’s focus. He also sharpens the political question that can get lost in Shakespeare’s pandemonium — How did Richard ever succeed? How did all these shrewd, experienced politicians allow a dictator to take over? As in our time, it’s sadly about no one putting the people’s interests above their own.

Blue also deletes several characters, and generously adds lines and scenes from other Shakespeare plays to help us understand the characters who are left. The result is a much clearer story (with all the famous bits but one left in), and a true tragedy.

TheatreANON’s shoestring production is a bit uneven, but brings us this story fairly well. In the absence of scenery, the costumes (by Maryanne Van De Car) help keep time, place, and character clearly sorted. Richard’s costume is simple, brilliant storytelling. Likewise, the combat choreography, a graceful kabuki-like stylization by Michaela Slezak, enhances both story and ambience (no strangers bashing about in the fog here).

But the play’s greatest asset is Libby Letlow as Richard. Familiar as a comic actor and puppeteer, Letlow takes full command of this new tragic hero. Her unyielding focus and energy recall the master performances of Lisa Wolpe (founder of LA Women’s Shakespeare), and her use of stillness (reminiscent of Mireille Enos’ Emmy-winning work in The Killing) is simply riveting. Letlow can make an offstage glance as revealing as a soliloquy, and her Richard is so composed that we relax in his presence — despite what he tells us and what we see him do. Letlow’s performance is a piece of LA theatre history you don’t want to miss.

Other ensemble members also deliver memorable moments. Daniel Adomian, soberly affecting as the doomed Henry VI, later explodes in a hilarious version of the young Prince of Wales as a goofy adolescent jester needling his guardian uncle. Claire Stephens brings similar manic clowning energy as Richard’s honest but ill-fated brother, the Duke of Clarence. And Judith Foster Thompson’s unnamed scene changer wears a knowing smirk, which flows smoothly into her traitorous Tyrell.

Given the blackbox stage’s limits, Blue as director opts for a presentational approach, with scenes in succession (not overlapping). This helps us keep  characters distinct — which we  need, even with fewer than half the original’s roles. More rehearsal might bring the ensemble into closer stylistic harmony, and smooth out the usual Shakespeare language issue (speed vs. clarity).

But even with its rough edges, Richard III: Hour of the Tyrant more than repays the price of admission. Blue’s thoughtful, artful revision is a serious candidate for the performing canon — and Letlow’s creation of Richard will warm your memory (and, if you’re an actor, keep teaching you) for years.
Richard III: Hour of the Tyrant, by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by David MacDowell Blue.
Presented by TheatreANON and Oh My Ribs, at the Oh My Ribs Theatre, 6468 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

Saturdays at 2:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through May 26.

Tickets: <ohmyribs.com> or <theatreanon.blogspot.com>



“Southernmost”: Diving Deeper than Aloha

The farthest south you can go in the US is in — Hawai’i. Geographically, anyway. How about culturally?

In Southernmost, playwright Mary Lyon Kamitaki finds issues in island life that we’re used to seeing in the mainland’s Deep South. Family, the land, whether to leave them … plus something you don’t see in Dixie: an angry goddess.

Alberto Isaac, Amielynn Abellera (photo: Kelly Stuart)

Charlene, who’s gone to college on the mainland, brings fiancée Jessica to meet the folks. But this isn’t a coming-out drama: Her folks have already figured it out. Charlene’s conflicted about “home,” while Jessica, a city-bred haole, likes learning village ways. But this isn’t a tale of culture clash, either.

The story really locates in Wally and Becky, the parents, and their struggle with the angry goddess.

Pele — in the form of nearby Kilauea volcano — starts pouring fiery lava toward the village. Wally, who’s found coffee farming as a way to remain active in retirement, wants to stay and tend his saplings. (He’d like his daughter to join him, but she’s got her return ticket.) Becky, the practical spouse, starts packing as soon as the lava runs. But she’s not sure whether Wally will come or die with his boots on.

This quiet drama, which settles to its center as steadily as lava flows to the sea, gets sure guidance from master director Jon Lawrence Rivera. Justin Huen’s scene design, rural simplicity hiding natural wisdom (like the grass  emerging between the floorboards), sets place and tone. And the sound and light (Jesse Mandapat, Lily Bartenstein) create Hawai’ian serenity and Pele’s shocking wrath.

At the center of it all, of course, are the actors. Amielynn Abellera, as Charlene, leads us into the story with ease then begins to fragment in her ambivalences; it’s an intelligent and moving performance. Kimberly Alexander accompanies her with a goodhearted, coltish Jessica who, in crisis, starts gaining a hold on her inner resources.

Sharon Omi lets Becky, like her village setting, gradually reveal the clarity and courage that have always lain beneath her plain surface. And Alberto Isaac’s masterful Wally grows from a delightful comic fellow to a man of tragic proportion — without losing his sense of humor. Aaron Ikeda nicely supports the couple as a loyal and slightly hapless friend.

Like Wally, and the island culture he embodies, this play gives us an aloha — a warm, easygoing welcome. But it also shocks us, with Pele, into feeling the force that disturbed nature (like a disrespected deity) can exert on our lives. And it  suggests what we will need to find within ourselves to respond.

Once again, Playwrights’ Arena gives the stage to a promising new LA playwright (from USC’s formidable greenhouse). And with Southernmost, it once again illuminates a previously unknown — but nonetheless important — corner of American life.
Southernmost, by Mary Lyon Kamitaki, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Presented by Playwrights’ Arena, at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 4:00,
and Mondays at 8:00,
through April 29th.

Tickets: <www.playwrightsarena.org>


Watching “Blood Sugar” Could Save Your Life

Diana Wyenn does life in a way most folks don’t have to. She performs a daily — almost hourly — balancing act between two substances. Each is something she needs in order to live, but each can also kill her.

The two are food and insulin; Wyenn has diabetes. In Blood Sugar, she takes us on a hair-raising journey that began 15 years ago on a London subway train. Along the way, we learn facts that come laced with pain, fear, and sometimes hope. We feel the constant terror of a disease that can’t be healed, but can throw you with a moment’s warning (or none at all) into a coma or death. We hear lines from Shakespeare as if we’ve never heard them before.


(photo: Mae Koo) 

How does Wyenn do all this? An actor, dancer, and vivid storyteller, she weaves the experience from her body, voice, and soul. Her fierce, subtle artistry is augmented by lights, projections, recorded sound, and a live handheld camera (which she at times brings with her in leaping, spinning, rolling on the floor).

What is so powerful about Blood Sugar is that we are swept up by  Wyenn’s magic art (and the deft help of her assistant spirits) and we’re taken on this fight-for-your-life journey with her — whether we want to go or not. Just as she was.

This is not a victim story. Moments will terrify you, and what must be endured may make you weep; but this is a triumphant tale, the confession of a canny survivor who’s had to take a breath and improvise at every step — and who emerges laughing, with victory in her teeth, each day.

In an hour, those of us who don’t live with a chronic deadly disease come as close as humanly possible to understanding how it feels. Those of us who do wrestle daily with mortal illness feel, “Ah! Someone knows what we suffer.” And all of us begin to see that we’re living in the face of our own dying, waking gratefully and using whatever we have to win another day.

Wisely, a talkback (with Wyenn and a diabetes professional) is part of each performance, giving audience members a chance to discharge the energy the show has summoned.

The program credits nine assistant magicians. Chief among them is Laban Pheidias, who orchestrates everything from an onstage booth (and as her husband, partners Wyenn in each day’s improvisations). Joey Guthman’s simple set and explosive lighting, Jason H. Thompson’s engulfing projections, and John Zalewski’s impeccable sound, create an omnipresent, ever-shifting context. To Wyenn’s masterful Prospero, they are invisible Ariel.

Blood Sugar is a powerful, harrowing, joyful piece of theatre — true theatre. Created from suffering, it brings us together, our souls trembling as they touch.

WARNING: You have only two opportunities to share this unique experience — tonight, and tomorrow night. It may change your life.
Blood Sugar, written and directed by Diana Wyenn.
Presented by Plain Wood Productions, at the Bootleg Theatre, 2220 Beverly Blvd., LA 90057.

Tonight and Friday at 7:30.

Tickets: <www.bootlegtheater.org>





“Sunday in the Park”: No Picnic, But Art Isn’t Easy

Sunday in the Park with George is great art, and it’s about great art. Master composer Stephen Sondheim’s multi-Tony (and Pulitzer Prize) musical brings to life a classic canvas by master painter George  Seurat, inventor of pointillism.

Of course, as one of the main songs says, “Art isn’t easy.” Sondheim writes complex music and  lyrics. Seurat made complex paintings. Their works demand close attention — and they’re worth it

[Rachel Berman, Brian Pinat (photo: Shari Barrett)]

The Kentwood Players stage this masterpiece with energy and taste — and considerable resources for a small theatre. (They’ve been in the game for over 60 years.) Music Director Mike Walker leads a 7-piece orchestra, and the 18-member cast has enough skillful singers to fill the major roles and several smaller ones.

Rachel Berman plays Dot, George’s hapless (and wryly named) model in Act 1, then plays their daughter in Act 2. With a clear, versatile soprano, crisp enunciation, and smart acting chops, she carries the lion’s share of the story — and our sympathies (even the play’s title is from her point of view). It’s an impressive turn.

As George, and his namesake great-grandson in Act 2, Brian Pirnat works within strict limits. Laconic by nature and obsessed with his art — traits now seen as signs of autism — George rarely takes the lead, even in private with Dot. Nor does he reveal much  in his solos, beyond a confused lack of insight. His great-grandson, a multimedia artist struggling with self-promotion, isn’t much better. Pirnat handles them well, emerging briefly to assert something (often awkwardly), and muting the force of his light tenor.

Janet Krajeski, as the painter’s mother (Act 1) and an imperious art critic (Act 2), creates strong, complex characters and sings them with power and clarity. Don Schlossman, a rival painter in Act 1 and an art buyer in Act 2, similarly commands the stage, moving and singing with stately strength.

Vincent Paz-Macareno’s comfort onstage, and his rich baritone, make us look to his characters as reliable sources of insight and feeling. Roy Okida likewise gives us characters we believe (even when they’re not being fully honest). And a talent about to emerge is Genevieve Marino: She speaks and moves with authority, and wields a bell-like soprano we can expect to hear often.

On the Westchester Playhouse’s small stage, director Susan Goldman Weisbarth deftly moves her cast through action scenes and song/dance numbers with fluid clarity. And then there are the tableaus, culminating in the evocation of Seurat’s masterwork, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grand Jatte.

Walker’s music direction (after finding the balance between singers and orchestra) shows to fine advantage in the multi-layered choral numbers, notably “It’s Hot Up Here” and “Putting It Together, ” as well as in such duets as “Beautiful” and “Move On.”

Finally, costume designer Ruth Jackson and her team deserve special applause for meticulously dressing the famous figures of Seurat’s grand canvas, as well as the poseurs and careerists of the modern art “industry.”

Sunday in the Park with George asks a great deal of its performers — and audiences. (Seurat’s ambitious paintings also grew slowly toward the acclaim they now enjoy.) The current Kentwood Players’ staging  offers a rich, rare work of art, faithfully and delightfully mounted.
Sunday in the Park with George, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine; directed by Susan Goldman Weisbarth.
Presented by Kentwood Players at the Westchester Playhouse, 8301 Hindry Ave., LA 90045.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through April 20th.

Tickets: (310) 645-5156 or <www.kentwoodplayers.org>




“Breaking Legs”: Simpler Times, Simpler Crimes

When “high crimes and misdemeanors” are making headlines, we may need to get away and laugh a bit. Currently, Oxnard’s Elite Theatre offers a retreat to a simpler (if only imaginary) world where crime may pay, but it definitely isn’t organized.

Tom Dulak’s Breaking Legs throws together a play-writing college prof and three goombahs; he’s hoping they’ll finance his latest script. They meet in a restaurant one of the fellas owns, where his daughter (who’s near 30 and unwed) is the manager.

Image may contain: 3 people, people standing, suit and indoor

Larry Shilkoff, John Comstock, Reef Noelle, Ray Mastrovito (photo: LJ Stevens)

The story shows us the clash between their worlds, and the little bits they have in common. One thing they share is the title phrase, a tradition in both the theatre and the mob – but with very different meanings. Another is murder: The prof’s latest play examines it philosophically, while the would-be investors have, um, more hands-on knowledge. Indeed, the play’s turning point comes when they enact a murder before his eyes (but, mercifully for us, offstage).

Two worlds colliding is the basis of this comedy, but the best of it comes from the characters. They seem like familiar cartoons – yet each bounces like a pinball between who they are and who they imagine themselves to be.

The professor (Will Carmichael) thinks he’s superior but flounders in every scene, trying to swim in shark-infested waters and salvage a scrap of dignity. Lou (John Comstock), the restaurant owner, likes to play the genial host – but he’s so charmed by his own voice that he can barely hear anyone else. And Tino (Ray Mastrovito), the senior mobster, tries for the silent wisdom of a don but can’t hide his timid naivete.

Mike (Larry Shilkoff) is the one the others actually defer to – he’s clearly the smartest, and has an unsettling ability to play hardball. But given a shot at Broadway, Mike also reveals a hidden side – a secret showbiz fan, he itches to get his hands in making art. Mike drives most of the play, and Shilkoff makes the ride worth the price of a ticket.

Lou’s daughter Angie (Bethany D’Ambra) is a part waiting to be written. Typical of playwriting 30 years ago, Dulak has thought about how others see the play’s only woman, but not about how she sees herself (and them). In her stage debut, D’Ambra tries steadily to let Angie emerge – but the playwright has her boxed in.

Frankie (Reef Noelle) has a similar problem. He’s a deadbeat, who’s been invited here to be whacked, so we don’t get to know him or see him change. Noelle, an opera singer, throws all he’s got into it, but the container’s too small.

Despite these weaknesses, Breaking Legs is an amusing, fast-paced tale. These artists have tucked some fun Easter eggs into the mix, nods to classic comedy. And it’s a welcome relief to spend an evening with folks whose moral failures don’t threaten the republic.
Breaking Legs, by Tom Dulak, directed by Allan D. Noel.
Presented by the Elite Theatre Company at the Elite mainstage, 2731 S. Victoria Ave., Oxnard 93035.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through March 24th.

Tickets: <www.elitetheatre.org>


“America Adjacent” shines light in a hidden corner

Immigration is a hot political issue. Theatre must, of course, address it — but not by lecturing or arguing. Theatre’s way is to bring together characters and audiences, and let the characters’ stories become part of the audience’s lives. It’s a kind of magic.

Seven women are performing that magic right now, at the Skylight Theatre. In America Adjacenta smart, densely packed new play by Boni Alvarez, they’re creating the experience of a group of women who’ve come to America from the Philippines.

[Sandy Velasco, Toni Katano, Arianne Villareal (photo: Ed Krieger]

But these aren’t your usual immigrants. In fact, they’re not immigrants at all. One is a US citizen, and the other six have arrived not to become Americans — but to give birth to them. They’re pregnant, and  babies born here have automatic US citizenship. For mothers-to-be from Asia, LA is the place to come. This semi-clandestine practice, called “birth tourism,” isn’t actually illegal — but ICE swiftly deports any woman they suspect.

Of course, we don’t know any of this when the lights come up. We just watch woman after woman enter an apartment living room jammed with recliner chairs being used as beds. The five of them are pregnant and keeping a low profile — no noise, no going out except to the back yard. They remind each other of the rules, bicker when one returns from a forbidden off-site jaunt, and invoke the feared power of “The Administrator.”

Then there’s a knocking at the door. Everyone hides. The administrator bursts in, bringing food, housekeeping supplies and a newcomer, a “country girl” who gets teased by the others (who are from cities – Manila, Quezon, Davao, Cagayan.) The administrator, no older than they are, chastens and warns them while taking the new resident’s money and passport “for safekeeping.” They complain that they haven’t seen Hollywood or Disneyland, as promised. We wonder — as do they — whether the administrator is honest or running a racket.

Later, when the newcomer follows the rule-breaker out the back gate and into the wilds of LA, we begin to realize just how innocent and at risk these women are. And we learn, as they talk and wonder, how profoundly going to America to have a baby has disrupted every one of their lives. None of them is sure what she will find when she returns home (and none can imagine the “reverse culture shock” that awaits).

Enough plot. The heart of this play is the women – the state of anxiety they live in, triggered by everything from jets flying over to sirens and door knocking. And the threads of pleasure they grasp – sharing memories and songs, choosing baby names, peering over the back fence into the lives of a neighboring couple.

The actors, who work together as smoothly as an ensemble company, bring the women clearly to life. Toni Katano floats as a languid courtesan who may be losing her position, while Samantha Valledon’s country girl vibrates with fear but drives the group to hard questions. Evie Abat, as the rule breaker, nicely hides the anguish of postpartum depression beneath her daredevil exterior; Arianne Villareal’s timid piety, meanwhile, concealsan awful, complex secret. Angela Baesa deftly portrays the anxious peacemaker, while Sandy Velasco shines at injecting playfulness – and hope – into the stress-filled mix. Hazel Lozano’s administrator surprises us with her youth, her briskness, and her caring.

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera keeps these several brooks running swift and clear; his pace allows the moments in Alvarez’s text to pop like fireworks, keeping us as off-balance as the anxious women. Christopher Scott Murillo’s set gives us familiarity and discomfort, and Mylette Nora’s costumes mark the characters and their uncertain perch in an unknown world.

America Adjacent is a world premiere that addresses an explosive political issue. “What an indictment of our messed-up system,” a seat mate said afterward. But Alvarez’s text, and Skylight’s lively, skillful staging, introduce this American story – one few of us are aware of – by letting us live in a hidden corner of the immigrant experience. Come to the little theatre in Los Feliz and let it open your world.

America Adjacent, by Boni B. Alvarez, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.

Presented by Skylight Theatre Company, at the Skylight, 1816-½ N. Vermont Ave., LA 90027.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30,
Sundays at 3:00,
Mondays (in March) at 8:00;
through March 24.

Tickets: <http://SkylightTix.org>






Brontes Take Surreal Romp in “Sisters Three”

The title summons powerful ghosts — Shakespeare, maybe Chekhov. Will these sisters be wrestling with the three witches who guide Macbeth’s fate? Or with the Prozorovs, who yearn for Moscow?

Neither, it turns out. These are the Brontë sisters — Emily, Anne, and Charlotte, early Victorian poet/novelists who burst into fame when Charlotte’s Jane Eyre hit print. But in this telling, they’ve morphed into modern women. Emily’s a math genius on a PhD fellowship, who prefers to be called E.J.; Anne’s camped in Emily’s dorm room while trying to start a PR career; and Charlotte has gone off to join an island commune.

Kara Hume, Dana DeRuyck (photo: Rachel Rambaldi)

They’re all struggling with their beloved brother’s sudden death. With him, they had shared a tight-knit childhood, centered on an imaginary world where they ruled adjacent realms.

This  closely mirrors the historic Brontës, who for decades escaped their impoverished Yorkshire home for adventures in the Empire of Angria and the island continent of Gondal, recounted in secret illustrated volumes. Their brother, a gifted painter, died an addict at 31; without him, the sisters declined swiftly. Emily and Anne were dead within six months, and Charlotte only lived five years longer.

Without their brother, the modern sisters are also at sea. They still resort to the game in times of stress. And the island Charlotte has fled to is named Gondal. What’s at stake is whether these three can somehow navigate loss better than the originals did.

The plot is driven by Anne’s plan to build a canoe, row to Gondal, and rescue Charlotte — and by E.J.’s dogged effort to solve the famous Riemann Hypothesis. But when their fragile facades clash, both fracture, and we see the roiling lava underneath. We come to care more about these sisters’ inner lives, and their survival, than about their quixotic quests.

As Anne, Kara Hume rides the edge of ADHD like a butterfly, pulsing with the electricity that powers her precious phone. Dana DeRuyck as E.J., meanwhile, exerts every ounce of energy to hold her rage and grief silent — but erupts, to her chagrin, again and again. Charlotte (Robyn Cohen), when she appears, brings yet another kind of near-madness to the mix, in a bravura monolog.

When the play ends, we know these characters far better, and care about them far more, than we did at first. What we don’t know is any answer to the central question, how they will fare. It’s a testament to playwright Jami Brandli — and to the company of artists — that rather than feeling cheated, we feel satisfied.

Sisters Three raises the ghosts of the historic Brontë sisters, yet I do not see it wrestling with them or their legacy. Nor does it appear to be commenting on differences between the two eras. As a longtime Brontë fan, I enjoy the parallels between the two sets of siblings — yet the modern trio are crafted well enough that this would be a fine, funny play even without the historical underlay.

The Inkwell Theatre mounts this fairly energetic play in a tiny black box. Set designer Lex Gernon uses it to evoke a cramped dorm room — made infinitely worse by the bulky presence of Anne’s canoe. Director Annie McVey keeps the action contained so that when an enraged E.J. stomps into the boat to get to Anne, we feel the violation. And when the two, in their royal personas, fall to angry swordplay, Collin Bressie’s fight direction — and the canoe — keep the stakes high and the action credible.

Sisters Three tells an emotional family story, but not as a kitchen-sink weeper. Instead, it’s a lively, intelligent comedy, half realistic and half surreal. And the smart, energetic performances are worth the price of admission.
Sisters Three, by Jami Brandli, directed by Annie McVey.
Presented by The Inkwell Theater, at VS. Theatre, 5453 Pico Blvd., LA 90019.

Thursday (Dec. 27) at 8:00;
Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
Mondays (Jan. 7 and Jan. 14) at 8:00,
through Jan. 20th.

Tickets: <inkwelltheater.com>




“Clarissant” sets Arthur myth in apple-pie order

Back in the late Middle Ages, the hottest new serial drama was “The British Matter” — tales of King Arthur and his Round Table knights. The GOT-like stories were being invented, borrowed (no copyright laws), reinvented, and performed by troubadors at royal courts and  inns all over Europe. The Arthur craze lasted almost 300 years.

As a result, the countless tales don’t mesh very well. This has kept Camelot fans — and scholars — busy for centuries, trying to sort them out. Now along comes Hailey Bachrach, a young troubador (okay, playwright) and scholar who sees a new way to fit the myth’s main pieces together.  From a woman’s point of view, natch.

Paula Deming, Olivia Choate, Dawn Alden, Whitton Frank (photo: Melissa Blue)

Clarissant tells of King Arthur’s niece, who survived the fall of Camelot (where all five of her knightly brothers died). The play is driven by Clarissant’s urgent quest to learn the story aright, before she can accept — or reject — the crown. She doesn’t invent anything; she simply turns the puzzle pieces this way and that, until they fit.

Because Clarissant’s inquest is the matter of this tale, I won’t recount it. I will note that the princess inquires by using magic — which, for her, is summoning stories — and her intuition. You might not notice, while watching, that this is exactly what Bachrach the modern troubador is doing. (I admit I didn’t, until this writing). But such layered elegance is one of the joys of Clarissant.

Lest you think the play’s pleasures are purely intellectual, let me hasten to add there’s lots of fan service. If you’re feeling XY, you get sword fights aplenty; if you’re feeling XX, all the powerful knights are portrayed by women. (Indeed, the only male actor steps briefly on and off as a servant.)

Little Candle, a small company that essays one show a year, gives Clarissant a smart, smooth production for its world premiere.

Set designer Kate Woodruff (and director Allison Darby Gorjian) provide an immediately recognizable world, with clever tapestries and a tree that looms like a ghost yet functions as an umbrella stand for swords. Betsy Roth’s costumes also invoke the imaginary era of chivalry’s birth, and allow actors — most of whom are double-cast, and move between life and afterlife — to shape-shift instantly. The lights (Rob Van Guelpen) and sound (Katie Powell) guide us along unobtrusively, and fight master David Chrzanowski’s stylized battles are swift and clear.

Among the performers, Olivia Choate is a treat as the buffed-up, fiercely loyal Gawain, then as a wry, avuncular (but still macho)  Lancelot; and Whitton Frank darts and plots craftily as Mordred, while wielding confident gravitas as Arthur. Dawn Alden portrays an irascible Agravain who’s just a step behind things, and a surprising Guinevere who has gone beyond the world into grave wisdom. Kym Allen brings irrepressible vitality to Gareth, and crabbed mystery to Lady Ragnelle, while Renée Torchio MacDonald’s Gaheris leaps innocently into each fray, looking for the side of right. And almost everybody gets a ghost turn, including a moment as Morgaine, the sorceress in whose web this whole world seems entangled.

Linzi Graham (the tart, worldly Lynette) and Karissa McKinney (gentle, accepting Lyonor) are Clarissant’s quest companions. Reluctant conscripts, they constantly urge their sister-in-law to put down her visions and rejoin the present. As Clarissant, Paula Deming shoulders what is perhaps the play’s most daunting challenge — to remain unresolved in a world where everyone else is full of certainty. (Like Hamlet, that other hesitant royal heir, she might benefit from a bit more steely resolve and a bit less dreamy self-questioning, either in the writing  — a soliloquy, perhaps? — or the performing.
A bit of tweaking only.)

Overall, Clarissant is a worthy unveiling for a happily fresh take on Arthurian myth. Bachrach’s use of the Lady Ragnelle legend is especially adroit — this oft-neglected corner of the  tapestry of Sir Gawain stories turns out to have held the key to Camelot’s collapse for all these centuries.

If you’re an Arthur fan, a lover of quasi-medieval romances, or a player of sword-and-sorcery games, you will find much delight in Clarissant. If you are a woman, a feminist of any wave, or an ally, you will enjoy it even more. This is the angle from which we need to see and tell these stories, from now on.
Clarissant, by Hailey Bachrach, directed by Allison Darby Gorjian.
Presented by Little Candle Productions, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through December 23rd.

Tickets: <www.littlecandleproductions.com>



Chalk Rep’s Comic Swipe at “Death & Cockroaches”

Domestic comedy. It’s a huge and burgeoning genre, because everybody’s got a family — and if they don’t, well, that’s a fairly popular subgenre. There are two tricks to writing this kind of play: (a) Ground the universal in specifics, particularly ones we care about, and (b) Handle them in a new and interesting way.

In Death and Cockroaches: A Family Play, Eric Loo does pretty well at both. His family is a very specific one, and his characters — two brothers, their mother and father — are distinctly etched. Eric, our narrator, is self-deprecating and quirky enough that we can’t help but feel attached, and that makes everyone else matter right away.

Sunil Malhotra, Kelvin Han Yee

Besides family, Loo adds two more universals that arouse our fear and loathing (with no complicating feelings of love) — death, and cockroaches. Eric’s father is dying, and his mother’s slovenly house is overrun by roaches.

Loo also handles his tale cleverly. One of the cockroaches becomes a lead character (hello, Mr. Kafka), depicted in a surprising manner. Eric’s addiction to men’s room glory holes inspires a vivid comic scene. And director Jennifer Chang and the Chalk Rep creative team extend the playfulness: Set design and puppetry (Sarah Krainin), projections (Anna Robinson), and even scene changes all provide quietly ongoing sources of amusement.

As always, Chalk Rep’s performers rise to the task admirably. Sunil Malhotra arches, twists, and dances through Pat’s journey, constantly re-engaging us. Justin Huen makes “successful” brother Eric (wife, children, job, house) more than stolid, slipping us into his emotional space with no overplayed — or overwritten — “reveal” moment. Veteran artists Kelvin Han Yee and Eileen Galindo shine unobtrusively:  Yee tosses hints of complexity that make us curious about Dad’s story (which Loo wisely never provides), and Galindo draws us past our irritation to feel the fierceness behind her facade of incompetence. Walter Belenky and Claudia de Vasco likewise make us sense stories behind what we’re told.

The story resolves, as stories do (most of them, at least). And we’re left to ponder our own versions of the universal family story; also perhaps to question our frightened antipathy to the mortality and roaches that are always with us.

I also found myself wondering how much this play’s quiet success owes to Loo’s writing, and how much to the skill and brio with which the company stages it. No matter — it works. I’m curious to see Loo’s next offering, and eager to experience whatever Chalk Rep does next.
Death and Cockroaches: A Family Play, by Eric Reyes Loo, directed by Jennifer Chang.
Presented by Chalk Repertory Theatre, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Final performance:
Saturday, Dec. 1 at 8:00

Tickets: <www.chalkrep.com>



Truth, Lies, Consequences: “Gray People” Has ‘Em All

Kerry Kazmierowicztrimm (who sometimes trims his classic Polish handle to “Kerry Kaz”) is a playwright who bears watching. His
Wounded, an award-winner at the recent Hollywood Fringe, deserved its praises. He has a knack for setting people in tight situations, where their rubbing up against one another will produce not only friction but insight, as each one’s outer layers fall away.

Wounded investigates the deep injuries everyone suffers when there’s a war on. His newest work, Gray People, occurs in a more abstract, less specific world; think of the distance between one of Pinter’s precise domestic settings and the somewhere in which a Beckett play happens.

Olivia Lemmon, Walter Kartman, Kyle Felts (photo: Carlos R. Hernandez)

The characters in Gray People stand — literally — on the edge of the grave. But it’s one they’ve dug, for unknown occupants. The corpses are to come from their employer, whom they know only as “Mr. Z.”  People who work for him aren’t supposed to know each other’s names either, or anything about one another.

Thus far, Kazmierowicztrimm has set us a familiar conundrum rather like a Kafka tale. We recognize this reduced world, folks poised like us between life and death, working like us at jobs that fit into a system we may not understand, for purposes we might not like.

We also connect with the simple-hearted character who can’t hide his name, nor his eagerness to connect with the others. And we feel the veteran gravedigger’s fierce attempt to hold within the rules. And we can’t help liking the newcomer’s plucky willingness to challenge the others, and the mysterious rules of this grim game.

Of course, they rub each other raw, and everything comes out. The climax, and the steps on the journey to it, are never predictable — what each person reveals changes the game. And the outcome is, if not satisfying, one we can accept as necessary, perhaps inevitable.

Kazmierowicztrimm’s investigation here is into truth-telling, hiding truth, and outright lying — and the consequences of all of the above. Once having seen his inquiry unfold, you may want to watch it again to see what you missed or overlooked.

The folks at Force of Nature give this tight script one of their best productions so far. The set — by Jeff G. Rack, Redetha Deason, and Jerry Chapell — is understated and brilliant: gray flat tree shapes repeated so we see a forest, but also see it as off, wrong, ominous. Jonathan Agurcia’s  costumes deftly denote each character both socially and personally. And Sebastian Muñoz’s direction keeps everything moving, and the lines of tension tightening.

The actors are all highly skilled (that deep, deep LA talent pool again!). Kyle Felts, who always seems to anchor the stage, was diffident and vulnerable in Wounded; here, he seethes with barely caged rage as a man pressed into a life he did not choose. Walter Kartman exudes innocent energy, blissfully unaware of his impact; his defenses can shatter like candy shells, but he rebounds like a puppy. And Olivia Lemmon slides among them like a leopard in a tree, at  times disappearing, at  times insisting on being seen, taken seriously, responded to.

Gray People is part Beckett, and part Coen Brothers: Nothing human goes as planned. And why should it? If there were gods, they would be laughing. Instead there’s us, often laughing, often (unlike the gods) surprised.

Kazmierowicztrimm is a prolific writer, so we can expect to see more from him. And we certainly hope to again see Force of Nature so sharply on their game. As for Gray People, it merits a longer life on stage than the current half-dozen performances. (Perhaps Force of Nature will extend it? To be safe, get to The Belfry quickly.)
Gray People, by Kerry Kazmierowicztrimm, directed by Sebastian Muñoz.
Presented by Force of Nature Productions at The Belfry Stage, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood 91602.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30
through Nov. 16.

Tickets: <www.fonproductions.com>