“Lady” by Broad’s Word: Confection with a Kick

It’s common to compare theatrical comedies to desserts — both are often artful, sweet confections enjoyed after dinner.  But the best comedies slip a little mickey in between the pastry layers, like a brandy Napoleon or a mocha tiramisu.

The Lady Was a Gentleman, currently onstage at the Dorie Theatre in Hollywood, is that kind of comedy.  More like a tiramisu, I’d say, because like the espresso hidden in the mocha, it contains elements that may, hours later, keep you awake and pondering.

Playwright Barbara Kahn has folded in more than a hint of race (and slavery), with generous dollops of gender identity and fluidity, while whipping up a light, easily consumed “might have been” tale of superstar Charlotte Cushman’s farewell US tour 160 years ago — just before the Civil War.

Dawn Alden, Sonja Inge (photo: Alex Moy)

Cushman, gifted with a contralto voice, won part of her fame in “trouser roles;” her Romeo and her Lady Macbeth were equally hailed.  She was also known for having a free black woman, Sallie Mercer, as her traveling companion and dresser.  And she made no secret of being a lesbian (though she did live in Rome for 20 years, in a community of expatriate American artists, many of whom were lesbians).  To add frosting to the tiramisu, Cushman was a bit of a polyamorist.

Kahn handles these matters — which can be so highly charged — with calm wit and grace.  Sallie (Sonja Inge), our narrator, lets nothing shock or unsettle her, though we’re in St. Louis in 1858 and Missouri is a slave state.  Charlotte (Dawn Alden) fancies fainting in fits of love, but she’s a savvy protagonist who makes things happen around her.  Between them, they navigate their world pretty much on their own terms.

Charlotte relishes a mutual crush with Mrs. Ryan (Tara Donovan), the actress playing her Juliet; then she meets Emma Crow (Maikiko James), the smitten teenage daughter of a prominent politician.  These amours spice Charlotte’s demanding life, but she finds she cannot forsake Emma, and promises to take her to Rome to live with her and her wife (which she did in real life).

Meanwhile, a more purely fictional drama emerges when Marie Louise (Chantal Thuy), a young French mail-order bride, arrives to find her husband — not only an unwashed “mountain man” in filthy buckskins, but underneath them, a woman.  Marie Louise and Jane Partridge (Lacy Altwine) dance gingerly toward love, providing much of the play’s broader comedy.

Lacy Altwine, Chantal Thuy, Maikiko James (photo: Alex Moy)

Kahn’s delightful storytelling lets us live for an evening (or a matinee afternoon) in a world of love and laughter — without ever losing awareness of the bitter divisions tearing apart  the larger world outside.  In our microcosm, women can do anything, and everything that matters; most of all by persistently giving more attention to art and love than to war and fear.  The lesson is never spoken, but it strikes very deep.

This confection with a kick is served with panache.  The uncredited set conveys period and place economically, and includes a pleasing comic invention, all in a tiny space; Danielle Ozymandias’ costumes are flawlessly apt.  Stacy Abrams’ lighting makes the stage feel much larger, and more varied, than it is; and Suze Campagna’s sound design carries us easily along.

Alden provides the tireless winds that fill Charlotte’s sails, making her by turns masterful, childish, and wisely mature, and always engaging.  Inge wins our confidence by taking us into hers, always holding the dangers of Sallie’s life like a power poker hand.  And Altwine boldly takes Jane to the edge of parody, but never over it, never abandoning the true heart under the layers. These three are artists to learn from.

Thuy, with the most complex of the three “secondary” characters, creates a Marie Louise we reluctantly come to love, then performs a deft, believable bouleversement.  Donovan gives us a nice cameo of a provincial “pro” who turns hopelessly “amateur” when swept away by a star, then recovers her balance.  And James skillfully offers an almost irritatingly persistent girl who, by persisting, becomes a young woman to reckon with.

Director Kate Motzenbacker does what the best directors do — disappears utterly into her actors’ performances. Nothing stalls, nor is awkward or contrived; all happens as it must, and percolates along satisfyingly.  Broad’s Word gives Kahn’s timely tale a sure-handed, playful West Coast premiere, and in so doing give a good account of themselves.
The Lady Was a Gentleman, by  Barbara Kahn, directed by Kate Motzenbacker.
Presented by Broad’s Word Ensemble, at the Dorie Theatre at the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through April 29th.

Tickets:  <www.broadswordensemble.com>

Theatre Magic: “Aladdin” Flies into Boyle Heights

It was no surprise when Disney rolled out a blockbuster stage version of its 1992 hit film, Aladdin, for Broadway and national tours.  And it’s no surprise it’s been running for over six years .

But it’s a real surprise when Casa 0101, a spunky company in Boyle Heights, decides to put that big show in their 99-seat black box.

Even more surprising is the version they use — which was developed by Disney with LA playwright José Cruz González. It’s trimmed it to fit a 90-minute playing time, and stays closer the film. The result is, frankly, more focused and dynamic than the Broadway show.

Rosa Navarrete, Sarah Kennedy, Daniel Martinez, Sebastian Gonzalez (photo: Luis Gaudi)

But most important, this Aladdin is bilingual.  It’s not just performed in two languages — the revised plot hinges on an evil curse that has given the people of Agrabah two languages (Spanish and English), but has left them unable to understand each other.

Thus, the Sultan must employ three facile translators.  Animals (Aladdin’s monkey friend Abu, and the wicked vizier’s parrot Iago) also move between languages.  But Agrabah’s royals and nobles speak only Spanish, while the common folk only know English.

This makes the love story doubly star-crossed: Aladdin the street urchin and Princess Jazmin not only come from different worlds, they can barely understand each other.  But of course, love conquers all — with the help of a magic carpet and a powerful genie.  And when the curse is lifted, Agrabah’s folks chatter together happily.

Casa 0101’s production is ambitious — but with invention and style, they fit the huge spectacle into  their tiny space. Scenic designer Cesar Holguin and lighting designer Sohail e. Najafi are as inventive as if they were at the Pantages, and their effects (with one exception) are magical.  Choreographer Tania Possick and music director Caroline Benzon whirl the skillful dozen-member chorus through their numbers, while costumers Abel Alvarado and Jules Bronola pull incredibly swift costume changes.

Of course, when Genie bursts out of the lamp, he takes over the show — that’s how it’s written.  And Finley Polynice makes it happen, with power and skill and overflowing good humor.  The story’s other driver is the evil vizier, Jafar; Luis Marquez exudes charm along with his nefarious egotism, making us almost root for him.  Holding together the world they inhabit is the Sultan, played gently yet firmly by Henry  Madrid.

Daniel Martinez and Sarah Kennedy give the lovers the right amount of youthful innocence, while Sebastian Gonzalez (as Abu) and Jason David (as Iago, a delightful puppet made by Tony Velis) dispense bits of snarky wisdom.  Danielle Espinoza boldly embodies a flighty, flirty Magic Carpet, and Rosa Navarrete’s Rajah the tiger seethes with a sultry knowing.  As the Royal Translators, Diana Castrillon, Bianca Espinoza and Shanara Sanders carry the story with clarity and dazzle with their song-and-dance work.

You might not expect it, but this Aladdin is really an ensemble show.  And that’s high praise to director Rigo Tejeda and all the actors. From lead to chorus member, everyone has made character choices and works them throughout the play.  That produces a lovely, lively energy that never flags.

Because it’s such an appealing show for families, this Aladdin should enjoy a long run.  And every time it plays, Casa 0101 fulfills another part of its mission the the community.
Disney”s Aladdin (Dual Language Edition), book by Jim Luigs and José Cruz Gonzáles, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (translated by Walterio Pesqueira); choreographed by Tania Possick and directed by Rigo Tejeda.
Presented by Casa 0101 and TNH Productions, in association with LA City Councilmember Gil Cedillo; at the Casa 0101 Theater, 2102 E. First St., LA 90033.

Fridays at 8:00,
Saturdays at 2:00, 5:00, and 8:00,
Sundays at 1:00, 4:00. and 7:00,
through Feb. 19.

Tickets: <www.casa0101.org> or (323) 263-7684.


“Pick of the Vine”: A Fine Vintage from Little Fish

There are two kinds of short-play festivals.

In one, the members of a company see what they can scrabble together in a mad rush from blank page to lit stage, usually popping out a handful of playlets in a weekend.  It’s a lot of fun, and seldom produces any shows worth doing again (but nobody expects it to).

In the other, a company invites playwrights to submit short works, then chooses a half-dozen or so to mount — usually in an evening of theatre that gets a regular run.  This is the only way most short plays ever get seen, so most writers are pretty serious about the works they send (no mere bagatelles), and most companies are serious about producing them.

Out San Pedro way, a small company named Little Fish has been holding the second kind of festival for 15 years now.  For the current “Pick of the Vine,”  more than 700 playwrights sent in one play each.  (That’s right — 700 plays.  In San Pedro.)

The judges selected 9 winners, and the troupe has spent the last couple of months creating a show that will run through mid-February.  It’s lively evening, full of variety — and rich in surprises.

Four of the plays are dramas, and five are  comedies. Eight actors handle the 28 roles, and four directors divide up the duties. Things get a little busy between plays, but the changes are swift and (thanks to some clever design work by Christopher Beyries) at times a source of delight.


Holly Baker-Kreiswirth, Don Schlossman (photo: Mickey Elliott)

Holly Baker-Kreiswirth, Don Schlossman (photo: Mickey Elliott)

The Dramas

Interestingly, all four dramas are two-handers.  Ten minutes isn’t much time; each of the four authors uses it wisely, keeping a tight focus and  deepening our sense of  character and conflict.

In Wheelchair (by Hollywood screenwriter Scott Mullen), two strangers meet in a park. Their curiosity about a nearby couple takes us to a place we can’t foresee. Bill Wolski’s brash fellow unwittingly peels himself like an onion, while Olivia Schlueter-Corey’s charming woman uses others’ underestimation of her like an aikido master.   Director Richard Perloff’s light hand lets the tension beneath the new friendship build almost subliminally, so the reveal is a slap.

By contrast, Screaming (by Stephen Peirick, a Little Fish alum now in St. Louis) begins in high tension and winds steadily higher, as a young couple struggles with severe post-partum depression — an arrival they didn’t expect.  Jessica Winward makes us feel her death-grip on  the frayed end of her rope; and Wolski nicely delivers her confused mate’s stumbles toward empathy.  Perloff again keeps things on the understated side, even in the midst of rising hysteria.

Although it’s a drama, taking us into its characters, Thick Gnat Hands (by  New York’s Erin Mallon) includes laugh-out-loud comedy.  As a dialysis-clinic veteran, Don Schlossman bubbles over with an enthusiasm that makes first-timer Wolski’s anxiety unbearable.  Director Elissa Anne Polansky lets the mix simmer but not boil, so we reach the deeper levels of emotion beneath the laughter.

The Way It Really, Truly Almost Was (by veteran Seattle dramatist Brendan Healy) is the most ambitious drama, sliding between reality, memory and imagination in a mere 10 minutes.  Schlossman bares the hope and suffering of a man whose beloved lies comatose; Holly Baker-Kreiswirth embodies calm in the face of death, and a love that tries to guide her mate.  Polansky’s delicate touch holds this piece on the edge of pathos, and our eyes are never dry.


Olivia Schlueter-Cory, Bill Wolski, Brendan Gill, Rodney Rincon, Holly Baker-Kreiswirth (photo: Mickey Elliott)

Olivia Schlueter-Corey, Bill Wolski, Brendan Gill, Rodney Rincon, Holly Baker-Kreiswirth (photo: Mickey Elliott)

The Comedies
All five of the comic plays benefit from a playful inventiveness, in the writing and in the production.

Santa Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (by Boston’s Patrick Gabridge) has the simplest premise: Parents wonder when to tell their son about Santa Claus. Geraldine Fuentes and Rodney Rincon are an irrepressible pair,  improvising boldly amid the debris of shattered myths, and Brendan Gill gives their son a nice naivete. Director Gigi Fusco Meese maintains a brisk pace, while keeping the stakes high.

I Don’t Know (by James McLindon, a New York lawyer turned writer) also builds on a simple conceit — a drill instructor tries to use age-old marching chants with a group of modern recruits. Rincon rings the frustrated DI’s changes deftly, while Wolski, Gill, Schlueter-Corey and Baker-Kreiswirth gingerly challenge him. The ensemble — tight as a parade team — keeps the satire sharply topical but light.

Another simple idea underlies A Very Short Play about the Very Short Presidency of William Henry Harrison (by Connecticut’s Jonathan Yukich, a Kennedy Center honoree).  In a swift handful of scenelets, Rincon slideshows through the would-be statesman’s rapid decline, with Schlossman as his imperturbable aide. Meese makes it tick, and lets us laugh about our dark fear — an ambitious, incompetent chief.

A Womb with a View (by New York’s widely produced Rich Orloff) has a more complex setting — an infant’s about to enter this dimension, aided by an otherworld clinical team. Baker-Kreiswirth oscillates between eagerness and terror, while Fuentes, Schlueter-Corey, Winward and Gill ineptly assist her. Perloff shows a sure comic hand, never letting the goofy machinery slow the 11th-hour story.

The Holy Grill (by New Jersey theatre prof Gary Shaffer) has the most complex comic setup.  Two worlds collide as a couple seeking prenuptial counsel get interrogated by detectives.  Rincon and Schlossman create a good cop/ bad cop team with a borscht belt flavor; Winward and Wolski are increasingly rattled innocents.
Despite some muddled blocking, the actors make it work.

The fact that 700 authors sent in plays for “Pick of the Vine” might seem to say that today’s playwrights are desperate to have their work produced.  And perhaps they are.

But the quality of these plays — and the almost uniformly high quality of their production — says more about Little Fish Theatre. This company invests seriously in its short-play festival (they even pay the actors!), and the word is on the street: If you want your best short play done proud, send it to San Pedro.

And if you want to see some of the best short plays being written, smartly staged by talented thespians,  get yourself to San Pedro.  “Pick of the Vine” is well worth a bit of driving.
“Pick of the Vine,” written by nine authors, directed by four  directors.
Presented by Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre St., San Pedro 90731.

Thursdays (except Jan. 19) at 8:00,
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through February 11th.

Tickets:  <www.littlefishtheatre.org>  or  (310) 510-6030.



“End Up Here” — Sundays in the Dark with Chris

You may not know Christopher Reiner.

The next two Sunday afternoons, you can amend that by dropping in at Zombie Joe’s Underground in NoHo.

From 4 to 5 pm, Reiner takes to the keyboard and mic to share a handful of songs from his copious catalog.  He also steps over to a lectern now and then, for samples of his prose compositions. He’s a genial host, and the hour flows by easily, too soon over.

Christopher Reiner

Christopher Reiner

But Reiner’s songs and stories — their familiar feel, their sudden surprises — will stay with you.  You may find yourself humming one of his melodies; you’ll surely smile as you recall one of his wry turns of phrase.

Reiner’s an accomplished master of “comfortable pop” — his sound, like his manner, makes you feel at home, settling in for a pleasant ride.  But he’s got a sharp, post-modern wit; so the lyrics can weave a gentle love song, or run you into  bumps and sudden turns.  His best stuff is part Cole Porter and part Kafka.  You go from tapping your toes to dropping your jaw, or laughing out loud, or bursting a sudden sigh at recognizing an unfortunate truth.

For more than a decade, Reiner has been the “house composer” at Zombie Joe’s, crafting musical analogs for the horripilating vignettes and discomforting dramas that have made the place famous.  (His musical setting of Poe’s “The Bells,” for example, is a masterwork.) But he has stayed in the background.  Occasionally, he’s been cajoled onstage to accompany a show; usually, he appears on a CD in the control booth.

So this is a rare treat.  And a sweet one — Christopher Reiner is someone you’ll be glad you met, and will want to spend more time with.  There’s a CD for sale in the lobby; and we hope there’s another show coming.
End Up Here, written and performed by Christopher Reiner, directed by Zombie Joe.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Sundays at 4:00,
through January 22.

Tickets:  <www.ZombieJoes.tix.com>  or  (818) 202-4120.


Theatre Unleashed Does “Wonderful Life” Right

Frank Capra’s film It’s a  Wonderful Life has been a Christmas tradition since its 1946 debut.  Each December, folks gather by the millions to watch George Bailey battle a Scrooge-like millionaire and save the common folk of Bedford Falls.

In 1996, playwright Joe Landry, who’d adapted this heartwarmer to the stage a few years before, took a new angle: The film’s story is being presented as a live radio play. This version works (and trims set changes to zero); it’s been playing around the country ever since.

But there’s a fatal flaw in Landry’ design. He starts with five radio actors arriving at the studio, but once the broadcast is underway, they disappear. It’s all George and Mary, Clarence and Mr. Potter and the rest — and when their story’s done, the lights go out.

A half-dozen years ago, an LA theatre artist saw this flaw and decided to fix it.  And Jim Martyka’s It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play is now a beloved fixture at NoHo’s Theatre Unleashed.

(front) Spencer Cantrell, Courtney Sara Bell; (rear) Steve Peterson, Molly Moran, Ariana Weiss, Caroline Sharp.

(front) Spencer Cantrell, Courtney Sara Bell; (rear) Steve Peterson, Molly Moran, Ariana Weiss, Caroline Sharp.

Deservedly so. Martyka fills his radio studio with actors, station execs, a man who wanders in off the street, and three female employees who just happen to mimic the Andrews Sisters spot-on.
It’s a bit madcap — especially on TU’s small (but versatile) stage.

Martyka also gives us plentiful interaction among these off-air folks — even while the show’s on the air — and a frame story that nicely echoes the film’s plot. His version is a good idea brought to fullness.

And the Unleashed troupe performs it with professionalism and gusto. Director Jenn Scuderi Crafts manages the scrambling baker’s dozen of characters without traffic jams, and stage manager Beth Scorzato whizzes gracefully through the cues (including deliberate errors, not so easy to pull off).

Among the actors, Spencer Cantrell has a huge assignment — station owner/manager Michael, drafted at the last second to play George Bailey. In both roles, he keeps a manful hand on the throttle while letting us see he’s not  at all sure where he’s going.  As Michael’s long-suffering partner Melanie, pushed to the mic to play Mary, Courtney Sara Bell holds the mayhem together impressively (but when does she not impress?).

Andy Justus, as a vain matinee idol, wonderfully evokes Clark Gable, subsuming the ego into his on-air characters, then revealing a warm, vulnerable side. Sammi Lappin and Margaret Glaccum, two actors of profound intelligence, hide it skillfully in creating, respectively, a clueless ingenue and an inept sound artist. Jennifer Ashe’s diva sweetly rasps our nerves, then slowly lets her armor down. And Graydon Schlichter (a bottle-bound character actor), Steve Peterson (a self-admiring voice actor) and Lee Pollero (an over-eager beginner) brush their comic types with individual colors.

Carey Matthews’ confused interloper is a genial clown, and the three singing staffers — Ariana Weiss, Molly Moran, and Caroline Sharp — provide constant period music while creating distinct characters (despite having very few lines).

What’s more, the whole company has fun telling the story — one of this show’s most engaging features. For a holiday entertainment full of laughter and sentiment, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play is at the top of the tree.
It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play, adapted by Jim Martyka, directed by Jenn Scuderi Crafts.
Presented by Theatre Unleashed, at The Belfry Stage, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood 91602.

Wednesdays and Fridays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through December 18th.

Tickets:  <www.theatreunleashed.com>  or  (818) 849-4039.

ZJU Shocks Again With Dark, Sci-Fi “Tempest”

Earlier this year, I caught Tempest Redux at the Odyssey — the most thrilling, imaginative and moving version of this classic I’ve ever seen [see my review, Feb. 22].

Imagine my surprise when I went to Zombie Joe’s Underground this week, and experienced a Tempest that almost rivals it.

Bear in mind that ZJU is one of this city’s smallest, most modestly equipped theatres. Its 40 seats dwarf the tiny acting space, the lighting is straight from Ace Hardware. And yet … and yet …

Elif Savas as Ariel (photo: Marti Matulis)

Elif Savas as Ariel (photo: Elif Savas)

In the first scene, a spaceship lands in an ocean near an island. The voyagers may be lost, but we’re soon in familiar territory: Prospero gleefully watches the shipwreck , while  Miranda drowsily listens. Then we meet Ariel, then Caliban, and the tale clips along its well-known track.  Except that Prospero works his magic through a cyberglove, and one of the castaways is a silver-skinned android.

Director/adapter Jana Wimer has trimmed Shakespeare’s opus by more than half, to an hour, but has kept its plot and themes intact. She uses the sci-fi lightly, simply letting it signal “alien fantasy” to us as the desert island did to Elizabethan audiences. Her other changes are shrewd, too — making sycophantic Gonzalo a robot that mimics human empathy, folding Stephano and Trinculo into one, casting women in several roles … and letting us see the dark, vengeful side of Prospero (which sets up the most unorthodox change, at the end).

Wimer’s vision is ably assisted by Kenny Harder’s deft handling of the balky low-tech booth, and by Hans Fjellestad’s music and Wimer’s and Michael Maio’s evocative sound design. But the costumes (by Ashley Gallup) and the makeup (by the cast members) are stunning. Elif Savas’ Ariel and Jonica Patella’s Caliban are award-worthy — not all the Mark Taper’s resources could do better.

And then there’s the acting. Bert Emmett (Prospero) and Ernest Kearney (King Alonso), clearly stage veterans, hold down the poles — royal gravitas at one end, and privileged buffoonery at the other. Mark Dakota’s metallic Gonzalo reaches for the human with a steadfast sweetness, while Jason Britt’s clueless Trinculo falls farther and farther away from it. Emma Pauly calmly bares a sociopathic coldness as the usurper Antonio, and Vanessa Cate’s Ferdinand leaps with delightful comic relish into wooing Miranda.

But the wonders of this strange land are its aliens. Savas’ Ariel sings with ethereal beauty, but oozes an almost demonic bitterness. The sprite capers lightly, yet seems untameable, part of the chillingly amoral wilderness. Patella’s Caliban, on the other hand, is immoral — a creature of cruelty aflame with returning the favor. Half human, half awful elf, this blue mooncalf is both fearsome and funny, fawning on hapless Trinculo and wheedling him  to his doom.

And with Trinculo falls a world. But you’ll have to go to the black box in NoHo to see how it all happens. It’s well worth the journey.
The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Jana Wimer.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Fridays at 8:30,
Sundays at 7:00,
through Dec. 18 (dark Thanksgiving weekend).

Tickets:  <www.zombiejoes.com>  or  (818) 202-4120.

“Bloodletting”: A Filipino Look at Life with Witches

‘Tis the season for witches. For a weekend (well, more like a month), weird sisters come out to dance in our fantasies and in our streets. Then we turn our eyes toward Christmas and they disappear.

Elsewhere, people of many cultures take it for granted that witchery lives among them. All the time. And they have to find a way to make that work.

Without violence, if possible. (As Europe and America have clearly shown, exorcisms and lynchings add to human suffering, but change nothing.)

Evie Abat, Myra Cris Ocenar (photo: Playwrights' Arena)

Evie Abat, Myra Cris Ocenar (photo: Playwrights’ Arena)

In Bloodletting, playwright Boni B. Alvarez looks at how folks on the Philippine isle of Palawan coexist with what we would call the supernatural (they don’t). This is a play, not an anthropology text — so the exploring is done by a brother and sister who’ve traveled from LA and New York to lay their father’s ashes in his ancestral home.

They find a great deal more than they bargained for. Their family pilgrimage bogs down in a rain-soaked village, on the porch of what may or may not be a cafe. There, they learn nothing’s as simple as they’d like. They learn about the aswang, a vampiric witch; and they begin learning how we must deal with extraordinary beings and powers among us — and within us.

Bloodletting comes out of the gate fast, with an engaging but unsettling moment where we’re eavesdroppers, then takes us on a journey that’s both comic and harrowing. Much of the comedy comes in the bickering between Farrah (Myra Cris Ocenar) and her brother Bosley (author Alvarez). Their reluctant host Jenry (Alberto Isaac) and his mercurial daughter LeeLee (Evie Abat) lead them — and us — into the dark recesses of the world they’ve stumbled into.

One of the many pleasures of this sometimes discomforting play is its music. Supported by Howard Ho’s sound design, the rhythms of Philippine speech — including pauses and silences — saturate the piece (Alvarez’s ear is remarkable). Jenry at once confronts the siblings’ urban American directness, but gently; LeeLee does so more abruptly. And gradually, the two visitors fall into the more relaxed rhythms of the language they grew up in.

The music of speech subtly works as a metaphor, paralleling the way Farrah and Bosley slowly come to accept reality as it appears in Palawan. The story’s “supernatural” elements work metaphorically, too — an aswang must learn self-restraint (and self-acceptance) in order not to harm others, a lesson each of us must learn, witch or not. When all the layers of a story support one another like this, there’s some first-rate playwriting going on.

This Playwrights’ Arena production also glows with first-rate directing — the masterful Jon Lawrence Rivera — and performing. Before we know anything, Abat’s LeeLee draws us into the play’s world, at once natural and mysterious; throughout, she sustains this volatile blend of wise reliability and fey danger. Abat makes real what  we must believe (and does it as well as the best Ariel I’ve ever seen). When we meet Jenry, he’s pinned between hospitality and the need to hide; bit by bit, Isaac lets us see his even greater need to confide, and to help these hapless newcomers, until it overwhelms his caution. It’s a lovely slow dance, a fierce struggle concealed by a mask of geniality, but revealed by a delicate artist.

As Farrah, Ocenar travels an equally reluctant arc, from brusque confidence to shattered humility. She makes us feel each step rasping against the grain of her accustomed self; she also lets us glimpse something eager and unknown that waits to be released. And as Bosley, Alvarez deftly creates a “type” yet makes him fully human. We laugh with him even as we sense  his inner mountain being shaken apart, and we cry with him when his armor for meeting the world is torn away. It’s hard to imagine another actor doing this part so well.

In the Halloween season, Bloodletting may look like another costume parade of scary phantasms for us to shiver at and forget; it’s not.
Set in the tropical world of Palawan, far off in the Pacific, it may seem too distant and exotic to affect us; it’s not. Bloodletting is a fine piece of theatrical storytelling that alters our sense of what is real, and what in life matters.
Bloodletting, by Boni B. Alvarez, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Presented by Playwrights’ Arena, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 3:00,
Mondays at 7:00,
through Nov. 27,

Tickets: <www.bloodlettingplay.brownpapertickets.com>

Something Wicked Comes to Vagrancy’s “Macbeth”

A well-known story challenges the tellers to show what they can imagine, where they can take us. So it is with Macbeth, the familiar tale of a king-killer driven mad by guilt. You don’t go to learn the story, but to see how it’s told.

At the LA Shakespeare Center, the folks of The Vagrancy are giving the Scottish play a wicked new spin.

It’s not the story they tweak so much as the world around it. Tristan Jeffers’ set brings us into a murky post-apocalypse of rusted steel and crooked, barren trees. Twisting witches glide silently through the fog and filthy air, moving as if their genes — like those of the trees — have been altered in the struggle to survive. Matt Richter’s softly leaking soundtrack erupts in sudden drums, and we’ve begun.

(photo: Wes Marsala)

(photo: Wes Marsala)

This isn’t medieval Scotland. The characters do keep their names and speeches, but who they speak to may surprise. Most importantly, it’s Queen Duncan everyone bows to, which subtly establishes that this world is rooted in the feminine — it’s not a patriarchy. Donalbain is Malcolm’s valiant sister, not his brother. And when Macduff confides his plans to his wife (instead of a male bystander), she becomes a far more sympathetic figure, her murder far more heinous.

The performers work with energy and intelligent invention.  Ann Colby Stocking’s Duncan dominates scenes as a royal leader must, but with gentle generosity and personal courage. Alana Dietze takes Lady Macbeth from whip to willow and back, and lets us watch her being led step by step out of her comfort zone (instead of just showing up crazy at the end). As Macbeth, Daniel Kaemon makes every line and moment clear, especially those in which he’s torn against himself; we feel with him the horror of necessity, in his ever-narrowing choices and in their ever-widening consequences.

The secondary characters are similarly well embodied, from Elitia Daniels’ brave Lady Macduff to Austin Iredale’s methodical (and creepily enthusiastic) murderer. Of special note are two child actors — Mia Moore as Macduff’s child, and Andrew Grigorian as Fleance — who exhibit comfort on the stage and hold character admirably. Then, of course, there are the witches. Marissa Dorrego Brennan, Kelly Perez and Carolyn Deskin capture our attention from the moment we enter, and rivet it every time they appear.

Interestingly, the witches — who have most of the play’s famous poetic lines — utter almost none of them. They dance their scenes, and in so doing create an intensely physical atmosphere. In fact, this play is as much embodied as spoken, from the gentle affections of the families (Duncan’s, Banquo’s, Macduff’s) to the Macbeths’ grasping sexuality to the many gruesome murders.

This brings us to the hidden genius of the piece: Caitlin Hart, founding artistic director of The Vagrancy. Long known for tight direction and a penchant for exploration, Hart must count this Macbeth among her masterworks.

Her vision is truly wicked, rooted in natural wisdom and intuition, where things grow (and die) according to their inmost laws, however crooked they may appear. It’s wicked to set the witches writhe-dancing through scene after scene, ominously quiet; wicked to have them re-animate Banquo’s corpse; wicked to send young Fleance, a future king, across the stage at the end.

Hart’s wicked vision is omnipresent, challenging, and always rich with meaning. And her ability to develop the vision with every member of the company is impressive.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a timeless tragedy, as ambition wreaks havoc upon individual lives and the world’s order. Hart and The Vagrancy make it a tragedy for our time, as a ravaged world seeking to regain its balance is torn off center by those who would kill for power. This is a bold, unsettling re-telling of a story we will always need.
Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, directed by Caitlin Hart.
Presented by The Vagrancy, at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 1238 W. 1st St., LA 90026.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through Nov. 20th.

Tickets: <www.thevagrancy.com>

Art and Love Collide — “Mariela” at Casa 0101

Art doesn’t happen on demand. (Ask anyone staring a a blank page or canvas, or at a blank wall.)

As John the Evangelist said of the wind:  “It blows where it chooses, and you can hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it goes.” In Mariela in the Desert, the wind often blows so suddenly and loudly it interrupts conversations.

That’s a graceful clue to the heart of the play.  Mariela, now playing at Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights, depicts the family of a Mexican painter self-exiled to the northern desert at the height of that nation’s great artistic outburst, the mid-20th century Expressionist Movement.

Rachel Gonzalez (photo: Ed Krieger)

Rachel Gonzalez (photo: Ed Krieger)

Jose Salvatierra — a friend of Rivera, Kahlo, Siqueiros and Tamayo —  dreams of an artists’ colony in the desert. He and  his wife Mariela, also a painter, leave Mexico City; but no one follows. Mariela stops painting to raise their children. After a long dry spell, Jose wins a national prize; but he unaccountably brings the painting home, then falls into a long, terminal battle with diabetes.

This is where we enter the story. By the time  we leave, much has been revealed — about the family’s history, about the fickleness of talent and inspiration, and about the painful complexities of love.

Mariela is an early play by Karen Zacarías, one of America’s most-produced playwrights. It has a rough edge or two (e.g., monologs that tell us nothing the characters don’t show us), but it has considerable strength — in its characters, in the courage with which they confront their lives, and in its fearless portrayal of  what art can do to the lives it moves through.

Casa 0101 and the Angel City Theater Ensemble stage this work  with intelligence and energy. Marco DeLeon’s set places us in a familiar environment, yet keeps us from feeling at home (so do the fluctuating scrim projections). Props (by Alexander Cooper) and costumes (by Abel Alvarado) fill out the world and the characters, and even help to tell the story — as when objects shatter, or when the young professor squirms in a suit he can’t quite fit.

Robert Beltran’s direction is crisp-paced and clear, easily finessing many changes of scene and time. And the actors’ performances are shaped by strong choices. Denise Blasor makes spinster aunt Oliva real, with an unpredictable range of mental and emotional moments; Kenneth Lopez suggests young Carlos’ disabilities, while focusing on his feelings; and Randy Vasquez’s professor flows nicely from ill-at-ease visitor to almost family.

Vannessa Vasquez, as the daughter who inherits the artistic gift (or curse), carves a believable path from anxious homecoming to new wisdom; she also shifts easily from adult to child in flashbacks. Vance Valencia, as her father, gives us a man with talent and an ability to love who’s almost blinded by ambition; he, too, moves deftly between ages, from Jose’s bullish youth to his querulous decline. And Rachel Gonzalez, in an impressively contained performance, always lets us sense the immense forces at play beneath Mariela’s firmly managed persona.

Mariela in the Desert is a valuable play: it corrects some of the blindness of our era. It focuses on Mexico (not the US), on women (not men), and on the human costs of art (not its glories). Casa 0101 and the Angel City Theater Ensemble give us  an engrossing, important story told with the skill and sensitivity it deserves.
Mariela in the Desert, by Karen Zacarías, directed by Robert Beltran.
Presented by Casa 0101 and Angel City Theater Ensemble, at the Casa 0101 Theater, 2102 E. 1st St., LA 90033.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 5:00,
through December 11.

Tickets:  <www.casa0101.org>  or  (323) 263-7684.

Mitu’s “Juarez”: A City Between Hell and Home

If you don’t know Theater Mitu, you should. They’re a New York company that works the space between — between cultures, between ancient and modern, between heaven and earth.

In Juárez: A Documentary Mythology, now at L.A. Theatre Center, they take us between hell and home — to a city caught between Mexico and the US, between local farming and global industrialization, between battling drug cartels and folks who just want to live.

And Mitu’s method of telling this story lives in a middle ground — somewhere between live theatre and electronic journalism. There’s no set, few costumes; instead, the stage is filled with screens, mic stands, speakers, wires. Half of the text is drawn from the troupe’s research (the Documentary of the title); the rest is woven from their interviews with the people of Juárez (the Mythology). Instead of enacting events and characters, the actors  take turns reading out facts, and transmitting the citizens’ words.

(photo: Kayla Asbell)

(photo: Kayla Asbell)

Still, the result is undeniably theatrical. We don’t learn anyone’s name (“Teacher, 43,” “Grandmother, 80”), but their words — and home movies of director Rubén Polendo’s family — take us into their city and its life. We feel nostalgia for quinceañeras and cotton fields, sudden confusion as maquila factories outsourced by US firms explode the small city into miles of stranger-filled shantytowns, and terror as angry youths randomly murder young girls and heavily armed drug gangs slaughter one another in the streets.

Juárez takes us to a place of terrible despair. We learn what it is to be trapped in hell, and powerless. Juárez’s last few years offer a slender hope; things seem to be improving, though no one knows why. It’s a tendril of green pushing up through concrete, but we cling to it.

Because this has become our city. Of course, safe in our seats, we know we’ve only learned of the tribulations of Juárez — we haven’t lived them. But we know we will. We, too, will face disruption and chaos, as late-stage capitalism keeps spreading around the globe and our damaged ecosystems struggle to re-balance themselves.

Juárez: A Documentary Mythology never voices these warnings. It doesn’t have to. Unusual as it is, Theater Mitu’s vivid story-telling engrosses us in the experience of other human beings, and lets us take from it whatever we can.

In an ensemble effort so seamless that no one can be singled out, the Mitu troupe creates a rare and powerful experience. Their Juarez proves that even without sets, costumes or characters, theatre can move us and challenge us deeply.
Juárez: A Documentary Mythology, a Theater Mitu collaboration, conceived and directed by Rubén Polendo.
Presented by the Latino Theater Company, at LA Theatre Centre, 514 S. Spring St., LA 90013.

Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 3:00,
through November 13.

Tickets: <www.thelatc.org> or (213) 489-0994.