“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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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!
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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>

Let “My Janis” be yours … and your life will break

OK, so I don’t write personal reviews.
If that’s how you like it, skip this one.
Unless you suspect you’re an artist.

Some 2,000 years ago, a sculptor whose name we have lost worked
long and patiently, with all he (or she) had learned and lived, upon a
block of marble.  What emerged, after long effort, was a statue of Apollo, “god of music, truth, and prophecy” (in the perfect phrasing of an unnamed Wiki editor).  The sculptor died.

Somewhere between ancient Greece and the modern era, the statue ran into “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (in the phrasing of an English poet).  The Apollo was beaten, broken, and forgotten.  But it did not die.  What remained, to be discovered by an unnamed archaeologist, was a torso — arms and neck broken off, legs long since lost.  Still, so beautiful it became a museum piece.

*****

Arianna Veronesi (photo: Rudolf Bekker)

Just 50 years ago last month, a young Texas woman of 24 stepped on the stage at a pop music festival in California and started singing.  Three years and four months later, she died.

But her singing didn’t stop. One day, it reached the Italian city of Verona, where a young girl heard it and could not stay the same.

This summer, the girl from Verona — now a woman, with careers in dancing and film — has been performing a brief tribute to the Texas singer as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival.

Using all she has learned and lived, Arianna Veronesi puts Janis Joplin back onstage for 30 minutes — 30 minutes that changed the singer’s life.  And can change yours, if you let them.

The first 10 minutes introduce us — with movement only, no words –to a woman who’s fought for sobriety but is lonely, lost in her new life, hungry.  The next 10 minutes, she wrestles through a call from a friend in San Francisco with an offer she can refuse; but she doesn’t.

For the last 10 minutes, she snatches clothes from her suitcase and jewelry from her side table to create what will be her world-famous persona. Then, quietly, she reaches deep inside to fetch her wry blues song, Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz? (which will be the last song Joplin ever records).

Janis was a musically gifted kid who’d had terrible acne and been bullied all through school, and then was overwhelmed by drugs when she ran away to San Francisco.  The second time she went there, she ate the music world alive, becoming a rock superstar.

Far more importantly, Janis Joplin was one of the greatest blues singers ever. She tore her songs out of her, each one a little piece of her heart (you could hear the blood), scattering her deepest secrets and suffering and love like seeds mixed with rain.  The coroner said she died from a heroin overdose; but really, she died from the pain and grief of being mortal.  It’s the thing that gets us all.

And she left a record of her intensely lived journey that’s indelible. Thanks to how we can capture sound on plastic, it will last about as long as marble.

*****

Just 110 years ago, a young Czech poet walked into a room in a museum and saw the broken Apollo.  Rainer Maria Rilke knew he could never be the same, and he wrote a poem  about it (here in an American poet’s perfect rephrasing):

We cannot know his legendary head,
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise the stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

*****

Arianna Veronesi’s intense, delicate, consummately artistic living portrait lasts only a half-hour. Then it lives on, in what it’s done to the lives she’s touched. If you ever get the chance, meet Veronesi’s Janis, and let her become yours.  And then listen to the recordings.

You’ll never be the same.

And If you’re an artist, you’ll know what you have to do — whatever the cost.  After all, whichever road we take, they all end in the same place. So take out that gift, set it alight, and burn it to the end.
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My Janis: An Intimate Portrait, written and performed by Arianna Veronesi.
At the New Collective Theater, 6440 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90036.

Tonight (Saturday, July 22) at 8:00.
Future performances to be announced.

Tickets:  <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/4563?tab=tickets>

 

“Becoming Human” charts a healer’s long, hard path

The journey toward healing from trauma is arduous, and the world (of at least one person) hangs in the balance.  The further journey,
all the way to becoming a healer, is harder — but our shared world desperately needs people to dare it.

Nicki Joy Monti has made that further journey, and among its fruits is Becoming Human, now onstage at McCadden Place.  Monti’s tale is an autobiography, shrunk (for theatre) to a memoir, simultaneously recounted to a therapist and enacted in flashbacks.

A. Russell Andrews, Nicki Joy Monti (photo: Ed Krieger)

We follow her story — and her reflections on it — from her birth to the threshold of her healing career.  We witness her chaotic, harsh childhood, and her dogged attempt to wrest scraps of love and some kind of normal life from her abusive, alcoholic mother (and Mama’s poor partner choices).

We also witness — and this is perhaps the play’s greatest strength — the gradual transformation of Nicki into Nicki Joy.  The woman we meet in the therapist’s office is brash, always joking, talking about feelings instead of experiencing them.  By the time she has relived her life, and (concurrently with her therapy) taken on caring for her mother’s advancing dementia, she has been shattered and softened. And may be ready to become a therapist.

Becoming Human is competently staged and acted, under Diana Wyenn’s strong eye and hand.  As Mother, Lauren Campedelli creates not a demon but a blithe narcissist to whom doubt is a stranger; though her mind fails, her aggressive defenses never do.  Kat Rodriguez’s portrayal of Nicky, at every age from childhood to about 30, is clear and affecting, even when she is not speaking.  Michael Matthys separates his several roles with precision, and A. Russell Andrews’ therapist is the perceptive, caring calm in the eye of the storm.

Monti plays herself in the therapy scenes.  She has an engaging presence; but I find that while we as actors can be ourselves effectively, e.g. in a one-person show, we can’t play ourselves. It’s the one character we lack the distance to embody with an artist’s
selectivity.  We become diffuse, relaxed.  It’s too easy (and, like a plush couch, too hard to get out of).  Despite Monti’s energy and range, I suspect another actor could serve the story better.

Becoming Human would also be well-served by continuing the editing and shaping that has brought it thus far.  Its 90 minutes is the outer limit of what audiences can sustain, and there are scenes (e.g., 8-year-old Nicki begging Mama not to go out on a date) that will gain power as they shed repetition. The prose also still has a few small purple patches, which cause the momentum to stumble.

Becoming Human is an important tale, often movingly told, and well on its way to being a powerful play.  Many people have gone public with their struggles to recover from childhood abuse and the hells it leads  them through in adulthood.  Many more will do so.  We need these stories:  Each one speaks for a thousand.
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Becoming Human, by Nicki Joy Monti, directed by Diana Wyenn.
At McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood 90038.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 5:00,
through August 6.

Tickets: <www.plays411.com/newsite/show/play_info.asp?show_id=4659>

 

Echo’s Layered “Cake” has more than sugar and fat

In her opening monolog, North Carolina cake chef Della insists on the value of instructions.  Unserious bakers read that they should stir the liquid ingredients until well-blended, then carefully fold in the solids.  But they decide to skip all that foolishness and just blend everything at once, then dump it into the pan.

Clearly, that won’t do.  Not for making a cake — and not for bringing together the separate realities of our divided nation.  The urban coasts and the rural midlands have drifted disastrously far apart, and people of good will are frantically looking for a recipe.

Enter playwright Bekah Brunstetter.  Her The Cake stands on that divide, and her characters strain to reach across it — one even stands on both sides, trying to reach for herself.  That’s Jen, who grew up in Winston-Salem and is coming home from New York to have her wedding.  Her intended is Macy, who’s a woman, and black.

Debra Jo Rupp, Shannon Lucio, Carolyn Ratteray (photo: Darrett Sanders)

These two surprises knock Bella, Jen’s surrogate mom, for a loop; in a decision “torn from the headlines,” she declines to make their wedding cake.  Macy’s furious, Jen tries not to be; Bella begins to question herself, while husband Tim firmly backs her refusal.

But that’s all on the surface.  Brunstetter looks deeper than the headlines, and finds the quake sending shock waves in both directions, opening hidden fault lines not only between but also within all four characters.

This is serious stuff — yet it’s a comedy.  It’s cleverly written that way, with some deftly handled devices (God as a food-show host?). And as Bella, light comedy maitresse Debra Jo Rupp (That 70s Show, Seinfeld) keeps us hoping neither she nor any of the relationships will bleed to death.  Her adroitly physicalized feelings, her resilience, and her ability to glimpse herself are the show’s mainspring.

Jen has a harder time hoping, or seeing comedy; but Shannon Lucio subtly lets us know she’s caught in tragedy, and isn’t at all used to it. Joe Hart allows Tim’s veneer of calm certitude to fissure and crack before it falls off.  And Carolyn Ratteray’s luminous Macy wins us at once, keeping us firmly engaged with her experience throughout.

The Cake is a timely tale; and being timely, it’s difficult to do well.
(It’s hard to hear durable truths through all the momentary noise.) But Brunstetter’s work doesn’t collapse; and it’s no mere confection. It seriously addresses some of our most painful concerns, while allowing us to laugh — and to hope.

That’s what comedy’s about, after all: affirming the hope that somehow we’ll get through this.  Staring at the angry abyss that has opened in our land, we need it.  Thanks to Brunstetter and the folks at Echo Theater Company for taking the time to get it right.
_______________
The Cake, by Bekah Brunstetter, directed by Jennifer Chambers.
Presented by The Echo Theater Company, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays at 8:00;
Sundays at 4:00;
through  August 6.

Tickets:  https//dime.io/events/the cake

 

 

 

Fringe Feast #4: “Normal” asks what isn’t, and why

Normal, huh?  Intriguing title for a play about a serial killer; and it’s produced by The Vagrancy, whose work is always challenging.

The set (by Hillary Bauman) is intriguing, too.  Stairs upstage center lead to a curtain; four square pillars at the sides (where wings would be in a larger house) flash red and white light into the stage.  A man stands atop the stairs, his back to us.

In semi-abstract style, three actors (Arthur Keng, Steve Madar and Carolyn Deskin) unwind a tale that at first seems linear; but its narrative structure evolves into what you’d have if you tried to make a spiral with string and gave up.  (This is not at all a  criticism.)

Steve Madar, Carolyn Deskin (photo: Wes Marsala)

The case is unfamiliar to most of us (though it was infamous at the time, and Fritz Lang based his classic noir film M on it).  In 1929, a man terrorized the German city of Düsseldorf, murdering nine people and severely wounding more than two dozen others.  An admirer of London’s Jack the Ripper, he taunted the police with clues and letters.  Unlike his idol, he was swiftly caught and tried — having urged his wife to turn him in for the substantial reward.  Apart from her, he admitted to no feeling for any other person.

Normal pursues two questions:  (1) What might account for such utterly depraved emotions and behavior?  (2) What is the difference between a person living in such extremity and the rest of us?

These are the obvious questions, and Anthony Neilson’s text goes after them in ways both customary and unusual.

Of course, we learn about the hellish childhood of Peter Kurten (Madar), including his one human attachment — to a sadistic local dogcatcher.  At the same time, we watch as our narrator, tyro defense attorney Justus Wehner (Keng), falls prey to his client’s amoral manipulations.

While Kurten recounts losing (or failing to acquire) a conscience, gaining instead only hatred and ravening need, Wehner loses his ethical (if not his physical) virginity.  In scenes part reality, part dream, the attorney falls in love with, seduces, and murders his client’s wife (Deskin).  At his client’s behest.  By the end, Wehner is pleading empathy for the boy who became a killer.

The play keeps our interest, tightly directed (David Mancini) and performed.  The sound (Matt Richter) and lights (Jenna Pletcher) hold us close in mood and place.  Yet Neilson’s mental and moral explorations never reach outside the box like the stagecraft does.

His opening metaphor — an automated carnival machine in which Kurten stabs the children who drop in their coins — is never explored or paid off, only repeated.   He lets us hear the horrors of Kurten’s youth, but nothing makes us feel them (the suave, malicious man tells us of it, not the boy).   Wehner’s descent into his inner darkness is shockingly well staged — but it only yields a rant blaming “society,” instead of making us feel complicit.

Normal adds another fine production to The Vagrancy’s impressive track record.  I only wish the playwright had dug as deeply into his material as the performers do.
_______________
Normal, by Anthony Neilson, directed by David Mancini.
Presented by The Vagrancy, at The Lounge Theater, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

Saturday (June 24) at 8:00 pm.

Tickets: <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/4428>