“Farragut North”: A Taut, Timely Political Tragedy

‘Tis the season to be cynical.

Election season, when billions of dollars flood the country in search of votes, when TV and internet screens are clogged with ads and arguments.

Just the time for a slick, smart play about politics.  And that’s what Farragut North seems to promise. We’re in Iowa, days before the caucuses, with the campaign team of the Democratic front-runner, a progressive from Vermont.

At first, it’s hard not to look for the real-world parallels.  The governor is raising his money from small donations. Sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders — or Howard Dean (also from Vermont), who pioneered populist funding in his 2004  White House bid.  And our playwright, Beau Willimon, worked on Dean’s staff.

So the first half of Farragut North weaves the frantic, tangled web of high-stakes politics.  We follow press secretary Stephen Bellamy as he angles for coverage from a New York Times reporter, takes an intern to bed, then gets a secret call from the opposing camp.

The call turns everything upside down.  We now see the seamy side of the process — the fakery, the backroom deals, the dirty tricks.  But we see Stephen do the right thing: He tells his boss.

So Act I sketches a swift, savvy picture of politics — its bright, busy surface and its dark, mean underside.  Act II gives us an equally swift, equally dark tragedy: The fall of a man undone by the flaw in his character.  Each scene reveals a surprise, and by the end there’s nothing left of Stephen, not even a lesson learned.

Willimon can show the dark side — he’s the creator of the bleak Netflix hit, House of Cards, about a Macbeth-like couple who reach the White House by stepping over corpses.  But he also shows us more — the deep, complex story of human yearnings and failings beneath the cynical shell. We care about Stephen, even as we loathe his weakness, and what it drives him to do.

Staging this fast-moving, many-layered drama is far from easy.   But Conejo Players Theatre, known for big musicals, does a crisp, compelling job.  Designer John Eslick starts us off with a set that looks simple and familiar — yet eerily foreboding.  Director Elissa Anne Polansky puts it all in motion and keeps it there, never letting the pace or focus drop; she makes juggling knives look easy.

The players rise to the occasion commendably.  Eslick, as the opposing campaign manager, uses his power gently but firmly, a helpful uncle who’s seen it all yet hasn’t become bitter.  Bryan White, as Stephen’s harried boss, nicely hints that he may be in a tad deep, then delivers the first of Act II’s hammer blows in a strong, finely balanced monolog.  And Allison Klinker creates a polished pro of a reporter who’s comfortable sinking to any level.

Parker Harris brings to Stephen the troubling combination of intelligence and unthinking privilege, wielding his wits with charisma but little wisdom.  And Katy Jarvis’ precocious, coltish Molly circles him like a moth entranced by a flame.  Both make us wince at what their characters don’t know they don’t know.

Fred Saliba also deserves a word for his humble monolog as the Waiter, and Beth Glasner for costumes that are invisibly apt, even when clothes become part of the story.

This is a play that leaves you thinking — and talking.  Beyond the razzle-dazzle of power flowing back and forth, there’s the real point of it all: Whom does the power serve?  Beneath the snappy cynicism, there’s a timeless question:  What is virtue, and how do we live it?

Farragut North is as tight and deep a political drama as we’ve had in decades.  Conejo Players are doing it proud.  See it before you vote.
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Farragut North, by Beau Willimon, directed by Elissa Anne Polansky.
Presented by Conejo Players Theatre, 351 S. Moorpark Rd., Westlake Village 91361.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through September 17th.

Tickets: <www.conejoplayers.org> or (805) 495-3715.

 

 

 

 

Horror Shot: ZJU Serves 2,400-year-old “Medea”

The ancient Greeks wrote tragedies and comedies, right?

Medea is neither — it’s a horror story, pure and simple.  And it may be the world’s oldest one, having debuted in Athens some 2,400 years ago.

For its most recent appearance — at Zombie Joe’s Undergound — director Denise Devin has pared Euripides’ full-length play down to a swift and sudden hour of terror.

Medea is not about a man who, like Oedipus, tries to counter his fate and loses to the gods. It’s about a woman who is betrayed by a man, and plans a terrible revenge.

Medea, a princess in a “barbarian” land, is swept away by her husband Jason to the Greek city of Corinth.  After they’re settled long enough to have two sons, Jason has the opportunity to wed the daughter of King Creon, removing the stain of foreignness his wife has brought.

But this will reduce Medea to the status of a concubine, and she will lose her sons to the royal family. She refuses, but cannot change the plan. So she vows revenge on all concerned.

Surprisingly, the gods don’t get in her way, or punish her afterward. Medea swiftly accomplishes her plans, and we are horrified — by her increasingly inhuman actions, and by her apotheosis as a superhuman figure at the end.

By compressing this drama into a single hour, Devin has created a superhuman challenge. The actor who plays Medea must be at a high pitch of ferocity from start to finish, swelling to a climax beyond human — and  with no “recovery time” between scenes, while the Chorus and others debate the action (as in the original).

Fortunately, ZJU has Jonica Patella.  A force on any stage, Patella drives toward her revenge with operatic power, yet along the way reveals a full range of emotions (and dynamics, from triple forte to pianissimo). She is by turns confused, contrite, reasonable, seductive, and overcome by love  — yet implacable in her hatred. Patella’s Medea is so human we can’t help but feel her sufferings; yet so obsessed that by the end, we feel we’re losing our contact with her.  As we should: She has become a monster.

As her well-intentioned but clueless mate Jason, Alex Walters delivers an accurate, almost comic portrait of the privileged male who works hard to get ahead and can’t imagine what all the fuss is about. The ensemble weaves the world around the ill-fated pair: Dale Sandler’s adamant Creon bends nicely at the crucial moment; Louise Claps delivers a stolid Nurse who can’t hide her affections; Larray Grimes’ Messenger makes us feel his shock at the horrid climax; and a Comforters/Chorus trio, led by Dawn Davis, keep Corinth real.

The staging, in Zombie Joe’s tiny black box, is artful and very effective.  From the taiko drums (Xandra-Marie Gabucan and Isaku Kageyama) to Medea’s shocking makeup, to the deft way the Comforters turn into the Chorus and back, we are made to feel the swift story’s incredibly high stakes.  And Medea’s final moment — as a dragonlike apparition (kudos to Devlin and Cristina Brunet) — perfectly translates for a modern audience the awe and horror of Euripides’ ending.

On opening night one or two nerves were noticeable, but that’s ironed out by now.  If you like horror — and are strong enough to take it straight, no sweet mixer, no ice — then step up to NoHo for Medea.  You’ll be shaken, but you won’t be sorry.
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Medea, by Euripides, adapted, directed and choreographed by Denise Devin.
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 September 11th.

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

 

 

Seeking a Smart Comedy? Try “One of the Nice Ones”

For 25 years, David Mamet’s Oleanna has reigned as the queen of dark comedies about gender roles and power in American society.

Meet the new queen.

One of the Nice Ones, by LA playwright Erik Patterson, has sharp dialog in the Noel Coward tradition, lots of lively theatricality, and more sudden switchbacks than a mountain road. And you can see it this weekend in Atwater, where The Echo Theater is giving it a world premiere.

Graham Hamilton, Rebecca Gray

Graham Hamilton, Rebecca Gray

The comic conflict occurs in the offices of a weight-loss program, between a call-room worker and her male supervisor.  She’s floridly neurotic, he’s a blooming  sociopath, and both are devilishly clever.

I won’t tell you the story.  But I will tell you that this sparkling script gets a full-speed, often effervescent performance. Rebecca Gray, as the caller, shifts shape swiftly and subtly, managing to keep her suffering real while making us laugh; and Graham Hamilton gets us almost liking a guy we wish we’d never met.  Rodney To, the hapless foil, nimbly tumbles down the steps of decompensation; and Tara Karsian brings sanity into the room twice, first as a bewildered customer and then as an Athena-like judge of the furies.

Of course, a soufflé needs whipping, and director Chris Fields keeps things astir with a steady hand.  Scenic designer Amanda Knehans captures the mood with a complex visual puzzle of a set that reveals itself bit by bit, usually in the brisk scene changes; her playfully unfolding mystery creates a fine analog of the story’s action.

The Echo always delivers strong acting and high production values. In this play, they’re working with a script that’s painfully relevant yet laugh-out-loud risible, and the result is a timely comedy that deserves to be around a long time — it really is One of the Nice Ones.

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One of the Nice Ones, by Erik Patterson, directed by Chris Fields.
Presented by The Echo Theater Company, at Atwater Villlage Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 4:00 and 7:00,
through August 21st.

Tickets: <www.EchoTheaterCompany.com> or (310) 307-3753.

 

Wicked Wit, Rending Tragedy in “The Suitcase”

“What if we do a vaudeville routine about the Holocaust?”
“No, no.”  “Bad taste.  Insensitive.”  “That’d never work.”

Never say never to a Polish playwright.  One of that country’s most accomplished comic writers, Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk, has packed vaudeville and death camps into The Suitcase — and it works.

How?  You’ve got to see it to believe it.  And luckily, you can.  Two of LA’s best theatre companies, Echo Theatre Company and The West, are giving Sikorska’s wry tale its American premiere, and it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.

Alexandra Freeman, Vincent Castellanos (photo: Eric Keitel)

Alexandra Freeman, Vincent Castellanos (photo: Eric Keitel)

It all looks so simple.  Before a patchwork curtain, the stage is bare, save an odd object that looks like leftover pegboard bits stuck together.  An ingratiating narrator sings, tells a joke or two, then offers the tale of Franswa Jackoh, a fellow at loose ends in his retirement whose wife tells him to get out of the house.

At her suggestion, he goes to a museum.  Turns out it’s a museum of the Holocaust.  Turns out (as a lively quasi-musical number reveals) that while an art museum contains art, there’s no Holocaust here. Just photographs, names, film clips, piles of shoes …

I don’t remember the last time a joke made me laugh and cry.
But Sikorska’s piercing wit — in Artur Zapalowski’s deft translation, with the troupe’s skillful delivery — does it again and again.

Ultimately, Franswa encounters the suitcase.  Like Rilke standing before the headless bust of Apollo, he realizes that he must change his life.  But that’s all the story I’ll give away.

What I’ll say instead is that this piece of art — pared down to theatre’s bare beginnings — will tickle and shock and sting and, yes, console you.  It may even make you think about changing your life.

Director Sam Hunter keeps the actors to the simplest outlines of movement, while encouraging them to find the complexity of character Sikorska’s sketches suggest.

Jeff Alan-Lee balances the narrator’s antics between amusing and irritating, slowly letting us sense what he’s trying to balance inside; Claire Kaplan, as his pierrette, juggles forcefulness and flirtation, hinting at what may be love as she nudges the story onward.  Alexandra Freeman, the “Miserable Tour Guide,” shines at the edge of sanity, struggling to hold (and hold off) the history she’s immersed in; Sigute Miller, a psychic cafe poet, wears a many-colored coat of implied stories.  Eric Keitel’s stillness lets a single gesture be a climax; and Vincent Castellanos contains so much in Franswa’s mild manner that we both hope and fear to find what’s locked inside.

The Suitcase‘s exterior is unassuming; but within lives a powerful and provocative work of theatre.  Brilliantly written and delicately performed, this play joins wicked comedy and piercing tragedy to help us confront and deal with who we are, what we have done, and whether we dare to remember.
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The Suitcase, by Malgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk, directed by Sam Hunter.
Presented by Echo Theatre Company and The West, at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8:00,
through August 18.

Tickets:  <www.echotheatre.com> or (310) 307-3753

[Note:  Hunter and Kaplan, the two troupe members from The West, have collaborated before — most notably in their stunning Lady Into Fox, seen on several LA stages last winter.  (My review is below.)]

 

 

Living & Dying in a War Theater: “Ajax in Iraq”

Throughout our nation’s history, large numbers of Americans have lived in war zones as active combatants.  Of course, the rest of us wonder what it’s like — what living inside a war does to people, how they deal with it.

But most veterans don’t talk about it much.  Fortunately, some do — and when they do, some folks listen.  In 1994, psychiatrist Jonathan Shay’s book Achilles in Vietnam compared what US veterans told him with what Homer said about a war 2,700 years earlier; surprisingly, he found, the Greek poet’s picture of life at war was still painfully accurate, and even helpful in finding ways for soul-scarred survivors to heal.

Ellen McLaughlin’s 2011 play Ajax in Iraq sets the experience of a new generation of American soldiers alongside another ancient war story, Sophocles’ Ajax.  She does it to inquire about Americans living and dying in the Middle Eastern conflict and finds, like Shay, that the Greeks knew war with a horrible intimacy.

Ajax (Aaron Hendry) surrounded by American GIs (photo: Sean Deckert)

Ajax (Aaron Hendry) surrounded by American GIs (photo: Sean Deckert)

This month, LA’s Not Man Apart troupe is re-staging McLaughlin’s drama.  “After 15 years of deployments,” notes director John Farmanesh-Boca — this war is now longer than the American Revolution — “the Pentagon is bracing for things to get much worse.  Our veterans cannot be ignored.”

McLaughlin interweaves the experiences of a company of GIs (mostly women) with large fragments of Sophocles’ play. This may seem odd at first — the goddess Athena onstage amid grunts wielding automatic weapons — but it turns out to be a powerful way for us to understand what our soldiers experience, and how impossibly much we expect of them.

The most powerful thing we learn is that aside from the weapons, so little has changed.

Today, just as in the ancient world, war is a place where half the people are trying to kill you, and the other half are sending you out into harm’s way.  It’s a place where you quickly feel more attached to the person fighting next to you — if you can trust them — than to anyone else in the world.

It’s also a place where some people abandon ethics and rules, and put everyone else at even greater risk.  Where some officers abuse their power freely, since there’s no recourse from their authority. Where no one who’s not in the thick of it has any idea — not even the officers back at field headquarters, who make the plans and order the attacks.

These things erode the sanity of Ajax, one of the Greek army’s greatest soldiers.  And they eat away at A.J., an American soldier who is the first of her unit to arrive in Iraq.

As the Greeks’ “lightning attack” on Troy turns into a grinding 10-year siege, Ajax watches friends slain day after day, and struggles to hang on to the code of honor. Then a high-ranking officer steals his dead friend’s armor, and Ajax snaps.

A.J. is forced into sex slavery by her psychopathic sergeant, and withdraws into a deep depression.  Her buddies worry about her, and admire — but don’t understand — the way she rushes fiercely into the most dangerous assignments.

When Ajax breaks, he goes on a “berserk raid,” killing everything he can see.  A.J., pushed beyond her limit, does the same.  When this kind of psychotic break happens to a soldier — and it often does — it wins medals … if the rage falls on an enemy position.  If it falls on a local village, it usually gets hushed up.

Both Ajax and A.J. kill symbolically, however; they slaughter animals.  When Ajax realizes he is mad, and has destroyed the Greek army’s only food supply, he kills himself.  When A.J. sees what she’s done, she also commits suicide.

Ajax in Iraq premiered off-Broadway with some criticizing it as more programmatic than dramatic.  But the Not Man Apart company wears the title “Physical Theatre Ensemble” — and they earn it.  Under Farmanesh-Bocca’s intense, energetic direction, the company creates an ongoing melee of movement, noise and stress, punctuated by sudden, disorienting moments of quiet.

This production makes us feel the grinding pressure of a war zone more viscerally than a 3-D movie with blaring speakers can.  And the lead actors — Aaron Hendry and Courtney Munch — carve out blazingly individual characters, so there’s no sense of allegory.

What we’re left with is a grueling and disheartening vision of life in war.  We watch — and feel — the way it distorts and destroys human personalities, tearing individuals from their inner roots, making them strangers in their homes and families.

This is the price of war.  Not just the body bags, not just the visible wounds — but the countless young women and men for whom staying alive in a war zone makes life unliveable.  Watching Ajax in Iraq, we cannot look away from what we have done, and are still doing every day, to our fellow Americans.

The Greeks told these stories not to recruit more soldiers, nor to amuse audiences.  They told them to indict everyone, to make the whole community feel as deeply as possible the human and moral cost of policies they had voted for, or failed to oppose.   Not Man Apart, with its shocking, powerful production of Ajax in Iraq, would makes Sophocles proud.
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Ajax in Iraq, by Ellen McLaughlin, directed and choreographed by John Farmanesh-Bocca.
Presented by Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble, at Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., LA 90036.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through August 14th.

Tickets:  <www.notmanapart.com>

 

 

 

 

“right left with heels” steps on history’s toes

Who gets to tell the story?

That’s a hot question in American theatre.  The “melting pot”  is boiling over, and folks of every ethnic group, color, gender and identity are leaping up and seizing control of their narratives.  It’s a lively time.

Who tells the story is a hot question in Polish theatre, too. But there, it’s because a succession of regimes — Nazi, Soviet, and the post-Solidarity republic — have taken political power and with it, the power to tell Poland’s story.  Even in today’s democracy, when a new party wins a majority, history books get rewritten and plays get censored. It’s a dangerous time.

Enter playwright Sebastian Majewski. Trained in puppet theatre, he hit on the brilliant notion of not having human characters tell stories.  Not even puppets.  Just objects.  So right left with heels is recounted by a pair of shoes (portrayed by two gifted, tireless actors, Lindsay Plake and Alexa Yeames).  And it’s recounted twice in the 90 minutes we spend together.

Alexa Yeames, Lindsay Plake (photo: Paul Rubenstein)

Alexa Yeames, Lindsay Plake (photo: Paul Rubenstein)

The shoes, fancy and proud of it, spend their decades-long career entirely in Poland. Going from owner to owner, they experience the violent changes of war and of unstable peace.  They are simple. What does a shoe know, after all, except that it likes to dance, doesn’t want to die?  So we proceed through the first telling, charmed by their enthusiasm, laughing at their childlike boasting and the way they mock a boorish owner.

Then the story begins again.  Already, in the first telling, there were moments when the world challenged and confused them — when they were accused of being used in war crimes, or when the audience’s laughter suggested there was something the shoes didn’t know.

Now, their innocence goes from charming to chilling.  We learn that they are made for Magda Goebbels, the wife of Hitler’s propaganda minister — fashioned from human flesh at Auschwitz.  Like the child of a slave-plantation owner, they owe their very existence to monstrous crimes of which they are unaware.

As the second telling unfolds, the shoes’ ignorance collapses, no longer protecting them.  The sour-faced woman who bruises them with her elephantine dancing is in fact a secret police agent, stomping on prisoners’ faces.  The woman to whom she gives the shoes is one of her victims — unable to see their beauty because they have been used to blind her.

The light, fast story grows heavy with moral weight; and no simple certainty arrives to lift it.  As the shoes discover themselves, we discover the complex history they have lived.  They are innocent victims — and blood-spattered collaborators.   So, perhaps, are we.

In addition, right left with heels reveals how crucial it is who gets to tell the story.  An innocent vision misses so much — a revision can show a far more complicated tale of suffering and confusion.  Or, in the hands of a dogmatic regime, it can be as simple and useless as the shoes’ original telling.

All this is a great deal for a 90-minute play to accomplish.  But Majewski and director/choreographer Frédérique Michel have the benefit of 50 years of deeply radical theatrics in Poland, ever since Jerzy Grotowski began working toward “poor theatre”.

So right left with heels does its huge task easily, on a simple pipe-frame platform with two chairs (and some pertinent projections) — all by Charles A. Duncombe.  Josephine Poinsot’s dance dresses, elegant heels, nylons and even hairbands are precise and perfect.

This is the kind of excellence we rely on City Garage to bring us.  A very Polish play, very radical in its theatrics, staged with elegance and clarity — and made bitingly relevant to Americans who may know little Polish history but know far too much about unearned privilege won by violence, and about the ignorance that protects it.

Spend an evening with right left with heels.  It will change the way you think about Europe’s history, and our own … and about how to tell a story.
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right left with heels, by Sebastian Majewski, directed (and choreographed) by Frédérique Michel.
Presented by City Garage, at Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica 90404.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 3:00 (“Pay What You Can”),
through Aug. 14.

Tickets: (310)453-9939 or <www.citygarage.org>

Warning:  Getting to Bergamot Station by car is not easy.  Coming west from the I-10, a small sign marks a lane on the right, not much larger than a driveway, as 26th Street.  Take it — then, just before the light-rail tracks, you must turn right into a narrow gate.  Coming by Metro rail, however, is easy — the 26th Street station is right in front of the theatre.

 

“Bill W. and Dr. Bob” — Real-Life Superheroes

We’re crazy for heroes these days. Superheroes everywhere, saving the world with their amazing powers. And their fans are beyond number, critiquing movies and comic books, cosplaying at cons.

Bill W. and Dr. Bob, now at the NoHo Arts Center, takes a different look at heroism. It’s a quiet play about two of the greatest heroes in the modern world. Bill was a New York stockbroker, and Bob was a physician in Akron, Ohio. They were a pair of helpless drunks, confirmed alcoholics for whom no treatment existed.

Somehow, they found each other.

Ronnie Marmo, Bill Lippincott

Ronnie Marmo, Bill Lippincott

Bill W. and Dr. Bob recounts in 22 brief scenes how these two less-than-ordinary guys struggled to help each other stay sober, relapses and all. Along the way they discovered, but by bit, the simple but powerful strategies that became the 12 Steps, the Big Book, and Alcoholics Anonymous. (Their wives created Al-Anon, the recovery program for people whose lives are linked to addicts and dominated by the disease.)

This is not a flashy dramatic tale — there are no rooftop rescues, no car chases, no knock-down drag-out fights. Just people battling an incredibly difficult disease, and centuries of cultural baggage blaming them for having it.

Theatre 68 does an admirable job of keeping it simple. The modest set and accurate costumes, and the subtle sound design, firmly tie us to the look and feel (and attitudes) of America in the 1920s and ’30s.

Brian Foyster* gives us a low-keyed Bill who can suddenly simmer with energy and burst into visionary enthusiasm — manic tendencies being among the demons he had to learn to fight — but never lets go. Bill Lippincott* creates a likeable, educated man who must daily pick his way through a marsh of self-loathing, yet also manages somehow to hang on.

Laura Lee,* as Bob’s wife Anne, bottles her despair inside the gentle  manners of a “perfect housewife,” while Melissa Kite* strains like a thoroughbred against the uncertain bonds linking her to her flailing husband, though she has a successful career of her own. Both actors fill their lightly written parts with such latent fire that when things break, and they start the conversations that will free generations of codependents, you don’t know whether to cheer or weep.

*There are alternating casts.

As 21st-century theatrical art, Bill W. and Dr. Bob seems vulnerable to criticism. It exemplifies the “kitchen-table realism” of the last century, and it never steps into fantasy or breaks the fourth wall. But it’s not about daring new techniques; like A.A. itself, it’s rooted in day-by-day simplicity. Really, how else could this most important story be told?
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Bill W. and Dr. Bob, by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey, directed by Ronnie Marmo.
Presented by Theatre 68, at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00,
Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00,
through July 3rd.

EXTENDED through July 17th.

Tickets: (323) 960-5068, or <www.Theatre68.com>

“Urban Rez” Gathers Up Erased People, Tribes

Folks who work in theatre are used to a show bringing them  together into a sudden new family. Sometimes, audience members also feel the magic of a living community called into being by a play.

Rarely, though, is creating a family the main purpose. Except at Cornerstone Theater Company, whose mission is not simply to learn and tell the stories of marginalized people, but to bring them together and help them find their power.

Cornerstone’s most recent project, Urban Rez, accomplishes this heartwrenchingly well.  This time, the community includes any person who identifies as Native American and has been excluded, erased or alienated from the family of First Nations — whether by government policies, or by their tribe or family, or simply by the social mobility that so easily distances us from our homes.

urban rez

As standard-bearers for these varied stories, author Larissa FastHorse found the native peoples of what are now Los Angeles and Orange counties. Not one tribal family from this vast region is recognized by the federal government; they are all listed as “extinct.” No matter how many they are, or how they try to hold their heritage.

Urban Rez stages a pow-wow for these “nonexistent” tribes, and  welcomes any neighbors who want to come. Under the venerable trees at Kuruvungna Springs* (an ancestral Gabrieliño/Tongva site  reserved on the grounds of University High School),  the booths are up and the dancing ground is ready.

*[Urban Rez also took place the preceding weekends, under the viaduct at Los Angeles State Historical Park.]

But before the party gets going, a federal agent (garbed and bearded like Uncle Sam) interrupts to arrest a young artist for selling “Native art” without a license, and pulls down his booth. From the ensuing conflict it emerges that his (fictional) “Nicoleño” tribe has a brief window to become registered.

The members and friends of the Nicoleño family scatter.  One lands at one booth, others at other booths, in syncopated rhythms that make it impossible to follow all the story’s parts. Yet somehow, like news moving through a village, we hear it all.

Eventually, the fair comes to a standstill as everyone gathers on the dancing ground to witness the drama’s outcome. There never were any Nicoleños, of course, and it’s only a made-up story. Yet when we find ourselves chanting, “Nicoleño! Nicoleño!” to assert the tribe’s right to exist, many of us are laughing, many are in tears.

It runs deep, this desire to belong to a family, to be sprung from a people and a place on the land. When such ties are broken — or never had — mending is difficult. Urban Rez employs incisive satire, gentle storytelling, frantic argument, and releasing humor to give us  a taste of exile, and a hint of healing.

This play is so thoroughly ensemble, so spread across its micro-locales, and so mobile, that assessing individual performances isn’t possible. The actors, representing more than a dozen tribes, convincingly create the Nicoleño family; and in the booths, they offer an array of delightful, challenging and informative experiences. (I wanted to come again, to see the booths — and story parts — I missed.)

A nod is due to, too, to the set designers and builders, who erected an elegantly simple environment, open to the natural setting.  (And did twice, in two very different locations.)

Urban Rez has had its initial run. But the Cornerstone artists — and the many groups and individuals who joined them for this project — have created a moment of insight, joy and healing that LA dwellers, most of us so far from home, need access to again and again.
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Urban Rez, by Larissa FastHorse, directed by Michael John Garcés.
Presented by Cornerstone Theater Company, at Los Angeles State Historical Park and at Kuruvungna Springs.

Closed.

 

 

 

 

“Lunatics & Actors” Plays on the Edge of Madness

We try hard to hide it, but people have been noticing for centuries that actors and mentally ill folks have a lot in common.

Currently, Four Clowns is tossing that notion in the air, juggling it, and seeing where it lands, in Lunatics & Actors. The piece, by David Bridel (the group’s Associate Director), looks playfully into an area we usually think of as fraught with suffering and seriousness.

To free our minds, the troupe flips us backward a century and a half to a time when Europe’s scientists were first eagerly learning about the human nervous system. In an empty utilitarian space, we meet the urbane Dr. Duchenne. We’re here, he explains, to watch him demonstrate his scientific discoveries.

Andrew Eldredge, Thaddeus Shafer, Alexis Jones

Andrew Eldredge, Thaddeus Shafer, Alexis Jones

(The real Duchenne is now generally regarded as the father of neuroscience. His protegé, Jean-Martin Charcot, ran a world-famous “science theatre” in the Salpetrière, the Parisian insane asylum, using his patients to demonstrate. Among Charcot’s most famous students were Freud and Jung.)

Our Dr. Duchenne is a witty performer, confident in his work and comfortable onstage. He’s most eager to share his findings about portraying human emotions. He claims he can stimulate his patients to produce them perfectly — better than actors can. He challenges any actors in the audience to come onstage and join the test.

Much clowning ensues — not with clowns, but with remarkable and fearless physicality, and comical deflation of our ego balloons.
Duchenne’s increasingly manic trials may not persuade us of his discovery, but we are utterly (and uncomfortably) convinced that a thin membrane guards us all — not just the actors among us — from the loss of self we call madness.

As is usual with Four Clowns, all the performers deliver full energy every moment. Dr. Duchenne (Thaddeus Shafer), for all his self- assurance, never stops scanning the horizon for … something. A rival, come to dispute him? The patients, meanwhile (Tyler Bremer, Andrew Eldridge, and Alexis Jones) never just watch one another perform a test; each is also engaged in advancing an agenda, sometimes secret, sometimes obvious. Director Jeremy Aluma shows what a master juggler can do with a stageful of actors.

Four Clowns has won an enviable reputation for taking the skills of clowning and building new kinds of storytelling from the oldest of theatricks. Lunatics and Actors  extends this work with a lively amusement that entertains the mind as well. It also takes us where the best clowning goes — to places where we hide things.
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Lunatics & Actors, by David Bridel, directed by Jeremy Aluma.
Presented by Four Clowns, at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 1238 W. First St., LA  90026.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
through May 28.

Tickets: <www.artful.ly/store/events/8836>

“Archer”: Ancient Tale Hits Us Right in the Heart

Why stage a play that’s more than 2,500 years old?

Can the struggle of a forgotten Bronze Age warrior possibly say anything to us?

Few of us have ever heard of Philoctetes.  We do recognize his war — the Trojan War, when the Greeks besieged Troy for 10 years before it finally fell. We probably don’t know that Odysseus and the Greeks marooned their greatest archer on a desert island when his wound — a snakebit foot — grew infected and smelled so bad it made them ill.

Sophocles wrote a play about him, called Philoctetes, and now Malik B. El-Amin, the ambitious founder of Griot Theatre, has adapted it for the modern stage. “The modern stage” — in Griot’s vision, that means a stage filled with actors who reflect our culture’s diversity.

Lester Purry, Regan Linton (photo: Nikki Eva Kentor)

Lester Purry, Regan Linton (photo: Nikki Eva Kentor)

For The Archer from Malis, Philoctetes and his mentor Hercules are both black men. All the other characters — from the great god Zeus down to a nameless soldier — are women, one of them black (born in Korea), one Iranian-American, one in a wheelchair.

Aside from slight name changes (to feminine endings), this element of Griot’s staging doesn’t much alter the characters, or their story. But it does profoundly alter our sense of the story’s world, and its relation to our own.

When Zeus, as a powerfully handsome woman, calls dapper-suited Hercules at his hi-tech monitoring station, we’re more in our world than the Greeks’. The capricious father of the gods, a distant figure hard for us to imagine (except as a cartoon superhero), suddenly feels as familiar as a woman CEO or presidential candidate. The god’s uneasy relationship with the hero (an illegitimate human son) slips smoothly into the boss-lieutenant model we know well.

When young Neoptolema wheels onstage, hectored by sly Odyssea, we see the youth’s wounded honor physicalized, and we feel the seductiveness of the wily Wanderer’s arguments. Ultimately, this will matter: Philoctetes is often read as a drama of the wounded archer’s inner conflicts, but in The Archer, it’s Neoptolema’s ethical dilemma that takes the spotlight.

El-Malik is to be congratulated for an adaptation that trims and focuses the story, adding to its intensity while cutting away detail we don’t need. The cast, too, earn fierce applause with their work.

Lester Purry uses his immense presence to keep Philoctetes at or near the center of our minds every moment, while weaving the archer’s volcanic, conflicted emotions into a wholly believable human person. Elmira Rahim’s superhuman Zeus, on the other hand, feels immediately accessible and lets us in on every plan — yet we sense the fearsome power she is withholding.

As Odyssea, Leilani Smith crafts a beguiler who’ll try any tactic, from sexy wheedling to a witty joke to barking military orders, yet always leaves herself an out (plausible deniability is her middle name). And Rosemary Brownlow conveys a chorus of ordinary folk in just two characters, an obedient soldier and a would-be clever sea captain.

But the performance that makes this play is Regan Linton as Neoptolema, the young hero-in-training trying to follow in the footsteps of an idealized father (the great Achilles).  When we meet her, she already bears a wound — her superiors are coercing her to attempt a most dishonorable act. We see how this hurts and confuses her. And how it enables her to understand and respect the wounded hero the Greeks now want to bring to Troy.

Linton and Purry create duets, as the warriors come to know and trust each other, that are beautiful and sad, for we know what she is doing — and what it will do to her. And I cannot imagine this play without Linton’s skilled use of her chair — darting, whirling, creeping up, falling back — she creates almost a ballet of the thoughts and feelings tearing at her character.

I came to the theatre ready for the familiar experience of seeing a classic well-performed, yet not being moved by it. The Archer from Malis is excellently performed — and it transforms an ancient ethical debate into a vivid, personal experience of the wrenching some people feel between love and duty, while those who succeed in the world do not feel it at all. It’s a text for our times, beautifully made alive.
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The Archer from Malis, adapted (from Sophocles’ Philoctetes) and directed by Malik B. El-Amin.
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 May 22.

Tickets: (323) 960-7822 or <www.griottheatre.org>