Revolution Rear-Views: 2. “La Bete”

In a Fringe synchrony, I recently saw back-to-back shows set in 1992,  both focusing on women engaged in nonviolent revolution, both looking back.

*****

An actress who marched with Martin is now slow-marching alone toward death.

It’s an intriguing idea, a person we’d like to meet.  Her life dedicated it to a revolution she, like Dr. King, will not live to see.

June Carryl

June Carryl

In La Bete, June Carryl introduces us to Marian Davis — backstage, before and after the first act of what may be her final show.

Playwright Carryl plainly knows the theatre, and has a way with words.  She sets her two characters — Davis (played by Carryl herself) and producer/director Alan (Mark Motyl) — in a many- layered moment.

On the surface, they battle with a familiar ferocity.  She’s struggling with her lines and tries to pass it off by doing the diva — blaming the writer, belittling her stage manager, refusing to wear a wire.  He’s seeking the mix of patience, placating and pushing that will get the play to opening curtain in passable shape.

As the layers peel, we learn that this is her comeback show, after an unspecified hiatus, and that he’s mortgaged his house to mount it.  And when she twits his anxious control with “That’s why I never married you,” she reveals more than she means to.

Finally, we — and he — learn that what she’s taking pills for is fatal.
If this show has legs, she won’t be running with it.  He fails to convince her to go at once to the hospital, but she does accept the wire, and they’re ready for the second act.

Actor Carryl knows the emotional and vocal ropes, and plays the range of her instrument from quiet melancholy to a frenzy of mortal fear, all in the small space of Marian’s dressing room.  Motyl gives us a producer/director and friend, trying to carry on while bearing an emotional tie whose limits he has long since accepted — though he’ll still put his (and his family’s) life at risk for it.

What this duo (or trio, really, including Carryl the writer) doesn’t give us is context, an experience of their connection to the rest of the world.  And thus to us.

Marian speaks two or three times of having marched with Martin Luther King, and of the revolution they sought to make.  But it doesn’t become real to us as a passionate part of her life — instead,  an unexplained obsession with Charlton Heston intrudes, eclipsing  each of her memories.  Nor do we learn anything about — much less feel — how her political and artistic lives are connected.

In place of live connections, we get odd loose ends.  Marian picks up a dressing table photo and gazes at it several times, but never says who’s in it.  She’s interrupted by a phone call that plainly deflates her, but never says who it was, or what was the bad news.  Alan uses his cell phone to contact crew members in the theatre, but not the world outside.

Even the play’s title is unmoored, tied to no meaning.  “The Beast.”  Surely not the Broadway play about Moliere, nor Zola’s novel La bete humaine.  Perhaps a bete noir — depression, that menaces all mortals, or whatever Marian’s besetting enemy is?  We never find out.

La Bete is well-produced, with a clear minimal set, accurate costumes and effective simple lighting.  It’s crisply directed (by James Carey) and well-acted.  But the story’s ties to the world it claims to be part of are unclear, and need to be developed.  Perhaps in the next redaction, with more than 45 minutes onstage, Carryl and her cohorts can fill out the picture with the skills they display in this version.

_______________
La Bete, by June Carryl, directed by James Carey.
Presented by JCMM Productions at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd.

Sunday June 29th at 4:00.

Tickets:  <www.hff14.org/projects/1848>

Revolution Rear-Views: 1. “Riot Grrrl Saves the World”

In a Fringe synchrony, I recently saw back-to-back shows set in 1992,  both focusing on women engaged in nonviolent revolution, both looking back.

*****

Suddenly, 20 years have slipped by.

The word “grrrl” now appears in the Oxford English Dictionary.
“A young woman regarded as independent and strong or aggressive … blend of grrr, representing the sound of an animal growling (and thus human anger), and girl, as in riot grrrl.”

Zoe Lillian, Emma Servant, Tiffany Mo

Zoe Lillian, Emma Servant, Tiffany Mo

The entry brings a tear to my eye.  As my daughters stood poised on the threshold of adolescence, that word — coined by young women around the country — spoke of so much I wanted for them.

Riot Grrrl Saves the World pays a theatrical homage (femage?) to those girls of time past, their zines and their bands.  Their vibrant hopes for a revolution, made by freeing one another from gender roles.  And their quests for love and meaning, those questions that dog us all.

Playwright Louisa Hill (The Lord of the Underworld’s Home for Unwed Mothers) takes us back to 1992, as three schoolgirls gather — Joslyn (Zoe Lillian), Steph (Emma Servant) and Harriet (Tiffany Mo). Bubbling with portent like Macbeth’s witches, they lay photocopied  thought-bombs beneath the patriarchy.  Soon, their words morph into music, and they stumble into being a garage band.

Meanwhile, a fourth girl — Darla (Poonam Basu) — defects from schoolworld to join them.  But she’s a Jehovah’s Witness, straining at the bounds of that narrow faith (and her boyfriend’s narrow notions of love).  Joslyn welcomes her, but Steph and Emma aren’t so sure.

Hill thus sets up the Witnesses, daily anticipating the word’s end, as a shadow or foil to the grrrls’ expectations of a  revolution.  Neither apocalypse arrives.  But the author makes no point of this, letting it lie quietly in the subtext — and in us, since we too have have outlived them both.

What does arrive is the complexity of love, surrounded by the rest of life, struggling to survive each partner’s insecurities … and falling apart.  But does falling apart equal failure, for love or a revolution?

Again, Hill makes no overt point of this.  Instead, after the slow collapse of the moment, we see yet another girl (Maggie Blake) — whom we saw briefly before the story began — putting a zine back in a box.  She then picks up a tape and walks off listening to it, starting to dance.   Unnamed in the play, unseen by the others, she is listed in the program simply as Grrrl.

The actors create believable teens, embodying youth’s passionate energy and inconsistency.  They’re also clear and strong vocally, even singing to amplified instruments (which they play exactly like garage-band beginners, a feat much harder than it looks).  And director Scott Marden moves them smartly about the small stage, letting the love story’s adagio moments (afterglow, collapse) slow the pace without losing it.

Riot Grrrl Saves the World is fast and funny, but deceptively deep and wise in its best moments.  Rather like grrrls themselves — long may they thrive!

_______________
Riot Grrrl Saves the World, by Louisa Hill, directed by Scott Marden.
Presented by Will Play for Food Theatre Group at Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd.

Saturday June 28 at 5:30 pm.

Tickets: <www.hff14.org/projects/1724>

 

Worse than Its Bite: “Werewolves of Hollywood Blvd.”

The Fringe Festival offers great low-cost exposure for new shows.
But a new rock musical faces a problem — most Fringe spaces are small, black boxes.  Not the place for stadium sound.

Nor, alas, for The Werewolves of Hollywood Blvd.

David Haverty, ensemble

David Haverty, ensemble

The latest creation of Orgasmico Theatre Company is full of high energy, with an appealingly complex story, a lively score and inventive staging.  But it comes to grief trying to house its huge sound in 99-seat Lillian Theatre.

The concept has promise.  Move Wolf of Wall Street west, mash it up with — wait: not  Lon Chaney, but real werewolves.  Historically documented cases of people who thought (or whose neighbors thought) they turned into predators and feasted on humans.

Great opportunities for moral and psychological exploration. “Does evil enmesh us like moonlight or come from within?”  “If our society’s corrupt, who makes it that way?”  “Can we save ourselves, and those we love?”  Plus lots of gory fan service.

Add Michael Teoli’s music and a seasoned cast, with singers who can belt — David Haverty (Peter Stump), Leigh Wulff (Joan of Tarcouca),  librettist Michael Shaw Fisher (Jacques Roulet) — and a steady, empathetic lead like Kyle Nudo (Lawson Grace), and you’re home.

Except that even the largest Fringe venue isn’t home for an amplified rock band and a dozen singers wearing mics.  Even without the band, the mics were treacherous.  In scene after scene, we lost pieces of dialog when raised voices sent words ricocheting off the walls before our ears could capture them.

And in the musical numbers, fully half of the words disappeared.  In a poorly written show, this might not matter.  But Fisher & Teoli have written Werewolves so that things actually happen during the songs.  They’re an integral, important part of the story.  And when we can’t make out what’s being sung, we lose crucial moments of character development, even plot points.  Thoughts and feelings  slip into garble, and a subtle story sinks toward stereotyped sketching.

Orgasmico has a proud track record (Doomsday Cabaret, Exorcistic).  But before they can impale this newest head on the front-yard fence (hey — dark rock operas don’t get Tonys or Oscars), they need to find a home for Werewolves, where its virtues can be fully appreciated.

_______________
The Werewolves of Hollywood Blvd., by Michael Shaw Fisher and Michael Teoli, directed by Aaron Lyons.
Presented by Orgasmico Theatre Company at the Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way.

Saturday June 28 at 4:45 pm.

Tickets: <www.hff14.org/1507>

 

 

Gift from Down Under: “The Creeps”

The best gifts come unexpectedly.

For about 15 years now, I’ve been haunting theatres in LA and New York looking for a certain kind of work.  Images that bubble up from the dark deep, strands of suggestion clinging to them like seaweed, and form before us into story.  Or tease together into almost-story.

Twice now, I’ve found it.  Once in a tiny North Hollywood storefront, at Zombie Joe’s Underground, where I’ve played happily ever since.  (Never, alas in New York.)  And once during the Hollywood Fringe, on a tiny stage tucked into the side of a building.

Catherine Waller

Catherine Waller

Sitting down to a show we’d planned on, a friend whispered urgently, “Have you seen The Creeps?  You have to!”  After the curtain call, we rushed several breathless blocks, and found the door beside a trash dumpster.  A good omen.

Inside the darkening black box, a woman crouches tensely, arms swept back, face pushing forward, leering.  “These are the rules,” she hisses.  Her grin and tone seem almost welcoming, yet her warning is harsh.  Is she in control here or not? Will she guide us, or ambush us?

One by one, other characters emerge from the darkness.  Some are aware of us at once; others, absorbed in pain or in colloquy with shadows, discover us accidentally.  All share what they can of their stories, sometimes struggling to make words, to name things and experiences, but always welcoming the dialog our hissing hostess urged us to offer.  Unsettlingly often, they laugh.

We begin to know these isolated, often abused souls, to feel them. We suspect they’re somehow connected in this dank underworld.  We begin to share their fear of a figure who seems to preside over their prison with malevolence, or at best a cruel indifference.  We even glimpse him passing … or have we imagined it?

When the hour ends, we feel torn from a fascinating world too soon, before we can understand, before we can help.  Only as the lights come up do we return to the stage on which one woman stands.

We return, in light, to the stage where she has knelt, crawled, sat, hung, twisted and crept, has babbled, growled, talked, sung and screamed, bringing her demons, her dark imaginings, to life.  And now they will live in us too, summoning others of our own making.

Waller’s work is a tour de force, wrested from within, unimpeded by fear or reason.  Her physical and vocal athleticism amply serve her art.  So do her collaborators, an uncredited lighting artist and composer Joe Ceglio, whose delicate minimal melodies thread us through the dark maze while maintaining the mystery.

The Creeps is the fruit of much work and study, notably in creating  bouffons (comic grotesques), whom French master Philippe Gaulier has restored to modern theatre.  Waller herself has arisen like her characters from “down under” — a New Zealander who has brought her emerging art to Hollywood.

In The Creeps, years of discipline — and fearless “soul spelunking” in the dark, disturbing caves of the unconscious — have brought some powerful gifts to light.  Watch Catherine Waller.  The gifts will only get richer.

_______________
The Creeps, created and performed by Catherine Waller.
At Schkapf, 6567 Santa Monica Blvd.

Closed.

Hearts in the Sky: “Beau & Aero”

The luck of the Fringe is finding delightful surprises — new art, new artists, who renew your hope for theatre.

One such gift is Beau & Aero.

Amica Hunter, David Cantor

Amica Hunter, David Cantor

I met Amica Hunter at the kosher food wagon in Fringe Central, grabbing a quick meal between shows.  She waved me over to sit with her and David Cantor, and they invited me to their show.

Two nights later, at The Complex, I sat among three dozen laughing, cheering people getting happily high on inspired, glorious clowning.

The two present a pair of would-be aviators, the slightly pompous Beau (Cantor) and the innocent, indomitable Aero (Hunter), proudly wearing World War I outfits.  They fly through air — or try to — with the greatest of unease, on a wish and a balloon, blending the gentle sweetness of Laurel & Hardy with the romantic tension of Tracy and Hepburn.

Hapless but hopeful, Beau and Aero keep things elegantly simple (take that, Cirque du Spectacle).  Playing inventively with balloons, parachutes, and juggling clubs, they mock, mug and mope with non-stop energy. They also play on each other, their aerobatic acrobatics making us almost believe they — and we — really can fly.

And they do it all without words.  Though they do allow themselves some telling sounds — eager airplane noises, Aero’s frustrated mutterings, and an eloquent sequence of pfft‘s with which Beau tries to shrug off her angry departure.

Beau & Aero made a tired late-night audience fall in love, laughing and cheering, tossing balloons back and forth, roaring with joy at the end and spilling into the lobby still laughing.  That’s a theatre experience you don’t often get to be a part of.

The two also gave me back my love of clowning.  I’d been put off as a child by scary hobo drunks (Emmett Kelly, Red Skelton) and violence (the Three Stooges).  But this delightful duo reconnected me with the gentle, witty, playfulness I stayed up late to watch (Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, Danny Kaye), and the delicate artistry I gasped at when I saw Marcel Marceau live.

Beau & Aero have flown south for the summer, to San Diego’s Fringe.  After that, the two — who trained at San Francisco’s famed Clown Conservatory — will spend a year at the Gaulier clown school in France.  Cross your fingers and hope they land here again soon.

_______________
Beau & Aero, created by David Cantor and Amica Hunter.
At the the Dorie Theatre in The Complex, 6476 Sana Monica Blvd.

Closed.

 

Making Theatre Magic: “The Fantasticks”

What does it take to make theatre magic?
Really only two things — actors and an audience.

Oh, it’s fun to have rags or flags, and sticks to put them on … a hat or two, a shawl, an eyebrow pencil … a paper moon …
But the heart of it is people who want to play together in their imaginations, like kids in a treehouse, close enough to touch and be touched by each other’s feelings.

fantas

Such simple magic.
It’s what has made The Fantasticks into the longest-running musical ever, and one of the world’s most often performed plays (watch out, Hamlet).  And it’s what the folks at Good People Theater Company understand and respect.

Under the sure hand and eye of director Janet Miller, they have reincarnated the original 1959 staging as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival.  And the way they tell it, this tale of love, loss and our fondness for story-making is indeed magical.  Tried-and-true spells really do work.

Designer Robert  Schroeder stays with basic black (in the Lillian’s elegant black box), a few sticks on a platform, two trunks into which everything could fit, and chairs.  Oh yes, and curtains — one of colorful tatters, one with the show’s logo — that the actors loop onto the sticks and lower, as needed.

Katherine Barrett’s lighting gives us day and night, happy and sad, firmly but unobtrusively. Kathy Gillespie’s costumes say everything needed and nothing more (how else can a red neckerchief become a laugh line? ).  And Corey Hirsch uses his keyboard and a harp (in the able hands of Jillian Risigari-Gai) to create the entire score.

The actors, too, pour their full energy and skill into plain containers, without trying to decorate them.  As the naively scheming fathers, Matt Stevens and Michael P. Wallott create a loveable vaudeville duo, delivering every line and plot point with bell-like clarity (not easy when you’re dancing and singing a duet).

Christopher Karbo as El Gallo and Joey D’Auria as the aged thespian Henry have roles that seem to call for exaggeration — but they resist artfully.  Karbo tinges his trickster-narrator with light notes of weary  and wistful, while D’Auria spices his ham with a cloven ego, slipping  it out of the oven before it’s overdone.

As The Girl and The Boy, on the other hand, Audrey Curd and Matt Franta are given such archetypal sketches for characters that any “acting” might undo them.  Not to worry.  Each inhabits innocence with utter believeability; each is stunned into wariness by the world’s stings and arrows, yet not scarred to cynicism.  The two also offer a textbook lesson in tuning their performances to one another — vocally, physically and emotionally.  This technical achievement makes us feel their fated match more than anything they could say.

In its 55-year career, The Fantasticks has been made into a film and has been turned countless times into a Cirque-like spectacle.  But these will fall by the wayside.  What will sustain its life for a very long time is the simple magic of theatre — which is what it’s about.

_______________
The Fantasticks, by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, directed by Janet Miller.
Presented by Good People Theater Company at the Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way.

Friday June 27 at 7:30, Saturday June 28 at 2:00 and 7:00, Sunday June 28 at 1:00.

Tickets:  <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1513>

Flight Night: L.A. So-Cal Dance Invitational

How do you lift 800 people into the air?  Gather them under the stars in the Ford Amphitheatre and dance.

Five innovative Southland companies did that recently, setting forth an astonishing array of talent, displaying the range and power of the vast, rich language that modern dance has become.

Invertigo's Cody Wilbourn

Invertigo’s Cody Wilbourn

Lula Washington Dance Theatre
This Watts-based ensemble, soul child of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, has itself become an established engine of LA (and American) culture.

Their Desperate — part of Tamika Washington-Miller’s Message to My Peeps — urgently embodies the need to focus, overcome fear, encourage one another and rise up to speak truth to power.  Don’t doubt it: Dance can be as  potently political as it is poetic.  You can dance and shame the devil.

On a far corner of the aesthetic court is the company’s Beautiful  Venus and Serena.  Skirt-clad and carrying racquets, six dancers interweave the gestural words of dance and tennis with wit and grace, to a lush original jazz score.  A final pas de deux pays loving tribute to the goddess-like sisters who forever changed the game.

Nanette Brodie Dance Theatre
The evening’s host company continues the evolution of what was called “modern dance” last century, when it broke from ballet in the artistry of Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham, Agnes de Mille et al.

Their Heartland – The Immigrant Song (from Beyond the River) paints with a pastel palette, pairing and re-pairing four dancers in a lyrical flow to the familiar hymn, Praise to the Man.  The gently paced, quiet piece recalls us to the simplicity from which elegance arises.

In Fuerza, four male dancers turn the tropes of mating display, competition and combat, to a jarring percussive score.  It ends with discovery of the loss hidden in the winner’s prize.

In Body of Water, 15 dancers build a slow crescendo of ceaselessly cross-folding rhythms, widening and deepening in complex currents and tides.  Some enact shapes that the seas and rivers work their creatures into, while others — when an A-frame invades the stage’s upper level — rush and fall in the surging, ebbing shapes water takes around a static form.  We recall that we, too, are water.

Invertigo Dance Theatre
The evening’ youngest company, Invertigo (led by founder Laura Karlin), focuses on character, story, and playful — often striking — uses of the body human.

In Waiting at Home for the Witches, three male dancers loaf and lounge, waiting for their wives to return from meeting Macbeth.  Their aimless “boys in the rec room” posturing yields swiftly to revelation and intimacy, rich with surprise combination moves.  Each unfolds his private experience, yet all three tend and support one another.  The climax comes in a peerless, poignantly comic “Dance of the Roses” (was that Nijinsky’s ghost?).

LA Contemporary Dance Company
The concert openers, this youthful downtown troupe led by Kate Hutter deploys its forces with almost reckless , versatile abandon.

The Better to See You With plays with themes of predation and passion, hangin’ out and hookin’ up, longing and leaving, and claiming power.  The 10 dancers fill and re-fill the stage, at times telling stories in overlap, shifting styles and stories to an eclectic musical menu.  Holly Rothschild’s choreography is inventive and demanding, but the troupe rings the changes as if it were easy.

Jazzworks – Long Beach
These alums of the CSU Long Beach dance program paint with the mass and spectacle of stadium dance.  Founder Andrew Vaca is a leading sports and event choreographer.

Their General Education, a four-part primer, the dozen dancers  wheel with exciting energy through an increasingly complex array of constellations, ranging across moods and musical styles.  True to the spirit of ensemble, they constantly share turns in the spotlight, yet maintain the effect of close, synchronized unity.

*****

One LA summer 50 years ago, I saw the Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake (with Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn)  — and the brash young Alvin Ailey’s radical new work Labyrinth.  Between them lay all of what it was then possible to say in the wordless language of dance.

That language has exploded.

We need to talk about it.  Though newspaper-based criticism has evaporated, we need to review and explore LA’s thriving, vibrant dance world.  The art is boiling here, and its bubbling heat lifts people lucky enough to experience it into another realm.

“People lucky enough to experience it.”  They’re far too few.  We need to start booking dance shows for longer runs — 2-4 weekends at least — so the word can spread, and new audiences can be lifted up and blown away by what our dancers are doing.

_______________
2nd Annual LA So-Cal Invitational Dance Concert, presented by the South Coast Dance Arts Alliance.
At the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd.

June 20 only.

 

Playing with the Devil: “When I Was Sacred”

In When I Was Sacred, author-director-actress Nina Carlin  plays with the devil.  Such Faustian ventures are what the Fringe is for.

Carlin’s devil is a post-apocalyptic female Lucifer (played by herself) who bursts into the last coffee shop standing in LA.

Nina Carlin

Nina Carlin

She invites several friends to play — her sidekick Vampeere (Deon Summervile), the shop’s owner Shelby (Wellesley Daniels) and her employees (Brian Richard Robin and Nick Gallager), an aimless wraith (Olivia Davis), a revenant Tony Soprano (Nick Justice) and the historical hybrid Freuda Kahlo (Grace West).

In the chaos after Hell has arisen and overtaken our world, odds and ends — and survivors — are scattered randomly about.  So are many good ideas, among them the notion that the shop’s coffee (in the absence of beans and delivery systems) is improvised from the  blood of those who have not survived.

One of the most fetching ideas is the character of Kahlo.  A mashup  of Frida and Freud, she suggests great possibilities.  Will she share — like the Greek seer Tiresias — the wisdom of having dived deeply into sexuality from both genders?  Alas, the mayhem moves so fast she never holds the stage long enough.

Like Freuda’s insights, the shop’s espresso guignol recipe gets hinted at several times.  It becomes clear at the Hamlet-like end, when all but Shelby lie dead upon the floor and she muses on all the coffee she can now make. Though whether she’ll have customers is anybody’s guess … and did she perhaps dream it all?

When I Was Sacred, like its infernal setting, bristles with bright fires here, there, everywhere (amid some shadowy static moments). Carlin’s writing is lit by flares of incandescent wit, and under her direction characters erupt like latter-day commedia dell’arte clowns.   She also has a gift for sudden bursts of manic group activity, mocking the musical-theater trope of a troupe breaking into dance and song.

But the play, in this first incarnation, is like Los Angeles (even before Hell overwhelms it) — there’s far too much going on to  pay attention to any one thing.  The madcap writing and staging don’t pause long enough for any character — or the story — to develop.  The hour’s over before we know it.  The appetizers have tickled our palates, but the meal hasn’t arrived.

Writing a play — not to mention directing it, or taking a major role in it — is playing with the devil.  Who hides in the details.  And in the speedy sketch of Sacred, the details lie glitteringly about, promising greatly.  None of them gets picked up and examined enough to fulfill that promise.  But make no mistake — the promise is there.

“He was likely,” says Fortinbras over the slain Hamlet, “had he been put on, to have proved most royally.”  Carlin has had an hour upon the stage, and has, with her friends’ help, shown us much.  She is likely when put on  — in a longer format, after a slower period of gestation — to prove most royally.

_______________
When I Was Sacred, written and directed by Nina Carlin.
A Spinster Daisy production, at The Lounge Theatre #1, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd.
Sunday, June 22 at 12:00 noon and 10:00 pm.

Tickets:  <https://www.hfff14.org/projects/1846>

Prisoners of Patriarchy: “The Conduct of Life”

Almost thirty years ago, Maria Irene Fornes had a new play.  For its title, she took the name of a book published 125 years earlier, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay collection The Conduct of Life.

In the play, a character says, “I want to conduct each day of my life in the best possible way.”  Her words, like the title, echo Emerson.  But don’t judge a book by its cover — either Emerson’s or Fornes’.

Robert Homer Mollohan

Robert Homer Mollohan

The playwright’s work, now staged by the Vagrancy at Theatre Asylum, is a raw, abrasive indictment of power, the drug of choice and lifeblood of patriarchy.  And in his essays, the gentle “sage of Concord” wrote some of the most shocking apologetics for patriarchal power and violence that have ever been penned .

With Confederate guns firing on Fort Sumter, Emerson mused: “Civil war, national bankruptcy, or revolution [are] more rich … than languid years of prosperity.”  What?  Because, he calmly explained,  “wars, fires, plagues … clear the ground of rotten races … and open a fair field to new men.”  So much for his conduct of life.

Fornes’ play puts us in an unnamed totalitarian country, at war — as all police states are –against itself. (The unseen leaders both have Hispanic names, and Fornes was born in Batista’s Cuba; but it might be anywhere).  We’re in the home of Orlando (Robert Homer Mollohan), an ambitious officer in the paramilitary police who has married a genteel older woman, Leticia (Karina Wolfe).  Moments into the story, he kidnaps Nena (Emily Yetter), a young woman made homeless by the war, and imprisons her in the cellar as a sex slave.

In a rapid series of jarring scenes and vignettes, we are shown how everyone in this violently sick world is infected, implicated.  There are no bystanders — though the kind officer Alejo (Jeremy Mascia) and the feisty servant Olimpia (Belinda Gosbee) try to be — and even the victims learn to lie and betray.  At the end, a killing we feel is justified resolves nothing.   The structured savagery of patriarchal society does not end so easily.

The performances in this production are intense, believable and courageous.  The directing (by Vagrancy co-founder Sabina Ptasznik) is breathlessly fast-paced and precise.  It’s a stunning, heart-rending achievement.

The chaotic-feeling but deftly functional set (by Nick Santiago), the spot-on costumes (John C. Houston IV), the morally murky lighting (Ric Zimmerman) and often ironic sound (Martin Carillo) — all conspire to create a painfully convincing world where our need to know keeps us imprisoned, though we are dying to escape.

This is not a pretty show.  The rape and fight scenes (sickeningly real, thanks to choreographer Jen Albert) make it the wrong place for children.   The way the characters treat each other — and cruelly betray themselves — makes it hard for adults.   If this “conduct of life” clears the field for a new race of humans, I don’t want to meet them.

_______________
The Conduct of Life, by Maria Irene Fornes, directed by Sabina Ptasznik.
Presented by the Vagrancy at Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd.

Wednesday June 25 at 7:00, Saturday June 28 at 9:00.

Tickets:  <www.hff14.org/projects/1593>

Manga Takes the Stage: “Vengeance Can Wait”

Vengeance Can Wait brings Fringe audiences a welcome gift — a work by rising Japanese playwright Yukiko Motoya.  It presents the world of four young urban adults, as they struggle to establish their lives and loves.  Motoya’s storytelling is, the helpful program notes tell us, “influenced by anime and manga.”

Shiori Ideta, Joseph Lee.

Shiori Ideta, Joseph Lee.

In the production at the Underground Theater, this influence is hard to detect.  The play doesn’t reflect manga’s traditional ki-sho-ten-ketsu structure — establishment, development, climax, and conclusion. Vengeance offers instead a circular narrative, ending where it began.  It seems more influenced by Pulp Fiction, as a puzzling opener makes sense when we meet it again at the end.

Motoya’s creation — and repetition — of just two settings for her characters does rather suggest the stylized enclosure of framed manga panels.  And her characters are not so much fluidly developed as they are built from sequential moments of sudden intensity — like the posed, hyperdramatic images of a panel or anime scene.

All of which creates huge challenges for directing and design.  And Yukari Black, a novice director staging the first English translation, seems to have been seduced away from her material by American theatre’s dominant style of the last century, naturalism.

I think the aesthetics of anime and manga demand a more static, presentational staging style.   Less “realistic” movement between moments and scenes, for example, might create the sense of stepping abruptly from one panel to the next.

And Black might profitably push her actors farther toward a non-realistic portrayal, echoing the two-dimensionality of both manga and anime.  Leads Joseph Lee and Shiori Ideta have carved out much of this kabuki-like way of announcing and maintaining their characters — he as the cryptic Yamane, almost Asperger-like in his self-absorption; and she as the painfully selfless Nanase, an acid caricature of older Japanese ideals of femininity.

But I hate it when critics review the play they would have staged, instead of the one they saw.

So let me say that while it is a bit long, and deliberately confusing as the snake winds mysteriously toward its own tail, Vengeance Can Wait is energetic and engaging.  And it delivers — as promised — moments of quirky humor, and tongue-in-cheek mockery of “modern” sexual and ethical posturing.  It also reaches toward more seriously exploring what people need from and owe to one another.  (Some of this was lost in the climax, sadly, as shouting overpowered the words).

Kuro Productions has brought us a pleasing, intriguing gift.  It will whet your appetite for more work from this company, this author, and other young Japanese theatre artists.

__________
Vengeance Can Wait, by Yukiko Motoya (trans. Kyoko Yoshida and Andy Bragen), directed by Yukari Black.
Presented by Kuro Productions at the Underground Theater, 1314 N. Wilton Place.
Saturday June 21 – 3:00, Sun. June 22 – 7:00.
Friday June 27 – 5:00, Saturday June 28 – 5:30, Sunday June 23 – 3:00.

Tickets:  <www.hff14.org>