Artistic Skills Mark Unleashed’s “Ligature”

Ligature Marks, a deftly written play, imagines the perfect murder in a totally new way.  The production just opened at Theatre Unleashed’s Belfry in NoHo gives it a pair of uncommonly skillful performances.

The story’s not an easy one, though it looks simple enough at first.
Two young adults, loosely attached to the world, are set to resume the affair they were having before he spent two years in prison.

Or are they?  Except for his online role-playing game, Terry’s fiercely ambivalent about attachment.  Jill’s obsessed with him, and adept at tossing hooks to make him stay.  Will he?  Should he?  Should she?

Liz Fenning, Sean Fitzgerald

Liz Fenning, Sean Fitzgerald

Playwright Mac Rogers, whose Viral just ran at The Bootleg (see my review below), is adroit at creating characters and dialog.  Moments after we meet these two, we’re laughing — not at sitcom jokes, but at remarks rich with irony because they don’t know themselves as well as we already do.

It’s comedy, but it’s Guys and Dolls on psychotropics — a high-anxiety guy somewhere on the schizoaffective spectrum, and a nervous doll who inspires memories of Chucky.  The rom-com ingredients are pushed to such a pathological level here that no happy ending seems possible, or even desirable.

Nonetheless, Rogers finds a clever way to take us on the journey, through layer after layer of a tale built like a Chinese box puzzle.
His tale requires the actors to keep adding new characters atop the old, while letting the earlier ones still peek through.

Sean Fitzgerald and Liz Fenning rise to the challenge admirably.
His Terry, though alarmingly volatile, is so vulnerable we can’t help but feel for him; her Jill instantly wins us, then holds our loyalty even when she dances scarily into dangerous.

Then, upon these gelatinous foundations, they build several further characters — each well realized, often hilarious, but with revealing cracks through which Terry and Jill can still be glimpsed, locked in their urgent pas de deux.   These are two remarkable performances, Fenning’s in particular a comic tour de force.

Credit must also go to director Jacob Smith, whose work with these two actors is so complete as to seem invisible.  The meticulous set design (also by Smith) quietly tells us all we need to know about Jill, and Gregory Crafts’ lighting leads us unobtrusively from mood to mood, world to world.  Cameron Stark’s understated, flexible costumes mark each character as accurately as their dialog.

Theatre Unleashed has been around awhile, but a couple of years in their loft at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church seems to have helped them find –and sustain — a new level of artistry.  Their production of Ligature Marks yields a delightfully discomforting evening, and shows a very talented company at the top of their game.
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Ligature Marks by Mac Rogers, directed by Jacob Smith.
Presented by Theatre Unleashed, at The Belfry, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (except Feb. 14th) at 8:00 pm,
through March 7th.

Tickets:  <www.theatreunleashed.org>

Boston Court’s “Missing” Finds Carroll, Loses Alice

In The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll, playwright Lily Blau draws — and actor Leo Marks delivers — a sensitive, revealing portrait of the complex soul who gave us Alice in Wonderland.  Unfortunately, the world around him is muddied by a few unwise choices which leave the story’s other main character, Alice, almost invisible.

Hiding behind “Lewis Carroll” is Oxford math prof Charles Dodgson, a gentle bachelor who flees publicity.   An Anglican deacon and firm believer in Victorian morality, Dodgson privately explores imaginary worlds — keeping toys and puppets in his rooms, mastering the new art of photography.  (He also befriends the radical pre-Raphaelite poets and painters, a colorful world Blau wisely omits.)

Corryn Cummins, Leo Marks (photo: Ed Krieger)

Corryn Cummins, Leo Marks (photo: Ed Krieger)

In 1856, a new dean arrives; Dodgson’s quiet, all-male college life turns topsy-turvy.  Dean Liddell’s three lively daughters, Alice among them, burst onto the quad and into Dodgson’s quarters, where they become welcome regulars.  Designers Stephen Gifford (set) and Jaymi Lee Smith (lighting) render this exquisitely, as a glowing outdoor world flows into the dark, primly furnished rooms.

In 1862, the playful fellowship flowers into immortality — one summer afternoon, Dodgson improvises a tale about Alice seeing a white rabbit.  (Again, playwright Blau edits wisely, omitting the fourth sibling, Harry, and compressing six years into a couple of scenes.)

The next summer, in 1863 … we don’t know what happens. Nobody does, because the relevant pages from Dodgson’s meticulously kept journals have been razored out.  Hence the play’s title.

Into this void — where lurid fantasies and undocumented theories have rushed — Blau lets something simpler and truer emerge.  A young girl finds she can be loveable to someone outside her family, and takes a shy practice step toward the terra incognita of romance.  A young man finds, to his consternation, that a young girl can be both innocent and desirable.  Perhaps, a kiss.  Perhaps.

To the credit of everyone involved, this moment arrives onstage as inevitable yet surprising, and afterward remains of uncertain reality.  It could have … it must have … we saw it … yet did it really happen?

Dodgson is terrified even to imagine desire.  Alice’s parents are horrified even to think of a match so unequal in age (still done, but rarely, in Victoria’s day) and in social rank (they “properly” wish their girls to “marry up”). The playful fellowship abruptly ends.

A year and a half later, Dodgson presents Alice with an illustrated manuscript.  A year after that, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is published, with John Tenniel’s drawings.   As more years pass, Dodgson grows wealthy, saved from fame by the “Lewis Carroll” mask, and evermore lonely.  Alice marries a titled cricketer.

Blau, and the artists who have collaborated with her in developing and workshopping the play, deserve immense credit.  First (as I’ve tried to suggest) for smartly editing and focusing a story that has so many rabbit holes to fall down.  Second, for creating a world — and a climactic moment — of delicacy and suggestion, despite the “hard” reality of a Victorian parlor at its center.

I’ve only two complaints.  The first is fairly minor, but important.
Early on, as the children are exploding into Dodgson’s cell, someone has chosen not only to interleave Dean Liddell addressing his new faculty, but also to have characters speak simultaneously.  This early, as we’re meeting the characters and trying to get oriented, that’s too much chaos — the scene must seem confusing, not be confusing.

My second concern is, alas, far greater.  It’s always a tough call, in a play with children (especially precocious ones like Alice), whether to cast child or adult actors.  There are compelling arguments,  practical and artistic, on both sides.

Director Abigail Deser chooses adults.  I hope no one else ever does. Coryn Cummins acts well, but she’s a woman, not an 11-year-old girl about to enter puberty.  She’s as tall as Dodgson, and no pinafore can hide her maturity.  At the key moment, this strips Alice’s first crush of its innocence, turning her timid bid for love into sexual seduction — and putting us right where the carefully crafted script doesn’t want us to be.

Throughout the play, moreover, the sight of three fully grown actors pretending to be children while the other actors are being adults produces a clumsy effect.  It’s remniscent of Alice trying to peer through the little doorway.

This production could have used a “Drink Me” bottle.  It’s hard to work with child actors, I know — but LA is full of teens who have the chops.  I’ve acted with and directed several.  For this play, so finely balanced, finding three of them is worth whatever it costs.

Finally, I want to note again Marks’ delightful, nuanced presentation of Dodgson, in a very challenging role with hardly a breath offstage.  Erica Hanrahan-Ball turns the opposite trick:  Given few lines yet many entrances, she almost dances Mrs. Liddell into being, building a formidable antagonist with her movements, gestures and glances. And Jeff Marlow — in a fine sleight of hand — brings unity to the White Rabbit, who emerges id-like from a trap-door “underground” as the daemon of Dodgson’s repressed desire, yet also must function as his butler and publisher.

In The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll, the Boston Court players invite us into a many-layered world where a reserved young man with a genius for play meets a girl young whose brilliance — and beauty — are as yet unrecognized.  Even with a major misstep, it’s a journey well worth taking.  And Missing Pages, while far from the first drama to explore the complex mystery that inspired Alice in Wonderland, may well prove one of the best.
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The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll, by Lily Blau, directed by Abigail Deser.
Presented by The Theatre @ Boston Court, at Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 N. Mentor Ave. (one block east of Lake St.), Pasadena.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm, through March 1.  (Wednesday, Feb. 25 at 8:00 pm, “Five Dollar Night,” no reservations accepted.)

Tickets: <https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/941631>

Making Words into Flesh: “Life, Death & the Middle”

In the beginning was the Word …
a
nd the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
                                                 
   –John 1:1, 14 (King James Version),

Poetry, in the modern world, is a private, quiet art.

Words are born in the hush of a poet’s mind, and find their way silently to a page or screen.  Later, the words are reborn in a reader’s mind, where they find their way silently into images.

Ages ago, when humans first did poetry (and nobody could read or write), it was a loud public art.  Poems — usually heroic epics — were told to a crowded room, with instruments accompanying.  And lately, some poets have again started speaking aloud to groups.

But now, on a small NoHo stage, the True Focus Theater is doing something really different with poems.  They’re dramatizing them.   Only unlike epics, few modern poems have stories or characters — so the troupe has to find other ways to bring them to life.

In Life, Death & the Middle, they do it quite skillfully.

(Clockwise, from left) Reilly Loayza, Cheryl Doyle, Collin Lee Ellis, Crystal Salas, Lauren Peterson, Tucker Matthews, Mariana Goulart in "The Gathering" (photo: Vanessa Cate)

(Clockwise, from left) Reilly Loayza, Cheryl Doyle, Collin Lee Ellis, Crystal Salas, Lauren Peterson, Tucker Matthews, Mariana Goulart in “The Gathering” (photo: Vanessa Cate)

The show’s 18 poems, by a dozen living authors, range widely in style and tone.  So do the ways the actors embody them.

At times,  the poem’s situation is simply made visible.  For Kelly Grace Thomas’ More Than Seven Questions to Ask the Boy on Fire When Holding a Pail of Water, Reilly Loayza holds a bucket, saying the wry lines as her emotions shift with the stanzas.  For Vanessa Cate’s Two and a Third of Three Poems Written at a Bar, Natalie Hyde and Crystal Salas speak and enact the turbulent dismay of an introvert trapped in public, while the other actors jeer and dance in familiar “meet market” rituals.

At times, a metaphor shapes the poem’s onstage presence.  In Matt Kellegrew’s Returning Is Arriving for the First Time Again, Robert Walters crosses and re-crosses the empty stage, musing aloud, until his journey rests beside an old friend, Tucker Matthews.  In Cate’s Katsui, the Japanese title (and leading image) inspires a kimono flowing around Salas as she speaks and moves.

Some poems’ characters or elements emerge in more familiar dramatic form, as in Angie Hoover’s Never Have I Ever, and Joseph Nichols’ Half Empty.  Others take on more abstract physical being, such as Kellegrew’s Untitled and Nichols’ You Come.

This hour rushes by, like a swift-flowing river, yet we are allowed —
in fact, encouraged — to swim deeply in each pool.  I weep for the intensity of our bodies’ desires in Salas’ The Optimist.  I am shocked by delicacy in Mortal Tenderness and Danny Pierce’s Forever Their.
I fall in love with the moon, and the poet’s love for her, in Half Full.

Only twice do I wish for anything different.  Nichols’ opening poem, The Gathering, is dense in language and idea, and Matthew Tucker’s comic Ode to Apple Pie a la Mode is madly fast.  In each, I’d welcome an ever-so-slightly slower pace and even more exact articulation.

In more than 50 years of reading and writing poetry, I’ve never experienced poems this way.  Throughout Life, Death & the Middle,
I feel I’m watching and listening to each poet — not at a desk or a reading, but amid the peopled images living in her/his own mind.
Yet at the same time, I’m comfortably hearing my own inner voice
as I read (except that I have no text in front of me), and happily seeing my own imaginings take shape.

In theatre, I prefer minimalism:  the less we show, the more we only suggest, the more the audience can imagine and project, becoming the play’s co-creators.  But I’m surprised to find that with poetry, less isn’t necessarily more.

In Life, Death & the Middle, the True Focus troupe handles poems  with care, bringing them to life on stage in ways that go beyond reading quietly in a corner.  They enrich our experience without taking control of it.  Their creations let us delight in these poems, and encourage us to find more for ourselves.

Let’s do more staged poetry!
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Life, Death & the Middle, by several authors, directed by Vanessa Cate and Natalie Hyde.
Presented by True Focus Theater, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Sundays at 7:00 pm, through Feb. 22.

Tickets: <www.lifedeathandthemiddle.brownpapertickets.com>
or (805)791-1503

DISCLOSURE:  Many of the members of True Focus Theater are friends of mine, and I wrote one of the poems used in the show.  I had no other part in the production.