Virtual Reality Is Neither in Semele’s “Buffalo”

Since the Internet began, there have been deeply serious arguments about its potentials and dangers, about how free or controlled it should be.  If You Can Get to Buffalo isn’t one of them.

This new play by Trish Harnetiaux, getting its West Coast premiere in Son of Semele’s tiny black box, isn’t an argument.  And it definitely isn’t serious.  It’s a fast, funny mockup of events that took place in an early chat room — a chat mansion, actually, called LambdaMOO — and the reactions that followed.

Chase Cargill, Betsy Moore, Caitlin Teeley, Alex Wells

Chase Cargill, Betsy Moore, Caitlin Teeley, Alex Wells

For all its swift satire and comic invention, Buffalo still manages to  reach deep.  Far deeper, in fact, than the pontifications of pundits or the ponderings of scholars.  Because it’s theatre, done strikingly well, and makes us feel the human experience of those events.

Headlines and sound bites proclaim the events “a rape in cyberspace.”  And to some extent — as far as keystrokes and binary code can go — they are.  Someone in the group finds a way to hack other users’ inputs and portrays them as saying and doing violent, obscene things to one another.

A chief virtue of Harnetiaux’s script, though, and Son of Semele’s staging, is that we never (with one brief, breathtaking exception) see or hear those things.  We see instead characters we’ve come to know — as shy geeks, and as the colorful personas they don in the chat mansion — being stripped not of their clothes, but of their ability to control who they say they are.

The lurid words and acts Mr. Bungle imagines are only a distraction.  The violation is that he robs these people of a joyful gift, the power to play — and smears the graffiti of his illness upon their faces.  It’s their faces, not his graffiti, that we’re shown.  And it’s those stricken faces that suddenly turn our laughter to painful tears.

We could not arrive at this place if the artistic team were not as brave, free and slightly zany as the net explorers they’re depicting.

Meg Cunningham’s astonishing set announces at once that we’re in a place we’ve never been — separate platforms at random heights, the wall covered in oblong screenlike panels, odd strips of color.  From the top, lights (Barbara Kallir) and projections (Matthew McCray) orient and disorient us, bouncing our attention from person to person, entering and scrolling their texts on the wall amid a constant waterfall of code.

Hunter Wells’ costumes range from streetwear to hilariously inept inventions that mirror the characters’ unskilled attempts at creating new identities.  (Tellingly, Mr. Bungle [Alex Wells] hides behind a clown nose and glasses.)  And Rebecca Kessin’s sound design keeps us aurally in the world of clicks and beeps — yet transports us into the beauty of the make-believe in Starsinger’s climactic song.

Cindy Nguyen, Alex Wells

Cindy Nguyen, Alex Wells

As Starsinger, Cindy Nguyen epitomizes the timid yet adventurous souls who seek and inhabit this virtual mini-world.  Nguyen makes every step forward a leap over a hurdle of fear — when she bursts onstage in an electric red dress to sing, our hearts are in her throat.

Newcomers Chase Cargill (as dreadlocked Legba) and Caitlin Teeley (as squirrely Juniper), and the always intriguing Betsy Moore (as Grendlefish), create comic personas that gently expose the persons underneath.  Veterans Bart Petty (as Julian the journalist, and the suave Dr. Bombay) and Tim Venable (as John, who gender-morphs into Bambi) carry out their narrative duties while adding shades to their characters.  And Sarah Rosenberg embodies an aloof Bill Gates who may or may not be there.

Director Edgar Landa weaves this madness into an order we can follow, the measure of his skill being the invisibility of his work.
Stage manager Lyndsay Lucas also deserves a nod, flawlessly calling more than 100 cues in an hour (and eliding a tech glitch or two).

Among the playwright’s fine choices is a fictional episode of PBS’ Charlie Rose, with Julian and John as guests.  This shows us — and niftily satirizes — the world’s media-led reaction. It also grants us a peerless comic turn by Melina Bielefelt, who nails the TV host’s self-deprecating hubris, his sententious summaries and his lightning-quick commercial cutaways.

With larky humor and lacerating wit, If You Can Get To Buffalo takes us on a brief journey of discovery.  We realize, as the characters do, that freedom isn’t free, and that virtual reality is neither virtuous nor real.  These are important lessons; and you won’t find a more delightful — and moving — way to learn them.
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If You Can Get to Buffalo, by Trish Harnetiaux, directed by Edgar Landa.
Presented by the Son of Semele Ensemble, at Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 5:00 pm, through April 12th.  (Special performance Monday April 6 at 7:00 pm.)

Tickets: <www.sonofsemele.org>

 

 

Something Unexpected: “Bedlam,” “Monster” at ZJU

You never know what to expect at Zombie Joe’s.

With as many as four shows onstage during the same weekend, it’s no wonder.  Two of the current offerings push the envelope of our expectations in different — but interesting — directions.

Matt Hislope, Elif Savas, Ian Heath (photo: Sebastian Munoz)

Matt Hislope, Elif Savas, Ian Heath (photo: Sebastian Munoz)

Bedlam Explosivo Variety Hour
The “early” Saturday offering ( 8:30 pm) is a new show, directed by the indefatigable Sebastian Muñoz.  It may or may not be the first “variety hour” to grace the black box — but it’s an unprecedented experience.

The cast, nearly all familiar faces to ZJU regulars, step out of the trademark blackness to perform an array of brief numbers of all kinds.  But instead of eerie shocks, they unpack a series of  surprising talents.

The pre-show is a solo cello suite by Jennifer Novak Chun; then she’s joined by Allison Fogarty on flute. They’re joined in turn by Michael Guthrie and a guitar, then by the whole cast singing — while Elif Savas  weaves a stunning operatic descant.  Later, Scott Michael dons a tux to perform sleight-of-hand magic; and Ian Heath crawls and springs like an acrobatic spider. Five actors execute a dance routine, and Vivi Varon uses “Il bel sogno di Doretta” (sung impeccably by Salas) to back a striptease so effective that when the lights fall, a sincere “Damn” erupts from the seats.

Yes, Virginia, there is near-nudity, there are blackouts. Also shocks and frights.  And more than once, you’ll squirm in your seat.  All the  expected coups de theatre in this venue.  But would you think LA’s premier guignol generator could turn out a fun, fast-moving — and weird — variety hour?  Well, they can.  And they do.
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Bedlam Explosivo Variety Hour, created by the company, directed by Sebastian Muñoz.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Saturdays at 8:30 pm, through March 28th.

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

 

Richie Werner (center) and the cast of Monster Show #1

Richie Werner (center) and the cast of Monster Play #1

Karaokeapocalypse: The Monster Plays #1-4
The “late” Friday (11 pm)  piece — subtitled “a psychedelic punk rock puppet horror opera” — sounds more like the usual ZJU fare.  But when the lights go up, it looks more like a variety show, with chairs along the back wall.

Yet it’s neither.

It’s more of a “Horror Geeks’ Amateur Hour.” Led by impresario Richie Werner, the crew pours out a non-stop series of songs, stomps and gags, gleefully summoning long-dead monster films and novelty songs.  Each of the four nights — Plays #1-4 — features a somewhat different cast and menu.

At Play #1, we’re treated to puppets of a sort, a rubber werewolf, flashlights, turntables, a brief cameo by a Brian “Skull” O’Connor robot, and the Monster of Reseda — a bizarre green people-eater (the purple one’s younger brother?).

This is the sort of show you and your friends dreamed of putting on,  when you stayed up late watching the Saturday night frights on TV.  It’s ragged and raw, without ZJU’s hallmark polish and intensity; but its full of energy — and love for horror of all kinds.  Of any kind.

Maybe not for everyone.  But a fun ride for anyone who grew up knowing the words to “Monster Mash.”
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Karaokeapocalypse: The Monster Plays #1-4, created by Richie Werner and company.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Fridays at 11:00 pm, through April 10th.

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

 

Struggling to be Human: “Trevor” at Circle X

One of the most important things theatre does is stretch our sense of humanity.

More than 2,400 years ago, audiences sat stunned as Euripides’ The Trojan Women made them feel the suffering of war prisoners  — whom Athenians were at the moment holding and abusing, seeing them not as “human” but as “enemy.”

Just 19 years ago, a group of LA artists founded Circle X Theatre Company.  They named it for the chalk mark Ellis Island officers scrawled on the backs of immigrants deemed “unfit to enter” the United States.

Jimmi Simpson, Laurie Metcalf.

Jimmi Simpson, Laurie Metcalf (photo: Ryan Miller)

Right now, Circle X is performing Trevor, a play that maintains the company’s focus on our notions of who or what is “human.”  Because it’s a comedy — freely tweaking suburban life, celebrity culture and the foibles of everyone from pet owners to actors — we may spend so much time laughing that we don’t pause to ponder Trevor‘s deeper questions until after the curtain call.

That’s fine.  Those deeper questions — Who is human, and who is not?  Which behaviors qualify as human, and which do not?  How do “human” and “humane” fit together? — stay in the subtext, where  they belong, while we enjoy the story.

It’s the improbable tale (based on a 2009 case) of a chimpanzee who’s grown up in a human family and had a youthful flirtation with fame in a TV ad.  Now, as large as (and stronger than) a human adult, Trevor has remarkable skills — he uses a  TV remote and a computer, he even drives the family car.  But he’s still a chimp.

By letting Trevor voice his thoughts, playwright Nick Jones lets us feel the chimp’s confusion about the human world — how it works, and the responses he gets from its inhabitants. Trevor’s inability to understand this world he’s been raised in becomes, finally, tragic.  But Jones also uses Trevor’s monologs for an ongoing comic riff about the vanities and insecurities of actors (which he tops off with a poke-in-the-ribs homage to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.)

The company delivers this bittersweet treat with sensitivity and skill.  In the title role, Jimmi Simpson uses a few strong physical choices to deftly suggest a chimp.  He also conveys the full range of Trevor’s urges and hopes, fears and angers, his distractability, and his deep infatuation with the TV actress with whom he worked.

As Trevor’s human mother, Laurie Metcalf inhabits the anguish of a person whose love and need have led her into an untenable place. We feel her always reaching for calm and normal, never grasping it.  Though Metcalf is often funny, the stranglehold of  her angst firmly sustains the play’s tragic undertone.

Jim Ortlieb and Malcolm Barrett create gentle portraits of a cop and an animal-control officer in over their heads, and Bob Clendenin does a lovely turn as Trevor’s successful brother chimp and mentor (complete with white suit). Tasha Ames struggles convincingly  between neighborliness and assertion, and Jamie Morgan gives us Morgan Fairchild’s media-made surface while hinting at a real person beneath.  The minor characters thus reinforce the theme,
playing a set of variations on How are we human?

Almost a character in itself is Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s set.  Done in a homely vernacular, it’s so huge and detailed that it’s almost overwhelming.  Coming from Schwartz — who created the lyrical minimalism supporting Dontrell Who Kissed the Sea [see my review, below] — this outsized kitsch-fest is no accident.  Silently but powerfully, it puts us all in Trevor’s plight, surrounded by familiar objects that nonetheless feel vaguely threatening.

Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting is, not surprisingly, equally masterful.  Leading us unobtrusively through reality, memory and fantasy  during the first half, it grows more and more active toward the climax, pointing our attention, signaling changes and shifting moods with dramatic swiftness.

Trevor is an excellent example of what LA’s small theatres can do.  Circle X gives a significant new play its West Coast premiere, in a high-quality production with first-rate performances.  The fact that the actors are all Equity members means that after this spring, we may not see them again — unless they land roles at one of the city’s largest theatres.  So see Trevor while you can.
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Trevor, by Nick Jones, directed by Stella Powell-Jones.
Presented by Circle X Theatre Company at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm, through April 19.

Tickets:  <www.circlextheatre.org>

 

 

 

Good People Bring Us “Closer Than Ever”

What’s a musical without a story, or characters?

Well, on Broadway they call it a “revue,” or a “bookless musical.”
You’d think it would be easier to do than a story musical — but it’s not.  Something has to hold the show together, and it’s pretty much up to the songs … and the singers.

Jessie Withers, David Zack, Sara Stuckey

Jessie Withers, David Zack, Sara Stuckey

About those songs.
Richard Maltby Jr. (lyricist) and David Shire (composer) are both  masters of this tricky genre.  In fact, Maltby wrote the only two revues ever to win Tony Awards for Best Musical — Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1978) and Fosse (1999).

Closer Than Ever is a Maltby-Shire creation that’s become a minor classic.  (It ran for 312 performances at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and was named Best Off-Broadway Musical in 1990). Closer‘s two dozen songs sound related, of course.  They also share a theme — life and love in the adult world, the one you find yourself in as you reach your 30s, 40s and 50s.

There’s a song about dating;  but it’s a wry lament, Dating Again.  There are songs about divorce (There) and single parenting (The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole), about caring for your kids and your parents, and about looking back on a life half-finished (Life Story, If I Sing, Patterns, Fathers of Fathers).

The world of Closer Than Ever is far more shadowed and complex than we expected as we rushed out of school.  Maltby’s witty, resonant lyrics and Shire’s complex, layered music make that painfully clear.  They weave this world so well that you almost feel sure there are characters, and you know them, just not their names.

Which brings us to the singers.
Gabriel Kalomas, Sara Stuckey, Jessie Withers and David Zack are the four artists chosen to carry this production — and for two hours, with only a 20-minute break, they do.  They cradle it, dance it, croon it, belt it and gently lay it down, backed by a grand piano (Corey Hirsch) and bass (Brenton Kossak).

All four are not only virtuoso singers, but accomplished actors.  Despite the technical demands of Shire’s score, each is always telling a story, immersed in their character and moment.  Withers is especially stunning: from her raucous The Bear … anthem, to her soft and sexy duet with Kossak in Back on Base, to  her delicate Patterns, capturing the show in a single number.

The four also work wonderfully well together, listening closely to one another and their accompanists.  Their ensemble numbers, some of Mozartean difficulty, are carried off with aplomb.  (I should note that Hirsch, the company’s longtime musical director, handles a pair of songs deftly from the keyboard, including the Fathers… trio.)

Hats off to Good People Theater Company and producer/director Janet Miller for assembling a brilliant array of talents, finding the intimate venue at Hollywood Piano, and bringing Closer Than Ever to life in LA.  Let’s do it again!
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Closer Than Ever, by Richard MaltbyJr. and David Shire, directed by Janet Miller.
Presented by Good People Theater Company, at Hollywood Piano, 323 N. Front St., Burbank.

Closed.

 

 

Beaten by Tactical Errors: “The Road to Appomattox”

The Colony Theatre is the kind of the mid-sized house (just under 300 seats) LA desperately needs.  It’s a place you can mount a play on a modest budget and make enough to pay everyone — maybe even qualify for grants.  The missing stepping stone between our hundreds of small theatres and our one or two dozen large ones.

For 25 years, the Colony was one of the small ones, a 99-seater in the Chavez Ravine neighborhood.  Its artists, willing to work for love, became known for risk-taking and quality. Then, in 2000, the city of Burbank offered them a lavish new home.

They still look for quality and take risks. Though they also now do classics, musicals and cabarets, they stage new works every year.  The Road to Appomattox is one, a five-year-old play making its first West Coast appearance.

Briget Flanery, Bjorn Johnson

Briget Flanery, Bjorn Johnson

Playwright Catherine Bush has a bold idea: to interweave the last days of the Civil War with the last days of a modern marital conflict.  As Gen. Robert E. Lee flees encircling Union armies, a couple follows his path from one historical marker to the next.

Like the rural South challenging the industrial north, Bush may have over-reached.  Her strategy– like Lee’s — is daring, dangerous and might even succeed.  It doesn’t in this production, because — like the officer in the story who fails to deliver Lee’s telegram — director Brian Shnipper makes tactical decisions that destroy it.

If we can be made to  feel intensely what’s at stake for Steve and Jenny, and what their arguments are doing to them, we may believe their conflict has the magnitude and gravity of a war.  And if we can be made to feel Lee’s plight as a human one, we may accept his struggle as comparable on that level to theirs.

The actors work hard to bring us into their characters.  Especially strong are Bjørn Johnson, as Lee, and Tyler Pierce, as both a Confederate officer and the intrusive historian who joins the couple’s tour.

But whenever matters get tense — which (to playwright Bush’s credit) is almost always — the characters turn and face each other.  This leaves most of us in the audience looking at one character’s back, while he or she blocks the other from view.  We’re pushed out of the story like unwelcome guests, or children being sent to bed.

This lack of connection is fatal.  We’re alone with Lee enough that we begin to feel the horror of his situation, and the decisions he must make.  But because the couple’s marriage takes place in duets, from which we are excluded, we don’t feel or understand its nature or its peril. We’re told about it, like children after a divorce.

As a result, what Steve and Jenny are going through feels trivial — embarrassingly so, alongside cities being ravaged to rubble, soldiers dying by the thousands, and Lee having to decide whether to risk more starvation, more deaths.

The Colony team gives the play a fine physical production.  David Potts creates a stark, cleverly versatile set (though this is the third time he’s filled the space with naked verticals).  Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting and Dave Mickey’s sound nicely suggest the disruptive cacophony of war, and Dianne K. Graebner’s costumes are accurate to both periods (and suggest the modern characters nicely).

The Road to Appomattox is a good enough script that it deserves more productions, hopefully as well-staged as The Colony’s.  But it also needs productions in which we, the audience, are allowed to see and feel fully what the characters are undergoing.
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The Road to Appomattox, by Catherine Bush, directed by Brian Shnipper. Presented by The Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm; Saturday at 3:00 pm,
Sunday at 2:00 pm., through March 15.

Tickets: <www.colonytheatre.org> or (818) 558-7000 ext. 15.

 

A Little Chamber Music: Trio, Solos at Zombie Joe’s

What’s happening at Zombie Joe’s?

In LA theatre, that’s always a smart question.  The little black box on Lankershim mounts more shows per year than almost any other house in town.  And ZJU is known for cooking without a recipe — mixing terror, titillation and humor, twisting classics, and gleefully breaking boundaries.

Most Underground offerings feature a dozen or so actors working as one, at peak intensity.  Currently, two shows break that house tradition to enter a smaller, quieter realm.  One focuses on just three actors working in the signature Zombie Joe style, and the other brings one actor at a time onstage.  Sort of like chamber music.

Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson, Jessica Weiner

Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson, Jessica Weiner

Nightmares Trio
The piece begins with three figures (Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson and Jessica Weiner) writhing over one another in a sensual trance, to the ominous thrums of a keyboardist (Christopher Reiner). He’s in a three-piece suit, they’re barely clad and wear lurid makeup.

As the jam session heats up, scraps of dialog erupt, then fragments of scenes … but we keep returning to the primordial tangle.  One breaks free for a solo moment, while the other two sustain a quiet accompaniment.  Then another does the same.

Eventually, we’re seeing sustained scenelets, some clearly mapped out, some suggested; they trigger one another like a series of improvisations.  Someone pops from a window; the keyboardist belts a noir ballad; someone ruptures the fourth wall; someone invades the musician’s space. Once, the fantasy of a planned performance breaks down altogether.

In a nonstop hour, these three (and their accompanist) wring so many changes from their bodies, faces and voices they seem to have made a bargain with Mephisto.  Finally, like the pilgrims in T.S. Eliot’s poem, we (and they) finish our challenging yet entertaining journey by ending where we began, and knowing it for the first time.

The trio format creates even more intimacy than is usual at ZJU, and makes even more demands upon the performers.  Remarkably, they’re equal to it — with boundless energy, unwavering focus and impressive versatility.  A warning:  View this work as a play or story, and you’ll feel disoriented and disappointed; view it as an hour of “theme and variations,” like a trio sonata, and you’re likely to be fascinated and rewarded.
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Nightmares Trio, created by the company, directed by Zombie Joe.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Saturdays at 11:00 pm, through March 21st.

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

 

tales

Tales from the Underground
This hour, emceed by ZJU veteran Jim Eshom, brings one troupe member at a time to the mic, to tell stories.  The tales are only as scripted as each teller prefers, and the mix of tellers this Sunday is different from those whom I saw and heard last week.

Suffice to say that this is the raw material of the ZJU company’s productions.  Just individual members — sans script, costume, makeup, music or the usually intense presence of other actors onstage.

It’s a low-keyed hour of unpredictable variety.  The only constant is the level of focus and presence these artists bring, even when they have no character to be in but their own.  Again:  Approach it as an evening of theatre, and you’ll be confused.  Imagine a group of pro singers gathered around a piano sharing favorites — now switch it to actors, and you’ll have a fine time.
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Tales from the Underground, created by the company, hosted by Jim Eshom.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Sunday, March 8 at 11:00 pm.

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

Autry’s “Off the Rails” Shakes Up the Old West

Theatre can play with history.  It can show us  what wasn’t, what might have been, and throw the light of insight onto mere facts.

Shakespeare knew this as well as anyone.  So it’s fitting that Native Voices at the Autry — a troupe marking its 20th year (already?) — is using his Measure for Measure to twist American history’s nose and come up with a playful tale of an Old West that never was.

(photo: Craig Schwartz)

(photo: Craig Schwartz)

Off the Rails is an exuberant mix — its text half Shakespeare and half Randy Reinholz (the artistic director), its style half summer stock and half dance-hall revue.  But, like the Bard’s dark comedy, it has some serious work to do.

Shakespeare slashed his quill at 17th-century Puritans and their hypocrisy. Reinholz stabs at 19th-century Americans’ puritanical notions, including their passion to cleanse the continent of its Natives.  Or, failing that, to bleach the survivors of their cultures.

Fantasy sweetens the satire.  The Bard swept his London audiences to an imaginary Vienna; Reinholz wafts us to a fantasy frontier town.
It boasts a bordello and a federal “Indian School,” and it’s angling for a railroad depot. But Native Americans are comfortably integrated into local life. (As are women, blacks, gays and everyone else who’s marginalized in real America.)

Our story thus subtly shifts from the conflict between a noble duke and his ignoble deputy to one between a sane community and the insanities of power and prejudice.  A fit image of the ongoing struggle between America’s peaceful democratic dream and its violent, plutocratic realities.

Off the Rails delivers all this lightly and rapidly, with combustible humor.  Led by veteran Ted Barton as the town’s absent eminence, and Shyla Martin as the bordello keeper, the cast carves out clear characters and delivers the lines — old and new — with unfailing energy and clarity.

Christopher Salazar is especially strong as a wise aide, Román Zaraoza and Robert Vestal create a charming pair of scapegraces, and LeVance Tarver holds stage winningly as a chorus cowboy. Brian Joseph provides beautifully apt music.  And of course Native Voices has Grandfather (Duane Minard) lending his dignity and blessing.

At times, the exuberance runs a bit off the rails, with almost constant movement (note to director Chris Anthony: Still moments run deep) and some odd, unmotivated blocking.  But that’s a small matter.

Off the Rails gets the big things right. It’s colorful, lively and inventive theatre, and a bold satire our culture needs for healing. Grandfather Willie would be proud.
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Off the Rails, by Randy Reinholz (and William Shakespeare), directed by Chris Anthony.
Presented by Native Voices at the Autry, at the Welss Fargo Theatre, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 pm, through March 15.

Tickets: <www.TheAutry.org/Native Voices>
(Tickets include admission to the Autry Museum.)

Diving for Our Roots: “Dontrell” at the Skylight

Almost 40 years ago, a retired Coast Guard officer ignited America’s awareness of our black citizens’ history with a novel called Roots.
In one man’s search for his ancestors, millions found “family” — a sense of where we came from, what we came through, and how we fit in the world.

This month, a small theatre in Los Feliz lights up a mythic vision of America’s search for its African family — a play called Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea.  This tale of a youth seeking his lost forebear, like an ancient legend of a knight’s quest, offers a model for any of us when we look for our past, our present, our place.

Marlon Sanders, Charles McCoy (rear), Omete Anassi

Marlon Sanders, Charles McCoy (rear), Omete Anassi. (photo: Ed Krieger)

Dontrell is no hero. He’s a lively, smart kid with a scholarship to Johns Hopkins. Then comes a dream — he sees his grandfather’s grandfather, in the hold of a slave ship, slipping past guards to make love to his wife one last time, then leaping into the sea.  Dontrell knows what he must do: find that grandfather.

It’s a crazy idea. His mother, his sister, his best bud all want him to stay, to live the life they’ve imagined. Only his cousin understands.  Sort of.  And Erika, the free-spirited lifeguard he meets when leaps into a local pool, hoping to trigger the instinct to swim.

At an explosive family party, Dontrell learns his father’s father had the same dream.  This helps win his family’s support, and he’s off.  With Erika (who’s with child). On a raft down the Chesapeake.  A black Huck Finn, married to a pregnant white Jim, heading east.

Here, the play shifts from drama to dance, moving to a denouement you’ll need a ticket to see.  Suffice to say that in shifting, the play acknowledges that for all its serio-comic realism, we’re in a myth here — and have been from the start, sailing a misty sea of archetypes.  (Playwright Nathan Alan Davis won’t face the wrath of jealous academic historians, the way Alex Haley did.)

In its latter part, the play also maintains the delicate balance it’s held between a light comic tone and the heavy issues lurking beneath the surface.  Davis — and director Gregory Wallace and the actors — never throw down a race card, but never let us kid ourselves that we’re anywhere but in black America.

Speaking of actors.  Omete Anassi gracefully wins us into Dontrell’s world from the (tricky) opening, and keeps us there.  And Charles McCoy, as his pal Robby, creates an irresistible streetwise wingman. But the antagonists bring the real surprises:  Benai Boyd’s fierce- hearted, wild-mouthed Mom and Marlon Sanders’ patriarchal poser Dad are wickedly satiric portraits, yet they gradually let us (and Dontrell) see behind the familiar faces.  Haley McHugh also keeps us wondering what wrinkle the gamine Erika will reveal next.

Dontrell‘s physical production is lovely, wringing a world from simple elements: Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s draped scrims, orange-crate boxes and planks (which ascend from utility to fantasy at a single stroke in the raft), Nicholas Santiago’s evocative projections, and Jeff McLaughlin’s clear, emphatic lighting. Naila Aladdin Sanders’ spare costumes deftly suggest three varied realities — urban America, rural Africa, and mythic Atlantea — the latter also invoked by Ayana Cahrr’s calm, sure choreography.

Recently, I chided some of LA’s larger theatres for their “expense of spirit” and resources on productions that are neither necessary nor adventurous [see “Geriatric Showcase,” below].

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea is a world premiere — underwritten by six theatres around the US, who will produce it this year through the National New Play Network.  The “rolling premiere” starts in LA, thanks to two local troupes, the Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble and Skylight Theatre Company.  It’s worth noting that this multi-city rollout will likely cost less than one show’s run at the Mark Taper.

What’s more important is that Dontrell — like Roots, or Fornés’ What of the Night?, or Hwang’s Golden Child — is not only about a perilous quest, it is one.  It’s part of our ongoing effort, in this this nation of immigrants, indentured servants and slaves, to find our way to our origins and meaning.  And it stretches how we use story to do that.

This is the kind of work theatre should be doing. The Skylight and Lower Depth companies (and playwright Davis) deserve our thanks and support for doing it, and doing it so well.
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Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, by Nathan Alan Davis, directed by Gregory Wallace.
Presented by Skylight Theatre Company and Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble, at the Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave.

Fridays at 8:30 pm, Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm, through March 29th.

Tickets: <http://skylighttix.com> or (213) 761-7061

 

 

 

neighborhood, two theatre companies are joining to bring the world a young playwright’s vision

Origin story

Grail legends – the wounded Fisher King – the young knight’s quest
to heal him

1 in every 10 Americans is a descendant of slaves brought across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa.

Rumors of an Old War: “Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape”

Last week, a troupe from Kyoto landed in Los Angeles and put on a show in REDCAT (which is the space designated for experimental theatre in the basement of Disney Hall).  The show was about the search for “Tokyo Rose,” once one of the world’s most notorious media personalities.

Almost 75 years ago, Japan and America sent troops (not actors, but soldiers, sailors and fliers) into the Pacific Theater. (Which was not a hall, but how the military designated an entire half of the planet).  The show they mounted was called World War II.

As the Americans pushed farther into the Pacific, the Japanese countered by sending the sultry voice of a woman across the waves — ocean and radio — and into the Americans’ ears, minds and hearts. Between “swing era” love songs and dance tunes, she whispered of loneliness and defeat, of losing wives and lovers, of losing lives.

tokyo rose

Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape begins with invasions.  Lights rise on a white stage, empty but for a huge segmented circular white desk, making us aware of two spaces — the lighted one, where we expect the play to happen, and the darkened one, where we’re sitting.

Five women enter, in schoolgirl dresses and straw caps with the brims pulled down hiding their faces, a popular mid-century style.  They’re identical, yet without identities — actors without masks or characters, women under the male gaze, Asians in American eyes.

The women scuttle about the desk, and set a digital projector on it.
They announce the play, in Japanese and English and sign language, while the projector flashes English surtitles on a screen — reminding us we are gai-jin, as well as moderns intruding into their 1940s world.

They also bring giant wooden radio receivers, and stride into our space to set them up.  The sounds the women create at the desk will infiltrate and dominate our world. But for now, we hear the noise we call “static”  (broadcasters call it “interference,” because it blurs the message — rather like stereotyping and propaganda blur reality.)

Swiftly and silently, the players thus invoke the ways war (and prejudice) invade life.  They also focus our attention on the way a new technology, radio, was used last century to counter-invade, slipping behind the lines with words and music instead of weapons.

Enter “Tokyo Rose.”  As the women rush to their posts at the desk, we hear scraps of Rose’s monologs from Zero Hour, her shrewdly named show (the Zero was Japan’s most feared fighter plane, and “zero hour” was military jargon for the moment to begin an attack).

The rest of the play unfolds the story — fictionalized from the actual experience of LA native Iva Toguri — of Japanese-American women caught in Japan by the war’s outbreak and conscripted to be Rose’s voice, and of the postwar search by the American military (and news media) for Tokyo Rose.

The story is regularly punctuated by dance interludes.  While the five women move desk segments about to set up a new scene, they also enact key moments — the rush to create Zero Hour broadcasts, the stunned confusion of Japan’s people hearing radio news of Hiroshima and the Emperor’s surrender, the station staff’s frantic attempts to hide or destroy records.

I could say these dances break the momentum, taking me out of the story.  But the dances in a noh drama do that, and they’re supposed to — they pause to distill the story’s emotional and spiritual meanings, and celebrate them.  Come to think of it, so do the songs and dances in an American musical, or an opera.

I could say repeating the same few fragments of Tokyo Rose’s monologs becomes frustrating.  But then, most of the broadcasts were live, the station’s few tapes were destroyed, and all we have are these bits.  So the play accurately creates the frustration of anyone seeking Tokyo Rose; every search into history or memory ends in incompletion.

I could even say the actors’ mastery of English left a few words at times ungrasped.  But the play is about stretching and shattering our languages, about translations and misunderstandings and lies, about the human effort to send and receive messages — and distort them, while the universe itself interferes by throwing in “static.”

Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape overcomes the interference and succeeds in raising its dramatic questions.  It makes me feel — and think about — the meaning of loyalty, honesty and justice in a world where the rules and laws are being violently changed.

It also makes me feel — and think about — the similarities and differences between Japan’s and America’s theatre worlds.  Not just our performance traditions (realism, musicals, kabuki, noh), but what our audiences bring to the theatre, what we take for granted and what we expect.

And it makes me think — with deep feeling — about the interaction of our two cultures, from last century’s fear-fueled efforts to hate, dominate and destroy to this century’s easy sharing of sushi and hamburgers, comic books and manga.  It’s hard to believe our grandparents did — and suffered — what they did.  But it’s one of theatre’s jobs to help us remember, and to appreciate the road we’ve traveled.
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Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’ Last Tape, written and directed by Miwa Yanagi.
Presented by the Miwa Yanagi Theatre Project, the Japan Society of New York, the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs, the Japan Foundation and the US National Endowment for the Arts, at REDCAT (the Roy and Edna Disney /Cal Arts Theatre), 631 W. Second Ave.

Closed.  [Touring to Toronto, New York and Washington, D.C.]

 

 

 

 

Geriatric Showcase: “Blithe Spirit,” “The Price”

I admit I’m biased.  As an artist and critic, I’m committed to LA’s small theatres.  Seeing recent works at  the city’s two premier venues forcefully reminded me of why.

Blithe Spirit at the Ahmanson
One January night, I joined fellow Angelenos to watch 89-year-old  Angela Lansbury caper about the stage in a 74-year-old comedy, spinning a supporting role into a star turn.

Charles Edwards, Angela Lansbury, Charlotte Parry

Charles Edwards, Angela Lansbury, Charlotte Parry

Everyone expected her to:  she’s been an international presence in stage, film and TV for over 50 years.   And she didn’t disappoint.  As  the ditzy medium who summons the spirit,  Lansbury took the stage  (unfazed by small-town entrance applause) and held it, never out of character yet never out of contact with the audience.  She didn’t steal attention, she claimed it — but she also yielded it on cue.  And her immense energy never lapsed, even while docilely listening.

To their credit, her fellow actors (Charles Edwards, Jemima Rooper and Charlotte Parry) held their own, also unflagging in their energy and focus.  They served up the Noël Coward farce and kept it flying, like a fast game of table tennis.

But Lansbury did something they couldn’t.  She gave a master class in “Using What You’ve Still Got.”  To create Mme. Arcati, she let her aging body and voice reveal the cracks most actors (and the rest of us) try to hide — a tremor here, a hesitation or sudden cough there.  Then, with her decades of song and dance experience, she wove them into her character.  Stumbling, catching herself, Mme. Arcati emerged as a woman roused from senescence by the siren call of a snarky ghost.

This Blithe Spirit was like a Yo-yo Ma cello concerto.  One instrument, in a master’s hands, leading an entire consort through the familiar music.  It was a joy to behold.

But the music is familiar.  And while it’s delightfully well made, it’s a trifle — a very light comedy about the different hopes women and men bring to love.  Its insights haven’t faded with age, but everything else about it has.

Walking down off the hill, I couldn’t help notice there were 2,000 of us there, for just one performance — out of two or three dozen.
At $40 a ticket, that’s a box-office gross of near $2 million.  For this one show.  The whole year’s budget for 20 or 30 of LA’s medium-size theatres.  Enough to keep 100 of our black-box houses running all year and longer.

Is  it worth it?   Well, it’s a farewell performance by a master artist.  But do we need to invest $2 million — plus funds from foundations and donors — to bring it here?  With all but one of the eight actors and understudies flown in from New York and London?  Is this LA theatre’s top priority?

It is where the money’s going.  And a small handful of folks (mostly male, mostly white, mostly well-off) made the decision.  Their next investment is another farewell tour, an 81-year-old Australian man  playing a pretend Dame.  Then, a stage version of a 65-year-old TV musical.  Really?
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Blithe Spirit,
by Noël Coward, directed by Michael Blakemore.
Presented by the Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave.

Closed.

 

 

Alan Mandell, Sam Robards

Alan Mandell, Sam Robards

The Price at the Mark Taper Forum
A mild February night, I trudge up Bunker Hill to see Arthur Miller’s seldom-done The Price.  In the featured role is Alan Mandell, an LA theatre legend who 60 years ago helped found Actors’ Workshop in San Francisco (and bring Samuel Beckett to the US stage).

We’re at the 740-seat Mark Taper, which holds the Center Theatre Group’s portfolio for innovative work (now shared with the 320-seat Kirk Douglasdown by the water in Culver City).   The house is about three-fourths full.   A kids’ dream fortress of old furniture is stacked up to the ceiling, everywhere but the apron.

Sam Robards, Kate Burton and John Bedford Lloyd turn in credible performances.  They’re a cop, his wife and his rich brother, grimly locked in a battle of old family grievances.

Mandell plays an aged furniture dealer called out of retirement to make an offer on the dead paterfamilias’ hoard.  With nothing much at stake, he has himself an evening of wry fun.  The family members turn up their noses, so he shares it with the audience.

Like Lansbury, Mandell artfully lends elements of his own aging to his character — then uses his actor’s energy and experience to weld them into a portrait.  By midway, when we’ve learned who he is, we start to laugh the moment he wanders onstage from a nap, or stops in frustration as a young buck cuts him off.  It’s lovely, leisurely work that almost steals the scene — but instead holds the play together.

And the play needs it.  In its opening scenes, we meet the dealer and watch the cop and his wife talk past each other. Then the brother shows up for an hour and more of antler-bashing as the siblings circle the stage, refusing to yield, slowly dragging painful memories out of each other.  Only the old man makes it palatable.

Twenty years before The Price, Miller wrote his masterpiece, Death of a Salesman.  This one mines the same material — a failed father, his two sons, the conflict between a struggling brother and a rich one.  In Salesman, we’re in Linda’s house, watching her husband, her sons — and listening at the end to her voice.  In The Price, Esther stands ringside, helpless and whining.  Without a strong female container, we just get boys in a pissing contest.

Coward’s witty clockwork may survive, as a period piece, like those of Oscar Wilde.  But after 50 years, we can safely say The Price should be broken up and sold at auction.  Its only saving grace is Mandell atop his game, in one of his farewell performances.

And again, the folks at Center Theatre Group have mounted a show that the gate (about half a million) won’t even pay for.  Why?
What urgency propelled this never fully written, dying chestnut onto one of LA’s premier stages?  If we want to invite esteemed Irish director Garry Hynes to work with Mandell, why this of all plays?

Sigh.  Money is no guarantee of quality.  And fear of money, which chairs too many meetings in the castles on the hill, does not make bold artistic decisions.  No matter what a 60-page, 4-color program says.  With what it cost to print that slick mag, Theatre Unleashed or Ebony Rep could mount a show or two.  For my money, that’s the work LA theatre needs to be doing.
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The Price, by Arthur Miller, directed by Garry Hynes.
Presented by the Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave.

Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 2:30 and 8:00pm, Sundays at 1:00 and 6:30pm; through March 22.

Tickets:  <www.centertheatregroup.org>

*****************
Disclaimer
:  I lift an eyebrow at the advanced age of the “star” actors in both plays, and of the plays themselves.  I can get away with this, being a senior myself; don’t try it at home if you’re under 50.