Findings at the Fringe (6): A Trio of Solo Flights

One-person shows flourish at the Fringe. It’s made for low-entry, low-tech offerings. And a one-hander’s as simple as it gets, right?

Hah. If you see Women of ‘The Hat’ this year (I saw it at the 2014 Son of Semele Solo Creation Festival), you’ll know otherwise.  Melissa R. Randel masterfully weaves dance, multi-part acting, deft use of props and scenery, and precise tech support into a powerful, poignant story.

It ain’t easy.  A big part of the challenge is that solo turns out to be — like a haiku or a sonnet — a severely limiting form.  I’ve only ever seen three kinds: autobiography, biography, and storytelling (usually multi-character, though Colin Mitchell enchanted audiences with a single-character tale last year in Linden Arden Stole the Highlights).

NELL GWYNNE

Bella Merlin

Bella Merlin

The subject  of a biography deserves to be known better than she or he is — that’s why the piece exists.  So the show has to make this person engaging, and their story compelling.

Bella Merlin starts seducing with her title: Nell Gwynne: A Dramatick Essaye on Acting and Prostitution. If we’ve read Brit Lit, we know we’re in the 17th or 18th century. If we can’t recall one of London’s first actresses (and its most famous courtesan), no matter — Merlin, as Gwynne, welcomes us into her dressing room and fills us in at once.

The hour sails by jauntily, as Gwynne recounts her rise from theatre orange-seller to superstar to mistress of King Charles II (for her,  “Charlie the Third,” as her first two patrons were named Charles). Along with the tale, Mrs. Gwynne treats us to a discreet strip-tease, shifting coyly from costume to costume.

But it’s not her sexuality that holds us, nor her charm — like the king, we’re fascinated by her shrewd intelligence, her wit, and the ironic fatalism with which she greets life’s vicissitudes. And her passion: Merlin gives us a Nell who is first and foremost an artist, dedicated for all her brief life (she died at 37) to the theatre.

By hour’s end, instead of a history lecture, we’ve enjoyed the company of an unforgettable woman. You can’t ask more of a biographical solo show.

(And lest you think it really is “solo” — Merlin’s hour upon the stage requires a director, a designer/assistant director, a stage manager, a production assistant, and a marketing and publicity manager.)
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Nell Gwynne, by Bella Merlin, directed by Miles Anderson.
Presented by dr act, in the Ruby Theatre at The Complex, 6476 Sata Monica Blvd.

June 27 (8:30 pm).

Tickets: <www.hff15.org/2162>

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THE INSIDE EDGE OF THE WORLD

Michael Evans Lopez

Michael Evans Lopez

One-person storytelling makes heavy demands on the performer. You must (usually) be able to carve out several roles, and move fluidly between narration and enactment. And — as in all solo shows — no one can give you cues, or energy to react to.

In The Inside Edge of the World: or, Where Have All the Good Serial Killers Gone?, Michael Evans Lopez adds a few more challenges.  Most of his characters have eerily similar names; and one character is a dog.

Fortunately, Lopez (under the tight direction of Maria Pasquarelli) proves equal to the task. His bravura opening — establishing both man and dog while facing away from the audience — lets us know we’re in for a ride.

Our guide for the ride is a serial-killer geek who suspects his new neighbor, with pretty good reason. But, we soon learn, he also belongs to a cult, which has rechristened all  its members and is eagerly approaching an off-planet rendezvous with the Others.
He suddenly finds himself called on to perform their penultimate rite on Earth (a neatly staged light show).

Twists and turns keep arriving, as our protagonist moves toward a climax that will demand some radical decisions.  To Lopez’ credit (and Pasquarelli’s), the characters remain clear, the humor sharp, and the pathos effective right to the end.

That end is, surprisingly, uncertain. This tale, it turns out, isn’t about solving a mystery, but about coping with a mystery — our human separateness.  Though it’s fast and funny, The Inside Edge of the World does indeed reach inside us.
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The Inside Edge of the World, by Michael Evans Lopez, directed by Maria Pasquarelli.
Presented by Fist the Mountain Productions, at the Elephant Studio, 1078 Lillian Way.

June 27 (5:30 pm).

Tickets: <www.hff15.org/2224>

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WOMEN OF ‘THE HAT’

Melissa R. Randel

Melissa R. Randel

If you want to see this one, you have two more chances.

Women of ‘The Hat’ … A Duet for One, written and directed by Melissa R. Randel.
Presented by Leap in the Dark Productions, at the Theatre of NOTE, 1517N. Cahuenga Blvd.

June 25 (7 pm) and June 26 (7 pm).

Tickets: <www.hff15.org/2375>

 

Findings at the Fringe (5): Circling Around Sex

I’ve no idea how many Fringe ’15 shows have sex as a central theme. But two plays I saw deal with it in circular modes.

SLEEPING AROUND

(collage: Lorenzo Marchessi)

(collage: Lorenzo Marchessi)

The story traces a circle, each vignette observing a situation in which a partner is moving tangentially, outside the circumference of an established relationship.

Inspired by Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, a satire on infidelities in 1890s Vienna, playwright Cesar Abella examines a variety of modern extracurricular liaisons.  Where Schnitzler draws stark cameos of hypocrisy, classism, and power-seeking, Abella sketches more gently, with less judgment.

Things start at a high comic pitch, with Sammi Lappin and Jim Martyka as a couple hooking up so uncomfortably they can’t even bare their names.  In the next scene, we hit a speed bump. Martyka’s character, now revealed as Donnie, squirms painfully as his wife Elizabeth (Courtney Sara Bell) ferrets out the tale of the hookup — which, it turns out, she has encouraged, being in the late stages of terminal cancer.

The subsequent seven scenarios unfold swiftly with humor, pathos, wit and surprises — each disclosing something unexpected about a character we think we’ve gotten to know. The writing remains better than competent throughout, the directing simple and clear, the acting energetic and specific.

But to be honest, the scene where we meet the dying Elizabeth sets a standard nothing else quite reaches.  It’s the sharpest, least predictable of the play’s many turns; the empathy it reaches lies deeper than any of the other motivations; and Bell’s intense, gentle listening and mortal wisdom illuminate the theatre like a full moon.

Sleeping Around is a complex comic achievement, more serious in intent than its playful publicity campaign suggests, and ambitious indeed for a Fringe play. Theatre Unleashed earns another laurel.
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Sleeping Around, by Cesar Abella, directed by Wendy Gough Soroka.
Presented by Theatre Unleashed, at Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd.

June 25 (11:55 pm).

Tickets: <www.hff15.org/projects/2444>

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SMILE, BABY

Madison Shepard, Jessica DeBruin, Linda Serrato-Ybarra, Sonia Jackson, Molly Wixson (photo: William B. Ayala)

Madison Shepard, Jessica DeBruin, Linda Serrato-Ybarra, Sonia Jackson, Molly Wixson (photo: William B. Ayala)

The team at The Others looks at a different circle in our sexual life — predators prowling around a target.

Savannah Dooley and the troupe set out to explore “catcalling,” the age-old practice in which males of uncertain maturity call out sexual remarks to women in public places.  Dooley’s script harvests a series of sketches, ranging from wittily satiric to poignant.

Anchoring the show are Sonia Jackson and Jessica DeBruin, two women waiting at a bus stop, and Madison Shepard, as a would-be wielder of privileged power.

As their privacy is assaulted by passing catcalls, Jackson shares her wisdom from a position of safety (“The only men tryin’ to get my attention now want me to meet Jesus”).  DeBruin gladly receives her tutelage — and an empowering talisman — and develops the courage to become assertive.

Shepard’s atavistic male, meanwhile, descends the evolutionary ladder, from urban fool to stalking, snarling beast. Yet Shepard also betrays flashes of the utter lack of identity hiding behind the masks.

The hour’s high point comes in a hilarious display of “street-safe fashions” — a sharp answer to the “asking for it” school of drool that undeveloped brains often confuse with thought.

Since the Greeks, comedy at its best applies a swift scalpel and a soothing balm, to excise social cancers and hold them up to the light. Smile, Baby stands proudly in that tradition.
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Smile, Baby, by Savannah Dooley and the company, directed by Kate Motzenbacher.
Presented by The Others Theater Company, in the Dorie Theatre at The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd.

June 26 (9:30 pm), June 27 (5 pm).

Tickets: <www.hff15.org/projects/2239>

 

 

Findings at the Fringe (4): Genet’s “The Blacks”

The Blacks was written by a leading French radical just as Europe was finally letting go of its colonies. In the US, it was the longest running off-Broadway show of the 1960s (over 1,400 performances). And in the original New York cast were James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Brown, Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge and Maya Angelou.

It’s still a powerful piece of theatre, written for black actors to perform before a white audience.  It assaults sensibilities to shatter stereotyped thinking — and feeling — about race.

Daphne Gabriel, Precious Ra'Akbar, Gyasi Silas (kneeling), Jonathan Bangs, Donna Simone Johnson, A'raelle Flynn Bolden

Daphne Gabriel, Precious Ra’Akbar, Gyasi Silas (kneeling), Jonathan Bangs, Donna Simone Johnson, A’raelle Flynn Bolden

Alas, it’s still needed. The audience I sat in was as diverse as modern LA, and shouted support — far from the silent shock that greeted the play 50 years ago. But at the curtain call, the company dedicated their work to nine black Americans slain two days earlier by a white terrorist.

In The Blacks, a commedia-like troupe prepares to try a black man  for murdering a white woman, while colonial authorities — a queen, a governor and a missionary — sit in judgment.  Parodying the racist minstrel shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one member acts as emcee, guiding the audience and the other actors (and often arguing with them like an irascible director).

Between the actors’ squabbles and the authorities’ squeamishness, the trial never successfully proceeds. (Offstage, an unseen trial — not a staged enactment — moves right along, ending with the black defendant’s execution).  Onstage, things collapse and the actors end up killing the colonials, including the queen.

The Orig-O-naL Theatre Company, a CalArts fledgling, brings plenty of energy and wit to Genet’s script, enthusiastically breaking theatrical and social conventions.  The simple (uncredited) stage design keeps the focus on the characters, and the (uncredited) costumes identify without distracting (an inventive re-thinking of “whiteface” for the colonials is especially adroit).

Gyasi Sila, Arielle Siler, Precious Ra'Akbar

Gyasi Silas, Arielle Siler, Precious Ra’Akbar

As Archibald, the interlocutor, Arielle Siler fills the space of two or three people vocally and physically, with clear forceful speaking and dancer-like forms and gestures. She also projects an eager anxiety more winning than the usual emcee’s insouciance.

A’raelle Flynn Bolden deploys similar power, easily seizing the stage even amidst chaos with her powerful voice and presence to invoke the sacred name of Dahomey. Precious Ra’Akbar’s Snow is the most refractory actor, yet she emerges as a character rather than a caricature. Gyasi Silas is strong, clear and accessible as the torn  Village, half Romeo and half revolutionary slayer. And Donna Simone Johnson creates the Queen as a dignified fool, with a  Wonderland mix of blithe selfishness and astonishing vacuity.

The cast struggles a bit in the early going with the space’s rattling acoustics, perhaps aggravated by eager rushing. But they settle into enacting their story with clarity and bravado.

This is a very timely and effective renewal of a play we may, unfortunately, need for 50 more years.  Kudos to Orig-O-naL for putting it into our conversation. Their production deserves a life beyond the Fringe.
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The Blacks: A Clown Show, by Jean Genet, directed by Craig Gibson.
Presented by the Orig-O-naL Theatre Company, at the Other Space of the Actors Company, 916A Formosa Ave.

Closed.

 

 

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Findings at the Fringe (3): Some Ambitious Efforts

You come to the Fringe to try things.

You learn from what works, and from what doesn’t.  I saw a couple of shows that made ambitious leaps … and landed not quite where they hoped.

INSIDE THE MIND OF ME

mind of me

A guy’s in a coma … his friends come to visit (upstage), and the drama of his inner life, from actual memories to archetypal figures, plays out while he sleeps (downstage & everywhere else).

There’s a good concept here, and some good theatrical instincts. And the troupe from NoHo’s Theatre Unleashed brings boundless energy and creativity, and performs with clarity — each of the dozen characters is etched and maintained. It’s an intriguing hour and half.

It could be an exciting hour.  But the pace is uneven, and the later scenes feel repetitious — signs the director isn’t looking for places to cut and tighten.  Turns out (surprise) playwright Wade F. Wilson is directing; the writer’s always the last to see excess and slash it.

The show is rich with resources. Inventive costuming and makeup choices (Did the actors design their own? If so, bravi!), a spare but effective set (Corey Lynn Howe), and a wealth of acting talent.

Graydon Schlicter, as the devilish Circus, and Kire Horton as Angel arrest our attention whenever they appear, each adding nice layers of complexity beyond mere “good vs. evil” battling for a soul. Marty Hrejsa (Grandpa Stan) and Eric Anthony (best friend Chris) change every scene they enter. And Hollie Sokol (the succubus Loveless), Erin Braswell (the supernally still Death), and Aili Jay (the shape- shifting Nurse/Ghoul), create dark demigods — yet suggest a human empathy trapped within.

The next step is to take all these resources — including the dancer- like Michael Marcel, whose Me has, alas, almost nothing to do — and rework the script. (Perhaps dropping the conceit of naming the protagonist “Me.”) Inside the Mind can easily become swifter, clearer, less polemical and more theatrical. I want to see it truly deliver what’s already bursting out at its seams.
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Inside the Mind of Me, written and directed by Wade F. Wilson.
Presnted by Theatre Unleashed, at Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd.

June 19 (11:30 pm), June 27 (2:30 pm).

Tickets: <www.hff15.org/2097>

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FUCK YOU, JASON!

Lesli Harad

Lesli Harad

The pre-show works.  In fact, it’s a delight.

Charming impresario Benny Lumpkins Jr. invites any woman in the audience who’s been short-shrifted to take the stage and tell her tale, naming the feckless malefactor. The audience will then join her in shouting, “Fuck You, [insert name here]!”  This produces moments of catharsis and laughter, melting the crowd into a community.

The show itself, not so much.

There’s some good thinking behind this piece. As adapter/author, Lumpkins plays with Euripides’ text in promising ways. He folds it, so we begin by hearing Jason’s denunciation of Medea (which neatly outlines the plot) — by the end, when we hear it again, it’s filled with meaning from our experience of the story. Lumpkins also spices the modern translations he draws on by adding street language (most notably the title, which becomes a choral refrain).

And there’s some good dramaturgy. Lumpkins keeps the violence offstage (ob-scene, as the Greeks called it), letting witnesses recount the horrid bits, so it’s their human reactions (not the gore itself) that moves us.  He also makes effective use of the chorus — including the nice device of having them strike poses from Classic friezes.

The real problem is the acting.

Lesli Harad (as Medea) achieves moments of reality, surprising us at times with what she finds and where she reaches for it.  Otherwise, this cast is made of actors saying (or shouting) the character’s lines.  They speak (and even shout) clearly, and indicate emotion — but none of the actors has begun to transform into the person from whom the lines emerge.

And when there’s a pervasive problem with the acting, it isn’t the actors.  It’s the director.

For all his intelligence in conceiving the play, and for all his personal charm, Mr. Lumpkins has yet to show his skill as a director of actors. In rehearsal, the director must create a safe space where each actor can reach inside, find the character in their own hidden potentials, and start releasing it into the role. It’s a delicate, time-consuming process, and clearly didn’t happen in this case.

But the Fringe is for learning.

Please, Mr. Lumpkins, take this text and your staging ideas and keep working. Take these actors, too — I’ve no reason to believe any of them can’t do the job (and I know Harad can). I like the modern Medea you’re aiming for, and it deserves to be brought to life.
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Fuck You, Jason! (or Medea by Euripides), adapted and directed by Benny Lee Harris Lumpkins Jr.
Presented by Poor Man Theatre Company, at the Elephant Space, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd.

June 19 (7:00 pm), June 21 (7:00 pm), June 25 (11:55 pm) and June 28 (2:30 pm).

Tickets: <www.hff15.org/2250>

 

 

Findings at the Fringe (2): A Pair of “Meta” Comedies

Comedies abound at the Fringe. Perhaps it’s the fast, foolish pace of the thing … or the hectic 15-minute load-in for each show … or maybe actors just wanna have fun.

My laugh tour started with clowning and satire, two of the oldest comic forms — in shows that make fun of the very media in which they are working.  Er, playing.

THE HALFWITS’ LAST HURRAH

Benji Kaufman, Charlotte Chanler, Don Colliver, Helene Udy, Dave Honigman

Benji Kaufman, Charlotte Chanler, Don Colliver, Helene Udy, Dave Honigman

Four Clowns is virtually the Hollywood Fringe’s resident company, appearing (and winning awards) almost every year since it began.  This year the Clowns make light of — clown troupes.

Tall and suave, yet tasteless and inept, Butterbeans Arbuckle (Don Colliver) has collected and trained a troupe from society’s cast-offs. While they sing his praises and perform boisterous feats, half  mastery and half mishap, the clowns are assailed by a ghost from the impresario’s past — the wee, white-clad Real McCoy (Jolene Kim).

This arch intruder and her henchmen interrupt the act, take the stage tossing money like confetti, then proceed to take Arbuckle’s minions captive and kill them.  Just when all seems lost (and dead clowns litter the stage), the most hapless of heroines saves the day.

It’s light and amusing, a fond satire that does not look too deeply. Oh, there’s a bit of snark about McCoy planning to buy the theatre we’re in and turn it into a corner mall (the very fate that awaits the imperiled Asylum-Lillian-Elephant complex). And, as ever, the sweet fools are up against the worldly wickeds.

But the proof is in the performances — from Benji Kaufman’s pre-show teasing to Hélène Udy’s stilt-walking plate spinner, from Jennifer Carroll and Dave Honigman as the elastic, sarcastic and dirty Inderdorf twins to Elizabeth Godley as the mute, innocent yet knowing Nimrod. (And Wayne H. Holland III’s virtuoso piano.)

Each performer has mastered skills and displays them, even through interruptions and mayhem. But each also creates and maintains a character, and stumbles through an arc.  These are clowns who know how to strut their stuff while telling a story about people.

One cavil: “Halfwit” takes me out of the play and kills playfulness.  We trust our clowns to mock our pretensions, not our disabilities.  As Fringe 2014’s stars, Beau & Aero, proved so amply, brilliant clowning has no need of cruelty.
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The Halfwits’ Last Hurrah, by Jamie Franta and Don Colliver, directed by David Anthony Anis.
Presented by Four Clowns at the Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way.

June 18th (7:00 pm), June 20 (11:55 pm), June 23 (8:30 pm) and June 26 (10:30pm).

Tickets:  <www.fourclowns.org> or (323)455-4585.

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BEST OF ALBUQUERQUE FRINGE 2025

gary the duck

And now a Fringe show about … Fringe shows!

Even though it’s a sendup of a Fringe awards show, and gives Albuquerque a few pokes in the ribs, this one’s really about the shows that appear at a Fringe — or anywhere. It’s a satire on theatre.
And that’s a chancy proposition, as “in jokes” that leave half the audience cold can quickly chill the house.

But not to worry. Writers Jacob Smith and Jim Blanchette pitch to the widest imaginable strike zone — from Sophocles to Gilbert & Sullivan, from Shakespeare to reality TV, and everything in between.
Every one of their sketches (“excerpts” from the winning shows) lands as satire, and draws laughs; more than once, the players have to stop and wait for the house to quiet down.

Most of the numbers gleefully mix sources and styles, stirring a Hans Christian Andersen tale into full-rhymed Shakespeare, or inviting the Duggar family to perform “Sound of Music.” And every one of the performers leaps energetically from role to role, style to style.

Lauren Flans co-hosts the awards as an almost sober arts doyen, while animating several other characters (including a duck). Heather Lake flies fearlessly between parts, and co-author Blanchette brings energy and wit to his many turns as narrator and character.

Best of Albuquerque 2025 (or “BabyQ 25”, as the kids are calling it) takes place in the future, so we might expect a dire warning or two. But this is comedy, and it’s funnier to imagine that, alas, nothing has changed.
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Best of Albuquerque Fringe 2025, by Jacob Smith and Jim Blanchette, directed by Corey Lynn Howe.
Presented by Village Idiom Productions, at the Elephant Space, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd.

June 20 (11:30 pm), June 24 (8:30 pm), and June 28 (4:00 pm).

Tickets: <www.hff15.org/2189>

 

 

Findings at the Fringe: Two Tender Love Stories

The Hollywood Fringe Festival’s known as a home for wild, wacky takes on theatrical storytelling.  But it’s also a haven for new stories that need a place to emerge.

At this year’s Fringe, I’ve already found two — both small, tender love stories.

MY SISTER

Elizabeth Hinkler, Emily Hinkler (photo: JD Mendenhall)

Elizabeth Hinkler, Emily Hinkler (photo: JD Mendenhall)

Two women in a room, one unable to leave.  Both committed to a dream, and to a love without which life would be unthinkable.

But life has a way of becoming unthinkable.

In 1930s Berlin, for a cabaret comic and a gifted writer, one wearing visible signs of imperfection (cerebral palsy), life outside the door is growing lethally dangerous. Stairs, traffic … and neighbors.

Janet Schlapkohl’s script moves swiftly, quietly, weaving this small, endangered world out of simple words. Paul David Story’s direction, precise and clean, never loses focus. And a pair of remarkable actors — twins Emily and Elizabeth Hinkler — make the unspoken love between the sisters a force of terrible beauty.

The (uncredited) set design subtly suggests the sisters’ creation of a life from scant resources, and the (also uncredited) light design focuses and gives emotional color to each scene.

This play is a deeply moving, stunning achievement, using materials that could all too easily be mishandled.  My Sister is a don’t-miss gem, one of the highlights of this year’s Hollywood Fringe.

(A note on disability: Elizabeth Hinkler does not have cerebral palsy, but her carefully observed, prudent physicality conveys it with fierce dignity.  Author Schlapkohl, founder of the disability-inclusive Combined Efforts Theatre at U. of Iowa, wrote the part for her.)
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My Sister, by Janet Schlapkohl, directed by Paul David Story.
Presented at the Underground Theatre, 1314 N. Wilton Place.

June 20th (6:00 pm), June 21st (3:00 pm) and June 27 (8:00 pm).

Tickets: <www.hff15.org/2195>

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SOUNDLY

Though they surround us with comfort — throw pillows, plates of cheese and crackers, drinks — the troupe presenting Soundly takes us on a ride that’s disquieting and painful.

soundly 1

It’s a simple tale, adapted from a Daniel Handler short story about two women sharing the last day of their friendship.  The day death, wielding an incurable disease, catches up with one of them.

We meet Lila and Allison in a bar on an island in the Puget Sound, after a man warning loudly of an impending apocalypse finally leaves for San Francisco.  The narrator (an older Allison) explains the two have sneaked out of the hospital where Lila’s been awaiting either the grim reaper or a month’s reprieve via organ donor.

The longtime friends reminisce, rant about men and football (it’s Super Bowl weekend), and sip “Suffering Bastards.”  Gus the bartender leaves to watch the game, and Gladys, a dottily mystical crone appears.  She predicts Lila’s pager will buzz — it does — the hospital has a donor.  The friends rush to get there.  They don’t.

Little happens, and little more is said.  How, then, have we become so deeply enmeshed in the love these two women share?  Why do  we feel its loss so poignantly?

Partly, it’s Handler’s writing — spare, unfancy, made of things we say. Partly, it’s Jessica Salans’ adaptation and direction — simple, clear, often funny, slicing into us almost painlessly. And partly, it’s the acting — especially Devereau Chumrau as the wry yet always accessible Lila, and Leah Costello as Allison the narrator, who never wavers yet betrays the deep mark of this love upon her life.

Against their stillness, Tania Verafield (young Allison) and Jodi Harrison (Gladys) get to play more voluble and varied emotional responses, as do the two men (Karlito Sanders as Gus, and Alex Alpharaoh as the apocalyptic prophet).  But all this only drives us closer to the heart of what these two friends have found, and to death’s true threat: not ceasing to be, but ceasing to love.

The Soundly company attempts very much with very little, and accomplishes it. They enact an elegy in praise of love in its simplest, rarest form — two solitudes (as Rilke said) who meet, greet and protect one another.  And who must, in this world, part.
I doubt you’ll find a better hour of theatre at the Fringe.
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Soundly, by Daniel Handler, adapted and directed by Jessica Salans.
Presented at the Asylum Lab, 1078Lillian Way.

June 22 (5:30pm), June 23 (10pm) and June 28 (2:30pm).

Tickets:  Sold out, but try at the door.

Chalk Rep Serves Up a Tasty “Diet of Worms”

You’ve heard of the Diet of Worms? Maybe not.

It was a special congress — diet, in medieval-speak — of the Holy Roman Empire, called in 1521 to condemn Martin Luther for his public criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church.

It’s also a new play by Tom Jacobson, being staged by Chalk Rep in the dramatic depths of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral.

But the play isn’t about the medieval meeting. It’s about the impact of the public upheaval — which gave birth to Protestantism — on a cloistered community of German nuns.

Lorene Chesley, Keiana Richard, Inger Tudor (photo: Halei Parker)

Lorene Chesley, Keiana Richard, Inger Tudor (photo: Halei Parker)

The play’s setting is majestic, even imposing. But its tone is light.
It opens with Sister Katherina trying to confess, distracted by her fear that Luther will close all the monasteries and convents.  She hits on an idea — giving Bible readings to combat heresy.  Her aunt the Abbess, a watchful but lenient “mother hen,” is easily persuaded.

Soon, Katherina and her cohort bypass readings for staged plays. These they create from the Apocrypha — versions of Scripture the Church has specifically excluded. Their choices veer toward high drama and feminism (e.g., Judith seducing and slaying the Assyrian commander Holofernes); and just when they fear the Abbess will shut them down, she demands a part in the next play.

As the troupe tours neighboring nunneries, freedom overwhelms them.  Most of the actors abscond (hidden in herring barrels, during a performance for their clerical overseer); they abandon the order, despite sharp warnings about the wretched plight of women in the world.

Diet of Worms is grounded in historical fact. Katherina von Bora and several other nuns did flee the Abbey of Marienthron (where her aunt was abbess) in 1523, hiding  in a fishmonger’s wagon; Katherina did marry Martin Luther two years later, and bore him six children.

But Jacobson transforms history into play. He imagines the nuns’ foray into theatrics, and the heady effect of enacting stories that encourage women’s wit and power rather than obedient piety. (This arc leads, beyond the play, to the Katherina who amazed people by swiftly reorganizing the huge, crumbling estate where Luther lived.)

Director Jennifer Chang follows Jacobson’s lead. Amid the vast spaces, marble floors and gold-leaf mosaics of the cathedral, her light, swift stagecraft keeps the story in ceaseless motion. She whisks us from scene to scene — and through the tissue between fact and fancy — easily and gracefully.  (Chang also wisely works around the high-domed central platform, which is the building’s focal point but swallows sound like a whale devouring krill.)

Her ensemble delivers the story and its fancies well.  The principals use vocal force and articulation, letting nothing get lost in the huge church’s cavernous depths.  And all move in the complex space as freely as if they do indeed live here.

Inger Tudor’s dignified, centered Abbess holds the community and its story together, even when she cedes her power to her charges. Keiana Richard fills Katherina with a native intelligence that bids us trust her impulses (as her aunt does); and Lorene Chesley lets Lanita, the sister with a shady past, open gradually like a defended flower.

Elizabeth Ho, as the shy and scholarly Fronika, avoids stereotype by creating a constant, delicate dance, whether she is making a textual choice or plunging in the world.  And Rebecca Kaasa makes the new arrival, Eva, an approachable mystery whose self becomes more important to us than her hidden backstory.

Arturo Betanzos and Sasha Monge show what minimalism and theatricality can accomplish in their scenic and prop design. And Rebecca Bonebrake uses little lighting beyond what’s already in the cathedral, yet illuminates every moment.

As a bit of a history nerd, I had to swallow hard when I felt us lift off on a comic ride through the Reformation — a particularly turbulent and nasty era, when Europeans slaughtered one another to prove their faith.  But once aloft, this play moves with assurance, taking us where it means to go, entertaining and informing us along the way.

Writing this review, I also notice (for the first time) how very close Jacobson’s story outline falls to that of The Sound of Music.  And I appreciate how very far from that saccharine, sentimental world his writing — and this company’s work — take us.

Chalk Rep, already established as one of LA’s prime makers of site-specific (and often immersive) theatre, now begins a formal residency in St. John’s Cathedral.  Diet of Worms gets that promising  relationship off to a lively start.
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Diet of Worms, by Tom Jacobson, directed by Jennifer Chang.
Presented by Chalk Repertory Theatre, at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, 415 W. Adams Blvd.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:00, through June 27th.

Tickets: <www.chalkrep.com>

 

OMG — It’s “Othello” — Mooring a Glam Jam at ZJU

Spoiler Alert: This review reveals all. Sorry; there’s no other way. I’d be pleased if you’d just go see the play first, then read this after.

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Othello may not be Shakespeare’s best play, nor his best-loved, but it gets staged a lot. While it’s obviously a morality tale about jealousy,  American versions almost always focus as well on our, um, peculiar problem: race.

Recently, a fine production by LA’s Illyrian Players reached deeper, using the story to explore all the artificial polarities — black/white, female/male, good/evil — that we use to separate ourselves into what we call “civilization.”  [See “Tragic in Black and White,” below.]

Vincent Cusimano, Vanessa Cate (photo: Josh T. Ryan)

Vincent Cusimano, Vanessa Cate (photo: Josh T. Ryan)

And now, Zombie Joe’s Underground enters the lists with (as you might expect) one of the most outlandish ideas ever.  Stripping away the historic setting and military theme, ZJU makes Othello the head of a modern fashion house, trading the clash of guns and swords for flash and glitz of the runway.

“Desdemona wears Prada” — only she doesn’t, she’s O’s top model and paramour.  A new character, The Photographer, is everywhere kneeling and purring, his flash transforming mortal moments into the immortal reality of the media. And Iago — well, imagine if you can a mashup of the Cabaret Emcee and Al Pacino as Richard the Third.

It’s a daring idea. But in drastically adapting Shakespeare’s drama, director Josh T. Ryan and producer Zombie Joe don’t hijack the Bard into their own fantasy (“Hey! The 1920s! Prohibition!”). They dive deep into the subtext, and find a dark pearl at the story’s heart — the human ego.

That’s what drives the demonic Iago, what twists Othello’s “love” into possessive rage and murder, what propels the careerist “good guys” Cassio and Roderigo.  Even Desdemona and Emilia, who want to be popular and virtuous, trip over reality while looking  in their mirrors.

The play is swift, sparkling, breathless — and relentless.  We flash from pedestal to runway and back, barely able to freeze-frame an image and begin to think about it before we’re snatched by another. By the time death arrives (mourned with pop power ballads), we feel — not think — our judgment: Glittering egotism cheapens and then destroys everything.

ZJU’s take on Othello is shocking, powerful and memorable.

Most unforgettable is Vincent Cusimano’s nonstop tour de force as Iago, the coy Dionysos who drives this world and seduces us into it.  As Othello, the redoubtable Vanessa Cate anchors the madnesswith a macho male who’s alone in not being polyamorous (and is fatally inflexible).  Sebastian Muñoz’s Photographer frames it all, tracing a deft arc from passive witness to passionate devotee.

Hannah Mosqueda’s almost innocent nerd Roderigo (a nice balance to Cate’s alpha trans male) reaches far beyond his/her grasp. And as blithe Cassio, Quinn Knox’s clueless self-focus makes him easy prey.

Awed by the show’s gender fluidity, you might not notice it’s far from feminist — the female characters are reduced to very few lines. Still, Hedy Beinert sets Bianca’s neediness afire, Kirsten Benjamin wields a regal beauty to enforce Desdemona’s (derivative) power, and Anna Gion’s stunning physical presence strengthens Emilia’s (flawed) moral authority.

Costumer Jeri Batzdorff brings O’s haute couture line vibrantly to life, Natalie Hyde’s brilliant maquillage makes the outrageous feel familiar, and Kevin Van Cott’s music pumps the show like lifeblood.

Once again, ZJU has done something surprising.  This time, it’s not just a dazzling dive into a world of Dionysian excess. It’s a deep and thought-provoking take on a classic, focusing on core issues that few — if any — of its predecessors have managed to find.

Don’t miss this Othello. You will never see its like again.
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Othello, by William Shakespeare, adapted by Josh T. Ryan and Zombie Joe, directed by Josh T. Ryan.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 pm, through June 27th.

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