A Fun, Frustrating Puzzle: “Love and Information”

You’re probably reading this review on an electronic device.

That’s fitting, because the play in question — a new one from Caryl Churchill, one of our greatest living  playwrights – is about what you’re doing. And about me writing  on such a device.

We’re the first humans to have smart phones, laptops, tablets, to use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. They didn’t exist 30 years ago, and already they’re universal.

loveinfob

Also universal — but some 200,000 years old, as old as our species — is our dual need to know our world, and to connect with each other.  Love and information. We need them to survive. We seek them both, all the time, in every waking moment. And now we’re doing it online, taking in a worldwide flood of words, images and sounds — while the places we live and work in, and the people around us, also keep pouring their information toward us just as they’ve always done.

Are we overloaded? Do the memes and sound bites, texts and tweets, and the daily world surrounding us, now flow in so fast we can’t process them? Are we losing our balance as we scramble to take it all in — real world plus virtual world — trying respond, and to grasp some kind of meaning?

Could be. In Love and Information, Churchill invites us to see a play, then presents a rapid-fire mock-up of the worlds rushing in on our senses every day. And the experience leaves us gasping, shocked, amused, confused … and scrambling.

“Was that even a play?” patrons ask. “It was fun, but there were no characters!” “Well, there were, but they didn’t stay around long enough.” “Did any of them show up more than once?” “Was there a story?”

The scrappy troupe known as Son of Semele gives Churchill’s script a stunning, stylish production. It’s bright, fast, funny — and yes, disturbing.

Against walls in clean, bright primary colors, a single huge set piece revolves. It looks like the remains of a giant Rubik’s cube smashed by a frustrated player. Several flatscreens bloom on its surfaces, each constantly playing. As the lights flash suddenly on, then off, actors in twos and threes perform some four dozen scenes, none lasting more than a minute or two.

In each piece, people are struggling with information, trying to find out, fact-check, interview, interrogate, repeat, analyze, explain, hide. And they’re struggling with themselves to find clarity, certainty,  friendship, revenge, love, forgiveness. We see some beginnings, mid-moments, what seem to be endings … but the only way it all comes together is in our minds, as we chew it over.

This is truly an ensemble piece. Audience members have trouble naming any characters afterward (“the writer,” “the couple in the bed”, “the woman who spoke French”). But the actors are all at the top of their game, invoking sharply individual portraits in a matter of seconds, without stereotypes, and shifting their roles — and the scenery — with balletic precision and speed.

Director Matthew McCray does an amazing job. Taking the teasing fragments of Churchill’s script, he leads his cast and crew (scene design: Drew Foster, lights: Chu-hsuan Chang, videos: Keith Skretch) to weave the bright bits into a cohesive — if not exactly coherent — experience, one you won’t soon forget.

Love and Information is almost an anti-play. It’s a theatrical adventure that counts on our inborn needs to connect with characters and learn the story, and uses them against us. Churchill and the Son of Semele players use their peerless artistic skills to make us feel fascinated, amused — yet in the end disconcerted, confused, even cheated of what we came for.

And thus they make us think — and think hard — about the world we’re taking for granted outside the theatre. What else is theatre for?
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Love and Information, by Caryl Churchill, directed by Matthew McCray.
Presented by the Son of Semele Ensemble, at Son of Semele Theatre, 3301 Beverly Blvd., LA 90004.
The Ensemble: Richard Azurdia, Darren Bailey, Melina Bielefelt, Daniel Getzoff, Michael Evens Lopez, Betsy Moore, Cindy Nguyen, Sarah Rosenberg, Ashley Steed, Dan Via, Alexander Wells.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 5:00, through Dec. 6;
finale performance Monday, Dec. 7 at 7:00.

Tickets: <https://sonofsemele.secure.force.com/ticket>

 

 

Polished and Painful — “@thespeedofJake”

Death, loss and grief. Not exactly the stuff that brings us rushing into the theatre. But they’re exactly the stuff we all have to face, and find our way through. So artists are always going on about them.

The latest artist to put this unholy trio onstage is Jennifer Maisel in @the speedofJake, world-premiering at the Atwater Village Theater. Maisel has built a noted career in LA – including If You Lived Here… (reviewed below); Comings and Goings, performed at Union Station; Out of Orbit, at Cal Tech and on the Queen Mary; and The Last Seder, which went from Ensemble Studio Theatre to New York.

@thespeedofJake takes us into small, private spaces — a condo unit; a father’s grief, a mother’s, an aunt’s; and the small black hole where a boy used to be.

Renee Threatte, Elizabeth Pan, Ryun Yu, Celeste Den

Renee Threatte, Elizabeth Pan, Ryun Yu, Celeste Den

It opens with a soccer field projected across the apartment walls, while the parents watch and cheer for their son. But there are no children on this field. The image, repeated several times, suggests that the story — like the griefs it examines — may not be about the child, but about the adults’ imaginings of him. (Perhaps, it also whispers, we never see our children at all, except through our images of them, our hopes and fears.)

The next moment is equally bold and effective: A sheet that has draped the condo’s furniture (because, we suppose, the inhabitants have left) is lifted. We see the furniture, a chaos of papers — and the father, frozen, kneeling before a pile of childrens’ books.

The rest of the play works out this moment’s implications. While his almost-ex wife and his sister empathize and cajole, the father remains stunned, stuck, unable to move for fear of losing even a fast-food wrapper. As we watch, each of these three struggles  to survive unspeakable loss.

Eventually, the father does try to cope: Using his software-design  skills, he seeks to contact his absent son through the internet ether. But like his wife’s retreat into scientific materialism, or his sister’s immersion in family, his strategy only works for a while. Ultimately, each of them bows before the dark god, helpless.

The death of a child is perhaps the worst loss we can imagine, and Maisel is hardly the first writer to examine it.  (David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole and the film What Dreams May Come spring to mind.)  But she gives us an immediately engaging, tightly woven story, compelling us to connect with three people and the raw wounds death has torn in their lives.

And the company gives her story a strong, moving presentation. As Clark, the shock-frozen father, Ryun Yu make us share his agony, even while he tries to stifle it — thus also forcing us share the women’s angry frustration.  As Emily the mother, Elizabeth Pan embodies the complex pain of being in two lives (and two marriages) at once, and carrying two children inside herself. Celeste Den as Sam delicately reveals the caring and vulnerability beneath a straight-talking sister’s exterior, and Renee Threatte as a drop-in neighbor quietly sheds layers to disclose her inner self.

The play unfolds smoothly and grows steadily deeper, thanks to the gentle skill of director Jon Lawrence Rivera. When Sam, watching a projected (and imagined) soccer game, starts arguing with Clark and Emily, she is faced away from us, looking at the wall — yet we miss no part of her sudden cataclysm.  It’s a remarkable moment that only an actor’s art, supported by a director’s trust, can accomplish.

Indeed, @thespeedofJake exemplifies theatre as a collaborative art. Rivera and the Playwrights Arena have worked for a few years now with Maisel, then with Artists at Play, to bring the story from draft to finished script. Now, with Atwater Village Theater, they bring it to the stage for its premiere.

Jake also testifies to the power of diversity, as artists from many parts of the human family have shared in the process since its inception. Together, they’ve created something so true it’s painful — but necessary and, ultimately, healing.
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@thespeedofJake, by Jennifer Maisel, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Presented by Playwrights’ Arena in association with Atwater Village Theater, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 3:00, Mondays at 7:00, thru Dec. 7.

Tickets: <www.jake.brownpapertickets.com> or (800) 838-3006.

 

Coeurage’s “The Sparrow” Reaches the Heights

Coeurage Theatre Company is aptly named. They’re one of LA’s few “pay-what-you-want” troupes – and they love to tackle ambitious projects.

Their latest reach for the sky is The Sparrow, a challenging piece that wrings mythic energies from the common matter of a small-town high school.

The first thing we encounter is Kristin Browning Campbell’s foreboding set, three towering cloth panels warning us that this small world will have large echoes. Next we meet the townspeople in a brief, tense meeting about someone coming – or returning? Then the alien presence enters: a shy, bespectacled girl named Emily.

Sparrow4

Slowly, she works her way into a home and school where people seem conflicted — welcoming yet fearful, even hostile. We gather that Emily left 10 years ago, under circumstances that have scarred everyone in town.

The story is told in a swiftly paced, abstract style. Actors carry the simple set pieces (classroom chairs, lockers, a blanket), and several scenes are told in dance with only scant dialog.

Imagine a tale that’s both light-hearted and tragic, that blends Carrie and the Orpheus myth, Our Town and Spiderman. And does it well. In The Sparrow, we laugh and weep and wonder our way through a compelling tale too complex to simply understand. After applauding loudly, the woman in front of me asked her neighbor, “So what really happened?” — and the lobby afterward buzzed with discussions.

Keeping a sense of powerful mystery alive, amid biology classes and basketball, is one of this play’s achievements. Another is its constant interlacing of playfulness and pathos, never letting us off its emotional hooks.

[Note:  In recent years, a somewhat similar play – Bat Boy, a musical about a feral teen who brings division and healing to a community – has gained a following. (It had a fine performance at CSU Northridge last year; see my review, below.) But where Bat Boy is tongue-in- cheek ironic, The Sparrow is gentle, tragic.  And its characters have the depth and complexity to make it work.]

The playwriting team –- Chris Mathews, Jake Minton and Nathan Allen – deserve credit for weaving their tale’s wildly disparate elements firmly together. And director Joseph V. Calarco is to be congratulated for maintaining the tempo, varying the emotional dynamics, and (not least) solving the script’s traffic demands.

Katie Pelensky, Lillian Solange

Katie Pelensky, Lillian Solange

The Sparrow is virtually “Emily and ensemble,” but Couerage veteran Katie Pelensky proves well equal to the task. Her quiet introvert   wins us so fully that we cannot detach from her even when things get ethically murky. Sustaining nearly every scene,  Pelensky rings her character’s wide-ranging changes clearly, while finding constant surprises of nuance and color. (Small wonder: Besides the mute Lavinia in Coeurage’s Andronicus, she’s also done Juliet, Ariel, Puck, Olivia and Cordelia. And those are just her Shakespeare chops.)

Among the supporting players, Malika Williams brings anchoring strength — and terrible vulnerability — to Emily’s foster mother; newcomer Lillian Solange nicely creates a blithe campus star with a brain, and a heart that can be touched and broken.  Also noteworthy are John McKetta as “the cool teacher” trapped by his shadow, and Jane Lui as a brisk community leader and a harried substitute teacher.

The whole ensemble deserves applause.  Re-setting the stage, they work together as swiftly and surely as  when they’re dancing.  At the same time, they create and sustain a world of specific characters.

Besides Campbell’s minimalist set, Calarco’s sound design (mixing pop hits with Gregory Nabours’ original music) and Benoît Guérin’s understated, effective lighting add powerfully to the storytelling.

In The Sparrow, the Coeurage company dares to craft a lyrical tragedy from simple materials — rising on hard work and homemade wings, they pull it off.
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The Sparrow, by Chris Mathews, Jake Minton, and Nathan Allen; directed by Joseph V. Calarco.
Presented by Coeurage Theatre Company, at the Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, through Nov. 21.

Tickets: <www.coeurage.org>

“Women w/o Walls” — Speaking to the Ages

From the title, I expected a play that talks about what women might  be or do if they weren’t walled in by our patriarchal culture. A hot topic at this moment.

But this play just acts, quietly demonstrating  what women can do, and are doing, as artists right now — even as the walls are crumbling.

Instead of gender politics, Women w/o Walls focuses on four people (who happen to be female) thrown together on a subway train.  Soon, most of them begin to suspect it isn’t going where they want to go.  And they can’t get off.

Kristin Carey-Hall

Kristin Carey-Hall (photo: Alex Moy)

For the rest of the hour, they struggle — with themselves and one another — to come to terms with this unexpected fate.  Can they fight it? Can they modify it, by making choices?  Or sacrifices?  Can they come to accept it, even though they don’t know what it is?

Very little is clear, and less is explained — to the riders or to us.  We join them in trying to piece together what’s happening, and why.  Eventually, their plight urges us to think about death, about crossing the ultimate threshold and what we may find there.

I won’t describe the play any further.  It would harm your experience of it — and Women w/o Walls is an experience you owe yourself.

I will say that this year, I’ve seen three other “afterlife” plays — two stagings of Sartre’s classic No Exit (one refreshingly comic), and Lee Pollero’s deft Now We Wait, a 10-minute two-hander.  In creating people who intrigue us, in exposing the poetry of daily speech, and (most crucial of all) in maintaining the painful ambiguity of what we cannot know, playwright Robin Rice puts them all in the shade.

And the young Broads’ Word Theatre company gives Rice’s subtly stunning script an equally subtle and moving world premiere.

Under director Frances Loy, the actors (Kristin Carey-Hall, Esther Mira, Jen Albert and Natalia Ochoa) have woven a close ensemble:  They let the story flow among them, shifting speed and intensity, never losing momentum.  Each actor etches a distinct yet mysterious character on our minds, holding secrets and yielding them up as she confronts the others — and the steadily increasing terror of their situation.

From the start, the familiar yet disconcerting set, designed by Aaron Lyons (Did somebody let a guy in here?) and masterfully painted by Caitlin McCarthy, prevents us from settling in comfortably.  And the sound design (also by Lyons) keeps suggesting resonances far beyond the seemingly everyday things we’re seeing.

Brava! to Rice (Play Nice!, Alice in Black and White) for writing a deceptively simple, gripping meditation on our mortality.  And to Broads’ Word for sharing it — and their rich talents — with us.
This is theatre speaking from our moment to the ages.
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Women w/o Walls, by Robin Rice, directed by Frances Loy.
Presented by Broads’ Word Theatre, at The Lounge Theatres, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., LA 90038.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 7:00, through Dec. 12.

Tickets:  <www.plays411.net/walls>

 

 

 

A Well-Made “Cake” at Theatre Unleashed

A circle of interwoven stories, slowly revealing their linkages as we pass around the circle — this storytelling approach has been popular since Pulp Fiction hit the screen 20 years ago.  (And it’s a time-worn  way to end a mystery tale, as the detective moves from suspect to suspect revealing the story’s hidden bones.)

LA playwright Wendy Gough Soroka uses the merry-go-round structure for her new play, Cake.  She sets her carousel spinning in a college town, where a play about 15th-century monks is onstage — but she upends the tired academe=monastery trope, with this campus feeling more like a singles resort.

As in any circular story, Soroka’s 21 swift scenes (averaging four minutes) push one another along, plotwise.  But — making the ride worthwhile — they’re also linked thematically, in a quiet progression that has us, at the end, pondering the value of empathy.

Cake

Cake moves fast, with no wasted moments, like a TV chef.  And it’s consistently amusing.  But what emerges from the oven is no sugary confection — it’s a nourishing reflection on how we learn to treat one another.  (The best amusement, after all, leads us to muse a bit.)

Theatre Unleashed, in their constantly redecorated little box (“Anything but black!” seems to be the motto), serves up Soroka’s gateau with energy and skill.  Tamazine Fritz lays out a simple, versatile set built for 20-second changes; Aaron Lyons’ sound helps expand the playing space into offstage areas; and Lisa K. Wyatt whips the pace, letting moments breathe but not settle.

It’s an ensemble piece, each actor helping to move furniture quietly then slipping into character full-force. Tracey Collins, with  wry comic skills, invokes the madcap campus, then shows us  a mother locked in an acerbic love duet with her daughter. As that daughter (and author of the monks’ play, and mate in a maddeningly mutual codependency), Kiré Horton holds her character as steady as a carousel horse through the dizzying ride.

Jim Blanchette — stepping in on short notice this night– gently anchors both his volatile wife (Collins) and the clueless novice monk he’s saddled with (Lee Pollero).  Liz Fenning admits us into the frantic struggle of a precocious preschooler’s beleaguered mother, while Courtney Sara Bell brings (as always) calm power and intelligent wit into the circling chaos.  And Theresa Stroll does a delightful turn as a lit major who, made bold by love, unleashes her inner anarchic nerd.

In recent years, the Unleashed troupe has shown they can take on anything from Moliere to a 24-hour playmaking festival and give it a strong, intelligent staging. They’re doing that for Soroka’s Cake, and it’s a party worth attending.
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Cake, by Wendy Gough Soroka, directed by Lisa K. Wyatt.
Presented by Theatre Unleashed at The Belfry Stage, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood 91602.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, through Nov. 21.

Tickets: <www.theatreunleashed.org>

 

 

 

 

 

(and director, actor and mask artrist) Wendy Gough Soroka To be fair, we like it because it works