Mitu’s “Juarez”: A City Between Hell and Home

If you don’t know Theater Mitu, you should. They’re a New York company that works the space between — between cultures, between ancient and modern, between heaven and earth.

In Juárez: A Documentary Mythology, now at L.A. Theatre Center, they take us between hell and home — to a city caught between Mexico and the US, between local farming and global industrialization, between battling drug cartels and folks who just want to live.

And Mitu’s method of telling this story lives in a middle ground — somewhere between live theatre and electronic journalism. There’s no set, few costumes; instead, the stage is filled with screens, mic stands, speakers, wires. Half of the text is drawn from the troupe’s research (the Documentary of the title); the rest is woven from their interviews with the people of Juárez (the Mythology). Instead of enacting events and characters, the actors  take turns reading out facts, and transmitting the citizens’ words.

(photo: Kayla Asbell)

(photo: Kayla Asbell)

Still, the result is undeniably theatrical. We don’t learn anyone’s name (“Teacher, 43,” “Grandmother, 80”), but their words — and home movies of director Rubén Polendo’s family — take us into their city and its life. We feel nostalgia for quinceañeras and cotton fields, sudden confusion as maquila factories outsourced by US firms explode the small city into miles of stranger-filled shantytowns, and terror as angry youths randomly murder young girls and heavily armed drug gangs slaughter one another in the streets.

Juárez takes us to a place of terrible despair. We learn what it is to be trapped in hell, and powerless. Juárez’s last few years offer a slender hope; things seem to be improving, though no one knows why. It’s a tendril of green pushing up through concrete, but we cling to it.

Because this has become our city. Of course, safe in our seats, we know we’ve only learned of the tribulations of Juárez — we haven’t lived them. But we know we will. We, too, will face disruption and chaos, as late-stage capitalism keeps spreading around the globe and our damaged ecosystems struggle to re-balance themselves.

Juárez: A Documentary Mythology never voices these warnings. It doesn’t have to. Unusual as it is, Theater Mitu’s vivid story-telling engrosses us in the experience of other human beings, and lets us take from it whatever we can.

In an ensemble effort so seamless that no one can be singled out, the Mitu troupe creates a rare and powerful experience. Their Juarez proves that even without sets, costumes or characters, theatre can move us and challenge us deeply.
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Juárez: A Documentary Mythology, a Theater Mitu collaboration, conceived and directed by Rubén Polendo.
Presented by the Latino Theater Company, at LA Theatre Centre, 514 S. Spring St., LA 90013.

Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 3:00,
through November 13.

Tickets: <www.thelatc.org> or (213) 489-0994.

“Cabaret le Fey” Takes Burlesque to a New Level

Burlesque, an ancient and honorable part of theatre, has always appeared in various forms.

It emerged in the mid-19th century as an exaggerated and often risqué comic form in theatre and music-hall “revues,” tweaking the “serious” art and politics of the day.  At the same time, in night clubs, it appeared as a “girly show” (with or without the satire) where women stripped to tease the patrons.

But by the mid-20th century, burlesque had all but died, thanks to puritanic morality crusades.  It fell to a few superstar performers –such as Lilli St. Cyr, Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Tempest Storm — to keep the art of “exotic dancing” alive.

Cheryl Dole (photo: Adam Neubauer)

Cheryl Dole (photo: Adam Neubauer)

The 21st century is a different world. With sexual positivity and gender fluidity fast becoming cultural norms, burlesque has been reborn. And this time, it’s not about an idealized woman arousing a roomful of anonymous men; it’s about women of every shape and size celebrating their bodies, and everyone enjoying the shared mystery of sexuality. (The satire has morphed into  character dances, half cosplay tribute and half gentle parody.)

The rebirth has come swiftly.  A decade ago, groundbreaking LA impresaria Amanda Marquardt was staging 20- to 50-seat shows anywhere she could find space. Today, several companies regularly fill such large venues as Fais Do Do with hundreds of chanting fans.

At the same time, one of the sweetest parts of burlesque tradition has been been brought back to glowing life at the Vampire Lounge in Beverly Hills.

Cheryl Doyle, Deneen Melody, Vanessa Cate, Natalie Hyde (photo: Adam Neubauer)

Cheryl Doyle, Deneen Melody, Vanessa Cate, Natalie Hyde (photo: Adam Neubauer)

Every other Thursday night, a group called Cabaret le Fey presents about 90 minutes of new, original numbers; many of the shows have dark themes befitting the venue. There’s usually a trio of dancers — and the tiny wine bar holds only two to three times that many patrons.

The result is an intimacy even greater than in the cabarets of Paris (which Toulouse-Lautrec painted) or Berlin (immortalized in the films Blue Angel and Cabaret). There is no stage, no proscenium. Each dancer performs within a few inches of every audience member.

The boundaries begin to blur. You feel the tension and release in each movement, the electricity of each emotion passes through your body … you’re being performed with, not just performed for.
The dancer is not a sexual object, nor only the subject of her own sexuality; instead, you sense her moving both your bodies at once — a communion more subtle and more thrilling than any strip tease.

Cabaret le Fey is  an offshoot of True Focus Theater, an adventurous woman-centered troupe that has created memorable multimedia theatre in its few years (Cat Fight; Love Sucks; and Hex, currently running at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater in NoHo).  Artistic director Vanessa Cate performs regularly at the Vampire, along with Deneen Melody and Cheryl Doyle (both choreographers), though other True Focus artists often step in.

The Cabaret le Fey team has been sharing their quietly intimate form of burlesque for several months now, with individual shows planned up to Thanksgiving week.  To enjoy an experience that could not exist until this time, in this place, arrive early and join the lucky few.
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Cabaret le Fey, at the Vampire Lounge, 9865 Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills 90210.

Alternate Thursdays at 9:00.

No reservations, no cover charge; 1-drink minimum.
Check for performances at <truefocustheater.com/cabaret-le-fey> or (310) 826-7473.

 

3 New Trick-or Treats: “Nevermore,” “Fallen Saints” and “Dracula”

In less time than it takes a millennial to finish high school, Halloween has grown into the City of Angels’ second-largest theatre season (after the summer Hollywood Fringe Festival).

But it’s not about angels. Fall’s luxuriant growth is full of haunts, escape rooms and mystery tales, all done with black ink, charcoal, and the bright burst of fresh blood.

Here are just three of this year’s new offerings for fright fans:

“NEVERMORE” — A Playful, Twisty Poe Mystery

Elise Golgowski, Michael Lutheran

Elise Golgowski, Michael Lutheran

Theatre Unleashed in NoHo brings another full-length new work out of its deep wine cellar,  uncorking Matt Ritchey’s witty pastiche, Nevermore. Ritchey, director Sean Fitzgerald and the troupe play freely with Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, his stories, and his life.

The result is a tasty dark pastry laced with humor, happily free from dull historical accuracy. It is, however, very accurate to the early 19th-century America Poe inhabited. It’s also studded with Easter eggs for those who know the horror master’s tortuous bio and full bookshelf.

Michael Lutheran (Edgar) and David Foy (his old friend Montresor) shape the mystery’s twisted spine, while David Caprita (a menacing majordomo) and Elise Golgowski  (Lenore) flesh out the terror.  Poe famously said  the most poetic topic is the death of a beautiful woman; Golgowski’s enigmatic Lenore makes us believers.

Oh, and there’s a hidden egg for actors, as the redoubtable Courtney Sara Bell turns a simple “exposition character” into a brilliantly nuanced driver of the tale’s tension.

Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8:00 til Nov. 5,  at The Belfry, 11031 Camarillo St.  <www.theatreunleashed.org> or (818)849-4039. 

“FALLEN SAINTS” — Meeting with a Victorian Medium

An audience member meets a revenant (photo: Adam Neubauer)

An audience member meets a revenant (photo: Adam Neubauer)

The new Force of Nature Company invites us into a 19th-century funeral home at a tiny NoHo storefront.  Gradually, we realize we’re walking toward a seance, and (if we know our Victorian villains) we may suspect whose turf we’re invading.

A grimly cheerful undertaker (Wyn Harris) welcomes us to the compact tour, where a blinded musician (Anatol Felsen) screeches a coffinside serenade and an unhinged scientist (Gloria Galvan) shows off her grisly gathered gifts.  Hectored along by a biblical prophet, we enter the presence of an elegant spiritualist (Michelle Danyn); she’s inhabited by a succession of wraiths from beyond, who all point to a mystery.  Then — suddenly– it is resolved.

This is not a leap-out-at-you chamber of horrors, but a more low-keyed exploration that pleases your fancy and teases your mind, even if you’re not a period geek.  Performances are focused and strong (especially the mercurial Galvan and the commanding yet vulnerable Danyn); the tour is a bit brief, and its tension could be heightened.  But Fallen Saints promises to become a worthy addition to the city’s fall fear fest, and a gentle introduction for newbies.

Fridays and Saturday (5 shows between 7:00 and 10:00) thru Oct. 29, at The Actors Group, 2813 W. Magnolia Blvd. <www.fonproductions.com> .

“DRACULA” — Fresh Telling of a Familiar Tale

April Morrow, Paul Romero (photo: Shane Tometich)

April Morrow, Paul Romero (photo: Shane Tometich)

The Count arose to life 120 years ago in Bram Stoker’s novel,
and the classic film (with Bela Lugosi)  is 85 years old. But the Loft Ensemble’s new,  streamlined version is well worth seeing.

In adapting  Dracula: Blood Before Dawn, Raymond Donahey has compressed Stoker’s sprawling classic into a swift tale of love, lust and conflict. The loves are a lesbian romance — Mina (Ainsley Peace) and the ill-fated Lucy (Lauren Sperling) — and an intense Platonic bond that grows between Mina and Dr. Seward (Paul Romero). The lusts are what drive the two antagonists  — Van Helsing (Marz Richards), who’s passionate for life, and Dracula (Matt Gorkis), who’s addicted to power and death.

Though Donahey preserves the chase drama at the story’s core, it is not Van Helsing but Mina who confronts Dracula at the climax.  She’ll let him take her into eternal half-death if they will use their immortal powers for enhancing life; he, seeing no value in life, insists she help him spread suffering and death. She loses this existential duel, but Van Helsing — affirming both life and death — overpowers the vampire and destroys him.

Dracula: Blood Before Dawn deals more openly with sexual and gender issues than the Victorian original; its characters’ lively interest in Darwin, Freud and Neitzsche also make it more intellectually satisfying.  The set design, by Mitch Rosander and Bree Pavey, is broodingly atmospheric (yet marvelously clever). The performances range from adequate to excellent, with Gorkis’ open, quiet elegance and hidden despair; Richards’ self-irony and rousing arias; and April Morrow’s perfectly embodied Mary (Donahey’s version of the insane acolyte Renfield) taking the palms.

The Loft Ensemble has created a work that deserves a permanent place in the lore of the Transylvanian count; it should resonate fully and long with 21-century audiences.  This debut production is strong, and — with directorial attention to a few performance details (some of which may smooth out now that opening night is past) — on the way to being uniformly excellent.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 7:00, thru Nov. 13, at 13442 Ventura Blvd.,Sherman Oaks.  <loftensemble.secure.force.com/ticket> .

 

 

 

“Hex” Puts the Focus on Women’s Mystery, Power

What is it to be a woman?

This has been one of the animating concerns of True Focus, an inventive woman-centered troupe with a strong aesthetic sense led by founding director Vanessa Cate, in its three years onstage.

For this year’s Halloween season, the company zeroes in tight on the question — and rather than finding an answer, they celebrate a labyrinth of mysteries.

(top) Alariza Nevarez, Cheryl Doyle, Sasha Snow; (middle) Marietta Melrose, Vanessa Cate, Ashley J. Woods; (bottom) Caitlin Fowler, Deneen Melody.

(top) Alariza Nevarez, Cheryl Doyle, Sasha Snow; (middle) Marietta Melrose, Vanessa Cate, Ashley J. Woods; (bottom) Caitlin Fowler, Deneen Melody.

In an hourlong series of  short pieces, most of them using dance storytelling, we are moved rapidly from tragedy to comedy and back, and we’re always fascinated.  There’s a light bit about an invisible man, another about three witches (hello, Macbeth) seeking a virgin sacrifice … but the dominant tone is dark.

At the heart of the show, Cate and Emma Pauly together chant Poe’s The Raven, summoning an austerely erotic Caitlin Fowler.  This morphs into Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, with Pauly summoning the devil (Cate) — which then transforms into a dance-tale of the devil seducing a woman (Deneen Melody),  who is then burned as a witch.

There are she-wolves (in a delightfully re-imagined Little Red Riding Hood, led by Sasha Snow), wives lamenting absent sailors (or are they sirens recalling their prey?), vampires and more.

Hex can be enjoyed as a seasonal pleasure, ringing the changes of our culture’s lore with lots of beautiful women dancing.  But it offers far more: a non-polemic exploration of what it has meant to be a woman in Western societies, and a powerful evocation of the innate gifts — and insoluble mysteries — of the human female.
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Hex, by various authors and the company, directed by Vanessa Cate.
Presented by True Focus Theater & Cabaret le Fey, at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., LA 91601.

Tuesdays at 10:00,
through October 25th.

Tickets:  <www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2602548>

Warm, Gentle “Ceremony” Closes After 3 Years

Ceremony is about a life-changing experience.

It can also be one, and it has for many who’ve watched Michael Kass
recount his ayahuasca journey at venues around the country over the last three-plus years.

For those who don’t find it life-changing, Kass’ one-man show does prove warm, entertaining, and deeply life-afffirming.

ceremony-1

(photo: Aysia Michelle @isaonair)

Like most theatrical soloists, Kass performs an autobiographic tale.
He keeps it simple: plastic buckets for set and props, no costumes, and voice shifts to evoke the half-dozen other characters who briefly appear.

(To be fair, there are over 100 sound and light cues, deftly provided by Alysia Michelle on closing night.)

Kass is equally sparing about information.  One word, one gesture gives us all we need to know about his parents; the love of his life speaks a single sentence.  Yet we understand intimately how he comes to inhabit the Slough of Despond (as John Bunyan, another gifted spiritual monologist,  called it 340 years ago).

A quickly told string of brief encounters — and impulsive decisions — leads him to a retreat high in the Andes, to meet the potent drug known as “Mother Ayahuasca.”  Here, in richer detail, Kass shares the moments, both harrowing and humorous, that changed his life.

Kass (unlike Bunyan) does not proselytize, nor even describe  his altered life.  It’s up to us to conclude that the fruit of his fearful pilgrimage is this man we’ve just spent the hour with — humble, self-deprecating, funny, and readily open.

Saturday’s staging — at director/producer Diana Wyenn’s home — was the last of Ceremony‘s numerous pop-up performances (which have won awards in LA, San Francisco and San Diego).  Kass and Wyenn deserve our sincere thanks for providing an experience that’s riveting,  lively, often hilarious, and offers us an unspoken invitation to reflect on our own spiritual quests.
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Ceremony: A True Tale of Love, Fear and Ayahuasca, by Michael Kass, directed by Diana Wyenn.
Presented at various locations throughout the United States.

Closed.