Let “My Janis” be yours … and your life will break

OK, so I don’t write personal reviews.
If that’s how you like it, skip this one.
Unless you suspect you’re an artist.

Some 2,000 years ago, a sculptor whose name we have lost worked
long and patiently, with all he (or she) had learned and lived, upon a
block of marble.  What emerged, after long effort, was a statue of Apollo, “god of music, truth, and prophecy” (in the perfect phrasing of an unnamed Wiki editor).  The sculptor died.

Somewhere between ancient Greece and the modern era, the statue ran into “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (in the phrasing of an English poet).  The Apollo was beaten, broken, and forgotten.  But it did not die.  What remained, to be discovered by an unnamed archaeologist, was a torso — arms and neck broken off, legs long since lost.  Still, so beautiful it became a museum piece.

*****

Arianna Veronesi (photo: Rudolf Bekker)

Just 50 years ago last month, a young Texas woman of 24 stepped on the stage at a pop music festival in California and started singing.  Three years and four months later, she died.

But her singing didn’t stop. One day, it reached the Italian city of Verona, where a young girl heard it and could not stay the same.

This summer, the girl from Verona — now a woman, with careers in dancing and film — has been performing a brief tribute to the Texas singer as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival.

Using all she has learned and lived, Arianna Veronesi puts Janis Joplin back onstage for 30 minutes — 30 minutes that changed the singer’s life.  And can change yours, if you let them.

The first 10 minutes introduce us — with movement only, no words –to a woman who’s fought for sobriety but is lonely, lost in her new life, hungry.  The next 10 minutes, she wrestles through a call from a friend in San Francisco with an offer she can refuse; but she doesn’t.

For the last 10 minutes, she snatches clothes from her suitcase and jewelry from her side table to create what will be her world-famous persona. Then, quietly, she reaches deep inside to fetch her wry blues song, Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz? (which will be the last song Joplin ever records).

Janis was a musically gifted kid who’d had terrible acne and been bullied all through school, and then was overwhelmed by drugs when she ran away to San Francisco.  The second time she went there, she ate the music world alive, becoming a rock superstar.

Far more importantly, Janis Joplin was one of the greatest blues singers ever. She tore her songs out of her, each one a little piece of her heart (you could hear the blood), scattering her deepest secrets and suffering and love like seeds mixed with rain.  The coroner said she died from a heroin overdose; but really, she died from the pain and grief of being mortal.  It’s the thing that gets us all.

And she left a record of her intensely lived journey that’s indelible. Thanks to how we can capture sound on plastic, it will last about as long as marble.

*****

Just 110 years ago, a young Czech poet walked into a room in a museum and saw the broken Apollo.  Rainer Maria Rilke knew he could never be the same, and he wrote a poem  about it (here in an American poet’s perfect rephrasing):

We cannot know his legendary head,
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise the stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

*****

Arianna Veronesi’s intense, delicate, consummately artistic living portrait lasts only a half-hour. Then it lives on, in what it’s done to the lives she’s touched. If you ever get the chance, meet Veronesi’s Janis, and let her become yours.  And then listen to the recordings.

You’ll never be the same.

And If you’re an artist, you’ll know what you have to do — whatever the cost.  After all, whichever road we take, they all end in the same place. So take out that gift, set it alight, and burn it to the end.
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My Janis: An Intimate Portrait, written and performed by Arianna Veronesi.
At the New Collective Theater, 6440 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90036.

Tonight (Saturday, July 22) at 8:00.
Future performances to be announced.

Tickets:  <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/4563?tab=tickets>

 

“Becoming Human” charts a healer’s long, hard path

The journey toward healing from trauma is arduous, and the world (of at least one person) hangs in the balance.  The further journey,
all the way to becoming a healer, is harder — but our shared world desperately needs people to dare it.

Nicki Joy Monti has made that further journey, and among its fruits is Becoming Human, now onstage at McCadden Place.  Monti’s tale is an autobiography, shrunk (for theatre) to a memoir, simultaneously recounted to a therapist and enacted in flashbacks.

A. Russell Andrews, Nicki Joy Monti (photo: Ed Krieger)

We follow her story — and her reflections on it — from her birth to the threshold of her healing career.  We witness her chaotic, harsh childhood, and her dogged attempt to wrest scraps of love and some kind of normal life from her abusive, alcoholic mother (and Mama’s poor partner choices).

We also witness — and this is perhaps the play’s greatest strength — the gradual transformation of Nicki into Nicki Joy.  The woman we meet in the therapist’s office is brash, always joking, talking about feelings instead of experiencing them.  By the time she has relived her life, and (concurrently with her therapy) taken on caring for her mother’s advancing dementia, she has been shattered and softened. And may be ready to become a therapist.

Becoming Human is competently staged and acted, under Diana Wyenn’s strong eye and hand.  As Mother, Lauren Campedelli creates not a demon but a blithe narcissist to whom doubt is a stranger; though her mind fails, her aggressive defenses never do.  Kat Rodriguez’s portrayal of Nicky, at every age from childhood to about 30, is clear and affecting, even when she is not speaking.  Michael Matthys separates his several roles with precision, and A. Russell Andrews’ therapist is the perceptive, caring calm in the eye of the storm.

Monti plays herself in the therapy scenes.  She has an engaging presence; but I find that while we as actors can be ourselves effectively, e.g. in a one-person show, we can’t play ourselves. It’s the one character we lack the distance to embody with an artist’s
selectivity.  We become diffuse, relaxed.  It’s too easy (and, like a plush couch, too hard to get out of).  Despite Monti’s energy and range, I suspect another actor could serve the story better.

Becoming Human would also be well-served by continuing the editing and shaping that has brought it thus far.  Its 90 minutes is the outer limit of what audiences can sustain, and there are scenes (e.g., 8-year-old Nicki begging Mama not to go out on a date) that will gain power as they shed repetition. The prose also still has a few small purple patches, which cause the momentum to stumble.

Becoming Human is an important tale, often movingly told, and well on its way to being a powerful play.  Many people have gone public with their struggles to recover from childhood abuse and the hells it leads  them through in adulthood.  Many more will do so.  We need these stories:  Each one speaks for a thousand.
_______________
Becoming Human, by Nicki Joy Monti, directed by Diana Wyenn.
At McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood 90038.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 5:00,
through August 6.

Tickets: <www.plays411.com/newsite/show/play_info.asp?show_id=4659>

 

Echo’s Layered “Cake” has more than sugar and fat

In her opening monolog, North Carolina cake chef Della insists on the value of instructions.  Unserious bakers read that they should stir the liquid ingredients until well-blended, then carefully fold in the solids.  But they decide to skip all that foolishness and just blend everything at once, then dump it into the pan.

Clearly, that won’t do.  Not for making a cake — and not for bringing together the separate realities of our divided nation.  The urban coasts and the rural midlands have drifted disastrously far apart, and people of good will are frantically looking for a recipe.

Enter playwright Bekah Brunstetter.  Her The Cake stands on that divide, and her characters strain to reach across it — one even stands on both sides, trying to reach for herself.  That’s Jen, who grew up in Winston-Salem and is coming home from New York to have her wedding.  Her intended is Macy, who’s a woman, and black.

Debra Jo Rupp, Shannon Lucio, Carolyn Ratteray (photo: Darrett Sanders)

These two surprises knock Bella, Jen’s surrogate mom, for a loop; in a decision “torn from the headlines,” she declines to make their wedding cake.  Macy’s furious, Jen tries not to be; Bella begins to question herself, while husband Tim firmly backs her refusal.

But that’s all on the surface.  Brunstetter looks deeper than the headlines, and finds the quake sending shock waves in both directions, opening hidden fault lines not only between but also within all four characters.

This is serious stuff — yet it’s a comedy.  It’s cleverly written that way, with some deftly handled devices (God as a food-show host?). And as Bella, light comedy maitresse Debra Jo Rupp (That 70s Show, Seinfeld) keeps us hoping neither she nor any of the relationships will bleed to death.  Her adroitly physicalized feelings, her resilience, and her ability to glimpse herself are the show’s mainspring.

Jen has a harder time hoping, or seeing comedy; but Shannon Lucio subtly lets us know she’s caught in tragedy, and isn’t at all used to it. Joe Hart allows Tim’s veneer of calm certitude to fissure and crack before it falls off.  And Carolyn Ratteray’s luminous Macy wins us at once, keeping us firmly engaged with her experience throughout.

The Cake is a timely tale; and being timely, it’s difficult to do well.
(It’s hard to hear durable truths through all the momentary noise.) But Brunstetter’s work doesn’t collapse; and it’s no mere confection. It seriously addresses some of our most painful concerns, while allowing us to laugh — and to hope.

That’s what comedy’s about, after all: affirming the hope that somehow we’ll get through this.  Staring at the angry abyss that has opened in our land, we need it.  Thanks to Brunstetter and the folks at Echo Theater Company for taking the time to get it right.
_______________
The Cake, by Bekah Brunstetter, directed by Jennifer Chambers.
Presented by The Echo Theater Company, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays at 8:00;
Sundays at 4:00;
through  August 6.

Tickets:  https//dime.io/events/the cake