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.
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




Fringe Feast #4: “Normal” asks what isn’t, and why

Normal, huh?  Intriguing title for a play about a serial killer; and it’s produced by The Vagrancy, whose work is always challenging.

The set (by Hillary Bauman) is intriguing, too.  Stairs upstage center lead to a curtain; four square pillars at the sides (where wings would be in a larger house) flash red and white light into the stage.  A man stands atop the stairs, his back to us.

In semi-abstract style, three actors (Arthur Keng, Steve Madar and Carolyn Deskin) unwind a tale that at first seems linear; but its narrative structure evolves into what you’d have if you tried to make a spiral with string and gave up.  (This is not at all a  criticism.)

Steve Madar, Carolyn Deskin (photo: Wes Marsala)

The case is unfamiliar to most of us (though it was infamous at the time, and Fritz Lang based his classic noir film M on it).  In 1929, a man terrorized the German city of Düsseldorf, murdering nine people and severely wounding more than two dozen others.  An admirer of London’s Jack the Ripper, he taunted the police with clues and letters.  Unlike his idol, he was swiftly caught and tried — having urged his wife to turn him in for the substantial reward.  Apart from her, he admitted to no feeling for any other person.

Normal pursues two questions:  (1) What might account for such utterly depraved emotions and behavior?  (2) What is the difference between a person living in such extremity and the rest of us?

These are the obvious questions, and Anthony Neilson’s text goes after them in ways both customary and unusual.

Of course, we learn about the hellish childhood of Peter Kurten (Madar), including his one human attachment — to a sadistic local dogcatcher.  At the same time, we watch as our narrator, tyro defense attorney Justus Wehner (Keng), falls prey to his client’s amoral manipulations.

While Kurten recounts losing (or failing to acquire) a conscience, gaining instead only hatred and ravening need, Wehner loses his ethical (if not his physical) virginity.  In scenes part reality, part dream, the attorney falls in love with, seduces, and murders his client’s wife (Deskin).  At his client’s behest.  By the end, Wehner is pleading empathy for the boy who became a killer.

The play keeps our interest, tightly directed (David Mancini) and performed.  The sound (Matt Richter) and lights (Jenna Pletcher) hold us close in mood and place.  Yet Neilson’s mental and moral explorations never reach outside the box like the stagecraft does.

His opening metaphor — an automated carnival machine in which Kurten stabs the children who drop in their coins — is never explored or paid off, only repeated.   He lets us hear the horrors of Kurten’s youth, but nothing makes us feel them (the suave, malicious man tells us of it, not the boy).   Wehner’s descent into his inner darkness is shockingly well staged — but it only yields a rant blaming “society,” instead of making us feel complicit.

Normal adds another fine production to The Vagrancy’s impressive track record.  I only wish the playwright had dug as deeply into his material as the performers do.
Normal, by Anthony Neilson, directed by David Mancini.
Presented by The Vagrancy, at The Lounge Theater, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

Saturday (June 24) at 8:00 pm.

Tickets: <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/4428>



Fringe Feast #3: “Nicky” Drags, “Buffy” Slays

Fringe shows often focus on the tastes of a particular fan base.
Here are two such, one for Chekhov lovers, one for vampire nerds.

Daniel Kaemon, Emily Swallow, Cyrus Wilcox, Chris Aguila, Taylor Hawthorne, Mark Jacobson, Alexis Genya, Jeremy Lelliott (photo: John Klopping)

Nicky:  Wilting in the Palm Springs Heat

Playwright Boni Alvarez loves challenges.  Last year, he told a comic horror story:  Tourists meet real witchcraft on a Philippine island (Bloodletting – see my review, below).  It worked.  We laughed and shivered, and came away with our sense of reality altered.

This time, he’s transformed Ivanov, an early Chekhov comedy, from rural Russia to a bevy of emigres in Palm Springs.  Besides ennui, these well-to-do but clueless folks are immobilized by the desert heat.  It’s a clever idea; so is turning the shirt-tail niece who seduces Ivanov into Nicky’s gay nephew, and filling out the house party with the lad’s oh-so-millennial college friends.

Their youthful energy manages to keep things moving.  But ultimately, despite some impassioned monologs, we can’t quite feel the demons that have Nicky and the other adults in their grip.  This isn’t Alvarez’s fault:  Finding the egotistic energy beneath a character’s self-deception or self-flagellation is no easy trick. Chekhov’s comedies always threaten to collapse into depressed tragedy as a result, and he and master director Konstantin Stanislavski fell out over this very issue.

Still, Coeurage Theatre Company gives this world premiere their best — and they’re some of the finest professionals on the LA stage. The set design (Benoît Guérin) and costumes (Karen Fix Curry) clearly set us in the desert resort, the lighting (Azra King-Abadi) and sound (Michelle Stann) create a blaring bright world for these poor folks to try to survive in, and the direction (Beth Lopes) is crisp and clear.  The actors pour their energy and wit into the piece.

If you love Chekhov, you’ll get tickle after tickle out of the ways Alvarez has found modern analogs for the 19th-century Czarist world.  But this isn’t probably the place to meet the great ironist: The Palm Springs heat stifles our empathy, wilting his comedy.
Nicky,  by Boni Alvarez, directed by Beth Lopes.
Presented by Couerage Theater Company, at the Greenway Court Theatre,  544 N. Fairfax Ave., LA 90036.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm,
through July 1.

Tickets:  (323) 673-0544  (Free parking in next-door lot.)

*****                                                      *****                                                     *****

Sherry Berg, Lauren Sperling (photo: Daniel J. Sliwa)

Buffy Kills Edward:  When Vampire Worlds Collide

Vampires and high school girls.   Is that a  thing?

It’s enough of a thing to propel Laura Wiley, composer for last year’s smash parody, Winter Is Coming, into taking on a bigger challenge. She’s written the book, music, and lyrics for — and produced and directed– a musical parody mashup of the two best-known worlds where campus queens consort with creatures of the night.

The title — Buffy Kills Edward — gives away the precipitating event. After the teenage Slayer from the turn-of-the-century TV series (Laura Berg) vanquishes the glittery hero of the Twilight novels and films (Casey Suddeth), all of both hells breaks loose.  (Or most of it: Fans at one point began shouting to see their favorite minor characters, and were rebuffed smartly. )

As with any parody, the more you know about the story — in this case, numerous stories in two very different fictional worlds — the more jokes you’ll enjoy.  But this story tells itself clearly, including sharp meta jokes about the telling process on the stage and in TV, books and movies.  (The retired couple next to me, who were 50 when Buffy came out, laughed and cheered.)

Wiley’s storytelling is helped by some crackerjack resources borrowed from the house’s resident troupe, Cherry Poppins. Most notable are a remarkably skilled band — Krishnan Swaminathan, Ray Rojo, and leader Sandy Chao Wang  — and the feisty acting and incredible singing of Kim Dalton.  (I confess it: After seeing Dalton, and a Wang-led band, in two shows, I’m hooked.  These are stellar talents; enjoy them as soon as you can.)

It would be foolish to try summarizing the plot of Buffy Kills Edward. Suffice to say Wiley and the troupe sustain a lively, silly romp that’s both tribute and satire at once.  Also: Wiley has a gift for songs that focus and advance the story, and makes very effective musical use of differing characters and motives.  She also has a keen wit, and an eye for a story’s weak points — her own as well as other authors’.  We may be watching the birth of a one-woman Gilbert & Sullivan here.

Buffy is great fan service, and good fun for everyone.  It may not be at the same level of complex achievement as Cherry Poppins’ stunning  Shakeslesque, currently on the same stage.  But it’s not supposed to be; and what it does, it does very well.  (And it’s good to see these highly original artists joining forces — we’ll all be the richer for it.)
Buffy Kills Edward: A Musical Romp, written, composed and directed by Laura Wiley. Presented by Wiley Original Musicals, at The Three Clubs, 1123 Vine St., Hollywood 90038.

Thursday (June 22) at 7:30 pm.

Tickets:  Sold out, but worth a try:  Get on standby and grab a drink.


Fringe Feast #2: Parodies, Puns Pop – “Shakeslesque”

If you’ve never seen a show by Cherry Poppins, this year’s Fringe has a treat you’ll savor.

The troupe, resident at The Three Clubs, has won a name for making interactive comic musical theatre that blends parody and burlesque, at a very high level of showmanship on a very small stage.  Actually, that’s “show-woman-ship,” since the company and its productions
flow from the fertile minds of Alli Miller and Sarah Haworth Hodges.

This midsummer, the daemonic duo has dreamed up a Shakespeare fantasy.  Shakeslesque: To Thine Own Cherry Be True almost beggars description.  (But I’ll try.)

(photo: Daniel J. Sliwa)

It’s an elaborate, rambunctious romp through the fever dream that supposedly gave the Bard his stories.  Stuffed full of horrible puns, it pops parody shots at a huge portion of Shakespeare’s plays and poems.  In two fast-forward hours, it dashes through a daft plot that tangles up countless characters and tales, punctuated by dozens of incredibly well-staged musical numbers, most with disappearing dress.  (And those costumes — innumerable, complex, and perfect.)

Watch for top-of-the-line burlesque dancing, powerhouse singing, constant campy humor, love and sex in all their forms — even the band (led by Sandy Chao Wang) is magic!  And if you don’t fall in love with a fairy or a witch or a prince, you need a drink.  Personally, I was swept away by Kim Dalton’s vocal and comic chops as all three witches … and K. C. Lindley’s genial, snarky, gender-fluid Fuck the Fairy … and Taylor Olshansky’s rock belting … and the way Alli Miller (as Juliewet) and Michael Shaw Fisher (as Willie and King Queer) inhabit the stage with audience-grabbing authority … and … you get the idea.

This kind of madcap fun fest can’t be done better, with higher spirits or more meticulous attention to detail, than Cherry Poppins does it. The standing O was immediate, unanimous, and deserved.

There are two more performances.  Be there!!
Shakeslesque: To Thine Own Cherry Be True, written and directed by Alli Miller and Sarah Haworth Hodges.
Presented by Cherry Poppins Productions, at The Three Clubs, 1123 Vine St., Hollywood 90038.

Wednesday (June 21) at 11:00 pm,
Friday (June 23) at 11:00 pm.

Tickets:  <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/4684>

Fringe Feast #1: “Witches” Is a Sweet, Funny Appetizer

Fringe 2017 has begun – and this is the week of previews.
Spread out like hors d’oeuvres, the previews offer an early taste
of the immense feast ahead.

My first sampling is a piece I wanted to see when it debuted at Son of Semele some months ago — Why We Become Witches, adapted from Sylvia Townsend Warner’s classic novel Lolly Willowes.

Laura, a shy, pleasant British matron, takes a breath then plunges into telling the story of her disappearance.  But it’s not a mystery.
A vibrant young country girl, she’s suddenly orphaned.  Her brother and his wife take her into their London home — and she starts fading away, shunted to a small upstairs room, given no role in the family except “Auntie” to the children.  As she ages into spinsterhood, even her name disappears, “Laura” giving way to the childlike “Lolly.”

After a series of shocks (including World War I), Lolly realizes
she must seize her life or lose it.  Over her brother’s objections,
she moves to a tiny rural town where she gradually develops an intense relationship with “Him,” the animating spirit just beneath
the surface of the natural world around her.

Lolly’s gentle flowering into witchcraft has as much to do with the Celtic Green Man as with Satan (the name she calls “Him”).  And by her tale’s end, she’s diffidently voicing critiques of patriarchy as trenchant as any by Virginia Woolf or Germaine Greer.

The versatile Lisa K. Wyatt creates a Lolly we can’t stop watching and listening to, whose unassuming discoveries, step by step, keep us smiling, at times laughing, and always convinced.  Director Kate Motzenbacker nicely uses the small space, teacups and flowers to contain and then gradually release Lolly.

Why We Become Witches is a faithful, delightful distillation of Warner’s much-loved novel; in fact, Motzenbacker and Sal Nicolazzo have achieved the impossible, bringing it down to not much more than a half-hour.  And therein lies my major criticism: It was over far too soon.  I’d love to spend longer with Lolly.
Why We Become Witches, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, adapted by Kate Motzenbacker and Sal Nicolazzo, directed by Motzenbacker.
Presented by Dana Leigh Lyman, in The Studio at Sacred Fools Theater, 1078 Lillian Way, LA 90038.

Friday, June 9, at 9:30 pm;
Sunday, June 11, at 9:30 pm;
Thursday, June 15, at 11 pm;
Sunday, June 18, at 2:00 pm;
Friday, June 23, at 9:00 pm;
Sunday, June 25, at 12:00.

Tickets:  <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/4700>

“Archipelago”: Semele’s Disturbing Dream of Love

“Happily ever after.”

We imagine love, once found, as a continuing, day-to-day process that either lasts or doesn’t.  Playwright Caridad Svich offers a radically different image:  a string of islands.

In Archipelago, receiving a masterful US premiere at Son of Semele, we follow  two unidentified characters through a series of intense, unplanned meetings.  Their paths collide in unnamed places, mostly urban, at long intervals.

Michael Evans Lopez, Sarah Rosenberg (photo: Mainak Dhar)

Each meeting, by itself, would be a memorable affair.  But taking them together — as this couple must do — raises pesky questions. Will the relationship continue?  Will it deepen?  What do they want of one another?  Does either owe something to the other?

Such questions arise in every love.  But by casting her characters adrift on a sea of chance, Svich deprives them of a past — the slow accumulation of memories, moments, and secrets that a couple creates, like a nautilus surrounding itself with a shell.

Every time these two meet, they are caught in the fleeting present, and pressed by the swiftly arriving future; they don’t get the comfort of imagining they know each other, or their relationship, very well. They reach for scraps of memory, glad even to renew an old debate; but it’s not enough to let them feel secure together.

Surrounding these anxious, amorous islands in time are all the turmoil and terrors of our age.  The lovers fight to communicate amid the roar and bustle of a metropolis, or crawl into a cave to escape the bombing of an impoverished city.  Centuries removed from Romeo and Juliet, they do not know whether their love can claim a right to exist.

It would be wrong to call Archipelago an affirmation.   Love, in this  too-familiar world, does not conquer all; it may not survive, or even really begin.  We can seek it, think we’ve found it, take terrible risks to hold onto it … but we only have the power walk away and fail. Succeeding, or even getting a second chance, is not really up to us.

At the same time, however, Archipelago is no suicide note.  It is, as its author insists, a love story.  It has no happy ending; no ending at all, in fact. Yet at the end we, who’ve seen the horrors of the last century and now face the terrors of this one, remain hopeful that love is at least possible — or worth trying for.

Svich, who adapted the “magical realism” of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits for the stage, again sets us afloat between worlds. And the Son of Semele troupe skillfully invokes the eerie, uncanny beauty the ancient Celts revered in places where the faerie realm meets our own.

For all the harsh terrors it evokes, this play flows like a magic river, or a dream.  We swim through the half-real, half-evanescent scenes created by Meg Cunningham (set), Alexander Le Vaillant Freer (lighting), Katarina Pagsolingan (projections) and John Nobori (sound).  Always, we are led by the almost invisible artistry of actors Michael Evans Lopez and Sarah Rosenberg, who grasp and recoil, embrace and avoid, in a thousand subtle ways.  (And they are led by the completely invisible artistry of director Barbara Kallir.)

Son of Semele has earned a reputation for imaginative, surprising
theatre across a widely variety of styles.  In Archipelago, they give one of America’s master playwrights a premiere worthy of her lyrical yet disturbing new work.
Archipelago, by Caridad Svich, directed by Barbara Kallir.
Presented by the Son of Semele Ensemble, at the Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., LA 90004.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 5:00,
Mondays at 7:00;
through June 18th.

Tickets:  <www.artful.ly/son-of-semele-ensemble>  or
(213) 351-3507.

Dreaming in Inglewood with a Chinese Family

Why Dream in Inglewood?

This cheeky question is the name of an ambitious new LA theatre company.  And they respond by making a reality out of what seems a wild idea — staging Dream of the Red Chamber in Inglewood’s Vincent Park.

What, you may well ask, is Dream of the Red Chamber?

Chinese literature lovers know it as a classic 18th-century novel, the many-stranded, meandering tale of a noble family’s decline.  LA playwright Henry Ong (Madame Mao’s Memories, Sweet Karma) has wrestled this dragon and transformed it into four hour-long plays – the first time it has been given theatrical form in English.

Krystal Torres, Taylor Hawthorne, Longo Chu, Joe Luis Cedillo, Kila Kitu (seated), Lee Chen-Norman, Juanita Chase, Bruce Lemon (photo: Henry Ong)

Why Dream…? stages it ambitiously, in both senses of the word. The saga spreads over six hours (including two intermissions and a meal), requiring the talents of 13 actors and a musician — and it wanders (or ambits) around the park, using several areas of the large outdoor amphitheater as well as the cozy indoor Willie Agee Playhouse.

Ong and company also take on the daunting challenge of creating and keeping distinct more than 30 characters.  At the same time, they must help us hold on to who fits where in the complex web of a four-generation family, its servants, and the monks and nuns (both Buddhist and Taoist) and imperial officials who enter their life.

Surprisingly, the production is simple and unassuming.  We gather informally while the cast sits above us on a tree-shaded knoll.  Ong introduces the play, the actors — even the audience (most of whom he’s chatted with before the show, borrowing a pen to write down our names).

The actors and a musician are comfortably dressed, not burdened by ornate costumes.  They move in and out of position in full view, often shifting characters before our eyes, sometimes retreating behind a tree or a row of seats.  They chat with us on breaks, while grabbing snacks and water.

Yet, at day’s end, I was astonished at how well we’d connected with these vivid characters, their intricate story, and the formal culture they lived in.  That’s a remarkable achievement, and credit belongs to everyone involved – Ong and co-director Kila Kitu, the actors, the tireless musician/composer Long Chu, choreographer Annie Yee, the minimal but clear costume choices by Benita Elliott and Shirley Nii, and stage manager Stella Ong’s unobtrusive shepherding of the troupe, the audience and the equipment.

These artists create an ensemble, where everyone pays attention and cooperates (especially in unexpected impromptu moments).  With such a true ensemble, it’s hard to single out performers.  Still, the arresting Taylor Hawthorne (as the hero, Pau-Yu) and the elfin Bianca Lemaire (as the heroine, Black Jade) carry the central love story with seeming ease.  Each also finds ways to blend modern American speech inflections and non-verbal cues with classical Chinese gestures, so we always feel  precisely what they’re feeling and know just what they’re thinking.

Joe Luis Cedillo and Juanita Chase provide the other “backbones” – he alternating (at times instantly) among family patriarchs and minor characters; she maintaining the driving force of Phoenix, a daughter-in-law who becomes the power behind the matriarchal throne.  Bruce Lemon’s intelligent portraits of rising young men in moral crises; Kristopher Dowling’s oily self-confidence as a trickster; Kori Denise’s mercurial shifting among girls, wives and servants; and Robert Paterno’s leaps between genders, all enrich the world with individuals of every class and type.

In a time when ignorance makes anything foreign look frightening, Dream of the Red Chamber introduces us to an unfamiliar, puzzling world.  Once there, we discover people who love and lose and scheme and sorrow just as we do.  They may have lived centuries ago, halfway around the world, but after we have spent a day as guests of their family, they have become part of ours.

One of theatre’s most crucial jobs is to surprise our expectations. The artists of Why Dream in Inglewood? intend to do just that.  And they succeed.  In a city park shared with children and ice-cream trucks, they take us on a comfortable, easygoing journey into the unknown world of classical China (portrayed by actors of varying ethnicities).  We end the journey delighted with where we’ve been, unable to believe six hours have passed.  This cycle of plays, and this company, deserve a long life; we need them to help us dream.
Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin, adapted and directed by Henry Ong; co-directed by Kila Kitu.
Presented by Why Dream in Inglewood? at Ed Vincent Park, 714 Warren Lane, Inglewood 90302.


Tickets: Free, at (310) 450-9522 or  www.facebook.com/dreamoftheredchambertheplay .








Open Fist 2: Declaiming poetry with Murray

Do you know Murray Mednick?  For more than 50 years, he has been an indefatigable force in experimental (read “small”) theatre.

He began on New York’s emerging Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway stages in the ‘60’s and ‘70s, then came west to found and run the Padua Hills Playwrights workshops and festivals in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In 1996, he retired to write, churning out even more plays than before.

Mednick’s lifelong quest has been to see theatre as a literary art, with language as its heart.  He was part of a generation (Miller, Albee, Fornes) who listened to the way people talk — on the street, in the park, at the office, in their living rooms and bedrooms and kitchens – and put that on the stage. It’s hard to realize, in our era of Mamet, Shepard and Parks, that this was an idea playwrights had to fight for.

The Mednick mantle has lately been taken up by Open Fist, a longtime Hollywood troupe.  For three years, they’ve been working on a six-play cycle Mednick wrote early this century.  Collectively known as The Gary Plays, the cycle chronicles the decline and fall of an unknown LA actor; disabled by chronic anxiety, existential doubt, and addiction, he collapses when his son is murdered.

This year, Open Fist is putting all six Gary Plays onstage in Atwater (where they’re guesting while their theatre is being rebuilt).  You can see the six one pair at a time, on different days, or all at once on Sunday.  I chose the Sunday marathon – six plays in nine hours, with an intermission and a dinner break.

The pre-show is promising: Scene designer Jeff Rack (a co-founder of Wicked Lit) sets before us an intriguing broken wall of large, hanging geometric shapes; upon them, Hana S. Kim (known for her work in theatre and opera) projects cloud-like marblings of color.  John Zalewski’s sound hooks us with a meandering melodic line that we follow, irresistibly, like a mystery.  Clearly, Open Fist has enlisted some heavy hitters for this project; and they’re on their game.

Amanda Weier, Jeff LeBeau, Derek Manson in “Tirade for Three” (photo: Darrett Sanders)

Tirade for Three begins with the gentle soundtrack exploding in bombast, an almost deafening visceral analog for the inflated self-importance we will meet in Gary.  Then the two-member chorus introduces him, with an irony that escapes him, as “The King.”  For the next half-hour or so, the three exchange spotlit positions every few moments, speaking in turn, facing the audience.  They unspool Gary’s story, at times arguing, bringing to mind Freud’s image of the ego, superego, and id.  They don’t physically interact, facing us in an extreme “presentational” style – like Brecht without the circus.

Tirade feels like a trio descant on a Hamlet soliloquy, as we learn Gary’s story – his life in the world (minimal) and his life inside his mind (maximal).  He and his interlocutors wield language with facility, and often a keen edge, but always in the common register (though they may pull in a word or phrase from a higher register, such as academe or psychoanalysis, for an effect – usually ironic).  Overall, this is a fun and promising beginning: quite intellectual, but a successful experiment with an extreme form of storytelling.

We expect (or at least I did) that Girl on A Bed will add more ways of presenting story; and it does.  We meet 11 new characters — a pair of high school girls, the parents of one of them, a school counselor, Gary’s wife and son and mistress, a doctor, a drug dealer, and the Angel of Death.  (We’re not going back to black-and-white Kansas realism, Toto.)  Dan Reed’s lighting leads us swiftly among playing areas, characters move in and out of them, and the eponymous girl is wheeled about the stage.  Still, the default position is facing out; and some characters do not move at all.

Peggy Ann Blow, Jeff LeBeau, Amanda Weier in “Gary’s Walk” (photo: Darrett Sanders)

Since the first two plays began Gary’s unhinged quest to find his son’s drive-by killer, I thought we’d be following his trail after the break.  The third play Gary’s Walk, does indeed focus on his pilgrimage down the LA River to the sea with his son’s ashes.

But in the fourth, Out of the Blue, although he encounters his parents and unplugs his mother from life support, it’s the girl, Laura, who takes the center of the story’s meaning.  We follow her from Valley girl disillusion into serious despair, heroin-fueled porn acting, and death by overdose.  We learn from inside the thoughts and feelings of someone who was before seen only from outside as an object of lust, fantasy, and pity.  Her insights largely shape the cycle’s guiding wisdom.

Again, the presentation is static.  Gary’s Walk is livened by such directorial tricks as having Gary and his chorus change directions every few moments on the walk to the sea, with Kim’s starkly beautiful projections shifting behind them.  But Out of the Blue plays almost like a 16th-century masque (or a 19th-century vaudeville revue, one of Mednick’s secret vices); people sit or stand facing us, only moving to step down center to address us directly.

The final plays take us to an ayahuasca ceremony (two, actually), and a Malibu rehab resort.  In DaddyO Dies Well, Gary’s stepfather gives him a ride on the soul-revealing drug as a parting gift (while Gary’s ex-wife takes a similar trip in Peru).  His hoped-for apotheosis does not arrive, at least not onstage.  (Is it ob-scene, in the Greek sense, so powerful it must occur offstage?)

We last see Gary in Charles’ Story, clean and sober, a drama therapist at the rehab center.  He gives a mangled solo version of Agamemnon (strange therapy, in which the clients take no part), then the Malibu hills burn and everyone flees.  Agamemnon — are we to note that Gary’s world has sacrificed its best daughter in order for anyone in it to move?  As for the title: Charles is the girl’s father, banished to the rehab resort by his domineering alcoholic wife.  He doesn’t reveal his story, and I can’t guess why the final play bears his name.

Yet again, the staging is unmoving — in both senses of the word.  The monologs are “stand and deliver,” while the dialog (thanks to chairs and deck lounges) is mostly “sit and deliver.”  After more than five hours, this declamatory style palls.  To be sure, Mednick uses language — and ideas, and humor — with great skill, but these begin to feel like plays whose mother was scared by a poetry reading.

Open Fist’s troupe is impressively skilled, and they make use of every conceivable piece of stagecraft to keep the story alive.  Jeff LeBeau, Kelly Van Kirk, and Darrell Larson create a remarkable continuity as Gary in successive stages, firmly holding our empathy despite his excesses.  Derek Manson and Amanda Weier maintain Gary’s complex inner gallery with specificity and wit (while also giving life to other characters); Carl J. Johnson and Barbara Schofield deftly deliver Charles and his wife, he in strangled understatement and she with wonderfully imperious egotism.

Laura Liguori, Phillip C. Curry in “Girl on a Bed” (photo: Darrett Sanders)

And there are performances that startle with their force. In Rondell, Philip C. Curry richly embodies a laconic, laughing, addicted buddha; as Antonio, Peggy Ann Blow insinuates the leering Death Angel into every life, convincing them –and us — that resistance is futile. Norbert Weisser does a lovely, layered  turn as a sarcastic yet inadequately armored film producer.  And as the sacrificed girl, the wide-ranging Laura Liguori rises from death to  embody the most compellingly alive and insightful character of the entire cycle.  (Would Mednick be surprised?  If she’s his Iphigenia, I’d guess not.)

One other performance demands mention: Guy Zimmerman’s as director.  Guiding a company through six plays at once seems an unimaginable undertaking, yet he executes it well.  Within the stylistic unity required by the author, Zimmerman deploys a full array of theatrical techniques — working imaginatively with the designers, leading his actors deepen their characters, using movement and placement wherever possible to enhance expression. The cycle as a whole may overwhelm, but each play is strong and effectively realized.  (Out of the Blue is the weakest, due to the extreme immobility and emotional flatness of Gary’s parents; Zimmerman is so inventive everywhere else that I fear the text’s stage directions may call for this.)

Murray Mednick’s legacy is secure.  We now take for granted the uses of common speech he has never ceased to champion and explore.  And while it has its limits, the presentational style is a valuable and effective storytelling tool no theatrical artist would want to be without.  If The Gary Plays are a bit too much to absorb in a single day, let us recall that they were written over a decade, amid other works, and that their author may never have asked (much less insisted) that they appear together.

Open Fist deserves thanks — and admiration — for the consistently high level of artistry they bring to this immense project.  It’s a service to American theatre, and a rich offering to the LA theatre world that Mednick has called home to 40 years.  These plays should live in the repertoire; we can only hope they’ll be so artfully staged again.
The Gary Plays, by Murray Mednick, directed by Guy Zimmerman.
Presented by The Open Fist Theatre Company, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Thursdays (Part I: Tirade for Three and Girl on a Bed) at 8:00;
Fridays (Part II: Gary’s Walk and Out of the Blue) at 8:00;
Saturdays (Part III: DaddyO Dies Well and Charles’ Story) at 8:00;
Sunday, June 4, (Parts I, II, and II) at 12:00;
through June 10th.

Tickets:  <http://openfist.secure.force.com/ticket> , (323) 882-6912.