All posts by Mark

A Touch of Mastery: “Linden Arden”

You see lots of experiments and new ideas at the Fringe Festival.  Then — surprise –you see a masterfully finished work.

In Linden Arden Stole the Highlights, Colin Mitchell displays his comfortable command of the one-man show.

arden

As playwright, Mitchell has crafted a virtuoso piece, demanding a full range of acting skills — as well as some extras, such as deftly footing a soccer ball.  As actor, he meets the challenges steadily, from welcoming unexpected guests (after a hint of paranoia) to gruffly routing eavesdroppers, from acting out a harrowing, bloody tale to holding us in a full minute of stunned silence afterward.

In a small cottage in rural Scotland, we surprise Arden as he’s about to make his morning ablutions.  He adjusts quickly, bidding us share
a dram to mark his 50th birthday.  Checking at times to see if we’re real, and if we’d like another, he launches into his story.

It begins in San Francisco, as a smallish, smart boy at loose ends finds his way to the Tenderloin bars.  Using his wits and a foolish courage, he becomes a drug runner.  Then, after years of “gratifying all the lusts ,” he loses his appetite and absconds to Scotland — with a stash of other people’s money.

There he finds an idyllic home among plain people who “don’t talk about it outside church,” but live their Christianity.  Then, alas, his past comes calling.

The piece was inspired by a Van Morrison song, which just barely sketched the story.  At the end of our hour together, Arden sings the first verse or two, wondering how the songwriter heard of him.  Morrison’s song, we realize, left out most of what Mitchell has filled in, as a writer and especially as a living, breathing person.  Yet he still gives us only what we need — enough to feel a bitter divide between what we imagine as success and the true price of “winning.”

In the hour, Mitchell’s Arden takes us through a remarkable range of moods and manners — amiable chatting, abrasive touchiness,  soft reminiscing, wry wit, subtle manipulation, the full-chested shouting of battle, dumb grief, and spiritual exhaustion.  At its end, we know we’ve met a character we won’t soon forget.  And we’ve had the privilege of being with an artist at the top of his form.

This solo piece first saw light in San Francisco 20 years ago, and was last staged in LA before 2000.  Don’t let another 15 years go by.

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Linden Arden Stole the Highlights, written and performed by Colin Mitchell, directed by Christian Levatino. At Theatre Asylum (Elephant Studio), 6320 Santa Monica Blvd.

Sunday June 22 at 7:00 pm, Friday June 27 at 10:00 pm.

Tickets:  <www.hff14.org>

 

 

 

Off to a Great Start: “Consider the Night”

One of the best things about a Fringe Festival is its wide open, welcoming door for work that’s still in gestation.

Artists get to put developing shows on their feet with a shoestring — and audiences get to take part in the making of art.  Half preview, half workshop, it can be invaluable  for playmakers and a thrilling taste of what’s in the oven for playgoers.

consider

Case in point: Consider the Night, by The Others Theatre Company. Three theatre artists found themselves reading novels from the same historical period, and had a happy thought:  What if we told these stories as plays, and wove them together?

What they’ve got so far makes 45 minutes of engaging, intriguing theatre.

Director Kate Motzenbacher (one of the three writers) physically interweaves the stories on the small stage with fluid clarity.  She’s already got a firm handle on how to tell these stories.  And all seven actors do a remarkable job of bringing their characters to life on short notice, without knowing their full arcs.

To the writers’ credit, the characters are strongly drawn.  Strongest is the revolucionaria La Pintada (co-author Linda Serrato Ybarra), who steps from her lover’s arms into her great-granddaughter’s story to become a feisty, interfering abuelita.  Also strong is the elegant Madison Shepard (the third author), a silent mournful presence who eventually unwraps a wry tale of marital betrayal, then argues civilly with her suave husband (Kamar Elliott), then explodes in physical fury.

Jenya, a political volunteer, strives to emulate her Zapatista great-grandmother.  But charmed by her handsome mentor, she ignores her ancestor’s dire warnings.  Pamela Laurie earns Jenya’s progress from novice to pushy pro, from starry-eyed prey to independent woman, yet keeps her inner uncertainties alive.  Stephen Shore nicely alternates a would-be player’s ego and the immature lover who hides behind it.

Good, clear work also comes from Donald Lett, as a tired but jovial coroner and an abandoned husband turned street drunk, and from Julie Morgentaler, as La Pintada’s frail lover and as an Ariel-like presence who flits through scenes, sometimes silent, sometimes singing the blues.

The uncredited set and lighting designs keep things simple — clear playing areas and the bare minimum of set pieces and props, letting the stories flow easily.

This work isn’t finished.  It ends unresolved, leaving us eager for more.  And while its stories are interweaving well, some of their thematic resonances still wait to be found.  Given what the creative team has shown us, though, there’s little doubt they’ll uncover the remaining pearls.

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Consider the Night, by Linda Serrato Ybarra, Madison Shepard and Kate Motzenbacher, directed by Kate Motzenbacher.
Presented by The Others Theater Company in the Dorie Theater at the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd.

June 20 at 10:30 pm, June 22nd at 6 pm, June 28 at 7:30 pm.

Tickets:  <www.hff14.org>

Absurdity as Art: 2. “Hit” at LA Theatre Center

A pair of recent plays in LA have attempted to work in the realm known as “theater of the absurd.” 
One succeeds, one fails.  Both teach us something.

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

I wasn’t going to write this.  When a play utterly fails for me, I’m reluctant to say so in public.  But after its gala opening, Hit got so many positive reviews  I was tempted to speak out.  Then, after it had closed, I saw Odessa, a small Hollywood Fringe play which for me achieved what Hit failed to do.

Lenny Von Dohlen, Justin Huen, Carolyn Almos, Kahyun Kim, Taylor Hawthorne

Lenny Von Dohlen, Justin Huen, Carolyn Almos, Kahyun Kim, Taylor Hawthorne.

The steeply raked cavern of LATC’s 298-seat Theatre Two creates
a thrill of impending drama.  Onstage, the house’s exposed concrete is echoed by two giant pi shapes, evoking the ubiquitous supports of LA’s overhead freeways.  Wedged beneath them, at an angle, is a bright apartment.

In the first scene, we learn that a large closed room dominating stage left is a place where chairs are stored.  What could happen there?  Nothing does.  The next scene erupts behind a bar on a little apron, downstage left.  We can’t see or hear the actors very well.

As the play goes on, actors move as if told to, rather than for any inner reason.  They get stuck in some very cramped spaces, trying to carry out some very odd blocking.  They often stand and deliver their lines without relating to each other, heads tilted upward.  

After an energetic but very long two-plus hours, in which five urban strangers turn out to be linked by improbable coincidences, we reach the climax.  Years of deceit, rape and abuse are swiftly forgiven; a bag of liposuctioned body fat is eaten (the play’s bright moment); and we’re done.  As blue lights flash up the freeway pillars, three characters drop onto their stomachs and crawl into the audience.

Playwright Alice Tuan, who has an impressive track record, wanted  to make an absurdist comment on LA — a sprawling city made of separate parts with no center.  So she has made a play of unrelated parts with no center, linking them by coincidences — and, as she says in the liner notes, by the many meanings the word “hit” can have.  Why that seems a likely way to bring coherence to a play is anyone’s guess.

Director Laurel Ollstein, apparently also wanting to appear absurd, positions and moves her actors awkwardly, and has them indicate their feelings rather than live them.  (She fails, thankfully, with Carolyn Almos, who insists on acting.)  Ollstein shifts theatrical styles with jerky abandon, as if the play is on meth.  And she does  manage a rare achievement — to be both frantic and boring.

I don’t know who directed set designers Alex Gaines and Marika Stevens, who obviously have skills.  But I’ve never seen a set with so much unusable space, nor a design so dominated by dead elements that the story ignores.

Here’s the thing.  Absurdist art is not itself absurd.  It is an internally consistent, often witty critique of a society that is absurd.  It leads members of that society — those who come to the theatre or gallery — to a become aware of that absurdity, and of their own role in it.

And art, absurdist or not, doesn’t come from concepts — it comes from deeply felt experience.  It’s true, an academic like Tuan might be tempted to use an idea — say, a set of synonyms — to build a play.  But intellectually-led art ends up inevitably with two-dimensional characters and contrived interactions.  As it does here.

For all its manic attempts to be striking, Hit lacks imagination — the kind that comes from lived experience. Rooted only in ideas, it too literally holds the mirror up to our culture; it offers us a random, disjointed mess instead of a piquant critique.

It’s a shame so many fine resources were wasted on this woefully unfinished work.  Rumor has it the author, in workshop, wouldn’t hear colleagues’ suggestions or change anything.  She certainly should have.

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Hit, by Alice Tuan, directed by Laurel Ollstein.
Presented at the Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St.

Closed.

Absurdity as Art: 1. “Odessa”

A pair of recent plays in LA have attempted to work in the realm known as “theater of the absurd.” 
One succeeds, one fails.  Both teach us something.

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

In the small black box where they recently — and very successfully — staged the modern classic How I Learned to Drive, the Illyrian Players are now giving the Hollywood Fringe Festival a world premiere.

Odessa, by John Tyler McClain, takes us to an underground bunker, presumably beneath the post-apocalyptic remains of West Texas.

Bethany Esfandiari, Joanna Rose Bateman, Bruce A. Lemon Jr.

Bethany Esfandiari, Joanna Rose Bateman, Bruce A. Lemon Jr.

In its confines, we meet three individuals — Alice (Joanna Rose Bateman), who dances and stretches onstage before the lights rise; Cliff (Bruce A. Lemon Jr.), who enters and leaves several times in a gas mask, overcoat  and boots; and Preacher (Bethany Esfandiari), who enters later as Cliff’s prisoner, leaves, then returns to stay.

I say “presumably” — though the publicity photo clearly invokes the red desert of Texas’ barren llano estacado — because onstage, we are given no exposition.  Instead, we spend our time and energy closely attending to the unfolding events, the changing constellation of relationships, trying to learn who and where these people are, and why.  We don’t succeed.

But the play does.

Odessa succeeds because — like absurdist master Samuel Beckett — McClain strips away almost all the surface details and underlying structures of the world we know.  He leaves us with only a handful of people, and a handful of randomly saved — or abandoned — objects.  This forces us to focus on the characters’ actions and interactions, hungrily seeking their thoughts and feelings.

Odessa succeeds also because each actor — under the hand and eye of Carly Weckstein — finds and delivers a breathing human from the scraps she or he is given.  And each character has a definite arc, which we feel, however shaky our mental grasp of it may sometimes be.

At moments, a character’s motives appear  vivid; at others, they’re murky, and we must keep guessing.  But that’s never because the acting or directing is unclear.  It’s because the art is working, making us care and want to know — both to resolve our own discomfort and to connect more fully with these people whose world we’ve entered.

Absurdist art does that.  It elicits and challenges our innate desire for connecting, for becoming oriented, for knowing, for meaning.  And it never fully satisfies these desires.  Absurdist art thus makes us aware of our hunger and thirst for closure — and of the absurd lengths we “normally” go to in order to achieve at least an illusion of connection, knowledge, meaning.

Alana Cheuvront’s simple but eloquent costumes, Corwin Evans’ scrappy dramatic scene/light design — and the brilliant evocation of new-growing plants — all locate and propel the emerging story.  [Speaking of emerging:  remember the name Carly Weckstein.  She has shown nuanced skill directing in widely varied theatrical styles, with tiny resources.  What will she do next, with Othello? ]

The fast, frantic pace of the Fringe doesn’t often yield works at such a level of achieved completion.  Hats off to the Illyrians!

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Odessa, by John Tyler McClain, directed by Carly Weckstein.
Presented by the Illyrian Players, at the Asylum Theatre, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd.
Tuesday June 17 at 8:30 pm; Saturday June 21 at 3:00 pm;
SaturdayJune 28 at 10:30 pm; Sunday June 29 at 8:00 pm.

Tickets:  <www.illyrianplayers.com>

 

Our Heroic Journeys: 2. “Young Gifted & Fat”

Survivor.
It’s one of the hardest titles to gain in life, one of the proudest and yet most painful to carry.  It means not only that we have been through hell, but that others who bore the journey with us were left behind, casualties.
As it happens, I’ve seen two plays in a row about survivors.

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In the solo show Young Gifted & Fat, Sharrell Luckett talks, chides, mimics, reminisces, jumps, dances and sings us through her journey.

Sharrell Luckett

Sharrell Luckett

She shares her story with terrific energy and winning humor, but there’s no mistaking it — she’s a survivor.  And her path is soaked with heart’s blood.

After a “normal” childhood in suburban Atlanta, the vivacious, intelligent girl was sucked down a rabbit hole — suddenly, she was fat.  A decade and a half later, with a ticket to grad school in faraway St. Louis, she lost 100 pounds — and popped out of the rabbit hole into a world whose rules she hadn’t learned.

Luckett courageously — and wisely — weaves sexuality as a main thread in her story.  Early on, she invites us into the joyfully sensual play of small children (an innocence many of us had buried); we then share her stunned surprise at being punished, shamed by adults.  And then we share her first death — abruptly and utterly cut off from her emerging self, her desire to love, shunned and mocked as “the fat girl.”  Not a girl at all, except in her lonely fantasies, but a thing nobody wants, or even wants to be around.

Luckett doesn’t dwell in her solitary cell, just holds us there long enough that we can’t forget it.  Then she swoops us to what our culture pretends is success — losing all that weight, and becoming a “slender girl.”  In a new body and a new city, she giddily reunites with her lost self as a sexual being allowed to love, invited to belong.

But she’s not too dizzy to notice that her years in fat prison have left her ignorant, defenseless.  She didn’t get to learn how her body  and her feelings might connect, or what the rules for dating and sex, for connecting physically and emotionally with other people, might be.  This late-come learning is dangerous and painful.  Wisely, she takes it as the topic  of her academic work.

She also takes us to yet another surprise.  After her PhD, after she  wins a faculty post at a university, there’s still something missing.  It’s the fat girl she left behind.  Excruciatingly awful as it was to be her, she was her — and she can’t move forward in life, she realizes, unless she brings her along.   Even if it means showing up as “that skinny bitch” at fat support groups.

Luckett’s performance is non-stop and dazzling, supported by the original music of Rahbi Hines and the visuals of Guy Thorne, deftly directed by Luckett’s longtime mentor Freddie Hendricks (who flew in from Atlanta).  Of special note is the set design — entirely made of prison bars (including a cell she briefly occupies, then folds into non-existence), littered with snack food containers and draped with plus-size clothing.

Luckett’s hard work as a writer and actor — and the work of her talented team — doesn’t just amuse.  Young Gifted & Fat is a true survivor story.

It honestly confronts us with our cruelties — toward our children’s innocence (and our own), toward anyone who is fat or otherwise different.  But Luckett and company don’t lecture.  They charm us into following a life, feeling its joys, enduring its loneliness and losses, and moving toward wisdom.

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Young Gifted & Fat, by Sharrell Luckett, directed by Freddie Hendricks.
At the Edison Studio Theatre, CSU – Dominguez Hills, 1000 E. Victoria St., Carson.
Two performances remaining — Saturday June 14, at 2 and 8 pm.

Tickets
:  <younggiftedandfat.brownpapertickets.com>
 

 

 

Our Heroic Journeys: 1. “Bliss Point”

Survivor.
It’s one of the hardest titles to gain in life, one of the proudest and yet most painful to carry.  It means not only that we have been through hell, but that others who bore the journey with us were left behind, casualties.
As it happens, I’ve seen two plays in a row about survivors.

*****

Bliss Point, the Cornerstone Theater Company’s newest production, honors the human, all-too-human heroes who have walked through hell alive — and those who, half-hidden behind every survivor, did not.

The cast of "Bliss Point".

The cast of “Bliss Point”.

The hell in this case is addiction.   A war zone in which somewhere from a third to a half of us are walking, this  very day.

But Bliss Point, like a good talk at a 12-step meeting, doesn’t preach. Nor does it get lost in “war stories.”  The horrors of battle are its setting.  But the story focuses on and connects us with individuals
in  their intense personal, emotional, and spiritual struggles.

Addiction is dehumanizing.  One of this troupe’s triumphs is that we meet and become attached to characters  whom we’d  gladly avoid on the street — and we’re not allowed to detach their humanity from our own.

This is all the more impressive when you recall that a Cornerstone play blends trained actors with volunteers from the community in and with which the work is developed.  (In this case, people in recovery from addiction.)

Bliss Point is also strengthened by multi-layered storytelling.  Jay (Sunkrish Bala), a young Hindu writer, is inquiring into the world of recovery for a magazine article — rather like author Shishir Kurup weaving a script from interviews and group sessions in that world.  Rather like us, entering it in a darkened theatre.

But before we meet Jay and his delightful mother (KT Thangavelu), we grit our teeth through an addict’s “come to Jesus” moment.  We hang out with hard-hooked young friends,and we cringe as they grab for bliss in a bag or hide like panicked rabbits from their predators — drug dealers, cops, pain, meaninglessness.

Such moments multiply as the stories interweave.  By the end, we feel we’re among the walking wounded, while the last man standing rises to speak.  The ghosts of the fallen, lost friends we’ve known and hoped for, drift in and occupy the empty chairs.

Juliette Carrillo directs this large, mixed cast in its complex story with a sure hand.  Nephelie Andonyadis’ set moves seamlessly from urban  squalor to transcendent beauty, while Andrew D. Smith’s lighting and Veronika Vorel’s sound keep us clearly located amid constantly shifting, overlapping moments.   JoDyRaY, Talmage A. Tidwell, Amelia Yokel, Jared Ross and David Bard carve their characters into us with special force.

Cornerstone’s name echoes a Bible verse central to the Old and New Testaments alike — “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  Like the tao, the troupe seeks the places we reject, in our society and in ourselves.  And from those places, with love and painstaking skill, they make the oldest, most important kind of theatre — the kind that hurts, and heals.

Disclaimer: I have no connection with Cornerstone Theater Company.  But I am the son of a substance addict, I am in recovery from emotional addiction, and I’ve had the privilege of working as a therapist with many courageous souls struggling with addiction and in recovery.  Let those whose lives are untouched by addiction cast the first stone.

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Bliss Point, by Shishir Kurup, directed by Juliette Carillo.Produced by Cornerstone Theater Company.
At the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.,

Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm,
through June 22.

Performers:  Sunkrish Bala, David Bard, Sheela Bhongir, Michelle Farivar, JoDyRaY , Melissa Ann Kestin, Page Leong, Tricia Nykin, Stuart O’Donnell, K.J. Rasheed, Jared Ross, KT Thangavelu, Talmage A. Tidwell, Alberto Virgen, and Amelia Yokel.

Tickets: <www.cornerstonetheater.org> or (310) 477-2055 ext. 2
Pay What You Can

Into the Unknown: “Haunted Walls” at ZJU

In 20 years of work in LA theatre, Zombie Joe has shaped a unique aesthetic with roots in horror, modernism (from Artaud and Brecht to Beckett and Pinter), film, circus,comics, rock concerts, and his own imagination.

He has also fostered a loosely bound company of artists — and audiences — who love to explore with him, constantly pushing inward and outward.  Even the annual signature show, Urban Death, always reaches into new realms.

haunted

New among the current offerings at the tiny NoHo storefront is Haunted Walls and Apparitions.

 It’s a major new growth for the distinctive language Zombie has evolved — a language of massed movement and voices.  It’s not dance, and it’s not choral speaking, but it approaches both these arts from the sister art of theatre.

A decade ago, Zombie staged a series of Poe classics (The Telltale Heart, The Black Cat, The Masque of the Red Death etc.).  He used closely shaped movements and vocal sequences to embody the horror master’s tightly wound intensity and poetic precision.

Now, in Haunted Walls, the grouped bodies move with a far less predictable fluidity through a theatre of open space — no seats, no guaranteed safe distance.  The actors approach, weave into and even surround the audience, flowing between us, at times confronting us, at times ignoring us.

The voices are not strictly sequenced.  Instead, they rise and fade  organically as the bodies mass together or slide apart, springing or swirling or standing.  Sometimes we hear noises, sometimes words.
Sometimes the words make sense, sometimes they only suggest it.

In an hour, the troupe develops a half-dozen evolving tableaux.  Some seem to enact a story — a red-skinned demon manipulating his minions, an armageddon of prehistoric animals, a clash of hominid tribes.  Some seem more shaped by a flow of emotional states.  All are alive with uncertainty, crudity, beauty, surprise.

The evening’s work is enriched by collaborators Denise Devin and Jessica Weiner (dancer- choreographers), Kevin Van Cott and Christopher Reiner (musican-composers).  And it’s executed with remarkable focus and intensity by a dozen fearless performers.

Zombie Joe’s shows are often characterized as dreamlike, or even nightmarish.  They’re praised for making us shudder — not only with fear, but with a sense of having been exposed, revealed by what we watch.   In Haunted Walls, the risky exploration continues.  It will take you where few other theatre experiences do.

Disclaimer:  I have watched — and often participated in — the work at Zombie Joe’s Underground for most of the last decade.  I had no part in this production.

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Haunted Walls and Apparitions, created and directed by Zombie Joe.
At Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.
Saturdays at 11pm through June 28.

Performers: Jason Britt, Matthew Dougherty, Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson, Zac Hughes, Michelle Moraveg, Adam Neubauer, Robin Carolyn Parent, Erin Poland, Sasha Snow, Alison Stolpa, and Jessica Weiner.

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

Frantic on the Fringe: “W.e.a.r. H.o.r.s.e.”

Fringe is frantic  — fast rehearsals, a few performances, all to get the work seen.  It’s usually feisty, too — a twist on  storytelling, a slap in the face of taste.

John Hendel’s w.e.a.r.  h.o.r.s.e., at the Asylum Theatre, fits right in.

wear horse

The title concept is suitably gross.  Nude performance artist Erica (Caroline Bloom) slips into something uncomfortable — the eviscerated body of a horse — while her partner Reginald (Brendan A. Bradley) snaps photos for the internet.

Hendel also punches the fourth wall, letting his characters remark on the play they’re in.  In the most pleasing poke, the two artists pause to discuss his character arc, while a projected slide graphs it.

Maiden director Ruth Du maintains a brisk comic pace, only slightly slowed by shifting sizeable props (the nearly life-size horse, a headstone, a dining table and chairs).  The actors — Bradley, Bloom, and Angela Leib as her mother — deliver lively sketches of their variously deranged characters.

Sketches.  Not full portraits.

It’s hard to bring in a Fringe play with all its characters in full bloom.  This troupe faced a particular challenge, because Hendel’s snarky concept is more than a comic dead horse — it’s a living metaphor.
As such, it carries a complex critique of how we confuse art with fame, how we confuse love with control.

Our characters have slipped the bonds of earthly sanity by the time we meet them.  But their madness should not merely amuse — it should also indict.  Their antics should make us reflect on our own confusions, and the lengths we’ve gone to in pursuing them.  We should feel as uncomfortable as a girl in a horse-skin suit.

That doesn’t quite happen here.  We laugh, but don’t wince — because the characters are indicated to us, not connected to us. Plumbing characters deeply enough to live them, and make us feel them, takes time.  More time than the Fringe allows.

But w.e.a.r. h.o.r.s.e., in this incarnation, does manage to make a fast-moving, disturbing assault on our senses and sensibilities.  And it makes us laugh.  With enough time to turn the actors’ sketches into portraits, the laughs would be on us.

NOTES:  A couple of small things, fixable during the run:
+ Reginald pronounces “horse” as “harss,” a character point. Why does Bradley only do so only now and then?
+ Erica intends to create sexy, daring images beyond what anyone has done.  Reggie fears she’ll be objectified.  Yet she’s fully clothed?
+ And — for next time — what’s the point of the points in the title?  They’re never paid off, and “Wear Horse” is a grabber without them.

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w.e.a.r.  h.o.r.s.e., by John Hendel, directed by Ruth Du.
At Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd.
June 13, 8:30 pm; June 21, 5:30 pm; June 23, 7 pm; June 27, 10 pm.

Tickets:  <www.hff14.org/1655>

Getting Off Too Easy: “Other Desert Cities” at ICT

We’re having a bad time in the US of A.  Our economy stalled trying to go uphill while shifting gears from steel to silicon — our two-party system’s being held hostage by a handful of homegrown terrorists — and the “American Century” has turned to ash amid desert wars and climate collapse.

Drama should be dealing with this.  We need plays that examine what’s gone wrong, and why — and how it’s reaching into and tearing up our private lives.  To their credit, International City Theatre is presenting a play that tries to take on the task.

Nicholas Harmann, Suzanne Ford, Blake Anthony Edwards, Ann Noble

Nicholas Hormann, Suzanne Ford, Blake Anthony Edwards, Ann Noble

Alas, Other Desert Cities doesn’t quite do it.

Director caryn desai has considerable resources at hand in  Long Beach’s lushly appointed flagship facility, a team of experienced tech artists and an energetic, seasoned acting troupe.  But their work, though often on the mark, is also often off.

JR Bruce’s scene design starts things off oddly.  Flat, neutral-toned surfaces say “money,” but not “Palm Springs.”  Except for a silhouette of mountains behind patio doors, we could be on Park Avenue.  (The tennis-clad loungers we first meet don’t dispel the uncertainty:  Is this a serious drama, or just Noel Coward west?)

More fundamentally, Bruce has put a tall bar and a dropoff upstage right — so no actor can occupy or speak effectively from the stage’s most powerful position.  Instead, a large platform extends in front of the fireplace upstage left.  OK.  But then, unaccountably, almost every time a character reaches a major speech, director desai moves him or her off the platform into the downstage “conversation pit.”

This unfortunately accents one of the script’s major weaknesses.   Author Jon Robin Baitz, who’d just spent several years writing a TV comedy, reaches again and again for one-line quips to cap his characters’ key speeches.  He gets laughs, but undercuts the social and personal issues he has put on the table.  Combined with desai’s blocking, the message comes out as, “This is really important, our lives and our world depend on it — but let’s just go to the mall.”

Baitz’s play has a similar structural problem.  Like a sitcom, it peaks about three-fourths of the way through, leaving just enough time for some quick wrap-ups and a closer.  This does a violent disservice to the characters.  They need time to come to terms with cruel family secrets, and with how the world’s woes have invaded and disfigured their home.  We need time to experience them doing it.  What we get instead is instant forgiveness and cheap grace.

Blake Anthony Edwards has perhaps the best-written role, the homme raisonable, and he turns the few one-liners forced on him into a self-mocking attempt to mask despair.  Suzanne Ford and Nicholas Hormann pour passion into the brittle parents, but can’t overcome the author’s refusal to look into what their posturing has cost them.   Eileen T’Kaye takes her recovering addict as deep as — and at moments deeper than — Baitz’s sketch allows, adding weight to the too-easy wit written for her.  And as the central figure, whose tell-all memoir breaks the family’s fragile balance,  Ann Noble works gamely at giving us a woman upon whom innocence has been inflicted.

With firmer direction, these actors  might all have gone deeper.  But soon, they’d need to rewrite the  text.  And that’s precisely what workshops, as tedious as they may seem, can do for a play.  By taking the story seriously, and pushing as far as they can, a company can  show a playwright where the pen has more digging to do.

This play is named for an unusual Interstate 10 freeway sign that says drivers can take the Palm Springs offramp or go on to other, unnamed towns in the desert.   Baitz, perhaps fearing the unknown, turned off too early.  His play needed a lot more time on the road  before getting to New York.  Or even Long Beach.

(NOTE:  Other Desert Cities fast-laned onto Broadway in 2011, after a short off-Broadway run.  It was nominated for a Tony and for a Pulitzer.  There’ve been some scanty crops in Manhattan’s “Great White Desert” lately, but that must have been a really bad year.)

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Other Desert Cities, by Jon Robin Baitz, directed by caryn desai.
International City Theatre, at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm, through June 29.

Tickets: <www.InternationalCityTheatre.org> or (562) 436-4610.

 

 

“King Lear” in Long Beach

In a storefront theatre in the Bixby Knolls neighborhood, the Long Beach Shakespeare Company is offering King Lear.   The production has virtues that make it worth seeing.

Carl Wawrina and Lauren Velasco

Carl Wawrina and Lauren Velasco

Director Helen Borgers (the company’s Artistic Director) keeps the story moving briskly.  And having spent years navigating the tiny, narrow black box, she and set designer Tim Leach manage to shoehorn in three castles, a wide empty heath and the cliffs of Dover, a battle, and countless entrances and exits.

Costumer Dana Leach, assisted by Irish Pellas (and, no doubt, a crew of elves) creates a lush Renaissance look while sharply identifying each of the many characters.  Brandon Cutts’ lighting and Edmund Velasco’s music lead us through the tale’s sharp changes of scene and mood.

All these help greatly in making clear the tangled, swift-running tragedy.  But finally, of course, it’s up to the actors to bring us into the story and keep us there — using language that’s 400 years old, is poetic, and has ideas in it like “filial piety” that most folks today have to google.

There’s the rub.  Not all the actors have mastered Shakespeare’s language enough to keep his meanings clear.  Chief among those who have, Andrew Huber as the villainous Edmund lays out his every snare before us lucidly,  leaving us laughing at his snarky pride.  Cody Bushee is also clear — solid gold as the the King of France,  glittering false mica as the simpering Oswald.

All three of Lear’s daughters — arguably the characters whose thoughts and feelings we most need to know — are performed with bold confidence by actors fully immersed in what they’re saying and why they’re saying it.   Fiona Austin (as Regan) and Dana Coyle (as Goneril), take us clearly through their devolution from hypocrisy to open viciousness– yet also let us see the emotional fragility each tries to hide.  As honest Cordelia, Lauren Velasco takes us into her mind and heart at once and keeps us there, as she shifts from a cruelly rejected girl  to the queen of France commanding her army, then to an imprisoned daughter whose only care is love.

As Lear’s faithful fool, Randi Tahara deftly uses verbal and physical comedy to deliver the wise wit and the King sorely needs, and only once or twice does she let herself be rushed into muddle.  Mike Austin (as Kent/ Caius) likewise keeps his long-suffering loyalty  clear, losing us only when he hurries.  Mark Motyl delivers a Gloucester we can almost always understand and feel with, his accent subtly marking him as an ethical stranger in a world of egotism and self-seeking.

The tragedy of Lear is that he is not equal to his duties.  And the sad part of this production is that Carl Wawrina as Lear is not equal to his, or was not on opening night.  Moments into the first scene, he was shouting at full volume — which made him incomprehensible and left him nowhere to go emotionally for the rest of the play.  Except for a lovely clear speech on the heath, when the King at last recognized the plight of the poor and his failure to serve them, our Lear was either mumbling or shouting, often unintelligibly.  Alas, by  the play’s peak, when the distraught father carried dead Cordelia in his arms, crying “Howl!  Howl!  Howl!” — it was just Lear shouting again.

This would seem to be a wound from which the play cannot recover.  But while it bears his name, King Lear is really more about the people around him — his false and true daughters, the false and true courtiers — than about the King himself.   And on the shoulders of its villains and one true daughter, this production carries it off.

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King Lear, by William Shakespeare, directed by Helen Borgers.
Presented by the Long Beach Shakespeare Company.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, through June 21.
At the Richard Goad Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Blvd., Long Beach.

Tickets:  <www/LBShakespeare.org> or (562) 997-1494.