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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.

 

Intimate & Terrifying: “Taste” at Sacred Fools

If you value deeply disturbing and deeply moving theatre, hurry to Heliotrope Drive in Hollywood — you have only three more chances to see the birth of a phenomenon.  Taste, the Sacred Fools’ new two-hander, closes May 31.  Soon afterward, watch for it on stages around the world.

Taste‘s subject is gory and sensational, torn dripping (as it were) from the headlines.  That alone would win it notoriety.  But first-time playwright Benjamin Brand handles his material with such assured skill, moving so far past the merely macabre, that this astonishing  play deserves a place in the canon of modern drama.

Taste4
Donal Thomas-Cappello and Chris L. McKenna

Again and again, we in the audience are brought to screaming as an impossible moment, something we utterly do not want to see or participate in, approaches.  Again and again, the moment occurs, exploding into our world.

Yet, by the end, we’re actually hoping for the last unthinkable act, praying to share in something we can hardly bear to imagine.  Because Brand — and a masterful team of stage artists — has led us past the headlines and horror, and deep into the mysteries of loneliness, longing and love.  Deeper than most plays ever go.

Taste is shocking, disgusting, horrifying — and done with delicacy.  With taste.

DeAnne Millais’ design sets us in the sleek isolation of high-rise living where,  with Emily Donn’s props, we feel the compulsive elegance and culinary passion of Terry (Donal Thomas-Capello) before we meet him.  Into his home — through the triple-locked door — comes the rougher-edged, diffident Vic (Chris L. McKenna).

They’re an oddly assorted pair, met on the internet, together for the first time.  Terry is a gourmet chef, Vic can’t chop parsley; awkwardly, they share a first course.   But this is not a date; it’s the beginning of a bold plan of some sort they’ve hatched online. Both are tremblingly eager, Terry playing cool, Vic stumbling over misgivings.

Gradually, we realize their venture will ultimately involve Vic’s death and transformation by Terry’s kitchen artistry — and the meal’s main course will be more than a little unusual.  A foretaste they can share.

But this first foray proves an appallingly huge step.  As the stakes steeply rise, and the consequences become real agony, Terry and Vic find they need to trust each other far more urgently than they knew.
Their struggle toward trust is even more painful than the bloody debacle of the body … but it ends in an earned intimacy that neither has ever known.

Amid many powerful shocks (deftly administered by the special effects of Tony Doublin and Gabe Bartalos), the greatest is that Taste is a love story.  Splattered with blood, yet tenderly told.

Director Stuart Gordon moves his story with economy, building  tension like the genre veteran he is.  He also draws excellently harmonized performances from the actors.  Thomas-Capello and McKenna cause us to step back in discomfort from each character’s personality excesses, laughing — then to recoil in horror at what they are doing — and finally to reach for them in empathy.

Skillful touches abound.  Jennifer Christine Smith’s costumes are eloquently specific (and, like the set, they cleverly accommodate the special effects).  Ben Rock’s soundscape, beginning and ending with a soprano vocalise and passing through the mute thumping of porn tracks, holds us in a world of intense, inarticulate emotion.

Taste frontally assaults our most unconscious boundaries, in a familiar world that never comes undone.  It delivers more terror than any horror ride or zombie film.  It also reaches boldly into what, beneath fear, connects us — which is what we ask of the best art in any medium.

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Taste, by Benjamin Brand, directed by Stuart Gordon.
At the Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, LA 90004.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, through May 31.

Tickets:  $25.  <www.sacredfools.org> or (310)281-8337.

Without ghosts or monsters: “Recall”

Recall is the kind of simply staged yet powerful, chilling theatre we’ve come to expect from the Visceral Company.

recall

Madeline Bertani, Karen Nicole

Unlike their long-running Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite, this quiet play sends its tremors through us without ghosts or monsters.  More like Visceral’s recent stunner Kill Me, it starts with an  unadorned image of contemporary life.  Recall then shifts our familiar world — a motel room, an apartment, a school, a clinic — slightly into the future.  Or, if we’re lucky, into a parallel universe we may manage to avoid.

Playwright Eliza Clark (The Metaphysics of Breakfast) lays out her story with swift economy.  Master director Dan Spurgeon lets the dystopia’s disturbing differences emerge organically, as conditions the characters must live with.  And we silently recognize, step by step, how close we are to making their cruel world our own.

Recall is powered by some remarkable acting.  As Lucy, Madeline Bertani (who seems to have channeled the young Christina Ricci)  sustains a dead-on portrait of a wry, gifted girl gamely confronting adolescence — with one flawed gift that poisons her bouquet.   She wins our empathy without asking for it, a fierce Ophelia born into a state where something is indeed rotten.

As Lucy’s mother, Karen Nicole creates an equally sympathetic and  unnerving character — a determined but overwhelmed single parent who looks for trust  in all the wrong faces, holding tight to her child as she swims against the crushing tide of a system that knows what’s best.  And Kevin Grossman wonderfully inhabits the gentle, geeky goth Quinn, who shyly offers Lucy the only friendship she finds.

Mark Souza, as the double agent David, nicely handles the challenge of a man who lives only in the moment, stripped of the memories by which we shape our selves.  And Lara Fisher offers a sticky clinician who has gained power over others’ lives by learning to mimic people who actually have emotions.

A couple of notes were less-than-perfectly struck.  In the performance I saw, the clever device of a second playing area behind doors was undercut by some hinges not working well.  And Fisher’s mask of sanity was slightly chipped by chirpiness, when it might be more fearsome if it were smoother.

But these were tiny surface nicks on a polished, powerful production.   Chris Bell’s flexible design creates a clean, prosaic world we immediately recognize, and Pam Noles’ costumes add to the discomfort of the familiar.  Joshua Burton’s lighting and Tyler Burton’s soundtrack lead us seamlessly into the deepening darkness.

Recall calls us to mourn and decry a horror, while making us unable to hate any of the human beings enmeshed in it.  We end in tears, not anger, unable to hate them because we are them, and they are us.

In doing this, Recall deftly accomplishes the task of tragedy.  It moves us to pity and terror, and bids us take warning not to let our world slip into theirs.  Don’t miss your chance.

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Recall, by Eliza Clark, directed by Dan Spurgeon, produced by The Visceral Company.

At the Lex Theatre, Lexington and McCadden Sts., Hollywood.  Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, through May 4.

Tickets at: <www.thevisceralcompany.com>

 

 

 

Woman as daemon: 2. “Carmen”

A mystery:  In Highland Park a few weeks ago, a cigarette-factory worker seduced a soldier.   Their brief, torrid affair ended with the soldier murdering her.  Although 200 people witnessed the killing, the LAPD was not called.

We bystanders were watching the Pacific Opera Project perform   Carmen, a Romantic-era story that — set to Georges Bizet’s music — has been a worldwide favorite for well over 100 years.

Scan_20140416

There’s no mystery about Pacific Opera’s production — it was a triumph.  With just a week’s rehearsal, the young singers (led by music director Stephen Karr from the piano) created a lively, colorful staging of the world’s best-known opera.  They enthusiastically filled the cabaret-style house with romance, humor and tragic drama.

And music.  As an ensemble, the POP singers summoned Bizet’s rich musical world, drew us in and kept us there — without an orchestra.  That’s a stunning accomplishment few opera troupes would dare, much less achieve.

Vocally, the cast ranged from quite good to quite remarkable.   The two leads — mezzo Norah Graham-Smith (Carmen) and tenor Adam Cromer (Don José) — were comfortably equal to their lengthy, demanding roles, and each delivered clear, moving arias.  They both excelled at singing in dialogue with (not simply at) other characters.  Graham-Smith also managed the ceaseless flow of energy, sexuality, wit and emotion with which Carmen propels the entire story.

The two second singers — soprano Aubrey Scarr (as Micaela, Don José’s fiancée) and bass-baritone Babatunde Akinboboye (as the bullfighter Escamillo) nearly stole the show.   Granted, their roles are shorter, and the script doesn’t require as much action from them — though Escamillo bounced through the house, working the room like a rock star.  Nonetheless, each displayed vocal purity and power, and verbal clarity, that was a delight to hear.

In smaller roles, mezzo Meagan Martin (Mercédès) and soprano Nicole Fernandes (Frasquita) sparkled — but with due restraint — in their duet work, and in trio with Graham-Smith.

Director Shaw created an open, versatile setting (with highly dramatic lighting) and Maggie Green’s colorful, clearly readable costumes suggested the period without getting lost in it.

It’s easy to understand why the audience punctuated the show with vigorous applause, and stood cheering at the end.

There’s also no mystery about Bizet’s score.  Its major themes have become part of our popular culture.  If you stop a stranger in a mall and hum the first few bars of Carmen’s habanera, or of  Escamillo’s “Toreador Song,” they can probably join in — though they may never have been to an opera.

The mystery about Carmen is the story.   Do we just put up with it in order to have the music?  No — when that’s the case, the opera stops being performed and the music survives without it.  Look at Handel’s oratorios, and most of Baroque opera.

It seems that the story itself — an amoral femme fatale who nearly tears apart the society she lives in, and does destroy her lover — touches a chord with us.  With audiences worldwide, for that matter.

My guess is that she embodies what’s pushed away, out of  society and out of mind — woman’s sexuality, and her ability to enjoy and own it.  Carmen became popular in an era when sex was, as the Victorian saying had it, “something men enjoy and women endure.”   “Good women” did not desire sex, and such things were never discussed in polite society.

(We’re not as far from that era as we like to think.  My grandmother first offered to tell my mother about sex as they were riding the train to my parents’ wedding;  and just last week, a friend with two teen children admitted she’s never had an orgasm.)

I suspect we’re still fascinated by Carmen not just because she’s sexy, but because in her fierce independence and amorality she embodies something we know is still missing from our world.  A force we, like the Victorians, fear will erupt and shatter our social order.

Moralist preachers and politicians keep trying to harness women’s bodies; and Don José keeps murdering Carmen, every time Act IV comes around.  But she keeps returning, and we keep flocking to see her, hear her, feel her vitality.  Want a  tip?  Don’t bet on Don José.

 

Woman as daemon: 1. “Salome”

In a small space before a pair of brick arches, the Archway Theatre re-creates the palace of Herod Antipas, in the time of Jesus.  Or perhaps I should say they re-create the palace’s balcony as an Irish poet and playwright imagined it, late in Queen Victoria’s reign.

But that’s not quite right, either.  The story we saw Friday probably couldn’t have happened 2,000 years ago.  And the Queen’s censor permitted no public staging of Oscar Wilde’s Salome at all  in 1892 London.  (It opened in Paris, a few years later.)

salome-deneen
Deneen Melody

Salome is only a one-act, but it’s a complex, difficult play.  Even a dangerous one.

It’s difficult for several reasons.  It leaps in media res, with little exposition, trusting us to know the Biblical tale; the two main characters shift attitudes and emotions mercurially; the style slips between masque and realistic drama, and the language is both poetic and stunningly frank.  These are not easy assignments for a troupe to take on.

Salome is dangerous because … well, the Victorian censor didn’t fear  the play’s image of John the Baptist, as he claimed, but its sexuality.  Herod lusts after his stepdaughter openly and often.  She in turn plies her seductive skills on the Syrian captain Narraboth, on the imprisoned prophet (whom Wilde calls Jokanaan) , and finally — in her famous dance — on her lascivious parent.

Salome is also bloody.   The prophet’s severed head spends the last several minutes onstage, as Salome enjoys a revenge even more brutal and shocking than anything recounted by the gospel writers (or the Roman historian Josephus).

Most of all, though, Salome is subversive.  Wilde brings vividly to center stage the power struggle between Herod  and Salome that’s latent in the gospels (they focus instead on Christ’s deputy vs. Caesar’s).  Wilde sets forth an iconic battle of child against parent, victim against abuser, subject against the crown — in sum, woman against the patriarchy.

Directed by Steven Sabel, the Archway players deliver a briskly paced performance, handling the language with nearly uniform clarity as they gather outside Herod’s feast hall to admire the moon.  It’s almost a tableau vivant, given the small space and Wilde’s lack  of interest in having his characters move (a cause of friction between him and the director of his prior play, Lady Windermere’s Fan).

In bursts Salome (Deneen Melody on  opening night) , fleeing her stepfather’s attentions, bristling with unsettled emotion.  The half-clad princess hits this small, static world like a tornado, unbalancing everyone.  She resolves to meet the prophet although — or perhaps because — Herod has forbidden it, using her sexual and royal powers to make the smitten Narraboth (Avi Nash) free him.

She then engages Jokanaan (Keith Wyffels) in an erotic love-hate dance, drawn to him, fiercely rebuffed, recoiling, then returning.  Each time, she poetically proclaims her infatuation (“thy body,” “thy hair,”   “thine eyes,” “thy mouth”) then retreats, reviling what she had praised.  Made frantic by this escalating madness, Narraboth slays himself — a soldier (Wali Habib) hides the body and the prophet flees back to his cell.

Enter Herod (Elias McCabe) and his queen (Jennifer Hawkins).  He’s drunk and prowling for Salome, she’s trying to hold him back and placate their guests.   He keeps wheedling his daughter to dance; Salome, shamed and disgusted, keeps refusing.  Finally, he offers to pay her anything at all; she seizes the opportunity, making him vow.

With the Dance of the Seven Veils, Salome’s eroticism reaches its peak, and she decisively wrests the power from her king/father.  Refusing all his counter-offers, she insists on her  chosen payment: the prophet’s head.  But her triumph is tragic and  brief.   Lifting her grisly trophy, she laments her life as an unseen, unloved girl, made into an object of political and sexual desire.  Kissing the lips that spat at her, she descends into a mad, explicitly sexual pas de deux with what remains of the one man she tried to love.  Herod, retrieving the reins, orders her execution: the sword falls as the play ends.

In the demanding title role, Melody draws on her experience as a ballerina and a horror film actress to deliver a bravura performance.  Her Salome wins our empathy even as she shocks and appalls us, shattering our comfort and our hearts.  She soars and drops through the princess’ manic changes, tirelessly shifting shape both physically and vocally.   Hers is a definitive Salome.

McCabe, as her main antagonist, gives us a Herod of commanding presence, almost too drunk to marshal the shrewd intelligence of a client king skilled at navigating the uncertain seas of Roman rule.  His greedy lust for his stepdaughter, and the self-indulgence and  self-deception that enable it, are chillingly embodied.

Wyffels, as the princess’ secondary antagonist, must deliver most of his lines offstage (most of them written not by Wilde but by the King James translators).  Onstage, he shows us a man of spiritual and physical power, baffled by the onslaught of Salome’s emotional need and sexual manipulation.

Also worthy of note are Hawkins’ ability to chide and even rage at her husband while still showing us their strong emotional bond; the clarity and easy authority of the Roman envoy (Luke McMahon); and the dry, world-weary wit (a homage to Wilde himself) with which Daniel Krause endows the envoy from Cappadocia.

Sabel and his production team make good use of the theatre’s small, shallow space, creating a readily believable setting and working bravely against Wilde’s tendency to write a “stand and deliver” play.
Wilde’s poetry is spoken with understanding, though his frequent use of repetition does invite more variety of delivery — and accumulated meaning — than it at times receives.  Sabel also at times allows a modern sense of physical boundaries to overwhelm the text, as when Salome tempts Narraboth by promising a smile and a flower tomorrow, while she is already fondling him.

Today, more than a century after it appeared, Salome remains a shocking, powerful play.   Back in 1892, Wilde was hugely famous as a salon wit, and was growing rich as a writer of hit drawing-room comedies.  What drew him to this lurid tale of lust and violence?

Did he intend to publish — one year into their disastrous affair — a parable of how the young nobleman Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas was ruthlessly degrading Wilde and goading his own father into outing them?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  Did he mean to suggest symbolically that his own closeted desire was fatally threatening his hard-won image as a witty intellectual prophet who exposed Victorian society’s prim hypocrisy? Perhaps, perhaps not.

What’s certain is that less than four years after writing Salome, Wilde was in prison for sodomy, his career destroyed, his wife and family alienated.  What’s also certain is that the text he created still offers a shattering indictment of the sexual and political exploitation that lies uneasily beneath the seeming order of patriarchy — Biblical, British imperial, or American modern.  Congratulations to Archway Theatre for presenting it to us.

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Salome, by Oscar Wilde.  Produced and directed by Stephen Sabel, at the Archway Theatre.  Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays (except April 20) at 2 PM, through May 11.

Disclaimer:  I have acted with Ms. Melody, and directed her recently in Carmilla at ZJU Theatre.

 

Among Mad People: “Mancomio” at ZJU

Zombie Joe’s Underground is known for pushing envelopes — right into our faces, confronting us with lost, dark and hidden things that unsettle us.  Drop into the rabbit hole on Lankershim any Friday until May 23, and you’ll find a new show doing just that.

MANICOMIO

This supple word, in Latin languages, can mean many things:  a mad person, an asylum for mad people, or madness itself.   Director Sebastian Muñoz and his crew bring it all, in an hour of non-stop shocks and surprises.

MANICOMIO
photo: Adam Neubauer

To begin with, the house doesn’t look right — a large oblong box sits where the heart of the front row should be.  A row of seats spreads along what’s usually the back of the stage.   And we’re not alone.

“Some of these folks don’t seem to be … ah, paying guests,” my companion whispers, as a disheveled woman in a housecoat wanders up, eyes us, then veers off.  Behind her stands a strapping young man in shorts and T-shirt, not entirely clean, looking lost.

I begin to feel I know this place.  It brings back the years I spent, before returning to theatre, as a therapist in clinics for the mentally ill.   And indeed, before the lights dim, it’s clear that’s where we are.

In place of a story, this Manicomio offers — as a visit to a real one does — a gentle shove into several stories, as one by one the residents collar our attention and erupt with what troubles them.  Some ramblings are sung, some spoken (in various languages), some mimed or moaned.  Some are poignant, some are indigestible word salad, some have moments of humor.

All of these madhouse tales are non-linear and disturbing, evoking our confusion and our empathy.  Uncomfortably often, they also elicit the chaos bubbling beneath our own socially correct surfaces.

As Alice says in Wonderland, “I don’t want to go among mad people.” It’s easier to look at involuntary suffering from the outside, and label it “illness.”  That’s how we deal with the visitations of fate upon our neighbors — a diagnosis and some pills.  Whether they work or not (usually not), at least they keep us at a safe distance.

The ZJU actors don’t cut themselves that kind of slack. They don’t talk about mental illness, or perform a “movie-of-the-week” melodrama to wring a little pity or a donation.  Instead, they throw themselves into an unscripted, frightening worlds they’ve allowed to arise from their own fears and compulsions.

Although it’s carefully crafted, Manicomio is disorganized, disturbing and unresolved.  It simply ends.  And the actors’ exit reminds us that in a real manicomio, only the visitors get to leave.

I confess:  I’ve spent half a lifetime dealing with mental illness, and Marat/Sade is one of my favorite plays.  I’ve also worked, as actor and director, at ZJU many times over the last 10 years.

But Peter Weiss’ madhouse masterpiece has a political axe to grind, and it’s set two centuries away from our daily world.

Manicomio is not a masterpiece.  But it is a theatrically daring, emotionally honest attempt to explore the tortured solitude that descends daily upon too many of us.  Not to poke fun or ostracize, not to analyze or explain.  Just to remind us — with the humility of art — that this confusing, painful mystery is a part of our lives.

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Manicomio
, at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, 8:30 pm Fridays through May 23.  Produced by Zombie Joe, directed by Sebastian Muñoz.

CastJared Adams, Charlotte Bjornbak, Jahel Corban Caldera, Ramona Creel, Joachim de la Rua, Samm Hill, Tyler Koster, Leif LaDuke, Jackie Lastra, Kevin Van Cott, R. Benjamin Warren, Jessica Weiner,  and Ann Wescott.

Tickets: (818)420-2120, or <zombiesjoes.tix.com>

On the Bodies of Women: 2. “How I Learned to Drive”

In recent weeks, I’ve witnessed — no, participated in, from the seats — two stage productions focused on the bodies of women. Here’s my attempt to thread my way through these engaging, disturbing experiences.

HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE

This unassuming play premiered in1997, winning a Pulitzer and shelf of theatre awards, and has become a familiar feature of our theatre landscape.   Now the Illyrian Players, on the Theatre Asylum stage, are giving full, chilling life to this modern classic. 

Drive
Thadeus Shaffer and Elitia Daniels

It’s the story of a girl, Li’l Bit (Elitia Daniels) who learns driving — and drinking — and sexuality — from her alcoholic uncle Peck (Thaddeus Shaffer).  It’s simply told:  two chairs on a bare stage, at times two more and a table, in one scene a bed.  Only the two main characters are drawn full; the others are sketched by three supporting actors (Anna Walters, Jonny Taylor, and Cassandra Gonzales).

With these bits of yarn, Paula Vogel (now Yale’s playwriting prof) weaves a mesmerizing tale.  In fact — as Ben Brantley noted in his NY Times review of the 2012 Broadway revival — she also slips in “Brechtian scene titles … self-conscious use of illusion, strategically scrambled chronology [and] cartoonish comic exaggeration.”  But it feels familiar, swift and stark, just like a classical tragedy.

Indeed it is a tragedy, one to stand alongside Death of a Salesman or Long Day’s Journey.   Or Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis.  In clear language and images we cannot fail to recognize, How I Learned… reveals the web of half-conscious complicity that surrounds us all, as we struggle to survive our culture’s “design for living.”

By the time this tale is told, we have felt the desperate attempt of each character — even Li’l Bit’s comic-strip grandparents — to make sense of the unspoken rules, to find a way to be a man or a woman. We’ve felt their need to anesthetize the loneliness and pain, to ignore the horrors we endure and, in turn, inflict.

All are ensnared in the gender trap.  No one gets free.  Not even those of us who applaud and leave the theatre.  That’s what makes it tragic.

Vogel knows what she’s doing (we never hear the family’s last name; the three backup players are listed as “Greek Chorus”), and her achievement is remarkable.  She deserves the awards.

Equally worthy of praise is the direction of Carly D. Weckstein (who led Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine last year), and the work of the cast  and crew.   By daring to stay close to the harrowing ride mapped out in Vogel’s script, they lead us on a painful but necessary journey.

Touches of faithful genius fill this production.  The pre-show shocks us with recognition as we hum along to the pedophilic “love songs” of the era (“You’re 16, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine”; “Young Girl, Get Out of My Mind”), suggested by Vogel and selected by Weckstein.  William Herder’s set wears the face of a ’50s model female emerging on a peeled billboard, torn scraps leaving her with only one eye.   An electronic projection writhes anxiously upon it before the play starts … at the climax, its  white garden-lattice base falls open to become a hotel bed.

In one scene, Uncle Peck “grooms” a young nephew by teaching him to fish.  All the while, Li’l Bit lies under a blanket nearby where (in the previous scene) she’d fallen asleep, drunk, in Peck’s car.  In another scene, as Li’l Bit recounts his relapse and swift alcoholic decline, Peck downs several shots then steps to the edge of the stage, poised as if to take flight;  seconds later, she tells us he died by falling down the cellar stairs.

Many such moments grace the performance.  But it’s the artists Weckstein has chosen who shape its core, sustaining it throughout.

Elitia Daniels displays impressive range, bringing all of Li’l Bit to life, especially eloquent at embodying her often unspoken conflict and discomfort.  Though the play is decidedly non-linear, she clearly shows us her character’s evolution from a child seeking acceptance and love, through confusion and anger, to a young woman struggling for a sense of control in her life.  She reveals flashes of wit and wile that brighten and darken her character.  And Daniels’ own zaftig beauty  (quietly overplayed by Janet Leon’s costume design) makes Li’l Bit’s pre-teen precocity and anguish fully credible.

Thaddeus Shaffer is another felicitous choice.  Laying aside easy  choices (leering lout, Southern gentleman), he delicately crafts a man who has barely survived, long before the scarring war he can’t discuss.  Peck almost visibly trembles with the effort to live within his skin.  We know what he will do, yet we feel his desperation for the empathy his niece gives — and for the devil’s bargain she offers, intimacy in return for his going on the wagon.  Shaffer always shows us, subtly, that Peck’s genuine love and his specious assurances deceive him as well as Li’l Bit.  By the end, he has taken us far from easy judgment and socially approved hatred to a much different, more painful place.

The Greek Chorus trio handles widely varied, often very brief roles.   They carve them clearly, and keep them distinct.  And they move easily among the many styles the script demands.  Anna Walters, as Li’l Bit’s mother, slides from satiric realism to Lucille Ball buffoonery in her multi-stage monologue on how a lady drinks.  Jonny Taylor and Cassandra Gonzales shift smoothly from teens to a pair of sex-obsessed sexagenerians straight out of commedia dell’arte.  Taylor also adroitly twists and curves his tall frame into a short middle-school geek’s sad  self-image.

How I Learned to Drive is, as Weckstein has said, an important play.  It needs to be performed often, as our culture begins the long ascent from patriarchy toward humanity.  And the Illyrian Players, under her direction, are performing it with the artistry, power and immediacy it deserves.

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How I Learned to Drive, by the Illyrian Players, at Theatre Asylum; Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8 pm, through April 13.<www.illyrianplayers.com>