Pushing the Boundaries: (2) “Rain Maryam”

Lately, I’ve been present as two theatre companies stepped bravely past the boundaries of theatre as we know it.  Both shows have closed, but they’re worth taking a look at — in print now, on stage if you ever can. 

In mid-July,  I watched a Fringe Encore presentation of Into the Fog.
In late August, I took part in the final performance of Rain Maryam.

Both works employ the materials of theatre — artists on a stage, lights, sounds, costumes and an audience — to  explore what might lie beyond our accustomed uses of these elements.

Rain Maryam
Well before all the patrons have arrived,  a girl in black steps onto a brightly lit bare stage that occupies perhaps a quarter of a wide, black-draped area.

Long past curtain time, she stands silent, immobile.  We can see her, and the empty seats, from the balcony-like lobby.  Ushers keep us from entering.

Charlotte Plummer, Donzell Lewis, Quincy Cho, Marie Ponce-DeLeon, Francesca Chanel Fromang.

Charlotte Plummer, Donzell Lewis, Quincy Cho, Marie Ponce-DeLeon, Francesca Chanel Fromang.

After some time, four black-clad actors enter our space, shout “Yes!” in unison, and thread their way among us.  We watch, moving aside to let them through, until they regain the entrance and head down a ramp toward the seats.

An usher motions some of us to follow, at the actors’ funereal pace. At last, as they disappear behind the curtain wall, we arrive at the seats.  We sit.  Onstage, nothing happens.  The other half of the audience fails to arrive.

Then, behind the curtain wall, the actors start to speak.  But they’re muffled, not projecting.  The show’s tagline emerges in scraps:  A drought  … a village … a girl … a song.

They’re haranguing someone for singing — or for not singing.  The girl onstage?  Their blurred voices carry desolation, and rage.  Would  singing bring rain?

The girl rushes offstage.  The muffled litany goes on.  After a few moments, she returns and stands silent again.

The four actors drift onstage.  Circling her, they interrogate and accuse her.  Has she broken a taboo?  She seems to have done something they fear, don’t like, can’t comprehend.

An usher bursts onstage.  Behind him, the lost  audience members file in, then downstage, then to the empty seats.  He motions us who have been sitting to rise.  We file to the far end of the curtain wall, then into the space behind it.

Here, the scene we strained to overhear repeats.  Now, we hear drought-stricken villagers in a delirious lament.  They mourn the trees that shaded and fed them, the soil that’s been burned to dead powder by the sun.  We still don’t know who the girl is, or what about her singing (or not singing) disturbs them.

The girl rushes in, grabs a brush and mime-paints letters on a door:  “W-H-Y.”   She returns to the stage.  The usher leads us after  her.  We file onstage, across, and  back to our seats.

The audience is at last whole, and we’ve all seen both scenes. Now, as we watch, the villagers begin handling — then abusing — the girl.  A wooden frame is brought in, lifted up, and  slammed loudly down.  All exit.  Blackout.

One actor returns, smiling — No one’s smiled before — and seems to say she will sing.  But when the other villagers enter, she chants tunelessly.  They join her in what may be a litany of hope, then leave the stage, chanting, and file up the ramp.  The girl picks up the wood frame, sets it down, exits.  The chanting develops a harmony, moving toward song.  An usher says the show is over.

I don’t often describe a play in detail.  But I can think of no other way to convey the experience of Rain Maryam — calm yet disturbing, elusive, intriguing.  And incomplete.

I came expecting a story.  From the poster — the broken mud of a parched lake bed, the tagline — I felt I  knew its elements.  I expected that as an audience we’d watch and listen together, while the actors wove the elements into meaning.  I figured they’d lead us to feel  empathy for the people of a particular village, real or imagined.

The artists of Rain Maryam did far more — by doing far less.

They began by challenging our most basic expectations.

An actor on a lit stage, clearly visible seats, said “This is a theatre.”  But they kept us out.  Then actors intruded into our space, without even acknowledging us.  A neat, discomfiting role reversal.

Then we got separated.  Half of us sat watching nothing happen, trying to hear something we couldn’t see.  The other half were just gone.  We weren’t an audience — we were  people struggling to become an audience.  By the time we were reunited, we hadn’t shared the same experience.  And we never could, though we watched the rest of the play together.

The artists similarly confounded our expectations of story and meaning.  At first, we were too surprised to make sense of what was happening.  When we got used to the way things were going, we felt we could harvest some understanding.  But not very much.

Ironically, what we worked so hard to come away with was no more than what we’d had at the start, on the poster:  A drought … a village … a girl … a song.

But now, instead of a story of these things, we had an experience of them.  Our experience was fragmented, disturbing, difficult and unsettled — more like the experience of a natural disaster than a pleasant evening of theatre.

Much more like it than a coherent story, with a beginning and ending, a problem and a resolution, ever could be.

Very few of the half-billion people now living — and dying — in the Earth’s severe drought areas feel they’re going through a coherent experience, one that makes any kind of sense.  They all ask one question: WHY?  Their expectations were reasonable, as they planted their crops and bore their children. They paid for their tickets.

But nature isn’t reasonable.  It keeps you from getting where you think you’re going, even when it’s so close you can see it.  It sends things among you — plagues, crop failures — that you don’t expect.  It stops doing things — rain, flowers and fruits — that you do expect.

And your plants die.  And your children die.

And you turn to blaming, to magic, to prayer, any damn scheme that promises — and nothing works.  Nothing makes any sense at all.  Nothing can make you smile or sing or hope again.

The sudden collapse of life leaves us broken.  Separated from those we feel we belong with, from what we know, we come apart.  We have only shards of time, scraps of memory, and nothing holds together.  Even if we can cobble something back into order, we’re overwhelmed by the people and things we’ve lost.

Of course, no mere play can make us feel the crushing weight of a real  disaster.  But Rain Maryam did  sharply defeat my expectations and make me feel by turns confused, frustrated and lost.  At the same time, it kept me reaching out for the actors, for connection, and for meaning — and aching because it was all just out of reach.

I still find myself saying, like a chant — a drought, a village, a girl, a song — and feeling deep inside the grief that I’m never going to be able to put together, to fix.  Not by understanding, not by donating money.
I don’t think any story could have done that.

So I salute the young artists of the hereandnow theatre company.
In Rain Maryam, they have made a bold leap beyond storytelling, hoping to reach a far country of suffering we must not merely know about but feel.  I think they’ve arrived, and brought us with them.

Rain Maryam, written and directed by Ibrahim Chávez.
Presented by hereandnow theatre company (in association with Company of Angels and Mel Brian Patrón) at the Howard Hotel, 206 W. Sixth Street, LA.

Performers: Quincy Cho, Marie Ponce-DeLeon, Francesca Chanel Fromang, Donzell Lewis, Charlotte Plummer, Eileen Soong.


Pushing the Boundaries: (1)”Into the Fog”

Lately, I’ve been present as two theatre companies stepped bravely past the boundaries of theatre as we know it.  Both shows have closed, but they’re worth taking a look at — in print now, on stage if you ever can. 

In mid-July,  I watched a Fringe Encore presentation of Into the Fog.
In late August, I took part in the final performance of Rain Maryam.

Both works employ the materials of theatre — artists on a stage, lights, sounds, costumes and an audience — to  explore what might lie beyond our accustomed uses of these elements.

Into the Fog
The hour begins with seven performers in overcoats standing
at the back of a nearly bare stage.  It also ends there.  In between comes a melée of intense activity, punctuated by still moments, as the performers  invade and fill and then empty every inch of the space, again and again, in varying forms and patterns.

into fog

There’s no story here, no characters.  This isn’t Shakespeare or Chekhov or Brecht, not even Graham or Fosse.  Yet these unnamed persons engage us, drawing us with them as they walk, jump, fall and whirl, together and apart, in their … what?  Adventure?

They don’t undertake a planned exploration; this feels more like an odyssey, unexpected and constrained, searching unknown territory.  Rather like ghosts being introduced to the underworld.  Or humans finding their way into — and at times suffering, at times celebrating — sudden life.

Books are prevalent in this world.  Books and paper, eventually a whirlwind of paper.  My first thought is, “Ah! Someone’s been here before, left a record.”  Then the actions remind me of how we have used words written down — literally “scriptures” — for good and ill in human history.  And the role of schooling in our lives …

Later there’s a net, a fabric that grows to embrace the whole space and everyone in it … almost.  Like all our networks, families, communities, comforting by imprisoning, including by excluding …

At last, after many such sequences, we return.  The performers don their coats and move slowly — perhaps regretfully? with a wistful wisdom? — toward where they began, whence we came.

Their stepping forward, toward us, has created a connection, made us a community.  Their disrobing invited us in, beneath the surface.  Now the story is done, the inside covered, and we are separated again.  And yet …

Into the Fog has been around a while.  Created in 2011 by Sam Szabo at Skidmore College in upstate New York, it went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012.  For this year’s Hollywood Fringe, Szabo’s collaborator  Samantha Shay reincarnated it at the Schkapf art incubator on Santa Monica Blvd.

Her performers — all drawn from the CalArts community, where she’s working on her MFA — are intense, focused and impressively skillful.  Although none portray characters, each of them creates and maintains a presence with which we connect, drawing us into and through the experience.

You could call Into the Fog an energetic, enigmatic dance piece.  And many of its performers are dancers.  But all are actors experienced in the emerging  art of “ensemble movement” — a kind of work that has yet to be defined or classified, while many companies worldwide explore its countless  possible aspects and incarnations.

What I’m calling “ensemble movement” has been used to augment more traditional theatrical story telling, the way dance helps to tell West Side Story.  Ensemble movement also has replaced characters and settings entirely, while the text remains, as in Zombie Joe’s masterful stagings of Poe’s stories and poems (e.g., The Telltale Heart, The Bells, The Masque of the Red Death).

Into the Fog takes a further step, leaving out the text as well, letting the flow of movements suggest a story that must be “written” in the mind of each audience member, and perhaps rewritten over coffee or drinks afterward.  (So do recent ZJU works such as Nightmares, Manicomio and Haunted Walls and Apparitions.)

Watching such a performance, we must work to help create it, to make coherence and meaning of its flowing parts.  We’re a long way from the passive state in which we’re entertained by Oklahoma! or Noises Off, or  shocked and moved by Equus or Marat/Sade.  It’s more like wrestling with Beckett, or Pinter, or Stoppard.

But now, it’s entirely without words.  And almost equally far beyond the known languages of dance.  Yet the very materials the artists use — as they  refrain from telling what is not a story — create a human connection and elicit our own storymaking.

I wonder where we’ll go next.

Into the Fog, by Sam Szabo, directed by Samantha Shay.
Presented by the Source Material collective at Schkapf, 6567 Santa Monica Blvd.

Performers:  Erica Carpenter, James Michael Cowan, Brenna Fredrickson, Raven Scott, Jocelynn Suarez,  Kevin Whitmire, Jennifer Jun-Yi Zheng.




Prisoners of Patriarchy: “The Conduct of Life”

Almost thirty years ago, Maria Irene Fornes had a new play.  For its title, she took the name of a book published 125 years earlier, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay collection The Conduct of Life.

In the play, a character says, “I want to conduct each day of my life in the best possible way.”  Her words, like the title, echo Emerson.  But don’t judge a book by its cover — either Emerson’s or Fornes’.

Robert Homer Mollohan

Robert Homer Mollohan

The playwright’s work, now staged by the Vagrancy at Theatre Asylum, is a raw, abrasive indictment of power, the drug of choice and lifeblood of patriarchy.  And in his essays, the gentle “sage of Concord” wrote some of the most shocking apologetics for patriarchal power and violence that have ever been penned .

With Confederate guns firing on Fort Sumter, Emerson mused: “Civil war, national bankruptcy, or revolution [are] more rich … than languid years of prosperity.”  What?  Because, he calmly explained,  “wars, fires, plagues … clear the ground of rotten races … and open a fair field to new men.”  So much for his conduct of life.

Fornes’ play puts us in an unnamed totalitarian country, at war — as all police states are –against itself. (The unseen leaders both have Hispanic names, and Fornes was born in Batista’s Cuba; but it might be anywhere).  We’re in the home of Orlando (Robert Homer Mollohan), an ambitious officer in the paramilitary police who has married a genteel older woman, Leticia (Karina Wolfe).  Moments into the story, he kidnaps Nena (Emily Yetter), a young woman made homeless by the war, and imprisons her in the cellar as a sex slave.

In a rapid series of jarring scenes and vignettes, we are shown how everyone in this violently sick world is infected, implicated.  There are no bystanders — though the kind officer Alejo (Jeremy Mascia) and the feisty servant Olimpia (Belinda Gosbee) try to be — and even the victims learn to lie and betray.  At the end, a killing we feel is justified resolves nothing.   The structured savagery of patriarchal society does not end so easily.

The performances in this production are intense, believable and courageous.  The directing (by Vagrancy co-founder Sabina Ptasznik) is breathlessly fast-paced and precise.  It’s a stunning, heart-rending achievement.

The chaotic-feeling but deftly functional set (by Nick Santiago), the spot-on costumes (John C. Houston IV), the morally murky lighting (Ric Zimmerman) and often ironic sound (Martin Carillo) — all conspire to create a painfully convincing world where our need to know keeps us imprisoned, though we are dying to escape.

This is not a pretty show.  The rape and fight scenes (sickeningly real, thanks to choreographer Jen Albert) make it the wrong place for children.   The way the characters treat each other — and cruelly betray themselves — makes it hard for adults.   If this “conduct of life” clears the field for a new race of humans, I don’t want to meet them.

The Conduct of Life, by Maria Irene Fornes, directed by Sabina Ptasznik.
Presented by the Vagrancy at Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd.

Wednesday June 25 at 7:00, Saturday June 28 at 9:00.

Tickets:  <www.hff14.org/projects/1593>

Polished and Painful — “@thespeedofJake”

Death, loss and grief. Not exactly the stuff that brings us rushing into the theatre. But they’re exactly the stuff we all have to face, and find our way through. So artists are always going on about them.

The latest artist to put this unholy trio onstage is Jennifer Maisel in @the speedofJake, world-premiering at the Atwater Village Theater. Maisel has built a noted career in LA – including If You Lived Here… (reviewed below); Comings and Goings, performed at Union Station; Out of Orbit, at Cal Tech and on the Queen Mary; and The Last Seder, which went from Ensemble Studio Theatre to New York.

@thespeedofJake takes us into small, private spaces — a condo unit; a father’s grief, a mother’s, an aunt’s; and the small black hole where a boy used to be.

Renee Threatte, Elizabeth Pan, Ryun Yu, Celeste Den

Renee Threatte, Elizabeth Pan, Ryun Yu, Celeste Den

It opens with a soccer field projected across the apartment walls, while the parents watch and cheer for their son. But there are no children on this field. The image, repeated several times, suggests that the story — like the griefs it examines — may not be about the child, but about the adults’ imaginings of him. (Perhaps, it also whispers, we never see our children at all, except through our images of them, our hopes and fears.)

The next moment is equally bold and effective: A sheet that has draped the condo’s furniture (because, we suppose, the inhabitants have left) is lifted. We see the furniture, a chaos of papers — and the father, frozen, kneeling before a pile of childrens’ books.

The rest of the play works out this moment’s implications. While his almost-ex wife and his sister empathize and cajole, the father remains stunned, stuck, unable to move for fear of losing even a fast-food wrapper. As we watch, each of these three struggles  to survive unspeakable loss.

Eventually, the father does try to cope: Using his software-design  skills, he seeks to contact his absent son through the internet ether. But like his wife’s retreat into scientific materialism, or his sister’s immersion in family, his strategy only works for a while. Ultimately, each of them bows before the dark god, helpless.

The death of a child is perhaps the worst loss we can imagine, and Maisel is hardly the first writer to examine it.  (David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole and the film What Dreams May Come spring to mind.)  But she gives us an immediately engaging, tightly woven story, compelling us to connect with three people and the raw wounds death has torn in their lives.

And the company gives her story a strong, moving presentation. As Clark, the shock-frozen father, Ryun Yu make us share his agony, even while he tries to stifle it — thus also forcing us share the women’s angry frustration.  As Emily the mother, Elizabeth Pan embodies the complex pain of being in two lives (and two marriages) at once, and carrying two children inside herself. Celeste Den as Sam delicately reveals the caring and vulnerability beneath a straight-talking sister’s exterior, and Renee Threatte as a drop-in neighbor quietly sheds layers to disclose her inner self.

The play unfolds smoothly and grows steadily deeper, thanks to the gentle skill of director Jon Lawrence Rivera. When Sam, watching a projected (and imagined) soccer game, starts arguing with Clark and Emily, she is faced away from us, looking at the wall — yet we miss no part of her sudden cataclysm.  It’s a remarkable moment that only an actor’s art, supported by a director’s trust, can accomplish.

Indeed, @thespeedofJake exemplifies theatre as a collaborative art. Rivera and the Playwrights Arena have worked for a few years now with Maisel, then with Artists at Play, to bring the story from draft to finished script. Now, with Atwater Village Theater, they bring it to the stage for its premiere.

Jake also testifies to the power of diversity, as artists from many parts of the human family have shared in the process since its inception. Together, they’ve created something so true it’s painful — but necessary and, ultimately, healing.
@thespeedofJake, by Jennifer Maisel, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Presented by Playwrights’ Arena in association with Atwater Village Theater, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 3:00, Mondays at 7:00, thru Dec. 7.

Tickets: <www.jake.brownpapertickets.com> or (800) 838-3006.


Playing with Shakespeare: “Midsummer” at ZJU

Challenge:  Trim a Shakespeare play down to an hour, and do it in a black box that has only two entrances (both stage left).  Ready?

Director Denise Devin has been taking this dare for a few years now.  Her latest response, a madly compressed Midsummer Night’s Dream, erupts Friday nights in North Hollywood.

Lamont Webb, Ashley Fuller, Quinn Knox, Katherine Bowman, Melissa Virgo, David Wyn Harris, Emily Cunningham

Lamont Webb, Ashley Fuller, Quinn Knox, Katherine Bowman, Melissa Virgo, David Wyn Harris, Emily Cunningham

Midsummer is a fairy tale.  It has wings — half of its characters are fairies, including the Fairy King and Fairy Queen, and it’s narrated by that most mischievous of fairies, Puck.  It also has weight — all its mortal characters must walk, run, stumble and sleep on the ground.  The more you reduce its weight, the higher it will fly.

Keeping her eye on the wings, Devin scalpels the text neatly.  The play gets lighter and lighter, lifting into the breezy airs of comedy.

What disappears is almost unnoticeable.  First goes an amazing amount of repetition.  Shakespeare was playing in a large open-air theatre, to a boisterous crowd ordering and consuming lunch (with beer).  His actors couldn’t just say something once and expect to be heard.   They couldn’t do something in Act I and trust the onlookers to remember it in Act III.  Devin’s actors, in a quiet 48-seat box,  can.

Also excised is most of what the Elizabethans prized as “wit” — nimble wordplay, and the twisting and turning of ideas. These intellectual puzzles, parallels and paradoxes amuse (if the actors can “understand and deliver”).  But they take time, add weight.  Out.

What’s left is fast and furious — and fun.  Consider the opener.

Duke Theseus and Hippolyta stand shoulder to shoulder, facing out.  In an adjacent cluster stand Egeus, daughter Hermia and the suitors Demetrius and Lysander.  Egeus explains the problem, the Duke tersely lays out the options, and we’re off!  With 58 lines of dialog  on board, instead of 122.

Hermia and the boys have said with their faces and bodies what their feelings are.  An equally silent Hippolyta has used a sudden shrug and turn to make clear where she stands, unearthing a laugh where none was before.

Devin not only reduces the lines, she cuts the body freight.  Of her dozen players, only four play solo parts (the lovers).  The rest all juggle two, three and even four roles.  This makes changing in ZJU’s  tiny backstage even more frantic than usual, but far less congested.

Some things, Devin expands.

She uses multi-part casting to enhance the story’s built-in symmetry.  Duke Theseus and his bride become fairyland’s King Oberon and Queen Titania, and the tradesmen rehearsing “Pyramus and Thisbe” turn into the fairies who attend the royal pair.

She also extends the text’s cross-gender playfulness.  Shakespeare tweaked his era’s all-male casts by making Flute reluctantly portray the lady Thisbe.  Devin also puts the same actor (David Wyn Harris) in a wig and tutu as the largest — and hairiest — of the fairies.  She adds a decidedly female Puck (Katherine Bowman), women as tradesmen Snug (Emily Cunningham) and Snout (Melissa Virgo), and a distaff Peter Quince and “Mother” Egeus (both by Sarah Fairfax).

Devin further tickles our expectations with the cast’s ethnic and age diversity, which I was gratified to see.  Her equally modern musical choices, swapping motets for Motown ballads, inspired the audience to clap and sing along.

Shakespeare doesn’t come easily to today’s actors — or audiences.  Whipping at lightspeed through such a tangled plot can be perilous for both.  But this troupe has their tongues (and minds) well tuned — they know what they’re saying, and why, and they almost always  take the breath and time to say it.

Lamont Webb (Oberon/Theseus) fills his royal characters with commanding power, and makes his Fairy King a charming but unaware “player” heading for a fall.  Ashley Fuller creates a lush, laughing, mature Titania far too wise to be fooled, who will always win her way to parity.  (She is only overmatched in singing, a gap a coach could help her quickly fill.)

As Puck, Katherine Bowman makes a daring, difficult choice.  Her costume and movement make it clear she is a nubile young woman; but she sing-speaks in a high, nasal voice that recalls the voice-overs used for young boy characters in animated films. This summons Puck the irritating imp, infamous for acts of vandalism.  It also dampens (but does not erase) the sexual energy between her and Oberon.

Robert Walters gives Lysander an energy and verbal clarity that drive the lovers’ scenes.  Arielle Davidsohn’s colloquial Hermia, controlling and combative, reaches through the fourth wall to enlist the audience.  Dorian Serna brings physical comedy to Demetrius (plus a few seconds of unintelligible shouting), while Nicole DeCroix’s Helena suffers genteelly until finally goaded to anger.

Among the rude mechanicals, Quinn Knox stands out.  Of course, Bottom’s is by far the largest part.  But instead of a bumptious egoist, Knox gives us a sincere, intelligent enthusiast, a sort of Elizabethan geek, sweetly unaware he’s overriding his fellows (who do love and admire him) and enduringly baffled by Titania’s love.

There are no small roles.  Emily Cunningham’s timid Snug wins us over at once, then descends into an excruciating — yet irresistibly funny — portrait of abject terror as she faces the royals, helpless and overwhelmed.  I’ve seen (and done) this play often, and have never seen an audience interrupt the Moon’s exit with applause.  (Director Devin earns a special kudo here, for intensifying and symbolizing Snug’s plight by having her do both Lion and Moonshine at once.)

Angelia Weitzman’s simple, evocative set design evokes Chagall’s night skies and wonderfuly signals scene changes with the turn of a column (created by R. Benjamin Warren).  And Devin’s costumes range from plain and frangible (the two suitors) to lavish yet fully workable (Oberon and Titania).

Those who love and revere Shakespeare’s texts as classics — which, of course, they are — may find such radical alteration blasphemous, or at best uncomfortable and unwarranted.  I have relished many  “traditional” stagings of the Bard, from both sides of the apron.  But I don’t want his art to slide out of view due to linguistic and historical drift, or well-intentioned but dead performances.

Shakespeare’s plays were always new and often shocking when written.  So for me, this kind of radical experimenting will always be an important way to engage the master, and keep the play alive.

If you like such playing, you will surely enjoy being a part of Denise Devin’s swift, winged Midsummer Night’s Dream.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare.  Edited and directed by Denise Devin.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Fridays at 8:30 pm., through August 15.

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

Disclaimer:  I consider ZJU my home theatre, and count Denise Devin and several other artists in Midsummer Night’s Dream as friends.   I have not participated in one of the ZJU Shakespeare productions.


Playing with Heavy Meta: “Living Art” at ZJU

Art has always riffed on art.

That’s meta, dude.  Like meta-language, the language people use to talk about language, or meta-criticism, reviewers snarking at each other.

Zombie Joe’s Festival of Living Art is nothing if not meta.  It’s a series of his trademark blackout moments, all of them designed in homage to famous paintings and sculptures.

Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson

Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson

He’s translated well-known images from oil and acrylic, bronze and steel back into the breathing human bodies that were their models. The suddenly familiar poses the actors create are an achievement on that level alone.

But there’s more going on.  At ZJU, there almost always is.

For one thing, some of the tableaux vivants move, though paintings and most sculptures don’t.  They take their images somewhere the original artist didn’t — usually somewhere disturbing, yet amusing.   (One piece, a joyful nod to sculptor Alexander Calder, moves like his “mobiles” do — and adds a lovely, smiling human to the mix.)

For another thing, if you’ve lived in LA a while you’ll recognize another reference — to Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters, where for 80 summers live performers have staged meticulous re-creations of famed artworks.  The Underground’s show, done on a shoestring by starving actors, seems to fling a challenge at Orange County’s big-budget orgy of high kitsch.

Finally, there’s the whole business of bringing the visual arts back into the flesh, where they began.  This, I think, is not a criticism (as in “living art” vs. “dead”) but a reminder.  It completes one revolution in an endless cycle: from the flesh, via inspiration and imagination, into art; then back into living, breathing beings as humans experience the art they have made.

Beneath the scrappy playfulness, a ZJU hallmark, I sense a serious reverence.   And the fierce, dedicated discipline of this art’s makers is unmistakeable.

As the familiar scenes flip by, accompanied by music both classical and current, we involuntarily say “Oh!” and “Aaaah” and sometimes “Awwww,” and we often laugh, even cheer.  Several among us shared the desire to see it again — after checking out Janson’s History of Art (there’s an online version), so we could get all the jokes.  And all the homages.

Note should be taken of the understated yet effective costume (and prop) work of Jeri Batzdorff and Zac Hughes.  And, of course, a show that has no stars requires a constellation:  Charlotte Bjornbak, Jason Britt, Sara Ceballos, Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson, Ian Heath, Erin Poland, Chelsea Rose, Sasha Snow, and Julian Vlcan all shine, making an impossibly difficult performance go down easily and most pleasingly.

Festival of Living Art, directed by Zombie Joe and Zac Hughes.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Saturdays at 11:00 pm (just under 1 hour), through September 6.

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

Disclaimer:  ZJU has been my theatre home for a decade, and I’m honored to count Zombie Joe and many in the show as my friends.  But I had no part in conceiving or creating the Festival of Living Art.

Playing in Space & Time, part 2: “50 Hour Drive-By”

This past weekend, I took part as two theatre companies invited us to play with them in ways that stretched — or shrank — space and time.   Each deserves its own review, but I think they shed light on each other.

50 HOUR DRIVE-BY at Zombie Joe’s Underground

ZJU is the quintessential black box.  In the back half of a narrow North Hollywood storefront, 40 seats (in an “L”) surround  a stage of perhaps 300 square feet.  Space is shrunk as far as can be.

drive-by writers

Writers ready their pens at the 13th annual “Drive-By”

Once a year, Zombie Joe invites a handful of writers and directors, and a passel of actors, to a mad challenge.   Given (by lot) three or four actors and a few random props, each writer has 25 hours to weave a new play.  Then the directors each get 25 hours to bring their play (chosen by lot) to stage.  Time is shrunk as far as can be.

At this year’s “Drive-By,” the five offerings are (as usual) a rapid, ragged romp, wildly varied in subject, but not so dispersed in style.

The black box and L-shaped audience space impose a discipline.  They nudge actors to play “full out” to the L’s apex — not facing each other, discreetly “cheating” toward folks behind the fourth wall.

The abbreviated time likewise urges a certain style.  Things can’t develop slowly, with foreshadowing.   They’re more likely to pop, flick past quickly, and be replaced.  What develops slowly may be the audience’s understanding.

Take this year’s opener, “Doodlebug’s Lament” (Jim Eshom,  dir. Jana Wimer).  Amid a flurry of instant, near-identical scenes, I have an “Aha.”   This demented dentist (Daniel Camacho) will keep torturing his hapless patient (Ronnel Ricardo Parham) at the whim of this mad woman (Anne Wescott) who consults her floppy dog doll.  But why? Suddenly, the characters try to break out, and I see it’s a love thing, and maybe … then it ends.

An addled troubador (Leif LaDuke) starts to capture it all in a song, but wanders offstage too soon.

Then “Fran’s Home Version” (Jeri Batzdorff,  dir. Vanessa Cate) erupts.  Thoroughly modern Fran (Corey Zicari) invites her two unwitting suitors to a face-off,  dueling for her favors in quizzes, a thumb-wrestle, a duet (crooning “our song”) and mano-a-mano slapstick.  The boys (Willy Romano-Pugh and Matt DeNoto) evoke Laurel and Hardy as their daft competition drifts into camaraderie.

Then the troubador returns, knowing more than he tells.

“Tartine” (Kerr Lordygan,  dir. Sebastian Munoz) develops another triangle, as dependent Gelle (Caitlin Carleton) wavers between her passion for the wise, aloof Yeulah (Ellen Runkle) and her possessive TweedleDee of a brother (Steven Alloway).  Ah, it seems they’re fighting over Mom … or is this an internal trialogue … or …

On the swift heels of death, the singer stumbles in.  Then out.

Jennifer (Eunice Viggers) and Samantha (Mary Rachel Gardner) are marooned, faintly recall an accident … A zaftig bubbe (Ann Hurd) says she’s St. Peter and they’re at “The Pearly Gates” (Denise Devin, dir. Denise Devin).  Gifts from their late mother revive their memory of being loved, their desire to love and try again …

The guitar man enters, strums, hums, and leaves.

Leaping on last comes “My Lady” (Adam Neubauer, dir. Jim Eshom), on the shoulders of three energetic young men in tighty whiteys (Tyler Koster, Billy Minogue and David Wyn Harris).  Each vows his prowess and devotion to the unseen Lady.  Enter her aged husband (Roger K. Weiss), wielding a ball-cutter that cowers them all.  But his revelation that Lady is 94 years old doesn’t cool their jets …


When you condense time and space so radically, the devil whispers, “Make it simple, easy, clear.”  The ZJU crowd pays that fool no mind.  For them, compression works as in nuclear physics — it begets explosive energy, with possible meanings whirling off at light speed.  And gasps and groans and laughter in the seats.  As it should be.

A final note about time:  By its nature, the “50 Hour Drive-By” has a short half-life.  It’s performed three times, then closes.  Drop by next year …



Playing in Space & Time, part 1: “Elephant Man”

This past weekend, I took part as two theatre companies invited us to play with them in ways that stretched — or shrank — space and time.   Each deserves its own review, but I think they shed light on each other.

THE ELEPHANT MAN at St. John’s Cathedral

This is not a theatre.  It is the absolute opposite of a black box — a gigantic oblong carton, six or seven stories high and a city block long, empty save rows of long wooden pews clinging to the stone floor.  Halfway down its immense length, a flat wooden stage.

Merrick church

Cathedral model built by Merrick

Far above the stage’s lights, in the vast penumbra that fills this void, a figure two or three times the size of a man hangs on a flat cross.   This, and the gilded altar a half-block farther on, remind us of the building’s purpose — to tell a much older story than the one we will witness tonight.

Tonight, the actors tell of a young man, John Merrick, whose life was shaped by  a disease — and people’s reactions.  The illness twisted his bones and grew the tissues of his head, torso and arm at a cancerous rate.  Shunned, he survived by being “the Elephant Man” in Victorian freak shows.  When his agent robbed and abandoned him, a London doctor took him in.   At the hospital he had a home and education, friends and an art (model building) for four years, until he died.

Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 play (and David Lynch’s 1980 film) took   this story to the world.  But that was a generation ago, when half the people now alive were not born.  Director Patricia McKee’s staging is thus timely.

And her choice of venue pushes the subtext forward, making it larger than the play itself.

We feel Merrick (Mark McClain Wilson) suffer piercing indignities and unthinkable pain, while the massive Crucifix hovers above.  We hear character after character confess — they use Merrick as a mirror into their own souls, though few peer deeply.   And we dare not breathe as Mrs. Kendal (Maria Olsen) boldly touches Merrick’s isolated life with love.  Surrounding this small naked moment, embracing it, are acres of silent stone and stained glass, gold leaf and velvet drapes — all shaped to draw attention to Christendom’s central act, the communion of one body given to and for another.

Like the actors’ voices echoing into the vast stone chamber (a challenge not always fully met), the story’s heart resounds in this sacramental space.

This makes the play’s last scenes,  an earnest critique of patriarchy, a genuine anticlimax.  As his awareness emerges, Dr. Treves breaks apart (though William Kidd’s physicality peaked early).  The bishop (Paul Anderson) and hospital administrator (JimTaylor) remain obtuse and self-admiring, as unaware as the feckless Lord John (Michael McConnell).  The world is little changed.

McKee has chosen boldly.  The cathedral’s reverberant meanings are worth the struggle with its physical echoes.  Her wisely spare stage (a table, a desk, a bed, three chairs) is simply lit by Sergio Crego, who uses blackouts to good effect.  And it’s a fine touch to reveal some  characters early, at the candlelit altar, and let them traverse the long aisle down to the stage before entering.

Daring to throw this play into acres of space, McKee allows it to connect across millennia of time.  Yet she keeps its onstage body small and simple.   This lets us stay attached to the players and the tale, while feeling the deeper levels of our shared experience.

A further note about time:  This play was afforded a very short run — eight performances — and has closed.  But McKee is hopeful …

Playing in Space & Time: (3) “A Silver Lining”

Back in February, I wrote about a pair of unrelated shows (50-Hour Drive-By at ZJU, and Elephant Man at St. John’s Cathedral) that played creatively with space and time.

A Silver Lining, now at ArtShare downtown, doesn’t just play with space and time — it’s about them.

silver lining


A Silver Lining runs through it.  Where most plays present themselves to seated audiences, this one moves from space to space (I counted at least seven) through the dimly lit warren of caverns that once was  a warehouse.  And it takes us along — or sends us ahead, into the unknown.

At several points,  where we wander — and what we experience — depends upon choices we must agree on, tasks we must complete,
or questions we must answer.    A Silver Lining is not only “immersive” theatre, it is “interactive.”


The story — which we first watch, sitting comfortably, and then become  implicated in and actively part of, less and less comfortably — involves characters who travel through time.  They cross and recross their paths, disturbing the past and reshaping the future.

Hmm.  Not unlike the way we at times enter a room we’ve been in, but find it’s part of a different reality than when we left.  Or the way our choices create our subsequent experiences, but in ways we may or may not learn about.

A Silver Lining moves us through its worlds swiftly, with considerable wit and humor — but along the way, we encounter serious ethical questions.  And we’re compelled to make choices where no outcome is certain, and none may prove satisfactory.

I’d like to say more.  I’d like to praise a beautiful metaphor in which the two main issues of the tale become one.  I’d like to describe at least one of the delightfully imagined chambers we find ourselves in, and who we meet there.  But this is an experience of constant surprises, and I’ve had to give away a lot already.

What I can say is that we were a dozen adults, thrown together in a company, making our way through an experience you’d have to classify as science fiction (but with some serious ethical weight).  Yet it also felt like we were children wandering open-mouthed with Alice, through Wonderland.

In creating A Silver Lining, the audacious young A Working Theater company has taken on an immense challenge.  Their main resources are themselves: their imagination, their skills and their energy.  With these and a fistful of shoestrings they’ve put together a unique and delightful experience — theatre as a multi-character role-playing game — that will send you into the night talking and laughing.

A Silver Lining, by A Working Theater.
Presented at ArtShare L.A., 801 E. 4th Place.

The Company:  Mikie Beatty, Karel Ebergen, Madeline Harris, Shery Hernandez, Ben Huth, Matt Jones, Amy Kline, Kevin Railsback, Jessica Salans, Taylor Solomon, Matt Soson, Erika Soto, Vika Stubblebine, Emily Yetter.

Performances:  Nov. 11th, 12th, 15th, 16th,  and 18th – 21st.
Two shows each night, at 7:00 and 8:30 pm.

Tickets: <http://aworkingtheater.ticketleap.com/a-silver-lining>
NOTE: Only 12 patrons per showing.


“Pick of the Vine”: A Fine Vintage from Little Fish

There are two kinds of short-play festivals.

In one, the members of a company see what they can scrabble together in a mad rush from blank page to lit stage, usually popping out a handful of playlets in a weekend.  It’s a lot of fun, and seldom produces any shows worth doing again (but nobody expects it to).

In the other, a company invites playwrights to submit short works, then chooses a half-dozen or so to mount — usually in an evening of theatre that gets a regular run.  This is the only way most short plays ever get seen, so most writers are pretty serious about the works they send (no mere bagatelles), and most companies are serious about producing them.

Out San Pedro way, a small company named Little Fish has been holding the second kind of festival for 15 years now.  For the current “Pick of the Vine,”  more than 700 playwrights sent in one play each.  (That’s right — 700 plays.  In San Pedro.)

The judges selected 9 winners, and the troupe has spent the last couple of months creating a show that will run through mid-February.  It’s lively evening, full of variety — and rich in surprises.

Four of the plays are dramas, and five are  comedies. Eight actors handle the 28 roles, and four directors divide up the duties. Things get a little busy between plays, but the changes are swift and (thanks to some clever design work by Christopher Beyries) at times a source of delight.


Holly Baker-Kreiswirth, Don Schlossman (photo: Mickey Elliott)

Holly Baker-Kreiswirth, Don Schlossman (photo: Mickey Elliott)

The Dramas

Interestingly, all four dramas are two-handers.  Ten minutes isn’t much time; each of the four authors uses it wisely, keeping a tight focus and  deepening our sense of  character and conflict.

In Wheelchair (by Hollywood screenwriter Scott Mullen), two strangers meet in a park. Their curiosity about a nearby couple takes us to a place we can’t foresee. Bill Wolski’s brash fellow unwittingly peels himself like an onion, while Olivia Schlueter-Corey’s charming woman uses others’ underestimation of her like an aikido master.   Director Richard Perloff’s light hand lets the tension beneath the new friendship build almost subliminally, so the reveal is a slap.

By contrast, Screaming (by Stephen Peirick, a Little Fish alum now in St. Louis) begins in high tension and winds steadily higher, as a young couple struggles with severe post-partum depression — an arrival they didn’t expect.  Jessica Winward makes us feel her death-grip on  the frayed end of her rope; and Wolski nicely delivers her confused mate’s stumbles toward empathy.  Perloff again keeps things on the understated side, even in the midst of rising hysteria.

Although it’s a drama, taking us into its characters, Thick Gnat Hands (by  New York’s Erin Mallon) includes laugh-out-loud comedy.  As a dialysis-clinic veteran, Don Schlossman bubbles over with an enthusiasm that makes first-timer Wolski’s anxiety unbearable.  Director Elissa Anne Polansky lets the mix simmer but not boil, so we reach the deeper levels of emotion beneath the laughter.

The Way It Really, Truly Almost Was (by veteran Seattle dramatist Brendan Healy) is the most ambitious drama, sliding between reality, memory and imagination in a mere 10 minutes.  Schlossman bares the hope and suffering of a man whose beloved lies comatose; Holly Baker-Kreiswirth embodies calm in the face of death, and a love that tries to guide her mate.  Polansky’s delicate touch holds this piece on the edge of pathos, and our eyes are never dry.


Olivia Schlueter-Cory, Bill Wolski, Brendan Gill, Rodney Rincon, Holly Baker-Kreiswirth (photo: Mickey Elliott)

Olivia Schlueter-Corey, Bill Wolski, Brendan Gill, Rodney Rincon, Holly Baker-Kreiswirth (photo: Mickey Elliott)

The Comedies
All five of the comic plays benefit from a playful inventiveness, in the writing and in the production.

Santa Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (by Boston’s Patrick Gabridge) has the simplest premise: Parents wonder when to tell their son about Santa Claus. Geraldine Fuentes and Rodney Rincon are an irrepressible pair,  improvising boldly amid the debris of shattered myths, and Brendan Gill gives their son a nice naivete. Director Gigi Fusco Meese maintains a brisk pace, while keeping the stakes high.

I Don’t Know (by James McLindon, a New York lawyer turned writer) also builds on a simple conceit — a drill instructor tries to use age-old marching chants with a group of modern recruits. Rincon rings the frustrated DI’s changes deftly, while Wolski, Gill, Schlueter-Corey and Baker-Kreiswirth gingerly challenge him. The ensemble — tight as a parade team — keeps the satire sharply topical but light.

Another simple idea underlies A Very Short Play about the Very Short Presidency of William Henry Harrison (by Connecticut’s Jonathan Yukich, a Kennedy Center honoree).  In a swift handful of scenelets, Rincon slideshows through the would-be statesman’s rapid decline, with Schlossman as his imperturbable aide. Meese makes it tick, and lets us laugh about our dark fear — an ambitious, incompetent chief.

A Womb with a View (by New York’s widely produced Rich Orloff) has a more complex setting — an infant’s about to enter this dimension, aided by an otherworld clinical team. Baker-Kreiswirth oscillates between eagerness and terror, while Fuentes, Schlueter-Corey, Winward and Gill ineptly assist her. Perloff shows a sure comic hand, never letting the goofy machinery slow the 11th-hour story.

The Holy Grill (by New Jersey theatre prof Gary Shaffer) has the most complex comic setup.  Two worlds collide as a couple seeking prenuptial counsel get interrogated by detectives.  Rincon and Schlossman create a good cop/ bad cop team with a borscht belt flavor; Winward and Wolski are increasingly rattled innocents.
Despite some muddled blocking, the actors make it work.

The fact that 700 authors sent in plays for “Pick of the Vine” might seem to say that today’s playwrights are desperate to have their work produced.  And perhaps they are.

But the quality of these plays — and the almost uniformly high quality of their production — says more about Little Fish Theatre. This company invests seriously in its short-play festival (they even pay the actors!), and the word is on the street: If you want your best short play done proud, send it to San Pedro.

And if you want to see some of the best short plays being written, smartly staged by talented thespians,  get yourself to San Pedro.  “Pick of the Vine” is well worth a bit of driving.
“Pick of the Vine,” written by nine authors, directed by four  directors.
Presented by Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre St., San Pedro 90731.

Thursdays (except Jan. 19) at 8:00,
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through February 11th.

Tickets:  <www.littlefishtheatre.org>  or  (310) 510-6030.