Corner of Rose and Bundy: ‘Dance of Death’ at The Odyssey

When a grim year gets grimmer with no end in sight,  those down-in-the-mouth over the decaying state of things can look to the arts for a pick-me-up.  Pinter, Beckett, Kane… all can offer a glimmer of hope of a better world than our present one.  Add Strindberg to this list and visit ‘Dance of Death’ now at The Odyssey in West L.A. until 19 November.   Empty nesters Alice and Edgar live in isolation on a small, unnamed Scandinavian island awaiting their silver  wedding anniversary.  He is a minor military man, detesting all and detested by all in return.  She is much younger, having given up a go-nowhere acting career to marry him.   Two children and a life together did nothing to brighten twenty-five years of unrelenting mutual hatred.

Conor McPherson‘s 2012 adaptation reduces Strindberg’s original cast to three and a chess match begins immediately.  Aging, ailing Edgar (Darrell Larson) and youthful, seething Alice (Lizzy Kimball) aren’t grandmasters but two nonetheless very effective opponents who know each other’s tactics and always have a nasty countermove at the ready.  The relentless, active stalemate needs a stimulus and into this domestic prison – their house used to be one – drops her cousin Kurt (Jeff LeBeau).  This poor sap  brought the two together under duress in the distant past and becomes both a means to and an object of revenge, played for savagery and for keeps.

Edgar takes the chaotic route – alternately hale and sickly, a dancing Boyar one moment and bedridden  the next.  Alice is consistent, methodical, focussed.  Kurt comes into this house of heartbreak composed and kind and later  finds that both have and continue to conspire to his ruin.  Ron Sossi’s brisk and mostly effective staging mines ores of deep, dark, Vantablack humor in the otherwise bleak script. Christopher Scott Murillo’s set, simultaneously spacious and claustrophobic,  frames intrinsic contrasts of the story.   Despite some residual signs of jelling, the audience is slowly pulled in, supporting and sympathizing with whichever character holds the floor at the moment.  We, like Kurt, are played like a cigar-box banjo.

This is the play said to have inspired Albee’s George and Martha.  One wonders if it similarly inspired the creators of ‘Married With Children’ and the ‘War of the Roses.’  Al and Peg, and Oliver and Barbara equally delight in childish games of control expressed  vividly and physically.  Divorce is obvious and available but far too easy.  Neither wants the other to be free, let alone happy, and all bystanders are in play.   This is of  course not limited to  fiction.  The arts  teach us much including that there’s usually something lurking under even the most banal situation.  There’s usually some benefit to being aware of it if not for advancement at least for self-preservation.  ‘Go placidly amid the noise and waste’ says Deteriorata, ‘And remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof.’  As such ‘Dance’ does double duty.  Fine entertainment on its surface and instruction between the lines.

Dance of Death
by August Strindberg, adapted by Conor McPherson
directed by Ron Sossi
The Odyssey Theatre

Regular Performances
September 23 – November 19
Visit the show webpage for dates and times

Online tickets through Ovationtix
or via the Box Office 310-477-2055 EXT. 2

Box Office Hours
Wed/Thurs – 1pm – 6pm or curtain
Fri/Sat – 1pm – 8pm
Sunday – 12pm – 4pm

 

Guilty pleasures: Ashish Xiangyi Kumar’s piano analyses

Youtube offers many channels with high quality classical music accompanied by synchronized scores.  Ashish Xiangyi Kumar has an especially good one for piano fans.    A large number of his videos feature two or more pianists interpreting the same work.   To these, he offers his own thoughts on the pieces and the interpretations.   A young Singaporean now studying law at Cambridge, Kumar  brings to task a razor sharp mind and keen persuasive skills honed through a championship debate career.  His notes read like chess matches analyzed by a grandmaster who can both understand and explain  features large and small.  He’s also a composer and if he can play what he writes, his  chops must be first-rate.

The guilt?  The recordings and scores come from somewhere…

For best results, start the videos, then click on the “Watch on Youtube” button and read the commentaries.

Channel: Ashish Xiangyi Kumar

Double-take: ‘Rhinoceros’ at PRT

Courtesy Pacific Resident Theatre

The November 8th tragedy and the ascendance of the mephistocracy guaranteed the revival of Ionesco’s ‘Rhinoceros.‘ The play’s well-known humanist and anti-fascist themes make it an obvious, almost reflexive choice, guaranteed to please progressive audiences but this simple explanation does not do justice to the crackling rendition recently opened on Pacific Resident Theatre’s main stage.

Director Guillermo Cienfuegos, a skilled cast, and a top-notch production team deftly imbue subtlety and nuance while staying faithful to a brash, repetitive, and yes, absurd text in Derek Prouse‘s translation. Weak-willed alcoholic everyman Berenger sees his provincial town replete with its well-dressed residents, charming bistros, and local businesses overrun step-by-step and inch-by-inch by rhinos. His friends and neighbors are first alarmed, then intrigued, and ultimately co-opted. When the movement spreads worldwide he is left alone to declare his resistance in a final act of defiance.

Sweet coincidence had Ionesco releasing the play the same year that Rod Serling began ‘The Twilight Zone’ on American television. Berenger’s (Keith Stevenson) transformation from milquetoast to man begins with a thorough scolding and airing of his shortcomings from  putative friend Jean (Alex Fernandez who looks suspiciously like Cienfuegos). A stampeding animal, unseen but definitely heard, interrupts this cafe intervention and draws the notice of all including local costermongers, residents, a logician, and a busking mime. The slapstick first act concerns itself with disbelief and some humorous attempts at analysis. Academics are funny and mimes are annoying in any era and in any circumstance.

Ionesco’s purposefully repetitive and clichéd dialogue can tire even a focussed reader. Fortunately, the cast delivers the needed dimension and shade bringing the words to vigorous life. Characters speak to and not at one another, conversations ebb and flow while pulling the viewer purposefully to a destination. Not all productions of absurdist material can manage this. Themes of desire and transformation are on par with the conventionally political. The long play does take time to find its feet and explodes in a riveting second of three acts. Berenger goes to Jean’s apartment to make amends for their quarrel only to watch his friend mutate before his eyes. Fernande-fuegos towers over Stevenson physically and vocally, bringing palpable rage to several minutes of sustained, mesmerizing terror. Later, Dudard (Jeff Lorch), Berenger’s rival in love and for advancement stands tall on the sidelines rationalizing the rhino onslaught,  until Daisy (Carole Weyers) chooses against him. A simple slouch, a growl, and he too is off.

PRT’s mainstage is not large by any means and it would have been understandable had this been a minimalist, black-box affair, striking while the political iron was still hot. The company however committed to twelve performers, costumes (Christine Cover Ferro), lights (Justin Preston), full sets (David Maurer), and an  evocative soundscape (Christopher Mosciatello).   Several wildly clever stage transformations in the tight space rightly drew loud applause on opening night.

It would have been easy to map current faces onto Ionesco’s lecherous bosses, armchair socialists, deplorables, ladder climbers, and wonks. Cienfuegos wisely does not take the bait and manifest these to make any particular topical statement. It is also very easy to see the play as a blow for a pluralist, inclusive, and heterogeneous society against the reactionary. In actuality, the excellent but decidedly monochrome characters and cast are under concerted attack by dark, malevolent Asiatic and African forces. Nudge nudge, wink wink. Look back at the grisly campaign and grislier aftermath, a large segment of the US and the world views itself as stalwart Berenger refusing to capitulate to the invading other. There are many of them, they vote, and the division is not going away.  That this ‘Rhinoceros’ speaks across the spectrum including both extremes is its triumph.

'Rhinoceros'
by Eugène Ionesco
Directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos

Pacific Resident Theatre - Mainstage
13 July to 10 September 2017
703 Venice Blvd., Venice, CA 90291

Thursday – Saturday 8pm;
Sunday 3pm
Tickets $25 to $34
Purchase online or through the Box Office:  310-822-8392

Private Screening: Bell Labs predicts the future

I saw this film in 1992 or 1993 at a screening for employees while finishing my postdoc at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. I spent a little over two years there, living in lovely Chatham Township and spending Saturdays enjoying Manhattan. The lab I sat in held the original carbon dioxide laser, nearly thirty years old at the time, and still working. The transistor was invented a couple of doors away, the people who invented Unix were at the other end of a long corridor, and a few future Nobel laureates had their labs in-between. I am still amazed that I got that position and wistful that I didn’t do more with the opportunity.

There was a Q&A session with the speaker who introduced the film and who was participating in the work that underpinned this eerily accurate vision of an always-on, always-connected world. I asked if there was enough (data) bandwidth to support even a small fraction of this. It was the era of low-speed dialup modems and the Internet was limited to universities and academically-oriented labs. His answer, “I guess there will have to be.” A few forward-thinkers had the smarts to set about building that infrastructure, bit by bit. I lacked the foresight to invest even a small amount in any of them.

And so, everyday, off to work I go.

Via the AT&T Tech Channel

Space Music: Paul Novros accompanies the universe

The documentaries below were made in the 1970s by Lester Novros, then a professor at the USC film school where his students included George Lucas.  The understated elegance of these films is nicely framed by Paul Novros‘s music.  The younger Novros is a professor of jazz at CalArts.  I asked him whether he had any soundtracks available.  He was pleasantly surprised to be reminded of the work but has no separate recordings or scores.

Lester Novros and his Graphic Films studio had a major albeit little-known influence on Stanley Kubrick and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Special effects legend Douglas Trumbull worked with him in Los Angeles but ultimately moved to work directly with Kubrick in England. Barbara Miller’s article “Graphic Films and the Inception of 2001: A Space Odyssey” is good reading.

via the U.S. National Archives

via Jeff Quitney

Industrial Chic: From when copying was new

There’s a category of Youtube channel dedicated to fixing up old mostly public-domain videos from Prelinger and similar archives and making them available to broad audiences.  Jeff Quitney is one of the best at this along with Bel99TV and PeriscopeFilm.

Here’s a little bit of 1965 techno-cool courtesy of Xerox Corporation.

From Jeff Quitney’s Youtube Channel:

All roads lead to (Mental) home – ‘The Physicists’ at the Hollywood Fringe Festival

Courtesy last tape productions

 

“In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”
— J. Robert Oppenheimer (1947)

Physics has been unreasonably effective over the centuries in periodically overturning life as people know it. Newton and Einstein loom large in this history along with Galileo. Less well-known but no less important are Carnot, Maxwell, and Planck. Their work, driven by curiosity,  led to inventions of their own and others devising of substantial practical importance and lasting consequence. Most of us are thankful on balance for the engines and electricity, satellites and semiconductors spawned by these discoveries while we fret about the disasters, bombs, and savagery equally enabled by them.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s darkly comic ‘The Physicists’ trenchantly looks for the lines separating the pure from the applied, the moral from the immoral, and, not finding them, shows they never existed in the first place. Knowledge always comes at a price. Three physicists are interned in a posh asylum. Beutner thinks he is Einstein, Ernesti claims to be Newton. Möbius, brightest of all three, thinks he is himself but his frightening discoveries are inspired by visions of King Solomon. The game is to find, in a series of one-on-ones, Möbius’s  secrets and extract them from him.

The production under Ye’ela Rosenfeld’s direction is unexpectedly well-mounted with a large cast, set, costumes, and plotted lights. Surprising because Fringe shows share their space with others and each has to set up before and break down after every performance. The setting may be a posh Swiss sanatorium but some actors mumble in American accents, others stomp in German ones, and the rest interpolate, favoring the comic over the tragic. A two-piece band accompanies entrances and exits with guitar, percussion, recorder, and kazoo but crucial sound cues of Kreisler and Kreutzer are barely audible. A few of the play’s punches land but the overall impact is wildly uneven.

‘The Physicists’ can’t help but be timely – its subject is timeless. As creatures of Prometheus and children of Daedalus the blessings  and the curses of discovery have confronted us for centuries. Dürrenmatt’s deftly voices different aspects of the scientific (and artistic?) process – reason for some, revelation for others – while never taking his jaundiced eye off of the results. What happens once a discovery has been made? Not the workaday findings of workaday minds but the once-in-a-generation revolutions that change the world at a stroke. Can the discoverer hoard the knowledge, direct it, or withhold it at will? History says no. Once started, a fire can’t be unburnt.  Möbius, horrified by his findings, institutionalizes himself, impoverishes his wife, abandons his children, and murders – all for naught.

Fortunately in this instance, Josh Mann as Möbius and Cecily Glouchevitch as Nurse Stettler stand out, especially at the crucial moment when he tosses plausible deniability aside and traps himself forever in the web of the institution’s authentically crazy director.  Jacque Lynn Colton is fine in a Strangelovian turn as Fräulein Dr. Mathilde von Zahnd. While the variability in style and pacing doesn’t affect the dark comedy it takes a toll on tension and menace, the latter appearing suddenly toward the end of both acts rather than building up in stages to them.

And yet the play is worth a visit as much for place as for time. Los Angeles County is home to three major research universities, a passel of defense contractors, two Federal R&D centers, and an Air Force base. These are dwarfed by the so-called creative industries. The pursuit of art or science for its own sake, however, is in full retreat with the artists and scientists increasingly pressured for practical, commercially viable results and the attendant profits.  A cursory search shows that ‘The Physicists’ is seldom performed here. The European sensibility, European popularity, overtly political themes, and theatrical possibilities are all in City Garage‘s wheelhouse yet that company has never staged Dürrenmatt.

So, we return to the intractable problem of reaping the benefits of scientific discovery without the remorse. The easy out is to claim that where there is no solution, there is no problem. This is a false simplicity. It is not possible to work in science without a great deal of optimism, it is the only way to survive the constant setbacks. Good scientists are generally their own harshest critics, examining and re-examining the assumptions underlying their theories, experiments, models, and conclusions. In that sense, periodically examining one’s assumptions about the impact of one’s work is equally part of good science.   It can be dangerous (it sank Oppenheimer) but it is nevertheless the right thing to do.  The production deserves  thanks for the reminder.

The Physicists by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
directed by Ye’ela Rosenfeld
at the Sacred Fools Theatre (Mainstage) /Hollywood Fringe Festival 2017
1076 Lillian Way, Los Angeles, CA 90038
Final Performance: Friday June 23 2017, 7:00 PM
Visit http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/4624 for tickets

Orchestre de Chambre Pelléas
Benjamin Levy, conductor
via the Green Room Creatives channel