Amateur musicians are justifiably in awe of their professional counterparts. We struggle with rhythm, tempo, dynamics, intonation, and sight reading. They’ve mastered all that and more at an early age. It is all maddening especially the sight reading part. I’d do a deal with Mephisto in a heartbeat if I could do that without actually working for it. But, on the positive side, we schmoes reap the benefits of the pro’s superior talent and diligence in concert. The USC Thornton School sent five graduate students to Rolling Hills last Sunday for a rollicking ‘Trout Quintet’ to a packed and savvy house. Fine ensemble playing by a group that assembled and converged for this event. It was damned hard not to hum along, especially with the fourth movement. Video/audio to be posted if made available.
Surrealism fanciers, especially those of René Magritte, will be interested in the eventual performance of ‘Ordinary Objects’ by Strings & Things Puppet Theatre – a work-in-progress recently closed at Son of Semele’s Company Creation Festival. Director Joyce Hutter and a small ensemble look at the painter’s deconstruction and reconstruction of the women in his life through his deep dreamlike world of bowler hats, bilboquets, and bottomless pupils.
Magritte continues to fascinate the lay person although few of us can explain why. As an artist, Hutter is much farther along that road, letting various storytelling methods contend in workshop to see how best to convey her message. Movement, video, and some beguiling shadow puppetry alternate as the piece pokes at the modern psyche through the Belgian’s lens. A remarkable connection between surrealism and film noir and a recurring chess theme that simultaneously confuse and intrigue. One hopes that these win out over some of the talkier Freudian bits. The early look clocked in at a snappy forty five minutes but there’s promise here of a longer, richer evening.
Youtube Channel: Joyce Hutter
Fairy tales are usually geared towards younger audiences. Mary Zimmerman‘s ‘Secret in the Wings’ is a marked exception featuring uncommon dreamy horror without the usual and unambiguous triumph of good over evil. Angelenos have two weeks left to see a mostly perfect small theatre adaptation of her work by Coeurage Theatre Company.
The through line is part Twilight Zone, part Beauty and the Beast blended with lesser-known works redolent of the Grimms and Hans-Christian Andersen. Neglectful parents leave their young daughter in the charge of their creepy neighbor while they head off to a party. Thereby hangs both tale and a tail since only the child can see that old Mr. Russom has one dangling off of him. He’s an ogre who repeatedly proposes marriage to her. It might all be normal in Alabama but still jars in California. Serially rebuffed, he reads to her, and his increasingly disturbing stories come to life.
And such stories of power and cruelty are both plentiful and timeless. The ones in ‘Wings’ atypically have women setting the rules, serving as both tormentors and victims while gormless men are easily led. The play has been around since the early 1990s and early reviews refer to minimalist stagings. It has since gained popularity and production value. Berkeley Rep’s 2004 presentation of the original Chicago Lookingglass show was what God might have done if He had the money. Director Joseph V. Calarco delivers the same shock and awe in a tenth of the floor space and one surmises even a smaller budget. This is no staged reading but a fully realized production, expertly set (JR Bruce), lit (Brandon Baruch), and costumed (Kumue Annabelle Asai). Pride of place goes surprisingly to the soundscape, also by Calarco – the show would be unimaginable without it. It surrounds and grabs the audience from the get-go and steers it through interwoven and suspended plots, a sonic picture frame around grim interiors and grimmer exteriors. The play’s world transcends its set and Tasheena Medina’s choreography joins with the sound to make it manifest on a tiny stage. A nine-person ensemble moves with grace, precision, and above all supreme individual and collective confidence.
Zimmerman’s story choices eerily foresee current events – a widower king lusts after his daughter (Eduardo Fernandez-Baumann, Leslie Murphy), young men fight an eternal war while their families starve. She also leaves room for theatrical ‘inside baseball’. An angry young princess (the magnetic Katie Pelensky) will marry only the man who can make her laugh, all other comers to be beheaded. Her willing and unwilling suitors are tried reverse-Scheherazade through an open-mic night that, like the war, ends in the death of all the young men of her kingdom. The imperfection? The most poignant story of a faithless woman (Audrey Flegel) and her loving sap of a husband (Randolph Thompson) is set to music. Those who dislike sung theatre can instead enjoy the clever stagecraft that accompanies it. It all ties up in the end with a nice little twist but it is rightly not a full restoration. Stories reflect human society, fears, and failings. They’d have no power otherwise. The symbolic dangers may vanish at a snap but the realities they abstract do not and that horror we take away and keep with us.
The term small theatre here refers only to the size of the space at The Lankershim Arts Center. Coeurage’s ambitions are as large as Ziggurat’s were when it was producing in LA and on par with Jaime Robledo’s excellent work with the Sacred Fools. The ambitions are exceeded. With Christmas comes the usual large and small adaptations of Dickens and Bob’s Holiday Office Party, each exploring extrema of the spectrum from cloying to crass. Calarco has made a strong case for ‘Wings’ as the Halloween play for adults, chock full of the fear, ambiguity, and cruelty that grow with each passing day in the land of the free and the home of the brave. All Coeurage performances are “Pay What You Want.” Go with generosity.
The Secret in the Wings
by Mary Zimmerman
Directed by Joseph V. Calarco
Remaining performances 7-9 and 13-16 December 2017, all at 8pm
at The Historic Lankershim Arts Center
5108 Lankershim Boulevard
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Arrive early to find street parking
All performances are “Pay What You Want”
Online ticketing via Secureforce
Our last encounter — I remember it well. Pavilion at Lord’s in ’39, against the West Indies. Hutton and Compton batting superbly, Constantine bowling, war looming.
— Hirst to Spooner in ‘No Man’s Land’
Pinter, cricket fancier, named his “No Man’s Land” antagonists Hirst and Spooner after two well-known players. The play nicely mirrors the game – stretches of groundwork and moments of attack, usually ending in a draw. At one time videos of the 1978 tv adaptation with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud were available on the web [January 2018 Update: And are again – see below]. I downloaded a full version without knowing why. The characters are unlikeable, their purposes unclear, and the author famously, contemptuously, refusing to answer any questions about his intentions and denying meaning to any of it. Like a lot of Pinter, it is hard to like yet it tends to stick. I’ve seen three different stagings in person and this grainy recording from the videotape era is more vibrant and three-dimensional than any of them, even the overpraised Stewart/McKellen effort from 2013. It works surprisingly well without the visuals. I’ve taken the two Sirs on walks, cellphone in my pocket, headphones in my ear. Their poetry made time and distance disappear for me as the Pinter does to their characters.
Here is a gem of a short film about the sport narrated by a younger Richardson. The Pavilion at Lords features prominently as do Hutton and Compton, although not batting as superbly as in ’39. England’s hope for the Ashes fell to ashes under the captaincy of Australia’s legendary Donald Bradman. A short clip from the tv production still on the web follows and then the author himself reading one of the most mournful and beautiful passages from it.
Channel: British Council
[Update 6 January 2018 – This full performance recently reappeared on the Johnny Cassettes channel]
With ‘Dance of Death’ still running at the Odyssey, Encuentro de las Américas 2017 brings another Strindberg to Southern California. Vueltas Bravas Producciones slices, dices, transposes, and dances the battles of wills and wiles in the foundational ‘Miss Julie’ as adapted by J. Ed Araiza. Nineteenth century Sweden gives way to twenty first century Colombia where wealthy, nutty, and bored-out-of-her-gourd Miss Julia (Tina Thurman*) forces herself on servant Juan (Jhon Alex Toro). The casual hookup has not percolated to this part of South America and there are emotional attachments and expectations a-plenty. Julia sees Juan as a way out, he sees her as a way up, and his fiancée Cristina (Gina Jaimes) isn’t having any of it.
The audience surrounds the narrow alley of a set (Andrew Thurman) nicely conveying the claustrophobic society in which the hapless characters are embedded. Thurman is outfitted as a cross between Miss Havisham and a hapless ballerina. Her Spanish, sounding more learned than native, adds a hint of North and South American political tension to the more obvious class and power struggle. Jaimes’s Cristina is both earthy and mesmerizing as Juan’s social equal and moral superior. She spends a good part of the show asleep or sleepwalking. This is a shame as she commands the stage when on it and she and Toro have palpable chemistry.
This is highly physical theatre with movement, dance, and symbolic props all adding their dimensions while condensing the story. A wheeled table serves pre-show rum and also serves as the cursed magic carpet taking these broken souls to their fates. Julia is frenetic and angular in marked contrast to the sweeping and fluid Juan and Cristina. All switch seamlessly between English and Spanish with dim supertitles available to the eagle-eyed monolingual. Helen Yee (violin), a fine but uncredited percussionist, and a Mac notebook add off-stage sonic color although the balance sometimes overpowered the small space.
If this all sounds oddly familiar it is because it is the kind of work that Tina Kronis and Richard Alger have been doing at Theatre Movement Bazaar for twenty years. Wheeled furniture and athleticism also feature prominently in La Razón Blindada soon to be up at this same festival. ‘Miss Julie’ is said to be about social Darwinism – the replacement of a weak, stagnant, older order by a vigorous, aspirational, newer one. So, we may well ask if there’s a last common ancestor to this style of work. Vueltas Bravas does not have much of a web presence but the Australian Thurman (here identified as Mitchell) explains in a Youtube video their origins at a SITI Workshop in New York City some ten years prior. ‘Miss Julia’ is making the rounds of the festival circuit having played at La MaMa and the Chicago International Latino Theatre Festival prior to its Los Angeles engagement. Kronis and Alger are said to have some SITI influence to their work as well. ‘Miss Julia’ is well-made, well-performed, and enjoyable but if the purpose of the festival is to bring new and distinct theatrical viewpoints (ha!) and styles to the forefront, it is jarring to hear Latino voices filtered first through a canonical text and then through a U.S. theatrical school of thought.
Nota bene: Many of the Encuentro productions are performed without intermission. ‘Miss Julia’ is one of them and clocked in at about one hour. Those interested in festival productions should consider seeing multiple productions in a day to take advantage of ticket packages as well as to minimize ticketing fees and the notoriously larcenous downtown parking lots.
*Credited as Tina Thurman in the program, Tina Mitchell elsewhere on the Web
Vueltas Bravas Producciones
Directed by Lorenzo Montanini
Through 19 November at the Encuentro de las Américas Festival
Los Angeles Theatre Center
514 Spring Street
Los Angeles, CA
Six performances remaining through 19 November 2017
Tickets: $44 general, $22 Seniors/students/veterans
See website for times and online ticketing
Inaugurated in 2014, Encuentro de las Américas returns to downtown Los Angeles, presenting a variety of Latin American theatre companies and artists from North and South America at the LATC on Spring Street. With the unfortunate demise of FITLA which stunned audiences in the mid-2000s, Encuentro is an important and needed jolt to an eager but largely homogeneous theatre community. Rickerby Hinds’s ‘Dreamscape’ was a highlight of the first festival – a haunting prose poem of a young black woman gunned down without reason by the Riverside police. We may have thought that was an anomaly but we don’t any longer as unprosecuted slaughter continues. This year’s slam dunk is 24th Street Theatre’s deservedly well-traveled ‘La Razón Blindada’ which returns for five performances over three days, one of which has already sold out. Jesús Castaños Chima and Tony Durán reprise their roles as political prisoners in an Argentine hell given one tightly supervised hour a week together in between solitary confinement. Arístides Vargas‘s script and physically virtuosic staging penetrate to heart, bone, and memory.
Other intriguing options include ‘Miss Julia’ by Vueltas Bravas and ‘Las Mariposas Saltan al Vacío’ by Compañía Nacional de las Artes, both of Bogotá. Organización Secreta Teatro of Mexico City brings ‘Quemar las Naves, El Viaje de Emma’ a feminist interpretation of The Odyssey. Most shows will be supertitled in English and/or Spanish. There are sixteen performances and events featuring twenty-five companies and artists along with a meeting of the Latinx Theatre Commons.
Encuentro de Las Américas
Hosted and presented by The Latino Theatre Company
2 November to 19 November 2017
I was fortunate to see Mr. Ricci give a couple of masterclasses in the early 2000s through the Jascha Heifetz Society. He was in his eighties and yet young violinists in and around Los Angeles received his patient, undivided attention over some long days. Here he is playing “Le Streghe (The Witches)” by the calculatedly diabolical Paganini. Piero Bellugi conducts the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI di Torino.
Youtube Channel: prbllg
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
|Courtesy: Sacred Fools Theatre||Courtesy: International City Theatre|
“Sirens of Titan” and “Uncanny Valley” at the triple point of science, philosophy, and fiction are currently on stage at The Sacred Fools and International City Theatre, respectively. “Sirens,” adapted from Vonnegut’s 1959 novel, is sci-fi a la Bradbury: Mars-centric on the outside, fully optional physics, and Earth-facing at its core. Wealthy Winston Rumfoord and his large dog travel space for the hell of it and get caught in a dimensional swirly that puts them everywhere at once and localized on Earth on occasion. Rumfoord’s role is to make the lives of his wife Beatrice, sybarite Malachi Constant, and thousands of other dispensable earthlings a living hell. He press-gangs this lot into forced military servitude on Mars and dispatches most of them back to Earth to be annihilated in an intentionally futile war. A united and victorious Earth then congeals around a faith where God is entirely apathetic and humankind does what it can with itself. Beatrice, Malachi, and their son Chrono are interplanetary Jobs suffering torments at Rumfoord’s hands through a fixed and unalterable timeline, ending up on the largest moon of Saturn. Vonnegut has issues with free will and everyone is more-or-less along for a nasty ride in an uncaring Universe where Earth exists as a spare-parts depot for an Extremely Advanced Civilization from Far Far Away™.
Meanwhile, “Uncanny Valley,” a much more recent effort by Thomas Gibbons, looks at a mid-21st century where the very sick and staggeringly wealthy can offload their memories and essence into a robot body. It’s immortality of the kind that throws wrenches into the family machinery, especially when children are seeking their share of a giant inheritance. Asimov’s “I Robot” explored synthetic evolution through Susan Calvin, crusty robopsychologist to fifty years of U.S. Robots products. Her counterpart here is far less crusty but a psychologist all the same – Clare Hillis’s job is to oversee the commissioning of Julian, a ‘non-biological human,’ whose emergent personality will soon be subsumed by the tycoon who funded his creation to the tune of $240 million dollars.
“Sirens of Titan” the novel is relatively easy-to-read and occasionally engaging thanks to Vonnegut’s dry, cynical prose and gimlet eye on religion. The threads are hard to braid without periodic revisits to past chapters – who did what to whom and when? We can safely abandon ‘why’ because it is never satisfactorily addressed. A theatrical adaptation can’t offer flashbacks on demand and it is difficult to follow let alone decode the underlying philosophical argument – if it exists – linking the vignettes. “Sirens” may have influenced Douglas Adams with prescient references to infinite improbabilities and hyperintelligent pandimensional beings running a planet-sized simulation for their own ends. The excellent stagecraft and mostly solid performances, staples of The Sacred Fools and carrying well into their new space, can’t fully frame the meandering story which caps off with a One Tin Soldier ending.
Vonnegut unfortunately can’t compete with a future he helped to create, Gibbons has to compete with exceptionally fine prior art in android sentience. The first act of “Uncanny Valley” is low-conflict set up. Clare and Julian flip Pygmalion as she teaches him the fine points of being a convincing gentleman while realizing that true societal acceptance may never come. Act two has Julian, imprinted with the past and the DNA of a now-dead man, visiting Clare on the eve of her retirement. He dredges Clare’s own painfully buried memories of an estranged daughter as his son asserts legal claims to his fortune and questions his continued existence. This all fizzes up towards the last quarter of the play and comes off as a contrived end to justify the beginning and the middle. Julian is now blessed with eternal life and eternal youth. Tithonus and the Struldbrugs would be jealous. There’s a fascinating question of whether he should merely continue as before or renounce the past, strike out in new directions, fully embracing his rebirth. Unfortunately, it comes too late to explore. Asimov and Dick, among others, have taken this general idea a lot farther. The second season of then fledgling Star Trek: The Next Generation had a dying genius impose his consciousness onto the android LCdr. Data (“Schizoid Man”). Three episodes later, Data had his status and rights as a sentient being legally challenged by an ambitious Starfleet officer with ulterior motives (“The Measure of a Man”). ICT’s stagecraft and cast are also reliably attractive although we are asked to believe that people in 2042 dress, talk, and use smartphone technology as they do today. In the end, Gibbons has dug himself a hole with his premise and can’t quite climb out of it.
But, one man’s miss can be another’s bulls-eye. Vonnegut devotees will undoubtedly appreciate a no-holds-barred attempt to stage a foundational story. Similarly those not fully co-opted by Star Trek and other science fiction staples may be able to engage with Gibbons on the offered terms.
Sirens of Titan
adapted by Stuart Gordon from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
directed by Ben Rock
by Thomas Gibbons
Directed by caryn desai
Robert Burns Woodward (1917-1979) is as well known to chemists as his namesakes are to poets and journalists. His contributions to the synthesis of organic compounds cannot be overstated and a staggering number of now-famous professors passed through his labs at Harvard.
Chemistry was and is a huge field but the part that most people see is beakers, retorts, and churning solutions cooking up complex molecules. This is where Woodward became a legend at an early age. His unshared 1965 Nobel Prize was for “for his outstanding achievements in the art of organic synthesis” and not for any specific synthetic accomplishment. Interestingly, he felt that he deserved a share of the 1973 Nobel to Fischer and Wilkinson and would certainly have shared in the 1981 prize to Fukui and Hoffman, had he lived long enough.
My education was in physical chemistry, far removed from organic synthesis. I scarcely recall seeing any of faculty members from that area when I was in graduate school – the field is that fragmented. Unlike many others of my stripe, I enjoyed my undergraduate organic chemistry classes although I struggled in them. Legions of students have been told that the subject is to be endured, not enjoyed, and requires only memorization. This is utter claptrap. If taught well, and Berkeley did (at least back then), it is like learning a language; alphabet to words to grammar, sentences, literature, and interpretation. Those with an artistic bent also find a lot of fun in the complex three-dimensional structures that are represented out of necessity in two-dimensional drawings. You can’t speak this or any other language by memorizing a dictionary. Organic’s problem is that the material has to be presented and assimilated in such a short time.
Woodward’s generation of chemists didn’t have the modern arsenal of apparatus to determine the composition and structure of what they had made. In fact, they helped develop – or at least drive the need to develop – x-ray crystallography, magnetic resonance, optical and mass spectroscopy, and a variety of other methods closer to physics and physical chemistry. Deduction and inference played a starring role. E.J. Corey, only a few years younger than Woodward, later developed retrosynthetic analysis into a fine art leading to his own unshared Nobel in 1990. Corey looks at complex molecules as assemblies of successively smaller molecular fragments. Some of these might exist as stable compounds, others as hypothetical fragments that could be prepared with the right hooks for further use. Any molecule may be disconnected in several ways and the chemist has to use physical laws, experience, and intuition to decide which approach makes the most sense. Repeat recursively and it is usually possible to get to a relatively simple path from a desired product to commonly available starting materials – a common examination question and a standard tool in the modern chemist’s repertoire.
Some thirty two years after my undergraduate degree, I find myself using the retrosynthetic approach far from its original use. I try to look at problems as a nested collection of subproblems, going down the tree until they become relatively tractable. At the end of this, I have a plan that has traded off time, cost, and risk ending up with a list of materials, procedures, checks and crosschecks, time and personnel estimates, and a good idea of which step or steps pace the effort. In engineering, these map to schedules, risk analyses, bills of materials, assembly, test, and reporting plans, quality control, critical path analyses, and cost although in no particular order. People who do this are called System Engineers in my industry and many companies have claimed to have invented the concept.
Looking backward is how organic chemistry students are encouraged to approach problems if they want to succeed in their courses. The temptation is of course to apply it everywhere and that’s not quite so appropriate. It works if there’s a clear idea of what needs to be done. What sets Woodward, Corey, and their equivalents in other fields is knowing what to go after and what to set aside. That can be done many ways but it helps to be brilliant. If the computers can be taught to do that as they have been taught to do systematic decomposition, it’s over for us. A second temptation is to over-romanticize. These accomplishments in synthesis are usually the result of large research groups implementing a plan and doing the long, often tedious bench work which, when complete, is associated with the group leader’s name. This is where chemistry and high-energy physics intersect. This method of chemical training is imperfect and is periodically questioned when things go horribly wrong at the human level. The scientific and artistic merits of the work have to be assessed in that light.
There are not many films or recordings of Woodward and his equally legendary multi-hour lectures. He transcended his field and his institution, given leeway to do what he liked how he liked it. Dylan Stiles has unearthed a gem from the Harvard archives – a rare departmental seminar from 1972 where Woodward presents the 15-year collaborative effort between his group and Albert Eschenmoser’s lab resulting in the total synthesis of the large, unwieldy, and beautiful Vitamin B12. The introduction by Prof. David Dolphin is itself thirty minutes long with insights into the departmental culture of that time. The main event is a brutally clear and patrician exposition while the speaker chainsmokes in-between sips of his daiquiri. The grainy black-and-white visuals are charming but somewhat hard to read. Nathan Werner’s slides from a 2010 seminar are a very useful supplement.
Via the Youtube Channel of Dylan Stiles: