Category Archives: Los Angeles

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

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

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

Two near-misses: Sci-Filosophy at Sacred Fools and ICT

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

March 31 – May 6, 2017 at The Sacred Fools Theatre
Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm
plus Sundays, April 23 & 30 @ 7pm
Purchase tickets online

Uncanny Valley
by Thomas Gibbons
Directed by caryn desai

April 19 – May 7, 2017 at International City Theatre, Long Beach
Thu. – Sat. at 8pm
Sun. at 2pm
Purchase tickets online
or call the Box Office at 562-436-4610 (M-F 9am to 5pm)

 

Distillation: What goes on in those refineries?

Big tankers tie up offshore and disgorge their contents into brightly lit and mostly inscrutable refineries.   This sixty year old film by Shell Oil neatly explains the chemistry, chemical engineering, and physics of distillation that takes gives us our gasoline, diesel, oils, and waxes. In a different setting, it also gives us many different kinds of beverages.

 

Father to the Man: ‘Titus Andronicus’ at Theatricum Botanicum

Marie Françoise Theodore and Michael McFall Photo by Miriam Geer

Marie Françoise Theodore and Michael McFall
Photo by Miriam Geer

More politics than Caesar, intrigue than Macbeth, madness than Lear, racism than Othello, petards than Hamlet, and victim-blaming than Winter’s Tale. Theatricum Botanicum‘s boisterous, unsparing staging of ‘Titus Andronicus’ delivers the goods to those with constitutions strong enough to handle the carnage. This is early Shakespeare, possibly a collaboration, introducing themes that would be fully developed in future standalone plays. The plot: Vanquished Queen Tamora of the Goths is elevated to stature in her captor’s country and takes her revenge from within.

‘Titus’ has had a checkered history and isn’t produced nearly as often as his other tragedies. The savagery and gore make it hard to stage and equally hard to stomach.  The open-air setting alleviates what could be a claustrophobic experience in a traditional venue. Director Ellen Geer smartly associates perpetual war, double standards, backroom dealings, fluid loyalties, and mindless violence in fictional Rome to the present day. Her cast of the usual family members, friends, and newcomers offers unusual depth in difficult roles. Melora Marshall and Willow Geer adeptly play male roles renamed and reworked for women.  Geer the younger, usually at her best in comedy, ratchets up to play Lucia, one of Titus’s soldier children who stays just one step ahead of the slaughters. Sheridan Crist nicely handles Titus’s descent from conquering hero to loyal subject to madness.

Michelle Wicklas and Marie Françoise Theodore Photo by Miriam Geer

Michelle Wicklas and Marie Françoise Theodore
Photo by Miriam Geer

The blood flows early, it flows freely, and a good chunk of the rough stuff is in plain view.  The company is known for its anti-war stance yet is quite sympathetic to soldiers who are mustered into battles of questionable value or sense.   As Titus is pushed lower and lower by the state he served, two of his sons are framed for murder, and he offers his hand in a futile attempt to ransom their lives. Lavinia, his favorite daughter, is stalked, raped, and mutilated by Queen Tamora’s own two sons. Lavinia begs Tamora to call off the attack only to have the mother egg her boys on. It is as pitiless and merciless as anything in the repertoire including Sarah Kane’s Blasted or Jacqueline Wright’s Eat Me and mesmerizingly played by Michelle Wicklas and Marie-Françoise Theodore.   And there would it sit except for Michael McFall’s rich, resonant turn as Aaron, Tamora’s lover, the inciter of all the mischief, and the embodiment of pure, unrepentant evil.   McFall keeps his proudly unredeemable character center-stage and on a fine dramatic edge – oozing hate, lust, and vengeance without once overplaying it.

The production values are well-designed to set off the gore.  The costumes and sets are relatively spare but the stumps and blood inevitably draw the eye.  The performers move throughout the audience and those on the aisles will see it close-up.  The cast mostly avoid overemoting although a couple of scenes generated unintended laughter due to assorted staging choices.  Marshall McDaniel and Ian Flanders’s eerie scene-intro soundscapes got lost in the wash of opening night conversations but what did leak through heightened the experience.

It is easy to wonder about the setup:  How does  a spoil of war get into a position to cause such damage?  The allegory to modern times answers it.  The powerful look the other way and take care of their own, then as now.  It also raises the uncomfortable question of whether it is a good idea to show any mercy to a defeated enemy, no matter how just or unjust the war.

Titus Andronicus
in repertory through 25 September 2016

Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N Topanga Cyn Blvd.
Topanga, CA 90290

Season Brochure: http://theatricum.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/2015Brochure.pdf

BOX OFFICE 310-455-3723
Tickets online at http://theatricum.com/tickets/

You Done Messed Up A-Aron!

Watch this video on YouTube.

Abjured Magic: ISC’s Richard III

The highs and lows average to solid in ISC’s Richard III on until the 24th July at Griffith Park.  Impresario David Melville assumes the mantle and a couple of other positions surrounded by an often amazing cast and disturbing electrification.   Director Melissa Chalsma codistills the original and Colley Cibber‘s once-popular adaptation amplifying the action but wisely restoring some of Cibber’s deletions.   Melville forgoes the hump for a limp,  is convincing when raging and scheming, and less-so when sweet-talking and seducing.  Amid the new faces is the welcome return of company veteran Lorenzo Gonzalez  whose own Richard dazzled at Barnsdall Park in 2005.

There’s a lot of ground to cover in the first half, mostly with corpses.  Not short by any means, it feels rushed and it is often a strain to figure out who is doing what to whom and why.  With so much real and implied gore, we wonder if nibs of the Merrie Olde were bound by any laws at all.  Post intermission fares better especially in a superb scene redolent of the Trojan Women in which exhausted ladies of war-ravaged houses contemplate a grisly future.  Bernadette Sullivan, Mary Goodchild,  Aisha Kabia, and Kalean Ung swim this 4×100-m hatred relay brilliantly and it is a good job that it was part of the restoration.   That anchor leg is a pipterino and further marks Ung as one to watch.

ISC is rightly proud of the number of people it reaches through the summer fest.  But, pursuing and serving that metric isn’t free.  The kit grows every season.  2016 features a large lighting rig courtesy of a foundation grant, more microphones, more speakers, a NASA-sized mixing board, ever fancier costumes, and stage fog.  Some of the tech does afford the leeway to cast actors with differing levels of vocal preparation but it grows farther from the no-frills aesthetic the company brought to LA back in 2002 and preserved until the past few seasons.  Most intrusive is the addition of a loud rock band that strikes up  to crush the magic the moment a scene ends.  The Duke of Buckingham pleads with King Richard, “Give me some little breath, some pause, dear lord.”  We know where he’s coming from but we too aren’t requited.  There’s no time to savor the words because a quartet of the play’s supporting cast occasionally supplemented by Melville shred the air with guitar and drum.   To be fair, most of the crowd ate it up.

ISC takes care to survey its audiences and perhaps this is what it has to do to keep people coming to the Old Zoo.  The festival audience could be of the growing belief that silence of any kind is not to be trusted.  Maybe we’ll see two distinct sets of offerings in the future: Old school ISC indoors at its studio and a flash-bang summer season for the Internet generation at Griffith Park.

The Tempest begins July 30th.

RICHARD III

Adapted by Independent Shakespeare Co. based on the work of Colley Cibber
Begins Saturday, June 25 and Sunday, June 26 Then plays Wednesday – Sunday until July 24
Performances at 7:00 pm  at
The Old Zoo, Griffith Park

FREE (donations gratefully accepted)

http://iscla.org