Category Archives: Los Angeles

Bei Mir Bist Duchenne: ‘Lunatics and Actors’ by The Four Clowns


“Honesty. That’s the thing in the theater today. Honesty … and just as soon as I can learn to fake that, I’ll have it made.”

Grab the speedometer and move it, the car does not speed up. Mock up an airport, planes will not come. We are conditioned to causality and that the mere appearance or measure of a thing is not (usually) a handle into the thing itself. We smile when happy, cry when sad, and believe that we can tell when emotions are genuine or contrived. It comes as some surprise that this may not be entirely true. There is evidence that outward expressions, real or fake, may drive physiological processes instead of merely being driven by them. This two-way street is at once interesting and lucrative. Demagogues and marketeers profit by inventing stimuli to induce specific responses. A big part of culture and its preservation is in the transmitting feelings and emotions through performance.  Authenticity – whatever its definition – is considered essential.

Click image  to enlarge: G.-B. Duchenne de Boulogne, Synoptic plate 4 from Le Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine. 1862 – Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain

Playwright David Bridel takes on the latter in ‘Lunatics and Actors’ mounted through the end of May by The Four Clowns at Shakespeare Center LA. Scientist Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne (Thaddeus Shafer) asserts that he can evoke performances from his trio of patient/inmates (Tyler Bremer, Andrew Eldredge, and Alexis Jones) that surpass in intensity and authenticity those by conventionally trained actors. His electrochemical method will find gleeful interest from results-oriented directors tired of having Stanislavski flung back at them. The intriguing premise draws from nineteenth century events. The historical Duchenne performed early research in connecting human physiological and physiognomical reactions to electrical stimuli. He applied shocks to patients, photographed their faces, and in time could evoke specific expressions from them at will. Much of this work would be frowned upon today for ethical reasons but it came with other results in different areas that persist. Duchenne laid the foundations for modern neuroscience. The bidirectionality of emotion has since been intensively and controversially studied by Ekman, Zajonc, and others.

(standing) Thaddeus Shafer as DR. DUCHENNE (seated from left to right) Tyler Bremer as BON-BON, Alexis Jones as FIFI, and Andrew Eldredge as PEPE. Photo courtesy of Andrew Eiden

(standing) Thaddeus Shafer as DR. DUCHENNE (seated from left to right) Tyler Bremer as BON-BON, Alexis Jones as FIFI, and Andrew Eldredge as PEPE. Photo courtesy of Andrew Eiden

The setup requires actors in the audience to volunteer for light onstage duty. This being Los Angeles, it isn’t a problem. Duchenne runs through an interview followed by exercises and a compare/contrast. Meisner, Linklater, and Alexander may help the aspiring actor but a healthy zap from the glowing Volta pile invokes a style of its own. The inmate trio, all experienced clowns, win the intensity fight in a walk. Director Jeremy Aluma has to take his time churning the cream and the laughs hide a somewhat lengthy introduction. It snaps into butter when the contest shifts to ‘Hamlet’ and its endless opportunities to test authenticity (or anything else of interest to artists). Convention holds its own for subtlety but not for pain, fear, or terror. A change from funny to harrowing occurs in a tight, disturbing vignette to rival ‘Clockwork Orange’ or ‘1984’. A final distillation of ‘Hamlet’ to a delicate touch of ‘Pagliacci’ is a marvel. Focussing on the terrifying, it is entirely different from the troupe’s recent reimagining. Give substantial credit to the large design team. Their coherent efforts drive a fanciful story which might fall flat in less skilled hands. The Clowns don’t skimp on production and one wonders how they balance the books against a batguano-crazy $15 ticket price.

There are inside jokes aplenty within the world of the play. Theatre in Los Angeles is considered the domain of the insane.  Are the three inmates victims of an unscrupulous workshop-monger?  Bridel is the incoming Dean of Theatre at USC. Does this foreshadow his plans for the school?  Perhaps only artists can or will get the full scope of it. But, the promise and threat of machines has been a staple of storytelling from ‘Frankenstein’ to ‘Blade Runner’ and beyond. Can we controlled by electrodes? Yes but we’re attached enough to our screens to make such a physical connection unnecessary. A more unnerving question is what form the next evolutionary step will take once we or our algorithms figure out what makes us tick. The reductionist approach claims that once we find the root of the structure that everything will follow. Others argue for multiple processes that compete with and against one another in a sort-of roshambo. Either way, the tacit assumption is that machines would then emulate us, only much much faster. Why stop there? The Melancholy Dane may have been overly optimistic about the Godlikedness of man – we are most likely just another step along the path. That’s what make these clowns the ones of nightmares. Go see them but leave the kids at home.

Four Clowns presents
Lunatics & Actors
by David Bridel
directed by Jeremy Aluma


April 29 – May 28, 2016
at The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles
1238 W 1st Street
Los Angeles, CA 90026

Performances start at 8pm
Street parking in the neighborhood

Stage Manager Ashley Jo Navarro
Assistant Director Amaka Izuchi
Set Designer Fred Kinney
Lighting Designer Azra King-Abadi
Costume Designer Elena Flores
Sound Designer Kate Fechtig
Propsmaster Niki Mercs
Technical Director Matt MacCready
Producers Jeremy Aluma and David Anthony Anis
Associate Producers Jennifer Carroll and Julianna Stephanie Ojeda

ILHAMA feat. DJ OGB – Bei mir bist du scheen

Watch this video on YouTube.

Jupiter and the Ox: KCO’s season finale

The Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra took risks in its Saturday season-finale, performing the massive ‘Eroica‘ with a surprisingly slim ensemble at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church. Prior concerts in the second season featured anywhere from 40 to 50 musicians. This one had 28 all-in, matched only by that for Ives’s ‘Unanswered Question’ from December. The winds are all there as Beethoven prescribed but the string section is pared down to 13. Perhaps this was the size of the forces at the palatial premiere. The even split revealed parts of the score, such as the oboe and bassoon lines, often hidden in the crush of modern orchestral forces. The horns had an uneven night with a few rough passages. Kaleidoscope’s constantly changing roster and democratic, conductorless approach succeeds in rhythmic precision at some expense of contrast. Three lower strings can only do so much at their end of the spectrum and extreme changes in ensemble dynamics must be hard to coordinate in the moment. Nevertheless, it was a brisk, enjoyable performance of the beloved work, growing more confident and nuanced as it progressed – another KCO hallmark. The large audience was especially gratifying in light of past events and perhaps a sign that word is getting out.

The affable young johnnie from the local radio station spent ten minutes of his preconcert talk trying to argue that minimalist music is better than it sounds. Unfortunately for him, he brought sound clips that weakened his case. Then, the four-minute first work ‘Long Walk Off a Short Pier’ or somesuch by the Starbucks of composers sealed the conviction. Even the best defense attorney can only do so much.

Non-profit life is not easy and many who’ve tried it say that the second year is often the hardest, when the adrenaline dissipates and fatigue sets in. Fortunately, Kaleidoscope has passed this milestone and we can hope that it continues its artistic and institutional growth. Anyone who attends arts events these days knows that ticket sales are only a small part of an almost impossible economic equation. We can further hope that the group grows its donor base sufficiently to phase out or at least rework the in-concert appeal.

Vibrational (Arts) Spectrum: We’re Number… 5


Simulated symmetric stretching in the methylene (-CH2-) group Courtesy Wikipedia

Southern Methodist University lays down the science: Creativity good.

In the Large Community Division:

  1. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, VA
  2. Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro, TN
  3. NY-Jersey City-White Plains, NY/NJ
  4. San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA
  5. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, CA

Read all about it in:

NCAR Arts Vibrancy Index II:
Hotbeds of America’s Arts and Culture

via ArtsJournal

Donors Wanted, Dead or Alive

Preferably dead.

I used to attend LA Phil concerts regularly, subscribed for a number of years, and donated through an affiliate group. I haven’t attended in some time due to the relentless push to staged opera, video extravaganzas, the persistence of Vitameatavegamin, John Adams, and the rest of that mob. The promise of Dudamel, so high after seeing him and his Bolivarians in 2007, has been dashed.

To their substantial credit, Borda and Co. have replaced me and my like with others receptive to this vision and the organization is very, very healthy. But it is impossible to get off the mailing lists of a group that has (or should have) few empty seats.  Full color brochures and postcards still arrive, telemarketers call about Disney Hall and Hollywood Bowl offers.  The latter are quite knowledgeable, have discussed my reasons for not re-upping, and promise to click the buttons to unsubscribe me.  It never takes, though.  Now, some Big Data algorithm has told management that the Reaper will soon be at my door.   This email is rather unnerving.  Click for a zoomable image.


Nice Work if You Can Get It: ‘Lear’ at City Garage

Playwright Young Jean Lee has a Guggenheim, two Obies, a couple of Duke Foundation awards, a basketful of government and private grants, multiple commissions, a screenplay, a Berkeley degree, and her own theatre company whose mission is to produce the work of Young Jean Lee.

God help us. for details of her take on King Lear

Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong – I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'

Watch this video on YouTube.

Setting the standard: The music of William Herschel

A lot is made these days about composer/conductors. It is quite interesting how these paragons do such miserable jobs at both yet still collect handsome checks.

On the other hand, here is some music by William Herschel. Born in (now) Germany, studied music, soldiered, fled to England, built telescopes, inferred infrared radiation and Uranus, made other pioneering discoveries many with his sister Caroline, played the organ professionally, while composing over two hundred pieces of music. He even had a space telescope named after him.

Take that ya overpaid patzers.

Here’s his Symphony No. 14, conducted by Matthias Bamert.

William Herschel – Symphony No.14 in D-major (1762)

Watch this video on YouTube.

Yes, that Matthias Bamert.

Zwölftonwerbung – Twelve tone commercial

Watch this video on YouTube.

Autonomous Collective: KCO’s Ives and Brahms in Santa Monica

Image courtesy Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra

Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra’s Brahms Fourth in Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church showed off the group’s journey with democratic approaches to a hierarchical performance practice. There’s no need to reanalyze this staple of the repertoire – its overall arc of tragedy still contains some wonderful melody and gives each section ample opprtunity to shine. Excellent winds and horns set and held the stage with the ensemble growing tighter and more confident with phrasing as the piece developed. This specific mix of the orchestra’s large roster got accustomed to the space and one another in short order. Conductorless playing has to be difficult and must be doubly so when the music calls for soft and shimmering strings. The Brahms starts off this way and the Ives Unanswered Question is a few ethereal minutes of nothing but. Kaleidoscope upped the ante with strings in the sanctuary lobby, woodwinds in a balcony, and the horns offstage behind the altar. Execution fell just short of ambition but acknowledge the effort to add this to the degree of difficulty. The real Unanswered Question was, as is often the case, “Where’s the audience?” The Friday night turnout was reminiscent of Los Angeles theatre with performers outnumbering audience and that’s a shame. One hopes the Sunday matinee in Glendale fared better.
This group looks quite capable of handling Ives, broadly speaking. It would be great to hear those gonzo horns and winds in the rollicking finale of the Second Symphony with its invocations of Reveille, Columbia Gem of the Ocean, and the Camptown Races. Oh doo-dah-day.

Next up: Weinberg, Mozart, and Schoenberg on 23 January (LA Theatre Center) and 24 January (Santa Monica, First Presbyterian Church)

Grinding gears – “Hamletmachine: The Arab Spring” at City Garage

Image courtesy City Garage

“If you feel dissatisfaction
Strum your frustrations away
Some people may prefer action
But, gimme a folk song any old day”
— Tom Lehrer “Folksong Army”

Heiner Müller adapted Hamlet to his purposes in 1977 when the Germanies were split and Moscow ruled with no end in sight. ‘Hamletmachine’ has since become a darling of the late-night set and the adaptation further reschnootered according to the needs and means of its producers.  Magda Romanska flipped the point of view in ‘Opheliamachine’ presented by City Garage in 2013 and now the Garagistes take a second try at the original.  It is a tough slog even for the interested, receptive participant.

It is unclear whether the playwright gave explicit permission for his six page text to be freely interpreted and amended but that’s what happens to it.   The tyrannical regime is now in a generic middle east, the people revolt, and the fallout is unpredictable.  What this has to do with two Hamlets, Gertrude in a wedding dress, Marx in a wheelchair, and  Ophelia in a bomb vest is anyone’s guess.  Video projections cover rioters, dead children, and modern mullahs preaching holy war.  Bits and pieces of Shakespeare peek out in a turbulent, loud, and ultimately opaque river of words.   A bizarre fashion show emceed by a latter-day Marie Antoinette stands out as a caution against the consequences of unchecked inequality. Read it as a fundamental difference between West and East, proof of their equivalence, or anything else that catches fancy. For those who believe no explanation is necessary, for those who don’t none is possible.

It is no fault of City Garage that the Paris attacks  coincided with the day of the opening.  The preshow chatter was the normal silliness, easily silenced with headphones.  Duncombe’s short curtain speech suggested that the events raised important questions in context of the play and invited dialogue after the performance.  Normally it is best to leave opening night parties to  friends and family to chatter with the cast.  The gravity of the day’s events led to unmet hopes for a little more substance.  The company proudly quotes Brecht’s maxim that Art is a hammer with which to shape reality. While it may be true, the  Shakespeare machines are weak evidence.  The contrast between action and contemplation is much more stark in Shaw who wrote “Nothing is ever done in this world until men are prepared to kill one another if it is not done.”  While this can be easily rationalized as strategy versus tactics, it is a better representation of history and a grisly predictor of our future.

‘Hamletmachine’ is the first salvo in City Garage’s Post-Modern Shakespeare Series. It runs until 20 December 2015 followed by Young Jean Lee’s ‘Lear’ and Duncombe’s ‘Othello/Desdemona’ in February and April of 2016.

Hamletmachine: The Arab Spring
by Heiner Müller, adapted by Charles Duncombe
Directed by Frédérique Michel

Fridays, Saturdays 8:00pm; Sundays, 3pm through 20 December 2015
Admission: $25; Students w/ID & Seniors (65+): $20; Sundays “Pay-What-You-Can” (at the door only)
No performances Friday 11/20 and Friday 11/27.

City Garage
Bergamot Station Arts Center
Building T1
2525 Michigan Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Purchase online at Brown Paper Tickets
Box Office: 310-453-9939

One for the Zipper – Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra Season Launch

Courtesy Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra

[Updated 5 October 2015]

The season kickoff augurs well for the city’s newish conductorless ensemble. The Kaleidoscopes held a concert-cum-fundraiser of Prokofiev, Schoenberg (no, not that one), and Dvorak in the friendly and packed confines of the Colburn’s Zipper Hall.   The Classical Symphony and the Cello Concerto showed that this experiment in democracy has a serious chance of success.  The strings are very good and in synch, no mean feat since many of them can’t see one another.  Most of the performers stand, the strong cello and bass unions negotiated chairs and stools respectively.   The woodwinds and brass were terrific.  The Phil’s Robert deMaine gave the group someone to focus on in the concerto but he didn’t assume the role of conductor without portfolio.  Schoenberg’s (Adam, not Arnold) short Canto, winner of the group’s commission competition, brought Copland’s Quiet City to mind.  It’s a heartfelt piece inspired by the composer’s sleeping infant unabashedly intent on evoking a specific response.

It’s not clear how the group handles dynamics and handoffs on its own but it does.  There weren’t any obvious glances or nods in the first two pieces with some discreet glances among sections discernible in the Concerto’s rondo.  It’s an impressive feat.  A preconcert video showed the rehearsal philosophy with wry commentary from the participants  – the democratic approach may make for talky rehearsals but there is payoff in the performance.  The flute and woodwind work in the Prokofiev’s bravura final movement fired on all cylinders.  Birds and fish flock and school,  know where they’re going, and turn together in an instant.  So do these mostly young folks many with current ties to the Colburn.

There’s talent up and down the roster and the leadership seems to know what it’s about.   Four future performance weekends will take place at locations to be announced in Santa Monica and Glendale.    Ives, Brahms, Weinberg, Mozart, Schoenberg (yes, that one), Messiaen, and Beethoven are on the schedule.  So is John Adams but their taste will improve with age.  On top of the concerts, they have outreach programs for youth and the underserved.   It’s going to be fun watching them grow.

Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra

Watch this video on YouTube.

On the subject of bird behavior, Craig Reynolds’s ‘Boids’ computer models from the late 1980s mimic complex flocking patterns with some simple rules. Here are some latter-day examples set to a possibly recognizable tune.

Astronomy Deli – The Carnegie Observatories seminar series

They do this every spring in Pasadena, most recently at A Noise Within, and only now do I find out about it through random Youtube searches… It’s an outrage I tell you.

But the talks are so good, I’ll get over it.

Check out the Carnegie Observatories talks on everything from galaxies to planets to genes.

I will also have to get to their Open House on 18 October 2015.

Perhaps the most surprising presentation was Dr. Linda Elkins-Tanton speaking on planet formation. I had no idea they formed so fast. Even more surprising, that water sufficient to create oceans can remain in the coalescing bodies despite the relentless bombardment and high heat.

Making Earth-Like Planets: Five Great Mysteries

Watch this video on YouTube.