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.
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
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
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 Chalsmacodistills 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.
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
“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 GuillaumeDuchenne 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
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
A WORLD PREMIERE
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
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.
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.
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)