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. 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 at the hands 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.
Gina Jaimes and Jhon Alex Toro in ‘Miss Julia’. Photo by Federico Rios courtesy Vueltas Bravas Producciones
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.
Tina Thurman and Jhon Alex Toro. Photo by Federico Rios courtesy Vueltas Bravas Producciones
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
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.
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
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
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 IonescoDirected by Guillermo CienfuegosPacific Resident Theatre - Mainstage13 July to 10 September 2017703 Venice Blvd., Venice, CA 90291Thursday – Saturday 8pm;Sunday 3pmTickets $25 to $34Purchase online or through the Box Office: 310-822-8392
“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 majorresearchuniversities, a passel of defense contractors, two FederalR&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
“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
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