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Corner of Rose and Bundy: ‘Dance of Death’ at The Odyssey

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

Regular Performances
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

Box Office Hours
Wed/Thurs – 1pm – 6pm or curtain
Fri/Sat – 1pm – 8pm
Sunday – 12pm – 4pm

 

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

LAX planespotting from and on a different level – SpeedbirdHD

The small and very active community of aircraft photographers and videographers is putting up some superb material on the usual outlets. Close to home, many shoot from El Segundo’s Clutter Park where they can get nice views of LAX’s south runway operations although with some interference from low buildings.

Then, there is Youtube’s SpeedbirdHD. He says little about himself other than that he is an aviation enthusiast in Los Angeles. There must be more to it than that. He has unique access to LAX operations, almost assuredly through a job on the premises. His videos of the heavy metal flying in and out are in a league of their own. Speedbird and his HD camera get tarmac footage of regional jets, superjumbos, and even the occasional miltary lifter from every runway. His edits usually include relevant air-traffic control conversations in the background. Top class stuff.

Here’s his channel. His 2012 highlight reel is a good place to start.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=at5ig2LdBBA

Independent Shakespeare Co.’s 2013 Griffith Park Summer Festival

Another strong, well-attended season in Griffith Park for the small company that started it’s life in LA ten years ago as a rental at the Odyssey.   ‘Macbeth’ is especially good – honed to a fine edge over several months at ISC’s Atwater Village studio and steeped in blood by evening’s end.  The young actors get better and more resonant every year and the strong core company ricochets unamplified off the walls of the Old Zoo  overcoming picnics, coyotes, and just about any other distraction.

Anything except three addled hikers who got lost and infected with poison-oak in an urban recreation area, requiring three helicopters to appear just as Luis Galindo’s Macbeth burst out for the climactic scene.  Blade noise and spotlights of one kind held up blade noise and spotlights of another kind for forty minutes to conduct an airlift.  Of people lost a knife flick away from a thousand theatregoers.  The show did go on and finish well despite the circumstances – the sound and fury speech concluding just as the last copter disappeared.

One more chopper and it could have been Stockhausen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13D1YY_BvWU

Macbeth and As You Like It run in repertory through 1 September.  Details and schedules at http://www.iscla.org