Monthly Archives: September 2015

Theatre jumps shark – ‘Man Covets Bird’ at 24th Street

[Updated 28 September 2015]

24th Street Theatre does exceptional work in arts education, outreach, and after school programs with a special focus on its underserved neighborhood next to USC.  It has also produced plays over the years with mixed results.  Since 2012, it’s production arm deliberately shifted to “Theatre for Young Audiences” (TYA) and things have frankly gone downhill.  ‘Roma al final de la via’ landed with a thud, ‘Nearly Lear’ was passable but far short of the hype.  I did skip the Dead Grandma show that ran for months and toured to good reviews.   The program  purports despite its name to bring sophistimacated work to all ages.  This is strange since there are plays from antiquity to the modern day that do exactly that and in front of broad demographics.  Rather, TYA seems to be a newish industry with international conferences, showcases, and a substantial caste of arts MBAs overseeing hookups between a cadre of authors and producers.  There’s even a white paper on the topic aggressively titled, “Does Youth Theater Really Have to Be So Pandering and Simple-Minded?”  It’s an interesting read but only for the subtext.

‘Man Covets Bird’ by Finegan Kruckemeyer, a prolific 34 year old Irish Australian, is a wan rehash of the Up With PeopleFree to be You and Me swill some of us were fed in the ’70s and ’80s.  Live your heart, open your dreams, follow your laugh, dance your dissertation, live in an ice cream van down by the river.  Two beardy emerging artists from from your locally-owned, fair-trade, carbon-neutral coffeeshop’s open mic night perpetrate the text to projected animations.  One of the two is responsible for the alleged music.  This after school special is as specific as a horoscope, as flavorful as tofu, and open to any interpretation one might wish to hang on it. It’s a piece calculated to leave talking opportunities for adults and any associated kids – the term ‘conversation’ is popular these days. This usually means the person in power frames the discussion and defines the boundaries. It is a common enough gimmick in the manager-employee relationship. It is also around in the arts world where critics try to justify their marginal value as dialogue mediators. In both cases there’s hell to pay if the employee or reader calls b.s. and chooses to have his own view of things. ‘Bird’ and TYA may be good vocational preparation but the artistic claims are overstated.

It is unfortunate that the company has gone down this route. The curtain speech explains that 24th Street spends most of its money on two pillars of education and outreach, producing theatre only when needed and when funds permit. Here’s to hoping they focus on the nobler work,  abandon the production arm, and occasionally rent the attractive performance space to other organizations.

Aside: The marketing materials for ‘Bird’ all say, “Because it’s a liberating thing to talk publicly about things you’re only supposed to think privately.”



I Love Lunacy – Four Clowns presents Hamlet

Image courtesy The Four Clowns

The human eyes can only sense a vanishingly small part of the energy that makes up our Universe. The wonders and horrors out there are mostly invisible to us. Fortunately, we have instruments that can collect where we cannot and translators that can shift those sights and sounds that we may perceive them. The images that come out of our observatories great and small are almost always in false color. There is nothing intrinsically hot about red or cool about blue yet these associations, in expert and honest hands, can reveal something about the world to the layman.

‘Hamlet’ by The Four Clowns takes such a look at the Shakespeare’s violent, philosophical, mad, and maddening Denmark in a limited run at Shakespeare Festival, LA.  This play has always been fodder for interpretation, especially whether the title character is on either side of the fine line between sanity and madness or whether he’s straddling it for his own purposes. Director/adapter Turner Munch has subtracted some of the themes and turned up the gain on the fantastical and bitterly funny elements of the story. It is a false color palette entirely appropriate for a troupe of nine actual clowns playing over a dozen roles.  Who would have thought the old play to have such humors in it?

It is, not surprisingly, hugely physical with pratfalls aplenty and a lot of clever business with props to convey the sometimes suffocating confines of that particular castle. Andrew Eiden’s Hamlet starts off as a prop himself, shaped and molded by his and Ophelia’s families. He quickly brushes them off and transforms into a Hyde-like maniac capable of any torture. His interrogations of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Dave Honigman, Tyler Bremer, and vice-versa), two of the play’s three manifest clowns are violent and brutal. Elizabeth Godley’s charming, porcelain Ophelia fares little better at his hand.   Scotty Farris’s thickly bearded Polonius looks straight out of any LA theatre’s production of [ugh] Chekhov. He is especially put upon, killed with courtesy, and then brought back as one of the gravediggers. Connor Kelly-Eiding is put upon by just about everyone as a Lisa Loopner version of Horatio. Joe DeSoto shatters the fourth wall early as the Ghost and comes through it again as Laertes. It all hangs together very nicely. A father-daughter reunion told in shadow for the fleetest of seconds is a blessed moment of tenderness amid the gore and packs a wallop.

Munch stresses repetition and pauses to set the nerves on edge and as a guide to what lurks underneath. Pinter could be well pleased. He also reworks the text to meet the needs of time and the troupe. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do get theirs for example but not at the hands of a foreign king. The sadly uncredited sound design frames the slapstick nicely but truly shines in the darker stretches with an eerie piano (Visions Fugitives?) ratcheting the tension. Though it is a violent play as written, it culminates here in something out of Sam Peckinpah.

This version runs ninety minutes, about half the span of a full production. In that compression, some loss is inevitable and no two viewers will agree on specifics. The leads, clowns though they may be, mostly handle the demands of Shakesperean language. A shade less R&G and a little more time on the meatier dialogues would have been nice. That’s a minor point in a show that is honest about its purpose and commits to its choices. It is getting repetitive to compare The Four Clowns to other area companies. Indeed Nancy Keystone who has done similar reimaginings is explicity credited in the program. But, perhaps they along with others are together part of something larger. This is not a ‘Hamlet’ for purists but those with the capacity for fun and a little give and take should put it on their calendar quickly. It runs only through 10 October.

And, as we look at the Presidential campaign now underway, remember: When insanity becomes normal, bet on the clowns.

Four Clowns presents Hamlet
by William Shakespeare
adapted & directed by Turner Munch

September 18 – October 10, 2015
Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm
8 shows only

at Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles
1238 W 1st Street
Los Angeles, CA 90026

Tickets via

Orgon Therapy – Tartuffe by Molière: A Reality Show at City Garage

Chelsea Militano and George Villas in ‘Tartuffe…’:  Image courtesy Paul Rubenstein and City Garage

“Tartuffe” has become a secular passion play for LA audiences.  It’s staged frequently, in a variety of styles, and it’s message always underlined as particularly timely and pertinent to the day.  Frédérique Michel and Charles Duncombe’s translaptation is a light, fun romp and a surprisingly  faithful representation of the story.  This is not CG’s “Patriot Act: The Reality Show” from 2004.  That systematic destruction of a naive, patriotic schlub by the surveillance state and its media enablers was eerily on point and prescient.  This is Molière as maskless commedia of Beverly Hills riche on a spiffy modernist set.  Then as now, Bo Roberts plays the dupe.  M. Orgon’s  home, daughter, and trophy wife are slowly suborned by a homeless holy man.  We watch the con much like a television audience might with the occasional video projection providing backstory.   The similarity to modern reality shows is an exercise for the viewer.  I don’t watch tv, I don’t even own one.

The bulk of Michel’s cast goes full throttle, each inhabiting his or her own world-within-a-world.  Saucy maid Dorine (a gender-bent J. Carlos Flores) takes on her bosses in Spanglish, daughter Mariane and her beau (Megan Kim, John Hayden) carry on in Valspeak, noble young Damis (Johnny Langan) is hell-bent on saving his family while harboring feelings for his stepmother.  Roberts’s Orgon fumes and blusters, Trace Taylor shines as Mme. Pernelle, and David Frank’s restrained Cléante is the only sane one of the bunch.  At times  supporting players come off as talking past one another.   The two characters typically allowed depth are Orgon’s wife (Chelsea Militano) and the titular Tartuffe (George Villas) and so it is here.  Willowy, elegant Militano, who would be at home on a volleyball court, plays Elmire as absolutely comfortable with who and what she is.  She likes the sweet life, regards it as her due, and has no qualms marrying into it.  Waugh had it right.  Manners are especially the need of the plain.  The pretty can get away with anything. Villas executes the piety and sleaze nicely and the famous seduction scene with Orgon in the arras flies.

Politics is deferred to the last ten minutes. It’s no secret that this play ends with all being restored for the noblesse thanks to the all-seeing eye that looks favorably on the rich and punishes the aspirant.   It is all right to marry for money but running the ruling class’s con game against itself will not be tolerated.  There might even be the merest flash of sympathy for Tartuffe-as-Uriah-Heep, feigning humility as the only way to take his revenge on a hopelessly stratified society.  So, we have a fine production of a classic play but the lingering question is why and why now? The countless stagings of Tartuffe and other satires have made as much a dent in hypocrisy and gullibility as have e-petitions for social justice.  The establishment knows that no lasting movements will result from either and simply keeps on keeping on.   CG loves Molière and has been alternating highly abstract works with accessible ones.  It is likely that this is a little fun and frolic to limber up for an ambitious season of  reinvestigations of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies.  Müller’s Hamletmachine is next followed by Young Jean Lee’s Lear  and Duncombe’s take on Othello.

“Tartuffe by Molière: A Reality Show”
September 11 – November 1, 2015

Directed by Frédérique Michel
Produced by Charles A. Duncombe

City Garage: Bergamot Station Arts Center
Building T1
2525 Michigan Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Fridays, Saturdays 8:00pm; Sundays 5:00pm;
Box Office: 310-453-9939
Admission: $25; Students w/ID & Seniors (65+): $20; Sundays “Pay-What-You-Can” (at the door only)
Online tickets at Brown Paper Tickets

Adventures in Scaling – Independent Shakespeare’s Summerfests

Independent Shakespeare landed in LA with a bang in 2002. The NYC expats mounted a ripping Henry V at the Odyssey with a terrific ensemble, minimal stagecraft, and a laser’s focus on the language. The company moved onto well-received summers at Barnsdall Park and ultimately decamped to Griffith Park a few years ago. It’s a large yet systematic leap from a few patrons in a Westside black box to thousands in the open air of a former zoo. With size has come some compromise. The style is broader, humor is pushed to the forefront and there are costumes, lights, and amplification. There’s also music, live bands, and singing. Mercifully not enough to be musical theatre but we paranoids will worry.

Romeo and Juliet, recently closed, came off just as Andy Griffith said it ought to. As ISC has steadily grown in size and ambition it has simultaneously identified, cultivated, and grown young talent. Nikhil Pai’s Romeo convinces as a generally honorable lad whose blood runs just a shade too hot for his own good. Erika Soto is lovely as diffident ingenue Juliet in the first act, morphing into an assertive, determined woman in the second. It takes talent and presence to hold the stage alongside Bernadette Sullivan (Nurse), Aisha Kabia and Sean Pritchett (Lady and Lord Capulet). Soto shows plentiful stores of both and the switch flip after intermission is impressive. Just a couple of seasons ago, Pai and Soto were on the periphery, now they’re front-and-center to crowds of 2,500. Kalean Ung (Benvolio) shows similar promise. This is transformation and it looks nice, indeed.

Don’t mention the War – Germany rules the orchestral roost

Berlin Philharmonie via Wikimedia Commons

Music critics have voted on the best orchestras. Berlin takes the Gold, four other German groups place in the top ten. Chicago and Boston made the cut. Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles did not. Nelsons and Nézet-Seguin got marks in the conductor competition won by Chailly but Dudamel’s stock seems to be falling. Too bad. So much initial promise diluted by short stays, a focus on operas, and an institutional commitment to thirdrate idiocy.

Voters and Methods:  The local shill was mercifully left off
Tim Ashley (The Guardian, UK), Lazaro Azar (La Reforma, Mexico), Manuel Brug (Die Welt, Germany), Eleonore Büning (FAZ, Germany), Hugh Canning (The Sunday Times, UK), Arthur Dapieve (O Globo, Brazil), Manuel Drezner (El Espectador, Colombia), Harald Eggebrecht (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany), Neil Fisher (The Times, UK), Christian Merlin (Le Figaro, France), Martin Nyström (Dagens Nyheter, Sweden), Clive Paget (Limelight, Australia), Clément Rochefort (France Musique, France), Benjamin Rosado (El Mundo, Spain), Gonzalo Tello (El Comercio, Peru), Haruo Yamada (Japan)

Each critic nominated their top ten orchestras and conductors, with a points system awarding 10 to their top choice, down to 1 for their tenth.

Three North American critics abstained from voting on the basis they felt that had not seen enough of the world’s top orchestras recently enough to cast their votes.
[Emphasis added]