Canon Fodder: “The Penelopiad” at City Garage

Maids of “The Penelopiad”
Photo by Paul Rubenstein, courtesy of City Garage Theatre

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?
— Brecht A Worker Reads History

Whose and who, indeed?  In 2005, Margaret Atwood shook the dust off of The Odyssey and turned it to her own purpose looking at those left behind as Odysseus went off to war and wandering.  The stage adaptation of The Penelopiad receives a bracing, audacious performance as Santa Monica’s City Garage returns to full swagger.

Atwood casts a gimlet eye on the great men of Sparta and Ithaca where most lives didn’t matter and all the standards were double.  Her sympathies are squarely with Penelope and even moreso her maids who receive an untimely end upon Odysseus’s eventual return.  The novella is set in a timeless Hades as Penelope narrates her very lonely life.  In the play, she watches it unfold.  Despite ostensibly high station, she is pitiable – an afterthought to all  and always second fiddle  to her cousin Helen.  But that isn’t the generational servitude into which so many were born or taken as spoils of war.  “We too were children” say the maids, “We too were born to the wrong parents. Poor parents, slave parents, peasant parents, and serf parents; parents who sold us, parents from whom we were stolen.”   It snaps how little has changed through the centuries.

The all female cast of thirteen portrays twenty five roles and the adaptation is a corker.   Peggy Flood is a wistful, melancholy spirit-Penelope watching Lindsay Plake relive her life.  Odysseus (Emily Asher Kellis,) woos, weds, and beds her before sodding off to recover her hated cousin – “the septic bitch,” in one of many fine turns of phrase.  Flood is one of two singly-cast, the rest weave in and out of a fluid, polymorphous chorus budding here as a suitor, there as a son, and collectively as a boat or an army through chant and shanty.  The script is eminently suited to Frédérique Michel’s idiosyncratic style and discreetly supported by Charles Duncombe’s production design.

Peggy Flood and the cast of “The Penelopiad”
Photo by Paul Rubenstein, courtesy of City Garage Theatre

With even Telemachus (Courtney Brechemin) taken from her to be raised by a nurse (Geraldine Fuentes,) Penelope bucks tradition and her in-laws to make work and a life for herself.  “Remember this – water does not resist. Water flows” said her Naiad mother (Angela Beyer) and daughter dutifully goes around obstacles she can’t go through.  She takes up weaving and stewards her husband’s estate in hopes of his pleasure upon his return.  Yes, she deals in slaves and selects twelve young ones for her inner circle.  They do her bidding in the house, at the loom, and much, much more when the suitors arriveThe maids are her eyes, ears, and arms in keeping the youthful louts somewhat at bay through directed canoodling.   When the shroud artifice goes awry, the suitors turn from mere pillaging to the rape of Penelope’s favorite, Melantho (Marissa Ruiz).  In a play full of CG’s hallmark nudity, this fully clothed scene shocks.   Atwood progressively ratchets the cynicism.    Penelope and Helen (Marie Paquim)  – both knowing how things turned out – lob barbs at each other, the latter as unrepentant and caustic in death as in life.  Clever Odysseus is a conniving businessman and silver-tongued devil.  The chorus snarks at his supposed heroics and marvels at his ability to avoid getting home for ten years.   And, no break for the lady of the house even upon his disguised return.  While she sleeps, father and son slaughter the suitors.  Egged on by the nurse, they snuff the loyal maids in thanks for helping the house stave off total ruin.   Isolated from birth, estranged from son and husband, Penelope can’t explain, complain, or mourn her only real family and has to accept the collateral dommage.

Although a couple of the choral interludes are a tad silly, the author’s concept and political vision come off like fine espresso – fragrant, dark, and bitter with an eye-opening kick.    The adaptation omits two chapters: “Anthropology Lecture” proposing an interesting literary theory and lobbing preemptive strikes against critics would have been draggy and hard to stage.  “The Trial of Odysseus” would have presented its own problems but starkly showed the man getting away with it to the horror of his victims.  Then as now, justice punches down.  Despite the sprawling saga, the production is a tight, symmetric two hours with intermission.  “Penelopiad” was in rehearsals in March 2020 just before the world went on hold.   In that time of shutdown the carpet pulled back and we saw at least briefly the countless, nameless “essential workers” risking all to make the world fit for the profiteers.  Atwood performs a similar service by turning a well-worn story on its head for a different perspective.  Wily Kinbote was right,  it can be the underside of the weave that entrances the beholder and it is the commentator who has the last word.

Bergamot Station was alive and hopping on opening night with multiple galleries having their own events.  CG’s neighbor BBAX hosted the opening of textile artist Carmen Mardonez‘s solo show.  Brilliantly colored and explorable sails of cloth and yarn along with eerily humanoid sculptural shapes offered both preface and counterpoint to the equally nautical although somber play next door.  The artist echoes Penelope in her statement, “As a woman, my entrails have always been governed by others.”  It is one of those confluence of forms that in an ideal world would be much more frequent in an art colony.  Unfortunately the galleries close up shop long before curtain leaving a mostly dark and unfestive parking lot for theatregoers.  The exhibition runs through January 2023 and is worth a stop.

Youtube Channel: L.A. Art Documents

The Penelopiad
by Margaret Atwood
Directed by Frédérique Michel
for The City Garage

11 November to 18 December 2022
Friday and Saturday 8pm,  Sunday 6pm
at Bergamot Station
2525 Michigan Ave, Building T1
Santa Monica, CA 90404

Admission: $30, Students/Seniors $25
Sundays “Pay What You Can” at the Door

Box Office: (310) 453-9939
or online

Running time: Two hours minutes with intermission
Masks requested but not required

Unspeakable Dreams, Smothering Desires
A solo exhibition by Carmen Mardonez
Curated by Marisa Caichiolo

12 November 2022 through January 2023
Tuesday – Friday, 11:30am – 5pm & Saturday, 12 – 6pm
at Building Bridges Art Exchange
Bergamot Station
2525 Michigan Ave, Building F2
Santa Monica, CA 90404

Free admission

A Shaft of Gold When All Around is Dark: JWST is operational

One last glorious gasp from a decayed and dead civilization.  JWST’s Mid Infrared Instrument observes Stephan’s Quintet.   What else will it be allowed to do before the American Taliban takeover?

JWST’s MIRI looks at Stephan’s Quintet. Courtesy NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute

Engineered Myths: ‘Metamorphoses’ at A Noise Within

Clockwise from center: Erika Soto, Trisha Miller, Rafael Goldstein, Cassandra Marie Murphy.
Photo by Craig Schwartz, courtesy A Noise Within Theatre and Lucy Pollak Public Relations

ANW’s tribute to myth, art, and engineering is both visually dazzling and a chutzponic choice for this temporary breather from the pandemic.  Water is everywhere – onstage and on the audience – as a gifted cast seamlessly weaves eight stories  and a coda from Ovid  to impressive stagecraft.  The play is sufficiently well-known that there’s no point in recapping the fables-for-grownups  by Mary Zimmerman,  a brand unto herself.   Locally, Stephen Legawiec’s long-departed and much lamented Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble did exceptional service to myth.  The Sacred Fools and Coeurage also deliver technical miracles on a budget.  Zimmerman ups the ante requiring an onstage pool central to her theme.  ANW has built the resources over the years to afford the rights, the engineering, and the resident ensemble to pull it all off.  The costs must be astronomical especially for a barely four week run, an oddly appropriate leap-of-faith in art over economics.

Nicole Javier (top) and Rafael Goldstein (bottom).
Photo by Craig Schwartz, courtesy A Noise Within Theatre and Lucy Pollak Public Relations

On top of the usual artistic concerns and choices, director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott has to see to the safety of her performers who are feet, knees, and backs in the water as much as they are out of it.  This is no mean feat given costumes (Garry Lennon), props (Shen Heckel),  walking continuously on a wet stage, and a disease spread by droplets.   The company has hewn to its resident artist model (six of the nine performers) although it seems to have gone away from its roots in repertory.  It is interesting to note the changing of the guard having followed the company closely in the 90s to mid 2000s and sporadically thereafter.  Geoff Elliott remains a constant of the motion with Rafael Goldstein and Erika Soto now regular members along with unfamiliar faces with extensive company and classical credits.  That Shakesperean training pays off handsomely with uniformly rich, resonant, and nuanced voices inhabiting instead of reciting the text.  It’s a heady mix of comedy, drama, pathos, and bathos.  Trisha Miller is excellent as Alcyone,  Sydney A. Mason as a nasty Aphrodite, and DeJuan Christopher as Ceyx.  Elliott is all the fathers; Pythonesque as Helios negotiating with Phaeton (Kasey Mahaffy) as well as  Midas and Cinyras navigating daughter problems.  The physical demands are great as the cast have to carry one another in and out of the water throughout the piece where one slip could end many careers.  The level of trust engendered by long and close collaboration must be off the charts and hard to conceive with a team assembled for one production.

But, oh, that engineering – Francois-Pierre Couture (design), Ken Booth (lighting), and Robert Oriol (sound) – deserves a loud, two-syllable, “Damn!”  Even if we take the pool  for granted, electricity, water, and people don’t mix.  This constrains the high powered lights to surround the stage and there again from safe a distance – yet nothing essential is in shadow.   Glowing orbs are undoubtedly enabled by LEDs.  Their collective play off the water and onto the walls are a splendid touch – carrying the audience along waves of action floating on Oriol’s effective yet unobtrusive soundscape.  And we should not take any of this for granted.  Going from page to stage is a tough artistic job but no easier than taking a technical concept through design, build, test, and delivery.  ANW’s timelapse shows the large uncredited crew that made it happen and glimpses the kind of backstage preparation area accessible to very few of the city’s theatremakers.  Yes, there are a couple of songs but … what are you going to do?  Barring extension, only five performances remain so act accordingly.

Note bene: While there are no bad seats at ANW, the raised stage does obscure the water’s surface from the front rows.  There is a benefit (and certainly no harm) in going to the middle or even the back of the house.  Those up front will get splashed.

Youtube Channel: A Noise Within

Metamorphoses
Based on the Myths of Ovid
Written and originally directed by Mary Zimmerman

Directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott
for A Noise Within Theatre Company
3352 E Foothill Blvd. 
Pasadena, CA 91107

Thursdays through Sundays, closing 5 June 2022
Two performances Saturdays
Running time: Ninety minutes without intermission
Performance times vary, see the theatre’s website for details

Proof of vaccination/booster required, Masks must be worn inside the theatre

Tickets through the ANW Online Box Office
or
626.356.3100

Where do you go when you go to sleep?: ‘Wakings!’ at The Odyssey

Courtesy The Odyssey Theatre

‘Wakings!,’ Ron Sossi’s quartet of lesser-known Pinter, unknown Coover, and better-known Hesse attempts with varying success to explore ‘models of consciousness’ as Occidental eyes turn inward and then Eastward.

In ‘Rip Awake,’ Darrell Larson who excelled in pre-COVID Strindberg lets it fly as Rip Van Winkle left to figure out what and who is left of his former world.  Robert Coover, the only non-Nobelist on the bill, has written a nice although a touch too long fourth-wall breaking rant where Van Winkle limns the difficult mechanics of his awakening to soft bones, spiral toenails, and frayed mind.  It’s a meaty monologue for the ‘actor of a certain age’ and Larson rages and brawls about the stage with mountain-goat confidence.

Pinter the writer had long become Pinter, dissertation fodder by the time he wrote ‘A Kind of Alaska’ in 1982.    Deborah (Diana Cignoni), now 45, awakes after succumbing to sleeping sickness at age 16 with her devoted doctor (Ron Bottitta) and long-suffering sister (Kristina Ladegaard) attending.    Deborah is nostalgic, uncertain, and kind of a … jerk towards the few she has left and there is a small twist in why these two people still hang about her.    There is some good writing in her coming to and coming to grips with her situation but the mixing of German, Nordic, and British accents dislocates the situation.   For all the acclaim, Pinter is narrowly focussed on specific castes of British jackholes (that American audiences find endlessly fascinating) and efforts to apply him outside that milieu can run into trouble.

The bookends are less effective.  ‘Victoria Station’ another 1982 Pinter effort has taxi dispatcher Bottitta trying in vain to get driver C.J. O’Toole to pick up a fare.  The driver has, to be charitable, checked out, cruising around long gone London landmarks infatuated with a possibly dead passenger.    These Pinters are lesser-known for a reason, the malevolent craftsman behind ‘The Caretaker,’  ‘No Man’s Land,’ and ‘Betrayal’ is barely visible with scarcely a memorable line in the pair.  O’Toole returns in a non-speaking solo in the closer as Siddhartha rambling wild like Rip at first, later finding a secret of time and his enlightenment in a river.  Castmates narrate earnestly from the novel to a clichéd music track.

Yet it is still worth a look.  Self-admittedly a scratching of the surface, Sossi paradoxically succeeds even when the playlets individually stumble.   Models of consciousness aside, there is a strong resonance to a world full of bottled rage peeking out from years of isolation, relearning how to act among others, and looking for some meaning in it all.  The dispatcher’s bosses don’t care that he’s alone, overworked, and can’t get through to a disaffected employee – there’s profit to be had.  Self-centered Deborah alternately denies her condition and snarks at her long-suffering caregivers.  Rip is out for revenge against those, real or perceived, responsible for his prolonged slumber.  He turns wild and this being America, turns gun against dog and daughter imagining them to be others all the while.   The woman to my left just had to consult her phone well into the fourth act.  We live this insanity each and every day with no end in sight and even worse on the horizon.  Against all that, the Hesse is an earnest attempt at hope and release.   Whether it succeeds or not is up to each viewer.   

There are doubtless easier ways to rebuild audience after a plague.  Many Manchin Democrats argue that this is the time for trivial comedy by the usual suspects.  Audiences should consider rewarding The Odyssey for going against that grain and taking this calculated risk.

Wakings!
Directed by Ron Sossi for the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
Through 5 June 2022
Friday & Saturday 8pm, Sunday 2pm, May 25 8pm

The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Box Office: 310-477-2055 ext. 2
Online ticketing through Ovationtix

 

 

Astrophysics at Ludicrous Speed: But Why? on stellar collapse

It should be no surprise that aging scientists from all fields gravitate (ha!) to astronomy as we get more interested in the grand fates of things. Fortunately there are many sites and channels to scratch that itch, giving us a perhaps too comfortable view of complex material. The life and death of stars is an example where the high level explanations of gravity versus fusion do work but where the many omitted details cause midnight befuddlement.  Where does the energy come from?  Where does it go?  Wait… how fast – Relativistic speeds?

Anonymous Youtuber “But Why?” breaks the barrier with this beautiful video on the collapse of very big stars – the kind that leave neutron stars or black holes in their wake. It isn’t all symmetric implosions and classical rebounds and the thought of a giant object collapsing 5000-km in a tenth of a second boggles the mind.  The depth of detail is breathtaking, the amount of research inspiring, and taught me much new physics that I incorrectly thought I already knew.

Youtube Channel: But Why?

 

A taste of things to come

We will all go together when we go. All suffused with an incandescent glow. — Tom Lehrer

I’m quite impressed by the leadership shown by the Executive Branch to the reprehensible situation in Ukraine.  Regrettably when dealing with psychopaths, sanctions and embargoes only go so far.  Without fusion in the sun, we wouldn’t live.  But, fusion on earth seems inevitable now.  We won’t live through that, either.

So, let us enjoy sunsets while we can.  Even the ones that look like mushroom clouds.