Category Archives: Long Beach

Two near-misses: Sci-Filosophy at Sacred Fools and ICT

Courtesy: Sacred Fools Theatre Courtesy: International City Theatre

“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

March 31 – May 6, 2017 at The Sacred Fools Theatre
Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm
plus Sundays, April 23 & 30 @ 7pm
Purchase tickets online

Uncanny Valley
by Thomas Gibbons
Directed by caryn desai

April 19 – May 7, 2017 at International City Theatre, Long Beach
Thu. – Sat. at 8pm
Sun. at 2pm
Purchase tickets online
or call the Box Office at 562-436-4610 (M-F 9am to 5pm)


Agreement Clinic: ‘A Walk in the Woods’ at ICT

Courtesy International City Theatre

Courtesy International City Theatre

Lee Blessing could not have forecast in 1988 that the Cold War would take an abrupt turn for the weird just two years later. ‘A Walk in the Woods’ at ICT through 22 May has nevertheless enjoyed a successful life despite drastic shifts in superpower status and the methods of war. It isn’t surprising. It is easy to look back wistfully at Mutually Assured Destruction as nation states veer on collapse and real power is concentrated in a few hidden hands.

The play’s setup is simple and historically informed – two arms negotiators, veteran Botvinnik and newcomer Honeyman, try to achieve in the Swiss woods what they can’t over the bargaining table. The amiable Russian tries to engineer a friendship, the formal American worries that he’s being worked. That can happen when one’s opponent is the namesake of a legendary Russian grandmaster. The four evenly timed acts alternate between Pythonesque rhetorical posturing (“I came here for an agreement! No you didn’t!”) and moments of genuine connection when it looks like our heroes may have given their masters a face-saving way back from the brink.

This, however, isn’t a documentary or even intrinsically theatrical. Blessing strives for a duet of ideas, some more compelling than others. ‘Walk’ shines when the younger American slowly realizes what his older counterpart has learned: Neither side wants an agreement – MAD is too good for business on both sides of the curtain. The corrosive stalemate on the large scale is recapitulated on the small and all levels in between. The interwoven buddy comedy lives well with Tony Abatemarco (Botvinnik) and David Nevell (Honeyman) under John Henry Davis’s direction on a stark set (Christopher Scott Murillo) and subtle lighting (Donna Ruzika). But, cynics have the advantage in these situations and Blessing’s asymmetrical characterization keeps Honeyman on the back foot until the very end when he figures out that what’s real and what’s virtual in the world of diplomacy.

The monsters in ‘Walk’ are less frightening today than the one in Blessing’s equally popular ‘Going to St. Ives.’ Nations may treat one another poorly but they reserve true brutality for their own. Both have characters doubling as ideologies (and vice versa) reminiscent of Shaw’s theatrical polemics. Although the premise and the balanced characterizations give ‘Ives’ the edge as a play, ‘Walk’ is an evening of theatre worth the trip.

A Walk in the Woods
by Lee Blessing
at International City Theatre
27 April to 22 May 2016
Thu. – Sat. at 8pm
Sun. at 2pm
Long Beach Performing Arts Center
330 East Seaside Way
Long Beach, CA 90802

Tickets: Online and at the Box Office 562-436-4610 (M-F 9am – 5pm)

Undead Uncles – ‘Heir Apparent’ at ICT

Courtesy International City Theatre

‘Heir Apparent’ at ICT through mid July is Molière by way of MAD Magazine. David Ives adapts a story by Jean-François Regnard into two acts of rhymed couplets set in not France at no specific time. Twenty-something orphan Eraste (Wallace Angus Bruce) wants to marry the lovely Isabelle (Suzanne Jolie Narbonne) but needs his wealthy miserly hypochondriac Uncle Geronte (Matthew Henerson) to hand in his dinner pail and hand him a sizeable fortune. Love doesn’t come cheap, no matter the era. Trouble is that Uncle is healthier than a horse and has designs on the girl himself. Add an ambitious mother (Rebecca Spencer), two clever servants, and stir for farce. If it sounds like ‘Imaginary Invalid’ and other famous French plays, Wikipedia tells us Regnard was heavily influenced by Molière.  Therefore it must be true.

Director Matt Walker effectively marshals an able cast, a large production team, and a small dog. Walker is best known for his work with The Troubadour Theatre where he sets Shakespeare to modern music, typically the rock and/or the roll. The troupe is therefore wildly popular with the young people and are reputed to sell out a show as soon as it is announced. ‘Heir’ is a good way for musical theatre haters to get acquainted with him.

The play’s central conceit is estate fraud. Uncle Geronte’s complaints are mostly digestive and are usually palliated by saucy maid Lisette’s (Paige Lindsey White) potions. The situation is obnoxious but hardly fatal. Lisette is of course enamored of Crispin (Adam J. Smith), valet to Eraste, who can’t marry her until Eraste comes into money. Act One has the robust Geronte bequeathing to distant American relations, coveting the young girl, and generally bypassing his nephew. Then he inconveniently appears to die without formalizing his bequest. What are young people to do in Act Two except to get a gullible lawyer (Adam von Almen) to draft a fake will and forge Geronte’s signature to it?

The script isn’t for analysis, ‘Heir’ is about as French as ‘Mikado’ is Japanese. This is comedy and Walker plays it broadly. The set (Christopher Scott Murillo) and lights (Jeremy Pivnick) well match the frenetic pace. Mark McClain Wilson’s sound design adds sibilance, flatulence, bleeps, plurps, and fleedles right on cue. Since part of the scam involves discrediting the American relations by dressing up as them, credit the wardrobe crew (Michael Greene) in getting several players in and out of Kim DeShazo’s fine costumes.

Smith turns in an excellent Crispin with the evening belonging to the booming Geronte who proves exceedingly difficult to kill – even when it looks like the plots have succeeded. Think Old Mahon from ‘Playboy of the Western World’ and you have him. Incidentally, Henerson played just that role at Furious Theatre in 2002, playing up at least two decades in age then and now. It is axiomatic that we all root for the attractive youngsters but eventually we feel more than a little sympathy for the old guy in the face of forgery, attempted murder, and signs that Eraste is himself a craven, entitled miser in the making.

Jessica Kubzansky, another renowned LA director, staged a riotous  ‘A Servant to Two Masters’ at ICT back in 2001 with sound legend John Zalewski providing live accompaniment from stage right.   ‘Heir’ doesn’t reach that level of mania. It isn’t clear if Ives’s script can benefit from pratfalls and physical comedy or if Walker just elected not to go that route. It all snapped and crackled but didn’t quite pop. Part of it is the script where the Yankee subplot ran a little long and the remainder can be put on the audience. The actors sent tremendous energy into the space but didn’t get enough back. Opening night crowds in LA are often criticized for being too enthusiastic. This one was far from hostile but the laughter and involvement didn’t reach the level required to get the comedic pot to boil. The same production deserves and, in front of different people, should get a much better reception.

Heir Apparent
by David Ives
Directed by Matt Walker
at The International City Theatre
June 17 – July 12, 2015
Thu. – Sat. at 8pm
Sun. at 2pm
Tickets online at Center Stage Ticketing
Box Office: 562-436-4610 (M-F 9am – 5pm)