Category Archives: Los Angeles

Photo Chemistry: The silver behind the silver screen

We have megapixel cameras in our phones and gigapixel cameras on our telescopes.  Before digital took over photography (and the world,) we had film.  Light struck silver and made a mark and behind it all was some marvelous physical chemistry.  It is still awe-inspiring to think of how these processes came about when knowledge and instrumentation were not nearly as advanced as today.  Each step could have millions of alternatives and sorting them through brute force would take the age of the universe.  Yet somehow it all came together and spawned industries.  The American Chemical Society takes us through the science as it was in 1940.

Vimeo Channel: Jeff Quitney

Caveat Lector: “Anna in the Tropics” at Open Fist

On the surface Nilo Cruz resets Tolstoy in 1920s Tampa where workers in a family-run cigar factory explore life, love, and everything with the man brought in to read to them during their rolling sessions.   Director Jon Lawrence Rivera marshals a fine cast complemented by Open Fist’s traditionally strong stagecraft but the Pulitzer winning script disappoints with a bang.  The women we see, two sisters, their mother, and a silent factotum are taken metaphorically by both the Lector and ‘Anna Karenina,’ his choice of reading material.  The men are unsurprisingly less so.   As the action unfolds, one of the sisters is taken quite literally by yon Lector  while her equally unfaithful husband stews and belatedly asks for tips on how to rock her like a hurricane.   The aspiring half-brother of the factory owner, having lost his own wife to another Lector, isn’t any happier with this one’s presence.   It all strives to be dreamy, lyrical, mysterious, philosophical, and evocative but just plods along steadily and soapily and ends dangling in the air – one might say like a languid coruscating puff of bluish-white cigar smoke in the fading sunlight.  For it is that kind of play.  It may make sense to fans of the book.  Others beware.

Despite all the overt references to Tolstoy all the Moscow-longing, the clash between modernism and tradition, the general inertia of the characters, and a last-act gun suggest an homage to theatre’s favorite (albeit overblown, overpraised, and overdone) Russian.

Anna in the Tropics
by Nilo Cruz
Directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera for the Open Fist Theatre Company

Running through 8 June 2019 at:
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90039
(FREE parking in the Atwater Xing lot one block south of the theater)

Performances on selected Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm
See the website for performance dates and prices

Online ticketing: Open Fist’s secure site

Calling out Ritchie Rich: Robert Hooks exposes the scam

It’s always good when degreaser is sprayed on oily charlatans.  Emphases added:

Q: Is there a great theater company specifically for African American actors, like Alvin Ailey is for dancers?

A: The closest thing to a black theater company that is able to survive and sustain itself is the St. Louis Black Rep. And theater companies — let’s just take Los Angeles, for example — the Los Angeles Music Center downtown and Mark Taper Forum and all the people that run those companies are getting the grants from the foundations I couldn’t get because they did one black play in their season. The black theater producers, the people who are in the community need the grants, and they can’t get them because the established theaters downtown are taking advantage of those grants.

Robert Hooks; Washington Post 26 October 2018

Shaw on the golden rule

This little bit of truth is left out of the couple of professional adaptations and the 1941 Gabriel Pascal film of ‘Major Barbara’ available in the usual online sources. Having despaired of Youtube, Vimeo, and even Dailymotion, the answer was close to home.  LA Theatre Works‘s 2007 adaptation, recorded live at the Skirball, keeps it and it flies.  Upper class twit Stephen Undershaft (Hamish Linklater) attempts to lecture his plutocrat arms-maker father Andrew (Roger Rees) and gets dropkicked in the yodelay-he-hos for his troubles.  Dakin Matthews‘s production is available at prx.org .  Click on the image to open a new tab and listen at the site (the media player cannot be embedded here).  Hop to  1 hr 11 min and 15 seconds by clicking within the wave pattern.  Or, listen to the whole thing why not?

LA Theatre Works’s Production of “Major Barbara” via PRX.  Click the image to listen at prx.org

Of course, GBS, were he alive, would probably approve of 45.

STEPHEN [springing up again] I am sorry, sir, that you force me to forget the respect due to you as my father. I am an Englishman; and I will not hear the Government of my country insulted. [He thrusts his hands in his pockets, and walks angrily across to the window].

UNDERSHAFT [with a touch of brutality] The government of your country! _I_ am the government of your country: I, and Lazarus.Do you suppose that you and half a dozen amateurs like you, sitting in a row in that foolish gabble shop, can govern Undershaft and Lazarus? No, my friend: you will do what pays US. You will make war when it suits us, and keep peace when it doesn’t. You will find out that trade requires certain measures when we have decided on those measures. When I want anything to keep my dividends up, you will discover that my want is a national need. When other people want something to keep my dividends down, you will call out the police and military. And in return you shall have the support and applause of my newspapers, and the delight of imagining that you are a great statesman. Government of your country! Be off with you, my boy, and play with your caucuses and leading articles and historic parties and great leaders and burning questions and the rest of your toys. _I_ am going back to my counting house to pay the piper and call the tune.

— Shaw, Major Barbara (Act III, Scene I)

Lyrical Gangsta: Nature on Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer at 90: a life of scientific satire

Andrew Robinson celebrates the high notes in the mathematician’s inimitable musical oeuvre.
Lehrer agrees with mathematician Stanislaw Ulam (one of the builders of the atomic bomb) that rhyming “forces novel associations … and becomes a sort of automatic mechanism of originality”. As he told me in 2008: “If ‘von Braun’ didn’t happen to rhyme with ‘down’ (and a few other words), the most quoted couplet in the song would not exist, and in all probability the song itself would not have been written.”

Closer to home, Nancy Keystone‘s ‘Apollo’ trilogy cast sharp, cynical, brilliant eyes on whitewashing Nazi rocket scientists into America’s space program.

Vimeo Channel: Nancy Keystone

 

Expectation Values: ‘St. Joan’ at The Broad Stage

Taken by itself,  Bedlam’s production of Shaw’s ‘St. Joan’ was well-performed and well-received.  Four performers gave it their all and the audience acknowledged them enthusiastically at the end of the three hour evening.  Unfortunately it suffers when compared to director Eric Tucker’s 2005 effort in the SFV.   Fallible memory is part of the problem.  It is too easy to add details to an enjoyable evening – details that creep into memory even though they may not have occurred.  At more pressing issue is the misfit between the production’s ambitions and the venue.  The Broad Stage seats 499 in relative comfort, a far cry from the tiny warehouse off of Vineland with bleacher seating moved in-show by the cast.  The conventional proscenium stage dilutes the impact of the performances with every passing row.  Those of us who selected the “on stage” option were seated in the back of the hall for the first and third acts and brought on stage only for the second.   The website stated that the audience would be onstage for one or two acts, not being clear which production (‘Hamlet’ runs in rep) would have which.

The 2005 production had Tucker, David Neher, and Eloise Ayala performing the twenty-plus non-Joan roles to better effect than the three performers who divided the tasks here, playing from the aisles and seats as the show progressed – common festival approach that feels oddly out-of-place indoors.  It is hard to see subtle character shifts from a long distance and the uneven accent work didn’t help matters.    The second act allowed those onstage to see and hear up close the back-room dealings and intrigue that make so much of this play.  There is something about the maid, though. Aundria Brown is a compelling Joan, elevating the production whenever she’s on.  We get Shaw didactic, Shaw political, Shaw polemical, Shaw militant, and Shaw comical in spades.  The payoff is when imprisoned, tortured, and bullied Joan recants her confession in a marvelous third act speech preferring death to  dungeon life away from her land, her animals, and her soldiers.  For this seldom seen Shaw pastoral (‘Village Wooing’ being a notable exception), we are again in the back of beyond with the impact correspondingly blunted.  It would have made more sense to have the audience on stage for this than the courtly intrigue although it would have required a major rethinking of the staging and stagecraft. This production does include the final dream sequence where the characters reassemble and wrap things up in a sweet epilogue.

It would have been nice to see the Bighead/Bedlam minimalist aesthetic continue in Los Angeles but no one can blame Tucker for heading back east.  Grapes may grow best in stony soil but arts organizations need more arable land.  This  ‘St. Joan’ ultimately has to compete against its younger, poorer, fearless, and reckless self.   It’s fighting a fond memory and there are few tougher opponents.

Hamlet and St. Joan
Bedlam Theatre Co.
in repertory at The Broad Stage
5 April to 15 April 2018
1310 11th Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Tickets: Box Office: 310 434 3200 and online at The Broad’s website

Bedlam in Santa Monica: Hamlet and St. Joan at The Broad Stage

7 April 2018 Update: Post-performance notes available here

Photo courtesy C. King Photography

It’s just bedlam, I tell ya… I don’t normally pay attention to Santa Monica’s The Broad Stage but their recent postcard was a grabber.  Eric Tucker and his Bedlam Theatre are bringing their minimalist Shakes and Shav to town as part of a national tour.  Before Bedlam, there was Bighead Theatricalities where Tucker’s kinetic stage sculptures played to very enthusiastic yet typically tiny LA audiences in a San Fernando Valley industrial park.  We few, the happy few, would not forget what we saw.

Fast forward a few years, Tucker is the toast of New York and returns to Southern California, albeit briefly, with a new cast but to all accounts the same approach.  No one can know whether the magic will strike again, whether a production for 4 patrons will scale to 499, or if it will blend as the young people say.   It could be fun to find out.  Details, including the Program Guide, are available at The Broad’s website where  Tucker’s bio says nothing about his LA stay and success – also sadly typical.

Hamlet and St. Joan
Bedlam Theatre Co.
in repertory at The Broad Stage
5 April to 15 April 2018
1310 11th Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Tickets: Box Office: 310 434 3200 and online at The Broad’s website

Caliban at the Improv: ‘Underneath’ at The Odyssey

This show will be popular because a good chunk of the theatregoing public will fall for anything delivered in a British or Irish accent.  Delivered in anything else, this 95 minute slog of derivative, contrived, vapid one-man hamfistery with hokey audience participation would be savaged high and low as LA showcase theatre at its worst.    Check the theatre’s website for details if you’re in the mood for it or the other two productions in repertory from this unclean alliance between the Odyssey and Fishamble of Dublin.

Youtube Channel: The Tom Lehrer Wisdom Channel

Flying high: “The Secret in the Wings” at Coeurage Theatre

“Three Blind Queens” from “The Secret in the Wings.”  Courtesy Coeurage Theatre Company, (c) John Klopping

Fairy tales are usually geared towards younger audiences.  Mary Zimmerman‘s ‘Secret in the Wings’ is a marked exception featuring  uncommon dreamy horror without the usual and unambiguous triumph of good over evil.  Angelenos have two weeks left to see a mostly perfect small theatre adaptation of her work by  Coeurage Theatre Company.

The through line is part Twilight Zone, part Beauty and the Beast blended with lesser-known works redolent of the Grimms and Hans-Christian Andersen.  Neglectful parents leave their young daughter in the charge of their creepy neighbor while they head off to a party.   Thereby hangs both tale and a tail since only the child can see that old Mr. Russom has one dangling off of him.   He’s an ogre who repeatedly proposes marriage to her.  It might all be normal in Alabama but still jars in California.  Serially rebuffed, he reads to her, and his increasingly disturbing stories come to life.

And such stories of power and cruelty are both plentiful and timeless.  The ones in ‘Wings’ atypically have women setting the rules, serving as both tormentors and victims while gormless men are easily led.   The play has been around since the early 1990s and early reviews refer to minimalist stagings.  It has since gained popularity and production value.  Berkeley Rep’s 2004 presentation of the original Chicago Lookingglass show was what God might have done if He had the money.  Director Joseph V. Calarco delivers the same shock and awe in a tenth of the floor space and one surmises even a smaller budget.  This is no staged reading but a fully realized production, expertly set (JR  Bruce), lit (Brandon Baruch), and costumed (Kumue Annabelle Asai).  Pride of place goes surprisingly to the soundscape, also by Calarco – the show would be unimaginable without it.  It surrounds and grabs the audience from the get-go and steers it through  interwoven and suspended plots, a sonic picture frame around grim interiors and grimmer exteriors.   The play’s world transcends its set and Tasheena Medina’s choreography  joins with the sound to make it manifest on a tiny stage.  A nine-person ensemble moves with grace, precision, and above all supreme individual and collective confidence.

Zimmerman’s story choices  eerily foresee current events – a widower king lusts after his daughter (Eduardo Fernandez-Baumann,  Leslie Murphy), young men fight an eternal war while their families  starve.  She also leaves room for theatrical ‘inside baseball’.  An angry young princess (the magnetic Katie Pelensky) will marry only the man who can make her laugh, all other comers to be beheaded.  Her willing and unwilling suitors are tried reverse-Scheherazade through an open-mic night that, like the war, ends in the death of all the young men of her kingdom.   The imperfection?   The most poignant story of a faithless woman (Audrey Flegel) and her loving sap of a husband (Randolph Thompson) is set to music.  Those who dislike sung theatre can instead enjoy the clever stagecraft that accompanies it.   It all ties up in the end with a nice little twist but it is rightly not a full restoration.  Stories reflect human society, fears, and failings.  They’d have no power otherwise.   The symbolic dangers may vanish at a snap but the realities they abstract do not and that horror we take away and keep with us.

The term small theatre here refers only to the size of the space at  The Lankershim Arts Center.   Coeurage’s ambitions are as large as Ziggurat’s were when it was producing in LA and on par with Jaime Robledo’s excellent work with the Sacred Fools.   The ambitions are exceeded.   With Christmas comes the usual large and small adaptations of Dickens and Bob’s Holiday Office Party, each exploring extrema of the spectrum from cloying to crass.   Calarco has made a strong case for ‘Wings’ as the Halloween play for adults, chock full of the fear, ambiguity, and cruelty that grow with each passing day in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  All Coeurage performances are “Pay What You Want.”  Go with generosity.

The Secret in the Wings
by Mary Zimmerman
Directed by Joseph V. Calarco
Remaining performances 7-9 and 13-16 December 2017, all at 8pm
at The Historic Lankershim Arts Center
5108 Lankershim Boulevard
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Arrive early to find street parking

All performances are “Pay What You Want”
Online ticketing via Secureforce

 

 

Common Ancestor: ‘Miss Julia’ at Encuentro 2017

Miss Julia by Vueltas Bravas

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.

Miss Julia by Vueltas Bravas

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

Miss Julia
Vueltas Bravas Producciones
Directed by Lorenzo Montanini
Through 19 November at the Encuentro de las Américas Festival
Los Angeles Theatre Center
514 Spring Street
Los Angeles, CA
Six performances remaining through 19 November 2017
Tickets: $44 general,  $22 Seniors/students/veterans
See website for times and online ticketing