“Be it ever so crumbly, there’s no place like Rome” said Bugs Bunny and was he ever correct. In the face of a real problem, our farcical economy is exposed once again as a house of straw and sticks on quicksand with vultures above and weasels beneath. And I apologize to vultures and weasels everywhere.
MilliGrus – the origami swan part of audience participation
Mil Grus does double duty as the name of “Los Angeles’s Premier Bouffon Troupe” and their eponymous show at the 2019 Hollywood Fringe Festival. Ostensibly based on Pliny the Elder’s story of a Thousand Cranes, a five member ensemble in heavy padding, tights, and grotesque makeup do various skits and improvisational bits taken from (if not exactly inspired by) extensive crowd work and audience participation. The closest hooks to cranes are the elegant little origami handed to a few of us in the front row (right) with the totality of the hour being a mystery. The young and young-at-heart in the packed McCadden Place Theatre roared and ohmyGODded with every twitch, tic, and bit of shtick. Being neither, I was tossed into my recurring nightmare of the final exam in a class I never knew I was taking. If there were references I didn’t get them and if there was a through line, it escaped me. The performers do show talent in physical theatre and this may have been an intentionally loosely-formatted bit of nonsense for a festival audience. Perhaps their other offerings have at least some structure for those of us that need it.
The swan-like Bird of Prey from the Klingon Tamburlaine Photo courtesy School of Night Theatre Company
Summertime is usually Shakespeare season but one festival company has taken on on the daunting task of mounting rival Marlowe. This is no easy task as there are probably very good reasons why Shakespeare (or Bacon or DeVere or whomever) has dropkicked contemporaries to the curb over the past few hundred years. Let’s blindly extrapolate from one or two encounters with the rest and assert that their language isn’t as smooth, their characters as fleshed, or their plots as nuanced. Nevertheless, School of Night Theatre‘s adaptation of “Tamburlaine the Great Parts 1 and 2” into the Star Trek milieu is galactic in scope, brazen in ambition, and a stone cold marvel. Historical Timur/Tamerlane/Tamburlaine was such a brutal and unrepentant conqueror that transplanting him into a Klingon makes eminent sense. It is easier to recognize savagery in the other than to acknowledge it in the self. The uncredited adapter also cleverly remaps various tribes and city-states involved in an endless series of wars into Vulcan, Romulan, and Starfleet counterparts. Played straight, Tamburlaine’s unremitting and unpunished transition from shepherd to despot would wear thin quickly but Director Christopher Johnson deftly leavens the grim proceedings with wry humor, sight gags, posturing, and plenty of tongue.
Klingon Tamburlaine program
This production would be a tight fit in an outdoor venue and it is the height of q’hutzpagh to put a fully costumed beak-over-tailfeathers cast of 13 and a percussionist/Foley artist into the 360 square feet offered by the Complex Theatres. The action is non-stop, full-tilt, loud, and a tad too long with commedia head snaps and full throated oration from start to finish. Neither is this a land-bound adaptation. The large design team puts together epic space battles with supernumeraries, starship models, and clever lighting although the bulk of the fighting is incongruously hand-to-hand combat with pointy objects and blades.
There is no comeuppance, no divine retribution, and no great moral to the story other than lying, cheating, nepotistic, usurping sleazeballs can and do get away with it. Some things don’t change over the centuries. If there is a criticism of the production it is that it might have reached out to LA’s vibrant Klingon community to cast parts currently played by human actors in prostheses and makeup. The theatre world has taken steps toward inclusivity but there is always room to grow.
Mil Grus by Mil Grus Theatre Closed at the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2019
McCadden Place Theatre
Natasha St. Clair Johnson and Troy Dunn in “Exit the King” at City Garage Photo courtesy of Paul Rubenstein
If the death of one man is a tragedy and a million a statistic, where does Everyman‘s death fall?So asks Ionesco as his infinitely mutable Bérenger rages against mortality in “Exit the King,” just opened at City Garage.This was one of the plays that introduced me to small theatre,that distinct art form with which I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship ever since. I didn’t know what to make of Ionesco when I first encountered him.It was late 1993 and the Independent Theatre Company (ITC) had staged “Exit” at their tiny House of Candles Theatre on Stanton Street in the lower East Side of New York City.I had heard of the absurdists,knew they were “important,” and that this play along with “Rhinoceros” were considered essential by those who knew about such things. I don’t remember anything specific about the production apart from walking out with more questions than answers and yet willing to try the playwright again.
Chief Garagistes Frédérique Michel and Charles Duncombe have crafted their own translaptationof the now well-known story – a petulant, arrogant, self-absorbed bigamist struldbrugg of a King Bérenger the First (Troy Dunn) is fading after four hundred years and doesn’t want to go, gently or otherwise, into that good night. He pouts, sulks, screams, and tantrumsthrough the five stages of grief as his two wives and small retinue, emblems of his body and the body politic, try to ease what’s left of his mind.Only the second wife, the keening Queen Marie (Lindsay Plake) shares his belief in the unfairness and tragedy of it all. The rest try to prepare him for the inevitable, each according to his or her means.
Michel preserves the one act structure and plays up the comedic elements for most of it while not overplaying the house style.Other than the Doctor’s (Anthony Sannazzaro) Pythonesque silly walk, the movement work is kept in check in favor ofthe text.There is not much extraneous business and Duncombe’s set supports the action unobtrusively. (The Actors Gang staged “Exit” 20 years ago, turning a tragicomic romp into a two act slog.That, my second encounterwith the work, did not survive the merciful intermission.) We begin to suspect that the King really isn’t and that we’re seeing the end of Everyman Bérenger, majestic in mind only, with other characters representing parts of his failing kingdom-cum-body. The Doctor and Guard(David E. Frank) quietly back off the stage leaving him defenseless. Much put-upon Maid Juliette (Kat Johnston in a fine, understated turn) leaves and the myriad autonomous functions of the body, life, and living leave with her.
To the question is this a one character or a six character play, the answer of course, is two.It’s a bit of a setup but the comedy is a sweet headfake to the denouement between Bérenger and his first wife, the imperious, practical, and sensible Queen Marguerite.The final scene between the resonant Dunn and cool, elegant, swan-necked Natasha St. Clair Johnson is the slow, terrifying, inevitable waltz that’s on all of our dance cards. When that end comes, we know, life goes on without us.Johnson has been appearing frequently in recent productions but is exceptionally well-matched to this role and this moment, the only truly regal presence.The stage, unencumbered by videos or effects, smoothly darkens as he ascends his throne for the last time with a single spot closing over his alternately tortured, frightened, desperate, pleading face.This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.It is one of those theatrical moments that can leave audiences holding their collective breath before a well-deserved exhale and wild applause.Or it could have had it not been for the goober taking cellphone photos at intervals throughout the evening doing so at this juncture.The flash came on in the dying light and to top it off, he began clapping before the fadeout to which the production had been building for the preceding 99 minutes.
Despite Bérenger’s resemblance to 45 (or vice-versa), “Exit” is not the overt political call-to-arms that is “Rhinoceros” and certainly not the out-and-out political comedy that is “La Leçon/The Lesson” which Liz Pocock knocked into orbit in 2004 at the company’s old Promenade location. Even if it were that call, the world is voting the other way these days and by and large, the world doesn’t go to see plays. “Exit”‘s scope is smaller in respects, grander in others but this strong production is certainly worth a visit to Bergamot Station between now and 14 July.
Exit the King
by Eugène Ionesco, translated and adapted by Frédérique Michel and Charles Duncombe
Directed by Frédérique Michel
Running through 14 July 2019 at City Garage
Building T1, Bergamot Station
2525 Michigan Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Fridays, Saturdays 8:00pm;
Admission: $25; Students w/ID & Seniors (65+): $20; Sundays “Pay-What-You-Can” (at the door only)
Box Office: 310-453-9939
Online ticketing through Brown Paper Tickets
And here’s King Louis the First with Steely Queen Keely with their take on the final curtain.
The outsized impact of Teutonic peuples on the sciences requires the rest of the world to get acquainted with the nuances of German pronunciation what with the umlauts, diphthongs, capitalizations, and veryLongwordscomposedofötherwordswIthnospacesinbetwëën. Berkeley chemistry majors of my vintage needed to take two terms of German so that we could read the older literature before English more-or-less took over as lingua franca. Some of us actually enjoyed it, most cursed it. Speaking of franca, the French were/are no slouches when it comes to scientific impact but we were not required to take French as part of the curriculum.
Vacky Deutscher JensFehlau offers a basic pronunciation course in typical vacky, flammable, and completely not-safe-for-work idiom forgoing his usual chalkboard for a MySpace page come to life. He vents justifiable rage against those profaning the great Leonhard Euler as ‘Youler’ or even ‘Wheeler’. For an existence proof of the former, see UCL mathematician Hannah Fry deadpan it repeatedly in a discussion of map projections. What in the actual f, indeed? The definitive guide to speaking the insufficiently known Emmy Noether is a major service.
Let us now consider other Wheelers (not Youlers or Oilers) that have loomed in the physical sciences. Most famous is Princeton’s late John Archibald, coiner of terms (black hole, wormhole, it-from-bit) and who begat Feynman, Thorne, and other luminaries. There is also Reed’sNicholas Wheeler whose lecture notes have become the stuff of legend. Now the A. A. Knowlton Professor Emeritus of Physics, Wheeler created many courses over a six decade career developing first his own approach to a topic, writing about it, and then taking his students through it. It is a pedagogical road taken by a select few. He writes,
I learned early on in my undergraduate education that while it is instructive to read, and to attend to the words of informed speakers, I cannot gain the feeling that I “understand” a subject until I have done my best to write about it. So much of my time these past sixty years—even when seemingly involved with other things—has been spent pondering the outlines of what I would write when I returned to my desk, “composing the next sentence.”
Which means that I have been engaged more often in trying to write my way to understanding than from understanding
When thinking through a subject in preparation for a class I have no option but to write my way through the subject, and then to lecture from my own notes. I find it much more pleasant and productive to spend an afternoon and evening writing than arguing with the absent author of a published text.
Reed has placed the original handwritten notes in their Special Archives for consultation. Fortunately, Wheeler also took pains to meticulously typeset a large fraction of these notes in and put them on his website. It is heady stuff this idiosyncratic guide through the highways, byways, and backroads of mathematical physics. Wheeler’s writing is alternately informal then precise, rigid then fluid, purposeful and then digressive. Each polished chapter contains seeds and fruits from all the others just as pieces of a hologram recapitulate the whole. There are treasures enough for many lifetimes. We can only marvel at undergraduates who had both the fortune to experience this ‘drawing out and not a putting in,’ as well as the ability to absorb and understand so much material coming from so many directions. Click the image to go the site and rejoice in each folder and its branches.
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.”
Amateur musicians are justifiably in awe of their professional counterparts. We struggle with rhythm, tempo, dynamics, intonation, and sight reading. They’ve mastered all that and more at an early age. It is all maddening especially the sight reading part. I’d do a deal with Mephisto in a heartbeat if I could do that without actually working for it. But, on the positive side, we schmoes reap the benefits of the pro’s superior talent and diligence in concert. The USC Thornton School sent five graduate students to Rolling Hills last Sunday for a rollicking ‘Trout Quintet’ to a packed and savvy house. Fine ensemble playing by a group that assembled and converged for this event. It was damned hard not to hum along, especially with the fourth movement. Video/audio to be posted if made available.
Our last encounter — I remember it well. Pavilion at Lord’s in ’39, against the West Indies. Hutton and Compton batting superbly, Constantine bowling, war looming.
— Hirst to Spooner in ‘No Man’s Land’
Pinter, cricket fancier, named his “No Man’s Land” antagonists Hirst and Spooner after two well-known players. The play nicely mirrors the game – stretches of groundwork and moments of attack, usually ending in a draw. At one time videos of the 1978 tv adaptation with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud were available on the web [January 2018 Update: And are again – see below]. I downloaded a full version without knowing why. The characters are unlikeable, their purposes unclear, and the author famously, contemptuously, refusing to answer any questions about his intentions and denying meaning to any of it. Like a lot of Pinter, it is hard to like yet it tends to stick. I’ve seen three different stagings in person and this grainy recording from the videotape era is more vibrant and three-dimensional than any of them, even the overpraised Stewart/McKellen effort from 2013. It works surprisingly well without the visuals. I’ve taken the two Sirs on walks, cellphone in my pocket, headphones in my ear. Their poetry made time and distance disappear for me as the Pinter does to their characters.
Here is a gem of a short film about the sport narrated by a younger Richardson. The Pavilion at Lords features prominently as do Hutton and Compton, although not batting as superbly as in ’39. England’s hope for the Ashes fell to ashes under the captaincy of Australia’s legendary Donald Bradman. A short clip from the tv production still on the web follows and then the author himself reading one of the most mournful and beautiful passages from it.
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.
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