In days of old, when the city was pronounced ‘Los Anguluz’ and radio ruled the waves, “Romance of the Ranchos” offered half-hour looks at the many regions that congealed into our present megalopolis. Herewith the episode on what are now the Beach Cities.
Memo to self: Always check to see if a playwright is <nationality>’s Chekhovbefore buying the ticket.The sinking feeling sets in early with Open Fist‘s otherwise attractive ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ and by 75 minutes into a seemingly interminable first act, plans are setfor an intermission escape.Then things happen for about 10 minutes and the coin flip comes up as stay to see how it pans out.We get another 5 to 7 minutes of explanation in the remaining hour as we learn what happens to the hard-luck, bad-luck if any luck at all Mundys of fictional Ballybeg, County Donegal.In the meantime, five sisters and a cleric brother may be poor but they have one another, then the fast moving world of change rolls over them.
Open Fist brings its traditional craftsmanship and smart casting to Brian Friel’s highly praised but unbalanced memory play.Lane Allison and Christopher Cappiello stand out as lively, optimistic Maggie and Father Jack, the latter recently returned from decades in Uganda where he found the existing customs and community much more to his liking than the Catholic faith he was sent there to sell.He’s not the only rambler in the mix as Christina’s (Caroline Klidonas) baby-daddy (Scott Roberts) shows up occasionally to see her and their son (David Shofner) whois narrating the piece from… the future. The Mundys are hanging on the edge of society. Breadwinner Kate (Jennifer Zorbalas) loses her teaching job due to Jack’s apostasy not sitting well with the church school. Industrialization eliminates a pittance that Agnes (Ann Marie Wilding) and Rose (Sandra Kate Burck) earn from piecework. The world just stomps on their knuckles until they finally let go. Burck has an especially fine moment in the second act as developmentally-disabled Rose is cruelly used by an unseen admirer despite the loving protection of Agnes –Friel’s hat-tip to Tennessee Williams, perhaps?We guess early on that every flicker of light these characters see is just the streamer for the next lightning bolt to hit them but the waits between the strikes are too damned long.The set, lights, and sounds (James Spencer, Matt Richter, and Tim Labor) do hang well over the production.
The play has won all the awards and feels calculated to do so, much like ‘Anna in the Tropics’ which preceded it. Both will be good box office for years to come.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.