BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITIES - Don't Count Out LA Theater!

BREAKING NEWS: The Sacred Fools production of MR BURNS: A Post-Electric Play has been extended to DEC. 9th!!!

New York City.  London.  Los Angeles.

All great cities, right?

Two of the three are known as great theater (or theatre) cities.  Which ones are they?

"Duh," you say.   London has the West End, New York has Broadway, LA has... the Ahmanson, the Geffen and a lot of 99 seat theaters that require street parking.

But hey, not so fast.  There's more to the story than that.

15 months ago, a play I c0-wrote was produced at a Fringe theatre in London.  It was exciting to have a play in London, but the truth is that 99-seat theatre there is not all that different from 99-seat theater here.  The big difference is how much theatre mattered there, how seriously people took the art form.  There were ads in the Underground for literary fiction and experimental plays!  No one in the tube looked at his or her phone; instead they read actual newspapers and books!  The run of our play was sold out, and audiences seemed to take the subject matter very much to heart.  I was delighted to find how both professional people (doctors, lawyers, academics) and regular folk (shopkeepers, salespeople) made going to theatre a part of their daily routine.  I found this to be true of the older generation in New York City too.  In Los Angeles, not so much.

On the other hand, the critical establishment in London seems to be a carry-over from the 19th century.  Literally.  The Irish playwright Conor McPherson has written a brilliant one-man play, St. Nicholas, in which a powerful theatre critic falls in with a group of vampires. I always took this as fiction, but maybe there's more to it, as there are SO MANY critics, and several write as if they still live down the street from Dickens and must protect the King's English from the incursions of the modern world.

An art supply store not far from Picadilly Square

The truth is, the British theatre is in terrible trouble because of the terrible British economy (Brexit, remember?).  I sincerely hope they find their way out of their present dilemma... and are able to whip up a new batch of critics.  Maybe some women for a change?  And some men with a modicum of humility and a sense of humor about what they do.  Regardless, the spirit of creativity lives on in London, and I look forward to having another play there someday soon.  But the idea that the British have some kind of superior knowledge of how to make theatre... no.  The one play I was able to afford to see there was LABYRINTH by Beth Steel at the Hampstead Theatre, a dark comedy-thriller depicting a Wall Street banking firm in the 1970s hoping to make a killing by buying up Latin-American debt.  The staging was dazzling, the energy was unflagging, and it worked well on the level of spectacle.  But it was difficult to care much about any of the bankers or the journalists who covered them, as both were equally corrupt.  I thought the playwright made a mistake in portraying some of the bankers as literal devils, seducing the innocents into their own cozy version of hell.  It made judging them all too easy.

The Company of Junk. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

In his play JUNK - which started at the La Jolla Playhouse and recently opened on the Lincoln Center mainstage in NYC - Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar was able to avoid allowing the audience to make any such easy or simplistic moral judgments as he moves the story forward a decade to the mid-1980s, dramatizing the rise and fall of Junk Bonds in the character of Robert Merkin (reportedly based on the trader Michael Milkin).  Merkin is young and brilliant and eager to elbow his way to the top of the investment world.  He has discovered how to do so using the weapon of "debt" instead of net worth.  The production, again, works best on the level of spectacle, as director Doug Hughes makes brilliant use of the huge theater space at the Vivian Beaumont.  But the people in this drama, while not reduced to stereotypes of good and evil, are still playing out a story that becomes more familiar and predictable as it goes along.  That is, it succeeds as a thesis about how the values of capitalism have been undercut by the manipulators of Debt to the point that money itself has lost its meaning, its purpose.  But it hasn't made this feel particularly interesting or original.  This is an important story, but I'd honestly rather read about it in a book.  While Akhtar certainly knows how to communicate the dramatic issues using the banker's lingo, I'm not sure he's telling us anything we haven't heard said more memorably in Caryl Churchill's Serious Money or in Jerry Sterner's Other People's Money.  

Scott Golden as "Homer"

While Los Angeles may not have the artistic heritage of London or the Wall Street-inspired sense of theater as big business that New York City can boast, it does provide an excellent environment for a company of actors to create the kind of instant sense of community that Off-Off-Broadway used to specialize in (for example, The Open Theater's production of Jean-Claude van Itallie's The Serpent) before it priced itself out of such experiences.  But witness the Sacred Fools production of Annie Washburn's brilliant, MR BURNS - A Post-Electric Play for a 2017 update of such an experience. Director Jaime Robledo starts out by putting us, the audience, in the center of a post-apocalyptic tragedy along with the actors, and his inventiveness never relents as he and his actors bring this key work of our time to vivid life.

Tracey A. Leigh and Emily Clark

This play originated at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington DC and then went to Playwrights Horizons in NYC, which is where I first saw it.  The play received an ecstatic review in the New York Times, so there was a great clamor for tickets.  But the Playwrights Horizons stage is a proscenium, which proved far from ideal.  Also, the play is written in three very distinct sections, which had to be presented there with two lengthy intermissions, so that set changes could be made.  I recall having an argument about the play with a well-known actress (who shall go unnamed) who was sitting next to me and couldn't understand what all the fuss was about.  "This is boring as crap," she kept murmuring.  She stayed through the first intermission but then headed for the hills (or Joe Allen's bar) at the second intermission.  Which was a true shame, since the last section is among the most remarkable writing I've seen from any play in the last decade.

Eric Curtis Johnson and Tracey A Leigh

One of the great things about the Sacred Fools production is that their theater has 3 separate spaces, and they are able to make use of a different one for each Act.  This is absolutely ideal for Ms Washburn's play, and I can honestly say that the Sacred Fools production was superior in every way to the one I saw in New York.  More than that, I understood the play this time in a way that I hadn't before.  That is, I saw how Ms. Washburn assembles the pieces of a broken civilization in Act I and gradually starts putting them back together again in what amounts to an heroic effort of mankind to recover our soul.  It documents a great triumph of the imagination.  Which is, quite simply, what this production is as well.  A triumph for Sacred Fools, for director Jaime Robledo, and for the pitch-perfect company of actors, as well as for the production team under the leadership of Brian W. Wallis, with assistance from Alison Sulock and many others.  It's unfair for me to single out any performances in what is truly a group effort, but I'm going to anyway.  Tracey A. Leigh as "Bart" and Eric Curtis Johnson as "Mr Burns" just kept topping themselves in the final section in ways that I didn't think possible.  All that I can say in return is "brava!" and "bravo!"  You completely blew my mind.

The production has just been EXTENDED to Dec. 9!  Hurray!  I cannot even begin to describe the pleasures that await you in (click here) this production.  And unlike all those bankers, I wouldn't give you a raw deal.  (And even if I did, tickets are only $15 - less than a movie!)

 


Ashton's Audio Interview: Robert Beltran - Commander Chakotay of Star Trek: Voyager directs "Culture Clash: An American Odyssey" at The Los Angeles Theatre Center

Enjoy this interview about “Culture Clash: An American Odyssey” By Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza, directed by Robert Beltran (Commander Chakotay in a recurring role on the TV series Star Trek: Voyager) at The Los Angeles Theatre Center, running until Nov 17th. You can listen to this YouTube interview while commuting, while waiting in line at the grocery store or at an audition, backstage and even front of the stage.  For tickets and more info Click here.


THREE QUICK HIPSTER TIPS FOR THE WEEKEND

As usual, there's so much going on in the SoCal area this weekend, including a dangerous fire (try to avoid that).  For those who want a memorable experience at the theater, here are 3 options - all have some humor in them, though only one is a laugh out-loud comedy.

 

George Wyner and Richard Fancy are brothers in "Daytona". Photo: John Perrin Flynn

DAYTONA by Oliver Cotton, directed by Elina de Santos

There are so many great older actors in Los Angeles, and far too few plays that really give them anything to perform.  But Daytona at Roguemachine has three terrific roles, which are inhabited to the hilt by George Wyner and Sharron Shayne as a long-married couple and Richard Fancy as Mr Wyner's long-absent brother, under the pitch-perfect direction of Elina de Santos.  The play takes place in Brooklyn in 1986, where Joe and Elli are preparing for their dance competition the next evening, a hobby they've cultivated for the past 15 years.  Then Elli goes out to pick up her dress from her sister, where she will also spend the night.  Suddenly the downstairs buzzer sounds.  Joe is shocked to hear the voice of his brother Billy, who he hasn't heard from for the past 30 years, and whose entrance will shake up the easy-going world of Joe and Elli.  I completely agree with Kathleen Foley's review in the LA Times that the play has some major problems, most of which crop up in the Second Act, when the writing begins to waver and drift.  But, as Ms. Foley asserts, the actors couldn't be better, and their moment-to-moment character work is thrilling to watch.  Certainly Richard Fancy - who I've seen in numerous shows at Pacific Resident Theatre and elsewhere around town - has never seemed more focused and relaxed, having the time of his life.  This is a play and a production that will likely stay in your mind long after the houselights have come up.

UPDATE: DAYTONA has to close earlier than expected, on Monday October 16, but Roguemachine is looking to move and reopen it, so your support is essential.

Karen Finley in the The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery (Photo: Carolina Restrepo)

THE EXPANDED UNICORN GRATITUDE MYSTERY by Karen Finley at Redcat

Karen Finley, the author and performer of the one woman show at the Redcat in DTLA for this weekend only, is herself something of a unicorn on the American performance art scene, part stand-up comic, part Oracle at Delphi.  She came to public prominence in the early 1980s as one of the NEA 4 - 4 performance artists of highly political and controversial works who had received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, much to the disgust of conservative senator Jesse Helms.  She has continued to develop her work far out of the mainstream (by choice), using sexual imagery in unexpected ways (just google "Finley yams" and "Finley chocolate" for  more detailed accounts) to bring attention to the glorification of rape and other acts of misogyny in the central nervous system of American life.  Pretty much alone among her peers, she has managed to maintain her integrity and develop her metaphors in a series of performance art pieces and books and recordings.  That alone would provide a good reason to catch her new show at Redcat, if you can still score a ticket.  But this is something different than I've seen from Ms. Finley before.  (I caught both her yam and her chocolate performances.)  There is no nudity this time - that's a first, at least in my limited experience.  There are three sections to her performance, and the first two are funnier than anything I've seen from her.  These satirize American consumerism and American politics, respectively.  In the political section, she takes on Hillary Clinton, Trump and their campaigns, to devestating effect.  The third (and most powerful) section is Karen Finley being Karen Finley - dispensing with the clown costumes and the wigs and assuming the role of Cassandra the Seer, peering poetically into the darkness of the American soul.  What she sees is dark indeed - a hollowness which has to be filled up with things, a death-wish that yearns for mass destruction.  Her performance is so dense with references and layers of meaning that it is difficult to take in in one sitting.  On the other hand, who knows when you'll get another chance?

Jimmy Fowlie as Mia Dolan at the Celebration Theatre

SO LONG BOULDER CITY by Jimmy Fowlie and Jordan Black, performed by Mr Fowlie and directed by Mr Black

The title of this meta-comedy will be immediately recognizable to any avid fan of Damien Chazelle's film LA LA LAND.  In the film, Mia Dolan, an aspiring actress played by Emma Stone (who won an Academy Award for her performance), writes herself a one-woman show called "So Long Boulder City" in a desperate attempt to boost her faltering career.  Only 9 people show up - none of whom is her boyfriend Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling.  However, her ploy works out better than she ever expected, since one of the attendees is a high-powered casting agent.  All of this is such far-fetched nonsense - as I wrote about in one of my first columns for this website - that it seems to be crying out for lampooning, and this show by Jimmy Fowlie and Jordan Black more than fills the bill.  While not everything works, the parts that are funny are howlingly so - as in one bit that features Abraham Lincoln's niece.  Personally, I could see anothere way to go with this parody, that would hone closer to the character of Mia Dolan and evoke Ms Stone's performance more acutely.  But this broadly farcical approach works too, and Mr Fowlie is a hoot as an untalented LA actress who is too in love with herself and her "dreams" to even notice how terrible an actress she really is.  I highly recommend this if you want to laugh your ass off at one-person shows in general and at the LA entertainment industry scene in particular.  But it's better if you know the source material well - or can go with someone who does.

 


WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE FAMILY IMPLODES (On Stage and Screen)

Paul Simon wrote that there are 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, and that sounds about right.  But it's much harder to change the world around you when things are going wrong. Even harder perhaps to change oneself.

Because when the world breaks down and things aren't working out as we hoped, then we need someone to blame.  It has to be someone's fault.  Your husband, your wife, the Arabs, the Jews, the Aristocrats.  But if it's yourself?  Then how do you deal with that?

YEAR BY THE SEA, a movie written and directed by Alexander Janko, adapted from Joan Anderson's memoirIn the opening scene of this movie, Joan (Karen Allen) is at her older son's wedding reception when she finds out from her realtor that her husband Robin (Michael Cristofer) has put their home on the market without even bothering to tell her.  Her son the groom gives a toast without even mentioning her.  Her other son doesn't even ask her to dance.  She has somehow become a non-person even to her nearest and dearest.  The only friend she seems to have is her publisher (S. Epatha Merkerson), who keeps asking Joan when she's going to write her next book - which is curious, since we never even see Joan open a book, much less make any attempt to write one.  In any case, Joan finds a coupon ad for a rental cottage in Cape Cod, and she impulsively calls and rents it rather than go off to Wichita, Kansas with her husband for his new job (whatever that may be - we never find out).

The good news about this movie is that Karen Allen's smile is still an elixir for whatever ails you, lighing up the screen with her inner glow.  The camera still loves her, and her likeability quotient is as high as ever too.  You want to like her character, just as you want to like this movie, a true independent with lovely shots of seals playing on the beach and small town eccentrics doing eccentric things.  But this is where the bad news comes in, because writer-director Alexander Janko has no clue how to write a screenplay.  Even more, he's clueless about his cluelessness, saying at the Q&A after the screening that "the creative aspect of this movie was never a problem" - ha!  It's a huge problem when your main character says "my sons are going to hate me" for leaving their father, and then there is no follow-up phone call or scene addressing this.  When she tells her husband, "We had a successful marriage, we did a great job raising our kids," but the one time she tries to reach her sons (at her husband's prompting), they don't even pick up the phone and apparently never call back.  And then what's really the state of this marriage?  Did these people ever love each other?  Michael Cristofer does an admirable job trying to invest his character with some sense of reality when in fact there isn't any - he's just a type, not a human being.  And every time there's a scene between him and his wife, it is interrupted by the wife of psychologist extraordinaire Erik Erikson (how specific is that?), who wants to go dancing on the beach, scarves flying like some Cape Cod protege of Isadora Duncan.  Instead of genuine emotional discovery, we get self-help slogans and New Age psychobabble. And still, Joan never even makes a notation in her journal until suddenly in the Third Act she turns out a memoir at the same time that Mrs. Erickson is writing hers (pre-sold, of course).  Because it's just that easy!

It's understandable that Mr Janko has discoveries of his own to make about screenwriting and directing, since he has made his living up until now as a movie composer.  What is less understandable is how terrible the score for this movie is.  There are so many songs, and every single one so on the nose.  I mean, it's just cheesy to use a song about feeling depressed when you're feeling depressed.  Isn't that in Movie Scoring 101?  Against all odds, I still think this movie is worth catching - first for the seals, and then for the luminous, inventive performances of Karen Allen and Michael Cristofer.  Just imagine how great they could have been if they'd actually been given something to act!

Alan Blumenfeld and Kevin Hudnell, 2 Venetian Jews

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by William Shakespeare, directed by Ellen Geer - There are only 3 more performances of this remarkable production at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga - on 9/17 at 7:30, 9/23 at 3:30 and 10/1 at 3:30.  I urge to catch this show before it closes.  The cast is excellent, none more so than Los Angeles theater stalwart Alan Blumenfeld.  His Shylock is a proud Jewish man in a city that hates Jews, and that does not allow a Jew to hold any job that a Christian can do.  He is a legal alien, and he has become a money-lender because this is the only way he can provide for his family.  He has in fact become the most successful Jewish money-lender precisely because of his pride - he is determined to succeed in spite of all the obstacles that the Christians have put in his way.  The object of his deepest affection is his daughter Jessica, but early in the play we see she has fallen in love with a cavalier young Christian man, and she elopes with him, taking a huge portion of her father's wealth with her.  So when rabid anti-Semite Antonio comes to him for a loan of 3,000 Ducats for his friend Bassanio, Shylock draws up a contract demanding a pound of flesh if Antonio defaults on his loan.  Director Ellen Geer and her artistic associates have edited the play a bit to emphasize the cruelty at the core of it.  When Portia - played wonderfully by Willow Geer - recites her "The quality of mercy is not strained" speech, it seems deeply hypocritical, as she delights in Shylock's destruction, just as she has earlier delighted in the defeat of the Prince of Morocco, wishing that "no more of his hue come to court me."  Far from seeing the play as a triumph of "mercy," the Botanicum production shows us a narcissistic, self-satisfied society with no problem demonizing the Jew as "the other."  Far from diminishing the play, it has never seemed so gloriously cogent to me before.

Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz

A TALE OF TWO CITIES, adapted by Mike Poulton from the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott at a Noise Within - "It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times" is the famous opening of Charles Dickens's novel, A Tale of Two Cities.  Regarding Mike Poulton's adaptation, I would call it "the best of adaptations and the worst of adaptations" - well, maybe not the worst, but definitely lacking.  What it does best is to create the terrifying reality of the French Revolution, that began as a blow for populist justice and morphed into a frenzy of bloodlust and revenge.  The staging at A Noise Within is very inventive in creating tableaux that bring this national nightmare to blazing life.  This is embodied in the character of Madame Defarge, brought vividly to life by Abby Craden.  Madame Defarge's need for justice is entirely understandable, but her thirst for revenge has become insatiable, and Ms Craden forces us to experience the erotic urge that this has come to represent for her.

Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz

Where Mr Poulton's adaptation is lacking, however, is in developing characters of any depth that we can understand and care about.  There is simply so much plot - so much story, so many twists and turns - that it's hard to get beneath the glossy surface of the scenes from the French Revolution and feel anything for those who are trapped there.  This is not an easy problem for any adapter - Dickens's novel is bursting with storylines, and it has dual heroes - Charles Darnay (Tavis Doucette), who is at first accused in British court of being a French spy, only to end up a prisoner in the Bastille; and Sydney Carton (Frederick Stuart), a lawyer's associate who is responsible for Darnay's London acquittal.  But who is Darnay?  It's hard to get a grasp on his character in the midst of his continuing peril.  And who is Sydney Carton?  Well, that comes through more clearly, thanks in large part to Mr Stuart's memorably persuasive portrayal. Carton is intriguing but quite an enigma.  I could have used more scenes deepening his motives, especially with Lucie, the central female figure, to make his actions at the conclusion feel more inevitable.

I did love the theatricality of this production, as well as its ambitiousness.  At the very end, a young actress gives a speech in the shadow of the gallows which was genuinely heart-wrenching.  It demonstrated what happens when the human family gives way to self-destruction.  I just wish this production had more of that.

 


Sondheim and Faustin Linyekula! Two Upcoming Shows to Put on Your Calendar

Love is hard to explain.  Sometimes even to oneself.

Well, not all love.  Everyone understands loving babies. And parents' love for their children in general.

And love for dogs and cats.  And other pets.  And food.  (But please, not pets as food.)

But loving theater?  It's different in LA and NYC.  Yes, that's a generalization, but I've generally found it to be true.

Illustration: when I first came out here, I was looking for a writing agent.  I met with a guy at William Morris (before Endeavor was even a word that required a capital E).   I asked him if he represented stage scripts as well as film and TV.  He gave me a long look, as if translating my sentence into his language, then said, "No, but we respect it."

A lot of people out here are like that.  They're like, "Oh yes, I really wish I could see more plays, they are so much  more substantial and Human than movies and TV, but I just don't have the time."  That's respect.  But respect is not love.  No explanation is required in NYC when singing the praises of a show you've seen.  Before you've reached your noun, your friend has his or her phone out, checking on ticket availability.

Love is unreasoning and compulsive, love feeds on itself.  It's not necessarily good for you - in fact it usually isn't - but it's a surefire reason to get up in the morning and to go out at night.

So for those who are afflicted with theater-love - for those who love the avant-garde and for those who love Stephen Sondheim - here are two upcoming events.  Both are only for a few performances and could be easily missed.  My job as the Twisted Hipster is to make sure you are well informed.

September 21-24: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC IN CONCERT AT THE COLONY THEATRE IN BURBANK

One of Stephen Sondheim's most beloved shows, with a book by the always-masterful Hugh Wheeler, the Broadway production received Six Tony Awards, including Best Musical.  This concert production will be directed by Laura Stribling, with musical direction by Jennifer Lin.  The cast includes Liza Baron, Angela Baumgardner, Carly Bracco, Marc Ginsburg, Erica Hanrahan-Ball, Michelle Holmes, Taj Jageraj, Jennifer Kumiyama, Stanton Morales, Joey Nisivoccia, Sara St Pierre, Cloie Wyatt Taylor, Peyton Thomas Tucker, Alison Whitney and Robert Yacko.  I saw Ginsburg and Morales perform in their recent Fringe production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, and they were both in fine voice, outstanding.  If the rest of the cast is up to their level, it should be a must-see for Sondheim-lovers and afficionados of musicals.  Click here for ticket info.

 

September 28-30: REDCAT SEASON BEGINS WITH CONGOLESE DANCE-THEATRE-MASTER FAUSTIN LINYEKULA'S NEW WORK

"Faustin Linyekula is one of the most powerful, death-defyingly deft, and determined artists on the planet." -  theater director Peter Sellars

REDCAT, CalArts downtown center for contemporary arts, begins its new season with a bang by presenting Sur les traces de Dinozord (In Search of Dinozord), a new work by Congoleses choreographer and writer Faustin Linyekula/Studio Kabako.

According to the Redcat's press release, "this dance-theatre work nurtures hope in the face of the ongoing legacy of war and ruin in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Scored with fragments of Mozart's Requiem, metronomic taps on a typewriter, and live vocals by rising opera star Serge Kakudji.

This is a poetic, political fairy tale. ... Through exquisite movement and text, Linyekula and his exceptional performers delve into the wrenching history of the Congo and their own childhood stories, as they mourn the loss of a friend.  In the process, they are hoping to fashion a new kind of myth that is a truer reflection of their lives."

Only 3 performances.  Click here for ticket info on Sur les traces de Dinozord at Redcat.


24th Street Theatre to donate half of opening night proceeds from upcoming show to track hate groups in America

LOS ANGELES (Aug. 16, 2017) — On the heels of Charlottesville, 24th Street Theatre has announced it will donate half of all opening day ticket sales from its upcoming production, La Razón Blindada (“Armored Reason”) by Argentine playwright Arístides Vargas, to the Southern Poverty Law Center to help track hate groups in America.
“La Razón Blindada is about political oppression and standing up to hate, and it kicks off our ‘Speaking Up/Standing Up' 20th anniversary season,” says 24th Street executive director Jay McAdams. “This just feels like the right thing to do. It reflects our entire mission as an organization.”
Sublimely witty and provocative, La Razón Blindada was triply inspired by the classic novel “El Quixote” by Cervantes, “The Truth About Sancho Panza” by Franz Kafka, and testimonies from Chicho Vargas and other political prisoners held in Rawson Prison during Argentina's “Dirty War” of the 1970s. Jesus Castaños Chima and Tony Durán reprise their roles as political prisoners who are allowed to interact with one another for one hour a week — but must remain in their chairs and never stand. As they entertain each other with stories of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, we witness the power of theater to transport them, and us, into the realm of the imagination, despite repressive conditions and even as we remain bound to our seats.
La Razón Blindada is scheduled to open on Sept. 9 with two performances, one in the afternoon at 3 p.m. and one in the evening at 7:30 p.m. First produced by 24th Street in 2010, La Razón Blindada was a Los Angeles Times “Critic's Choice” and the recipient of the LA Weekly “Production of the Year” award. Since then, it has toured around the U.S. as well as to Mexico City, Culiacan, Baja Mexico, San Salvador, Colombia and Ecuador.
La Razón Blindada is performed in Spanish with English supertitles.
For more information and to purchase tickets, call (213) 745-6516 or www.24thstreet.org


THE DANGERS OF LIVING - One Play, Five One-Person Shows

Let's face it, we all want to be heroes.  From an early age, we daydream about performing heroically under pressure - saving the drowning man, pulling the woman to safety before she's engulfed by fire, catching the child who falls out a window - and then being celebrated by society for what we have done.  And in truth, many of us are upstanding people who would put ourselves on the line - not just for friends and family, but also for strangers in trouble.  But what would we do - what would YOU do - if you had to live with constant danger, with constant threat of incarceration or death?  Would you be able to rise to the challenge - or would you look for some place to hide?

Six shows I've seen recently here confront these questions in dramatically interesting ways.

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Simon Stephens, adapted from the novel by Mark Haddon

This play tells the story of Christopher, an autistic adolescent in a London suburb, who happens upon his neighbor's dead dog - an event that begins Christopher on a journey of many perils, in which he discovers that his life has been shrouded in lies.  Directed by Marianne Elliott, it is one of the few truly "immersive" productions, as we experience events entirely through Christopher's eyes, with the help of a computerized cube within which the story unfolds.  It is a technological marvel that fills me with misgivings, mostly because of the hypnotizing effect this has on an audience, and the nefarious uses to which such technology can be put by those with the kind of money necessary to construct such a cube. Nevertheless, I highly recommend seeing it before it closes Sept. 10, if at all possible.  Christopher's journey on the train to London is simply one of the great coup de theatres of all time.  I saw the Broadway production two years ago, and that seemed crisper and more of a jolt than this did, but then that may simply be because I wasn't seeing it for the first time.  There were moments this time when the play seemed overly cute and pleased with itself.  But its power is undeniable, and I found myself being even more blown away than before by the heroicism of Christopher, who overcomes so many obstacles in his pursuit of a dangerous truth.

MY JANIS by Arianna Veronesi

When I was a teenager, I saw Janis Joplin headline a concert at Madison Square Garden.  (I bought the tickets with cash at the box office - probably $20 or so - only businessmen had credit cards back then, and of course there was no internet.) There must have been 20,000 other screaming fans there who experienced this astonishing voice - so full of hurt, fury, yearning, love and anguish.  Torment.  Joy.  So vulnerable it hurt, like a naked child in a tornado.  Talk about "immersive"!  I remember it as the only time when a performer truly made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  As the years go by, there are fewer and fewer people left on the planet who had this in-person experience, though Janis as a rock goddess and avatar of human suffering looms larger than ever.  At first glance, Arianna Veronesi seems an odd choice to conjure that spirit.  Yes, there's a physical resemblance of sorts, but Arianna has a pronounced Italian accent and she doesn't sing or make any attempt to move around as Janis did.  Her 30 minute monologue imagines a small slice of Janis's life, as she attempts to make a comeback (at 26) from years of drinking and drug use.  What Arianna captures is that enormous vulnerability, that naked child in a tornado, as she battles against both her demons and the huge expectations of her fans, desperately trying to hold onto life even as she's aware of it slipping away.  It's very moving, and I hope she continues developing it.  Right now it's not clear to me why this phone call marks a crucial turning point in her life.  That is,, it works as a one act character study, but not as a one act play.  I look forward to seeing where she goes with it.

MARLENE by Willard Manus

Marlene Dietrich was many things - sex symbol, chanteuse, entertainer, movie star - but "hero" would not seem to be one of them.  However, as Willard Manus's play tells us, she did in fact act heroically during WWII, being among the first A-List stars to entertain the troops on the front lines, while also helping to get people out of Germany, finding housing for refugees and sponsoring them for citizenship.  There was a price to pay after the war for her actions, as her own people viewed her as a traitor and issuing death threats when she returned to perform in Germany - to the point where Marlene in her dressing room grabs a revolver from a drawer every time someone knocks.  Cindy Marinangel does everything she can with the role of Marlene, making her a very real woman whose sex appeal is linked interestingly with her independence and dignity.  She doesn't especially resemble Marlene, but this was a plus for me in some ways.  There were suggestions of Marlene as a forerunner of Madonna, something I hadn't really thought about before.  But there's the bi-sexuality, the fashion sense, the political awareness -- the glamour.  That said, the play itself is weak and in need of a major rewrite.  Right now Ms. Marinagel has to act two roles - both Marlene and the reporter she's pouring out her heart to in her dressing room.  It might work better if this was a two-hander, in the manner of John Logan's RED, about Mark Rothko and his studio assistant.  I hope that Mr Manus figures out a way to improve it, because Ms Marinangel deserves a better "Marlene."

OUR GREAT TCHAIKOVSKY by Hershey Felder

I'm so sad that this show has already closed, and I hope that it reappears somewhere in the near future.  This is not only because Hershey Felder does a great job of bringing historically-significant composers back to life, but because in this case there is an unexpected relevance to current events - well, unexpected to me anyway.  Felder does a great job in setting up the big choice of Tchaikovsky's life.  Tchaikovsky was homosexual at a time when it was life-threatening to come out of the closet.  He had managed to get a degree in the civil service and secure an appointment that would have afforded him a good living.  But when pianist/composer Anton Rubinstein opened a music conservatory in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky chose to quit his secure job and dedicate his life to music, in the process opening his private life to scrutiny and potential danger.  Felder posits that the composer's death was basically an act of state-sponsored murder for Tchaikovsky's "crime" of being gay.  He is further able to complete the circle by showing how little has actually changed in Russia, where men are still rounded up and tossed from rooftops simply for sexual orientation.  This is much more than just another biopic or museum piece, and I hope it returns.

TRANSMISSION by Jade Beauvoir

Jade Beauvoir was born into an All-American Texan family, the youngest child of five children.  His name was Trent then, and he was expected to excel at football and uphold Christian values, like his big brothers.  But Trent was only interested in playing with his sisters' Barbies and wearing his mother's clothing.  His "gender dysphoria" was incomprehensible to family and community, and Jade paints a vivid picture of the terrible consequenes of internalizing their rejection.  He lets us into this world, relating with humor and intelligence and grace how he was forced down a blind alley, which could only lead to his death.  (In many ways, much like Tchaikovsky.)  The fact that he was able to survive and construct a self that is still thriving and growing is miraculous in its own way, a testament to the will to live and love that cannot be destroyed, even by those who celebrate their ignorance.  This show is an act of bravery and transparency by a person who has nothing left to hide.

WET: A DACAmented Journey by Alex Alpharoah

 

In the interests of transparency - that word again - let me confide that I am a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA, who are also the producers of Alex Alpharoah's one man show, WET.  That said, please know that has nothing to do with my imploring you to go see Mr. Alpharoah's show.  It is simply a great piece of theater - deeply wrenching and compulsively interesting - that also has more to say than anything else I've seen about the situation in this country with regard to people who come here from other countries "yearning to breathe free."  We often toss around words like "the immigrant crisis" and "illegals," which just become ways to distance us from the human tragedy that these words purport to describe.  Alex Alpharoah is the human face of that tragedy, while also being the best example I know of someone who has managed to triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles by making art out of it, by converting his anxiety and suffering into beautiful word-music.

His story is truly unimaginable in any time except our own, under any administration except the misbegotten one that currently makes our policy.  I won't give you any specifics because one of the pleasures of this very substantial performance is to hear Mr. Alpharaoh tell it.  This is not a civics lesson - this is not theater that is good for you  like medicine (though it is) - this is a modern-day Odysseus creating a new mythology of human endurance.  The show runs until August 27th - go. Buy a ticket. Don't miss it.  You will understand what it's like to walk in Alex Alpharoah's shoes, and you will become a better person because of it.

 

 


THE PLAYWRIGHT AS HERO - Shepard, Kushner, Stephens and Yee

I am going to talk about the National Theatre Live screening of Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA with Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield, and two new plays at CTG theaters, HEISENBERG and KING OF THE YEES.   But, to be completely honest, I'm having trouble moving on from the death of Sam Shepard.  Silly, I know.   I mean, I already wrote about my one extended encounter with him, so what more is there to say? Sam had a great run - 44 plays written, all the honors in the world (10 OBIE awards!), 68 film and TV roles, 27 screenplay credits, 32 credits for "himself" - that is, for playing Sam Shepard.  Remarkable.

when he arrived in NYC at 21

Of course, to be honest, Sam hadn't written anything great since A LIE OF THE MIND and PARIS, TEXAS, both in 1984-85.  His 20 years of amazing creativity began in 1964 with Cowboy and The Rock Garden, and it included such gems (which you should definitely check out, if you don't know them) as The Geography of a Horse Dreamer, The Unseen Hand, and Seduced - his odd but ingenious play about Howard Hughes, whose effectiveness depends on who's playing Hughes.  I was lucky enough to see Rip Torn, and I'll never forget it.

The thing with Sam is, he never sold out.  Some of his acting roles aren't great - his dad afflicted with periodic spells of blindess in 1994's Safe Passage is definitely not going in the time capsule - but even there, he never embarrassed himself, and he rarely if ever seemed to do anything just for the money.

in 1983, when he had the world by the short hairs

He was flat-out great as both Chuck Yeagar in The Right Stuff and as Major-General "Bill" Garrison in Black Hawk Down.  He was the best thing in the film of August Osage County, though his role should have been larger.  But if you really want to see a mind-blowing performance, check out Sam in 2012's Mud as a fat, balding retired U.S. military sniper.  It's not just that he's unrecognizable, but his character is very real, and so different from anything else he's ever done.

It's hard to be as gifted as Sam was, and to become as famous as Sam did, and still hold on to your honor, your humility and your soul.  So here's to Sam: you put up a battle with your demons that we can all be proud of.  Sleep well, my friend.

In my 2004 theater memoir, Best Revenge,  I wrote, "As tremendous as Tony Kushner's achievement was [in Angels in America], its "universality" may have been largely a product of being in the right place at the right time.  It will endure as dramatic literature, not drama."  Wrong.  So wrong.  After viewing the eight hours of Angels on successive Thursdays in the National Theatre Live production, I can only say "Wow. What a writer.  And what an epic!  How universal!"  It really is one of the great American plays, which does things and goes places that no other writer has done or gone.  It has the largeness of spirit of Walt Whitman (the main character is "Prior Walter") with the analytic genius of George Orwell and the sheer theatricality of Brecht at his greatest and, well, Tony Kushner at his greatest too.  What a vision!  This production is directed by Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime) and features Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter, Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, Denise Gough as Harper Pitt, Russell Tovey as Joseph Pitt, Susan Brown as Hannah Pitt, James McArdle as Louis, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize and Amanda Lawrence as the Angel.  All excellent actors, worthy of mention.  The major curiosity, of course, surrounds the two best-known actors, Garfield and Lane.  How were they?

Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter. Photo by Helen Maybanks

Now I saw both the original Broadway cast  and their replacement cast, as well as the Mike Nichols film, so I have some basis of comparison.  Andrew Garfield is very good, but I'll still take Stephen Spinella, who originated Prior Walter on Broadway.  Garfield has more charisma and style than Spinella, but Spinella had more gravitas, a more matter-of-fact sense of hurt.  Spinella anchored the show in the reality of his gayness, the richness of his emotional pain.  Garfield just doesn't have that.  As for Nathan Lane -- sorry, but no.  He's a great actor, one of our greatest, but he's not right for this role; in fact he couldn't be more wrong.  Physically, he suggests J. Edgar Hoover, not Cohn.  Lane's great gift is to humanize his characters, to show us the clown crying on the inside, and that doesn't work here.  Giving Roy Cohn a soul - wrong!  That's not how Kushner wrote him.  Ron Liebman was the greatest Cohn I've seen, seething with rage at the injustice of his fate.  But Pacino was also great.  Neither of them gave Roy Cohn the gooey center that Nathan Lane does, and it simply doesn't work.  For me, this production was stolen by McArdle and Tovey, who are both endlessly fascinating as Louis the temp and as Joe Pitt, the Mormon lawyer he works for.  Both are much better than the other actors I've seen take on those roles.   Stewart-Jarrett comes alive in Perestroika, the second half of the show, but he can't hold a candle to Jeffrey Wright in the original Broadway cast.  (I doubt anyone ever will.)  Gough is fine as Harper, the pill-popping wife of the gay lawyer, but both Marcia Gay Harden on Broadway and Mary Louise Parker in the Nichols' film were better.  I loved Susan Brown's work as Hannah, the gay lawyer's mother, she's gruff at first, but then reveals her inner sexiness in a way I don't recall seeing before.  Still, better than Meryl Streep or Kathleen Chalfant?  Not really possible.  On the whole, the production didn't shake up the world the way that Wolfe's did.  But the real star is and always will be Kushner, who has written an American masterpiece about the way we dream.  My only caveate - and I have to say it - is that ending, in which Prior Walter becomes Tony Kushner and "blesses" the audience as "fabulous."  Sorry but that feels patronizing.  Just stay inside your character, Tony, and let him speak for himself.  No need to pat yourself on the back when everyone else already wants to.  That said, go and see an encore showing of this video version - essential viewing for anyone with a brain.

KING OF THE YEES by Lauren Yee, Directed by Joshua Kahan Brody

Lauren Yee's play The King of the Yees is about Lauren Yee and her family's 150 year old trade association, to which only male Yees can be admitted.  This is actually a great idea for a play, with a great central  metaphor: the red double doors to the family association, doors which Lauren as a female has never been able to open.  And I'm convinced that there's a very good - even possibly great - 90 minute play hidden in the 125 minutes of the current version about how Lauren finally gains admission to the secret history of her ancestors.  If I was a dramaturg - a position I held for 5 years at an Off-Broadway theater - and I was assigned to this play, I would say: I know that this play is based on your life and that many events related here actually happened, but that doesn't mean that they necessarily belong in your play.  Because right now the First Act is 10-15 minutes of good theater and 30 minutes of pseudo-theater, in which you're playing silly games and stalling for time, so you can slip in two minutes of a cliffhanger before intermission.  A third of your audience left, and I would have too if I wasn't contracted to stay.   Then you have 40 good minutes in your Second Act and another 15 minutes of bullshit.  Let's find a way to take this apart and put it back together into 90 strong minutes.  As Scott Carter (Bill Maher's producer) once told me, "If you do five minutes of standup, and there are two good and three bad minutes, the audience is not going to love you for the two good minutes; they're gonna hate you for wasting their time with the three bad minutes."

HEISENBERG by Simon Stephens, directed by Mark Brokaw

Mary Louise Parker and Dennis Arndt

This is an enigmatic little play which belongs in a small theater not as large a space as the Mark Taper.  The Taper seems to realize this, and they seat audience on both sides of a skinny slice of stage space, trying to create as intimate a playing area as they can.  Personally I was sitting in the 5th row, and the magic didn't quite touch  me.  (A friend of mine told me she sat in the third row, and she was swept away, so maybe that's the key.) I admired the eccentricity of Mary Louise Parker's performance as a 40 year old woman who begins the play by kissing the back of the neck of a 77 year old stranger in a bus station, an event that in real life might instigate many things, but significant dialogue is not one of them.  I was deeply aware throughout of the unlikelihood of this scenario, this sequence of events, though that seemed to be what the playwright, Simon Stephens (The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime, Punk Rock), is going for.  "How far can I push these highly unlikely events?  How long can I sustain this highly ridiculous premise?"  The actors, Mary Louise Parker and Dennis Arndt, are both deeply focused and committed, though I kept wondering why Parker didn't have a British accent?  In the play she speaks again and again about how she comes from Islington in London, but Parker makes no attempt to change the speaking voice that we are so accustomed to from Weeds and so many other shows; and Arndt's character never mentions this, so I simply don't get it.  Nevertheless, there is something engaging, even moving, in the way that Stephens stretches out his slight and unlikely premise into a full-length play.  The play after all is titled Heisenberg, the scientist who is known for giving us The Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Physics.  Simon Stephens captures here both the uncertainty of the human condition and the uncertainty of ever really connecting with another human being.  It's only around until August 6th, so go this weekend if you can.  Just sit in the first 3 rows, okay?


What To Do About Trump? Laugh or Cry? 7 Fringe Shows Have an Answer

Donald Trump (Harry S. Murphy) and Barrack Obama (Joshua Wolf Coleman) in Ray Richmond's play Transition.

Donald Trump has been ridiculed for years. He is practically a caricature onto himself – like the most extreme example of the Ugly American come to life. We have seen President Obama's takedown of Trump at the White House Correspondents dinner, and Alec Baldwin's broad version of him on SNL – but since November 8, 2016, many of us haven't been laughing anymore.

Several shows at this year's Hollywood Fringe Festival were written as a cathartic release for artists who felt frustrated and depressed when Trump surprised us all and won.

Each show has different ways of satirizing the Trump phenomenon, and a few of them, like Too Many Hitlers or: The Decoy Decameron, were written long before the election – but all of them mock the powerful.

While they might differ on underlying themes or tone, the creators of each show say getting laughs is more important than making political statements. These are not grim thought pieces.

Satire uses ridicule and exaggeration to poke fun at our leaders, thus (hopefully) robbing them of some of their power. But when Trump is already so ridiculous and outlandish, won't even the most cartoonish and exaggerated version of him pale in comparison to the real one? And if anyone is laughing, so what? Ridicule hasn't exactly stopped him before.

Rick Cipes, who wrote and stars in Zombie Clown Trump: An Apocalyptic Musical, believes that an artist can comment on an already absurd Trump administration by being even more absurd.

"In Zombie Clown Trump, Sean Spicer is now played by a Sesame Street Puppet named Sean Sphincter, Melania Trump is now "Barbania" Trump and played by a Barbie doll, and Trump himself isn't only a clown, but a zombie clown who has triggered a world wide zombie apocalypse," he says.

Seeing an excerpt from the show at the Fringe Cabaret, I find the character more menacing than funny, and don't want to get too close to him. But clowns have always scared the shit out of me, even before Pennywise from It and Trump came along.

Cipes is a former journalist, and years ago he wrote an article called Trump du Soleil predicting that Trump's fifteen minutes of fame were nearly up – but as he says, seeing as how they aren't up quite yet...he still believes a combination of different forces, including ridicule and laughter, can help bring the man down.

He felt powerless after the election, but writing the show helped Cipes realize that the world won't end because of one creepy clown. The song that plays as the audience exits his show echoes includes this thought.

Transition by first-time playwright Ray Richmond approaches Trump differently than Zombie Clown Trump, but it is no less of an attack on him. President Barrack Obama and Donald Trump met in the White House 36 hours after the election and details about what happened during that meeting are still sketchy.

Transition imagines this encounter between two men who are polar opposites; Trump, loud and possessing an oversized ego, versus Obama, erudite and professorial. The media, with a bizarre sense of relief, reported at the time that the meeting had gone well (Obama has given hints in recent interviews that this was not the case.)

That post-meeting sense of relief didn't last long, not in reality or in this play. "Trump is only influenced by what shiny object is front of him and then 30 minutes later, it's something else." Richmond says. "Obama's optimism that he could influence Trump is lost when he realizes this guy really is a piece of shit, he really is an idiot."

Richmond, who like Cipes, has a background in journalism, wrote the original script in a two-week frenzy after the election. He says he didn't want just another takedown of the boorish image of Trump, or some kind of Saturday Night Live spin-off.

"We really wanted him to be taken seriously on some level," Richmond says, so Harry S. Murphy, who plays Trumps, dialed down his performance since the original run at the Lounge Theatre earlier this year. It was little too over the top before, Richmond says, and what we see now is scarier, even grim, but there are certainly comic flourishes.

"Trump is ignorant, but he's not stupid. He understands combat, verbal combat, and he understands winning. We think it's scarier if you take some of what he's saying and it makes sense and is intelligent," Richmond says.

Transition does an excellent of building tension – before deflating it with a well-timed joke, only to build it up again. One can only wonder how much this awkward encounter resembles what really happened in that room.

Richmond is not interested in, as he says, being Switzerland – taking some middle ground or balanced approach. For him, this is no time to be in the middle since he considers the election of Trump the scariest thing to happen to this country in years, rivaled only by cataclysmic events like 9/11.

"No, I really don't believe satire can really begin to change people's minds and hearts, I wish it could," he says. "Unfortunately, satire is constructed and almost exclusively supported by intelligent people. Trump's supporters are best in denial or living in ignorance. They are not people who appreciate satire – they'd just call it leftist crap, they'd say you liberals! They don't understand cleverness or irony or truth in humor, it's all lost on them."

In that, he is like Cipes who when asked if he wants to spark an awakening in people, says says he has no intention of doing that – he wants to preach to the choir, and alleviate their fears with a night of humor.

Trump may not have created the intense divisions in this country, but he certainly knew how to exploit them. Plato said we laugh at other people so we can feel superior to them, and so much of modern satire comes down to pointing at those idiots over there, but not implicating ourselves. The Rising and Trump in Space: A Musical Comedy couldn't be more different tonally – but their creators are alike in that they turn the lens on themselves as well.

"Jonathan Swift said satire is putting a mirror in front of you and looking at the world, except you're not in the picture" says Armen Pandola, the creator of The Rising. He laughs, and says "I try to do it and include myself in the picture."

He does believe it is possible to reach beyond the liberal bubble and doesn't want to be polemical at all. The Rising is really skewering social media, which the Trump campaign used so successfully against Hillary Clinton, and we are all a part of that world.

We talk about The Rising a few days before a gunman attempts to assassinate several G.O.P. congressmen practicing baseball. The play is about a shadowy revolutionary group that starts randomly killing one politician every day, but government insists they don't exist and that these reports are fake news. But the bodies keep falling.

"Hey, there's somebody being killed every minute, some of them are bound to politicians," says one character. The play is set in 2033, but it could happening five minutes from now, or as it's poster art says, in a world that is just an explosion away.

The title of course comes from that old Quaker tradition of a community coming together to raise a barn. "The idea of The Rising is that it's a community of people looking to change and build something, but of course the methods they use are not good. They're killing people, and I don't hide the consequences of that" Pandola says.

People are moving further into their own respective camps, and Pandola wants to show this highlight these divisions by making them even more extreme, showing us where we might be headed.

Gillian Belllinger, Landon Kirksey and Kevin Richards in Trump in Space: A Musical Comedy

Trump in Space: A Musical Comedy is a parody musical set 400 years in the future. It follows the adventures of Captain Natasha Trump, the great great great great granddaughter of Donald Trump, who has destroyed the planet leaving humans to find a new one.

The show's co-creators Gillian Bellinger and Landon Kirksey both hail from that strange, alternative universe called Texas. They are also huge science fiction fans, and they use Star Trek as the main inspiration – always in an attempt to be as overtly silly as possible.

"One of the things I love about sci-fi is that it gives us a lens to talk about things that are complicated but gives us the space, pun intended, to do so in a way that is less emotional and close." says Bellinger. This is exactly what Gene Roddenberry did on the original Star Trek – he created a show where unsettling and even taboo subjects could be discussed, cause, hey who doesn't like space? Or for that matter, science fiction parody musicals?

Early drafts did attack all those idiots over there, but after staged readings Bellinger and Kirksey got notes saying you need to point a finger at everybody, so they wrote jokes at their own expense.

"We didn't want to be just lopsided and obviously are political beliefs are very apparent, but it really is the polarization of this thing that is the problem, so where you shine a light on that you become more aware...of...how can I affect change by coming together as opposed to dividing," says Kirksey.

Another division I find is that many people don't want to laugh about Trump, or even think about him. When I tell a friend at Fringe Central that I am writing a piece about satire on Trump, he shakes his head and says, "I'm tired of hearing about him."

Jon Jacobs in Dreams in Overdrive

Dreams in Overdrive is a solo show that briefly deals with Trump, and it's creator Job Jacobs echoes this thought when he says, "I've seen one other show that included a little of political Trump humor, and I found myself completely turned off. It kind of makes me nervous for my audience. Do we really even want to laugh about Trump? Or would we rather just completely ignore his existence? Since Trump is already so absurd, any attempt at making fun of him also just makes me sick."

Steven Benaquist, writer and one of the performers of Too Many Hitlers

Which brings us to everyone's favorite punchline, Adolph Hitler. Too Many Hitlers is a farce about one of the most evil men who ever lived.

Nine of Hitler's decoys – one of which may be the real Fuhrer--are hiding in a bunker in Berlin during the closing days of World War II. The sight of multiple Hitlers on stage is funny, especially when they break into a song and dance number, or do an extended bit of dialogue taken entirely from the titles of Sylvester Stallone movies.

The song Nazi Me is Nazi You is funny too – a fatherly Hitler decoy is explaining to a more junior member that the essence of being a Nazi is what you are not...you're not old or weak or a cripple or black or jewish or whatever. This is when the laughter starts to sting cause now you've been tricked into laughing at something that is inherently not funny.

The humor is obviously very dark, and after testing the show against audience reactions, Steven Benaquist, who performs in and wrote the show, lightened some of it's aspects. But he stands by the dark humor of the piece, even if some audience member might be put off by the tone.

"The reason why some people don't like it is late in the show they grow attached to these Hitler decoys and they don't want to be reminded that they were fucking racists, they hated the jews and I don't want them to forget it," Benaquist says. He wants people to laugh, but also remember that the Nazis were and are evil.

Andra Moldav and Kate Rappoport in How to Love Your Dictator: Olga & Ludmila's Guide to Fascism.

If Too Many Hitlers is a farce that wants to remind you of the past, How To love Your Dictator: Olga & Ludmila's Guide to Fascism imagines a worst case future scenario; Trump is Putin's puppet and we have been annexed by the Russians.

The scene is set by loud Russian rock music, cold war era propaganda films and a complimentary shot of Vodka. Several people are shot. The audience is thankfully spared.

Kate Rappoport was born in Poland and Andra Moldav in Romania, but both moved to America when they were still children. The show is partly based on conversations about their experiences growing up in Eastern Europe, and how their grandmothers had such a negative outlook on the world. Originally a four-minute short they created with their sketch group Femmebot PhD, they expanded it after the election into a holiday show they called The Last American Christmas.

How to Love Your Dictator takes the outlook of growing up in an oppressive culture where you don't have freedom of speech, and cannot make fun of political figures. It plays like an episode of Access Hollywood or TMZ, only hosted by two depressive Russian ladies. They offer Americans helpful tips on living under a dictatorship. "Thank you for spending your last free days with us," they cheerfully tell the audience near the show's end.

""I just feel that in American society, satire and being able to express what makes you laugh is so entrenched in our society that it's funny that I don't even think about it too much or as some dangerous political statement because I know I have the freedom to do that." says Rappoport.

"We as Americans are used to laughing at people that are in power, and it's really cool that we are allowed to do that," she says. "It's crazy to think in other countries people can't laugh at what's going on cause when they do, it creates incredible changes in society."

So can we laugh Trump out of office? Of course not, but as Benaquist says, condemning mockery as useless is itself useless. Cipes still believes in the power of laughter because, as he puts it, Trump is a bully and bullies hate to be taunted – it throws them off their game. Authoritarian regimes want to create a culture of fear--but if if you ridicule the powerful, and take down the image of the glorious leader, perhaps you are one step closer to changing things. But first you have to laugh.


THE UNIVERSAL CLICK AT THE HOLLYWOOD FRINGE

By Miss Barbie Q

Hello beautiful souls! This is Miss Barbie Q! Your friendly neighborhood drag queen!

What a thrill it is to be reporting from the frontlines of the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival (which I will lovingly refer to as the “Fringe” from now on).

But I come to you from a totally different angle. I am a trans person (I identify as GNC - Gender Non Conformist) AND a POC (Person of Color), so I got all kinds of goggles on! I'll admit, when I got the task of reporting from my point of view, my hardnose activist flag came up and kept looking for things that may or may not offend. I have show in the Fringe as well, so I have been hypersensitive of how my show is being perceived and welcomed. But as the Fringe has opened up, the preparation and people have strived to be as inclusive as possible. And I thank them for providing a space, not just Fringe Central, but the Office Hours and Workshops,  for all to be mindful.

The process has been tedious to say the least. This year I am co-writing, co-directing and co-producing!  It's called #LastDance. And I must say there are some things that are universal. Rehearsal schedules, press releases, the drama of the getting off book, the joy of blocking, workshopping and creating! Finding the right mix of actors that want to bring someone else's vision to life is beautiful to see. We have a mix of gay, trans, diverse ethnicities and that was done with a mindful purpose. I am not gonna lie, it as a task trying to get drag queens to come audition. Some of it was with timing, some were doing other projects but we as a production crew kept an open mind and realized that the right people would come as the universe saw fit and they did.

The play is dedicated to a dear friend that passed away earlier this year, so we tried to tell a poignant story alongside keeping the homage to him in mind.  That was no easy task.  Learning to agree to disagree, compromise lines, blocking, costumes all for the good of the show as a whole has been humbling and invigorating as well. Working with such talented people has made me love each one of them and make me want to knock each one them out on occasion as well. HA!

As the previews got closer, something happened. And I noticed it happens with every show I do. There is this “click” that happens when we all find this groove. I think it is a universal “click”.  I think it happened for us when we finally got into the space at the McCadden and my actors got to be in the space. Not just be, but really “be”. Aaron, the stage manager, lighting and sound extraordinaire was such a delight during tech, that it helped everyone including me realize we have a real show! What a rush! So after previews, we reminded them to come to the Fringe opening night to make a presence, speak to other performers about their shows, get to know the Fringe folks and get used to talking about themselves and the show!

Miss Barbie Q, From the 2015 Hollywood Fringe

I'll admit, I was just as nervous, although I had a solo show two years ago, I never really participated in the other events because I was on a totally different schedule and I know now that I missed out on so much, and I didn't want them to miss out.  So most of the cast and crew were able to come and yes, I was nervous!

And you know what I have found so far?

EVERYONE IS A NERVOUS AS I AM!! LOL what a relief?

I have seen two plays so far, UPSTAIRS, a musical ensemble piece, and LOVESICK, a solo piece.

Upstairs: A Musical Tragedy was such a delight. Although it has already closed, it stressed the importance of LGBT stories, especially the tragedies that cross the newsdesk (this one being about the fire that killed 30 people in New Orleans  in June of 1973) The acting, the voices, the music not only told the story, but made you feel for the them and understand that their deaths mean something. Our stories mean something. Each and every one.

Lovesick: The Misadventures of a Love-Crazed Maniac took us on a journey all its own. Bringing the bisexual element to the play, it spoke of the thirst for love, in all the wrong places and the longing to just be loved. And the epiphany we all have in learning to love ourselves. It really is a testament to what the journey is to know what love is. Really. “Lovesick is still playing.

So this is just the first installment of what a chocolate gender non-conformist sees when it comes to the Fringe. I am so grateful to be able to speak my truth and am looking forward to sharing more of the LGBT shows that are at the Fringe. Granted, I am not able to see them all, BUT I am trying my best to go to them and share with you the inspiration, the laughs and insight.

Until then!

Miss Barbie Q

Life is good!

#MissBarbieQ

#GratefulQueen


A LEISURELY STROLL THROUGH HEAVEN AND HELL

BACK TO THE USSR

Do you get it yet, my fellow Americans?  Do you get it yet?  First, the FBI Chief is fired in the middle of an investigation of the White House, then the so-called President meets with the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, and American press is barred from coverage!!! That is, only the Russian Press is allowed to cover the press conference of the so-called President and the Russian Foreign Minister IN THE WHITE HOUSE, and still life goes on mostly as usual here.  Can you even imagine the outcry if President Obama had done anything like this?  There would be mobs in the street, and militias would be forming.

So here it is, those who still can't read the writing on the wall - written in such huuuge letters, they can be read all the way from Russia:  He is just a USEFUL IDIOT for them.  While being just an IDIOT for us.  And those who persist in believing in that this so-called President is on their side - when he so obviously only cares about #1 - what can we call them?

(And yes, these photos are from the infamous "pee tape," because the Twisted Hipster has that kind of access.)

So, that said, let's try to find the peace of mind in Art that can't currently be found in life.  Toward that end I took refuge yesterday in the permanent collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), in the Ahmanson Building, in search of transcendent Beauty.

THE BEAUTY THAT IS ALWAYS WITH US

Fantasy Bust by Carrier-Belleuse. Photo Credit for all the photos in this column: S. L. Fife

Between Two Loves

Aaaaaaaah.

Escaped!

I find myself on the third floor of Ahmanson Hall, in front of two statues by a sculptor I've never heard of: Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse.  French, lived 1824-1887.  I love these two pieces, they are so supple and sinuous. And emotional, yes.  Why don't I know this guy?  He reminds me a bit of Rodin (you know, the "thinker" guy?), but more straightforward, less stylized.  And, looking him up on google - oh, wow, so Rodin apprenticed with him. So thanks for this, Monsieur Carrier-Belleuse.

Rodin's Minotaur and Nymph

Rodin's Eternal Spring

Now that I've brought up Rodin, I feel like I have to see his many sculptures nearby.  They're all very tactile and dynamic, but two really jump out: Eternal Spring and Minotaur and Nymph. Wow, pretty sexy.  I mean, Eternal Spring will either make you feel good about your own sex life, or the very opposite.  Hard to believe the man doesn't have a boner. If you don't get one with a kiss like that, then something is not firing on all cylinders. On the other hand, Minotaur and Nymph is creepy.  From the Nympth's look, it seems that the Minotaur is not having any problems with his tumescence. Is she happy about it or not?  Your call.

I have to admit, there are some crazy gems in this LACMA Permanent Collection, much better than I gave it credit for.  I mean, yes, I was spoiled by the museums in NYC - the Met Museum and MoMA both go on forever and have so many famous works of art, and they're almost always swamped with visitors (except in the Greek vase section, always lots of room there!).  But what's great here is the unexpectedness of what you find, and how empty it is on a weekday.

Woman Drying Her Hair by Degas

Four or five feet away from the Rodins are a few Degas sculptures. It is late afternoon, and one of the sculptures - A Woman Drying Her Hair - catches the golden light in a truly magical way.  The woman's body glows with dappled light, which catches every indentation on her fleshy form.  The curtains are open on the museum window, and the Los Angeles Mid-Wilshire landscape shines outside.  Somehow this un-idealized woman and this workaday cityscape belong together, or maybe she just seems at home here in her timeless busy-ness, squeezing the water out of her long thick tresses while taking in the golden view of a golden city.  There is nowhere to rush to, nowhere else to be, nothing to worry about, no rent due (or overdue), no collusion between super-powers to douse the small flame of individuality that still burns in the hearts of people. Nothing else besides a sculptured woman drying her long hair in the late afternoon tranquility, and the golden light glowing over everything.

Satan by Jean-Jacques Feuchere

But of course the world isn't that simple, much as we might like it to be. Something draws me back to that first gallery toom, with the lovely Fantasy bust, and there I find the 1836 sculpture of Satan by Frenchman Jean-Jacque Feuchere.  Wonder what prompted this?  I guess it was that Romantic impulse of rebellion, as Satan the fallen angel was also an archetype for the artist, who dared to defy God by taking on the role of Creator.  Then again, this is just very disturbing.  This Satan isn't so much evil as he is gnawing on his own liver, consumed with anger and envy and jealousy and vows of Revenge... and we're back in the modern world.

Back in the world where FBI Chiefs get fired for all the wrong reasons, and there are so many conspiracies going on at any one moment that how can anybody go about his or her business without worrying about what's going to happen next, and how can I really protect my daughter from all the serial killers masquerading as Uber drivers, and damn, I forgot to pay off my credit card last week and now they're going to hit me with another late fee, and why hasn't that screenplay sold yet when my manager told me that there was so much "interest," and--

But then I remember that Degas woman bathed in the golden light - and even this "Satan" is so beautifully made, so lovingly conceived and carved and polished - and the fear begins melting away.

Good things will happen, they have to.

This world is simply too beautiful a place to allow oneself to be overwhelmed by despair.

Right?

 


Burn, Baby, Burn, or… Bye, Bye, MY American Pie

As I contemplate my current Actors Equity Association dues statement, I have decided, after sixty-something years of acting and diligently paying my toll come hell or highwater over the years both lean and abundant, I will be requesting a leave from the once-respected union, one of which I used to declare in program bios I was proud to be a member. Today, I'm about as proud of being a member of AEA as Rihanna is to say she used to be Chris Brown's girlfriend.
Of course, part of the reason for this is that I'm teaching acting and directing for lotsa hours at New York Film Academy, as well as privately coaching prominent actors on two different TV series on different networks this season. Above anything else, however, caring for Victor, my partner for 48 years, desperately trying with everything in me to keep him comfortable and living at home as long as possible as he descends into the fog of Alzheimer's, has kept me from traveling to work in theatre and eventually led to giving up my beloved apartment in New York last year. Staying in my fifth-floor walk-up with a view of a brick wall or traveling in shows has always done my nomadic Kerouac-inspired soul unimaginable good, as exploring new cities and enjoying the freedom of hotel living are things I have called home since my glory days as a working kiddie. Still, all that would not be good enough reason to stop handing AEA my meager little dues were it not for what the union has done to my world.
If you live in El Lay and have any interest in the performing arts, you would have to have been in a coma the last two years not to know how Equity has royally fucked the amazingly prolific and courageously innovative intimate theatre community in our city. By demanding small struggling theatres pay any union member who agrees to hone his art for free or with infinitesimal remuneration to have a creative outlet to offset the lack of caring from the mostly artless but omnipresent Hollywood film industry, AEA has decimated the ranks outrageously—but not without a fight. Still, when over two-thirds of LA members voted in a referendum demanding the union not put their new soul-sucking rules into effect, they ignored us all and implemented the ridiculously unworkable plan anyway.
It was difficult enough last year to send off my hard-earned cash to a union that's done nothing for me in years but give me grief—and has totally disregarded the wishes of two-thirds of its LA membership. This time out, I just plain can't seem to do it. As I said, I have been a loyal dues-paying member of AEA since sometime before Johnny B shot Honest Abe, but I can't in all good faith support their unconscionable cause any longer.
In all honesty, there's not much to lose for me. There aren't many roles for geriatric juveniles with an ass the size of Texas around these days unless it's a priest or a mentally-deficient adult—and playing stereotypical fading old duffers who invariably croak at the end isn't much of a challenge either. Granted, this is also true in the film and television industry, but it's especially prevalent onstage, where the only real challenges as an artist for a guy at my stage of life come from bravely off-centered 99-seat theatre companies working to create astounding new art and make a real difference. I have no interest playing Doc in West Side Story or some other role I could call in from home for some dastardly LORT-Z pay rate at a civic light opera in Duarte or somewhere in San Bernardino County. As a 70-yr-old actor living in LA these days, teaching and private coaching are a far better way to pay the bills and pass on what one has learned from the masters before passing on—unless you're an established name actor and even then, I suspect most of them are sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.
So, after 63 years fiercely believing in AEA and everything for which the original concept unionizing stood in the first place, sadly, I'm outta here. I may not be able to control where my tax dollars go as handled—mishandled—by our insane and dangerous President Dummald J. Troutmouth and his equally character-challenged minions, but I can stop paying Equity as it screws me personally and systematically destroys the community I love so dearly. It's a sad state of affairs but, truly, it's also oddly freeing.


Waiting For Godot's Obamacare Replacement Starring Patrick Stewart

Here's something fun for all you progressive theatre nerds. Stephen Colbert had Patrick Stewart on the show and did not waste the opportunity! They did a spoof of Beckett's Waiting for Godot to create a wonderful satire of the Republicans continual attack on Obamacare and how they will "repeal and replace," an empty promise that is feeling more and more like a Beckett play.

Now that you've had a laugh. Call you representatives and tell them you support the ACA.