Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mutually Assured Destruction

written by Peter Lefcourt
directed by Terri Hanauer
presented by Theatre Planners
 world premiere debut at The Odyssey Theatre

review by Phillip Kelly

Mutually Assured Destruction is a play that focuses on the lives of three just over middle aged married couples, all friends, and the one sordid detail that creates a slew of possible sordid scenarios that dance between them in their imagination and on the tip of their tongues, threatening to explode at any moment into a flurry of melodrama and comedy gold. But it never quite happens. Peter Lefcourt shoots for a certain level of sophistication, the Annie Hall Woody Allen years come to mind. A continuing analogy during the show is made between the situation at hand and the Cold War, it brings about some good opportunity for jokes, but like much of the show Lefcourt can't help but get in the way of his own ambitions by overdoing it.

Lefcourt makes two of my least favorite mistakes that seem to be trending in current original plays. First, his narrator, Arnie, an enjoyable and energetic Kip Gilman, doesn't simply narrate. He manages to, not only step in between every scene to say what just happened, is happening or about to happen, he even stops scenes midway to do this - sometimes more than once! Mr. Gilman, and the director Terri Hanauer, have directed and performed these beats so there isn't a break in energy, but after awhile, I just wanted a scene to finish so I could enjoy something from start to finish without being told what I was watching. If the writing is good enough, the audience will know what they're watching. Let something surprise us, don't tell us a surprise is coming. Let us laugh at a situation, don't stop to tell us how crazy a situation is. We know! Let us enjoy it without holding our hands. I want to see a story unfold, not be told about the story unfolding.

The second is the number of short, shorter and really short scenes. Theatre isn't film or TV. No matter how tight your transitions are, the audience still has to wait, over and over again. There's no build. Maybe this is why Arnie was given a monologue between every scene. I remember thinking to myself during a scene at a party nearing the end that something was going to happen, that this scene might build and go somewhere and I was becoming invested, but just as I thought this, Arnie steps forward, tells me nothing happened, tells me months and months pass, that there are other parties, and we not only see one more party, but two - in which nothing happens! The reason why there isn't a movie about the entire Cold War is that nothing happens, there's no third (fifth) act. It doesn't make for interesting drama from beginning to end. Hidden within however there are moments in which very interesting stories happened. Those moments are hidden throughout this show, but are never brought forward to their full dramatic potential. I would suggest to Lefcourt to focus on one of these parties, build up to it, and leave the rest of the play within that party. In the Mutually Assured Destruction is a series of misunderstandings, situational comedy without real punch.

This isn't to say there aren't funny and entertaining moments. While Lefcourt is shooting for Husbands and Wives Woody Allen, Hanauer sprinkles in Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask Woody Allen. Other characters pick up the narration, our narrator comes out into the audience, they address the fact that they're in a play (allusions to Mel Brooks), there's a giant map in the back with silly pictures of the characters as global chess pieces. In its more inspired moments these beats are a lot of fun, but the two tones don't always mesh, and the sillier side sometimes ends up feeling tacked on.

The performers, all pros in the industry, all charismatic and very talented, embrace the proceedings, and with Lefcourts sometimes clever writing and Hanauer's direction, can be quite funny, but other times they're left lingering on stage with nothing particular to do - especially as the play nears the end. They watch each other with bemused expressions. And at the end, Arnie steps forward and tells us nothing happened, which is something we knew

To keep in mind, that while I didn't particularly like the show, (I enjoyed elements) there was a very loud and very vocal part of the audience that enjoyed it far more than me. The audience seemed split in this regard. Take a chance, you never know.

Mutually Assured Destruction
Presented by Theatre Planners at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S.Sepulveda Blvd, West LA 90025.
Through Aug. 26. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. Tickets $25.
www.plays411.com/destruction. 323-960-5772

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Spotted backstage at Theatre Asylum:

Pretty cool, Fierce Backbone.  Pretty damn cool.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ten-Gallon Giggles

Once more into the breach ...
Tomorrow night Phillip, Pamela, and myself put our money where our mouths are as we produce an evening of entertainment: The Mr. Snapper & Mr. Buddy Rumpus Revue in: "Ten-Gallon Giggles!" 
We didn't really go into Rumpus Revue with any kind of philosophical aim, but over the past year we have unknowingly pursued one. From time to time I've banged on the "Bespoke Theatre" drum. At this scale (i.e. under-99) I think we have the opportunity to hand-craft an evening of entertainment for our audience. We take great joy in crafting each show, and we look forward to making the audience laugh. I hope you'll be there.
Tickets are $10 at the door, and we will be taking credit cards.

This steamy hot July, the Rumpus Revue brings you a special gun-totin', whore-hoppin', singin' and dancin' and steer-ropin' hour of vaudeville, variety and half-naked women.
The Wild and Wily West Welcomes Won and Wwww… ALL to… The Mr. Snapper and Mr. Buddy Rumpus Revue in: "Ten-Gallon Giggles!"
Snapper, a ukulele playing songster, and his silent foil, Buddy, are your hosts, making a barely capable attempt at maintaining order as the libidinous passions of a group of ragtag performers rage wildly out of control!
With Jacob Smith as Pistachio the Mime
Burlesque by Red Snapper and Scarlet O'Keljus
The King of Fling, Jack Dagger
Magic by Phil Van Tee
Music by Jim Martyka
Special Appearance by Jeremy Gayhorse
And the Craigslist Wildcard!

Wed. July 25th. Doors open at 8:00. Show begins at 8:30. About an hour long.
Theatre Asylum
6320 Santa Monica Blvd,
Hollywood, CA
A block West of Santa Monica and Vine
Go to http://www.snapperbuddy.com/ and follow our updates on Facebook! Or follow us on Twitter @snapperbuddy

Photos from past Rumpus Revues:

From "A Pocket-full of Mischief!" Photo by Markus Alias
L to R: Mr. Snapper, Mr. Buddy, and Chase McKenna as "Billy"
From "Krampusnacht!" Photo by Markus Alias
Mr. Buddy and Mr. Snapper.  And "Little Mr. Buddy" (under the hat)
From "Krampusnacht!" Photo by Markus Alias
Mr. Snapper and Jacob Smith as "Pistachio"
From "Festive Crack-Ups!" Photo by Markus Alias
L to R: Rob the Balloon Guy, Mr. Snapper, Red Snapper, and Mr. Buddy
From "Festive Crack-Ups!" Photo by Markus Alias
L to R: Liz Luttinger, Sean Pawling, Jacob Smith as "Pistachio", Mr. Buddy, Mr. Snapper, and Rob the Balloon Guy

Thursday, July 19, 2012


by William Shakespeare
an Antaeus Production
directed by Jessica Kubzansky
the Kinsmen Cast

review by Phillip Kelly

As far as productions of Macbeth go, or LA productions for that matter, this show is a technical achievement. From the set to costumes, lighting, sound design, directing to performances you can tell everyone involved are professionals of their craft. It's a strong production, with very good performances. Fair or not, I'm going to spend some time below talking about what could have made the show that much better for me, because I hold Antaeus to a higher standard than most.

What I liked, the director, Kubzansky, made enough interesting choices throughout the night to keep things fresh, while remaining a fairly straightforward classical interpretation. One of these choices, is to start the show at the funeral of the Macbeths' child. This death is something that's referenced only a few times throughout the play and most productions tend not to deal with it at length. Kubzansky hits you with it from lights up. It gives a really interesting spin to several of the moments throughout the production, most unsettling, the murder of Macduff's family, and Ann Noble (Lady Macbeth) and Bo Foxworth (Macbeth), use this scene to bring some of their moments to life in ways I haven't seen before. It grounds them in a stronger reality as things go awry.

The classical interpretation includes the performances as well (except for maybe the Witches, but I'll come back to that); Foxworth, and his Lady, Ann, are strong actors. They follow the map set out with clarity and emotional intensity. Of all of Shakespeare's shows, the map is hard to stray from. Almost immediately we're told the story, and Macbeth is told his destiny. What room does that allow the actors to take. If he hadn't taken the actions he took, would that destiny still have prevailed? If he had stepped back and let things take their course, would the predictions have come true? Is there a part of Macbeth that believes he's worthy of this before it's handed to him? This all should be dealt with in the characterizations. And these are questions I've been asking myself since seeing the production. This brings me to thinking about what I thought was missing from the production. The night I went, the actors on stage were a little disconnected. They were doing what was rehearsed very well, but not always playing off of each other or reacting genuinely to each other, but it wasn't that. That can happen in theatre, depending on the night.

There were a few things I think that kept me emotionally disjointed for a portion of the production. The connection to deeper characterizations or choices with Macbeth that might have clued me in to what Kubzansky and Foxworth thought about the character, not where the characters was going, but who he was before his descent. Is Macbeth a simple man? One who's unwise? Normally superstitions exist in those that are simpler people. Does he carry himself nobly? Or with a chip on his shoulder? Who is this man before he is told who he will become? It's clear that he's well liked, and seems friendly, but it's not enough to fill in those blanks. How mad is he driving himself? To imagine to see a dagger in front of him, floating in mid air, how curious, and yet the performance given matched the performance given in many of the other scenes. There wasn't a distinction made, or a build to and from it. I was often missing the why. The lines were there, performed well, but not everything was colored in. I think where this could have been explored most was in Macbeth's speeches. Alone, speaking aloud, we should be able to see through the veneer to who he really is. It isn't simply thinking out loud, it's struggling with everything that defines who you are. And those definitions were lacking.

Where does ambition come from? From someone telling you or you believing that you deserve something better. Macbeth has to be told this, which means he may have never thought it. That's one choice. Maybe he's always thought it but never had the gumption to get it, until now, so he dives head in and makes every bad decision to get there. Either way, deep down I never believe that Macbeth thinks he deserves to be King, but whatever the decision is it needs to inform every word and action clearly. Foxworth is a formidable actor and we see an arch - in the beginning he's friends with all and loved by everyone, and in the end he's detested by all and the blackest of souls, but it's not enough to truly bring the character to full life. My hope is that Foxworth will start to play a little more as the production continues and naturally find these nuances, as will many of the other actors.

This isn't to say I felt nothing throughout the night. There were heartbreaking moments from Foxworth and Noble. Noble, during the "out, out damn spots" and both during the banquet scene were spot on. Noble cracked me up with her dry delivery. Jesse Sharp was quite good in the smaller role of Angus, doing a great deal with very little, his physicality and disposition were natural and fluid. Peter Van Norden as Seyton gave an exceptional characterization, showing us just what kind of man would follow a king like Macbeth. However, James Sutorious as Macduff breaks your heart more than anyone else when he hears of his family's demise at the hands of Macbeth. The actual murder of and delivery of the news are probably the two best handled moments in the Kinsmen's show. Is this scene what makes Macbeth a tragedy? It almost felt so. Sutorious falls silent, his face pales, everything inside him is breaking at once. It's the most vulnerable moment we're allowed in the production, the closest we get to truly becoming a part of the story with the characters. This moment is briefly discolored by the emphatic shouting into the air that ends his moment. Things are more often given the emphatic treatment throughout, except, surprisingly for me, from the witches (Fran Bennett, Susan Boyd Joyce, Elizabeth Swain)! I wasn't sure how i felt at the beginning, because they seemed like normal ladies, but as Macbeth's story grows darker, so too did the witches, and with great nuance. A fine choice by Kubzansky. Those nuances I speak of, needed to be sprinkled throughout to turn this very good production into a great one.

Macbeth an Antaeus Production
Directed by Jessica Kubzansky
Through August 26th.
5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood CA 91601
For tickets and showtimes: www.antaeus.org or (818)-506-1983

Twylight Zone: the 6th Dimension

written and directed by David Gallic
produced by Four Letter Theatre

review by Phillip Kelly

What a fun show. It's a night of four satirical, absurdist episodes, poking fun at Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone". Not every piece is as good as the next, but there isn't a dud in the bunch.

The scripts by Gallic feature a lot of guffaw inducing zingers and clever to ridiculous moments, which the cast of five chews on wholeheartedly. There are no pretensions, everyone here is having a fun time and they let you in to enjoy as well.

"Nick of Time" was probably my favorite Ray Fallon and Alex Bueno, Don and Pat Carter are newlyweds traveling the country when their car breaks down. They stop by a quaint cafe and come across a fortune telling machine, that does just what it says it will. The play acting between Ray and Alex is spot on and Matt Stevens and Louise Martin fill the supporting roles in this piece with hilarity. All while Kyle Overstreet flip flops between his Rod Serling and a bouncy mechanic.

Each actor is given the opportunity to lead and support throughout the night. And every actor has their moments of comedic hilarity.

It's scrappy, like sketch comedy. The set is simple, at times it even looks like it was assembled by pieces found in the alley behind the theatre - but it doesn't matter. The production embraces this scrapiness using cheaply made but hilarious special effects, creative staging to show, for instance, the forward movement of a car, and four commercial breaks projected on white cardboard of products that existed when the original Twilight Zone aired. These commercials are hilarious.

The evening may go on a little long for a show of it's kind, I felt my interest wane a little at the end, but not so much that I didn't leave with a smile on my face. You will enjoy yourself.

The Twylight Zine: The 6th Dimension
Written and Directed by David Gallic. A Four Letter Theatre production.
Where: studio/stage, 520 N Western Ave., Hollywood, CA 90004
plays Thurs-Sat through July 28th. 8pm
$20 general admission, $15 for students and seniors
for reservations email: reservations@fourlettertheatre.com


It's been a while since I quoted Seth Godin:
In more and more fields, the originator of the novel idea reaps an outsize share of the benefits. One reason is that it's easier to gain attention quickly. Another is that once you gain attention and reputation, it's easier to lock in permission and turn it into a foundation for your next project. And most of all, when attention is precious, earning that attention with innovation is priceless.
The take away: "earning that attention with innovation is priceless."  Godin is right:  It's easier than ever to gain attention, provided you know how to work a room (virtual or otherwise).
Yes, there are exceptions for those that bring service or price or reliability along to polish an existing idea. And there are certainly businesses that profit from taking over after the innovator, exhausted, gives up and moves on.
Also true.  There are a multitude of ideas out there that people have given up on.  The fact is, you don't have to be a Ron Popeil to be a success, you can be a Billy Mays.  A promoter rather than an inventor.  Since the internet gains us access to the aggregate in a way never before possible, I'd say the exception is more often the rule these days.  Why spend the time building something new and original when you can wrap yourself in the mantle of other, more talented people's creative output?  It worked for Thomas Edison.

The fact is, some people are better at dreaming things up and others are better at selling those things.
But given the choice, I'd say first is a better use of your talent.
I would tend to agree, even if "first" sometimes means relative obscurity.  Someone has to start things, and even if his contributions are forgotten by the throng, his effect continues to be felt.

(Happy belated birthday, Tesla.)

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Science of Art: Dramatic Tension

Only just discovered today, author John Perich outlines a formula for tension at his blog, Periscope Depth:
Every story needs tension. Every story except the truly experimental needs to instill anticipation in the reader, to keep them turning the pages. Even those abstruse literary novels that are adapted from tales everyone knows (like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle) contain some tension, in the mystery of “how is he going to address this issue?” if nothing else.
Go read what he has to say.  There are some great observations on how to build tension in a story, observations that are certainly relevant onstage.
I discovered John's blog thanks to a link in a footnote to his blog:
* Googling “tension = uncertainty x stakes” yields this review of Circus Vargas. I swear I hadn’t read it before writing this post. Since people who know me know that I’m the last person on Earth who would actively seek out circus reviews, I think I can lay claim to an original thought here, or at least parallel development.

Ha!  I love the internet.

For those of you too lazy to click through, here's the salient quote from my review of Circus Vargas:
The circus is Expectation + Uncertainty x Stakes. Or something like that. Or put another way, dramatic tension is the play between expectation and uncertainty. The stakes elevate the dramatic tension to ... to what? I could do graduate work on this one point and be a happy man.

It should probably be "Dramatic Tension = (Expectation ± Uncertainly) x Stakes" or somesuch. 

Dramatic tension is caused by managing and manipulating the audience's expectations, and you do that with uncertainty, amplified by the stakes.  To use the example John provides, the tension we as an audience feel at the Sarlac Pit is generated by our expectation that Luke and Han and company will survive against the uncertainty of the moment amplified by the stakes.

Our formulas are not quite the same, but John is close.  He's only missing the interplay between expectation and uncertainty, but I think he intuits it.  He writes:
Uncertainty is distinct from risk. Risk is a known quantity, like the odds of sevening out in craps. It means you can predict the outcome and make an informed decision. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity. There’s a difference between not knowing how the dice will come up (risk) and not knowing what you don’t even know (uncertainty).
Perhaps for a thriller, the formula would be "Dramatic Tension = (Risk ± Uncertainty) x Stakes".  The protagonist sticks his or her neck out in a calculated risk, for instance, when Jake Gittes breaks into the reservoir in Chinatown.  He's confronted by knife-wielding thugs (uncertainty -- what the hell are they going to do with that knife!?) and the interplay is amplified by what Jake Gittes has at stake (his life).  Perhaps for a thriller, risk is the expectation.

I'm totally down for calling this parallel development, so long as it's referred to as the "Moore Perich Equation." I like top billing. ;-)

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Exorcist

A review by Cynthia Beckert


The Exorcist by John Pielmeier at The Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles

July 8, 2012

Right off the bat, let me tell you that the little girl’s head does not spin around and no pea soup is vilely disgorged. But the stage version of William Peter Blatty‘s novel The Exorcist - made famous by the 1973 film with a vomit-spewing, noggin- twisting Linda Blair - is wonderfully and horrifically disturbing nonetheless.

Written by John Pielmeier, whose 1982 breakout hit Agnes of God also dealt with issues of psychology and faith, this adaptation, receiving its world premiere not on Broadway but right here in Los Angeles at The Geffen Playhouse, brings the audience directly in to a world of supernatural terror using the simplest and most effective theatrical tricks in the book.

Upon arriving at last Sunday’s preview matinee and taking my place in the very last row of the pack 500-seat theatre (tickets were neither cheap nor easy to come by – most of the run is already sold out), I was immediately struck by the impressive stage picture created by scenic and costume designer Scott Pask (Tony Award winner for The Book of Mormon and The Pillowman). Ornate wrought iron grillwork suggesting the mysterious and imposing nether reaches of a Catholic cathedral comprised a huge three-sided box that framed the playing space and focused attention on an altar-like table and a pair of gothic wooden chairs, the only stage furniture employed in the story. Hanging with ominous bulk at an improbable angle above all this was a massive wooden cross, which managed to simultaneously convey a comforting, solid presence and the threat of crushing obliteration.

Immediately following the house manager’s announcement to silence all cell phones (an appeal which went largely unheeded as no less than five cell phones went off during the course of the 95-minute play), the actors filed out unceremoniously and took their places. Having done no prior research on this production other than noting that Pielmeier was the playwright, I was surprised to find that it starred Richard Chamberlain as the titular priest and Brooke Shields as the possessed girl’s mother. Having seen Chamberlain as Henry Higgins in the 1993 national tour of the Broadway production of My Fair Lady, I knew he had stage chops and a good sense of comic timing. I was aware that Shields had done an impressive handful of Broadway musical leads, earning a Theatre World Award as Rizzo in Grease. But I had no idea as to how they would fit in to this dramatic concoction. I can attest that Chamberlain still looks great in a cassock, even thirty years after his portrayal of the priest Ralph de Bricassart in the TV miniseries The Thornbirds, and that at a formidable 6 feet in flats, Shields is his equal in presence and stature.

These two famous faces were part of a flawless nine-person ensemble, all but one of which (the 18-to-play-younger Emily Yetter as the possessed 10-year-old Regan) have multiple Broadway credits. Standouts were David Wilson Barnes as the doubt-ridden and ultimately heroic Father Damien Karras, and Harry Groener as the tragic director of comic films, Burke Dennings. (Groener impressed me all to heck in The Geffen’s 2009 production of Equivocation, and was delightful in a recurring role as the demon-friendly Mayor of Sunnydale in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) The cast remains onstage for the entire show, slipping into the shadows behind the iron grating when not in a scene to function as sort of a Greek chorus, giving voice to demons and other faceless characters. Their presence is felt even in their absolute silence, their attentive stillness adding to the energy of the scenes rather than distracting from it.

Half the cast has strong musical theatre credits, and director John Doyle (famed opera director and Tony Award-winner for the recent Broadway revivals of Sweeny Todd and Company) puts their triple-threat sensibilities to good use. The staging is fluid and non-literal, with scenes and action merging in to each other with the natural ease of a well-choreographed musical. Actors carry furniture and adjust props for each other as they move out of one scene and in to another, ensuring a seamless narrative which never allows the audience to settle back in to the reality of their theatre seats. Original music by Sir John Tavener underscores the simple scene shifts, while the creepiest soundscape I have ever heard in a theatre gnaws continually at the edge of consciousness, sometimes just this side of audibility.

I credit sound designer Dan Moses Schreier with the title of special FX artist in this production, because it is his subtle mixing of whispers, moans and demon tongues that kept my skin crawling and stomach churning throughout the entire show. All the actors are miked, not for projection purposes, but in order that Schreier’s sound tech might manipulate their voices in real time to create a satanic symphony of mad chatter and cries from the tortured darkness. The unease created by the sound design was often so subtle that I wasn’t even aware that my shoulders had crawled up to my ears, and then there came noises so loud and sudden that I jumped in my seat as if thrashing awake from a nightmare. And you couldn’t close your eyes and escape the terror because the sound still echoed inside your body and hummed along the bones at the base of your skull. There were moments when my reptile brain was really and truly afraid. Meanwhile my mammal brain - the one with the acting degree – reveled in the power of theatre to manipulate imagination.

In addition to the sound scares there are also satisfying visual effects aplenty, moments that make you question what your eyes are actually seeing. These are staged with elegant simplicity by director John Doyle and executed with flawless grace by the actors. Emily Yetter’s strength and flexibility allow for some truly disturbing contortions as young Regan’s demonic possession advances. A single white sheet is manipulated and continually repositioned with dexterous cunning to allow dramatic tricks to be played with the audience’s perception. Teller, of Penn and Teller fame, is credited in the program as a “creative consultant,” and though his contributions are not specifically noted I feel certain that the creepier sheet moments are of his devising, as well as a wholly unexpected and visually satisfying climactic technical effect which I will not reveal. (Based solely on what I saw in The Exorcist, I would love to have seen Teller’s Macbeth that toured the East Coast in 2008 to rave reviews. If you want magic on the stage, bring in a magician.)

Lighting designer Jane Cox has collaborated previously with director Doyle on numerous theatre and opera productions, and their simpatico is a thing of beauty. Cox creates dramatic pictures in a basically empty space, sculpting beams of light and making solid what was ephemeral. Doyle creates wonderful stage pictures full of tension by placing actors at extreme distances, very close and very far apart, and Cox’s lights often serve as subtle focus-pullers, blossoming on a character’s face as revelation slowly dawns or fading away and abandoning them to the darkness of their doubt and fear.

This is a very theatrical piece of theatre, and I love it for that fact. I enjoy theatre that functions most effectively only as theatre, that requires the audience’s cooperation and participation for the successful transmission of its themes and energies. The world premiere of The Exorcist at The Geffen Playhouse is good, solid theatre. You enter the play’s reality from the moment you set foot in the auditorium and, like any really good horror story, you find yourself unable to escape until after the house lights come back up. There is no intermission, no break in the constantly building tension. Your heart will beat fast, your breath will catch, you will gasp, you will flinch, you will laugh and you will even be required to have a complex thought or two. It is a theatrical possession that you will thoroughly enjoy.

Note: I have been notified that because the show is selling so well there will be no Goldstar or rush tickets offered. But you can contact the Geffen’s volunteer coordinator David Gerhardt at DavidG@GeffenPlayhouse.com and arrange to usher and see the show free. If you can afford the ticket prices, book your seats now – the show just opened and the run is already selling out.

The Exorcist runs through August 12th at Geffen Playhouse.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Play Writing (pt. 1)

by Phillip Kelly
As a writer, when I sit down, I always have a goal in mind. I want to get this accomplished. I want to allow a character to move from here to here. I need a character to move from here to here. Move, character, move! The character isn't moving. It's starting to feel forced. But the story has to -- stop!

As writers we get in the (good) habit of plotting and structuring, following the course. Being logical (which I'll talk about in part 2). We need that or we'll never finish a first draft or a character may not make sense. But as writer's we also need to explore, unhinge ourselves and let our minds wander to discover new threads, to keep things fresh, so we're not repeating ourselves. Especially thematically.

How many times have you sat down to write something "new" and found you were essentially exploring the same thing you just wrote about. Or how many times have you sat down to rewrite and found yourself thinking, "Why would I change this? It's perfect!" Take a step back, my friend.
I went up to review Theatricum Botanicum's The Women of Lockerbie recently and pulled out my notebook to sit on their beautiful grounds and take notes about a comic book I'm working on. The thought of it exhausted me. I sat there for a moment then just started scratching some thoughts onto the page with no discernible goal in mind, and it was an incredibly freeing experience. Something I hadn't done in awhile. It was like my brain was taking a breath of fresh air, running through the fields and kicking around in a stream. I wrote a meager three pages, prose in the format of poetry (so I didn't have to fill the whole pages). Here are a few lines for your pleasure:

Not trying to uncover a truth or a mystery.
Simply relying on the twists and turns in my mind.
House cleaning.
Those things that are packed tight are loosened.
Wrestled free.
Mixed about to fall into place elsewhere.
To inspire in new ways.

Of course, I was writing about what I was doing. Freely contemplating it.

Then there was this:

Likewise, if you don't tell someone you love them, you're killing love.
Love left unproclaimed does not exist and grows instead like a weed.
If not spoken it becomes impure, unfocused and unkind.
Spoken it grows and flourishes and becomes something else entirely.
How can love be fed if it is first not planted?
To speak love, is to plant love.
To keep love, is to hold onto a seed and never enjoy its fruit or shade.

And I went on about how ideas and art are the same thing. Really nothing profound, but by doing this it freed me up to simply think about different things, discover new trajectories. I know I have the tendency to treat writing simply as work or an exercise, but it's nice to play as well. Your brain and creativity will thank you.

The Women of Lockerbie

a play by Deborah Brevoort
directed by Melora Marshall
presented by Theatricum Botanicum

review by Phillip Kelly

A bit of synchronicity occurred the night of my seeing The Women of Lockerbie. I had shown up to Theatricum to sit on their grounds and do a bit of writing before the production, as it's a lovely place to lose one's thoughts. Instead of working on something specific, I did just that, let my mind roam on the page. It mainly stuck to the ideas of art and love and what can happen if you don't make use of them. Lockerbie is a beautifully written piece of art about love and what happens when the aftermath of an evil action and the ensuing grief takes hold of it. It's a haunting piece, profound in it's simplicity and ultimately beautiful and touching. Brevoort's words are poetic and cut to the heart of the matter with wisdom and finesse.

The matter at hand is the terrorist attack on the Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21st, 1988 and the grief that continues to follow the families and the inhabitants of Lockerbie seven years later. Bill Livingston (Thad Geer) has brought his wife Madeleine (Susan Angelo) back to Lockerbie on the anniversary of the crash. Their twenty year-old son died aboard the plane and Madeleine's grief carries her over the foggy hills looking for any sign of his remains. Meanwhile, an American Government official, George Jones (Blake Edwards) has come back to Lockerbie to burn the clothing of the deceased. The articles have been bagged and locked up in a hangar with the remains of the airplane crash for 7 years and his job is to tie up all loose ends, but the women of Lockerbie represented by Olive (Ellen Geer), Hattie (Katherine Griffith), Woman 1 (Elizabeth Tobias) and Woman 2 (Victoria Hilyard), many of whom lost family as the carnage rained down upon them and who saw the death first hand, won't allow it. They have something else in mind, and they'll be damned if they give up the fight so easily. All of these characters have been affected differently by the event.

It took a few minutes for the production to find its feet for me, only because I couldn't get a bead on how the character of Bill Livingston felt. He's the first on the stage and the first to set the tone. Mr. Geer has one of the more difficult characters to play in the show and is put into one of the more difficult situations an actor can be put in. To play a character that chooses not show his emotions. When do you show? When do you not show? How do you show what emotions you have so as not to confuse the audience? Because while you're hiding your true emotions, other ones might sneak out unexpectedly. How do you carry your body and interact with people having hidden how you truly feel about something for seven years? At what point do you show, so that the arch of the character feels natural and not forced? So that those eventual emotions are cathartic and not manipulative to the audience. There should always be something at work under the passivity, and I didn't always see it. The choices felt a little muddy at first, but soon found focus once he has Ms. Angelo to play off of. She grounds the show in a definite emotion, with a startling first act monologue, and brings out those things I was happy to see from Mr. Geer, and his performance flourishes.

Angelo, as the grieving Mother, is haunting and heartbreaking. She however faces a challenge on the opposite end of the spectrum, playing grief. Something female leads have faced from the Greek tragedies to Shakespeare. I can safely say nobody wants to hear a female character wail for an hour and a half. Marshall had the sense to not allow this, and I'm sure Angelo would have been opposed as well. But again, how long do you keep that going? Madeleine is crazy with grief. People don't change on a dime. They need something to incite the change. Brevroot hasn't given a specific moment for this to happen and the tendency for lesser actors would be to play these scenes at an emotional "ten" every time they step on stage. Just when you think the trajectory may head that way, it doesn't and quiet moments are found. This being said, I would have liked to have seen a few more of those intimate moments up front; a quiet intensity, which can be difficult in a space as big as Theatricum's. But when this group chose those moments, and they most assuredly did, it's a beautiful thing to watch.

The four women of Lockerbie are a hoot. Ms. Geer plays Olive with a fire and playfulness that wins you over immediately. Katherine Griffith is delightful as George Jones' cleverer-than-she-appears cleaning lady. Victoria and Elizabeth bring a wisdom, sadness and eventual hope to their characters - they almost feel like chorus, tying together many of the emotional themes through pieces of precise and perfectly timed bon mots. Blake Edwards is also thoroughly enjoyable and perfectly cast as the young American government official. His throw away lines are golden.

Marshall starts and ends the show with some beautifully sung folk songs and the Theatricum space is perfect for the show, which Marshall has used to to its advantage. The cast wanders up and down the hillsides, shouting back and forth at each other. You get a real sense of space and depth and being lost with these characters on the hillsides of Scotland. Lost in their grief, sadness, anger and found again in their eventual cleansing. It's a journey that is as simple as a couple of steps, but feels like it's taken you miles by the end. It makes for a wonderful night at the theatre, that had me tearing up in the end.

The Women of Lockerbie written by Deborah Brevoort, Directed by Melora Marshall
June 30th-September 29th
Playing in rep with Measure for Measure, Heartbreak House and A Midsummer Night's Dream
Where: The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga CA, 90290
(midway between the Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway, on the West side of the street.)
For tickets and show: 310-455-3723, www.theatricum.com
Dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring cushions for bench seating. Snacks are available at the Hamlet Hut and picknickers are welcome before and after the performance.

Monday, July 02, 2012

We Won't Count You Out

"... director Andrew Moore has made so many unfortunate choices ..."

-- Backstage West

"Moore, the playwright-director, however, should have opted for less."

-- Backstage West

"... an intriguing approach, but one that calls for considerable refinement, as does Moore's realization of the play overall."

-- LA Times
I have had my share of bad reviews.  I know what it's like to feel personally gut-punched by a perfect stranger who stands in judgement of my creative output.  I've felt the creeping dread, the crawling scalp, the pit in my stomach, and the urge to chuck it all and hide in a hole somewhere.  The quotes above?  Just the tip of the iceberg.  There are some real nasties out there; reviews that still make me cringe.

Looking over our site metrics, the vast majority of our traffic comes from people either bouncing in straight to the URL of a review someone posted on Facebook, or from folks using search terms such as the name of a specific play and the word "review."  I'm talking easily 90% of our traffic -- that's folks looking specifically for a review of a given show.

I don't think it's outrageous to assume that the people searching for specific reviews for specific shows are, by and large, people associated with those shows.  Cast, crew, directors, playwrights -- even family.  Before noticing this trend in our site traffic I reasoned that this would be the case.  To be completely honest, who cares what critics have to say anymore?  It's a social networking world.  Audience reviews on Goldstar probably have more clout than some self-appointed expert.

With the general theatre-going audience, I expect they don't care.  But the people who actually make the shows -- they care.  They're looking for something more substantive than "I liked it" or "I didn't like it."  I know that's what I am looking for, when I'm on the other side of reviews.

Some of the best-worst reviews I've had pointed out specific issues that, once resolved, would make the show better.  It is no coincidence that those specific notes jibed with my own observations of the finished work, and the observations of trusted advisors.  As they say, if you get the same note from multiple sources, you should address it.  I have addressed such notes.  I'd be a fool not to.

As a reviewer and editor of Mad Theatrics, I'm not interested in telling people they suck, or that their contributions to the community at large are worthless.  Making theatre -- any theatre, even one-person shows in street clothes in front of a bare wall -- is difficult.  The more ambitious a show is, the more likely it is to fall on its face.  You don't encourage risk taking by beating the hell out of failure. 

We may not like your show, but we will endeavor to let you know why.  And regardless of what else we think of it, we will try to tell you what you have done right.  We won't count you out.  We know who our audience is, and you matter to us.