Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Contributors Wanted

"Bee Swarm" licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Attribution: fir0002 at the English language Wikipedia.

An artistic director for one of L.A.'s under-99's once told me that Mad Theatrics "represents a refreshing, unrehearsed and intelligent alternative voice in the LA scene."

We need more unrehearsed and intelligent alternative voices at Mad Theatrics.

Phillip Kelly and I are finding it harder and harder to get out to review the approximately 18,000 plays that open across the greater Los Angeles area every year.  We could use help.

If you think you'd be a good fit, shoot me a line at madtheatrics[at] We'll dialogue, and I may have you write a guest review or commentary, to see if we jibe.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Alice in Wonderlust

Night three of Burlesqueland V featured the Los Angeles Chapter of Naked Girls Reading.

At the top of the show, from Wonderlust Productions came a brief excerpt of Alice in Wonderlust, an erotic musical they are planning on opening this year.

It was a little rough around the edges, but it is a clever idea that I am interested in seeing on its feet.  Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a coming-of-age story, and so translating it to a sexual awakening works.

The performers (Maya Papaya as Alice, Donatella MeLies as the Caterpillar, and Corporal Punishment as the Cheshire Cat) fully committed to the material, which seems to be the make or break point for this sort of thing. As long as the performer is fully present and engaged, onstage eroticism and nudity (Alice in Wonderlust has both) clicks.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Little Commentary on Bilitis ...

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.” 
- Winston Churchill
My review of Songs of Bilitis is comfortably in the rear-view mirror, and so I feel I can publish a little more commentary. I really enjoyed Bilitis, and think everyone should go see it.  Even if it's not your cup of tea, you should go see it.  In fact, stop reading this (there are spoilers) and go buy your tickets.  They just announced they are extending the run to April 6th, but make your plans now.

Bilitis has stirred my imagination as a writer and occasional producer of live entertainment, and that means I'm fussing with details, questioning choices, wondering how things might have been done differently, etc. I have nothing but the utmost appreciation and admiration for what Rogue Artists Ensemble has accomplished, so everything I have to say here comes from that.  Also, it's all my opinion and probably wrong.

Eroticism as a Narrative Device

Rogue has methodically and thoughtfully sought to render eroticism as a narrative device. This isn't eroticism as a gimmick, this is eroticism as essential to the storytelling.  No mean feat.  In the review I wrote, "It feels at times like an academic exercise," and this is what I'm talking about.  A lot of thought went into how to weave the physical into the story.

It is a highly romanticized take on the writer's work. Pierre Louys writhes on the floor, pen to paper. Bilitis' story, the very words are like a seething mass of skin on skin, reaching, spilling forth from Pierre. Bilitis' trysts play out in a very impressionistic way. It is as if we are seeing into Pierre's imagination.  At the same time, the touching, kissing, moaning, etc. is a living metaphor of the creative act.  It's the closest thing to "Theatre of Cruelty" that I've witnessed, and it's staggering when it hits.

The journey Bilitis takes is Pierre's journey.  Wherever the idea of Bilitis came from, and no matter how haunted he is by Bilitis as his muse, he is still her progenitor. This comes into sharp relief with the following exchange (and a huge thank you to playwright Katie Polebaum for providing me with the exact dialogue from her playscript):
Did I ruin you? You came to me so full of life and now- 
Not ruined. 
I don’t want to keep hurting you.
Quite frankly, this is something only a writer can fully understand.  When you grow attached to a character, and are forced to contort them through horrific experiences on their journey to some cathartic climax, it fucking hurts.  The brilliant thing that Polebaum did in her writing (and the company no doubt contributed to this through their process) was to tie the emotional journey to a physical manifestation that hits the audience smack dab in the middle of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It's masterful.

And yes, it is academic at times.  And yes, they sometimes cheat and give us simulated sex instead of real eroticism.  Considering the overall success of the piece, the occasional stumbles are forgivable.

The Use of Theatrical Nudity

Songs of Bilitis has a fair share of nudity, although most of it is carefully teased at. A laundry list: Pierre Louys wears nearly sheer underwear.  His consort Meriem dances for him in a shimmy belt and revealing chainmail top.  Actors strip down and copulate in silhouette.  Bilitis is stripped topless for a ritual involving three dancing priestesses, nude save for gauzy, short-cropped togas.  Characters appear onstage wearing grotesque phalli.

Let's take a look at the priestess episode. Polebaum and the play's director, Shawn Calweti address it in an interview with LA Stage Times.

“Once you get over the initial, ‘Oh my gosh, someone is totally naked on stage,’ where do you look?  It’s distracting, you can’t really pay attention.”  Polebaum is quoted.  I don't know if I buy that.  If anything, these Rogue cats are experts at telling an audience where to look.
A scene set in a temple with priestesses initially contained explicit nudity.  “The scene became instantly really uninteresting,” Cawelti says with a shrug.
Now, the priestesses wear very gauzy material, masking the nudity underneath.  Cawelti says this works much more effectively.  “Because you don’t see hard underwear lines, and they are moving a very free way, the audience feels this sensuality and eroticism.”  He compares it to another art form, “So much of it is like a great burlesque strip tease.  As someone is taking off their dress, a piece of fabric is flying in, so you are just seeing a few inches of skin as the dress is coming off.”
I get it.  First of all, the high priestesses wear masks. I imagine it would look quite absurd to have a dancer onstage, nude save for a mask.  Second, without the tease, the immediate impact of the nudity wears off.  I've seen this happen at Naked Girls Reading.  Third, as in burlesque, you need to tell a story.  Otherwise, why not just cut to the chase and go to Bare Elegance?

And yet there is that final reveal in burlesque.  The priestess episode from Bilitis and the above quote from Cawelti reminds me of the Eyes Wide Shut homage from Kubrilesque, a burlesque tribute to the films of Stanley Kubrick from Cherry Kiss Burlesque. I was there for the first couple of stagings of the show (my wife was Alex in the Clockwork Orange homage.)

The second night of the show, the Eyes Wide Shut number really clicked. At the end of  a very ritualistic number (well ... ritualistic meets Las Vegas showgirl,) from the center of a ring of dancers holding massive feather fans emerged a lone dancer -- Crystal Swarovski -- completely nude.  It was a moment of release; a final reveal of magnitude.

The mere act of disrobing means something.  When a burlesque dancer removes a glove, it can mean more then the mere discarding of a garment.  Think about how much of our experience of the world around us depends upon our hands and our sense of touch.  "Look with your eyes, not your hands," we are sometimes told whilst manhandling a new and foreign object.  When a dancer exposes her hand, she is symbolically opening herself up to sensation. Amplify that by every inch of skin, and you have the final reveal from the Eyes Wide Shut homage.

Such a final reveal would be interesting in the priestess episode.  Tease the audience with the barely-clad dancers, and at the climax of the number we see the emergence of a completely nude Bilitis.  It would be a rebirth; a baptism of the flesh. As it plays now, Bilitis is topless during the entire episode, and it does lose its impact.

Random Observations

A few scattered observations and thoughts, and a couple of nitpicks that would have just muddled my review:
  • In the staging of the nudity and simulated sex, it was a little too pat that the screens would suddenly rise to conceal the naughty bits. It got to the point where a screen would rise and we'd just kind of expect someone was about to get naked.  There must be a more subtle way to stage those moments without telegraphing what is about to happen.
  • One of the most erotic moments of the play is (possibly) accidental.  Pierre is at his lowest ebb, completely wasted.  Debussy enters and takes pity on his friend. Debussy sits on the bed and places Pierre's head in his lap. It is an innocent moment that nevertheless has a homoerotic charge to it. It could be that Cawelti knew exactly what he was doing in this moment, and if so, I doff my hat.
  • The puppets are not as well integrated into the play as they could be.  I'm not sure what the solution might be.  As I mentioned in the review, the puppets of young Bilitis and Selenis seem unfinished. Given that they herald the first sexual encounter, they need to be softened.  Hell, they are walking hand in hand across fields built out of the actors' bodies.  The ground they walk on is softer than the puppets!
  • One of the images of Bilitis used in the videos looks like a headshot of the actress.  I swear to Bacchus, I saw pearl stud earrings.  Maybe I didn't -- maybe I did and pearl stud earrings are historically correct.  Nevertheless, every other pair of earrings we see are dangly and it stands out (did I mention some of these would be nitpicks?)

In Conclusion

I'm a fan of this show. Obviously. If that were not the case, I wouldn't have bothered with this follow-up and commentary. I wish I had seen the workshop version at Getty Villa, and I would like to revisit the show later on in its run. I would be interested to hear what audience members thought about the show and what they experienced. I'd like to know more about the process that brought Bilitis to the stage.

Friday, March 15, 2013


If you're not going to Songs of Bilitis this weekend, head on down to Fais Do Do for the fifth annual Burlesqueland ...

Tonight is the first of three nights of "Dizney-Inspired Burlesque," and as we have since the very beginning, Phillip Kelly and I will be opening the show as our neo-vaudevillian alter egos, Mr. Snapper & Mr. Buddy:

Tomorrow night, the fun continues at Fais Do Do, with an entirely new line-up of amazing dancers:

And Sunday night, a slight change of venue as Naked Girls Reading takes the stage at Moving Arts:

And as far as art goes, Naked Girls Reading is indeed moving, ifyouknowwhatImean.  Wink wink, nudge nudge, say -- no -- more.  But seriously, I wrote about the Naked Girls Reading experience here.  When the readers are fully engaged in what they are reading, a very theatrical kind of intimacy sets in.  You have to experience it to understand.

If you've never been to a burlesque show, this is an excellent opportunity for you. Burlesqueland is the de facto Los Angeles burlesque festival. It attracts talent from all over the globe, and the producers have their pick of the best acts available.  Plus, it parodies something we all know and love (even if some love to hate it) the House of Mouse.  So come on out!

Friday, March 15th and Saturday, March 16th, 2013

5253 W. Adams Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90016

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

1822 Hyperion Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90027

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Right Kind of Failure

On the heels of Rob Thomas' motion picture history-making Kickstarter campaign, a note about the flipside of Kickstarter success from TechDirt:
It's easy to use the word "failure" for those projects that don't meet their goal. Hell, just in writing this post, I repeatedly had to consciously stop myself from using the words "fail" or "failure" in describing projects that don't reach their goal. But, the commenter is right: those projects are not failed projects once you realize what Kickstarter really is: a platform to judge the market for products, and to build commitment and funding around them.
Go read the whole thing.

"Failure" is a charged word with oodles of negative connotations.  That's unfortunate, because the right kind of failure can actually springboard us to success.  We hear about great artists and innovators who failed over and over, but who persevered until that 10,000th light bulb design worked, or that one publisher finally took a chance on a story about a boy wizard.

We fear failure, and thus refuse to take a risk.  "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," as the great artist and innovator Benjamin Franklin once said.

"Do not fear mistakes," he also said. "You will know failure. Continue to reach out."

Past is Prologue

A couple of changes to the old Mad Theatrics blog this morning.  I restored our spiffy "honeybee" masthead up top, and I added an article archive widget to the right.

My wife and I started this thing back in May of 2006 as a place to vent about about our theatrical experiences in Los Angeles. (As she so presciently wrote in the very first post, "We didn't set out to piss anyone off, but we managed to." Story of our lives.)

Seven years later, Mad Theatrics is dedicated to honest and informed reviews by people who have actually produced theater, and the occasional eruption of frustration and armchair quarterbacking about theater in general and the state of the Los Angeles theater scene in specific by yours truly.  We also publish the Permanent Ink list at the end of each calendar year, spotlighting the best new plays to debut in Los Angeles as nominated and voted on by the community.  Oh, and we added Phillip Kelly to the writing staff.

Over the course of these many years, I've published many words here.  I've struggled with theater as an artform vs. theater as commerce, I've banged the war drums against dues-paying companies, I've quoted Peter Brook so extensively you might actually be able to piece a complete text of The Empty Space together, and I have generally feigned brilliance and only occasionally actually approximated it.

There's some good stuff hidden in the archives.  Some embarrassing stuff, some far-too-personal stuff, but still some pretty good stuff.  At the very least, I've tried to be open and honest.  As the readership for this blog has grown (We're up from four regular readers to at least seven now!  Hi, mom!) I realize some of you might actually be interested in what I have to say about the "Have to Have" rut, why I think one-person shows suck, or why I think Scot Nery is one of the most brilliant entertainers I know.

Thus, to better facilitate the happy accident of running across such articles, I have added the archive widget.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Songs of Bilitis

Rogue Artists Ensemble present the world premiere at The Bootleg Theater

review by Andrew Moore

An almost seamless production with just a couple of small problem spots that should not distract from this gorgeous, immersive, and thrilling production of Katie Polebaum's new play.  An impressionistic and highly romanticized look into the creation of Pierre Louys infamous literary forgery, Songs of Bilitis reveals the erotic life of the titular Greek courtesan.  Clothed in gauzy, intellectualized eroticism, underneath it is a story about inspiration, creation, and the obsession of a writer possessed.

Rogue puts on a good show. We all know this. They take their time in development and their focus on design produces stunning theatricality and production values. They are committed to giving the audience the best possible experience of a story. The attention to moment by moment detail is staggering: even their preshow sound design is multi-channel (When you go -- and you know you will -- listen. Notre Dame is ringing her bells behind you as street traffic passes before you.) Their obsession with capital "S" Show guarantees a good night out, regardless of what story they're actually telling.

With Songs of Bilitis, the artists of Rogue have pushed themselves out of their comfort zone with a narrative that has evoked a worthy experiment in eroticism. They are striving for something more than just the sensory overload of their brilliantly choreographed "hyper-theater." They are attempting a sensuality that weaves through the narrative, inseparable from it, illuminating a thematic focus on the stormy love affair between an author and his muse.

The eroticism is actually pretty tame, more psychological than visceral. It feels at times like an academic exercise and at other times a euphemism for "simulated sex." Make no mistake, it is a fully committed attempt, and there are some truly stimulating moments. The artists of Rogue are close to a breakthrough with eroticism as a storytelling device, and I hope Songs of Bilitis is not their final foray into this territory.

The design work is top notch as always, particularly the sound design by John Nobori. Nobori captures live samples of dialogue and works it into the panoply of music and sound that accompanies the action. This heightens the moments of passion throughout the play, and is very well integrated.  The puppets look a little unfinished, which may have been a conscious design choice, but is somewhat distracting (Particularly in the episode that heralds Bilitis' first Sapphic encounter. Soften the puppets. At least give them hair.)

Aryiel Hartman is charming and effervescent, finding a perfect balance of representational and presentational in her portrayal of Bilitis.  Her youthful highs soar; her older and wiser turmoil devastates.  Christopher Rivas ably steers through the emotional life of the poet, Pierre Louys, but has to struggle in the beginning scenes to be heard.  He is the only actor not wearing a microphone (or so it seems) and the effort necessary to make his voice heard is a detriment to establishing the necessary charm and charisma of his character.

The chorus deserves special recognition for creating this world in real time, with the named characters they portray and with the physical theater that transforms the world from 19th century Algeria to ancient Greece, and literally drives Bilitis and Mnasidika together.  The collaboration of this cast, movement coach Estela Garcia, choreographer Nate Hodges, and director Sean T. Cawelti would spellbind us without the bells and whistles of video, light, and sound design.

I really liked this show, and it has given me a lot to chew on over the past couple of days as a reviewer and incidental theater producer.  It certainly spoke to me as a writer.  It's the sort of show that I wish I could have watched through its development as the artists collaborated to create it.  I imagine I'll revisit the well of Bilitis for weeks to come, turning over in my mind the choices made in bringing this to the stage, pondering the use and usefulness of eroticism as a storytelling device, and no doubt spouting off about both here on Mad Theatrics.

One thing is clear, and this should be the driving force to turn out audiences to see this show:  Rogue Artists Ensemble has produced a uniquely theatrical experience that cannot be captured on film and cannot be conveyed in mere words.  Even the photos used to illustrate this review fall far short of explaining what Songs of Bilitis is like. I suppose it's like the difference between having sex and reading about it. You don't really know what you're missing until you've had it.

Songs of Bilitis will take you in Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 7:30 pm through March 30th.  Mature audiences only, as Songs of Bilitis contains nudity and adult themes.  Admission is $25, but you can get $5 off the price of admission on Thursdays with the code "Bilitis13".  Tickets are available online at, or by calling (213) 389-3856.  Parking is $3 in a private church lot across the street, but if you get there a little early, you should be able to find street parking.  And get there early to enjoy a drink and the ambiance of the Bootleg.

Stagnant Ideas of Originality

Prepare to have your mind blown, to feel challenged, perplexed, and perhaps a little disgruntled:

A few choice quotes:
“The choices that we make are as expressive of ourselves as any kind of personal narrative we might do about our family or growing up. We've just never been taught to value those choices.”
“There is so much information out there already that really one need not create anymore.”
“You look at a blog like Boing Boing. They don’t make anything. They point. Being pointed at by Boing Boing far outweighs the thing at which they are pointing. So making has become secondary to pointing.”

"The voice hydrates the driest of texts."

I do believe Kenneth Goldsmith has discovered theatre.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Fake It ...

Fake it until you make it. When you make it, scream with terror when you realize you got this far without knowing what the hell you were doing.