Sunday, July 28, 2013

Rewedding

Monday, August 12th, My wife and I will be renewing our vows before a paying public.


It's going to be one helluva show.


Comics will make funny, crooners will croon, and strippers will strip. But lest you think this is merely a burlesque on weddings (which I suppose it is, in a way) Red and I are sincerely renewing our vows.

Heartwarming and strippers? Friends, that's how we roll.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Done, For Now ...

I've learned to never say never, but as of this moment I believe I've written my last theater review. For now, at least. My schedule prevents me from getting out to see much of anything, and I'm beginning to question the need for one more Los Angeles theater blogger passing his easy judgement on the hard work of undeniably talented artists.

Before I hang it up, I thought I might share something. Some time back, Ken Davenport published his "5 Ways to Revive Reviewing." I started this draft back then, but only recently finished it:

Five Things I've Tried To Keep In Mind When Writing Reviews

1. Know my audience. After a review is published, I drop the company's publicist an email. Quite rapidly, that review will be visited a dozen or more times. It doesn't take a genius to see what's happening here. People intimately connected to the show are reading the review. My first, most immediate audience are the very people I'm writing about.

This realization led to a couple of policies around here. First, we try to keep the snark in our reviews to a minimum. Perhaps that keeps us from being a more popular review site, but I give zero fucks about that sort of popularity. Second, we try to treat the reviews like we're giving notes. Arrogant? Perhaps. To be honest, the vast majority of who I review may not care about my notes so much as my pull quotes, but for those who are interested, we strive for a certain level of honesty and constructive criticism.

2. My review may be the only experience some people have of the show.  What lasts? After the set is struck and the cast and crew moves on, what record exists of their production? There's the script, of course, but the text is potential energy, not necessarily a record of what happened. And good luck finding a copy of the vast majority of original plays that debut each year. There are the company's own archives, but these are rarely made available to the public at large, and more than likely sit moldering in a hard drive or banker's box.

And then there's the review.

Reviews are unique in that they (often) describe the experience of seeing the show. The script is mere literature. The company's available archive is mere publicity. A well-written review suggests the actual flavor of the show. Part of my job, whether I've liked it or not, has been to serve as an unofficial archivist. A highly subjective, perhaps unreliable witness to a tiny sliver of theatrical history, but a witness nonetheless.

3. Some people want to know if a live performance is worth their time and money. Is it an experience they will love or loathe? How splashy is the splash zone, how challenging is the audience participation, can I bring my mother to the play about the child molester, etc. The trick is to give people an idea of what lies in store for them without spoiling anything. It's tricky.

4. Theater is a unique art form. It's not film and it's not television. It is the rare art form that (with the possible exception of some heavily automated Broadway shows) is never in its final, fixed form. No two performances are exactly the same, discoveries are constantly being made, moments are continually explored. Each performance can be made or undone by the audience itself -- a matinee crowd may love it, and the evening performance could bomb. 

Nitpicking a hiccup is stupid. It's a waste of the reviewer's words. That light cue may never be late again. That one dark spot upstage may be a blown lamp that was immediately replaced after the audience went home. I believe that you should posses and employ a working understanding of how theater is made in order to write a worthwhile review, and trust that the folks running the show saw (and will correct) the same hiccup you saw.

5. There are no 'bad' plays. I can't remember exactly where I heard it -- it may have been Craig Mazin who said it, on the entertaining and education podcast he co-hosts with John August, Scriptnotes -- but I've heard it said, "there are no 'bad' movies. There are movies that work, and movies that don't work."

The same is true of theater. No one sets out to produce a bad play. I try to focus on where a play works, and where it doesn't work. It helps me focus my writing, and helps me achieve the other aims listed above.

*     *     *

Mad Theatrics isn't going to pack it in completely, but what we do next is anyone's guess, self included. Will I publish another Permanent Ink list? I don't know. (Anyone want to take up the chore? I'll help tabulate the results. Email me.)

Saturday, July 06, 2013

The Baby

presented by The Visceral Company

review by Andrew Moore

Germaine (Natasha Charles Parker) feeds her brother Baby (Torrey Halverson), who wears a diaper and sleeps in a crib; looking on are (from left) sister Alba (Cloie Wyatt Taylor), Mama Wadsworth (Frank Blocker), and social worker Ann Gentry (Jana Wimer) in a scene from The Visceral Company's production of THE BABY, now playing at the Lex Theatre.
Fully committed to the tropes and excesses of exploitation cinema, the cast and crew of The Baby revel in this sick and demented little domestic melodrama. There is a sincerity is buried beneath every insincere choice and moment of over-the-top emoting. This is a loving farce of an obscure and obscene film, and is the most fun I've had at a play in a long time.

Baby is a grown man whose development has been frozen in infancy. When a new social worker comes a calling, her attempts to bring Baby out of his shell and into manhood open up a twisted game of cat an mouse with Baby's sisters and mother. The fun and games culminate in a twist -- a twisted twist -- that has to be seen to be believed. The story is fiendishly clever.  Most grindhouse fare would stop at the basic premise and fill an hour and a half with just that.

Director Dan Spurgeon (who also adapted the play from the screenplay by Abe Polsky) keeps a stilted script from playing stilted, taking every advantage of the hammy possibilities the material presents. It's always hard to guess how much an actor brings and how much a director elicits, but it is plain to see that Spurgeon created a safe space for his cast to blossom in absurdity. He keeps up the pace as well, and transitions are seamless.

The cast is fantastic, but three actors in particular stand out. Firstly, Torrey Halverson as the titular Baby never lets the mask slip. Never. Even in blackouts, one can see his silhouette crawling towards the wings. The unfocused eyes, the gaping mouth, the lax muscle control -- this is a characterization born of careful observation and diligent practice. And yet, even when Baby does creepy things (and a hat tip to Jonica Patella as the Babysitter for being party to the creepiest thing I've seen on stage since ... ever) even when Baby does unspeakable things, he seems completely innocent and without blame.

Jana Wimer flirts with insanity as the straitlaced, dedicated social worker, Ann Gentry. What is her interest in Baby? Genuine altruism? Sexual kink? Perhaps there's some unknown yet jaw-droppingly warped selfish purpose? Wimer plays the cipher well, never tipping her hand (until things get thoroughly tipped). Her moments of wide-eyed crazy are hilarious and haunting.

Finally, Frank Blocker as Mama Wadsworth. Look, here's the deal. The novelty of casting a man in drag as the matron of the Wadsworth clan is deserving enough of praise. It's a clever choice that adds a certain John Waters-esque vigor to this adaptation. The fact is, Frank Blocker owns every inch of this role, is in charge of every moment. He is an actor, as they say, fully in command of his instrument. It is such a thoughtfully charted persona, it's almost Shakespearean in magnitude. (Considering the King's Men did drag as well, that's not such a crazy comparison to make.)

I need to make mention of the sound design. They don't credit it as such, instead listing Neel Boyett as the Music Advisor. However it went down, whoever decided to program a preshow playlist with the creepiest cover tunes of 1970s soft rock hits ever recorded, kudos and thank you. You set the tone so well, I was chuckling before the house lights dimmed. Throughout the play itself, there were moments underlined by perfect music cues. It added so much to the evening, to the exploitation cinema feel, I can't imagine the show without them.

The Visceral Company is extending their run of The Baby to the end of August. Don't miss this funny and perverse excursion into 1970s cinema excess.

The Baby has playtime on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm through August 31st at The Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., in Hollywood (just east of Highland.) Street parking is available, but you will have to hunt for it. Get there early and be sure to read the street signs. Tickets are available online. Be advised that there is some nudity and (disturbing) adult situations.

Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini

Sacred Fools present the new play by Jaime Robledo

review by Andrew Moore

Scott Leggett as Watson. Photo by Jessica Sherman Photography

Perhaps I should have seen Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes. I get the impression that had I seen the first play, the sequel would have been easier to digest. Despite the best efforts of a cast and crew who really endeavor to put on a great show, Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini was ultimately an empty experience for me.

It's difficult to delve into exactly why this didn't work for me without spoiling the end of the play, so consider yourself warned. Watson and Holmes, who have had a falling out after the events of the first play, are drawn together to solve a series of ritualistic murders that seem to involve the Ectoplasmic Man himself, Harry Houdini. As the plot thickens, reality itself begins to dissolve, and the final case of Watson's career shuffles off with his mortal coil. We are left with an incomplete and unsatisfying narrative, an unfortunate end for an otherwise enticing, magical evening of theatre.

Michael James Schneider provides an evocative unit set framed by latticework and incandescent bulbs. Matthew Richter paints this set with his lights, digging into his bag of tricks to add a pleasing aesthetic to the cast's pantomimes. The combination of sound and lighting design with low-tech theatrical solutions is a large part of this show's charm: a reenactment of a murder performed as though a silent film, complete with flickering lights;  a foot pursuit through Coney Island's carnival barkers and a carousel; the mental hall of mirrors Watson finds himself in -- all very well executed and exciting to take in.

Murder most foul. Photo by Jessica Sherman Photography

These clever solutions are the work of writer/director Jaime Robledo. Robledo has a keen mind for crafting theatrical solutions to staging problems. His stage is a funhouse of movement, and this is reason enough to take in Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini. Recalling how he staged the shuffleboard game between Houdini and Holmes brings a smile to my face. Delightful, inventive work.

The cast is simply wonderful. Scott Leggett's Watson is stately and endearing; a man conflicted, resolute in his fidelity to his lost wife, trying to come to terms with the loss but not quite ready to move on. Joe Fria brings a spritely, good-natured narcissism to his turn as Sherlock. He's brilliant yet obtuse, cunning yet clumsy. Donal Thomas-Cappello shines as Harry Houdini. Introduced as an affable American with a subtle air of menace, the character may fizzle in the second act, but Thomas-Cappello's commitment to the role never does. Graham Skipper is memorable in dual roles, as the buoyant sensationalist Pike and the wise-cracking bullscheisser, Freud.

Where Watson falls down for me is in the writing. It's a muddled script that doesn't know what it wants to be. An original yet relatively loyal take on Doyle's universe, an anachronistic romp, or perhaps some hybrid of the two? It seems this last approach is Robledo's target but the script lacks the focus to achieve this aim. When the plot twists -- or perhaps is abandoned in favor of an expedient close -- we are left with an unsatisfying and dreary end. The crimes our heroes are investigating and Houdini's ambiguity is all for naught. All the great stuff Robledo sets up doesn't pay off. Even as Watson realizes what has happened to him, it's not a mystery that he solves, piecing together what the events of the play add up to, but rather an understanding that feels handed to him.

It is frustrating, because I really wanted to like this show. It has everything going for it, save the most important thing. The quality stagecraft, earnest performances, and clever direction can't make up for where the show breaks down: the script.

Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini is exhibited Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm through July 27th, at the Sacred Fools Theater, 600 N. Heliotrope Dr. (Just south of Melrose and just west of Vermont.) Street parking is ample, but there is a pay lot at the theater. Tickets are available online.