Archive for the ‘LA Times’ Category

The Tragical Comedy and Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

‘CHILDREN really do love murder,” says Neil Gaiman, the prolific author behind the “Sandman” graphic novels and, recently, the films “Stardust” (adapted from his novel) and “Beowulf” (sharing writing credit with Roger Avary.

Gaiman’s stories are dark, yet even he was surprised when he stumbled into a junk shop and picked up a worn puppeteer’s autobiography with a synopsis of Mr. Punch, the hook-nosed star of countless kiddie shows. Out of irritation and boredom, Punch kills his child, his wife, his neighbor, his doctor, a servant, a blind man, a constable, his hangman and the devil himself, cackling all the while.

“I thought to myself, ‘My God, I never knew that was the story,’ ” says Gaiman, adding, “What people remember is that Punch beats up Judy — what nobody seems to remember is that he murders Judy.”

Fractured recollection is a theme in Gaiman’s graphic novel “The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch,” illustrated by Dave McKean. As he wrote it, Gaiman was sleuthing out his own hidden family history and weaving his discoveries into the tale of a boy’s traumatic summer at his grandfather’s seaside arcade, and the adult he becomes attempting to distinguish fact from fantasy.

“It’s not so much about the nature of memory as about the nature of family memory, collective memory, generational memory,” says Gaiman. “Family secrets are always there and are impossible to properly unravel — and then at the point where the secret doesn’t matter, nobody remembers any longer.”

Gaiman’s story took root with SoCal’s Rogue Artists Ensemble, a company devoted to puppetry and masks. The Rogues spent two years asking to adapt the book for the stage — a “mad persistence,” says Gaiman, that won them the distinction of being the first troupe to be given clearance.

“All the things we love to do are already in there,” says Rogue’s artistic director Sean T. Cawelti, who stages the show.

But unpacking the layers of storytelling in puppet tradition — now warped and bracketed through modern eyes — is complicated for both company and audience.

“We play the violence as realistic and grim,” says Cawelti of the puppet show within their show. “It’s a comment on what’s going on with the boy in his real world. This game is funny and cute, then serious things take place.”

Click here for The Tragical Comedy and Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch in the LA Times

American Tales

Friday, July 11th, 2008

MARK TWAIN and Herman Melville are renowned for capturing the salt, wit and dreams of their eras. But the two musicals they’ve inspired for the world premiere of “American Tales” — presented by the Antaeus company — reveal the authors’ uncelebrated gifts for reading the tea leaves of American culture.

In Twain’s little-known and lightly science-fictional short story “The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton,” a suitor is enraged by a newfangled device — the telephone — that enables his amour to spurn him for a fiancé she’s never seen. And Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” follows the co-workers of a passive office clerk who refuses to do his job, and later even to move or eat.

Together, the works presage a nation of detached souls who, as composer Jan Powell describes, “know the deepest, darkest secrets of people they meet online, but nothing about the people they share space with every day.”

“American Tales” started in 2005 when Powell and lyricist Ken Stone’s libretto inspired by Bartleby sold out every staged reading and went on to win Stone a Kleban Award for most promising librettist. It took a year to find the right piece to match it with for a full production, but when Powell and Stone got a tip from a friend to unearth Twain’s overlooked yarn, they realized they had an apt pairing.

“American Tales” is about “connection and disconnection,” says Powell. Adds Stone, “They share an idea of depersonalization, the ability to both connect and drop out.”

Stone describes the works as “so oddly contemporary,” adding, “Yes, that’s the world we live in, but how did [Melville and Twain] know?”

Twain’s phone-line-cross’d lovers find that the technology that gives them long-distance intimacy can’t guarantee privacy — they may be the first citizens to have their lives scrambled by wiretapping done by a romantic rival as invasive as John Ashcroft.

This thread of caution shoots through Antaeus’ adaptation, which director Kay Cole inflates into an exaggerated comedy. Powell’s score draws on the musical themes of early American melodrama giving it what he calls “a late-1800s small opera house feel.”

The music and mood darken after intermission when a lawyer discovers that his new hire Bartleby is conducting a polite protest of the world, headquartered in the lawyer’s office, where the clerk’s response to any task is “I would prefer not to.”

Seen as a portent against everything from capitalism to city living, the mystery of Melville’s contentious fable is why does Bartleby disengage, but, as Stone observes, the story’s heft is in everyone else’s reactions — from his co-workers’ anger and resentment to the lawyer’s permissive fascination.

“We’re content to leave Bartleby an enigma and see his effect on those around him, whom, by passing through their lives, he has transformed,” elaborates Stone.

The mystery for the production is how to write a musical for a character who refuses to perform — a challenge Powell and Stone tackle by isolating the scrivener musically from the rest of the ensemble.

“Even as he withdraws, his presence looms heavier and heavier over the lawyer’s soul,” says Powell, who thickens his score with classical tones that deepen until an epilogue that allows Bartleby and the lawyer a warm duet. Their final connection, and that of Twain’s lovebirds, parallels our new insight into these timeless authors who, in writing of their own time, also wrote about ours.

“We aren’t as unique as we thought,” says Stone.

Click here for American Tales in the LA Times

American Dead

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

In a shuttering rural town, the local drunk Lewie mourns his sister Grace, a deputy shot down in a robbery.  Her death’s become lore, his brother-in-law has remarried, and the sheriff has lost patience with Lewie’s liquored up trespassing of their old haunts where he visits her ghost.  Playwright Brett Neveu was raised in Newton, Iowa — the former home of Maytag — and his mordant two-act is a requiem for those communities whose lingering residents move, reminisce, or soldier on.  “It’s like a Western,” says Neveu of the play’s cracked, but credible realism, “You get a sense of who these lives are.”

Originally published in the LA Times

I Stand Before You Naked

Friday, July 4th, 2008

“It’s Vagina Monologues meets Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” says producer and actress Layla Alexander of Joyce Carol Oates’ collection of ten disturbing female monologues.  A serial killer’s wife, an anorexic, a stripper, a gun nutty dowager, and a mental patient lusting after Armageddon among others storm the stage which, appropriately, has the cracked minimalism of German Expressionist film.  While each lady is deeply troubled, the goal is that their frailties expose their strength and their dimensionality unmasks the over-simplicity of labels like crazy and insecure, together trumpeting what Alexander calls “A full revelation of the female soul.”

Originally published in the LA Times

A Tribute to Claude Thompson

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

“Everything he did was absolutely effortless,” says director Wilberto of modern jazz dancer Claude Thompson, whose rippling muscular grace earned him the nickname “Silk.” Thompson choreographed everyone from Elvis to Eartha Kitt; the generation he inspired channeled him in pieces for Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, and now this tribute show remembering LA’s godfather of jeté one year after his death. Ten choreographers have composed works highlighting Thompson’s athletic and narrative gifts, building towards a climatic medley that salutes his arrangements for The Color Purple, West Side Story, and the ‘68 Comeback Special. The goal, declares producer Anne Charmillot, “is to keep modern jazz alive.”

Originally published in the LA Times

Orange Flower Water

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

The centerpiece of Craig Wright’s frank drama is a raw bedroom scene fraught with need, loss, and disappointment.  Long-married David confesses to spouse Cathy that he’s in love with pretty blonde Beth, the young wife of new friend Brad.  The fallout is painful, the damage profound, but the heartbreak is shot through with hope.  “You don’t often find plays with this tremendous subtext,” says director Sharyn Case.  Even after the clothes come off, the lovers stay wrapped in layers.  Stripping those too requires opening up to the intimacy of theater.  Adds Case, “I hope audiences are talking about the honesty; I suspect they’re talking about the sex.”

Originally published in the LA Times

Coffee Will Make You Black

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

Ateenage girl in civil rights-era Chicago wrestles with popularity, bullies, Christian piety and a fluttering of lesbian feelings for her school nurse.

It’s universal,” proclaims playwright and actor Michael A. Shepperd of April Sinclair’s 1994 bestseller, “Coffee Will Make You Black.”

Shepperd came across the novel 10 years ago and, three days later, he’d devoured it cover to cover and finished his first draft of a stage adaptation, which went on to run for seven months at Chicago’s City Lit Theater Company. After a decade break during which Sinclair’s saga of city girl Jean “Stevie” Stevenson’s uphill climb through adolescence went from being banned from schools’ libraries to being entrenched in their curriculum, Shepperd and director Nataki Garrett have brought the production back for a five-week run at Hollywood’s Celebration Theatre.

Post-PC era, the impact of Stevie’s blunt assessments of “good” skin and nappy hair and her churning homosexual desires appears to have lessened, but not because the issues are resolved. Rather, argues Shepperd, we mistake silence for acceptance.

These themes run underneath the dizzying novelty of the wide-eyed, big-mouthed late ’60s and early ’70s – a time when anything (good and bad) was right around the corner.

New clothes, new afros – even the word ‘black’ was new,” says Garrett, reminding her cast to share that sense of discovery.

Even the music mutates during the four-year span of the play, from Motown to the rebellious snarl of Jimi Hendrix, layered over a collage of speeches from Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Seale, and sounds from the riots that upended the Windy City in 1968.

What grounds Sinclair’s novel, however, is that it captures a young girl blazing her own path just as her nation does the same.

It’s a dual coming-of-age story,” describes Garrett. Diona Reasonover stars as Stevie – smart, curious and painfully naive – and guides the audience through their own memories of those awkward, miserable years between 12 and 16. We might not have all fought our momma for the right to wear our hair natural, but we’ve all done a public nose plant navigating those first painful crushes.

Cast member Charlene Modeste drew on her background as a Brooklyn native who understands the cramped city blocks that square off a teen’s view of the world to play Stevie’s gum-cracking, fast-talking best friend Carla.

In three pages of reading the script, I was laughing in recognition,” Modeste says with a chuckle. “I knew Carla – I was warned about Carla as a kid.”

Beyond the play’s puppyish appeal, Modeste sees a through line that ties Stevie’s childhood to today’s audiences.

Like then, we’re at a moment in time on the verge of something else,” she says. “And in 10 years, people will look back at us and go, ‘Remember when?’ ”

Click here for Coffee Will Make You Black in the LA Times

The Concept of Remainders

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

“There’s Barbie dream wedding after Barbie dream wedding, and yet 50% of them end up in divorce,” says playwright Richard Martin Hirsch of the sociological underpinnings of his sharp comedy premiering at The Chandler Studio Theatre Center.  “The big question is: Can passion be sustained?”  After 15 years of marriage, Mac and Mary are restless.  Their solution — a 10 day marital furlough — giveth brief affairs, but taketh away more.  Directed by Mark L. Taylor, this straight-shooting romance believes in true love and false expectations; its resolution guarantees voluble dinner talk for couples on their 5,000th (or — gulp — first) date.

Originally published in the LA Times

The Immigrant

Friday, March 28th, 2008

It’s a curious pick for Most-Produced Play of 1990, yet Mark Harelik’s saga of his Jewish grandparents bewildered arrival and bumpy adaptation in 1909 Texas has taken root first as a play, and now a musical shuffling through the Colony Theatre.  The appeal of Russian emigres Haskell and Leah and their tenuous adoption by a Southern banker and his God-fearing wife is that it’s at once hyper-specific and epically American; Haskell enters selling bananas and exits owning his own grocery store with three strong sons fighting in WWII.  With satisfyingly sing-a-long ballads designed to strike a chord among a nation of immigrants with their own stories to tell.

Originally published in the LA Times

What’s the Story?

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

“What in my story is in all of our stories?” is the million dollar question for artistic director Stacie Chaiken and her fleet of 15 solo performers.  “The audience is your scene partner,” Chaiken explains, “it’s tremendously intimate.”  Over two weekends, this festival of frank, cheeky, and headstrong one-person monologues showcases the results from her yarn-spinning workshops.  Though the pieces sprung from group dramaturgy, the diversity ranges from Stephanie Stephenson’s wedding fatigue after her mother’s multiple marriages to Kane Phelps’ saga of an easy rider redeemed who went from Jack Nicholson’s student to a mentor for foster children.

Originally published in the LA Times