Well, golly gee whillikers, you might be thinking to yourself. There’s absolutely no way Katie could write an honest, unbiased review of R&J, a gender-reversed Romeo and Juliet. After all, you think, she has 50 mutual friends on Facebook with someone in the cast!
Oh no! You got me. That’s right. I went to college for theater (I know—what a surprise, I love theater so much I wanted to study it in an academic environment). A college in L.A., in fact. A college whose graduates often perform in the Los Angeles theater scene. And someone who went to the same school as me is in this very play that I’m about to review.
Shock! Horror! Pearl-clutching! There’s absolutely no way I can keep a level head about this, right? I mean, gosh, what if she reads my review and dislikes what I have to say? I could never live with the guilt of knowing that someone with whom I share 50 mutual friends on Facebook might dislike what I have to say!
Or, you know, not, because I’m a mother-loving (hey mom, ’sup, I love you) adult and a professional.
So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, can I write the rest of this review? Great.
Let’s get this out in the open: I don’t think the concept of Romea and Julian works. I really like my iambic pentameter (remember, I am of the pretentious ilk that went to school for theater), and the syllabic switching between “man” and “woman” and other various gendered words in the Bard’s script didn’t sit well with me.
Would I be down for a cross-dressed Romeo and Juliet, with all the male roles played by females and vice versa, but the script remaining unchanged? Oh hell yes. Doing so might make this production of R&J work better too; as it is currently, director Abby Craden is trying so hard to convince the audience that Julian is a dude and Romea is a lady, and the effort is a bit too evident.
That being said, given how many actresses there are in Los Angeles, swapping the genders of the roles does make a lot of sense, and gives these women a chance to shine in meaty roles that aren’t the same Shakespearean women everyone already knows. It’s easy to forget how much of a sausage fest his shows could be—even the romances, which are about an opposite-gendered couple, unlike the histories, which focus more on bros being dudes. It’s great seeing that many ladies up on stage.
But the conceit of the production aside, there are some problems with the show. Lines are too often lost in the echoing concrete box of a theater where the show is performed, and much of the drama feels overwrought—though, to be fair, Romeo and Juliet is inherently melodramatic (it is about middle schoolers in puppy love, after all). Still, many of the dramatic moments feel too large, given the size of the space.
R&J‘s saving grace is the chemistry between the two leads. The relationship between those kids is central to the plot, and if the audience doesn’t believe they’re passionately in love/lust for each other, it’s hard to care about any of the consequences of their relationship. But Mary Ellen Schneider’s Romea and Dane Oliver’s Julian do seem wild about each other, and that grounds the story.
I laughed pretty much continuously throughout the unimpressively titled Raised by Gays and Turned Out OK!, which surprised me since the narrative I’ve constructed for myself says I don’t like women’s identity issue monologues. For my sins, I was assigned two to review last night, and I thoroughly enjoyed this one. This would be a much easier review to write if I hadn’t, if I could just rehash the Politics of Identity Is Stifling American Discourse rants I’ve been spieling for years. Now, I am far from the only liberal to think that the Safety-Trumps-Truth mentality is in fact killing intellectual progress, but Elizabeth Collins isn’t killing anything except IT, as in “she killed last night,” and it is she about whom I am tasked to write. So:
Collins grew up moving house a lot, mostly around the American south, because her toy store-manager dad kept getting promoted. Also because her dad was queer. Her mom’s sexuality also seems like it might be a little abnormative, though it never manifests as such and is primarily used as a sight-gag through well-employed family snapshots. The story is Collins’ and her dad’s, though, and follows their relationship through decades of changes: his coming out and shacking up; her adolescence and need of a mother figure; the divorce; her coming to terms with his homosexuality in 1990s Texas; his disenchantment with her art-school party-girl young ladyhood, and his rapprochement with her 7-days-a-week church-girl incarnation.
It doesn’t end there – those are just a few points on a pleasant and occasionally surprising arc of parent and child in an enduring struggle for empathy. And, again, it’s extremely funny. Collins writes of family drama with the wry observation of a David Sedaris and the understatement of a Sarah Vowell, without too many of the obligatory cuteisms and deadpan-not-deadpan commentary that typify the NPR story-of-me style. Her delivery isn’t entirely flavorless, but her character is almost invisible; her acting-school background comes as a revelation, since her decision here has been to play as casual and innocuous a role as possible and still be the onstage storyteller. Her voice is quiet, her diction moderately regional, her movements somnolent. There’s not much of a contrast between this undecorated presentation and the simple eloquence of the language; much more “show” and the words would be undercut; altogether, as a fun fifty minutes’ pastime, the thing works.
As theater, it’s more questionable. It’s hard to tell what function Margot Leitman served; as credited director, her duties may have included advising her actor on when to stand stage right and when to make a casual cross left, or arranging the few projected slides and fewer, less successful music cues. If she asked Collins to modulate her voice or make more than an obligatory use of the body in pursuit of a thematic or emotional build, she was not successful. There’s not much in the way of discovery and certainly no catharsis here. It doesn’t look like anyone intended them. But if aiming low is not inherently virtuous, neither is it a crime. If you want to giggle and guffaw at the travails of a girl trying to understand the ways of the world, without the intellectual burden of a larger moral investigation, this one-woman show supplies no more and no less.
Two performances only:
Plays Saturday June 14 and Sunday June 28 2015 at 7 pm
Asylum Lab, 1078 Lillian Way in Hollywood
for tickets visit www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/2101?tab=tickets
I don’t know about the rest of you people, but if someone pays me to write about them, I suck them off with such vigor that their ejaculate explodes into the back of my skull with such force that I feel like the bells of Notre Dame pounded by Quasimodo on a Keith Moon bender.
So, since I’m only in this for the money, and the bloodthirsty mercenary in me trumps any pretense of integrity and balance, the rest of what follows in this review of Scott Claus’ Sin: A Pop Opera, at the iconic Three Clubs bar—a review he or someone else associated with him paid for—will be a bunch of positive, compromised hokum.
The place was standing-room only?
Everyone in the cast is really pretty?
People clapped when it was over and after every number?
Really, there’s no way winning this fucking thing. Write something positive, and people with upturned noses will sniff about integrity being compromised and how it’s some violation of some kind of artistic something or other to have a theater pay for a reviewer to write about their show (note to self: remind every employee and reader of American Theatre Magazine—a magazine that has PAID me a couple of times to write for its august publication—to send a Christmas Card to Iran since TCG was launched by a grant from the Ford Foundation, a company started by a man who hated Jews and yes that is a shameless cheap shot, but this isn’t: American university theater graduate departments are conspicuous advertisers in the officially sanctioned media organ of American theater and anyone who doesn’t grok the connection between academia and the Pentagon really needs to read some Nick Turse). The long-winded point is this: anyone who wants to point fingers at what money goes into what people’s hands better be ready to apply the same UV-light to the lucre that comes their way.
But write something negative in this context, and I won’t be asked to review any more shows, the Bitter Lemons Imperative will collapse, terrorism wins, Coldplay releases another record, and Ayn fucking Rand is proven right once and for all.
So, I don’t know. I guess I’ll just try to do the same thing I’ve been doing for 20 years, and let the chips fall where they may: be the most honest whore I can be.
Claus, billed as creator (I’m assuming that means he wrote and directed), has worked in animation for more than 20 years at Disney, DreamWorks and Rhythm and Hues, (seriously, check out his imdb page; he’s got stupid good credits). And this visual artist definitely knows how to write and arrange a tune. The approximately 20 numbers (you want detailed notes, pay me more) range from heart-string-plucking ballads and high-octane song and dance numbers (as much dance as the stage room in Three Clubs can provide, naturally) to a few off-beat numbers like a country-infused shit-kicker tossed in. Most have distinct melodies, and a few I actually remember 24 hours after seeing the show. And even though I’ve never written a review before, at least one that hasn’t been paid by the theater in question, I can’t say that too often for a new musical.
But while the music in the pre-recorded soundtrack has merit, its lyrical substance is sorely lacking. And lyrics are kind of important in this 85-minute show, since it’s a musical theater pop opera along the lines of The Who’s Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar. With everything from plot to character development contingent on the words in the songs, the lack of narrative exegesis (is that the right word? For 50 clams, I better toss in some $5 dollar ones, no?) in the telling of this story is crucial. It’s not vital for the most interesting character, Santana (the talented and seductively dangerous Saudi Yasmein), who is either Satan incarnate or a much more attractive fleshy version thereof. We already know her character’s backstory; it’s an archetype. But for the two very human characters at the center of this story, both of whom are familiar in their own way, the down-in-the-dumps, existentially questioning Devlin (Christopher Robert Smith), and the starry-eyed country singer Faith (Sarah Kennedy), who yearns to crack the big time, the inability of Claus’ lyrics to imbue them with dimension renders them nothing more than crude outlines. That lack of development underscores the deficiencies of Claus’ story, namely, there really isn’t one other than the obvious. Tortured guy meets sexy girl who turns out be the devil. He agrees, for whatever reason, to turn a soul over to her in exchange for something. He finds said soul who, for whatever reason, signs the same contract. She spirals into the void of commercial success and all the good horrible stuff that comes with it. But true love conquers all and, once again, the nefarious designs of the Prince, or Princess, of Darkness, are thwarted.
Oh, there’s also the presence of Luis (Rich Brunner), who is apparently the all-powerful all mighty Judeo-Christian God. But this is a grumpy, resigned God who whines about mankind’s penchant for continually screwing itself and who really seems more like a bored CEO who’d rather call it quits, grab his clubs and hit the diamond-lined fairways of Paradise Links. Toward the end, there’s a hint that this is all just the latest redux of the Biblical chess game between two sides of the same metaphysical coin, and that Devlin and Faith are the latest version of Job being tested, but that intriguing prospect quickly goes flat.
It is cool that this show is in the stage room of the Three Clubs (you’re never too far from a libation), the cast (including the chorus/dancers Kirby Harrell and Natalie Williams) is enthusiastic and game, and Kennedy and Yasmein in particular possess ample vocal chops. But while Claus’ story seems sincere in its grappling of the concepts and emotions of faith and love, and it does have some good tunes, it’s still a long way from being a compelling story. I could write more but I just hit the 1,000-word mark and my business manager doesn’t like me stepping off the curb for less than a nickel a word.
So, Colin, where’s the check?
Sin: A Pop Opera, Three Clubs Stage Room, 1123 N. Vine St. Friday June 12, 5:30 p.m.; Tuesday, June 23, 7 p.m.; Fri., June 26, 8 p.m.; Sun., June 28, 9 p.m. $10.
In context of declining popular interest in the medium we call theater, a young scholar recently asked where I saw the future. I said I thought the future lay in excellence. You have to make magnificent art these days, because mediocre art has destroyed the market for pretty good art. Television and film have perfected the model of acceptable, commonplace entertainment product. It’s not fair to ask people to sit through a staged attraction, for which a couple of tickets cost as much as a monthly cable bill, that fails to rise to the level of a television episode. If your two-act comedy isn’t any funnier, more profound, more stylistically daring than something from the third season of Friends: why put it up?
Stephen Adly Guirgis would seem to agree. Writing in the New York Observer about a Philip Seymour Hoffman-directed production in 2003, John Heilpern was sufficiently impressed to call Guirgis’s Our Lady of 121st Street the “best new play in a decade.” Well, maybe the 90s weren’t a watershed for new plays – certainly no more exciting than the following ten years – and it is true that Mr Heilpern was already a fan of David Mamet’s eloquent profanity, a specialty Guirgis often seems to channel. But Our Lady is no doubt an inspiring piece of work that makes one optimistic for the new wave of American playwrights, well worth the praise that has been heaped on its author.
One of the smartest things about Guirgis’s black comedy is its pitch, a heightened reality in which it seems reasonable that humble folk are able to express themselves with violent, poetic clarity, and in which lofty themes (loyalty, repentance, responsibility) may be treated as seriously as in Greek drama without seeming precious or absurd. Our Lady veers a little sentimental later on, and the playwright has since written better-structured plays: The Motherfucker with the Hat is awfully good, and enough people liked Between Riverside and Crazy to award it the 2015 Pulitzer a couple of weeks back. Still, Our Lady is no easily-forgotten early work.
Gathering for the funeral of a beloved, alcoholic nun from their old neighborhood school, a disparate class of misfits and sad sacks investigates the angel wings, and the knives in their backs, that grew from Old Acquaintance. Some of the classmates, now in their mid thirties, left Harlem and achieved a measure of success – a nationally-syndicated DJ, a Minnesota lawyer. Most, stunted by early trauma, stayed and festered in New York – a drunken cop with horrific tragedy in his recent past, a tenement super who ought to be doing something more than taking care of his brain-damaged brother, a woman embittered by her failed marriage to the DJ, a drug-addict party girl with a chip on each shoulder and one between her legs.
Other dearly beloved include a niece of the deceased, a woman from Connecticut who has no good excuse for being at this funeral, the “tell me the truth, how gay do I look?” lover of one of the classmates, a priest from the old diocese who lost his legs in Korea and his faith in Upper Manhattan, and a man who has had his trousers stolen by the same hooligans who broke into the funeral parlor and also, incidentally, stole the nun’s corpse. Remember, it’s a comedy.
If the old-home-week set up and characters-with-grim-histories population seem a little familiar (Jason Miller’s That Championship Season comes to mind, and a dozen funeral/anniversary/holiday get-together plays and movies), I haven’t seen a reunion story as unrepentantly funny about unfunny stuff, nor many plays of any stripe as simultaneously raw and thematically consistent as this one.
Ruman Kazi directs some remarkable, larger-than-life performances here, the kind of live work you only get to see up close when it’s in an intimate house like the Victory, under a contract like the 99 seat waiver. (The folks who run the Victory were among the original plaintiffs in the suit that brought about the 99 seat plan thirty years ago.) John Del Regno provides as ecstatic a top-of-show tonal set-up as I’ve seen in years. The other outstanding actors include a quietly ingenious Tee Williams, the graceful and fierce Délé Ogundiran, and an uproariously well-timed Ashley Platz. Trista Robinson brings a shocking intensity and a sustained technical integrity that, if it could benefit from a little modulation, will long stand in my memory as a delight I didn’t see coming. The petite actor just does not look like she’s going to bring all that force.
The first act consists of scenes with a few characters at a time. Act two opens up to allow more of these hilariously damaged people to share space and time. Kazi stages the brilliantly-written moments with tact and a good feel for the emotional crisis, the interesting stage picture, and the capacity of an audience to consume such overwhelming literacy. These are well-orchestrated performances prettily arranged under Chantelle House’s functional lighting, on Kim Cahoon’s almost-good-enough set.
The set is fine during the scenes proper, even if it doesn’t reflect the sturm-und-drang aesthetic of the acting design, and what’s wrong with it isn’t Cahoon’s fault entirely. But as of opening night, she and her director had not taken into account the limitations of their space and how a set could best serve the production. Kazi has allowed the dressing and undressing and redressing (of essentially only two locations) with virtually every lights-down, greatly to the detriment of the show’s pacing.
These scenes should flow together, but they come off as disjointed vignettes. Carefully built moments have their massive energy squandered, every single time, to allow for overlong transitions that, while mostly well-ordered, still kill the momentum dead. A dart board and a few chairs and glasses are no trade-off for blackouts of over a minute. The show could get along fine without them; hardly anyone uses the dart board to particular effect anyway (with the exception, opening night, of three perfect pitches from Joshua David Gray). The problem is fixable, and I hope it is addressed before next weekend’s performances.
The show has another issue, uneven casting, that likely will not get fixed. Kazi and dramaturge Jane Fleiss-Brogger are well-reflected in that the actors all know what they’re saying, and recognize the importance or tangentiality of their moments. But a couple of the actors are challenged beyond their ability to achieve both the appropriate manic state of Kazi’s production and the emotional demands of their difficult roles. No doubt they will grow as a result of their work with these other remarkable actors and this very good actor’s director. It remains a thrilling entertainment, overall enormously well-acted and more than worth a trip to a nice neighborhood in Burbank.
The producing body is the Zubber Dust Players, a new company residing for now at Maria Gobetti and Tom Ormeny’s Victory Theatre Center (Gobetti and Ormeny produced, along with cast member Alex Alpharaoh), and I look forward to further stimulating work from artistic director Kazi. One thing I hope I don’t see him do again is deliver a pre-curtain speech reminding the audience in self-consciously provocative terms to get ready for a challenging piece of theater. His work spoke for itself, and spoke well of him, rather despite than because of his actual speech. When you’ve got a good show, just show it, man. We’re with you. We can handle it. It’s why we came.
Our Lady of 121st Street by Stephen Adly Guirgis
produced by Victory Bare Bones and the Zubber Dust Players
plays Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 & 8 pm, Sundays at 4 pm through June 7
Little Victory Theatre at the Victory Theatre Center
3324 West Victory Boulevard, Burbank CA 91505
Tickets: (818) 841-5422 or www.TheVictoryTheatreCenter.org