IT’S A BIT CHAOTIC INSIDE ‘YOUR MOTHER’S VAGINA’

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There was an inherent awkwardness to my editor’s request, “I want you to review Your Mother’s Vagina at Hollywood Fringe.” Playwright/director Amy Chaffee is quite aware of the title’s projected discomfort. She has sewn it into the fabric of her two-hander journey through the convoluted friendship of struggling actress/bartender Leila (Beth Gudenrath) and part-time university academic/cocktail waitress Sue Anne (Rachel Hirshorn). Within three time-spanning scenes, they spend most of their communication focused on every aspect of the female reproductive system, including function, maintenance, societal significance, occupational opportunity, criminal potential and beyond. The time remaining is spent belaboring their unsuccessful individual careers and unsuccessful relationships. Chaffee’s directorial approach has Leila and Sue so individually self-involved that they primarily talk at and over each rather than truly conversing. However, when they do hone in on one another, the audience understands that something important is being related. It is an effective devise.

With most of the action set in an active Hollywood dining establishment with full bar, Leila and Sue Anne are usually either setting up to open this eatery or closing everything down, while often sampling ample amounts of liquid refreshment. In the opening scene, they establish their individual reasons as to why each is so uterine-centric. Single lady Leila has recently discovered she is pregnant while Sue Anne, whose life’s desire is to bear a child, has not been able to successfully carry a fetus to term. Childbearing remains an ongoing priority through all three scenes.

What also is ongoing is Chaffee’s lack of interest in staying on point as the lives of our two protagonists evolve over the years. The writer/director’s often-erratic dialogue does not follow a seamless dramatic throughline. Gudenrath’s and Hirshorn impressively inhabit their characters but at times struggle to make viable the thrusting shards of actual plot that Chaffee provides. By play’s end, the audience knows the state-of- being of Leila and Sue Anne, but hasn’t been given the opportunity to make the journey with them. Abetting the proceedings is the rear projected digital art of Craig Hall, which serves as an added underscore to Chaffee’s meandering plot points. And Amanda Knehans’ sets and props make good use of Sacred Fools Studio’s limited stage space.

The Hollywood Fringe debut of Your Mother’s Vagina might be considered its out-of- town tryout, prior to its announced six-city tour. It’s impressive schedule includes stopovers in Dublin, Ireland (July 14), an August 4-7 sojourn within Luxembourg, Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels, concluding with a run at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, performing at historic Spotlites venue (August 4-7).

Your Mother’s Vagina plays Friday, June 10 (10pm); Saturday, June 11(9pm); Sunday, June 12 (11am); at Sacred Fools Second Stage, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood. Tickets available at: http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/3572?tab=tickets


THE DESCRIPTIVENESS IS GREAT BUT THE STORYTELLING NEEDS WORK IN "WARM CHEESE"

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Mom. It’s one of the few things all of us have in common, and she is perhaps the most important relationship any of us will ever have. Some moms nurture, some abuse. Some do a little of both. Some moms inspire, some discourage. Some are peculiar and some are positively nuts. In the one-person memoir which just opened at the Hollywood Fringe, writer Teresa L. Thome sums her mother up as a “mildly neurotic control freak.” That would appear to be an understatement.

With descriptive, precise, detailed dialogue—“Faygo Rock N’ Rye” pop and the avocado green of 1970s’ interior design—Thome evokes not only the feel of Michigan but the specificity of a Michigan housewife and hospital employee who clearly came from a dysfunctional background. Details about mom’s upbringing that may have led to her fixations and phobias are strangely absent, but the information about her conduct is fascinating. This is a mom who, between threatening to haunt her children as punishment for bad behavior and vilifying her husband for eating junk food, littered the house with myriad Xeroxed copies of her DNR order, and always kept American cheese slices in her purse.

Constantly battling health issues (which may have been caused by pent up anger), Thome’s mom was in and out of the hospital, and it is her death that incites Thome’s one-hour monologue. With a family of zanies (including a psychic) gathered for the funeral, Thome finds herself going through mom’s stuff. Director Stan Zimmerman has recreated areas of the Midwest home, such as a dresser and a clothes rack with mom’s actual outfits, including a burnt-orange piece with the left breast area cut out when mom had shingles. There were odors—including smoke—that smelled as if “she laundered with a detergent called ‘Bingo Night’.” But as Thome recalls to us mom’s wardrobe and some of the items discovered while going through mom’s drawers, including a journal that she starts reading aloud to her family, it becomes apparent that this experience is of much more interest to her than to us. Slides overhead, which occasionally went unnoticed, could have been used to better effect.

It may have been nerves, or Thome’s inexperience as an actor, or a childhood too painful to connect with, but she seemed strangely removed from her own story. Her delivery is a constant, almost manic, flood of information that informs a physicality of thigh slapping and heavy breathing. Even in the end, when she comes to a realization about her mom, the emotions feel forced and somewhat insincere. Fascinatingly enough, Thome becomes most alive when she is impersonating her mother vitriolically demeaning family members. What holds our attention is the portrayal of a weird woman, whose husband of 49 years said shortly after her death that losing her was like taking a really good crap.

WARM CHEESE
Fubble Entertainment
June 11-26, 2016 
for tickets ($10), visit Hollywood Fringe
Running Time: 60 minutes
[email protected] C (Mainstage), 6448 Santa Monica, Bl. in Hollywood

tagged under LAThtr · tony frankel · hff16

An Informal "Doctor in the House"

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Dr. Ahmed Kazmi does his thing at the 2016 Hollywood Fringe Festival.

What the audience soon learns from his mildly awkward introductory remarks is that Dr. Ahmed Z. Kazmi is a British GP, living and practicing in Australia, currently intent on doing standup comedy at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. What ensues over the next 70 minutes is a good-natured, show-and-tell that not only provides a nice smattering of GP clinic humor and a bit of cogent medical advice, but also a sample of Dr. Ahmed’s vocal ability and terpsichorean prowess. But once the novelty of the good doctor’s understated, hesitantly timed opening expositions have been absorbed, the rest of the show would be even more effective if he simply picked up the pace a bit.

That said, Dr. Kazmi offers an entertaining peek into a GP’s practice, especially the eccentricities to be encountered during routine medical examinations. One memorable segment focuses on Kazmi’s observations on how Australian men evolve over the years in terms of the relationship with their “willies” during a checkup. At age six, they will fight off any attempt at exposure. But once these men are in their 40s, they know no shame; and when they have reached their elder years, they are practically slapping it in the doctor’s face. And while discussing proper attire in the exam room, he affirms that it is not practical for a doctor to wear a tie while attending to a woman’s pap smear. Also, if a doctor must walk through the waiting room while patients are in attendance, the doctor should never make eye contact with them. Kazmi gives an impressive example of the patient death stare he has encountered.  

For no apparent reason other than he wants to do it, Kazmi starts singing, pleasantly enough. He offers a ditty, which he calls the ”Stage Mom Song,” a tribute to his own mother who was reportedly hard to please. He explains that he scored a 96% when he successfully completed his studies at the Royal College of Physicians. His mother replied, ”What happened to the other four percent.” In his desire to entertain his Fringe audience, he segues from a sympathetic demonstration of how a physician might inform relatives of the demise of their family member, to a demonstration of how that same scene might play out in a telenovela and in a Bollywood movie, complete with dancing. His accents aren’t bad either.

As a performance piece, Doctor in the House is more reminiscent of cocktail party entertainment, presided over by a talented and gracious informal host, who has no concerns about pacing or comedic arc, as long as everyone is left feeling good. This is not a knock. Ultimately, it was rewarding to be in Dr. Kazmi’s company. It is also praiseworthy that he donates all revenues from comedy to medical charities, such as City of Hope.  But it would really be nice to see what would happen if this doctor who lives and practices in Perth, Australia, allowed his standup comedy to be shaped by an adroit and knowledgeable director whose only mandate was to make Dr. Ahmed Z Kazmi as funny as he could be.     

DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE

Plays Sunday, June 19 (7:30pm); Monday, June 20 (8:30pm); Wednesday, June 22 (8pm) and Thursday, June 23 (8:30pm)

At Sacred Fools Second Stage, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood.

Tickets and details available here.


"Time Stands Still" Mends Abandoned Moments

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Standard practice within many a production is typically to task a cast with text, demand memorization and then empower a director to assign emotion. With so many artistic attempts taking place within this theatrical tidepool, one may easily experience at least a few formulaic-type shows, however this production of Time Stand Still breaks this formula.  

Time Stands Still is a story of a couple that has worked together traveling the world in the field of journalism. James is a correspondent and Sarah is a photo journalist. They have returned to New York after having covered a war but Sarah has been injured. Upon their return they reunite with Richard, Sara’s old mentor and friend who is the photo editor of a magazine and Mandy, who is Richard’s somewhat naive, new, young lover. The play deals with love, first impressions, transformation, fear, and the lingering possibility of loss.

Like many popular Fringe plays this season, this play has been produced before on many stages. So what can be newly explored within such nationally rehearsed text? The custom of taking on likable words and actions to tell and re-tell a story can feel “Pepsi Challenge”-esque from stage to stage and from cast to cast.  

This ensemble, however, effortlessly makes the hike through a valley of complex emotional terrain. “Can something be desensitizing and cathartic at the same time?” The terrain is sometimes rocky, evident in the veil of sarcasm and pain worn early in the play by Sarah (played brilliantly by Lauren Shein). It is smoky, thin, even misty. Within this play, her emotional journey is the most visible and the most cursory and this actress accepts the challenge competently.

Richard (played by Eric Lawson) radiates vulnerability, as well as an unexpected power driven by desire. He communicates the wants of his character comfortably. Lawson is uniquely able to balance these traits effectively and with patience. Furthermore, the chemistry between Lawson and Shein is enviable. The truth in their performances fills the lungs with gasps of anticipation. 

Ken Weiler as Richard is proof of a good eye with casting. Weiler adds a welcomed energy to his character while adding an appropriate empathetic balance to his onstage partner, Tanisha Gates, who plays Mandy. Ken Weiler’s performance invokes an enchanting ease.  

Weiler and Gates add legitimacy to characters that could easily become caricatures and the recollection of their amusing quips hits one for several days following the performance.

The set is simple and clean. Every prop has purpose, and although this author is not a fan of Sarah’s seemingly excessive medical garb, it plays true to script, though arguably, fewer pieces may be just as effective.

Transitions are a complex issue for any production. These seem on the bulkier side but will presumably tighten during the run. 

With a popular piece bursting with clever dialogue, explicit emotional imagery and a Pulitzer Prize winning author, the cast had a very high mark to meet. With its flow found within the first 10 minutes the compact cast of four seems full and powerful due to the size in talent. The enthralling ensemble effortlessly hits most of its marks and the cast seeps with skill. But it is not within these areas of skill that this particular production is able to display the artistic agility needed to exhibit more than a talented version of telephone in its re-telling of this story. It’s in the stillness.

Under Daniell Travis’ direction, passion is found within glances that permeate the pregnant silences. The juxtaposition of the two couples and their rise and fall is communicated not though tallied text but witihin the metered inhales. The skilled cast lightly coats this play with brilliant timing and an understanding of the power of professionally placed pauses. Within those pauses time truly does stand still; and this amazing cast reaches emotional newness.

Time Stands Still is a must see for any Fringe-goer that enjoys the sensation of feeling!

TIME STANDS STILL

Continuing at the Complex Theaters (Dorie Theater), 6476 Santa Monica Blvd

Performances: June 9 7PM, June 11 8PM, June 12 2PM, June 17 10PM, June 18 6:30PM, June 19 7PM, June 24 8:30PM, June 25 3:30 PM

Tickets are $15, for reservations and info go here.


"Porn Rock: An Unintentional Comedy" - Intentionally Explicit

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Liesel Kopp, Drew Fitzsimmons, Scott Nelson and Terry Tocantins in Porn Rock. Photo credit: Lawrence Meyers

In 1985, the Parent’s Music Resource Committee put together a list of songs they dubbed the Filthy Fifteen for what they said contained explicit lyrics unsuitable for children. Among them were Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” Judas Priest’s “Eat Me Alive,” Mötley Crüe’s “Bastard,” Madonna’s “Dress You Up” and the song that would become their poster child for attack, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister.

Led by a group of “Washington Wives” that included Tipper Gore (wife of then Senator Al Gore) and Susan Baker, married to James Baker (who was Treasury Secretary at the time) their mission was to force record companies and musicians to place warning stickers on their albums.

Their efforts resulted in a “porn rock” Senate committee hearing, which pitted the members of the PMRC against three well-known musicians: Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, all of whom had been invited to speak on behalf of their fellow artists. It was an event that changed the music industry forever and stands today as an example of how easily the demands of an irrational few can compromise what our forefathers clearly stated in our country’s Bill of Rights. If anything, it is a reminder to pay attention. 

Now, Lawrence Meyers has adapted the actual transcript of the hearing and created a new play, Porn Rock: An Unintentional Comedy, directed by Fred Keller, for this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival. The topic is right on point with the mission of the Fringe which is based on “freedom of expression” and is “completely open and uncensored.”

Porn Rock is a must-see for anyone who values their constitutional rights. Period. The language alone is so jaw-droppingly funny that you’ll swear it isn’t authentic, and that’s the beauty of it. It is. Tipper Gore really quoted the lyrics to The Mentors’ song “Golden Showers”…on C-SPAN, in front of a congressional audience…and it is part of the permanent record. Think about that for a minute.

Here, it is a deadly serious (and pretty darn hilarious) Liesel Kopp (Tipper) who has the honor. In fact, this cast dives head first into the explicit text without apology.

Written in the style of a late night SNL sketch (but with none of the X-rated language bleeped for television), each actor quickly captures the essence of his or her character. From Don Schlossman’s befuddled and utterly clueless Al Gore to Dennis Delsing’s southern-fried Senator Hollings, this bunch goes for it and, for the most part, they do it successfully. 

The real stars, though, are the musicians. A charismatic Drew Fitzsimmons (Frank Zappa) argues that it is the parents who should decide what is appropriate for their kids to hear, and that parenting is not the responsibility of the artist. Terry Tocantins (Dee Snider) accuses Tipper of being the one with the dirty mind for interpreting his “Under the Blade” lyric as a sadomasochistic rant, in a passionately rough and raw statement.

But it is the soft-spoken Scott Nelson who stuns as the late all-American folk singer, John Denver. It isn’t an impersonation so much as it is his uncanny ability to step into Denver’s rhythm and soulful presence that is so fascinating.

Denver’s testimony, which I’m sure the committee never saw coming, quietly but firmly reminded them that the suppression of a people, of a country, has taken place before in places like Nazi Germany, and it began with the censorship of the written and spoken word. He also reminded them that music gives us clear insight into what’s going on in the minds of young people. “We can know what they’re thinking by listening to the music that they surround themselves with.” Who knew John Denver would be the closer?

In the end, the record companies agreed to a voluntary, more generic, version of the Parental Advisory sticker – which has since become mandatory – and some artists saw their record sales decline because conservative retail outlets refused to carry those that had the label. Even today, the fight for freedom of speech continues. Porn Rocks significance is that it reminds us where we’ve been so we watch where we’re going.

One other reason to see the show – guitarist Rick Steier, who has played with everyone from Kingdom Come, Wild Horses, and Van Halen to Metallica, Bon Jovi and Warrant – provides the scene change music. My only beef, whether it’s before, during, or after the show, he’s got to play a full song. You can’t waste that kind of talent as only incidental music. 

Bottom line – Porn Rock? F**k yeah.

PORN ROCK: AN UNINTENTIONAL COMEDY
June 5 - 25, 2016
Sacred Fools Theater Main Stage
1076 Lillian Way
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tickets: $12 at http://hff16.org/3409
Running time: 75 minutes