Hollywood

Pearly Gates, the Musical

poster-300x251The March 18 world premiere of Pearly Gates, the Musical at the famous El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood was a surprise. There was no advance notice, beyond a casting call last December. There was no advertising, nothing on Goldstar. A friend of mine knew a guy who knew someone in the cast – so I went.

The place was packed, completely sold out. We took our seats to jazz standards, played by the show’s music director/pianist/composer, Joshua Rich, and his bassist and drummer. By the time their set was over, the audience was in a pretty good mood. Not a bad way to open a show nobody ever heard of.

The story is by Scott Ehrlich – who has never written anything. The book is by Scott Ehrlich and Penny Orloff. The lyrics are by Joshua Rich… and Scott Ehrlich. The show is produced by Scott Ehrlich. And to cap it all off, starring in Pearly Gates is… you guessed it – Scott Ehrlich. In the program notes, Ehrlich clearly states he has never sung before, and never done a play, but those activities were on his “bucket list.”

So, how does Ehrlich do? I have to say that, except for a few missed pitches, his singing is okay. Sometimes, better than okay. Except for a few awkward actions, he does fine any time he is on the stage – which is about 90 percent of the show. There is something admirable about his commitment to the performance, that goes beyond talent. In a unique way, he succeeds as Jason Burns, a man who finds out he has only a short time left to live.

Of course, he has help. Lots of help. A large cast backs Ehrlich up. Fiona Bates gives a powerhouse performance as Jason Burns’ wife. Ehrlich’s daughter, Taylor Ehrlich, plays his onstage daughter. Zachary Rice plays her little brother. They both have a natural ease onstage that sets them apart from the usual, artificially cute Hollywood kid actors. Both children have sweet, clear soprano voices that make the final scene heartbreaking.

A stand-out as Jason Burns’ father  is 80-something Tony Molina, who apparently shared the marquee with Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sammy Davis, Jr., back in the Roseland era. His beautiful voice is still strong, and his phrasing is wonderful. Playing opposite him as Jason’s mother is a pretty and slender senior citizen, Miriam Rosen. Rosen’s timing and delivery get big laughs, and she was the only actor whose speech was completely clear. Her voice is incredibly powerful, going from alto to high soprano, and she can make it do absolutely anything. Her song in the funeral scene was just beautiful. Rosen even dances, easily keeping up with much younger cast members.

The director was Trace Oakley, who kept the proceedings moving along. There were a few really great touches, like when a chorus of senior citizens mimes despair behind white masks. The small amount of choreography by Neisha Folks isn’t that good – kind of awkward jazz steps that don’t really suit the dancers.

The songs are pretty standard musical numbers, but a lot of the lyrics are really clever. Joshua Rich begins with a fun full-company number and ends with a big anthem. In between, his songs go from funny to angry to wistful to tragic, and the tunes stay with you after the curtain comes down. The show moves to Lancaster and Thousand Oaks, and there is talk of an off-Broadway run in the Fall.

- By Ellen Kahan

For information or tickets, go to www.pearlygatesmusical.com.

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Interview with Neil Labute

neil_labuteA few weeks back, I wrote an article about “An Evening with Neil Labute,” where I attempted to analyze the appeal and occasional controversy of Labute’s work. His play Mercy Seat, which runs at [Inside] the Ford Amphitheatre until April 24th, is one of my favorites, and I was fortunate enough to be able to ask him a few questions about the piece and his work in general:

Q: Mercy Seat, for many, seemed to be your ‘mercy seat’ as a writer in that you seemed softer, for lack of a better word. Here you were taking on a subject that could have been more provocative and controversial (at least at the time of the original premiere) than anything you’d written to that point. And yet, at least in my opinion, it turned out to be one of your more emotional pieces. Is there truth to this claim, and if so, why do you think that is?

A: I don’t suppose I can judge any of that very clearly—as the author you’re just usually too close to the damn thing to know the truth. That’s why you spend so much of your writing time searching for the truth—in good literature, it never feels like the author is there as a teacher but as a fellow explorer. Struggling to find meaning if any exists. If the play was softer and more emotional in the end it’s simply where those characters led me—I go on the ride and see where it takes me but I do know that I cared for the characters and the dilemma they found themselves in and that’s my job as an author: to create people that an audience can find interesting and complex enough to care about, even if what they’re up to is highly questionable.

Q: In hindsight, do you feel Mercy Seat makes a political statement at all? And do you feel any responsibility toward exploring bigger global/societal issues in your work? Or is the personal political in itself?

A: I try to steer clear of politics, on the page and in my life. Personal politics are where I find my work and my interests colliding most successfully. There are enough people out there who want to screw things up on a local, national and global basis; they don’t need an amateur like me helping them out.

Q: I’ve read and seen much of your work, and the more I investigate it, I can’t shake the idea that a lot of it might be allegorical? Do you ever write with the intention of allegory?

A: Some of it probably is but I try not to do it too intentionally—I did a bit more with my newer play THE BREAK OF NOON and I received many resounding critical slaps for it. Mind you, that won’t stop me doing it again; I have a general disregard for authority that makes me want to push back when I get pushed.

Q: Have you ever received (or considered receiving) any chances in your own life to simply start over? Escape? Or does drama and the theatre provide such escape already?

A: That’s a great question and I probably won’t answer it honestly—but yes, my work is a great escape. It allows me to turn the page (quite literally) all the time and start fresh with new ideas and faces and locales. I couldn’t ask for more (or could I?)

Q: The last time I saw you talk, you brought up how much you love seeing the work of younger playwrights. I was wondering if you could recommend any?

A: I love other writers, whether they’re young or not. I think Christopher Shinn is writing very good stuff lately and Polly Stenham over in London. It’s happening all the world (new writing), it’s just getting the stuff produced that’s the trick. I like when people do not take ‘no’ for an answer and produce the work themselves—I’d like to see more of that from young writers.

Q: Mercy Seat is partly about revisiting one’s life, reexamining it. And for you, this show presents another opportunity for you to reexamine your own work. How would you compare that process to putting up a brand new production?

A: Sadly I’ve been out of the country so it’s been a bit from afar—that said, I always take a look at the play again and I think this one holds up. I love a good two-hander in real time and I think MERCY SEAT is a great test for actors. I’m working on a new one in London right now and it’s the same thing—a real Olympic event for actors. I like it on stage when there is no place to hide; just like a wounded animal, actors are at they’re best when they are a little scared, a little wounded and completely cornered (or without props!)

Q: One criticism I’ve read of your work is that you write for an ending. Is this true? If not, what do you say to that?

A: Critics, like cabbages, should be eaten and not heard (to anyone who’s had his or her work reviewed by the critical community, this meaningless phrase will make complete sense).

Q: What is it about infidelity that attracts you and so many other writers? Is the subject ever exhausted?

A: Betrayal is a pretty fascinating subject—why people turn on those they supposedly love or care about. Betrayal of a sexual nature is only one tree in this fertile soil (to coin a really lame expression).

Q: There’s a sense of humor that’s prevalent in most of your work, even at its darkest. And this is a trend I see more and more in mainstream drama (the show Eastbown and Down is one example that comes to mind). What is the effect, do you think, of blending darkness or sadness with comedy? And why not just attack pathos straight-on?

A: Comedy is the ‘Neosporin’ of dramatic life—I like to apply a little from time to time to make the audience feel a false sense of hope and security. I’ve done this ‘theater’ thing enough that people should know that we’re going to be peeling the scab off at some point during the evening but they still like to laugh and think it’s all going to be ok in the end. That’s fine by me—theater is about allusion and if laughter helps, then I’m all for it.

Q: Finally, I wonder what advice, as a director, you would give (or have given) an actor preparing to perform your work?

A: Take no prisoners. People are there for the ride and want you to show them something magical and different and new. No one gets points for being mediocre, so go for it.

Neil Labute’s The Mercy Seat, presented by Vs. Theatre Company and starring Michelle Clunie and Johnny Clark, runs at [Inside] the Ford Amphitheatre until April 24th. Wednesday evenings are pay-what-you-can nights. For more information, visit www.fordtheatres.org, or call (323) 461-3673.

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Film Art House Round-Up: Week of March 25th 2011 – March 31st 2011

Roundup1This week there’s the unrated versions of KILL BILL 1 and 2 at the New Beverly, a STAR TREK series with George Takei, Walter Koenig and Nicholas Meyer appearing in person at the Egyptian, and Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in 70mm at the Aero on Thursday.

Friday March 25th

EGYPTIAN

7:30 PM: Star Trek Double Feature: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KAHN (Directed by Nicholas Meyer) + STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (Directed by Leonard Nimoy) Discussion with actor George Takei between films.

AND

7:30 PM: EVEN THE RAIN (Directed by Icíar Bollaín). New Spanish release with Gael Garcia Bernal; won the audience award at Berlin. Screens again at 10:00 PM and Saturday and Sunday.

AERO

7:30 PM: Tribute to composer John Barry: MIDNIGHT COWBOY (Directed by John Schlesinger) + THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (Directed by Anthony Harvey).

LACMA 7:30 PM: Classics from La Semaine de la Critique : MORE (Directed by Barbet Schroeder) + TRASH (Directed by Paul Morrissey).

NEW BEVERLY

7:30 PM: Shaw Brothers Night: THE AVENGING EAGLE (Directed by Chung Sung) + DUEL OF THE IRON FIST (Directed by Cheh Chang). Screens again Saturday.

Midnight Screening: FRIDAY (Directed by Mario Caiano).

SILENT MOVIE THEATRE:

7:30 PM: John Cassavetes Closing Night Party: A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (Directed by John Cassavetes), plus rare film and videos and a panel discussion.

DOWNTOWN INDEPENDENT: 6:oo PM: I WILL FOLLOW (Directed by Ava DuVernay). New indie release. Screens again Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Saturday March 26th

EGYPTIAN:

7:30 PM: EVEN THE RAIN (Directed by Icíar Bollaín). New Spanish release with Gael Garcia Bernal; won the audience award at Berlin. Screens again at 9:30 PM and on Sunday.

AND

7:30 PM: Star Trek Double Feature: STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (Directed by Leonard Nimoy) + STAR TREK V (Directed by William Shatner). Both screen in 70mm; discussion between films with actor Walter Koenig.

AERO

7:30 PM: Tribute to composer John Barry: DANCES WITH WOLVES (Directed by Kevin Costner).

LACMA

7:30 PM: JORDAN BELSON: FILMS SACRED AND PROFANE (Shorts directed by Jordan Belson).

NEW BEVERLY

7:30 PM: Shaw Brothers Night: THE AVENGING EAGLE (Directed by Chung Sung) + DUEL OF THE IRON FIST (Directed by Cheh Chang).

DOWNTOWN INDEPENDENT:

2:oo PM: I WILL FOLLOW (Directed by Ava DuVernay). New indie release. Screens again Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sunday March 27th

EGYPTIAN

5:00 PM: EVEN THE RAIN (Directed by Icíar Bollaín). New Spanish release with Gael Garcia Bernal; won the audience award at Berlin.

ALSO:

7:30: Star Trek Series: STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (Directed by Nicholas Meyer). Screens in 70mm; discussion with Nicholas Meyer follows the film.

AERO

7:30 PM: Michael Caine Double Feature: THE IPCRESS FILE (Directed by Sydney J. Furie) + DEADFALL (Bryan Forbes).

NEW BEVERLY

2:00 PM Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair. Unrated versions of KILL BILL and KILL BILL 2 (Directed by Quentin Tarantino). Screens again at 7:00 PM and Monday-Thursday at 8:00 PM.  Note: Tickets are currently sold out and may be available at the door.

DOWNTOWN INDEPENDENT:

11:30 AM: I WILL FOLLOW (Directed by Ava DuVernay). New indie release. Screens again Tuesday and Wednesday.

Monday March 28th

NEW BEVERLY

8:00 PM Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair. Unrated versions of KILL BILL and KILL BILL 2 (Directed by Quentin Tarantino). Screens again Tuesday-Thursday at 8:00 PM.  Note: Tickets are currently sold out and may be available at the door.

Tuesday March 29th

LACMA

1:oo PM (Tuesday matinee): MARIE ANTOINETTE (Directed by W.S. Van Dyke II).

 

NEW BEVERLY

8:00 PM: Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair. Unrated versions of KILL BILL and KILL BILL 2 (Directed by Quentin Tarantino). Screens again Wednesday andThursday at 8:00 PM.  Note: Tickets are currently sold out and may be available at the door.

DOWNTOWN INDEPENDENT:

7:oo PM: I WILL FOLLOW (Directed by Ava DuVernay). New indie release. Screens again Wednesday.

Wednesday March 30th

AERO

7:30 PM: A HATFUL OF RAIN (Directed by Fred Zinnemann). Actors Don Murray and Eva Marie Saint appear in person for a discussion after the screening.

EGYPTIAN

7:30 PM: Tribute to composer John Barry: WALKABOUT (Directed by Nicholas Roeg).

SILENT MOVIE THEATRE

8:00 PM: THE GODLESS GIRL (Directed by Cecil B. Demille) with live score by the Club Foot Orchestra.

NEW BEVERLY

8:00 PM: Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair. Unrated versions of KILL BILL and KILL BILL 2 (Directed by Quentin Tarantino). Screens again Thursday at 8:00 PM.  Note: Tickets are currently sold out and may be available at the door.

DOWNTOWN INDEPENDENT:

5:oo PM: I WILL FOLLOW (Directed by Ava DuVernay). New indie release.

Thursday March 31st

AERO

7:30 PM: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (Directed by Stanley Kubrick) in 70mm.

NEW BEVERLY

8:00 PM: Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair. Unrated versions of KILL BILL and KILL BILL 2 (Directed by Quentin Tarantino) Note: Tickets are currently sold out and may be available at the door.

- By Erica Elson

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I Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath Playhouse

PLATH_POSTER_email-e1298423203124The first of many impressive technical and performance stunts in the Los Angeles premiere of Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath by Edward Anthony comes at the very beginning. I don’t want to give it away, but it involves the protagonist, Esther Greenwood (Amy Davidson), awaking from her own death, as if she were dreaming and suddenly remembered she left the oven on (there’s a hint).

Esther is not Sylvia Plath, but they do share a lot in common. For one, Esther Greenwood is the name of the heroine in Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. They’re both repressed writers in the 1950’s/early 60’s, frustrated with the very idea of womanhood, motherhood, and society in general. And they’re both married to asshole poets with tendencies toward infidelity.

Wish I Had A Sylvia Plath explores the life of Esther, in the moments of (or possibly in) her death through her own words and poetic machinations. The refrain she often returns to in these varied fantasies and half-memories is a kind of Martha Stewart-style home and garden television program, cleverly entitled ‘The Tome and Garden Show.’ In this show, she goes about explaining how to cook such exotic cuisines “52-liar lasagna, a black-tar brain soufflé and a perfect life.”

As an actress, Davidson doesn’t just do heavy-lifting, she does speed-heavy-lifting. She doesn’t allow herself the  moments of melodramatic self-congratulations  typical of most one-person shows. She doesn’t have time for all that. She’s dying, and we can feel it. Yet even in her death, Davidson cranks her with life. Her Esther is at her best when she is at her most physical. At one point of pure madness, she arms herself for battle with a pasta strainer helmet, a spatula sword, and a kitchen-table shield. The humor is there already in Matthew McCray’s direction, but the spirit is in the performance.

And though Davidson is the only actor on stage the entire 70 or so minutes of this darkly humorous rant, it is far from a one-woman show. Adam Flemming, a multi-award-winning video-designer provides many of Esther’s hallucinations with impeccably timed projections of her mother criticizing her baking methods, her father on his death-bed, and most wrenching, her husband confessing his sins. Lighting designer Dan Weingarten, sound designer Joseph Slawinski, and scenic designer David A. Mauer also all deserve their praise. Thanks to them, Esther’s kitchen feels like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse version of death, and one that you don’t mind breathing in for a while.

My only critique of this highly enjoyable production—and it is a production—is that its own production sometimes takes away from the possible depth of the situation. Esther and her playhouse are so animated, and the demands of time are so stringent that occasionally, a self-congratulatory moment might be welcomed. Plath once wrote to her mother that The Bell Jar was her take on “how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown,” and frankly, Esther doesn’t seem that isolated.

Nonetheless, it’s a show not be missed, whether you’re a theatre techie, an acting nut, or simply a person who wants to see a show that teaches an important lesson, which is that death is most certainly not the end of life.

- By Joshua Morrison

Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, a Rogue Machine Production, runs at The Lounge Theatre, located at 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. until April 17th. For more information and to order tickets, please visit www.roguemachinetheatre.com.

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Labute’s Own Mercy Seat

labute

There’s not a lot of middle-of-the-road when it comes to Neil Labute—not in his work, or in the reaction to his work. He creates lean, hard-nosed, often reverse morality tales fraught with meticulously manipulative or ethically challenging characters, and people either love it or despise it. Almost no one, however, will dismiss it.

Having read pretty much his entire published oeuvre, and even acted in a short film he recently wrote, I can confidently say I fall on the love side of things, but I do understand his critics. For instance, Labute has a penchant for what some call a “twist” ending. And I quote this word, because I’m not sure what it means—“twists” can either be a reveal (i.e. Bruce Willis was dead the whole time), or a kind of re-write (i.e. it was all a dream). Labute likes to work with the former type of “twist,” and as exhilarating as it can be, it does beg the question of why? Why not show us the behind-the-scenes footage of Evelyn’s project in The Shape of Things? Why not reveal sooner the true intentions behind the main characters in Some Girl(s) or In the Company of Men or This is How It Goes? Is it all for the reaction?

Another much-discussed facet of Labute’s work is the misogyny. All of his early plays, in the words of a former acting teacher of mine, always end up with hate. And though my acting teacher was prone to exaggeration, there is no doubt that hate, especially toward women, does happen in said plays. Very few people write male assholes as well as Labute can—or as harshly. He presents his characters’ defects without apology, which can lead to accusations about the author, and leaves audiences, once again, asking why? Why show us, over and over, the worst version of ourselves, if not to exorcise some demon within you? Is it all for the reaction?

Labute’s style of dialogue—raw, biting, direct—is maybe the one part of his writing most people agree is well-crafted. Well, almost. I do recall forcing my ex-roommate, a bright and articulate critic of all things media, to watch the film version of The Shape of Things. And like any time I’ve pushed some hobby or piece of art upon somebody, the reaction was not what I’d hoped. He vehemently disagreed with the film  and when it was done, beckoned me to recite one single line from the movie I thought to be a “good line.” I couldn’t do it. I was sure Labute was a good writer, and I felt strongly about the merit of his language, but I couldn’t come up with one single zinger. Why? Does Labute exist wholly outside the world of aphoristic dialogue? And if so, does that not somewhat contradict the idea that he writes for reaction?

I wish I had all the answers. But to further quote the acting teacher mentioned above, “the only way to do Labute is with a question.” And that I believe. There may be a small middle-of-the-road with him, but that’s probably only because the sides are not so defined. Therefore, I encourage anyone who mildly interested in acting or writing or directing (and has some expendable income) to show up tonight, at 7 PM to the Howard Fine Acting Studio in Hollywood for “An Evening With Neil Labute,” a benefit for the non-profit Vs. Theatre Company (who are producing his Mercy Seat later this year) as well as the charity organization, 9/11 Health Now. Actors suspected to join him include Amanda Peet, Johnny Galecki, Sharon Lawrence, and Bill Pullman. Between them all, you might even get to ask Neil a few questions.

- By Joshua Morrison

For tickets and more information, please call 800-838-3006 or go to www.vstheatre.org.

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The Aging of Aquarius

Hair TourAs 2012 is supposedly the true dawn of Aquarius, and as we are currently involved in at least one overseas military conflict with no foreseeable resolution, and as baby boomers’ babies are now reaching the age of maturity, and as the state of musical theatre in America seems to be careening in the direction of over-hyped, big-budget cartoon adaptations, Hair would seem to be the ideal show not just to revive, but to re-invent for a new generation.

After seeing the Tony Award-winning production, directed by Diane Paulus, on its opening night at the Pantages on Thursday (it runs until the 23rd), however, I realized the producers made no such effort toward re-invention. Instead, the non-stop round of musical number after musical number—sung as if the characters were participating in a cocaine-fueled campfire Kumbaya session—comes off as kitschy and embarrassing for anyone (like my one-time-hippy mother and father) who may have actually lived through the Summer of Love. In that sense, the show not only fails to adapt to post-millennium politics, but also to resuscitate the actual feelings that created the 60’s counter-culture in the first place.

If there was ever any plot to speak of in Hair, I didn’t catch much of it in this production. Essentially, there’s a commune of hippies living in New York City who spend their time singing and dancing about sex and their parents and sometimes the Vietnam War. The protagonist, Claude, a soulful lover and wanderer played efficiently by Paris Remillard, struggles to negotiate between his ‘duty’ to join the military and his new-found identity amidst the  tribe of peace-loving protesters. There are mild hints of potentially interesting love triangles within the commune—Jeanie (the beautiful Kacie Sheik) is in love with Claude, who, in turn, loves Sheila (Caren Lyn Tacket), who really loves Berger (Steel Burkhardt), etc.—but they are glossed over, much like every other breath of complexity.

And I realize many great musicals thrive upon their emotional simplicity (why else would anyone spontaneously break into song if not propelled by some deep, irreducible desire?) The problem, though, with painting hippies, in particular, with a one-color palette is that their critics (i.e. their parents, their teachers, even their government) start to make sense in comparison. When Claude is the only person out of his entire “tribe” not to burn his draft card, for example, I respected him. He showed to be capable of individual thought. Yet still, when he is asked by why he acts and dresses the way he does, all he can do is sing a non-sensical song about…well, hair.

The cast, however, is in no way to blame for my issues with the show. In fact, I appreciated seeing actual human body-types on stage—even in the infamous nude scene—showing off realistic stomachs, flabby biceps, and of course, curls of hair. Their genuine excitement was fun (if not completely contagious), and their voices were tremendous. They collectively proved you don’t need to look beautiful to be beautiful. I especially enjoyed Matt DeAngelis, who played the slinky, acid-burned Woof, and Josh Lamon, a legitimate show-stopper in his turn as Margaret Mead.

The one cast member, though, who gave the most exhilarating performance, by far, was the audience. Like a true method actor, they were “on” before the curtain even parted. It was strange. I’ve been to a bunch of huge Broadway shows and tours, on opening nights and closing nights, in London and New York and LA, and rarely have I seen this much palpable enthusiasm for a show. They absolutely carried the other, weaker actors on their backs the entire time, and in the end, proved the whole 2-plus hours to be a worthwhile endeavor—in my eyes—when they were duly invited on stage to sing a massive, rousing rendition of “Let the Sun Shine In.” Watching with glee as middle-aged women joined young, effeminate men and dolled-up, heel-clad girls in a shamanistic rage of song-and-dance, I thought, for maybe the first time in the production, this is something my mother and father would like.

- By Joshua Morrison

Hair runs until January 23rd at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. For more information, please visit www.broadwayla.org, or call 800-982-ARTS (2787).

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An Accidental Rave

As a wannabe writer  in Los Angeles who also dabbles in critique, it’s hard not to go see a local theatre production of a really good original play by a really good young playwright, and not get jealous—especially when the playwright is sitting directly behind you. It is even harder to try and write about said jealousy of said playwright in a Hollywood coffee house when you just ordered your vegan chicken sandwich and she walks in the front door, causing your fingers to scramble down the touch-pad mouse of your laptop in time to minimize her headshot displayed overtly on your monitor (not kidding). The name of my apparent stalker is Leslye Headland, and her latest play, which she also directed, is called The Accidental Blonde, an IAMA Theatre production that opened at the Elephant Theatre on October 8th and runs until November 7th.

But back to my jealousy—a fine emotion to cradle when by your lonesome in a dark theatre, critic’s writing pad on the ready, but not when you’re within they eye-shot of the object of your jealousy. Self-consciousness, at this point, takes charge. And so it was with me on a Friday night performance of The Accidental Blonde, amidst a generous theatre crowd, as I sat and read about the woman whose eyes I imagined looming over me like the glowing eye-glasses billboard in The Great Gatsby.

Leslye, as I nervously found out, was not only an accomplished playwright but a hard-working and ambitious one (fuck that). The Accidental Blonde is the sixth installment in her “Seven Deadly Plays” series, each one dealing with a different sin, and all within the context of a young, modern-day scenario (honestly, what kind of asshole doesn’t just give up after the first two?) Not only that, but she currently works on the FX show Terriers, and is in the development phase of creating a pilot for HBO based on Julie Klausner’s memoir I Don’t Care About Your Band, as produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (both over-the-hill, if you ask me).

The house-lights dimmed (finally, as I could then efficiently scribble down my biting critiques in relative anonymity), and the stage lights went up on two women, Veronica and Lucy, as played respectively by Katie Lowes and Sarah Utterback. What followed was a tightly-scribed dual monologue scene—Veronica at her therapist and Lucy into the off-stage camera of a reality cooking show starring her. While Veronica complains about her obsessive envy over her one-time roommate’s—Lucy’s—newfound fame, Lucy shoots off take after take of practiced on-screen “confessionals,” each one more falsely modest than the next. What’s interesting about the scene is that the two could almost be responding to one another in their separate speeches, yet not in a forced, showy kind of way. The scene does what, in my mind, all first scenes should do: it establishes the tone and theme of the entire play in a succinct, grabbing fashion. Five minutes in, one could already name the deadly sin to be explored throughout: envy.

I have to admit, at this point, I figured the dual-dialogue was a bit of a gimmick. I’d seen it done before many-a-times—I’d even tried it myself on occasion—and one introductory vignette done in this style would most certainly prove to be unnecessary by the end, right?

Not right. Often what separates a gimmick from a genuine point-of-view is simply commitment. And whether I liked it or not, Leslye committed. The entire play, with minor exceptions, was done in split-screen, or split-stage. It could very well have been two plays, one concerning Lucy and her venture into reality-show stardom; the other dealing with Veronica and her overwhelming dissatisfaction with her “normal” life as mirrored through the paparazzi lens of her ex-roommate.

I hate to go too much into plot detail—you should really see it for yourself—but suffice to say, about halfway through, I completely forgot Leslye was sitting right behind me. The right-brain/left-brain conceit bounced back and forth like a tennis match, and when, later on in the play, the two halves began to mesh, began to share props and glances, I was reminded of David Foster Wallace at his best, when it seems as though multiple thought patterns are coinciding, even reacting against one another.

To pull off this type of stunt requires more than the occasional Juno-style quip—and there were a few. It takes good direction, and even better acting. Katie Lowes, especially, reveals herself to be ugly in the part of Veronica, something not many actors can do with class. Even when Lowes straight-up masturbates on stage, she keeps it quiet (in the grander sense of the word). She plays the reality of the character rather than that of the actress, which is an incredibly difficult task in front of  alive audience. Sarah Utterback, too, aside from the small gripe I have with her on-stage cooking skills (I’ve worked in kitchens), is quite believable as a bewildered fifteen-minute famer coming to grips with the ticking clock on her celebrity. I was also impressed with Dean Cechvala, the slacker Editor of his father’s magazine, who manages to extinguish the superficial outer-layer of Lucy’s personality, at once making her more human, as well as humiliated.

When the house lights came up once again at the end of the play, I was left with an odd sense of nostalgia for my pre-show envy. The show was terrific and more than worthy of the applause it garnered, but when I looked back at Leslye once more before exiting the theatre, I didn’t feel like writing about her. Because I knew I could only really say good job.

- By Joshua Morrison

IAMA Theatre Presents The Accidental Blonde runs until November 7th at the Elephant Theatre in Hollywood. For more information, please visit www.iamatheatre.com.

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Drawing Deanna Petherbridge

Image29Is it absurdly presumptuous to assert that almost all art—at least in the strictest, most conscious sense of the word (after all, breathing and eating and suckling milk from a breast could all be done artistically)—starts with drawing?  The earliest forms of recorded human communication are in the forms of drawings, whether they be in caves or Egyptian tombs, and often the earliest memories of a great artist are with ink and paper. What is drawing? What really distinguishes it from painting? Is the former just the skeleton of the latter, and if so, who decides when the bones give way to flesh?

Author, artist, critic, curator, professor, lecturer, and Brit, Deanna Petherbridge has spent the majority of her professional life—which includes numerous exhibitions all over the world, an enviable list of residencies at prestigious universities, and notable works of criticism in all sorts of major publications—thinking about drawing. Her latest book, The Primacy of Drawing: Histories and Theories of Practice (as published by the Yale University Press with support from LA’s own Metabolic Studio) not only gives an exhaustive account of Western art history through the lens of the drawing, but also examines the art-form as a vital tool toward problem-solving.

Petherbridge is speaking at LACE this Thursday, October 21 at 7 PM, sketching out (bad pun intended?) some of the main concepts that are detailed in her book. Having only read one of her essays before, I, for one, highly recommend hitting Hollywood Blvd. after work to see her. She has a way of coming off as academic and passionate at the same time; like the best of Freud’s works, both extensively thought-out and curious.

I believe this stems from Petherbridge’s dual role as artist and critic, a sometimes paradoxical cast that LACE has been exploring in their on-going Salon Series, in which artists of differing minds and mediums host events in order to connect more directly with their audience. Her essay “Meditations On a Dirty Word,” for instance, takes time to account for the “deskilled” talents of Jean Dubuffet, Cy Twombly, Basquiat or Tracey Emin, while still, in a sense, arguing for the importance of training in art. Basically—if I may perform a brash and inept summary—Petherbridge believes in the co-existence of skill-based education and ‘genius.’ Active audience and artist.

Nowhere is this duality of skill and individuality more relevant than in drawing. Because embedded within drawing is a kind of mimesis. Take those early cave depictions of animals and body parts, or the human-like hieroglyphs. Drawing, even in the word itself, involves some sort of borrowing (or stealing). Does this mean that the best borrowers are also the best drawers? And if so, where does originality fit in? More questions. More questions. Maybe Petherbridge can provide some relief.

- By Joshua Morrison

LACE is located at  6522 Hollywood Blvd. For more information on Deanna Petherbridge and the Salon Series, please visit www.welcometolace.org.

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Phantom Disappears Into the Night

Phantom-and-ChristineThe idea of life without Phantom of the Opera is almost as unbelievable as a deformed miscreant in a 19th Century English opera house teaching classical vocal technique to one of the ballet’s mediocre but beautiful dancers.  Yet, that is what makes it a thrilling fantasy. The Phantom of the Opera can’t go anywhere. It can’t say goodbye—that’s impossible.  It is one of the most beloved and celebrated musicals of all time.  Its eerily haunting music, dramatic 19th Century set design, and iconic romance story can’t possible bid us farewell.  Phantom is to the theater what hot dogs are to baseball.  It’s a classic. It’s a staple. It’s so much a part of musical theater that it has become a part of our mainstream sonic culture.  It is blasted out of elevator speakers and played at so many people’s weddings that most of us tend to roll our eyes and classify it as cheeseball.  But that’s not Phantom’s fault! We are to blame for taking something captivating and special and playing it ad nauseum. I have always defended Phantom and will continue to go to bat for Andrew Lloyd Weber’s most successful musical until the day I die.   When I saw the “Farewell” posters flanking Wilshire Blvd, I got excited rather than sad, and I toted my boyfriend (a Phantom virgin) with me to Hollywood’s Pantages Theater.Ever since its 1986 debut in London’s West End, the story about a brilliant, disfigured, and mysterious musical genius’ obsession with a young, gorgeous and recently sexually awakened soprano has mesmerized and shocked audiences.  The combination of the story (drawn from Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantôme de l’Opéra), Charles Hart’s sexy and sensitive lyrics, and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s gorgeous compositions, have made Phantom Broadway’s longest running musical ever. If you have never seen this show (like my opening night companion), do yourself a favor and experience it for the first time. Seeing it again through my boyfriend’s eyes brought me back to the first time that I fell head over heels for this mother of all musicals.

The show begins with an auction of opera house antiques—residual evidence of something traumatic from the past.  The action begins when the auctioneer calls out Lot #666, the house’s signature chandelier.  Something supernatural sparks the lamp into light, and the elegantly oppressive chandelier rises into the air, above the audience, in its original, breathtaking glory.  The constraints of time are removed, and as a collective whole, the audience is transported back to when innocence was lost, hearts were broken, and the unbelievable happened.

As soon as the chandelier lights up the stage, the show moves at breakneck speed, and the action doesn’t stop until curtain call.  This may be one of the quickest-moving shows I’ve ever seen.  Even if you’re one of those people that think of the theater as a good napping place, you can be assured that the non-stop entertainment will keep you awake.

Christine Daae (Trista Moldovan), the heroine of the musical, makes her singing debut in the signature song “Think of Me” after the opera’s lead soprano, Carolotta (Kim Stengel), becomes emotionally distressed when the stage backdrop mysteriously collapses.  Christine, we learn, has a vocal coach she’s never met that she calls “the Angel of Music”—but who she knows is indeed the storied Phantom.  She sings, and everyone is so impressed with her talent that nobody misses Carlotta—except for me, the real person, in the real audience, in the real world. Christine’s voice should be crystal clear and pitch perfect in the world of Phantom, but Trista Moldovan was often airy, flat, or sharp when she needed to be perfection. The Angel of Music is her coach for pete’s sake.

The best voice in this production belongs to Christine’s amour, Raoul (Sean MacLaughlin). Every note he sang was pure beauty, and there were many times that I wished that he had been cast as the Phantom (unfortunately played by word-slurring Tim Martin Gleason).  A voice like MacLaughlin’s should be heard more.  Raoul was my angel of music, and the ladies I talked to in the bathroom line during intermission unanimously agreed.  No wonder Christine fell in love with him. I almost did too.

As the story progresses, we start to realize that the Phantom is completely insane. We learn that Phantom is a musical prodigy and brilliant magician who was born with a disgustingly deformed face and escaped from a traveling freak show where he was abused and ridiculed most of his life.  Phantom’s attempts to woo Christine by kidnapping her and holding her captive in his sewer-lair prove fruitless.  Phantom’s life-size doll of Christine in a wedding gown is a major no-no in getting a girl to like you.  Perhaps in Victorian England people were a bit more forward, but good grief that was creepy.  As Christine’s youthful curiosity takes hold of her, she rips off the Phantom’s mask, and the audience learns that to call the Phantom emotionally unstable would be a gross understatement.  As he lies on the floor, reaching out to Christine for compassion and acceptance, you realize that Phantom just yearns to look normal and be loved, and Lloyd Weber’s beautiful music demands that your heartstrings be panged.

Christine longs for a life with a man that can give her a future, a man who lives among other men, a path that is more accepted: she wants the pretty boy, not the Phantom.  Trista Moldovan’s duet with Sean MacLaughlin in “All I Ask of You”  is a highlight of the show—not because of the song, which of course is stunning, but because of MacLaughlin’s flawless performance.  The omnipresent Phantom learns that his flame is hot for another.  Of course, being a total psychopath and outcast, he is unable to deal with feelings in any rational or productive way, so he goes batshit crazy and wills the chandelier to plunge dangerously over the audience.  It’s on.

The second act moves so quickly that your head whirls. Traps are laid, deceptions are had, and the conflict builds to a subterranean showdown between Christine, Raoul, Phantom, and the Victorian equivalent of a SWAT team. In the end, surrounded by police and with capture apparently inevitable, Phantom fools us again, disappearing into the night and leaving only his ivory mask.

I went to the Pantages Theater with every intention but to say farewell to this passionate, spirited, and deeply layered show.  Go fall in love all over again, but don’t ever say goodbye. Phantom should not—and will not—go anywhere.  As long as musicals are playing and people are attending the theater, there will be a place for Phantom. It is indeed the angel of musical theater.

-By Brittany Krasner

The Phantom of the Opera is playing at the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Blvd. through Halloween (October 31st).  For tickets and more information, please visit www.pantages-theater.com.

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Night of the Demons, Fest of the Scream’ns

If downtown Hollywood wasn’t a horror show already, now it is. The 10th annual Screamfest began this past weekend at the Hollywood and Highland Center, and for once, the homeless Michael Jackson impersonators weren’t the only ones in costume. The goths, the geeks, the girls with dragon tatoos…they came out in droves on Friday night for the premiere film of the fest, Night of the Demons, a remake of the 1988 Kevin S. Tenney horror flick, this one directed by Adam Gierasch.

I too made my may to the Mann Chinese Theatre on Friday, not just to leer at the bursting bosoms of B-movie scream-queens, but to see the kinds of cinematic staples any good cult horror film demands: irrational plot-lines, flash-cuts of demonic puppets, a gluttony of gore and fake boobs, and of course, at least one spooky mirror scene. Night of the Demons did not disappoint on any of these counts.

If the plot could be summed up in a semi-logical manner (which it can’t), this is maybe how it would sound: Loopy, goth-chick Angela (Shannon Elizabeth) rents out a haunted New Orleans mansion and throws a massive Halloween bash. Party gets broken up by cops, but seven random stragglers (four of whom happen to have past romantic entanglements) remain behind. It’s only when this horny crew of attractive 20-somethings—with the exception of a rather bloated Edward Furlong—realize the gates have mysteriously been locked that things get weird. Angela and Colin (Furlong) stumble upon a coterie of decayed skeletons in the basement (seven to be exact), and as is wont to happen anytime anyone sticks a digit in the jaw of a skeleton, Angela gets her finger bitten. It’s not long before the skeleton bite takes its toll and Angela transforms into a demon, complete with jaundiced eyes, horns, pasty skin, and worms for vomit. (Note: to morph temporarily back into human form, a demon hast only to wobble their head like a baffled Looney Tunes character). Angela gets the hang of her demonization, and quickly goes on the hunt for converts. Her method of seduction: sex, sex and more sex. One make-out session, one lesbian  tryst, and one uncomfortable insertion later, all but three of the house-mates are demons.

The remainder of the movie is basically a string of punk-fueled demon fights with brief interludes of non-sensical back-story (basically, the demons need seven souls to effectively destroy the WORLD). That is not to say the viewing experience was anything less than a blast though. The filmmakers are quite familiar with their territory, and often exploit their own narrative pitfalls in the name of comedy. Action-sequences are filmed with the chaotic energy of a mosh-pit, and Furlong, despite his girth, delivers a great performance.

To me, Night of the Demons, and Screamfest in general, represent an important part of cinema. It’s the fun part, the visceral part, the part that makes you clap out loud in the middle of a scene, the part that knows something gross is going to pop out of that mirror any second but still gets scared when it happens. It’s the part that wants to share the experience with another person, even if it’s a dark theatre full of curious outcasts like you.

- By Joshua Morrison

The 10th Annual Screamfest runs until the 17th. For more information on Screamfest and the upcoming films on schedule, please visit www.screamfestla.com, or call 310-358-3273.

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