Personalities

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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Extra! Extra! Win Tickets to See Yefim Bronfman Perform!

barbican-vpo-gergiev2According to the Independent and the Jewish Week, he is also the son of two Jewish musicians, one a Polish pianist and one a Russian violinist, both of whom were forced to flee their homes at the start of World War II. His father was captured by the Nazis as a POW, but, during a march between camps, managed to escape into a nearby ditch, where he proceeded to spend the entire night. A month-long trek to Moscow, a brush with starvation, and a brief prison stint later, Yefim’s father met and settled down with Yefim’s mother in Tashkent, where their young son was “accepted” into the Soviet conservatory as a portion of the two-percent maximum quota for Jews.

This kind of anti-semitism led Yefim and his family to eventually emigrate to Israel. There, Bronfman enrolled at the Rubin Academy of Music at Tel Aviv, where he quickly excelled and won a scholarship—the same scholarship that Itzhak Perlman once won—to be able to study at the Curtis Institute in Philadephia under the great Leon Fleisher.

I only mention all this past, because somehow when you see Bronfman play, even on YoutTube, he seems to be exorcising his roots. It’s no wonder he became so well-known for his renditions of Russian composers; within them, he must have found the way to tell his own beginnings of his own story.

And today, he continues telling that story, one which has become all the more complex and varied as he has grown, become a US citizen, and renowned all over the world. On Wednesday, March 9th at 8:00 PM, he returns to Los Angeles at the Walt Disney Concert Hall with a “kaleidoscopic program pairing the world premiere of Salonen’s Humoreske with Schumann’s Humoreske, plus works by Haydn and Chopin.” To win two tickets to see Bronfman’s powerful presence in person, simply enter your first name, last name, and e-mail address into the form below. If you do so, you will also automatically be entered into
the running for our next three FineArtsLA ticket giveaways as well.

As the writer Phillip Roth once wrote about Bronfman:”With a jaunty wave, he is suddenly gone, and though he takes all his fire off with him like no less a force than Prometheus, our own lives now seem inextinguishable. Nobody is dying, nobody – not if Bronfman has anything to say about it.”

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Extra! Extra! Tickets to See Master and Conqueror Pianist Simon Trpceski Live!

trpceski_415x150How old do you have to be to conquer the world?

Well, by the time he was he was 16, Alexander the Great had successfully demolished a rebellion and founded his first city—which he cleverly dubbed Alexandropolis. At the age of 20, following the sketchy assassination of his father, he was proclaimed king of Macdeonia. And by his 30th birthday, Alexander was in control of the majority of the known world, from the Ionian Sea to the Himalayas, and with far greater plans to conquer even more before his death.

Pianist Simon Trpceski is also from Macedonia, he’s 32, and some might say he’s given his national forefather a run for his shekels. He’s performed in over 8 different countries and  won prizes for his performances in the United Kingdom, Italy, and the Czech Republic. He was invited to do a  solo recital at the close of the 62nd session of the U.N. General Assembly by none other than the session’s President himself, H.E. Srgjan Kerim. He has toured extensively and played with such well-known conductors as Zinman, Andrew Davis, Maazel, Jurowski, Tortelier, and Pappano. And this month, he comes to Los Angeles.

On Tuesday, February 22nd at 8 PM in the Walt Disney Music Hall, Trpceski will perform sonatas from Hadyn and Prokofiev, along with two pieces from Chopin, and finally, the California premiere of Sahov’s “Songs and Whispers – Suite for Piano.” To see this conquering performance free of charge, simply enter your first name, last name, and e-mail address into the form below and you will automatically be entered into the running to win two free tickets, as well as be considered for the next three FineArtsLA ticket giveaways.

By the way, to answer my first question: some say Alexander’s mother knew he would conquer the world before he was even born. He still had to see it through though.

- By Joshua Morrison

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FEATURE: Museums of Los Angeles – Part One

nsmentry1A museum’s history is often as complex and varied as the works of art in it. Each of the three museums in this series have their own websites that can give you their stories of creation and evolution, so there is no reason for me to repeat that process here. This series is from the point of view of a traveler entering the gates of a far away city. I arrive thirsty and hungry and ready for any and all temptations …I stand eager to be stimulated and seduced…and the gates open.

PART ONE:  THE NORTON SIMON MUSEUM

Most supermarkets have bigger parking lots than the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. It is the smallest building on the smallest campus of the three major museums in this series. Intensely compact, the Simon’s focus is a very high quality of art that never becomes the overgrown cultural smorgasbord that often leads to institutional mediocrity. From the moment you drive into the free, single-level open sky parking area, everything about the Simon fits and flows.

As you leave your car you are already in a garden-like setting and the paths lead to a welcoming arrangement of larger than life Rodin sculptures. Without yet having breached the front door, you have been engaged by the narrative of Western Civilization. You cannot look at these works without also seeing everything that came before and after, and without feeling the weight of your own sack of skin and muscle and bone.

I have intentionally avoided pictures of the inside of the Museum because photographs cannot do justice to the art nor the experience of making your own entrance. Step through the doors and you are inside the core of the Simon. It reminds me of a flower with the petals made up of the four wings and a large theatre. One level below is the South and Southeast Asian galleries. The core, the center of this flower is for special exhibitions. Today I have come to visit the four wings that hold the story of my own history. These centuries of human emotion are the mirror I will be gazing into.

The first wing is filled with the 14th to 16th Centuries. Early, High, Mannerist, Northern, Southern…a Renaissance is a Renaissance is a Renaissance…and it is not my favorite art but neither I nor the Simon can ignore it. The Museum’s collection does more than just give a prerequisite Renaissance experience. With a selectivity and quality it demonstrates the genius of the Renaissance artists without beating you over the head with the religious messages. Perhaps it is the size of the museum that keeps it all more intimate and accessible. If you came to overdose on the Jesus and Mary Show this is not the museum for that…for the Simon’s examples of secular humanism hold equal stage. Giovanni Bellini’s Portrait of Joerg Fugger is wonderfully alive…I wanted to step in front of Fugger and force him to look at me, to engage him with questions about his life.

One of the important elements in the entire Norton Simon Museum experience is the outstanding presentation of all the art. The height at which the art is hung and sculpture placed, the skill of of the lighting, and the flow of the groupings, for me it is the best of any museum in the city.  Never once did I find myself bobbing and weaving like a drunken prize fighter at war with glare and reflection on the art work.

The second wing throws us into the 17th and 18th Centuries…carried there by Guido Reni’s portrait of St. Cecilia. Reni overwhelms his religious subject with stunning technique that makes this artist the real center of the painting. Art for art is now an unstoppable wave and the Simon immerses the viewer in Baroque paintings from Italy and Spain and the North. Everywhere you turn life explodes. Jan (Johannes) Fyt’s Still Life with Red Curtain and Zurbaran’s Still Life with Lemon, Oranges and a Rose filled me with child-like awe at their skill. Thomas de Kayser’s Portrait of a Father and His Son; Marie Genevieve Bouliar’s Self Portrait; and Theresa, Countess Kinsky by Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigree-Lebrun all remind me that I am walking through a world of hearts that once beat as furiously as my own.

The last two wings contain the 19th and 20th Centuries and I cannot separate them because they are wife and mistress to our modern life. And here the Simon shines with outstanding art. Edgar Degas is everywhere…his paintings and sculptures swirl around you…taunt you. At first I was overwhelmed and then quickly I was glad. It felt as if this were his studio and his home.

I’ve often thought that the best Renoirs are always someplace else. Until today. But don’t look for the large grand canvases that have been reproduced on everything from coffee mugs to refrigerator magnets. At the Simon you will find small intimate Renoirs that will make you forget the “famous dead artist” and replace him with the living and curious and passionate and vulnerable Renoir.

My feet are no longer on the ground at this point…I am picked up on a Barbizon cloud and it carries me forward through the dreams of Corot and Monet and Seurat and Gauguin and Caillebotte and Lautrec…and at last I am at the feet of my personal Buddha, Vincent van Gogh. Even the Metropolitan in New York did not satisfy my eyes for his work. But at the Norton Simon there is a wonderful sampling and it is just large enough so that you can say “I met van Gogh today, and we talked awhile and then went our separate ways.” And for those who can only dream in modern media, take the time and you will come to discover that Vincent van Gogh is 3D…without the glasses.

I think Gertrude Stein would like the Museum’s view of the 20th Century…even the pictures she didn’t like. What would Picasso say to Sam Francis? What would Matisse think of Warhol? Would Modigliani and Braque agree? Perhaps it is because of the size of the Norton Simon Museum that this is a perfect place for making the walk from the Renaissance up to and through the last one hundred years. By the end of the journey you haven’t just viewed a history of the people of Western Civilization, you have also gazed into the mirror that this art offers and you have seen a reflection of yourself. And when our prejudices become an acid inside us, that is when we can turn and look back at the footsteps we have been walking in…and we can unflinchingly question ourselves and our lives, as every artist present in the Norton Simon Museum has also done.

This is a museum that has confidence and competence in its bones.  This is an art lover’s museum…and a museum’s museum.

- By John Ireland

For more information go to www.nortonsimon.org

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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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Los Angeles Ballet Soars into Fifth Season with Sparkling “Nutcracker”

Photo-1-700x554It is all but impossible to conceive of an American holiday season devoid of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. The ubiquitous melodies – blaring in various versions from mall loudspeakers, underscoring TV commercials, accompanying passengers in random office-building elevators throughout the country – are as well-known and popular as “White Christmas” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” at this time of year. Yet the ballet was virtually unknown in America until George Balanchine mounted an original production of The Nutcracker for New York City Ballet back in 1954, in an effort to entice a new audience for dance.

Los Angeles Ballet debuted to critical acclaim and audience delight in 2006, with an original staging of The Nutcracker by Artistic Directors Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary. Considering that the US financial collapse and recession have felled other worthy arts organizations during the years since, the ascendance of a classical ballet company in dance-ingenuous LA is nothing short of miraculous. The LAB audience numbers have increased year after year, with the attendant growth in ticket sales income. Against all odds, this month Los Angeles Ballet offered their sumptuous holiday treat of a Nutcracker to open a landmark fifth season.

This year as always, LAB presented the production in three different locations around LA County: Glendale’s Alex Theatre, UCLA’s Royce Hall, and the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. Because of the crushing schedule of 9 shows in two weeks, nearly all principal and featured roles were double- and triple-cast. I attended performances in all three venues, which meant I was able to witness the excellent contributions of all solo artists. I must say that, for all the glamour and virtuosity of these soloists, the LAB ensemble dancing is where much of the real magic resides.

Over the past few years, I’ve worn out my thesaurus with attempting to adequately praise the extraordinary LAB women’s corps de ballet. Their gorgeous Dance of the Snowflakes at the end of Act I is about as good as it gets, anywhere. The 12 dancers fill the stage with such synchronous perfection that time absolutely seems to stand still. It’s spectacular and moves me to tears. PS – I wasn’t the only spectator surreptitiously dabbing at my eyes at intermission.

The opulence of the costumes by designer Mikael Melbye got the audience’s attention from the get-go. Murmurs of appreciation greeted the 1912-era formal velvets, furs, magnificent hats and coats adorning onstage guests at the Christmas Eve shebang. The seamlessly high caliber of the dancing to come was presaged in a scintillating “Upstairs, Downstairs” tidbit, featuring two amorous maids with two tipsy butlers. Suddenly, the wizardly Drosselmeyer, played by the charismatic Jonathan Sharp, magically appeared with a trunk full of life-sized mechanical dolls. As these dolls began to move, I found myself hyperventilating with hyperbole.

Returning guest artist Sergey Kheylik remains a crowd favorite year after year, his leaps defying gravity in his role of the Russian doll. Katrina Gould radiated charm in a reprise as the Columbine doll, opposite a witty and stylish Tyler Burkett as Harlequin. In other performances, Columbine and Harlequin were danced by newcomers Isabel Vondermuhll, and Aaron Bahadursingh.

Radiant thirteen-year-old Helena Thordal-Christensen danced Clara with purity of line and professional poise, having first come to the role in last year’s production. Already an accomplished actress, she has added depth and nuance to her characterization of a young girl in the first flush of infatuation. New to the role, Mia Katz showed off clean technique, and a fresh and spunky personality. The Nutcracker/Prince was capably danced by Jordan Veit of Pacific Northwest Ballet School’s Professional Division.

Most of the children I interviewed after the show cited the Mouse Battle as the most memorable part of the show. Standouts as the Mouse King were Craig Hall and Christopher Revels, both of whom admirably negotiated the comic elements of the role along with the fierce leaps.

The sublime Monica Pelfrey returned as Marie (Sugarplum Fairy) in the Act II Grand Pas de Deux. Her partner was Zheng Hua Li, imported from China a couple of seasons ago. Li is that most rare of male dancers – the perfect danseur noble. He is tall and elegant, handsome, wonderfully expressive. His dancing displays great beauty of line, musicality and phrasing; his heroic leaps and turns take my breath away. His sheer physical strength and stamina in the lifts and attentive partnering drew cheers from the balletomanes in attendance.

Alternating with Pelfrey as Marie was LAB debut artist Allyssa Bross. Her sparkling personality ingratiated her with the audience no less than her proficiency in the rigors of the choreography. Partnering her, Christopher Revels tears up the stage in a circuit of jumps and turns in which his academic clarity and fullness become charged with a sense of reckless rapture. Christopher revels, indeed. His perfect execution of multiple double cabrioles is seared into my mind’s eye.

Among other highlights was the Waltz of the Flowers by the aforementioned women’s corps de ballet, featuring a shimmering and delicate Grace McLoughlin in her first performances as the Rose. A break-out artist last season in Balanchine’s Kammermusik and in New Wave LA, McLoughlin continues to develop under the inspired guidance of Neary and Christensen. Also dancing the Rose is newcomer Molly Flippen. Both women exhibit lovely extensions and ports des bras, and both dazzle the crowd in a fiendish series of pirouettes and fouettees.

Sergey Kheylik returns in Act II, impossibly airborne in the Russian Trepak. Alternating as his two accomplices in this acrobatic romp were, variously, Tyler Burkett, Aaron Bahadursingh, Craig Hall, Alexandre Scupinari, and Christopher Revels.

Lovely Julia Cinquemani performed a spellbinding Arabian Dance, all liquid extensions and molten sensuality. Sidelined by an injury for a week, Korean ballerina Stephanie Kim made her company debut in the same dance, late in the run. She was magical, sinuous, electrifying throughout the extended pas de deux. Both dancers are partnered with strength and beauty by a majestic Alexander Castillo.

Throughout the production, the entertainment level doesn’t flag for a moment. It’s safe to say that Los Angeles finally is home to the world-class ballet company for which residents have waited for decades.

- By Penny Orloff

Information about upcoming 5th Season LAB productions is available at www.losangelesballet.org.

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Extra! Extra! Expand Your Cultural Nerves with Tickets to Randy Newman!

randy-newman-harps-and-angels-poster_gazette_thumbI’ll be honest: I don’t know much about Randy Newman. I’ve seen Toy Story and loved The Full Monty, but maybe it’s because I’m not originally from Los Angeles (and thus never heard “I Love L.A.” over the loudspeakers at Dodgers games), but I was never really exposed to him as a personality, let alone a singer/songwriter. And I feel left out. I feel as though my body is missing an integral cultural nerve-ending (I scoffed at my friend who, until recently, hadn’t heard Prince’sKiss”).

Now I have my chance though, and so do you (whether or not you’re a Newman newbie). And in fact, it may be our last chance. At the Mark Taper Forum in Downtown, the world-premiere musical Randy Neman’s Harps and Angels has enjoyed a successful one-month long run, which ends this Wednesday, December 22nd, and Fine Arts LA has two tickets to give away to this final performance. Directed by Tony winner Jerry Zaks of Guys and Dolls fame, and starring such names as Ryder Bach, Storm Lange, Adriane Lenox, Michael McKean, Katey Sagal, and Matthew Saldivar, the show features all the Newman hits (“Political Science,” “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and “I Love L.A.”), and maybe even some you don’t know.

Simply enter your first name, last name, and e-mail address into the form below, and you will be entered into the running to receive two free tickets to Randy Neman’s Harps and Angels on December 22nd at 8 PM. And as always, though especially in the spirit of the holiday season, you will automatically be eligible to win any or all of our next three ticket giveaways. So happy holidays, and enjoy your cultural nerves—whatever those may be.

-By Joshua Morrison

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A Form of Currency: UCLA Graduate Open Studios

dscn1970-e1276139717586It’s all too easy—especially in a city permeated by the entertainment industry and material gain in general—to forget that there are still many artists out there committing their lives to their craft without the slightest hope of a monetary reward, and that there are a vast amount of studios in operation that have absolutely nothing to do with film or television. In fact, at the UCLA Graduate Open Studios in Culver City this past Saturday, I found that there were at least 30 dedicated artists at work who were not only putting their pieces up without price tags, they were most likely taking out student loans to do it.

This is not to say these young practitioners were exercising pure artistic selflessness; the hope, I gathered, as I traversed through the maze of sectioned-off galleries amidst packs of the hippest and most attractive art crowd I’ve seen in some time, was that people would notice the stand-out work, that they would pay attention (as opposed to money).

And attention can be a form of currency in itself. My colleague Helen, who I attended the event with discovered this fact in the most literal sense. We were vocally admiring the work of Max Rain (a stand-out artist, for sure)—in particular, a photograph of his that shows a piled arrangement of 20 or more dead and deformed rodents he collected as an employee of an animal shelter, the result of which amounts to a kind of macabre yet beautiful collage—when Max himself approached in the most amiable, non-egotistical manner possible in that situation. Helen told Max that if she had money, she would put the piece above her bed, to which he replied, “Really? If you promise to put it above your bed, I’ll give you a print for free.” He wasn’t lying. The mere idea of someone posting his work in their bedroom was, to him, compensation in itself.

I did, however, get a hint from another one of the artists, Sarah Dougherty—an incredibly talented painter who pieces together large LA-set landscapes with found objects, tapestry, and other pop-up book-esque features—as to who the real target audience might be. “We had our professor critiques this week,” she sighed in exasperation to me, going on to explain how most of the reviews were positive, but one in particular had her completely devastated.

Being in the “real world,” or at least the world outside of collegiate critique, it may seem difficult to relate to Sarah’s (or even Max’s) point of view. Who cares what a professor thinks? They’re not making any money either. But when you think about it, our art world—at least the part of it I’m interested in—is not so different from that Culver City rat maze I danced around on Saturday night, snatching up complimentary cheese and wine where I could find it. All artists, for the most part, are not looking to feed their wallets or even their ego. That’s not why they spend hours upon hours, day after day, inside tiny white rooms, experimenting with pigments or tweaking the electrical feeds on video installations. Why do they do it then? The truth is I don’t know. I’m tempted to say sex, but it probably has more to do with communication, putting something out there that’s you, says you—and how can something not be you when you spend that much time and energy on it?—then having someone else come up, take a look, and say, you know, I’d like to post you above my bed. Maybe it does have to do with sex.

- By Joshua Morrison

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Posted in Art, Bring Your Flask, Conceptual, Contemporary Art, Culver City, Film, Food & Drink, Galleries, Installation, Mixed media, Neighborhoods, Painting, Performance, Personalities, Photography, Video Art No Comments »