Theatre

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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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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Extra! Extra! Tickets to See Provocative New Play, NEIGHBORS, at Matrix Theatre

Neighbors_2smI used to be a volunteer teacher for underprivileged youth in a lower-class neighborhood in Boston—easily one of the most segregated cities in America. Most of the students I taught were African-American, and I was a Caucasian college student. But since race politics were not my subject—play-writing was—I gladly and professionally ignored the racial and socio-economic distinction between myself and them (note the tactful wording of my first sentence). Until one day, one of my students asked if I got paid to teach them. I answered, no, which was the truth. But then she followed up: “Then why do you do it? Because we’re black?”

It was a simple question, but it took me by surprise. Of course the answer was no, I did not choose to teach them because they were black, I did it because I wanted to teach creative-writing to kids, and they just so happened to be black. Right?

The question lurked in my mind, and I found myself thinking about it years later when Obama was running for President, and certain people would ask, “Why are you voting for him? Because he’s black?”

Both questions are not necessarily meant to be answered; they are meant to break down the polite barrier of sameness I initiated when I was a volunteer teacher, and which our society has deemed appropriate. But what if you did go about examining such a question? What if racial identity does play a part in teaching under-priveled children? What if it does play a part in how we choose our President?

This is what here-and-staying playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins attempts to exlpore in the West Coast premiere of his play Neighbors: A Play With Cartoons which opened at The Matrix theatre company (the same company that staged the original reading of the play) on August 28th and runs until October 24th. Directed by Nataki Garrett, the story revolves around Richard Patterson, a middle-class African-American of academia, “post-racial” in his general demeanor and self-identification. But when a family of tactless, immodest, and rude actors—who just so happen to be black—moves in next door, Richard’s entire being is called into question. Is it because they are impolite? Or because they are black?

To see these issues acted out live and free in “a grandly theatrical, highly subversive, and immensely intelligent” manner, all you have to do is supply your first and last name into the form below, along with your e-mail address, and you will be automatically entered into the running to receive two tickets to the September 2nd, 7:30 PM production of Neighbors: A Play with Cartoons at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose. As always with our ticket giveaways, everybody who enters is also eligible to receive tickets to our next three offers. So don’t fret if you don’t win; there’s always next time, and there’s always www.plays411.com/neighbors, as well as 323.960.7774, where you can simply buy your tickets the old-fashioned way.

- By Joshua Morrison

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Wolves are to Sheep What Teachers are to…

I have a lot of friends who are teachers, or want to be teachers, or are studying to be teachers. I’m even considering it myself. The funny thing about this decision to cross the line of identity from student to instructor, from one of many names on a class list to the one reading those names aloud to take attendance, is the realization that you are no different from all of your teachers of past, and vice-versa. They fall prey to the same amount of human insecurities, jealousies, imperfections, and suffering as anyone (if not more, due to the fact they’re a teacher in America). Of course, this commonality may be obvious to some, but what’s interesting is it potentially calls into question the entire educational system, from principal on down; after all, how can one teach the tools of life when those very same tools have proven dull and useless in their own lives?

This is the thematic conundrum that concerns Joseph Fisher’s new play, A Wolf Inside the Fence, which makes its world premiere this Friday, August 13th, at the Open Fist Theatre, as directed by Benjamin Burdick.

The protagonist, Linus McBride (Arthur Hanket), is a high-school history teacher with a history of his own: his father recently passed away, he’s burning out on his own subject, his classes are being cut by the school system, and he may just be going crazy. This is when he meets Marion (Charlotte Chanler), an at-risk transfer student with a chip on her shoulder, who begins to make regular visits to Linus’s classroom, asking questions about history. But the play doesn’t take the expected Oleanna or An Education route. Instead, the two develop a bond based on their shared troubled pasts. This relationship is further complicated when the school principal, Judy Bench (Amanda Weir), gets involved, fueled by her own personal interest in the young Marion—and growing lack of interest in her math teacher boyfriend, Harold Carson (Colin Walker).

Witty and tragic, deep and yet simple, the layering of teacher-student-principal interaction that follow are not to be missed. Because if those can’t do, teach, then those who teach must be a lot more interesting than their doer counterparts.

- By Joshua Morrison

Joseph Fisher’s A Wolf Inside the Fence runs until Septemer 11th at the Open Fist Theatre, which is located at 6209 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood. For more information, please visit www.openfist.org, or call 323.882.6912.

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Jewphony!

LAJS10-Ford-ORCHef48c13GuyMadmoni-1024x682The Ford Amphitheatre, located not a stone’s throw away from the Hollywood Bowl off the 101, is a good venue to stage a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or possibly Into the Woods. The sandstone sloped arena, where the audience sits, collides onto a central platform—to be had by the performers—which is backed by a lush, green, jungle-like mountain-side. It’s a little like one of those alternate dimensions you see characters in science fiction movies walk into, and it provides a sense of imminent danger. It’s perfect for Shakespeare, for fairy tales, and as was evidenced in the case of this past Sunday night, for Jews.

As a card-carrying member of Jewish tribe, who has attended my fair share of family Passover dinners, I know all too well the importance of a real or perceived threat (historical oppression, a gentile daughter-in-law, an infamously inedible recipe, etc.) in accommodating the success of a large-form, Jewish get-together. It creates unity. And the effect was no different on Sunday evening at the Ford Amphitheatre when the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony performed their latest melange of classical numbers, entitled “Cinema Judaica,” for a sold out audience of almost all geriatric Jews.

A woman two rows in back of me: “It wouldn’t be a Seder without Bubby’s kogl.”

Another woman holding two fingers together: “Our daughters and Sherri are like this!”

About the conductor: “She let her hair grow longer.”

And indeed the conductor, Dr. Noreen Green—also the founder and Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony—did have long locks of blonde hair that bounced neatly atop her shoulders as she walked casually out to the central, elevated plank, and initiated a  rousing rendition of Alfred Newman’s20th Century Fox” theme, arguably the best known musical score in cinema. It was after the piece finished, however, that Dr. Green started in with her second role of the night (equally integral), which was quiz master and all-around emcee.

“What movie won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1956?” she asked aloud to the crowd, following a brief introduction of the program on bill.

The Ten Commandments,” screamed back some sporadic (though passionate) voices from the audience. But they were wrong. Cecille B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments did not win Best Picture that year; it was just nominated. But it was first up on the night’s listing of Jewish-composed/themed film scores—the composer of this piece being the great Elmer Bernstein.

He was supposedly hired by DeMille after another composer dropped out, and is still credited with changing the face of music for cinema. Hearing his epic “Ten Commandments Suite” played live by truly professional musicians—depsite the summer-camp vibe—I could make out the roots of Laurie Johnson’s Dr. Stangelove score, or even early John Williams.

Bernstein’s composition for The Chosen was next was on the agenda (after, of course, a second round of the ever-more-crowd-pleasing Quiz Show with Dr. Green.) This film demanded both jazz and traditional klezmer, in addition to Bernstein’s classical model. What emerged on stage was a swirling mixture of all three genres. Like a practiced jam band, the bass-players plucked swinging jazz riffs, while the clarinet and synthesized harpsichord snapped along with the klezmer, allowing for improvised sax solos and piano doodles. Never before had I considered the obvious connection between jazz and klezmer; they both rely on similar tools, such as off-key sharps and flats, to attain a colorful, upbeat music of the oppressed.

“There’s so much stuff up here,” kvetched Dr. Green once her second finely-conducted number was finished. The audience laughed, and watched her fiddle with cue-cards, batons, and god knows what else before launching into the most complex piece of the whole night: Jerry Goldsmith’s suite from the six-and-a-half-hour miniseries QB VII. Quick, unexpected changes in tempo, along with diverse instrumentation—congas, xylophones, electric guitars, and the entire Ford Festival Choir—combined for what I can only describe as Sciezmer, a perfect combination between between sci-fi and klezmer. Where the string section appeared semi-bored during the last Bernstein bout, their eyes were locked onto their music stands for this piece. Finishing off the suite with Goldsmith’s purposefully fragmented version of the Mourner’s Kaddish, the music was mesmerizing to say the least.

But just in case it wasn’t exactly a “greatest hit,” the orchestra went on to perform the instantly recognizable theme from Schindler’s List, as composed by John Williams, with Mark Kashper, Associate Principal Second Violinist for the L.A. Philharmonic, playing the solo. This piece was so moving, the couple sitting next to me (who must have been in their 70’s) started holding hands. And they kept them held together all through Charles Fox’sVictory at Entebbe Suite,” a powerful, pop-y, Phillip Glass-inspired melody, as well as Israeli pianist Andy Feldbau’s own solo arrangement of Alan Menken’sA Whole New World” from Aladdin. All this before intermission. No one ever said the Jews didn’t know how to squeeze in a good show.

However, Dr. Green and the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony’s directors must have been counting on the majority of the audience falling asleep during the second half, because it simply was not up to par.

First was Danny Pelfrey’s suite from Joseph: King of Dreams, which was rousing if only because it seemed like one long crescendo of music. After that came the song “Trinkt L’Chayim” from Elmer Bernstein and Sylvia Neufeld’s score for Thoroughly Modern Millie. This piece was sung by Ariella Vaccarino, who’s gift lies in her voice, not in her fashion sense (she was wearing a sparkly, red strapless dress that was a bit too Broadway for the event).

And what kind of Jewish symphony would it be without the conductor’s own daughter performing a solo? That’s right: Hannah Drew, the gorgeous (and might I add, finely dressed), 13-year-old seed of Maestra Green sung the title song from Disney’s The Prince of Egypt, as composed by the legendary Stephen Schwartz. I hesitate to critique her performance, because, after all, she’s only 13. But then again, why is her mother hoisting her up on stage at such a fragile age? All I’m going to say is that while Hannah was, for the most part, brave and astonishing, she was clearly a product of intense coaching. In other words, she’s in training, as she should be at 13.

Luckily, the most inspired and fun composition of the night, written by Yuval Ron for the Oscar-winning short film West Bank Story, came next. Ron, himself, played the oud live with the orchestra, and his passion for the Arabian/klezmer/Israeli/show-tune music was palpable. Along with his colleague Jamie Papish on drum, he was on fire.

Lastly and appropriately, the show ended with a reprise of Jerry Goldsmith, this time from his score for the film Masada. It cleanly showed off the overall unity of the orchestra, the immense responsibility it takes from each and every musician to come together as a cohesive and beautiful whole. I looked around the audience, and not a seat was empty. Everyone, even the oldest and the youngest, were still present and awake. I realized that a symphonic piece of music like Goldsmith’s is not a bad metaphor for Masada, or even Jewishness in general. Because group unity (borne from individuality) is what’s it’s all about.

- By Joshua Morrison

Photography by Guy Madmoni.

For more information about Ford Amphitheatre events, please visit www.fordamphitheater.org, or call 323-461-3673.

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Extra! Extra! Win Tickets to Not Pay For Rent!

rent_415x150I have mixed feelings about Rent.

On one hand, the wildly popular, Tony Award-winning musical turned major motion picture seems to have climaxed to the level of bubbly pop non-sense—Joey Fatone playing no small role in this symbolic transformation. (Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police decidedly contains the best satirical take on Rent to date: a group of overjoyed actors on a Broadway stage, clapping their hands to the lyrics, “We’ve all got AIDS!”—the bourgeois audience happily joining in).

On the other hand, Rent is a great show. It reinvented the musical genre and operatic concept for a younger audience, told a worthwhile and relevent story, had some excellent numbers that I still find myself singing in the shower, and originated from the genuine heart and soul of a true artist: Jonathan Larson.

In a weird way, the on-going legacy of Rent has begun to reflect its central theme, which, to me, is the struggle between the intentions of romantic integrity and the compromises of life’s daily realities. Where Larson once insisted on casting actors with little or no experience, the role of Mimi in the film adaptation was handed over to Rosario Dawson. Where the production was once a simple staged reading at the New York Theatre Workshop, the latest tours have ventured as far as Slovakia and Guam. And where the first two rows of every Broadway show were once reserved for the homeless (or at least whoever stood in line the whole day), tickets now sell upwards of $200 a pop.

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deFineArtsLA Exclusive: Now is the NOW!

Picture-1Late July and we’re knee-deep in festival season. You’ve likely hit a few events from the Slamdance, the LA Film Fest, the Fringe Fest, Outfest, Comic-Con, the Middle Eastern Comedy Fest, Lilith Fair…the list goes on and on. The urge to see it all keeps us coming back, but I know, festival fatigue is strong. Hang in there, though—we’re at the home stretch. The REDCAT’s NOW Festival, which kicked off this weekend, should bring festival season to a spectacular end.

The New Original Works Festival features new dance, theater, music, and multimedia performance works by artists who are known for their often radical and unconventional approaches. While Week One (with work from Maureen Huskey and Killsonic) may have past us by, there’s still time to catch Weeks Two and Three, beginning this Thursday, July 29th.

Three artists make up Week Two of NOW: Christine Marie & Ensemble, in the expressionist theater piece “Ground to Cloud,” uses projections, electric light and shadowplay to unfold a multidimensional mythology of nature and human intervention. Systems of Us, from choreographer Rae Shao-Lan Blum & composer Tashi Wada, explores the disruption and transformation of relationships in a dance collaboration that may call to mind those early experiments of Cage and Cunningham. Finally, master of Breaking and hip-hop dance innovater Raphael Xavier’s “Black Canvas” explores the body of the Breaker in relation to the stage and life.

Week Three, beginning August 5th, features theater, dance, and animation. Alexandro Segade’s “Replicant vs. Separatist” depicts Segade himself calling the shots on a live sci-fi film shoot in which two male couples navigate the murky waters of state-mandated marriage. Hana van der Kolk’s “Once More, Again, One (Solo)” uses familiar pop music as the background for her solo dance adaptation of a work originally conceived for four dancers. To close, animator Miwa Matreyek (of Cloud Eye Control) uses animation with live projection to explore fantastical worlds in “Myth and Infrastructure.”

- By Helen Kearns

Each “week” of NOW is really only a Thurs/Fri/Sat, so budget your time accordingly. If you only attend one more festival this summer, consider the power of NOW. For more information, please visit www.redcat.org, or call 213-237-2800.

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deFineArtsLA Exclusive: Dave Hill’s Genuine Hipness

What is a hipster sense of humor? Surely it has something to do with irony—the hipster’s original sin—or at least the thin version of irony that exists in wearing a D.A.R.E. t-shirt, while smoking a cigarette outside of the Silver Lake Lounge. But even irony has lost its all-consuming flavor amongst UCB and Largo crowds. Hipster humor also has something feminine about it, non-confrontational in its satire; it’s about a style and a matter of intention more than it is the content of a joke. Absurdity is actually its most potent ingredient, a commitment to the weird, a detached joy in the randomness of things.

In a name, it’s interviewer/performer/writer/comedian Dave Hill, who will be performing his one-man show, “Dave Hill: Big In Japan,” tonight, at 9:00 PM at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Hill looks like the character of Dim from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and the pitch of his voice ranges from acid-trip-high to wallowing-drunk-low in a matter of seconds. He has become known for his fast-cut, Borat-style interviews—which have been featured on This American Life—in which he is always the main subject (Hill probably wouldn’t exist were it not for Sacha Baron Cohen, but the two differ vastly their approach). Many of his interviews are filmed on camera, and one gets the feeling he is constantly winking at the audience, but not in a mean way (a lot like Jim does when he looks toward the camera on The Office). He has an incredibly quick wit, but he doesn’t use it for harm. Carrying a misguided sense of uber-confidence, Hill seemingly wants to be friends with everybody he talks to, and thus, his undeniable charm.

He’ll walk into the red carpets of New York’s fashion week, holding a huge boom-mic with a windscreen on it, and proceed to ask an attendee what she thinks of the Kofi Annan collection. Though even this is harsh for him. More likely, he’ll take a private movement/acting class in New York City, and twirl around in tights with the male instructor, laughing with him rather than at him, creating a sense of camaraderie through shared acknowledgment of the absurd.

This is, in fact, Hill’s greatest strength: his ability to include the subject, and by extension, the audience in the creation of the joke. He is genuine, which is why it works. And why he may be one of the best examples of hipster humor out there.

For tickets more information about The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, please visit www.ucbtheatre.com, or call (323) 908-8702.

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The Fringe of Friends

friendsliketheselogoGregory Crafts’s play Friends Like These, which had a brief, successful run at the first-ever Hollywood Fringe Festival, is a smart, brooding possum of a show. I say this because it initially plays dumb and light. When we first meet our small ensemble of characters—Garrett the geek, Diz the freak, Brian the nice guy, Jesse the jock, and Nicole the cheerleader—they cling so tightly to their clichés, one wonders if they had accidentally slipped into a cheesy, eighties high-school movie. But once you start to really listen to the dialogue, you realize something odd: these stock characters can’t stop talking about their own stereotypes. They seem to be self-consciously obsessed with their own roles in life. And that’s when Friends Like These starts to reveal itself as a play less about high-school or petty romance, but about identity and the darkness that often feuls it.

Before any actors even enter stage, a montage of semi-hysterical newscasts can be heard over blackness; reports of a school shooting, four victims, lots of questions. The incident is not brought up again for some time, but serves as what a high-school English teacher would dub as foreshadowing. Images of Columbine-like violence are conjured up in the minds of the audience, only to lay dormant for the majority of a seemingly harmless production. You have Garrett, who meets up with the much more popular Nicole. The two go on a date, hit it off, and before you know it, they’re attracting the jealous attention of Nicole’s ex-boyfriend, Jesse, as well as Garrett’s female partner in crime, Diz. We, as watchers of this John Hughes-esque tale of geek-meets-girl, are left to wonder how such events can lead to the something so extreme.

Along this journey, we are introduced to the world of LARP-ing (aka Live Action Role Play). It’s where Garrett and his geeky friends go to act like they’re characters in World of Warcraft, and it provides a nice break from the high-school hum-drum, but also serves a much deeper function. It’s an update of Shakespeare’s woods, where lovers’ identities are jumbled and proven false, where truth reveals itself in strange ways. One of my favorite moments from these LARP-ing scenes is when Nicole (who Garrett brought to the event) is suddenly attacked by black-hooded, enemy figures called “Darknesses.” They surround her menacingly, until Garrett steps in and fights them off.

The reason I like this bit so much is because I feel it is representative of Garrett’s personal test in this play. He has to fight off the Darknesses in order to get the girl. And in Crafts’s vision, as brought to life by directors Sean Fitzgerald and Vance Roi Reyes, the Darknesses are all-encompassing. There’s so much hate in high-school, so much raw anger, rage, and cruelty. It’s hard to fend it off.  And everything about the production reiterates this theme loud and clear. The set: five colored pillars (symbolic of the five characters) enshrouded by looming blackness. The music: mid-90’s grunge and pop-metal, emlematic of the post-Cobain struggle to compromise between 80’s mindlessness and early-90’s self destruction. The costumes: Garrett, for instance, swims in the customary black attire of goth kids, his hands constantly squirming in their pockets, dying to break out.

Despite a few technical snafus and a couple missed moments acting-wise (though Ryan J. Hill and Sarah Smick were consistently on their game), Friends Like These does what it sets out to do: it questions the identities we wear, whether in high-school or older. And it asks an important question for our time, which is whether or not these identities are just heavy defense pads against something brighter within us. According to Crafts, you can fight the darknesses, but in order to do so, you have to first realize that they’re really just other geeks like you wearing black-hooded robes. Otherwise, you’ll get smothered.

- By Joshua Morrison

For more information on Friends Like These, please visit www.theatreunleashed.com/friendslikethese.

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Chills of Recognition

6a00d8341c630a53ef01156f223ac4970c-500wiThe best thing about A Chorus Line—and there’s a lot of good things—is that there’s a moment every ten minutes or so when chills run up your spine. You know these chills, too. They are the chills of recognition, chills of connection. They are the cells inside your body racing alongside your bones, like an excited dog, at the mere thought of meeting something or someone like them.

A Chorus Line—which opened at the Pantages Theatre this past Tuesday, and runs for two weeks only until June 13th—comes loaded with history. Michael Bennett’s visionary piece, since 1975, has been a staple of Broadway, off-Broadway, and high-school productions alike. It has won numerous prizes, including the Tony and Pulitzer Prize for Best Musical. It spawned an awful film adaptation, and a wonderful documentary. In 2006, the show was revived on Broadway by the original co-choreographer, Bob Avian. It broke all sorts of box office records. And the cousin of Avian’s revival still tours today, occasionally to Los Angeles for brief, two-week runs.

But for all the bombast, A Chorus Line is best when it sticks to its roots—the loose grouping of Broadway dancers that Michael Bennett brought together in 1974 at the Nickolaus Exercise Center to tell their stories on tape. The show often veers from this core focus, unable to restrain from bits of bravado, much like the character Cassie (Rebecca Riker) does when told by her ex-boyfriend/director Zach (Derek Hanson) to stick to the choreography. These hardly un-enjoyable departures, however, only allow for the true moments—when Paul (Nicky Venditti) has his monologue, when Sheila (Ashley Yeater) starts to sing “At the Ballet,” and of course when Diana (Selina Verastegui) leads the cast in “What I Did For Love”—to shine all the brighter.

As far as this particular production goes, it’s pretty much what you would expect, which, when talking about A Chorus Line, is a good thing. Because you expect to be thrilled, and to be sad, and be privy to that oh-so rare sight in musical theatre: honesty on stage. Without a doubt, actor Andy Mills, who plays the show-stealing character of Mike, steals the show. Mills is so good-looking he stands out from the mezzanine, and his dancing is so flawless you find yourself using him as the bar for other dancers. I also enjoyed Derek Hanson, who’s interpretation of Zach—the fictional director that remains in the shadows for most of the show—was complex enough to support the facets of the for-sure Michael Bennett stand-in character. Other notables include Rebecca Riker, Ashley Yeater, Donald C. Shorter, and Nathan Lucrezio.

A Chorus Line is a musical that kind of begs to be updated or adapted. I’d love to hear one of the dancers talk about bulimia, for instance. Or have a character make a comment on gay marriage, or the economy. But seeing the show live, and with such an excellent cast makes me realize this is not the way to go. Every line and every step of Bennett’s masterwork holds up, and though it wouldn’t exactly be sacrilege to change a few things to make it more topical, there’s really no need to change what still gives me those chills up my spine. 

A Chorus Line runs until June 13th at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. For more information, please call 323-468-1770, or visit www.broadwayla.org.

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