Review: Desire Under the Elms.

Comical and tragic plays are easy to get right, but when the play is about loneliness, how does one put it on without lulling the audience to sleep?  How about building up the drama until fate knocks all the lonesome feeling away?  After all, as Ephraim Cabot says, “God’s lonesome, ain’t he?”.  Damaso Rodriguez’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” is a slowly undulation chant to loneliness until fate as the cymbal records a loud crescendo on the sad melody.

When the rich farm-owner Ephraim Cabot (William Dennis Hunt) returns home with a new wife, Abbie Putnam (Monette Magrath), his two older sons Peter (Stephen Rockwell) and Simeon (Christopher Fairbanks) decide to leave for the greener pastures of gold digging in California.  The young one, Eben Cabot (Jason Dechert) decides to take up his birthright, the farm, and gives them his father’s gold taken from Eben’s deceased mother.  The new mother is initially hated by Eben, because she wants to claim the farm as her own after aged Ephraim’s death, but when Ephraim fails to impregnate her, she is urged on by her attraction to Eben.  When Abbie gives birth to Eben’s son, the neighbors mock the aged Ephraim, who thinks the child is his, and hence the heir to the farm.

Eben is angry that Abbie had conspired against him, and tells her he wished his son was never born.  Fate strikes as the wounded Abbie decide to kill her own new-born to prove to Eben that she loves him, but upon the baby’s death, Eben turns against her, disgusted by her act, and informs the Sheriff (Dale Sandlin), but once he realizes her love for him is real, he urges her to escape with him.  The law, however, decrees that someone must pay.

Hunt’s performance is one of the highlights of this production.  His Ephraim is old, rugged, proud, and very funny.  He can beat his son in a fight, and even when he realized he was cuckold, he gives off venom to see his wife and son brought to justice.  Perhaps he’s the only one who can be trusted to defeat lonesomeness as he is left to tend the farm on his own at the end.  His demeanour makes his complete blindness to his wife’s affair believable, and he even treats us to a celebratory dance of sorts.

Magrath and Dechert have chemistry together, especially in their conflicting moments, such as when they misconstrue each other about the existence of their child and when Eben suggests that they elope while Abbie insists on “atoning for our sins.”  Their anguish is what drives the play on.  Magrath portrays an Abbie who is not so much a victim but a spirited follower who succumbs to her own heart.

The mood of the play is dark, as almost all O’Neill plays should be, but the musical interludes, especially those involving the Fiddler (Endre Balogh), are eerie, and brings a sense of getting lost in the play.  Most importantly, the play goes into a climax after an hour and a half of slow grappling, until at long last, fates collide, and we are left with astonishment.

“Desire Under the Elms” runs at A Noise Within (http://www.anoisewithin.org) in Pasadena, California, until 18 of December.

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Review: Our Town.

“Of all sad words of mouth and pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been,’” writes John Greenleaf Whittier in his homage to a friend undiscovered, “Maud Muller.”  “It might have been” is how the past residents of Grover’s Corner reminisce about life after they’ve gone to their graves in a nostalgic production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” by the Actor’s Gang of Culver City.

Director Justin Zsebe makes it immediately clear that the play is about people.  As the day begins, an imaginary cow is led to the stage by a burly Howie Newsome, as the Gibbses and the Webbs have imaginary breakfast on an imaginary table.  George Gibb even takes his imaginary backpack to school.  A rope serves as a ladder at one point, while swings replace gravestones.  The minimal props in “Our Town” serves to remind us that this town could be any town, because the people in a town are sufficient to tell all the stories; in particular, the town could be Culver City.

Although Wilder intended for the play to have an interactive element, this production of “Our Town” makes it especially relevant to us by using audience participation to dissect both the social forces of Our Town and how we could relate to it.

It all starts with the character of the Stage Manager, played by Steven M. Porter, and his inviting smile and matter-of-fact style of speaking.  At one point, he holds a question-and-answer session with the audience and the town’s newspaper editor Charles Webb.  After Mr. Webb gives some demographic data suggesting that Grover’s Corner is “86 percent Republican, 6 percent Democrats, 4 percent Socialist, and the rest indifferent,” the audience members step up to ask him about the social situation in Grover’s Corner.  A man asks if there’s any culture in the town, and a woman asks if there’s much drinking.  Editor Webb’s quaintly dismisses the questions, and tells us all that the people of Grover’s Corner have little interest in social justice.  The tone set by Charles Webb is evident throughout the first two acts of the play, in which people mill about doing their daily work, unconcerned about anything that lies beyond themselves.

The town’s treatment of the drunken church choir director Simon Stimson is typical of the attitude engendered by the characters in the play as well as the Stage Manager himself.  While no one actually goes out of her way to alienate Stimson, everyone dismisses him as a lunatic by virtue of his drunkenness.  Just as there is no movement for social justice in Grover’s Corner, there is no acceptance of, nor help for those with psychological or addiction problems.  Even as the women talk behind Stimson’s back, no one steps up to sing at Fred Hersey’s wedding when Stimson asks for help.  It’s no wonder that at the end of the play, the dead Stimson is prompted to call the happy existence of Our Town the result of “ignorance and blindness.”

A successful performance of “Our Town” relies on being able to lure the audience into a complete sense of security during the first two acts.  The Actor’s Gang production does this by playing with humor that is not specifically ordered by Wilder.  For instance, the Stage Manager ushers in Professor Willard to give a physical description of Grover’s Corner.  What comes across from the script of the play is the caricature of a academics type who doesn’t understand what the audience is after, but Scott Harris’s performance provides much more than that.  First, he enters gingerly as if on tip-toe, sweating like a nervous wreck.   When he tries to speak, he ends up muttering “er, er, anthropological data…”  Perhaps the funniest moment is when Professor Willard describes the fossils found in Silas Peckham’s cow pasture that “may be seen in the museum at the University at any time–er, er, that is, er, at any, er, reasonable time.”  When we laugh at Dr. Willard we lose that security barrier we form around plays that give a moral message.  While watching, we feel like the play really is just as advertised, the simple narration of small town life.  We don’t probe the small details that emerge as important elements later in the work, and we lose the sense of urgency that comes with death.

“Our Town,” as much as it invites us to reminisce about life, is about death and the regret that comes with death.   Perhaps the most frightening thing about death is that it can occur so quickly without us ever being aware of its possibility.  Just when everything is going well in Grover’s Corner and new families like that of Emily Webb and George Gibbs are formed, we are hit with the fact that at some point, they all died.  We learn that Emily died in child birth; Wally Webb died of an appendix burst; Simon Stimson committed suicide.   Newly dead characters enter the stage to sit on a swing, a metaphor for their stay in Purgatory.  All of a sudden, we are reminded of our own mortality.

Perhaps death wouldn’t be so bad if we never regreted.  When Emily Webb goes back in time to witness her own twelfth birthday celebration, she bursts out crying.  “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” she asks.  Perhaps a few saints and poets, suggests the Stage Manager.  Amidst all these deaths, the people of Grover’s Corners have perished without ever realizing what they could have gotten out of life.

The Stage Manager urges us to go home and sleep, causing one member of the audience to wonder what “it might have been,” both for the people of Grover’s Corners and for ourselves.

“Our Town” is playing through July 11 at the Ivy Substation in Culver City.

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Review: Doomsday Kiss.

What happens when you know you’re about to die? In the world of “Doomsday Kiss,” a new work playing until May 10 at the Bootleg theatre, it’s time to bring the drinks to the party, get the show started, and well, just make love.

REPO division’s production of the collaborative work written by Eva Anderson, Clay Hazelwood, Wesley Walker, and Sharon Yablon takes place in an indeterminate future in which survivors of apocalypse attempt to find meaning for their lack of real existence.

For one pair of newlyweds on a cruise ship, impending doom means an excuse to get liquored up, because gaining weight through beer drinking no longer matters when they get back to land, which will happen when they sink with their ship. For another pair of newlyweds, it’s a time to figure out each other. Unfortunately for the new wife, she finds out that her husband is “the worst person (she has) ever met.” It also means it’s time to find a new love partner between now and the time she dies.

Babar Peerzada gives an understated but credible performance as the cruise ship’s bartender, a hunky Nebraskan heartthrob often mistakened for a foreign citizen. Jessica Hanna and Michael Dunn, however, stand out as a couple of chubby, middle aged stereotypes of marriage who flirt around with each other constantly physically and verbally, prompting the viewer to immediately exclaim “yuck.” They seem to epitomize the “kiss” in “Doomsday Kiss.”

The situation at an office is a bit more desperate. Here, a sexual revolution may be going on. For example, one woman, who is unable to have orgasms because she is past fourty, gets a–shall we say–strategic massage from a holistic medicine type who wears a bandana and a Native American outfit. Meanwhile, a middle aged office worker tiles calendars on the floor and complains about his sex life–well, at least he doesn’t have to worry about that anymore, since his wife is now presumably dead.

Tina Van Berckelaer plays the woman, who hobbles around on one good leg, complaining about love in general. She is overshadowed a bit by Mickey Swenson, the artistic therapist turned floor sweeper who keeps talking about the lesbians he saw upstairs. He didn’t think they’d still exist after the catastrophe. His geeky but down-to-earth personality makes him identifiable as the sixties hippies type turned postmodern poet.

“Doomsday Kiss” is a collaborative effort amongst four playwrights, and some times, the collaboration is not supposed to be smooth. Each of the four plays deals with a sort of post-apocalyptic transformation, but the themes of the plays don’t always relate. In particular, the section on “The Class Room” seems out of place, as it deals with child molestation more than with love. The play-within-a-play “Who Is Randall Maxit?” is separated into four parts and interweaved within “Doomsday Kiss,” serving as a common point of reference, but it is difficult to see how the Maxit section relates to, for example, “Fun Days At Sea.”

“Doomsday Kiss” is also a multidisciplinary effort. The set consists of projections onto a block-like structure, as well as a TV that fills in the premise of the play as post-biological-chemical-catastrophe. The Bootleg theatre also has an exhibition of postmodern art in the lobby that includes Rigo Maldonado’s “Hope, 4_”x6_”x1_”,” a sculpture of two humans attached to each other by a branch that goes through the navels. The most remarkable art work on display may be Vincent Villafranca’s “Goggles Hiding Tears,” which suggests that even androids are afraid of nuclear catastrophe.

If there’s one constant amongst the play’s many diverse, unmeshed elements is the performance of Gray Palmer as Randall Maxit. Maxit, a scientist who is supposed to have been responsible for the world’s great disaster, makes muffins that contaminates a random proportion of the population. Although not terrified, the audience to shocked to find out that those muffins out in the lobby may have come from the same stock. Palmer takes his role as deranged scientist very seriously in the work, telling the audience to hurry to his brand of future.

One of the most effective scenes in “Doomsday Kiss” involves Maxit being interviewed by Mindy and Wendy in a sham show that deals with “how the cookie crumbles.” After much prodding, Maxit admits to whatever crimes he has committed, and the conversation is recorded by telephone. Who is really guilty of this ridiculous transformation of the world from sanity to madness? Maxit thinks it’s his fault, but perhaps the blame goes science. “Doomsday Kiss,” however, doesn’t really care. It just wants to have fun.

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