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Enter 'Exit Wounds' and 'Kill Shelter'. Don't kill the Colony.
Plus 'A View From the Bridge,' 'Exorcistic,' 'The Bluest Eye,' CTG's latest, and more
Greater LA is currently the home of two new and complex scripts that examine hot-button life-or-death arenas, from refreshingly unexpected perspectives. Not surprisingly, the LA Times has yet to review either of them.
Closing soonest — this coming Sunday — is Wendy Graf’s “Exit Wounds,” at International City Theatre in Long Beach. I saw it shortly after the Cook’s Corner shooting in Orange County — and on the same day as the racist slaughter of three people by a young white gunman in Jacksonville. In the latter carnage, the shooter reportedly texted his father from the crime scene and told him to go into his room, where his father found a will and a suicide note. The father called 911, but it was too late to save anyone — his son had already shot himself dead.
This murderer’s message to his father, reported two days after the fact, made “Exit Wounds” especially resonant. For Graf’s play is about the long-term effects of a (fictitious) mass murder/suicide on the family of the murderer, decades after the grisly shooting/suicide took place.
The leading character is the killer’s rapidly aging mother (Suanne Spoke, as a magnificently messed-up hoarder) who blames herself because she introduced him to the world of guns. But the shooter’s now-middle-aged brother Matt (Michael Polak), who has been estranged from his mother, suddenly seeks her assistance because he thinks that she could help his own son Danny (Hayden Kharrazi) — who wasn’t alive when the shooting occurred and doesn’t even know about it. Matt has seen symptoms in Danny that he fears might lead the teenager to die as his uncle died.
It seems a bit unlikely that Danny hadn’t heard about this shadow on his family history. But otherwise Graf masterfully weaves together this terrible-family-secrets narrative with, of course, a sideways glance at American gun culture. The result becomes absorbing and ultimately moving in caryn desai’s staging.
In the foreground of Ashley Rose Wellman’s “Kill Shelter”, currently playing through October 1 in Hollywood, are two hot-button issues — “kill shelters” in which abandoned pets who aren’t adopted are euthanized to make room for others who might be adopted, and the newly recharged topic of human abortions.
Wellman tells the story of Colleen, an animal-shelter worker who gently euthanizes animals when it’s deemed necessary, and her sometimes feisty relationship with her teenaged daughter, who was born when Colleen herself was 17. At the same time, both mother and daughter are developing romances with young men who conceivably could impregnate them.
This wide-ranging story is produced in the very intimate Theatre of NOTE. Two different casts alternate performances in the human roles. Shaina Rosenthal’s staging also includes puppets — created by Emory Royston — who depict animals going through euthanasia, assisted by cast members who handle the puppets and voice some of the animals’ reactions to their conditions. Too precious? No, in the theater — assisted by changes in the sound and lighting design — these scenes introduce stylized moments that provide an effective counterpoint to the realism of the rest of the production.
An omniscient narrator is just about the only exception to the realism in Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge.” This stormy drama, first produced in two acts in 1956, focuses on the unhappily married Brooklyn dockworker Eddie Carbone. While he and his wife are hosting two young illegal Italian immigrants on his tenement floor, he begins to resent — for apparently unsavory reasons — the budding attraction between one of the immigrants and his teenaged niece.
Before seeing it last month in Santa Monica, I had last seen “A View” in 2016, at the vast Ahmanson Theatre, in a production imported from Britain to Broadway before reaching LA. A relatively small portion of the Ahmanson audience was seated around the stage to give the production a “fishbowl” feeling (at reduced ticket prices). But the critics were not among those seated on the stage. LA Times critic Charles McNulty wrote that he had “fears that the theater would be too cavernous, but from where I was sitting the production established the necessary intimacy.” I didn’t share that opinion. I wrote, in LA Observed, that I felt that I had “a view from the back.”
No one will feel that way in Mike Reilly’s intense revival at the tiny Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica. The venue itself feels almost as cramped as the tenement. Everyone in the audience is just a few feet away from the action. Fortunately, the production maintains high performance standards. Ray Abruzzo’s Eddie is a powder keg. The Ruskin Group is planning to move into two somewhat larger spaces to the west, but in the meantime it’s as if we have a view from the Carbones’ front doorway.
No matter where you sit, you will also feel in the middle of the action throughout much of “Exorcistic,” Michael Shaw Fisher’s musical parody of the original “The Exorcist” film, at Three Clubs, on Vine in Hollywood. I had not seen “The Exorcist” (the novel and screenplay were by William Peter Blatty, and the film was directed by the late William Friedkin, not at all as a parody) since…well, so long ago that I had forgotten most of the details. So I watched it on the day preceding my visit to “Exorcistic,” and I’m glad I did. I doubt that the experience would be as funny without a recent refresher course in the original.
Still, Emma Hunton’s wickedly bawdy performance as the possessed woman-child might well possess even those who never saw the movie — it’s that commanding. And she’s surrounded by a crack supporting cast, backed up by a hard-driving band and a few effects that turn the bare-bones stage into something else entirely.
Thinking out loud: how about a Colony/CTG partnership?
In the last couple of decades, too many midsize venues that once offered professional theatrical runs of productions — which would last at least several weeks and sometimes several months — became concert, comedy and/or special-event one-night or one-weekend-only spaces. Other such theaters now stand empty and decaying.
I recently attended an arts-funding symposium at the still-shiny midsize Burbank Center Stage, a city-owned property and longtime home of the Colony Theatre. It began with both a welcome and a warning from the event host, the Colony’s producing artistic director Heather Provost. She alerted us to a proposal for the city to turn the Colony’s 268-seat venue over to a YMCA and its community-theater partner. If you want to read more of the details, here they are in myBurbank.com.
My plea to Burbank: Please don’t de-professionalize one of LA County’s best midsize theater venues. If you’re the “Media Capital of the World,” as you sometimes claim, you could at least help the Colony re-develop its standing as the professional theater capital of the San Fernando Valley.
Has anyone in Burbank or downtown LA looked into whether Center Theatre Group could possibly work with Burbank and the Colony to use its Valley venue as a substitute for the Kirk Douglas Theatre next year, when CTG’s Douglas in Culver City is slated to be closed for next-door construction, joining the long “pause” in production at CTG’s Mark Taper Forum? Such an arrangement could not only help the Colony but also might help CTG attract more Valley theatergoers.
Greater LA arts funders should do everything possible to support and revive the tier of midsize venues, including the Colony and the Douglas. These spaces offer audiences a lot more intimacy than the larger theaters, as well as midsize ticket prices, but they also provide higher wages to theater artists and staff than the compensation at most smaller theaters.
‘Bluest Eye’ has the blues
A Noise Within got a jump on other midsize companies by opening its fall season last Saturday — before Labor Day — with Lydia Diamond’s 2006 adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel “The Bluest Eye”. I missed its first LA County production, in Santa Monica in 2011, so I was looking forward to Andi Chapman’s staging in Pasadena. But I found Diamond’s version somewhat convoluted.
It’s easier to follow flashbacks in a novel than it is in a play, especially if they’re set in several locations. Furthermore, confusion mounts when actors play more than one role without sufficient differentiation in terms of age, costume and other markers, and when some characters narrate as well as participate in the action. One more complicating factor is that the material is challenging enough that the children’s roles are played here — and probably in most productions — by young adults instead of kids closer to the characters’ stated ages (9, 10, 11).
Diamond’s script is mostly grim, focusing on the shame felt by a girl from a broken Black family, who yearns for her eyes to become blue. It’s set in the early ‘40s, when her reading primers featured the white suburban “Dick and Jane” characters. But director Chapman added a rousing opening number, not mentioned in the script, in which the characters arrive on the stage singing and dancing in what could pass for a Black church revival.
When I asked about it via the publicist, Chapman responded that her new opening is “a metaphor of joy-filled African-American communities after migrating from the South,” away from the lands where their forebears were slaves, to Northern cities such as Lorain, Ohio, where the play is set (Morrison was born and raised there, west of Cleveland). Of course in the rest of the play the migrants still feel the lingering effects of racism. The initial jubilation provides an interesting contrast in tone, but it can’t compensate for the script’s structural problems and the use of actors in more than one role.
By the way, the best play about African-American rites of passage into a white-dominated world that I’ve seen recently was Dominique Morisseau’s much more contemporary and streamlined “Pipeline,” staged by Bryan Keith at the Art of Acting Studio in Hollywood. Unfortunately it opened and closed, too soon, in August.
I know, the above commandment is an essential ingredient of theatergoing. We shouldn’t fret about whether what we’re seeing is théâtre-vérité. Staged theater is never totally literal. Artists should feel free to let their imaginations wander. However…
Recently I’ve seen several productions that veer so far into the fantastical or simply into the unlikely that they seem unmoored to any real-life concerns.
Let’s start with the two current productions from Center Theatre Group — which, in the context of the disconcerting vacancies at the Mark Taper Forum and, next year, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre — appear as if they might be the last two non-musicals that CTG is offering until next summer.
At the Ahmanson Theatre is “Peter Pan Goes Wrong,” a UK-born import that closed on Broadway in July and immediately moved west to the Music Center. From the British comedy troupe Mischief, who brought “The Play That Goes Wrong” murder-mystery parody to the Ahmanson in 2019, it follows the same formula as its predecessor — a performance of an amateur theater company collapses to an unbelievable extent, especially in the deployment of props and sets but also in supposedly unintended glimpses of the players’ relations with each other.
“Peter Pan Goes Wrong” provides a few reliable LOL moments, and its premise is marginally more interesting than the previous show’s murder-mystery premise. But it’s totally divorced from anything of substance. If I want LOLs from slapstick sketches, I’d rather watch the much briefer “Carol Burnett Show” reruns than spend money or time on more of these “Goes Wrong” episodes.
Meanwhile, at the Douglas in Culver City, Alexis Scheer’s “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” makes it Difficult to suspend Disbelief. Four teenaged girls, classmates at a private school in Florida in 2008, have formed a school-approved club that honors dead people. They meet in an elaborate treehouse, with rites that supposedly involve animal sacrifice. Their current crush is drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, who materializes at the end of the play, speaking in Spanish (but English translations of his words are distributed as playgoers exit). Lindsay Allbaugh directed.
It doesn’t help that the girls’ conversations — in English — overlap so extensively. I didn’t understand a few basic facts about these girls until I read the script (I was seated far to the left, so perhaps I missed some of the visual cues). Still, even after reading the script, my reaction was…Huh? Why should we care?
I probably should care about the characters in “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” Will Arbery’s play at Rogue Machine’s home at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose. They’re young adults who are Catholic conservatives. We seldom see characters such as these in modern American plays. For nearly two hours (no intermission), they talk about their somewhat conflicting concerns as they re-unite at the small Wyoming college they attended, and at one point they’re joined by the college’s new president — who is also the mother of one of the young women.
But all of their words, words, words can’t explain two events near the end of the play that appear to suggest that demons might lurk here, too, as in “Exorcistic” and “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord.” No clarity about this emerges in Guillermo Cienfuegos’ otherwise super-articulate staging. Also, out of nowhere, the college president offers a job as dean of admissions to the most inebriated of the young grads. Huh?
Realms beyond the rational are even more dominant in “Elephant Shavings,” at the Odyssey Theatre. Written as well as directed by the company’s founding father Ron Sossi, the play begins with a message from “the Great Spirit,” then continues with a lively backstage debate among actors who have just completed a performance — and whose beliefs are at different points on the spectrum between the spiritual and the rational. Yet after this scene, any sense of dramatic conflict subsides as the play focuses on the quietest of the characters and her journey into the spiritual.
Not that this character, Lizzie who’s “pushing 50,” hasn’t had some recent drama in her life— she offers a very brief summary of her woes to a younger colleague. But then the rest of the play is about her healing process, eventually accompanied by a helpful mystic who initially appears as a caretaker of the theater. Apparently Lizzie’s journey is completed only when she becomes invisible to her fellow actors, whatever that means. Fortunately Sossi’s direction is much more coherent than his script.