Friday, January 20, 2012

Good, Solid Theater

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Dir. Phylicia Rashad. The Ebony Repertory Theatre at The Kirk Douglas Theatre. 1/20/12.

This is really an excellent production of an excellent classic play. Everyone involved should be congratulated. The story of the Younger family fighting for opportunities to climb out of working poverty feels relevant and contemporary and political, despite the fact that it's a fairly traditional performance of a play that's 50 years old.

The most notable thing about this play is how real all of the characters feel. Even though Walter Lee's wounded masculinity dominates and terrorizes a houseful of strong, hard-working women, he often appears as the sympathetic center of the play in a way that feels human and realistic. This play makes strong political arguments while providing emotional insight into a range of characters. Their struggle is both high-stakes and absolutely ordinary. All of this is delivered powerfully by strong, sensitive actors in a really good-looking production. It's a fabulous ensemble of talented performers working with great material.

It's always nice to see CTG doing work that isn't by and about middle-aged, middle-class white men. A Raisin in the Sun is a breath of fresh air; I really must congratulate them for doing this partnership with Ebony Rep and for producing this and Fela and Clybourne Park all at the same time. I'm actually seeing new, non-white faces in the audience in addition to the excellent talent onstage.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Not about Sisters

Sun Sisters by Vasanti Saxena. Company of Angels at The Alexandria Hotel. 9/2/11.

It's been years since I've seen something at Company of Angels. They're one of those companies I trust to do solid, interesting new work that I never quite get myself there to see. I am so glad I made it out there last night! I knew Sun Sisters had some kind of queer content, but I had somehow failed to get the message of how interesting and relevant and personal it would feel to me. I went expecting an Asian-American family drama, which it was, but not the intensely personal story of lesbian and queer identities across time that it turned out to be. Even writing about it, I'm totally ambivalent because the thing I want to tell my own friends and community about the play and why it is relevant to them may or may not spoil a dramatic revelation that is central to the plot. I suppose since it closes tonight, I don't have to worry to much about ruining it, but if you have a chance to see it, you should, especially my lesbian, queer, and trans friends.

So instead of describing the plot, I will tell you that the performances are truly excellent. This is a play in which all of the main characters are Asian-American women, and the actors show their skills brilliantly. Momo Yashima as mother and Andrea Lwin as daughter had a beautifully contentious, loving but painful relationship that felt so familiar to me from some of my interactions with my mother, and from my mom's interactions with her mother.

The play takes place now (or maybe the '90s), but also in flashbacks to the 1960s. It explores the mother's hidden past and a lost love played by Jully Lee. I want to go into all the details of gender identity and queer politics that this performance and this story evokes, but perhaps I shouldn't. Suffice it to say, while I would have cast a more butch actor, Lee played it quite sensitively and convincingly. While the queer politics may not be perfect, they feel personal and real in a way that is still unusual in many plays I see. And I loved seeing the overlapping communities within the audience respond to different parts of the story. There were those laughing with recognition at the 1000 Year Egg joke, and those laughing with recognition at the queer jokes. And, to me at least, they both felt lovely and authentic.

So where does the "Sun Sisters" come in if it's not a play about sisters, you ask? Well, it's a reference to a folk tale and multiple possible interpretations of what the story teaches us. I would have liked to see a little more made of this tale, visually, in the production. It's a lovely lens through which to view the show, but maybe it should have been told or alluded to early in the performance as a framing device. Instead, there's an architecture lecture that opens the show and recurs throughout that is quite important but not exactly a compelling hook.

Anyway, if you're looking for a good queer Asian-American play, I highly recommend this one. I'm definitely interested in seeing what Vasanti Saxena does next. If you have a chance to see this production tonight, you should go, but otherwise, I'd like to see this particular play have more of a life. And I'll have to be more vigilant about keeping Company of Angels on my radar.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Surprisingly Good Musical about Group Therapy

Group: A Musical. Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble. Stella Adler Theatre. 6/23/11.

I must admit, I wasn't too excited about going to a new musical about group therapy. In fact, the only reason I went was because friends of mine had met the playwright, Adam Emperor Southard, at Hollywood Fringe events and thought he was a cool guy. My skepticism, however, was clearly and dramatically proven wrong. The musical wasn't perfect, really, and it's not a concept I inherently like at all, but I was laughing in the beginning and crying by the end, so I seem to have bought in completely despite myself.

There's something so sweet and honest about this little musical, with its dark humor and modest setting, that I couldn't help but appreciate it. It has some rough moments, particularly in the beginning, and particularly with the coming out storyline, which hit closest to home for me and therefore felt the most awkward when the reactions or emotions (or the rhymes) didn't ring quite true to my own experience. There's a little bit of a tendency toward reductive pop psychology, but honestly much less than I would have expected. Mostly, the concept of group therapy is a plausible and compelling backdrop for people to talk about their problems and forge difficult friendships and as such, it really works.

The LA Theatre Ensemble actors, who worked on a run of this show in January and returned to remount it for the Fringe Festival, all gave excellent, heartfelt performances dealing with some rough emotional subjects without feeling heavy at all. Their singing wasn't always spectacular, but there were some beautiful notes and moments that made up for the bits that were a little off. I really need to go see more LATE stuff. They clearly do good work.

Overall, you should absolutely go see this musical at its last two fringe performances this weekend. And I really hope this show has legs to get more productions, maybe a bit more workshopping and refining. This is the sort of musical that could be done anywhere, as it takes place in one small room, but needs and showcases some exceptional acting and singing talent (and 3 extremely skilled onstage musicians). It's a very good small-scale, raw, personal musical that could be perfect for small theaters and second stage spaces all over.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

More than Company

Last night I went to a screening in a movie theater of Stephen Sondheim's Company performed by the New York Philharmonic and starring Neil Patrick Harris as Bobby. Somehow, this production was a revelation in a way that I haven't experienced with previous versions. The production itself was magnificent, with its lush orchestral sounds, star-studded cast and spectacular precision, but it was more than that. The performances were tight and nuanced and thoughtful in ways that made me think about and feel the meaning of the play in ways I hadn't before.

Perhaps it's where I am in my life now that shifted the meaning of the show for me. Being over thirty and having friends who are married and having children, and more importantly having long conversations over many beers with friends evaluating and agonizing over desires to or not to get married and have children, certainly made me think differently and more personally about the relationships and life choices depicted in the musical. But I think there were details of this production and the truly skilled acting of Neil Patrick Harris in particular that made me rethink the show as well. I have always loved and appreciated Company, but this time I felt it and it felt true and right and honest and scary in ways that it never has before.

The show was completely sexy (mmm... Neil Patrick Harris and Christina Hendricks in bed together) and completely cynical (although Elaine Stritch still beats Patti LuPone in my mind for sheer joyous drunken cynicism) and yet managed to communicate a deeper, more reflective meditation on marriage than I have ever felt. My own personal philosophies about building a community of friendships rather than focusing on the individual or couple was both reflected and challenged as I watched the performances onscreen, and the beloved friend who had been meditating, Bobby-like, on marriage realized that his own individual agonies were more common, perhaps universal, than he thought. Part of me smiled ironically when I watched "Side by Side by Side" and reflected on it as a depiction of a bunch of heterosexual married couples who relied on the unappreciated and unreciprocated labor of the queer person excluded from the institution of marriage (Harris, not Bobby) to keep the institution of marriage going. Though I could have used more of "Being Alive" at the end, with Harris's heartbreaking high notes, the end of the play is beautiful and bittersweet in a way that reconciles my own personal cynicism about marriage with possibilities of Bobby's personal transformation and leaves me happy and hopeful. It's an unbelieveably lovely, detailed, tight production filled with consummate professional performers. I highly recommend it and I will be rushing to buy it if and when it comes to DVD.

Monday, June 20, 2011

See This Fringe Show: Headscarf and the Angry Bitch

Headscarf and the Angry Bitch by Zehra Fazal. Theatre Asylum. Hollywood Fringe Festival. 6/19/11.

Zehra Fazal's one woman show about growing up and coming out as a Pakistani-American Muslim is a witty romp through family, sex and post-9-11 politics. Under the guise of a community-outreach lecture series on Muslim American culture, Fazal's combination of monologue and music were refreshing with just the right amount of sharp-tongued personal detail. The show was more friendly and approachable than stridently political and mostly demonstrated Fazal's excellent performance skills. I highly recommend you see this show.

Headscarf is performing next Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Get there; it truly deserves a loud, adoring audience!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Seriously Wacky Clowning

Four Clowns. Sacred Fools Theater. Los Angeles. 5/27/11.

Whenever a friend says to me, "Hey, want to see a show?," my default response is "Sure! Why not?" Tonight, like many other nights, that resulted in a late night trip to Sacred Fools.

I didn't really love Four Clowns, but I was impressed by the hard work and zany skills of four very talented performers. The show really blossomed when the actors were off script, either improvising with audience suggestions or just clowning around between scenes.

The piece revolves around the 4 types of clowns, the angry clown, the nervous clown, the mischievous clown, and the sad clown, so I was expecting a demonstration of these different comedic archetypes. However, what Four Clowns really does is provide each of these clowns with a backstory and follows them through 4 stages of life (childhood, adolescence, adulthood/work, and death). At first, I pretty much hated this pop psychology approach to clowning and was more offended than amused by the depictions of childhood abuse and neglect. As it moved past childhood, though, the play grew on me, and grew increasingly humorous. When the clowns hit their stride, I really did find myself laughing, and really, what else do I want from clowns?

From a gender and sexuality perspective, this isn't exactly the best play ever. Alexis Jones as the Sad Clown was the only woman in the cast, and as such she portrayed some pretty terrible mothers in addition to her own abject state as victim of emotional abuse. However, she absolutely held her own in the physicality of the clowning and had some really great moments of dancing and movement that I loved. Similarly, Amir Levi as the Nervous Clown started out portraying some gay cliches (and a truly awful abusive mother), but moved beyond them to depict a sweet and then heartbreaking first date with Angry Clown Raymond Lee.

The best moments of the play were absolutely the moments without words and the moments when the clowns were freest to improvise. The use of nonsense and gobbledygook to replace dialogue created truly wonderful moments. When two clowns playing teenage bullies carried on an entire conversation using only words "dude" and "bro," I was absolutely delighted by the creativity and expressiveness of their dialogue. This is one of the few shows I can honestly say the less dialogue the better; the mumbles and silences showcased the physicality and creativity that are absolutely the strengths of this show.

While I didn't love this piece, I absolutely respect it. If you're interested in some seriously dark, sometimes offensive explorations of what clowning can communicate, this is totally the show for you. And during the Fringe Festival, the same actors will be doing something titled Four Clowns: Romeo and Juliet, which I think just might be awesome. Since for me the script was the difficult point of this production, I think I just might love them when they're using Shakespeare's plot instead.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Lesbian Comedy Marathon

This weekend! (and the following two weekends Nov. 5-21)! Fabulous lesbian stand-up comedy/performance art. Local Los Angeles chicana lesbiana performance artist Adelina Anthony is presenting her whole Hocicona trilogy in sequence and I for one am super excited to be seeing all three pieces. In fact, I'm a little worried for my face, because when I have come from Anthony's shows in the past, the muscles in my face have been sore from laughing so much. I'm not sure I can take the 3 days in a row workout, but I'll be there to try.

I've seen the first of Anthony's pieces, "La Angry Xicana", several times already, so I can attest that it's delightful and hilarious. In it, Anthony discusses politics, Hollywood, and whatever else is on her mind or makes her angry. Every time I see it, it feels fresh and new.

In "La Sad Girl," which I have seen in early workshops but not in a finalized form, Anthony dons kinky goth-ish clothing and discusses break-ups, BDSM, and other subjects of a personal (fictional) nature. The refrain "Que Sad!" echos throughout the piece, but only becomes funnier each time.

The third piece, "La Chismosa," I have only seen in excerpts. Anthony adopts the persona of a knocked-up gossip to discuss politics and popular culture, using live facebook posts to share chisme about her audience. Last time I saw parts of it, it had some very serious professors rolling in the aisles.

What is a 'hocicona,' you ask? Well a moment of googling seems to suggest that it means "snout" or "long-nosed" when associated with various animals (ie the longnosed stingray is called the raya hocicona and the snouted chinchbug is the chinche hocicona), but associated with humans, the word most commonly means "big-mouthed" or "foul-mouthed." This interview with Anthony defines it as "a shameless, big-mouthed backtalker." Indeed, Anthony is wonderfully shameless in her comedy and she definitely gets the last word.

I can personally attest that all 3 pieces are on their own hilarious and brilliantly critical. I can't wait to see them all together. So brush up on your Spanglish and prepare some of your sexiest outfits, because Anthony's audiences are pretty darn hot. Just don't walk in late or leave your cell phone on, because Anthony is known to ridicule mercilessly any audience member that catches her attention. Don't say I didn't warn you!