Tag Archives: theater

Theater: CityShakes presents ‘The Merchant of Venice’

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Underneath twinkling rope lights in the exposed-brick back room of a storefront in Santa Monica, the City Shakespeare Company brings to life “The Merchant of Venice” with a strong cast, effective stylistic choices and a beautiful performance space.

The company makes the most of a minimal set and places the audience on a few rows of wooden benches right in the middle of the action.

If it’s been a while since high school English class, the plotline of “The Merchant of Venice” essentially follows Antonio (Todd Elliott), who takes out a loan from Shylock (Peter Nikkos) in order to fund his friend Bassanio’s (David Hartstone) quest to woo Portia (Allison Volk), the heiress, under the condition that if the loan is not repaid, Shylock is entitled to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Although typically considered a comedy, “The Merchant of Venice” throws in some intense dramatic scenes (Shylock’s attempting to forcibly remove the aforementioned flesh from Antonio’s chest in open court comes to mind, for instance). These moments are especially powerful in the intimate space: the audience members in the front row are directly confronted by Nikkos as Shylock during the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue, among others.

But, really, this production’s excellence lies in its brilliantly-executed comedy. The supporting cast is as strong as the leads, and the jokes land effortlessly.

Daniel Landberg and Gilbert Martinez are particularly fantastic in their comedic ensemble roles. These two are instrumental in making CityShakes’ production of “The Merchant of Venice” as accessible and laugh-out-loud funny as it is. Additionally, Landberg scores the play with acoustic guitar-playing throughout and interjects a few original songs during key scene changes that help advance the storyline.

CityShakes’ production is so well done, the only real flaws come from the source material itself. “The Merchant of Venice” isn’t often performed in contemporary theaters — most likely because of the hard-to-ignore, heavy-handed anti-Semitism. Shylock is clearly portrayed as a villainous, vengeful Jew in contrast to the righteous and merciful Christian characters. During the play’s denouement, they tell Shylock that they’re going to force him to convert to Christianity, and that’s the happy ending to his story.

Considering these problems exist within Shakespeare’s text, the theater company does a fair job presenting the story and emphasizing mercy and forgiveness as the overall themes of this production. Although, even the play’s portrayal of mercy is questionable, since Shylock is unflinchingly hell-bent on revenge and has to be lectured about compassion by Portia. Director Brooke Bishop addresses this issue in the playbill, writing, “The Merchant of Venice is often thought to have been written from a place of hate — we invite you to watch out production from a place of love, and see what you discover.”

Still, the City Shakespeare Company’s “Merchant of Venice” is an outstanding artistic production. It is incredibly charming in its moments of comedy and romance, and thought-provoking in its most dramatic scenes. It is, altogether, definitely worth watching.

‘The Merchant of Venice’

1454 Lincoln Blvd.

8 p.m. Thursday – Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday

Tickets are $20, or pay-what-you-can at the door on Thursday

For more information, visit www.cityshakes.org.

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Live: Monthly services of the almighty Opp

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The almighty Opp. SCREAMfmLondon

It was one of those nights I really appreciate living in LA.

I was walking up Western Avenue toward Hollywood after checking out “Hail to the King, Baby,” a Bruce Campbell-themed art show at the Agit Gallery in the heart of Koreatown. I heard I missed Bruce Campbell himself by about 40 minutes, and it was kind of a bummer.

But, as I’m walking, I notice a small crowd is gathered outside of a Korean auto repair shop watching a knee-high stage that is producing a very loud, jangly, disharmonious type of music.

When I peer through the crowd, I discover (to my delight) that I’m watching a puppet show: a marionette clown is using a seesaw to catapult a baby doll into a tin can, and another marionette has a rapidly-inflating balloon for a head. The balloon head finally explodes after moments of suspense, and the audience cheers.

“They do this on the last Saturday of every month. At this street corner,” the girl standing next to me clarifies, pointing around to the Giant Dollar store across the street.

The discordant music becomes hypnotic, and before I know it, I’m settled in to watch the rest of the show, enraptured.

I’ve unknowingly stumbled upon one of the monthly services of the almighty Opp, a “rapidly growing friendship network” that uses a combination of puppetry, live music, clowns and interactive theater spectacle to cure what ails you.

The makeshift stage stands at the corner of Western and Elmwood; it is partially comprised of a red Radio Flyer wagon, a bicycle and two black umbrellas. The craftsmanship is impeccable, though, as is the performance. It is obvious that the almighty Opp has been at this for years and has perfected the art.

Somebody hands me a chocolate cupcake. Off to my right, a couple of people pull up a crushed velvet loveseat on wheels and steady it with a few milk crates. I have no idea where it came from. There is a thunderous pop and an explosion of silver streamers and star-shaped confetti that makes its way clear across the four lanes of adjacent traffic. This is the best.

So far, the masterminds behind the almighty Opp remain a mystery to me. I can hear their voices, I can hear them playing the acoustic guitar, and I can see a couple of disembodied hands whenever they reach around the stage to spray silly string on the crowd. They are sharp-witted and hilarious from behind the curtain, but, finally, they reveal themselves.

Kranko climbs out first — his face is painted white, he is wearing striped socks and arm warmers, he has a bright red clown nose. He tosses me a miniature bottle of bubbles, and then he runs across Elmwood to begin the laborious process of stringing a puppet up between two streetlight poles.

Jeffrey follows — he is wearing a white mask and a mechanics’ jumpsuit. He comes up to each member of the audience individually, hands us a sticker, holds a mirror up for us to pose into as if he’s taking our picture, and then he gives us a hug. He doesn’t smell great, but I’ve never been so excited to wrap my arms around a strange man I came across on the street in the middle of the night.

I am pretty convinced that I witnessed some real magic out there. It was enchanting, fun and immersive. It did seem like the entire audience (some wearing combat boots and homemade patchwork vests, others in full-length gowns and top hats) was a big group of friends. I felt like, for a moment, I was a part of their network. I loved it.

I’m an almighty Opp convert. I’ll see you at next month’s service.

Theater: Allison Volk, ‘Rite of Seymour’

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Jeremy Kinser, Bilal Mir and Deborah Jensen star in ‘Rite of Seymour’ at the Son of Semele Theater. Photo courtesy of Drive Theatre Company.

It was a packed house during the closing weekend of Drive Theatre Company’s world premiere production of “Rite of Seymour” at the Son of Semele Theater.

So packed, in fact, that the start of the play was delayed as the crew scrambled to find enough chairs to accommodate the oversold audience, some of which were set up in the only aisle of the intimate space. (“If there’s an emergency… just push the chairs and run for it,” we were instructed.)

Though the space was limited, the production made impressive use of it with atmosphere-enhancing audio and visual elements. The costume design was impeccable, the makeup was very well done, and the sets were detailed and effective.

Playwright Allison Volk’s story follows Helena Gray (Mary Ellen Schneider), a 1950s housewife whose poet husband, Seymour (Robert Paterno), is slowly being “de-evolved” at the hands of a mad scientist/family practitioner (Bilal Mir). Unfortunately for Helena, she realizes this just as Seymour has entered the “homo chimextus” phase — the day before she planned a dinner party to pitch his poetry to a respected publisher.

Of course, that’s no reason to cancel a party. The event turns ultra-zany as Helena attempts to keep her husband’s transformation hidden, the doctor becomes increasingly insane, and the guests cannot keep from arguing amongst themselves.

The look of the play was truly excellent. Paterno skillfully acted as de-evolved Seymour, which, combined with his monkey makeover, was pretty disturbing. Yet convincing! The audience is initially horrified at his appearance but then grows to find him endearing, as do the characters in the play.

The set changes from the doctor’s waiting room to the Grays’ home and back again did take quite a while, but the cast made these changes in costume — often in character — which made them much more interesting. Jeremy Kinser as Mr. Anderson was especially good at this: he took advantage of all of his time onstage to keep the audience entertained and play up his character for extra laughs.

“Rite of Seymour” really excelled in its ensemble scenes. There was good chemistry among the actors, and they were able to effectively deliver jokes and play off one another in these big scenes. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson (Kinser and Deborah Jensen), in particular, gave standout performances and had the best comedic timing of the group.

More low-key scenes that featured only two characters, such as the introduction to Helena in the doctor’s office, dragged on a bit more. The doctor, who fancies himself an innovator similar to Igor Stravinsky, gave a few overly long monologues that emphasized Mir’s uncomfortable onstage demeanor and tendency to thrust his hands into his pockets while performing.

But the overall production of “Rite of Seymour” was a polished group effort. With some trimming of the script in a few key places, the play could be solidified as a more powerful force of comedy.

Theater: Eric Rudnick, ‘Day Trader’

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The Bootleg Theater. SCREAMfmLondon

“Everyone knows a career in Hollywood is a gamble, and this play asks if people can ever come to grips with the fact that a large part of gambling is losing,” playwright Eric Rudnick is quoted as saying in the playbill for the Bootleg Theater’s current production of “Day Trader.”

The play is expertly staged, using sound bites of Mo Gaffney’s soothing narration from a how-to book on day trading to break up the scenes. The ongoing theme of day trading (the buying and selling of financial instruments before the market closes for the trading day) mirrors the plot of the play as unhappily married screenwriter Ron (Danton Stone) uses his family and friends as bargaining tools in an attempt to score a fortune from his wealthy wife and, thereby, make himself finally feel meaningful.

The Bootleg Theater makes excellent use of the space, projecting elements onto the minimal backdrops and revealing a jazzy drummer (Josh Imlay) to accompany the narration during scene changes. Although Ron’s wife Brenda never makes an onstage appearance, her presence is still felt through the shadows in the background and the snippets of Shakespeare she leaves for Ron to discover at opportune moments, foreshadowing the development of the plot (“A little more than kin, and less than kind”).

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Particularly impressive is the performance of 14-year-old Brighid Fleming as Ron’s daughter Juliana. While the audience sees her deal with the dissolution of her parents’ marriage and crave a better relationship with her father, in true Hollywood fashion, we also see that she is smarter and more capable than anyone anticipates.

Ron has long been yearning for a way out of his marriage, but, as per his prenuptial agreement, he is unable to file for divorce without forfeiting the share of his wife’s fortune to which he would otherwise be entitled. When he meets a beautiful young waitress/aspiring actress named Bridget (Murielle Zuker) who wants to help him get his hands on the money (and is willing to accompany him on overnight trysts in Solvang), he thinks his luck is finally turning around.

The plot is exciting — particularly in the final act, wherein the characters show their true, twisted, morally corrupt selves. The resolution is delightfully cynical and entirely satisfying.

And, moreover, the Bootleg Theater is impressive. It’s an interesting space that hosts a number of art events, from dance and theater to live music and spoken word. The set designers and stage managers are clearly very talented. It will definitely be worth checking out what they come up with next.

‘Day Trader’ at the Bootleg Theater

2220 Beverly Blvd.
7 p.m. Thursday – Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 16
General Admission $25
Students & Seniors $20
For more information, call 213-389-3856 or visit www.bootlegtheater.org.

Theater: ‘How to Be a Rock Critic (based on the writing of Lester Bangs)’

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This is a captivating photo of the set and also an illustration of my photography expertise. SCREAMfmLondon

A crowd of bourgeois baby boomers filled a rehearsal space upstairs at the Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City on Sunday night for a one-time performance of “How to Be a Rock Critic (based on the writing of Lester Bangs).”

The performance took place two days after what would have been Bangs’ 65th birthday had the seminal rock writer not died of an overdose of Darvon, Valium and NyQuil at the age of 33.

To capture his spirit, the theater group condensed some of Bangs’ drug- and alcohol-fueled musical and cultural analyses into a live performance. “How to Be a Rock Critic” is a one-man dramatic monologue propelled by Erik Jensen, who starred in the show and, along with his wife Jessica Blank, pieced it together from thousands of pages of Bangs’ published and unpublished work.

The stage was set with two desks — one holding a typewriter and the other a record player — with a music-stand-as-podium in the middle. Jensen stumbled onstage carrying a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a paper bag full of records to begin his performance, most of which was read from a three-ring binder and interspersed with music clips, real (I think) gulps of PBR and imaginary sips of cough syrup.

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The monologue drew from a wide range of Bangs’ pieces, from his iconic album reviews to his more autobiographical and philosophical pieces. Using an encounter with the Clash as an anchor, the 80-minute performance attempted to illustrate the ups and downs of Bangs’ life as a rock critic and music fan, as well as his questions and beliefs about the general state of the being.

Throughout his encounter with the Clash, Bangs becomes enamored with the revolutionary music and the band’s connection with its audience, and then grows increasingly disenchanted as the experience wears on. This narrative arc is paralleled in many of the other featured stories. His introduction to rock ‘n roll music while growing up a Jehovah’s Witness (he found The Troggs’ “Give It To Me” particularly moving) was followed by a career of disillusionment as he saw first-hand the egotism, corporate control and hero worship that pollute the music industry. His life-affirming work as a full-time writer for “Creem” magazine ended sourly as the issues that polluted rock ‘n roll inevitably polluted rock ‘n roll journalism.

What he really captured was the true ebb and flow of things: the fact that a lifetime will include innumerable occasions of losing then regaining hope, then losing and regaining it again.

The lasting quality of Bangs’ first-person music writing proves that real entertainment journalism transcends re-writings of press releases from record labels and instead serves to connect with readers — music fans — about the way rock ‘n roll speaks about our lives, about society, about the music industry and tells the world how we feel about greater theoretical concepts such as love and life and death and hope.

It was exciting to see this existing onstage for a brief period of time, and I wish it could have been given a larger platform or a longer run.

One of the writings selected to play into Jensen’s performance is a review of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” which is often considered the greatest album review of all time by the kinds of people who tabulate things like that. In the review, Bangs characterizes a 1970 televised live performance of “Cyprus Avenue” at the Fillmore East, saying, “It is truly one of the most perverse things I have ever seen a performer do in my life. And, of course, it’s sensational: our guts are knotted up, we’re crazed and clawing for more, but we damn well know we’ve seen and felt something.”

Onstage, Jensen thrashes and shouts along with the audio track, using the space, his body and the music to convey the feeling behind Bangs’ words. On another occasion, Jensen passionately thrusts his pelvis into his typewriter. Although stumbling over his words on a few occasions, Jensen nonetheless effectively made more than an hour’s worth of reading aloud of complicated essays and articles seamless and watchable.

The worst part of the experience was the decrepit audience, who verbally(!!) announced song titles they recognized, tapped their feet and snapped their fingers in efforts to loudly ensure that everyone else knew that they were still cool and still knew how to rock ‘n roll.

But the “How to Be a Rock Critic” experience was altogether a good one. I left feeling a little recharged — confident that there will always be some great music to listen to and some great conversations to have about it. Bangs’ writings remain spectacularly amusing and relevant, even now (especially now, perhaps) that a culture of illegal downloading threatens the foundations of the album release and the steady decline of print journalism changes the way the public consumes media.

Regardless, one thing is certain: rock ‘n roll, of its infinite permutations and expansions, will find a way. And where there is music, there will, of course, be fans… and critics.