Sunday, September 15, 2019

DEADLY.. A World Premiere

Sacred Fools Theatre Company brings a brand new musical to the stage with Vanessa Clair Stewart's DEADLY.. Pulling out all the stops for their season opener, director Jaime Robledo with composer Ryan Thomas Johnson time travel us back to Chicago, 1893, the World's Fair and a chilling tale of murder! Murders, most foul.

How H.H. Holmes (Oil Can Harry slick Keith Allan) lured women to his dark lair, wooed them and then with the help of his drunken lackey, Benjamin Pietzel (David LM McIntyre in for the role opening night will share the role with French Stewart) is a mystery.  Stewart's premise promotes the idea that these women were bound to be 'modern' and for one reason or another struck out on their own to wind up in Holmes's Murder Castle.

DEADLY takes us forward and backwards in time.  Initially with Holmes questioned by detective Frank Geyer (Eric Curtis Johnson) as we flash back to the episodes that found Holmes meeting and disposing of what may have been as many as twenty two victims.

As each of the hapless women (Brittney S. Wheeler as Lizzie Sommers,  Kristyn Evelyn as Evelyn Stewart, Erica Hanrahan-Ball as Julia Conner, Ashley Diane as Pearl Conner, Rebecca Larsen as Anna Williams, cj Merriman as Emaline Cigrand and Samantha Barrios as Minnie Williams) is encountered we see Holmes work his smarmy spell and one by one they die. Horribly.
(L to R) Keith Allan, Erica Hanrahan-Ball, Ashley Diane and Brittney S. Wheeler Photo credit Jessica Sherman
Based on a true story, Stewart's script calls for tightening and some basic help with movement. Ryan Thomas Johnson's songs are all presentational and  confront the audience almost angrily in no uncertain terms. Where the show could make up time would be for Stephen Gifford's multi-tasking scaffolding that comprises the entirety of Holmes's Hotel to be more a moving part of the story.  The stop and go aspect with actors mostly providing the task of stage hands, distracts rather than adds to the dramatic structure of the play.

Make no mistake, this cast is professional to a person. They present well delineated characters who are believable in the Gothic context of the script.  High drama calls for broad acting and the acting, the presentation and the characters all meld beautifully.  The songs, however, no matter how enthusiastically presented.. and they are sung with conviction.. are difficult to understand. The parsing and meter of the lyrics is sticky at best. The tune that rings most true is the anthem sung by all the women, "Murder Castle!" Corwin Evans's projections work beautifully throughout, adding color and spice.  

In all, this massive effort is overly long and even with Linda Muggeridge's terrific costumes (the women appear initially in Victorian drag when alive and then in wonderful raggedy scraps of ghostly fabric as they greet one another to haunt the 'castle' after their unhappy demise) the show needs work. 

The opening night audience was enthrall with the two act drama. The cast took extended bows, not all together undeserved, as the effort and the excitement of presenting a World Premiere must be very heady.

This DEADLY effort deserves applause.  The show with a strong director's hand, may pick up the pace to bring it along to a well honed production. 

A World Premiere
By Vanessa Claire Stewart
Sacred Fools Theatre
The Broadwater
1076 Lillian Way
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Through November 2, 2019
Tickets and information:
323 207 5605

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Echo Takes A Risk HANDJOB

Echo Theater's artistic director Chris Fields who directs Erik Patterson's World Premiere production of  HANDJOB was seated in front of me during the opening night of one of the most brilliant pieces of theatre I have ever seen. Cognitive Dissonance notwithstanding.. and you'll understand why I bring that up when you go to see this show... Is an important part of the experience.  Watching Chris so enjoy this  play was a delight. 

The problem with reviewing a play like HANDJOB is that even though the performances are letter perfect bringing to life Patterson's amazing script... to discuss particulars would be unfair.
Steven Culp and Michael Rishawn
Photo by Darrett Sanders
We open on Amanda Knehan's cluttered set: It's Keith's (Steven Culp) apartment... with books to the left, books to the right.. piles of New Yorker magazines.. and just enough clutter to hire a topless cleaner. That would be Eddie (Michael Rishawn.)  Keith is a writer who has had success, but it's 'feast or famine.'  Keith is gay. Eddie is not. Eddie's six pack abs were probably a feast for the gay men in the audience and certainly they seemed  to be a banquet for Keith.  I thought I heard a woman behind me gasp. 

It's enough to know that the story starts with Keith and Eddie.  Suffice it to say that the rest of the cast: (Stephen Guarino, Ryan Nealy, Tamarra Graham and Gloria Ines) is extraordinary. The beauty of Fields's direction is that it's virtually flawless.  I did have a bit of trouble with the hilarious machine gun delivery of one of the characters.  Try to figure out which one.  

Bring your own personal sexuality to the play and see how it stands up... darn it. innuendo is almost unavoidable in the face of Patterson's tight and eloquent script.  This is a play dedicated to drawing the audience in, making us laugh a bit uncomfortably and putting us on notice that there are issues to be discussed. 
It's about how liberal we, the audience .. well. the heterosexual audience, anyway... may think we are. It's about the discomfort of being faced with our own prejudices, no matter how hip and happening we may be.  

HANDJOB is somewhat reminiscent of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's play, NEIGHBORS.. that pitted stereotypes of African Americans  against what we might call just average African Americans in startling dialogue nine years ago, almost to the day at the Matrix Theatre in Hollywood.  (Copy and paste to compare after you've seen HANDJOB.)
As with NEIGHBORS, which insisted that we come to individual conclusions, Patterson wants us to head out of the theatre with opinions about where the line is drawn. Who draws the line? Can a theatre piece go too far?  
This is an adult program. Period. The issues discussed are hot button issues. The ethics, philosophy and cultural challenges of HANDJOB are complex. Be prepared to look directly into the face of the homosexual culture to draw your own conclusions about 'the line.'  

HANDJOB by Erik Patterson
Directed by Chris Fields
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Ave,
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Through October 21, 2019
Tickets and Information
310 307 3753