Oliver Sacks and Why I Write

If I was going to have a disease, it figures it would not be a politically correct disease. It was bound to be something of epidemic proportions that the medical establishment would not acknowledge—like climate change or peak oil—something so phantasmagoric it would have the ability to hide from potential cures like antibiotics or herbal remedies, change form, play dead, and entirely outsmart the perfect orchestration of the immune system.  Many people I’ve talked to have revealed how the disease has gone “into remission,” yet remains a threat like a bully on the play ground who decides to pick on someone else and leave you alone, only, any day he could return to work, making your life miserable if he chose to do so.

If I was going to have a disease, it would not be clear cut and sympathy-arousing like cancer or ALS. It would be misunderstood and embroiled in controversy so that I would not only be forced to find my own journey to health, but, by association, feel responsible to be a voice for others living with the disease. I would be led (by an unseen but all knowing force) through the physical pain, cognitive impairment and crushing fatigue on a spiritual journey because, let’s face it, I haven’t gotten anywhere in the physical world of doctors, treatments, or validation for the past thirteen years. The way out, I’m realizing, is not something I can think or feel through. The solution to this disease – as has always been the case with “incurable” illnesses throughout the ages—is only through a miracle of faith that I will come out on the other side healthy and able to advocate for the people still fumbling through incredulous doctors' offices, prescription bottles and the debt of their conditions.

The late, beloved physician and writer, Oliver Sacks, who died this past Sunday, wrote in A Leg To Stand On about the predicament of the patient: “There had been . . . two miseries, two afflictions, conjoined, yet distinct. One was the physical disability—the organically determined erosion of being and space. The other was "moral"—not quite an adequate word— associated with the reduced stationless status of a patient, and, in particular, conflict with and surrender to "them"—"them" being the surgeon, the whole system, the institution—a conflict with hateful and even paranoid tones, which added to the severe, yet neutral, physical affliction a far less tolerable, because irresoluble, moral affliction."

Intrinsic to those of us with unresolved, chronic illness is this moral affliction. It is what makes me call into question my self-induced limitations and why I aspire to have a non self-pitying, non self-important day. And then comes a day like today when I’m able to sit down (or lie down) to write not only for a sense of purpose, but to hopefully connect with others. A reprieve, a spiritual gift. A way to touch others that may or may not be looking for Godot, but who are learning not only how to be sick, but how to be well in spite of their illness.

Subway Suicide: A New Comedy with A Message of Hope

Can you imagine how much pain a person would have to be in to want to end his life? Anthony Montes, the writer of the new play Subway Suicide, does not have to imagine it because he lived through it. If you have never been is such a state of mind, it’s easy to dismiss suicide as an act of selfishness or even weakness. Montes’ wonderfully plotted play sheds light on the very real epidemic of suicide in the United States. According to the latest report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2011, every 13.3 minutes, someone in the country died by suicide that year.

Montes’ play has been mounted at various venues in Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to see it last Friday at the Sherry Theater in North Hollywood starring Montes as the character with the same name (Anthony) and Ciera Danielle as Rain, a name she has chosen to erase a childhood of neglect and sexual abuse. But wait. The play isn’t all Sturm und Drang. In fact, you’ll see little of the morose and desperate tone that usually accompanies stories about suicide. Subway Suicide is a romantic comedy.

The play opens as Anthony and Rain approach the same subway platform with the intention of jumping to their death. As the train approaches and neither one of them wants to be enmeshed in the other’s suicide, they argue over who arrived first, thwarting one another’s suicide attempt with the funny, but very real dilemma they are faced with now that they aren't dead. With nowhere to go, Rain feels Anthony has a responsibility to take her in until she “works up the courage” to kill herself again. Despondent at still being alive, Anthony relents to Rain’s overbearing demands if only to shut her up and allow him the peace to figure out how and when he too can leave this mortal coil.

The story we expect – that of the two falling in love and giving each other a reason to live – is not the story that unfolds. Thankfully, Subway Suicide does not fall into the same tropes of most romantic comedies. Instead, their impending suicides work as a ticking clock that mounts the tension and suspense, while illustrating the very real and valid conviction each character has for committing suicide. In the end, it is not love, but hope that keeps our couple alive, a strong message to others suffering from thoughts of suicide.

Montes and Danielle are currently adapting Subway Suicide into a film to reach a larger audience and help others. You can learn more about the film and future productions by visiting www.subwaysuicide.com.

Harold & Stella: Love Letters

Stella Adler (queen of modern acting) and Harold Clurman (dean of American theater) were living on opposite coasts of the country as the U.S. entered the Second World War. They began a steady stream of correspondence to buttress their long distance romance, letters that reveal times as tempestuous as their relationship. Through their words, we enter the lives of two artists unflinchingly committed to their work while struggling through creative, financial and romantic uncertainty. For Harold, Stella embodied the very essence of the theater; he devoted himself unconditionally to both the woman and his art. Stella admired Clurman’s fervor and intellect. They weathered a stormy, three-decade-long love affair, which “Love Letters” encapsulates while painting a comical and human portrait of two theatrical giants.

INFO, TICKETS, PRESS FOR LA SHOWS BELOW

 

Bill Ratner & Arianna Ratner

Bill Ratner & Arianna Ratner

LA: "Love Letters" with Bill Ratner &  Arianna Ratner ~ Find tickets here.

Previews: Friday June 06 2014, 8:00 PM | 1hr
Bliss Art House Cafe
1249 Vine St, Hollywood

Download Press Release

Show Dates

Friday June 13, 8PM
Tuesday June 17, 7PM
Saturday June 21, 7PM
Tuesday June 24, 7PM
Saturday June 28, 7PM

Here Comes the Sun: The Beatles' Brilliance

Beatles-LA-1964.jpg

I wasn’t yet born when the Beatles invaded the United States. I didn’t see them along with 1 in 3 other Americans on the Ed Sullivan show. They never really lived in my mind as flesh and blood boys, and so they never broke up. For me, the Beatles just are. They never were.

My older brother played the Beatles’ albums throughout my formative years. He and three neighborhood friends would imitate the Fab Four. I became determined to distinguish between the songs sung by Paul as opposed to those by John. This was a feat for a prepubescent, unmusical girl. I absorbed the songs in my blood, I mimicked the French in “Michelle,” copied John’s love-sick inhale after singing “girl” in the song with the same name. Without knowing it, one day the Beatles were as imprinted on my DNA as my freckles and tenacity.

When I became a teen, I was shocked to realize there were other bands. My mother had played Elvis Presley, Barry Manilow, and Barbara Streisand, but by the time I entered junior high I became aware of actual bands: Foreigner, Fleetwood Mac, and Duran Duran. My response to the latter is something close to what I imagine Beatle-manic girls felt about their favorite band member.

I was so in love with Simon Le Bon, when his boat capsized the summer of my 13th year I worried about him like a family member and wrote him a letter of relief when he was rescued unscathed. My older sister (who I thought never properly reverent enough of the Beatles) had a friend, an eighteen-year-old model – a blackbird waiting for her moment to arrive – who had a car accident, which paralyzed her from the neck down. She was a Duran Duran fan. My sister asked me to give the poor soul one of my two coveted albums I’d put together of news clippings and pictures of Duran Duran. I could not part with them.

I can’t imagine if I had been a teenager during Beatlemania. I don’t think I would have survived it.

In 1980, I am nine-years-old, living with my alcoholic father who my mother finally left and felt so guilty about that she let his little girl live with him. The apartment was small and dark and perhaps my Beatle-mentor brother was in the room, but I don’t remember anyone else but the voice of the radio announcer telling me that John Lennon had been shot and killed. I was alone in the world, it felt, my family dispersed, and now John was gone.

All my little plans and schemes
Lost like some forgotten dream
Seems like all I really was doing
Was waiting for you
from "Real Love"

John’s death was different from the Beatles’ break-up. This was real. This was Real Love. I don’t know how long it took me to emerge from the shock of hearing that Lennon had been taken away from me. I mourned with the world, but I felt as alone as I have ever felt in my life.

When loneliness hits me now, or happiness, or just a Hard Day’s Night, I can hit play and John’s golden slumbers, George’s weeping guitar, Ringo’s little help from my friends, and Paul’s long and winding road leads me to their door. The world would be a shade less brilliant without them.

In Los Angeles, 1964

In Los Angeles, 1964

Now that I’m a mom, I get to share the light with my five-year-old son. He already knows a handful of Beatles’ songs. He watched a YouTube video filmed when the Beatles broke up interviewing fans, who, to my surprise, blamed Linda, not Yoko. Soon he’ll be able to tell the difference between John’s voice and Paul’s. Right now, it’s enough to just sing “Love, Love, Love. Love is all you need” at the top of our lungs on the way to school.

What's your Beatles' story?

Outing Yourself: The Visibility Cure

Anyone paying attention (meaning my husband) would notice I have revamped my website. This meant I needed content. So I started writing copy for my home page, and before I knew it, I had outed myself as a person with a disability. I had written about my Fibromyalgia before in an obscure feminist magazine, LOUDmouth, but coming out on my website is another story.

Maybe I’ll delete it.

It all came about when I felt the need to explain why I wrote Stella Adler’s biography. Flashback to thirteen years ago when I started researching Stella’s life. My motivation? I couldn’t believe such an important luminary didn’t have a biography. And as I became more knowledgeable about the evolution of acting craft, I realized Lee Strasberg has been given all the credit. I would tell people I was writing about Stella Adler and they didn’t recognize her name, but everyone knew Lee Strasberg. To make a long story short, I wanted to reclaim her legacy. I wanted to set the record straight in the annals of history. I wanted the underdog to have her day in the sun.

Coming out with FM is the same story. There are so many people with debilitating invisible illnesses. I want their stories heard. Starting with mine.

I contracted FM, or at least realized something was wrong in 2001. It took four years to get a diagnosis, which is pretty good. The average is seven. I’ve gone through the stages of transitioning from excellent health to being a person with a disability: denial, hope, grief and acceptance. I still go back and forth between the two latter stages.

Can you imagine everything shutting down in the middle of the day? That’s what happens to me. Right in the middle of my f*cking workday.

I spent my last year of college in Spain—the year I had to apply to graduate school. This is before email was a viable way of communicating and sending information. I had to send each application in separately, tailor each one, cutting and pasting and photocopying. I needed Internet cafes, photocopy machines, a post office, and god forbid I needed pesetas, because all these places of business, including the bank, closed in the middle of the day for a siesta. I raged! This was my future they were messing with. How could anyone operate if everything closed down in the middle of the day!

This is what happens to my body. It starts coming over me around ten-thirty, eleven in the morning. My brain slows down. I make mistakes. I can’t write or produce. Then my body follows. I become sluggish and so so tired. I feel I might die if I can't lay my head down. I keep going until I feel nauseated and then I give in. Now it's about noon. At this point I feel as if I pulled an all-nighter and I have to sleep off a mind-numbing hangover. So I do. At least there’s a solution. But boy do I resent wasting half my day light hours in bed. That’s the part I have to get over.

Once or twice a year I actually have a normal day and can stay up through the whole day. Once or twice a year I might fall into a flare and become bedridden. When this happens I never know if it’s going to last one day or one year.

These invisible illnesses are wicked because you look fine. You don’t look sick. No one can see your limitations like they do in the last stages of cancer, which I’m told from people with both FM and cancer aren’t so different from one another. One can easily feel like a malingerer. I’ve gotten over that part at least. It’s just the hours in bed I loathe. Should I just move to Spain?

So let me ask those of you with MS, Lupus, deafness, chronic pain, diabetes, epilepsy and the myriad other invisible illnesses out there : How do you cope with the specific limitations your illness causes?

Or should I just delete this post and the part about outing myself on my homepage?

Music as Medicine: Beethoven and Misfortune Cookies

Ernest Harden Jr. as Kabin Thomas photo by Rob Flores

Ernest Harden Jr. as Kabin Thomas photo by Rob Flores

Playwright Joni Ravenna’s “Beethoven and Misfortune Cookies” has returned to Los Angeles at the Odyssey Theatre after a stint in the Midwest. With the exception of the unfortunate title—a tongue in cheek offering to a delightful play of gravitas—Ravenna has added a gem to her writing credits.

There is little more satisfying than a story in which a seemingly insignificant line or circumstance that develops the character turns out to be a significant piece of the plot. Like Beethoven’s structural masterpieces, Ravenna has written a play wherein motifs and refrains underscore the integrity of the work as a whole.

Kabin Thomas played by the charismatic Ernest Harden Jr, who like the real-life Thomas grew up in Detroit, begins by introducing himself to his art appreciation class. Today’s subject is Beethoven, who grew up with an abusive alcoholic father and a mother who was a Moor. Thomas uses this last fact to posture that Beethoven, like himself, had African ancestry and was therefore the first “soul musician.” When Thomas introduces the class to Billy Holiday, we discover that seemingly droll detail — the subject of Beethoven’s genetic heritage — becomes meaningful. Thomas’ lecture on Holiday’s classic version of “Strange Fruit” and a picture of a lynching to accompany the song contribute to Thomas being fired from the university.

Harden’s portrayal of Ernest Thomas ran hot and cold the evening of previews. He did not seem entirely comfortable with the set or props, which will surely be remedied during the play's run. And yet even amongst a couple of technical sound interruptions, Harden worked through the hiccups to find Thomas patiently awaiting him: ingratiating, passionate, and driven to live.

Photo by Rob Flores

Photo by Rob Flores

While the circumstances of Thomas’ story unfold, Ravenna doles out pieces of the protagonist’s background, namely learning from his mother at age thirteen that his father committed suicide after battling schizophrenia—all pieces of information that build to the play's crescendo: Thomas himself struggles with the disease. The revelation explains in retrospect why Thomas has spent his life one-upping his old man. His father was a coast guard so Thomas became a marine; his father was a schoolteacher so Thomas became a professor; his father played the violin, an instrument easily broken, so Thomas chose the tuba. Thomas has blotted out the memory of why his mother chose to tell the truth about his father’s death until he is forced to remember it was when he was thirteen years old that Thomas’ mother first discovered evidence of Thomas’ genetic inheritance.

Unconsciously Thomas’ life choices, from his profession to playing the tuba, were a concerted effort to fight the disease that led to the demise of his father at age forty-three. Neither Thomas nor the audience know if he will continue to one-up his father and live to see his forty-fourth birthday. Yet, in retrospect, the very examples Thomas taught in class at the beginning of the play --from Beethoven’s abusive father to Billy Holiday’s unavenged rapes -- were examples of the artist using misfortune (I imagine where Ravenna’s title comes from) to feed their art and triumph over adversity. Thomas, inevitably, must do the same.

Get your tickets: "Beethoven and Misforune Cookies"

The Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda., LA, CA 90025

Sun, Nov 17 – Sun, Dec 15
Sundays 5:30 pm

Your Own Personal Jesus: Reza Aslan's "Zealot"

As a critic, I judge a work—whether it is a film, a play or book—on its merit to effectively fulfill the rigor of storytelling. Are the characters credible? Do we care about them? Is there tension? Is the pacing consistent? Are we immersed in the circumstances of the characters? Does the plotting serve the theme? Does the theme reveal and enlighten the reader about the universal nature of humanity? Using these criteria, Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is a success. Due to the controversial nature of writing a biography on Jesus, however, Aslan’s “biography” is primed for scrutiny.

When I spoke with Aslan at a dinner for the Los Angeles Review of Books (watch a video clip of Aslan's talk below), he told me I gave him the best compliment a writer could wish for. I was a quarter way into Zealot and sharing my experience thus far. I told Aslan how each time I opened the book, I marveled at the fact that I was reading about such legendary figures as John the Baptist or Pontius Pilate or, (my god!) Jesus Christ, and being placed so compellingly in their time period, I felt as if I were meeting people I could have never fathomed encountering.

As I continued reading, I realized what a neophyte I was when it came to the ancient world of the historical Jesus. Naturally, for me, and likely most of the reading population, entering the world of Jesus was akin to having any mythic figure come to life. Aslan’s talent as a writer notwithstanding, I would have had a similar reaction reading a biography on Santa Claus based on apocryphal stories suddenly unearthed about the jolly father of Christmas. Only, of course, if I were willing to suspend my disbelief, which is exactly what a satisfactory reading of Zealot requires. If you’re willing to accept assumptions Aslan makes, you’re in for a great read. You can then bask in the sumptuous world he creates out of first-century Palestine as you’re led through a narrative of the life of Jesus.

Reza Aslan photo by Malin Fezehai

Reza Aslan photo by Malin Fezehai

The problem, of course, is that Aslan must use the gospels to both legitimize his argument and delegitimize logic that detracts from his argument. My response to that is go to the book’s Introduction. There Aslan quotes Rudolf Bultmann, known for saying, “the quest for the historical Jesus is ultimately an internal quest.” Aslan continues, “Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed.”

Aslan seems to be confessing that his biography of Jesus is his own, internal quest. Critics can’t really dispute that. (An interesting fact: In C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia the Lion character, Aslan, represents Jesus.) My image of Jesus is of a Gandhi-like pacifist who taught that the “kingdom of heaven” is within, not in the clouds with some sky daddy. Imagine my surprise when I found myself chafing against Aslan’s proposition that Jesus was a zealot, a rebel “willing to resort to extreme acts of violence if necessary.”

In order to maintain my own personal Jesus, I began looking for flaws in Aslan’s argument. When I read that Pilate had sent “thousands and thousands of Jews to the cross,” which is based on historical fact, I could easily dismiss Aslan’s premise that Jesus’ crucifixion, which is not based on historical fact, meant he was a rebel zealot. In ancient Rome,  insurrectionists were sentenced to crucifixion. If thousands had been sent to the cross, couldn’t Jesus have been just one more unjustly accused of treason? If Jesus was unjustly accused, Aslan’s entire premise of Jesus as a “Jewish nationalist who donned the mantle of the messiah and launched a foolhardy rebellion against the corrupt Temple priesthood and the vicious Roman occupation” falls apart. Clearly, I had to lay to rest my own preconceptions in order to enjoy the story. I couldn’t help but mark up the margins when I encountered an assumption, but this no longer detracted from the art of Aslan’s storytelling, which is more truthful in and of itself than mere “facts,” a way of seeing the ancients understood. Facts were not as important as Truth with a capital T.

Aslan ends the book underlining his personal “quest,” or reason for writing it: “The one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus the man—is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ.” As the author of the forthcoming biography on Stella Adler, I hope I reveal that Stella, the legendary first lady of modern day acting, is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Stella the woman. En fin, when writing about larger-than-life figures, the biographer’s job boils down to separating the legend from the flesh-and-blood human being. Whatever your belief about Jesus—as the messiah, a peaceful preacher, a zealot, a myth—Aslan’s portrait evocatively narrates the life of a man who changed the course of history.

Theater as Social Satire: "The Interview" by Susan Josephs

Jacqueline King, Marshall McCabe and Melissa Sullivan photo by Steven Gunther

Jacqueline King, Marshall McCabe and Melissa Sullivan photo by Steven Gunther

Walking into the small Studio/Stage Theater I was primed to enjoy Susan Josephs’ play The Interview by the ingenuity and composition of set designer Vincent Richards. The Interview is set in the near future when the government has passed laws requiring women to implant contraceptive rods in their arms. Anyone wanting to create a family must take rigorous steps that culminate in a final interview (if you’re lucky enough to get to that phase) to obtain permission to have a child.

I went to the play assuming the premise questioned how today anyone can assume responsibility for the life of a child--and yet we are required to fill out an application to adopt a pet or pass a test to drive a vehicle. My assumption was inaccurate. The premise does not question the qualifications of parents, but rather, examines the extent to which Big Brother has infiltrated the lives of Americans. In the play's dystopian society, once prospective parents are granted permission to procreate, they must adhere to government-run regulations, administered by surprise visits such as how to put your child to sleep (cry-it-out method), what to feed your child (junk food is prohibited) and how to discipline your child (time-outs). Infractions can lead to removing the child from home.

Marshall McCabe and Melissa Sullivan photo by Steven Gunther

Marshall McCabe and Melissa Sullivan photo by Steven Gunther

When we meet Jenna and Steven, played by Jacqueline King and Marshall McCabe respectively, they are in the office of the U.S. Department of Parenting and Child Welfare. Jenna is ambivalent. Steven is eager. Despite the high emotional stakes, Marshall McCabe injects his own variety of humor with superb timing and delivery, which the play has more opportunities for as it evolves during its run. The conflict arises when the interviewer, Veronica, played by the talented Melissa Sullivan, turns out to be part of Steven’s furtive past. As the action unfolds, with stellar pacing at the hand of director Diana Wyenn, the play becomes less about its premise and more about the complicated relationships between the characters. Wyenn also handles the play's transitions and scene changes with a skilled choreographer’s touch.

Acting on self-centered motivation, each character is ingeniously neither sanctified nor vilified. They are all splendidly drawn human beings trying to be happy, which says a lot about American society. The pursuit of happiness often comes at the expense of others. Josephs’ knack for dialogue is both authentic and fresh, allowing the viewer to organically come to know each character throughout the play. There is no clear antagonist—a noteworthy writing achievement. Although the script could use some trimming, Josephs’ characterizations carry the play to a satisfying conclusion.

This writer would have liked the play to flesh out the societal issues it raises: a woman's rights over her body, single motherhood by choice, the intriguing “off the grid” communities, and the social strata created by those people deemed acceptable to parent as opposed to those who are not. Still, the character-driven play effortlessly propels you into the lives of it characters. With its intriguing premise and solid acting chops, <i>The Interview </i>elegantly introduces the work of Susan Josephs to Los Angeles audiences.

The Interview, October 4-27 @ Studio Stage

520 N Western Ave, Los Angeles CA 90004

Purchase tickets here.

Provocative Theater: The Colors of "Rodney King"

Roger Guenveur Smith, creator and performer of Rodney King now playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, unfolds the narrative of King’s life, traveling seamlessly back and forth in time in a circular repetition that cycles through King’s childhood, his progressive alcoholism, and his police beating—all serving in counterpoint to the events of the 1992 riots. Throughout, Smith delivers what is astonishingly an improvised dialogue between an omniscient narrator and Rodney King, using prose that rhymes and breaks between syllables. In the talkback after the play, Smith compared the play’s language to a kind of verbal jazz (he mentioned how Branford Marsalis can play the same jazz classic in five different, new styles).

To accompany the song of language, Smith’s slow and fluid dance of arms, legs, and torso reenact the scenes of King’s life: his father teaching him how to cast a fishing line; surfing in the Pacific Ocean; Officers Koon, Powell, Briseno and Wind beating King incessantly, each wallop an echo of his own father beating him with an electrical cord; King pushing a mop as a janitor “when he was Glenn, Rodney King hadn’t been invented then.” The cadence and punctuated rhyme couples with Smith’s mesmerizing motion, invoking the human being that was Rodney King. (The remarkable sound design is by Mark Anthony Thompson.)

Smith has traveled these roads before, commenting on race in America with plays including Inside the Creole Mafia (with collaborator Mark Broyard) and the Obie Award winning A Huey P. Newton Story. In Rodney King Smith has outdone himself, portraying the man he refers to as “the first reality TV star.” Smith, whose imposing presence is an emotional and physical powerhouse, describes Rodney King as a prayer—an appropriate analogy for theater that eulogizes not only King but several of the fallen bodies that followed his beating by police in 1991 and the consequent Los Angeles riots in 1992.

Photo by Patti McGuire

Photo by Patti McGuire

A minimalist set comprised of a translucent white floor measuring approximately twenty by twenty feet and a microphone reinforces the prayer analogy. The space itself is immaculate, timeless—a non-setting in which King’s white ground zero contrasts with Smith clad in cotton black: The division between black and white, between the powerless body and the batons that bludgeoned it.

As the play culminates and King’s lawyers’ “gag order” is lifted so King can speak to Angelenos during the riots, Smith steps backward upstage, the camera count-down from five to one to “action,” when King finally gives an unscripted plea on TV to the rioters—improvised like the play itself. Lighting designer Jose Lopez dims the stage with each step back until Smith and the translucent white floor blend together in shadow, obliterating the lines between black and white just as King says, “I’m neutral,” pleading to stop the rioting by repeating, “Let’s work it out.”

Smith presents King’s humanity in all of its colors, not a hero, not a media pawn, just a man whose life brings into focus the racial divides that continue to plague us

Rodney King is playing thru October 6, 2013. For Tickets and times click here.

Ensemble Theater at its Best: Jim Parrack-Directed "A Hatful of Rain"

Reviving a classic is an ambitious and risky undertaking. Many young directors haven’t yet traversed the bridge between what they want to accomplish and what they actually can accomplish. They may choose a canonical play because it already has a foundation for greatness, for success, for illuminating the human condition. Yet, without having a working knowledge of apprehending the material, the play flops, becoming a half-lit facsimile. Not so with the Jim Parrack-directed “A Hatful of Rain,” now playing at the Sherry Theater through July 28th.

Parrack exquisitely renders a live-wire, nuanced and above all brutally honest production that illuminates drug addiction and its affect on the family. Though set in the 1950s, playwright Michael Gazzo’s work resonates as poignantly today as then: The pandemic of prescription drug addiction in America is as relevant as ever.

Jim and Ciera Parrack

Jim and Ciera Parrack

As the play opens, Johnny Pope, played by Danny Barclay—hooked on morphine since returning with wounds from the Korean War—sits with his back toward the audience, an appropriate shadow in the Pope house. His wife, Celia, performed by the indomitable Ciera Parrak, reigns as a soon-to-be mother and wife struggling to maintaining a semblance of normality in a home riddled by confusion, neglect and resentment. Her father-in-law, John Pope Sr. (Brian Lully), visiting for the weekend, negotiates a seemingly purposeful incognizance of his failed role as a father with a paternal sensitivity revealed in a million tiny ways as we come to understand the family history. Lully’s quiet, informal tone draws the audience to the Pope’s kitchen table where the action zooms in like a close-up. We are mesmerized from the start by the Pope family having breakfast on what would be a normal family visit, if the family weren’t on the verge of crisis.

Not present in the opening scene is the youngest Pope brother Polo played by Devin Crittenden, whose role as least favorite son is compounded by having fallen in love with his brother’s wife.  Living with Johnny and Celia in their small lower-middle-class apartment, one might think young Polo the least affected by his brother’s furtive drug habit, his father’s disdain and his sister-in-law’s distress. In lesser hands, Polo could be played as an opportunist coveting his brother’s wife while enabling his drug habit, but this ensemble of artists is too aligned with the playwright’s intention to allow that to happen.

Like an intricate tapestry, the players have their individual colors that weave together to create a single, cohesive design. As the only character who knows everything that is going on in the Pope house, Crittenden comes off as the most compromised and sympathetic character, juggling his flaws, his endearing love-struck “high,” his loyalty to his brother and unearned respect for his father with unflinching sincerity and purpose.

After the play, Crittenden emerged from the theater with the audience. I had not been released from the spell, that rare occurrence when art reflects life so authentically, it spirits you away into the artists’ world. Yet, here was this young man, not Polo standing around—adrenalin rushing, but tired. It was exhausting work. He commented that he was happy with the casts’ performance that evening, explaining the night before was a bit “rusty after having been off for several days.”

I thought about my role as critic. Had I gone the previous night, would this be a different review? Most certainly.  A production gets better, more fine-tuned with each performance. I think about how after only a few weeks of rehearsal, actors present their work to be previewed at a time when the work is just getting its legs.  On Broadway, the impression of the critic and what they write can then go on to make or break a play for the remainder of its run.  Painters, sculptors, pianist, writers have the luxury of presenting a finished, polished product to be critiqued. Not so with actors.

Speaking with Parrack before the play, my questions for the young director focused on acting craft and how it crosses over to directing.  Parrack explained his approach to both acting and directing as starting from the artist’s humanity and ending with his skill. Most actors and directors I’ve interviewed, including Frank Corsaro who directed the original production of  “A Hatful of Rain” on Broadway, don’t have the clarity I found in speaking with Parrack.  Many theatrical artists prioritize acting technique over the conscious and subconscious creativity of the human being. Simply put, Parrack defines craft as “the ability to be human in a situation that’s imaginary.”

As a spectator I found my role not so different from the actors. Due to their mastery, I was able to “be human in a situation that’s imaginary.” I laughed. I cried. I came from the theater knowing I had participated in a shared experience with the actors. They were not alone performing on stage. We were all experiencing Gazzo’s story together, our hands in mid air anticipating the fall of a teetering house of cards.

Inspirational Theater: "The Road to High Street"

I arrived at the Asylum Lab where Andrew Potter had fifteen minutes to load in – by himself. Anyone who has ever had creative aspirations should see The Road to High Street, wherein Potter plays the writer, director, raconteur, technical designer, video producer, musical score – all while being his own stage manager. A mild-mannered, unassuming Potter sits holding his guitar, manipulating a laptop on his right to project to the screen on his left. The guy can juggle. Seriously, he’s a busker. One video showed him juggling lawn chairs.

I didn’t know what a busker was either, but I’ll enlighten you: To busk comes from the Spanish to seek. The noun busker refers to a street performer seeking, well, an audience, and money. Potter recounts his 15-year career that started off, amazingly, living in a beer tank in San Francisco and on to touring in Europe and Japan. As he weaves through the stories on the road with his familial tales, we get to know a passionate, talented, tenacious man who’s still fulfilling his life dream by performing. This truly inspiring performance is like seeing a live documentary, only its subject is sitting right there in front of you. —June 24, 2013

A Night of Professional Theater

Adam Carpenter and Zack Steel

Adam Carpenter and Zack Steel

The word of the night: Professional. As I entered the Fringe Main Stage to see Four Clowns’ Me Rich You Learn, the energy of the full house carried me to my seat. I knew I was seeing a comedy, but I had no idea about the story. Turns out, that’s the joke. The “show” never comes off as the seemingly improvisational shenanigans of the talented Adam Carpenter playing “Martin” and Zach Steel playing “TR Hammer” delay the show’s agenda of teaching the audience how to become rich in order to deliver the real story:

Underlying the digressions, Carpenter and Steel have seamlessly written a play about the sweetly diabolical love/hate relationship between Martin and TR Hammer. That is the story: their quirky, competitive, co-dependent, endearing relationship, delivered with such conviction of character, such exquisite timing, such athleticism and vocal acuity, the audience is on the seat of its pants. The directing of Turner Munch is nothing less than magical, in the true definition of the world. I don’t know how they pulled it off. I guess I said it from the start: These are professionals. —June 23, 2013

"The Ruby Besler Cabaret" at the Fringe is a Feast

After seeing The Ruby Besler Cabaret, I have one thing of timely importance to say: There are only 3 shows left. Buy tickets. Why? The show is not only a feast for the eyes, but for the heart, mind, and let’s not forget, ears.

Let’s begin at the top: Four leggy showgirls, Regan Carrington, Tatiana Giannoustsos, and Laurel Vecsey choreographed by fellow dancer Flame Cynders set the mood with precision-propelling white feather fans a la Swan Lake. To your right, talented Gere Fennelly plays piano, adding to the cabaret atmosphere. Then she comes on stage through the red velvet backdrop: Ruby Besler, the cabaret star, played by Anastasia Barnes, with an astonishing vocal range.

Ruby lulls us into the story of her life, which is told with the effective device of storybook chapters.

Barnes plays both Ruby’s mother, a reformed prostitute who married Klaus, Ruby’s German father, whom Barnes also plays, accent and all. Ruby recounts her teenage angst, her first jobs, including that of a cigarette girl who can’t keep out of the show. And then there’s her first love: Beats, who she can’t marry because marriage is bad business for a rising star. Barnes’ wistful song post marriage rejection is reminiscent of “Gloomy Sunday” and may bring you to tears.

As Ruby Besler, Barnes is mesmerizing, instantly lovable by her flaws, sincerity and unabashed humor. How did she nail the quintessential 1940s starlet accent that Barnes calls “standard American,” but is reminiscent of Katherine Hepburn’s Bryn Mawr? She grew up with her grandparents and their effusion of big band music and old black and white classics. Her flawlessly coiffed hair? That she taught herself from a Youtube video. I can tell you these things because Ruby Besler is such a multifaceted, jaunty dame, it won’t take away from her mystery. —June 22, 2013

Poetry Returns to the Theater in "Gracie and Rose"

As I emerged from writer and performer Anastasia Coon’s Gracie and Rose, all I could think about was getting my hands on the play. I wanted to read the script. That hasn’t happened since I saw my last Tennessee Williams’ play. Coon’s writing reminds me of Williams’: that unique blend of regionalism and poetry. This is what theatre is meant to do: expose the audience to a different landscape –psychologically and physically — from their own where the only thing that stays the same is the human condition.

Anastasia Coon as Gracie (photo Christine-Krench-Retzger)

Anastasia Coon as Gracie (photo Christine-Krench-Retzger)

Gracie & Rose explores the marriage of Rose, a love mad wife to Gracie, a woman so broken by her father’s abuse, she has determined to live her life as a man. This would be difficult enough to pull off in a metropolis, but Coon sets her play in Wyoming, on a farm, in the 1950’s. Gracie passes as George, a slow-talking, hard working stoic sick to his stomach because he can’t give Rose a child. When Rose knocks herself up discreetly by initiating a crushing neighbor boy, the marriage enters a new phase, one that cements George’s identity and erases Gracie’s. There’s more lovemaking, but less communication. They have a family and a farm to raise.

Throughout the narrative, Coon expertly goes back and forth through time. We meet their child as an adult after Gracie and Rose have passed. We go back to Gracie’s childhood when her father beat her mercilessly for wearing a dress up a ladder. Director Che’Rai Adams resourcefully utilizes this same ladder as a prop to gut and drain a pig and a stand in as George in a beautifully choreographed lovemaking scene with Rose.

The striking aspect of the play is not just the main characters of Gracie and Rose, who like all the characters are played by Coon, but the clarity with which we see ancillary characters such as Gracie’s favorite aunt who lived her life without caring about social conventions, or Gracie’s father who Rose remarks is as alive in that marriage as if he were present. The farm itself becomes a major character, ominous but generous, binding the marriage with purpose and hope.

There are times, however, when the language is so ornate that it interrupts the flow of the action. In the scene of the killing of the Pig, Coon alternates between playing Gracie and Rose, double teaming to kill and prep the creature, a task that requires strength and method. It rattled Coon’s concentration to negotiate between the deftness of the task at hand with the long-winded descriptions of what it is they are doing. Still when they are finished with Pig, Rose remarks how the smell of Pig’s burned hair and skin will “stick to the stone walls of the dairy.” I could smell the pig and the farm, see the expanse of land against a dry and cool dairy. Coon’s elegant writing makes up for the incongruous direction of action.

In the end, the refrain, “We are all pieces of broken symmetry,” echoes the theme of humanity’s perfect imperfection. Together, Gracie and Rose pick up the broken pieces of the past to imperfectly assemble a new family. —June 20, 2013

Transformative Theatre: Liz Femi's "Take Me to the Poorhouse"

Walking into The Lounge Theatre for the world premiere of Take Me to the Poorhouse</a>, one is struck by the possibilities of a practically empty stage. With only a knee-high square box on one side of the stage and a shallow square-shaped step on the other, it’s difficult to believe the petite actor, Liz Femi, will enter and not only fill up the stage, but enlarge it into a middle class Nigerian kitchen, a classroom closet, a shanty one-room neighbor’s house, and a street scene with story-hungry kids sharing in a circle.

Liz Femi as an 8-year-old onstage, and as herself.

Liz Femi as an 8-year-old onstage, and as herself.

Writer and Performer Liz Femi was born in England, but raised in Nigeria. She has performed in theatre, film and television and holds two Masters degrees, one in Education, the other in acting from Harvard. The play opens with Femi as 8-year old Lizzie who is trying to negotiating her drab middle class existence with her romanticized version of the colorful working class poor in her hometown in Nigeria.

Lizzie begins by telling a couple of dismal your-mama is-so-fat jokes and we quickly indentify the crux of her problem and the theme of the play: the creative imagination. It is through the lens of books and movies that Lizzie views the world. Problem is she thinks that only through suffering, namely being poor, can she ignite her own creativity and be as interesting as her fellow classmates. Specifically, Lizzie will go to any length to win over the object of her heart, even if she has to sing “Hopelessly Devoted to You” to the kid in front of all their classmates.

The boy is unimpressed, but it gives Lizzie the idea of emulating “Sandy” from her favorite movie, “Grease.” Lizzie decides she’ll transform her image by starving herself, begging for food, wearing 3-day-old clothing and burning her scalp for a Jerry curl in her efforts to get the boy. When her father comes home unemployed and later they lose their house, Lizzie realizes her prayers have come true: She’s poor!

I’ve seen my share of theater over time, with everything from minimalist to elaborate sets, and, save for “The Lion King,” Femi’s home, school, streets and neighborhood are as vivid as real life. You know how the book is always better than the movie because you have the benefit of your limitless imagination? That’s what Liz Femi catalyzes for the audience: an entire Nigerian neighborhood with all of its unique inhabitants, smells, sights, and sounds. Besides Lizzie herself, Femi’s most dynamic characterization is that of Wali (hopefully I’ve spelled it correctly), a classmate with a cleft lip that Lizzie initially pities, eventually disdains and finally discovers to be the coolest kid in the neighborhood.

Eventually, Lizzie realizes being poor isn’t all it’s hyped up to be, but what endures, what always endures is her curiosity and thirst for life. By the end of the play, Lizzie, scorned by the boy she so desperately wanted to reciprocate her love, finally has the life experience to belt out a your-mama-is-so-fat joke to put him to shame. With the expert direction of veteran Jane Morris, “Take Me to the Poorhouse,” has the transformative power of great theater. —June 17, 2013</em>

Hollywood Fringe Festival: Gravity and Frivolity in One Night

Travis Holder (left) and the cast of the play.

Travis Holder (left) and the cast of the play.

Last night I attended the previews of two plays in this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival, The Katrina Comedy Fest and #Hashtag. They couldn’t have been more different, which is what is so fun about a fringe festival: you never know what you’re going to get—just like Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates.

Like most Americans, I have vivid memories of the chaos, negligence and nightmare that was Katrina, which I wrote about in the article "The Katrina Disposables: Wading the Waters." My piece was similar to many accounts of the disaster as it focused on the neglect of the city and its citizens in the wake of the storm, but playwright Rob Florence enlarges on the view from the ground. His play offers an inspiring portrait of a community that came together to weather the storm with grace and laughter.

To write The Katrina Comedy Fest, Florence wove real-life survivor accounts, a feat that I as a nonfiction writer applaud. When you’re working with true stories, the job of assembling the facts into one coherent, linear story is challenging. Florence accomplishes this with not one, but five individuals, creating a pastiche of characters whose combined experience pays homage to America’s most colorful, benevolent and often ignored city, New Orleans.

The Katrina Comedy Fest opens presumably at the renown Mother-in-Law Lounge where the characters take up their individual space on the stage to recount the events as they occurred from the moment the storm hit, to the breaching of the levees to their respective displacement from New Orleans. One character unfolds his experience drawing the audience into his journey just enough before another character imparts his, an intermingling that works efficiently in terms of the play’s narrative, but fails to establish a sense of setting. The play seems to want to ground the characters at the Lounge, yet each individual’s story simultaneously takes the audience (without the other characters) to various locales across the country.

Travis Holder as "Rodney"

Travis Holder as "Rodney"

The centering character, Antoinette, who owns the Mother-in-Law Lounge, seems the obvious choice for coherence. Last night, actress Peggy Blow playing Antoinette, vacillated between interacting with the characters on stage as if they were in her club in the present to speaking to the audience, relocated us to her whereabouts during the actual chaos of Katrina. Although this is a minor hitch that will be resolved during the run of the play, the character Rodney, played by Travis Holder, held this viewer steady throughout. Holder’s pitch-perfect performance from the use of his ever-present alcoholic refreshment to his frustration with being cooped up with his parents created a vivid sense of place wherever he took us on his journey. Rodney embodied the soul of the New Orleans citizen, loyal to a fault. When asked why he would want to return, his response, which becomes a refrain at the play’s end is delivered with an exquisite mixture of pathos and pride: “Because I am home sick and my home is sick.”

After the recent events of hurricane Sandy and tornadoes in Oklahoma, theatre-goers may rest assured that although the nature of the <em>The Katrina Comedy Fest</em> may connote visions of death and anger, it is just the opposite. You’ll come out of the theatre with a smile on your face from the demonstration of resiliency that each of the characters, in their unique quirkiness, impart with a levity of spirit and honesty of the soul.

“#Hashtag” begins with a pre-curtain announcement that the audience should not turn off their phones, encouraging us to “live tweet” the characters on stage. I activated Instagram to take a picture to post to Facebook and Twitter, but I didn’t get a response from the characters on stage.

“#Hashtag” tells the story of Kit, played by Spencer Howard, a present day 20-something Angelino suffering from the angst of self-centeredness. He places his dream of becoming an actor before his relationships. By the play’s end he has lost his girlfriend, turned his back on his brother and neglected the one friend who seems to really care about him, but he does land a role in a pilot. It’s a classic story of a hero’s tragic flaw bringing about his own demise, but “#Hashtag” is anything but a tragedy. With it’s over the top choreography and bursts into song, at best it could be described as a farce. To this viewer it resembled a sit-com, which appropriately reflects Kit’s rise to mediocrity.

Littered with allusions to present day life in Los Angeles, the play will delight 20-somethings following their dreams who don’t take themselves too seriously – a trait the play phones home is rare in tinsel town. The technology aspect of the play wherein characters are perpetually dialed into their Smart phones (at curtain call they actually hold up their hand to delay the audience from applauding in order to check their cells) cleverly coheres the theme of alienation.

Along with the very meta trope of having the audience participate in a social media orgy, references in the play add to the the reflective nature of the play. At one point Kit, on a blind internet date, tells the girl he had performed in the Hollywood Fringe Festival the previous year. Admittedly, the ensemble delivered solid performances, but unlike “The Katrina Comedy Fest,” I doubt “#Hashtag” would resonate with audiences other than Hollywood Fringe attendees. —June 17, 2013

Welcome to SLAM

SLAM is devoted to writing-based arts including theatre, film, books, poetry, even blogs. I am inaugurating SLAM with a romp through the Hollywood Fringe Festival, hand-picking plays to review.

"The Hollywood Fringe Festival is an annual, open-access, community-derived event celebrating freedom of expression and collaboration in the performing arts community."

Brief background: Last May I had no idea what the Fringe was until I enrolled in a Twitter bootcamp class with Cindy Marie Jenkins. I wanted to know more about social media because I have written my first book, a biography on Stella Adler. Being a savvy 21st century writer, it's up to me to promote and market my book. What I didn't expect is the class would be held in a theater and all the other enrollees were participating in the Fringe. It was perfect, surrounded by actors and creatives, brainstorming the ways and means by which I would get the word out on Stella! A Life in Art.

And there began my introduction to the Fringe and the impetus to not only revamp SheanaOchoa.com, but begin blogging on what I love most: writing and the art forms it engenders from books to songs. I'm biting at the chomp as I schedule the plays for review, which I'm sharing here so you can all keep me accountable. I have scheduled to review 11 plays in the next 11 days ( a couple performances still pending on a babysitter). I will add more as Fringe progresses, but here is my schedule thus far:

Thursday, June 6: The Katrina Comedy Fest 8pm, #Hashtag, 10pm. Friday, June 7: The Viola Mountain xx, 5:30, The Road to High Street, 7pm, You Rich Me Learn, 8pm. Saturaday, June 8: Take Me to the Poorhouse, 8pm. Sunday, June 9 [Title of Show], 5:30. Monday June 10: Love Me Richie, 6:30. Tuesday, June 11, Ruby Besler, 8:30. Saturday, June 15, The Other F Word, 4pm. Sunday June 16, Gracie &amp; Rose, 7pm.<

Break a leg! (Can't believe I just wrote that because I fell down some stairs and tore my ligaments or broke some bones on my right foot, depending on which doctor you talk to. So all you fellow fringers, you'll recognize the redhead hobbling around Hollywood by my gate).