Sunday, September 27, 2015

In Love and Warcraft by Madhuri Shekar


L - R Jessica Jade Andres, Rosie Naraski, Eddie Vona, Michael Barnum and Justin H. Min - Photo Credit: M. Palma Photography
By Joe Straw


I’m going to make about as true a statement as I can: College football and this show have what in common? Okay, that isn’t a statement but a question, and one that deserves an answer, only later. - Narrator

Artists at Play in association with The Latino Theater Company present the west coast premiere of In Love and Warcraft by Madhuri Shekar and directed by Alejandra Cisneros September 19 – October 11, 2015 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Spring Street in Los Angeles, California.

There are two things that make my eyes glass over quickly.  Number one is an auto enthusiast talking about auto repairs and number two is computer geeks talking about computer games.

For now let’s block off car repairs and move that aside.

So, why my interest in seeing this play? Well, there is a commonality between this show and college football. Both college football and the play feature college adults living, working and surviving.  The setting is ripe with conflict, new relationships, making silly mistakes, and learning from those mistakes.   

My reason for attending is that simple.

In Love and Warcraft, written by Madhuri Shekar and directed by Alejandra Cisneros, is a marvelous show with some very exceptional and diverse performers giving us multiple characters that marvelously inhabit their space. There are a lot of laughs and a lot of quality acting, more than you see on television these days and that’s a good thing.

It turns out that Warcraft is a real game created by Blizzard Entertainment, first released November 23, 1994, and now a franchise of video games and novels.

And now it is evolving from TV to interactive computer games, and then back to the theatre. Funny, that’s full circle, and lots of fun.  

This is a story of boy meets girl, kinda.  Girl meets another boy because boy lost girl, well sort of.  Girls dumps boy because she’s lonely, not really.  Girl hasn’t had a date in a while so girl steals already taken boy, well sort of.  Real life played like a computer game with various realities and choices. All in all, they are Avatars.

Avatar:  A graphical representation of the player’s character.  

Evie (Rosie Narasaki) and Ryan are Warcraft virtual girlfriend and boyfriend.  Evie, a college student, makes money writing love letters for other college students that haven’t learned the art of written communication.  And Ryan is an out of work young man living in his parents’ basement in San Diego, going to the top of nowhere.  

Kitty (Jessica Jade Andres), Evie’s spunky tart girlfriend, wants to breakup with her boyfriend.  Oh, it’s all for the best.  She’s ready to move on and search for another victim, boyfriend, all in the quest of fulfilling her dramatic and unquantifiable physical needs.   

Evie, ready for work, waits for Raul (Justin H. Min), so that she can write a love letter for him.  Unfortunately for Evie, Raul turns out to be the hunk she has been waiting for all of her life. 

That’s IRL (in real life), not virtual.  But never mind that, there’s work to be done. Evie is a Healer.

Healer:  Spellcasters with the power to heal other players.

Raul wants to get back with his girlfriend of two years because making up is so much fun.  So Evie, with her literary powers, composes a nice letter for him.  (Funny but I didn’t see payment exchange hands.) 

Justin H. Min, Rosie Narasaki

Later, Evie and Ryan go on a virtual date. Given the circumstances of this long distant relationship, two hours away is about as romantic as they are going to get. Also, Evie has certain physical issues.

Kitty advises Evie that her relationship with Ryan is a lose/lose situation and sending him money is not the way to show affection.  

“You could do better.” - Kitty

The next day, Raul bumps into Evie and says that he didn’t give the letter to his ex-girlfriend because “none of it was true.” And then Raul asks Evie out for a real date, not a virtual one, and Evie accepts. 

Excited Evie runs off to see her Latino gay haircutter, dresser, barber (Eddie Vona as Male).  Male, in his Spanish accent, flits over her like a fly over raw hamburger meat, making her feel the best she can be, all the while going into graphic details of his sexual conquest the night before.    

And after Evie leaves, Female (Cheryl Umaña), in her best Puerto Rican Spanish, recounts her obnoxious date, who shows up late, wearing cheap cologne, putting his hands all over her and himself, and then exploding all over her new jeans.  All this in great details while Male meekly sweeps up.  But Male doesn’t understand anything she is saying. He doesn’t speak Spanish.  Female says it’s all about being authentic.   

Later Evie has a real date with Raul. And Evie remains not interested in sex even after dating for a month.  Although Raul wants more to the relationship, he is willing to wait.

Evie thinks there is something wrong with her vagina so she visits her doctor (Cheryl Umaña) and after a lot of exploration the doctor finds…

Artists at Play (AAP) are a collective of Asian American creative professionals who curate quality theatre in Los Angeles. Truth be told, In Love and Warcraft is as fine example of a theatrical outing as you will find in Los Angeles. 

AAP is filled with exceptional talent. The production has a cast of six but with costume and character changes, it seemed like there were ten or twelve actors on stage.

Jessica Jade Andres is exceptional as Kitty and is able to take that life to extremes. Kitty is witty, oversexed, and has an extremely charming personality. Andres pulls off an amazing physical life for Kitty.

Cheryl Umaña is also exceptional playing a variety of characters.  Her Spanish is top rate and her ability to create differing characters offers this show a lot of creativity. Umaña is an amazing talent and one hopes to see more of her in future shows.

Eddie Vona, Cheryl Umaña

Eddie Vona is also excellent, especially as the barber where one is just stupefied by the things coming out of his mouth.  This small bit is a great showcase for an actor with incredible talent and the ability to create a fantastic multi-level character.

Justin H. Min is Raul the main love interest who gets himself into a lot of trouble in the end.  The character may be too nice as he waits for his companion to come around. There is more to this character, not wanting to wait, dying inside, and demonstrating humorous conflict with no bounds, while he’s waiting. Min has a great look and a very nice presence on stage. He is an actor with a natural flair and should do very well in this industry.

Michael Barnum plays Ryan.  It’s hard to see him when he is stuck on the second level looking on his computer speaking geek. But there is a special quirkiness to his character when he appears on the first level and he does some fine work.

Rosie Narasaki played Evie on the night I was there.  She did some interesting work but she needs to find the core of the character.  Her character is caught between two worlds, the virtual and the real life world.  In the virtual world, she can be anyone, do anything, and be as sexual as she wants to be.  But in the real world, she thinks something is wrong with her sexually and her ability to connect with other living beings.  So much so, that she visits a doctor to find out what is wrong with her parts.  Never once does she consider counseling.  Naytheless, Narasaki must put a definitive stamp on her virtual world, and then deeply explore her real life hang-ups via the inner and physical life of the character. Still, this is not a bad job.

Other members in the cast who did not perform the night I was there are Anita Kalathara (Evie), Ruffy Landayan (Male), Jake Matthews (Raul, Ryan) and Brenda Perez (Kitty, Female).

Alejandra Cisneros, the Director, has an impressive list of actors in Warcraft and she makes full use of the two-level stage.  At times, the show plays like a teen sitcom, but moves beyond with the adult humor. It would be nice to find a way to get the character Ryan out of the rafters and on to the playing floor so that we can make more of his performance.  For the most part, the virtual world was handled in the manner of a real world situation and one thinks there should be a clear distinction. The manner of how Evie feels in a real world situation versus a virtual world should be clearer.   We see that late in the show, but by then it is too late. That note aside, Cisneros does a fine job.

Madhuri Shekar, Playwright, has written an exceptional play. In reality, the virtual world has only tapped a small part of our collective imagination but in Warcraft, Shekar manages to show us how much crazier real life is as opposed to a virtual life.  That said, Warcraft is an exceptional idea that can even go further in its distinction between real and virtual life.  Also, and just a note about the play, it is unclear why two characters in the show are named “Male” and “Female”. All characters in a professional outing should have names. That aside, the writing is superior and the night was exciting.

Art Betanzos, Set Designer, provides a very workable set very similar to teen sitcoms on television.

Magdalena Guillen, Costume Designer, along with Estrella Fernandez, Asst. Costume Designer, does fantastic work especially with the Warcraft costumes.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Anthony Aguilar – Lighting Designer
Iris Zacarias – Sound Designer
Sasha Monge – Property Master, Asst. Set Designer
Jonathan Castanien – Stage Manager
Brandon Cheng – Production Manager
Chloe Haack – Asst. Stage Manager
Julia Cho – Producing Artistic Leader
Stefanie Lau – Producing Artistic Leader
Marie-Reine Velez – Producing Artistic Leader
Nicholas Pilapil – Producer

Members of the LATC crew are as follows:
Jose Luis Valenzuela – Artistic Director
Lori Zimmerman – Interim Gereral Manager
Dr. Chantal Rodriguez – Programming Director

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who loves UCLA football!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Mojada A Medea in Los Angeles – A New Adaptation by Luis Alfaro

Justin Huen, Sabina Zuniga Varela

By Joe Straw

“Thy words be gentle:  but I fear me yet
Lest even now there creep some wickedness
Deep within thee.” – Creon – Euripides’s Medea

“Oh, I have tried so many thoughts of murder to my turn,
I know not which best likes me.  Shall I burn
Their house with fire?  Or stealing past unseen
To Jason’s bed – I have a blade made keen
For that-stab, breast to breast, that wedded pair?...

I love the old way best, the simple way
Of poison, where we too are strong as men.” – Medea - Euripides’s Medea

Mojada A Medea in Los Angeles, a new adaptation by Luis Alfaro and directed by Jessica Kubzansky, is being performed through October 3, 2015 at the picturesque Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater at the Getty Villa.  The Theatre @ Boston Court marvelously produces this show. 

Mojada is a perfect show for this venue given the 44,000 Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities that inhabit the museum.  The open-air amphitheater (with cushions for seating) is how one would expect to see a Greek play and, in an imagined vision, of how the Greeks saw Euripides’s Medea, when first produced in 431 BCE in Athens, Greece.

Luis Alfaro’s Mojada A Medea in Los Angeles stands alone in its exquisite beauty. Alfaro’s adaptation is remarkable in the manner of its flow and ebb; the method in which exhausted souls speak a profound truth, of survival, of seeking a better life, and then pushing that life to the edge of a hideous precipice.  In short, Alfaro’s adaptation is a different Medea as well as one that stands uniquely on its own merits. 

This is a tragic story of the end of a relationship.  

Tita (VIVIS) slaps the leaves, to the sounds of the blended noises, the false gossipy whispers, which are the backdrop rumblings and clatters of living souls surviving in Boyle Heights.  And in her indigenous language, Tita places a protective shield to the corners of their home against those forces known and unknown.  

Living in Boyle Heights is almost a fantasy for this family and one that defies comprehension. Dreamlike, the house floats in out of nowhere, carried on spirit wheels, mightily pushed by the indigenous people who anchor it to the terra firma while various plants propagate on the porch. 

And Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela) methodically rolls her sewing machine to her special place, just off the porch, and focuses her sights on the right color of thread.  

One more thing, Medea is not moving far from home.

“Hason’s dream was to come here.” – Medea

It is a dream of bitterest contradictions, of her husband, Hason (Justin Huen), who manages to find work late at night, most nights, and comes home infrequently.  When he does come home, he drinks beer, spits on the ground in polite company, and kicks the soccer ball down the street for his son, Acan (Quinn Marquez), to chase. It is how all Americans behave, he tells himself, in a selfish act of assimilation.

But, despite the grumblings, life appears happy, in this home, a family, complete with the ever present and annoying servant, Tita, someone who gives a humorous respite to the daily grind of surviving in Boyle Heights, doing the dishes and bringing them beer.  

Medea, the artist, an independent contractor, receives $8.00 for each item she sews that is then sold for $120.00 at Bloomindales.  Even with both working, there’s not enough to go around and adequately support the family.

Not while Hason is out and about most nights.  

That aside, on this day, Hason suggests they go for a family outing to the Santa Monica Pier.  Medea says there’s too much work, gets sick and goes inside.

“Hason did not come home last night.” – Tita

Leave it to Tita and her outspoken thoughts to stir up trouble between Medea and Hason.

Moving away, Tita grabs the machete, an augury, foreshadowing events to be played out, but for now she trims the banana plant.  

A short while later, Josefina (Zilah Mendoza) seductively blows into this family like an unwanted boa – offering more than just pan dulce – in exchange for confabulation, juicy gossip, and a new dress.

“I know Hanson…Is he a good lover?” – Josie

Josefina is very provocative and Medea is curious about the things Hason tells other women on the street. But Josefina says she has a husband, he works in the field in Oregon, and she longs for her own prodigy.

Initially, Medea sees Josefina, with her fine figure, as a threat to her family.  That threat is relieved when Josefina appeals to Medea’s sewing nature to make her a new dress so that a newly Americanized “Josie” can be reintroduce to her husband, enticing him into bed, and becoming pregnant herself.

“Tita is a curandera, she can help.” – Medea

Josie steps onto a box in the middle of the yard to be measured. And while this is happening, Tita takes three leaves and medicinally places them over the various erogenous zones of her body.   

Later, and in the quiet moments, Medea silently broods about the events of the day and waits for Hason to come home.  She takes out a blanket and entices Hason to make love with her in the front yard. Hason, confused, suddenly become agreeable until Medea suddenly stops and says she can’t.

Hason understands this thing between them.

“Armida gave me another promotion.  I work in the office with her.” – Hason

Medea is slightly curious about the developing relationship between them but Hason tells her that she should be grateful since Armida (Marlene Forte) is letting them stay in their house for free.  

It’s a grand place considering where they came from four years earlier.

L - R Justin Huen, Quinn Marquez, Sabina Zuniga Varela, VIVIS

And so we travel to their journey four years earlier, as Tita recounts fleeing Michoacán to Boyle Heights in the back of a truck, where at times they were unable to breath.  The journey was difficult and at one point the truck was held up at gunpoint.

And while Hason had a gun pointed to his head, Medea and another young woman were taken off the truck and raped.  

The Getty Villa is the perfect place to see this play and, aside from the heat on this particular night, the night was as enjoyable as any night of theatre I can remember.

That said, Alfaro’s adaptation is night to Euripides’s day and comparisons must be made. And, I have some thoughts, slight tidbits, off the cuff comments about the play, the comparisons, and the actors.

Alfaro’s work is beautiful and there are interesting distinctions between his work and Euripides’ play. For example, in Euripides’ Medea, Medea is caught in the circumstances of being a woman, a sorceress at that, who is cast aside and then projected as being evil. Her dialogue suggests such and the manner in which she conducts herself is not becoming of someone who has all of her wits about her. It is a role that justifies a stronger physical Medea.

Alfaro’s Medea is unable to leave the house, suffering from a type of agoraphobia. She is timid, not forceful, and we are led to believe that this might be because of the rape when in fact it is something deeper.  There is a stronger inner dialogue moving in this Medea trying to make sense of all that is happening around her. 

In Alfaro’s version, the rape scene works against the strength of both Medea and Hason.  Certainly one is led to believe that Medea is now extremely fragile and terrified due to the rape and Hason is emasculated from having to let an armed bandits take his wife.  

And it may have been Alfaro’s intention to not make the characters resilient as they are in Euripides’s Medea where Medea is forcefully strong in her ways and Jason (adventurous, strong, and of the Argonauts fame) is strong in his manner, thus making for an ending that is grander in amplitude.    

Instead, since both characters are fragile, the events of the dramatic ending are lessened; the tragedy may not be as great and they are the victims once again by the manner of their position and circumstances.

In Alfaro’s Mojada, we do not see Medea thinking out loud on stage, calling for desperate measures and action as we do in Euripides’ Medea.  The moments in Mojada are nuanced and profound in subtle ways.

Medea is wronged repeatedly and one would like to see the dramatic moments accumulate in the character, emotional and physically into a frenzied state of rage. The inner dialogue is stronger, but that needs a physical accompaniment especially for the ending because Medea must get some satisfaction for what she has done, in whatever form it takes, but there was little in the way of a physical action, before the leaves, and before the final curtain. 

Nevertheless, it was a grand night for director Jessica Kubzansky’s presentation that manages to capture the dramatic essence of Medea guiding the characters through their miserable indignities to capture a truth. The loudest audible gasp of the night did not come from the brutal scenes but from a word, simply spoken, that collapses a home into a crumbling mass that was once a family. And that is a true testament to Kubzansky’s work.  

VIVIS as Tita give us a grand performance as the non-obsequious servant/mother/nurse to Medea.  Her characterization is flawless and her humor is exquisite.

Justin Huen plays Hason and is probably one of the hardest working actor in Los Angeles (everywhere I go, there he is). That said, Huen’s Hason is not different from the other roles I’ve seen him in. They are well-performed variations of the same character.  This characterization is weakened by the play’s tragic events of four years ago and Huen needs to find ways to give the character strength.  More can be added to the character without taking away from this fine performance.

Sabina Zuniga Varela plays Medea, a mother and homemaker, who is hesitant to stray too far from her house.   In this version, Medea hides her mystery well – coming out to show her true colors at the end of the play.  Medea is concerned about her husband’s philandering ways but doesn’t do much to keep him. Only when the marriage is over does she step into opprobrious actions that are beyond reason. Varela’s Medea has her faculties about herself.  We do not see the feverish agitation in her behavior from those events leading to the complete disillusion of their union. And for some reason, I think we need that.

Quinn Marques does a fine comic turn as Acan, Medea’s and Hanson’s son.

Zilah Mendoza is perfect as Josefina, the pan dulce lady, who carefully watches her Boyle Heights neighbors including the men with wandering eyes who visit her stand.  Despite that, she says she only has eyes for her husband.  Not satisfied with her shibboleth, the indigenous dress of her native land, she enlists Medea to make her a new dress, one that will keep her husband home and get her pregnant. Unfortunately, she gets mixed up with the wrong people and when she finally finds out who Medea is she should run, absquatulate into the nether region of Boyle Heights, away rather than casually walk away as she did.  Still, it was a very impressive performance.  

L - R Marlene Forte, VIVIS

Marlene Forte brings the right amount of vivaciousness to the character Armida.  She lives a secret, a conflict that tears her apart in the telling of the secret.  And as she marches upstage in the beautiful dress Medea has made for her we should see an inkling of things that come. Forte gives a subtle yet marvelous performance.

Other member of the cast that I did not see perform the night I was there were; Anthony Gonzalez (Acan), Denise Blasor (Tita/Armida understudy), Presciliana Esparolini (Medea/Josefina understudy) and Adrian Gonzalez (Hason understudy).

The fine people who make up the marvelous crew are as follows:

Jaclyn Kalkhurst – Stage Manager
Alyssa Escalante – Assistant Stage Manager
Efren Delgadillo, Jr. – Scenic Designer/Technical Director
Raquel Barreto – Costume Design
Ben Zamora – Lighting Design
Bruno Louchouarn – Sound Design
Christopher Scott Murillo – Properties Design
Cheryl Rizzo - Production Manager
Cat Sowa - Assistant Production Manager
Rachel Clinkscales - Assistant Costume Designer
Courtney Buchan - Assistant Director
Ellen L. Sandor - Wardrobe
Bobby Gutierrez - Running Crew
The members of The Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater Staff make everyone feel at home.  Some of the names mentioned in the program are as follows:

Laurel Kishi – Performing Arts Manager
Ralph Flores – Project Specialist
Anna Woo – Project Coordinator
Mary Louise Hart – Dramaturge
Shelby Brown – Education Specialist
Adrienne Wohleen, Paradigm Shift Worldwide – Technical Coordinator
Steph Dirden, Heather Alvear, Michael Easley, and Bill King – Technical Production
Visitor Services Department – House Management
Diana Sanchez Martinez – Public Programs Intern

Run! Run! Run! And take someone who wants to have the best time of their life.