Monday, February 8, 2010

Why Torture is Wrong, And the People Who Love Them by Christopher Durang

The Wacky World of Christopher Durang

by Joe Straw

Probably the only person who will be held accountable for torture in the United States today is Christopher Durang. It’s only fitting given that in this west coast premier of his new play there are abductions, torture, assaults, mutilations and implied threats against the theatre going audience. It is an assault from Durang’s twisted and demented mind in this gun filled night at the theatre.

And clearly, Durang, should be prosecuted under theatre law article number, um well, I’m sure there is one. It shouldn’t be hard to get a memo from the Justice Department.

Why Torture is Wrong And The People Who Love Them at the Stellar Adler Theatre is presented at The Blank Theatre Company and directed by Daniel Henning. It is funny, disturbing, and wacky.

Torture is a disturbing concept that doesn’t have a lot of laughs attached to it. And, by the way, it’s only torture if you do it. It’s enhanced interrogation techniques if we do it. Also, it’s not really torture unless there’s organ failure (ask John Yoo about this one). What an awe inspiring and hilarious concept!

Also, it’s a known fact that when you attach a label to a group of people (Savages and terrorists come to mind.) you can kill them with little or no remorse. It’s true.

In this play, Felicity (Rhea Seehorn) awakens in a cheap hotel room in the arms of a man, Zamir (Sunil Malhotra). She has been drugged and raped. (Is this a terrorist act?) Ah, but Felicity discovers that she married Zamir the previous night, so, technically, this doesn’t fall under any known legal statutes. (Actually it is illegal, but why quibble about small details.) And, wanting an annulment, she discovers that Zamir (an admitted Irishman, eh hem) is demented and violent threatening to knock her teeth out. (Or maybe that’s the charming characteristic of another culture.)

Felicity enlists the help of her mother Luella (Christine Estabrook) who is a whacked out theatergoer who can only relate to the members of her family by way of scenes from the theatre and besides she is off in her own world. Zamir enters the pallor, and labels Felicity’s mother as Mrs. RazzyWazzy for reasons not quite entirely known.

Later, Felicity’s father, Leonard (Mike Genovese) a die-hard gun-toting conservative enters the room and finds out Felicity has married Zamir. Leonard pulls a gun, which leads to Zamir pulling his phone threatening to dial a number which would blow them all to smithereens. (Gun versus phone, which one is faster?)

Calmer notions prevail when Luella invites everyone into the breakfast nook for French toast.

At the breakfast nook Leonard talks about his butterfly collection. It is a hearty discussion of a man with a beautiful hobby about beautiful creatures that inhabit the earth. He also takes the sinister pleasure in sticking pins through their hearts because he says, “Butterflies don’t have hearts.” (Butterflies, in fact, have two hearts.) The discussions angrily turns to Jane Fonda and which leads Leonard to put a gun to Zamir's head and threatens to blow his brains out like “that picture from the Vietnam war.”

Luella gets him to eat his French toast instead.

Later, referring to Zamir, Leonard tells Felicity, “You let Daddy take care of this.”

Leonard calls Hildegarde (Catherine Hicks) his sidekick for help. Her code name is Scooby Do, because everyone knows if you’re going to torture someone it’s best to have a comic book code name. (And joyfully this makes the unpleasant, pleasant.)

Hildegarde comes into his butterfly office where we find that butterflies are his euphemism for assault rifles. Those rifles blanket the walls of his study. As Leonard holds his assault rifle Hildegarde caresses the barrel (another euphemism) and immediately looses her panties. Leonard, all business, can’t bear to look and tells her to pull them up because they have business to do. (“Make love not war” are the words implied in this distracting detail.)

Meanwhile, Felicity, is in a bar drowning her troubles served by the wacky voice/narrator/Looney Tunes (Alec Mapa) when she meets up with Reverend Mike (Nicholas Brendon). Mike notices her and tells her that he married her and Zamir. “You were nodding off,” he tells her about the wedding ceremony in response to whether she was a willing participant. Zamir enters the bar to find Felicity and Reverend together, slightly jealous, Felicity leaves.

Zamir and Mike speak about a porno films he wants to make. Reverend Mike is a porn-again Christian and thinks the relationship between church and sex is more than okay. Zamir, needing the money, agrees to star in his porno film “The Big Bang” but only if he wears a mask. (A man of impeccable scruples.) Unbeknownst to them Hildegarde is in the next booth getting the goods on both of them but misinterprets their conversation as a terrorist strike on eastern cities.

When the two men confront Hildegarde she falls tripping on her panties and fearing for her life maces them, reports back to Leonard, and the fun of abduction, torture, and mutilations begins.

Reading a lot about our current history and not forgetting finds this play uncomfortable and hard to laugh at.

This is an exceptional cast, albeit trying a little too hard at times, but nevertheless exceptional. Brendon, as the pornographer priest, gave this play a bundle of calm when events got completely out of hand.

Estabrook, as Luella, gives the impressions that because you are innocent you won’t need to worry about the events of the day, just let it go, ohmmm!

Genovese is just wonderfully scary noting there are a lot of Leonards out there just waiting to take over if need be. And when he turned the assault rifle toward the audience and threatened to wipe out the imaginary crowd (us), beads of perspiration fell.

Hicks is delightful as Hildegarde. It takes a real woman to play with panties down around her ankles for most of the play.

Malhotra is an exceptional actor. The core of his character does not change but in the end he is willing to try life another way.

Alec Mapa needs work on his imitations but is a very fine actor. Can’t figure out what he was doing in this play. He is a fine cabaret act in need of a cabaret.

Seehorn as Felicity, beautiful in her red evening dress, is quirky, and seems to absorb the madness around her. Her character has an extremely strong constitution. Not many women could stand the effects of the torturous people around, her father, her mother, her husband, and her priest. She seems to accept this life as relatively normal. If only she could call on a higher source.

Daniel Henning, the director, does a wonderful job keeping it all together and moving the action along. Durang’s seems to change direction near the end of the play and we discover that although we can change the circumstances of how things come about, we really can’t change the core of the human soul.

Wonderful Set Design by Jeff G. Rack and Property Master by Michael O’Hara in the Stellar Adler Theatre complex at Hollywood and Highland. And if you haven’t been to this theatre there is easy and inexpensive parking in the complex across the street for just two dollars. The show is playing through March 14.

“You don’t have to be your father.” It is a line in the play that rang wonderfully true. Change happens in a moment and if we don’t change we are doomed to repeat this ugly chapter.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Godot Screams For Liberation

By Joe Straw

They sleep without resting, hunger without the pain, fight the insects that crawl through the crevices of their body, and laugh without smiling, all under globelike bowlers that are thrust upon their heads.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and directed by Andrew J. Traister at A Noise Within Theatre in Glendale is a magnificent production about waiting for the inevitable that never comes.

It is an exhausting existential nightmare, a dream gone awry, a road nearly followed, and an entry into the sacred hall of nothingness until, at last, the journey comes to an end. Only to discover - the end - is the beginning.

On this journey, and at the end of the road, they find themselves in a vacuum of a non- sustaining relationship. They exist because they say they do and ultimately it is a quest to stop and find a moment of reason for their being.

It is a dream about having to make water and finding every little drain willing to accept the humanly excretions only to feel the pressure of needing to go again and again until you wake, and go. But they do not awaken. If indeed they are asleep. If life is without purpose they are as good as dead and waiting for someone, like GODot, to come and get them.

The characters in Waiting for Godot Vladimir (Robertson Dean) and Estragon (Joel Swetow) never wake up and live to replay the same events day after day. They have missed something in their lives and are never able to move on. For some odd reason they haven’t found their reason for being. Their dreams are not satisfied leaving them in this sorry predicament. Life is not much more than a catch phrase of passing time and living to push the living around in the cell they occupy.

The play tells us they’ve been together for a long time.

Vladimir: Hand in hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower, among the first. (That would be 1889.)

They are educated men but now they are the victims of hard times.

Vladimir has to constantly remind Estragon where he has been and why they can’t leave, while at the same time Estragon wants to move on thinking they would be better going off on their own separate ways. It is a relationship that gathers no ground and doesn’t move beyond the length of their waiting area.

To break up the monotony of two people going nowhere they think they encounter Godot.

Estragon: Is that him?

Vladimir: Who?

Estragon: (trying to remember the name). Er…

Vladimir: Godot?

Estragon: Yes.

Pozzo: I present myself: Pozzo.

Vladimir: (to Estragon). Not at all!

Estragon: He said Godot.

Vladimir: Not at all!

Pozzo (Mitchell Edmonds) and Lucky (Mark Bramhall) are bound together in a relationship which is much more wretched than those of our tragic heroes, Vladimir and Estragon.

And they seem to be longer along in their relationship. While Vladimir and Estragon have an unbreakable bond formed by an invisible force, a rope holds Pozzo and Lucky together.

The rope around Lucky’s neck has created unspeakable sores. The obese Pozzo holds the rope, calls Lucky a pig, and makes him wait on him hand and foot. Opening his chair, bringing his whip, putting on a coat, it is a degrading master-slave relationship that Lucky seems to accept, a fait acompli, but is saddened when this relationship breaks down around the other components – namely Vladimir and Estragon.

Pozzo, nearly at the end of his journey, starts loosing his materials things, which suddenly and mysteriously disappear: his vaporizer, and his pipe. Is it foreshadowing the end of his journey? And, indeed, he has lost a great deal more when he arrives in the second act, as a blind man and with a shorter rope. And Lucky has lost his ability to speak.

Owen Sholar plays the boy who apologizes to Vladimir that Godot won’t be coming today, “…but surely to-morrow” thereby giving hope to the hopeless.

Dean is magnificent as Vladimir. Last seen in Crimes and Punishment, Dean manages to respectively wear the costume of Vladimir with grace and dignity. Fighting hard to get his way he manages to stay the course that takes him into obliquity. Dean needs to find the rapture in this piece. But, nevertheless, it was a journey of unspeakable pleasure.

Swetow is an actor that grows on you. Slightly disingenuous by his actions in the beginning (taking off his boots) but Swetow becomes more warming as the moments pass on and this culminates into a very nice performance.

Edmonds as Pozzo was enjoyable to watch. Despicable and wonderfully irascible. He carries his rope of fame as long as someone is willing to pull him along and take his commands.

Bramhall as Lucky, with not much to say until he is asked, is a witness to his own demise. He floats with the weights of his master’s deeds until he falls. Bramhall plays the part beautifully dripping saliva on cue and watering the bare dry ground he inhabits.

Traister, as director, has moved the actors into cautious moments of irreverent beauty. It is a straight on interpretation. Unnatural at times in moving the relationships along and not really making his definitive mark in this existential play. But, nevertheless, a very nice job.

Scenic Design was by Michael C. Smith and it served its purpose. The Original Costume Design by Angela Balogh Calin was delightful.

A Noise Within run by Founders Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott is a grand theatre about to break ground on a new $15,000,000 theatre. For 18 years this theatre has had an unwavering commitment to the preservation of classical theatre and provided superior educational opportunities to students.

Contributions please call 818-265-7959