Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Bliss Point by Shishir Kurup

L - R Alberto Virgen, Jared Ross, Talmage A. Tidwell, Amelia Yokel

By Joe Straw

From Dictionary.com

bliss [blis] noun

1. supreme happiness; utter joy or contentment: wedded bliss.

2. Theology. the joy of heaven.

3. heaven; paradise: the road to eternal bliss.

4. Archaic. a cause of great joy or happiness.

So bliss point must be the point at which one achieves bliss.  And, how does one recognize when that happens?  Recognizing bliss is no small feat, because bliss is a culmination of events played out in motion to form that moment.  Sometimes that recognition comes long after the moment has passed.

Cornerstone Theater Company presents Bliss Point, a guest production at The Odyssey Theatre, written by Shishir Kurup, and directed by Juliette Carrillo.  The Executive Producers are Margaret Leong Checca, Jon Neustadter, Jennifer & Matthew Rowland through June 22, 2014.

Bliss Point is Cornerstone’s fifth play in the Hunger Cycle and a collaboration with the addiction and recovery communities in Los Angeles. Community Partners for Bliss Point include:  Beit T’Shuvah, The Hills Treatment Center, and the United States Veteran’s Artists Alliance.

Things are bouncing at the Odyssey Theatre.  Every time I go these days the lobby is crowded with avid theatregoers waiting to get into one of its three theatres.  The Odyssey is much more of an intimate space for Cornerstone whose works I have seen at larger venues such as LATC, the Los Angeles Mission (downtown off San Pedro), and the Chuco’s Justice Center. This production has been pared down with a sharper focus on the story and the acting.  

As always with Cornerstone, the cast is a creative blend of people and richly diverse.  Collectively, this exciting cast represents a swath of Americana, of its people of of its traditions.   

As the show started, a man with a tattoo entered the upstage left door and collapsed on the floor. An audience member said, “Look, that poor man just fell down.”  (Acting!)  The tenebrous dark shadowy figure stayed on the floor, not moving one muscle, a lone figure on top of the deplorably filthy green and yellow tiles in his vary sparse apartment.  Above him the walls were highlighted by an almost translucent whirling and coiling wallpaper representing a somnolent, battered Van Gogh-esque vision of a man in trouble. (Incredible work by Scenic Designer Nephelie Andonyadis)

And yes, the man on the floor was in trouble.  But, he is only one of many.  Men and women now appearing out of nowhere are wrapped in blankets sitting on the floor as they survive one more night of addiction.  

But to get to the now, we have to go back to the past.  And we do this with Seamus (pronounced shame us) (Talmage A. Tidwell) who is on the floor, an entangled mass of humanity, impotent from drugs, and senseless from being struck in the head one too many times.

His friend Billy (Jared Ross), an artist wearing and 80’s style mohawk, and loaded with various piercings on his being, enters his non-palatial abode.  And in his benign vigilance, Billy sees him and examines the bruises and cuts around his eyes. His affection for this man appears to be far more than for his well being, but, as forethought, he mentions Lara (Amelia Yokel) a friend who has her eyes on him with more than a casual passing fancy.

“She loves you.” – Billy

Meanwhile, in another place, Jay (Sunkrish Bala) is writing on his Mac when his mother Aya (KT Thangavelu) moves nearer to him with her large bag of prescription drugs and with a purpose in mind.  She takes three Tylenol with codeine and God knows what else to get her to a comfortable place.    

To break the ice, Aya wants to know what her son is writing, and whether he is getting paid for this job.  Jay assures her that it is a paying job writing about drug addiction for a national magazine.

A physically troubled Aya is seeing the end of her life and wants to make sure that Jay is emotionally taken care of, and is financially stable when she moves on.  All this because she has an implacable desire to have her ashes dumped in a river in India.  But Jay can’t even get the name of the river right calling it the Ganges instead of the Hindi name Ganga.  Aya is not totally comfortable leaving her ashes in the hands of her incompetent son.  

Naytheless what Aya really wants is for Jay, while he is in India to disperse her ashes, to call his father.

“They have phones in India.”- Aya

Jay doesn’t like that idea.

Finished with his mother, Jay picks up the phone and calls Adelina (Page Leong) for directions to a lockup where he will conduct interviews for his drug addiction article.  But when he gets there, the three hardened criminals are three young women, Celina (Michelle Farivar), Alicia (Tricia Nykin), and Summer (Melissa Ann Kestin).  They are barely beyond their teens and hardly hardened criminals.  This story is not looking all that great.

The interview doesn’t go so well and Jay really wants to speak to Adelina’s husband about overcoming addiction.  Her husband is busy doing other things, but she will try to arrange a meeting.

David Bard

Meanwhile in another location, Earl (David Bard), inadvertent in his ways, sits at home watching TV with a bottle of vodka and some pills and is about to do himself in when he hears a Godlike voice from the TV telling him what he is doing is wrong.  

Oh, the snarling irony of it all!

Back in Seamus’ apartment, there’s a frantic knocking at the door.  It’s the neighbor Wiley (K. J. Rasheed) wanting to find a place to stash some recently stolen stereo equipment.  Wiley is not going to take no for an answer even if it means pulling out his gun in a friendly gesture.

Later, Jay is now interviewing Arif (JoDyRaY) about his addiction problems and how that all came to be.  Arif takes him through his sexual exploitations at the tender age of six or seven years. And after his mom died, he started using drugs to combat his depression. Now he questions his gender and sexual identity, which at the present time are ambiguous.

Seamus is sorting out the details of the stereo when he hears a knock at the door. It is Lara and Rey (Alberto Virgen) who’ve come to party after scoring some coke for their pleasure.  And with Billy all four of them have formed a close-knit bond.  Their relationship, an entangled mass, has gotten too close when later we discover a truth of their journey.   

Notwithstanding, Jay is trying to take care of his mother, which includes getting a prescription for medical marijuana. Aya wants to go to Peru, to try a certain drug, and to see Krishna.

But now in another location, Officer Friendly (Stuart O’Donnell), enters Seamus apartment and arrests Seamus for the brawl he participated in.

Cornerstone brings a lot of diversity to the cast.  Some actors have a lot of experience and others have hardly any experience at all.  But Juliette Carrillo, the director, manages to get the best from all of them. The looks are perfect for the characters chosen for these roles.

And yet, Carrillo’s through line is slightly out of focus.  The characters are not moving seamlessly to get to the bliss point, which must be the whole point of the story. We get to the end but the emotional catharsis is uninvolving when some really great and emotionally engaging events are taking place. More can be made of that moment.

Shishir Kurup, the writer, gives us an unusual look of humans trying to survive.  Each distinct in their own way, trying to find their own bliss point.  Maybe it’s that simple.  These are very different people in very engaging situations. Some scenes need restructuring.  The scene introducing the girls lacked conflict and an objective.  Also, it is unclear why Arif is in Peru with Jay and his mother, Aya.

Sunkrish Bala plays Jay a very likeable guy who has problems with his mother and her health.  Bala, the actor, doesn’t allow himself to step beyond of what he truly wants.  One could argue that Jay wants what all writers want, a Pulitzer or great recognition for a body of work that lives on long after he is gone.   But, what get’s in his way?  Well first his mother, then the people he has to interview and who are not co-operative, and the one person he cannot get in to see. (I believe this to be the most important.) And Jay would do well to recognize and overcome these conflicts.

David Bard has some fine moments as Earl, a man of the bottle, who discovers God speaking to him through his TV.

Sheela Bhongir plays Krishna and appears in the second act much to the delight of the one needing her.

Michelle Farvar plays Celina, a young woman incarcerated for her involvement in drugs and having a story to tell to the writer.  But what is her story?  Having a stronger objective will help with her conflict, whether it is internal or external, and give us a clearer picture of the makeup of this person.

L - R Sunkrish Bala, JoDyRaY

JoDyRaY walks in with a thin frame and raspy voice and never lets up with his creativity on stage as the character Arif. Dressed up in an aging rock star with sexually ambivalent garb, one could either be excited or confused by his appearance. Arif appears to know who he is, excepting his sexuality, and is willing to share his history with anyone who wants to listen to the sorted details of his current predicament.  But it is not without danger as Arif has a need to carry a gun in order to fulfill sexual desire or warn off an unwanted predator.  

Melissa Ann Kestin plays Sumer one of the incarcerated girls and, without saying a word, gives us a breathless moment of a truth buried deep within her. She is a very fine actor with expressive eyes.

Page Leong is Adelina, the counselor to the girls.  Leong is one of the finest actors working in Los Angeles today.  She makes use of her being with the minimalist of props and always manages to create the place in her space on stage.  But, what does Adelina want? What gets in her way?  And how is she able to resolve the conflicts?  More is needed to give life to this three dimensional character.

Tricia Nykin plays Alicia, one of the girls that are incarcerated.

Stuart O’Donnell plays Friendly (probably a misnomer), an Irish cop that likes to take things into his own hand by being friendly at first and then finding a way ruthlessly arrest his criminal.

K. J. Rasheed plays Wiley the unscrupulous next-door neighbor who needs a place to hide stolen goods.  Rasheed does a fine job with characterization.

Probably the best thing not to put in your bio is that you’re a “semi-experienced” actor as Jared Ross put in his bio.  Ross has got a few things going for him; one of them is a nice presence on stage, intelligence, and the ability to stay connected.  One thing missing is his relationship with his friend, Seamus, which need defining and direction. On stage, a character is not there to “hang”; he must have a purpose and an objective to being there.  Also, there must be a conflict that prevents him from getting what he wants and that conflict needs to be discovered.   

KT Thangavelu

KT Thangavelu is fantastic as Aya, the mother to Jay. From the moment she appears to the moment she leaves, she has a character that is richly defined, funny, and sardonic all in one breath. Aya has a path that is splendidly filled during the course of her journey with bumps along the way that Thangavelu captures in a wonderful performance.  

Talmage A. Tidwell plays Seamus and has a very powerful voice.  Seamus gets himself into a lot of trouble with his fists as well as getting into trouble with drugs.  He is a lost soul trying to find his way.  Tidwell’s voice is his asset and finding a way to use the voice in accomplishing his objective would be a good thing. Seamus is trying to find his way but Tidwell doesn’t question the things that are going on around him until it is too late. He doesn’t absorb the information, things just happen. The actions on stage put him in a deeper hole without that hole being acknowledged.

Alberto Virgen plays Rey and has a very good look and does a very fine job in his presentation.

Amelia Yokel is Lara, lover to Seamus, addict, and a rich socialite who has ventured into this gothic world and doesn’t know how to get out. When the money runs out, she has no place to turn. Yokel is stunning, intelligent, has an incredible presence, and brings a very nice sincerity to this role.

Raquel M. Marreto did a fine job with the Costume Design.  Andrew D. Smith was the Lighting Designer.  The sound Designer is Veronika Vorel.  Ash Nichols was responsible for the Production Stage Management.

Nicely produced by Executive Producers Margaret Leong Checca, Jon Neustadter, Jennifer & Matthew Rowland.

Other members of the production team are as follows:

Production Manager – Lester P. Grant
Technical Directors – Alec Cyganowski, Jeff Williams
Production Coordinator – Doug Rosenberg
Assistant Stage manager – Julia Colbert
Production Assistant – Lizzie Cantey
Props Artisan – Zachary March
Master Electrician – Philip Powers
Light Board Operator – Ronnie Dunmore
Sound Board Operator – Gloria Gonzalez
Assistant Costume Designer/Wardrobe Supervisor – Rachel Clinkscales
Wardrobe Assistant – Nijel Martinez
Fight Choreographer – Edgar Landa
Scholar in Residence – Michelle Farivar
Dramaturge – Tom Jacobson
Community Audience Liason – Nikki Hyde
Public Relations Assistant – Jacqueline Rosas

Run!  Run!  And take someone who loves taking small steps. 


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