BORROWING SHAKESPEARE'S MAGIC: Five History Plays on LA Stages

For more than a year now, we've been living through the historic and historical – and at times hysterical -  theatricality of our times. To suggest that the Shakespearean heights are daily surmounted in the Tweeted Tussles of our Clownish Head of State, has become a cliché of journalism – which, like it or not (pace Donny J.), is the first draft of history.  This fall, Southland theatergoers have had plenty of opportunities to enjoy the dumb-show eccentricities of history on parade.  Here is an examination of five such plays that have recently been in LA: KING CHARLES III, KING JOHN, SOMETHING ROTTEN, THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD and PACIFIC OVERTURES. (Editor's Note: SOMETHING ROTTEN continues until December 31. PACIFIC OVERTURES has 3 more shows this weekend on Friday at 8 pm and Saturday at 3 and 8.)

Jim Abele, Mark Capri, Dylan Saunders, Laura Gardner in King Charles III

King Charles III, a play by England's Mike Bartlett, tells the what-if “history” of the current Prince of Wales, Charles Windsor, were he ever to become king of the shrunken United Kingdom. As speculative “history,” King Charles III is certainly a tale of troubles. It intriguingly projects the challenge to the British monarchy into a chaotic future.

It has a promising premise – one could call it a Shavian conceit – with the pre-crowned, 70-ish Charles taking a regal stand against Parliament's new law that will render the press “a little less free.” Like a Shakespearean history plays, Charles III develops into a crisis over the succession to the throne which sparks the threats of rebellion and war. However, in place of gutsy Shakespearean passion and psychology we are given “poor me” wailings about the rigors and strictures of being a Royal.

Written in blank verse (generally-unrhymed iambic pentameter) with syntactical echoes and dramaturgical turns reminiscent of Shakespeare's work, the script lays claim to a rarified artistic ancestry that it doesn't always live up to. Happily, the production at the Pasadena Playhouse (now closed) is well-acted by the cast of Los Angeles actors on a stage that has been extended into the audience. This brings the action out from behind the proscenium and up close to the playgoers.

Michael Hoag, Gus Krieger and Hersha Parady in King John

On the other hand, Shakespeare's The History of King John, a much larger play, with battles and ruined cities from London to the Loire, was presented by The Porters of Hellsgate (now closed) in a tiny NoHo black box at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center.

First performed 423 years ago, King John is in some ways just as speculative as Charles III. Written 380 years after the petty, spiteful and cruel, yet hapless demise of the titular king, Shakespeare, who lived in Tudor times, was writing about a Plantagenet, the dynasty from whom the Tudors wrested the throne when Welsh Henry Tudor defeated Henry VI. The Bard's grasp of history was never precise and never got in the way of a good bit of drama. And the anti-papist Protestant English would have been thrilled to see the trouble-making characterization of the Catholic Cardinal as the infusion of evil, if not outright villainy.

Now generally listed as the 13th of Shakespeare's works, as presented by The Porters, it plays like one of his earliest, too often shifting focus, being more work-a-day than inspired.  There are some moments to recommend it. Lady Constance's heartfelt grief when the King puts her teenage son under guard with an order to kill him, and the boy's successful pleading for his life. Perhaps the most intriguing character is a bastard son of Richard the Lionheart, a crafty young man maneuvering between politicos. Called The Bastard, he is the least historical (hinted at by Holinshed in his chronicles, from which Shakespeare drew the story) and yet, he is the first creation by Shakespeare of a character with an inner life,  the progenitor of a line of charismatic characters, loveable and detestable, that runs through Hotspurs and Falstaff to Hamlet, Iago, and Edmund – and even Caliban. For villainous as the Bastard might seem, any character with the smarts to observe:

Whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.

is a character to treasure and was Shakespeare's first psychologically self-motivating character.

Having nowhere near the finances or theatrical resources of the Pasadena Playhouse, one would not expect the lavish pomp and sumptuous circumstance that made this a popular play in the 19th Century. Instead, an intimate production in a 50-seat theater could better focus on the clarity and depth of the issues and relationships. Unfortunately, at The Porters' the dramatis personae are almost all attitude without any reality or feeling.  They are not the first to be undone by the flawed dramaturgy of King John, and they won't be the last.  It is as The Bastard says, “Sweet poison for the Age's tooth.”

While Shakespeare's King John scrambles flawed history, the charmingly produced play with music, The Heart of Robin Hood deals with a medieval folk tale from the same King's reign.  As seen at the Wallis in Beverly Hills, this touring family production toys what is now thought to be a myth based on a legend which is in turn grounded in the harsh historical truth of King John's reign: the terror of John's greed and ruthlessness. In a clever, first class touring production that turns the usual fascination with Robin on its political correct tush, Maid Marion is a heroine for the ages, dashing into the forest to teach Robin the thief the value of giving to the poor. That she saves Robin from King (here Prince) John is a feminist twist that leaves holes in the logic, emotion in the wings, and the dramatics to an Icelandic director's clever use of theatrics. And clever it is, and wants to be. As originally produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, it is a splendid presentation of a simplistic, often delightfully silly, script with more and more echoes of Shakespeare. It seems to exist mainly to beguile and to inspire young girls to bravery.

Blake Hammond and Rob McClure in Something Rotten

For a third work spawned from Shakespearean genetics, we are lucky to have the musical Something Rotten (Ahmanson Theater). Twenty years in the making, it's about as tuneful as a recital of operatic recitative, but makes up for the lack of melody with a surfeit of choreographic mayhem, clever direction and first-class performances.  It's a romp, with no pretensions to classic theater. It has very little claim on history, except, oddly enough, the chronicles of Musical Theater. And if you don't know the history of the American musical you'll have less than half the fun most theater-goers have. Perhaps the show too often relies on snippets of songs and famous line-references from the history of popular musicals like Oklahoma! Sunset Boulevard, Cats, and the entire Sondheim canon. It gives us puns and mugging in place of irony, intrigue, or depth, but then it has no pretensions to history, devoted as it is to entertainment.  And it delivers. It is centered on a character that goes by the name of Nick Bottom (from A Midsummer Night's Dream), one of the Bard's more captivating creations, and creates for him a brother, Nigel. They need a new show. The Soothsayer predicts the next big thing will me – musicals! Shakespeare is a character with as much humanity as you can give a spoofed-up rock star stage writer. Clever, often effervescent, it is a memorable an evening of fluff that delivers just that – but only that! Leave history to others.

The often sublime, Pacific Overtures, is on the other hand one of the deft gems of the musical theater. Born of the art of Stephen Sondheim, 41 years ago, with John Weidman's witty book, and Hal Prince's brilliant direction, it originally starred Los Angeles' great Mak0 (film and television actor and first artistic director of East West Players).

As history, Pacific Overtures is more kaleidoscopic than academic, which is to say, it gives us the feel of history without concern for narrative consistency. Like Shakespeare's The Tempest, what action there is flows from the unexpected arrival of disturbing forces on a magical island.  To suggest that The Reciter (Mako's role) in Overtures is an unintended descendent of The Bard's Prospero may not be the stretch it seems on first blush. Both characters share a magical power within the context of their individual worlds.

Pacific Overtures is one of the Sondheim-Prince musicals from the last quarter of the 20th Century (this one produced in 1976 for the Bicentennial of American Independence). And it stretched the limits of musical theater far beyond the romantic limits of boy-or-girl meets girl-or-boy, mix-and-match. It follows Admiral Perry's “opening up” of Japan's closed samurai culture to its sadly logical conclusion of crass commerciality that was in the late 20th Century seen as “Japan today.”

And as Prospero uses “my so potent art” which he calls “rough magic” to create a Tempest that will alter his fortunes, requiring “Some heavenly music, which even now I do, To work mine end…” he seems to be conjuring the musical in which The Reciter foresees a Tempest of culture that will “threaten the serene and changeless cycle of our days,” singing:

“In the middle of the world we float
In the middle of the sea
The realities remain remote
In the middle of the sea.”

It plays more as a theatrical statement of America's responsibility for spreading the evils of rampant capitalism than as a narrative drama. But the material is so dazzlingly sophisticated, pungent, and polished that it remains a delight to experience, including a charming romp by Europeans and American ambassadors that brings the show up to its somewhat regrettable end with a brash and vulgar finale about late 20th Century American marketing, Japanese style. Like a Smash-Cut, the finale shatters whatever the mood might have been created and brings home the message with a crunching SPLAT! (which is unfortunately, the “message” it's creators intended). Prospero just breaks his magic wand and begs

“As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.”

While Pacific Overtures gets a rather drab re-doing by the ever-adventurous Chromolume Theater, they obviously have deep respect for the material. The company of 12 men and one woman has the material down pat, but the production lacks the style required for Sondheim's well-honed delights. And one misses the delicate balance between Japanese poetics and Samurai brutality upon which the success of the work depends. With the entire company in black – except for the one-time appearance of the brightly kimono'd “Ladies of Kanagawa” – and displaying little of the ritual discipline of Japan's theatrical tradition, the production gives us the charm of the score and little else to while away the two and a half hours trafficking.

Of course, presenting a multi-million dollar mounting of a demanding musical is not possible in an under-99 seat theater where the intimacy of scale allows intensity to do the work of extravagance! Shakespeare seems to have understood that issue as he moved between his giant Globe theater into the more intimate Black Friars. For us, Sondheim is easily his match for endlessly inventive, ironic, and perceptive writing, and Something Rotten does at least live within the madcap world of the Bard's comic genius. Meanwhile, we of the Fabulous Invalid, soldier on.


THE DANGERS OF LIVING - One Play, Five One-Person Shows

Let's face it, we all want to be heroes.  From an early age, we daydream about performing heroically under pressure - saving the drowning man, pulling the woman to safety before she's engulfed by fire, catching the child who falls out a window - and then being celebrated by society for what we have done.  And in truth, many of us are upstanding people who would put ourselves on the line - not just for friends and family, but also for strangers in trouble.  But what would we do - what would YOU do - if you had to live with constant danger, with constant threat of incarceration or death?  Would you be able to rise to the challenge - or would you look for some place to hide?

Six shows I've seen recently here confront these questions in dramatically interesting ways.

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Simon Stephens, adapted from the novel by Mark Haddon

This play tells the story of Christopher, an autistic adolescent in a London suburb, who happens upon his neighbor's dead dog - an event that begins Christopher on a journey of many perils, in which he discovers that his life has been shrouded in lies.  Directed by Marianne Elliott, it is one of the few truly "immersive" productions, as we experience events entirely through Christopher's eyes, with the help of a computerized cube within which the story unfolds.  It is a technological marvel that fills me with misgivings, mostly because of the hypnotizing effect this has on an audience, and the nefarious uses to which such technology can be put by those with the kind of money necessary to construct such a cube. Nevertheless, I highly recommend seeing it before it closes Sept. 10, if at all possible.  Christopher's journey on the train to London is simply one of the great coup de theatres of all time.  I saw the Broadway production two years ago, and that seemed crisper and more of a jolt than this did, but then that may simply be because I wasn't seeing it for the first time.  There were moments this time when the play seemed overly cute and pleased with itself.  But its power is undeniable, and I found myself being even more blown away than before by the heroicism of Christopher, who overcomes so many obstacles in his pursuit of a dangerous truth.

MY JANIS by Arianna Veronesi

When I was a teenager, I saw Janis Joplin headline a concert at Madison Square Garden.  (I bought the tickets with cash at the box office - probably $20 or so - only businessmen had credit cards back then, and of course there was no internet.) There must have been 20,000 other screaming fans there who experienced this astonishing voice - so full of hurt, fury, yearning, love and anguish.  Torment.  Joy.  So vulnerable it hurt, like a naked child in a tornado.  Talk about "immersive"!  I remember it as the only time when a performer truly made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  As the years go by, there are fewer and fewer people left on the planet who had this in-person experience, though Janis as a rock goddess and avatar of human suffering looms larger than ever.  At first glance, Arianna Veronesi seems an odd choice to conjure that spirit.  Yes, there's a physical resemblance of sorts, but Arianna has a pronounced Italian accent and she doesn't sing or make any attempt to move around as Janis did.  Her 30 minute monologue imagines a small slice of Janis's life, as she attempts to make a comeback (at 26) from years of drinking and drug use.  What Arianna captures is that enormous vulnerability, that naked child in a tornado, as she battles against both her demons and the huge expectations of her fans, desperately trying to hold onto life even as she's aware of it slipping away.  It's very moving, and I hope she continues developing it.  Right now it's not clear to me why this phone call marks a crucial turning point in her life.  That is,, it works as a one act character study, but not as a one act play.  I look forward to seeing where she goes with it.

MARLENE by Willard Manus

Marlene Dietrich was many things - sex symbol, chanteuse, entertainer, movie star - but "hero" would not seem to be one of them.  However, as Willard Manus's play tells us, she did in fact act heroically during WWII, being among the first A-List stars to entertain the troops on the front lines, while also helping to get people out of Germany, finding housing for refugees and sponsoring them for citizenship.  There was a price to pay after the war for her actions, as her own people viewed her as a traitor and issuing death threats when she returned to perform in Germany - to the point where Marlene in her dressing room grabs a revolver from a drawer every time someone knocks.  Cindy Marinangel does everything she can with the role of Marlene, making her a very real woman whose sex appeal is linked interestingly with her independence and dignity.  She doesn't especially resemble Marlene, but this was a plus for me in some ways.  There were suggestions of Marlene as a forerunner of Madonna, something I hadn't really thought about before.  But there's the bi-sexuality, the fashion sense, the political awareness -- the glamour.  That said, the play itself is weak and in need of a major rewrite.  Right now Ms. Marinagel has to act two roles - both Marlene and the reporter she's pouring out her heart to in her dressing room.  It might work better if this was a two-hander, in the manner of John Logan's RED, about Mark Rothko and his studio assistant.  I hope that Mr Manus figures out a way to improve it, because Ms Marinangel deserves a better "Marlene."

OUR GREAT TCHAIKOVSKY by Hershey Felder

I'm so sad that this show has already closed, and I hope that it reappears somewhere in the near future.  This is not only because Hershey Felder does a great job of bringing historically-significant composers back to life, but because in this case there is an unexpected relevance to current events - well, unexpected to me anyway.  Felder does a great job in setting up the big choice of Tchaikovsky's life.  Tchaikovsky was homosexual at a time when it was life-threatening to come out of the closet.  He had managed to get a degree in the civil service and secure an appointment that would have afforded him a good living.  But when pianist/composer Anton Rubinstein opened a music conservatory in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky chose to quit his secure job and dedicate his life to music, in the process opening his private life to scrutiny and potential danger.  Felder posits that the composer's death was basically an act of state-sponsored murder for Tchaikovsky's "crime" of being gay.  He is further able to complete the circle by showing how little has actually changed in Russia, where men are still rounded up and tossed from rooftops simply for sexual orientation.  This is much more than just another biopic or museum piece, and I hope it returns.

TRANSMISSION by Jade Beauvoir

Jade Beauvoir was born into an All-American Texan family, the youngest child of five children.  His name was Trent then, and he was expected to excel at football and uphold Christian values, like his big brothers.  But Trent was only interested in playing with his sisters' Barbies and wearing his mother's clothing.  His "gender dysphoria" was incomprehensible to family and community, and Jade paints a vivid picture of the terrible consequenes of internalizing their rejection.  He lets us into this world, relating with humor and intelligence and grace how he was forced down a blind alley, which could only lead to his death.  (In many ways, much like Tchaikovsky.)  The fact that he was able to survive and construct a self that is still thriving and growing is miraculous in its own way, a testament to the will to live and love that cannot be destroyed, even by those who celebrate their ignorance.  This show is an act of bravery and transparency by a person who has nothing left to hide.

WET: A DACAmented Journey by Alex Alpharoah

 

In the interests of transparency - that word again - let me confide that I am a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA, who are also the producers of Alex Alpharoah's one man show, WET.  That said, please know that has nothing to do with my imploring you to go see Mr. Alpharoah's show.  It is simply a great piece of theater - deeply wrenching and compulsively interesting - that also has more to say than anything else I've seen about the situation in this country with regard to people who come here from other countries "yearning to breathe free."  We often toss around words like "the immigrant crisis" and "illegals," which just become ways to distance us from the human tragedy that these words purport to describe.  Alex Alpharoah is the human face of that tragedy, while also being the best example I know of someone who has managed to triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles by making art out of it, by converting his anxiety and suffering into beautiful word-music.

His story is truly unimaginable in any time except our own, under any administration except the misbegotten one that currently makes our policy.  I won't give you any specifics because one of the pleasures of this very substantial performance is to hear Mr. Alpharaoh tell it.  This is not a civics lesson - this is not theater that is good for you  like medicine (though it is) - this is a modern-day Odysseus creating a new mythology of human endurance.  The show runs until August 27th - go. Buy a ticket. Don't miss it.  You will understand what it's like to walk in Alex Alpharoah's shoes, and you will become a better person because of it.