FRANKENSTEIN reviewed

Feb 20 2020 Reviews · Theaterfour larksfrankensteinjesse rasmussenmary shelleymat sweeneymax baumgartensebastian peters-lazarothe wallis
by sam hall kaplan

Similar to the Gothic novel of the same title, which tells the horror story of the creation of a terrifying artificial man from parts of corpses, the stage play Frankenstein at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills takes fragments from the novel and author’s life to piece together a singular theatrical experience.

This Frankenstein is unquestionably serious experimental theater. It was created by Mat Sweeney (creation, staging), Sebastian Peters-Lazaro (design, choreography) and Jesse Rasmussen (libretto), who comprise the Four Larks and whose past efforts have included original, site specific productions at the Getty Villa and elsewhere in Los Angeles.

With the Four Larks you can expect the unexpected, and their disparate dramatic production at The Wallis’s intimate Lovelace Studio Theater is certainly is that.  The production’s serious subtext, according to the play’s notes, is to attempt in an “amalgamation of dynamic physical theater, live music and experiential design” to bring to life a “modern take that spotlights the dangers of unregulated technology.”

It is assisted by an enthusiastic, talented cast of twelve, most doubling as musicians, all limber and a few impressively acrobatic, bounding on an open stage, against a backdrop of flashing video screens.

But try as it may, by employing an imaginative array of dramaturgical stratagems including live music, dazzling designs, inspired choreography, inventive lighting and effects, this world-premiere production is cluttered and confused.

Frankenstein (Max Baumgarten) does not shock, amaze or definitely not amuse; rather, as riveting as his characterization is on a ghostly stage he bewilders. Trying to follow the action is a challenge, despite the familiar story of an experiment that goes tragically awry, brilliantly imagined 200 years ago in the novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley and retold numerous times on stage and screen, as comedy as well as drama.

A problem is that much of the narrative is said to be taken from the novel itself, and the writings of the author’s friends and family, including the poetry of Shelley’s husband, Percy, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The language is dated and the excerpts wordy, and frankly pretentious. And so, unfortunately, is the play.  The production may have merit for those interested in experimental theater.

Frankenstein | The Wallis | thru March 1


Sam Hall Kaplan is a cultural critic who in a maverick past has written for the NY Times, LA Times and Reuters. Books include The Dream Deferred and L.A. Lost and Found. His love of theater dates to his off-Broadway youth and being a gofer to the legendary Brooks Atkinson.

CLIMATE CHANGE, A PLAY AND A PLEA

The edgy drama “Earthquakes in London” proffers a vivid view of climate change and the human condition, topics that should be a paramount concern in our fragile Malibu, and certainly to all beyond.

 With this in mind, I reviewed the drama, pasted below, not incidentally wearing yet a new hat as the cultural critic of the widely respected and read artsmeme.com

Earthquakes in London | Rogue Machine Theatre | thru Mar 1

On our planet’s frightening social and political seismographic scale, and by any theatrical measure, “Earthquakes in London” is definitely a shaker, especially if climate change and the human condition concern you.

Now playing at the Electric Lodge in Venice, weekends through March 1, the ambitious, edgy Rogue Machine Theatre’s production demands the conviction and talents of those on and behind the stage, and the attention and apprehensions of the audience

Talk about being timely, what with the world’s increasingly freakish weather, witness the dreadful floods abroad and disastrous fires here and in Australia. And then, of course for us in California beyond the compromising of our fragile environmental safeguards by a twisted Trump administration, there is the constant threat of earthquakes. In London, too, one might add without divulging the play’s plot.

As the playwright Mike Bartlett has notably proffered in his final tragic scenes of death and divorce there is a hope for the future, however faint and fantastical. Though if so, for us worldly wizened it would be a victory over the reality of the planet today, its possible extinction and the denial by its mindless  leaders.

But the play must go on, and despite its dire predictions and backdrop of flickering montage of disasters, actually hints optimistically at a better, life affirming destiny, embodied naturally in a new born. And to think that the play was first performed a decade ago in the once and future land of angry young men speaks to the awe-inspiring prescience of art and the imposing imagination of Bartlett.

Kudos also to the moral commitment of Rogue Machine to stage the provocative production, which consists no less than 17 actors performing with professional confidence in some 90 parts careening about a segmented stage in an intimate non equity theatre.

This conglomeration could easily have been a daunting three hours, with a intermission, if not for the innovative co direction of Hollace Starr and John Perrin Flynn, who thankfully speed the action in well orchestrated short bursts of word plays in overlapping focused scenes in varying time frames.

Helping is the imaginative counterpoint of whimsical musical numbers one of the principal characters listens to over her earphones and is brought to life by the multi talented cast. Particularly rousing was the song and dance rendition of “I Am Not a Robot,” that punches up and sends the second act forward to its dramatic finale.

Yes, there is a story line, involving three contrasting and personally challenged sisters, convincingly portrayed by Ava Bogle, Anna Khaja and Taylor Shurte. (Also appreciated was Shurte’s dancing.) Weaving them together in a grating codependency are their individual clashes with an estranged father,

Though not very sympathetic, self absorbed and guilt ridden, the father is nonetheless insightful, and not incidentally has the best and most telling lines. It helps that they delivered with a riveting aplomb by a believable Ron Bottitta.

Some 60 years plus year ago the play “Look Back In Anger” by John Osborne offered a contrast to the then escapist theater scene with a blast of social realism. Born also of Britain, Bartlett’s “Earthquakes in London” just may be a harbinger of desperately needed environmental awareness, a sort of look forward in anger — and angst. 

Earthquakes in London | Rogue Machine Theatre | Electric Lodge | thru Mar 1


Cultural critic Sam Hall Kaplan is a distinguished print and broadcast journalist, author and teacher, who has pursued parallel careers as an urban designer and creative strategist. Maverick assignments have included design critic for the LA Times, metro reporter for the NY Times, Emmy award commentator for Fox News and contributor to popular and professional publications, and NPR. Notable books include The Dream Deferred and L.A. Lost and Found. His love for the theater was nurtured as a gofer for the legendary critic Brooks Atkinson, acting in the Cornell Drama Club, alongside Gordon Davidson, and a bitpart as a judge in TV’s 90210 for which he did FX.

WILLFUL IGNORANCE SADLY PREVAILS IN MALIBU

Good to be back from afar in my treasured Malibu, warmed by a welcoming sun. But I’m sorely disappointed by the continued willful ignorance of a city council scammed by a conniving city manager building a bloated bureaucracy.  

The council’s review and raise for Reva Feldman was unconscionable, as is her pending request now for yet for more overpaid consultants to do the work she and her entourage should be doing, if they weren’t so busy scheming to preserve their sinecures..

It is an embarrassment for our fractured, beloved community being force-fed pricey propaganda, and worse for the victims of the disastrous Woolsey Fire also having to contend with a contorted, rebuild endeavor unapologetically mismanaged by “the manager of the year.”

And beyond the P.R., what of the planning and advocacy Malibu needs for the next disaster that is sure to come? Let alone the daily demands of a fragile city deluged with tourists and part- time residents. 

Valued perspectives have been suggested in the simmering social media (kudos to Janet, Jo, Mari and others), but sadly it seems the Council doesn’t listen, dismissing them as a vocal minority, as if they didn’t have valid observations and rights.  And then what of the silent dispirited majority?

 To paraphrase Machiavelli, “those who themselves are not wise cannot be well advised.”

Debatable is whether Malibu’s governance needs to suffer the time and trouble of a remake empowering a strong mayor, who may have his or her own predispositions. It seems simpler if the council would do its job and usher Reva and her parasitic personnel out the door.

Or will we have to await the next election, and hope that the usual scammers and self aggrandizing locals will yield to a concerned new majority committed to serving Malibu instead of themselves, and do the right thing?  

As the Romans used to say when an emperor went rogue, “Quis custodiet ipsos custode?”  Loosely translated: “who will manage the manager?

WOOLSEY FIRE REVIEWS

Malibu was poorly served and badly mismanaged, according to my  reading of three recently published public reviews of the Woolsey fire, the sum of which I feel offer compelling grounds for the dismissal of Reva Feldman as City Manager.

The County and City sponsored reviews (subsequently subverted by Feldman) in couched bureaucratic babble that were mostly modest exercises of one public hand washing another. Bureaucracies and consultants do tend to serve eacb other’s interests. 

 The two reviews frankly were not especially revealing nor constructively critical, other than declaring residents in future disasters would be on their own. But both did offer a compendium of utilitarian recommendations.

However reasonable the recommendations, given the shortcomings of local public services that includes first responders, as well as Malibu City Hall, it is harsh but realistic to expect most of the them, unfortunately, will not be effectively implemented. And this no doubt despite press releases to the contrary.

More candid and compelling is the third review prepared by the independent (read non-governmental) L.A. Emergency Preparedness Foundation. It cited what most involved and concerned persons have known through bitter experiences, which is the County and the City failed its residents, and subsequently disreputably eroded public trust.

The tragic and I feel unforgivable failures are detailed in the report, www. laepf.org/woolsey-fire , and more welcomed , readable and reliably, reported on KBUU, www.radiomalibu.net. Read it and weep.

In summary, the report cited poor preparations, particularly in light of the prior fires elsewhere in the State, as well as lack of communications at all levels of government in confronting the fire and keeping the public informed. Indeed, noted was the disrespectful treatment of residents, particularly those who ignored the shambolic evacuation and not incidentally valiantly saved many homes, despite being blockaded and discouraged by a faithless Feldman.

Also noted was Malibu’s CERT volunteers not being expediently activated.

The community meeting at Santa Monica High of residents who did evacuate was exposed in the report as a sham of self and staff aggrandizements, orchestrated by Feldman, though not cited  individually .

Meanwhile, in a further insult to Malibu residents, those culpable have falsely tried to declare their innocence while egregiously seeking congratulations. Even more shameless, the bean counter Feldman is seeking a raise, with benefits, that would set her salary at $300,000 plus, more than the Mayor of Los Angeles or our U.S. Senators.

Bluntly, that is a salary paid to a person to not make excuses; not call on chummy consultants to do the heavy lifting or act as cover, and not hire complaint staff to build a bureaucratic wall around her office, whose prime purpose is to coddle and co-op a fledgling council and peripherally serve residents.

Yes, as apologists state, the fire might have been the worst ever.  But it is an old military adage that any entity worth its salt while hoping for the best, plans for the worst. And whatever the plans, the chain of command, from top to bottom, be open and flexible once the first contact is made with the enemy and a shot is fired. Feldman during the fire was effectually M.I.A. a proverbial deer in the headlights, except for public relations efforts. 

And beyond her indefensible failures as City Manager during the disaster, has been her muddled management in the year since. This has included the city’s plodding rebuild efforts, the contradictory handling of the Airbnb quandary, the questionable leasing of land in the Civic Center to the SCE, the absolving of any responsibility for a dangerous PCH, and the questionable use of consultants in the face of a bloated bureaucracy that continues to be padded.

 These are all indicative of incompetent management, but if further grounds are needed for Feldman’s dismissal, they are in the L.A. Foundation report, appropriately entitled “A Catalyst for Change.”

 For the findings of the report to be ignored by the Council, we sadly must then consider its members culpable, their allegiances inexplicably tied to special interests and the City Manager, and not to the residents who elected them.

 As an addendum, I feel qualified to make these observations regarding the City’s and Feldman’s performance from the perspective of a long and award winning career in journalism and urban planning and development. My hope is that the City Council heeds what I am saying, as well as the chorus of Malibu citizens who are outraged by Feldman’s continued employment.

11.10.19

REMEMBERING THE TRUMPS

With the impeachment thankfully picking up broad public support, there has been a noticeable increase in questionable letters-to-the editors denigrating the media reports on Trump’s disastrous deficiencies, while the outraged constituents slavishly cite his hyped successes as president and as a New York developer

In such a recent letter in the malleable Malibu Times, a writer stated there was no testimony to the contrary from anyone who had worked for his family business that Trump rose to the top of the toughest real estate market in the world on his financial acumen and moral worth.

While not wanting to disclose something that is a personal family embarrassment, I felt compelled to respond that I hate to pop the writer’s hot air balloon, but he had been sadly misinformed as to Trump’s rep in NY.

My father in the last mid century was Fred Trump’s contracted interior decorator, for whom I dutifully toiled for free on Saturdays delivering furniture and draperies. Not incidentally during the week I worked as a reporter for the NYTimes, the hands on experience serving me well years later when I was the design critic for the L.A Times.

We lived near the Trumps in Jamaica Estates, Queens, and Fred used to visit our store and workshop, where I remember him giving out cheap cigars when I think Donny was born, or was it when they sent him off to military school. ( reform school for the rich) .

The Trumps were your typical cut-the-corners, slow-to-pay petty nickel-and-dime NY builders. Cheap. You gave him his due, and he, ours, after the usual threats and bargaining.

As for young Donny, he grew up in his Dad’s shadow, when I knew and didn’t like him. Ignominiously at a military school, then as a diddling developer, he was a privileged prick, in New York parlance, a schmuck.

Trump was sued for seemingly everything, including rental discrimination against minorities. He was in sum a bad joke in the local media, and an anathema in the building trades where I was later involved.

But that he was a hustler and whoremaster back then there was no argument. You didn’t turn your back on Donny, drink his Kool Aid, or give him any benefit of a doubt. And we as a nation should not now.

BETTER CITIES: FOR WHOM?

By Sam Hall Kaplan

What seems like just a few years ago a gaggle of planning and design critics and pandering politicians were bemoaning the death of public space, a victim of municipal neglect, overt commercialism and media disinterest.

Apparently we had surrendered the weaving of our urban fabric to an unholy alliance of myopic traffic engineers, duplicitous developers, disingenuous elected officials, and undiscerning pedants. Pedestrians were suspect, sidewalks shunned and parks avoided. Pervading all except perhaps a policed shopping mall or a monitored amusement park was a fog of civic unease. 

        And today, in a notable change of personal perception and popular fortune, our privileged urbanists are fervently celebrating the crafting and care of public spaces as a harbinger of a more open and inviting city, a place where people can come out from behind their computer screens to experience a rare sense of community, however fleeting, and share a cup of coffee, however pricey.

To this chorus of the mostly comfortable and civil are the swarms of ubiquitous tourists, their communal ardor feeding local coffers and conceits. As for urban designers and planners, there is an encouraging new awareness and appreciation for context and community, the purpose and potential of public space, and a need to hone the cryptic craft of placemaking.

       Cryptic indeed, for the diversity of cities, the fracture of communities, and shifting demographics are very much a challenge to those in search of a “genius loci.” and an inviting place to perhaps live, work or visit.

To that both personal and professional quest recommended is a copy of “Envisioning Better Cities,” by Seattle urban consultant Patricia Chase and University of Washington academic Nancy K. Rivenburgh.  Published by Oro Editions, the paperback is as its subtitle states, “A Global Tour of Good Ideas,” a bucket list if you will of an orchestrated journey to well grounded places, projects and programs that make their host cities more “livable and sustainable,” and hopefully inspiring to others.

       The tour is understandably derivative, and respectfully echoes the wealth of the previous insights of Jan Gehl, Jane Jacobs, Holly Whyte, and Charles Montgomery, among many others, and cites a host of the iconic landmarks, such as the High Line in New York City and the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, and a familiar few hundreds more.

 But there also are more modest other places and projects, both novel and suggestive, though captions rather an index of credits would have been appreciated. So would have an index, as well as better photos and some illustrations.

     Whatever, there are a lot of good ideas in this practical text, presented in an informative, unvarnished narrative that the authors immodestly state hope “results in a book that will inform and inspire.” It does, not only to advocate professionally in a host city, but also to include in a personal sojourn, if you had the means.

       To be sure, these people friendly fixes focused on public places make our communities more livable. Though increasingly being raised by the authors and others is the question of how selectively is this celebrated, given the harsh reality of the nation’s income inequitabiity.

This growing gap indeed has become a principal socio-economic and political problem that in time undoubtedly will undermine the democratic hope for a diverse and sustainable city, urban design initiatives not withstanding as well as democracy itself.

Putting this and in general gentrification into a prescient perspective is the “The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America.” by Alan Mallach (Island Press)) Noted by an insightful and progressive Mallach is the demise in many major and notably middle sized, middle America cities of the middle class, pronounced homelessness and the increasing lack of affordable housing. It should be added this is very much at present grist for academic conferences, and think tanks, but little action. 

        Some varying solutions are however offered in a recently published and welcomed third book, “Affordable Housing, Inclusive Cities,” edited by Vinayak Bharne & Shyam Khabdekar, (Oro Edition.) Collected in a well-organized, informative and illustrated text are 36 essays of actual case studies and real projects tackling inclusiveness in housing and public place. Though the perspective is world wide, the focus is refreshingly local, with in-your-face and on-the-ground realities that affect a staggering nearly one billion people.

The scattered efforts everywhere, described by the discerning editors lend some hope for a more livable future and social justice for all. One likes to end these reviews not with an after thought, but with a note of optimism.

9.8.19

MALIBU CITIZEN ALERT

Received a notice that this THURSDAY at 1 PM at City Hall a council subcommittee will be taking up the controversial issue of short term rentals.
The fear of course is that a wily recalcitrant Reva smelling the $ the rentals bring to the city will somehow pervert the review process, and delude the council members.
Those concerned are urged to attend, and that unfortunately includes me,
I say unfortunately for having in the past (ad nauseam?) expressed my concerns over the pathetic governance of our small sea coast village and the need for reform, I had promised to give it a rest and turn to other pursuits. These include tending my monarch butterfly refuge, reviewing books, and pursuing some innovative urban design projects elsewhere.
But I just hate seeing the city’s residential character and its noble mission statement insidiously compromised.

WOOLSEY FIRE UPDATE

Like nothing ever before in the history of Malibu, the furious Woolsey Fire not only torched nearly a thousand homes, but also the landscape, laying it blackened and bare. Tragic.

But from a political perspective, the fire also laid bare the conceit of government, notably the embarrassing failures of the first responders, the bumbling County and State bureaucracies and most exasperating, our local bureaucracy.

And that is no matter what the reviews of the various official governmental responses to the fire will eventually conclude, be they convoluted explanations or bland fabrications, as the guilty connive to cover their asses and the compromised media parrot the press releases.

There is of course the bureaucratic bungling during the fire; not advocating for the city, closing the emergency control center, the lack of communications, and the blocking supplies to those who stayed. These have become a sorrowful litany in the social media and wherever residents gather.

But beyond not being transparent and truthful and apologize for its failures, City Hall under the heavy thumb of Reva Feldman continues to be disingenuous. This includes making back door deals with the SCE and special interests while handing off heavy lifting to lap dog consultants.

By the way, one has to ask whether it was a coincidence that Feldman took a poorly timed “vacation” in the wake of the fire to go to Paris, and then shortly after somehow a beach front fashion show was approved for Paradise Cove despite serious environmental concerns?

However, most mendacious has been the mismanagement of the rebuild program, according to burnout victims wanting desperately to rebuild and return to Malibu before their insurance ends and the construction costs get out of hand. Not wanting to incur any retaliation from a churlish City Hall, they understandably traded candor for anonymity.

They report that there have been with a few exceptions a hardening of the bureaucratic arteries , enough so if  not to give heart attacks, then to prompt fits of frustration and depression.  So much for the city pledges to be sympathetic and supportive.

To this person of some city planning experience that included processing major construction projects  in a tough New York City,  our modest small town of Malibu is woefully  mismanaged, even with the aid of consultants. Be it inexperience or attitude, they are just not up to the task of advocating for beleaguered residents and expediting plans.


Just forget all that ”robust” self advertising and self congratulations out of City Hall.  Just look at the burned out lots in western Malibu.

So out of respect and sympathy for the victims of the Woolsey fire, I have to be forthright, since an irresolute City Council regretfully is not.

 Sadly for various reasons I feel the however well intentioned the council majority, it is fumbling away its governance of Malibu to a wily city manager.

Being subverted no less is the heretofore functioning city manager form of government. This is prompting cries however strident  for political reform that includes an elected full time mayor  and a councilmanic reorganization. That obviously should be studied and needs to be debated.

Meanwhile, the rebuild effort must be reformed, post haste, and that starts with the Council getting its act together, providing the responsible oversight necessary, do its job, and fire Reva Feldman.

8.29.19

MALIBU R.I.P.

“Stop the presses!” “Rewind the tape!” “Get out the edit knives!” Catherine the Great of Russia had her Potemkin Villages; de facto Mayor Reva Feldman is going to have her Malibu.

 The draft report of what was to be “a meaningful and independent review of the city’s performance in managing the response to the Woolsey fire “-to quote the Council’s original approval of the $50,000 study-is to get a rewashing by none other than the city manager’s office.

To allow some information “that could be updated or clarified “ is the phrase she hissed to an irresolute City Council.  Quietly acquiescing also was the review team of Management Partners. It obviously knows who signs the checks, as does a sadly compromised local media.

Reva claims the City’s emergency operations center was never closed; we also had a liaison at the shifting fire command center, and, perhaps most importantly, its payroll information was protected. These were some of the items Feldman wants to “correct.”. And that besides her staff working tirelessly, though on what remains is a question since the City also claims it had no authority to do much of anything. 

Bad enough that City Hall screwed up the evacuation, failed to advocate for fire equipment, or aid the people who stayed, and is now fumbling a dilatory rebuild effort while shamelessly congratulating itself and continuing to contract away most services to lap dog consultants.

So much for a reasonable expectation of service and established ethical norms promised under the council manager form of government. Not having effective checks and balances, and a discerning media hurts.

If you like me witnessed the fire that destroyed nearly a thousand homes in the city and canyons beyond, it is certain we will never forget, nor forgive the failures of the first responders and local government in the heat of the fire and after., and their feigned excuses.

But from my philosophical perspective, as I have written in the past, the flagrant failures are a reflection of concerns on a far larger stage.

Indeed, I feel they have political implications in communities almost everywhere, and are indicative of a breach of Jeffersonian democracy’s hallowed social contract between our public institutions and ordinary citizens, between the governing and the governed.

RIP Malibu as a self government.