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.

AT LACMA: MATERIAL ART FROM CHINA

By Sam Hall Kaplan

The visual arts these days can be almost anything beyond the recognized appearances as paintings and sculpture.  Embraced now is printmaking, ceramics, drawing, design, crafts, photography, video, filmmaking, and, yes, my past prime interest  of architecture.

Exploring and embracing as art even further the everyday world and more, with engaging and select stunning results, is an exhibit that opened recently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, entitled “The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China.” It runs until Jan. 5, 2020.

Be prepared to be provoked, if not encouraged to look at everyday elements as grist for an artist, and for this reason alone the exhibition is noteworthy.

And so we have both usual and generic materials as plastic, furniture, cigarettes water, and gunpowder, too, used by Chinese contemporary artists as their preferred mediums to express themselves and comment on present day society. As noted in the introduction to the exhibit, “these signature materials transcend standard art forms to function as superagents that hold particular significance and strongly convey meaning.”

But, really, to understand and explain it, you really have to experience it, even if it means having to endure the traffic of the frustrating freeways and the dread PCH.

Of the 21 artists Chinese artists represented most well known and influential is Ai Weiwei, who recently had a captivating exhibition at the nearby Marciano Art Foundation last year.

The prime installation there was a response to the refugee crisis with boats, humans and zodiac figures crafted out of traditional kite-making materials: bamboo, sisal and silk. But what really remains with me is the image of a huge carpet of millions of sunflower seeds made of tiny porcelain sculptures that celebrate the 1,600 artisans it took two years to make, a statement of labor and love.

At LACMA, Weiwei is represented by two antique tables he had transformed into a balanced sculpture that of course turns what had been two pieces of furniture into a crafted art piece. This, of course, negated their original functions, and is a telling statement I feel about society’s value for traditional woodworking and contemporary art.

Actually more provocative is an untitled piece by Gu Dexin, consisting of an entire room decorated with abstracted composition of brightly colored and plastic scraps taken from a factory where he had worked for years no doubt at a dreary job. At home over the years he meticulously  melted the scraps into a variety of striking art forms celebrating space and place. Amazing.

Then there was a particularly striking art piece by Xu Bing, consisting of a large tiger skin carpet made entirely of cigarettes. It was ironically labeled a Tobacco Project, and, more ironically, crafted by him as an artist-in residence at Duke University, which was founded by the tobacco fortunes of the Duke family. Bing of course is a native of China, where widespread smoking is a major health, social and economic concern.

Another fascinating work of art really is rooted in the art of nature, specifically the silkworm. For more than 25 years Liang Shaoji has been using this fascinating insect to spin silk on a host of objects,  here on hollow metal chains hung from the gallery’s ceiling. According to the exhibit’s didactics, the artist’s “fascination with silk is rooted in the Chinese psyche,” which link the discovery of silk making with the creation of no less than the Chinese civilization,.

What is clearly apparent in this and most of the other art pieces in the exhibit is that they go beyond just making statements about “materiality,” as the curators comment, to the making of “matter,” as “the primary vehicle of philosophical, political, sociological, emotional and aesthetic expression.”   This is art, and provocatively much more. 

5.30.19

DANCE ABOUNDS

Whether it is just the warm and welcoming seasonal weather  coming this year after a hard Winter of wildfires and floods, or whether it is just the coincidental whims of select cultural venues. Whatever it might be, the joys of dance are happily being celebrated this Spring across Southern California.

At the relatively accessible Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills last weekend, on stage in a rare performance was Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company. (BTW, the company was labeled that when it broke away from the originally state sponsored theater, malpaso in English meaning misstep.

But the company has persevered to become renown , blending as it does a variety of modern dance styles, featured was a program of the favored old and challenging new. 

Yes, old but for me ever new 30 years since it exploded on  a New York  stage was the Cuban rendition of Merce Cunningham’s Fielding Sixes, adapted here for eight agile dancers.  Also on the program were three more recent pieces, and though interesting, just did not excite as did the Cunningham restaging.

Perhaps  it was nostalgia, in anticipation also of this weekend’s offering at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the Music Center downtown L.A.  Wednesday thru Sunday by the venerable Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

For sixty years the much honored dance company has been mesmerizing audiences with fresh interpretations of modern dance techniques.  And I am pleased to note that the nightly differing programs all will feature the acclaimed masterpiece Revelations, a personal favorite.

For those who are really turned on by dance, for an admission price of $75  there will be what promises to be an unforgettable party  after Friday’s performance, to meet and mingle with some of the Alvin Alley performers. Light fare will be served on the fifth floor. where, who knows, you just might be tempted to try out some of your moves.

In the same spirit, but free, at the Wallis’s outdoor Promenade Terrace, being offered every second Sunday afternoon of the month, beginning next Sunday, the 14th, will be an interactive studio conducted by the dancer Debbie Allen and Friends.  Yes,that’s free.  Thank you Wallis

Each studio will feature a different dance step, beginning with Flamenco in April, Voguing in May and Salsa in June.  By the way, Voguing is a stylized dance originating from the black and Latino LGBT community of New York City. All ages and levels are invited. Just make sure you’re wearing the right shoes.

Also upcoming this Spring. is the Los Angeles Dance Festival, at the  Luckman Fine Arts Complex on the Cal State east L.A. campus., next weekend, April 12 thru 14. That is for the main stage performances of a variety of dancers and companies. Checkout the program on the website, luckmanarts.org

 For what promises to be a little more edgy are the offerings April 26th to 28th at the festival’s Fringe, at the Diavolo Studio Black Box, in the downtown’s Arts District, 616 Moulton Avenue. If you love dance, you have to love these diverse venues, however a challenge it might be getting to them.


LONG DAYS IN MEXICO CITY, LONG NIGHTS IN BEVERLY HILLS

For me these the last few weeks it has been arts and entertainment in Mexico, in particular its rich archeology, displayed in museums and historic sites.

Foremost was Teotihuacan, the largest city in the Americas nearly two thousand years ago, and today still very impressive, if not exhausting under a hot sun.

I had been turned on to this site just outside Mexico City by an enthralling exhibit now on display at the L.A. County Museum of Art, until July 15th. It is a must go.

I also spent a week in the Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, justly known for its culinary and craft traditions, its Spanish colonial architecture, and engaging street scenes.

Blessed by benign weather, witnessed in the plazas and pedestrian promenades was a colorful wedding reception, a graduation celebration and a salutation to a saint. And then there was the shopping. All combined to make time to slip by.

But I had to be back in L.A. in time for an opening night performance of a not-to-be missed “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” The Pulitzer-Prize masterpiece by Eugene O’Neill , arguable America’s greatest playwright, will be at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills for just three-weeks, beginning tomorrow through July 1.

It’s a limited engagement of the acclaimed Bristol Old Vic production, coming to the west coast after sold out runs in New York and London. And as I comment on public radio 99.1 KBU, and websites everywhere, score a big one for the Wallis.

Directed by the honored Sir Richard Eyre, its has an all-star cast, headed by Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons and recent nominee Lesley Manville. She is known for playing the cold sister in “Phantom Thread;” Irons for many roles, and is one of a few actors to have won an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy.

The play briefly portrays a family whose matriarch is addicted on morphine since the birth of child. Take it from there as the sons attack each other with brutal honesty, while the father wallows in whiskey – all exposed in a long night.

It is harrowing experience, and one I still remember with heartache 50 years ago when I saw it in its initial Broadway run, starring, among others, Florence Eldridge, Jason Robards, and Katherine Ross. The production won a host of awards, and turned me on to live theatre. It has been a joy since.

6.18.18

 

 

 

BEYOND PCH, A MUSICAL BECKONS

If you consider getting theatre tickets as a holiday gift for family and friends, think early, perhaps think now, for opening tonight at the Music Center’s Ahmanson , and running for a month through November 25th, is the smash hit musical “Dear Evans Hansen.”

Or as I suggest on my arts and entertainment commentary for public radio, 99.1 KBUU, and select websites, maybe you just want to treat yourself and a companion.

For there is no question that this Tony, Grammy, and just-about-every other stage-award winner, promises to be a mega hit, a simple heartbreaking, deeply personal story about a lonely teenager sent soaring.

If you go, be sure to bring some tissues, for this from all reports and reviews, is a tear jerker, very much in the present now, a contemporary tale to tug at the heart.

And yes, there is humor, too, making seeing “Dear Evans Hansen” a very welcomed experience these depressing days in which our democracy is under insidious attack. It is sucrose for the soul to on occasion be uplifted and feel good.

The production certainly wowed the critics. The New York Times called “Dear Evan Hansen” “a gut-punching, breathtaking knockout of a musical.” “An inspiring anthem resonating on Broadway.” said NBC News, and for an over-the-top rave, the Washington Post’s Peter Marks declared it “One of the most remarkable shows in musical theater history.”

What makes it so involving and riveting is that the Evans Hansen character has been described as a believable somebody, to whom you at least in part can identify; a high school kid enduring the trials, tribulations of everyday life, and then an unforeseen triumph, and its challenges.

But enough said; one does not want to give away the plot,

Complementing the sensitive book by Steven Levenson is a haunting score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, home grown talents who not incidentally collaborated on the acclaimed movie “La La Land.” In keeping with the ambience of the story, most of the songs are reflective ballads, not the usual show-stopping numbers.

As such, it is a rare musical, one that is to be savored. You just might want to see it a second time.

But for the moment I suggest you might want to get a ticket before it sells out, or enter the rolling lottery to score a discounted ticket. Check out the details on the internet by logging into “dearevanhunter.” Whatever, don’t miss this.

 

THE QUEST FOR CUTTING EDGE CULTURE

Yes, I do tend to search out and favor idiosyncratic stage productions, rather than the more familiar cultural offerings, as I have commented on my arts and entertainment report for public radio 99.1 KBUU, and select websites everywhere.

It is not that I don’t appreciate the attractions at the Hollywood Bowl, Disney Concert Hall , and the Pantages theatre, among the more popular venues. And I do enjoy attending them on occasion.

But as I have observed an evolving Los Angeles has become increasingly open to the staging of individualistic and experimental productions. While they may be more challenging, if not at times off putting, they should be encouraged, and for me and other culture vultures, this makes L.A. the place to be, for feeling alive.

So it was last week it was to the Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre, where the Wayne McGregor Company performed a dance concert based on the choreographer’s genome sequence. It made each selection random and unique, and as exquisitely interpreted by the supple, accomplished dancers, mesmerizing and fascinating.

And this week it is back to the Ahmanson for an equally promising experience of the Diavolo company’s Architecture in Motion, which weaves contemporary dance with dare devil gymnastics and fearless acrobatics; in the words of the choreographer, using “dance to explore the relationship between the human body and its architectural environment.”

Expect is the unexpected. What fun, and thank you Gloyra Kaufman Dance, for its continuing support of the contemporary productions.

Then next week enthusiastically recommended is the Los Angeles Master Chorale as you never heard it before, in two performance of the a cappella Renaissance masterpiece by Orlando di Lasso, “Lagrime di San Pietro,” in English, the Tears of St. Peter.

As directed by the always inventive Peter Sellars, Twenty-one singers will perform the magnum opus consisting of a madrigal cycle depicting the seven stages of grief that St. Peter experienced after disavowing his knowledge of Jesus Christ on the day of his arrest and prior to his crucifixion. It is described as a contemporary allegory for our fractious times; think the recent Senate deliberations.

Making this production particularly attractive to Malibu and Westside residents, is that it is being presented at the inviting Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, in an accessible Beverly Hills.

And for the culturally adventurous, the venue known in brief as the Wallis deserves a shout out and support, for its cutting edge offerings, which the upcoming Master Chorale production next Saturday and Sunday most definitely promises to be, and no doubt a sell out too.

 

 

 

DANCE TAKES CENTER STAGE THIS FALL

Coming very much to center stage this Fall in Southern California ever-expanding cultural scene is dance, as I herald on public radio 99.1 KBUU and websites everywhere.

Yes, the L.A Phil’s 100th anniversary is being celebrated and a challenging array of theatrical production demand attention.

Also being promoted more than ever is the spoken word, one-on-one celebrity interviews , though frankly they are hard to compete with the cacophony echoing in the nation’s capitol as mid tern elections near.

But dance as a happening stage performance can be an escape.

Certainly it is uniquely challenging, combining as it does music and movement, a feast for the ears, and eyes, and being an aging mesomorph, I am always amazed seeing what the body can do. That the engaging offerings are most definitely are increasing, is a joy.

Of particular attention tonight and this weekend, October 5 thru 7th weekend, at the Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre, is the Company Wayne McGregor performing what promises to be a unique dance experience, most definitely for the namesake choreographer, and the audience.

 

Talk about being contemporary. McGregor has had his genetic code transformed into a computer algorithm, which will select the order of his dance performances. This will make each performance unique, as, of course, also will be the accompanying electronic music. But the fun does not stop for the Glorya Kaufman Dance season at the Music Center.

In effect doubling down on new wave performances at the Ahmanson, featured next weekend, October 12 thru the 14th, will be the West Coast premier of Diavolo Company’s Voyage, which was inspired by space travel. Also being performed will be the company’s more grounded signature piece, Trajectorie.”

Expect the unexpected, given Diavolo’s style of using dance and acrobatics “to explore the relationship between the human body and its architectural environment.”

Also expect dance to be transported to new visions this weekend at the always cutting edge Redcat Theatre, tucked under Disney Hall downtown.

There having its world premiere is choreographer David Rousseve’s Halfway to Dawn. Against a background of video imagery, nine dances are to express the spirit of the late composer Billy, Sweet Pea, Strayhorn. It promises to be provocative.

 

 

L.A. CELEBRATES ITSELF WITH A BLOCK PARTY

The curtain has lifted on Southern California’s Fall cultural scene, with an engagin array of theater, dance, music, and museum offerings, and an ubiquitous film festival, too.

If you are a culture vulture, or just curious, you have to love the seasonal calendar, as I comment on public radio 99.1 KBUU and select websites everywhere.

But all fade this Sunday, the 30th, for what is being billed as L.A.’s biggest block party ever, with a host of sponsors headed by the L.A. Philharmonic, to mark its 100th birthday, and organized by the CICla VIA as a premier pedestrian event.

Headlined Celebrate LA, it is an eight mile street festival featuring an estimated 1.800 local-based artists, musicians and performers, doing their thing, at six site specific hubs from downtown, through Koreatown, to Hollywood and the bowl.

And it is all free and open, to an audience encouraged to walk, bicycle, ride the Metro while being constantly surprised by strolling and pop up performances everywhere. Good shoes, comfortable clothes, and sun block are recommended, and also scoring a map and program of events.

Try culturela. org or ciclavia on the web or your luck at any of the hubs. Or just winging it, and let the sights, sounds and smells be your guide. They work for me.

Festivities begin at about 9 AM at all the venues, but some of the performers move around during the day, so if you miss them one place, there is another.

If there is a mother hub, it is Grand Avenue and two outdoor stages in front of Disney Hall, where the Philharmonic ‘s brass section and the Youth Orchestra are featured. And as the day progresses, there will be dance, and jazz and pop, and funk and punk performances.

The next nearby hub of note will be at MacArthur Park, where at the Levitt Pavilion performing, among others, will be an assemblage of 130 Oaxacan dancers and musicians, and later in the day, one of my favorite bands, Ozomatli.

And so it goes, at several more hubs, classical and contemporary sounds, and sights, and also along the streets connecting them,: small ensembles of Armenian and Thai dancers, Klezmer music, gameleans from Indonesia, and, of course, the USC Trojan marching band.

For me, it all adds up to a tasty L.A. gazpacho.

FOR SOMETHING DIFFERENT DOWNTOWN L.A.

Looking for something really different this weekend, check out the offering now until Sunday night at the always provocative Redcat theatre downtown L.A.

Tucked modestly as if an architectural after thought beneath the provocatively designed Disney Hall, the Redcat arguably is the premiere venue for cutting edge stage arts in L.A., and I would add presumptuously, also internationally, as I comment on public radio 99.1 KBU and websites everywhere.

Indeed, this weekend stage production entitled “Kamp” by the Dutch theatrical group Hotel Modern just might be for some too provocative, perhaps numbing, but for me compelling. The Paris newspaper Le Monde, declared it “an extraordinary and overwhelming spectacle.”

As described in an advance from the Redcat, “Hotel Modern makes the unimaginable imaginable;” a handcrafted scale model of a city built for mass murder, Auschwitz, and a setting for a wordless object theatre acted out under a video projection of live footage.

And where else would one expect to see and experience such theater but at the Redcat. Founded by Cal Arts , the Santa Clarita based school describes Redcat as its downtown center for innovative visual, performing and media arts, a home for diverse artists and audiences.

Redcat’s Mark Murphy adds with pride that the center is a place where “artists can open the mind and soul to help us comprehend beauty as well as atrocity.” Quoted is the German philosopher, Goethe, “ art is a mediator of the unspeakable.”

As a member of the ever-curious audience, and In the interest of public disclosure as a public radio commentator, the production of Kamp it is on my must list for personal and political reasons.

Meanwhile, as promised some observations about the current offering of Euripides’ BACCHAE , I attended last week at the Getty Villa in Malibu.

First, I love attending the productions at the Roman styled amphitheater, and over the years have looked forward to seeing the Greek tragedies appropriately performed there, especially in a contemporary vaudevillian style that is more easily digested, and fun.

And sure enough, Euripides’ drama of 2,500 years ago is for the most part engaging, as directed by Anne Bogart. But when a principal character delivers her interminable critical speech in her native Japanese, no matter with how emotionally, it lost me, and apparently the audience, and the production crashed.

Giving actors the freedom to express themselves in their native language might be worthy, but ultimately theater is about primarily connecting with the audience. Bogart’s Bacchae did not.