Tuesday, March 31, 2015


 A scene from The Marriage of Figaro.
Flesh class-ical

By Ed Rampell

The Overture to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 1786 masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro), is among the most popular in opera, while the glorious music overall is among the best in the entire operatic and classical canon. Wearing an open black shirt and his white hair flying, maestro James Conlon went all Lenny Bernstein exuberantly conducting The Marriage of Figaro with flair, from first to final note.

It’s interesting to see The Marriage of Figaro this season with its cornucopia of Figaro-themed productions based on Pierre Augustin Beaumarchais’ original 18th century plays, onstage at not only the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but at A Noise Within’s theater. I had just seen the latter’s rather freewheeling version of Figaro, which is basically the same story as The Marriage of Figaro sans Mozart’s sublime score, so this made it easier for me to follow the action.

As the lascivious, devious Count Almaviva’s (bass-baritone Ryan McKinny) servants, Figaro (bass-baritone Roberto Tagliavini) and Susanna (soprano Pretty Yende), prepare for their nuptials the newlyweds-to-be must contend with aristocracy’s despicable droit du seigneur. This ancient feudal law allowed the lord to deflower proletarian brides before they consummated their weddings with their commoner husbands. So the ever resourceful Figaro and Susanna must scheme to thwart their “master’s” marital rape of the bewitching bride-to-be.

At the same time, the aristocrat’s scorned, forlorn wife, Countess Almaviva (soprano Guanqun Yu), seeks to reign in her adulterous husband’s serial philandering and to be reunited with him. (As depicted in Rossini’s 1816 The Barber of Seville, which LA Op presented earlier this season, the fickle Count Almaviva had ardently pursued Rosina to make her his Countess, but years later, when Marriage takes place, he has become bored by his now-downcast wife.)

As the plot thickens the randy cross-dressing male Cherubino (mezzo-soprano Renee Rapier), his adolescent hormones raging out of control, lusts for Rosina, Susanna and Barbarina (portrayed at the premiere by soprano So Young Park and on April 9 & 12 by soprano Vanessa Becerra). Cherubino, who dresses up in women’s clothing, becomes a soldier who’d prefer by far to make love, not war. Further complicating matters, Marcellina (mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer) has her own designs on Figaro, and it is one of the opera’s biggest surprises when we find out why she really loves Figaro. Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson, who recently played Don Basilio (depicted here by tenor Robert Brubaker) in The Barber of Seville, portrays The Marriage of Figaro's Doctor Bartolo with the same comic panache he displayed in The Barber of Seville.

In other words, this opera is mostly about sex. Although the Count and lowly servant have a war of wits, pitting the patrician against the plebian, Mozart mostly plays this class struggle for laughs. There are also lots of war-between-the-sexes jokes and jibes.

However, as the issue of diversity and show biz has been much in the news of late, it’s worth noting that what’s called “non-traditional casting” actually enhances this production. The aptly named Pretty Yende is black, which adds another layer (no pun intended) to the cum-plexity of the plot, wherein the aristo seeks to assert his reprehensible droit du seigneur. The casting of an African woman as Susanna is redolent and reminiscent of those loathsome slave masters who coerced their female “chattel” to have sex with them at Southern plantations. While the casting of Yu as the Countess may be a reference to how some Westerners view Asian women as “trophy” wives and/or lovers (although Yu’s Rosina is no stereotypical lotus blossom).

The casting of these talented non-white women in roles portrayed since the 18th century by mostly European performers demonstrates what “affirmative action” really is in action: opening up the doors so individuals possessing god-given gifts can use them to their fullest expression. And in doing so, enriching the overall theatergoing experience, while giving jobs to deserving artists and others. From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.

Yu’s rendition of the Countess’ arias “Porgi amor” (“Love, thou holy purest impulse”) and “Dovo sono” (“They are over”) are as lovely as anything a Westerner could warble, and we are all the better for it when inclusion, rather than exclusion, is the watchword of the day, on- and offstage.

This is also true for the transgender role playing. Rapier’s rendition of the (purportedly) male Cherubino’s aria “Voi che sapete” (“What is this feeling?”) about adolescent love is utterly beguiling and charming. Sigmundsson’s mock malevolent interpretation of the aria, “La vendetta, oh, la vendetta” (“Revenge, oh, sweet revenge”) is likewise excellent.

As I wrote circa 2010 when LA Opera last presented The Marriage of Figaro, Ian Judge again deftly directs the players, but scenery designer Tim Goodchild’s humdrum sets still only come alive in the gorgeous garden scene, with its full moon -- although I don’t quite understand how chandeliers could be suspended outdoors. (Unfortunately, we are beset by the same sets - apparently Goodchild didn’t read my review. Bad child!) And once again this production also unnecessarily inserts modern references, such as telephones and flashlights, into the 18th century milieu, which only serve to distract from what is otherwise a period piece. These intrusions do not enhance the work but are only 20th century distractions that really don’t belong here. But these are mere quibbles. The choreography by Sergio Trujillo and Chad Everett Allen, plus chorus directed by Grant Gershon, however, are all grand.

The production clocked in at three and a half hours-plus. For that period of time one is transported from Earth to Planet Mozart. Wolfgang’s vision of love reigning supreme is a sublime splendor, with music to match. A splendid time was had by all.

The Marriage of Figaro runs through April 12 at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: 213-972-8001; www.laopera.com.



Saturday, March 21, 2015


David (Benjamin Dickinson) in Creative Control.
I see hipster doom

By Miranda Inganni

Director Benjamin Dickinson’s slickly styled Creative Control is, at its heart, an old fashioned love story set in the near future Brooklyn, New York; but it is also a cautionary tale about our dependence on technology.
Ad exec David (Dickinson) has been given the chance to play around with a new high-tech product, Augmenta. It’s a virtual reality platform that his company is trying to figure out how best to sell to the masses. David must perform! Added to the pressure David is experiencing at work, he is also going through a rough patch with his live-in girlfriend, Juliette (Nora Zehetner). David finds inspiration in the form of Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen), the girlfriend of his best pal, Wim (Dan Gill). As he spends more and more time with “Sophie,” thanks to the technology of the Augmenta glasses, David withdraws from the rest of his life.
Creative Control is quite impressive to watch. It is beautifully shot by Adam Newport-Berra in black and white, with just a hint of color here and there. The technology depicted in the film is believable and the special effects are never a distraction. And there is an excellent vomit scene.
However, the four lead characters come across as somewhat boring hipsters for whom it is hard to care. David is bored in the bedroom, so he crushes on another woman. Juliette is frustrated with David, so she practices yoga with another man (Paul Manza). Wim is a self-absorbed philanderer, who only decides to commit to Sophie when he thinks he might lose her. Sophie…well, Sophie is just kind of dull. She is very pretty and stylish, but she doesn’t really do anything.
Winner of the Visual Excellence Award at SXSW, Creative Control is a pleasure to watch and a decent story (co-written by Dickinson and Micah Bloomberg). While mine may not be the popular opinion, I find the characters not quite fleshed out enough. This is apt considering David’s retreat to spend time with his virtual reality sex toy. When the people around you don’t feel fully formed, perhaps all you can do is create your own special friend.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015


A scene from Bikes vs. Cars.
Roads to ruin or rejection

By Miranda Inganni

Director Fredrik Gertten’s latest documentary, Bikes vs Cars, travels to various cities around the world to examine the issues and some of the causes surrounding the titular feud. In Sao Paulo, Brazil we meet Aline Cavalcante, a bike activist, who wonders why the city’s public transportation is so expensive and terrible, and if the city really has the worst traffic jams in the world. Another city vying for that unfortunate award is Los Angeles, CA, where Dan Koeppel is trying to make a difference for bike riders, while delving into the city’s history and exposing the ugly truth about the ever expanding freeway system.

These two cities used to have fantastic infrastructure for bicycling enthusiasts, but now they stink (literally and figuratively) thanks to the oil, construction and auto industries. The car-centric cultures that these industries have created, have stripped away bikes lanes, increasing the risks bicyclist face each time they ride.

The facts are terrifying. From how often bicyclists are killed in various cities, to the amount of people suffering from air pollution around the world, to the expected increase in automobile sales in the next five years (double what it is today). But people love their cars. There is, of course, the socioeconomic status that car ownership bestows upon the driver. But why cannot the same be afforded to lovers of the environmentally friendly bicycle? And beyond the bourgeois status of car ownership, what is the point of being able to buy a car if all you can do is sit in traffic?

However, there is some good news beyond the smog. As exemplified in Copenhagen, Denmark and The Netherlands, biking in a big city can work! And everyone breathes a little better because of it.

A call to action, Bikes vs. Cars is not so much about two wheels vs. four wheels, per se, the real battle here is between the status quo versus the possibility of a better future.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Countess Almaviva (Elyse Mirto) and Suzanne (Angela Sauer) in Figaro. Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz.
The revolution will be staged

By Ed Rampell

This noisy A Noise Within production of Figaro is playwright Charles Morey’s freewheeling adaptation of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’ 1784 play The Marriage of Figaro (which inspired Mozart’s 1786 opera of the same name). Like the original, Morey borrows freely and whimsically from the Comedie-Francaise, Italian commedia dell’arte and French farce.

Figaro’s storyline lends itself to high tragedy or low comedy: The no account Count Almaviva’s (Andrew Ross Wynn, who projects a Harvey Korman vibe) young, saucy servant Suzanne (the red wig-wearing Angela Sauer, who plays this part with all the comic subtlety of an I Love Lucy episode) is about to wed the Count’s wisecracking manservant Figaro (Jeremy Guskin). Beaumarchais and Mozart have the Count assert droit du seigneur -- the feudal privilege of a nobleman to deflower/consummate the impending marriages of young women within their dominions on the wedding night.

Some may find Michael Michetti’s direction and this often frenetically paced two-acter to be witty, with dazzling word play, expertly acted and roguishly charming. Others may consider it to be half-witty, broad, loud and over the top.

Angela Balogh Calin’s colorful costumes certainly enhance the buffoonish ambiance of this production, which at times resembles a clownfest. As Almaviva, Wynn is not garbed as much as upholstered and embroidered into his rather ridiculous raiment. And as Countess Almaviva, Elyse Mirto is quite fetching while kvetching and prancing about in her lingerie type outfit. (Fun fact of the day: Marie-Antoinette actually portrayed this character, also known as Rosine or Rosina, in a 1785 production staged at Versailles.)

As the title character, Guskin plays the work’s central scheming scoundrel as a trickster with whom -- nod, nod, wink, wink -- the audience is in on the joke, if not in cahoots. But it is this knee-slapper that is at the core of the play, because the joke is on the aristocrats.

While there are a number of “war between the sexes” witticisms (usually at males’ expenses) in Figaro about the supposed natures of the genders, what’s most at play in this play is the “uppity” servant’s critique of the ruling class. For  both Beaumarchais and Mozart's Figaros are among the Western stage’s very first working class heroes.

During the American Revolution, our man Beaumarchais was a gunrunner for the revolutionary cause. And it’s not for nothing that the French revolutionary leader, George Jacques Danton, opined: “The Marriage of Figaro caused the French Revolution.” Of course, this inevitably led to Beaumarchais’ run-ins with the court’s censors, who were royal pains in the derriere. So the best part of Figaro is its class consciousness and use of humor to ridicule the servants’ “betters.” (Think of a satirical version of Downton Abbey, with Daisy grabbing a pitchfork to jab her pompous overlords.)

Figaro has some choice, politically astute, funny bon mots, catapulted off of Guskin’s tongue with snarky aplomb. For example, there is a good riff on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, where our wag Figaro -- his tongue dipped in acid -- waxes poetic and splenetic about “Government of the cartels,” and so on. And there’s a good guillotine riposte as Figaro, the former title character of The Barber of Seville, shaves the Count who would violate his wife-to-be with a sharpened razor. Take one guess what song he hums or whistles while Almaviva experiences his close shave?

Morey’s adaptation of Beaumarchais’ Figaro premiered Off-Broadway in 2012 and is here part of A Noise Within’s “REVOLUTIONary” season, which in turn is part of the Figaro Unbound: Culture, Power and Revolution at Play” program. This includes LA Opera’s presentation this season of the Figaro trilogy: The Ghosts of Versailles, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro), which opens March 21 at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Figaro Unbound L.A. partners include ArcLight Cinemas, the Hammer Museum, Opera UCLA, A Noise Within, LA Theatre Works, FIDM Museum, the Huntington Library, LACMA, the Norton Simon Museum, the Getty Museum, the Opera League of Los Angeles, etc.

Figaro runs through May 10 at A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107. For more info: 636-356-3100, ext. 1; Figaro. For more info on the “Figaro Unbound”: Figaro Unbound.





Monday, March 16, 2015


A scene from A Woman Like Me.
Alternative reality

By Miranda Inganni
In 2011 director Alex Sichel (All Over Me) was informed she had a terminal disease. As a way of facing her fears and processing the information, she, along with A Woman Like Me co-director Elizabeth Giamatti, decided to make a film about a woman who is given the same prognosis. She also decided to direct a documentary about her life post-diagnosis, including the making of the movie. It’s not exactly a movie-within-a-movie, or a movie about a movie, but rather a hybrid thereof.
As Sichel described it when she got her diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, she felt like she was watching a movie about a woman with cancer. And so she set about making that movie with (the fantastic) Lili Taylor playing the lead role of Anna Seashell in hopes that Anna’s reactions would be more optimistic that Sichel’s real life ones. The movie gives Sichel the chance to control the outcome: direct the disease or redo “scenes” that she thought she should have performed differently in real life. Sichel practices her reactions to the grim news (even her own death scene) and gets a chance to recreate chapters from her life via Anna. But both the fictionalized character’s life and the life Sichel presents in the documentary are manipulated by Sichel and at times A Woman Like Me feels selfish. But it also feels tender.  (I cannot imagine making a movie, let alone while undergoing cancer treatments and reconciling one’s own end of life.
Sichel’s life in A Woman Like Me is hectic with her family. Erich, her husband, and Anastasia, her daughter, are both featured heavily, as are other family members. She undergoes holistic treatments and explores non-Western ways of dealing with the disease, exploring a “Buddhist experience of cancer.”  She coaches Taylor through scenes and rehearsals. Faced with a death that she knows will come too soon, Sichel often presents a surprisingly upbeat persona in A Woman Like Me, her legacy.

Thursday, March 12, 2015


Rosina (Elisabeth DeShong) in The Barber of Seville. Photo Credit: Craig T. Mathew.
Sum it up to style

By Ed Rampell

Daily existence is full of a cornucopia of soul-sapping vexations marring our felicity. They run the gamut, dammit -- from eternal, infernal traffic jams to pesky bill collectors to life threatening plagues to wars to global warming, ad nauseam. But LA Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville is one of those things that can make you feel glad to be alive, rendering those ceaseless slings and arrows of our outrageous misfortunes bearable and even making living a worthwhile undertaking.

Debuting in Rome in 1816, The Barber of Seville has become one of the most performed (it last graced the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s stage in 2009), best loved opera’s ever. There are several reasons why, but Rossini’s music certainly has pride of place. The score is bubbly, buoyant, vibrant, frothy.

In addition, James Conlon is so animated. His baton seems like more of a magic wand, conjuring Rossini’s intoxicating, enchanting score out of the strings, woodwinds, fortepiano, brass and percussion instruments like a symphonic sorcerer.

Another reason for The Barber of Seville's perennial popularity is its plot - this comedy is, after all, an ebullient romance. As the maid Berta (mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer) sings: “What on earth is all this love which makes everyone go mad?” (Or, as Freddie Mercury put it 163 years later: that “Crazy little thing called love”.) Of course, there is Count Almaviva’s (tenor Rene Barbera) light-hearted, lusty pursuit of Rosina (mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong), which provides the comical backbone for this opera that adapts the first of the trilogy of 18th century plays by French playwright Pierre Augustin Beaumarchais about the title character.

However, in this libretto by Cesare Sterbini, there is no greater love than the one the eponymous haircutter, Figaro (Moscow-born baritone Rodion Pogossov), has for himself. This supremely self-confident beautician apparently has a higher quotient of self-esteem than The Donald does. In his rapidly sung “Largo al factotum” aria, basking in the beauty of (who else?) himself, the highly self-regarding, self-ballyhooing barber sings the name of his true love - “Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!” - don’tchaknow? Pogossov is a hoot (and a holler) in the title role: Not even Kryptonite could stop this Muscovite.

Another outstanding thing about this LA Opera and Emilio Sagi production is that it slyly uses a cinematic technique rarely seen onscreen in movies such as 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. Spanish scenic designer Llorenc Corbella, Argentine costume designer Renata Schussheim, Spanish lighting designer Eduardo Bravo and American director Trevore Ross have quite cleverly collaborated to visualize the emergence of love onstage.

There are other shrewd stage effects -- as in LA Op’s 2009 production there is a likewise sharp-witted visualization of the “slander” concocted by Rosina’s thwarted, would-be lover, Doctor Bartolo (Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli, who alternates in the role on March 22 with bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos, who performed the role at the Dorothy Chandler in 2009) and Don Basilio, portrayed with great comic panache by the crowd pleasing Icelandic bass, Kristinn Sigmundsson. His hulking presence and humorous depiction added to the show’s general merriment, even as Basilio and his partner in crime, Bartolo, conspired to make Almaviva sing a la Simon and Garfunkel: “I get slandered, libeled, I hear words I never heard in the bible” as he tries to keep Rosina satisfied.

Kudos to the entire cast and crew, including chorus director Grant Gershon and Spanish choreographer Nuria Castejon.

The Barber of Seville runs through March 22 at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For more info: 213-972-8001; Barber.



Saturday, March 7, 2015


Marty (Joshua Burge) in Buzzard.
Desperate but not serious

By Don Simpson
Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge) — he’s a “White Russian,” not Polish — is an angry young man. He mostly seems bitter about having to toil away his weekdays as a temp at a bank, though one might surmise that Marty would rather not have to work at all. Marty seems just barely cognizant enough about the economic system to find ways to scrounge together enough money each month to perpetuate his own existence. As a temp, Marty earns a pathetic hourly wage with no benefits, so he partakes in petty scams to make some extra dough — more like chump change.
Sticking it to the man, Marty orders office supplies online at work then returns them to the store for cash; he also closes his bank account in order to open a new one and collect the $50 incentive that comes along with it.
One day, a fateful stack of returned checks on his desk proves to be far too tempting for Marty, especially when he learns that checks can be signed over to another party. Not surprisingly, Marty does not think the check fraud plan completely through; he ends up on the lam in his friend’s (writer-director Joel Potrykus) basement. Armed with a taste for rebellion and a self-made Freddy Krueger glove, Marty finally escapes the bland conformity of the banking industry; but the perpetual weight of economic pressure finally gets too much for Marty, so he begins to lash out like a financially disgruntled nightmare.
Like Ape, Potrykus’ previous feature, Buzzard rails against conformity and capitalism. The economy is the ever-present villain of both films — no matter how much Marty or Ape‘s Trevor try to rebel against the system, they cannot defeat capitalism. Frustrated with the constant struggle, they turn to violence and presumably self-destruction.
The gritty cinematic worlds created by Potrykus are difficult for slackers to survive within, presumably because of their inherent laziness, ambivalence and naive expectations of the modern world. Neither of them are all that likable — they are quintessential fuck-ups — but it is difficult not to feel a tad bit sorry for Marty and Trevor as they burn, scavenge and claw for a right to exist; you might even go as far as saying that they are presented as martyrs for the non-conformists of the world.

Friday, March 6, 2015


A scene from The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest.
The thin screwed line

By Miranda Inganni

When Mark DeFriest was on the verge of adulthood, his father unexpectedly died. In response, DeFriest ran off with his father's tools (which his dad had willed him) while the will was still in probate and his stepmother called the cops and pressed charges against DeFriest. He was sentenced to four years in prison for theft. A lifetime later, DeFriest still sits in prison.
While he initially was sent to jail for taking his father's tools, DeFriest's ability to escape has kept him there for a long time. Stating that, "Nobody here has a sense of humor," DeFriest breaks out (the first of many times) of the first prison in which he is serving time. However, his survival skills combined with raw ingenuity and hotwiring ability allow him to elude the cops for only so long.
Back in prison, this time he is given a psychological evaluation and deemed incompetent. DeFriest is sent to Florida State Hospital's mental ward.
After an initial unsuccessful escape attempt from the hospital involving spiking the staff's coffee with hallucinogens (told with comedic effect), DeFriest manages to break free. Again, he is caught and sent to Bay County Jail. Undettered, each time DeFriest is imprisoned he reacts with an almost animalistic urge to escape.
These repeated escapes anger authorities. In response, DeFriest is locked in solitary confinement and tortured. In order to get out of "that hellhole" DeFriest pleads guilty to a third felony that includes a life sentence.
Mark is sent to the notorious Florida State Prison.
Over the years, DeFriest has racked up a long list of disciplinary write-ups and escaped seven times. But his wiliness and inventiveness -- this extremely resourceful man is clearly endowed with a level of intelligence -- has worked to his detriment. Additionally, it is unclear if DeFriest suffers from mental illness. DeFriest admits that he "made [the people who work in the system] look like idiots."
Gabriel London's documentary delves into Defriest's story, highlighting many of the injustices he has faced in prison and the broken system that has kept him there for so long. Using a wide range of interviews and gothic animation (plus an unfortunate score and soundtrack) The Life and Mind of Mark Defriest paints quite a horroric life, which could and should have turned out so much better (at least to those who know DeFriest best).  
DeFriest is portrayed as a bit of a loner, but one who is a mechanical prodigy. From rewiring phones, to dismantling and reassembling clocks, to being taught the world of warfare and survival skills by his dad (an ex-Marine rabidly scared of "the reds") at a young age, he was always able to create something out of seemingly nothing. This skill both helps and hurts DeFriest, who can (and does) escape like a modern-day criminal Houdini.
The primry point here is that although he certainly played a part in being bad, DeFriest is excessively punished -- unlike the "goon squad" at Floriday State Prison. For over 40 years DeFriest has endured numerous horrors of abuse, rape and torture. Fortunately, somebody came along and cared enough to tell his story.
Having made changes to the film's ending, based on events that happened after filming on the movie wrapped, The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest clearly illustrates what influence this documentary has had on DeFriest's life and those who perceive DeFriest has some rabid criminal unworthy of sympathy.
Here's hoping that more documentarians can shine a light on the US's troubled prison system and how society and the "justice"system deals with mental health issues.


A scene from An Honest Liar.
The hoaxest with moxiest

By John Esther

Last year writer-director Woody Allen released the feature film, Magic in the Moonlight. The film tells the story of Stanley (Colin Firth), a master illusionist who sets out to debunk the psychic powers of Sophie (Emma Stone), only to become duped himself in the process -- yet fall in love with the considerably younger woman (typical), and presumably live happily ever after.

While the film has its moments, Magic in the Moonlight is ultimately predictable, reactionary and incredulous. And, like every single Allen film since his 1992 Husbands and Wives (one of his five masterpieces -- along with Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig, and Crimes and Misdemeanors), does not merit a second viewing. (Some of the recent films by Allen -- once one of America's greatest "auteurs" -- did not even merit a first viewing.)

Considerably more liberating, engaging, entertaining and less predictable (unless you already know the film's subject well), yet similar in content, comes Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein's documentary, An Honest Liar.

A story begging to be purchased by a Hollywood studio and "fictionalized" for some future awards season, An Honest Liar chronicles the life of James Randi. AKA "The Amazing Randi," Randi is one of the greatest magicians of all time who later went on to debunk many various forms of crackpot science and spiritual chicanery -- even when some skeptics (a la Magic in the Moonlight's Stanley, eventually) had a change of mind/heart and wanted to believe in paranormal phenomena.

Born August 7, 1928, as Randall James Hamilton Zwinge, Randi knew from a very young age he was different and, like most very smart LGBTQ people growing up during the 1930s and 1940s, felt very uncomfortable with his difference(s). His father sensed his son's difference, too.

"I only had two conversations with my father," Randi recalls in the documentary while discussing his awareness as a child and the effects it had on his childhood life.

Basically exiled to do his own thing, Randi grew up alienated and self-educated.  Looking for a purpose, one day Randi witnessed a magic show by Harry Blackstone, Sr. He was monumentally impressed. Suddenly, he was filled with purpose. Randi read everything on the subject he could find. At the age of 17 he dropped out of high school and joined the circus as a conjurer.

Randi rose quickly to the echelons of magic, quickly drawing comparisons to his hero, Harry Houdini (who died two years before Randi was born). For Randi, Houdini had set the records to be broken.

Randi was not only a great magician, he also had a wonderful, charming personality. Together they earned him a guest spot on major television shows. In particular, Randi appeared numerous times on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

As Randi rose to fame, he always made it clear, in practice and in theory, that magic/illusions/trickery should only be used to entertain folks. It should not be used to depart fools from his or her money by deceptive means.

After a near-death experience Randi retired at the age of 60. Henceforth, he would use his own power of perceptions and deceptions to expose the charlatans.

His retirement coincided with the rise of such showmen as New Age psychic Uri Geller and "faith healer" Peter Popoff and company. These two men pretended to possess supernatural powers. They were effective. Thousands of people were only too willing to be duped out of his or her money. Fortunately, Randi had an ally in Carson, whose show gave national exposure to a few of Randi's exposes on these deceivers.

How Randi, with the help of others, exposes psychics, televangelists, and the media makes for riveting investigative drama. These guys (basically, it is only guys in this documentary) go deep undercover to expose some of the greater mental deceptions ever created. As a result, a few of them sometimes got lost in the process themselves. As An Honest Liar reiterates numerously, "There are layers and layers of deception."

If this were not enough to make for a riveting documentary,  toward the end of the film An Honest Liar adds another dimension to Randi's life on a personal level. Thanks to his own need for deception, Randi may lose the love of his life.

Bold, beautiful and exceptionally blistering in its critique of human cowardice in the form of duplicity, An Honest Liar illustrates a rare phenomenon in documentary: what it means to think, to believe and to challenge what our very own eyes see, and more to the point, do not see. The illusion is out there...and inside here. Hear.  


Arnold Schoenberg (Jesse Fair) and Mathilde Schoenberg (Amanda Lovejoy Street) in Fugue. Photo Credit: Darrett Sanders.

Softcore theater

By Ed Rampell

Do you have a guilty pleasure? Your galavanting reviewer confesses to one that whiles away the hours during long haul flights: Reading books that stick their big noses into the private lives of geniuses. While soaring through the stratosphere over the Pacific Islands or aboard trans-Atlantic flights tell-all biographies of Pablo Picasso, John Lennon and Marlon Brando have been eagerly consumed. These prying eyes can’t get enough of those salacious details! It may be poor manners but there’s nothing like reading the personal letters, etc., of others to pass the time away (as our three amigos, N, S, & A well know!).

So it was with great interest that your curious critic attended the world premiere of the cleverly titled Fugue. In it, playwright Tommy Smith delves into the sex lives of not one, not two, but three -- count ’em three!!! -- musical geniuses! It’s a veritable tabloid-apalooza of invasions of privacy which Smith lays bare (but not bare enough, as you’ll soon see), exposing the purported behind-closed-doors peccadilloes of a trio of composers and their, uh, consorts and cohorts.

The musicians are: The brilliant Piotr Tchaikovsky (Christopher Shaw), who gave the world such supreme pleasure, with wonderful works such as “Swan Lake”, “The Nutcracker Suite”, etc., in the 19th century. But bestowing such splendor upon his fellow humans wasn’t quite enough for patriarchal Czarist society, which stipulated that the gay composer also live up to its strict heterosexual code of behavior. To say the least, complications ensue when Tchaikovsky weds Antonina (Alana Dietze), and his long suffering bride/beard decides to, shall we say, shave. Ah, sMother Russia, land of pussy riots! (Astute cinephiles may recall a sort of comical reenactment of Tchaikovsky’s mock marriage in Ken Russell’s 1969 film, Women in Love, based on D. H. Lawrence’s novel -- and, BTW, one of the best cinematic adaptations of literature in screen history.)

Our next troubled talent is Arnold Schoenberg (Troy Blendell), the 20th century Austrian innovator of atonal music and the twelve-tone technique (no, that doesn’t refer to a series of Kama Sutra positions, but to a type of music). Arnie’s wife, Mathilde (Amanda Lovejoy Street), takes up with the younger painter Richard Gerstl (Jesse Fair), who cuckolds his friend and sometime benefactor, the far more successful Schoenberg. (Hey, what are friends for?) Further complications ensue, as the threesome careens down a sexual skid row.

Our final tortured composer is somebody this writer had never heard of, the genuinely creepy Carlo Gesualdo (Karl Herlinger), a 16th century Italian musician who, according to press notes, was of noble rank and wrote intense chromatic music. Gesualdo gives new meaning to the term “Renaissance Man,” as he was also something of a genius when it came to hanky-spanky sex. The musical sadomasochist’s practices would make Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey blush 50 shades of red. Jeanne Syquia plays his partner-in-slime Donna Maria, and Justin Huen has a double role, as Fabrizio and the priest Gesualdo “confesses” to in this confessional play.

Smith’s script is interesting and Chris Fields’ direction skillful, with a cinematic touch. Fugue sort of uses a split screen technique and we sometimes have three sets of actors performing onstage at the same time, albeit in different times and places. This method of presentation is not only filmic, but also, musically, fugue-like. Michael Mullen’s period costumes are a good fit. The thesps all acquit themselves well -- but, alas, your erstwhile scribbler has one quibble.

One imagines that the dramatist, director, company, et al, fancy themselves as being “daring” for presenting sex acts performed on the boards - albeit underneath blankets. Well, here’s a newsflash, and as Chuck Berry would say, “Tell Tchaikovsky the news”: Nudity has been legal onstage and onscreen since the 1960s in the United States. This reviewer refers you to the Living Theatre, Hair, etc., as well as to Alan Bates and Oliver Reed’s wrestling romp au natural onscreen in the aforementioned Women in Love. Unlike Julian Beck and company, performers today don’t have to worry about being busted for indecent exposure and the like.

Depicting undercover sex acts onstage and onscreen veiled by beach blanket bingos is not only a sexual cop out, but an attempt to have your cake and eat it too: The production wants to titillate the audience with bawdiness without delivering the goods, while collaborating with America’s still puritanical norms and constraints. For example, just consider the fact that Showtime airs Masters of Sex, an entire fact-based series about those pioneering sex researchers Masters and Johnson, wherein not since 2013 has a single strand of pubic hair made its debut on this “shocking” series - although it is perfectly legal nowadays to do so on cable television. What sheer cowardice!

Artists went to jail, to court, etc., to win the right for free expression and to now have the legal right but for today’s talents to not make use of this hard fought for First Amendment protection is pretty spineless. If stage and screen productions are unwilling to depict people having sex the way they usually do in real life -- you know, partially or completely unclothed -- then they should keep sex acts relegated to offstage/ offscreen inferred action. Quit trying to have it both ways -- or go fugue yourselves.

Other than that, Fugue is a thought-provoking, well-acted two act play with an intermission. However, it will likely not be the cup of tea for ticket buyers who are offended, upset, etc., by violence onstage and/or simulated (even if hidden) sex acts. 

In any case, the next time this ranter and raver jet sets off to parts unknown he may read a copy of Fugue’s script to make the hours slip more swiftly by while munching a bag of airline peanuts.

The Echo Theater Company’s production of Fugue runs through March 22 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village, CA 90039. For more information: 310-307-3753; Fugue It!.