Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Emily James

Loss, Resilience and Disaster: “Colony Collapse” Engrosses at Boston Court

Chris Connor and Riley Neldam as the distanced father and son in "Colony Collapse" at The Theatre at Boston Court [photos: Ed Krieger]

Chris Connor and Riley Neldam as the distanced father and son in “Colony Collapse” at The Theatre at Boston Court [photos: Ed Krieger]

For many who have been paying attention, the concept of “colony collapse” is a part of the larger concerns over a poisoned environment and the threat to humanity this involves. The term is the common name for the disappearance of honey bees, particularly in North America. Originally thought to be a disease, now seen as a consequence of certain pesticides, the condition causes bees to venture from the hive only to become disoriented and fail to return. As the hive shrinks, it gradually reaches an unsustainable level: too few bees in too bad a shape to sustain the queen or her larvae. The hive dies out.

Take this as metaphor in the aptly named “Colony Collapse” by Stefanie Zadravec, now in a world premiere production at The Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena. The play examines manifestations of tragedy and loss, and the human resilience which often kicks in, at least eventually, unless the people it happens to are too weakened for that to occur. Beautifully constructed to juxtapose several stories of parents whose children have disappeared against the tale of a teen whose parents are unable to parent him, it proves intense and absorbing from start to finish.

Director Jessica Kubzansky knows how to use the Boston Court performance space particularly well, dressing her stage with the characters in ways which fill the space, and using sound as irritant and underscore to the desperate power of the play itself.

Initially one meets the parents of the disappeared: Jully Lee as a mother who let go of her young son’s hand just a moment only to find him gone, Adrian Gonzalez as the young father who gave in and let his son walk home from school only to have him never arrive. Julie Cardia is the frustrated mom who tossed her rebellious teenaged daughter from home only to have her vanish, with Tracey A. Leigh and Leandro Cano as loving parents of an autistic boy who disappeared out an open door when his mom fell asleep on the couch. Each creates a carefully crafted portrait, as each character makes an individual passionate plea for understanding, wrestles with horrific guilt, and slowly, specifically, finds a way to carry the burden of loss.

Balanced against these, the play concentrates on the family of Jason, whose divorced, meth-addicted mother, Nicky, finds him useful only as a crutch, and whose father, Mark, recently released from a prison sentence associated with Jason’s actions and, along with his second wife Julia, finally clean and sober, wants nothing to do with him at all. Tired of trying to keep his mother from starving or selling herself, Jason pushes his way into his father’s world. This includes a large orchard Mark has taken on but knows nothing about sustaining, try though he might.

Emily James' ghost Girl ties the play's themes together.

Emily James’ ghost Girl ties the play’s themes together.

Floating through these scenarios is the ghost of a girl who disappeared, who becomes the play’s narrator and occasional philosophical touchpoint. Through her we examine the insignificance if individual lives, even as we watch the affect each individual in the play has on their own immediate worlds.

Emily James proves fascinating as The Girl, the ghost stringing elements of the play together from a wide variety of physical vantage points. Paula Christensen offers up a not-quite-stereotypical tweaker as Jason’s mother, edgy and strung out, ready to pontificate on motherhood even while totally incapable of living that role. Sally Hughes creates the fragile Julia, for whom addiction was a matter of escape from a life she can see beginning to fray. Chris Conner’s balance of detachment and sentiment in Mark creates a very slippery support for either Julia or Jason to hang on to.

Yet what truly captures the attention above all else has to be Riley Neldam’s Jason. Strong but hurting, lost but searching for definition, he manages to create in the character a sense of adulthood that the supposed adults cannot reach, while still carrying the vulnerability of a teenaged boy. Still, what is to become of someone so connected to adults incapable of connection?

Engrossing though it is, “Colony Collapse” is not easy watching on any level. The sense of loss which permeates the play is quite palpable, and very intense. Yet, though it concentrates on a family which cannot help but destruct, the periphery balances this with a strong sense of, if not redemption, at least the possibility of moving forward. In a world where these kinds of intimate losses happen virtually every day, perhaps that is what one must cling to, if only to avoid the collapse of one’s own colony.

What: “Colony Collapse” When: Through March 20, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance Wednesday, March 16 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $35 general, $30 senior (62+), $20 student Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

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Pared Down, Powered Up: “Antigone” at ANW

Stephen Weingartner (Guard) and Emily James (Antigone). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Stephen Weingartner (Guard) and Emily James (Antigone). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

In an art form where longevity can be used by some to indicate intrinsic value, at least in the form of universality, none achieve this at a higher level than the plays of the Ancient Greeks. Certainly,Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy has played upon the imagination of human societies far beyond the original parameters of the people for whom it was written. Usually, one discusses the angst, tragic flaws and fate of “Oedipus the King,” but in modern times – as in the time when Jean Anouilh first translated and adapted it – the greatest focus should be the ethical and moral dilemmas at the heart of the second play, “Antigone.”

Now in a new translation and further adaptation of the Anouilh version by director Robertson Dean, A Noise Within’s “Antigone” proves an admittedly truncated, elemental edition. Narrowed down to its essentials, the grand Greek speeches reworked to resonate with a modern audience, the power of the essential struggles of its protagonists leaps out in a way which makes ancient struggles modern.

The tale remains essentially the same, though – like Anouilh’s version – it is placed in an era reminiscent of the late 1930s (Anouilh was actually writing his version as the Germans entered Paris). Oedipus is gone, his sons have fought to the death over who should run Thebes. Oedipus’ brother-in-law Creon backed one of the brothers, Eteocles, over the rebellious Polynices, and as a result has taken over as king after both brothers die in battle. To declare the rebellion dead, he has decreed that nobody shall bury Polynices’ body so that it may rot in public as a warning to all further rebels. Should anyone bury the body, that person shall be condemned to death.

Which leaves their sister, Antigone, with an agonizing ethical choice. If she buries the body of her brother, she shall die. If she she leaves it there to disintegrate she shall have allowed something immoral to happen that she could have stopped. Which is more important, her life or her conscience. For Antigone this is no choice at all, but to those around her more versed in political expediency, the choices she wants to make are either idiotic or tragically pointless. Yet, she knows what she believes is the right thing to do.

This production jumps to vivid life due largely to Emily James’ impressively, passionately intense Antigone. Small, and physically fragile, James’ heroine is vibrantly resolute – absolutely positive she is taking the only action possible, and yet equally sure it is an action which should harm no other. Riveting from start to end, she is impossible not to watch.

Eric Curtis Johnson makes Creon the consummate politician, even in exhaustion seeing life as a negotiation and honor as relative, at least until it hits too close to home. Brick Patrick moves Creon’s son, Antigone’s fiancĂ©, from a casual nobility to a resolute passion as his world increasingly wraps around the fate of his intended. Inger Tudor makes the chorus – a character Dean has given a much larger roll, in that she speaks the words of several characters other than her own – the voice of reason as she sets and expands the tale beyond the intimate palace space.

Smaller parts are also impressively done. Lorna Raver fusses well as the shaken nurse. As Antigone’s more elegant sister Ismene, Kyla Garcia becomes a balance to the title character’s determined single-mindedness, as she ranges from fear to compromise with little effect on the outcome. Stephen Weingartner plays the parts once handed to three separate guards – the realist of the piece – whose focus is not on the reason for war or the ethics of Antigone’s actions, but on how it will affect his future in his chosen occupation.

All of this plays against Frederica Nascimento’s junk pile of a set, complete with a radio whose blasts of Edith Piaf set the scene as much as the column bases and collapsed chandeliers. Jenny Foldenauer’s costuming captures a time period without being too specific, and Martin Carrillo’s sound design keeps the audience circled with the continuing danger outside the door.

This “Antigone” has been pared down enough to be performed without an intermission, and that works too as the tension builds toward the known but still agonizing end. As director, Dean keeps the thing moving, literally, which is terribly important in a play which is mostly about fine, direct, but potentially static talk. As a result, one seems to barely breathe from start to finish – a most satisfying way to see a great and ancient work made new.

“Antigone” plays in repertory with “A Flea in Her Ear” and the upcoming “All My Sons.”

What: “Antigone” When: Through November 20, 7 p.m. October 4, and November 8, 7:30 p.m. October 29 and November 19, 8 p.m. October 24, November 14 and 20, 2:00 p.m. October 4, 24, November 8 and 14 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $44 and up, with student rush with ID an hour before performance Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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