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Voyage to the rainforest in ‘The Encounter’

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Encounter, Wallis Annenberg, Los Angeles, Simon McBurney
Encounter, Wallis Annenberg, Los Angeles, Simon McBurney

Simon McBurney. Photo by Giancarlo Bresadola

If you’re a fan of theater that stretches boundaries — both those of your expectations and of the art form itself — the Wallis has an upcoming production that belongs at the top of your must-see list for spring.

“The Encounter” is a solo performance inspired by the book “Amazon Beaming,” by Petru Popescu, relating the true story of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre, who, in 1969, was lost in the remote Jovari region of the Amazon. His experiences there led him to a startling encounter that would change his life, and as his story unfolds (through the narration of actor/director Simon McBurney), his South American adventure becomes an inner journey that explores questions about how we live and what we believe to be true.

This is not just another one-man show. It’s a highly unorthodox theatrical event that engages your senses in unexpected ways. McBurney combines his storytelling skills with the use of cutting-edge aural technology to lead you on an epic journey from the intimacy of his home in London to deep into the rainforest. The audience wears headphones throughout the performance, through which they are immersed in an intricate 360-degree soundscape weaving together the sounds of the Amazon (complete with the buzzing of insects, bird calls and the roaring of unknown beasts) with the actor’s narrative virtuosity. The result is a visceral experience that transports listeners from their seats in the theater on a journey to the depths of the jungle and beyond.

Originally produced by the U.K.’s innovative Complicite Theatre Company, “The Encounter” followed its acclaimed London debut with a limited engagement on Broadway before making its way to Los Angeles. McBurney (who is Complicite’s leader and one of its founding members) discovered Popescu’s book two decades ago, and spent five years bringing his interpretation of it to the stage through experiments, improvisation and workshops.

Though he may be less well-known to American audiences than to those in his native England, the play’s creator and star will nevertheless be familiar to many from appearances in television shows such as “The Vicar of Dibley,” “The Borgias” and “Absolutely Fabulous,” as well as roles in films like “The Last King of Scotland,” “The Theory of Everything,” and “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.” His theatrical resumé is vast; in addition to his work with Complicite, he has performed in and directed dozens of plays, including acclaimed New York productions of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” and “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” starring Al Pacino. In 2005, he was appointed as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) “for services to Drama.”

The Encounter’
Directed and performed by Simon McBurney
April 6-16, 2017
Bram Goldsmith Theater
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills

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Theater

“Hamilton” creators donate monetary damages to LGBTQ+ group

A Texas church performed an unauthorized production of the acclaimed Broadway musical with the addition of homophobic content

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Photo Credit: County of Los Angeles

MCALLEN, Tx – Capping a three-week conflict that attracted national media attention, the creators of “Hamilton” said they will donate monetary damages collected from a Texas church that performed an unauthorized production of the acclaimed Broadway musical and altered it with the addition of homophobic content. 

A statement published on Instagram Tuesday on behalf of Door Christian Fellowship McAllen Church (“Door McAllen”) and its pastor Roman Gutierrez apologizes to the creator and producers of “Hamilton” for using the music and dialogue and changing them without permission. 

While the post made no acknowledgement of Door McAllen’s choice to liken homosexuality to drug and alcohol addiction in its unauthorized alteration of its unauthorized production on August 5, “Hamilton” affirmed its support for the LGBTQ+ community with the decision to give the monetary damages to the South Texas Equality Project.

The LGBTQ+ group did not immediately respond to requests for comment on its pending receipt of the damages, whose value has not been disclosed. 

“Hamilton” fans discovered the performance after Door McAllen streamed the show on its YouTube channel, where it was subsequently cut into clips that were widely circulated on Twitter and other social media platforms – often accompanied by the hashtag #Scamalton and objections to musical’s adulteration. 

Many of the clips show the scene in which Victor Lopez, another Door McAllen pastor, delivers a sermon in which he says: “Maybe you struggle with alcohol, with drugs — with homosexuality — maybe you struggle with other things in life, your finances, whatever. God can help you tonight.”

In addition to its homophobia, the online attention exposed what theater blog OneStage called Door McAllen’s “perfect storm” of copyright and intellectual property (IP) law violations: “The church did not have permission to perform the show, make changes to its lyrics, use its logo, use copyrighted music as a backing track, advertise the production, and stream it on YouTube.” 

“Hamilton” Creator Lin Manuel Miranda was made aware of the unauthorized production of his musical amid the growing backlash against it, issuing a statement where he said, “Grateful to all of you who reached out about this illegal, unauthorized production. Now lawyers do their work.”

OneStage noted that Door McAllen’s apology on Instagram “does not admit wrongdoing” with respect to the church’s unauthorized stage productions of “Disney’s Beauty & the Beast,” “Despicable Me,” and “Elf: The Musical,” which contained similar anti-LGBTQ+ alterations.  

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Playwright queers a famous president in ‘Lavender Men’

If you’re one of those hardcore LA theatre aficionados who truly love unique & intimate live productions it’s time to consider diving back

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Roger Q. Mason Alex Esola and Pete Ploszek in 'Lavender Men' (Photo by Jenny Graham)

LOS ANGELES – While you may have noticed that theatre venues like the Ahmanson and the Pantages have made a triumphant return from the COVID shutdowns, LA’s smaller theatre spaces – those who managed to make it through without closing permanently, that is – are still struggling to rebound. If you’re one of those hardcore LA theatre aficionados who truly love the kind of unique and intimate live productions one can only find in our fabulous city, it’s definitely time to consider diving back in – and fortunately, the historic Skylight Theatre has something on its stage right now that should be considered a must-see for any LGBTQ+ theatre fan.

Produced by Playwrights Arena and the Skylight Theatre Company, “Lavender Men” is a brand-new “historical fantasia” which re-imagines one of America’s most beloved historical icons, President Abraham Lincoln, through a queer lens. It’s not the first time Lincoln’s alleged non-heterosexual leanings have been the subject of speculation – or even of speculative dramatization – but this is not merely a historical drama attempting to make a case for the Great Emancipator’s queerness. Directed by Lovell Holder, it instead bridges over a century and a half of history by focusing on an outside observer – Taffeta, a queer and plus-sized person of color who invades Abe Lincoln’s private world to confront issues of visibility, race, and LGBTQ+ inclusion that still challenge us today.

Taffeta, like “Lavender Men” itself, is the brainchild of playwright Roger Q. Mason, who (appropriately enough) plays the character in this premiere production. She’s a figure that represents Mason’s own experience of American culture, springing from their own thinking “about the ways in which people of color, plus size, expansive, are often left out of American romances.”

Roger Q. Mason as Taffeta in ‘Lavender Men’ (Photo by Jenny Graham)

The Blade recently had a chance to chat with Mason about the play, and our conversation is below.

LA Blade: It’s interesting that you chose to address our current vision of the American narrative, particularly regarding queer and non-White European experience, with a play about the Civil War era. Can you explain why you made that choice?

Roger Q. Mason: For me, the Civil War was the time in which our current notions of race, politics, history, and memory were first codified. We are still living in the aftermath of the divides formed during that period. It’s no coincidence that, shortly after the war (in 1868, to be exact), the word “homosexual” first appeared in scientific literature. It is not a coincidence that the backlash of the Emancipation Proclamation (and Juneteenth) was Jim Crow – whose insidious ideas we are unfortunately having to relive in our country today. Therefore, the play HAS to return to the Civil War to disrupt our notions about our cultural and historical narrative and start healing, through calling out the ills that divide rather than unite us.


LAB: Lincoln’s sexuality has long been a point of contentious debate, which is not surprising, considering he is obviously an iconic President – and an iconic Republican, too, although the party of his day was arguably more aligned with values generally attributed Democrats, today. Is that part of the reason you decided to explore it in your play?

RQM: Well, the play was first born from working in the brilliant queer arts community of Chicago. At that time, there was a play going around called “Lincoln was a Faggot,” which pondered the 16th President’s queerness. I was intrigued by the premise. I thought that Lincoln was an American historical god – almost impenetrable and beyond notions of the flesh. So, the possibility of his queerness humanized him in a way. And if I can humanize him, then I can interrogate the world in which he lived and the values which we have inherited from that world. Emerging from a place of humanity, change and growth are possible; healing is possible.  Exploring Lincoln’s queerness became, for me, the first step in healing my own Black, plus-sized queer heart now – a heart which oftentimes feels invisible to my white cisgender queer male counterparts.


LAB: Is that how Taffeta came into the picture?

RQM: Taffeta evolved into the center of “Lavender Men” because of a challenge from Skylight Theatre Company. When we were preparing for the Skylab readings, Producing Co-Artistic Director Gary Grossman posed the question, “Why does Taffeta need to be in the play?” In that early draft, she didn’t have the dominant presence she has now, but I knew she needed to be at the center of the work. She was its heartbeat. So, in many ways, Taffeta’s evolution and growth was a reply to Gary’s question.  


LAB: How did writing “Lavender Men” contribute to your own “evolution and growth?”

RQM: The development history of “Lavender Men” is the story of my own growth as a person and a writer. Growing up, I wanted to be a “man of letters” – with an emphasis on the masculine respectability and the intellectual prowess of that phrase – but what I am is a gender expansive story conjurer! I’ve learned through the process of this play to embrace those beautiful aspects of who I am. 

And I must give credit to Playwrights’ Arena for allowing me the space in which to experience that process. My affiliation with them has been one of admirer and devotee. Jon Lawrence Rivera has championed the works of two very important Los Angeles-based playwrights, Boni Alvarez and Donald Jolly, and they are guiding lights to me as a writer – so when this opportunity to collaborate with Jon and his crew came along, I was excited.  

LAB: What points in the play are most significant to you? What do you hope the audience will take away?

RQM: One of my favorite moments in the play was added in previews. It’s right before the last scene, where Taffeta finally admits the conflicted mission of her voyeurism: she is retelling Abe’s story to identify how his queer white male love excludes her as a black, plus-sized person; and she wants to tell it because it is the closest she’ll ever get to romance in her loveless life. As a writer, that kind of dramaturgical clarity is GOLD. 

I hope that audiences relish in the specific and universal truths that my castmates Pete Ploszek, Alex Esola and I are mining through the show, including the hurt that bias reaps on “the other,” the power of second chances, and the eternal search for self-love. Working with my creative other half Lovell Holder, director on this project, has deepened these themes through embodiment in production. We have all had a lot of fun making the show! So, ultimately, I hope audiences learn something new about themselves and their history, while having a fabulous time along the way.

“Lavender Men” performs at LA’s Skylight Theatre, 1816 1/2 North Vermont Ave (in Los Feliz), through Sept 4. For tickets and more information visit the Skylight’s website.

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“Hadestown” now at LA’s Ahmanson Theater

It’s a retelling of the myth of Orpheus, who in Ancient Greece became renowned for making music so beautiful it moved the stones to weep

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

LOS ANGELES – By the time “Hadestown” won the Tony for Best Musical, it had already been around for more than 13 years. Conceived, created, and composed by singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell in 2006 in what she describes as “a D.I.Y. theater project”, it passed through several iterations (including a concept album and a New York Theatre Workshop production) in a lengthy development process before finally emerging as the Broadway Production that debuted in 2019.

Its story, of course, has been around for much longer. It’s a retelling of the myth of Orpheus, who in Ancient Greece became renowned for making music so beautiful it moved the stones to weep; when his beloved wife Eurydice was bitten by vipers and died, he descended into the underworld and used his musical gifts to persuade Hades himself to let her return with him to the world of the living – though with a condition attached to make the hero’s triumph less a victory than a Devil’s bargain, as anyone who knows this familiar tale will surely remember.

And it IS a familiar tale, one which spawned an entire religion in the Ancient Mediterranean world and has gone on to inspire countless artists – for reasons which are perhaps obvious, it’s a story with particular significance to artists, of all kinds – to express it through works of their own over all the centuries since. Why, then, does it need to be told again?

“Hadestown,” now arrived at LA’s Ahmanson Theater, endeavors to answer that question – but it also stands, in all its infectious and transfigurative excellence, as answer enough in itself.

Reimagining the story from its classical origins into something more resembling a rustic American folk tale, Mitchell’s musical transplants it into a New Orleans-esque setting somewhere on the Road to Hell, where Hermes may still be messenger of the gods, but is here a master-of-ceremonies, too.

It’s a place where the times are definitely hard, but Hermes’ ward Orpheus claims to be writing a song to set the world right again. Eurydice is a hungry drifter who falls for the youthful bard even though he’s clearly a simple-minded dreamer with nothing to offer her but his love; the Underworld is a factory, where workers labor eternally under the promise of freedom which never comes, and Hades is its powerful owner; his wife Persephone (per agreement) lives half the year with him down below and counts the hours until she’s free to live the other half having fun and spreading sunshine in the world above.

With the principal characters recast in this way, the show is free to weave their tale through a rich and imaginative blues-and-jazz infused musical score and the simple-but-ingenious theatrical trickery of its scenic design – and the result is two-and-a-half hours of high-spirited, irresistible enjoyment that’s guaranteed to deliver a deeply satisfying emotional catharsis but never once feels like just another version of a stodgy old myth.

There is not much a review can convey about the experience of “Hadestown” that comes close to capturing it. The best one can do is say you will certainly laugh, probably cry, and unquestionably be humming the songs for weeks to come. Beyond that, we can only encourage our readers – enthusiastically –to go and see it, and assure them it will be a rollicking, rousing good time. It is, and we do.

That said, there are a lot of things about it to appreciate – the sense of magic that pervades the entire show, for instance, bringing us into a realm where reality and metaphor blend, and the literal and the poetic become one and the same.

In this “world of gods and men”, summer can be both a season of the year and a feeling of being in love, Hell can be a dead-end job or a troubled marriage, and a wealthy industrialist with Fascist leanings can be the Devil himself. Reading those statements alone is enough to recognize the truth of them; living them through “Hadestown” is enough to stamp that truth indelibly into your memory.

A great deal of the magic that makes that happen comes from the show’s score, performed with relish by an onstage show band that is as much of a character as any of the other people on stage. It disarms us with its feel-good sound, a classic blend of elements from gospel to Dixieland to zydeco, and artfully deploys harmonics and melody with scientific precision to transport us into the esoteric mindset where all myths take place.

In other words, the power of “Hadestown” comes from its music – which, perhaps not coincidentally, is about as true to the spirit of Orpheus himself as you can get.

That spirit clearly inhabits the show’s cast, as well. Tony-winner (for “Million Dollar Quartet”) Levi Kreis steps into the unenviable task of filling the shoes of the regal Andre De Shields – Broadway’s Hermes – and makes the role his own, bringing a crooner’s voice and a “good-time Charlie” flair that lend a poignant edge to the hard-won wisdom it is his assignation to dispense.

As Orpheus, youthful Nicholas Barasch endears himself with a comedic red-headed “mooncalf” persona, while contrasting it with a voice that sounds as if it really was a gift from the gods; Morgan Siobhan Green’s Eurydice is a perfect yin to his yang, as grounded in practical reality as he is adrift in the clouds of his imagination and his art, but with a soulful voice of her own.

Keyvn Morrow brings imposing presence, a powerful deep bass voice, and just enough empathy to Hades, while Kimberly Marable’s Persephone, equally compelling as sun-drenched summer goddess and day-drinking neglected wife, is the natural center of attention whenever she appears onstage.

Capping the main ensemble off are Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio, and Shea Renne as The Fates, who taunt the characters – and the audience – throughout with tight harmonies and choreography that practically stop the show every time they take the spotlight. And as praiseworthy as all the leading players are, their talents are matched by the entire ensemble.

Add an ever-metamorphosizing scenic design by Rachel Hauck and electrifying choreography by David Neumann, and “Hadestown” becomes an unforgettable trip to the Underworld and back that will leave you wanting more for a long time to come. And if all that is not enough to convince you that it’s the biggest must-see musical of the year so far, then just remember what we said about words not being able to capture the experience – and go to see it anyway.

“Hadestown” continues through May 29 at the Ahmanson, but if you can’t make it by then you can catch the same production when it takes the stage at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from August 9 to 21.

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