Written by Scotty Keister
Stages Theatre in Fullerton has long been a champion of local playwrights, and currently they are running two shows, both homegrown and both directed by the authors themselves; “Monuments” and “Dogs of War.” One turns out to be an overwhelming success, the other a curiosity that doesn’t quite succeed.
The standout show is “Monuments,” written and directed by Steve Spehar. The show was first produced at the Tribune in Fullerton in 1995, and then at Stages in 1997. The script has undergone some updating since and the work we see now, though somewhat overlong at two and a half hours, is highly entertaining, at times mind-boggling, never boring and most often very, very funny. Spehar has assembled a fine cast who know how to keep the energy flowing and the parody at a level close enough to reality to keep our wits engaged. Is the story a dream, a dream that invades reality, reality falling into a dream, or bits of everything mashed up? There’s no clear answer, and this makes for an intriguing evening.
Henry Mann (a fine energetic performance by Matt Tully) is a renowned theater director of avant-garde plays who has long been absent from the scene, having gone through a serious dry spell of failed works, and is now ready to make a comeback. He approaches long-time collaborator Daniel (a funny turn by Frank Tryon) to cobble together a script from a recent dream Henry has had of his own death. It’s not clear if Henry means to create a play out of his dream, or create the means to actually enact his own death on stage. Daniel at first wants no part of it, but eventually, like everyone else in the play, he is drawn in, against his own better judgment. With the appearance of a mysterious stranger, Gabriel, and his female assistant Maria whom he apparently speaks through, the story begins to take on a David Lynchian alternate universe feel. Initially lurching back and forth from Henry’s living room to the black box stage where the play is rehearsing, it soon is not at all clear exactly where we are anymore. The confusion and hysteria escalate to a highly rambunctious conclusion that leaves us at one moment realizing the truth at last, and the next moment doubting everything again.
Darri Kristin is Eva, the willing but dubious actress assigned to portray Henry’s wife; Terri Mowrey is Marion, that same wife who has had quite enough of Henry’s shenanigans; Paul Burt is another Gabriel, a decidedly not-all-there volunteer to act in Henry’s work; Melisa Cole is the enigmatic Maria and Britt Dawson the wordless but noisy Gabriel. The entire cast excels. Spehar has done an excellent job of keeping the action flowing effortlessly, at times achieving a Buster Keaton kind of stage craft, partly due to the ingenious nature of Jon Gaw’s origami-style set design.
Despite all the head trips going on, the show never forgets to keep us laughing, and that is essential to its success.
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Written by Scotty Keister
“Dogs of War,” written and directed by Hero P. Carlisle is a follow up to last year’s “Five Knaves for Breakfast.” Carlisle takes popular films and reconstructs them fairly closely as faux-Shakespearean dramas, with an approximation of the bard’s language and set in Elizabethan times. The earlier work took on “The Breakfast Club,” and the current one, “Reservoir Dogs.” In my mind, both suffer from the same essential flaw: Carlisle’s representation of Shakespeare offers us no new viewpoint to either the original films or Shakespeare’s work. Neither work reflects on the original films, they simply attempt to translate them. Thus their transmutation to Shakespearean seems just a gimic, and not a fully realized work of stagecraft. Plus, neither of these films really have enough plot to sustain a full-length play. They bog down heavily in dialog that is not written with nearly the humor or grace of Shakespeare. Plus, it occasionally slips out of period to a more modern language that is jarring.
“Dogs of War” is, however, the more interesting work of the two. The cast is uneven, but Phillip Brickey in the Harvey Keitel role, Tom Royer as the heist’s mastermind, and Amanda Rivera in a gender-switching take on the Tim Roth part, all have fine moments and good energy on stage. The first act goes on too long while the five rogues (the above, plus Dimitri Perera as Steve Buscemi, Liam Holton as Michael Madsen and the author himself as Tarantino, with Anthony Nuno Jr. in the Chris Penn role) are assembled and briefed on the planned robbery. None of this captures the snarly character development of Reservoir Dogs. Watching a ten minute scene where a character tries to explain his disdain for tipping just seems pointless in Shakespearean. Was tipping even a thing then? And I have no idea what the serenading tavern girl was doing on stage, swaying, or occasionally singing, during scene changes.
It’s only in act two, when we see the aftermath of the botched robbery, that the play comes to life at all. The intensity ratchets up as the story becomes a bloody life or death scenario. However, the swordplay is tepid, the characters are generally not believable and thus the violence seems more stagey than reality. The play here does follow fairly closely the action of Reservoir Dogs, and not always successfully. Liam Holton fails to capture Michael Madsen’s physical presence; in the scene where he tortures a guardsman, in place of Steeler’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” his character sings to his victim while he whittles away at him with his sword. It doesn’t work. And then there is that thing that always drives me crazy: no curtain call. It makes no sense dramatically and just confuses the audience. Directors: stop doing that. We know it’s a play, you can go ahead and break the fourth wall for bows.
If you are a fan of “Reservoir Dogs” and enjoy Shakespeare, you could have fun tagging the references in each scene, but as a work of drama, it fails to pull the trigger.