APHRODITE’S HOLIDAY SHOW Theater Review
The Actors’ Gang has long been among my favorite theatre companies. Over the years I’ve attended their hard-hitting dramas and trenchant satires, from Tim Robbins’ early anti-Iraq War Embedded to an adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 that commented on the Bush regime’s torture policy to the antiwar classics Bury the Dead by Irwin Shaw and the docu-play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine about the pacifist Berrigan Brothers and so on. To be fair, the intrepid troupe has presented its fair share of comedies, too – more often than not performed by thesps donning commedia dell’arte masks in original works written by Robbins, such as Harlequino – although these productions often contain heavy doses of social commentary along with hearty laughs.
But with The Gang’s Aphrodite’s Holiday Show it is, as Monty Python pithily put it, time “now for something completely different” at the Ivy Substation. In this 90 minute variety show performed without intermission the usually thought-provoking Gang here lets its collective hair down with a diversion designed to maximize merriment during this season of mirth and goodwill to all people.
The Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza festivities and frivolities are presided over by pagan deities. Adam J. Jefferis, an 11-year Actors’ Gang veteran who has acted in Tartuffe, Break the Whip, Our Town, etc., depicts Dionysus, the ancient Greek god of wine, fertility, rituals and religious ecstasy. Jefferis’ shirtless, hip-swiveling, droll Dionysus is quite different from the Dionysus seen last September at the Getty Villa in Euripides’ rather grim Bacchae. The jolly Jefferis’ version of the heathen divinity is played strictly for laughs and is closer to George Carlin’s “Wonderful WINO” than to a Greek tragedy.
Dionysus’ female counterpart is a sheer delight of a sprite – the mighty flighty Aphrodite, and Lee Margaret Hanson is a sight to behold in a toga-like gown as the Greek goddess of love and beauty.
Dionysus’ female counterpart is a sheer delight of a sprite – the mighty flighty Aphrodite, and Lee Margaret Hanson is a sight to behold in a toga-like gown as the Greek goddess of love and beauty. Ms. Hanson here reprises this Grecian role, having previously co-starred as Aphrodite in The Gang’s Much Ado About Nothing, The Winter Solstice Pagan Holiday Show, which she also co-directed. The gifted thesp also co-directed Aphrodite’s Holiday Show with Jefferis and co-wrote it with him and Rynn Vogel.
(Although Ms. Hanson clearly has a flair for comedy, she can also essay dramatic roles, such as playing Winston Smith’s doomed lover Julia in 1984. Winston utters arguably the most heartbreaking lines in English literature when Big Brother breaks his resistance by threatening to hideously, viciously torture him in Room 101: “Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her.”)
Meanwhile, back at the review:
Dionysus and Aphrodite are sort of celestial emcees, introducing their Holiday Show’s various vignettes and acts that make up this Gang confection. The Greek pantheon’s pair of pagans repeat amusing shtick about how Christian celebrants are actually plagiarizing heathen holidays, rites and beliefs.
The energetic production’s highlights include a lyrical candlelit dance by the ensemble that resembled a swaying candelabra or chandelier. Zoe Hall, who has been with The Gang for 10 years and was recently seen in its Angels, Devils and Other Things, which she also directed, has a show stealing song as a Jewish woman lightheartedly lamenting how those who don’t believe in Jesus can feel left out of the swing of things at Christmastime. Joy vey!
Gang stalwart Steven M. Porter has a wickedly witty turn as a bad Santa. Mary Eileen O’Donnell, most recently seen in The Gang’s Johnny Got His Gun, is a cross-dressing Jesus. Quonta Beasley, who was so profoundly moving in The Gang’s pro-refugee The New Colossus (special performance 8:00 p.m., December 5 at the Ivy Substation), here moves profoundly. The beautiful Beasley is surely an “Afro-dite.”
Lynde Houck is scene stealing as the daughter Aphrodite and Dionysus are ashamed of. As Poinsettia, Houck has a recurring role throughout the mirthful menagerie onstage. Why are the pagan Greeks “ashamed” of their misbegotten daughter? Because their woebegone offspring, alas, is a Christian and, as her flowery moniker suggests, Poinsettia is filled with unabashed Christmas spirit. This includes a rousing rendition of The Ronettes’ classic rock Christmas song, “Sleigh Ride,” which The Gang-sters gaily rock out to in an outburst of pure unadulterated joy.
For my money, the best parts of Aphrodite’s Holiday Show was when The Actors’ Gang geared up and flew off into the wild blue yonder of wonder in full Cirque de Soleil mode, featuring acrobatic flourishes executed with great panache in two separate acts by a duo of derring-do. Talented Taylor Krasne performed with amazing hoopla and chutzpah on a whirling wheel, displaying more agility and balance than most earthbound beings could muster on their own two feet. It almost seemed as if this astounding circus artist could levitate her steel hoop through sheer will power, as Krasne boggled audience members’ minds with her audacious act. The wheel of life, indeed.
Not to be outdone, Whitney Kirk is an aerialist who flies through the air with the greatest of ease – not on a trapeze but via sheets of silk hanging from the Ivy Substation’s rafters in order to defy gravity and gratify viewers’ sense of awe. The floating, flexible Kirk twisted and turned on high, lithely going “Kama Sutra” in a variety of positions on the silky material. (On different nights Kirk alternates with another aerialist, Jordann Baker Skipper.)
Both breathtaking acrobats enhanced and elevated the proceedings to new heights. The closest Gang production to Aphrodite’s Holiday Show that I’ve seen was last year’s madcap Captain Greedy’s Carnival, but its biting wit was devised to lampoon predatory capitalism, not generate a sense of joy. Of course, this being The Actors’ Gang, there is some social commentary in its seasonal holiday offering, such as in a skit that parodied social media and addictions to it.
But overall, this is a season appropriate escapist romp designed to bestow the smile of the day on ticket buyers’ punims. Given the White House grotesqueries we’re inundated with daily, auds need as much yuletide greetings and merrymaking as possible to maintain their grip on sanity. As Preston Sturges observed in 1941’s Sullivan’s Travels, not every work must be a drama full of doom and gloom – there’s certainly room for mindless entertainment, where one puts his/her brain into neutral and lets the laughs and good times roll.
At one point, performers promenaded offstage into the audience, inviting groundlings onto the boards to boogie. A cheerful time was had by all, thespians and theatergoers, gods and we mere mortals on our eternal odyssey seeking entertainment, enlightenment and good fun.
The Actors’ Gang’s Aphrodite’s Holiday Show plays on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through December 16 at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232. For more info: (310)838-GANG; http://theactorsgang.com/.
L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell is co-presenting Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” 7:00 p.m., December 27 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019 as part of “Marx @ 200: The Marxist Movie Series” (https://www.gofundme.com/marx-200-the-marxist-movie-serie). The third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” co-authored by Rampell is now available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ .