ANGELS, DEVILS AND OTHER THINGS Theater Review
Most plays I review are full-length narrative works, so this critic is used to that familiar format, just like I prefer to read complete novels or nonfiction books over reading short stories. So I wasn’t a fan of short dramas and comedies - that is, not until I went to see the Actors’ Gang’s Angels, Devils and OtherThings, and their head spinning show made a true believer out of me. Where else can one find a purgatory presided over by a sort of maitre d’ deciding who gets seats at the great bistro in the sky - or down below?
This pupu platter of plays consists of 11 original 10-minute scenarios not only acted out by the Gang’s company, but written and directed by the thespians, too. All or most of the ensemble’s 20-ish members acted in the first piece called The Futurist Manifesto, with the writing credit given to Brian Finney, a Gang veteran of 25 years (who, according to the program, is not in Angels’ cast). While Finney may have rewritten The Futurist Manifesto for this stage adaptation, the text of that fascistic declaration per se was actually penned by Filippo Marinetti in 1909. From Brecht to Eisenstein to Picasso to John Lennon and beyond, avant-garde artists have often advocated leftwing, antiwar politics. With plays such as the early anti-Iraq War agitprop Embedded and its recent pro-immigrant, pro-refugee The New Colossus, under the tutelage of its courageously outspoken artistic director Tim Robbins, the Actors’ Gang is a case in point.
So it may come as a surprise to many theatergoers to discover that outside-the-mainstream artistes have sometimes supported rightwing causes. The Italian poet Marinetti, who scribbled the screed of Futurism, subscribed to that frenetic artistic movement epitomized by painter Umberto Boccioni, which sought to capture the essence of urban, modern, increasingly mechanized society. Unfortunately, as the Gang’s enactment of Marinetti’s pronouncements makes clear, The Futurist Manifesto extols the “virtues” of militarism. Marinetti supported Benito Mussolini and his brand of fascism, even volunteering to fight in the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and later in WWII.
It was truly chilling to experience the Gang’s ghoulish groupthink rendition of the Futurist vignette, as Marinetti’s grotty warlike words were read aloud. Thus the opening act of Angels, Devils was on the satanic side. Indeed, it seemed to me that the majority of the 11 skits leaned towards the diabolical scheme of things, although Robbins disagreed with this observation at the after party.
Written by Will McFadden (who’d starred in and directed the Gang’s 2017 surreal ode to capitalism, Captain Greedy’s Carnival and appears in a droll bodysuit in Angels, Devils’ Clean Slate) and helmed by Gang technical director Jason Ryan Lovett, See Bots Chat explores the dystopian world - or rather, Westworld - of androids and artificial intelligence. Adam Bennett, Ethan Corn, Pedro Shanahan and Tess Vidal took part in this cautionary rumination on robots in love. Will androids inherit the Earth? Can they feel and think? After all, they’re only human!
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If any thesp steals the show on the female - or rather, feline side - it’s Della Saba, who portrays Snowball aka Halle Berry, a funny talking tabby in A Cat Play, co-starring humans Austin Brown as Cody and Chas Harvy as Denzel. For some reason, this play-let co-written by Saba and Harvy and directed by Bennett opens with a drug deal between Cody and Denzel that seems to serve no purpose. But the show really gets underway when Cody exits, with the comic interactions between Denzel and Snowball/Halle taking center stage, which I suspect most cat lovers and “owners” (I use that term cautiously) will recognize and relish. I’d like to see Trump try and grab this pussy!
Although she speaks with a human accent, Saba excels as this cat - as she does in Special Powers, playing a woman who summons the courage to reveal to her incredulous lover Jake (Pierre Adeli, who has been a “Gang-ster” for 13 years) that she possesses paranormal abilities far beyond those of mortal men (and women). This preternatural, tender tete-a-tete is directed by Adam J. Jefferis (who has been in the Gang for a decade performing in Tartuffe and The Trial of the Catonsville 9) and written by Guebri VanOver, who acted with the troupe in Harlequino and is a teaching assistant with The Gang’s Education Department.
Angels, Devils’ male standout for me was Bob Turton, who directed himself in The Gardeners as a manic, Beetlejuice-like Lucifer in that vignette, and also played Beelzebub (typecasting?) in Just Be Worthy. In The Gardeners, written by Bennett, Turton’s satanic majesty is an underpaid public defender, craftily competing for the soul of Sam (Pedro Shanahan, like Turton a nine year Gang vet who has performed as a musician as well as as an actor in works such as Break the Whip) with Alex (Lynde Houck, an associate Gang member and teaching artist with the Education Department), a sort of corporate attorney. The dueling barristers’ struggle to represent Sam’s soul is a witty twist on Faustian bargains worthy of Goethe.
Newcomer Quonta Beasley, who cut her Gang teeth on The New Colossus, is also worthy of a special mention for her acting in this omnibus production. Ms. Beasley’s stark depiction of a cancer victim in Just Be Worthy is haunting, and reminded me of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. She is also in The Gang’s Education Department.
The final vignette of this 11 piece show divided by an intermission is decidedly on the angel-ish side. Written by Houck and directed by McFadden, A Perfect World depicts an elderly couple facing old age two-gether. Wearing those commedia dell arte masks Robbins is so fond of, Lisa (Lee Margaret Hanson, who played Julia in The Gang’s harrowing stage adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984) and Jim (Adam J. Jefferis) add a dash of whimsy and a sci fi panache to their playful role playing, as their longtime love helps stave off the ravages of aging.
This crafty concoction has the stage’s cleverest conceptions of hell since Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. With Angels, Devils and OtherThings, the Actors’ Gang - one of my favorite theatre companies - continues to make the City of the Angels’ cultural scene all the more angelic. In doing so, among other things, these artistes disprove Sartre’s thesis, showing that heaven can be other people, too.
The Actors’ Gang’s Angels, Devils and OtherThings plays at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through June 16. For more info: (310)838-GANG; http://theactorsgang.com/.
L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell is co-presenting “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/ .