What a December it has been, from running off to San Juan, Puerto Rico for a week for a conference, then planning a desktop refresh at home. It was nice to get back to my home away from home: small theatres.
Shortly before we left for the conference, I received an email from Betsy at Little Candle Productions (FB) about their new World Premier (Little Candle mission is doing world premieres) of the play Clarissant, by Hailey Bachrach (TW), directed by Allison Darby Gorjian (FB). Betsy described it thusly:
The heroes of the Round Table are dead and gone. The divided kingdoms turn to a reclusive princess in the barren islands of northern Scotland, the last survivor of the royal line, to take power and to lead Britain out of darkness. Her name is Clarissant. Her mother, Morgause, was King Arthur’s sister and a wicked sorceress whose power continues to choke Camelot from beyond the grave. Rather than wear the crown offered to her, Clarissant uses the magic of her ancestors to try desperately to bring back the golden days when her brothers lived to serve the great King Arthur. Is it truly her destiny to rule Britain? Or the final step in her mother’s curse?
This sounded interesting (although I would miss opening night), so I asked my wife. She was interested as well, so I arranged for a reservation. Last night, we made our way out to Atwater Village to see the show.
I don’t know what I was expecting going in. Some type of Camelot story, perhaps, from a feminist perspective. What we got was something interesting — and certainly not bad — but not quite what I expected.
The structure of Clarissant is focused on the decision paralysis of Clarissant, the daughter of Morgause, who is next to be Queen of the Northern Isles — and by implication more perhaps. But Clarissant is convinced that the death of all her brothers, who were all Knights of the Round Table… and the subsequent fall of the Kingdom of King Arthur after the deaths of Guenivere and Lancelot, were the result of a curse placed by Morgause. This is because the women of the Morgause line are all sorceresses. If the line is cursed, then she doesn’t want to be Queen, because that would just continue the curse. So she attempts to use her magic — which is in the form of conjuring stories of the past — to fathom the answer. She’s not strong enough, so she draws in Lyonor, wife of her youngest brother Sir Gareth, and Lynette, wife of her next to youngest brother Sir Gaheris. Through the three of them, we learn the stories behind the downfall of Camelot, and how all of her brothers lived, and more importantly, how they died. We also learn the role that her mother, Morgause, played in all of this.
This was a complicated lineage. King Arthur was apparently the brother King Lot, who was married to Morgause. Morgause, however, slept with Arthur, creating Mordred (3rd brother). Gawain was the oldest and first to leave. Agravain was the second brother, and next to leave. One was involved in the battle that killed Lot. The other explosed Lancelot and Guinevere. It’s all very complicated, not helped by the fact that the actors were playing multiple characters, and all kept switching around playing the ghost of Morgause.
I left with the feeling that it was too long, but I also didn’t find myself looking at the program. My wife also felt it was a bit long. Thinking more on it, the problem was the central mechanism and theme of telling a story. If I want to hear a story, I listen to a podcast. I go to live theatre not to be TOLD a story, but to SEE a story. That portrayal need not be realistic — realism is for the movies, and imagination for the theatre. But it needs to be acted: action and words and character depth and interplay need to make up for recital. This play needed more building up of the characters as individuals you cared about, and less recital. More importantly, other than the political ramifications, I needed to understand why this was all so significant for our main character, Clarissant. We learned precious little about her during this play, other than the fact that she couldn’t make a decision. So while I think the underlying idea was intriguing, how the playwright (who was at our performance) translated that idea to the script and thence to the stage could use a bit of work. But, hey, this was a premiere: the starting point of the work.
There was a feminist message in this play, but it came not from Clarissant but from Lynette — and Clarissant completely missed picking up on the point. King Arthur was asked what it was that women wanted, and Lynette answered: Sovereignty. They want to be in charge of their own lives, dictating their course, not driven by the men in their lives or curses. That’s a key point, and something that needs to be made stronger throughout the story. Clarissant’s decision paralysis regarding her assumption of sovereignty essentially buried the lede.
There was also the casting question: There was a conscious decision to cast every role in this story, except the walk-on servant role — with women. Why? Men could have played the brothers. There were a few points where those actors got to portray the two Queen’s — Guenevere and Morgause and Ragnelle — but that wasn’t the bulk of the characters. So why women as the brothers? There was some message that was being sent with that casting, but I just couldn’t figure it out.
So, overall: how did this score? It wasn’t a clear hit out of the ballpark, but it wasn’t a miss either. It was a good start. There was an interesting story buried behind all that recitation, but it needs some tightening. More importantly, it needs some stronger motivation for Clarissant herself — why this, why now? What’s her stake? Something more is needed, but figuring it out is as easy as, well, determining whether one is cursed.
I thought the performances themselves were good. In the lead position was Paula Deming (TW, FB) as Clarissant. Deming captured the decision paralysis of the character well, and brought a mild, meek, and milquetoast vibe to her — which fit her indecision well. After all, Clarissant didn’t have the strength of leadership of her mother — her questioning of the curse was in essence a question of confidence in herself to lead. Had she had the strength, the curse wouldn’t matter because she would shape her own story. The meekness that Deming brought was a reflection of the characters inability to move her story forward, and to only live in the past — the story of what happened. As such, it was a good performance.
As her sisters-in-laws, Lynette and Lyonor, Karissa McKinney (FB) and Linzi Graham (FB) were also strong. I particularly enjoyed Graham’s performance — she brought a sardonic side-note that was just really fun to watch. It made her character, well, have more character. McKinney’s performance was a bit softer — much more of a reserved character who was still finding her voice. Together, the three were strong together.
The remaining women in the cast played multiple characters: brothers of Clarissant as well as other characters in Camelot. In general, the two characters they played were distinct enough in voice and characterization that they were distinguishable from each other, although the depth of characterization (more a writing than a performance issue) was less. For Olivia Choate (TW, FB), I remember less her Sir Gawain and more her Lancelot — in particular, her interactions and battles with Kym Allen (IG, FB)’s Gareth. Speaking of Allen, I really liked her Gareth — she brought loads of character and spirit to the youngest son; her Ragnelle (wife of Gawain, IIRC) was also very strong. Swinging back to the 2nd son, Sir Agravain, Dawn Alden (FB) brought an interesting swagger to him; she also got to portray Guinevere. That latter portrayal is what I remember more — in particular, her scene in the 2nd act with Lynette and Lyonor. Very touching. Continuing the swing, lets go back to the 2nd youngest brother, Gaheris, played by Renée Torchio MacDonald (FB). For MacDonald, what I remember is her scene with McKinney’s Lynette when Gaheris was heading back to the northern island, but didn’t want his wife to come. Well played. MacDonald also played a knight. This brings us to the middle brother who would be king: Whitton Frank (FB)’s Sir Mordred, as well as her King Arthur. Both characters were strong and quite distinct. As Mordred, I remember Frank’s scenes with both Morgause and Clarissant, bringing both a strength and vulnerability to the brother. As Arthur, there was more the sense of the king and an inner strength.
Rounding out the cast was Mac McKinney as a Servant.
Turning to the production side: Kate Woodruff (FB) and director Allison Darby Gorjian (FB)’s scenic design was suitably dark, as appropriate for a hidden room in a dank castle. There was a tree that served as a holder-of-swords, shredded tapestries, and lots of fake candles (what did they do before those candles with LEDs and wavering wicks). There was also a nice fire pit. It worked well. Needless to say, it was well integrated with the Prop Design of Andrew Maldonado (FB). This design was more than the candles; it was the sticks used for fighting staves, as well as other accouterments of the castle. Also establishing the sense of place were the costumes of the aforementioned Betsy Roth (TW, FB). They looked sufficient; I can’t speak to historical accuracy with a sense that has been corrupted with too many versions of the musical Camelot. However, they established place and character as best they could; with some actor’s shapes, it was harder to hide the feminine nature of the performer. Luckily, the performances permitted the requisite suspension of disbelief. Rounding out the design team were Katie Powell’s sound design and Rob Van Guelpen (FB)’s lighting design. The sound design consisted mostly of sound effects, which worked well. Lighting was simple, augmenting the aforementioned candles. It might have been a little dark, but that fit the mood.
Closing out the production team was David Chrzanowski‘s movement and fight choreography, which was suitably exciting. The production was directed by Allison Darby Gorjian (FB); Andrew Maldonado (FB) was the stage manager.
Clarissant continues at the Atwater Village Theatre, under the production eye of Little Candle Productions (FB), until December 23. All performances are “Pay What You Can”. Tickets are available through their website. Although improvement is possible, this is a good and interesting production of new work, and that always makes it worth seeing. For those of enjoy the Camelot milleau, this is certainly worth seeing. For those that want to support women in the theatre — both on stage, at the author’s table, and on the production team — this is also worth seeing. Looking back, I enjoyed it.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Next weekend appears to bring what will be our last theatrical outing for 2018 — unless something changes: Come From Away at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Other than that, December is open while we recover (other than the obligatory movie on Christmas Day — our one day a year for filmed entertainment).
January is much more open, especially after the postponement of Bat Out of Hell at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Right now, all there is is a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Judea and a hold for the Colburn Orchestra at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) but the rest of the month is currently open (as few shows run in January due to complicated rehearsals over the holidays). We’ll keep our eyes open. February starts with the Cantor’s Concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom (FB), Hello Dolly at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and Anna Karenena at Actors Co-op (FB). There’s also a HOLD for 1776 at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and Lizzie at the Chance Theatre, but much of February is also open.
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.