REVIEW: Rock of Ages at Trustus Theatre

Rock of Ages is a musical devoted to the idea of Rock Music as a distinctive character, or caricature, in the popular imagination. And while the actual story of rock ‘n’ roll may be a complicated, complex, and contradictory one, our idea of it is not—it’s sleazy, loud, showy, and, above all, gloriously debauched. It’s about Sunset Strip sleaze, leather-clad excesses, and arena rock choruses that thud through your head no matter how much beer, booze, or other substances threaten to overwhelm. It might occasionally be dumb, but it’s often with a knowing wink and rarely without a double dose of fun.

That, in a nutshell, is what the musical, which was a massive success during its lengthy run on Broadway, and the particular version of it that Trustus is offering, is all about. Artistic director Chad Henderson, who also plays the grizzled club owner Dennis Dupree, points this out explicitly in his program notes, that the troupe’s primary endeavor here is to offer “Nothing but a Good Time,” and they are hell-bent on delivering. How much they succeed though depends, to a certain extent, on how much you are willing to revel in the poppy glam metal songs that are the bulk of this jukebox-style musical. The narrative is more than a bit thin, to the point where the comedic meta-narrative commentary is the only thing that can save it, and it never rises above a sort of rote sense of genre. But that’s not the point—it’s the nostalgic power of these songs, their sound, and their mythos, all of which is difficult to deny.

Luckily, the usually capable casts of Trustus have always boasted standout singers (and crack stage bands), and Rock of Ages is no exception. Songs like “Don’t Stop Believin,’” “Here I Go Again,” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” prove they were almost built to double as great musical numbers, and when the full cast launches into one of these familiar choruses it’s hard not to feel like things are right with the world. Individual performers may shine or falter at certain moments, but Trustus company standouts like Katie Lietner as the female lead Sherrie or Michael Hazin as the bar manager/ostentatious narrator, make it abundantly clear why they are familiar sights on the Thigpen stage.

But while Leitner is great in her role and the kind of powerhouse singer the part needs, she and the male protagonist Drew (played by Rory Gilbert) end up a little sidelined despite being ostensible leads. The weakness of their romantic plot line—she arriving in L.A. to be an actress but ending up as a stripper, he as an inspiring rock star-turned-fledgling boy band hopeful—makes them a little less memorable compared to the purely humor-driven B and C plots. It’s in those where the real chemistry and spark of the show happens. Henderson and Hazin obviously have some stage chemistry and comedy chops in their bromance friendship and constant fourth-wall-breaking commentary that the fact that they are trying to save Dennis’ rock club almost gets lost in the mix. Similarly, Kayla Cahill’s performance as the protest-leading Regina and Cody Lovell’s German businessman-turned-candy-purveyor sparkle in their own budding romance and brief stage time. Too, Jason Stokes’ turn as the spoiled rock star gone to seed, Stacee, is also quite winning.

But again, focusing on individual performances is a bit of misdirection here, for any lengthy attention to the plot detracts from the blown-own spectacle of the music itself. Director Dewey Scott-Wiley wisely puts the band in serious costumes and places them prominently right up front on stage, so even when not performing the need to keep the music central was apparent. Music Director Chris Cockrell brings plenty of the necessary glam and pizazz to fit the part, and his crew cranks through these tunes with glee. The scenic design itself was also quite clever, utilizing some scaffolding, and a few stairs, doors, and curtains to conjure up a number of different settings in a blink of an eye. So while not strictly necessary, the production notes here rang gracefully.

In the end, though, this is about as critic-proof a play as you can get, with the pure, unfettered (guilty?) pleasure of the songs themselves in the driver’s seat. Henderson notes that there are some parallels to a seedy rock club being challenged by a more bland business takeover has some interesting parallels to the history of Trustus in the now-sleek Vista neighborhood, and it’s tough not to draw some connections between our current growth-hungry (although also arts-supporting) mayor and the one in the play, but leading you down that road won’t be particularly fruitful. Spray that hair up, throw some glitter in the air and, uh, “come on feel the noise?” – Kyle Petersen

Disclaimer: Chad Henderson is married to the reviewer’s sister-in-law. This made his depiction of Dennis no more nor less ridiculous, although it’s not clear whether the same can be said of his ultimate fate.

Rock of Ages runs through July 1—for times and ticket information head to trustus.org.

 

Two Reviews of the Same Book - Secondhand, by Maya Marshall (dancing girl press, 2016)

In Secondhand, Maya Marshall invites us to examine the everyday intimacies that our bodies share with strangers through the lens of the secondhand item. She shines light on the way in which we (are forced to) carve sensual moments out of the remnants of someone else’s similar moments.

One such instance is the opening poem, “Dressing Room: Thrift Store,” in which someone is trying on a blue slip: “…you think you/ Can sew the tear and how slick the blue slip will be/ between you and your sheets.” Marshall forces the reader to acknowledge that desire is not only as old as history and memory, but is equally used and well-worn.

“Secondhand Lingerie” expands on this theme by evoking the images of domesticity. We witness women in possession of “a black nightie/ to upcycle into passion/ after another night of chicken/ and pasta.” Marshall does not shy away from the fact that sex and its trappings are tied to both race and class and gender. If the speak bucks at the suggestion that same-sex attraction is a “phase” in the poem “Lust,” then that idea is deepened by the much more intimate lines of “Someone Borrowed”: “a girl will send you home/ in clean panties of her own.” This echoing across poems, the thrifted and reused, permeates the first section of the chapbook, “The Dressing Room.”

These echoes take on more depth in the second half, “What is Handed Down.” Here we read poems of the family and the question of what can be given, exchanged, or inherited takes on additional weight.  

In “My Father’s House,” Marshall plays with language, deconstructing the idea of family only to reassemble it, much as one might repair a blue slip, using newer parts as seen in “The Youngest: Addendum.” Here the speaker states: “I watched him breastfeed at my mother’s table./ His mother, mistress, feeding him at my mother mother’s table.” Relationships, roles, even family structure can be secondhand.

The reusing, the repair, the handing down both changes the object and the speaker and, yet, changes nothing about the nature of intimacy itself. Nothing but a miracle could spare the speaker – or the reader – from the cycle of want and use, but as Marshall writes “Grace is cheaper than a miracle.”

-Nicole Homer

Nicole Homer’s debut poetry collection, Pecking Order, will be out spring of 2017 on Write Bloody press.

 

~~*~~

 

The poems in Maya Marshall's slim chapbook, Secondhand, are arranged in two groups, Dressing Room and What Is Handed Down.

Opening in Dressing Room we consider poems operating in a psychic space of privacy, intimacy. This is self-facing clothing that cherishes those aspects of our bodies which relate to - or create - other bodies. Marshall's words thread together into a network of organized ambiguities (like the mesh and lace of some of the garments referenced in the poems).

The reader becomes more aware of the intimacy Marshall has created when sharp violent moments arrive. Momentary violence roots the poems in reality. In “Port of Entry,” Marshall unfolds a series of images which masterfully engage the reader's imagination.

The last poem in this group, “Someone Borrowed,” is the most concrete, acting as a hinge for the collection. Marshall pulls us into a new zone for self-identity (mirrored with lover). The poems’ internal rhythmic repetitions echo other poems in the group, but this poem's hardness, its 'broken-piece' structure, and its question of self give it a handle that I come back to after finishing the last poem in the book.

“What is Handed Down” brings us to the locus of inheritance. Now intimacy is not chosen, but instead was given to (forced upon?) us - by the culture (American Girl Movies) by the father or mother chosen for us, our siblings. Here the language becomes more direct (The Youngest: Addendum) as the body is direct. The relatedness describes lives in exchanges of language, instead of gestures (Baptism). Marshall has arranged this series of poems along a continuum of self-perceiving-self-and other, from the imagined to the embodied, with remarkable subtlety and control. I look forward to reconsidering these poems in the future, and reading her next work.

-Jessica Fenlon

Jessica Fenlon is developing code-based projection sculpture for her March 2017 gallery show. Her second book of poetry, Manual for Wayward Angels, arrived in February of 2017 from 6 Gallery Press.

 

~~*~~

 

Someone Borrowed      

 

           Think of the hands that have touched this cotton.

           What wisdom do you get from hunger?

________

Note:   You are a woman loosed.

________

            Naked over her panties,

            I consider how

            a girl will send a girl home

            in clean panties of her own.

 

            I took the bus with my underwear

            in my pocket.

________

Note:    When you write about a black woman

            lusting after

            a black woman,

            You write about a ghost chasing

            herselfherself

________

            I took the bus

________

            There is desire and

            Shame and relief

            In this story, (though

            It isn’t yet

            Fully a story (where

Is the middle?) She runs

Her nails down my thigh:

Denim resists),

But there is no healing touch.

(She howls out, yes. It is her performance.)

________

Note:    when you write about this borrowed woman,

you write about a woman who sells herself—

                Punishment for some sin she can’t identify.

________

                I consider how I took the bus

                with no panties on,

                                                to a borrowed room.

I took the bus naked over her

                                naked over

                her panties.

A queer question: am I into myself?

                (Is it me?) Is she myself?

 

~~*~~

To purchase Secondhand by Maya Marshall contact the author at mayamarshallpoetry@gmail.com

Or the publisher at https://dulcetshop.myshopify.com/products/secondhand-maya-marshall

 

Review: Trustus Theatre Presents Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet -- a Play for our Times

Marcus or The Secret of Sweet is the third installment of The Brother/Sister Plays by noted playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney whose work inspired the now Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated film Moonlight. Marcus is a coming-of-age story for the title character Marcus Eshu who is haunted by dreams and memories of his father Elegba that lead Marcus on a path to discovering his secret of sweetness, or key to his sexuality.

 

The play begins with two powerful images. The first occurs when Marcus’ dreams are dramatized by the full cast and narrated by cast member Chris Jackson while he is showered upon symbolizing a storm soon to come either within Marcus or the impending Hurricane Katrina to his town in Louisiana. The second occurs at the dynamic funeral procession for Marcus’ father where the cast marches around the theatre singing a Negro spiritual to honor Elegba’s death.

 

The play takes risks as the characters themselves verbalize their own asides, stage instructions and emotions, to the audience. At times in the play, this is helpful and even humorous, and at other times, it can appear condescending. The play also narrates the history of homophobia within the African American community all the way back to slavery, purporting that homosexuality would have been unprofitable for plantation owners, thereby eventually unaccepted and discouraged by black people. There is, finally, the running motif of Marcus’ sexuality perhaps being inherited from his father, embracing the theory of the so-called gay gene.

 

Marcus’ mother played by Celeste Moore declares in the play, “Ain’t nothing sweet about having a soft son.” The word sweet is a colloquialism used in the town for gay. Marcus labors intensely to unearth his father’s sweetness leading him to long for the affection of his uncle played by Jabar Hankins. Marcus’ dreams intensify the closer he gets to this secret that somehow everyone knows but him.

 

The cast complements each other well. Katrina Blanding nails her performance as Aunt Elegua with the candor and humor of Tyler Perry’s Madea character. John Floyd as Marcus Eshu is believable and engaging.

 

Marcus or The Secret of Sweet at Trustus is an education in drama and black culture. The play teaches the process of weathering the storms of internal and external conflict within the paradigms of family and community. 

-- Len Lawson

Len Lawson is the co-editor of the poetry anthology, Hand in Hand: Poets Respond to Race, releasing on February 19th from Muddy Ford Press. https://www.facebook.com/events/398977450447357/