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Four Larks creates beautiful monster in world-class ‘Frankenstein’

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Max Baumgarten in Four Larks’ ‘Frankenstein,’ onstage at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (Photo credit: Kevin Parry)

From the moment the lights come up on the Four Larks production of “Frankenstein” to reveal a genteel 19th-century sea captain, singing a period chamber song while accompanied by live acoustic musicians in front of a stark white backdrop, it’s clear you are in for something unexpected.

One might argue that the LA-based performance troupe has already made a name for itself on the basis of delivering the unexpected, through its immersive, experiential productions that exist “at the intersection of theatre, music, visual art and dance” (as their online self-description puts it), and that anyone seeing their work should therefore expect, well, the unexpected.

Even so, thanks to the cultural saturation that has made the story of Frankenstein and his misbegotten creation familiar to almost every member of modern American civilization over the age of three, an audience member walking into the Lovelace Studio Theatre at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, where Four Larks has mounted their latest effort for a now-extended run through March 7, will unavoidably be carrying their own well-encoded assumptions about the tale – and they likely won’t bear more than a passing resemblance to the 1818 novel with which Mary Shelley introduced it to the world.

Consequently, many members of the crowd probably won’t know, or won’t remember, that Shelley’s horror classic begins and ends in the frozen Arctic wasteland, with a naval officer on a mission to reach the North Pole (a situation rendered perfectly and instantaneously by the arresting opening tableau), or that the title character relates his sad history as a cautionary tale against the dangers of man’s insatiable desire to bend the universe to his own will.

Four Larks, however, has not forgotten. In this ingenious cabinet-of-curiosities-style production, troupe founders Mat Sweeney and Sebastian Peters-Lazaro, along with librettist Jesse Rasmussen, strip away the generations’ worth of cultural baggage that has been piled atop Shelley’s original, allowing it to serve as both their inspiration and their road map for a densely-packed unwinding of the narrative that takes us from its pre-Victorian setting up to the precipice of our own modern future within the space of 70 minutes.

Utilizing a breathtakingly talented ensemble of twelve performers (who rarely leave the stage), the multi-media performance reclaims the author’s voice in her name by making her a central presence onstage; it is Mary Shelley herself who speaks the words as her literary stand-in enacts the story of his own act of creation, serving as a constant reminder that this quintessential tale of terror came from the imagination of a woman – a fact that has particular resonance in a world in which the patriarchal urge to dominate and control has led us to the brink of self-destruction.

Underscoring the contemporary import of that radical motif – as well as the prescience of Shelley’s not-very-subtle warning about the dangers of unchecked technological advancement – is a near-hypnotic progression of sights, sounds, and ideas that incorporates speaking, singing, movement, sound, lights, projections, and environmental effects to connect the dots between Frankenstein’s transgressive creation – or rather, the reckless hubris it represents – and a modern world living in the ominous shadow of nuclear destruction, artificial intelligence, and climate change.

Along the way, the literal aspects of the story sometimes get lost within the conceptual flourishes – especially for those unfamiliar with the original text – but in this envisioning, which Four Larks actor Lukas Papenfusscline, calls a “collaboration” with Shelley herself, that is part of the point. Though the production has clung tightly to the novel in terms of remaining faithful to its plot, it revels in translating its ideas into a stylized, contemporary vision that clearly communicates them to an audience and allowing them to hit us in a more direct and visceral way.

Still, many of the show’s highlights are masterful renditions of segments from the book. The creature’s birth, brought to life through the acrobatic contortions of actor Max Baumgarten, is a master class of physical performance that evokes the loneliness, pain and transgression of the experience while dazzling us with an unforgettable display of sheer grace and prowess. Similarly, the lengthy episode depicting the creature’s secret spying on the life of a human family through the windows of their cabin in the woods is executed with a crystalline simplicity that both conveys its essence and illuminates its profound observations about humanity. Finally, in an electrified (and electrifying) climactic flourish, the story’s last act of creation is terrifyingly rendered in a jaw-dropping combination of performance, stagecraft and technology that unites past and present in a spectral vision conveying the all-encompassing dread of a future mankind has created in its own image.

It may all sound a bit overwhelming, and that is exactly what was intended, not just by Four Larks but by Mary Shelley herself; but although there is no effort to soften the “shock and awe,” it is countered by the precision with which this intricately choreographed theatrical exercise is executed.

As Papenfusscline put it in an interview with the Blade ahead of the show’s opening, “It’s like a Swiss watch with a million little parts, some of it is the music, design, some of it is the acting, and we’re creating this intricate work of art that as a performer is endlessly rewarding. I’ve just had a blast.”

Judging by the sleeper success this world-class production has enjoyed in its world-premiere run at the Wallis, audiences are having a blast, too.

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Movies

New music documentary is ‘Velvet’ perfection

A piece of pure cinema that exemplifies its genre while transcending it

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The Velvet Underground (Photo courtesy of Apple TV)

When it comes to great music documentaries – the ones that stick with you after you watch and make you want to come back to them again and again – there is one ingredient that stands out as a common thread: immediacy.

From D.A. Pennebaker’s fly-on-the-wall chronicle of young Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of the UK in “Don’t Look Back,” to Martin Scorcese’s joyful document of The Band’s final concert performance in “The Last Waltz,” to Jonathan Demme’s thrilling cinematic rendering of the Talking Heads in performance at the peak of their creative genius in “Stop Making Sense,” all of these now-revered films have endured – indeed, even grown – in popularity over the years because they captured the talent, the personality, and the power of their subjects on celluloid and preserved it for the ages, allowing generations of audiences, fans and soon-to-be-fans alike, to feel as if they were there.

But none, perhaps, have ever done it quite so viscerally as Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground.” This is a remarkable feat when you consider that the films listed above, as well as most of the other highly regarded “rockumentaries” of the past, were all concert films, showing the performers at their center in the full bloom of their musical gifts, and Haynes’ film is not that. It’s something else, something singular, a piece of pure cinema that exemplifies its genre while transcending it entirely.

The basic outline of the band’s story is well known, now. Coalesced in the early ‘60s New York art scene around a pair of charismatic geniuses (John Cale and Lou Reed), the Velvet Underground was swept into the orbit and under the wing of Andy Warhol, who turned them into the house band at his famous “Factory,” added to their mix an exotic European chanteuse named Nico, and launched their record career by producing their first album – and designing an instantly iconic cover for it featuring a banana, to boot. They were, for a while, the darlings of the New York underground set, birthing a handful of additional albums across the latter years of the decade; but their sound, which was experimental, rough, and a far cry from the flower-power sound being embraced within the status quo of Middle American music fans, did not catch on. That, combined with the volatility of the relationships at its core, ensured an ignoble and unsung dissolution for the band; though its two front men went on to forge expansive solo careers on their own, the Velvets themselves remained a kind of blip, an ephemeral presence in the history of rock – and the history of New York – remembered by anyone who wasn’t actually on the scene as nothing more than a buzzy band they never actually heard with a catchy name and a familiar album cover.

As one of the voice-over interviewees in Haynes’ movie points out, however, the counterculture wasn’t actually the counterculture – it was the culture. The rest of the world just didn’t know it yet. Decades later the Velvet Underground is credited with, among other things, providing early inspiration for what would become the punk rock movement, to say nothing of influencing the aesthetic palate of (surely without exaggeration) thousands of musicians who would go on to make great music themselves – often sounding nothing like the Velvets, but somehow cut from the same raw, edgy, white-hot honest cloth, nonetheless. Yet in their moment, they were doomed before they had even begun to become a sideshow attraction, hurling performative realness in the face of a curious-but-disinterested glitterati crowd that was already embodying the superficial fakeness that would be so aptly monikered, both as an ethos and a watchword, as “Plastics” by Buck Henry and Mike Nichols in “The Graduate” barely a year after their first album was pressed.

Frankly, it’s the kind of story that makes for a perfect rock ‘n roll legend, and the kind of legend that deserves to be explored in a film that befits its almost mythic, archetypal underpinnings. There’s nobody more qualified to deliver that film than Todd Haynes.

Haynes, of course, is a pioneer of the ‘90s “New Queer Cinema,” whose body of work has maintained a consistent yet multi-faceted focus on key themes that include outsider-ism, dysfunctional socialization, and the fluid nature of sexuality and gender. Each and any of these interests would be enough to make him a perfect fit as the person to tell the story of the Velvet Underground, but what gives him the ability to make it a masterpiece is his ongoing fascination with music and nostalgia. Beginning with his controversial debut short “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” the musical landscape of his formative years has been inseparable from his milieu, and films such as his glam-rock fantasia “Velvet Goldmine” or his post-modernist Dylan biopic “I’m Not There” have dotted his career like cornerstones. Likewise, his painstaking recreation of the past in period pieces like “Far From Heaven,” “Carol,” or “Wonderstruck” has proven his ability not just to capture the look and feel of a bygone era, but to transport audiences right back into it.

In “The Velvet Underground,” it’s more like he transports the era to the audience. His comprehensive chronicle is not just the story of the band or its members, but the story of the time and place that allowed them to exist, in which a generation waking up from the toxic artificiality of their parents’ “American Dream” took creative control of the future through an unprecedented explosion of art and culture. Art was a by-any-means-necessary endeavor that now demanded a fluency across various forms of media, and a blending together of any and every thing that worked to get the message across. And yes, sometimes the media itself was the message, but even within that depressingly superficial reality was room for an infinite layering of style and substance that could take your breath away.

That description of the era in which the Velvet Underground thrived, in which Andy Warhol turned the shallow into the profound (whether he knew it or not), in which music and film and photography and poetry and painting and every other form of expression blended together in a heady and world-changing whirlwind, is also the perfect description of Haynes’ film. Yes, there are famous veterans of the age sharing their memories and their insights, yes there is copious archival footage (including the godsend of Warhol’s filmed portraits of the legendary faces in his orbit), yes we get to hear about Lou Reed’s struggle with his sexual identity – and it’s refreshing that Haynes makes no effort to categorize or finalize that aspect of the rock legend’s persona, but merely lets it be a fact. But even though “The Velvet Underground” checks off all the boxes to be a documentary, it’s something much more. Thanks to Haynes’ seamless blend of visuals, words, history, and – always and above all – music, it’s a total sensory experience, which deserves to be seen in a theater whether you subscribe to Apple TV or not. It puts you right in the middle of a world that still casts a huge shadow on our culture today.

And it’s unforgettable.

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PHOTOS: Best Of LGBTQ DC party

Blade’s 20th annual awards celebrated at Hook Hall

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Cake performs at the Best of LGBTQ D.C. Awards Party on Oct. 21. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Washington Blade presented the 20th annual Best of LGBTQ D.C. Awards at a party at Hook Hall on Thursday, Oct. 21. To view this year’s winners, click here.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Arts & Entertainment

First Trans Amazon introduced by DC Comics In ‘Wonder Woman’

DC Comics-Warner Brothers became more LGBTQ+ inclusive with the introduction of the character of Bia, a Black trans woman

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Courtesy of DC Comics-Warner Brothers

BURBANK – The world of DC Comics-Warner Brothers became more LGBTQ+ inclusive this weekend as the venerable comic book franchise of Wonder Woman expanded with the introduction of the character of Bia, a Black trans woman, in the first issue of the series Nubia & The Amazons.

Earlier this month on National Coming Out Day, the canon of the Superman series changed for the life of Jon Kent, the Superman of Earth and son of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, taking a bold new direction. After initially striking up a friendship with reporter Jay Nakamura, he and Jon become romantically involved, making Kent an Out bisexual character.

In this latest offering, Stephanie Williams and Vita Ayala, writers and creators confirmed that Bia is a Black Trans woman. They stressed that she “isn’t a box to tick … [she] is important to her community. Just as Black trans women are important to us in real life.” 

Of special significance to the introduction of the character in the DC Comic worlds was the endorsement of actress Lynda Carter who played the title role of Wonder Woman on television based on the comic book superheroine, which aired on ABC and later on CBS from 1975 to 1979. Earlier in the week Carter tweeted her support of Trans women;

Writing for the DC Comics-Warner Brothers website blog, co-creator Stephanie Williams said;

It’s been a dream to work with the likes of Vita Ayala, a non-binary Afro-Latinx comic writer who has been making quite a name for themselves. And then there is the illustrious and widely talented and dedicated Afro-Latina artist Alitha Martinez who is already in the comic hall of fame for all-time greats. Her passion for Nubia is unmatched. It shows in every cover and panel from Nubia’s Future State story written by L.L. McKinney, her Infinite Frontier #0 story written by Becky Cloonan and Michael Conrad, and now the Nubia and the Amazons miniseries written by myself and Vita Ayala.”

Courtesy of DC Comics-Warner Brothers

I’m so excited about the history we’re creating, adding to, and remixing. The foundation has always been there, but needed some TLC. As Nubia embarks on this new journey as Queen of Themyscira, I hope her rebirth will be met with open arms and the desire to keep her always at the forefront. Nubia, now being queen, is poetic in so many ways, but one that stays on my mind is the very personal connection I feel. As I help to add to her legacy, she’s opened the door wider to my own,” Williams said adding:

Long may Queen Nubia reign, forever and always.”

Nubia and the Amazons #1 by Stephanie Williams, Vita Ayala and Alitha Martinez is now available in print and as a digital comic book.

Along with co-writing Nubia and the Amazons, Stephanie Williams writes about comics, TV and movies for DCComics.com. Check out more of her work on Den of Geek, What To Watch, Nerdist and SYFY Wire and be sure to follow her on both Twitter and Instagram at @steph_I_will.

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