Spirits and Spirituality on Stage

By Sarah Spitz

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Spirits and Spirituality on Stage
Elephant Shavings cast, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble: Giovanna Quinto, Diana Cignoni, Jeff LeBeau,Cameron Meyer and Jack Geren. Photo by Kayte Deioma
The Lifespan of a Fact. The Topanga Actors Company (TAC) opens the 2023 fall season of three plays with a staged reading of the Broadway hit, The Lifespan of a Fact. A quirky, thoroughly absorbing drama based on John D'Agata and Jim Fingal's best-selling book, it features Jessica Hendra, Harry Hart-Browne and Zeke Reed, and takes place at Malibu Library, September 16 & 17 and Topanga Library, September 23 & 24, at 2 p.m. It’s free, with open seating and free parking. Discover the rest of the season here: https://www.topangaactorscompany.weebly.com.     MindTravel. Also, please check out MindTravel, an immersive experience that creates music meditations, live-to-headphones improvisational concerts, and many other unique events that will take you both into and out of your head. Although the SILENT piano live-to-headphones on Santa Monica Beach that I’m going to will be over by the time you read this, events take place frequently, locally and globally, are reasonably priced and really worth your time. For details, visit https://www.mindtravel.com Elephant Shavings. Topangans may relate to “Elephant Shavings,” the new play written and directed by Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s artistic director Ron Sossi. Described as “a lazy person’s guide to enlightenment” it is site specific: Sossi sets it in a theatre company at the end of a season, on a set designed for a Sam Shepard tribute. Sossi himself has helmed this theatre company for 54 years, has been a spiritual seeker throughout that time, and has produced Shepard plays and tributes at the theatre. So yes, it is semi-autobiographical.   Before the lights come up, a narrator relates the story of the once-singular “Great Spirit,” that divides itself into all others. Sometimes forgetting it's “Only-ness,” the spirit sends teachers and guides to remind it how to reunite into only-ness.   We open on five exhausted company members, gathered onstage following their final performance, taunting, teasing and arguing about the nature of reality, and questioning what “authenticity” means in the context of theatre and life.    Director Peter (Jack Geren) bows to experimental theatre artist Jerzy Grotowski, insisting that there’s always “something beneath,” while actor Erin (Cameron Meyer) argues only that which is scientifically measurable by the senses is real or authentic. Sam (Jeff LeBeau), who’s experienced deep things on LSD, and Erin spar, calling each other awful names, then hugging it out, while stage manager Jill (Giovanna Quinto) observes from the side.    Lizzy (Diana Cignoni), who’s kept quiet, challenges the idea of free will: “We have the ability to go after what we want, but what is it that makes us want what we want?” she asks. Is everything random or predestined?   Lizzy’s the focus: she’s at a crossroads, she’s 50 and had a recent miscarriage, her boyfriend’s out of the country, and her guru of 30 years has died. Interspersed with the live action, there are audio recordings of Roy and videos of Buddhist, Hindu and other spiritual teachers explaining various philosophies.    Jill suggests the theatre, closed for the summer, could serve as “Plato’s cave” for Lizzy as she retreats to consider what’s next.   Then a sixth character, of indeterminate realm, enters the picture. Pearl (Denise Blasor) embodies one of those reminder-guides created by the Great Spirit to help Lizzy recover her “only-ness.” Dancing like a dervish, demanding Lizzy pay attention, feeding her food for the soul, she becomes the “pearl of wisdom” to help Lizzy find her path. It’s intellectual but also spiritual, and sometimes says more in moments of silence, such as when we watch Lizzy’s facial expressions, in rapid lighting changes, experience her “awakening.”   Sossi takes talky, heady material and tries to actualize it dramatically on stage. “Elephant Shavings” (the “garbage” parts that fall off while carving wood to reveal the elephant within) runs through October 1 at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in West LA. www.OdysseyTheatre.com
(L-R) Coral Peña, Lilian Rebelo, Ashley Brooke, and Samantha Miller in Our Dear Dead Drug Lord at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre August 20 through September 17, 2023. Produced in association with IAMA Theatre Company. All Uses © 2023 Craig Schwartz Photography
Our Dear Dead Drug Lord. And then there’s the ghost of Pablo Escobar, appearing at The Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City (a co-production of IAMA Theatre Company), as four teenage girls attempting to raise his spirit by magic also seek the magic to confront issues in their own lives.
  The girls, each uniquely traumatized, form a private school club to study the history of controversial dead leaders. Their funding’s been cut because while exploring Hitler, they began wearing swastikas. They’re fighting to be reinstated.

  Set in Miami in 2008, they meet in a treehouse belonging to group leader Pipe (Lilian Rebelo), who’s from an upper middle-class Republican-light Cuban family. Zoom (Ashley Brook) is a nerdy virginal Jewish girl, Squeeze (Samantha Miller) is a more-experienced black girl who loves Obama, and new girl Kit (Coral Pena), from a lower-class family, who’s more worldly and daring. She replaces “old Kit,” who moved to Orlando and was involved romantically with Pipe, which plays a major role in Pipe’s personal drama.

  Their stories unfold as they use occult practices (including a Ouija board, animal and other sacrifices) to invoke the spirit of drug lord Pablo Escobar, and we witness their confused sexual, emotional and political maturation. There’s lots of fast-moving humor with a dark undertone of violence, ultimately resulting in a conclusion that feels disjointed and rushed, despite the more sympathetic buildup of the earlier action. 

What it does accomplish is to capture the complexities and complications of being a teenage girl in a patriarchal society. 

  Our Dear Dead Drug Lord runs through September 17. Visit centertheatregroup.org.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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September 1, 2023