A Long Way Home From Vietnam

Having seen and been blown away by Tracers, the powerful play by John DiFusco about Vietnam, I couldn’t wait to see The Long Way Home,” DiFusco’s follow-up, Reflections on the Tracers Journey. Accompanied by singer/percussionist Al. Keith, DiFusco tells the story of his experiences in the war, his disorienting return home, and his meeting with other veterans who

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were feeling as displaced as he. “We were shadow warriors, always in two places at one time,” he says. “We came back, after Nam, inside ourselves.” He talks of hanging out with his buddy, Big Edgar, and their pledge to keep in touch after they returned home. “Of course we never did,” he says. He tells of a sexual encounter with an especially kind Vietnamese girl whom he spent one night with and never saw again, but whom he still remembers with affection. And he tells of meeting Lupe, his “Aztec princess” to whom he has been married for 43 years. Having received the United States Air Force Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service in Vietnam, he returned home to begin his professional acting career with L.A.’s Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. Over time he has won a New York Drama Desk Award, as well as awards from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, LA Weekly, NAACP Theatre, Drama-Logue, and others. But his experiences in “the Nam” continued to color his life, and eventually he felt the need to do something about it. Placing a small ad looking for actors who were Vietnam vets, he was amazed by the response he got, and so he began a long series of auditions. Projecting their photographs on the back wall of the United Stats Veterans’ Artists Alliance (USVAA) stage at the AMVETS Post II Building in Culver City, he introduced each selected participant to the audience, reciting tidbits of information about each of their personalities and quirks. Then together, he and the seven men he had chosen fashioned the play Tracers from all their combined experiences in the war. “And just like that, a tribe was born,” DiFusco says. The growth of the play through the workshop process came to fruition in 1980 and “we had our premiere at the Odyssey,” he continues, “but what I thought would be a six-week run at the Odyssey turned out to be a journey of a few decades.” The play became part of the Vietnam Veterans Movement and went to New York, where it was premiered at The Public Theater and was published as one of “The Ten Best of 1985/86.” From there DiFusco toured with it internationally and in 2011 he performed a staged reading of The Long Way Home – Reflections on the Tracers Journey at the Rogue Machine, where he was a founding member. John Perrin Flynn, who directs and co-produces The Long Way Home, is also a member of Rogue Machine and a long-time friend and collaborator of DiFusco’s. John Densmore, drummer of The Doors and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is another producer, along with Keith Jeffreys, who founded the USVAA in 2004 and is its Executive Director. The organization’s mission is to find funding and support for veterans with individual projects in theater, film, television, the visual arts and crafts, and also to be an advocate for veterans’ concerns. In 2012 the Los Angeles City Council presented Jeffreys and the USVAA artists with a resolution recognizing November 1st as Veterans in the Arts and Humanities Day. “We are not heroes, we are just survivors,” DiFusco sums up. “We are on the periphery of obscurity, but all we dreamed of was coming home.” And telling their story. Tracers is more than a play,” he says. “It’s a teach-in.” Tracers and The Long Way Home are co-productions of the United States Veterans’ Artists Alliance (USVAA) and the Rogue Machine Theatre. Tracers will be presented at the USVAA Theater in the AMVETS Post II Building, 10858 Culver Blvd., Culver City, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 6 pm through November 9th. The Long Way Home, which uses poetry, projections, story telling and live music to tell the story of the creation and journey of Tracers, will be presented at 8 pm on Thursdays and 3 pm on Sundays from Oct. 10th through November 7th. For tickets, call 855-585-5185 or go to www.roguemachinetheatre.com

Strindberg Strikes Again

In the secluded lounge of a seaside resort in Sweden an earnest older man is gently questioning a younger man on crutches. What their relationship is we don’t find out until much later. Why the young man is on crutches we never do find out.

The play is Creditors, August Strindberg’s classic three-person psychological drama that probes loving relationships, insecurities, jealousy, and a host of other potentially debilitating emotions. And the villain of the piece, Gustaf (the impeccable Jack Stehlin), evokes them all and plays them like a virtuoso violinist. Or a wizard.

Assuming the mantle of a psychiatrist, Gustaf has wormed his way into the confidence of the troubled Adolf (wonderfully played by Burt Grinstead), whose artistic endeavors have momentarily depleted him. Having hit a fallow period in his otherwise successful career, he is easily persuaded by Gustaf to abandon painting and take up sculpting.

From there Gustaf leads him into a discussion of his marriage to a narcissistic coquette named Tekla (Heather Anne Prete), who left her previous husband to marry him. Quickly, Gustaf discerns that underneath his protestations of love for Tekla, Adolf recognizes that she has been the “taker” in their relationship and he has given her so much of himself that he is literally an empty shell.

Unable to deny her anything, and unable to take charge of their affairs, he accepts that she calls him “little brother” and herself “big sister” and teases him by flirting with every man that crosses her path. She is what we would call a “ball-buster,” but they didn’t use that term in 1888, when all this takes place.

The convoluted conversation continues in all its fascinating diversity when Tekla returns. She has been away at a conference for the past few days and is startled to return to a man who is markedly different from the man she had left. He confronts her with the things he has determined from his conversation with Gustaf, and she misinterprets everything he says. Does she really love him? Does he love her?

The title, Creditors, refers, metaphorically, to what happens when the bills come due.

This is a marvelous play, but it’s hard to feel a lot of sympathy for these flawed individuals. Strindberg, as usual, deals in cold psychology and keeps a dispassionate distance from his principals. But their turmoil is vividly presented in this new version by David Greig, and director David Trainer has guided his cast with mesmerizing intensity through the tight 90 minutes of what Strindberg called a “naturalistic tragedy”.

Well written, well presented, and well worth your time.

Creditors is a joint production of The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and The New American Theatre. It will be presented at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sundays at 2, through Sunday, December 15.

In addition there will be Wednesday performances on October 30, November 13, and December 4, and Thursday performances on October 24, November 7 and 21, and December 12.

Call 310-477-2055 for reservations.

Photo: Heather Anne Prete, Jack Stehlin, and Burt Grinstead
Photo by Ron Sossi

The War That Was

Powerful! Mesmerizing! Brilliant!

It’s Tracers, the emotionally charged ensemble piece about the Vietnam war. Written by playwright John DiFusco in 1980 and performed at Los Angeles’ Odyssey Theatre that same year, it has been performed in Chicago, New York, and on tour nationally and internationally ever since. And, not surprisingly, it is as relevant now as it was then, dealing as it does with the first of America’s many controversial wars.

DiFusco is quick to acknowledge the creative contributions of the eight Vietnam veterans who made up the “original group” at the Odyssey. The play appears to have provided a much-needed catharsis, both for the audience as well as the players.

In the current revival, playing at the comfortable Amvets Post II in Culver City, the actors, trained theater professionals, are all veterans of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Too young to have served in Vietnam, they served mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Together they reenact the story of the terrifying “adventure” of the Vietnam war, from boot camp, where they were referred to as “maggots” and bullied nonstop by their drill sergeant, (“One in 100 soldiers is a warrior,” he tells them, “and eighty percent are targets.”) We follow them to the hot, sniper-filled jungles of Vietnam and watch the process as each reveals himself as a very real, unique personality.

There is Scooter (James Bane), Dinky Dau (Trevor Scott), The Professor (Chris DeVinny), Little John (Jonathan Farrow), Habu (Juliez Frazier), and the “runt” of the litter, Baby San (Dan Bridges). The bullying Sgt. Williams is Terrence Edwards and the medic, “Doc” is Jaimyon Parker. It is part of the fascination of the play to watch this thoroughly disparate group meld together as a band of brothers.

Together they face the horrors of war, the boredom of non-activity, and the highs to be gotten from a variety of drugs. And together they face their last ambush.

Switching from the war to a period just after the war and then to the 1980s makes it a little difficult to keep track of the chronology of the men’s lives, but this is a small cavil in what is otherwise a nearly perfect production. The men are flawlessly directed by playwright DiFusco, who also created the evocative sound design (with Corwin Evans) and provided instruction in Tai Chi.

Tracers, which is “dedicated to the 59,000 who missed the Freedom Bird,” is a co-production of the United States Veterans’ Artists Alliance (USVAA) and the Rogue Machine Theatre.

A companion piece, The Long Way Home, which deals with DiFusco’s Reflections on the Tracers Journey, runs in repertory with Tracers and was written and is performed by DiFusco and directed by John Perrin Flynn, the Rogue Machine’s founding Artistic Director.

Tracers, a term that refers to the preliminary bullets that emit a red streak to aid a soldier in aiming his weapon in the dark, will be
presented at the USVAA Theater in the AMVETS Post II Building, 10858 Culver Blvd., Culver City, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 6 pm (with an additional show with talk-back at 3 pm on Sunday, Oct. 13) through November 9th.

The Long Way Home, using poetry, projections, story telling and live music to tell the story of the creation and journey of Tracers, will be presented at 8 pm on Thursdays from Oct. 10th through November 7th, and 3 pm on Sundays, with a talk-back with John DiFusco and percussionist and vocalist Al. Keith on Sunday, Oct. 20th.

For tickets, call 855-585-5185 or go to www.roguemachinetheatre.com

Photo (L to R); James Bane, Juliez Frazier (above), Christopher DeVinney, Jonathan Farrow, Trevor Scott, and Dan Bridges
Photo by Emil Petrinic/USVAA

Two Must Sees and One Not So Much

Family Circus Lorenzo Pisoni never ran away from home to join the circus. His home was the circus—the Pickle Family Circus—a one-ring conglomeration of jugglers, clowns, acrobats and other unique performers that was established and run by his parents. He began his career at the age of two, toddling onstage at intermission to imitate the performances of the other members of the company, and became a contracted participant at the age of six. As a “Pickle kid” he grew up backstage, being trained in the arts of the circus, and, when his father left, he began performing in the roles his father had initiated. He was 11. Now in his 30s, he performs alone, reprising the story of his life in a funny, bittersweet homage to his father, a strict martinet whom he adored and obeyed and tried endlessly to please by practicing falling down stairs over and over again. His patter, his juggling, his role-playing, and his agile clowning are all part of his performance in Humor Abuse, his 90-minute, action-packed play in which he plays with a dummy that looks like him, curls in and out of a small trunk, and dodges heavy objects dropped explosively from the rafters. And he obviously enjoys every minute of it. And so does his audience, for Pisoni is charming, engaging, and sweet. And very very funny. Humor Abuse can be seen Tuesdays–Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays 2:30 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1 and 6:30 pm through November 3rd at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Call 213-628-2772 for tickets. Only for Spanish Speakers The Broad Stage in Santa Monica had done massive advertising for its sixth season opener (see the back of the Big Blue Buses), which they said was Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. It was presented by a Spanish group from Madrid, the premier classical theater company Rakata, and was reportedly a retelling of the Henry VIII story from a Spanish perspective. To give credit where it’s due, the production was well staged and the actors appeared well directed, if a little static in their movements. And the costumes, which were mostly plain and drab, blossomed into gloriously elaborate plumage during scenes of high drama: Henry’s wedding to Anne Boleyn, Anne’s coronation, and Elizabeth’s baptism. To place blame where it’s due, the production was advertised as “In Spanish with English subtitles,” which was neither accurate nor adequate. The “subtitles” consisted of a single panel of explanation before each new scene, describing what the scene would be about. The brief explanation was then followed up with ten minutes of unexplained dialogue as the story unfolded. If you were not naturally Spanish speaking, the performance devolved into two and a half hours of incomprehensible theatrics and a feeling of being isolated, a solitary prisoner in an endless drama. Since I had no idea of what was going on, I have no idea how it resembled Shakespeare’s play. It certainly didn’t have Shakespeare’s cadence or lyricism. And—spoiler alert—Queen Katherine of Aragon didn’t die in Shakespeare’s version, as she does in this Spanish play. In fact, she lived in exile many years after the events depicted in this play. For those who do speak Spanish, the play, I’m sure, was a triumph. Unfortunately, it played for only three performances, from September 26th to 29th at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th Street, in Santa Monica. Howl and the World Howls With You There’s an apocryphal story about a successful writer admonishing a struggling one to edit his work by cutting some of the verbiage—a practice that beginning writers are loath to do. To them, every single word is precious and necessary. But, said the successful writer to the beginner, “You’ve got to learn to kill your little darlings.” I have heard this quote attributed to Allen Ginsberg, but I was unable to verify it. But I have introduced it here because John Krokidas, director and co-writer (with Austin Bunn) of a new film about the coming of age of poet Ginsberg has titled it Kill Your Darlings. Verification? Perhaps. The film, based on a true story, has many back-stories. It depicts Ginsberg as a shy, awkward, unsophisticated teenager escaping a dreadful home life with his humorless father and mentally troubled mother in Paterson, New Jersey, to begin his studies at Columbia University in glamorous New York. Almost immediately he is taken up by an intense and charismatic young poet, Lucien Carr, and his gang of rowdy rebels. As a hesitant romance blossoms between the

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two men, we are also privy to the pranks and confrontations initiated by the group, which included Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and other early members of what was later known as the Beat Generation. Their intention was to start a cultural revolution, which they did. Lurking on the fringes was an older man named David Kammerer, who had been Carr’s Boy Scout leader, mentor, and lover, and who was apparently still obsessed with him. Eventually, in trying to disengage from a relationship that had become a burden, Carr killed him and dumped his body into the Hudson River. Ironically, Carr claimed self-defense, and as late as the 1940s being accosted by a homosexual was considered a justifiable excuse for murder. It was called an “honor slaying.” And because Carr testified that he himself was not gay,

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he eventually was released from prison. The cast, consisting of Daniel Radcliffe as Ginbsberg, Dane DeHaan as Carr, Jack Huston as Kerouac, Ben Foster as Burroughs, and Michael C. Hall as Kammerer, are represented as cold and arrogant and not easily likable. This mood is exacerbated by the darkness of the photography and the humorless intensity of the characters. Excerpts from their poetry, and most especially from Ginsberg’s Howl, dark as it is, might have raised the level of gloom a bit. Kill Your Darlings was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. It will be released and playing in theaters in L.A. and New York in the next couple of weeks. Photo: Lorenzo Pisoni by Craig Schwartz