Maybe you picture a cadre of musty, old academics, reading passages from Keats or Yeats or someone similarly dead, with all the passion and feeling of a textbook, making you think that Keats or Yeats would have a better time of it themselves, reading the works from their own graves.
Maybe you have a more positive viewpoint and think of modern poets like Lemon Anderson and Marshall Davis Jones, spinning words like silk to turn rough lives and hard times into a beautiful tapestry.
The word “poetry” comes with a lot of preconceived notions and conjures up different images for different people. But, whatever ideas you may have, Life, Death, & the Middle from True Focus Theater is not at all what you’re expecting. It’s an experience all its own.
True Focus Theater was founded by Vanessa Cate as a way of exploring art and nurturing artists in new and unique ways. Last year, Cate directed their premiere performance, Cat Fight, an honest and wholly interesting look at what it means to be a woman—entirely written by and starring women. For both men and women, it was an experience like no other.
This year, Cate co-directs Life, Death, & the Middle with Natalie Hyde, who also appears in the show. This second production from True Focus is similar to Cat Fight in many ways but also brings its own distinct flavor and is also an experience like no other, in a very different way: different from Cat Fight and different from other poetry performance shows.
Life, Death, & the Middle brings poetry to life through the magic of theater. Some poems are acted out like stories, others are stylized as dances. Many feature background characters whose presence helps to bring the atmosphere of the poem to life in a way that simply reading it, either out loud or on the page, cannot. Some are deep and contemplative, others are light and funny. Some are uplifting, others are filled with desperation. Some are sexy, others are lonely. In short, these poems cover the entire spectrum of emotions and experiences: life; death . . . and the middle.
Some of these poems were written by the cast, or Vanessa Cate, while others were submitted online via a call for submissions on the True Focus Theater website. Ordinarily, with such a diverse range of subject matter, and particularly from such a wide range of people, my caveat is, “Some of these are better than others.” By which I usually mean, “Some are good, sure, but there are also some weak spots, so bear with it.” But, in this particular case, though obviously I have a few poems that I personally prefer, there are none that I would call weak or lacking. Every one of them, in its own way, has something worth saying and something worth hearing.
One of the first poems of the evening is “Returning is arriving for the first time again,” by Matt Kellegrew. It’s performed by Robert Walters and Tucker Matthews, who play two old friends, reunited by a long journey, after a long absence. They share a beer while discussing different kinds of alcohol and intoxication in general, in a way that’s vaguely reminiscent of Robert Frost.
Tucker returns a few pieces later in “I Would Take the Skull First But I Am a Coward,” by Pete Holby, one of the most intense and powerful poems in the show, and certainly the most powerful performance. In almost surreal horror, it explores the repercussions of being in a relationship that’s literally all consuming.
Kelly Grace Thomas’s poem, “More than Seven Questions to Ask the Boy on Fire when Holding a Pail of Water” sounds like it would be darkly comedic in nature, but performer Reilly Loayza, in fact, makes some rather heavy points about gender dynamics.
Reilly does get a more comedic turn, though, in “Ode to Apple Pie a la mode,” by Matthew Tucker, which is decadent to the point of hedonism and enthusiastic to the point of orgasm, in praise of the titular dessert. I think I related to this poem most of all.
Crystal Salas performs her own poem, “The Optimist,” which she also performed in Cat Fight: an ode to the stains that give life character and come with stories and memories all their own. As a chronically messy person, I’ve often expressed the similar sentiments myself, but never so eloquently.
Crystal also returns at the end of the show with "Katsu!" by Vanessa Cate, which explores death—how we deal with our own, and how we remember and honor the lives of others.
Everyone delivers great performances, but there are a few standouts. Tucker Matthews and Robert Walters do great together, as well as separately. Walters later has a piece with Cheryl Doyle, written by Cate, which together they make simultaneously sexy and wistful. James Han has a couple of pieces where he says nothing at all but still manages to be the focal point, the one worth remembering. Reilly Loayza manages to make an impression in both serious and comedic turns. And, I dare you not to fall in love with Natalie Hyde, just a little bit, in either “Half Empty” by Joseph Nichols or “Two and a third poems written at a bar” by Cate.
Before founding True Focus Theater, Vanessa Cate was writing, directing, and performing in shows at Zombie Joe’s Underground in North Hollywood, CA. Now, her shows are still being mounted in the same (tiny, tiny) space, but under the True Focus banner, she’s the one with ultimate creative control. It’s the same space, and many of the same actors, but a new platform, and thus both the show and the company manage to put their own unique stamp on things, carving out a niche apart from Zombie Joe and creating a very different kind of experience.
I’ve known Vanessa for a couple of years now and seen a number of her shows, and they never fail to inspire me to pursue my own art with more fervor. She has a deep understanding of what art is, from theater to poetry to writing in general. More importantly, she understands how art feels, both for the artist and for the audience. And, that makes you want to be a part of it: to share in that feeling with her and with the performers she’s assembled, and to strike out on your own to find it for yourself. That’s why I wanted to review this show, even after paying my $15 to see it—and then use that review as my own attempt at waxing poetic. Because the show and the poetry therein inspired me, and I’d love for it to inspire others, as well.
Whether you’re a veteran poet in your own right, or whether you (like me) simply churned out a few embarrassingly overwrought odes in high school, or whether you have little-to-no experience with poetry at all, Life, Death, & the Middle is an experience that you won’t want to miss.
Life, Death, & the Middle runs Sundays at 7 p.m. through February 22 at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre in North Hollywood. The theater is located at 4850 Lankershim Blvd., between Magnolia and Camerillo, across from KFC. Tickets are $15. For reservations, call (805)791-1503, or buy your tickets online.