Doug Motel’s Shiva Arms
Synopsis: Welcome to the Shiva Arms, the run-down apartment building that is home to the most dysfunctional group of tenants in all of Hollywood. Based on a true story, actor/writer Doug Motel’s tour-de-force brings us 11 colorful characters-from a punk rocker and a “B” movie actress to a crusty 86 yr. old retired negative cutter. This band of misfits winds up taking us on a hilarious and touching spiritual odyssey.
Read what critics have said about Shiva Arms.
By Sheri Linden
Doug Motel broke his foot just before the opening of his new solo show, and while one assumes the performer’s mobility would add something to the piece, it’s hard to imagine just what that would be. Seated on a gray cube on a simply designed stage, the writer-actor takes us through a succinctly eloquent slice of low-rent-Hollywood life, creating 11 indelible characters. Nothing is lacking, nor is much extraneous in “Shiva Arms,” a work at once uproariously funny and poignant.
The play brings into the spotlight the type of characters that have somehow been relegated to “fringe” status in contempo L.A. iconography. In this city of wannabes, they don’t fit the increasingly popular fictional mold of showbiz insiders trying to sell that script or land that development deal while frequenting the watering hole du jour. What we get here is worlds more interesting.
Motel himself is the unseen interviewer-of-sorts, the new manager of a Hollywood apartment building whose East Indian landlord named it after the Hindu god of creation and destruction (as it turns out, not without good reason). As Doug introduces himself to the tenants of Shiva Arms, we get to know them, too, through a series of character-defining monologues that never lapse into caricature. J. Ken Inasy’s effective lighting design is a key ingredient in creating 11 individual sensibilities, while the sound design by Peter Stenshoel unobtrusively adds shading to the propless action.
Among the building residents are a B-movie actress/New Age adherent whose role in “Cannibal Go-Go Girls” put her “on the map”; an Aussie handyman/model for whom surfing is a religion; a salty 86-year-old former negative cutter who’s waiting for her second husband to die before she does, and who offers a memorable character assessment of Jack Warner; an emotionally disabled man with a Jaclyn Smith obsession; a self-described “sodomite” punk rocker who loathes popular culture, capitalism and consumerism but has no problem with his Beverly Hills folks’ paying the rent; and the sunny, elderly black man who’s confined to a wheelchair and serves as the unofficial mayor of the building, doling out bundt cakes and lessons in equanimity.
Throughout this opening section, the residents mention the previous manager, Linda, with reverence and a certain “Rebecca”-like sense of mystery. The dark truth comes to light when we meet Linda’s husband, and after this point the play changes pace, rapidly interweaving tenants’ testimony to observer Motel as they recount the events of a momentous day they shared. Why they were in a van on the way to a memorial service at El Matador Beach is the stuff of tragedy. Yet the logistics of that trip unfold with the delirious momentum of unstoppable disaster — it’s an outrageously funny telling in a chorus of clashing but ultimately complementary voices.
“Shiva Arms” is, according to program notes, based on a true story, and Motel’s limning of these characters has something of the reportorial edge of Anna Deveare Smith’s work. As a writer, Motel has a fine ear for the self-awareness and blind spots revealed in our speech, and as a comic actor he has a gift for expressive body language. The residents of Shiva Arms become such vivid personalities that there are moments when all it takes is a certain look or sigh or shake of the head and we respond as though to someone we’ve known for years, fully recognizing the emotion behind the shorthand.
Above all, Motel regards his characters with compassion — and invests them with it. Whether aspiration remains a driving force in their lives, whether they have “let go” or succumbed to bitterness, their sense of humor and need to connect get them through each day. Motel has sculpted an exploration of Los Angeles on the edges of the dream factory that is full of the ache of living. And anyone who can, without an ounce of sentimentality or condescension, find epiphany in a moment involving a totaled Mercedes and the schlock-pop standard “Dust in the Wind” is a man of no little talent.
In Doug Motel’s one-man show, directed by Michael Michetti…Motel goes beyond snagging the varied essences of his 11 characters from a low-rent Hollywood apartment complex, using the form for an aim loftier than showcasing his abundant performing skills. The story that unfolds through the affectionate impersonations is a sardonic and sometimes farcical portrait of flinty SoCal dreams, with poetical allusions to larger questions of life, death and spirit…Motel’s characters have softer edges than those of Eric Bogosian, resulting in a more compassionate and less glib veneer.”
Pick of the Week
Steven Leigh Morris
“On the spare, gray stage at the Coast Playhouse, Motel’s story begins as a slice of life, turns into a mystery, transforms into a tragedy and then vacillates with devastating accuracy between slapstick and drama.”
Jana J. Monji
LOS ANGELES TIMES
“In his one-man play Shiva Arms, Doug Motel demonstrates that he is an actor of incredible versatility and range. He inhabits the shows 11 characters…with such specificity that it’s hard to believe that the man doesn’t have a diagnosed multi-personality disorder. Each of the characters has a body language, a vocal cadence, mannerisms and tics, even breathing patterns, that are wholly his or her own…That all of these characters come from one man is nothing short of astounding…his performances couldn’t be any richer…go see him”
BACK STAGE WEST
“Entertaining…he performs 90 minutes straight without props, makeup or changing costumes, and manages to create an inviting, well-rounded microcosm. Highly recommended.”
Included in the 1997 Theater Highlights
THE LOS ANGELES TIMES
VENTURA COUNTY EDITION