“Never Ever Land” Explores the Crimes of the Accusers

By Ernest Kearney — In their theatrical variation of the Three Card Monty scam entitled Never Ever Land on the stage of Theatre Unleashed, Playwright Rider Strong and Director Michael A. Shepperd have deployed all the needed dramatic elements – dynamic characters, absorbing mystery, family conflict, interpersonal deception, sex, money, fame, betrayal, more sex, star power, court room discord, suicide, cereal commercials and the romantic English poet Thomas Chatterton.

The play rides the social tsunami whipped up by Dan Reed’s two-part—four-hour long documentary Leaving Neverland, which blew out of the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year; chronicling disturbing new allegations of sexual misconduct with young boys by the late Michael Jackson.

Strong’s play mirrors the two major cases in which questions were raised about inappropriate behavior on Jackson’s part.

The first arose from the friendship Jackson formed with 13-year-old Jordan Chandler whom he met in 1993. The young boy along with his sister and mother, became regulars at Jackson’s 2,700-acre compound Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara County; and would accompany Jackson on trips to Morocco and Paris.

When the National Enquirer published a story about the singer’s relationship with them entitled Michael Jackson’s Secret Family, it caught the attention of Jordan’s father, Evan Chandler, a dentist who was divorced from the mother.

Chandler, an occasional screenwriter who had co-wrote the film Robin Hood: Men in Tights, was in the midst of a custody battle over Jordan and claimed his son had revealed Jackson’s molestation to him. Chandler then demanded $20 million dollars from Jackson to keep him from going public with the accusations. In a session with a psychiatrist who was a friend of his father’s, Jordan, who had earlier denied any abuse, changed his story, leading to an LAPD investigation. Soon thereafter the Chandlers brought a suit against Jackson for $30 million.

In January of 1994 Jackson chose to pay the Chandlers $22 million and after an 18-month investigation by the LAPD no charges were brought against him.

In 2002 the singer appeared in the documentary, Living with Michael Jackson. In it he was filmed holding hands with a 12-year-old boy and admitted to sleeping in the same bedroom with both him and his younger brother. Asked if that was “appropriate,” Jackson defended it as a “beautiful thing.”

The boy was Gavin Arvizo, whose family Jackson had befriended after learning of the youngster’s battle with cancer. Gavin, his younger brother Star, and their parents were repeatedly invited to Neverland.

At first the Arvizos defended Jackson after the documentary’s release, but when Jackson suddenly stopped calling them their story changed and there were accusations made against the performer.

On December 18, 2003, the Santa Barbara District Attorney, charged Jackson with seven counts of child molestation and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent for the purpose of a committing a felony. In 2005, after a six-month trial a jury found him not guilty on all charges. Jackson, who died in 2009, never returned to the Neverland Ranch again.

In constructing his play, Strong melds elements of these two cases into a single event.

The Gable family, Jerry (Josh Randall) and DeAnna (Marie-Françoise Theodore) are modeled on Evan and June Chandler. But the son at the center of Strong’s story, Jacob, now has a younger brother Tim, a refashioning that owes its inspiration to the Arvizo siblings.

Strong uses the brothers to good dramatic effect, centering the underpinning of his principal conflict in their clash over the motivation behind their estranged parents’ accusations and their own individual responsibility to the verity of those allegations.

Strong stacks his stage almost to excess with conduits to galvanize it under a convergence of conflict. Other than the divorced parents, he supplies two sets of brothers, the adolescent Tim (Marcello Silva) and Jacob (Orlando Christian) and an older set of Tim (Andrew Brian Carter) and Jacob (Wade F. Wilson).

That accounts for the internal abrasion of family. To churn the conflict externally, Strong establishes two creatures whose existence is dependent on scandalmongering; Erin (Ashley Platz) an East Coast blogger; and a virtuoso of virulent verbiage, Vincent Hark (Leif Gantvoort) a clone of TMZ’s Harvey Levin.

Using these accelerators Strong keeps the action at critical mass as the characters confront old regrets of their past only to succeed in deploying fresh ones that they must presently face.

Director Michael A. Shepperd controls and corrals the chaotic clutter of conflicting characters, that Strong foists on him, skillfully and certainly seems to understand how to handle frenetic motion. It’s only those few moments where Shepperd doesn’t need to exercise that control that he slips somewhat.

The performances on stage here are all of a craftsman level, with the two highpoints being Randall as the bipolar manipulating Jerry and Gantvoort as the maniacal media Mephistopheles who sets the fever racked pace of the show and defends gossip news with “Al-Qaeda or Lohan it was the same thing.”

On a set by Nicholas Acciani, with lighting by Gregory Crafts, sound by Graydon Schlichter and video design by Shiloh Strong and the playwright himself, Director Shepperd razzle-dazzles and bullies his audience with a brutal intensity that is impressive if perhaps bordering on the definition of “Theatre of Cruelty.”

Actual facts of the cases are somewhat smothered under the riotous staging, like young Jordan Chandler’s estrangement from his parents and Evan Chandler’s suicide. And whether those with strong feelings on the subject of Jackson’s innocence or guilt will appreciate Never Ever Land is questionable.

Shepperd’s staging is superbly dramatic and succeeds in disguising the main flaw in the show; a lack of clarity in Strong’s drama itself. Strong overloads his audience with jagged peaks of conflict but offers no vistas for inviting views.

My own viewpoint on the central issue of Never Ever Land has annoyed and offended many. Personally, I never believed the charges against Jackson, as I think any expression of sexuality would have been too “normal” for him.

Be that as it may, Never Ever Land provides a gaudy and unruly platform for any audience member to consider his or her own thoughts on that question.

(Featured Photo from the Theatre Unleashed Presentation of Never Ever Land by Matt Kamimura)

♦   ♦   ♦

Produced by

Andrew Carlberg,
Jenn Scuderi Crafts
and
Gregory Crafts

Theatre Unleashed

presents

A World Premiere

Never Ever Land

at

studio/stage
520 N. Western Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90004

from Sept. 28-Oct. 27.

Never Ever Land

For Additional Information:

www.theatreunleashed.org


 

Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest’s stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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