A lot of my research over the years required cooling objects to ‘freeze out’ some phenomena in order to study others. Liquid helium was often essential to get to these temperatures. Its a fascinating material quite apart from its practical value as a refrigerant. Alfred Leitner’s beautiful demonstrations from 1964 give a glimpse into a liquid that continues to be actively studied by many laboratories.
“Honesty. That’s the thing in the theater today. Honesty … and just as soon as I can learn to fake that, I’ll have it made.”
Grab the speedometer and move it, the car does not speed up. Mock up an airport, planes will not come. We are conditioned to causality and that the mere appearance or measure of a thing is not (usually) a handle into the thing itself. We smile when happy, cry when sad, and believe that we can tell when emotions are genuine or contrived. It comes as some surprise that this may not be entirely true. There is evidence that outward expressions, real or fake, may drive physiological processes instead of merely being driven by them. This two-way street is at once interesting and lucrative. Demagogues and marketeers profit by inventing stimuli to induce specific responses. A big part of culture and its preservation is in the transmitting feelings and emotions through performance. Authenticity – whatever its definition – is considered essential.
Playwright David Bridel takes on the latter in ‘Lunatics and Actors’ mounted through the end of May by The Four Clowns at Shakespeare Center LA. Scientist Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne (Thaddeus Shafer) asserts that he can evoke performances from his trio of patient/inmates (Tyler Bremer, Andrew Eldredge, and Alexis Jones) that surpass in intensity and authenticity those by conventionally trained actors. His electrochemical method will find gleeful interest from results-oriented directors tired of having Stanislavski flung back at them. The intriguing premise draws from nineteenth century events. The historical Duchenne performed early research in connecting human physiological and physiognomical reactions to electrical stimuli. He applied shocks to patients, photographed their faces, and in time could evoke specific expressions from them at will. Much of this work would be frowned upon today for ethical reasons but it came with other results in different areas that persist. Duchenne laid the foundations for modern neuroscience. The bidirectionality of emotion has since been intensively and controversially studied by Ekman, Zajonc, and others.
The setup requires actors in the audience to volunteer for light onstage duty. This being Los Angeles, it isn’t a problem. Duchenne runs through an interview followed by exercises and a compare/contrast. Meisner, Linklater, and Alexander may help the aspiring actor but a healthy zap from the glowing Volta pile invokes a style of its own. The inmate trio, all experienced clowns, win the intensity fight in a walk. Director Jeremy Aluma has to take his time churning the cream and the laughs hide a somewhat lengthy introduction. It snaps into butter when the contest shifts to ‘Hamlet’ and its endless opportunities to test authenticity (or anything else of interest to artists). Convention holds its own for subtlety but not for pain, fear, or terror. A change from funny to harrowing occurs in a tight, disturbing vignette to rival ‘Clockwork Orange’ or ‘1984’. A final distillation of ‘Hamlet’ to a delicate touch of ‘Pagliacci’ is a marvel. Focussing on the terrifying, it is entirely different from the troupe’s recent reimagining. Give substantial credit to the large design team. Their coherent efforts drive a fanciful story which might fall flat in less skilled hands. The Clowns don’t skimp on production and one wonders how they balance the books against a batguano-crazy $15 ticket price.
There are inside jokes aplenty within the world of the play. Theatre in Los Angeles is considered the domain of the insane. Are the three inmates victims of an unscrupulous workshop-monger? Bridel is the incoming Dean of Theatre at USC. Does this foreshadow his plans for the school? Perhaps only artists can or will get the full scope of it. But, the promise and threat of machines has been a staple of storytelling from ‘Frankenstein’ to ‘Blade Runner’ and beyond. Can we controlled by electrodes? Yes but we’re attached enough to our screens to make such a physical connection unnecessary. A more unnerving question is what form the next evolutionary step will take once we or our algorithms figure out what makes us tick. The reductionist approach claims that once we find the root of the structure that everything will follow. Others argue for multiple processes that compete with and against one another in a sort-of roshambo. Either way, the tacit assumption is that machines would then emulate us, only much much faster. Why stop there? The Melancholy Dane may have been overly optimistic about the Godlikedness of man – we are most likely just another step along the path. That’s what make these clowns the ones of nightmares. Go see them but leave the kids at home.
Four Clowns presents
Lunatics & Actors
by David Bridel
directed by Jeremy Aluma
A WORLD PREMIERE
April 29 – May 28, 2016
at The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles
1238 W 1st Street
Los Angeles, CA 90026
Performances start at 8pm
Street parking in the neighborhood
Stage Manager Ashley Jo Navarro
Assistant Director Amaka Izuchi
Set Designer Fred Kinney
Lighting Designer Azra King-Abadi
Costume Designer Elena Flores
Sound Designer Kate Fechtig
Propsmaster Niki Mercs
Technical Director Matt MacCready
Producers Jeremy Aluma and David Anthony Anis
Associate Producers Jennifer Carroll and Julianna Stephanie Ojeda
We take the jet engine for granted but the invention by Whittle and von Ohain will dazzle anyone who takes the time to burrow into the details. It’s simple on the surface – Intake, compress, combust, and exhaust(*) – but immensely complex and even beautiful in practice. Enter AgentJayZ, a Canadian engine repair technician for S&S Turbine Services, a company that repairs, restores, and/or refurbishes jets for military and civilian customers. This involves a lot of detail work followed by testing which the Agent documents gleefully on his Youtube channel. Yes, there are people who get to light afterburners without ever leaving the ground.
Even more impressive is his growing collection of answers to viewer questions. 86 lengthy episodes as of this post where he explains fine points of engine-ering with equal parts fact, humor, and snark.
My question? What is it like to love your job that much?
(*) A much coarser summation exists.
Lee Blessing could not have forecast in 1988 that the Cold War would take an abrupt turn for the weird just two years later. ‘A Walk in the Woods’ at ICT through 22 May has nevertheless enjoyed a successful life despite drastic shifts in superpower status and the methods of war. It isn’t surprising. It is easy to look back wistfully at Mutually Assured Destruction as nation states veer on collapse and real power is concentrated in a few hidden hands.
The play’s setup is simple and historically informed – two arms negotiators, veteran Botvinnik and newcomer Honeyman, try to achieve in the Swiss woods what they can’t over the bargaining table. The amiable Russian tries to engineer a friendship, the formal American worries that he’s being worked. That can happen when one’s opponent is the namesake of a legendary Russian grandmaster. The four evenly timed acts alternate between Pythonesque rhetorical posturing (“I came here for an agreement! No you didn’t!”) and moments of genuine connection when it looks like our heroes may have given their masters a face-saving way back from the brink.
This, however, isn’t a documentary or even intrinsically theatrical. Blessing strives for a duet of ideas, some more compelling than others. ‘Walk’ shines when the younger American slowly realizes what his older counterpart has learned: Neither side wants an agreement – MAD is too good for business on both sides of the curtain. The corrosive stalemate on the large scale is recapitulated on the small and all levels in between. The interwoven buddy comedy lives well with Tony Abatemarco (Botvinnik) and David Nevell (Honeyman) under John Henry Davis’s direction on a stark set (Christopher Scott Murillo) and subtle lighting (Donna Ruzika). But, cynics have the advantage in these situations and Blessing’s asymmetrical characterization keeps Honeyman on the back foot until the very end when he figures out that what’s real and what’s virtual in the world of diplomacy.
The monsters in ‘Walk’ are less frightening today than the one in Blessing’s equally popular ‘Going to St. Ives.’ Nations may treat one another poorly but they reserve true brutality for their own. Both have characters doubling as ideologies (and vice versa) reminiscent of Shaw’s theatrical polemics. Although the premise and the balanced characterizations give ‘Ives’ the edge as a play, ‘Walk’ is an evening of theatre worth the trip.
A Walk in the Woods
by Lee Blessing
at International City Theatre
27 April to 22 May 2016
Thu. – Sat. at 8pm
Sun. at 2pm
Long Beach Performing Arts Center
330 East Seaside Way
Long Beach, CA 90802
Tickets: Online and at the Box Office 562-436-4610 (M-F 9am – 5pm)