From the Sad-but-True department. Leave it to the NYT to highlight the problems LA theatres face in the aftermath of COVID and bearing the brunt of the ills of the gig economy. Uber and Lyft skate while tiny arts orgs have to conform to new wage laws while trying to reopen. Whatever Dr. Soon-Shiong may have done for the LA Times, his inaction on the sacks of filth at his arts and culture desks is unpardonable.
Los Angeles fits the city-state frame well, certainly better than it does a lot of other possibilities—if we update the model a bit. In 2010, Forbessuggested that if the criteria for a place to be considered a city-state were modernized for the 21st century, certain global capitals might qualify thanks to a few key features: a big port to sustain trade; investors from overseas; money laundering; international museums worth visiting; multiple languages spoken in good restaurants serving alcohol; and an ambition to host the World Cup.
If it is from Forbes, it must be true so we get some evidences, quotes from a politician, a novelist, and a final paragraph that ends in the air, leaving one just short of hungry for the book-to-come. The article does link to a 2010 piece in the same journal, Defending Los Angeles, broaching similar concerns but more engagingly. That further links to The Tyranny of New York which gets at the gizzards of the problem – how relentless public relations has defined American life, especially its art and culture, to the discharge from the Brooklyn sewers.
(*) Yes, it is a New Yorker cover but an iconic one that sums up the mentality.
We now have some sanity in the ship of state and can hope that any honeymoon lasts long enough to get people vaccinated, businesses restarted, and the arts out from under hiding. Even before COVID, anything on the finer side of life was ignored at best and ridiculed at worst under the moron of Mar-a-lago. Many of us who eagerly awaited 20 January and some sign of support to the better things woke up to surprise and not a little disappointment at the overwhelmingly pop-culture besotted inauguration that actually occurred. The shark sandwichplaylist promised much and delivered nothing.
“Whether you are a country soul, a jazz enthusiast, a hip hop head, a classical sort, or just love that old-time rock and roll, music clarifies, inspires, unites, and heals.”
— Inaugural Committee CEO Tony Allen
What galls about the 46-0 shutout is that the United States does not lack for options. Copland and Gershwin are overplayed but we have Ives, Joplin, and Gottschalk. Dvorák was inspired in Iowa, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky lived out their lives here (as did Schoenberg but let’s stay within realistic limits). Hell, John Williams or Peter Schickele could have done something if asked. And, if all of that is still too off-the-radar, there’s good ol’American John Philip Sousa transcribed by good ol’ American Vladimir Horowitz. One pianist, one piano – saves on cost and brings everyone to his or her feet. Regardez from the Hollywood Bowl in 1945.
The third video from Corning’s Museum of Glass shows that the path to science is not always smooth and that learning from mistakes is the norm. The original 200 inch pyrex disk for the Palomar primary did not go according to plan and had to be recast. The second attempt succeeded and even so, it took ten years of painstaking grinding and polishing at Caltech before it was ready for use.
In days of old, when the city was pronounced ‘Los Anguluz’ and radio ruled the waves, “Romance of the Ranchos” offered half-hour looks at the many regions that congealed into our present megalopolis. Herewith the episode on what are now the Beach Cities.
Since 2005, the LA Times has published the micturitions of one Charles McNulty as its ‘theatre critic.’ Since then he has striven to be the Niles Crane of stage criticism; uncheckable pomposity in tedious academic argot focusing squarely on getting himself back to NYC. Now Artsjournal reports of his assessment of Los Angeles theatre. He finds it wanting because the Center Theater Group and the oily Michael Ritchie aren’t leading the charge. A couple of the smaller outfits get a passing mention but this putz no doubt looks to GM for automotive innovation and Nokia for the latest in phones. He’s reviewed very few of the very many companies around, preferring the edgy climes of Costa Mesa and La Jolla when he isn’t reporting back from the East Coast. Apparently the Brooklyn sewers now empty into Hollywood writer’s rooms and thereby hangs the salvation of the form. Joy to the world.
The Times’s theatre coverage has gone from mediocre to nonexistent on his watch while his relentless pandering to Broadway runs counter to the non-arguments of the present piece. At least the actress Glenda Jackson had the good sense to give him the eminently deserved kick to the yodelayheehos when he went to “worship her.” With all of the changes Dr. Soon-Shiong is making at the LAT it is mind-boggling that he hasn’t sent this dingleberry packing. It will be a better city when he’s out of it.
Memo to self: Always check to see if a playwright is <nationality>’s Chekhovbefore buying the ticket.The sinking feeling sets in early with Open Fist‘s otherwise attractive ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ and by 75 minutes into a seemingly interminable first act, plans are setfor an intermission escape.Then things happen for about 10 minutes and the coin flip comes up as stay to see how it pans out.We get another 5 to 7 minutes of explanation in the remaining hour as we learn what happens to the hard-luck, bad-luck if any luck at all Mundys of fictional Ballybeg, County Donegal.In the meantime, five sisters and a cleric brother may be poor but they have one another, then the fast moving world of change rolls over them.
Open Fist brings its traditional craftsmanship and smart casting to Brian Friel’s highly praised but unbalanced memory play.Lane Allison and Christopher Cappiello stand out as lively, optimistic Maggie and Father Jack, the latter recently returned from decades in Uganda where he found the existing customs and community much more to his liking than the Catholic faith he was sent there to sell.He’s not the only rambler in the mix as Christina’s (Caroline Klidonas) baby-daddy (Scott Roberts) shows up occasionally to see her and their son (David Shofner) whois narrating the piece from… the future. The Mundys are hanging on the edge of society. Breadwinner Kate (Jennifer Zorbalas) loses her teaching job due to Jack’s apostasy not sitting well with the church school. Industrialization eliminates a pittance that Agnes (Ann Marie Wilding) and Rose (Sandra Kate Burck) earn from piecework. The world just stomps on their knuckles until they finally let go. Burck has an especially fine moment in the second act as developmentally-disabled Rose is cruelly used by an unseen admirer despite the loving protection of Agnes –Friel’s hat-tip to Tennessee Williams, perhaps?We guess early on that every flicker of light these characters see is just the streamer for the next lightning bolt to hit them but the waits between the strikes are too damned long.The set, lights, and sounds (James Spencer, Matt Richter, and Tim Labor) do hang well over the production.
The play has won all the awards and feels calculated to do so, much like ‘Anna in the Tropics’ which preceded it. Both will be good box office for years to come.
MilliGrus – the origami swan part of audience participation
Mil Grus does double duty as the name of “Los Angeles’s Premier Bouffon Troupe” and their eponymous show at the 2019 Hollywood Fringe Festival. Ostensibly based on Pliny the Elder’s story of a Thousand Cranes, a five member ensemble in heavy padding, tights, and grotesque makeup do various skits and improvisational bits taken from (if not exactly inspired by) extensive crowd work and audience participation. The closest hooks to cranes are the elegant little origami handed to a few of us in the front row (right) with the totality of the hour being a mystery. The young and young-at-heart in the packed McCadden Place Theatre roared and ohmyGODded with every twitch, tic, and bit of shtick. Being neither, I was tossed into my recurring nightmare of the final exam in a class I never knew I was taking. If there were references I didn’t get them and if there was a through line, it escaped me. The performers do show talent in physical theatre and this may have been an intentionally loosely-formatted bit of nonsense for a festival audience. Perhaps their other offerings have at least some structure for those of us that need it.
The swan-like Bird of Prey from the Klingon Tamburlaine Photo courtesy School of Night Theatre Company
Summertime is usually Shakespeare season but one festival company has taken on on the daunting task of mounting rival Marlowe. This is no easy task as there are probably very good reasons why Shakespeare (or Bacon or DeVere or whomever) has dropkicked contemporaries to the curb over the past few hundred years. Let’s blindly extrapolate from one or two encounters with the rest and assert that their language isn’t as smooth, their characters as fleshed, or their plots as nuanced. Nevertheless, School of Night Theatre‘s adaptation of “Tamburlaine the Great Parts 1 and 2” into the Star Trek milieu is galactic in scope, brazen in ambition, and a stone cold marvel. Historical Timur/Tamerlane/Tamburlaine was such a brutal and unrepentant conqueror that transplanting him into a Klingon makes eminent sense. It is easier to recognize savagery in the other than to acknowledge it in the self. The uncredited adapter also cleverly remaps various tribes and city-states involved in an endless series of wars into Vulcan, Romulan, and Starfleet counterparts. Played straight, Tamburlaine’s unremitting and unpunished transition from shepherd to despot would wear thin quickly but Director Christopher Johnson deftly leavens the grim proceedings with wry humor, sight gags, posturing, and plenty of tongue.
Klingon Tamburlaine program
This production would be a tight fit in an outdoor venue and it is the height of q’hutzpagh to put a fully costumed beak-over-tailfeathers cast of 13 and a percussionist/Foley artist into the 360 square feet offered by the Complex Theatres. The action is non-stop, full-tilt, loud, and a tad too long with commedia head snaps and full throated oration from start to finish. Neither is this a land-bound adaptation. The large design team puts together epic space battles with supernumeraries, starship models, and clever lighting although the bulk of the fighting is incongruously hand-to-hand combat with pointy objects and blades.
There is no comeuppance, no divine retribution, and no great moral to the story other than lying, cheating, nepotistic, usurping sleazeballs can and do get away with it. Some things don’t change over the centuries. If there is a criticism of the production it is that it might have reached out to LA’s vibrant Klingon community to cast parts currently played by human actors in prostheses and makeup. The theatre world has taken steps toward inclusivity but there is always room to grow.
Mil Grus by Mil Grus Theatre Closed at the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2019
McCadden Place Theatre
Natasha St. Clair Johnson and Troy Dunn in “Exit the King” at City Garage Photo courtesy of Paul Rubenstein
If the death of one man is a tragedy and a million a statistic, where does Everyman‘s death fall?So asks Ionesco as his infinitely mutable Bérenger rages against mortality in “Exit the King,” just opened at City Garage.This was one of the plays that introduced me to small theatre,that distinct art form with which I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship ever since. I didn’t know what to make of Ionesco when I first encountered him.It was late 1993 and the Independent Theatre Company (ITC) had staged “Exit” at their tiny House of Candles Theatre on Stanton Street in the lower East Side of New York City.I had heard of the absurdists,knew they were “important,” and that this play along with “Rhinoceros” were considered essential by those who knew about such things. I don’t remember anything specific about the production apart from walking out with more questions than answers and yet willing to try the playwright again.
Chief Garagistes Frédérique Michel and Charles Duncombe have crafted their own translaptationof the now well-known story – a petulant, arrogant, self-absorbed bigamist struldbrugg of a King Bérenger the First (Troy Dunn) is fading after four hundred years and doesn’t want to go, gently or otherwise, into that good night. He pouts, sulks, screams, and tantrumsthrough the five stages of grief as his two wives and small retinue, emblems of his body and the body politic, try to ease what’s left of his mind.Only the second wife, the keening Queen Marie (Lindsay Plake) shares his belief in the unfairness and tragedy of it all. The rest try to prepare him for the inevitable, each according to his or her means.
Michel preserves the one act structure and plays up the comedic elements for most of it while not overplaying the house style.Other than the Doctor’s (Anthony Sannazzaro) Pythonesque silly walk, the movement work is kept in check in favor ofthe text.There is not much extraneous business and Duncombe’s set supports the action unobtrusively. (The Actors Gang staged “Exit” 20 years ago, turning a tragicomic romp into a two act slog.That, my second encounterwith the work, did not survive the merciful intermission.) We begin to suspect that the King really isn’t and that we’re seeing the end of Everyman Bérenger, majestic in mind only, with other characters representing parts of his failing kingdom-cum-body. The Doctor and Guard(David E. Frank) quietly back off the stage leaving him defenseless. Much put-upon Maid Juliette (Kat Johnston in a fine, understated turn) leaves and the myriad autonomous functions of the body, life, and living leave with her.
To the question is this a one character or a six character play, the answer of course, is two.It’s a bit of a setup but the comedy is a sweet headfake to the denouement between Bérenger and his first wife, the imperious, practical, and sensible Queen Marguerite.The final scene between the resonant Dunn and cool, elegant, swan-necked Natasha St. Clair Johnson is the slow, terrifying, inevitable waltz that’s on all of our dance cards. When that end comes, we know, life goes on without us.Johnson has been appearing frequently in recent productions but is exceptionally well-matched to this role and this moment, the only truly regal presence.The stage, unencumbered by videos or effects, smoothly darkens as he ascends his throne for the last time with a single spot closing over his alternately tortured, frightened, desperate, pleading face.This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.It is one of those theatrical moments that can leave audiences holding their collective breath before a well-deserved exhale and wild applause.Or it could have had it not been for the goober taking cellphone photos at intervals throughout the evening doing so at this juncture.The flash came on in the dying light and to top it off, he began clapping before the fadeout to which the production had been building for the preceding 99 minutes.
Despite Bérenger’s resemblance to 45 (or vice-versa), “Exit” is not the overt political call-to-arms that is “Rhinoceros” and certainly not the out-and-out political comedy that is “La Leçon/The Lesson” which Liz Pocock knocked into orbit in 2004 at the company’s old Promenade location. Even if it were that call, the world is voting the other way these days and by and large, the world doesn’t go to see plays. “Exit”‘s scope is smaller in respects, grander in others but this strong production is certainly worth a visit to Bergamot Station between now and 14 July.
Exit the King
by Eugène Ionesco, translated and adapted by Frédérique Michel and Charles Duncombe
Directed by Frédérique Michel
Running through 14 July 2019 at City Garage
Building T1, Bergamot Station
2525 Michigan Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Fridays, Saturdays 8:00pm;
Admission: $25; Students w/ID & Seniors (65+): $20; Sundays “Pay-What-You-Can” (at the door only)
Box Office: 310-453-9939
Online ticketing through Brown Paper Tickets
And here’s King Louis the First with Steely Queen Keely with their take on the final curtain.