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.
Look at The Martian Chronicles. At the height of American optimism, Bradbury wrote a bittersweet novel about the failures of science, technology, and progress. Humanity makes it to Mars, but the triumph is illusory. Mars becomes a landscape of ghost towns. The novel was an extraordinarily fertile moment in American imagination. He suggested the notion of unlimited positive progress was an illusion. His wasn’t the dystopian vision of Orwell or Zamyatin but something gentler and more elegiac. H. G. Wells could write about the end of civilization from a global perspective. Bradbury made the vision personal and lyric.
— Dana Gioia on Ray Bradbury
I’ve read a lot of Bradbury recently, that is to the extent that I can focus long enough to read much of anything. The Illustrated Man was better than the The Illustrated Woman contained in the uniformly depressing Machineries of Joy which I am struggling to finish. There can be no question though that The Martian Chronicles deserves the accolades and adaptations.
I struggle with Bradbury’s categorization as a science fiction writer. Chronicles aside, he is a breed apart from Asimov and Clarke who briskly get down to business peddling a bright future for one and all enabled by the latest in vacuum tubes and servomotors. Bradbury doesn’t fit that mold and through his thick glasses he saw a grimy future broken by the ones who people it. He is lyrical, almost to excess in fact, and it takes a special frame of mind to deal with his unusual rhythms and devices. His observations on technology are profoundly gloomy. Not for him the boundless optimism and things coming out well in the wash. Long before Sputnik, Gagarin, or their Americancounterparts, he saw that a future world, a spacefaring one, would eventually have to send the worst of the species after the best had paved the way. The Chronicles are full of careerists, louts, and brutes going not to explore but to exploit.
In recognition of the Bradbury centennial, Hawthorne expat and recent state Poet Laureate Dana Gioia speaks to Bradbury’s wide and ongoing cultural impact in dialogue with his biographer. The discussion does locate Bradbury firmly as a Los Angeles writer, a thing that still surprises many as that which does not, can not, or at least ought not to exist in the heart of the entertainment industry. Gioia acknowledges that “major mainstream journals published [Bradbury’s] fiction, and producers adapted his work for movies, radio, and TV.” He leaves out the stage apart from a brief mention in another list and more’s the pity. The lyricism, the elegiac odes to humanity’s perpetual folly is what allowed the Pandemonium Theatre Company to bring so many of those stories to life with humans speaking to humans and not through effects in post-production. Pandemonium was another Bradbury creation nurtured by others until its demise in the early 2000s. The Falcon hosted an uneven Fahrenheit 451 in 2002 with other, more successful productions at Theatre West and the lovely yet now defunct Court Theatre. He often appeared in the audience and, when asked, would say a few words before curtain to an appreciative audience sufficiently steeped in LA etiquette to applaud yet keep a respectful distance.
It is trivial to hang present day realities on deceased authors but there is no doubt that it is the pessimistic futures Bradbury foresaw decades ago that have played out and not those of his compatriots. We don’t have energy too cheap to meter, we aren’t in control of our robots, and ubiquitous telecommunications has served to narrow, divide, and power the slide into darkness. We are the same desperate creatures that came out of the caves only with flashier and deadlier toys.
45 isn’t a king but acts like one on television. L’état c’est lui, a petulant whiny child beheading his enemies with multiple wives and obsequious servants flattering before fading into the desperate end.
Stoppard’s occasionally engaging and frequently frustrating play puts two minor characters from ‘Hamlet’ in a universe where physical laws don’t apply, free will is an illusion, insanity is the norm, and a hideous fate inevitable. Sounds eerily familiar.
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.
On the surface Nilo Cruz resets Tolstoy in 1920s Tampa where workers in a family-run cigar factory explore life, love, and everything with the man brought in to read to them during their rolling sessions. Director Jon Lawrence Rivera marshals a fine cast complemented by Open Fist’s traditionally strong stagecraft but the Pulitzer winning script disappoints with a bang. The women we see, two sisters, their mother, and a silent factotum are taken metaphorically by both the Lector and ‘Anna Karenina,’ his choice of reading material. The men are unsurprisingly less so. As the action unfolds, one of the sisters is taken quite literally by yon Lector while her equally unfaithful husband stews and belatedly asks for tips on how to rock her like a hurricane. The aspiring half-brother of the factory owner, having lost his own wife to another Lector, isn’t any happier with this one’s presence. It all strives to be dreamy, lyrical, mysterious, philosophical, and evocative but just plods along steadily and soapily and ends dangling in the air – one might say like a languid coruscating puff of bluish-white cigar smoke in the fading sunlight. For it is that kind of play. It may make sense to fans of the book. Others beware.
It’s always good when degreaser is sprayed on oily charlatans. Emphases added:
Q: Is there a great theater company specifically for African American actors, like Alvin Ailey is for dancers?
A: The closest thing to a black theater company that is able to survive and sustain itself is the St. Louis Black Rep. And theater companies — let’s just take Los Angeles, for example — the Los Angeles Music Center downtown and Mark Taper Forum and all the people that run those companies are getting the grants from the foundations I couldn’t get because they did one black play in their season. The black theater producers, the people who are in the community need the grants, and they can’t get them because the established theaters downtown are taking advantage of those grants.
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about to make me very rich”
— attr. Tom Stoppard to a friend’s question about ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’
Mortality, predestination, and free-will are beloved literary fodder.Tom Stoppard‘s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead‘ has for some reason been held up for fifty years as an exemplar of how to bring all those themes to the stage and is a surefire draw at midsized theatres. It is the kind of work that audiences seek when they want to be challenged and Stoppard accomplishes that in spades.Clocking in at nearly three hours, he constantly tests their attention, patience, and good will.One hopes that a live performance by a reputable, classically-trained ensemble can bring some structure and coherence to a dense, difficult, often self-indulgent script.A Noise Within’s current staging stays true to the text but regrettably offers little beyond it.
R&G may have been a refreshing hipper, youthful, comedic antidote to Beckett in the mid-1960s but time has taken its toll.The tale told by and through two idiots is frustratingly digressive and the once-fresh ploys and devices now commonplace.The protagonists – bewildered by probability, abused by nobility, and manipulated by artists – are irreversibly yoked to fate. Fragments of the play-surrounding-the-play take place between lengthy philosophizing and repeated doses of forced humor containing mostly empty calories.
Stoppard perhaps intentionally left it all open to interpretation with all the smugness that only the modern artist can muster.Director Geoff Elliott estimates he has read the play over thirty times, finding ever-deeper undercurrents of the human experience each time.This is highly encouraging since there is ample room for directorial opinion.Unfortunately, that license is lacking in this faithful and respectful production. Rafael Goldstein’s contemplative Guildenstern fares far better than Kasey Mahaffey’s nitwit Rosencrantz. What’s frustrating are the tantalizing glimpses of a through line, some sign of a trail through the dense overgrowth of insufferable look-at-me cleverness that infests so much of Stoppard.This is solely thanks to Wesley Mann’s virtuoso turn as The Player, an apt name that has taken on different connotations in the intervening decades. Mann imbues the pivotal role with subtle, growing menace masked by a thinning veneer of humor. This hangdog Charon knows more and is capable of far more than he lets on – he is Twain’s Mysterious Stranger, Bulgakov’s Mysterious Traveler, the link among the many worlds within the play and the world outside watching it. Sadly, no sooner does momentum and interest build than the character goes off stage for a while, taking the energy with him.
The production is typically handsome in the ANW house style with stronger leads than the wan 2016 ‘Arcadia’ which, for all that, has aged somewhat better as a play.The words are all there, the stage directions are followed, everyone yells, sulks, rails, and brawls with precision and Opening night was technically flawless. Stoppard is about as far from an idiot as one can get but all this sound and fury may not, in fact, signify anything.
[Note: Minor rewordings made on 15 October 2018]
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Geoff Elliott
in repertory through 18 November 2018