Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

An Autumn's Tale

October 05, 2006

Photo credit: Nick Amato 2006

It's early October and I seem to be lost in a world of very long multi-evening works that make my frequent nights at the theater all seem to blend into one long but very beautiful night. Sandwiched between last weeks Peony Pavilion and this weekend's start of the Kirov Opera's Ring cycle in Orange County, I had the distinct pleasure of spending two evening in the company of Heather Woodbury and her collaborators as part of the 6 hour staging of A Tale of 2Cities (An American Joyride on Multiple Tracks). This is a new work following the success and recognition of her last "living novel" What Ever: An American Odyssey. Like that work, this one consists of several small units joined together with a large cast of characters in multiple interlocking narratives focusing on themes of the American experience. Tale was also developed through a series of smaller performances and workshops conducted in various spaces throughout the US over the last 6 to 7 years. Unlike What Ever, Tale deals with the personal fallout of the Dodgers' move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1957 and includes a cast of seven, as opposed to Woodbury's prior solo performance.

The UCLA Live staging was the world premiere of the "final" version of the show that will next travel to performance space 122 in New York. There is already a printed version of the text avaliable from semiotext(e). Despite the seeming pretension, the descriptor "living novel" is accurate given that the piece owes as much to the performance art tradition as it does to a more traditionally theatrical one. There is an almost complete absence of sets and costumes and the work relies nearly exclusively on the acting and vocal talents of its cast. While there are clear narratives throughout, there are equal parts unintegrated scenes, characters, and ideas that comment on or stand in contrast to the main actions.

I saw the performance over two nights on October 3rd and 4th and was very impressed. This is the kind of work that gets referred to as "sprawling" because of its size and somewhat convoluted narrative. It is also tempting to use the phrase "swept away" to describe one's reaction to it for the same reason. It has been well reviewed in both the LA Times and the LA Weekly and I will leave further praise heaping to them. However, the work is not without problems. I'm not sure how "American" any of it really is considering it deals exclusively with NY and LA, probably the least American of all US cities. It also deals in numerous clichés about the immigrant experience and the philosophical and social metaphors in baseball. (Can't we put this to bed after Greenberg's Take Me Out?) Much of the acting is good and it is true that Woodbury has a presence that is hard to be indifferent about. I should particularly note a local favorite of mine, Leo Marks, whom I have now seen on at least four local stages always to great effect.

Probably the most distressing thing about these evening, though, were how poorly attended they were. Despite good reviews and what I am told were large crowds on the opening weekend, the 586-seat Freud Playhouse catered to an audience of approximately 30 on both nights. This may be due in part to the plague of a presidential visit on LA traffic on the first night. The only thing that scares LA drivers more than rain may be the president.

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