Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Weekend On Stage

November 05, 2006

Jenna Cole as Phaedra and June Claman as Oenone
Photo: Craig Schwartz 2006
It was a big theater weekend here in LA with lots of shows in their final weeks before the holiday season. On Friday, I caught A Noise Within’s new staging of Racine's Phaedra in a translation by Richard Wilbur under the direction of Sabin Epstein. This is the first of three productions in their fall schedule (the others being As You Like It and O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet both of which I may write about later). I have long been an admirer of ANWs repertory productions and the overall high level of quality given their small size. Plus, having a year-round source for live Shakespeare is always a good thing. This current Phaedra is a bit of a puzzle, though. The design was sharp and handsome in a modern-dress approach that gave Hippolytus a sort of emo-rock look which was a good contrast to the more matronly but stylish Phaedra. The acting was a mixed bag and often a bit histrionic. One exception was the particularly notable contribution from June Claman as Oenone. But somehow the intermissionless 95 minutes dragged-on like nobody’s business. It may have been the rather awkward attempt to maintain Racine’s poetic couplet structure in the translation or perhaps some of the weaker performance in the cast. In either event, the air of tragic inevitability created in the text resolved with less of a sense of release and more of a sense of “let’s just get this over with.” It was pretty though in a Robert Wilson zen-garden kind of way.

Judy Kaye as Florence Foster Jenkins and Donald Corren as Cosmo McMoon
Photo: Stefano Paltera 2006
On Saturday, I caught one of Judy Kaye’s performances in the current touring production of Souvenir. Kaye received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins on Broadway last year, and she and her costar Donald Corren reprised their performances at the Brentwood Theater on the LA VA Campus. Kaye’s ability to sing consistently off-key is remarkable considering that she has made a career of doing just the opposite and she deserves the kudos she has received. While this is certainly light, sentimental and comic fare, I felt it raised a lot of very worthwhile questions about the nature of art and the fine line between being a trailblazer with a strong-sense of self and a misguided eccentric blind to the reality of the world outside. Does it matter if an audience enjoys a performance even if it was not in the way originally intended by the performer? Souvenir gently questions the importance of intent or lack thereof in performance and art by suggesting that maybe its OK if what the audience experiences and what the performer intends them to experience don’t always match up.

Harold Surrat and Lorne Green
Photo: Ed Krieger 2006
After this, I headed over to the extremely well appointed Theater at Boston Court in Pasadena for their current production of Suzan-Lori Parks' The America Play. Boston Court has been in the enviable position of having a great modern facility and a very good reputation for high-quality work after a relatively short time in existence. Michael Michetti and Jessica Kubzansky have maintained a commitment to new work in this space that frequently pays off. A stark and menacingly beautiful set complements Parks work well. The play itself deals with many of the same themes of her later Topdog/Underdog including the mechanics of history and the role African-Americans have been forced to play in its production. The characters struggle with the legacy of the past in a work that is less about events than it is about repeated gestures and how the gestures in and of themselves can create and alter meaning through their repetition. The work is filled with haunting images including that of the protagonist's recurring pretend assassination as he poses as Abraham Lincoln for a parade of paying customers who pretend to be Booth. Each of these would-be assassins end their act in the spotlight with a hearty "Thus to the tyrants!" or "The South is avenged!" Thought provoking and sharp with the highest-caliber performance from Harold Surratt in the lead role.

Lynn Redgrave
Photo: Lawrence K. Ho/LAT 2006
Back over at the Mark Taper Forum on Sunday, I finally caught the Lynn Redgrave solo performance Nightingale – a sort of fantasia of its own about the imagined life of Redgrave’s maternal grandmother. She acts out a chronological sequence of vignettes from one woman’s life in the 20th century with particular attention to the way social mores have changed over time and how they affected the women who lived through these periods. It was hard not to like this rather thin-seeming piece given the sheer talent of Redgrave herself and her ability to hold your attention even with a story you feel you’ve heard several times before. Of course this type of feminist-inspired work is always good to see on a major stage with the kind of love and attention given here in LA. Frankly, I’d rather see a dozen more of these than one more piece about the estrangement of fathers and sons or a young man's coming of age- works which seem to exist in an endless supply. Overall not a bad weekend with the biggest winners being Judy Kaye and the Boston Court’s production of The America Play.

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