Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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December 17, 2006

It has been relatively cold these last few days in LA, which must have come as a surprise to many out-of-town visitors planning on a balmy, palm tree and sunshine holiday season like we typically have. In particular, I’m thinking of the large number of visiting Canadian performers in our theaters over the last week. Not only have Bernard Labadie and his La Chapelle de Québec troupe been sitting in with the LA Phil, but the Ottawa-based avant-garde theater collective known as STO Union have been selected to close out this year’s UCLA Live International Theater Festival. They have been performing two pieces in repertory this week – Revolutions in Therapy, which questions the use and effectiveness of traditional psychotherapy and Recent Developments, a more standard multi-generational family epic.

Nadia Ross and Jacob Wren of STO Union in Revolutions in Therapy

I saw both works this week and while there is much to admire, both left me rather cold. Nadia Ross and her writing/directing partner Jacob Wren apparently have a taste for breaking the fourth wall, tape recorded dialog, pop-music performance, and minimal bits of spontaneous dancing – elements that arose in both pieces. Revolutions involved a series of two-person conversations delivered with a therapy-inspired tone and pacing. The actors often switch who is taking the interrogation role and at times various actors provide commentary on the audience and their character's feelings towards it. At points, the actors come from the stage to sit with the audience and deliver their dialog from the seats. Surprisingly, this same detached style of delivery also pervaded Developments in which the audience is seated around what appears to be a very large conference table with the actors moving around the table and into the hollowed-out center for the performance. What seemed to make sense in a critique of traditional psychotherapy, failed miserably in a more standard family drama where it seemed needlessly esoteric and off-putting.

While I appreciate this “breaking down barriers” ethic, I never really felt like anything was all that risky. There were certainly moments of humor and the acting was strong overall. However, the emotional detachment of the performances kept everything at a distance often defeating the apparent intention to get the audience thinking. Personally, I thought the Mabou Mines’ adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House UCLA Live presented two weeks back produced far more discomfort and introspection in the audience by insisting on often grating vocal deliveries and acting techniques that were maintained throughout the piece. Sometimes it's possible to achieve the desired affect with nothing more than basic acting skills.

And on another note….

In case you were wondering, I am an unabashed lover of top 10 lists and am working diligently on my 2006 choices as we speak. However, I am particularly irritated in the push to produce all of this material by many press outlets prior to the actual end of the year. In short, 2006 isn’t over yet, and I’ve still got shows to see (including the much anticipated premiere of Tan Dun’s new opera The First Emporer at the Met on 12/29 for me). In the New Year you can look both for a music and local theater post with my picks. Until then…

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