Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

About last weekend

January 25, 2007

Last weekend was one of those busy theater weekends that’s hard to keep up with on the blog because everything was just so-so. It’s much easier to write about things when they are really good or really awful. When things are just OK – that’s just it – they’re OK.

Marissa Chibas in
Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary
On Friday the 19th, I took in one of the premiere performances of Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary, a solo autobiographical piece written and performed by Marissa Chibas. The work was co-produced by INTAR in New York where it will run later this year. Chibas is a good actor with a very interesting genealogy. She is the daughter of Raul Chibas, a comrade and confidant of Fidel Castro during the struggles against Batista in the 1950s. Eventually, he left Cuba for the US in the early 60s to live in exile when Castro turned toward Communism. Her uncle, Eddy Chibas, was a political activist, radio celebrity, and one-time presidential candidate who committed suicide in 1951 during his weekly live broadcast. All of this makes for interesting material, but none of it is particularly well served in this performance where Chibas reenacts central events in her relatives' lives including that of her mother. The performance is wrapped in a hackneyed framework where the vignettes arise as a series of flashbacks during the story of a near-death drowning experience. There is also a fair amount of the standard fare immigrant experience motifs but Marissa Chibas seems almost intent on steering away from the most interesting parts of the story like her family’s conflicted role in the Cuban exile community in favor of pedestrian television-like "important moments." The piece has a modern and attractive desert island set with projected video content makes things look smart, but you feel there is something much more interesting at the heart of these stories.

Tyler Mann and Emma Degerstedt in 13
Photo: Béatrice de Géa/LAT 2006
Meanwhile over at The Mark Taper Forum we have the world premiere of the new musical from Tony-Award winner Jason Robert Brown, 13. The show is a love letter to that awkward phase of early adolescence: a time period of great transition, angst, and for many people, like Brown himself, probably the time when they first started to love musical theater. However, rather than soaring, this production becomes the evil step-sister of the fantastic Spring Awakening now playing in New York. Unfortunately, Dan Elish's cookie-cutter, sanitized plot succeeds in capturing the thrill and heartbreak of adolescence about as well as an after-school special. Which is really a shame considering the sheer talent of the kids involved, including Ricky Ashley, Sara Niemietz and Tyler Mann. Brown’s music and lyrics are much, much better than the show overall and there are several numbers, (“What It Means to be a Friend,” “Tell Her,” and “Getting Over It” to name three) which in the hands of the likes of Audra McDonald could bring people to tears. Here’s hoping this music surfaces again somewhere free of this dross for people to get to know.

Steve Rankin and JD Cullum in Pig Farm
Photo: Henry DiRocco 2006
Down in Orange County, the South Coast Repertory Theater is currently running a production of Greg Kotis’ Pig Farm following its recent premieres in New York and San Diego. The play has been maligned by many here and elsewhere as juvenile and filled with too much lowbrow gutter humor. But I feel that some of this criticism misses the point. The play concerns the anxiety created when the federal government gets involved in the lives of some average Americans due to environmental concerns stemming from their work as pig farmers. One of the common criticisms of the play is that the play's critiques about these issues are overly broad and unfocused. But from my view, that was exactly the point. The play seems to be more of an absurdist questioning of those who really spend time worrying about the role of Big Government in their lives and work. The play it reminded me of was Sam Shepard’s The God of Hell recently put on by the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. Though Pig Farm is certainly intended to be less menacing and more comedic than that work, the similarities between the two in terms of settings and characters are hard to ignore. I enjoyed Pig Farm not because it was sophisticated and witty, but more that it made some of the worthwhile counterpoints to Shepard’s project with a subtly deceptive but low brow tactic.

Patti LuPone
The weekend ended on a somewhat sour note with a “cabaret” performance from Patti LuPone at the Samueli Theater buried within the bowels of the new Reneé and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County. The room itself is about as far away from a cabaret space as you can imagine. Just as the Opéra Bastille in Paris resembles a large sterile airport, the Samueli Theater appears to have taken a high school gymnasium as its template. The big square overly lit stone and wooden box did nothing to foster a mood other than a need to hit the showers. Ms. LuPone was dressed for the place, appearing in outfits that could well have been accessorized with a coach’s whistle. Joshua Kosman recently pointed out on his blog that Ms. LuPone can’t sing. And in terms of maintaining consistent pitch and phrasing this appears to be true. I’ve seen her before in the recent Sweeney Todd production in New York, and I didn’t mind or notice it so much in that setting. She is more of an actor than a singer, a skill that is often useful on the musical theater stage. Just as I can appreciate excellent singers who don’t act well, I feel it is possible to like an actor whose singing isn’t the best in some settings. What bothered me more about her performance of the “torch songs” that made up this performance was the overly broad and comedic approach she took to them. This was not an evening of smoke and heartbreak but more of dull-witted camp and seltzer-down-your-pants laughs. Ms. LuPone is in town for the rehearsals of LA Opera’s Mahagonny to open in just a few weeks and I’m interested to see how she fares in a more theatrical and narratively driven setting.

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