Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

From abroad

September 22, 2007

Emun Elliott and Ryan Fletcher in Black Watch
Photo: Stephen Osman/LAT 2007
An unusual cold snap and rain this weekend provided a reminder that here in LA we are, in fact, at the start of Fall. Of course the theater season schedule indicates this as well, and this week saw the opening of UCLA Live’s International Theater Festival with two significant touring productions opening concurrently across the way from each other on the Westwood campus - the National Theater of Scotland’s Black Watch at the Freud Playhouse and Dood Paard’s medEia in the McGowan Theater. The theater festival is proving much more popular this year than previously with significantly increased ticket sales largely buoyed by Ian McKellan’s scheduled performances in RSC’s productions of King Lear and The Seagull, which will arrive in LA after their current runs at BAM in New York.

First up for me was Black Watch, an ambitious and quite lovely work by Gregory Burke under the direction of John Tiffany, concerning the experience of a band of Scottish soldiers during the Iraq war. This elite squad, the eponymous Black Watch, have a long and storied history that the play attempts to fold into a meditation on Scottish identity and the lives of young men gone to war. The work contains numerous highly choreographed set pieces that take place in a hallway stage configuration with cast members entering and exiting from either side and the audience seated on either side of the resulting runway. While not an outright dance piece by any stretch, the movement segments are the highlight and provide an extra element of the homoerotic to subject matter that is already rife with it. In one segment, the protagonist, Rossco, played by Henry Pettigrew, travels the length of the stage as he delivers a history of the Black Watch while being passed back and forth by the other male cast members who dress, strip, and the redress him in various historical uniforms of the unit as they alternately carry, lift, and hold him.

The look of the production is sharp with several monitors reminding us of the ever-present video images that act as scenery for our daily lives in an appropriately minimal industrial set that is evocative of both a military installation and at other times what seems like Scotland’s largest gay bar. The biggest problem here, however, is that what little narrative there is mines the most cliché tropes of young-men-at-war stories – highly sexualized banter in the face of violence, the tragic loss of the well-loved bad boy, the avoidance of pain and boredom with banter of the mundane, and the anger at readjustment to civilian life. Not that any of this isn’t true or that it's done poorly. We’ve just seen it a million times before though admittedly not usually delivered with such sexy accents. The piece seems to shy away from more challenging cultural elements such as the fear of the dissolution of one’s unit or culture. While visually slick, Black Watch is far too dedicated to the tried and true. It will run through October 14th before leaving for New York.

Oscar van Woensel, Manja Topper and Kuno Bakker in medEia
Photo: Ken Hively/LAT 2007
Perhaps taking the higher road are the Dutch troupe Dood Paard, who, on this outing, consist of three performers, Oscar van Woensel, Manja Topper and Kuno Bakker who are also responsible for the text. medEia is a minimally staged re-telling of the Medea legend where there are no specific characters as much as there are multiple shifting chorus members who, like the audience, already know the whole story and are less concerned with the order or flow of events than their own reactions to them and the desire to relate it to each other. The large empty stage contains only a rigged wooden lattice from which hang four collapsed paper and masking tape backdrops that are raised in sequence throughout the show moving the performers progressively closer to the edge of the stage. These backdrops function less as scenery and more as a reminder of the fascination with a mechanical and inevitable process – we know from the beginning that all of them will be lifted in a particular and predetermined sequence just as we know the fate of Medea and her children.

The intentionally monotone delivery of this fractured monologue is deadpan and alternately comic and serious. No single performer is wedded to any particular role or part and more often than not represent community observers of the story than actual participants in it. The text is peppered with sly references to pop songs and and at least three breaks where the house lights are dimmed and the cast joins the audience in watching a high-speed slide show of exotic vacation pics projected onto the neutral backdrops before the performance resumes. All of this works especially well in that it seems so casual and effortless. The cast always seem to be about to laugh despite themselves giving Medea’s story a sense of silliness that, while reminiscent of gossip, is also both beautiful and poignant in a way. Not unlike the best works of Jacques Rivette, the performance draws the audience in by the at times trivial yet sheer truthfulness of it all. The meaning of the text lies not in its actual events, but in the manner in which they are relayed amongst the participants. The performances of medEia end this Sunday September the 23rd before traveling to PS122 in New York.


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