Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Clean House

September 21, 2008

l - r: Kate Burton, John Pankow, and Jane Kaczmarek
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2008
So after a year long closure for renovation, the Mark Taper Forum has finally reopened this month amidst a flurry of press and activity not only for the buffed-up theater itself but for a revival of John Guare's classic The House of Blue Leaves. The changes at the Taper were much needed and from all accounts most of the work went into the backstage area and the technical aspects of the house. These were no small issues, these, given the highly constrained circular space of the building, which required moving up to the roof and down into the parking garage to find space for new amenities like an actual wardrobe department. On the audience side there are new developments as well, including wonderful 1970s inspired green and brown fabric everywhere, an elevator, and a new downstairs lounge below the entrance lobby. With radically expanded bathroom space, the old codger subscriber base will have to find something new to bitch about. (But trust me the weekend matinée crowd I saw the new show with had no problem moving on to new topics.)

So, with most of the focus on updates for the actual production of theater, it was time for the Center Theater Group to get to work and they wasted no time on putting together a very well-cast and entertaining revival of Guare’s benchmark comedy about mental illness and family upheaval in the mid 1960s. The House of Blue Leaves is a play from another time. It grows out of a collection of 60s and 70s plays about mental illness and its broader philosophical implications in works such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Equus, and Marat/Sade. Unlike most of his brethren, however, Guare elected a far broader comic tone for Blue Leaves with a second act that rapidly devolves into farce of near Marx Brothers proportions. And in some ways this is what makes the play great - the mix of humor and tragedy.

Perhaps the biggest strength of the Taper revival is that it hits these comic elements right on the nose with laugh-out-loud funny performances from the entire cast, which includes John Pankow as Artie Shaughnessy, Kate Burton as his mentally unstable wife Bananas, and a undergarment enhanced Jane Kaczmarek as Artie’s new lover Bunny Fingus. In fact, if anything negative can be said about the performance, it is that the comedy is done so well, it almost sacrifices the darker elements of the play. Artie and Bunny become a little too likable for characters who are often quite cruel at heart. So much so that when the not so happy ending comes to fruition, it is not only shocking, but somewhat out of tone. Nonetheless, the play is still a classic and the Taper’s production is an excellent offering for the start of, hopefully, many great new seasons to come.


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