Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Art Isn't Easy

September 09, 2011

Marissa Chabis as Clara in Clara's Los Angeles
CalArts’ REDCAT opened up the 8th installment of the New Original Works Festival this weekend. Over the next three weeks, the theater will host eight sets of often local and frequently young artists showing off the latest and greatest they have to offer. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be familiar faces over the next three weeks, or that some of the pieces haven’t been seen elsewhere in earlier versions. But many of the artists are enjoying a big platform for their work in the great REDCAT facilities for the first time. The shows are widely varied, and given the newness of some of it, not all of it works. But it’s the sense of adventure and experimentation that’s part of the fun.

The highlight of the first week’s program, which I saw on Thursday (although it will repeat on both Friday and Saturday), was Marissa Chibas’ comical and fleeting Clara’s Los Angeles. Chibas was notably seen at REDCAT in her solo work Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary in 2007. This new work is much lighter, although it stems from a serious concept. In response to out-of-town friends who would repeat the old canard that Los Angeles has no history, Chibas was inspired to create Clara, a 1920s flapper who awakens in 2010 Los Angeles recalling the night she last went to sleep in 1926 after a Charleston contest at the Ambassador Hotel. These events are laid out in a silent film that makes up most of the performance. Clara finds that she best fits into the modern world when she is recounting stories from her own time. Soon the flesh and blood Clara, who has been seated in the audience watching the movie all along stands at the bequest of her filmed self, and with the assistance of a musical trio who have accompanied the film, she recounts numerous facts about Los Angeles of the early 20th Century, particularly the large role that peoples of Latin and African descent played in shaping the city’s early history. There was still a feeling of the piece being under development and some of the tonal shifts between the comic and more didactic elements could feel heavy-handed. But it was a potent reminder of part of the city’s history that even many Angelenos have forgotten.

from Edward’s House of String Photo: Steven Gunther
The evening opened with a large scale multi-media puppet piece from Cindy Derby called Edward’s House of String. The short narrative used a full scale humanoid puppet with some noticeable obsessive compulsive traits who soon finds his world enmeshed in string not long after he receives several secret gift boxes of thread from birds in a nearby tree. It’s a Kafkaesque tale that wavers between eerie and whimsical. There is an original music score composed by Ellen Reid that was performed live with the action. Additionally, Edward’s world is surrounded by four large clouds that serve as projection surfaces for related stop-motion animation. I thought the puppetry of the protagonist was well done making Edward seem lifelike independently of his handlers. But at the same time the show was frustrated with inadequate lighting and problems of scale. Like a lot of puppetry, some of the fine detailed movement is the most visual interesting material. Edward’s House of String is filled with these, but they were difficult to see in the REDCAT from a distance with so little light. Given that the wordless narrative relies on this physical pantomime, the performance was needlessly difficult to decipher.

Lucky Dragons Photo: Steven Gunther
Week one also featured a partially improvised interactive audio visual work from Lucky Dragons which included music from Luke Fishbeck and video from Sarah Rara entitled Actual Reality. This twist on the expression “virtual reality” escaped my understanding here, although the minimal music, processed electronically from five flutists, a bassoonist and percussionist could be pretty at times. Behind the players was a large video image that transitioned from several minutes of a large spinning flute, to stills of flowers and a newspaper photo both of which were covered in small points of oscillating colored light. Although each performance will vary based on the interactive elements of the piece, Thursday’s performance reminded me of a more-psychedelic 70s minimalism with its tweeting and largely unvarying sounds. The show can be seen through this weekend, and if you can’t make it, you may want to check out either of the promising programs over the next two weeks.

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