Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Those 60s Shows

August 27, 2012

Jack Willis and LBJ and Kenajuan Bentley as MLK. Photo by Jenny Graham/OSF 2012
It was rather a perfect weekend in Ashland, Oregon, with comfortable, clear summer weather and a slate of particularly strong and well thought out productions from The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The festival season, one of the strongest in recent years, runs through November with the outdoor Elizabethan Stage open until early October with plenty of Shakespeare and comedies to please just about anyone. But while there is a lot of the familiar, the two world premiere plays now on offer may be stealing the whole show this summer. They are undoubtedly a testament to the vision of Artistic Director Bill Rauch and the company’s commitment to producing new plays as part of American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. These two new works, Robert Schenkkan’s All The Way and UNIVERSES’ Party People, are the third and fourth fully-staged productions in the series. They are companion pieces in a sense, each delving into the civil rights movement and its aftermath from two different perspectives – the corridors of power in Washington, DC, and the community activism in the streets of America in the late 1960s. The two plays also may be the most successful shows yet to come out of the commissioning series.

Schenkkan’s All The Way is stunningly affecting. It’s that rare breed – a contemporary history play. It is easily the most successful and gripping example of its kind since at least David Hare’s 2004 Stuff Happens. The subject is Lyndon B. Johnson’s year in the U.S. President’s office from his swearing in following the assassination of John F. Kennedy until his election to his own full first term in the same office in 1964. Needless to say, the lead role of the tough, brash, arm-twisting Texan is a plum one, and Jack Willis gives a whirlwind, uncanny performance in creating the part. Schenkkan fleshes out historical events with dialog that cleverly rings of truth without succumbing to easy sentimentality. The role of LBJ in All The Way is the kind of vehicle big name stars will jump at in the hopes of a Tony award with its colorful language, nuanced characterization and cultural caché. Of course, the show is filled with numerous juicy roles of other major historical figures including Martin Luther King, Jr., J. Edgar Hoover, George Wallace, and more political and civil rights figures than you can shake a stick at. Schenkkan can’t resist including both former senators Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd in the mix as well to point out that even these august legislators failed to come down on the right side of history when it really mattered. Director and Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch keep all of this cacophony of voices focused and moving toward the inevitable. The show also benefits from one of the festival’s strongest suits, its rich ensemble of repertory players. The play is filled with dozens of roles and most performers take on several of them over the course of three hours in a variety of colorful American accents. But Schenkkan keeps the focus on the sweep of history allowing the inherent drama of the events to drive the action including the machinations behind the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the subsequent Freedom Summer of 1964 leading up to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in that same summer. This is powerfully moving stuff and it’s done expertly. And in the end it passes the greatest test of a history play – it makes your heart thrill with anticipation for events that you already know the outcome of in advance.

William Ruiz and Robynn Rodriguez. Photo by Jenny Graham/OSF 2012
Of course, while LBJ serves as the hero in All The Way, he is an overshadowing villain to the 1960s ex-radicals who populate UNIVERSES’ Party People. UNIVERSES is a New York-based theater collective whose primary members, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Steven Sapp, and William Ruiz, all serve as authors and performers in this new collaboration with the festival. Party People is much more loosely structured and revisits the lives of ex-revolutionaries of the Black Panthers and Young Lords movements that sprung up within the same civil rights movement depicted in All The Way. However this time around, UNIVERSES adds layer upon layer of other artistic traditions to the play including musical performance, dance, and live streaming video technology. The end result is bewitching to watch if not always successful in its broader purpose. The central conceit of the play, which at times seems grafted on to fit the poetry and musical performances contained within, concerns two young contemporary activists, Jimmy and his friend Malik, the son of a Black Panther currently spending life in prison. The two have concocted a gallery show cum tribute cum performance art piece in which they have invited a large array of former members of both movements to come together to tell their stories, meet one another again, and peruse a variety of objects and filmed testimonies from the period. What the guests don’t know is that the two have concocted a confrontational theater performance in which Jimmy dresses as a clown and proceeds to berate and interrogate their “guests” about the failures and inherent political and ethical contradictions in their actions at the time. In this way Party People owes as much to Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration as it does anything else.

It can make for some disquieting and uncomfortable moments in the show, which isn’t a bad thing at all. The hodge podge of musical and poetic elements is heady and often beautiful. But the tonal shifts don’t always add up and when they do, it exposes the lazy ideological heart of the work. A multitude of issues about the failings of these revolutionary movements and their aftermath are covered almost in a forced, check-list like fashion. In the end the only reason the architects of this contrived celebration, Jimmy and Malik, have to offer for its existence are hollow now ludicrous sounding tropes about the importance of digital and social media in communicating to young people about this important part of their history. If the filmed byproducts of the gathering aren’t available on Facebook, young people will never be able to access the history of their own revolutionary movements, the tired old canard goes. But if one can overlook this somewhat desperate ploy, the show still offers enough clever musical elements and a bracing visual staging that make the show a worthwhile counterpoint to the very same history so expertly depicted elsewhere at this year’s festival. Both shows will run through November 3rd.


Brighten the Corners

August 13, 2012

Heather Woodbury Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
The final week of REDCAT’s New Original Works Festival was perhaps the strongest evening of this year’s shows, all of which featured the newest and most adventurous work from L.A.’s own. It was a particularly good year for the festival overall, especially on the theatrical side of things, and the final night was no exception. The night started off with an hour long snippet from theater iconoclast Heather Woodbury. Woodbury, of course, is known for her expansive multi-character pieces that aim to capture a world or moment in time more than a single dramatic arc. Her latest, As the Globe Warms, is another massive work that will take place over a projected six evenings condensed from 33 half-hour web series installments that were used in the work’s development process. Woodbury plays all the characters in this contemporary American landscape where the reality of ecological decline meets the world of American religious fanaticism and right wing politics. The short selection Woodbury delivered at REDCAT was a work out focusing on a Christian teen convention where one of the show’s protagonists, a teenage girl who gives spiritual voice to the natural world, has come to meet the followers of her online ministry. Woodbury delivers a wild array of young characters in the performance, flipping between the sounds and physicality of these young adults with ease. It was a work out of a turn, but one that was ultimately funny and completely enthralling in both its strangeness and simultaneous familiarity.

The evening’s center was filled with a new dance work, La Tribu from Melanie Ríos-Glaser. The title implies a sort of communal living arrangement and the four dancers, all women, were clothed in identical monotone jumpsuits emphasizing a sort of genderless neutral grouping of dancers. The performance was largely contained within something akin to a square rustic-appearing U-shaped corral complete with electric fans in the walls. The mismatched wood of the corral walls and some of the audio accompaniment implied something vaguely Latin American about the piece, but the almost gymnastic and utilitarian quality of the movement seemed to stray in quite of different direction. It was pleasant enough, but the references were a bit too oblique to follow in the larger sense.

The cast from Emily Mast's B!RDBRA!N Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
As for the concluding piece, Emily Mast’s B!RDBRA!N, it was in some ways the most sweeping and challenging work throughout the whole festival, serving as neither a dance work nor an explicit theater piece. The seven-member cast included a large elderly man and a young child as well as a man dressed as a parrot. They would come and go within a circumscribed performance where set pieces of brightly colored geometric objects would be placed and later removed. All of this referred obliquely to the work of French artist Guy de Cointet who worked in L.A. throughout the 1970s, as well as a true story of a 30-year avian language experiment. There were no outright narrative elements to the performance, but often the cast engaged in word games with each other, suggesting some of the oddities in which our brains process language. There was something playful and irreverent in the work that reminded me in a way of Jacques Tati, and the bright visual elements were equally as entertaining as the sometimes pointless stage action that concluded with an auction for a painting of nothing. The sheer warm spirit of the work and its bubbly clever cast made it a joy to experience, and it felt sophisticated and ground breaking at the same time. And in the end that is what the NOW Festival is really all about. This year especially, the works on offer often felt like they were in fact going somewhere, looking ahead to something larger and more adventurous is scope.


Duking it Out

August 12, 2012

Željko Lucic as Rigoletto in a promotional photo for The Metropolitan Opera's upcoming new porduction for the 2012-2013 season Photo: Nick Heavican/Met Oper
The always sluggish Hollywood Bowl summer season for the Los Angeles Philharmonic perked up a bit on Sunday. Actually it would be more accurate to say it bolted awake suddenly with a show likely to be the high-water mark of the whole summer. It was the annual one-off opera performance in concert version that has been a staple of Hollywood Bowl seasons for years now. L.A. Philharmonic Music Director has continued his close involvement with the event this time around in his ongoing efforts to take a first crack at conducting operas in the standard repertoire, virtually none of which he had much experience with prior to coming to L.A. Local audiences continue to be the test subjects for his first forays into the field, but on Sunday they got a winner when Dudamel led the orchestra and a great vocal cast in Verdi’s Rigoletto in what was easily the best opera performance given at the Bowl in years.

What worked? First and foremost the company brought in the world’s leading proponent of the title role, baritone Željko Lucic. He’ll be singing the same role in San Francisco later this Fall and will headline the Metropolitan Opera’s new staging a bit later on as well. Luckily, L.A. got to see him if only for one night, and he is amazing in this part. Big and rich sounding, he readily taps into Rigoletto’s paranoia and tragic conflict as both purveyor and victim of the excesses of the Duke's court. Lucic's Act II performance alone was stirring at depths not too many of his competition can come close to. At times he sounded as if the patchy Bowl amplification system was unnecessary and that he could fill all the outdoors with his big assured sound. And this time around, the L.A. Phil assembled a supporting cast that was equally strong. Russian soprano Irina Lungu whose worked extensively in Italy including at La Scala sang Gilda and had firm hold of the coloratura elements in the part maintaining strength throughout her range. The duets with Lucic were masterful and a pure joy to hear. The young tenor David Lomeli sang the Duke of Mantua with athleticism and easy clear top notes. He’s going places to be sure and even against these very experienced and polished cast members, he sounded like a world-class tenor. (He’ll be travelling to San Francisco with this role as well in the fall.)

There are still glitches. Why the L.A. Philharmonic insists on the mostly unreadable design of their supertitles for the large Bowl monitors year after year is a wonder. The white lettering of the titles vanishes even when it’s dark enough to see them against the white jackets of the performers. The transparent background for the titles at the bottom of these screens hasn’t worked for years and isn’t about to start now. It’s a shame that the organization can’t seem to address this most basic detail to improve the experience of seeing the show for everyone in the audience. The orchestra meanwhile sounded brisk and dug in for most of the show. Dudamel’s trademark indulgently slow tempi at times continue to mar the proceedings here and there dragging out the overall performance and sometimes throwing vocalists off in the clutch, but he continues to be more deferential to them than not. But overall, the orchestral work provided first rate support and the L.A. Philharmonic can be proud of producing some excellent Verdi in one of the more inhospitable music venues in the city. It was also proof again that even without the names of famous architects and costume designers attached, the L.A. Phil and Dudamel are completely capable of producing great operatic performances under their own steam.


What You Will

August 09, 2012

Erika Rolfsrud, Caitlin Muelder, T. Ryder Smith and Lucas Caleb Rooney in God of Carnage Photo by Henry DiRocco/Old Globe 2012
Summer is turning out to be the season for comedies in San Diego. Particularly at The Old Globe where this summer’s Shakespeare Festival is in full swing alongside productions on both of the indoor stages. But it’s the comedies in this mix that are seizing the day, and this weekend I was lucky enough to see the two best shows the company has this summer season. Perhaps the most satisfying surprise is the honestly funny production of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, which just opened a little over a week ago. Reza’s worldwide success has largely rested on the advocacy and translation skills of Christopher Hampton who has brought the French language texts into the English language theater world. Critics have been divided on whether this was such a good thing and Reza’s comedies on social mores can come off as coldly clinical. God of Carnage certainly felt like that in its original Broadway production that was later imported to Los Angeles with its four member cast of James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, Bill Pullman and Marcia Gay Harden all along for the ride. The Ahmanson sold seats right and left and people flocked to see TV and movie stars. But despite the laughs and a few significant coups de theatre, that outing made the play feel like a French play being performed in English and acted out with a clinical detachment that left room for big star turns in the midst of a sort of wasteland.

The Old Globe tapped Richard Seer to direct their revival for the White Theater and matched him up with a lovely cast including Erika Rolfsrud, T. Ryder Smith, Lucas Caleb Rooney, and Caitlin Muelder. And somewhere along the way these five artists managed to find a warm, human American comedy of manners among Hampton’s cold translation. Never once do these two couples, who have gathered to discuss the physical fight between their two young boys, come off as anything other than who they are billed to be. They aren’t so much characters as everyday Americans and they find and nail the real humor in the script that is just as easy to play as bitterness. The fact that the show also takes place in the round on the intimate White stage ups the ante for the show. This is not some modernist statement living room we’re watching, but a claustrophobic suburban upper-middle class one. The Old Globe’s excellent new production of God of Carnage gets to have it both ways with familiar logical laughs for the audience as well as the clever surprise moments that audiences have held onto to make the show a success.

The cast of As You Like It Photo by Henry DiRocco/Old Globe 2012
Meanwhile the comedy offered as part of this year’s Shakespeare Festival season is As You Like It in a staging under the guidance of festival director Adrian Noble. It’s a show that hits far more right notes than wrong ones with a big hearted Rosalind played by Dana Green. She grabs one scene after the next in this big magical Arden forest that is overflowing with lovers, fools and others. Noble keeps the tone light without plumbing for darker political meanings surrounding the usurping and banishment of Rosalind’s father the Duke. He’s moved the city scenes to the early 20th Century, but the forest scenes are a bit harder to place. Still it’s stylish and attractive and the pacing is fleet. Yet he lets the language breath without too much ponderous overstatement. Not everything is on target though. There are some awkward off-tone moments like the banishment scene that opens the play that evokes the deportation of Jews to Nazi concentration camps more than the banishment of a Duke. But these missteps are relatively few and while it makes no radical statements, Noble’s vision of As You Like It is the strongest offering of this year’s outdoor season in San Diego. The show runs through Sep 29th.


Dance to Remember

August 06, 2012

Jinku Kim's Untitled Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
The second week of REDCAT’s New Original Works Festival arrived last weekend with a lot of dance on its mind. Of course given the venue and the opportunity invited artists get to present works in progress, to call the two larger pieces on that bill “dance” understates the level of complexity and vision on offer. Ironically, both the dance works - Prumsodun Ok’s Of Land and Sky, and Nick+James’ Lake alluded to the power of myth in a contemporary social and political context. Of Land and Sky is a crafty adaptation of an adaptation. The original Cambodian myth at the core of the performance concerns the love between a peasant farmer and a goddess. This original is further filtered through a 1968 Cambodian film version of the story, Tep Sodachan directed by Lay Nguon Heng. Excerpts from the film relevant to the legend were projected on a screen behind the performers of Of Land and Sky and elements of the movie’s musical score were re-enacted by the cast on stage. In the film, the goddess and her fellow deities look down from above as a young farmer burdened with a baby looks on desperately from below appearing in a state of crisis. Prumsodun Ok further abstracts this story in live performance where the romance is now portrayed as being between two men as a group of bare-breasted goddess dancers surround the pair on stage. The movement favors the mythological and archetypal overall, but the gender and political implications of the piece are clear despite the multiple layers of slightly altered versions of similar story elements. There is particular unity here of the traditional with the more contemporary media environment, both in the movement as well as visual content of the piece. But the work at this early stage still feels short and a bit underdeveloped with narrative elements being hinted at more than explained. There are some lovely images including the live action peasant famer character discovering it is not a baby that he is holding wrapped in a blanket by a megaphone. But a certain lack of coordination in the overall corps of dancers and some allusions that are hard to decipher in the context of both the film and the stage presentation weigh the piece down at times.

From Promsodun Ok's Of Land and Sky Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
What followed and closed the evening, Nick+James’ Lake has no smaller set of ambitions. The choreographers and performers Nick Duran and Jmy James Kidd have worked extensively with the biggest names in contemporary dance. But their own work seen in development here seemed to distill many of those influences into something unexpected and new. The reference here is Narcissus and from the minute the audience entered the theater the Dionysian feeling prevailed with a small group of friends and audience members seated on colorful pillows and blankets around the dance space alongside a lotus-seated percussionist. Again bare-breasted women, this time draped in peach togas, strutted around before the primary dancers arrived. When Nick+James did, it couldn’t have been in starker contrast with both dressed in matching grey floor-length skirts and sweaters. There is a particular freedom in this paired movement filled as it was with allusions to any number of other choreographers. The two performers were less enraptured by their partnered “reflection” as Narcissus was with his own image. Instead the Narcissus myth is recast as about love or at least the way in which couples enter parallel existances to one another over time with their own set of flaws and imperfections.

From Nick+James' Lake Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
But oddly though, perhaps the piece I was most taken with on Thursday was the most out of place and arguably the one most devoid of actual performance. Jiku Kim’s Untitled exists on the border between performance and video art instillation. The work begins with three inverted pyramids of white boxes each of a different size suspended from above. The complete darkness of the performance space somewhat masks the inevitable fact of the matter: they are getting closer slowly but surely to the audience almost to the point of being directly above them. Soon the black and white lines, squares and squiggles of a video feed begin to fill the projection spaces of these large structures in rhythmic and rapidly synchronized patterns. It was like a video art version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind played out live with electric noise and music to set the tone. The images could be dizzying in their repetitiveness and brashness. But there was something overwhelming about the experience at once immediate and inviting and alienating, strange and threatening. The simple beauty of frantic energy of the work outshone its overall immediate lack of physical human involvement. It was hypnotic and all to brief of an experience and one that deserves further exploration.

The third and final week of the NOW Festival will kick on this coming Thursday August 9. But before then, it’s worth noting in perhaps the biggest news for REDCAT this year, the Elevator Repair Service company will return from Nov 29 thru Dec 9 for a limited run of their masterpiece, GATZ. I’ve written about the show as performed in New York two years back and can tell you from two separate viewings that this may be the most important single American theater event so far this century. The fact that the production and large cast that manages to reconstruct a dramatic, acted out reading of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is coming to L.A. is a major coup for the venue. The show has been wildly praised everywhere its gone including a recent West End run in London. It’s a stunner so don’t hesitate to buy a ticket for this daylong event when you have a chance. It may sound arduous at eight hours with three intermissions including one dinner break, but you’re unlikely to ever experience anything else like it.


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