Arm-wrestling Anton: Downtown Rep’s “Seagull”

In 1898, when the Moscow Art Theatre had spent several months rehearsing The Seagull, they invited its author to a run-through.  Afterward, he sat in his seat, weeping.

“Oh, Anton,” exclaimed director Konstantin Stanislavski, rushing up to him.  “You, too, are crying!  It’s such a beautiful tragedy!”

“No, no, Kolya,” the playwright replied.  “I’m crying because you’ve ruined my play.  I wrote a comedy!”

The story may be apocryphal (or it may not), but the problem is real.  Chekhov’s plays are masterpieces, certainly.  But they can be bloody difficult to interpret.

Currently, the Downtown Rep is taking a shot at The Seagull.

Jason Greene

Jason Greene

Their home theatre offers a splendid setting — the three-story deep atrium of the Pico House hotel, built when Chekhov was just a boy.  Its brick walls and ornate ironwork take us at once into the world of country aristocrats, far from the center of empire, who must use rough local materials to fashion their own grandeur.

Pico House also poses a challenge.  The space is cavernous, and acoustics can be tricky.  Setting the play at one end of the oblong courtyard, and the audience across the middle, does not fully succeed in making the proceedings audible.

The space — and the three-tiered building around it — also tempts director Michael Bernardi to add action.  Actors frequently fly up and down stairways, and along balconies, while saying their lines.
To their great credit, hardly a line is lost to these aerobic stunts.

This works visually, using the full canvas to paint the story and make it more exciting.  But when energetic movement takes over, dominating the play, it doesn’t work so well.  The Seagull is a gentle satire, perhaps, but it is not a farce.

Chekhov’s plays do involve lots of seemingly superfluous chat and moving about, in his parody of cocktail-party life.  But they arrive at points — sometimes long periods — of tremendous stillness.  In these quiet interludes, his people struggle to find and say something real, illuminating and often altering their lives.

Bernardi’s Seagull flies easily and often — his staging of Treplev’s allegorical playlet-within-a-play is the best I’ve ever seen — but it  doesn’t perch often enough, or rest long enough.  And when it does, alas, we have some problems with delivery.

Stage veterans Gillian Doyle (the actress Arkadina) and  Michael Clair Miller (her brother Sorin) send clear spoken messages every time, under all conditions.  So, almost always, do Devon Armstrong (Treplev, Arkadina’s son), Shaelynn Parker (Polina) and Dylan Rourke (the teacher Medvedienko) and Simon T. Jones (Dorn, the doctor).

So we know the cavernous atrium isn’t to blame.

LA newcomer Kelsey Siepser (Masha, Polina’s daughter) creates a riveting character, usually with strong vocal clarity; but at times (usually emotional ones), her speaking drowns in a torrent of syllables.  Ditto for Cooper Steve Anderson (as estate manager Shamrayev) and, sadly, for Jordan Jude (as heiress-turned-actress Nina, the play’s tragic center) — their well-carved characters suddenly disappear, as if stepping behind a screen, when they rush their lines.  And we get thrown out of the story.

We’re also alienated, at unexpected moments, when characters start to “emote” — that is, to express their feelings to the universe, with little or no reference to the other people onstage.  This can work in soliloquies or brief asides, but it’s a technique Chekhov seldom used.  His  people are always trying to get one  another’s attention and make them feel or do something — even Sorin, in his languid, seemingly disconnected utterances.

Bernardi confesses, in the program notes, to being a first-time director.  He earns points for courage — like a martial-arts student arm-wrestling the master — and for invention.  His use of the space is daring and effective, his play-within-a-play likewise.

And his idea to set the play in a fictional present (where the Soviet Union never happened), with Arkadina as a TV star dogged by a crew shooting a mockumentary, could work, too.  It just needs to be fleshed out, given more presence and backstory.

Decorations, however, need a cake.  Bernardi needs to invest his energy first in getting his cast grounded and focused.  Their well-made characters need to be capable of falling into stillness and staying there, with energy.  They need to be always desperately trying to affect one another.  And we, the audience, need them to be always communicating with us.

This is what it takes to land a Seagull.  Or, really, almost any play.
Downtown Rep may not have quite coaxed the bird to settle on the iron railings of their Pico House atrium, but they’ve come close enough to be well worth watching.

*****
Note
:  Every actor could gain by watching the work of Jason Greene (the servant Yakov).   As the transgender media artist Freckle, s/he is known for flamboyance.  But here, we see an actor wholly focused on being present, in the character and moment, helping to weave the story with almost no lines.  (And in those few lines — most of them shrewdly added by Bernardi before the curtain — Greene reveals the finest vocal instrument in the house, and plays it masterfully.)

_______________
The Seagull, by Anton Chekhov, directed by Michael Bernardi.
Presented by the Downtown Repertory Theater at Pico House, 430 N. Main Street, LA.

Thursday through Sunday at 7:30 pm, through Aug. 31.

Tickets:  <www.downtownrep.com>

A River Going Nowhere: “Bulrusher”

The Navarro River, 28 miles long, flows from northern California’s redwood mountains to the Pacific.  Early on, it passes  the farming town of Boonville.  A century ago, the townsfolk developed their own Cockney-like slang, known as “Boontling” (“Boon” + “lingo”, with a “t” for good measure).

The river is a major figure — almost a character — in Bulrusher, now onstage at the handsome Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz.  “Boontling” makes repeated appearances, too.

The river has somewhere to go, and it gets there.   The dialect was made to communicate, and presumably (among the townspeople, anyway) it does so.  Bulrusher has trouble doing either.

Bianca LeMaire, Chauntae Pink

Bianca Lemaire, Chauntae Pink

Not for lack of trying.

The stage design is striking — a wall made entirely of wooden pallets (or facsimiles thereof), some of them swinging open for windows and doors, others rotating to reveal a counter and shelving.  Also striking are the projections — rippling to evoke the river and, at the end, the sea it flows into.  Both are the creations of Hana S. Kim.

The actors work hard and well.  As the title character (named for being found in a basket among the reeds at the river’s edge), Bianca Lemaire projects energy, coy cleverness and innocence from the start, and sustains them through a taxing performance.  Joshua Wolf Coleman, after a slow start, finds intriguing emotional complexity and thoughtfulness in Logger, a black former lumber mill worker who’s a regular at Boonville’s one bordello.

As the bordello’s proprietress, Heidi James is consistently forceful and wry, yet allows emotion to seep through at moments.  And Patrick Cragin relentlessly and blithely pushes the callow envelope of Boy, the youthful troubador who woos Bulrusher.

Do you sense a pattern?  Yes, the actors are all working uphill, trying to make their roles more than what’s written.

Still, it’s impossible to gauge the talents of Warren Davis, playing the teacher who took Bulrusher in and raised her; or of Chauntae Pink as Vera, the Alabama girl who arrives, young black and gifted with a fetus, and falls in love with Bulrusher.  Their characters simply are given nowhere to grow, and precious little to do.

That fault must be laid at the feet of novice playwright Eisa Davis.

She is understandably fascinated by “Boontling,” and the proud, isolated town where it grew. (So was I, visiting the area most summers of my youth.)

Alas, she is — or was, in 2006 — also enchanted by long poetic monologues.  (Note that I said “poetic,” not “dramatic.”)  In the opening speech, and at key moments throughout, we drown in a sudden flood of inflated diction and arch coinage, making us thirst for language we can understand.

Instead, in the middle of some plain English, we get “Boontling” — cute, but untranslated and incomprehensible.  And it’s too dark to consult the 84-item glossary printed in the program.

Davis also has — or had — little curiosity about the town she fell in love with.  It was indeed a mill town, shrunken by the mill’s closing.

But it was far from the haven of racial harmony she paints.  When Boonville had a population, it was clearly segregated, at work and at home.  And when it had civic brawls, they broke along racial lines.  (Davis does rightly note that the native tribes got the worst of it.) Nor was prostitution so widely admired that the local schoolmaster could spend half his life at the whorehouse and remain employed.

Finally, Davis has — or had — little understanding of what makes a dramatic story.  Her characters are like those in a commedia dell’arte or a sitcom.  They’re identified by and, as things play out, wholly limited to one or two stock actions and emotions apiece.

Worse, they have no choices to make, no life-defining actions to take.  At best, they refrain — from marrying, from killing, from leaving town.  Even Bulrusher’s psychic abilities, a key element of the tale, exert no more than a feeble impact on events.  (The pregnant Vera does face some life-altering decisions, but Davis avoids them by shipping her back to Alabama.)

No actors, however energetic, can fix this.

Nor can any director, however inventive.  And to be honest, Nataki Garrett’s direction is not inventive.  She stages a repetitive sequence of static moments (no doubt what the script offers her).  And again and again, often in the middle of an intimate dialog, she’ll send an actor off on a long, curving stroll around the stage for no reason.

It’s hard to see why Bulrusher was ever considered for a Pulitzer (it lost to David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole in 2007).  It’s hard to see why it keeps getting produced, or why two fine small companies joined forces to stage it here.  Perhaps because it yearns to deal with race — our culture’s besetting tragedy — in a fresh way, and because it yearns to be poetic.

But yearning is a long, long way from achieving.  As every dream-driven artist in LA can tell you.

_______________
Bulrusher, by Eisa Davis, directed by Nataki Garrett.
Presented by Skylight Theatre Company and Lower Depth Theatre Enemble, at the Skylight Theatre,  1816-1/2 N. Vermont St.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 3:00pm,
through Sept. 28.

Tickets: <www.skylighttheatrecompany.com>

 

No Other Way of Telling It: Hip Hop and “Dreamscape”

“If it’s not essential to telling the story, don’t use it.”
— Peter Nigrini, theatre projection designer

Rickérby Hinds loves hip hop.  He’s the founder and artistic director of the CaliFest Hip Hop Theater Festival.  But he’s said almost the same thing about hip hop that Nigrini said about projection — if it’s not essential to telling the story, don’t use it.

Hinds’ latest creation, Dreamscape, makes the case eloquently.

dreamscape

Music and and dance have always been an integral part of theatre. They’ve been woven into the way people tell each other stories since long before anyone learned to write.

Several millennia down the road, along comes hip hop — yet another  way of making music and dance, evolved in the urban centers of the post-industrial world.  It’s a natural way to tell a story, and many artists do, though their stories are marketed as popular songs.

“Hey,” a voice says.  “We want young, urban audiences in our theatres — let’s use hip hop!”  Whoa, there.  Are you just sellin’, or are you tellin’?

Cut to:  Riverside, California, three days after Christmas, 1998.
A young woman is shot to death by police while asleep in her car.  She is black.  They are not.

The story is picked up and told and retold by the news media, and a storm erupts.  There are marches, press conferences, investigations.  And more news stories.  Almost all these stories — written, spoken,  sworn to in court, whispered in kitchens — are about the four cops, their thoughts and their actions.

The girl’s story is mostly untold.  As if the only thing she did was die.

So Hinds, who lives and works in Riverside, decides he must try to tell her story.  Who she might have been before that December night, who she was trying to become.

And because he feels and thinks in hip hop the way Bach did in counterpoint, or Fosse did in jazz dance, the story starts to come out with beat-boxing, rhymed sing-speaking, and energetic, angular dance moves.  All of them ways the girl might have used — surely would have enjoyed and understood — to tell her story.

What we first know of the girl (“Myeisha Mills,” performed by Rhaechyl T. Walker) is that she explodes with energy, flying about the space with constant surprises, laughing and singing and rhyming with infectious joy and wit.

Not that she hasn’t known hurt — she’s been ostracized and beaten, we learn, and she’s sat with her beloved brother as he lay in a coma. But she somehow keeps the fresh, eager playfulness of a youngster embracing the unfolding world.

Punctuating her telling, like the drone of a Celtic bard’s bodhran or an African griot’s kora, are harsh, insistent beat-box sounds (created by the astounding John “Faahz” Merchant).

Again and again, sudden clicks and growls and strangled samplings erupt, dragging us back to the moment of the shooting.  One by one, this norn-like voice of fate intones, in cold coroner’s language, the paths of the  bullets that tore through Myeisha’s body, tearing away her life.

By the end, when four bullets in swift succession smash apart the soft sweet tissues of her brain, we are plunged into grief.  Lost, this beautiful child we were learning to love.  Stilled, this dance; silenced, this song, this unfolding life.

This way of telling the story hands us no shield of outrage to hide behind, arms us with no anger to turn outward.  It makes us instead hold the deep, inner loss of a lovely human being.

I cannot imagine telling this story any other way.

Any other way it becomes, like the news versions, a story of a killing, of race and injustice.  And the girl herself disappears.  Just like she did that night.  Such stories repeat the violence, the violation of her being, her humanity, her unique story.

Hinds’ way of telling it — and Walker’s, and Merchant’s — impress her indelibly upon our minds and hearts.  We cannot hope to walk away from her, or forget her.  She has danced and sung and rhymed her way into our lives.  We find bits of her song returning to us, unexpectedly, bringing her with them.

That is what happens when you tell a story using the music and dance it must have.  When you sing the life — not of an Irish or Mandinka king — but of an urban American girl, and project her — not how she died, but how she lived — into immortality.

Dreamscape is, in Hinds’ words, “a gypsy show,” always on the road, or packed and ready to go.  He and his collaborators are committed to presenting it anywhere in the world it is invited.

It appears in this city next in October.  First, for a single show, at MONK Space downtown.  Next, five showings in the Encuentro 2014 Theatre Festival at LA Theatre Center.  Watch for it.

_______________
Dreamscape, written and directed by Rickérby Hinds, choreographed by Carrie Mikuls.
Presented by Hindsight Productions at LA Contemporary Exhibitions, 6522 Hollywood Blvd. (Closed.)

In October:
Oct. 7, 8:00pm — MONK Space, 4414 W. Second St.
Tickets: <http://evrd.us/IevCo>

Oct. 18, 2:30 and 8:30pm
Oct. 23, 8:30pm
Oct. 25, 2:30 and 8:30pm — LA Theatre Center, 519 S. Spring St.
Tickets: <www.thelatc.org>

Pushing the Boundaries: (2) “Rain Maryam”

Lately, I’ve been present as two theatre companies stepped bravely past the boundaries of theatre as we know it.  Both shows have closed, but they’re worth taking a look at — in print now, on stage if you ever can. 

In mid-July,  I watched a Fringe Encore presentation of Into the Fog.
In late August, I took part in the final performance of Rain Maryam.

Both works employ the materials of theatre — artists on a stage, lights, sounds, costumes and an audience — to  explore what might lie beyond our accustomed uses of these elements.

Rain Maryam
Well before all the patrons have arrived,  a girl in black steps onto a brightly lit bare stage that occupies perhaps a quarter of a wide, black-draped area.

Long past curtain time, she stands silent, immobile.  We can see her, and the empty seats, from the balcony-like lobby.  Ushers keep us from entering.

Charlotte Plummer, Donzell Lewis, Quincy Cho, Marie Ponce-DeLeon, Francesca Chanel Fromang.

Charlotte Plummer, Donzell Lewis, Quincy Cho, Marie Ponce-DeLeon, Francesca Chanel Fromang.

After some time, four black-clad actors enter our space, shout “Yes!” in unison, and thread their way among us.  We watch, moving aside to let them through, until they regain the entrance and head down a ramp toward the seats.

An usher motions some of us to follow, at the actors’ funereal pace. At last, as they disappear behind the curtain wall, we arrive at the seats.  We sit.  Onstage, nothing happens.  The other half of the audience fails to arrive.

Then, behind the curtain wall, the actors start to speak.  But they’re muffled, not projecting.  The show’s tagline emerges in scraps:  A drought  … a village … a girl … a song.

They’re haranguing someone for singing — or for not singing.  The girl onstage?  Their blurred voices carry desolation, and rage.  Would  singing bring rain?

The girl rushes offstage.  The muffled litany goes on.  After a few moments, she returns and stands silent again.

The four actors drift onstage.  Circling her, they interrogate and accuse her.  Has she broken a taboo?  She seems to have done something they fear, don’t like, can’t comprehend.

An usher bursts onstage.  Behind him, the lost  audience members file in, then downstage, then to the empty seats.  He motions us who have been sitting to rise.  We file to the far end of the curtain wall, then into the space behind it.

Here, the scene we strained to overhear repeats.  Now, we hear drought-stricken villagers in a delirious lament.  They mourn the trees that shaded and fed them, the soil that’s been burned to dead powder by the sun.  We still don’t know who the girl is, or what about her singing (or not singing) disturbs them.

The girl rushes in, grabs a brush and mime-paints letters on a door:  “W-H-Y.”   She returns to the stage.  The usher leads us after  her.  We file onstage, across, and  back to our seats.

The audience is at last whole, and we’ve all seen both scenes. Now, as we watch, the villagers begin handling — then abusing — the girl.  A wooden frame is brought in, lifted up, and  slammed loudly down.  All exit.  Blackout.

One actor returns, smiling — No one’s smiled before — and seems to say she will sing.  But when the other villagers enter, she chants tunelessly.  They join her in what may be a litany of hope, then leave the stage, chanting, and file up the ramp.  The girl picks up the wood frame, sets it down, exits.  The chanting develops a harmony, moving toward song.  An usher says the show is over.

I don’t often describe a play in detail.  But I can think of no other way to convey the experience of Rain Maryam — calm yet disturbing, elusive, intriguing.  And incomplete.

I came expecting a story.  From the poster — the broken mud of a parched lake bed, the tagline — I felt I  knew its elements.  I expected that as an audience we’d watch and listen together, while the actors wove the elements into meaning.  I figured they’d lead us to feel  empathy for the people of a particular village, real or imagined.

The artists of Rain Maryam did far more — by doing far less.

They began by challenging our most basic expectations.

An actor on a lit stage, clearly visible seats, said “This is a theatre.”  But they kept us out.  Then actors intruded into our space, without even acknowledging us.  A neat, discomfiting role reversal.

Then we got separated.  Half of us sat watching nothing happen, trying to hear something we couldn’t see.  The other half were just gone.  We weren’t an audience — we were  people struggling to become an audience.  By the time we were reunited, we hadn’t shared the same experience.  And we never could, though we watched the rest of the play together.

The artists similarly confounded our expectations of story and meaning.  At first, we were too surprised to make sense of what was happening.  When we got used to the way things were going, we felt we could harvest some understanding.  But not very much.

Ironically, what we worked so hard to come away with was no more than what we’d had at the start, on the poster:  A drought … a village … a girl … a song.

But now, instead of a story of these things, we had an experience of them.  Our experience was fragmented, disturbing, difficult and unsettled — more like the experience of a natural disaster than a pleasant evening of theatre.

Much more like it than a coherent story, with a beginning and ending, a problem and a resolution, ever could be.

Very few of the half-billion people now living — and dying — in the Earth’s severe drought areas feel they’re going through a coherent experience, one that makes any kind of sense.  They all ask one question: WHY?  Their expectations were reasonable, as they planted their crops and bore their children. They paid for their tickets.

But nature isn’t reasonable.  It keeps you from getting where you think you’re going, even when it’s so close you can see it.  It sends things among you — plagues, crop failures — that you don’t expect.  It stops doing things — rain, flowers and fruits — that you do expect.

And your plants die.  And your children die.

And you turn to blaming, to magic, to prayer, any damn scheme that promises — and nothing works.  Nothing makes any sense at all.  Nothing can make you smile or sing or hope again.

The sudden collapse of life leaves us broken.  Separated from those we feel we belong with, from what we know, we come apart.  We have only shards of time, scraps of memory, and nothing holds together.  Even if we can cobble something back into order, we’re overwhelmed by the people and things we’ve lost.

Of course, no mere play can make us feel the crushing weight of a real  disaster.  But Rain Maryam did  sharply defeat my expectations and make me feel by turns confused, frustrated and lost.  At the same time, it kept me reaching out for the actors, for connection, and for meaning — and aching because it was all just out of reach.

I still find myself saying, like a chant — a drought, a village, a girl, a song — and feeling deep inside the grief that I’m never going to be able to put together, to fix.  Not by understanding, not by donating money.
I don’t think any story could have done that.

So I salute the young artists of the hereandnow theatre company.
In Rain Maryam, they have made a bold leap beyond storytelling, hoping to reach a far country of suffering we must not merely know about but feel.  I think they’ve arrived, and brought us with them.

_______________
Rain Maryam, written and directed by Ibrahim Chávez.
Presented by hereandnow theatre company (in association with Company of Angels and Mel Brian Patrón) at the Howard Hotel, 206 W. Sixth Street, LA.

Performers: Quincy Cho, Marie Ponce-DeLeon, Francesca Chanel Fromang, Donzell Lewis, Charlotte Plummer, Eileen Soong.

Closed.

Pushing the Boundaries: (1)”Into the Fog”

Lately, I’ve been present as two theatre companies stepped bravely past the boundaries of theatre as we know it.  Both shows have closed, but they’re worth taking a look at — in print now, on stage if you ever can. 

In mid-July,  I watched a Fringe Encore presentation of Into the Fog.
In late August, I took part in the final performance of Rain Maryam.

Both works employ the materials of theatre — artists on a stage, lights, sounds, costumes and an audience — to  explore what might lie beyond our accustomed uses of these elements.

Into the Fog
The hour begins with seven performers in overcoats standing
at the back of a nearly bare stage.  It also ends there.  In between comes a melée of intense activity, punctuated by still moments, as the performers  invade and fill and then empty every inch of the space, again and again, in varying forms and patterns.

into fog

There’s no story here, no characters.  This isn’t Shakespeare or Chekhov or Brecht, not even Graham or Fosse.  Yet these unnamed persons engage us, drawing us with them as they walk, jump, fall and whirl, together and apart, in their … what?  Adventure?

They don’t undertake a planned exploration; this feels more like an odyssey, unexpected and constrained, searching unknown territory.  Rather like ghosts being introduced to the underworld.  Or humans finding their way into — and at times suffering, at times celebrating — sudden life.

Books are prevalent in this world.  Books and paper, eventually a whirlwind of paper.  My first thought is, “Ah! Someone’s been here before, left a record.”  Then the actions remind me of how we have used words written down — literally “scriptures” — for good and ill in human history.  And the role of schooling in our lives …

Later there’s a net, a fabric that grows to embrace the whole space and everyone in it … almost.  Like all our networks, families, communities, comforting by imprisoning, including by excluding …

At last, after many such sequences, we return.  The performers don their coats and move slowly — perhaps regretfully? with a wistful wisdom? — toward where they began, whence we came.

Their stepping forward, toward us, has created a connection, made us a community.  Their disrobing invited us in, beneath the surface.  Now the story is done, the inside covered, and we are separated again.  And yet …

Into the Fog has been around a while.  Created in 2011 by Sam Szabo at Skidmore College in upstate New York, it went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012.  For this year’s Hollywood Fringe, Szabo’s collaborator  Samantha Shay reincarnated it at the Schkapf art incubator on Santa Monica Blvd.

Her performers — all drawn from the CalArts community, where she’s working on her MFA — are intense, focused and impressively skillful.  Although none portray characters, each of them creates and maintains a presence with which we connect, drawing us into and through the experience.

You could call Into the Fog an energetic, enigmatic dance piece.  And many of its performers are dancers.  But all are actors experienced in the emerging  art of “ensemble movement” — a kind of work that has yet to be defined or classified, while many companies worldwide explore its countless  possible aspects and incarnations.

What I’m calling “ensemble movement” has been used to augment more traditional theatrical story telling, the way dance helps to tell West Side Story.  Ensemble movement also has replaced characters and settings entirely, while the text remains, as in Zombie Joe’s masterful stagings of Poe’s stories and poems (e.g., The Telltale Heart, The Bells, The Masque of the Red Death).

Into the Fog takes a further step, leaving out the text as well, letting the flow of movements suggest a story that must be “written” in the mind of each audience member, and perhaps rewritten over coffee or drinks afterward.  (So do recent ZJU works such as Nightmares, Manicomio and Haunted Walls and Apparitions.)

Watching such a performance, we must work to help create it, to make coherence and meaning of its flowing parts.  We’re a long way from the passive state in which we’re entertained by Oklahoma! or Noises Off, or  shocked and moved by Equus or Marat/Sade.  It’s more like wrestling with Beckett, or Pinter, or Stoppard.

But now, it’s entirely without words.  And almost equally far beyond the known languages of dance.  Yet the very materials the artists use — as they  refrain from telling what is not a story — create a human connection and elicit our own storymaking.

I wonder where we’ll go next.

_______________
Into the Fog, by Sam Szabo, directed by Samantha Shay.
Presented by the Source Material collective at Schkapf, 6567 Santa Monica Blvd.

Performers:  Erica Carpenter, James Michael Cowan, Brenna Fredrickson, Raven Scott, Jocelynn Suarez,  Kevin Whitmire, Jennifer Jun-Yi Zheng.

Closed.
 

 

 

Playing with Heavy Meta: “Living Art” at ZJU

Art has always riffed on art.

That’s meta, dude.  Like meta-language, the language people use to talk about language, or meta-criticism, reviewers snarking at each other.

Zombie Joe’s Festival of Living Art is nothing if not meta.  It’s a series of his trademark blackout moments, all of them designed in homage to famous paintings and sculptures.

Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson

Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson

He’s translated well-known images from oil and acrylic, bronze and steel back into the breathing human bodies that were their models. The suddenly familiar poses the actors create are an achievement on that level alone.

But there’s more going on.  At ZJU, there almost always is.

For one thing, some of the tableaux vivants move, though paintings and most sculptures don’t.  They take their images somewhere the original artist didn’t — usually somewhere disturbing, yet amusing.   (One piece, a joyful nod to sculptor Alexander Calder, moves like his “mobiles” do — and adds a lovely, smiling human to the mix.)

For another thing, if you’ve lived in LA a while you’ll recognize another reference — to Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters, where for 80 summers live performers have staged meticulous re-creations of famed artworks.  The Underground’s show, done on a shoestring by starving actors, seems to fling a challenge at Orange County’s big-budget orgy of high kitsch.

Finally, there’s the whole business of bringing the visual arts back into the flesh, where they began.  This, I think, is not a criticism (as in “living art” vs. “dead”) but a reminder.  It completes one revolution in an endless cycle: from the flesh, via inspiration and imagination, into art; then back into living, breathing beings as humans experience the art they have made.

Beneath the scrappy playfulness, a ZJU hallmark, I sense a serious reverence.   And the fierce, dedicated discipline of this art’s makers is unmistakeable.

As the familiar scenes flip by, accompanied by music both classical and current, we involuntarily say “Oh!” and “Aaaah” and sometimes “Awwww,” and we often laugh, even cheer.  Several among us shared the desire to see it again — after checking out Janson’s History of Art (there’s an online version), so we could get all the jokes.  And all the homages.

Note should be taken of the understated yet effective costume (and prop) work of Jeri Batzdorff and Zac Hughes.  And, of course, a show that has no stars requires a constellation:  Charlotte Bjornbak, Jason Britt, Sara Ceballos, Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson, Ian Heath, Erin Poland, Chelsea Rose, Sasha Snow, and Julian Vlcan all shine, making an impossibly difficult performance go down easily and most pleasingly.

_______________
Festival of Living Art, directed by Zombie Joe and Zac Hughes.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Saturdays at 11:00 pm (just under 1 hour), through September 6.

Tickets: <www.zombiejoes.com> or (818) 202-4120.

Disclaimer:  ZJU has been my theatre home for a decade, and I’m honored to count Zombie Joe and many in the show as my friends.  But I had no part in conceiving or creating the Festival of Living Art.