All posts by Mark

Playing in Space & Time, part 1: “Elephant Man”

This past weekend, I took part as two theatre companies invited us to play with them in ways that stretched — or shrank — space and time.   Each deserves its own review, but I think they shed light on each other.

THE ELEPHANT MAN at St. John’s Cathedral

This is not a theatre.  It is the absolute opposite of a black box — a gigantic oblong carton, six or seven stories high and a city block long, empty save rows of long wooden pews clinging to the stone floor.  Halfway down its immense length, a flat wooden stage.

Merrick church

Cathedral model built by Merrick

Far above the stage’s lights, in the vast penumbra that fills this void, a figure two or three times the size of a man hangs on a flat cross.   This, and the gilded altar a half-block farther on, remind us of the building’s purpose — to tell a much older story than the one we will witness tonight.

Tonight, the actors tell of a young man, John Merrick, whose life was shaped by  a disease — and people’s reactions.  The illness twisted his bones and grew the tissues of his head, torso and arm at a cancerous rate.  Shunned, he survived by being “the Elephant Man” in Victorian freak shows.  When his agent robbed and abandoned him, a London doctor took him in.   At the hospital he had a home and education, friends and an art (model building) for four years, until he died.

Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 play (and David Lynch’s 1980 film) took   this story to the world.  But that was a generation ago, when half the people now alive were not born.  Director Patricia McKee’s staging is thus timely.

And her choice of venue pushes the subtext forward, making it larger than the play itself.

We feel Merrick (Mark McClain Wilson) suffer piercing indignities and unthinkable pain, while the massive Crucifix hovers above.  We hear character after character confess — they use Merrick as a mirror into their own souls, though few peer deeply.   And we dare not breathe as Mrs. Kendal (Maria Olsen) boldly touches Merrick’s isolated life with love.  Surrounding this small naked moment, embracing it, are acres of silent stone and stained glass, gold leaf and velvet drapes — all shaped to draw attention to Christendom’s central act, the communion of one body given to and for another.

Like the actors’ voices echoing into the vast stone chamber (a challenge not always fully met), the story’s heart resounds in this sacramental space.

This makes the play’s last scenes,  an earnest critique of patriarchy, a genuine anticlimax.  As his awareness emerges, Dr. Treves breaks apart (though William Kidd’s physicality peaked early).  The bishop (Paul Anderson) and hospital administrator (JimTaylor) remain obtuse and self-admiring, as unaware as the feckless Lord John (Michael McConnell).  The world is little changed.

McKee has chosen boldly.  The cathedral’s reverberant meanings are worth the struggle with its physical echoes.  Her wisely spare stage (a table, a desk, a bed, three chairs) is simply lit by Sergio Crego, who uses blackouts to good effect.  And it’s a fine touch to reveal some  characters early, at the candlelit altar, and let them traverse the long aisle down to the stage before entering.

Daring to throw this play into acres of space, McKee allows it to connect across millennia of time.  Yet she keeps its onstage body small and simple.   This lets us stay attached to the players and the tale, while feeling the deeper levels of our shared experience.

A further note about time:  This play was afforded a very short run — eight performances — and has closed.  But McKee is hopeful …

The Battle of the Ghosts

Saturday night, in a black box in NoHo,  the Ghost of Theatre Past attacked the spirits of theatre present and future.   Some of us didn’t survive.

ghost furniture

As 40 eager people filled the seats, a band of actors and their crew mounted a comedy by a living master.   Or they they tried to.

But when the lights rose, the air grew thick.  It got hard to breathe.

Floor-to-ceiling flats had crept onstage and loomed ominously.  Heavy pieces of furniture were eating up the floor space, swelling like malevolent balloons.   Dozens of props and tchotchkes burgeoned into what little air was left.

Two actors bravely fought for room to deliver their lines.  A man fended off pesky playing cards, cigarettes and matches while discovering his wife’s infidelity.  She was so busy struggling free  of costume items — and then trapping wayward bags, bottles and glasses — that her husband’s questions slipped by her.

The scene ended.  The lights dimmed, and work lights came on. Then the monsters began to move.

Two flats wheeled slowly about, and one came downstage.  Tottering toward us, groaning, it revealed yet another massive blob of furniture stuck to its back.  A bloated couch nudged forward.

A pair of courageous stagehands tried to contain the attack.  For two minutes, they wrestled flats and hassocks, suitcases and pillows, but in vain.  Finally, the director leaped up, threw open the lobby door and rushed to the light booth.  A blackout ensued — or would have, but the flood of lobby light held the soulless creatures at bay.

Spared for the moment,  we took a deep breath and focused.  Another scene began.

For nearly three hours, this battle continued.  Some of us, alas, were casualties, carried out quietly during  intermission.  The survivors applauded at the end, deeply touched by the actors’  heroic attempt.

They had stood up for the human right to explore art and love, in the face of an overwhelming onslaught.  But when they left, the boards belonged to the aliens, who slumped and squatted, grinning inhumanly.  They had won.

The play was well written, witty and wrenching by turns.  The actors’ work ranged from solid to scintillating.   But they were all defeated — by mountains of material goods,  the 45 minutes it took to shift them about, and the 25-minute interval.

The Ghost of Theatre Past.

Twice in the last month, I’ve seen it choke plays to death.

Once it was alive — before radio and film, TV and the Internet, before Las Vegas and Disneyland and the Super Bowl.   Back then, it  provided  everything — story and spectacle, news and context, drama and all the details.  But, as the bird says, nevermore.

Today the Ghost stalks the night, looking for undefended stages.  Trying to do what film and other media do better, it crushes and dismembers plays.   Theatre lovers must watch, helpless, as each torn scene is lifted up and almost brought to life — then flung aside and forgotten.

We don’t need flats and furniture.  We have imaginations.

Theatre is about our imaginations — and using them.   We gather, actors and crew and audience, to imagine a  story.   We don’t need realistic details in every corner.  We don’t want them.

And we don’t want the interruption of shuffling them around.  We want the story.  Give us a couple of risers or boxes, tell us they’re an apartment or a throne room, and we’ll do the rest.  That’s what we came for.

It’s time to lay this murderous old Ghost to rest.  At least in the intimacy of our small theatres, where spectacle is out of place and steals our time.

 

 

Hello world!

Welcome to Theatre Ghost!

ghost

I’m a lifelong theatre artist, and I’ve been haunting LA’s small theatres for decades.

Besides acting in plays, and writing and directing them, I attend them … 50 or more each year.

That exhausts my pocketbook.  But it hardly touches the more than 400 productions staged each year in our city’s black boxes and storefronts.

(Equity calls us the “Under 50s,” looking gently down its nose at the maximum number of seats we’re allowed, and the most we’ve ever paid an actor.)

We’re small and poor, but I think we’re where theatre really lives.

Big budgets beget big headaches — and draw big egos hungry for money or power or fame.  Such worries we don’t need.  They clog the arteries and stifle the art.

Small spaces and budgets challenge creativity.  And our inability to mount a spectacular illusion keeps us focused on story, on people.

The magic of theatre — the thing film, TV and the Internet can’t do — is human contact.  The way bodies in a room affect each other.  You feel, viscerally, what an actor is feeling a few feet from you.  The actor feels your reaction.  And that makes a shared story.

You can’t get that from a screen, not even 60 feet wide with 3D and DoubleDeafDolby.

You can’t avoid it in an Under 50 theatre.  So that’s where I’ll be writing from.

(Well, “writing about.”  I’m actually writing from a tiny room above a wooded canyon, the morning after.)