Going local with "Chavez,' 'California Tempest' and 'Disconnection'

chavez-ctg-rehearsal.jpgRic Salinas, Richard Montoya, Sabina Zuniga Varela and Herbert Siguenza in rehearsal for Culture Clash's "Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival." Photo: Craig Schwartz

Despite my frequent blasts at Center Theatre Group -- aka "LAs Theatre Company" -- for ignoring LA in its choice of subjects, I never suggested that a revival of Culture Clash's LA-saturated "Chavez Ravine" might be a panacea for the problem.

Sure, "Chavez Ravine" is about an interesting chapter of LA history -- the obliteration of a bucolic Mexican American community in order to create public housing, the subsequent collapse of that plan because of the red scare, and the later development of the property for the new Dodger Stadium. Still, the original "Chavez Ravine" at CTG's Mark Taper Forum was hardly one of Culture Clash's finest efforts.

However, in what looks like a token attempt to produce something about LA in the current season, CTG's artistic director Michael Ritchie chose to revive "Chavez Ravine" instead of applying the extra effort (and money?) to find a fresher LA-intensive production. And so we now have a rehash of "Chavez Ravine," this time in the smaller Kirk Douglas Theatre.

"Rehash" is my word, not CTG's. The official promotional line is that "Chavez Ravine" has been "Remixed. Relived. Reloaded." Unfortunately, the emphasis on the stage is on "Relived," not "Remixed" or "Reloaded."

A genuine remix might have helped. True, there are a few trims and other changes in this new version, and Jason H. Thompson's fresh projection design is quite effective. But the production still suggests "a collection of comedy sketches in search of a play," which is how I described it in my 2003 LA Times review. Culture Clash is still placing the emphasis on its own chameleonic talents, sometimes at the expense of the story it's trying to tell.

The three members of Culture Clash -- Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza -- plus the show's one actress (now Sabina Zuniga Varela) play 36 characters. Many of them are very superficially sketched, and many of them would be expendable if anyone seriously tried to "remix" the show. But apparently Culture Clash (and director Lisa Peterson) weren't especially interested in carving a "Ravine" that was tighter -- and deeper.

"California: The Tempest"

A sense of clutter also afflicts another attempt to produce a locally-centered play -- "California: The Tempest," from Cornerstone Theater. In this case, the way the piece was assembled bears much of the blame. It's a "bridge" show, which means that it unites elements from 10 summer institutes that Cornerstone sponsored over the last decade, in communities throughout California -- along with a plot derived mostly from Shakespeare's "Tempest," but with some some faux-Shakespearean local references by playwright Alison Carey.

In Carey's variation, Shakespeare's warring siblings have become two sisters, one of whom has somehow managed to swipe the job of governor of California from the other one, who is now wandering through the northern California wilderness. Far-fetched? Yes, but it might have worked without the additional burden of Cornerstone's community-service priorities.

The production is on tour to all 10 institute-hosting communities over the course of a year, and apparently it was deemed necessary to acknowledge all of the communities in the script, with a little special attention paid to each stop's host community. And so, when I saw it in San Fernando last week (at a brief engagement that has now ended), that area of LA received extra nods. When it returns to Cornerstone's host community in the downtown arts district next June, presumably that community will get extra time and attention.

While the community members themselves probably appreciate these efforts, these dutiful digressions hardly enhance the overall experience for the general audience member. I've seen previous "bridge" shows in which Cornerstone integrated the disparate elements much more smoothly, but perhaps the fact that these particular components come from 10 locales within such a large state inherently makes the adaptation more unwieldy.

I saw one locally-oriented production over the last week that's much more clearly focused than "Chavez Ravine" or "California Tempest" -- even though its title is "Disconnection." Allen Barton's script is focused on Scientology, although it doesn't mention the word. In fact, Scientology is the show's indirect target.

Photo: Ed Krieger

Barton has a history with Scientology, and this is a somewhat fictionalized account of his own story. Because Barton is now outraged at the way he was treated, "Disconnection" has a definite point of view. And the fact that its point of view is anti-Scientology is all the more notable because the producer is the Skylight Theatre Company (formerly known as Katselas Theatre), the venue is the same Beverly Hills Playhouse that Katselas once commanded, and -- oh, yes -- Katselas was a Scientologist as well as a famous acting teacher. However, from materials published in connection with the play, we learn (or you're reminded, in case you already knew) that Katselas himself apparently ran into some trouble with Scientology late in his life.

At any rate, "Disconnection" tells the tale of an attorney and his adult daughter who initially found succor in a Scientology-like church, only to become disillusioned and rejected to the point of, well, disconnection. Another character, the man's piano teacher, remains true to the church. The play's one other character is the church founder himself, who appears in a late-life monologue in which he too appears disillusioned, if not disconnected.

This scene about the founder might be more fascinating in a play devoted primarily to his own story, but here it feels -- sorry -- too disconnected from "Disconnection," especially as it fills the time that might have been devoted to a more detailed and compelling explanation of what exactly happened to the lawyer to sour his attitude toward the church.

At any rate, with Scientology probably more prominent in Los Angeles than in any other American city, it's refreshing to see a staged critique of it, especially in the same venue that Katselas once governed. LA's theater makers should examine LA for other relatively undramatized cultural phenomena that await their turns on the LA stage.


I'm always happy to see transfers of high-quality productions from one part of Greater LA to another. Every such venture might help the city's theatrical scene feel a little more cohesive. So take note of the successful transfer of South Coast Repertory's production of "The Whipping Man," Matthew Lopez's fascinating Civil War slave-seder story, to the Pasadena Playhouse. The West Coast Jewish Theatre produced the LA premiere of Lopez's play last year, but many more can see the play in these larger venues.

Likewise, I'm delighted to learn that La Mirada Theatre's production of "Billy Elliot" is moving to the Alex Theatre in Glendale, Feb. 20-22. This winning musical is about a British boy's quest to become a ballet dancer, despite his background in a depressed coal-mining culture . You can read more about the Elton John/Lee Hall musical, directed by Brian Kite, in my Jan. 23 column.


pensotti-shirley.jpgPhoto: Steven Gunther

With LA rife with filmmakers and would-be filmmakers, it might be the world's second most appropriate site for Mariano Pensotti's "Cineastas" -- after Buenos Aires, where this panoramic theatrical production was created and where its fictional filmmakers live.

"Cineastas" is currently in downtown LA, at REDCAT, where Pensotti's "El pasado es un animal grotesco" intrigued me in 2012. That production involved a constantly-revolving turntable, which I thought I might see again in "Cineastas" -- but no, this time we can see two stages simultaneously throughout the production. The lower stage is devoted primarily to scenes from the lives of four filmmakers (two women, two men), who have achieved varying levels of success. The upper stage depicts scenes from the films that are being made by these four.

The most obvious subject is the potential interaction between filmmakers' personal lives and the narratives they're filming -- each can influence the other. But beyond the obvious, Pensotti is also examining what's ephemeral and what's durable in our lives and our culture.

As in "El animal," much of the action is narrated as well as enacted. Five actors take turns narrating the four stories, and it's narration -- more than the dialogue -- that is translated in English supertitles from the Spanish. Although there is little interaction among the characters of the different stories, the production flows almost seamlessly from one story to another. The stage is packed with people grappling for meaning -- in their movies as well as their lives -- and although it all runs less than two hours, I left it with at least a half-dozen characters and their passions mixing it up inside my brain. Pensotti turns introspective storytelling into a four-ring theatrical spectacle.

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