The 99-Seat plan's long goodbye

You may have heard that LA's 99-seat theaters are about to enter a year of living on the edge - because on June 1, 2016, all hell will break loose.

Or perhaps you've heard the actual gnashing of teeth in some quarters over the apparently shocking and newfangled notion that Actors' Equity, a labor union, will require its members to receive at least the legal minimum wage from producers, beginning a year from now. Some suggest that LA theater is doomed.

So it might come as an equal shock, but from the opposite direction, to hear the news that many small companies won't be seriously affected by the changes. Those companies that are run by their own members will be able to employ those members without union-approved contracts — and, in a change from Equity's original proposal, they can admit new members who are Equity actors.

A recent LA Times article initially gave the impression that it would examine the effects of the Equity changes on a typical 99-seat company, the Road. But then the thirteenth paragraph suddenly revealed that the Road "is exempt, along with about 60 other membership companies," from Equity's changes. The rest of the article provided some fascinating information about the Road's finances, along with interviews of Equity members who approved the changes and others who disapproved. But I wondered why the article wasn't focused on one of the companies that will be more directly affected by the changes.

Until that article, however, I hadn't realized that as many as 60 companies — the official list hasn't yet been published — will be allowed to continue with business as usual, more or less. By the way, let's hope that Equity soon allows Evidence Room to join that list. Someone at Equity reportedly told Evidence Room artistic director Bart DeLorenzo that because its recent shows were co-productions with other companies, it didn't qualify. But Equity should be encouraging, not penalizing, co-productions. Cooperation among two or more companies is one way to increase the chances that the actors on a production will be better paid.

As for the non-membership companies, I hope most of them take the next year to develop their resources to the point that they can afford to pay Equity members the minimum wage, as opposed to deciding to use only non-Equity actors or — even worse — squandering money on dubious lawsuits.

Once again, I also ask that LA's midsize and larger companies do whatever they can to assist the better 99-seat non-membership companies to survive. In recent weeks I've seen Theatre Movement Bazaar at South Coast Repertory in "Big Shot" and the 24th Street Theatre's "Walking the Tightrope" at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre. These were very brief runs, but they provided a taste of what might happen if more LA companies — large and small — cooperated with each other. Thanks in advance to the Wallis in Beverly Hills for importing and upgrading Deaf West Theatre's ASL-inflected rendition of "Spring Awakening."

By the way, regarding that looming option to switch to only non-Equity actors, I'm aware of only one local non-Equity company that regularly produces fresh and important and accomplished work — Chance Theater in Orange County. Then again, I admit that I don't normally attend non-Equity productions in LA — or in OC (except for the Chance.) When LA County offers 390 Equity-99-seat-plan productions and 221 Equity-contract productions in one year (June 2013-May 2014), who has the time to take a chance on non-Chance, non-Equity theater?

In Los Angeles County, where there are so many more Equity actors than in OC, a 99-seat company that decided to go backwards into non-Equity status — in order to avoid paying the minimum wage — could easily vanish from the media map. Let's pretend that I'm an editor, considering two opening productions that could be assigned coverage on a particular weekend, but I have the budget for only one review. Let's say the two shows look about equally interesting from their publicists' descriptions, but I know that one of them uses Equity actors and the other one doesn't. I'd probably choose the one that uses Equity actors. Of course there is no guarantee that it would be better, but at least an Equity affiliation is a gauge of professional experience, and it's probably the only handy gauge that I have, without doing a lot of time-consuming research to help me decide.

I imagine that LA Times theater critic Charles McNulty feels the same way about which shows he personally covers, judging from his endorsement of Equity's recent efforts in an April 23 commentary. I agreed with most of what he wrote. But his argument might have been more convincing if he attended and wrote about more of the shows in LA's current midsize theaters. If he wants the 99-seat companies to grow to that level, he should become better acquainted with what works and what doesn't work at that level — in LA, not in New York or London.

I usually discuss productions of all sizes in my columns, but in today's — as the 99-Seat Plan enters its final year — I'm going to examine only productions that are housed in theaters with fewer than 100 seats.

enron-ds.jpgFirst and foremost, "Enron." it's wonderful to see the Production Company return to full-production mode, after more than a year, with the LA premiere of Lucy Prebble's let-us-entertain-you account of the rise and fall of the Enron corporation, at the Lex in Hollywood. Just as Enron itself employed a kind of magical realism in its corporate communications and investments, so does Prebble employ a flashy and funny magical realism in her saga about Enron.

The major characters are portrayed in very human terms by lively actors, but they're accompanied by an array of puppets, raptors and other unexpected apparitions. Although the tone of the play usually stays on the light and satirical side, near the end an explosion of anger by some of Enron's less well-heeled victims creates a surprisingly cathartic moment.

August Viverito's direction and set and sound design take us along on the wild ride, with pertinent animations and projections by Tiger Reel, luxe lighting by Matt Richter and choreography by Nancy Dobbs Owen. This is a show that should have produced on a bigger budget in a larger space — it would be interesting to ask the leaders of LA's large and midsize companies why they passed up that opportunity. But Viverito and company make us forget all that.

The story is lucid enough for all theatrical purposes. Although it's set in Texas, don't forget that our own state played a pivotal role in the Enron run-in — an Enron-engineered electricity crisis led to blackouts in California. Enron CEO Kenneth Lay was even quoted saying "it doesn't matter what you crazy people in California do, because I got smart guys who can always figure out how to make money." Unfortunately, he died before he could see the "crazy people in California" performing "Enron."

By contrast, John Bunzel's depiction of financial shenanigans among a group of money managers during a financial meltdown, in his "63 Trillion" at the Odyssey, is constricted by its realistic style — and although full of punchlines, it's relatively mirthless. Bunzel's script also fails to make us feel the sting of the victims. By the way, this play takes place in LA, but the only meaningful indication of its local setting is in the view from the office windows, not in the script. New American Theatre is the producing company.

ENTROPY-ds.jpg"Entropy," like "Enron," belongs in a larger space than its current home, but unlike "Enron," "Entropy" doesn't quite make us forget all that. Bill Robens' script is an enjoyable cartoon about the US/Soviet space race, set in 1973. But Krystyna Loboda's set and the other ingenious but cheekily low-budget design elements are the production's domineering stars. Director Christopher William Johnson gives the designers' effort so much space in Theatre of NOTE's Hollywood black box that that there is hardly any room left for the audience, which is sentenced to sit in three rows of uncomfortable bleachers, crammed against one wall.

One of the astronauts in "Entropy" is a woman — supposedly launched into space a decade before the first actual female American astronaut (Sally Ride). Not surprisingly, the "Entropy" woman runs up against some rampant sexism from one of the two men in the same space capsule. She would find a very sympathetic ear from the only female character in Jessica Dickey's "Row After Row," an Echo Theater production at Atwater Village Theatre.

In Dickey's play, two men who are avid Civil War re-enactors retreat to a bar for their usual post-performance drink and encounter a woman, of all people, who has also just participated in the faux battle of Gettysburg. As in "Entropy," one of the men is resentful of the female intrusion into a male world, while the other man is more sympathetic.

Dickey has a knack for making transitions between contemporary speech and more lyrical reflections — and between scenes among the 21st-century re-enactors and scenes in 1863 among the characters the re-enactors are playing. Unfortunately, the same kind of time travel between the Civil War and the present was also used in Catherine Bush's "The Road to Appomattox," seen just three months ago at the Colony Theatre, so its use here didn't strike me as particularly original. Generally, however, Dickey's play coheres better than Bush's.

"Violet," at El Portal's Monroe Theatre in NoHo, is set a century after Gettysburg — in 1964. It features another young (white) woman dealing with the continuing aftermath of the Civil War, as she crosses the South on a bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma. But it's very different from "Row After Row" — it's a musical, with a score by Jeanine Tesori, who later wrote the music for "Caroline, or Change" (why has no one in LA staged that wonderful musical since the Ahmanson's LA premiere?) and whose "Fun Home" is currently nominated for 12 Tonys, including nods for Tesori and for LA's Beth Malone in the best-actress category.

Kelrik Productions is offering a beautifully sung if scenically rudimentary LA premiere of "Violet" (although Laguna Playhouse presented the larger local premiere in 1999). Brian Crawley's book has built-in problems in telling the story about a na├»ve young woman who hopes a TV preacher can heal her scarred face, and the young GIs — one white, the other black — who fall for her. But Kelrik and director Joshua Finkel deserve kudos for excavating this important example of Tesori's early work — almost immediately after Kelrik produced an equally well-sung "Sweeney Todd" in the same space.

o-my-god-lamont-ds.jpgThe protagonist in "Violet" is no feminist role model. But two strong, vital women are featured in two Jewish-themed plays currently running. In the US premiere of Israeli playwright Anat Gov's "O My God," a Tel Aviv therapist — a single mother of an autistic boy — is visited by a depressed and possibly violent client who soon identifies himself as, gulp, God. After she recovers her composure, the therapist is actually able to help.

Some might label the play's humanized depiction of God as sacrilege, but Judaism includes a healthy tradition of arguing with God — remember Job? If not, this play will refresh your memory. Howard Teichman's production for West Coast Jewish Theatre, at Pico Playhouse with Mike Burstyn as "G" and Maria Spassoff as the therapist, is exceptional. Teichman's company is the scrappy outfit that introduced "The Whipping Man" to LA last year, before we saw it at South Coast Repertory and then the Pasadena Playhouse.

A few miles to the west, at Santa Monica's Braid Theatre (actually a white-box gallery space), Jewish Women's Theatre is presenting its first long-run solo show, "Not That Jewish," in which veteran comic Monica Piper recounts experiences from her lifelong sense of being culturally Jewish — but not religious. She doesn't exactly argue with God, as the therapist does in "O My God," but like that therapist, Piper is a single mother of a young man (although her adopted son isn't autistic). At one point, I distinctly heard Piper say "O my God." Most of the time, however, her words are much funnier. I'm not sure if "Not That Jewish" is a wonderful stand-up act or an autobiographical play — I only know that it's hilarious and, ultimately, heartwarming.

Heartwarming is also the word for "An L.A. Journey, The Story of Lorenzo Alfredo," at Casa 0101. This is a non-Equity production, and its current form isn't particularly polished, but it's quite a story — a K'iche Mayan orphan's odyssey from Guatemala to, yes, LA. The now-adult Alfredo co-wrote the script with director Emmanuel Deleage and performs a somewhat extraneous musical number, but it's hard to remain unaffected by his younger incarnations - as represented by several child actors. Perhaps a later sequel will cover Alfredo's actual LA years and how he got from being homeless in Long Beach to finding an artistic casa in Boyle Heights.

Enron: Joanna Strapp
Entropy: Darrett Sanders
O My God: Michael Lamont

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