Real women of east LA are in the Palisades and Pasadena

Center Theatre Group, which continues to call itself "L.A.'s Theatre Company," also continues to demonstrate virtually no interest in LA stories.

When CTG recently announced the next Mark Taper Forum season, after previously revealing new seasons for the coming year at CTG's Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas theaters, I began counting. So, how many of the 14 CTG productions at these three venues are set in or near LA?

None.

That's one less than the number of LA-set shows that were on the CTG radar a year ago, when I last conducted my annual search of CTG seasons for LA content. Back then I could at least report that CTG was scheduled to revive Culture Clash's "Chavez Ravine," which indeed opened at the Douglas in February.

Two years ago, my survey reported that LA was about to offer three solo shows that were at least partially set in LA and environs. Although solo shows aren't as ambitious as larger productions, at least these three solos and "Chavez Ravine" presented slivers of evidence that occasionally CTG was trying to distinguish itself from dozens of other nonprofit theaters throughout the United States by taking advantage of its location in one of the world's most diverse and dramatic cities.

No such slivers of local interest await CTG audiences during the next year.

Fortunately, two of the area's other larger theaters are currently compensating, in part, for CTG's apathy toward its home town with productions that, coincidentally, both focus on garment workers in east LA.

mojadaimage11hi_6326_3603_low.jpgThe newer and more exciting of these two plays is "Mojada, A Medea in Los Angeles," by Luis Alfaro, who actually began his group of plays that transform Greek tragedies into LA settings at CTG's Mark Taper Forum. There, his "Electricidad," based on the story of Electra, was introduced in 2005 as part of the final Taper season that was assembled by the theater company's founder Gordon Davidson.

Davidson's successor as CTG's artistic director, Michael Ritchie, apparently doesn't share his predecessor's interest in Los Angeles. Furthermore, he eliminated Alfaro's play-development job at CTG shortly after he arrived. So it wasn't surprising when the second of Alfaro's LA-set Greek plays, "Oedipus El Rey," was introduced to LA in 2010 not by CTG but at the much smaller Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena.

Boston Court is also producing Alfaro's "Mojada," but this time it's at the 13,000-square-feet, 450-seat Fleischman Theater at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, not at the Boston Court's 99-seat home in Pasadena. It's the first LA home for Alfaro's Greek plays that looks Greek.

However, the play itself is closer to contemporary LA than to ancient Greece. Alfaro's program note discusses the special attraction of Greek tragedies but then rhapsodizes even more fervently about his love of LA and its possibilities.

As the title "Mojada" indicates, Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela) is a veteran of an illegal border crossing. She was accompanied by her lover Hason (Justin Huen) and their young son, but the unforeseen twists and turns of their entrance into the US were more traumatic for Medea than for Hason or their son. So she has retreated into the front yard of their new apartment, where she does her sewing for hire, while Hason has ventured more deeply into the culture of the new country, obtaining a job with an ambitious real estate developer (Marlene Forte).

Alfaro manages to humanize the ancient tale and to infuse a few doses of humor (Vivis, playing a one-woman Greek chorus, helps with the humor). But he also preserves most of its fundamentals -- including its nightmarish ending, which is much more comprehensible on a psychological level than it seems in most of the traditional productions of "Medea" that I've seen.

Boston Court's Jessica Kubzansky marshals a formidable cast. Some of these actors could constitute the core of a rep company because of their previous appearances in Alfaro's Greek plays; Huen played Orestes and then Oedipus in Alfaro's earlier plays before tackling Hason.

I hope CTG is keeping tabs on what happened to the phenomenon it started with the first LA production of "Electricidad". CTG could create a great gift to the city if it could find the resources and the will to produce all three of these plays in concurrent rep, before these actors outgrow their parts.

Pasadena Playhouse also ventures into east LA sewing circles with a revival (and the first LA production above the small-theater level) of Josefina Lopez's play "Real Women Have Curves," which is better known in its 2002 award-winning film version.

real-women-curves-pasadena.jpg

The play preceded the movie. It was produced by a San Francisco company in 1990, by San Diego Repertory Theatre in 1994 and at the tiny and now-defunct Glaxa Studios on Sunset Boulevard in 1998. Lopez's own Casa 0101 produced it in 2011.

"Real Women" is audience-friendly, in the style of a lively workplace sitcom - but one in which the boss herself is undocumented and in which the sweltering women start taking off their clothes in a feel-good act of defiance against the tyranny of thin-is-beautiful stereotypes. There is never much doubt that the women's camaraderie will overcome any differences among them or that the ending will be happy. The dramatic power of "Mojada" is missing. But "Real Women" certainly has currency, as immigration once again dominates much of the political debate in the current election cycle.

Pasadena Playhouse, which had largely defined diversity in stark black and white terms (literally so in "Twelve Angry Men" just two years ago), has been broadening that definition recently -- to Asian and Asian-Americans in "Waterfall" and "Stop Kiss" and now to Latinas in "Real Women Have Curves." Seema Sueko, the relatively new associate artistic director who seems to be spearheading this effort, is the director of "Real Women".

And at The Wallis

Last week brought the announcement of the first "artistic director" of the Wallis - the LA area's most promising new midsize theater/dance/music venue, located in a posh corner of Beverly Hills. The new head honcho is Paul Crewes, who currently runs Kneehigh, the British theater company that brought "Brief Encounter" to the Wallis and "Tristan & Yseult" to South Coast Rep. I was glad to hear that the top job would go to a theater specialist.

But I also wondered whether the search had included an exhaustive examination of potential candidates who already live in LA and know the local players. Or did the searchers instead operate on the dubious assumption that the job should ideally go to someone from England or New York?

Then I read this quote from Crewes within the official announcement: "We will create and program innovative work made for and created by people within this community. We will also inspire artists both nationally and internationally to make and present their work at The Wallis."

That first sentence is promising, and we should hold Crewes to his promise.

It's tempting for companies such as the Wallis and Santa Monica College's Broad Stage simply to import art from distant cities (Broad Stage's new artistic and executive director Wiley Hausam comes from Stanford Live, which is primarily a presenting organization. Of course, for whatever it's worth, both Stanford Live and Broad Stage are associated with colleges, unlike the more independent Wallis).

Still, any theater with ambitions of greatness -- especially one in a city with as many theatrical artists as LA -- should also work with local pros to create homemade art, some of which eventually might be exported to other cities. The Wallis succeeded in this endeavor this year with Deaf West's "Spring Awakening," which is currently opening on Broadway. With CTG appearing increasingly uninterested in LA-developed or LA-set programming, let's hope the Wallis can join the efforts by other theaters to fill the gap.


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