What would Gordon Davidson do in LA theater today?

10-0GD_Cast_20th_Anniv_Onst.jpgGordon Davidson on stage at the Taper's 20th Anniversary celebration. Craig Schwartz.

WWGD - What would Gordon do?

No, I'm not comparing Gordon Davidson to Jesus or God (despite those imposing initials "GD"). But many LA theater practitioners and observers should ask themselves WWGD, at least occasionally, especially in the wake of Davidson's death last Sunday.

Initially known as a '60s rebel, Davidson reached his most public pinnacle of success within the theatrical establishment in 1994, when his Center Theatre Group.co-produced three of the four plays nominated for Broadway's best-play Tony Award.

"We're the most active and productive theater in the area of new and challenging work in the United States," bragged Davidson. "Somebody else can add 'the world'."

One of those three plays, "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," was not only commissioned and first produced by CTG, but it focused on LA's most notorious crisis of that era - the 1992 Los Angeles unrest following the Rodney King verdict.

"Twilight" was hardly Davidson's first production of challenging material about the community his theater serves. In 1978, he introduced "Zoot Suit," about an earlier era's LA riots. It was probably the first time that most of the Taper audience had seen a play that examined the racism directed against Mexican Americans. CTG is scheduled to revive "Zoot Suit" in February.

"Zoot Suit" was only the first of the Latino-themed and LA-set productions of Davidson's CTG. He helped put Culture Clash on the wider LA cultural map, and he produced Lisa Loomer's "Living Out," about the conflicting familial loyalties of a Latina maid for a wealthy Westside family.

Also under Davidson, CTG's Latino Initiative helped develop Latino playwrights, administrators and audiences. One of the initiative's directors, Luis Alfaro, lost his job when Davidson left but has since found considerable success with his plays such as "Oedipus El Rey" and "Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles." Alfaro's co-director, Diane Rodriguez, became an associate artistic director of CTG and a powerful force in the national nonprofit theater world.

One of the cast members of the 1978 "Zoot Suit" premiere, Evelina Fernandez, has now written "A Mexican Trilogy - An American Story," which covers nearly a century in the life of one Mexican-American family over two parts and more than five hours. Its structure and scope are somewhat reminiscent of the two epics, "Angels in America" and "The Kentucky Cycle," which were the other two CTG-affiliated productions (besides "Twilight") that were nominated for the best-play Tony in 1994. But this new trilogy, running through this weekend, is a production not of CTG, but of Latino Theater Company (LTC), at Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC), on Spring Street in downtown LA.

mexican-trilogy.jpgGeoffrey Rivas, Olivia Cristina Delgado, Ella Saldaña North and Esperanza America
in "Mexican Trilogy." Grettel Cortes Photography

LTC had previously produced the three individual components of "Mexican Trilogy," separately, at LATC, and LTC artistic director Jose Luis Valenzuela not only staged all of the "Trilogy" productions but is also married to the playwright. So it isn't surprising that the completed version is receiving its premiere with Fernandez's home company. However, CTG did contribute some Mellon Foundation grant money to the development of "Hope," the best of the three plays within the "Mexican Trilogy," and CTG receives a conspicuous "thank you" section in the "Trilogy" program, with two CTG departments and six CTG employees singled out for their assistance.

"A Mexican Trilogy," especially with its new subtitle "An American Story," is terrific, funny as well as moving, with lively period music. The first play, "Faith," is briefly set in Mexico but quickly moves to Arizona in the '40s. The next installment, "Hope," is set in Phoenix but culminates in the family's move to LA - and the assassination of JFK, who is a character in amusing fantasy segments within it. The concluding "Charity," entirely set in LA in 2005, is much improved from its earlier incarnation, successfully bringing the trilogy's themes into an era close to our own.

So isn't the next logical step a production of the entire "Trilogy" at one of the three CTG stages?

The "Trilogy" won't receive the attention from a wider LA audience that it deserves if it's limited to the current LTC production (closing Sunday). The Los Angeles Times, which sent a freelancer to briefly review each of the earlier one-play-only productions in 2011 and 2012, hasn't reviewed the current, improved, complete production of the entire trilogy.

I like to imagine that in his prime, Gordon Davidson might have found a way to make sure that the entire city would get a longer opportunity to see Fernandez's trilogy. Let's hope that Davidson's successor, Michael Ritchie, might arrange a similar move.

Speaking of CTG, what's on its stages right now? Ivo Van Hove's revival of Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge" is in the Ahmanson. The venue is too big for the square set, which is apparently supposed to suggest a boxing ring. Even from a relatively good orchestra seat, I felt that the title should have been "A View From the Back." The lead performance didn't register strongly, and an added wordless scene at the beginning felt extraneous and somewhat too enigmatically atmospheric.

Phylicia Rashad's revival of August Wilson's first big success, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," is at the Taper. If the test of a revival is whether the play seems better than the last time you saw it, I'd have to say that I liked it more the first time around. The please-don't-spoil ending is none too convincing, although some of that impression might be attributable to the blocking.

Another 20th-century American master, the late Edward Albee, is currently represented in LA not by one of his well-known plays, as Miller and Wilson are, but by the seldom-seen "The Play About the Baby." Unfortunately, in the Road Theatre production at the company's Magnolia Boulevard venue, it quickly becomes apparent why it's seldom seen - it's like first-draft outtakes from Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

One month to go

On the theatrical presidential front, CTG is producing the premiere of a Jon Robin Baitz play, "Vicuṅa," that sounds as if it were inspired by the rise of Donald Trump. Too bad it won't open at Kirk Douglas Theatre until October 30, only nine days before the election. But previews begin on October 23.

In the meantime, I've witnessed two productions about a richly dramatic former president, LBJ. First South Coast Repertory presented "All the Way," by Robert Schenkkan (who wrote "The Kentucky Cycle," referenced above). Yes, the TV version is available on HBO, with Bryan Cranston as LBJ. But Hugo Armstrong's LBJ at South Coast sent a vibrantly live charge through the theater as he fought for the Civil Rights Act and his own election in 1964, just after his predecessor was gunned down in Dallas. Marc Masterson's staging closed last Sunday.

all-the-way-ds.jpg​Rosney Mauger, Jordan Bellow, Christian Henley, Tracey A. Leigh and Gregg Daniel in "​All the Way." Debora Robinson/SCR.

Surely "All the Way" will eventually receive an LA stage premiere, and Armstrong would be a formidable contender to revive his performance.

But he might have some competition here from Time Winters, whose LBJ is the best thing about Daniel Henning's "The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare)", a Blank Theatre production at the Skylight Theatre.

Henning's play tries to adapt Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" in order to re-tell the story of the JFK assassination. Using some of Shakespeare's words but forcing them into characters who are identified by the famous names from five decades ago, Henning thrusts the role formerly known as Brutus into the mouth of Winters' LBJ, complete with Texas accent. Caesar becomes JFK (Ford Austin), Cassius is transformed into J. Edgar Hoover (Tony Abatemarco), and many lesser characters in Shakespeare's play are given the names, and appropriate costumes, of other historical figures from that 1963 period (Jackie, Lady Bird, Evelyn Lincoln, Lee Harvey Oswald, and so on).

This notion of connecting the JFK assassination to a Shakespearean story isn't unprecedented. Barbara Garson garnered notoriety for doing it in "MacBird!" in 1967, with LBJ corresponding to Macbeth and JFK to the murdered king Duncan. I've never seen "MacBird!," but Garson has been quoted saying that her satire was never intended to be taken literally, that she doesn't believe LBJ was literally complicit in the killing of JFK.

Henning's point of view isn't nearly as clear. In a program note, he suggests that "you take the play at face value: some of it is metaphor, some of it is not." However, he also claims this play is his answer to the question "Who do you think did it [the assassination]?" and he writes that his effort to be "historically accurate" was helped by the publication of "Robert Caro's amazing work on LBJ in 2012." This program note could be read to suggest that Caro somehow endorsed the idea that LBJ was guilty.

Actually, in the chapter on LBJ and the Warren Commission in his 2012 book "The Passage of Power," Caro wrote that "nothing that I have found in my research leads me to believe that whatever the full story of the assassination may be, Lyndon Johnson had anything to do with it." Presumably, Henning wasn't thinking of that particular sentence when he credited Caro.

jfk-ds.jpgCasey McKinnon and Ford Austin in "The Tragedy of JFK." Rick Baumgartner

At any rate, Henning's play isn't as funny as you might expect it to be if it were a "MacBird"-style satire. And the differences between the "Julius Caesar" and the JFK assassination narratives are too gaping for the play to be taken "at face value," or seriously. The production isn't helped by the fact that in the actual assassination scene and its aftermath, the sight lines on the fallen JFK are blocked, at least from where I was sitting and seemingly from most of the other seats in the house.

WWGD? Well, he probably would have passed on "The Tragedy of JFK."

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