January 21 was a great day for immersive theater in Los Angeles.
I'm referring to one event you probably know about, the Women's March. But I'm also writing about "fellowship" - which you probably don't know about. The former attracted the masses; the latter has a maximum capacity of 42 for any single performance.
Of course, the march wasn't intended primarily as a theatrical event, but it certainly became one. I'm not referring to the official speeches in front of City Hall; I didn't come close to actually hearing those remarks. I'm referring to the theater in the streets on the way to City Hall.
A cast of hundreds of thousands used signs, chants, music, puppets and occasionally costumes and dance to express themselves in a live, face-to-face, here-and-now event. It was in stark contrast to the mostly one-way and electronic communications - Twitter and TV - that President Trump uses. (I know, he also enjoys his live rallies, but hardly anyone in California has ever been to a Trump rally.)
A theatrical event needs an audience as well as a cast. On Saturday, I was part of the audience, in that I wasn't personally carrying a sign or speaking at city Hall -- or blowing on a tuba, like the man who was producing rhythmic oom-pahs from a big white sousaphone as he inched through the streets.
Part of my mind was still operating on the level of a theater critic, assessing the effectiveness of the signs, the tuba, the cityscape, the movement (or sometimes, the lack of movement - this was not the kind of "march" I remember from my days in marching bands), even as I basked in the overall impressions of sunny and smiling solidarity.
But although the surface of the event was peaceful, this was a protest, not a picnic. A sense of outrage over the election of Donald Trump had inspired the multitudes to show up.
Conflict, that important theatrical ingredient, permeated the event as much as the more superficial good vibes. Any election in which the "winner" receives nearly 3 million fewer votes than the "loser" creates a big pot of simmering, dramatic conflict.
Let's toss in a few of the other twists -- Vladimir Putin's supporting role and the fact that the potential first woman president lost to a self-confessed "pussy" grabber (this was probably the most popular subject of the signs on Saturday). Add the concealed tax returns, the $25 million Trump paid to settle a fraud case just before taking the oath of office, Trump's fabulist aversion to telling the truth...the list goes on and on. If concocted by a playwright, this character and this narrative would elicit comments from critics such as "overkill."
One of my favorite signs, which I noticed among the crowds who crammed into the North Hollywood Red Line station on our way to the march, summed it up: "I can't fit all of the things I'm upset about on one sign."
Yes, the Women's March was a vast theatrical event, brimming with good fellowship but also with disgust and dismay aimed at the offstage central character, as well as considerable suspense at what might happen next. If you missed it, don't worry - it might have quite a few sequels in the next four years.
Speaking of fellowship, there are still some opportunities to see Cornerstone Theater's "fellowship." You have a choice of four venues scattered around Los Angeles. I saw it on Saturday, after the Women's March, in Pacoima. In some ways "fellowship" was an apt sequel to the march.
We met in the lobby at the headquarters of MEND, a nonprofit organization. After washing our hands, we were guided into a cavernous room where, during the normal work week, real-life volunteers regularly assemble sack lunches for distribution to those in need. Each of us was given an apron and gloves and assigned to a table, along with three or four other audience members. Cast members showed us how to prepare the lunches.
As we started to work together, the actors took on their fictional roles as some of the volunteers at MEND and began to engage in conversations with each other, punctuated by occasional musical moments, as well as regular breaks to help us move forward in the sack-lunch preparations. Gradually their talk shifted from relatively light-hearted banter to personal revelations of the experiences that led them to this activity, including their own memories of hunger. The enthusiasm most of them expressed for their volunteering duties was occasionally undercut by the skeptical words of a newbie who was there only because he was getting community-service credit, after a string of traffic tickets
Then, abruptly, the realistic style of Julie Marie Myatt's script shifted gears. A theatrical manifestation of hunger entered the room and began spooking the characters, with the assistance of masks and puppets designed by Nephelie Andonyadis. Using no words, this specter brought the characters into a deeper confrontation with their own anxieties and fears, including a glancing reference to the current national mood. No one mentioned a particular election or president, but suddenly the play evoked that "I can't fit all of the things I'm upset about on one sign" feeling that I had witnessed earlier in the day, on my way to the march.
Still, the anxieties were at least temporarily banished by the play's conclusion, which was bolstered by the fact that we audience members had done something tangible in the face of common 2017 fears. We created actual three-dimensional sack lunches that, we were assured, would be distributed to someone who needed them on the following day. I can't remember a theatrical production that resulted not only in whatever private thoughts and feelings it inspired but also in the sense that we, the audience, quite literally did something to help our neighbors, as the performance was happening.
Director Peter Howard guided the proceedings smoothly, although there is a slight level of anxiety of a different kind, created by the multi-tasking within the production's structure. At certain moments, the audience is supposed to keep the lunch-making going even while listening to the dialogue among the actors. But usually each audience member is doing only one relatively straightforward lunch-making task at a time. I didn't get the impression that anyone was distracted from the spoken words for long.
"fellowship" (spelled with the small first letter) performs in Pacoima on Saturdays at 5 pm and at Watts Labor Community Action Committee on Sundays at 2 pm, but 7:30 pm performances are also available, at Pico Union Project on Thursdays and the Westside Food Bank in Santa Monica on Fridays, through February 12.
Small casts, major theaters
2017 began with several excellent small-cast shows. None has a smaller cast than "The Lion" (not to be confused with the current movie "Lion"). This one-man musical at the Geffen Playhouse features Benjamin Scheuer, singing his own score about his own life, accompanying himself on six guitars. This might sound self-indulgent, but it has been shaped into a genuinely compelling story (Sean Daniels directed), involving Scheuer's relationship with his father, who died young, and the performer's own bout with cancer when he was in his 20s.
This might sound grim, but Scheuer exudes a magnetism that's missing from many solo performances -- and of course we know from the get-go that he survived the cancer. The score, which is mostly from the acoustic singer-songwriter tradition, is strong enough to be heard outside the theater - which may soon be the only way to hear it, as this engagement is billed as the last time the New York-based Scheuer will perform his own show. It closes February 19.
Broad Stage in Santa Monica brought us a not-quite-solo musical, "13 Things About Ed Carpolotti," about a small-town woman whose recently deceased husband left behind the unpleasant surprise of some serious debts. Barry Kleinbort directed, wrote the score and adapted the script from a monologue of the same title -- one of three fictional solos within Jeffrey Hatcher's "Three Viewings" (which South Coast Repertory produced in 1996).
Penny Fuller plays the widow, accompanied at a piano by Paul Greenwood, who occasionally adds his voice to the songs. The musical production isn't as authentic or as heartfelt as "The Lion," but it has some of the mingled satisfactions of a clever short story and a strong musical-theater veteran (Fuller) who knows how to use her voice as well as her face to establish character.
Finally, South Coast Repertory itself offered a briskly entertaining two-hander, Jen Silverman's "The Roommate." It's also about a small-town woman (the remarkable Linda Gehringer) of a certain age, but in this case she's divorced. After advertising for a roommate, she gets a refugee (Tessa Auberjonois) from New York. As the Iowan discovers a few things (maybe even 13 things?) she didn't know about her roommate in advance, and as she enthusiastically embraces some of these notions, she discovers a few things she didn't know about herself -- and the play transcends its "Odd Couple" set-up. Former SCR artistic director Martin Benson staged a production that was a case study in how to make design matter, even in a realistic comedy. But it closed too soon - last weekend.
Two other major theaters are currently offering two-handers on relatively big stages. La Mirada Theatre is reviving Jason Robert Brown's musical "The Last Five Years," and Laguna Playhouse is producing Christian O'Reilly's Irish comedy "Chapatti," which has yet to be introduced to Los Angeles.