In many LA voters' minds, the city's recent electoral battle over Proposition S boiled down - perhaps simplistically -- to choosing between LA's past, represented by the Yes campaign, or its future. Should the city try to better preserve its single-family homes and their reliance on cars or should it continue to develop its denser urban hubs and their reliance on other forms of transit? The urban-hub camp, No on S, won decisively, garnering about 7 out of 10 votes.
So there should be an eager audience for "Remote L.A.," Center Theatre Group's engrossing headset-guided walk through parts of LA's primary urban hub, in the vicinity of CTG's own downtown headquarters.
"Remote L.A." is not a traditional city tour. Participants don't follow a personable guide who relates colorful historical anecdotes and explains the architecture of the landmarks.
Instead, we follow the instructions of "Heather" and then "Will," unseen GPS-like voices who speak primarily about bigger and more current matters - the relationships between human beings and robots, groups and individuals, public manners and private thoughts, democracy, death -- often with wry undertones and recorded musical accompaniment.
This daytime-only tour (11 am and 4 pm on weekends, 4 pm Tuesdays through Fridays, through April 2) gathers at the Music Center. But the group then walks to the actual trailhead, so to speak, in the lush and currently blooming gardens of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, near Olvera Street. After the donning of the headsets (choose from three types) and the distribution of free TAP cards, Heather takes "the horde," as she calls the group, to Union Station, where we watch and applaud a "performance" by actual passers-by.
Then the "horde" boards a train for Pershing Square station. After exploring the area southeast of the square, including the seldom-noticed St. Vincent's Court, the group returns to the square, where it briefly pretends to stage its own faux-"demonstration" for whatever cause an individual might choose. It's a minor echo of the actual Women's March demonstrations that occurred there on January 21.
"Is this one of the places where democracy starts?," asks Heather. Then, a few moments later, "I like the idea that the majority decides. As long as I'm able to predict the result."
Passing through the Biltmore Hotel and beyond on 5th Street, the tour becomes more active, including brief moments of light dancing, foot-racing and step-climbing. Soon after the more acerbic "Will" takes over the narration from "Heather," the "horde" breaks into three smaller "herds" and enters the maze of the Bonaventure Hotel. But it re-unites in time for a scenic conclusion, on a terrace with a view.
The total walk, including before-and-after walking, covers about four miles in about 100 minutes, requiring a level of physical effort that is perhaps unprecedented at CTG performances. Some CTG regulars who frequent the company's more sedentary programs might not feel comfortable with these challenges. But apart from that consideration, "Remote L.A." takes a giant step in the right direction for CTG.
I can't recall a new production, at least in Michael Ritchie's decade-plus of running CTG, that focuses on contemporary LA as intensely as "Remote L.A." - which is an overdue achievement for a company that has long called itself "L.A's Theatre Company." The concurrent "Zoot Suit," at CTG's Mark Taper Forum, examines an important chapter in LA history, but creator Luis Valdez hasn't devoted much effort to overhauling this Taper landmark in order to reflect present-day resonances. By contrast, "Remote L.A." seems as up-to-date as the hordes of young adults who have flocked to live in downtown LA in recent years.
The parents of this production aren't from LA or even from the United States. It's from the German company Rimini Protokoll, created and conceived by Stefan Kaegi and Jörg Karrenbauer, who have staged many other "Remote" tours customized for other cities. CTG's Diane Rodriguez saw the Santiago version at a theater festival and was inspired to generate an LA version.
Normally, I would hope that something called "Remote L.A." would be created by LA artists. But I didn't hear anything from "Heather" or "Will" that sounded inappropriate for LA. Perhaps it takes an outsider's eye to notice certain dramatic qualities of downtown LA that most residents might overlook.
I left "Remote L.A." with the impression that there is nothing remote about this notion of downtown LA as a vibrant urban hub. I wish that "Remote L.A.," which accommodates only about 50 people at each performance, could be extended for a much longer run, so that more Angelenos and maybe some tourists, too, might discover this unforgettable urban adventure.
Speaking of theater that's literally in the LA streets, you might be amused by this clip of James Corden's version of "Beauty and the Beast" in a crosswalk at Beverly and Genesee, as broadcast on his "The Late Late Show:"
Besides "Zoot Suit," each of the two current occupants of the other major CTG venues is, oddly enough, a woman's memoir-like tale set in Pennsylvania. Each of them involves, among other things, the unexpected death of the leading male character.
The better of the two is the wonderful Jeanine Tesori/Lisa Kron musical "Fun Home," based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel, at the Ahmanson Theatre. It depicts "Alison" as an adult piecing together her own memories of her realizations that she's a lesbian and that her late father was gay. Sam Gold's staging makes sure that the audience has a lot of fun at "Fun Home." As a minor bonus for L.A. theatergoers who followed the recent Actors' Equity decision to require minimum-wage payments for Equity members at 99-seat theaters, the adult Alison is played by Equity president (and former Miss America) Kate Shindle.
At CTG's Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Ngozi Anyanwu's "Good Grief" is a young Pennsylvania woman's recollection of her relationship with a friend/boyfriend who dies young. The fact that her family members appear to be the only Nigerian-Americans in the Pennsylvania suburbs is given hardly any attention. The results seem somewhat generic, despite the many poetic flourishes of Anyanwu's writing.
Last year I skipped my previously-annual survey of the extent to which CTG would be covering LA in its scheduled mainstage programming, primarily because CTG had not yet announced the titles of the productions from smaller LA companies that would participate in its "Block Party" at the Douglas later this spring. However, in another column, I expressed my hopes that at least one of these three productions would be set in LA and that one of them would be an original musical.
CTG paid no attention to these worthy suggestions, instead picking Coeurage Theatre's "Failure: A Love Story", Fountain Theatre's "Citizen: An American Lyric" and Echo Theater's "Dry Land." Having seen the earlier incarnations of these productions, I doubt that I would have chosen these three from all of the applicants. But maybe some of them will become not only bigger but also better at the Douglas, so I look forward to seeing their second incarnations. Besides, in terms of LA content, "Remote L.A." buys quite a few points for CTG's efforts in that particular department, at least for this current season.
Also in the local-content category, Orange County's South Coast Repertory is running a play called "Orange" (closing Sunday) that follows three teenagers through the course of an all-nighter road trip to several of the county's more obscure nocturnal hotspots. The protagonist of Aditi Brennan Kapil's play is a smart, mid-spectrum-autistic young woman, who was born in OC but raised in India by her mother, while her father works in OC.
Mother and daughter have unexpectedly dropped in on the father, on the occasion of a family wedding, but it soon becomes clear that the mother wants to re-unite the family, while the father is hesitating. Although it's a fascinating situation, with virtuosic performances by two actors in all the roles other than the protagonist, an OC road trip probably isn't the best vehicle for the exploration of this family crisis. Jessica Kubzansky directed.
Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.
A Noise Within in Pasadena is current reviving Eugene O'Neill's comedy "Ah, Wilderness!," a brisk and playful tonic for those of us who grew impatient while sitting through the torments of O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" at the Geffen Playhouse. Steven Robman's staging is so strong that it allows us to consider the contrarian view that "Wilderness!" is actually a better play than O'Neill's supposed masterpiece, "Journey."
ANW is also currently doing a "King Lear," dynamically staged by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. Of course, compared to "Ah, Wilderness!," it's closer in mood to "Long Day's Journey" -- but fortunately not nearly as long. It's programmed to play in rep with the yet-to-open "Man of La Mancha." I'm looking forward to seeing if Geoff Elliott, playing both Lear and Cervantes/Quixote, will draw these two characters closer, in a cross-cultural conversation.
The Wallis in Beverly Hills and Deaf West Theatre united to bring us an enterprising "At Home at the Zoo," a double bill that the late Edward Albee created in order to supplement his early triumph, the one-act "The Zoo Story," with a one-act prequel, "Homelife." Although Charles McNulty of the LA Times felt that "Homelife" diminishes the impact of "The Zoo Story," I contend that the newcomer actually enhances the classic and probably makes it likelier that we'll see "Zoo Story" more often - because one-acts as short as "Zoo Story" don't usually receive full professional productions, no matter how much they're revered. Coy Middlebrook directed.
I must commend McNulty, however, for reviewing the Pasadena Playhouse's "God Looked Away" and the decision of his employer, the Times, to spring for its critic's admission. The playhouse didn't invite critics, calling this a "development" production, which might have been OK if the top ticket price for the public hadn't been an eyebrow-raising $196. Al Pacino starred in the role of Tennessee Williams, which the playhouse apparently figured was enough of a draw without running the risk (or receiving the necessary feedback?) of negative reviews, such as McNulty's. But "development" productions, especially at non-profits, generally should charge less, not more, than the same company's non-"development" productions.
Finally, a nod to Native Voices for Mary Kathryn Nagle's "Fairly Traceable" at the Autry. Directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, it's probably the best play related to climate change that I've seen, although that's admittedly a thin crop. The title stems from an Antonin Scalia phrase, so it would have made an ideal play to run in rep with the Pasadena Playhouse's upcoming "The Originalist," in which Scalia is a leading character. However, it's also timely right now, in its closing week, as Scalia's disciple and intended successor, Neil Gorsuch, finally appears before a Senate committee.