Judith Moreland and Bo Foxworth in "Building the Wall." Below, Robert Schenkkan. Photos by Ed Krieger.
Fountain Theatre is assuming an especially prominent profile this week, with concurrent productions at its tiny home base in east Hollywood and at the larger Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
The somewhat mixed accomplishments of the two productions aren't as important as their aims. Both "Building the Wall" at the Fountain and the company's "Citizen: An American Lyric" at the Douglas are specifically addressing the current moment in American public life. Their creators appear to believe that at least some theater - a largely ephemeral art form -- should speak immediately and directly about what's happening now. Apparently they're not worried about whether these plays will still be revived in 10 or 50 years.
Robert Schenkkan's "Building the Wall" examines not only our early-Trump-era turmoil, referring to events that actually occurred as recently as February, but it also describes a possible worst-case scenario that could occur during the next two years.
Because a three-week trip out of town complicated my attempts to see "Building the Wall" when it opened in March, I didn't see it until last Monday. The following morning, the front page of the LA Times greeted me with this headline: "Trump's wall slips further out of reach," referring to the dwindling chances that a giant border wall will ever be approved, let alone built. So is Schenkkan's play already out-of-date?
No. The title is misleading. Schenkkan isn't discussing a literal wall. Set in 2019, his play contends that the Trump/Sessions notions about detaining and deporting the millions of undocumented immigrants who are already on this side of the border could result in a nightmarish sequence of events that might be worse than even a border-wall boondoggle.
The play has only two characters - a prisoner (Bo Foxworth) who had been in charge of one of the detention centers established to hold undocumented immigrants, and a historian (Judith Moreland) who's interviewing him, behind prison walls. Although the characters already know the major turns in the story that resulted in the imprisonment of this man, Schenkkan maintains a modicum of suspense before revealing the gory details to the audience.
It's easy to imagine a more exciting framework in which to tell this story - either for the stage or screen or both. But it's hard to imagine that any other format could have been assembled so quickly. Most of Schenkkan's and the Fountain's efforts occurred since the November election.
Besides the play's premiere at the Fountain, another production of it already had a short run in Denver, and a third is currently at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. (it will soon transfer to a run in the D.C. suburb of Silver Spring). A commercial off-Broadway production is scheduled to open in New York on May 21.
A more imaginative, larger-scale telling of the same story would have taken months or even years to write and produce. If Schenkkan's goal was for his play to serve as an alarm, he was right to seize the quicker route.
Indeed, if his ultimate goal is to help prevent the feds from approving the kind of detention centers mentioned in the play, he would probably feel gratified if his efforts succeeded to the extent that the play eventually feels dated. Right now, however, that probably isn't one of his concerns.
Beyond its tacit endorsement of the play's message, the Fountain was smart to volunteer its venue as the original room where Schenkkan's alarm went off. Intimate theaters are ideal for intimate two-character plays. This particular production, as staged by Michael Michetti, is so small-scale that it allowed the company to add extra seats on the Fountain's usual sidelines, expanding capacity from the venue's regular 78 to 94 (and selling more tickets). While four performances per week, in front of only 94 people each, aren't likely to influence the masses, the cumulative effect of several productions - especially the one in D.C. - might make a modest difference.
The Fountain had another reason to revamp its planned season to accommodate this play. New Actors' Equity rules went into effect in December that mandate payment of at least the minimum wage to Equity members by many sub-100-seat companies. The Fountain did not qualify as one of the many "membership companies" (run by Equity members themselves) that were granted waivers from the new rules.
Although the Fountain was among the vocal opponents of the proposed changes during the protracted campaign that "pro-99" activists waged against Equity. the company decided to move on, after a federal judge ruled in favor of the union, in December. In a statement on the Fountain blog in January, the Fountain didn't commit to using the new Equity contract for every show, but it also declared its intention to hire Equity actors much of the time, unlike some of the smaller companies that are planning to use fewer or even no Equity members.
In the program for "Building the Wall," the names of both actors are accompanied by the usual asterisk that denotes Equity membership. So the fact that there are only two of them in this production probably helped the company adjust to the new pay scale and the fact that it now covers rehearsals as well as performances.
Also in the program, three "executive producers" receive bios for "generously supporting our world premiere of Building the Wall." Others who love the Fountain should donate whatever they can to make sure the company has the funds to support the use of even more Equity actors in future productions.
For example, in an ideal world in which funding weren't a problem, the Fountain might have revived its wonderful 2016 production of "My Mañana Comes" to run in rep or simply on alternate weeks with "Building the Wall." The former explores the lives of undocumented immigrants, while the latter speculates on their possible deaths -- but without actually representing any of them on the stage.
Meanwhile, the Fountain also received some much-needed support from Center Theatre Group that enabled a remount of "Citizen: An American Lyric" at the Douglas. It was selected to be a part of CTG's Block Party, in which three smaller productions from LA were chosen for sequential two-week runs at the midsize Douglas.
"Citizen," based on a book of poetry by Claudia Rankine, focuses on being black in a society where many whites are still uncomfortable, sometimes on almost subconscious levels, around black people. Most of its Stephen Sachs-adapted vignettes are barely sketch-length. Each of six actors plays many different roles, directed by Shirley Jo Finney. Not much of it convincingly justifies the transition from page to stage, except for an extended section in the middle that covers the racial politics of being Serena Williams. This section at least whets the appetite for an actual play about the great tennis star.
In my last column, I mentioned that none of the three productions in Block Party (all of which I saw in their earlier versions) is explicitly related to the LA area. "Citizen" largely ignores the prominent roles played by other ethnic or racial groups, not just blacks and whites, in America's general cultural stew and LA's in particular. The first of the three Block Party productions, Coeurage Theatre's revival of Philip Dawkins' "Failure: A Love Story" was remarkably Chicago-specific, in the sense that CTG's recent revivals of "Zoot Suit" and "Chavez Ravine" were LA-specific. I appreciate Block Party's recognition of other LA theaters, but shouldn't "L.A.'s Theatre Company" insist on including at least one previously-untold LA story in its 2018 Party mix?
"The Bodyguard," now at the Pantages Theatre, is an LA story, with scenes set in an LA mansion, at the Mayan, at an Oscar ceremony. But it certainly isn't "previously-untold." It's based on the 1992 movie starring Whitney Houston as a pop diva and Kevin Costner in the title role. Deborah Cox now has Houston's role, but the stage musical still uses Houston's songbook - including a few numbers she sang in the movie. Such star turns produce a few moments of glitzy fun, but the thriller side of the script isn't very thrilling.
Scene from "The Bodyguard."
The real action at the Pantages this week was on the sidewalk, where long lines turned out Sunday for the first general sales of "Hamilton" tickets. Performances begin in mid-August. Don't worry - I won't expect "Hamilton" to include any scenes set in LA.
In the meantime, anyone looking for a classic musical fix has two excellent options. La Mirada Theatre's "West Side Story" staged by Richard Israel, has an exceptional Maria (Ashley Marie) and Tony (Eddie Egan). Fiasco Theater's "Into the Woods," directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld at CTG's Ahmanson Theatre, offers refreshingly distinctive orchestrations and musical direction plus a winning ensemble.
The 'uncanny' 'originalist'
While "Building the Wall" wins points for being provocative, another play with some relevance to today's political climate tries to mediate, if not to unite. In John Strand's "The Originalist," at Pasadena Playhouse, Justice Antonin Scalia hires a liberal African-American woman as a law clerk, more or less to provide him with a sparring partner. Edward Gero's impersonation of Scalia is uncanny, but the woman's role feels like a playwright's pawn contrived to create artificial tension resolved by artificial amity.
While "Building the Wall" makes the most of its constraining two-actor format, set slightly in the future, Thomas Gibbons' "Uncanny Valley" at International City Theatre in Long Beach feels somewhat too constrained by a two-actor format, in a story that's set decades in the future. In this case, one of the two characters is a (male) robot, and the other is an older woman who has been training him to take his eventual place as the repository of a dying old man's genetic information. It's a fascinating set-up, but it feels unfinished because three or even four characters who appear to be important in the narrative are simply talked about instead of seen.