Keeping up with the Trumps in LA theater

HotHouse-JoshClarkMelanie-Lora.jpgJosh Clark and Melanie Lora in "Hothouse." Geoffrey Wade Photography.

The awakening of LA theater from its usual late December/early January slumber coincided this year with the first anniversary of the Trump presidency. Oddly enough, these two events aren't entirely unrelated.

Of course we've long known that Trump likes to put on shows. With the Miss Universe pageant and "The Apprentice" on his resume, reality TV seems to have been the best forum for Trump's talents.

But Trump's showmanship isn't solely for unseen audiences in living rooms He's closer to the world of the live stage during the debates and his ongoing rallies, with the audible feedback from reporters, rivals or live audiences. More recently he complained that those members of Congress who didn't applaud his State of the Union address are "treasonous." And now he's engineering another theatrical pageant, in the form of a big, shiny military parade that's expected to pass his DC hotel and his current home.

Trump displays little interest in "the theater" per se. He probably lacks the patience to sit though most plays, which would require listening to the voices of others. He prefers to create his own personal spectacles.

But in a city such as Los Angeles, it's increasingly difficult for theatrical creators to ignore Trump as much as he ignores them. A large proportion of the audience that might naturally be interested in paying for theater tickets is also devoted to keeping up with the onslaught of commentary about Trump - on TV news, TV comedy, social media, newspapers and magazines. Keeping tabs on Trump news could derail plans to see some other show outside the house.

So it isn't surprising that when some of us in this Trump-obsessed audience go to "the theater," we begin to look for a Trump angle, or imagine that we see a Trump angle, in our theatrical fare. A Trump angle helps make a theatrical event feel more immediate, more of an answer to that perennial question, "Why now?," which is something that producers are often told to ask themselves before they schedule just about any production. Open Fist Theatre is about to appeal to this impulse quite literally, opening a bill of 14 very short politically-themed pieces (probably even short enough for a Trumpian attention span) under the banner title of "One Year Later," a reference to Trump's first year.

Of course, with around-the-clock eruptions emanating from the White House, no theatrical creator can hope to keep a rehearsed production up-to-date on the very latest Trump lore. So a frequent response is to revive works that bring Trump to the mind of theatergoers without actually using any specific references to the actual Trump.

Perhaps the best use of this indirect-Trump technique right now is on display at Antaeus Theatre in Glendale, in Harold Pinter's seldom-revived "The Hothouse." A character named Roote, who supposedly runs a late-'50s British mental institution, could have trained Trump in how to be a boss. He's uninformed and incompetent but brash, narcissistic and abusive.

As I watched Josh Clark in the role, particularly in his interactions with his underlings (primarily Leo Marks, Rob Nagle and Melanie Lora), I felt as if I could have been watching a 60-year-old guidebook for the TV series that surely will be adapted, eventually, from "Fire and Fury." (As with all Antaeus productions, the roles are double cast; Peter Van Norden sometimes plays Roote).

In the first sentence of her director's note, "Hothouse" director Nike Doukas admonishes the audience to avoid reading the rest of her note until after seeing the play, because "seeing it with no expectations will enhance your experience." I guess I've just blown that strategy, by reporting my own Trumpian lens through which I saw this play, so at this point I might as well add a reflection from the rest of Doukas' note. She calls Pinter's script "the perfect play for our times. We watch as a despotic, increasingly addled, ineffectual leader gets through his day. One of his tactics is to divide and conquer, and in response, those around him scheme and scramble to maintain their footing or move up the ladder. Amazingly, Pinter accomplishes all of this with a relentless barrage of farcical, almost vaudevillian humor."

Watch out, Stephen Colbert - here comes Harold Pinter.

Cabaret---La-Mirada.jpgFor those who feel uncomfortable about finding humor in what's going on in our current White House, "Cabaret" reminds us of the more grisly effects of extreme despotism. The Kander/Ebb/Masteroff musical's most chilling moment is usually the first glimpse of the swastika on someone's arm. Probably only a few Americans are regularly wearing swastikas right now, but the appearance of the torches in Charlottesville and the chants of those carrying them were enough to send similar chills up the spines of many Americans.

La Mirada Theatre's production of "Cabaret," which closed Sunday, was the first revival of it that I've seen since the events in Charlottesville. Larry Carpenter's staging is powerful. Particularly notable is the performance of Jeff Skowron as the emcee. Skowron is best known in LA theater for playing Leo Frank in the 3-D production of "Parade," but he flawlessly executes a 180-degree turn to play the Emcee, who is temperamentally the opposite of Leo Frank. When we consider that both of these characters ultimately met similar fates - Leo was lynched by good-ol'-boy anti-Semites in the South and the emcee presumably was killed by the actual Nazis - the casting of Skowron in both of these roles becomes almost eerily resonant.

At Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, Kate Hennig's "The Last Wife" depicts a famously sexist head of state, Henry VIII (David Hunt Stafford), although the primary focus is on his final wife, Katherine Parr. The characters use modern language and wear modern costumes, so Henry and Katherine appear much more 21st-century than you might expect. Although Stafford makes no attempt to mimic Trump, I soon thought of Trump's own history of wives and affairs -- although here is at least one case where Trump can actually seem relatively enlightened, compared to his murderous historical predecessor. However, Hennig is more interested in portraying Parr as a proto-feminist who helped prepare young Elizabeth for her long monarchy. Under Flint Esquerra's direction, the play succeeds in bringing these historical figures closer to our era.

Not every current theatrical venture into Trump-adjacent territory is nearly as subtle. An adaptation of Max Frisch's post-World War II farce "The Chinese Wall" features an explicitly Trumpian interpretation of an emperor who built the Chinese Great Wall, as well as too many other famous figures from history and literature. It's a scattershot mess. So is "SAPO," a very loose adaptation of Aristophanes' "The Frogs," in a Getty Villa premiere at the museum's indoor auditorium (instead of its outdoor amphitheater), featuring two of the three Culture Clash members and the band Buyepongo. At least "SAPO" begins with a bang, using video shot from the freeway in the Sepulveda Pass during the recent fire; you can read the signs to the Getty Center off-ramp against the backdrop of the flames.

2018_Pirates_0072.jpg Tina Muñoz Pandya, Amanda Raquel Martinez and Leslie Ann Sheppard in "Pirates of Penzance" at Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by Jenny Graham.

For those who prefer to flee from any Trump thoughts when they go to a theater, I couldn't detect many traces of him in a lively "Aladdin," the stage version of Disney's take on the tale, at the Pantages. Pasadena Playhouse has reconfigured its main auditorium in order to turn "The Pirates of Penzance," as interpreted by Chicago's the Hypocrites, into a half-immersive 21st-century beach party, complete with an in-theater bar. It's light fun, and it clearly makes a case that the playhouse welcomes younger theatergoers who won't mind dodging the movements of the actors.

Finally, Center Theater Group has launched a trilogy of related productions by Quiara Alegría Hudes with "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, soon to be followed by "Water by the Spoonful" at the Mark Taper Forum and "The Happiest Song Plays Last" at Los Angeles Theatre Center, in conjunction with Latino Theater Company. I'm going to withhold any comment on these productions until after I've seen all three.

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