Four great American adventures, on stage

Skin_3414.jpgWillow Geer in 'The Skin of Our Teeth." Photo by Ian Flanders.

When we want a big, complicated saga, we usually turn to books, long-form TV series, or movies that are so long that they should have bathroom breaks.

We normally don't think of the stage, with its inherent limits on time and scenic scope, as the best way to satisfy this narrative urge. But I've recently seen four productions that succeed as great American adventure stories: "The Skin of Our Teeth," "Men on Boats," "Ragtime" and "Apollo 11."

Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth," currently revived by Ellen Geer outdoors, at the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, is the most philosophically ambitious of these tales, as well as the funniest. It covers 5,000 years in the life of one family, the Antrobuses of New Jersey, who careen from one existential crisis to another to another -- but somehow survive by, yes, the skin of their teeth.

Wilder didn't create multiple generations of one family; he created a father, a mother, a son and a daughter and endowed them with the ability to move through the millennia, up to the early 1940s, when the play was first produced in the middle of World War II.

Not surprisingly, even in the earlier two acts of "Skin," the family resembles audiences who saw it in the '40s more than it looks like characters who would have lived in the earlier eras, when the family's challenges evoke Genesis itself. Presumably Wilder didn't want his then-contemporary audiences to feel as if they were on a different planet in those long-ago times; he wanted them to recognize the universality of human problems.

But little did he realize how eerily topical his play would still seem now, 77 years later. Its characters grapple with climate change (although in this case, it's the Ice Age). They're confronted by refugees whose desperation is driven in part by those falling temperatures.

I recommend seeing this "Skin of Our Teeth" at one of the evening performances, not a matinee. It's helpful to sense that you're surrounded by darkness as you watch Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus (Mark Lewis and Melora Marshall), their children Henry (William Holbrook) and Gladys (Gabrielle Beauvais) and the maid Sabina (Willow Geer, who also meta-theatrically portrays the actress playing Sabina, confiding her frustration over her role to the audience). All of them are terrific.

By the way, in the third act Sabina's modern military camouflage outfit and her manner signal that she has matured into a woman of 2019 much more than the script might indicate.

Boats-B.jpg"Men on Boats" photo by Alex Wells.

Still, if you're looking for a more thorough demonstration of how far women have risen above previous stereotypes, take a look at "Men on Boats," a Son of Semele production at its Beverly Boulevard space, which is probably about five percent as large as the expansive Theatricum Botanicum.

Jaclyn Backhaus' play is a lively chronicle of the intrepid 1869 expedition led by John Wesley Powell, down the Green and Colorado rivers and through the Grand Canyon - apparently the first non-Native and somewhat scientific exploration of this entire route. The historical participants were all male, and Backhaus' play uses male pronouns and references. But it does not use a male cast. The actors are female or non-binary.

It might be a gimmick, but it doesn't seem gimmicky. I quickly adjusted to the idea of seeing women and non-binary people fighting the rapids, just as easily as I got used to the idea of seeing the boats represented by scaffolds and other set pieces that realistically don't look much like boats - or as easily as I became accustomed to hearing speech that sometimes sounds more contemporary than it would have in 1869. We don't go to theater primarily for representational art; we go to exercise our imaginations. Not that Backhaus' script itself strays far into fantasy, but she has provided a succinct method for us to think about more than just the expedition down the rivers. Barbara Kallir directs.

I wrote about "Ragtime," which probably should be dubbed the national musical, in February, after Pasadena Playhouse opened a revival that was somewhat smaller than the original. Now Chance Theater is Anaheim is producing a "Ragtime" that is somewhat smaller than Pasadena's.

Under Casey Stangl's direction, the company has reconfigured its larger theater to provide a wider stage -- and more comfortable chairs, although only 99 of them. Because the cast is smaller than in most other productions of "Ragtime," some of the featured actors are also doubling or tripling as chorus members.

This casting decision might not be ideal for those who have never seen this galvanizing effort to measure the success of the American dream. But using identifiable actors as additional chorus members is interesting for "Ragtime" veterans, because it somewhat subliminally suggests that the disparate groups who appear in the swashbuckling narrative - WASPs, African-Americans and Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe - might have more in common than they sometimes realize. This is a point that is, of course, explicitly confirmed at the end of Terrence McNally's adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel. As usual at "Ragtime," you'll laugh, you'll cry.

Ragtime008-1024x731.jpgJennifer Talton in "Ragtime."

Finally, did you neglect to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing last weekend? Well, "Apollo 11" is still open for business. I'm referring to the production in Pasadena that is occupying a chunk of the Rose Bowl parking lot, inside a "lunar dome" that looks a lot like one of those giant-size Cirque du Soleil tents.

"Apollo 11" includes a present-day story line about a fictional man who worked on the moon project and recalls it for his teenage granddaughter - guess which profession she will later choose (it begins with "as"). In flashbacks, actors play the younger aerospace engineer and his wife, complete with plenty of visual and aural reminders of other news and cultural developments during that tempestuous period of the late '60s. Many of the actors have LA stage credits.

But the fictional characters aren't the main attractions. This "immersive live show" is centered around a thrust stage (pun intended), which transforms into a reasonably convincing facsimile of the launch pad of Apollo 11, all of it taking place under a planetarium-like ceiling that offers a gusher of space-age images. In other words, "Apollo 11" is closer to a pop-up theme park than a theatrical production. Still, it's an impressive show, if you want something more "immersive" than a TV documentary.

Two 'Twelfth Night"s?

I was disappointed when I noticed that LA's two most prominent producers of alfresco Shakespeare, Independent Shakespeare Company in Griffith Park and the Theatricum in Topanga (see also "Skin of Our Teeth," above) were opening their seasons with "Twelfth Night," which I've certainly seen on more than 12 nights, in more than 12 different productions.

My disappointment has diminished, if not vanished. Each of these "Twelfth Night"s is fun and engaging, and they're sufficiently different that seeing both of them doesn't feel completely repetitious.

I recommend seeing Theatricum Botanicum's version at a matinee, not in the evening (although you might want to check the heat forecast). Director Ellen Geer again demonstrates her mastery of how to use just about every corner of the company's great woodland glen, and her efforts are abetted by the late-afternoon light. Her production has a female Malvolio (Melora Marshall, wonderful as usual), although it takes no particular notice of the fact that Malvolio's attraction to Olivia is now a same-sex crush. However, during intermission, I noticed that the Theatricum proudly displays a pride flag in the picnic area.

The production's other somewhat novel element is that composer Marshall McDaniel created maybe a dozen or more tiny moments in which the actors briefly sing a few lines instead of simply saying them. This is, after all, the play that begins with the request "If music be the food of love, play on." McDaniel's freshly musicalized moments never last long enough to make this production "a musical," and the pre-recorded instrumentals for these moments sound rather synthetic. Still, the production is well-sung as well as well-spoken. Willow Geer shines here as Viola as much as she does as Sabina in "Skin," and Christopher Jones is a vibrant Toby Belch.

In Griffith Park, ISC offers no matinees, but the evening shows start at 7 pm instead of the Theatricum's 8 pm, so late-afternoon light still lingers. Director David Melville uses a lot of live music that's evocative of earlier pop eras, going back nearly a century. It's often accompanied by jaunty choreography - Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Xavi Moreno) appears to have taken some Latin dance lessons. As always, Melville takes some of the action into the heart of his often-vast audiences. Bukola Ogunmola is a charismatic Viola.

ISC newbies should understand that although no formal admission is charged, there also is no permanent seating, and often there are a lot more distractions than you'll find in the relatively secluded Theatricum. "Pericles" is joining the ISC repertory this week; "Twelfth Night" resumes on August 4.

Besides the usual "Midsummer Night's Dream," the Theatricum's mainstage season features two other productions. Ellen Geer's adaptation of Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" is set in late-20th-century South Carolina, with racial strife added to the original's environmental truth-telling theme. It eventually overdoses on stridency and falls flat. I wonder why local adaptations of this play import material from other places and other times but seldom (never?) address any of the current nearby environmental hotspots.

Meanwhile, Orson Welles' rather stodgy adaptation of "Moby Dick Rehearsed" is partially rescued by well-choreographed mayhem representing the fight against the unseen whale, but do NOT see this one at a matinee. Although we were supposed to be in the middle of the ocean, I was often distracted by the sight of those verdant Theatricum hillsides.

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