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September 2, 2015

Costume designer Jenny Eagan discusses her Emmy nominated work on 'Olive Kitteridge'

olive-frances.jpgFrances McDormand as Olive Kitteridge. HBO. Photo of Eagan below courtesy of FIDM.

It's one of those blistering hot August days in the Valley but Jenny Eagan is the picture of cool, calm and collected. The Emmy-nominated costume designer is, for the moment, headquartered at Western Costume in North Hollywood, where she is prepping for a new project in a large air conditioned trailer on the grounds of the Los Angeles institution. There is nothing glamorous about the utilitarian space — just a few desks for Eagan and her assistants on one side of the room and multiple racks of clothes on the other. She has allowed me to interrupt a very busy day of fittings to chat about working on "Olive Kitteridge," the 2014 HBO mini-series that has brought Eagan her first nod from the television academy.

Coincidentally, Eagan had read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Elizabeth Strout (on which the mini-series is based) a year before getting the job. "Olive" is set in a small town in Maine and spans several decades, starting in 1980. The lead character, played by Frances McDormand, is a math teacher, wife and mother. She is frumpish, irascible and possibly one of the most complex characters McDormand has ever portrayed.The cast includes Richard Jenkins, Zoe Kazan and John Gallagher Jr.

Jenny portrait.jpgMcDormand acquired the rights to the book shortly after publication and spent about six years developing it for television. In addition to starring, she served as a producer. "Frances and I met very early on," said Eagan (right). "I knew her from previous projects so we had a comfortable relationship. She already had a pretty strong sense of who Olive was." She acknowledged that arriving at a specific look was a process. She researched the silhouette of the period and clothing typical of the region, even looking at yearbooks from the area where Olive would have lived and taught. "I started sending Fran things I thought would represent the character. It's important to get the look and color palette of the lead character done, and then everything on the outside sort of grows."

Eagan and McDormand eventually decided that Olive would only wear skirts (because maybe that's what HER mother did) and would most likely make a lot of her own clothes. That bit of character development plays out when Olive makes a dress to wear to her son's wedding. "That was the first costume we really hit on," says Eagan. "We wanted to give it a dated look and purposely made it a little ill fitting — maybe her bra strap shows a little — that's so Olive."

Another issue was weight. "In the book, Olive is much larger," says Eagan. After a lot of discussion, the decision was made for McDormand to gain about 20 pounds over the course of the series by gradually adding padding. For Eagan, the toughest challenge was "getting Frances to a place where she could look at herself and say, 'this is her,' because she'd been envisioning this character for so long. This was a pressure I put on myself-just wanting her to look and say 'this is what I always hoped for'. I hope I accomplished that."

Growing up in Independence, Mo. Eagan developed an early interest in clothes and fashion and she recalls sewing lessons with her grandmother. After studying merchandising and textiles in college, she made her way to California in the mid-90's. By 1997 she was in Los Angeles. A job in film production connected her to highly respected costume designer Mary Zophres, for whom she worked as an assistant for 13 years. She considers Zophres to be "100% my mentor." The films they worked on include "Catch Me If You Can," "True Grit," "The Soloist," and "Iron Man 2." She went on her own in 2010 with a Mark Wahlberg film, "Contraband." "It was a great first film where I got my sea legs handling a crew and delegating the work," Eagan said. "In the beginning there's the anxiety of whether I could even pull this off. I still get nervous, especially working with a new director or show runner and you're not sure if all the personalities will click. Years of experience help you become more relaxed — you think, OK, it's gonna be fine — we're just shooting a movie here!"

While Eagan has no qualms about dressing the entire cast of a movie, dressing herself for the red carpet is another matter. On the day we talked she still hadn't decided what to wear to the Emmy ceremony. "I'm a procrastinator when it comes to things for myself," she said. She has to be her own stylist and tries to wear vintage whenever possible. She also doesn't usually have the time to properly hunt for the perfect outfit saying, "I hate it, it really stresses me out! My mother's like, 'what are you doing? Get yourself a dress!"

The Creative Arts Emmys ceremony will take place on Sept.12 at the Microsoft Theater at LA Live.

Jenny's "Olive Kitteridge" costumes can be viewed at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles through Sept 26.

olive-couple.jpgMcDormand and Richard Jenkins. HBO.

August 30, 2015

These summer nights at Hollywood Bowl

If you're thinking that nearly all city roads lead to Hollywood Bowl for summertime symphonic music, you're right. And especially in these long, hot, dog days.

Every July to September the LA Philharmonic decamps from Disney Hall to the mammoth showplace up Cahuenga Pass where alfresco pleasures abound, where picnickers delight amid the newly landscaped random spots for spreading their feasts and where trendy food services are at their elbow granting every culinary wish.

mirga-square.jpgCall it a summertime monopoly, this amphitheater (capacity 18,000), this lure to a mass demographic for almost any music an orchestra might play. No it's not an oasis for elites -- many attendees have never set foot in a concert hall.

So call it the people's place. And these days, it's highlighted by ever-present screens catching the music-making onstage. Yes, jumbotrons or giant videos are stationed at all levels from boxes to benches -- not to mention cell-phone pictures being peered at by your audience neighbors.

Take one recent concert, for instance. It featured the Philharmonic's newly-named assistant conductor, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, the young Lithuanian who looks like a female version of Esa-Pekka Salonen when he first arrived here. She's making international hay these days. (Yes, it helps to be a glamorous beauty, for both soloists and baton-wielders.) With her -- adding up to an all-female event -- was Russian-born violinist Alexandra Soumm, also a twenty-something.

Together, they delivered the evening's gem, Leonard Bernstein's Serenade. And what we got was an irresistible account of this undeservedly neglected work. If I could grant Lenny what many believe was his fondest wish -- a composer name as revered as Mahler's -- this piece would qualify him.

Does it brim with delectable waltz passages? Is it warmly lilting in the modern Mitteleuropa way? Are there definitions of soulful characters, the kind that suggest theatrical value? And sentiments of quiet sorrow? Yes, to all, and it's wonderfully constructed, including its jazzy coda, à la "West Side Story"-- with a total impact that wipes out any need for a namesake, such as Plato's dialogue.

Soumm seemed to be reading Bernstein's mind, so infinitely expressive and nuanced was her playing. Happily, the cameras stayed on her. And Mirga (let's call her that, although if you want to learn to pronounce her full name try it this way: Mear-Ga-Gra-chin-tee-eh Tee-La), got the orchestra to sound as if it had more than one rehearsal.

After intermission we saw camera work at its worst. Like painting by the numbers, the big screen zeroed in on a lone timpanist while what was being heard in Rodion Shchedrin's "Carmen Suite" was a tutti, full string complement and timpani.

This is the point when eyes must look away from the screen, in order to not be distracted from the unified sound by the sight of a single instrument. What a travesty these rote camera designations are.

Not to mention the loss of conductor focus -- long shots of Grazinyte-Tyla, rarely close-ups, were the picturesque kind, with her bare arms, unsinewy and fluttery, giving a less-than-forceful shoulder heft to her ministrations. It's a pity that cameras linger on rows of violinists sitting back in their chairs, eyes on scores, sawing away, etc., instead of longer stays on the conductor who actually telegraphs what the music is saying.

But the program was an oddity. Besides the unfamiliar Bernstein, it boasted a treatment of Bizet's opera that seemed popsy here compared to its dimension as tragedy when danced by the late Bolshoi ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya, a famously Jewish Russian star, for whom her husband Shchedrin, composed this ballet version.

In fact, some in the Bowl audience thought it was a sing-along -- for the "Toreador Song" especially.

Its origins as a two-item bill, though, an esoteric design built around scoring for strings and percussion, came from violinist Gidon Kremer, who, not surprisingly, chose Grazinyte-Tyla last year to lead his touring Kremerata Baltica in the program. (Normally he both conducts and plays, but is there a beauteous young thing Kremer has not recruited to his ever-engaging musical adventures?)

Weeks earlier at the Bowl we had Gustavo Dudamel back in town for a bit of mid-summer Mendelssohn. There was the Violin Concerto which Gil Shaham delivered with fine delicacy, all the attenuated lines made to shimmer. Even in the perky, up-tempo passages he held to scale, eschewing a more robust tone.

The same sense of awe came to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," with Dudamel coaxing the orchestra to a state of Mendelssohnian wonder, along with visuals above the shell conjuring Shakespeare's enchanted forest. The terrific singers, Jennifer Holloway and Deanna Breiwick, and theatrical narrator Bryce Dallas Howard were a boon to the camera department.

yuja2.jpgSo was Yuja Wang ready again for her close-up, returning to open the 2015 summer season. Remember her? The Chinese pianist -- that petite, fashion-hip, whiz-bang dynamo whose Bowl debut photo went viral several years ago? You know, the one with the hair flying, the teeny orange bandage dress stretching from way below the shoulders to high up the thigh, the spike heels pumping the pedals -- commanding the keyboard in impossibly difficult music that can defeat big men.

Well, here she was once more -- along with Lionel Bringuier, the Philharmonic's previous assistant conductor. An enormous turnout greeted them, filling seats up to and including the last benches.

They did not disappoint. This time Wang plunged into Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, tossing off the knuckle-buster with wonted aplomb, as fleet and agile as ever, powerful in the dense octaves, the heavy percussion.

Bringuier brought the band into perfect sync with her and went on to illuminate Debussy's "La Mer" with vivid colors, high drama and excitement but not with the degree of subterranean mystery often found in those waters.

Top photo of Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla by Vern Evans/LA Phil.

August 19, 2015

Station to Station: Doug Aitken's different conversation

aitken-iris.jpgDoug Aitken at his studio. Below, Union Station in September 2013. Photos by Iris Schneider.


Doug Aitken likes to open things up. Among the objects in his Venice studio is a huge wooden dining table that he designed. Upon closer inspection, you notice symmetrical cuts and realize the piece is really a drum meant to be played at its 4 ends with mallets, like an African drum. He had been thinking about all the dinner parties he's gone to, and what to do when it gets boring. "This way," he said, "you could start up a whole different kind of conversation."

So it's not that all that surprising that Aitken would have come up with his latest big idea, a way to have a different conversation about art, music, time and place. Called "Station to Station," the multi-media sound and light project crossed the country housed in a train that was a mobile laboratory for artistic, musical and visual exploration. It became a collaboration between more than 42 artists and musicians and an intermittent audience connecting with the train as it moved west to Los Angeles' Union Station and finally Oakland.

aitken-station-iris.jpgI remember when the train pulled in to Union Station. A happening is the perfect description. There was music: Beck performed in the old ticket area, along with the band No Age and electronic DJ Dan Deacon. There were yurts lit from within by Urs Fisher and Liz Glynn and art by Stephen Shore, Ed Ruscha and Lawrence Weiner. Along the route there had been performances by Jackson Browne and Patti Smith. Ed Ruscha made cactus omelets in the desert. Giorgio Moroder was aboard using the sounds of the train in a musical composition. Music and art were on display in and around Union Station, as they had been on the trek across the country.

"I saw it as a necessity to make an alternative platform to culture," Aitken said recently during an interview in his Venice studio. "It wasn't restricted to being inside a museum or a gallery. It was about trying to work with the voice of the individual, to empower people to create things they wouldn't have made or encountered normally." In formulating the idea, he talked about and thought about how to create an artistic dialogue. He decided to use a train that would become a moving series of environments and studios, send it across the country and create happenings whenever and wherever it paused in its journey. "For every train, there is a station and many of these architectural spaces built in the 20's and 30's are completely dormant. We could create contemporary kunsthalls and this negative space can become stimuli for language and the creative act. It would become a sequence of events rather than one language."

Working with such a wide range of artists and musicians, each with their own individual vision, Aitken's train became a moving month-long art project about space and time, changing as it traveled and giving people an opportunity to interact with art at its stops along the route.

Arranging for the train to start and stop along the way was a logistical endeavor that took three years to plan. Indeed, the stops made it possible to allow commuter trains to speed by. Along with the help of a "prodigy train kid," Adam Auxler, Aitken was able to create a unique series of train cars and craft a schedule to cross the country in under 30 days. "It was almost a time code," Aitken explained. The train would be able to be on the tracks for a certain period, then have to pull off and wait several hours before it could continue. He wanted to make something purely artist-driven and off the grid -- using abandoned train stations allowed for that. The car interiors themselves became spaces to be designed and lived in by the artists. He loved the idea of many different individuals creating art that would be packaged as a continuum and presenting it to people who might otherwise never be exposed to it. At various stops, local townspeople came out to see the art and hear the music. Local artists whose work is otherwise unknown were invited to participate.

Aitken had spent the month filming the ride. When he thought about how to present what he had captured on film he decided that knitting together a series of one minute films could best represent the totality of the parts. "It becomes a composition, rather than a narrative," he said. (Random fact: I became part of the narrative. About two minutes in, I appear onscreen, a member of the audience at Union Station. That was a totally weird surprise.)

The film opens at the Nuart on Friday. A musical performance by No Age begins ten minutes prior to the 7:30 p.m. show, and by White Mystery ten minutes prior to the 9:50 p.m. All shows will be followed by a Q&A with Aitken. He also will sign the film's companion book on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at Cinefile Video (next door to the Nuart.)

August 15, 2015

For your consideration: Two Emmy not-nominated costume designers

bessie-still.jpgTop photos via HBO. Bottom: Starz.

When the 2015 Primetime Emmy nominations were announced I made a point of scanning the list for my favorites. Unlike most people, I wasn't looking for names of programs or actors, but of costume designers, the people whose job it is to help build character and aid in story-telling through the look of the clothing they create for a television show or movie.

I'm a hard core fan of what they do and felt sure I would see the name Michael T. Boyd, the industry veteran who designed the costumes for the HBO film "Bessie" starring Queen Latifah as the legendary blues singer Bessie Smith. It was while channel surfing one night that I was drawn into the film's story by the evocative clothing and look of the film, which follows Smith's journey from the days of vaudeville through to the Great Depression. Boyd won an Emmy in 1991 for his work on "Son of the Morning Star." Essence Magazine gushed, saying "try watching 'Bessie' without hopping online to buy every flapper dress and glittery headpiece you can find. Costumer Michael T. Boyd wisely utilizes every opportunity to drape Latifah's voluptuous frame in lush and flattering fabrics, cuts and styles true to that era. The clothes used to personify Bessie's lower stations in life are equally authentic."

Turns out Boyd's name was not on the list, although "Bessie" did garner nominations for acting, writing, casting, cinematography, music, and sound mixing. During a recent phone chat (Boyd is on location in Atlanta working on a film about Dolly Parton) he expressed mild disappointment at not being nominated but made it clear that he thoroughly enjoyed working on "Bessie". For the self-proclaimed show biz outsider — Boyd has lived in Texas since college — the project has a special place for him and he considers the movie "nearly flawless."

"Bessie" was shot entirely in Atlanta and Boyd did the requisite research through books and photographic images. "The walls of the costume department were covered in the look," he said. "Everybody (on the costume team of 20) needed to know what I know. You could see the entire movie on the walls. I love that time period. We went from 1905 to 1933. There were so many changes, so much ground to cover and we had very little prep time."

Although Boyd brought a knowledge of the vaudeville era to the table, this was his first film portraying singing on stage. He took on the task of dressing the various bands himself. "That was my special little project. I wanted them to look a certain way as we moved through the movie...ragtime to the jazz era of the 30's — you want those guys to look right."

bessie-man.jpgbessie-woman.jpg

Also impressed by Boyd's work on "Bessie" was Mary Rose, curator of FIDM's current exhibit, Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design. The show features designs from the past year, some Emmy-nominated, some not. Rose knew she wanted to include Boyd when she first viewed the film earlier this year. Considering the Emmy snub, she offered Boyd a bit of a consolation prize. He told me that he was surprised to be invited. The show at FIDM's downtown campus marks the first time his designs have been part of any costume exhibit.

For admirers of television costume design who want to follow the process in real time, there is a blog by "Outlander" designer Terry Dresbach (another Emmy winner omitted from this years list of nominees.) Production for the Starz series about a 1940's combat nurse who time-travels back to 18th century Scotland is based in Glasgow, where Dresbach lives for a good part of the year (along with her husband Ron Moore, Outlander's show runner).

outlander-outside.jpg

Her blog, An 18th Century Life, provides an inside look at just what goes into researching and creating costumes for the show, which premiered last summer. Dresbach is also active on Twitter, where she frequently interacts with Outlander's legions of fans.

Outside in Topanga and Griffith Park, inside in 'Luka's Room'

Mockingbird-theatricum.jpgTo Kill a Mockingbird outdoors in Topanga Canyon.


Alfresco theater is one of the best features of an LA summer, yet the big LA media usually ignore it. Charles McNulty, the LA Times theater critic for nearly a decade, wrote an essay last week about ensemble acting in three of LA's tiny indoor stages, but he has never written a word (according to a search of the LA Times database) about the ensemble acting or anything else at the two companies - Theatricum Botanicum and Independent Shakespeare — that consistently produce on Actors' Equity contracts in LA's considerably larger outdoor venues, for much larger audiences.

The Theatricum in Topanga Canyon is having an especially strong and wide-ranging season. It produces within the best alfresco theater venue in LA County (at least among those that are used regularly). The stage is wide and deep and easily extends into the surrounding arroyo landscape - even at night, with the assistance of lighting. Yet because the seats are relatively close to the stage and sharply raked in order to create unobstructed sight lines, the artists can take advantage of small subtleties as well as breadth and depth.

As usual, the Theatricum is offering LA's most prodigious displays of actors who appear in several concurrent productions. Melora Marshall is in four of this summer's Theatricum productions. Willow Geer appears in three. The two of them jointly directed the season's only other production, the annual "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which neither of them is in.

That these two women are part of the Geer family that founded the institution (Marshall is a sibling and Geer a child of Theatricum artistic director Ellen Geer) normally shouldn't matter much to the theatergoer. Each of them has demonstrated an ability to thrive in an enormous variety of roles. One of the attractive features of a rep company is the chance to watch actors frequently over the years, as they take on those disparate challenges.

My favorite Theatricum production this year features a cast that includes not only Marshall and Willow Geer but also Ellen Geer herself and her daughter-in-law Abby Craden. In Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County", Ellen Geer plays the matriarch who has a younger sister (Marshall), and three daughters (Susan Angelo, Craden and Willow Geer). The familial relationships of the actors probably add extra depth to their fictional characterizations - but even if none of these women were related to any of the others, they have worked together for so long that their ensemble playing has an air of complete assurance.


ausuat-sage-geers.jpgEllen Geer as the matriarch with her daughters in August: Osage County.


I have to single out three of them in particular. Ellen Geer is astonishing. Theatricum veteran Angelo isn't a Geer family member, but she formidably, magnificently assumes command of the fictional family when the situation requires it. And Craden, who usually plays brazen and glamorous women, is reined in and almost unrecognizable in the role of the wallflower sister. Although this play is primarily about the women, the men in the cast are just as accomplished.

This round of "August" is much better than the production that played the Ahmanson Theatre in 2009 (I've steered clear of the film version). This is attributable not only to the quality of the ensemble playing, overseen by director Mary Duprey, but also to the venue's combination of intimacy and expanse. I had anticipated that the production might lack the sense of mounting claustrophobia that an indoors production of this funny but extremely long play would offer, but the fact that all performances of it begin at 7:30 pm, amid encroaching darkness, encourages that essential long-day's-journey-into-night feeling.

"August" makes a perfect thematic counterpoint to "Green Grow the Lilacs," also part of the Theatricum repertory this season. Lynn Riggs' play from 1930, better known as the source material for "Oklahoma!" than for its own modest charms, is set very close to where "August: Osage County" takes place, although the two stories are separated by a century. "Lilacs" isn't quite as optimistic as "Oklahoma!"; the ending feels curiously unresolved. But when it's compared to "August," which is replete with disillusionment, "Lilacs" could almost pass as the winner of an Optimist Club contest for a play celebrating positive thinking.

Do we miss the score of "Oklahoma!"? Well, yes, somewhat. But this "Lilacs," staged by Ellen Geer, is dotted with interludes of traditional tunes that are much plainer but also more authentic to the time and place than the sweeping Broadway numbers by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Audience singalongs are encouraged. Anyone who has ever appreciated "Oklahoma!" should grab this rare opportunity to see its precursor.

The Theatricum, in its rustic locale which is outside not only the urban centers of LA but also the village of Topanga itself, is ideal for rural or small-town plays. "Lilacs" is a rural play, while "To Kill a Mockingbird" - also on this year's schedule, also directed by Geer — is a small-town play, and it feels much more natural in this venue than it has in the last couple of urban or suburban theaters where I've seen it. What are the chances that you'll hear actual birdsong - mockingbird or otherwise — in an indoor theater? And the play's invasions of a mad dog and the Klan are staged much more convincingly at the Theatricum than they could be in a 99-seat black box or La Mirada Theatre.

Likewise, "As You Like It" fits effortlessly into the Theatricum. After all, Shakespeare's comedy is about a forced retreat into the forest, leaving behind the chaotic court. Ellen Geer's staging is flawlessly cast and paced — if you can overlook her undercooked adaptation of the play to the post-Civil War period in the United States.

In this production's concept, Shakespeare's bad-guy usurping brother becomes a former Union general, while his good-guy brother who fled to the woods was a Confederate. But apparently the ex-Confederate encampment has been converted to colorblindness — as if the war had been simply a fraternal spat, without any racial issues.

One of the minor romantic couples in the woods is made up of an African-American woman and a white man, but no one seems to notice, and an African-American Touchstone has no problem making friends among the ex-Confederates. On the other hand, the old male servant Adam who accompanies Rosalind and Celia from the court into the woods, has been transformed into a not-so-old female African-American servant whose unfortunate costume looks a little too much like a Mammy/Aunt Jemima stereotype.

In a season in which even South Carolina has taken down the Confederate flag, the theoretical framework of this production — with its strange combination of sympathetic rebels, dastardly Unionists and uncertainty over whether we're supposed to acknowledge race — feels confused and becomes confusing. Fortunately, the rest of the production is good enough that the framework isn't that difficult to ignore.

much-ado-griffith-park.jpgMeanwhile, at Griffith Park, Independent Shakespeare Company is currently offering a "Much Ado About Nothing" that's set in another postwar period — 1945, in the original Shakespearean locale of Messina, Sicily. Because the soldiers in this play have just survived a victorious campaign, I'm assuming that they were fighting for the good guys who won — the Allies — against Mussolini and Hitler, perhaps as part of the Italian resistance forces.

But director Jeffrey Wienckowski doesn't try to spell out their wartime roles in any obvious or specific way. He uses the time and place primarily in the musical scoring and the costumes, stopping short of the more ambitious conceptualizing that leads to confusion in the Topanga "As You Like It." Of course these good guys aren't entirely good — the villainous Don John is still making trouble, but actor William Elsman creates more fun from the role than most of the other Don Johns I've seen.

The production's most creative fun, however, is in its forays into the audience. ISC relies on these expeditions in order to make its relatively vast crowds — many of whom are no doubt attracted by the lack of a ticket price — feel connected as well as amused. The audience comes in especially handy in the matching scenes in which Beatrice (Melissa Chalsma) and Benedick (David Melville) eavesdrop on conversations about themselves.

Kudos also to ISC for acknowledging that Geffen Playhouse is about to present "These Paper Bullets!," a modern adaptation of "Much Ado." ISC arranged for a pre-show session in Griffith Park on August 2 in which "Bullets!" playwright Rolin Jones and the Geffen's Amy Levinson were invited to discuss their production in front of a "Much Ado"-oriented audience. This is an example of the kind of cooperation between companies that helps make the sprawling LA theater scene more cohesive.

ISC's "Romeo and Juliet," which already ended its primary run, has added three performances in early September, and I recommend it in part because its contemporary-sounding band The Lively Helenas charges the production and its many segues with yes, lively music. Also, Andre Martin's Mercutio demonstrates magnetism worthy of a rock star.

I also saw another alfresco "Romeo and Juliet" recently, Shakespeare Orange County's in Garden Grove. It was part of an ambitious effort by the SOC team to acknowledge the fact that the Garden Grove population is now more Asian-American (mostly with Vietnamese roots) and Latino (mostly with Mexican roots) than Anglo. But directors Mike Peebler and John Walcutt (who's also the artistic director) didn't limit themselves to any particular ethnicities or line them up on rigid sides of the play's central feud. Instead they mixed a multiculti salad.

Romeo was from a Korean family although he was played by the dashing Ramon de Ocampo, a Filipino-American; Juliet was from a Latino family although she was played by the impulsive Nikki SooHoo, a Chinese-American. English was occasionally supplemented by other languages. Relampago del Cielo, an OC-based Mexican folkloric group, provided choreographic interludes, one of which foreshadowed the tragic ending, but hiphop also permeated the production from time to time. Bo Foxworth (an Antaeus regular, as is de Ocampo), played Mercutio. The sheer size of the cast, which included students from Orange County School of the Arts, was staggering, and the street-fighting scenes assumed rather alarming proportions. Although there was an element of spectacle at the expense of the play, the play survived well enough. And compared to a traditional production, it must have felt much closer to home for young Garden Grovers of many backgrounds.


o-o-o


STRIPTEASE surely involves thinking as well as stripping. A stripper has to figure out what to reveal, and when.

Ditto with playwrights and theater critics. The creator of a play has to decide when to unveil the plot's most revelatory surprises. And especially if those surprises are the best feature of the play, a critic must know how to acknowledge them without spoiling them for those who would rather discover them in the theater.

The fascinating "Luka's Room," at Rogue Machine, brings all of this to mind — and not only because late-arriving narrative developments lift it into another dimension. "Luka's Room" also includes an impromptu striptease scene, as well as another scene in which nudity suddenly appears for more serious reasons, entirely unrelated to any stripteasing intent.

lukas-room.jpgRob Mersola's play is much more provocative than it appears to be at first glance. Initially it seems to be playing a familiar comic riff. When a 19-year-old (Nick Marini) moves in with his old-school grandmother (Joanna Lipari), he soon discovers that his black-sheep uncle (Alex Fernandez) is a fellow housemate in the old woman's apartment. Cue the multi-generational conflicts.

But a program note from Rogue Machine artistic director John Flynn suggests that something else will happen in the play. "What happens when nothing can be kept private?" he asks, followed by remarks that imply that he's thinking about the 21st-century online world. Only deep into the play do we realize the full extent of what he means.

I can't be much more explicit than Flynn is, without giving away too much. But I can offer a hint, for those who know their Pinter plays — I'd like to see a rep company produce "Luka's Room" in conjunction with Pinter's "The Homecoming."

It isn't difficult for an intrepid LA theatergoer to see both of these plays right now. "The Homecoming" happens to be playing in a sterling revival at Pacific Resident Theatre, at least through August 30. And here is the kicker — the director of this "Homecoming" is "Guillermo Cienfuegos," which is the directorial pseudonym of the actor Alex Fernandez. Yes, PRT's "Homecoming" was staged by the actor who's also playing the cheerfully shady uncle in "Luka's Room."

I'd like to hear Fernandez discuss the remarkable resonances between the two plays. Perhaps he'll do it in a talkback after a "Luka's" performance. But chances are he wouldn't want to do it in a format that could be read by anyone who hasn't seen "Luka's", because then he would have to talk more precisely about what happens in the "Luka's" story.

Actually, if I were able to conjure up productions by command, I'd place "Luka's Room" in one of the many theaters in NoHo, which is the general area where it's set, judging from a couple of references in the script. Luka supposedly attends Valley College, so perhaps that institution's theater department might also be interested in doing a production. While Mersola deserves kudos for writing a sharp comedy set in contemporary LA, staging it in the vicinity of where it's set would add an extra fillip for those of us who know the neighborhood.

July 15, 2015

Wine and jazz at Hollywood and Highland

jazz-trio-iris.jpgRicky Washington, Kamasi Washington and Ryan Porter. Photos by Iris Schneider.

Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down performed at Hollywood and Highland's Wine and Jazz Summer Concerts series. Photos by Iris Schneider.

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jazz-sax-iris.jpgKamasi Washington.

jazz-crowd-iris.jpgArlene Hayes enjoys the show.

jazz-dad-kid-iris.jpgMichael Datcher and his 2-year-old daughter Harlem Coleman-Datcher enjoy the show.

July 6, 2015

4th of July with Cinefamily and 'Jazz on a Summer's Day'

cinefamily-bbq2.jpgCinefamily executive director Hadrian Belove hands out blueberry shortcakes at 4th of July party. Photos by Iris Schneider.

Since its formation in 2007, Cinefamily has created programming that is unusual to say the least and sometimes downright wacky. At the Fairfax Avenue Silent Movie Theatre, its headquarters, comedians often do their progamming and the goal of finding "exceptional, distinctive, weird and wonderful films" gives them plenty of leeway to entertain.

At Cinefamily they believe that "movies are funnier, scarier and more meaningful when shared with others." Their screenings often include gatherings to meet and greet the programmers, directors, or stars in a very informal setting. On the 4th of July, I attended a free event that perfectly represented their mission: "to reinvigorate the movie-going experience by fostering a spirit of community and a sense of discovery."

In what may become a yearly ritual akin to the showing of "It's a Wonderful Life" every Christmas, Cinefamily held a free barbecue with live jazz in their courtyard, then screened "Jazz on a Summer's Day," a magical and little-known film shot principally by still photographer Bert Stern (of "Marilyn Monroe's last sitting" fame.) With beautiful footage of the performers and audience at the 1958 July 4th Newport Jazz Festival, the film was a visual and auditory feast.

check-berry-stern-iris.jpgChuck Berry in 'Jazz on a Summer Day.'


Performers Thelonius Monk, George Shearing, Chuck Berry, Anita O'Day, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, and Louis Armstrong and many others played over the three-day festival. The film documented not only the performers, but the audience at the laid-back show, dressed casually and swaying, dancing, snapping their fingers, smooching and enjoying the music and the day. The images are visually stunning in their intimacy, and veer far from the stage and audience into nearby apartments for intimate kisses and rooftop dancing. It was shot in 35mm Kodachrome which gives the film a muted palette. Whether catching a smile, a gaze, a hug between lovers, the silhouetted merry-go-round, cavorting children, and all that goes along with a picnic and jazz on a lazy summer's day, watching the film gave me new respect for fashion photographer Stern's eye and journalist's sensibility. Each frame had something special, and nothing recorded seemed unintentional.

After the screening, Hadrian Belove, a Cinefamily co-founder and the current executive director, was moonlighting as server, holding platters piled high with fresh blueberry shortcakes for the crowd to enjoy.

cinefamily-bbq3.jpgThe event was funded by IFC, and as a way of introducing its new "epic masterpiece" airing July 8, Cinefamily screened "The Spoils Before Dying," a mashup of film noir, Orson Welles and Masterpiece Theater. The first episode opened with a barely recognizable bearded Will Ferrell as Welles, swilling wine as he mumbles an introduction to the noir-ish film series starring Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig and many other Funny or Die regulars. The segment is the first of what is billed as a three-night television event. It was a very funny start to a very charming afternoon.

July 3, 2015

Noah Purifoy and Larry Sultan at LACMA

joshua-tree-lacma-iris.jpgJoshua Tree installation at LACMA's Noah Purifoy exhibition. Photo by Iris Schneider.


What is the role of the artist in an imperfect world? Noah Purifoy, the son of sharecroppers in the South, seemed to have it right. Born in 1917 and becoming an artist only in his 40s, he used his art to heal, to cajole, to document, to repurpose. And for a time he abandoned his artistic pursuits to work in the black community as a social worker, eventually bringing the worlds of social work and art together, creating art programs in prisons and schools and downtrodden communities because he knew art had power and that power could teach and reach into the soul of the disenfranchised and powerless.

The current show at LACMA, Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada, is a testament to the creative spirit of a simple man dedicated to his unique artistic pursuits and his social consciousness. Purifoy trained as an artist, getting an MFA degree from Chouinard (now CalArts), in 1956. He was smitten by Duchamp's fascination with the beauty of the ordinary. His assemblages are full of household objects: shoes, baskets, sardine cans, brushes, bicycles, books and scraps. They are crafted into things both fine and simple, a testimony to the power and beauty of the human spirit. But they are more than that. The first group show he spearheaded, "66 Signs of Neon," was literally created from the ashes of the 1965 Watts Rebellion when he and a group of artists rummaged through the wreckage on the streets and used what they found to create art that commented poignantly and powerfully on society and its shortcomings.

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Last-Supper-lacma-iris.jpgLace Curtain detail and The Last Supper by Noah Purifoy, photos by Iris Schneider.

This is what he said about those "tragic times in Watts:" "We watched aghast the rioting, looting and burning during the August happening. While the debris was still smoldering we ventured into the rubble like other junkers of the community, digging and searching...obsessed without quite knowing why...We gave much thought to the oddity of our found things...which had begun to haunt our dreams."

This first show set Purifoy, by that time the first director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, on his path as an artist and activist and influenced other emerging artists of the time like John Outerbridge, David Hammons and Debby Brewer.

In 1972, after the debut of a controversial show at Brockman Gallery, Purifoy dropped out of the art world to become director of community services at Central City Mental Health, a facility created to help address social issues facing the African American community, like teen pregnancy, unemployment, gang culture. He managed the center, which began attracting artists and others who were concerned with these issues. In 1976, Purifoy was appointed by then-governor Jerry Brown to the California Arts Council. "I was looking for a vehicle by which I could find ways to use art as a tool to change people," Purifoy said, and thus began programs bringing art into prisons, schools and community centers. He stayed on the Arts Commission for twelve years.

In the late 80's, Purifoy decided he needed more space and time to do his art and moved to Joshua Tree, where he worked for the last 15 years of his life, until his death in 2004. That is where he had the space to create large environmental sculptures from found objects and could allow the environment to weather and change them. These pieces are now displayed over a ten-acre space (acquired through donations from artists Debby Brewer and Ed Ruscha), and in 1999, at the urging of friends, he created the Noah Purifoy Foundation for the preservation and presentation of his work. It is currently open to the public as an outdoor museum. Two large pieces from the Joshua Tree installation have been installed in the outdoor space at LACMA for the duration of the show, which closes September 27.

While at LACMA, there is still time (until July 19) to see the Larry Sultan photography show, Larry Sultan: Here and Home, a retrospective spanning several rooms and six periods of the late photographer's work including "Pictures from Home" and "The Valley." Over the course of his lifetime he explored his family and his hometown in a way that makes it hard to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Are his parents posing for him? Are the porn stars depicted in some of his images from the Valley aware of his presence? Using his parents as subjects along with his family home and the neighborhood he grew up in, Sultan delved into his childhood memories as well as the Valley's porn industry which he documented for Maxim Magazine in 2001. Using lighting techniques that make it hard to distinguish artifice from reality, the large prints on display have an otherworldly quality that is starkly beautiful. The show is well worth a visit to see this photographer's unique vision of the California landscape and its people.

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Larry Sultan photos: "Sharon," 2001, from The Valley series, and "My Mother Posing For Me," 1984, from the series "Pictures From Home."

June 29, 2015

Eifman and the LA Ballet, plus LA Phil closes the Disney season

elfman-ballet.jpgScene from Eifman's ballet.

Who can bring you story-book ballets that are not about fairytale creatures or kingdoms and their royalty, but real people drowning in human tragedies?

Boris Eifman.

And this time was no different when the Russian choreographer brought his St. Petersburg company's two-act "Rodin" to the Music Center Pavilion.

But if you can't remember much about the eponymous sculptor -- he created those iconic statues, "The Kiss" and "The Thinker" -- Eifman's ballet lays out the tempestuous Frenchman's whole biography.

Not unlike Picasso, Auguste Rodin was big with the ladies. And on his way to high acclaim, he became notoriously involved with an aspiring student/sculptor, Camille Claudel, while his long-suffering, common-law wife Rose, endured it all.

Seizing once again on visuals, as he did with "Anna Karenina" and "Eugene Onegin," the dance-maker goes for imagery -- this time with body pile-ups, dramatically lit and evoking Rodin's massive carvings themselves.

But besides the Expressionist dancing that is an Eifman signature, his leitmotif here came in the many asylum scenes that showed poor Camille's various states of madness -- insanity, by the way, seems to be a current obsession with choreographers (remember the Australian Ballet's "Swan Lake" and its vignette of a demented Odette getting hydrotherapy in a bathtub, shades of "Snakepit?")

True, the task of depicting Rodin's story was harder than with Tolstoy's great "Karenina" -- the novel's evocative words inspired Eifman to cinematic heights I've seldom seen on a ballet stage.

There, his unique gift revealed itself in the feeling states he could depict and in his instinct for letting the movement grow out of those states. What we see is non-stop drama-in-motion.

And arguably no one knows how to capitalize on his dancers' physical look -- slender, willowy, agile -- the way Eifman does. Their leg extensions soar sky-high and their bodies are so supple as to seem jointless. But I wouldn't really call them anything but dancing actors because their performances are suffused with dramatic intent. Not so much in "Rodin" as in "Karenina," where we saw those limbs thrust upwards only to plunge into a grounded Grahamesque plié in deep second position -- thus giving us lyric passion versus menace so fluid that the eye could barely grasp it.

Not surprisingly, audiences gobble up his stagings for their overall spectacle. There's nothing staid or classroom-like in what he conjures. But you can easily see how he deliberately feeds (panders to?) those crowds with rousing divertissements here and there.

I liked the can-can scene (nicely using music other than the identifiable Offenbach) and the accordion-accompanied café vignette, although the mish-mash of excerpted French pieces by Massenet, Ravel, Satie kept the artistic standard lower, as did the out-of-character peasant number he used as filler.

But Eifman has indisputable European flair. He'll never lack an audience. American regional ballet companies, trying to expand or just stay alive, could use some of that backstage bravura. And now I'm referring to Los Angeles Ballet, which, for all its excellence, seems to be in that particular financial struggle commonly experienced by our privately funded arts enterprises.

Needless to say, it was sad to see co-founder Colleen Neary make a plea from the stage for donations. Not only that, she announced that, following the performance, LAB dancers would stand at the exits handing out self-addressed envelopes for such purpose. It's come to this -- nine years after gifting the city with its ambitious, Balanchine-authorized, high-powered presence.

la-ballet.jpgLos Angeles Ballet

But the program at UCLA's Royce Hall told a story of triumph. Wide-ranging and choice, it showed off a whole new vein of versatility among the dancers. Just imagine -- if you missed it -- José Limón's "The Moor's Pavane," that singularly possessed modern classic in long regal robes and gowns, a quartet of impending menace, anchored by Purcell's stately darkness.

Would this troupe of dancers, dedicated to the tutu-and-tiara style of New York City Ballet, have any idea what the weighty ominousness of the "Othello" tragedy intends? The black Moor, a heroic figure, brought down by succumbing to a treacherous aide's lies and thus killing his beloved wife?

I, for one, could not imagine it. But, mirabile dictu, the four principals pulled it off (thanks to Limón master Alice Condodina's rehearsing) -- with greater credibility than even Ballet Theatre's recent New York performance.

It was time for directors Neary and Thordal Christensen to reach beyond ballet per se. But they did more, also showing a side of sophisticated wit via Jiri Kylián's "Sech Tänze," its European scampishness underpinned by Beethoven's jaunty dances. For once, with this bill of fare, we saw choreography the world prizes, not some scattershot local entries that hardly deserve stage space.

An earlier program featured that classical extravaganza "The Sleeping Beauty" -- its every detail polished to a shine, with ensembles perfectly together and coached to a fingertip. But the dancing was characterless, without personality, almost dead, glazed and inhibited. The very least a museum piece should be is alive. Why else would it sparkle in the memory?

On to music downtown: Closing out their last two Disney Hall standard-fare concerts of the season, Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic turned first to a French program and then a Spanish one.

Gustavo-Dudamel-007.jpgBut tucked between the almost all-Ravel night was a world premiere by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, the countrywoman of Esa-Pekka Salonen and thus an enormously welcome and well-commissioned personage at the Phil. Indeed, she's lauded in lots of places, since having her intro here.

Still, her "True Fire," an essay for orchestra and baritone, was overly long at 30 minutes, considering its unrelieved, dirge-like stretches of doom and gloom. Singer Gerald Finley has had more grateful opportunities and the merely respectful audience buzzed with conspicuous naysayers afterward in the lobby.

Leave it to Ravel, though, to redeem the evening. Dudamel and his band danced over "Le Tombeau de Couperin"'s lucid textures with light, airy steps throughout and gave the crowd something to stomp and whistle for after "Bolero."

So did they roar for a knockout performance of Manuel de Falla's "El Amor Brujo," although this music played by this orchestra doesn't need the distraction of a flamenco dance company enacting the story line up on a mid-level platform. Just hearing its urgent thrum and darkly Spanish expression brought out so splendidly was powerful enough.

June 26, 2015

The once and future centers of LA theater

spring-awakening-wallis.jpgSpring Awakening scene. Photo by Kevin Parry.

LA's critics often say it has no center. The city's advocates often reply that Los Angeles has many centers. Some of us believe that downtown is once again becoming the primary center.

Similar issues arise in considerations of LA theater. If people outside LA ever think about Los Angeles theater, they probably think first of downtown's flagship Center Theatre Group - which brands itself as "LA's Theatre Company," as if there were only one such company. On the other hand, they probably don't think of CTG as often today as they did two decades ago, when CTG more consistently contributed to the stream of productions that competed for Tonys and Pulitzers - which is the usual (if simplistic) gauge for measuring a theater company's national profile.

Soon after they think about CTG, well-informed outsiders might also remember hearing about LA's vast and far-flung collection of theaters with fewer than 100 seats. While some of these companies operate in close proximity to each other, forming subsidiary "centers" in NoHo or on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, those clusters of tiny companies aren't necessarily permanent. Witness the recent news of small theaters closing in Hollywood and the planned migration of the Antaeus Company from NoHo to Glendale.

Many casual observers (Angelenos as well as outsiders) associate these small companies with the concept of "showcasing," assuming that they maintain one eye on the Hollywood industry. This impression lingers despite decades of efforts to establish that many of these companies venture far beyond the connotations of that word. Unfortunately, in recent years those we're-not-showcasing efforts have been undercut by a genuine showcase fiesta, the Hollywood Fringe Festival, which often dominates much of the attention paid to LA theater in June.

Meanwhile, LA County has a lot of theatrical activity that occurs in venues between the CTG level and the 99-seat level. But as a group, these widely dispersed midsize theaters remain one of the city's best-kept secrets.

The end of Actors' Equity's 99-Seat Theater Plan is now scheduled for next June. Small membership companies, as I noted in my last column, will continue to operate in their current venues without major changes. But 99-seat companies that are not structured around a membership model will have to pay Equity actors and stage managers the minimum wage, for rehearsals as well as performances. I hope that some of the better such companies will find the resources to advance into midsize theater status.

Surely if more companies migrate up the Equity scale, more attention should be paid to them. If all other factors seem just about equal, why shouldn't a show that performs for a potential 300 people per night get more attention than one that can't ever perform for more than 100?

Over the last few years, I've offered a few suggestions that conceivably could help facilitate this transition period. Here are a few more:

1. Grand Park

Last Friday I saw my first professional theater event in Grand Park, the relatively new expanse of public space that extends from City Hall to the Music Center. Cornerstone Theater presented three performances of its "California: The Tempest" there as the culmination of a statewide tour, using a temporary stage with central seating on the lawn but folding chairs for audience members on the sides. It was free of charge to anyone.

california-grand-park.jpg"California: The Tempest" scene. Photo by Megan Wanlass.

I had seen a slightly longer version of the production previously in an indoor space in Pacoima, but the play felt much more at home on a pleasant summer evening while surrounded by the lights of downtown LA, with City Hall itself looming in the background. After all, Alison Carey's adaptation of "The Tempest" combines California doomsday fantasy with a boosterish appeal for Californians to unite in order to revive their state. At Grand Park, the view and the cross-section of audience members reinforced this theme.

Cornerstone, which has a lot of experience using non-traditional sites, should plan to make a warm-weather appearance in Grand Park a new tradition. But why haven't other theaters been better represented among Grand Park's offerings? True, Independent Shakespeare is about to open another no-doubt-thriving season in the Old Zoo area of LA's biggest city park, Griffith. But Grand Park is much more centrally located - and adjacent to a Red Line stop.

The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles once did its summertime productions downtown, at Pershing Square or the Cathedral plaza, but this summer it isn't producing its usual mainstage show because of complications at its most recent site, the VA Japanese Garden in Brentwood. The Shakespeare Center and some of LA's 99-seat companies should immediately look into the possibility of performing in Grand Park next year.

2. The Wallis - and Broad Stage?

The recent transfer of Deaf West's "Spring Awakening" to the Wallis in Beverly Hills was a magnificent achievement. From my vantage point, it was easier to see everything that was happening on the stage at the Wallis than it had been at the much smaller Inner-City Arts venue last year. And there was so much to see, and think about, that this production could easily serve as the template for a commercial revival of the musical -- because it's so different from the original. Are other companies, including some of the 99-seaters that might have to expand, exploring the possibility of collaborations with the Wallis? Or with the similarly sized Broad Stage in Santa Monica?

3. The Nate Holden Performing Arts Center

This handsome 399-seat city-owned facility on the south side of Washington Boulevard, just east of La Brea, is egregiously under-used by the LA theater community. Right now it's the home of the resident company Ebony Rep's often thrilling revival of "The Gospel at Colonus," which transfers the middle play in Sophocles' Theban Oedipus trilogy to the framework of an African-American church service. Seeing "Colonus" last weekend was doubly poignant in the wake of the massacre that had just taken place at an African-American church in Charleston.

gospel-ds.jpgThe company of "The Gospel at Colonus." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

But Ebony does just one full production a year. Wouldn't it be in the city's interest to help accommodate more productions at the Holden throughout the rest of the calendar? (By the way, did it occur to anyone that the Odyssey Theatre in West LA is currently doing Ellen McLaughlin's adaptation of the first part of the same Theban trilogy, under the title "Oedipus Machina," and that the two productions might have cross-marketed along the lines of "now see the sequel" or "now see the prequel"?)

4. Los Angeles Theatre Center

This year two of the three midsize spaces at the city-owned LATC, operated by Latino Theater Company, weren't used in the company's spring festival. The company's Jose Luis Valenzuela told me that this was at least partially a result of a decision to use the smaller spaces within the building while they could still be occupied by productions on the 99-seat Theater Plan, anticipating that they will be much harder to fill with productions after the plan dies -- and in the meantime saving money that can be used for larger productions later. City officials, in the interests of sustaining downtown's theatrical ecology and attracting even more people to LATC's ever-more-exciting neighborhood, should do whatever they can to make producing at LATC less expensive, less difficult.

5. Falcon Theatre

Could Garry Marshall's Burbank space possibly be an option for 99-seat companies that hope to move up -- but not too far up the scale too quickly? It has only 130 seats. Its location is near both NoHo and Hollywood. It already sells out for Troubadour Theater's rowdy musicals, but -- sound the alarm -- this year there is no summer Troubie show. The rest of the Falcon's fare is often rather tepid, including the current "The Trouble We Come From," a Scott Caan rom-com focusing on a man who appears to make a living from writing plays that are produced at "a mid-sized theatre" (or so it says in the program). I don't know if Marshall and company would be open to collaborations with, say, the Fountain on at least one or two plays a year, but the Fountain has developed a fan club that appears to be almost as loyal as that of the Troubies.

6. Houses of worship

Chalk Repertory, a group that specializes in site-specific theater, has opened a three-year residency at the LA Episcopal Diocese's St. John's Cathedral, on Adams near the Harbor Freeway, with Tom Jacobson's "Diet of Worms." The site's majestic Romanesque sanctuary, dating from 1929, plays the role of a 16th-century convent where a group of nuns are gradually being lured into the Reformation. The audience moves to four locations within the space. Especially in the second act, the play erupts with an exhilarating sense of liberation amid revolution. Of course not every church would want to host such a production -- or a theater company at all -- but Actors Co-op and Crown City also use sites on the grounds of churches. Perhaps other companies should look for the closest somewhat-liberal congregation that might provide them with an open-minded room at the inn.


INHERITANCE COMEDY: Have LA theater companies considered inheritance as a get-rich-quick scheme? Probably not, but two current productions focus on inheritance fever.

"Bad Jews," at Geffen Playhouse, depicts a bitter and often funny dispute between two young cousins over who has dibs on their recently deceased grandfather's chai medallion, which he preserved through the Holocaust by slipping it under his tongue. In one corner is Daphna, a high-strung religious feminist. In the other is the equally neurotic but secular scholar Liam, accompanied by his very non-Jewish girlfriend. He plans to use the chai in place of an engagement ring. The more-or-less non-committal referee is Jonah, Liam's brother, but we eventually learn that he has his own way of remembering their mutual Zayde.

bad-jews-lamont.jpgScene from "Bad Jews." Photo by Michael Lamont.

Playwright Joshua Harmon uses the two hair-trigger combatants to articulate the evergreen dilemma of a small group's cultural pride vs. assimilation -- an issue that is hardly confined to Jews. In the process he creates two manic and sometimes infuriating characters who nevertheless make their cases with remarkable acumen. "Bad Jews," directed by Matt Shakman, is an invigorating experience that provokes some serious thought.

On the other hand, "The Heir Apparent," at Long Beach's International City Theatre, is strictly for laughs - and harvests quite a few of them. In this tale, an old man refuses to die, despite all expectations to the contrary. His possible heirs go to some far-fetched extremes to get their hands on his fortune despite his stubborn unwillingness to cooperate. This is wordsmith David Ives' rhyming-couplet-strewn adaptation of an 18th-century comedy by Jean-Francois Regnard, loaded with contemporary American references although ostensibly set in 1708. That happens to follow a familiar formula for director Matt Walker of the aforementioned Troubadour Theater Company. He brings his cheeky insouciance to the Ives script, even though it lacks the Troubies' expansive riffs on more up-to-date musical sources.

June 20, 2015

Bryce Ryness plays the villain in 'Matilda the Musical'

bryce-ryness-iris-hz.jpgTop two photos of Bryce Ryness by Iris Schneider.


Roald Dahl, author of the much loved 1988 childrens novel Matilda, once described the book's character Miss Trunchbull as "a gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of pupils and teachers alike." The story's current incarnation, "Matilda the Musical," now in residence at the Ahmanson Theater, features Broadway veteran Bryce Ryness as the evil, sadistic Trunchbull, headmistress of the school Matilda's ridiculously boorish parents force her to attend. He nearly steals the show.

Originally produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Tony-winning musical about a precocious 5-year-old who loves to read, possesses magical powers and manages to triumph over family adversity is at the beginning of a national tour. The cast includes Jennifer Blood as Miss Honey, Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfield as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, and Gabby Gutierrez, Mia Sinclair Jenness, and Mabel Tyler alternating in the role of Matilda.

bryce-ryness-iris-v.jpgThis was my second viewing (I saw it on Broadway two years ago) and while the story and music are engaging as ever, this time it was Ryness's subtle, droll take on the almost cartoon-like Trunchbull that held my focus. In the film version the role is played by a woman, but in the musical Trunchbull is played by a male actor in drag. While it would be hard for the tall and gangly Ryness not to attract attention while wearing womens' clothes, he completely makes the role his own. No small achievement considering the show has been running in London and New York since 2011.

During a recent backstage chat at the Ahmanson, Ryness (as charming and self-deprecating as Miss Trunchbull is horrible) admitted that the path to being cast was less than smooth. "I had a really hard time getting seen for this," he said. "My agents were pushing, pushing, pushing — and the casting powers that be were saying, 'uh, we don't really see it with him.'"

The prospect of taking on such a high-profile role that another actor had been identified with (British actor Bertie Carvel played the role in London and on Broadway) didn't intimidate or influence Ryness. He had never actually seen the show, and when he finally did audition he approached it as "a challenge, like an acting class scene that gets handed out to you. In that position of being the underdog, I was in a situation where I kind of had nothing to lose, no grand expectations as to what I was going to deliver when I walked into the room.

"I really like being in that position of surprising people, of exceeding their expectations. I did what I thought would be the most fun with it and it just so happens it was exactly what they were looking for."

Ryness, 34, grew up in Northern California and discovered his love of singing as many do, in his high school choir. Seriously involved in sports, he was forced to put his game of choice, baseball, aside when his thumb was injured. "I couldn't play and thought, 'what else is going on in my life? So much of my identity was wrapped up in baseball. Who am I?' Singing helped me establish an identity." While a business major at USC he joined an a capella group and met his wife Meredith, also a singer. After graduation he sang with a group at Disney's California Adventure and performed in local theater productions. A big break was being cast in the national tour of "Rent" in 2006.

Ryness realized that he needed to be in New York to further his theater career and moved there with Meredith when his time with "Rent" was completed. The cost of living was a rude awakening for the young couple. "We rolled into New York with $10,000. Cut to three months later and we were sweating. In New York you walk out your door and $20 falls out of your pocket," he recalls. Things got scary but they hung in and Ryness got his first Broadway show ("Legally Blonde") in 2007 and has worked steadily since, including appearing in the 2009 Broadway revival of "Hair," and the original production of "First Date" in 2013.

Before committing to the Matilda tour, Ryness made certain conditions clear to the producers. Now a very proud father of three young children, he requested that his family be able to join him for as much of his six-month run as possible. "It was a deal-breaker for me," he says. "They're all here and that's why it worked, because we could all go together." While in Los Angeles they are staying in Atwater Village, near his brother. The daily routine is as close to family friendly as it gets for a working actor. He has most of the day free to spend with his kids, and at 6:30 "dad gets into the car and goes to the theater." Recently the family, along with a big group from the Matilda production, went to Dodger Stadium when Ryness was invited to sing the national anthem.

In mid-July the show will move on to San Francisco (and after that to a slew of cities too numerous to mention.). It sounds grueling, but at least Ryness will have his family with him most of the time. It doesn't hurt that he holds the material in high regard. "This piece is just so well written, so well constructed. The songs are so intelligent -- very intelligent songs about a simple subject which creates almost a universal accessibility."

Matilda the Musical is at the Ahmanson Theatre until July 12.

Production photos from Center Theatre Group:

bryce-ryness-sits.jpg

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Related nugget: Ryness' brother is Gar Ryness, better known on YouTube as Batting Stance Guy.

June 14, 2015

Protect 'City' and Basin and Range

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: Artist Michael Heizer brought a huge piece of raw, elemental nature into the middle of the city, suspended it over our heads in the courtyard of LACMA, and called it "Levitated Mass." For the last couple of decades he has also been carving raw, elemental forms of the urban into a remote Nevada desert valley, and calling it "City."

This exchange and connection between the country and the city, the city and the country runs through LACMA, where Michael Govan has provided crucial support for Heizer to finish his monumental sculpture. Govan has also been a key player in an effort underway to protect "City" and 900,000 acres of the surrounding land as a new national monument--Basin and Range National Monument.

city300.jpgGovan recently wrote an op-ed about these efforts with Brian O'Donnell of the Conservation Lands Foundation in the LA Times. And on Friday, I contributed an op-ed to the San Francisco Chronicle. The proposal is on President Obama's desk. Supporters are calling on people to write to the president and encourage him to create the national monument to protect "City" and the surrounding landscape of vast valleys and soaring mountains. The effort has its own hashtags, natch, #protectcity and #basinandrange, and a web site at protectbasinandrange.org.

basinrange300.jpgA year and a half ago, as this effort was quietly gaining traction, I traveled several hours north of Las Vegas to visit "City" with Govan and a small group of conservation advocates. I had met Heizer more than a decade earlier when I lived in northern Nevada. And I put tens of thousands of miles on my Toyoto 4-Runner traveling the backcountry roads of the Great Basin, including all around "City." But I'd never been on the inside.

I also wrote about efforts to protect the Nevada desert and the fierce resistance to those efforts from hardcore sagebrush rebels and others. From my perspective as a journalist, these battles were always interesting because of the politics and what they revealed about how people thought about each other as they fought over the land.

Coming back after more than a decade, as we drove north through a vast valley toward "City," I remembered those debates, which could sometimes get pretty western, as they say in Nevada. And I knew that a proposal to designate a national monument would generate some heat locally.

But here in the heart of the Basin and Range province, the politics faded away in the face of the enormous power of the landscape that truly does seem to have its own implacable way, independent of humanity--even if intellectually, as a journalist and historian, I know that it has been touched by human history again and again. Nature has its own abiding integrity and force, even in the face of the enormous power of human ingenuity and engineering.

"City" makes that paradoxical connection in a way that is as mysteriously powerful as the landscape itself. You might feel that, as I do, standing under "Levitated Mass" in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world. And that power resides in "City" and the surrounding Basin and Range landscape, but at a whole different scale. And if it's protected as a national monument, you could experience that too.

Photo of "City" by Tom Vinetz, Triple Aught Foundation. Photo of surrounding land in the proposed Basin and Range National Monument by Tyler Roemer.

May 27, 2015

The 99-Seat plan's long goodbye

You may have heard that LA's 99-seat theaters are about to enter a year of living on the edge - because on June 1, 2016, all hell will break loose.

Or perhaps you've heard the actual gnashing of teeth in some quarters over the apparently shocking and newfangled notion that Actors' Equity, a labor union, will require its members to receive at least the legal minimum wage from producers, beginning a year from now. Some suggest that LA theater is doomed.

So it might come as an equal shock, but from the opposite direction, to hear the news that many small companies won't be seriously affected by the changes. Those companies that are run by their own members will be able to employ those members without union-approved contracts — and, in a change from Equity's original proposal, they can admit new members who are Equity actors.

A recent LA Times article initially gave the impression that it would examine the effects of the Equity changes on a typical 99-seat company, the Road. But then the thirteenth paragraph suddenly revealed that the Road "is exempt, along with about 60 other membership companies," from Equity's changes. The rest of the article provided some fascinating information about the Road's finances, along with interviews of Equity members who approved the changes and others who disapproved. But I wondered why the article wasn't focused on one of the companies that will be more directly affected by the changes.

Until that article, however, I hadn't realized that as many as 60 companies — the official list hasn't yet been published — will be allowed to continue with business as usual, more or less. By the way, let's hope that Equity soon allows Evidence Room to join that list. Someone at Equity reportedly told Evidence Room artistic director Bart DeLorenzo that because its recent shows were co-productions with other companies, it didn't qualify. But Equity should be encouraging, not penalizing, co-productions. Cooperation among two or more companies is one way to increase the chances that the actors on a production will be better paid.

As for the non-membership companies, I hope most of them take the next year to develop their resources to the point that they can afford to pay Equity members the minimum wage, as opposed to deciding to use only non-Equity actors or — even worse — squandering money on dubious lawsuits.

Once again, I also ask that LA's midsize and larger companies do whatever they can to assist the better 99-seat non-membership companies to survive. In recent weeks I've seen Theatre Movement Bazaar at South Coast Repertory in "Big Shot" and the 24th Street Theatre's "Walking the Tightrope" at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre. These were very brief runs, but they provided a taste of what might happen if more LA companies — large and small — cooperated with each other. Thanks in advance to the Wallis in Beverly Hills for importing and upgrading Deaf West Theatre's ASL-inflected rendition of "Spring Awakening."

By the way, regarding that looming option to switch to only non-Equity actors, I'm aware of only one local non-Equity company that regularly produces fresh and important and accomplished work — Chance Theater in Orange County. Then again, I admit that I don't normally attend non-Equity productions in LA — or in OC (except for the Chance.) When LA County offers 390 Equity-99-seat-plan productions and 221 Equity-contract productions in one year (June 2013-May 2014), who has the time to take a chance on non-Chance, non-Equity theater?

In Los Angeles County, where there are so many more Equity actors than in OC, a 99-seat company that decided to go backwards into non-Equity status — in order to avoid paying the minimum wage — could easily vanish from the media map. Let's pretend that I'm an editor, considering two opening productions that could be assigned coverage on a particular weekend, but I have the budget for only one review. Let's say the two shows look about equally interesting from their publicists' descriptions, but I know that one of them uses Equity actors and the other one doesn't. I'd probably choose the one that uses Equity actors. Of course there is no guarantee that it would be better, but at least an Equity affiliation is a gauge of professional experience, and it's probably the only handy gauge that I have, without doing a lot of time-consuming research to help me decide.

I imagine that LA Times theater critic Charles McNulty feels the same way about which shows he personally covers, judging from his endorsement of Equity's recent efforts in an April 23 commentary. I agreed with most of what he wrote. But his argument might have been more convincing if he attended and wrote about more of the shows in LA's current midsize theaters. If he wants the 99-seat companies to grow to that level, he should become better acquainted with what works and what doesn't work at that level — in LA, not in New York or London.

I usually discuss productions of all sizes in my columns, but in today's — as the 99-Seat Plan enters its final year — I'm going to examine only productions that are housed in theaters with fewer than 100 seats.

enron-ds.jpgFirst and foremost, "Enron." it's wonderful to see the Production Company return to full-production mode, after more than a year, with the LA premiere of Lucy Prebble's let-us-entertain-you account of the rise and fall of the Enron corporation, at the Lex in Hollywood. Just as Enron itself employed a kind of magical realism in its corporate communications and investments, so does Prebble employ a flashy and funny magical realism in her saga about Enron.

The major characters are portrayed in very human terms by lively actors, but they're accompanied by an array of puppets, raptors and other unexpected apparitions. Although the tone of the play usually stays on the light and satirical side, near the end an explosion of anger by some of Enron's less well-heeled victims creates a surprisingly cathartic moment.

August Viverito's direction and set and sound design take us along on the wild ride, with pertinent animations and projections by Tiger Reel, luxe lighting by Matt Richter and choreography by Nancy Dobbs Owen. This is a show that should have produced on a bigger budget in a larger space — it would be interesting to ask the leaders of LA's large and midsize companies why they passed up that opportunity. But Viverito and company make us forget all that.

The story is lucid enough for all theatrical purposes. Although it's set in Texas, don't forget that our own state played a pivotal role in the Enron run-in — an Enron-engineered electricity crisis led to blackouts in California. Enron CEO Kenneth Lay was even quoted saying "it doesn't matter what you crazy people in California do, because I got smart guys who can always figure out how to make money." Unfortunately, he died before he could see the "crazy people in California" performing "Enron."

By contrast, John Bunzel's depiction of financial shenanigans among a group of money managers during a financial meltdown, in his "63 Trillion" at the Odyssey, is constricted by its realistic style — and although full of punchlines, it's relatively mirthless. Bunzel's script also fails to make us feel the sting of the victims. By the way, this play takes place in LA, but the only meaningful indication of its local setting is in the view from the office windows, not in the script. New American Theatre is the producing company.

ENTROPY-ds.jpg"Entropy," like "Enron," belongs in a larger space than its current home, but unlike "Enron," "Entropy" doesn't quite make us forget all that. Bill Robens' script is an enjoyable cartoon about the US/Soviet space race, set in 1973. But Krystyna Loboda's set and the other ingenious but cheekily low-budget design elements are the production's domineering stars. Director Christopher William Johnson gives the designers' effort so much space in Theatre of NOTE's Hollywood black box that that there is hardly any room left for the audience, which is sentenced to sit in three rows of uncomfortable bleachers, crammed against one wall.

One of the astronauts in "Entropy" is a woman — supposedly launched into space a decade before the first actual female American astronaut (Sally Ride). Not surprisingly, the "Entropy" woman runs up against some rampant sexism from one of the two men in the same space capsule. She would find a very sympathetic ear from the only female character in Jessica Dickey's "Row After Row," an Echo Theater production at Atwater Village Theatre.

In Dickey's play, two men who are avid Civil War re-enactors retreat to a bar for their usual post-performance drink and encounter a woman, of all people, who has also just participated in the faux battle of Gettysburg. As in "Entropy," one of the men is resentful of the female intrusion into a male world, while the other man is more sympathetic.

Dickey has a knack for making transitions between contemporary speech and more lyrical reflections — and between scenes among the 21st-century re-enactors and scenes in 1863 among the characters the re-enactors are playing. Unfortunately, the same kind of time travel between the Civil War and the present was also used in Catherine Bush's "The Road to Appomattox," seen just three months ago at the Colony Theatre, so its use here didn't strike me as particularly original. Generally, however, Dickey's play coheres better than Bush's.

"Violet," at El Portal's Monroe Theatre in NoHo, is set a century after Gettysburg — in 1964. It features another young (white) woman dealing with the continuing aftermath of the Civil War, as she crosses the South on a bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma. But it's very different from "Row After Row" — it's a musical, with a score by Jeanine Tesori, who later wrote the music for "Caroline, or Change" (why has no one in LA staged that wonderful musical since the Ahmanson's LA premiere?) and whose "Fun Home" is currently nominated for 12 Tonys, including nods for Tesori and for LA's Beth Malone in the best-actress category.

Kelrik Productions is offering a beautifully sung if scenically rudimentary LA premiere of "Violet" (although Laguna Playhouse presented the larger local premiere in 1999). Brian Crawley's book has built-in problems in telling the story about a naïve young woman who hopes a TV preacher can heal her scarred face, and the young GIs — one white, the other black — who fall for her. But Kelrik and director Joshua Finkel deserve kudos for excavating this important example of Tesori's early work — almost immediately after Kelrik produced an equally well-sung "Sweeney Todd" in the same space.

o-my-god-lamont-ds.jpgThe protagonist in "Violet" is no feminist role model. But two strong, vital women are featured in two Jewish-themed plays currently running. In the US premiere of Israeli playwright Anat Gov's "O My God," a Tel Aviv therapist — a single mother of an autistic boy — is visited by a depressed and possibly violent client who soon identifies himself as, gulp, God. After she recovers her composure, the therapist is actually able to help.

Some might label the play's humanized depiction of God as sacrilege, but Judaism includes a healthy tradition of arguing with God — remember Job? If not, this play will refresh your memory. Howard Teichman's production for West Coast Jewish Theatre, at Pico Playhouse with Mike Burstyn as "G" and Maria Spassoff as the therapist, is exceptional. Teichman's company is the scrappy outfit that introduced "The Whipping Man" to LA last year, before we saw it at South Coast Repertory and then the Pasadena Playhouse.

A few miles to the west, at Santa Monica's Braid Theatre (actually a white-box gallery space), Jewish Women's Theatre is presenting its first long-run solo show, "Not That Jewish," in which veteran comic Monica Piper recounts experiences from her lifelong sense of being culturally Jewish — but not religious. She doesn't exactly argue with God, as the therapist does in "O My God," but like that therapist, Piper is a single mother of a young man (although her adopted son isn't autistic). At one point, I distinctly heard Piper say "O my God." Most of the time, however, her words are much funnier. I'm not sure if "Not That Jewish" is a wonderful stand-up act or an autobiographical play — I only know that it's hilarious and, ultimately, heartwarming.

Heartwarming is also the word for "An L.A. Journey, The Story of Lorenzo Alfredo," at Casa 0101. This is a non-Equity production, and its current form isn't particularly polished, but it's quite a story — a K'iche Mayan orphan's odyssey from Guatemala to, yes, LA. The now-adult Alfredo co-wrote the script with director Emmanuel Deleage and performs a somewhat extraneous musical number, but it's hard to remain unaffected by his younger incarnations - as represented by several child actors. Perhaps a later sequel will cover Alfredo's actual LA years and how he got from being homeless in Long Beach to finding an artistic casa in Boyle Heights.

Photos:
Enron: Joanna Strapp
Entropy: Darrett Sanders
O My God: Michael Lamont

May 25, 2015

James Cameron's outlook: sunny with a chance of doom

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: It was a beautiful, sunny late afternoon in the Santa Monica Mountains, and James Cameron was sending mixed signals. The director of "Avatar" had just unveiled his latest invention: open-source solar sunflowers. This was a celebration, but there was a dark cloud on the director's mind.

Cameron was showing off one of the five whimsical solar sunflowers he had built on the campus of the Muse School in Las Virgenes Canyon in the hills above Malibu. The solar arrays feature 14 petals composing a 30-foot diameter photovoltaic blossom that "functions like a flower," Cameron said. "The tracking base moves the flower head the way a real flower will grow toward the sun."

Cameron300.jpgThe sunflowers were a gift to Cameron's wife, Suzy Amis Cameron, who co-founded the nonprofit, sustainability-oriented, pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school with her sister Rebecca Amis. Cameron sketched the sunflowers, had a specialist in computer-generated imagery who worked on "Avatar" do the design, and supervised the engineering.

The solar arrays are "functional art," "fun," and "engaging to the eye," said Cameron. "The form is a celebration of life," he added. "You understand the symbolism immediately."

Cameron imagines the solar sunflowers sprouting in malls, civic centers, parks, and schools. To that end, he is making the design and engineering specifications open source, so that anyone can build them.

But when I cornered Cameron for a moment to ask him about the importance of fun and beauty for achieving sustainability, he had something more serious on his mind. "This isn't about how we win," he said. "It's about how badly we lose."

Cameron said all the current talk of a "2-degree world"--a world in which global warming is kept to no more than a 2 degree Celsius increase on average-- is "optimistic" but "doesn't have enough political reality."

"We're not going to make 2 degrees," Cameron told me. "If we wake up, maybe 3 degrees." And a "3-degree world" will be a much different planet. Even if we went to 100 percent renewable energy, which could take 20 years, Cameron said, that would take care of the energy sector, but only 30 to 40 percent of our carbon emissions.

"But we could cut 14.5 percent overnight by not eating meat and dairy," he added, with his wife standing by his side. "We could change now."

The Camerons have already gone vegan for environmental reasons. The Muse School will be completely "plant based" beginning this fall, said Suzy Cameron. "You can do it yourself," she said. "It's simple and elegant and easy on the pocketbook."

As the late afternoon sun beat down on the dry hills, she added that converting to a plant-based diet "would also cut our water consumption to one-half or a third."

"I wish we were talking about that," she said, as the solar celebration closed in around her and her husband.

I confess, I had come up the mountain hoping for some hope. I came back down chastened.

James Cameron had acknowledged: "If we don't make it fun, we won't make it."

That's what I like to think, too.

But he also seemed to be saying he doesn't think we are going to make it. We could change. But we probably won't.

And when I force myself to think critically sometimes I think that too.

Photo by Stefanie Keenan, courtesy of Muse School.

May 18, 2015

New breed pianist, perfect dancers and a string quartet

Igor_Levit.jpgRemember yesterday's Russian/Polish icons of the piano? Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, among the best known? Well, the new young keyboard wizards storming the concert halls can arguably equal their predecessors' artistry and technique. But they certainly don't look the same -- the latest one being Igor Levit.

What a different sight.

He walks hesitantly onto the Wallis stage, a desultory glance at the audience before his head turns to the real focus, a Steinway just feet beyond. His attention wavers back and forth.

And from there on you're struck by the contrast between him and his illustrious models. Whereas they sat upright -- especially Rubinstein, with his patrician spine extended and his head tilted up, seeming to summon the angels -- Levit (right) hunches over the keyboard like a miner digging out some unknown ore, his nose to the ivories, his back in a posturally dangerous half-round.

But, ah, yes, the playing. It's reason enough for those "breaking news" reviews from high places everywhere he goes. It's a technique that astounds and an expressive depth and intensity that are transcendent.

You like your Bach contemplative? Not in the pure, detached-note, manner of Glenn Gould, who mesmerized us through a partita's contrapuntal complexity, but instead full of romanticism a là Andras Schiff? Then here's your man. And, again with Beethoven, Levit becomes an Aladdin polishing his magic lamp and summoning a mystical being. So much so that in the "Tempest" he severely breaks the rhythmic frame -- in order to burrow here and there, bringing the piece to near-stasis. But you will surely hang in with him...

Also compelling -- though on a less profound level, of course -- was the Alvin Ailey Dance Company at the Music Center. Today the world-traveled troupe features a smartly sleek, streamlined sophistication, still wrapped in colorful theatricality. Its dancers are body-perfect and high-tech-trained, as the current standard universally demands. To be sure, there will always be the gospel vernacular of their calling card, "Revelations," but it's straight ahead to a newly-minted mix of modern attitudes that come with street savvy and assorted balletic innuendoes -- witnessed both in Aszure Barton's "Lift" and Hans van Manen's "Polish Pieces."

alvin-ailey-dt.jpgAlvin Ailey Dance Company


There was one shocker, though, more to do with the audience than the performance. With Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain," a duet set to Arvo Pärt's well-known "Spiegel Im Spiegel" (Mirror in Mirror), a piece of infinite quietude, continuity and introspection, there was uproarious applause and whistling throughout with each lift or leg extension -- utterly ruining the effect and converting the work to a circus act, say, that of a seal balancing a ball on the tip of its nose.

But a word about the typical Ailey audience, long-time returnees who always spill over in joyous outbursts for "Revelations" and, really, for the whole show: These are people who have long-mourned, and identified with, the tragedies of the Freddie Grays. That they can rise up here in unalloyed jubilation is deeply moving any way you cut it.

In contrast, there's Beverly Hills and its subscribers tip-toeing to the Wallis Theater-- they seem new to culture, specifically the performing arts, a few of them even showing rudeness to pianist Levit. Often, they don't register whether a performance is ordinary or spectacular, remaining somewhat blasé regardless.

A case in point was Ballet Jazz Montréal's electrifying performances of Foniadakis's "Kosmos, with its propulsively driven movement to throbbing Middle-Eastern rhythms that animated a dramatic scenario (who could ever forget those silken dancers ripping around like crazy?); and Robitaille's "Rouge," a big pastiche of sly dance numbers set off by a sound score's guttural intonations and evolving into witty slink-and-thrust maneuvers.

Why, the Ailey crowd would have brought down the chandeliers witnessing this. But an air of quiet sophistication dampened the response of these spectators -- even though it takes almost no background to be stunned by what transpired onstage.

Rouge-montreal-jazz.jpgRouge/Ballet Jazz Montréal. Photo by Rapha'lle Bob Garcia.

A few weeks later, though, saw no reservations for the Brentano String Quartet. Everyone (true, an older Wallis audience) clamored with approbation by evening's end and deservedly so. What escaped no one was how perfectly the hall's environment -- its acoustic and size -- embraced the keen virtuosity and presence of these musicians. Just to sit there and take in the marvelous playing, every intimate detail of it, was a gift.

The Brentanos gave us a sharply articulate Haydn, full of playful wit and echoing a Beethoven-like dialogue; Bartok's Quartet No. 3, a bracing adventure in contemporary anxiety with its Hungarian accents churning in agitation; and Debussy's Quartet, which swept us onto lush trails and dark imaginings, a never-land of sensuality -- my god, a miracle.

And just in case you're thinking about other chamber music, remember L.A.'s own Calder Quartet -- which comes as a resident to that other westside culture emporium, the Broad Stage. At its last visit there we heard Schubert's Cello Quintet, the monumental work that reaches nearly symphonic proportions. The Calders, with L.A. Phil guest artist Robert Demaine, illuminated its soul-wrenching beauty and delicately poised key modulations that wafting up to the sublime heavens.

When it came to Mozart's G-major Quartet who could not delight in their sweet-toned, finely animated way with the work or not hear their unanimity of thrust so full of exuberance, or their shapely phrases punctuated by heart-beat rests?

The late Mehli Mehta (Zubin's father) said it best: "Chamber music contains the very core of all that is dear in music."

May 17, 2015

Chris Burden's Ode to Santos Dumont

burden-dumont-iris.jpgPhoto by Iris Schneider

On Friday, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held a poignant preview of artist Chris Burden's final finished work, "Ode to Santos Dumont." The kinetic airship sculpture will be on display at LACMA from Monday to June 21 in the Resnick Pavillion. It performs in 15 minute intervals several times a day — entry to the exhibit is included in the price of a regular museum ticket.

Burden died last Sunday at home in Topanga Canyon at age 69.

May 10, 2015

I heard it through the musical grapevine

motown-gaye-ds.jpg"Motown" photos by Joan Marcus.

Two musicals currently playing in LA are at least partially set in bygone days of LA's pop music business. Both of them focus on music-industry pioneers who -- 50 or 60 years ago -- were determined to expand the audience for African-American sounds into the younger ranks of mainstream America.

Eventually it might be fascinating to see these musicals programmed together, in a double bill as part of a single company's repertory. But the current productions are diametrical opposites in terms of scale and polish.

"Motown the Musical," exploring the life of Motown founder and boss Berry Gordy, is at the 2700-seat Pantages Theatre in Hollywood -- not far from where Motown was headquartered after it moved from Detroit in 1972. Less than a mile to the south is the 99-seat Lillian Theatre, where "Recorded in Hollywood" explores a decade in the life of John Dolphin, a music producer who operated the influential 24-hour record store Dolphin's of Hollywood from 1948 to 1958 near the intersection of Central Avenue and Vernon in South LA. Despite its name, Dolphin's was far from Hollywood, because - so the musical relates -- racist covenants prevented Dolphin from setting up his shop in Hollywood.

motown-gordy-ds.jpgThe creative sources behind these productions are hardly impartial observers. Gordy himself is one of the three producers of "Motown" and its librettist (for the record, David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan are listed in small type as "script consultants"). Gordy also co-wrote, with Michael Lovesmith, three new songs for the show - in addition to the 57 (!) golden oldies that are at least briefly performed in "Motown." "The Legendary Motown Catalog" receives the primary score credit.

The production's chronology of Gordy's life begins in 1938, when he was eight, refers to the next 15 or so years only fleetingly and indirectly, then continues with Gordy's attempts to hawk his own songs, before using family money to launch his own label in 1959.

Approximately the first two-thirds of "Motown" is set in Detroit, followed by his defection to the bright lights of LA. We hear quickly about Gordy's first early marriage and the three children from that union, but not about his subsequent marriages and children. Instead, he boils down his romantic affairs almost entirely to his long personal as well as professional coupling with Diana Ross. To Gordy's credit, he shoulders some of the responsibility for the relationship's low points as well as its highs - these two didn't always "hear a symphony."

Meanwhile, three sons of John Dolphin receive credit as the "supporters" of "Recorded in Hollywood." Jamelle Dolphin, grandson of John, wrote the biography on which the musical is based and co-wrote the show's book, with Matt Donnelly. Although "Recorded" re-creates a couple of the era's familiar classics, most of its score is a new homage to the sounds of the era, by Andy Cooper.

Most of "Recorded in Hollywood" is set in the store itself. The staging even suggests that Dolphin died in the store, which he didn't. His manner of death and its prelude (which I shouldn't reveal here) is the show's most disturbing undercurrent. Otherwise, the tone is generally celebratory, although the show acknowledges that Dolphin, too, had affairs with other women outside his marriage.

Both musicals make a convincing case that their protagonists, although motivated by profits, also contributed to breaking down some of America's racial barriers - largely by producing exhilarating music that intoxicated people of all races, and only secondarily via more organized civil rights efforts.

I wish I could say that "Recorded in Hollywood" is the better of these two shows, because I'm always drawn to LA-developed musicals, and certainly John Dolphin's story is less familiar than Berry Gordy's. At this point, however, "Recorded in Hollywood" still seems to be on the level of a workshop.

RinH_386-ds.jpgThe book needs a rewrite. Among its problems are a couple of moments that sent my eyebrows upward over what felt like over-the-top embellishments. Let's just say that these incidents aren't mentioned in the "History" section of the Dolphins of Hollywood website - leading me to distracting doubts about whether they really happened as depicted.

The production needs a sound designer, especially considering its title and subject matter. The original lyrics were sometimes difficult to decipher and therefore difficult to assess.

On the other hand, "Motown" is probably as good as it's ever going to get. It covers more decades than "Recorded," but it's much more sharply focused. The design team is first-rate, and director Charles Randolph-Wright signs, seals and delivers it with professional aplomb.

While I like to encourage the use of original scores for most musicals, for "Motown" a jukebox approach was inevitable, and all those familiar riffs trigger instant and irresistible sense memories. Also, the show's sheer pageant-like size (a cast of 34, most of them convincingly playing multiple characters) reinforces the sense that this show has a vital American story to tell.

Recorded in Hollywood photo above by Ed Krieger


MORE MUSICALS

sideshow-ds.jpgScene from 'Side Show'. Photo by Isaac James Creative.

The best musical production in Greater LA right now is in Fullerton - T.J. Dawson's revival of the seldom-seen "Side Show" for 3-D Theatricals, at the Plummer. Bill Russell's book and lyrics and Henry Krieger's music tell the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who became freak-show attractions in the '20s, before moving up into vaudeville.

This isn't the latest version of the show, which recently played in La Jolla, Washington and on Broadway with 12 new songs and with apparently major changes in the book, supervised by director Bill Condon (who, by the way, credited not only the Broadway original but also Colony Theatre's 2002 production in Burbank with attracting him to "Side Show"). Let's hope that some LA company is about to announce a local production of the new "Side Show."

Still, Dawson's rendition of the original is quite powerful. Unlike many 3-D productions, it's playing only in Fullerton, through this weekend, without an extension in Redondo Beach.

Watching the actors in "Side Show" occupying mobile bleachers as part of the set, I was reminded of how much fun I had as an audience member at La Mirada Theatre's recent production of "Carrie the Musical." At "Carrie" (based on the Stephen King novel), those of us in the front part of the audience were also perched on mobile bleachers, which were moved at intervals, reconfiguring the very fluid playing area, often bringing us closer to the action.

This revised version of the Lawrence D. Cohen/Dean Pitchford/Michael Gore musical was the latest of La Mirada's now-annual productions in which the entire audience is seated on the stage, reducing a Broadway-size proscenium venue to the dimensions of a much more intimate midsize theater. In director Brady Schwind's version of "Carrie," however, the reduced stage was suddenly, unexpectedly expanded again in a brilliant second-act moment.

Producers reportedly want to export this concept of "Carrie" from La Mirada to the rest of America. How about starting it in LA with the same cast that did it in La Mirada? It's the kind of show that could quickly develop a rapidly growing cult following, and it deserves a longer LA life at a midsize venue closer to the many young adults in the big city. You were bored by your own prom? Just wait till you see Carrie's.

Meanwhile, the Colony is presenting "Words by Ira Gershwin," in which Jake Broder (of "Louis and Keely" fame) plays the lyricist, serving primarily as an emcee for a stroll through some of the standards and novelty numbers on which he shared credit -- not only with his composer brother George but also with Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen and Vernon Duke.

Two other singers, Elijah Rock and Angela Teek, enliven the evening considerably, along with pianist and musical director Kevin Toney. But Broder occasionally appears a bit stranded as the titular star and hub; as the character points out, it was his brother who had the charisma.

With a script and musical arrangements by Joseph Vass and direction by David Ellenstein, "Words by Ira Gershwin" is pleasant, but it isn't nearly as gripping as the Colony's other recent examination of an American Songbook founding father, Lorenz Hart, in "Falling for Make Believe."

May 3, 2015

'Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography' at the Getty

getty-greycircles.jpgTop: Poly-optic #22, 2013, Chris McCaw. Next: Spin (C-824), 2008, Marco Breuer.

As a  photographer, I am grounded in the real world. My heroes are those who often put themselves in harm's way to expose social injustice, documenting the lives of the less fortunate and doing it artfully and powerfully. So it was kind of exhilarating to visit the Getty for their latest photography exhibit, Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography, and meet photographers who are exploring other frontiers, sometimes breaking new ground and sometimes riffing and expanding on the work of earlier pioneers like Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Pierre Cordier and Edmund Teske. There is something freeing in looking at work made with a different set of objectives in mind, work that asks questions posed by artists who are following a path of their own design, not knowing fully where it will take them. 

The show at the Getty is unusual in several respects. First, photography is the only art form which the Getty collects internationally and up to the present day. So the possibility of talking with the artists represented in a show is rare. For this show, most of the artists were in the Gallery the day of the opening and some were participating in panels and demonstrations opening week. In addition, this photography show includes several photographers whose work was not made with a camera. While photography is defined as "writing with light," why must a camera be the writing instrument?  Why can't the light source itself, be it the sun or the moon, be the instrument? On the morning of the show's opening, photographers James Welling, Chris McCaw, Alison Rossiter, Lisa Oppenheim, Marco Breuer, John Chiara and Matthew Brandt were present, and spoke about their process and their path. Some were seeing their work on the Getty walls for the first time.

breuer-circles-getty.jpg

Alison Rossiter's prints start with batches of old photo paper and are made by developing the unexposed, expired paper, or by using darkroom chemistry to fix the papers without exposing them to the enlarger's light. Often, after years of sitting in their boxes, some light has leaked inside the box, or a fingerprint has smudged the surface and these conditions will show themselves once the paper hits the developer. Like other artists in this show, EBay has provided an opportunity to search far and wide for papers that many would deem useless. "It all should have been thrown away," she said and talked about working in 2011 with a box of paper made in 1911. "I had an entire century in my hands. The images are made by time. The paper still reacts." A glass showcase houses some of the boxes and envelopes that Rossiter has found, with intricate labels and elegant design, packaging of a bygone era. For some of these artists, a visit to EBay over their morning coffee has become a daily ritual, and what they've found has made their art possible. "I buy something fantastic every day," Rossiter said.

Chris McCaw uses the light of the sun to burn its arc onto paper negatives he has also found on EBay, although he admits it is getting harder to find what he wants. He uses old military reconnaissance lenses, huge columns of glass that he has adapted for his artistic design, to harness the light of the sun or moon, or boards with broken 50mm lenses mounted geometically. Classically trained in Northern California, his journey as an artist changed when he set out to photograph the stars overnight at Yosemite and overslept. The sun had burned the emulsion on the paper. "I thought it was garbage," he said, and he put the paper at the bottom of the box. He didn't develop it for a long time. When he did, it resonated and led him down a whole new path.

mccaw-iris.jpgChris McCaw at the Getty, by Iris Schneider

The day after the Getty opening he had set up his lenses out on the plaza for a demonstration and was explaining his process, chatting with photography enthusiasts and eager students. Surrounded by huge lenses with bellows atttached to suitcases he has designed to make transporting them easier, his enthusiasm was infectious. He encouraged people to peek through a slit in the bellows and see how the sun was burning an arc onto the paper. He explained how his exposures vary with the time of the year, his location and the time of day and height of the sun, how he has adapted to spending hours near his camera while he makes his exposures. "I've gotten into birding," he says, along with reading and people-watching. He enjoys how the personality of a place evolves through the day. "That would be a great subject for a photo project." But obviously, not one he's going to take on anytime soon.

Marco Breuer, whose images include one in which the paper is etched with the needle from a phonograph, was trained in Germany. "I did do the proper camera thing, but in Germany there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, so you need to find a space where those rules don't apply." This idea of exploration and breaking boundaries defines the creative process.

While the idea of what a photograph is may be open to discussion, it's hard to deny that the work in this exhibit gives us beautiful and thought-provoking images to ponder while we answer the questions they pose.

"Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography" is at the Getty Center until Sept. 6.

chiara-sierra-getty.jpgSierra at Edison, 2012, from "Los Angeles Project," John Chiara.


April 28, 2015

24th Street embraces role as neighborhood's theater

LAO-24th-TIGHTROPE-CTG.jpgMark Bramhall, left, Micaela Martinez and Tony Duran in 24th Street's 'Walking the Tightrope' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre / Photo by Craig Schwartz


"Before," says Yolanda Baza, "I felt I had to be Señora Yolanda." Her voice lowers, her expression turns stern. "I was very serious."

Then, the Pico-Union grandmother joined an acting program at 24th Street Theatre. "Everything changed. Now, I play and enjoy life." Gleefully, she squeezes an imaginary orange. "Now, I take the juice."

LAO-24th-yolanda-foto.jpg"She was dead," her husband, Cipriano, agrees. "But now she is alive."

The Bazas are sitting side by side in a back office at 24th Street, a little stage company with big aspirations. "We want to do great work," says its executive director, Jay McAdams. "We also want to change lives."

Since it opened in 1997, the theater has found ways--offstage and on--to serve the largely Latino, working-class community north of USC. "We started out intending to just do plays," says Debbie Devine, the artistic director and McAdams' wife. "But the needs of the neighborhood made us realize we should do much more."

So, 24th Street gives audiences an affordable mix of local and international artists and its own productions, such as the highly lauded family tale "Walking the Tightrope," which ended a national tour at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in early May.

It offers education programs for all ages and outreach that is definitely grass-roots: a Day of the Dead celebration that draws 1,500-plus, homemade tamales dished up before and after shows, an open-door policy that keeps its building's big green doors wide open during the day.

"Everybody is welcome," declares Devine, walking across a lobby that doubles as a community hub. On this cloudy afternoon, kids snack on fruit before class while women browse through stacks of donated clothing. Visitors drop in for coffee or to use the computer printer. Through those green doors have appeared old friends, curious passers-by and, on occasion, people in distress. Theater staffers have come to the aid of homeless strangers and a domestic violence victim seeking refuge.

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Photos: Yolanda Baza, above, and last year's Day of the Dead celebration / Photos by Cindy Marie Jenkins.


"We do things theaters don't usually do," McAdams says. "Things you can't measure in awards or reviews."

Even so, 24th Street has managed to earn more than its share of acclaim. The company has won year's-best honors for Spanish-language and children's plays -- genres that don't usually get such attention. Its 2010 version of Aristides Vargas' "La Razón Blindada," co-produced with two Mexican partners, was named L.A. Weekly Production of the Year. The drama about Argentine political prisoners travels to Mexico City this summer.

The West Coast premiere of Mike Kenny's "Tightrope," the story of an English family's love and loss, wowed critics in 2013--the L.A. Times called it "delicately poised between children's fable and adult reverie at once, only to become another transcendent thing altogether."

Helping kids 'After 'Cool'

Devine is a devoted arts educator. McAdams is a conservatory-trained actor. The couple, who live in the Valley, say they and fellow theater artists Stephanie Shroyer and Jon White-Spunner founded 24th Street at the urging of USC's then-drama school dean, who hoped to see a professional stage close to campus. (Shroyer and White-Spunner have since left the group.)

The company moved into a converted '20s-era carriage house near Hoover Street. "We expanded our mission once we saw this was a true neighborhood," says Devine. They also saw the neighborhood had lots of social/economic problems and not a lot of resources, especially when it came to helping kids.

Kids are a priority at 24th Street, which runs a teen leadership academy and After 'Cool after-school theater classes that also develop self-esteem and personal skills.

LAO-enterstageright-new.jpgReaching beyond the community is Enter Stage Right, an interactive introduction to the theater that has become a field-trip favorite, serving 10,000 students this school year. Each visit begins with the basics. "What do we buy at the box office?" Devine asks eager first-graders gathered in the lobby one morning. "A box?" someone guesses. A welcoming video features actor Jack Black, who credits Devine, his former teacher, with transforming his life. Onstage, children learn how to transform an empty space into a magical place.

In 2012, Theatre Communications Group, the national non-profit theater organization, honored 24th Street for its innovation and risk-taking. That year, Devine and McAdams took a risk by announcing they were going all-TYA (Theater for Young Audiences). "We did it not because we like children's theater, but because we hate it," says McAdams. "So much of it is junk. We want to create sophisticated plays parents can share with kids."

One such creation is Devine's staging of "Walking the Tightrope," in which a grandfather can't bear to tell his granddaughter that her grandmother died, so he says she joined the circus. Devine points out that Kenny confronts two taboos of children's theater--death and sadness. "Kids can handle more than people think," she insists, noting that the grandmother's spirit is represented by a bald male clown. "Parents were puzzled, but children got it right away."


Photo above: Debbie Devine and Enter Stage Right students / Photo courtesy of 24th Street Theatre


'Heart-anguishing' stories

While its youth programs filled up fast, 24th Street had trouble getting area adults to attend plays, even with neighbors paying just 24 cents' admission. "We were told, 'If you want people to come, do Hispanic art,'" McAdams says. Hence, the birth of a Latino theater initiative in 2003. "After a few bumps, things took off. But we had this apartheid-- English shows and Spanish shows. Now, we make things bilingual, using super-titles."

lao-debjay-new.jpgYolanda Baza and other residents were given the chance to act in holiday plays they helped to create through a project called Teatro del Pueblo. "The first year, 2013, we had two dozen folks, from homeless to financially OK," McAdams recalls. They shared intensely personal stories--many "heart-anguishing"--that were crafted into a script.

"Year One was life-changing," says McAdams. People who were going to get divorced didn't. An After 'Cool mother was inspired to earn her GED and is aiming for college. "There was deep sharing, the building of trust. Year Two, we still had sharing but focused on skills. Along the way, it wasn't always smooth sailing. Some people fought with each other or quit and came back. But on opening night, everyone was sobbing and hugging."

Teatro del Pueblo's foundation funding has run out, however 24th Street plans to keep the project going. The company, which has a $500,000 annual operating budget, relies on donations, grants and tour income. McAdams says it spends much of its money on education and outreach. "We produce relatively few shows because of finances." He and Devine are figuring out the effects of Actors' Equity's new minimum-wage rules on their 80-seat theater. (Both opposed the changes.)

One certainty, says McAdams, is that "we will keep helping people like Yolanda."

Baza, who is retired from the bakery business, came to L.A. from Mexico City more than 40 years ago. "Once, I was nervous about the audience," she admits, recounting her experiences in Spanish and English. "Now, I have fun onstage."

Delightedly, she describes her role in last year's show: "I was a coquette." She clasps her face in mock horror. "My grandchildren were like this. They said, 'Oh, Grandma!'"

Baza laughs. "I am 72, but now I forget my age. If you ask, I say I am 10 or 20."

Photo above: Debbie Devine and Jay McAdams / Photo by Jon Deshler

The most civilized and generous film festival

HAZAVANICIUSsm.jpgDirector Michel Hazanavicius. Photo by Iris Schneider.


If Los Angeles is the city of film festivals, and I think it is, then the COLCOA festival has to be the most civilized and generous one of all. The "City of Lights, City of Angels" festival will run through Tuesday screening French features, documentaries and now French television to an enthusiastic audience of movie lovers. During the 9-day festival, 68 movies will be shown. Each day starts with coffee and croissants and a free 11 am screening of a favorite film from the festival. There is also an open 2 pm classic screening and then evening films which must be ticketed. But anyone who checks the COLCOA facebook page can request tickets to the next day's screenings and often win them. And most days include an open "Happy Hour Talk" at 4 pm, and a wine reception afterwards for all attendees.

This is a festival that simply celebrates French film and film lovers.

After many of the screenings, there are panels with the directors or actors and any ticketholder gets a chance to vote on each movie. On Tuesday, the last day of the festival, the audience winners will be re-screened along with other favorites from the festival in a movie marathon of free screenings. All movies are shown in the beautiful Director's Guild theaters on Sunset Blvd. Parking is available onsite.

A recent night's screenings included "The Search," a new film written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, whose silent film "The Actor" won five Oscars in 2012, including best picture. The new film, set in Chechnya, is a gripping and emotional exploration of four characters whose lives are intertwined by the war with Russia. Hazanavicius wanted to draw attention to the situation in Chechnya because he felt that the human toll of this and many vicious wars is too often ignored after a brief mention on the evening news. His film is beautifully written and acted by newcomers including 9 year old Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev and Maksim Emelyanov, who play a displaced child and a young Russian soldier, and veteran actors Annette Bening and Berenice Bejo. Like many of the films screened during the festival, distribution in the United States is still an open question.

In addition of many comedies, some of the outstanding films screened this year were "Atlit," set in Israel, and "Memories," about the complications that come with retirement and aging. In the documentary category are "Cartoonists," "Of Men and War," "Silenced Walls," and "Steak (R)Evolution."

This festival is a great opportunity to see films that really celebrate the small but powerful movies that simply explore what it means to be human and struggle with all that life throws our way.


Previously at Native Intelligence:
City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival opens Tuesday

April 26, 2015

Silver Lake's 'Bates Motel' gets a whitewash

bates-motel-portrait.jpgPhotos by Iris Schneider.

Vincent Lamouroux says he was always attracted to the building, known in Silver Lake as the Bates Motel, at the corner of Bates and Sunset. Over the past 15 years, he has driven by on trips to Los Angeles from his native France, always wanting to do an art project here, but not really sure what it would be. On Sunday, the fruits of his thoughts and labor will finally be open to the public: the entire Sunset Pacific Motel building covered in a gleaming whitewash, that has taken the decrepit eyesore from awful to awesome.

Over the past few weeks, painters have been covering every inch of the rundown motel — including the palm trees — with a water-soluble lime wash that has given the corner a clean bill of health. The motel has been bought and sold several times over the past years, with plans for an upscale hotel and condominiums being discussed and shelved. Now, for the time being at least, it has been transformed with Lamouroux's project "Projection." Lamouroux explained that the name refers both to the process of spraying the lime wash onto the building, but also that the viewer is able to project ideas and imagination onto the surfaces of this building.

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Lamouroux says transformation is a theme of his work, and by doing a large scale installation it not only involves the eye of the viewer, but all the senses. "I like to produce some sort of experience," he said on Thursday as he supervised the touch up of lime wash being sprayed onto the palm trunks and fronds. The neighboring communities, including Thomas Starr King Middle School, the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community
Center and the Lycée International de Los Angeles, along with community organizations, all heartily supported the project.

"It was a long process, but not that hard," Lamouroux said. "I like the idea that we were able to have around us people who were believers about it. It's a great thing to be able to share a dream, starting from an idea and transforming it into a reality. For me, this project is an awakened dream that has turned into reality."

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April 20, 2015

The match of play and venue can be so wrong -- and so right

julius-caesar-anw.jpgEnsemble of "Julius Caesar" at A Noise Within. Photo: Craig Schwartz

LA's larger stages frequently house small-scale productions that might be more accessible in venues where more of the audience is closer to the actors. And LA's smaller stages frequently host large-cast productions that might look less cramped and cluttered in more spacious homes.

This phenomenon is in large part a product of the Actors' Equity pay scales behind the scenes of LA theater, which have aroused such strong passions recently. I've written more directly about that debate in my last two columns. Let me repeat that I'm a theatergoer, not a producer or an Equity member. My primary concern in this dispute is how to make LA theater not only better but more noticeable to the larger public.

Too bad there is no magic wand that would instantly provide enough money for the companies with larger stages and bigger budgets to produce larger-cast, wider-angle, higher-profile theater most of the time, leaving more intimate plays in the hands of the companies that operate the more intimate venues (including the smaller midsize venues as well as the spaces with fewer than 100 seats.) This result would benefit LA audiences as much as it would benefit LA actors. And producers in small theaters might be more capable of raising enough money to pay the legal minimum wage if they were using fewer actors.

In the meantime, let's examine two companies that currently serve as models for knowing how to use the strengths of their own spaces and (apparently) how to manage their finances - while each of them is staging at least three almost-simultaneous productions.

First, A Noise Within. For years, this midsize (281 seats) classics company has announced themes for its three-show rep seasons. This spring, however, the Pasadena troupe has more purposefully emphasized the ties that bind two of its productions, "Julius Caesar" and "The Threepenny Opera," billed together as "RevolutionRep."

The two scripts have very different perspectives. "Threepenny" primarily addresses why revolutions arise and "Julius Caesar" spends more time depicting a revolution itself and its disillusioning aftermath. However, if you see both in one day, as I did last Sunday and as A Noise Within is inviting audiences to do on April 25 and May 2, you'll probably notice that a song in "Threepenny" includes a verse reflecting on the story of Julius Caesar.

I would suggest seeing "Threepenny" in the afternoon and "Julius Caesar" in the evening, as I did, because this order better illustrates the natural sequence of the revolutionary arc. You can do that on May 2. (Also, on both April 25 and May 2, you can spend the time in between the two performances by adding dinner with cast members and a roundtable discussion in the upstairs rehearsal room, for an extra $50.)

A Noise Within has united these two productions in ways that go beyond their themes. The company's producing artistic directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott co-directed both shows and used the same designers. Frederica Nascimento's nimble set serves both plays, primarily consisting of mobile components that are shifted into many configurations. Because there isn't much scenic realism, Ken Booth's lighting assumes a vital role and becomes one of the productions' most shining (yes, pun intended) elements.

Both performances begin with the buzz of pertinent lines lifted from elsewhere in the script - a Brechtian touch not seen as often in "Julius Caesar" as in "Threepenny," and both productions effectively use the aisles as well as the company's sharply thrust stage. Five actors appear in both productions, with the remarkable Deborah Strang doing the most notable double duty as Mrs. Peachum in "Threepenny" and as a female Casca in "Julius Caesar."

The first act of "Julius Caesar" achieves the undeniable thrust of a cannonball. The second half of Shakespeare's text, after Mark Antony (Rafael Goldstein here) rouses the Roman rabble against Brutus (Robertson Dean) and Cassius (Freddy Douglas), always runs the risk of seeming somewhat anti-climactic. But this production condenses it into a relatively swift and streamlined accounting of how the revolution stumbled under the weight of its protagonists' very human flaws.

"Threepenny" isn't quite as successful, for two reasons. Andrew Ableson is miscast as Macheath, never convincingly projecting the raw danger of "Mack the Knife." And occasionally the lyrics (in the stinging Michael Feingold translation) are hard to decipher over the masterful seven-person band's interpretations of Kurt Weill's evocative score. Still, other performances are memorable, especially Marisa Duchowny's Polly Peachum and Stasha Surdyke's Jenny Diver.

By the way, A Noise Within is also currently presenting Michael Michetti's sprightly West Coast premiere of Charley Morey's adaptation of Beaumarchais' "Figaro." While it lacks the revolutionary gravitas of "Threepenny" and "Julius Caesar" and isn't part of the officially designated RevolutionRep, it "also skewers the foibles of the ruling classes with fierce, fearless farce," as the producing artistic directors write in their program note. Jeremy Guskin in the title role is a live wire.

For the record, A Noise Within - originally a 99-seat-plan company - is currently employing 25 Actors' Equity members as actors and stage managers, not as "volunteers."

On to the Road Theatre Company. It's already running three plays in NoHo and it's about to open a fourth. All four will be playing at least through next weekend. "The Other Place" and "The English Bride" are humming along in the 78-seat Road on Magnolia. "Mud Blue Sky" opened last week at the 44-seat Road on Lankershim, and it will be joined next week by "Things Being What They Are." Things begin what they are, the Road understandably still uses Equity's 99-seat plan.

All of the Road plays are small-scale and newish, although none of them is brand-new. Road's "The English Bride" is billed as a West Coast premiere, while "The Other Place" and "Mud Blue Sky" are LA premieres. "Things Being What They Are" - Wendy MacLeod's male-bonding comedy -- had a brief run in a different production at last year's Hollywood Fringe Festival. Road's production features one of the actors, Chet Grissom, who also performed in the Fringe version.

MUD-BLUE-SKY-ds.jpgAdam Farabee, Carlyle King and Whitney Dylan in "Mud Blue Sky" at the Road Theatre. Photo: John Lorenz

Most of the Road plays are realistic in style - although Sharr White's "The Other Place," about a woman who is gradually losing her mind - conveys some of the same sense of disorientation that the character is experiencing.

"Mud Blue Sky" and "The English Bride" explore fresher subject matter than the other two. In the former, three middle-aged flight attendants try to make it through a night at a chain motel near a Chicago airport with the help of a teenage pot dealer on his prom night. Marisa Wegrzyn's play is a more honest and rueful update of the old-fashioned stewardess farces from the '60s. Although the ending is a bit of a muddle and the characters may feel grounded, Mary Lou Belli's cast is, well, flying high.

In Lucile Lichtblau's "The English Bride," an inexperienced lass is swept up in a romance with a man who is secretly plotting to plant a bomb in her suitcase as she travels to Israel on El Al. Loosely based on a real-life incident in the '80s, it's structured in the form of after-the-fact interrogations by an Israeli agent of both the bomber and his bride. So we know the ending early on, and the play becomes more of a psychological probe than a suspense thriller. But director Marya Mazor and her three-person cast make the psychology fascinating.

The vigor of the multiple productions at A Noise Within and the Road is impressive. Of course A Noise Within is working on a much larger and more expensive scale than is the Road. No, neither company is currently doing brand-new plays, which take more time and intensive labor to develop. And they're not doing LA-set plays, although the Road last year produced the premiere of a Pasadena-set play, "Sovereign Body," which was somewhat like "The Other Place" in its theme and casting of the mighty Taylor Gilbert -- only better.

In Chris Jones' review of the premiere of "Mud Blue Sky" for the Chicago Tribune last year, he wrote of how the Chicago venue is directly across the street from an apartment complex that used to be "teeming with flight attendants" back in the day. Road, that's your cue - find a new play that's set across the street from one of your theaters in NoHo.

Meanwhile, a few brief words about Theatre West's revival of Jim Beaver's "Verdigris" - which opened there three decades ago but didn't receive a second production until now. "Verdigris," set in Oklahoma in 1972, focuses on a domineering widow who runs several hardscrabble businesses from her wheelchair, while her son demands that she sell the house and enter a nursing home. For the current production, Beaver -- who's also in the cast as the woman's alcoholic brother -- has filled in some of the backstory of the narrator (Adam Conger) whose memory play this is. Mark W. Travis is once again the director. Sheila Shaw, who played a younger character in the previous production, now appears as the pivotal widow.

Verdigris-ds.jpgJim Beaver, Sheila Shaw, Adam Conger in "Verdigris" at Theatre West. Photo: Charlie Mount

Theatre West recently raised $56,079 on Kickstarter to revive "Verdigris" in the same 160-seat house where it began. The venerable company uses Equity contracts for its children's productions in this space, but for years it has been allowed to use the 99-seat plan for many of its adult-oriented productions, including this revival of "Verdigris." The "Verdigris" cast includes six Equity actors, all of whom are excellent.

In between the two productions of "Verdigris," another small-town Oklahoma play that revolves around a strong-willed older woman character - Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" -- became much more famous. It went from Steppenwolf in Chicago to Broadway, won a Pulitzer Prize and was transformed into a Hollywood movie starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Angelenos will get another chance to experience the play this summer at Topanga's Theatricum Botanicum, but my memory of it (from its tour stop at the Ahmanson in 2009) is that it's much louder and soapier than "Verdigris" but not necessarily as moving or as authentic.

I applaud Theatre West for developing "Verdigris" and sticking with it after three decades, But I imagine that the play might have garnered a lot more attention if its first or at least its second stop had been Steppenwolf (which has 515- and 299-seat venues) or one of its local equivalents instead of a theater using the 99-seat plan. This, of course, is an admonition to the local equivalents of Steppenwolf to examine their own back yards more closely, as well as an admonition to the LA theater community to build more local equivalents of Steppenwolf. For every promising play that has gone from the 99-seat plan to greater glory, there are probably a hundred that have not.

April 19, 2015

City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival opens Tuesday

In an attempt to reverse the trend of writing about great events after they over, here is a reminder about an annual opportunity to see dozens of French films beginning Tuesday: The City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival. From April 21 through the 28th, a mix of the best dramas, comedies, thrillers, and shorts are available for a reasonable price or for free and being screened at the Directors Guild in Hollywood. Unlike many festivals, you don't need to purchase passes as tickets are available for individual films.

Their web site at COLCOA is easy to navigate and packed with information, but let me cut to my particular favorite series at the festival: the classic films.
 
oss-117-cairo-nest-of-spies.jpgYears before Jean Dujardin won his Academy Award for Best Actor for "The Artist," COLCOA devotees had "discovered" him (as well as its director Michel Hazanavicius) playing the inept, very politically and culturally incorrect spy in "OSS 117, Cairo Nest of Spies." It is a hilarious send up of James Bond (but based on novels that predated Ian Fleming's creation) and even though it is only ten years old, "OSS 117" is being screened as a classic on Thursday at 2 in the afternoon. Other classics shown this year include newly restored versions of Truffaut's "The Last Metro," Renoir's "La Chienne" and Wim Wender's "Paris, Texas." The classics are all free and there are no rsvps, but getting there a little early is a small price to pay for the rare chance to see these films on the big screen.
 
Check out the other films as well, several are American premieres, and there are also discussions with filmmakers that are open to the public. With fewer screens at the multiplexes showing foreign films, take advantage of this fabulous week to immerse yourself in the finest French films.

April 2, 2015

'White God' is both allegorical and mind-boggling

white-god-iris.jpg

I just returned from a trip to Eastern Europe where graffiti proclaiming "Refugees Welcome" was scrawled across walls in Dresden as a response to anti-immigrant demonstrations in Germany. Indeed, a growing wave of immigrant resentment is sweeping many European countries. So I was curious about "White God," a film by Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo. His allegorical film is an attempt to warn about the dangers of racism and prejudice, and he makes his point in a visceral way. Using dogs to represent the "masses," Mundruczo's film takes us with him as the world descends into chaos--a chaos for the ruling class that is, the people who have been abusing and dominating dogs systematically, and sending to the pound the mixed breeds that would otherwise be left to roam the streets fending for themselves unless their owners pay a "mixed breed" tax. The authorities roam as well, in groups, pulling up in their vans, armed with sticks and lassoes, rounding up the mixed breed dogs and sending them to certain death at the city "shelter." Only through the love of the movie's heroine Lili, and the music she plays, are the rampaging and angry dogs ultimately subdued and soothed, but not before they take their revenge on those who heartlessly abused them, leaving a bloody trail in their wake.

dresden-iris.jpgWe are hooked from the film's effective and affecting opening sequence, where his charming young heroine Lili, played beautifully by newcomer Zsofia Psotta, rides alone on her bike through the eerily deserted streets of Budapest searching for her lost dog Hagen, only to be joined by Hagen and hundreds of dogs running through the streets like a well-choreographed army. A sense of dread overcomes you and it never really goes away until the film's final scene. Lili is a girl on the verge of adolescence whose long visit with her estranged father precipitates her growing up, as she loses her innocence along with her dog, and learns the hard lessons and compromises of life, love and loss.

The technical aspect of working with 250 dogs and no CGI, was no small feat for the director who willingly took on the challenge. In this day of computer generated mayhem, it's mind-boggling to imagine how this film was made. Credit must be given to all the actors, the director and the dog trainer Teresa Miller. Her work with the lead dogs, who play Hagen, Luke and Bodie, was extraordinary. Many of the dogs used in the film, like the two leads, were rescue dogs and many found homes among the cast and crew when filming was through. Although the director reassures us that the violence portrayed on the screen was safely simulated, it was at times very hard to watch. But for Mundruczo, there was a purpose: "art must hold a mirror up to the face of society."

Although at times I wasn't sure whether Mundruczo was simply urging us all to become vegetarian, with harrowing close-up images from slaughter houses and butcher shops, his broader story certainly resonates when seen in the context of current events in Europe and beyond. With the entrenchment of an immigrant underclass in many European cities, and issues of harmony between races ever-present worldwide, the film, while sometimes over the top, is hard to dismiss and gives us much to think about.

March 26, 2015

On famous actors and 99-seat theater*

blythe-danner-country-house-lamont.jpgBlythe Danner last year in "The Country House" at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo: Michael Lamont.

I've been a Blythe Danner fan for decades. But I don't understand why her words were chosen to receive the famous-actor spotlight in a full-page LA Times ad - which attacked Actors' Equity's controversial proposal to require at least minimum-wage payments to the union's members who work in LA County theaters with fewer than 100 seats.

Her quote begins with this testimonial: "99 seat theaters provided the lifeblood for many of us when we began in this business and are still not only relevant but crucial to the artistic life of our city and country."

Like many actors, Danner probably performed in a few small theaters as a young woman, probably in the East in the '60s. But those experiences don't necessarily have any relevance to the particular issues surrounding Equity's 99-Seat Theater Plan in LA County in 2015. Does anyone remember Danner performing under Equity's 99-seat plan?

I doubt it. I've been paying attention since before the plan went into effect in the late '80s, by which time she was a long-established star. And I can't recall any such performance by Danner. If Danner had worked in a play at a 99-seat theater in LA during this period, the LA Times surely would have reviewed it, so I ran her name through the online LA Times database since 1985, searching for any sign that Danner had dabbled in a 99-seat show. None of the 271 Times references to Danner since 1985 indicated that she had performed under the plan.

Her only LA theater credits listed in her Wikipedia bio are the title role in "Major Barbara" at the Mark Taper Forum in 1971 and a staged reading at the Ahmanson. Also, as I wrote in a 2014 LA Observed column, she was superb in the premiere of "The Country House" at the Geffen last year. Yet the Taper, Ahmanson and Geffen are not on the 99-seat plan.

So why is she being cited as an authority on the current brouhaha?

Danner shouldn't be chided for declining to participate in LA's 99-seat theater. Although she has previously lived in Santa Monica, more recent interviews indicate that nowadays she considers herself primarily a New Yorker. Why would she bother with plays in LA's 99-seat theaters when she can work on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in Williamstown, or even at the Taper and the Geffen? Like many actors, she also works frequently in movies and TV, which probably provide her with more income than she receives from any stage job.

I wouldn't pretend to speculate on how she might compare her artistic rewards in all of these various arenas, but I also wouldn't suggest that she would necessarily feel that the artistic rewards might be even greater in a 99-seat production in LA. Yet now, with no experience in that world, she has been thrust into the role of being a spokeswoman for LA small theater.

Actually, even considering the many famous actors who unambiguously reside in LA, only a tiny percentage of them ever perform under the 99-seat plan. If more of them worked under the plan, their names might attract a lot more customers - and revenue -- to these theaters.

Not that these companies should cater to the stars if they aren't right for the roles, but some of these stars are clearly capable of doing the job and adding a few extra audience members on the side because of their celebrity. For example, I'll guess that the presence of the great Laurie Metcalf (who was one of the signers of the LA Times ad) in Circle X's intriguing "Trevor" surely provides at least a few benefits at the box office.

But part of the reason why Metcalf's appearance is so noteworthy is because so few actors on her level of fame and experience participate in 99-seat theater. They might sign petitions for it, but they don't want to be subjected to its barely-compensated regimen. Only a minuscule proportion of the wealthiest actors can afford to completely ignore the size of the paycheck when deciding whether to take job offers.

metcalfe-TREVOR.jpgJimmi Simpson and Laurie Metcalf in "Trevor." Photo: Ryan Miller

Of course this overall dearth of accomplished celebs in the 99-seaters is good, on one level, for it makes more room for the gifted not-yet-famous actors. However, many of these talented but struggling performers truly can't afford to spend much time doing 99-seat theater. They would benefit, more than anyone, from a well-coordinated raise -- to at least the minimum-wage level.

Sometimes, the more affluent actors might better serve the 99-seat companies by donating money. It could be more helpful to be a benefactor than a box-office attraction. For example, from the "Trevor" program I learned that Courteney Cox of "Friends" and "Cougar Town" fame is a contributor to Circle X (her "Cougar Town" colleague Bob Clendenin was a co-founder of Circle X and is not only in the cast of "Trevor" but also is listed as a donor to the company at the highest level.)

I'm not asking this next question rhetorically -- I don't know the answer. But maybe someone out there might know: Does Blythe Danner regularly donate to any of LA's 99-seat companies?

[* Update: Since my column posted, former Antaeus Company artistic director Jeanie Hackett answered this question about whether Blythe Danner has contributed to 99-seat theater behind the scenes. Danner donated to Antaeus "when I ran it," she says, and Danner "hosted a benefit for us at her house as well. I don't think Antaeus is the only company she donated to. She also went to see small theater regularly -- and was a fan of many of the small companies around town. I know she sometimes makes 'anonymous' donations -- as many celebs do, since they are pursued relentlessly by the theater-needy. But she would often say to me that she thought that that small theater in L.A. rivaled that in NYC."]

Rather than expecting any labor union - in an era of minimum-wage activism on many fronts -- to endorse a plan that pays less than minimum wage (especially now that it has been pointed out that this has been happening for decades), 99-seat companies should begin raising the money that will be necessary for the day when paying the minimum wage is required - whether it's by Equity or by a court. And these developmental efforts should be aimed not only at the relatively few wealthy actors, of course, but also at foundations, corporations, government agencies and audience members in general.

As I mentioned in my last column, Equity should have been much more specific about the terms of the proposed transition to minimum-wage payment and the union's access to any financial resources that might facilitate that transition. Equity leaders maintain that the national council will decide all of this when it meets in late April. They also have indicated recently that the transition won't be as sudden as some have feared. More public attention to these matters would have been useful before the LA membership's current "advisory" referendum began.

Speaking of my last column, when I cited 323 productions in Greater LA (Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties) that operated on Equity contracts from May 27, 2013 through May 25, 2014 (the last year for which records were available), several readers asked how many of these contracted shows occurred in Los Angeles County -- where the 99-Seat Plan (not a contract) was used in 390 productions during the same period. I asked Equity, which reported that 221 of the 323 contracted productions were in Los Angeles County - and that these numbers do not include touring productions that played LA after being cast and contracted in New York or other cities.

I'm a theatergoer, not an actor, so I was primarily interested in finding out the number of opportunities to see professional theater within my normal driving distance - which includes Orange and Ventura counties as well as LA County - regardless of whether the shows were on the 99-seat plan or on contracts. But I'm glad to hear that 221 contract productions occurred in LA County during that one year, and, again, if the minimum wage requirement is enforced, I hope that the producers who already use contracts are open to doing whatever they can to welcome the 99-seat producers into their world. Co-productions, anyone?

Meanwhile, as we non-actors await Equity's decision, I notice that among the 99-seat theater supporters who signed the LA Times ad are Alec Baldwin and Al Pacino. Does this mean that we'll soon be able to see them doing "The Odd Couple" together on Hollywood's Theater Row or in deepest NoHo (Baldwin as Felix, Pacino as Oscar)? Or maybe they would prefer just to make a few big donations?

March 10, 2015

Josef Koudelka exhibit at the Getty

koudelka-tank.jpgJosef Koudelka, Prague 1968. c Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

Josef Koudelka brought us into the Soviet invasion on the streets of Prague, Czechoslavakia in 1968 by smuggling out his film and getting it to the Magnum office in Paris. An engineer by profession, like Sebastaio Salgado, Koudelka was seduced by the camera and the events unfolding before him. Having returned to Prague only one day before the invasion, he sensed the weight of history, loaded up his camera and took to the streets. But it was not until the one-year anniversary that the images he made were published, and then only credited P.P. for "Prague photographer" to protect Koudelka's identity.

In a gripping show of his black and white images now on display at the Getty until March 22, we are thrown back into those days of tumult and caught up in the passion, chaos and repression that he recorded. In the days before Facebook and Instagram revolutions, we have to be thankful for the tenacity and commitment of someone like Koudelka who not only chose to be there, but used his eye and artistry to make these powerful images so the world could see the strong arm of the Soviet Union as it brought its full force against the Czechoslovakian people.

Koudelka eventually felt forced to leave his homeland and began years of photographic wandering, exploring the issues of alienation and statelessness, adding to his earlier Eastern Europe work in the '70s documenting the Gypy community by continuing it in England, where he repatriated. The title of the current Getty show, Nationality Doubtful, comes from the determination made by British border control whenever Koudelka applied to re-enter his adopted homeland as he returned from his photographic excursions. Over those early years he connected with Magnum photo agency and the Magnum photographers including Elliot Erwitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who always gave him assistance, advice and a floor on which to spread his sleeping bag.

The Getty show is sweeping in scope, spanning the various segments of Koudelka's long career: his early experimental work on the avant-garde theater in Czechoslovakia, his work documenting Gypsies, the Czech invasion, exiles and more recent panoramas--devoid of people but not the effect that people have wrought on their environment. His most recent work, images of the walls that divide us are stark and dramatic, gritty and powerful.

koudelka-getty-pan.jpgAl 'Eizariya (Bethany) 2010. Josef Koudelka, Magnum Photos

koudelka-flag.jpg
Josef Koudelka, Prague 1968 .c Josef Koudelka, Magnum Photos.

koudelka-gypsies.jpgJosef Koudelka, Czechoslovakia, Straznice, 1966. Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

March 8, 2015

Looking beyond the minimum-wage mess in LA theater*

Alarm bells are going off in the LA theater community about Actors' Equity's proposal to require most productions to pay Equity actors the minimum wage - soon.

Reading some of the dire predictions, it would be easy to surmise that this step would doom most of LA theater - or at least eliminate the use of Equity actors in most LA productions except those at a handful of larger theaters.

Could this be true?

EquityLogo_RGBcolor.jpgI asked Equity to give me the latest numbers - how many productions in Greater LA use the non-contractual 99-seat plan, which hardly ever comes close to paying minimum wage? And how many use Equity contracts, which usually pay something that's at least minimum wage (if not a living wage)?

Drumroll, please. Equity reports that from May 27, 2013 through May 25, 2014, 390 productions used the 99-seat Plan, which is available only in Los Angeles County. And 323 productions operated on Equity contracts in Greater LA - Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties.

So if an avid (albeit crazed) theatergoer had decided to see all 323 of the local stage productions that paid Equity actors at least the minimum wage during that year - but not any 99-seat plan shows - theoretically he or she could still have seen six productions a week for a year (not factoring in the usual problems of conflicting curtain times, traffic jams, etc.), plus one additional show during each of 11 weeks.

In other words, LA's theatrical landscape would still offer plenty of options for dedicated theatergoers, even without the 99-seat plan.

Back in 2011, according to Equity, there were 371 productions on the 99-seat plan but only 216 on contracts. So the number of Equity contracts in LA is growing much faster than the number of 99-seat shows. It's possible that if the new Equity rules go into effect, they will simply add fuel to a process that has already started. Perhaps it has something to do with the economic recovery?

Both sides in the current dispute could try to use these figures to their own advantage.

The Pro-99 camp will say that this proves that the 99-seat plan isn't inhibiting the simultaneous use of more and more Equity contracts - so why not let the plan continue? Or, at the very least, why not allow the smaller companies a slower entry into the world of minimum-wage theater, so those companies that want to move up have more time to consolidate their resources?

The pro-change camp will argue that the original purpose of paying mere peanuts to Equity actors was because there were so many actors who wanted to be on stage in LA and so few opportunities to work on Equity contracts. But now that the opportunities have expanded, why should any Equity actors have to keep munching on peanuts - while the non-acting personnel on the same 99-seat-plan productions have at least moved up to cashews?

Of course the quantity of productions and how much their creators are paid don't tell the whole story. Fierce proponents of small theater like to imagine themselves as the defenders of innovation, not poverty. They often suggest that 99-seat productions are inherently more adventurous, more artistically pure than those productions that must try to appeal to larger audiences. And it's certainly true that it's often easier to fix the problems within new scripts when the financial stakes are at their lowest point, in tiny theaters - and that higher pay scales sometimes result in smaller casts.

But I've seen plenty of exceptions to these rules of thumb. I go to theater at all levels in Greater LA -- more than 200 productions a year - and I can't say that any one level is consistently more accomplished or even more adventurous. I've seen exciting new plays and musicals with professional production standards at LA theaters of all sizes. I've also seen impenetrable train wrecks and meretricious trash at theaters of all sizes. Popular appeal is not necessarily synonymous with pandering. The stages of London and New York, where actors generally are paid better, are hardly devoid of creativity.

With the aesthetic results being more or less equal, and with Equity's attitude leaning toward take-it-or-leave-it (with the exceptions of "self-produced work" and, to a lesser extent, membership companies), I prefer an adoption of the minimum wage to no change whatsoever.

Over time, a minimum-wage standard would result in actors who are more devoted not only to particular productions but also to the stage as a lifetime adventure, as opposed to a showcase or a hobby. And there could be another hefty benefit. If many of the new productions would now have to take place in venues with more than 99 seats, the potentially larger audiences could conceivably lead to more attention from donors and from the general public.

A couple of weeks ago, I encountered two British tourists in LA who had actually taken the rare step of booking tickets to a show here before they left the UK. They couldn't remember the title, the venue or the subject. The tickets cost only $15, so the production must be the work of "amateurs," they had concluded. That assumption is unfair to plenty of hard-working 99-seat practitioners, but like it or not, that's how most outsiders view most of LA's 99-seat theaters.

Speaking of 99-seat plan public relations, the most quoted speaker on behalf of the status quo at a recent rally was Tim Robbins - a presumably wealthy movie star whose generally leftist principles suddenly turned Republican when confronted with the possibility of a required minimum wage in LA theater.

He spoke of how much money he has personally invested in his own 99-seat company, the Actors' Gang - three cheers for that. Not surprisingly, he didn't point out that the Gang is a mere shadow of its former self, at least as far as adult theatergoers in LA's general public can tell. The Gang gets a lot of its revenue from international tours and has a big presence in prisons and schools, but for two years in a row the Gang's primary mainstage offering in its Culver City home - where it pays $3000 a month (* corrected) for rent -- was "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which can usually be seen in at least a half-dozen other productions every year in Greater LA. So much for the notion that the 99-seat plan invariably results in more diverse, adventurous programming. (However, the Gang is currently workshopping Ellen McLaughlin's "Lysistrata," so maybe hope is on the horizon.)

By the way, a Channel 11 news report on the Equity controversy began with footage of Robbins at the rally, with a voiceover from the reporter saying "Actor Tim Robbins - standing up for the little guy." So now someone who speaks against minimum-wage enforcement is "standing up for the little guy," with "guy" apparently defined as an individual company instead of an individual actor. That line from the reporter sounds as if it might have been lifted from one of the Gang's touring productions, "1984."

Of course, the question arises - where will the extra money come from? Well, if the producers of 323 shows in May 2013-May 2014 in Greater LA could find enough money to pay actors on contracts, I suspect that at least some of the 99-seat theaters could eventually find more money, too.

Perhaps some former theater majors who now make big salaries as execs in Hollywood - after virtually starving a decade ago, when they were would-be actors -- might be more willing to contribute to a nonprofit that's serious about paying actors. That also might be true of foundations and public agencies. The currently popular crowd-funding sites, which of course didn't exist during most of the history of the 99-seat plan, might garner a few more dollars for theater.

Unfortunately, cultivating such support isn't easy. Equity is rushing the process, without enough transition time. The union should be a lot more specific about its announced plan "to help build infrastructure and increase funding" for small theaters that try to move up to contracts.

In a column last September, I discussed the possibility that there are some midsize (100-500 seat) venues that might become available to house productions from smaller companies, increasing the potential box-office revenue somewhat without seriously diluting the intimacy of the theatrical experience.

The producers at existing midsize theater companies might well dread the day when smaller companies start competing more seriously for funding, but they could perform a great service to the larger LA theater community by opening their hearts and minds to the idea of at least occasional venue-sharing with the more acclaimed 99-seat companies. Perhaps foundations and public agencies could help make that pathway smoother.

Generally speaking, a concentration of LA theater at fewer venues with higher profiles and more seating might attract more media attention and more attendance - including tourists.

If Equity enacts the new rules next month, we're in for a rough passage in LA theater. A few worthy companies will probably decide to close. But we can take some comfort from the fact that LA is the home of a perpetually revolving door of theatrical talent. The traffic on our stages often has a whiff of out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new. And the number of actors who burn out after about five years on LA's small stages would probably decrease if they're paid at least the minimum wage.

The long-term results might well be a theatrical arena that's not only better-known - but better in general, because the professionals who work at every performance of every production will no longer be singled out for discriminatory amateur-hour compensation.


On with the show...

enter-laughing-wallis.jpg
"Enter Laughing."

In "Enter Laughing," which just closed in the 144-seat Lovelace Studio Theater at the Wallis, the fictional protagonist David Kolowitz is a young would-be actor (played by the wonderful Noah Weisberg) who starts paying an acting teacher for the chance to be in the teacher's little student productions. Although David seems to have very little talent, finally he's told that he'll no longer have to pay the previously required $5 a week. Jubilant at this news, he exclaims, "I get to act for nothing!"

The audience roared with laughter at this line, when I saw this jaunty and hilarious Joseph Stein/Stan Daniels musical, loosely based on Carl Reiner's memories, under the direction of Stuart Ross of "Forever Plaid" fame. Perhaps the thoughts of more than a few of us flashed to the current situation in LA. Sometimes the actors who so righteously defend every comma in LA's 99-seat plan sound a bit like David.

Fortunately, the actors in "Enter Laughing" itself, as opposed to the play within the play, didn't have to feel as if they were the butt of the joke. They worked on a contract. I wonder if some of them left performances exclaiming "I get to make people laugh out loud in an intimate theater for $600 a week" - compared to their colleagues in 99-seat theaters who would feel lucky to get $60 a week.

"Enter Laughing" is just one of the many Equity-contract productions I've enjoyed recently in LA, as I again verified that it's possible to see a lot of good theater here outside the 99-seat houses.

End of the Rainbow_1NC copy.jpgAnyone who missed Peter Quilter's "End of the Rainbow" two years ago, when it was at the Ahmanson Theatre, should venture to Long Beach's International City Theatre in Long Beach. Gigi Bermingham is tearing up the ICT stage with her portrait of Judy Garland's final months, helped enormously by Brent Schindele's musical direction and his performance as Judy's accompanist and friend.

Meanwhile, at the Colony Theatre in Burbank, the West Coast premiere of Catherine Bush's "The Road to Appomattox" gives us parallel stories of the final weeks of Robert E. Lee's retreat and a modern couple (with issues, of course) tracing Lee's tracks - and gradually learning to move beyond the past as Lee did. It's an intriguing premise, although it isn't as intriguing as the more ingenious set-up of Matthew Lopez's "The Whipping Man," which recently closed at Pasadena Playhouse and which is set just a few days after Lee's surrender.

I can't recommend the premiere of Nandita Shenoy's "Washer/Dryer," a New York-set domestic farce at East West Players. It's so insubstantial that it threatens to reinforce the opinions of those 99-seat plan adherents who maintain that contracts and larger capacities tend to water down the work.

The West Coast premiere of Conor McPherson's "The Night Alive" doesn't feel so alive at the beginning, but it eventually becomes a lot more exciting. By contrast, Arthur Miller's "The Price" at the Taper grows more and more tiresome.

The miscasting of one crucial role is a problem with both "The Threepenny Opera" at A Noise Within and Deaf West's "American Buffalo," which is in a larger-than-99-seat production at Cal State LA, closing Sunday. However, I enjoyed the interplay between Troy Kotsur and Paul Raci in "Buffalo" and the nearly immersive use of the entire theater space in "Threepenny."

Speaking of the creative use of non-stage space, let's nod to two productions in unorthodox rooms with fewer than 99 seats. Good People Theater Company has drafted a recital room inside Burbank's Hollywood Piano store for a very satisfying revival of the brilliant Maltby/Shire revue "Closer Than Ever." And Chalk Rep has taken over the modernist Neutra Institute Museum in Silver Lake for a modern-dress version of "Uncle Vanya" - although a more modernist adaptation of the text might have made for a more comfortable fit for the concept (and more comfortable chairs for the audience might have helped, too.)

'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Ghosts of Versailles' plus more

alice-dp-mathew-imaging.jpgAlice photos: Mathew Imaging. Ghosts of Versailles: Craig Mathew.


They're at it again. The LA Philharmonic and LA Opera are going head to head with major contemporary works at the same time -- Unsuk Chin's "Alice in Wonderland" and John Corigliano's "Ghosts of Versailles."

But wait. These are not nods to operatic novelty done on the fly, they're extravagantly produced enterprises, the former one boasting joint forces (a children's chorus, et al.) -- so that our Grand Avenue high-culture purveyors could be seen taking a few steps hand in hand.

The star power of "Alice" couldn't be brighter. Besides composer Chin, a boldface name in the new-music hierarchy, there's librettist Henry David Hwang ("M. Butterfly"), who deftly underscored Lewis Carroll's wordplay with twisted little rhymes; designer/director Netia Jones, an LA Phil luminary hailed everywhere; literati's popular line-drawing illustrator Ralph Steadman; and notable conductor Susanna Mälkki, the tall, strict, no-nonsense Boulezian leading the orchestra in an exhilaratingly detailed layout of the score's quasi-tonal declarations and accents, in a kaleidoscope of styles.

alice2-dp-mathew-imaging.jpgVisually and verbally there are enough subversive undertones to satisfy deep readers of the Carroll classic -- what with its various surreal contretemps and characters -- even if the whole turned out to be more of an intellectual exercise than an entirely engrossing music drama. But the imaginings of fanciful creatures (White Rabbit, Dormouse, Queen of Hearts, et al) popping up on platforms in and around the orchestra players held our interest.

And in case you haven't noticed, it was the women who held forth -- as composer, conductor, director -- while the concert-hall glass ceiling shattered.

The cast was top-notch. Especially the Alice of soprano Rachele Gilmore, who sang her high lines with a sweet, child-like purity and exemplary beauty of tone. Oh, yes, there was another standout here, bass clarinetist David Howard's long, glorious solo, spotlight and all -- possibly the single-most exposure he's ever had in his many orchestral years.

Bottom line for me: There has never been an equal to David Del Tredici's utterly captivating 1976 "Final Alice," which the LA Phil played so brilliantly, with the sublime Barbara Hendricks singing (also as Nanetta here in the Giulini-led "Falstaff. ")

That all happened across the street from the merely 12-year-old Disney -- at the Music Center, first real home of the Phil.

Now LA Opera has its Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to itself. And so the other big-budget, from-scratch attraction, "Ghosts," took the proscenium stage there (while Disney does ad-hoc events in its theater-in-the-oblong.)

Count on it, though, prosceniums win out when cast members have to compete for the same space with orchestra players.

ghosts-of-versaille-dp.jpgTo pose a different question: Could a Mozart-Da Ponte opera be akin to "Downton Abbey"? And could American composer John Corigliano, with William H. Hoffman, have created a serio-comic pastiche on the whole class-collision thing, up to and including the French Revolution?

Well, you'll have to decide. But there's a hefty entertainment reward while you do, at LA Opera's lavish and intriguing venture, "Ghosts."

It seems to have something for everyone: A score that veers into the spectral netherworld of Marie Antoinette's upper stratospheric atonal laments and that also alternates with a shenanigan-loving Figaro's energetic, tuneful arias. Orchestrations that conjure the dire tumbrils of the soon-to-be-beheaded Queen of France with dissonant clusters and ominous wood block strikes and that also dance along in giddy rhythms. Even well-placed quotes from "Don Giovanni" et al.

Who knows? Maybe Corigliano was proving -- thanks to this 1991 commission from the Metropolitan Opera -- that he could write music tracing the classical style and join it to a current sensibility wherever the drama might lead him. Whatever the case, the result is immensely clever and skilled.

The host in this scenario is the real-life Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais -- yes, that one, the 18th century author of revolutionary plays who set Mozart and Rossini on their mark with more than a little socio-political stuff to gnaw on.

And that's what makes the premise of this opera within an opera so cunning -- here the author Beaumarchais tries to rectify the trouble he captured in those beloved "Figaro" operas. He even lets the characters realize some of their dreams; Cherubino, for instance, fathers a child with the Countess (as in "La mère coupable," his play.)

All of it takes place within designer Alexander Dodge's giant frame of a horseshoe-shaped baroque opera house, seen through a fish-eye lens that slightly skews the view. Four-stories high, it accommodates shifting central scenes on a stage within the stage. And the details, a painted ceiling included, are sumptuous, but even allow for a vaudevillian burlesque of a circus wherein Patti Lupone, riding a pink elephant, delivers her one-off comic aria.

A cast (of hundreds?) in Linda Cho's smart costumes carries out every nuance of director Darko Tresnjak's staging with apt characterizations.

As the "ghosts" who come back to life Patricia Racette is the soul of Marie Antoinette, regal but vulnerable, yearning and passionate, her soprano equal to the role's demands and Christopher Maltman, as Beaumarchais, elegantly pours out his love for her, while puppeteering the others' behavior.

Lucas Meachem makes a wily, full-throated Figaro, easily outsmarting his royal employers via his boisterous physicality. Robert Brubaker, as the villainous Bégearss, also captures major attention, while the others -- among them Lucy Schaufer, Joshua Guerrero, Guanqun Yu and Renée Rapier -- all rise to their various tasks.

Conductor James Conlon culls marvelous playing from the orchestra and enforces intense engagement with the stage.

Back at Disney there was the redoubtable Martha Argerich playing the Schumann Piano Concerto with the Philharmonic under Juraj Valcuha and teaching us again how the deeply internal heartbeat of a piece becomes its soul, its beauty. Few others can make this kind of sense or find the music's stimulus, then its response. She's something of a miracle to hear, when backed by her fabled technique.

The orchestral works, led distinctively by the Slovakian conductor, were also revealing. Did you know that "Storm," one of the Sea Interludes from Britten's "Peter Grimes" was lifted directly into Bernstein's "West Side Story" ("a boy like that who'd kill your brother")? Or that Richard Strauss, in his "Death and Transfiguration" shared with Wagner the Germanic notion of death and love and here wrote his own "Liebestod?"

Well, Valcuha and the Phil gave us all this fine food for thought.

And I'd love to say that the immensely talented tenor Vittorio Grigòlo also left a solid impression at the Broad Stage. (He sang lead roles several times with the LA Opera before.) But young opera singers, no matter how commanding in a staged production, often lack the artistic finesse or nuance of expression needed for a recital. After all, we're talking about a special kind of intimacy with an audience, not performing to the galleries in a four-thousand-seat house with a full cast and pit orchestra.

So this Italian hottie, as handsome as they come and a star at A-circuit companies including the Met, is still on the hunt for his recital chops. And while we can't discount his voice's ringing brightness or his ardor a whole evening of Italian ballads and arias where he ping-pongs back and forth from forte to head tones within a given song came to feel automated. Even his ultra-sensitive pianist, Vincenzo Scalera couldn't change that.

February 19, 2015

Going local with "Chavez,' 'California Tempest' and 'Disconnection'

chavez-ctg-rehearsal.jpgRic Salinas, Richard Montoya, Sabina Zuniga Varela and Herbert Siguenza in rehearsal for Culture Clash's "Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival." Photo: Craig Schwartz

Despite my frequent blasts at Center Theatre Group -- aka "LAs Theatre Company" -- for ignoring LA in its choice of subjects, I never suggested that a revival of Culture Clash's LA-saturated "Chavez Ravine" might be a panacea for the problem.

Sure, "Chavez Ravine" is about an interesting chapter of LA history -- the obliteration of a bucolic Mexican American community in order to create public housing, the subsequent collapse of that plan because of the red scare, and the later development of the property for the new Dodger Stadium. Still, the original "Chavez Ravine" at CTG's Mark Taper Forum was hardly one of Culture Clash's finest efforts.

However, in what looks like a token attempt to produce something about LA in the current season, CTG's artistic director Michael Ritchie chose to revive "Chavez Ravine" instead of applying the extra effort (and money?) to find a fresher LA-intensive production. And so we now have a rehash of "Chavez Ravine," this time in the smaller Kirk Douglas Theatre.

"Rehash" is my word, not CTG's. The official promotional line is that "Chavez Ravine" has been "Remixed. Relived. Reloaded." Unfortunately, the emphasis on the stage is on "Relived," not "Remixed" or "Reloaded."

A genuine remix might have helped. True, there are a few trims and other changes in this new version, and Jason H. Thompson's fresh projection design is quite effective. But the production still suggests "a collection of comedy sketches in search of a play," which is how I described it in my 2003 LA Times review. Culture Clash is still placing the emphasis on its own chameleonic talents, sometimes at the expense of the story it's trying to tell.

The three members of Culture Clash -- Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza -- plus the show's one actress (now Sabina Zuniga Varela) play 36 characters. Many of them are very superficially sketched, and many of them would be expendable if anyone seriously tried to "remix" the show. But apparently Culture Clash (and director Lisa Peterson) weren't especially interested in carving a "Ravine" that was tighter -- and deeper.

californi-the-tempest.jpg
"California: The Tempest"

A sense of clutter also afflicts another attempt to produce a locally-centered play -- "California: The Tempest," from Cornerstone Theater. In this case, the way the piece was assembled bears much of the blame. It's a "bridge" show, which means that it unites elements from 10 summer institutes that Cornerstone sponsored over the last decade, in communities throughout California -- along with a plot derived mostly from Shakespeare's "Tempest," but with some some faux-Shakespearean local references by playwright Alison Carey.

In Carey's variation, Shakespeare's warring siblings have become two sisters, one of whom has somehow managed to swipe the job of governor of California from the other one, who is now wandering through the northern California wilderness. Far-fetched? Yes, but it might have worked without the additional burden of Cornerstone's community-service priorities.

The production is on tour to all 10 institute-hosting communities over the course of a year, and apparently it was deemed necessary to acknowledge all of the communities in the script, with a little special attention paid to each stop's host community. And so, when I saw it in San Fernando last week (at a brief engagement that has now ended), that area of LA received extra nods. When it returns to Cornerstone's host community in the downtown arts district next June, presumably that community will get extra time and attention.

While the community members themselves probably appreciate these efforts, these dutiful digressions hardly enhance the overall experience for the general audience member. I've seen previous "bridge" shows in which Cornerstone integrated the disparate elements much more smoothly, but perhaps the fact that these particular components come from 10 locales within such a large state inherently makes the adaptation more unwieldy.

I saw one locally-oriented production over the last week that's much more clearly focused than "Chavez Ravine" or "California Tempest" -- even though its title is "Disconnection." Allen Barton's script is focused on Scientology, although it doesn't mention the word. In fact, Scientology is the show's indirect target.

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Photo: Ed Krieger

Barton has a history with Scientology, and this is a somewhat fictionalized account of his own story. Because Barton is now outraged at the way he was treated, "Disconnection" has a definite point of view. And the fact that its point of view is anti-Scientology is all the more notable because the producer is the Skylight Theatre Company (formerly known as Katselas Theatre), the venue is the same Beverly Hills Playhouse that Katselas once commanded, and -- oh, yes -- Katselas was a Scientologist as well as a famous acting teacher. However, from materials published in connection with the play, we learn (or you're reminded, in case you already knew) that Katselas himself apparently ran into some trouble with Scientology late in his life.

At any rate, "Disconnection" tells the tale of an attorney and his adult daughter who initially found succor in a Scientology-like church, only to become disillusioned and rejected to the point of, well, disconnection. Another character, the man's piano teacher, remains true to the church. The play's one other character is the church founder himself, who appears in a late-life monologue in which he too appears disillusioned, if not disconnected.

This scene about the founder might be more fascinating in a play devoted primarily to his own story, but here it feels -- sorry -- too disconnected from "Disconnection," especially as it fills the time that might have been devoted to a more detailed and compelling explanation of what exactly happened to the lawyer to sour his attitude toward the church.

At any rate, with Scientology probably more prominent in Los Angeles than in any other American city, it's refreshing to see a staged critique of it, especially in the same venue that Katselas once governed. LA's theater makers should examine LA for other relatively undramatized cultural phenomena that await their turns on the LA stage.

TERRIFIC TRANSFERS?

I'm always happy to see transfers of high-quality productions from one part of Greater LA to another. Every such venture might help the city's theatrical scene feel a little more cohesive. So take note of the successful transfer of South Coast Repertory's production of "The Whipping Man," Matthew Lopez's fascinating Civil War slave-seder story, to the Pasadena Playhouse. The West Coast Jewish Theatre produced the LA premiere of Lopez's play last year, but many more can see the play in these larger venues.

Likewise, I'm delighted to learn that La Mirada Theatre's production of "Billy Elliot" is moving to the Alex Theatre in Glendale, Feb. 20-22. This winning musical is about a British boy's quest to become a ballet dancer, despite his background in a depressed coal-mining culture . You can read more about the Elton John/Lee Hall musical, directed by Brian Kite, in my Jan. 23 column.

INSIDE FOUR FILMMAKERS' BRAINS

pensotti-shirley.jpgPhoto: Steven Gunther

With LA rife with filmmakers and would-be filmmakers, it might be the world's second most appropriate site for Mariano Pensotti's "Cineastas" -- after Buenos Aires, where this panoramic theatrical production was created and where its fictional filmmakers live.

"Cineastas" is currently in downtown LA, at REDCAT, where Pensotti's "El pasado es un animal grotesco" intrigued me in 2012. That production involved a constantly-revolving turntable, which I thought I might see again in "Cineastas" -- but no, this time we can see two stages simultaneously throughout the production. The lower stage is devoted primarily to scenes from the lives of four filmmakers (two women, two men), who have achieved varying levels of success. The upper stage depicts scenes from the films that are being made by these four.

The most obvious subject is the potential interaction between filmmakers' personal lives and the narratives they're filming -- each can influence the other. But beyond the obvious, Pensotti is also examining what's ephemeral and what's durable in our lives and our culture.

As in "El animal," much of the action is narrated as well as enacted. Five actors take turns narrating the four stories, and it's narration -- more than the dialogue -- that is translated in English supertitles from the Spanish. Although there is little interaction among the characters of the different stories, the production flows almost seamlessly from one story to another. The stage is packed with people grappling for meaning -- in their movies as well as their lives -- and although it all runs less than two hours, I left it with at least a half-dozen characters and their passions mixing it up inside my brain. Pensotti turns introspective storytelling into a four-ring theatrical spectacle.

February 16, 2015

Sneak peek inside the Broad Museum space

bcam-couple-iris.jpgEmily Fox and Dan Kessler check out the Broad museum space on Bunker Hill on Sunday. Photos: Iris Schneider.

The Broad Museum held an open house on Sunday for the public to preview the space in advance of its September opening. The space is a feat of engineering, providing 13,000 square feet uninterrupted by interior columns. On the elevator ride up, a member of the engineering crew announced that the building "is one of the wonders of the world." It was also mentioned several times that the art elevator is the biggest in the city "despite what LACMA or MOCA may tell you." Only by a few inches apparently, but hey, who's counting?

The honeycomb windows allow only filtered light to enter and block the view of neighboring Walt Disney Hall. The splashy neighbor can only be seen through the windows on the north side of the building, but at sunset even a sliver is luminous. The jury on the Broad building is still out. Much will change with the interior space once the movable walls and art are installed. Reviews of the exterior are mixed. I think it's interesting to look at from the street, but feels very cocoonish inside. I found myself craving the light. For the art's preservation, they say, only filtered light will enter.

A sound and light installation on Sunday provided the public an opportunity to do some spontaneous shadow play, much to the chagrin of the artist, Yann Novak, who stood on the sidelines as adults and kids cavorted in the projector's light making hand puppets and hearts. "I wanted people to inhabit it and see themselves in it," Novak said. The public took his intention to heart, perhaps more than he anticipated. Tickets were $10 each.

bcam-shadows-iris.jpgFun with shadows


bcam-disney-hall-iris.jpgA glimpse of Disney Hall from inside the Broad..

bcam-all-eyes-iris.jpgThe exterior view.

February 15, 2015

Jacaranda's new music, Maestra Canellakis and Daniil Trifonov

Thomas-Ades-cbso-014.jpgThomas Ades

Shades of LA's celebrated avant-garde past lit up the new-music present at Santa Monica's 1st Presbyterian Church -- yes, at this location, a pristinely modern church.

Instead of Igor Stravinsky presiding, as he once did at historic Monday Evening Concerts, we had Thomas Adès (arguably his 21st century successor) at the host church's Jacaranda -- which is the reincarnation of our city's sanctum sanctorum of current music.

And I can't tell you what a feast it was.

If ever we needed to puncture the myth that contemporary music is laborious to listen to or so much doodling and noodling, this would do it.

Adés, the British composer who now lives part-time in LA (how nice for us), came to the stage for the standing ovation given his "Lieux retrouvés," a virtuoso work of graphic sensation and infinite nuance played by the stellar pianist Gloria Cheng and masterful cellist Eric Byers, a Calder Quartet member.

The audience went wild. What else? This was riveting music that crept into every crevice of human perception -- be it lulling waters or rugged mountains or a wildly macabre club scene. Cheng and Byers were dazzling. The event, with the composer present, felt like a history-maker (as did, a few months ago, the Calders' playing of Schoenberg's Second String Quartet with stunning soprano Yulia Van Doren, though absent the composer, of course.)

Neither were Gerald Barry's works anything but extraordinary -- dense, profoundly structured, breathless -- courtesy of musicians Joel Pargman, Louise Thomas and others.

But no matter how well-cued impresario Patrick Scott's all-British program, his celebratory nod to Peter Maxwell Davies' 80th birthday had a downside in the revival of "Vesalii Icones." Perhaps nostalgia got the better of Scott whose local performance art group 40 years ago, Eyes Wide Open, brought it to the public.

The problem here and now was that someone miscalculated badly and opted for cockamamie cornball -- to wit, the musicians played in hospital OR garb (gowns and masks) signifying Vesalius as the father of modern anatomy, while his intricate illustrations were projected on the stage wall. More's the pity because the sleek wood beam crucifix made a brilliant backdrop for the artist's drawings as Stations of the Cross, a theme Davies parodies. But with so much crowding onstage, dancer Jones Welsh's flailings seemed out of place, despite his perfect musculature, which depicted the anatomical images.

For other music in other places the question became: Does it smile? That is, can the music bring a smile of deep pleasure to your face?\

Karina_Canellakis_by_Masataka Suemitsu copy.jpgWell, it did, thanks to Schubert and Karina Canellakis (right) who led the sparklingly responsive LA Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall -- all sunny smiles all around with deliciously curving phrases and suffused warmth that could drive away any semblance of a sober, down-turned mouth.

But that's not all. Canellakis is a young American maestra of multiple, exceptional gifts -- though too young, probably, to know she's come a long way, baby, since the day of that then-novelty Antonia Brico at the LA Phil podium, her skirts swaying in the Hollywood Bowl breeze.

And now, just look at Disney Hall's distaff line-up this month: conductors Susanna Mälkki, Xian Zhang and the Phil's newly appointed assistant conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (just call her Mirga!) -- all of them most masterly in pants and this one, with her energetic stick technique, meticulously tailored.

Canellakis opened as a superb violin soloist, standing among the also upright string players, and cue-ing them in vibrant Vivaldi that almost danced off the stage with gusto. But her baton-wielding instincts go quite beyond this earlier music to embrace John Adams, whose "Shaker Loops" got the most forcefully motoric, bone-jolting performance I've ever heard.

And then there were the Russians. That current elite duo, pianist Daniil Trifonov and violinist Gidon Kremer, touring major cities worldwide, stopped off at Disney Hall, courtesy of the Philharmonic and wowed the cognoscenti in attendance.

At 67 Kremer has been dropping into LA for decades with one self-styled contingency or another -- remember his Kremerata Baltica? Last heard here in an unforgettable amalgam of the ubiquitous "Four Seasons" co-mingled with Piazzolla tango versions of same, he and his string players kicked the weary Vivaldi into sensual over-drive as the violinist led and strolled among the seated women musicians who gazed soulfully at him.

Daniil Trifonov-Alexander Ivanov.jpgWith Trifonov (above), the 24-year-old phenom whose Carnegie Hall piano recital was beamed internationally, he seemed to be showcasing the new talent. Indeed with reason.

Because hearing/seeing Trifonov via the Medici.TV streaming -- with cameras zooming in to every last strand of sweat-drenched hair framing his face, thus causing a sight distraction to the sound -- bore little resemblance to the full-dimension concert-hall experience of lucky witnesses here.

Something about that in-person physical presence allows perceptions not easily had through electronic transmission. His technique, for example: astounding, unimaginable -- so you hear what he did with a Mozart sonata, namely, squeeze from it sweet juice, in a very fine, gentle stream that Kremer actually got to duplicate in the second movement. And that was but one small part of their wondrous music-making.

January 23, 2015

Shaker spirituals and Frances McDormand at Redcat

mcdormand-wooster-iris.jpgFrances McDormand sings a Shaker spiritual at Redcat. Photos: Iris Schneider

In our modern times, when you can hardly spend five minutes without looking at a smartphone, watching a TV or reading a tweet, it felt downright restorative to spend an hour with Wooster Group at Redcat as the troupe channeled the simple spirituals of the Shaker sect. The program, called "Early Shaker Spirituals," was the third Wooster production that has a recording at its core. But the previous two, Hula dances and an enactment of Timothy Leary's recording called "LSD," were probably not treated as reverently as this one.

On a relatively bare stage, save for an austere Little House on the Prairie set of three wooden chairs around a window, four women dressed in simple cotton frocks and wearing sensible shoes sang along to the faint sounds of the recording of 20 Early Shaker Spirituals. If it weren't for the audio equipment strapped around their waists, and the modern earpieces they wore, you could easily imagine these serious women having just returned from their daily chores.

Earnestly sung in less than perfect voices, the songs extolled the virtue of the simple life lived by the Shakers, a celibate 18th-century sect known more for its furniture than its music. The most recognizable of the songs, "Tis a Gift to be Simple," tooks its place along with "The Gospel is Advancing" and "Come life, Shaker life," some of the 10,000 the sect is said to have written, in the evening's program. The songs extol the sanctity of work "consecrated to spiritual labor." But dance also has its place: "reeling, turning, shifting, take out all the starch and stiffening."

The women included Elizabeth LeCompte, Cynthia Hedstrom and Bebe Miller, all longtime Wooster Group regulars, along with Suzzy Roche of the Roche sisters and actress Frances McDormand. They were joined for the finale by four young men who reprised some of the earlier songs in oddly ecstatic folk dances as they joyously jumped and twirled around the stage.

Most affecting were two remembrances more spoken than sung, by Roche and McDormand, that paid homage to two women, Sister Mildred and Sister Paulina Springer, and the Shaker life they chose. Like each of the songs in the program, they were spoken seriously and respectfully, but in doing so the renditions exposed something very deep and profound about the life and lives of these Shaker women.

shaker-spirituals-iris.jpgFrances McDormand and Suzzy Roche

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La Mirada and Melrose musicals: 'Billy Elliot' and 'Serrano'

serrano-ds.jpgChad Doreck, Suzanne Petrela and Tim Martin Gleason star in "Serrano The Musical," at the Matrix Theatre in West Hollywood. Photo: Brian McCarthy


Gotta sing, gotta dance. That's not just a familiar old lyric. It's also a thumbnail summary of the impulse behind musicals. Sometimes, spoken language just won't suffice. So the characters sing and dance.

One of two musicals that opened in LA County over the weekend, "Billy Elliot," could serve as Exhibit A for this expression of otherwise repressed emotion through music. Another new musical, "Serrano," is trying to serve as Exhibit B but isn't quite there yet.

"Billy Elliott" passed through Hollywood as part of a Broadway tour in 2012, but La Mirada Theatre is offering the Tony-winning show's first home-grown LA production. Meanwhile, "Serrano" is undergoing its first production anywhere, at the little Matrix Theatre on Melrose.

Before it became a stage musical, "Billy Elliot" was a well-regarded film. Yet in retrospect, it's hard to believe that it wasn't always intended as a stage musical - it's about a boy who defies the gloomy coal-mining culture in northern England and its notions of proper gender roles in order to pursue a ballet career. "Gotta dance" doesn't seem at all artificial in this situation.

Elton John wrote the music. The original screenwriter Lee Hall, who hails from the area where the story is set, wrote the libretto and lyrics. Despite John's potential glitz factor and the West End/Broadway trappings of Stephen Daldry's original staging, "Billy Elliot" manages to make us believe in its vision of its depressed social milieu in the mid-'80s, when the miners went on strike against the nationalized coal industry.

Indeed (spoiler alert), although Billy escapes what probably would have been a sad fate in a dying industry, and although we can temporarily bask in the warmth of seeing his own community helping him get out, the creators of the show don't pretend that anyone else is likely to dance his or her way out of town. We feel good about Billy, but we also care about the people he is about to leave behind.

billy-elliot-ds.jpgDirector Brian Kite, choreographer Dana Solimando, musical director John Glaudini, a stellar design team and a cast of 39 (!) honor the show's grittier roots as well as its polish and professionalism. Mitchell Tobin, a veteran of the show's national and international tour and its London production, shines in one of the most challenging starring roles ever for a young teenager. But the rest of the cast includes a number of familiar LA stage actors who appear to be right at home in these roles as well, led by Vicki Lewis as Billy's teacher and David Atkinson of Hollywood's Actors Co-op as Billy's dad. "Billy Elliot" is yet another excellent reason for Angelenos to head down the 5 to La Mirada.

"Serrano" is similar to "Billy Elliot" in some unexpected ways. Both musicals are about male protagonists who feel somewhat alienated from their own society, and both of these protagonists have male friends who might be even more alienated -- considering that these best friend characters, in both shows, enjoy cross-dressing.

"Serrano," however, doesn't feel nearly as organically created as "Billy Elliot." It's a modern American adaptation of Edmond Rostand's 1897 classic, "Cyrano de Bergerac" - which was, of course, set in an even earlier era, the 17th century, and in a different country, France. "Serrano" is set in a particular subculture within American society - the organized crime families within Little Italy, New York. In some ways "Serrano" is as close to "The Sopranos" - but with a much lighter heart - as it is to "Cyrano."

The title character (Tim Michael Gleason) is a grown-up mob lieutenant. Like Cyrano, he has a sharply protruding nose and a similar sense of style, refinement and wit. Apparently he sometimes uses violence in his job, just as Cyrano himself was obligated to fight in war, but he isn't comfortable with those responsibilities.

In the show's only scene with any mob-style mayhem, Serrano allows a designated target to avoid death, instead choosing merely to chop off one of the guy's fingers. You might think this decision would get him in trouble, but there are no consequences from his boss (Peter Van Norden), who's a great fan of Serrano's. The boss also assigns him the task of training a young and handsome mob private (Chad Woreck) on how to woo a refined judge's daughter named Rosanna (Suzanne Petrela) - for dastardly ulterior motives, of course.

We can trace the outline of "Cyrano" in all of this, but it's not a particularly comfortable fit in Madeline Sunshine's book - or, perhaps, as a musical. The original Cyrano didn't need music and dance, because his spoken language was so dazzling. Serrano has a similar way with spoken words, so his need to break out in song or dance isn't nearly as strong as it is for young Billy Elliot, who lacks any trace of a gift for gab.

Of course, following the Cyrano model, there is one subject that Serrano can't openly discuss -- his own crush on Rosanna. The moments when he sings those sentiments to himself are highlights of the score (music by Robert Tepper) precisely because they're secrets to nearly everyone else.

Another problem in the book is the fact that two of the characters who would seemingly bring some gravitas to the story are slighted. The capo di tutti capi is initially played by the gifted Craig McEldowney, but the capo then virtually disappears as McEldowney is busy playing at least four other, more age-appropriate roles. And Rosanna's upright father, the judge, never even shows up on the stage. So no one is there to chide Rosanna about the potential pitfalls of socializing with criminals - in fact, her mother (Valerie Perri) seems to think it's a great idea.

I'm not arguing that "Serrano" is a waste of time and money. Director Joel Zwick and a contingent of fine musical theater actors create a mild sense of fun - and musicals have to be workshopped somewhere. It's better to spot the problems now than in a higher-budget production, and maybe they can be fixed. But the creators might ask themselves whether these characters "gotta" sing and dance... and if not, why not?

Lower photo: Vicki Lewis, Mitchell Tobin, Emily Frazier and Brooke Besikof in "Billy Elliot" at the La Mirada Theatre. Photo: Michael Lamont

December 31, 2014

25 highlights of LA theater in 2014

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Cate Scott Campbell and Steven Epp in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of Molière's Tartuffe adapted by David Ball. Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.

I don't believe in year-end Top 10 lists, especially if the components are listed in order of best to, say, tenth best. Why is it necessary to draw such distinctions between creations with very different goals and styles? Are apples really better than oranges -- or is it vice versa?

But I do believe that the ephemeral art of theater deserves an annual recap of the year's highlights. Of the 225 productions in greater LA I saw last year, here are 25 of the best:

Abbamemnon (Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre). This cockeyed blend of "Agamemnon" and the melodies of Abba had a few unexpectedly somber undertones, but it still was no slacker on the famous Troubie laugh meter, And let's not forget its turn-off-phones pre-show -- one of the wittiest such introductions ever. Photo below

Above the Fold (Pasadena Playhouse). Bernard Weinraub's journalism thriller, inspired by a real-life situation at Duke University, seemed downright prescient later in the year, after Rolling Stone's disputed article about rape at the University of Virginia. Taraji P. Henson was terrific as the buffeted star reporter.

The Behavior of Broadus (Burglars of Hamm/Center Theatre Group/Sacred Fools). May this droll and inventive musical about behaviorism guru John Broadus Watson, who was played by the protean Hugo Armstrong, find a larger venue.

The Country House (Geffen Playhouse). Donald Margulies created a group of Chekhovian characters with unrequited crushes, gathered in the summer-theater-festival of Williamstown, Massachusetts. Blythe Danner and Eric Lange helped wipe away the memory of the similarly set-up but crass and inferior "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."

Disassembly (Theatre of NOTE). Steve Yockey's farce, set in the world of young Angeleno singles and couples, drifted into darkness before we quite realized what was happening. Thanks to the Hollywood Fringe, I was able to see it -- and enjoy the ride -- twice.

Flare Path (Theatre 40). What was it like for the RAF fliers and their wives during the off-hours of the blitz in 1940? Written during the heat of the war, Terence Rattigan's deft drama took us there, abetted by director Bruce Gray and sound designer Joseph Slowinski.

ABBAMEMNON-ds.jpgFloyd Collins (La Mirada Theatre). The musical about a trapped caver and the media circus that arose around him, by Tina Landau and Adam Guettel, was delineated with painstaking precision by director Richard Israel -- as the audience sat on the stage, within inches of the actors.

Harmony (Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre). Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman crafted a compelling musical based on the saga of the Comedian Harmonists -- the German between-the-wars equivalent of a boy band. Shayne Kennon was especially charismatic as the "Rabbi," who survived the longest and ended up in Palm Springs.

Henry V (Pacific Resident Theatre). Director Guillermo Cienfuegos and star Joe McGovern adapted a script from several of Shakespeare's history plays into a complex and powerful tale, with imaginative design and fight choreography.

The Importance of Being Earnest (A Noise Within). Michael Michetti staged a crisply captivating version of Oscar Wilde's classic, with a memorable star turn by Adam Haas Hunter as Algernon, in a dandified outfit designed by Garry Lennon.

Into the Woods. Amanda Dehnert started her Oregon Shakespeare version of the Sondheim/Lapine musical with contemporary dress and scripts on stage (as did Cienfuegos in "Henry V," above). Then she gradually transformed it almost as much as the characters themselves are transformed, only to remind us of our real-life bearings again at the end. A powerfully searching journey.

Knock Me With a Kiss (Robey Theatre at LATC). When the daughter of W.E.B. DuBois married the poet Countee Cullen, it was the highlight of New York's black social calendar, but it didn't last long. Playwright Charles Smith ("Free Man of color") examined what went wrong, and Dwain Perry's staging got everything right.

Luna Gale (Goodman Theatre at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas theatre). Rebecca Gilman turned a tale of a dedicated but flawed social worker (the superb Mary Beth Fisher), who tries to help a newborn and her parents, into a thrilling human chronicle. A refreshing injection of substance into the usual December programming.

Pippin (Broadway tour at Pantages Theatre). By incorporating Gypsy Snider's circus acts so organically into the Schwartz/Hirson musical, director Diane Paulus enhanced its metaphorical content and succeeded in muffling the show's more dated qualities. A revelatory revival.

Premeditation (Latino Theater Company at LATC). Director Jose Luis Valenzuela staged Evelina Fernandez's contemporary, LA-set marital comedy as a sharp but swirling evocation of noir style, with propulsive music and movement. The best show I saw in the Encuentro festival.

Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles at the VA Japanese Garden). Kenn Sabberton's in-the-round rendition of Shakespeare's play restored intimacy to its alfresco setting. And it moved like, well, two houses on fire, punctuated with doses of vibrant 1920s design and music, supposedly set in LA.

Sovereign Body (Road Theatre Company at Lankershim). As Emilie Beck wrote this tale of a middle-aged restaurant owner facing mortality in Pasadena, she made sure that it was a play, not a TV movie in disguise. Taylor Gilbert's performance was galvanic.

Spring Awakening (Deaf West Theatre at Inner-City Arts). The company's use of ASL awakened Michael Arden's staging of the Sater/Sheik musical with fierce energy and extended its meaning to include a new audience. I've heard rumors that this production might re-open in a larger LA County venue -- may they be true.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (Scottish National Theatre at Broad Stage's Edye). A professor becomes undone at a staid conference in a provincial Scottish town. Wils Wilson's immersive cabaret-style production, in which the actors also provided the magical music, became a rollicking and then a lightly spooky party. David Greig wrote it.

Stupid Fucking Bird (Theatre @ Boston Court). Chekhovian updates were plentiful in 2014, but Aaron Posner's was the most original -- a dazzling treatment of "The Seagull" that shattered the fourth wall in a way that Chekhov might not have liked -- but it certainly amused and moved me.

Tartuffe (A Noise Within, South Coast Repertory). Two of the more professional theater companies offered very different examinations of Moliere's great comedy -- Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's funnier, wilder vision at A Noise Within and Dominique Serrand's chillier, melancholic perspective at South Coast. Two triumphs.

The Twilight of Schlomo (Elephant Theatre). Timothy McNeil ended a trilogy set in his east Hollywood neighborhood with this portrait of a sad-sack comic (Jonathan Goldstein) and his reunion with his adult stepdaughter, who's intrigued by his Jewish roots. Together they face an abusive neighbor. A masterfully moving experience.

The Whipping Man (West Coast Jewish Theatre at Pico Playhouse). A Jewish Confederate soldier and two of his former slaves are huddled together in the ruins of their war-damaged home during Passover. Howard Teichman's introduction of Matthew Lopez's play to LA was a remarkably charged experience.

Zealot (South Coast Repertory). Theresa Rebeck's play, set in Mecca during a present-day hajj, not only extracts crackling drama from diplomacy but also demonstrates the collision between idealism and pragmatism in US/British foreign policy. Marc Masterson directed.

December 14, 2014

CTG grapples with branding, the British and a baby

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Reyna de Courcy, left, and Mary Beth Fisher in "Luna Gale." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

More than once, I've asked publicly how Center Theatre Group can possibly justify branding itself as "L.A.'s Theatre Company" - an ID that appears, for example, eight times in the program for "What the Butler Saw," now at CTG's Mark Taper Forum.

Since Michael Ritchie took the CTG helm, the company has displayed hardly any interest in LA-specific settings, subjects or talent. In the nearly-pervasive absence of such indicators, doesn't the use of that phrase suggest that CTG is LA's only theater company - which, of course, would be an extremely arrogant and inaccurate suggestion?

So I was fascinated when Diane Rodriguez, one of CTG's three associate artistic directors, raised the subject in an interview on American Theatre magazine's Offscript podcast.
Rodriguez was responding to a question from one of the interviewers, American Theatre senior editor Rob Weinert-Kendt, about the general relationship between CTG and the rest of the LA theater community. But it was Rodriguez herself who brought up the troublesome label: "We were branded a few years ago - my theater might hate me for saying this, but - we were branded as being 'LA's Theatre Company'...It is a big responsibility, and we weren't doing it very well, quite frankly, and...the staff struggled with it."

She then cited two recent examples of CTG's support of other LA companies: a commission to the Burglars of Hamm to help produce "The Behavior of Broadus" at the sub-100-seat Sacred Fools Theater this year, and the inclusion of some LA artists in the 2013 Radar L.A. festival that CTG helps produce.

Yet regarding the wonderful "Behavior of Broadus," here is the elephant-in-the-room question - why wasn't it performed at one of CTG's own, larger spaces, where (I assume) it would have received even more money and much better marketing? The Hammsters have had previous success on the 99-seat level, but they have never broken through to the professional Equity-contract level in LA. So the best thing that CTG could have done for them would have been to schedule "Broadus" as part of one of the CTG seasons, in either CTG's Kirk Douglas Theatre or the Taper -- or, failing that, to have made sure that it was part of the last Radar L.A.

For what it's worth, Rodriguez said that "we were able to help a company up the ante" in the case of "Broadus," and "we want to do that on a yearly basis."

By the way, Rodriguez also revealed that she's developing and hopes to direct a CTG-commissioned piece about the relationship between the black and Latino communities in Venice -- LA's Venice, not the Italian original. It would be a collaboration between Roger Guenveur Smith and Richard Montoya, drawing on the resources of a book that USC's Josh Kun and Laura Pulido co-edited (Rodriguez didn't name the book, but presumably it's "Black and Brown in Los Angeles: Beyond Conflict and Coalition.")

This sounds like a promising glimmer of CTG interest in a very LA-specific subject, but CTG commissions don't equal CTG productions. CTG commissioned the New York-based Civilians to prepare a production about LA's porn industry, and now CTG has just announced that the piece will receive its world premiere -- in New York, not at one of CTG's LA stages.

Then again, perhaps Rodriguez's position near the top of the CTG brass will increase the chances that the Smith/Montoya Venice project will reach a CTG stage. So might the fact that Montoya and Smith are the most prominent LA artists who have previously managed to snag LA-related CTG productions during the Ritchie years, despite Ritchie's chronic disinclination to program with LA-specific interests in mind.

SPEAKING OF CTG

Let's look at what CTG is currently offering LA theatergoers. The company's ongoing productions at the Music Center appear as if they might have been planned to be part of some hands-across-the-sea salute to mid-20th-century British theater.

I can't yet comment on the quality of the Angela Lansbury-driven revival of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" - it was scheduled to open Sunday at the Ahmanson Theatre, and I wrote this column before then. But the aforementioned revival of "What the Butler Saw" at the Taper demonstrates that it's very difficult to pull off a farce that relies so heavily on satirical attitudes and polemics that were fashionable in another country 45 years ago.

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"What the Butler Saw," photo by Craig Schwartz

"What the Butler Saw" acquired its reputation in no small part to the murder of its playwright, Joe Orton, before it was produced. But in the hands of John Tillinger's cast in 2014, it comes off as one of the most dated plays ever produced at the Taper. It's especially tone-deaf to the current American culture in its repeated references to the "rape" of one of the leading characters in a way that implies that "rape" is really just consensual sex that has become inconvenient to acknowledge.

Fortunately, CTG compensated for "What the Butler Saw" by scheduling a hard-hitting, contemporary drama, Rebecca Gilman's "Luna Gale," concurrently at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. No, it isn't a CTG-bred production; it's from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Nor is it LA-specific. But as it examines an Iowa social worker who's grappling with a complicated child custody case, it's easy for an Angeleno to think of the recent controversies over California's and LA County's foster care systems. Not that it completely mirrors California's problems - this particular social worker is trying to prevent the unseen titular baby from entering foster care. But its depiction of an overwhelmed child protective system will probably ring bells throughout America.

And lest you think that this sounds awfully gray and grim for the holiday season, be assured that Gilman has woven together the strands of her story in a dramatically thrilling way that produces a few hearty character-based laughs along the way. In fact, I laughed more deeply and often with the very human characters of "Luna Gale" than I did at the artificial, barely-human quips from decades ago in "What the Butler Saw" or even the more contemporary but equally artificial laughs that CTG's last two holiday offerings at the Douglas -- Second City adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" -- tried to generate. Indeed, if CTG feels it must call on Chicago-based companies to come up with its holiday shows at the Douglas, I'm grateful that in 2014 it turned its attention to the Goodman instead of Second City.

Besides, isn't any play revolving around a baby especially appropriate for your Christmas consideration?

AND ELSEWHERE

That phantom British mid-century theater festival I mentioned earlier isn't restricted to the Music Center. In fact, perhaps its most interesting component is in Beverly Hills, at little Theatre 40, which is offering what is described as the LA premiere of Terence Rattigan's "Flare Path," a stirring drama about RAF fliers in World War II and their wives. Set in October 1940 and first produced in 1942, midway through the war, it was revived in London in 2011. But chances are most Angelenos have never heard of it, let alone seen it.

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"Flare Path," photo by Ed Krieger.

It hasn't aged nearly as badly as "What the Butler Saw," perhaps because its tone is realistic to the point of understatement, even as it imports a Hollywood star to complicate the lives of its other characters. Rattigan's depiction of people in a wartime crucible is still all too convincing, considering that war has hardly vanished in the intervening decades. Bruce Gray's staging looks and sounds surprisingly authentic, abetted by Joseph Slowinski's intriguing sound design, which specializes in subtle variations on aircraft noises. The performances are superb.

Also continuing the mid-century British theme in Beverly Hills, "Love, Noel" is a two-person revue of Coward's songs, many of them focusing on his relationships with famous women, as opposed to his more personal life as a barely-closeted gay man. Harry Groener and Sharon Lawrence read from some of Coward's letters as well as sing. The director is Jeanie Hackett, who was instrumental in bringing Coward's what-if-the-Germans-had-won play, "Peace in Our Time," to Antaeus two years ago.

Your reaction to "Love, Noel" may depend on how many other Coward revues you've seen. I've seen several, and this one doesn't especially stand out. But it's a treat to see it in the Wallis Annenberg Center's black-box cabaret space, next door to the main Annenberg theater, where the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Into the Woods" is currently entrancing audiences in Amanda Dehnert's imaginative take on the Sondheim/Lapine masterpiece.

Back to Coward for a moment - a Malibu Playhouse production of his 1924 play "The Vortex" closed over the weekend at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose. 1924 isn't exactly mid-century, but director Gene Franklin Smith re-set the play in the '60s. It remained surprisingly lively, especially because of a third-act mother-son confrontation that is much meatier, angrier and more somber than anything that you might expect from Coward (unless, that is, you're one of the relatively few who has seen "Peace in Our Time.")

November 30, 2014

LA needs a Department of Interstitial Spaces

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: There is nothing extraordinary about the space under the North Spring Street Bridge just north of downtown Los Angeles. But that has done nothing to diminish its power to suggest and actually become a refuge from gang violence, a no man's land where the regular rules of street life were suspended, a gallery for graffiti and other art, a stage for music, a performance studio, a workshop, a town hall, a place for weddings and birthday parties, and even a Garden of Eden for some.

AnotherCityThumb2.jpgIn the city of Los Angeles there are 12,309 blocks worth of alleys like the one that runs along the north side of the North Spring Street Bridge before it crosses the Los Angeles River--a total of 914 linear miles, according to a 2008 study by researchers at the University of Southern California. Each one could suggest, as a neon sign installed under the Spring Street bridge by USC professor Manuel Castells suggests: "Another city is possible."

Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles, a new book by Jeremy Rosenberg, chronicles the extraordinary history of the transformation of the space under the Spring Street bridge between 2006 and 2013--which brought people and plants and parties of all kinds to "Under Spring," as the space came to be known. With a project to widen the bridge underway now, the future of that space is uncertain. But Rosenberg's book does what the best histories do. It reveals the possibilities alive in the past. And it attunes us to the possibilities alive around us today--12,309 possibilities.

Under Spring came alive because of an unusual confluence. Artist Lauren Bon's Metabolic Studio backs on to the alley. Ed Reyes, the city councilmember from the first district, took an interest in the project to clean up and "activate" the space, in the lingo of urban planners. And Al Nodal, president of the city's Cultural Affairs Commission, ran the bureaucratic traps to make it work. The key was an aptly named but little used provision in city rules called an "alley vacation." Since the space was not needed for any commercial uses other than those of the Metabolic Studio, it could be closed off and used for more creative public purposes. Under Spring became an ongoing, evolving work of art, created and curated by Metabolic Studio.

"This place was not unique in this city or nationally," Nodal told Rosenberg, "there are lots of underpasses, cul-de-sacs and traffic triangles. All absurd and eminently creative spaces."

Matt Coolidge, founder and director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, told Rosenberg: "When things don't have a designated function, anything else can occur." He added: "One could imagine that Los Angeles, of all cities, might have some of the most real estate that is interstitial space. Either under bridges or as part of flyovers and cloverleaves and freeway exchanges where the ramps kind of soar up and create little triangles or circles of space that you can't really get to. It's in those kinds of corridors, those eddies, those incidental spaces, where things that aren't scripted activities can take place."

Unfortunately, Under Spring's "alley vacation" is over. But here's a suggestion for Mayor Eric Garcetti inspired by Rosenberg's book: create a new Department of Interstitial Spaces. OK, maybe not a department. Just a small team, with a czar, or better yet, a wizard like Al Nodal in charge. The mission: scout out emerging opportunities where artists, neighborhood organizations, and citizens are re-imagining neglected patches of public space in the city, and help nudge the bureaucracy to get out of their way.

"This site in general, and Los Angeles in particular, is so full of destitute people and destitute places that the effort to rescue these destitute places and regenerate them is probably one of the most crucial projects," Manuel Castells told Rosenberg, for "a new kind of city and a new kind of society. Because we have made too much use of a policy of scorched lands in our cities. We'll call it a disposable city. You use it and throw it away." But, Castells added, "another city is possible, and even in Los Angeles, another Los Angeles is possible."

Possible, perhaps. That's at least what Under Spring suggests. But Under Spring is history now, beautifully captured in the chorus--verging on cacophony--of voices in Rosenberg's book. And it's unlikely that the unusual confluence that came together under the North Spring Street Bridge can be replicated in the thousands of other interstitial spaces that Matt Coolidge notes were "never intended to be used" but "represent a kind of untapped resource" in neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.

But with a little help from city hall to clear the way, citizens might tap the great resource of public space for creative purposes in their own communities. Because if history shows us the possibilities alive in the past, and attunes us to the possibilities alive around us today, it is so that we can act.

Note: I'm on the board of trustees of the California Historical Society, which awarded Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles the 2013 California Historical Society Book Award. The book was published this fall by Heyday in collaboration with the California Historical Society.

November 29, 2014

Bruce Davidson and Paul Caponigro photos at the Huntington

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Wales, 1965. By Bruce Davidson


A new photography exhibit at the Huntington Library features a pair of octogenarian masters of the medium. "Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro:Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland" showcases the contrasting styles and experiences of both men.

In the accompanying book, Huntington photography curator Jennifer Watts explains:

One man lives in the city, the other in the woods. One is drawn to the strife and the tumult of life. The other craves serenity and the contemplative forms of nature. Exceptional craftsmen, they still use and develop black and white prints by hand. They are now in their eighties. They have never met. Bruce Davidson and Paul Caponigro, two American photographers as distinct as night and day, traveled separately to Great Britain and Ireland a half century ago and brought their sensibilities with them. Davidson went first, in 1960, on assignment for a popular magazine. Six years later, Caponigro secured a Guggenheim Fellowship to photograph in Ireland. Davidson went twice more to the United Kingdom and Caponigro took more than a dozen return trips across several decades. Their journeys helped establish their respective distinguished careers.

The exhibit first appeared last summer at the Yale Center for British Art (where the two photographers finally did meet). In addition to the 128 photographs, there is a sixteen-minute film called "Still Looking" by Huntington filmmaker Kate Lain. Lain, along with Watts, traveled to Caponigro's home in Maine, and to Davidson's in New York City, spending a few days talking and shooting with each. Lain admitted to being slightly starstruck by her legendary subjects but had no problem with diva-like behavior. Recalling her time with them she says "they were both very open to just let me know their objects and know how they define space. There's something about their spaces that has everything to do with what you see in their photography."


Bruce Davidson/Paul Caponigro:Two American Photographers in Britain and Ireland runs at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens through March 15, 2015.

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Stonehenge, 1977. By Paul Caponigro.

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Connemara, County Galway, Ireland 1970. By Paul Caponigro.

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Dead Calf in the Sand, County Kerry, Ireland 1993. By Paul Caponigro.

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London, 1960. By Bruce Davidson.

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Brighton, 1960. By Bruce Davidson.

Previously on LA Observed
Bruce Davidson photographs Los Angeles
Bruce Davidson, around LA

November 21, 2014

Making choices along the sexual spectrum in three plays

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John Sloan and Angela Lin in "Stop Kiss." Photo by Jim Cox.

The politically correct attitude about sexual orientation is that it isn't a choice - or certainly not in most cases. An emphasis on that supposition has helped loosen laws that restrict the rights of those who are primarily oriented toward the same sex.

However, as I examine a few plays that are winding up their latest runs in LA, I get the impression that the playwrights didn't get the memo.

In Diana Son's "Stop Kiss" at Pasadena Playhouse, a young woman who has enjoyed sleeping with a particular man - a former college friend and possible future husband -- turns her attentions and her affections to another woman. This other woman is receptive - she recently ended a seven-year cohabitation with a boyfriend - but that boyfriend is still interested in continuing their hetero romance.

Near the end of the play, the first woman tells the second, in these exact words, "Choose me" - in other words, choose her over the boyfriend of seven years. In a very literal sense, she's talking about choosing the better caregiver (the second woman has been injured in a street crime), but she's clearly also talking about the choice of a romantic partner. Son could hardly be more explicit in indicating that a choice is involved in these decisions.

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Patrick Stafford and Rebecca Mozo in "Cock."

Meanwhile, Mike Bartlett's "Cock" at Rogue Machine is entirely based on the notion that a young man is wavering between his older male lover and a brash woman who's closer to his own age. The woman has apparently brought the young man sexual dividends that he enjoys. The performance of "Cock" I attended was followed by a talkback in which members of a bisexual-support organization expressed their appreciation of the play's acknowledgment that bisexuality exists and that it can create difficult choices between lovers of different genders.

Speaking of dramatic choices, a revival of Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" again glimpses the possibility of going outside the species for a sexual partner. This was an especially audacious, well, choice for Los Angeles LGBT Center to produce at its Davidson/Valentini Theatre. Anti-gay zealots have for years suggested that toleration of homosexuality could eventually lead to toleration of bestiality. They could easily claim that Albee is endorsing his character's romance with a goat.

But I doubt that Albee had this in mind when he wrote "The Goat." And I get the impression that this production of "The Goat" emphasizes the opposite argument a little more than previous productions I've seen -- perhaps because the fury of Ann Noble, as the wife who must cope with "the other animal" instead of "the other woman," is so articulate as well as explosive. She makes it quite clear that this man is in fact raping this other creature.

Unfortunately, the authority with which she states her case undermines her husband's case more than usual - which, at least for me, increases the play's implausibility. Albee and director Ken Sawyer maintain such a rigorously realistic style that it's hard to accept the man's account of what is happening between him and Sylvia without hearing a few more explanatory details.

We hear no evidence that this man was ever even attracted to pets in the usual non-sexual ways (A.R. Gurney's play about a pet named "Sylvia" comes to mind here), or that he witnessed a lot of cross-species sex because he grew up on a farm, or that he was unhappy in his marriage. So why would he suddenly begin an affair with a goat? Inquiring minds want to know, but this play doesn't explore this man's motivations deeply enough.

Of course perhaps Albee simply wanted to underline or to satirize the inscrutability of romantic attraction in general by displaying this extreme case. But it's so extreme, and so essentially unexplained, that the play becomes more of a wildly entertaining freak show than an expression of common human feelings.

In "Stop Kiss" and "Cock," however, directors Seema Sueko and Cameron Watson (respectively) and their casts make completely credible their characters' decisions to "switch teams" within the general human league. Although "Stop Kiss" and "Cock" challenge the politically correct LGBT line about choice, perhaps it's time - with the generally greater acceptance of LGBT individuals and their orientations or their "choices" -- that a rigid adherence to that line is no longer so important.

At any rate, from a theatergoer's point of view, "choices" are almost always more dramatically engaging than unchosen "orientations." The evidence of those heightened dramatic stakes is obvious in all three of these productions.

This costume exhibit could be more wearable

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Photo by Iris Schneider

I love movies. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. That's how I felt at the Hollywood Costume exhibit on display at the future home of the Academy museum. The exhibit, showing at Fairfax and Wilshire in the May Company building that will house the museum, was put together (and is on its final tour stop) by the Victoria and Albert Museum and augmented with pieces from the academy's collections. It includes 150 costumes (40 from the academy archives) and it is impressive in its scope. You enter the darkened space to the swelling sounds of a film extravaganza. Unlike a movie trailer that is too loud, the music never stops.

Ushers remind you to give your eyes a chance to adjust to the darkened space, and guide you with flashlights so you won't go bump in the night. But the pitch black environment--simulating a black box theater with black floor, walls and ceiling--did not make it easy to navigate as the costumes were under hot spotlights, forcing your eyes to pingpong between total darkness and bright spotlights and video screens. Ouch! And while your eyes do adjust to the darkness somewhat, your ears are given no such mercy.

Each display is a cornucopia of information, replete with screens showing original notes from the likes of Charles Chaplin and other great directors and actors, videos showing costumes being worn in the films they were designed for, musings from actors and fascinating interviews-displayed almost life-size--with directors, actors and the costume designers who work with them. At one point though, Quentin Tarantino was talking about the costumes for "Django Unchained" while Martin Scorsese, in a too-close by display, spoke about "Gangs of New York." Maybe it's just me (I have a hard time filtering noise), but it was virtually impossible to shut out the sound of one in order to listen to the other. The exhibits are impressively multimedia, incorporating drawings, artifacts and fabric swatches to show how costume design comes together and illustrating the collaborative process that the best in the business prefer. But amid the cacophony of sound and light, it was hard to absorb the wealth of information.

As a sidenote, it is interesting that this exhibit comes from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Having reported on the auction of half of Debbie Reynolds' extensive costume and artifact collection, I have always wondered why the Academy did not snap up that collection and others before these items were sold off at auction to individual cinephiles. When the museum opens we may get a chance to see what is in the academy archives.

There is a lot to learn at this exhibit--for instance, did you know that Meryl Streep got her degree from Vassar in Drama and Costume Design?--but after an hour, I found myself seeking solace. There must be a way to figure out how to create a more conducive environment in which to look at these iconic costumes and listen to lauded experts of their craft. They have much to say about the science of costume design and how costumes help them define and craft their characters. It's fascinating to learn about their process, and how these designers make something very complicated look simple: "My job," says Edith Head, "is to help the girl who wears the dress become the person she's playing on the screen."

The exhibition runs until March 2, 2015.

November 9, 2014

My week of culture in LA

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Al Pacino at the AARP Films for Grownups Film Festival, above. Elevator Repair Service, below. Photos by Iris Schneider.

It was a good week in LA for culture. The AFI Film Festival began in Hollywood on Thursday with lots of star power and free tickets to those willing to put in the time to visit and re-visit the AFI website and, tickets in hand, wait in line for a seat at the theater. Once inside, you can be treated to both major and independent films and often a talk afterward with the lead actor and/or director or screenwriter. Marion Cotillard spoke, along with the Dardenne brothers, after the screening of "Two Days, One Night." She described the rehearsal period and working with the very demanding brothers -- who sometimes asked for 70 takes -- as an extraordinary and exhilarating experience. The powerful but understated film about a working class mom seeking a way out of impending financial doom seemed so real that it felt like a documentary.

Downtown at LA Live, and somewhat under the radar, was the AARP Films for Grownups Film Festival. They had lots of stars willing to talk after the screenings, and unlike the AFI crowd, the people who asked questions at the AARP Festival were not beneath unmitigated adulation, simply asking to shake a hand or get a hug. Al Pacino, there to discuss his latest film, "The Humbling," was more than happy to oblige. The film, about an actor losing his craft, and fire, to the ravages of age, was riveting and his performance both tragic and comic, and totally without vanity as he shared the screen with a much younger Greta Gerwig.

arguendo-iris.jpgAnd then, back at the Redcat for just a weekend, Elevator Repair Service blew into town with "Arguendo," their raucous, and verbatim, look at the Supreme Court argument of Barnes v. Glen Theatre, brought by a group of strippers claiming that forcing them to wear pasties and g-strings violated their First Amendment rights. Just one word regarding Elevator Repair Service: go! Unfortunately only here for several performances over this weekend, they never fail to surprise and entertain while making you think and teaching you something at the same time. Like ERS director John Collins, I've always been curious about the goings-on inside the Supreme Court as arguments are presented. After this performance, I feel like I've been there -- minus a bit of artistic license of course. On a personal note: Thank you, ERS, for explaining the genesis of Chief Justice Rehnquist's gold-striped robe. I've always loved his bizarrely comic display of ego and personal pomp.


Haute couture in Basque Country: Visiting the Balenciaga Museum

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Cristóbal Balenciaga museum, left, attached to a former palacio in Getaria, Spain.

I have to thank LACMA Costume and Textiles curator Kaye Spilker for pointing me toward what turned out to be one of the most enjoyable experiences of my recent trip to the French and Spanish Basque country. While chatting with Spilker in late August, I mentioned that my upcoming travel plans included a day trip to San Sebastian, just across the Spanish border from where I would be staying with family in Biarritz. She suggested that, if time allowed, I should check out the museum devoted solely to one of the greatest couturier's of the 20th century, Spanish-born Cristóbal Balenciaga. The museum is located in Getaria, a fishing village 20 minutes drive from San Sebastian. Accessible by a coastal road along the Bay of Biscay, charming Getaria dates from the Middle Ages and is known today for its beaches, delicious grilled fish and the signature wine of the region, Getariako Txakolina. Getaria is also known for being Balenciaga's birthplace.

Designed by Cuban architect Julian Argilagos and inaugurated in 2011, the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa sits on a hill overlooking the Medieval wall guarding the old port. The modernist building incorporates the Palacio Aldamar, the former residence of the Marques and Marquesa of Casa Torres. Balenciaga's mother worked as a seamstress for the Marquesa and it was during the years that he spent by her side in the aristocrat's home that he was first exposed to fashion and art. The museum's opening, attended by Spanish high society and Queen Sofia, confirmed Balenciaga's exalted place in the country's culture.

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Lobby and the view from the museum. LAO photos.

The collection includes nearly 1600 pieces and represents the complete range of his oeuvre. Visitors can see examples of the designer's iconic looks, including his "infanta" dresses, the baby doll, and the balloon dress. My French cousin-in-law Catherine and I oohed and aahed our way through gallery after gallery of evening gowns, suits, coats, and accessories. Catherine, an artist and clothing designer who grew up with an awareness of Balenciaga, was especially keen to see his innovative use of fabric and embroidery close up. While the entry and public spaces of the museum are all light and glass, the galleries are cave-like and intimate. No guards were present in the galleries and we joked that we could probably try on the clothes, knowing full well there were most likely security cameras watching over us. After viewing the exhibits we watched a lovely, short film about Balenciaga's life and work being shown on a loop near the museum's entrance.

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"Baby doll" dress in ivory silk taffeta, left, Balenciaga museum. Wedding gown, photo by Judy Graeme.

Born in 1895, Balenciaga was formally trained in Madrid and began his career in Spain. With the Spanish royal family and the aristocracy as patrons, his prestigious position in the world of fashion was already assured when, in 1936 the Spanish Civil War forced him to move his operation to Paris, where his contemporaries included Chanel, Schiaparelli, and Mainbocher. Among his most important design influences were Spanish history and art. The "infanta" dresses referenced paintings by Velazquez and some of his evening wear reflected garments worn by bullfighters. His clothing became more streamlined after World War II. He became, in essence, a sartorial architect, experimenting with line and volume. One of his most important designs, the "sack" dress, created in the late 1950's, created a completely new silhouette for women. Loyal customers included the Duchess of Windsor, Bunny Mellon, and Jacqueline Kennedy as well as countless lesser known but well-heeled clients.

Fellow designers Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy called him "the master." Coco Chanel said of Balenciaga, "he is the only true couturier among us." His retirement in 1968 and death in 1972 marked the end of an era for haute couture.

Back in Los Angeles, I stopped by LACMA to talk with Spilker about why Balenciaga matters to her as a curator. The Costume and Textile collection includes 76 Balenciaga pieces and some have been included in past exhibitions. Her passion for his design genius was evident as we looked at photographs of his creations from the 1930's through the 1960's. "The reason Balenciaga is important was that he treated clothing as art. He was a sculptor -- he made kinetic sculpture" she said. "Everything he produced was so incredibly elegant. It was refined and conceptually perfectly constructed in the sense that he knew the human body so well as an armature that he could do something completely sculptural."

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Silk lace cocktail dress, left, and silk evening gown and cape. LACMA collection.

"He frequently used very stiff fabric -- something that would shoot off an arm and yet you could still move in it," Spilker said "He was famous for making sleeves. His sleeves fit perfectly. One of the things he did was to take the collar away from the neck-so your neck is just like a swan. He made things that were, in effect, frames for a body. If women were wearing Balenciaga, it would be impossible not to notice them."

November 8, 2014

The intensity of 'Zealot,' plus big dreams within three musicals

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Demosthenes Chrysan, Charlayne Woodard and Alan Smyth in South Coast Repertory's 2014 production of "Zealot." Photo: Ben Horak/SCR.

More than any other region, the Middle East dominates international news in the American media. And the American theater has produced plenty of plays related to U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet plays about American diplomatic efforts in the area are rare. They're probably considered inherently less exciting than plays about young Americans putting their lives on the line in combat. Now, however, with most Americans resistant to "boots on the ground" involvement, diplomacy may be where the action is - the dramatic action, as well as the real-life action.

Theresa Rebeck makes a compelling case that Middle Eastern diplomacy can create crackling drama in her new "Zealot," at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

It's set in the British consulate in Mecca during the Hajj (which, this year, occurred in early October, just before this production opened.) An American under-secretary of state (Charlayne Woodard) shows up in the office of the UK consul (Alan Smyth) to discuss rumors of a possible political demonstration during the Hajj.

Their conversation is interrupted when an agitated local Saudi official (Demosthenes Chrysan) shows up to confirm that a violent riot has indeed broken out in the Grand Mosque. It was sparked when a group of Muslim women removed their head scarves, presumably in protest of strict laws about women's dress and deportment.

One of these women (Nikki Massoud) arrives. She has been dispatched by the protesters to bear witness to what happened. The U.S. doesn't have a consulate in Mecca, but she is seeking sanctuary from the Americans via the UK consulate. Soon enough, her background is revealed - she's an Iranian Shiite Muslim who studied for a year in the U.S. and earnestly believes in its founding principles. In the rigorously Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia, these credentials aren't exactly a point in her favor.

This fictional incident becomes a microcosmic examination of the foreign-policy debate between humanitarian concerns - represented here primarily by the American - and the British official's more pragmatic "none of our business" attitude. Rebeck adds extra notes of irony by making the under secretary a Muslim and by making the Brit an atheist - and by having the Brit warn the African American under secretary that unwarranted intervention in this situation could be seen as a "racist" disrespect for Saudi culture.

Don't let any of the above lead you to the conclusion that this play might be too arcane or too talky. Although the verbal fracas is indeed lively, the play also includes a poignant moment that consists almost entirely of an unexpected silent gesture between two characters. Director Marc Masterson and company make sure that the three major characters are somewhat fleshed out - without spelling out every biographical detail and motivation.

Rebeck is a prolific writer whose plays sometimes appear to have spun off an assembly line, but this is one of her best and most original scripts. It's certainly more provocative and successful than her "Poor Behavior," which opened at the Taper in 2011. I'll let the Middle East experts comment on its credibility, but it seems plausible enough in the theater. We probably shouldn't be surprised by our ability to be surprised by new developments in either the Middle East itself or the plays that are set there.


PIPPIN, EDWARD AND MELCHIOR

Some of the currently running musicals in the LA area right now have a lot in common.

Pippin-ds.jpgThe tour of "Pippin," currently at the Pantages, is about a young man who pursues grandiose dreams. Because he's a prince, he has the ability to literally pursue them - but not to make them succeed. The man at the heart of "Big Fish," in its West Coast premiere from Musical Theatre West, has dreams that are just as grandiose, but he is a traveling salesman, not a prince, so most of his dreams remain on the level of tall tales. Meanwhile, the teenage Melchior in Deaf West Theatre's revival of "Spring Awakening" continues to envision a better future despite a series of traumatic events within the stifling culture of his community in 19th-century Germany.

Both Pippin and Edward Bloom of "Big Fish" also have big-time father/son issues - Pippin is the son of a dominant father (Charlemagne), while Edward Bloom of "Big Fish" is the father of a skeptical son. Both of these characters are also drawn to the circus - but in this "Pippin," the circus connection is largely a concept brilliantly added to the material by director Diane Paulus, while in "Big Fish," Bloom's flirtation with the circus is written into John August's script, based on his screenplay, which was in turn adapted from a novel by Daniel Wallace.

Musical-theater companies should be encouraged to produce more than the greatest or latest hits, so I was rooting for the success of "Big Fish," at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach. Its score is by the still-promising Andrew Lippa, and the material was staged on Broadway by Susan Stroman. But it falls short of expectations.

The big production numbers depicting Edward's fantasies are disproportionate to the small story and begin to feel like showy opportunities to extend the length of the show instead of vital and revealing moments. By the end, the conflicts and complexities within Edward's personality have been forcibly ironed out by the show's creators. I suspect that they did this out of concern that he might not be likable enough if they didn't furnish us with additional evidence of his overall rectitude.

By contrast, the creators of this "Pippin" didn't worry about such matters. And the evergreen conflict between big adventures and the quieter pleasures of hearth and home, which has always lurked within the Stephen Schwartz/Roger O. Hirson musical, has never been as clearly delineated as in Paulus's Tony-winning staging. The circus acts from Montreal's Gypsy Snider provide graphic evidence of the lure of adventure - not to mention a showstopping opportunity for Andrea Martin.

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"Spring Awakening," photo by Tate Tullier.

The use of circus in this "Pippin" is an addition that's somewhat comparable to the use of ASL-signing deaf actors (as well as singing non-deaf actors) in Michael Arden's much more intimate revival of the Steven Sater/Duncan Sheik "Spring Awakening," for Deaf West Theatre and The Forest of Arden, at Inner City Arts in downtown LA. "Spring Awakening" shares with "Pippin" the theme of frustrated, restless youth - and in the case of this "Spring Awakening" in particular, one of their key frustrations is their inability to communicate with the domineering culture. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Deaf West previously applied its distinctive musical-theater techniques to "Pippin" (at the Mark Taper Forum, in 2009). The gestural vigor of the current crop of Deaf West actors re-awakens "Spring Awakening."

November 6, 2014

For Harry Shearer, Nixon is still the one

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Harry Shearer.

I spent an enjoyable evening in Nixon's Oval office recently along with other Nixonphiles and -phobes like political writer Richard Reeves and KCRW's Warren Olney. Well, to be precise, it was more like the faux-val office, as created and brought to life by Harry Shearer in a continuation of what has become one of Shearer's passions: bringing the good, the bad, the ugly, the comedy, the tragedy and yes, the humanity, of Richard Nixon and his taped conversations into the daylight.

Shearer is an astute political thinker and observer of American politics and the media and has honed his appreciation of Richard Nixon to a saber's edge over years of impersonating and embodying the man writ large and small. As grateful as he is for mining the comic gold contained in those tapes, he also expressed some empathy for Nixon's huge character flaws which the former President unwittingly exposed for all the world to see once the tapes were made public.

This latest Nixonfest was, as Shearer called it, "a one-off," a ticketed event held at Raleigh Studios' Charlie Chaplin Theater to showcase Nixon's the One, a series of 6 episodes of reenactments of verbatim taped conversations and musings between Nixon and his White House aides, cabinet members and sychophants. After listening to hundreds of hours of Nixon's Oval Office tapes along with Nixon historian Stanley Kutler, "certain themes emerged," said Shearer--Nixon's hatred of the East Coast "elite," the Jewish-controlled media, the blacks and of course, his enemies, who often included former political opponents. But Shearer is quick to point out that the person who really should have topped Nixon's enemies list was Nixon himself. "He was a self-made man," Shearer said, "And self-destroyed." The episodes were put together by Shearer and Kutler and broadcast in Britain on the Sky Arts channel.

Now that the series is done, Shearer has been releasing the episodes to YouTube, after trying unsuccessfully to get them broadcast on American television. Given the drivel that ends up on television and cable these days, it's amazing that this series was rejected. The episodes are must-see viewing for anyone who remembers Richard Nixon, and certainly for anyone interested in American politics--there is much to learn about the risks of that complicated cocktail of power and ego when combined with a huge shot of human frailty. Shakespeare couldn't have done it better.

LA Opera's doubleheader, plus Dance Project and more

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Paula Murrihy and Liam Bonner in the title roles of "Dido and Aeneas." Craig Mathew/LA Opera

"Bluebeard's Castle," based on the grizzly Perrault fairy tale, doubled with "Dido and Aeneas," the Greco-Roman myth -- together, they're asizzle onstage at the Music Center Pavilion, courtesy of director Barrie Kosky, the current crown jewel at LA Opera.

Both works are about love ending badly. What else, in music drama?

It was last year that the celebrated theater man brought us his 1920's Chaplin-esque animations aka "The Magic Flute" from Berlin's Komische Oper -- replete with silent-film savvy, stylized cleverness and out-of-the-box imagination -- underscoring his U.S. allegiance to Los Angeles.

And now we've got Kosky's kit and kaboodle -- a pairing of modernist Bartok's only opera, explosively fraught, and Purcell's exercise in baroque mannerism, a piece of Hogarthian flamboyance in this scrumptious staging that you cannot take your eyes off of.

One-act each, they make a study in contrasts (And, by the way, tickets come as low as $17...)

Just imagine "Dido" in a neo-classically pure frame, costumes in sherbet colors suffused with a warm footlights glow, its characters seated on a white cross-stage bench, singing and mugging sad or happy, some of them adding absurdly comic dimension at times and ignoring proscenium convention while looking very post-modern.

To wit, the correctly small pit orchestra (including early performance instruments) is raised nearly to stage level and has the chorus clambering in and out of it. We can sense the whole thing as a unit. The music actually joins the action and lets the audience feel eminently connected.

Lively? You bet, even if Purcell is not exactly a composer who can exert forward momentum. What Kosky has wrought is a working definition of "opulent minimalism," as he calls it.

What's more, the cast doesn't let him down -- especially not mezzo Paula Murrihy as a long-suffering Dido who sings with lyric finesse, Liam Bonner (remember him as Billy Budd?), an ardent yet whimsical Aeneas who can take no for an answer. Conductor Steven Sloane kept balances unerringly on the mark. So did Grant Gershon find just the right integration with his chorus. Go before you lose the chance.

And after a single intermission you just might be blown away by its opposite: Kosky's black and white expressionist "Bluebeard," a nightmarish encounter between the man who's murdered many wives and their still-live successor who seeks to get inside his mind and memory, to bring light and cheer to him.

Now be prepared. Kosky is no William Friedkin, who gave us an eerily suggestive "Bluebeard" (2002), nor a Robert Wilson, that specialist in trance-like characters who act in semaphores. Actually, he's the opposite. So the couple's abstract but very physical struggle has lots of clinching and clutching, it's rugged and ragged -- he, a broken man given to seizures in response to her entreaties; she, the activist, the aggressor. Ah, but it ain't so, in their final pact: she does fatalistically become his eighth dead wife -- only as understood, though, not represented onstage.

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Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith. Craig Mathew / LA Opera

Robert Hayward, as a reactive Bluebeard, sang with dark vigor and Claudia Mahnke, summoned Judith's geschries with imperious urgency. Bartok's orchestral music is powerful and, with the full band at his command, Sloane enforced its somber ferocity, its lush subversiveness.

Get there -- by Nov. 15.

These days the city is also afloat in dance performances. Celebrity Benjamin Millepied (of "Black Swan" movie fame and subsequently named director of Paris Opera Ballet among other important posts) mounted his second program of LA Dance Project at the Ace Hotel theater downtown, again drawing a trendy crowd of revelers.

Smartly, he brought back William Forsythe's masterwork, "Quintett," this time with different dancers than those seen two years ago at Disney Hall. But if not quite as breath-catchingly intense they were also able, as couples, to unearth an incidental intimacy, striking deeply familiar nuggets almost too rare to find in all the copious choreographic flailings before us.

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Aaron Carr and Julia Eichten in "Quintett."

Gavin Byars' score, a profound stimulus to the work, wraps itself around a weary vagrant's voice softly rasping "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet" -- emotionally powerful enough to make you cry. And Forsythe, we've learned, seemingly vented on his young wife's impending death as he made this dance. The pity here, is that the Ace's sound system practically blitzed -- hearing the words was impossible.

But what comes across loud and clear is Forsythe's singular separation from a host of current choreographers who embrace an ethos of body mechanics parading as dance. (More on that later.)

Millepied's own piece on the bill, "Untitled," as generic as its title, took Philip Glass' typically energetic, driving music as its basis -- and was much in the vein of Twyla Tharp's "In the Upper Room," also to upbeat Glass. These coordinates are great audience-pleasers and the crowd went predictably wild.

But Emanuel Gat's "Morgan's Last Chug" tried harder to be substantive, even describing it in hyper-intellectual gobbledygook-ese as "a study on layered temporality." And, my god, his collage score included a monologue from "Krapp's Last Tape" (which we couldn't hear), excerpts from a Purcell opera and Glenn Gould playing Bach.

Happily, the Israeli choreo is more earnest than showy. Along the way, with dancers pulled into body knots intermingled with spasmodic circles and angles, Gat even quotes a José Limón gesture from "The Moor's Pavane." Nice to know all dance-makers were not born yesterday.

And then there was Batsheva, part of a curious Israeli influx here this season. Stopping on a 50th anniversary tour, the Tel Aviv company touched down at Royce Hall and gave us a prime example of choreographic currency -- namely director Ohad Naharin's "Sahed21," a 75-minute series of vignettes that mainly display body contortions.

What saved the work from an interminable display of Naharin's "gaga" exercises -- one dancer after another demonstrating self-styled, pretzel-like articulations, then sloppily padding offstage, bad posture and all ("naturalness," folks) -- was the male chorus line that reflected a poetic personal-ness.

Oh, yes, there were sexy moments, too, when gorgeous young things did some virtuosic maneuvers in their skimpy little tank suits. But all was lost when we got a solo of vocal autism, a tall skinny man standing alone and croaking unintelligible gibberish at the top of his lungs.

To think that Batsheva began all those decades ago with a Martha Graham imprimatur, went on to a ballet sensibility, and now entertains Human Detachment as a focus is mind-boggling. It's as though we have gone from dance as an artistic expression to its mere physicalization.

November 4, 2014

Millard Sheets mural moving to the Huntington

LAO-SHEETSMURALBEFORE-USETHIS.jpgMillard Sheets is known for creating very public art, including murals for schools, government buildings and, of course, Home Savings branches. One mural he painted for a private setting -- the dining room of a house in the Hollywood Hills -- soon will be seen at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

The Southern California landscape was commissioned in 1934 by homeowners Fred H. and Bessie Ranke. It was donated last year by current owners Larry McFarland and M. Todd Williamson. The piece, which the artist signed and dated, had "undergone excellent care" and was in good shape, according to Jessica Todd Smith, chief curator of American art. "The question was how to get it out of the house."

Fortunately, she says, Sheets had painted on Sanitas -- "kind of a fine-weave wall covering" -- and tests showed its original adhesive could be removed. "In this case, drying glue was our friend."

LAO-CONSERVEMURAL-USETHIS.jpgDuring a painstaking process that took several weeks last fall, the artwork was slipped off the walls in sections, rolled onto cylinders (the bigger the better to reduce creasing) and sent to the conservation lab, where it's being lined, stabilized and mounted.

Besides moving the mural, says Smith, "We had to figure out how to take something in a room of one scale and put it into a room of another. The nice thing about Sheets is that he used a relatively consistent horizon line throughout LAO-ROLLUP-USETHIS.jpgand addressed the top with a simple band of blue ... Even without the pieces above doors and windows, the composition still reads beautifully."

Smith describes the painting as "elegant," adding that it "captures Sheets' affinity for the California landscape and ability to create an evocative sense of place." Displayed on panels that together measure about 46 feet wide by seven feet, it will reside in the boardroom in the new education and visitor center, which is set to open next year.

The Huntington's holdings also include a Sheets lithograph and other materials related to the prolific Pomona-born artist, architectural designer and educator, who died at 81 in 1989.

Top photo: The mural in the dining room of a Hollywood Hills home / Photo by Tim Street-Porter

Bottom photos: Conservators prepare for transfer / Courtesy of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

October 24, 2014

Deborah Strang on her 'lovely, crazy' life in the theater*

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Deborah Strang in "Tartuffe," left, and "Come Back, Little Sheba" last spring / Photos by Craig Schwartz

In more than two decades with A Noise Within, Deborah Strang has played a shrew, a stage manager, a fairy queen, a pompous wench, an earthy innkeeper, a jilted bride, a jealous sister and a host of wives and mothers silly, grieving, fierce and fragile.

ANW being a rotating repertory company, Strang has sometimes performed two of these roles in the same week -- or even weekend. "It's the ideal for an actor," she says. "It brings out the creative juices. You don't get any sleep and you don't have time for friends, spouses or extracurricular activities, but it's a heady, fantastic experience."

Currently, the versatile veteran is appearing in her 70th Noise Within production, starring as the magician Prospero in "The Tempest" through Nov. 22. "I've done all the mother parts so now I'm playing men," she jokes during a recent interview at the Pasadena theater. Why so many moms? Timing. "I was in my 40s when I started here and I'm in my 60s now." She doesn't hesitate to mention her age -- or to declare her preference for "my more natural head shot" in which wisps of graying hair set off soulful blue eyes. "I'm happy with the way I look."

strangheadshot-use.jpgStrang also is happy she's made her home with the classics-centric troupe led by Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. The native of little Big Stone Gap, Va., worked in New York and Boston before arriving in L.A. in 1989. Three years later, she debuted with ANW during its early days in Glendale. Strang's credits include film and television, but her main focus is the stage, where she's earned acclaim for her skill and range. (She just won a 2014 Ovation award for her performance in "Come Back, Little Sheba.") Offstage, she teaches and runs the box office -- which is more than a day job: "I'm a better actor because I really get to know my audience."

"I also keep learning more about myself thanks to people here who know me so well they push me to keep growing." A few years ago, she recalls, "I asked not to be included in Alfred Jarry's 'Ubu Roi' because absurdist theater isn't my thing. Of course, no one paid attention to me." Director Rodriguez-Elliott cast her and then suggested she begin the show sitting on a toilet. "I said, 'Are you kidding?' Well, it turned out to be so liberating. After you start out on a toilet with your pants down, you can do anything."

Here are some other memories and musings from Strang's "lovely, crazy" life in the theater:

Above: Photo by Daniel Reichert Photography


Preparing a role

lao-ubu.jpg "The bulk of my work is done in rehearsal," says Strang, who likens her approach to "jumping on a bucking horse and bucking around until I settle in."

"For contemporary works, like William Inge or Tennessee Williams, I read the play and the playwright's biography and research the period, but I like to be loose enough to respond to what happens in rehearsal." Her Bard prep is more text-based. "I spend a lot of time with the script, scanning everything I say for the meter and looking up every word. Shakespeare offers my most challenging parts. It's like singing an aria."

Above: "Ubu Roi" (2006) with Alan Blumenfeld / Photo by Craig Schwartz


Performing two roles

"Doing more than one play at a time, creating more than one character is like working out double time. You develop -- I stole this word from Geoff -- muscularity and the ability to pull out any actor tool at any moment." Strang compares the theater to baseball. "Every night, you get up to the plate and try to be as present as possible. I'm going to miss some, but I always give it my best shot. I try to imagine each show is important to somebody in the audience. It's their anniversary or this was the first play they saw as a kid."

Last spring, Strang portrayed a saucy servant in Moliere's "Tartuffe" and a disillusioned housewife in Inge's "Sheba." "That rep was really challenging because these are extremely complicated characters. Plus, 'Tartuffe' has rhyming couplets and language you have to wrap your brain around and 'Sheba' is such an emotional journey."

Usually, she says, it's easy to avoid mixing up plays. "By the time you are dressed and hear the pre-show music you are in that world." Once, however, "we were doing two Hellmans. In 'Another Part of the Forest,' I played the mother of the character I played in 'The Little Foxes.' I put on my makeup and was about to go on as the mother when I looked in the mirror and said, 'What's wrong? I'm too pretty!' It turned out I'd made myself up as the daughter."

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With Geoff Elliott in "O Pioneers!" (2003), left, and "The Chairs" (2011) / Photos by Craig Schwartz


Leading men

"Geoff and I have performed together so many times he's been my son, my husband, my lover, my sworn enemy, my father and my slave. [Elliott is Caliban in "The Tempest."] I know I can try anything with him, especially during rehearsal. I wouldn't normally haul off and slap an actor without asking permission. But I could slap Geoff and he would take it and respond and then I could respond. It's a wonderful way to work. Our history, in real life and onstage, is part of every part we create together."

A Noise Within also has given Strang opportunities to act with her partner of more than 30 years, Joel Swetow. "Onstage, there is a sexuality, a trust and a love that can be completely released because we are lovers. Then, at night, we go home and spend all of our time talking about the play."


What's next

"This spring," says Strang, "we're putting on 'REVOLUTIONRep,' two plays in the same day with dinner in the middle. I'm going to be Mrs. Peachum in 'Threepenny Opera.' I have no idea what I'll be doing in 'Julius Caesar.'" She stops and smiles, clearly relishing the prospect of performing Brecht/Weill and the Bard back to back. "It should be lots of fun."

This post has been updated to include Strang's winning a 2014 Ovation award Nov. 2.

October 23, 2014

Encountering Encuentro

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Jose Guerrero and Marialuisa Burgos in "Enrique's Journey," from Su Teatro.

Eight years ago, after the city of Los Angeles awarded a contract to manage Los Angeles Theatre Center to the Latino Theater Company, the Spring Street venue was marketed as "the new LATC." But the "new" was dropped in 2009, judging from the last post on the Facebook page that had been named "The New LATC."

Still, as I lounged in the LATC lobby between shows of the Encuentro festival over the weekend, I began to wonder if the "new" should be revived. That legendary lobby - which was the Grand Central Station of innovative LA theater in the late '80s - has been given a 21st-century makeover, with the addition of some comfortable sofas and handy coffee tables and snazzy lighting. The space now looks like a hip hotel lobby or - when a party is in session, as it was on the opening night of the festival last Thursday -- a nightspot similar to those that have cropped up in the gentrified neighborhood just outside the LATC doors.

Of course the free drink chits that were handed out with at least some of the Encuentro tickets and the free coffee, cappuccino and lattes that were dispensed in the lobby during much of the weekend may have contributed to that impression.

Sometimes LATC still seems to suffer from the previously bleaker reputation of its downtown neighborhood in the '80s. I occasionally encounter Angelenos, even some theater-loving Angelenos, who haven't been back to that area since then, apparently unaware of how much it has changed. There were plenty of unsold seats at the six Encuentro productions I attended over the weekend.

In case any of those Spring Street-shy Westsiders or Valley-istas need more lures to the LATC area, I should mention that theatergoers can now cross the street and buy terrific tacos for $2.50 each at the newest (since August) branch of Guisados, followed by dessert at the acclaimed Uli Gelateria next door.

But the onstage fare, not the offstage food and drink, is what really matters at LATC. I can't report that everything on the Encuentro stages is wonderful, but from now through November 10 there is certainly a lot more to choose from than there has been at LATC in recent years - 15 companies from LA and the rest of the United States (the festival also includes two productions by local companies elsewhere in LA.)

Almost all of the material is Latino-oriented. But that common theme is expressed in a wide variety of different styles, about widely disparate subjects.

And isn't it about time that LA got a concentrated dose of Latino theater? According to the Census Bureau, LA County's population was 48 percent Latino in 2013. But I would guess that the proportion of LA's professional theater offerings that deal with Latino characters or themes is much closer to 4.8 percent. Any discussion of how to grow LA theater audiences should consider this factor.

This imbalance appears to operate more or less on all levels of LA theater - large, midsize, small - although the fact that the Latino Theater Company itself operates in LATC's three midsize spaces might make the proportion of Latino-oriented productions in LA theater's midsize sphere just a little higher than it is in the larger and smaller arenas.


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Evelina Fernandez and Sal Lopez in "Premeditation." Photo: Ed Krieger


Of the six Encuentro productions I saw over the weekend, by far the most entertaining is the entry from the host, Latino Theater Company's "Premeditation." I wrote about it during its first run in this same space last April 29, pointing out that its noir-flavored story of contemporary middle-aged marital discord is "a delirious farce," not the earnest psychodrama that the subject might suggest.

I welcomed the chance to see it again, and I left the theater marveling over the precision of Jose Luis Valenzuela's direction, the award-worthy design components, and the vitality of each of the four performances, including that of playwright Evelina Fernandez..

"Premeditation" is very LA-oriented, but it doesn't look at the East Side, the media's favorite habitat for Latinos in LA. One character is a professor (as is Valenzuela) at UCLA, and much of the action takes place at "the Shangri-La Hotel" - the one in Santa Monica?

Another Encuentro production, Emilio Williams' "Your Problem With Men," from Teatro Luna in Chicago, also attempts to ignite comic voltage on the subject of female/male relationships - in the same downstairs LATC space. According to the program, it too is set in LA, although that designation feels as if it were tacked on for the LA run. A brief reference to Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood betrays the play's real roots.

Williams and director Alexandra Meda are examining their subject from a younger generation's perspective, with a dash of meta-theatricality. As in "Premeditation," a lot of attention is devoted to design and movement. But the results aren't nearly as propulsive or as polished as those of "Premeditation." Centered on the romantic woes of a young and very neurotic woman, "Your Problem with Men" is shorter than "Premeditation" but seems longer.

Encuentro is hardly all comedy, all the time. Of the more "serious" productions I saw, the best is "Juárez: A Documentary Mythology," from Theater Mitu in New York. It's a non-fiction piece, based on interviews in one particular city, somewhat in the spirit of Tectonic Theater Project's "Laramie" projects and the Civilians' "This Beautiful City" (which was about the evangelical movement in Colorado Springs, seen at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2008.)

juarez-ds.jpgUnlike those other shows, however, the genesis of this one has a more personal history - Mitu artistic director Rubén Polendo was raised in Juárez, the one-time "murder capital of the world," across the Rio Grande from El Paso. He inserts fond memories and scratchy home movies from his youth, amid the more recent material about the violence in his home town and the economic reasons for it.

Yet apart from his personal narration, the storytelling is somewhat less personal than in those other shows. In the script's stage directions, Polendo says the actors the actors attempt to "transmit" and "witness" the material instead of embodying or "emoting" it. The design is fluid, projection-oriented and often ingeniously theatrical instead of representational. Of course, much of the material is grim, but the script ends with a ray of hope.

Another fact-based drama with a Rio Grande component is "Enrique's Journey," from Su Teatro in Denver. If the title sounds familiar, it's probably because reporter Sonia Nazario and photographer Don Bartletti originally told the story of a young Honduran man's repeated attempts to cross the U.S. border to join his long-absent mother in the Los Angeles Times, in 2002. Both of the journalists won Pulitzers for their work.

Anthony J. Garcia's stage adaptation is especially timely in the wake of the recent wave of immigration from Honduras and its neighbors. A lot of material had to be condensed, and all of the actors except Jose Guerrero's Enrique play more than one role, but the narrative is clear, if not exactly concise. For those who don't remember the original story, the most surprising and provocative element is the ending, which isn't quite as happy-ever-after as you might be expecting.

I don't recommend the other two Encuentro shows I saw. Coincidentally, they're both set in the early '50s. Karen Zacarias' "Mariela in the Desert," from Aurora Theatre in Georgia, is a listless drama about an artistic couple - long past their glory days - who are more or less decaying in a remote home in northern Mexico. Javier Antonio Gonzalez' "Zoetrope: Part 1," from Caborca Theatre in New York, is about a Puerto Rican couple who are driven apart when he goes to New York and she stays behind. Major turns in the "Zoetrope" narrative are strangely unexplained or unmotivated, and the 21st-century Wooster Group-influenced technique is a mismatched veneer when applied to the text's use of early '50s realism.

The productions I saw in Encuentro handle the English/Spanish bilingual question in different ways. "Premeditation" is virtually all-English. But when a production or a particular performance is primarily in Spanish, supertitles insure accessibility for English-only readers.

The festival continues through November 10, with four additional productions opening at LATC at the end of October. Meanwhile, a Latino-cast "Julius Caesar" at Casa 0101, playing through November 16, is also part of Encuentro.

October 18, 2014

Australians bring a feather-free 'Swan Lake,' plus Mahler's Fifth

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Australian Ballet, photo by Lisa Tomasetti


There it was: Tchaikovsky's wondrous score, "Swan Lake," its familiar strains being played impressively by hand-picked local members of the pit orchestra and led by Nicolette Fraillon.

But what was that onstage at the Music Center Pavilion, courtesy of the Australian Ballet? Surely not the full-length masterwork that goes by the same name. Not the fairy tale kingdom that pre-supposes the moon-drenched mythic fantasy to come. Surely not the tragedy of a prince's quest for idealized love, only to get tripped up by human frailty.

No, choreographer Graeme Murphy has re-fashioned the story and re-ordered the music. It's now an everyday domestic drama, sort of a sordid soap opera with a sexualized prologue (bare-chested man and femme fatale in an acrobatic clinch.) But it did advertise itself truthfully, promising ticket-buyers a chance to see "the Jilted Princess" and "the Philandering Royal."

Along the way we get a mad scene with the heroine straight out of "Giselle" and later as Blanche when the asylum doctor and his attendants carry her off à la "Streetcar Named Desire" and even plunk her in a tub for some hydrotherapy ("Snakepit"?)

Now understand I'm not one to scream "defilement!" at all passing re-creations of a classic. Remember, there was Matthew Bourne's flinty opus, a "Swan Lake" steeped in rip-snorting socio-political satire. But his characters' epic conflicts were equal to those of the original narrative.

With the Australians we get plenty of entertainment -- the opening act was afloat in Kristian Fredrikson's deliciously cream-colored Edwardian costumes, all parasols and cutaway coats, suffused in warm lighting, and Murphy's winning choreography that supported the look. Strangely, though, he dropped the motif, as if its value was purely for pretty décor (and the chance to invoke Tudor's freeze-frame from "Jardin aux Lilas.") In the third act men wore contemporary tuxedoes.

But the "white" scenes -- those moonlit lakesides with a massed swan-corps spectacle -- were not so white. Also, they had no otherworldly aura, no ephemeral mystique. Short tutus were abandoned for knee-length shaggy skirts, which pulled the shade on leggy choreographic expression.

And nothing remained of the Act 2 pathos, that yearning-filled pas de deux, accompanied by a sorrowful violin solo and set up in Petipa's perfect steps -- they reveal the wounded bird Odette, who yearns, in her partner's arms, for the curse to lift so she could become a woman again. Arguably, there's no more intimate or classically gorgeous duet than this collaboration between the original choreographer and composer.

You will not see it here. But you can at Royce Hall this weekend with Los Angeles Ballet's most honorable and pristine "Swan Lake."

The Australians do boast a terrific company, though. Not only in Madeleine Eastoe as an Odette who carried out every role aspect assigned to her, and danced with alacrity, point and precision, along with Lana Jones, the character here named Baroness von Rothbart, who personified the seductive villain.

Poor Kevin Jackson, though, as Siegfried, was left to writhe in expressionistic torment throughout his two long solos, torn between dedication to his bride Odette and the evil temptress, with an awkward pas de trois thrown in for good measure.

Luckily, across the street we had the LA Philharmonic playing Mahler -- with deep love. Gustavo Dudamel loves Mahler, too, and began his career winning a big conductor's prize addressing the symphonic hero of our time. All this is known.

But few knew just how fabulous the outcome would be when our resident podium chief and his band feasted on the Fifth for their first concert this fall in Disney Hall.

I, for one, was gobsmacked by the performance. It seemed to lift off from the planet, because of who was doing what how. Understand, we're talking about Mahler, who could landscape both the 20th century's edge of social decay and its unshatterable joy, skirt the manic and the depressive with a musical quotient of genius, and who, according to Herbert Glass's astute program note, "composed emotion" while others might have "sublimated emotion."

The orchestra expressed all that Dudamel seemingly digested of Mahler. It delivered the haunted, nostalgic aftermath of crashing upheaval and the buoyant cheer so robust and gorgeous, and the waltzing ritards that led to combustion. There was no mistaking the depths of these sullied good times.

Especially, as the dancing-est maestro ever, Dudamel laid into other 3/4-time phrases with a washed-out drunken-ness -- one of them a darkly schmaltzy, world-wise theme with burnished low-note strings.

Gustavo-Dudamel-Hanauer.jpgThe brass, the best I've ever heard in the Phil, and led by trumpeter Thomas Hooten and hornist Andrew Bain, nailed their highly exposed passages dead on, strong, svelte and smooth-toned. And the whole orchestra, every section, locked together like one giant gyrating engine, all its components in mobile force, leaning inward, pumping to life, storming the heavens. To watch principal violist Carrie Dennis, alone, would have explained to a deaf person the music's vibrant thrust.

But there was another universe, to boot, occupying Disney Hall at the concert's start-- an unlikely one that seemed displaced, an ascetic one, courtesy of composer David Lang, with orchestra players dutifully plucking a single string from time to time. It shared not a shred of musical habitat with the Mahler that followed.

The piece, "man made," refers to various found instruments and was commissioned following Lang's justly deserved Pulitzer for his "little match girl passion," which has a theatrical framework. But when the soloists here, a quartet named So Percussion, sat up front snapping twigs while the Phil sat idly as a bystander, the whole thing seemed like a deprivation ritual.

A complete departure from ritual marked the joyous folkloric adventure of South Africa's Isango Ensemble, which touched down at the Broad Stage with its rendition of Mozart's "Magic Flute." Just for navigation purposes substitute the trumpet for the flute and you'll get the idea.

Which is, that Mozart, who adored improvisation, would likely have cheered on music arranger/conductor/instrumentalist Mandisi Dyantis in his trumpet riffs which made perfect sense of the composer's little singspiel and greatly added to the robust fun of it.

Now I can't use the word pristine, but this romp of a stagework, adapted by Mark Dornford-May, does light up the soul. Just to hear the overture's tunes and rhythms tapped out by the marimba band and and Wha Wha Mhlekazi's tenor voice singing Tamino with exactly the perfect timbre was pleasure enough. And if Zamile Gantano, as a Zero Mostel of a Papageno, couldn't manage to sing a single measure on pitch, well, it didn't matter, so instantly lovable was he.

Kudos to the Broad, the most inviting theater west of Beverly Hills. Its stage, whether for dance or music, is ideal -- especially for voices not big enough to carry at a 4,000-seat Metropolitan Opera, for instance.

October 11, 2014

Wanted: playwrights who walk the line between unpredictability and implausibility

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Jennifer Ruckman as Katha and Robert M. Lee as Ryu in "Maple & Vine." Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

Here I examine five current productions in which the writers freshened material with surprising what-if twists, departing from conventional expectations but also managing to avoid falling into unconvincing or even inchoate fantasylands.

Of course whenever I start writing about "unexpected" developments in narratives, I run the risk of revealing too much. I'll try to restrain myself from telling all, but let that last sentence serve as one comprehensive spoiler alert.

I saw two plays by Jordan Harrison on a recent Saturday - first, "Marjorie Prime" at the Mark Taper Forum, then "Maple & Vine" at Chance Theater in Anaheim.

"Marjorie Prime" imagines a world in which "primes" -- virtual hologram-like replications of dead individuals -- are thoroughly briefed on the backgrounds of the deceased and then allowed to converse with the surviving loved ones. If those survivors are losing their memories, supposedly these conversations will provide a measure of consolation, as well as mental stimulation.

The idea is "Twilight Zone" material, and it works on that level to a limited extent, especially when the last remaining living individual checks out of the play -- and the primes are left to talk among themselves.

Marjorie and her prime are played by octogenarian Lois Smith. As Susan King pointed out in an LA Times interview, it's gratifying to see the two Center Theatre Group spaces at the Music Center occupied by plays featuring women in their '80s -- next door is "The Road to Bountiful," with Cicely Tyson. But Smith isn't the star of "Marjorie Prime" as much as Tyson is of "Bountiful," and most theatergoers will find "Bountiful" a more bountiful experience.

Harrison's other replication-oriented play, "Maple & Vine" at the Chance, is much livelier than "Marjorie Prime." Two Manhattan professionals, young and stressed, decide to escape by moving to a planned community that seeks to strictly duplicate suburban life in the '50s. Complications ensue, especially because they're an Asian/white couple, but also because their mentor has a big secret. The satirical strokes are broad but effective and, often, funny.

The biggest unanswered question is why the Asian-American doctor is assigned to manual labor -- wouldn't such a community want another doctor, no matter his racial background? A few more characters could help flesh out "Maple & Vine," but it certainly achieves a degree of entertaining provocation.

Outrageous comedies often require more suspension of disbelief than other plays, and one of the more common conventions in this genre is the character whose biological parents are mysteriously unknown -- for reasons outside the confidentiality strictures of modern adoptions.

One of the classics in this genre is, of course, Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," in which the identity of Jack's parents is finally revealed after decades, along with a half-dozen other comic strands ingeniously knitted together. Michael Michetti's revival at A Noise Within is currently milking maximum merriment out of Jack's dilemma -- and Wilde's acerbic epigrams. Clad in Garry Lennon's dandified creations, Adam Haas Hunter's Algernon is the most memorable character here, but the others are just as good, if not quite as picturesque.

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Adam Haas Hunter as Algernon Moncrieff in "The Importance of Being Earnest." Craig Schwartz.

Another classic that employs the unknown parent/child trope is Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale." Craig Wright's American adaptation of it, "Melissa Arctic," now at the Road Theatre on Magnolia (in NoHo), rewrites the convention as well as the social status of the characters.

They are no longer royalty -- the play is now set in 1970 and 1988 in Minnesota. So the jealous husband is unable to do whatever he wants with his wife's newborn child.

Wright gets away with making the original play's miraculous ending slightly less miraculous. He also adds a few songs -- not enough for this to be considered a musical, but enough to add extra resonance to certain moments. And he personifies the character of Time as a girl who silently watches the human beings huff and puff their way through life.

Director Scott Alan Smith has nurtured mostly vital performances, and the experience is a moving retort to anyone who has been baffled by the original play's jagged edges.

Finally, a word about "Affluence," Steven Peterson's new play at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, staged by Larry Eisenberg. It begins as a rather broad family comedy about the recessionary woes of the affluent, but it then pivots into a psychological suspense thriller. I won't reveal anything else, but the drastic turn in the narrative is not only surprising but also believable, adding extra dimension to the material. My only disappointment is that "Affluence," which won an award from the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild before it was even produced, isn't explicitly set in Beverly Hills.

September 25, 2014

Imagine there's no 99-seat plan (apologies to John Lennon)

The minimum wage is generating maximum discussion. And now the buzz about it has spread beyond the president and Mayor Garcetti and workers in fast-food chains and hotels - into the world of LA theater.

Much of LA theater rests on the efforts of actors and other workers who are paid considerably less than the current minimum wage - let alone the higher minimums that appear to be waiting in the wings.

This is the freshest angle emphasized on the new website Re-Imagine LA Theatre, which attempts to kickstart a discussion of the steps necessary to construct a better-paying, more professional, higher-profile LA theater scene.

In the website's "legal addendum," several attorneys' legal opinions and current investigations are cited that raise questions about the vulnerability of LA theater in general and its widely used 99-Seat Theater Plan in particular to legal challenges for violation of minimum-wage laws.

Meanwhile, Actors' Equity has announced plans to survey its LA members and hold focus groups in order to learn about more members' thoughts about LA theater, as part of a "focused campaign to bring live theater to the forefront in Los Angeles."

Of course it's no secret that Equity's LA-specific 99-Seat Theater Plan allows union members in tiny theaters to be paid as little as $7 per performance - and nothing for rehearsals. Although many small productions pay more than that minimum, no actor ever presumes to make a living wage by appearing in 99-seat Plan productions.

It's likely that most 99-Seat Plan producers support the concept of the minimum wage - in fast-food franchises and hotels. But they haven't exactly rallied around the concept of a minimum wage at their theaters.

Behind the Plan and its 1972-88 predecessor (originally known as "Equity Waiver") was the assumption that LA is overstocked with skilled actors and that most of them would rather work on stage - even for no money (or, starting in 1988, for minimal money) - because at least they might be seen by TV/movie execs who might hire them for better-paying screen jobs.

Nowadays, this "showcase" aspect underlying the 99-Seat Plan is widely denied and denigrated by many of the actors and producers themselves. They swear that the play, not the potential pay, is the thing that drives them to do 99-seat theater. It's a calling, not a get-rich-quick scheme.

And it's true that as a showcase, 99-seat theater is hardly a guaranteed road to riches. Yes, a few of the actors in it probably get noticed by better-playing employers - but what's the percentage of regular 99-seat actors who get a big, lucrative break via 99-seat work? I imagine that it's a lot lower than the percentage of regular 99-seat actors who burn out after four or five years in the 99-seat trenches.

Actors often stop doing 99-seat theater not only because of the paltry pay, but also because 99-seat theater -- as astonishingly good as it sometimes gets -- seldom has enough seats or enough marketing resources to convince enough of the LA public that it's anything other than a showcase, or a hobby, or a workshop. And it's even more difficult to make that case to tourists or anyone else living outside LA. My impression is that most Angelenos and almost everyone outside LA who has ever heard about 99-seat theater still assume that it's primarily a showcase - no matter what the actors themselves believe.

Re-Imagine LA Theatre - a "call to action" signed initially by 46 LA theater practitioners -- delves into this quaqmire with useful information about the corresponding plans for the lowest tier of Equity-affiliated production in New York and San Francisco, pointing out that other alternatives exist. The website's authors delineate the differences in (non-showcase) goals among various users of the 99-Seat Plan - some artist-oriented groups are mainly trying to develop new work, but others are actively trying to reach wider audiences with more finished results. A "one-size-doesn't-fit-all" plan can't meet everyone's needs, according to Re-Imagine LA Theatre.

Essentially, a major overhaul - or a breakup - of the Plan is what's being proposed here.

And it soon becomes clear - although Re-Imagine LA Theatre isn't too explicit about spelling it out - that such an overhaul would result in the more ambitious, audience-oriented 99-seat companies gradually evolving into midsize companies.

Over the years, I have repeatedly (ad nauseam, anyone?) tried to draw more attention to the midsize theaters - those that have already clawed their way out of the 99-seat murk and now operate on more costly Equity contracts, as well as those that always have used contracts. Although even these existing midsize theaters, as a group, probably aren't in a position to pay any particular actor a real living wage, they represent a big step up in the professionalization of LA theater. For audiences, they generally offer most of the intimacy of 99-seat spaces without the risk that actors might suddenly desert the production for more lucrative work -- and without the potential guilt about exploiting cheap labor.

Unfortunately, most of these midsize companies haven't achieved enough public support that would allow them to hire larger casts with any regularity. And as a group, they barely register in public consciousness, finding themselves overshadowed not only by LA's relatively few bigger companies but also by the larger total of 99-seat companies as a group. LA Times critic Charles McNulty pays hardly any attention to the midsize theaters. The LA Weekly has traditionally emphasized the 99-seaters because its annual awards are limited to 99-seaters. Nor do the Ovation Awards acknowledge them as an individual category, lumping them in with the much bigger-budgeted "larger" theaters, while the 99-seaters receive special recognition as "intimate" theaters.

If, indeed, LA theater is "re-imagined" to the point that more 99-seat companies vow to grow beyond the 99-Seat Plan, what else will they need, beyond more recognition by the media?

Money. And space.

Obviously they will need well-connected development directors who will know how to beat the bushes for funding, private and public. Specifically, in LA, there is a perennial question of why more support for theater doesn't come from the film/TV industries - but of course the challenge is to find execs in those industries who, while fondly recalling the benefits of their own roots in the theater, will nevertheless refrain from expecting the theater to necessarily serve their own commercial purposes.

Of course midsize theaters could benefit from cooperative government officials. Certainly the LA County Arts Commission's hope to build a new 299-seat theater on the Ford Amphitheatre grounds would be a great way for the county government to abet the "re-imagining" effort.

But building new theaters is expensive. It often drains money away from producing theater. So any such evolution of LA theater would probably also require existing midsize facilities to be used more often, and more frequently shared.

I'm thinking about the three midsize venues at Los Angeles Theatre Center, which is now in the middle of the lively neighborhood that its original founders once envisioned. How about the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center on Washington Boulevard and Vision Theatre in Leimert Park (though some of Vision's 750 seats might have to be roped off to fit midsize contracts)? Why hasn't Barnsdall Art Park been used by any significant runs of local theater companies since Independent Shakespeare left?

Would the Colony in Burbank or International City Theatre in Long Beach be open to hosting productions from other companies? El Portal's midsize space in NoHo keeps fairly busy with seemingly commercial fare, but might it be able to serve as a space for nonprofit LA productions?

Center Theatre Group's Michael Ritchie once vowed to open the midsize Kirk Douglas Theatre to other LA groups, and he managed to do it more than once. But why is the CTG-commissioned musical satire "The Behavior of Broadus" currently delighting audiences at the little Sacred Fools Theater instead of the Douglas?

Whatever happened to Blank Theatre's plan to renovate an old Hollywood movie theater into a midsize legit theater? Remember how RADAR L.A. was able to transform the downtown Tower Theater into a midsize space during last year's festival? Shouldn't Broad Stage in Santa Monica and the Annenberg in Beverly Hills develop more relationships with local theater companies?

La Mirada Theatre, which usually has 1200 seats, has now produced two intimate midsize shows in which the smaller-than-usual audience is on the stage along with the actors. Could other larger venues adapt their stages for similar purposes, perhaps in conjunction with other LA companies?

I know I'm throwing all these possibilities into cyberspace without sufficiently investigating the prospects for any of them in particular. But in the spirit of Re-Imagine LA Theatre, let's start brainstorming - followed by some serious planning - and see where it takes us.

A 'LONG ROAD' BETWEEN 'TEMPEST'S. A KISS FOR 'KATE'?

Looking southeast from Los Angeles County, South Coast Repertory is currently demonstrating that it knows something about creating a new midsize space out of a found site. Last weekend and next weekend, Santa Ana's Civic Plaza - a few miles north of SCR's Costa Mesa campus -- has become the home of "The Long Road Today," or "El Largo Camino de Hoy," which can accommodate audiences of 300 at each performance.

The project is a free-of-charge alfresco adventure in which the audience is divided into four groups that rotate on foot to four sites within the complex, following aspects of a story about two Santa Ana families who are torn apart by a fatal traffic accident. Each of the four sets of scenes is narrated by a bilingual actor who personifies a character derived from loteria card imagery.

In the tradition of many a Cornerstone Theater production, Jose Cruz Gonzalez's "Long Road Today" script was constructed after many hours spent in story circles with Santa Ana residents. Despite all that research, the script is curiously sparse in specific stories about real Santa Anans, preferring to concentrate on lively music and dance and Sean Cawelti-designed puppets. One segment includes a number of historical photos from Santa Ana history, but they are devoid of any informative narration and therefore seem oddly irrelevant to the rest of the production.

The cast includes amateurs from the community as well as professionals - but performances aren't the problem. It's the script - and not only because it lacks details about real human beings, but also because it gets carried away by its own pageantry. Gonzalez and director Armando Molina apparently were either unwilling or unable to whittle away the excess.

Still, this project is a welcome move by SCR into a nearby neighborhood that usually isn't given much consideration at SCR's home base. And as a gesture that distinguishes SCR from its big rival to the northwest, it stands in stark contrast to Center Theatre Group's almost total disregard for LA (explored in my last column.)

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Edmund Lewis, Tom Nelis, Charlotte Graham, Joby Earle, Mike McShane and Dawn Didawick in "The Tempest" by William Shakespeare. Photo: Debora Robinson/SCR

Speaking of South Coast Rep, its production of "The Tempest" has attracted a lot of attention, primarily because of the magic introduced by co-director Teller into Shakespeare's script, a rowdy honky-tonk score by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, and a Caliban who is actually two actor/tumblers (Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee) who seem to be joined at the hip. Aaron Posner of "Stupid Fucking Bird" fame is the co-director. It closes this weekend.

A week after I saw it, I saw another but very different "Tempest" at A Noise Within in Pasadena, staged by Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. It lacks the SCR version's bells and whistles, but it takes much greater care to make Shakespeare's language fully accessible. Its female Prospero (Deborah Strang) is far more memorable than the male Prospero at SCR, and it has some evocative design elements that appear to be loosely inspired by Gauguin, as well as some haunting music and sound by Peter Bayne.

All things considered, I recommend SCR's version to seekers of magic and A Noise Within's to seekers of Shakespeare.

Also on the Shakespearean trail in Pasadena, Sheldon Epps' version of "Kiss Me, Kate," the backstage musical about a "Taming of the Shrew"-based musical, has just opened at Pasadena Playhouse. Epps has transformed the company in Cole Porter's 1948 original into an African-American company doing a black-oriented adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy. This is immediately evident in the very bluesy arrangements (the music director is Rahn Coleman) for "Another Opening, Another Show," which indeed kicks off the proceeding on a high note that isn't reached again until the opening of the second act, "Too Darn Hot" (the choreographer is Jeffrey Polk).

I guess that means I was a little disappointed in Wayne Brady as the leading man. His efforts, including his singing, are a little too effortful. But Merle Dandridge is an impossibly elegant and imposing figure in the title role, which makes us wince all the more when the story ends as it does -- no thanks to Shakespeare himself.

Edited post

September 21, 2014

A telling "Traviata" opens LA Opera season

traviata-mathews.jpgNino Machaidze as Violetta and Arturo Chacon-Cruz as Alfredo. Photo: Craig Mathew / LA Opera

"La Traviata" can withstand almost anything. It's nearly indestructible -- Verdi's brilliant work asks only: Can the cast sing and act reasonably well? Does the conductor observe the score's built-in drama. And do the director and designer allow the piece its storyline impact?

It hardly takes more than that -- and the audience bounded to its feet with noisy abandon when LA Opera brought it to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at last Saturday's season opener.

In fact, you can call this "Traviata" irresistible. Once again, Nino Machiadze -- who is to LA Opera what Anna Netrebko, that other Slavic soprano, is to the Met -- put another notch in her versatility chart in the starring role. (Remember her smartly ironic cartoon of a character in "Turk in Italy"? Her flamboyant Thaïs, her delicate Juliette?)

This time, when able to shed the production's flashy but wrong-headed guise of a 1920's flapper, she moves full-bore into the wrenching conflicts of Violetta, the rich Parisian libertine who never thought she could find love, but ultimately sacrifices her heart's desire in order to salvage his middle-class honor.

And savvy singer that she is, Machiadze (Mahk-ee-ahd-zee) hit all of the score's emotional targets spot on -- the coloratura glories of "Sempre libera" (that vivid declaration of free-will), the limpid tones of "Addio, del passato" (a backward glance of resignation) -- although it must be said that the drop-down from full-throated passion to long-lined soft singing of desolation was less than smooth.

In Marta Domingo's often-ridiculous staging, one of many permutations by the company chief's wife, this Violetta rose to the classic Romantic challenge, based on the 1846 social tragedy, "Lady of the Camellias" by Alexandre Dumas fils -- even while made to slink about in a clingy satin gown and feather boa like a good little vamp and arrive in a 1929 Chrysler limo to a makeshift garage party (that should have been her chandeliered salon.)

Never mind the clash between stern bourgeois codes of the time and the demi-monde counter-culture of glittery courtesans. Here, what clash?

But mostly the cast triad came through. Arturo Chacón-Cruz, a sweetly smitten Alfredo, looked the callow part and sang with delectably pleasing tone and a cry in his voice reminiscent of Jussi Björling. Plácido Domingo, the headliner, gave an object lesson in how not to be a stoic paterfamilias but rather a deeply pained father trying only to release his son from a fallen woman, however full of nobility and pathos she may be.

What remains unforgiven in this staging are the ignored capstones Verdi so carefully constructed.

In act two, Violetta has sorrowfully agreed to separate from Alfredo without telling him; the two stand in the study exchanging remarks, but apart. At the climactic moment before she goes on an errand the orchestral music accelerates in a crescendo leading to her outburst, "Amami, Alfredo" ("Love me, Alfredo"), but -- here -- she does not run across the room to embrace him, uttering these words for the last time. She's already been bopping around near him and is prematurely at his side. Dropped drama.

And in her famous death scene the tubercular heroine is supposed to be sickly weak. But here she jumps up and down, up and down from the bed -- so Verdi's drama also evaporates for that other well-known orchestral cue: a feverishly rapid scale of rhythmic urgency that signals Violetta's last breathless surge of strength, finally impelling her to her feet before collapsing. "Rinasce," she says, "I'm reborn." Anti-climactic here.

Elsewhere, while she sings "Ah, fors' è lui," the sort of self-questioning thing Hamlet utters, she gets bothered by a maid helping her on and off with a dressing gown -- so that the shmata action takes focus.

I almost wonder if Ms. Domingo ever listens to the music.

Surely not, if you hear the prelude -- music of tone-setting pathos that bears your undivided attention. But while James Conlon is conducting it she stages a vignette: street walkers picking up johns and one of them nearly doing a pole dance against a lamp post. Similarly, Flora's party scene opens with guests doing the charleston, no matter that Verdi's unsyncopated rhythms don't match.

Looking for a correction, one full of poetic insights? Rent the DVD "Becoming Traviata" with Natalie Dessay, whose director (Philippe Béziat) and conductor (Louis Langrée) lead the way in a creative montage of analytic rehearsal and performance.

Watch the trailer at IMDb.

September 15, 2014

Where's the LA in CTG? Not in the new season

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Playwright Paul Oakley Stovall. Photo: CTG.


In recent years, I've annually checked Center Theatre Group's plans for the upcoming seasons at its three venues, looking for evidence that "L.A.'s Theatre Company" - as CTG bills itself - plans to produce scripts that are set in or near LA.

Since my last report on this subject in the late LA Stage Times, I started writing for LA Observed. So perhaps it's even more appropriate now for me to measure the extent to which "L.A.'s Theatre Company" is observing LA.

CTG rolled out the schedule for the next season at its flagship Mark Taper Forum this past week, following previous announcements of the CTG seasons at the Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas theaters. So it's time to report the verdict:

Center Theatre Group still has hardly any interest in exploring its home town on its stages.

Only one play in the imminent seasons at CTG's three venues is explicitly set in LA - Culture Clash's "Chavez Ravine," scheduled to open at the smallest of the three, the Douglas, next February. And it's hardly brand-new -- it's a "new version" of the show that played the Taper in 2003 (with the same director, Lisa Peterson.)

CTG found room for two plays about squabbling siblings at family reunions in the upcoming Taper season. One of them, Paul Oakley Stovall's "Immediate Family," is also a new version of a show previously seen in LA - it was produced by the tiny Celebration Theatre in 2008 under the (uninspired) title "As Much As You Can." But it's set in Chicago, not LA. The other, "Appropriate," is set in Arkansas. Perhaps LA families don't squabble enough?

CTG's myopia about its own community - at least as displayed in its programming selections -- is arguably getting worse. Last year at this time, CTG had scheduled three solos that were at least partially set in LA and environs: "St. Jude" and "Rodney King" at the Douglas and "Buyer & Cellar" at the Taper.

In retrospect, that may have been a high point of CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie's interest in the community in which he and most of CTG's customers live.

Once upon a time, CTG's website vowed to produce programming that "reflects and informs our own community" through "stories inspired on our own streets." But that language was removed from the website two years ago.

This disregard for local content in CTG's programming is often accompanied by a disregard for using LA talent in CTG productions - which tends to rile LA theater artists (who of course have a vested interest) more than even the apathy toward LA content. None of the announced directors in the coming season has been drawn from the active LA directors' pool. CTG's current fave director seems to be Les Waters, who is preparing "Marjorie Prime" at the Taper right now and will stage two additional CTG shows before 2015 ends. He's the artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville. Still, general audiences probably don't care much about whether a director or an actor is local.

I prefer to concentrate on the absence of local content. If a theater examines its own area on its stages, its primary audience is likely to feel more of a proprietary interest in the programming - and less like generic patrons of the vast American nonprofit theater, with its many similar branches elsewhere. Theater takes place in one particular space and in one particular moment, in contrast to the electronic arts - so "local" should mean as much to CTG as it means in grocery stores and restaurants.

'RACE' and ''PARIS'

The next Douglas season actually began last weekend, with the opening of David Mamet's "Race." Its selection continues Ritchie's obsession with the later, lesser Mamet plays. This one opened on Broadway in 2009.

"Race" looks a lot like an episode of a TV lawyer show, with more profanity - but with no excursions into the lawyers' private lives or outside their office.

As the on-the-nose title indicates, Mamet is looking at the hidden ways in which tension between blacks and whites affects decisions made within this office, where two lawyers - one white, one black - are initially considering whether to take the case of a rich white man accused of raping a black woman. The fourth and most pivotal role is that of a younger black woman who apparently was hired as a paid intern or junior-associate-in-training.

The play is brief, and the characters are thinly drawn. They resemble talking heads and polemical pawns more than human beings. It all feels arid and somewhat contrived, especially in the wake of a recent and much more fleshed-out black-white-related saga that LA just experienced -- starring Donald and Shelly Sterling, V. Stiviano, Magic Johnson, etc. Now there is a local story that sounds like fodder for a lively play. But I guess that particular play is not yet written?

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Shon Fuller and L. Scott Caldwell star in the Colony Theatre production of "What I Learned in Paris." Photo: Michael Lamont


Pearl Cleage's "What I Learned in Paris," in its West Coast premiere at the Colony Theatre, also initially looks like a play about race. It's set on the heels of the 1973 election of Maynard Jackson as Atlanta's first black mayor. But Jackson is not a character, nor are there any white characters. Instead, Cleage - who worked on Jackson's campaign before she became a noted playwright - examines the immediate post-election behavior of two male and two female campaign workers, as well as a former Atlantan who's returning home.

The older man, a leader of Jackson's campaign, is about to marry the younger woman - but then his ex-wife shows up to re-claim her house, which has been in use as a campaign headquarters. The play emerges as a comedy about sex roles and partner choices - a very different goal from that of Mamet's treatise.

It's enjoyable enough, dominated by the vibrant presence of L. Scott Caldwell as the ex-wife who has returned from transformational adventures in California to become Atlanta's hostess with the mostest in Atlanta's interracial post-election future. It's fascinating to see how Cleage, who is black, downplays the role of race in her play - as opposed to Mamet, who is white and seemingly entangled in the most minute ramifications of race.

The two plays aren't at all similar in style - Cleage's is much longer and more successful at developing recognizably human characters. But occasionally Cleage goes through questionable narrative contortions in her quest to steer our attention away from race and back to gender.

It's fitting that "What I Learned in Paris" was first produced in Atlanta, where it's set. Of course, Angelenos also elected a black mayor in 1973 - Tom Bradley, who staged a comeback after a defeat by Sam Yorty four years earlier and went on to become LA's longest-serving (and only African-American) mayor.

From the perspective of just about any theater company in the LA area, the Bradley/Yorty campaigns would be much more exciting material than the post-election behavior of members of a campaign team in Atlanta. When will LA companies (and playwrights?) start delving more deeply into the LA-based drama that's at their doorsteps?

August 24, 2014

Arts window: Dance audition

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Melissa Barak concentrates during an audition Sunday for the Barak Ballet, at the Westside School of Ballet. Click the photo to enlarge. Photo by Judy Graeme.

August 21, 2014

Have you driven the Ford lately?

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Photos from the Ford Theatre website


An important LA venue is waiting in the wings. If it's built, it could become the most important new theater/dance-specific venue in LA since the construction of LATC three decades ago.

It's a 299-seat theater that would be part of a building that would replace the current south parking lot at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, overlooking the Cahuenga Pass in Hollywood.

Its most exciting feature is that it wouldn't be designed as the home of one particular company. It would be designed to serve as a steppingstone for a variety of smaller LA companies - theater and dance -- as they try to produce more ambitious, attention-getting shows, with more compensation for the artists.

This isn't a mere gleam in the eye of Laura Zucker, the executive director of the LA County Arts Commission, which operates the Ford. It's part of a proposed comprehensive upgrade of the Ford that already is the subject of an environmental impact statement, which is open to public scrutiny. But most of the money for the upgrade hasn't been approved.

I spent some time reading parts of that environmental impact statement, which makes a strong case that the project would respect the public park where it would be located. It would add a hiking trail behind the amphitheatre, but its new buildings (including increased parking) would arise only on already developed land. The statement analyzes concerns about earthquakes, traffic, noise, gnatcatchers and other subjects related to the area's physical environment in exhausting detail. It concludes that the impact of the project in these areas would be "less than significant" - in other words, it would be safe and green by most people's standards.

But the EIR doesn't address the impact that this project might have on LA's theatrical ecology. There, it could be "a game changer," Zucker says.

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For decades, too much of LA County theater has been barely noticed because it's mired in the stratum of sub-100-seat theaters, where the size of the audience is inherently small and most of the talent receives only paltry fees. Zucker and her husband, actor Allan Miller, used to run one such theater, the Back Alley in Van Nuys.

Meanwhile, a handful of larger companies (Center Theatre Group, Geffen Playhouse, Pasadena Playhouse, La Mirada Theatre, Musical Theatre West) and a few midsize groups (Shakespeare Center, Theatricum Botanicum, Falcon) receive much of the available institutional support from public and private sources.

In the last three decades, several once-smaller companies (LATC, Colony, East West, International City, A Noise Within, Independent Shakespeare) climbed out of the 99-seat arena into midsize venues with more appropriate compensation levels. But upon successfully completing that time-consuming and difficult process, most of their leaders haven't been eager to share their hard-won spaces with smaller companies on any regular basis, nor have they often shopped in LA's smaller theaters for productions that might move up the ladder.

According to Zucker, the 299-seater at the Ford would be intended specifically to move some of the city's better smaller productions to a position of greater prominence and endowment. Yet it would accomplish this goal without seriously reducing the intimacy that audiences usually expect in a sub-100-seat space.

The process of picking the spotlighted productions would generally follow in the footsteps of the process that previously allowed selected smaller companies - usually without any permanent homes of their own - to use the 87-seat [Inside] the Ford venue, which is located under the main Ford Amphitheatre. But that program - while appreciated by the recipients - didn't give those productions even half the attention they might have received at the 299-seat level.

Under the proposed upgrade of the complex, the current [Inside] the Ford would be converted into a self-service market for picnickers on the adjacent Edison Plaza (plus, perhaps, a small rehearsal facility), while its functions as a sub-100-seat venue would move to a new black-box space that would be included within a building that would arise on the north side of the Ford.

Back on the south side of the property, the new building that includes the 299-seat space would also feature a restaurant, several levels of parking and a park-like plaza on top.

Are you licking your chops yet, theater fans?

Of course there is that nagging question of how to pay for it. Zucker estimates that the entire upgrade could cost $130 million, of which $27.5 million has already been authorized by the county for ongoing improvements in the Ford amphitheater itself.

"We're not planning to go to the board for the whole enchilada," Zucker says. "We're planning to break it up into pieces over time." And surely no one would object to a private offer to pay for parts of the project. There's a reason why we remember the names Taper and Ahmanson so readily - they were donors whose names are now planted on other county-owned theaters.

The 299-seat theater should be considered an essential piece of this package, not a frill that could be delayed interminably. Unlike, say, the new restaurant or the parking garages or the hiking trail, it would fill a need that isn't currently being met anywhere else in the county.

It's important that theater lovers throughout the county make clear how important this project would be to the health of LA theater. Right now, it's especially essential to make sure that Sheila Kuehl and Bobby Shriver, the two candidates for the job of county supervisor in the district in which the Ford is located, are well aware of what's going on.

Kuehl apparently is already a believer in the proposal. On her website, she explicitly promises to "propose a funding program to implement the completion of the master plan for the Ford Amphitheatre, including new parking garages, a 299 seat theater, a restaurant and hiking trail. Funding must also include ongoing maintenance."

But Shriver doesn't specifically mention the Ford in a long statement about "the arts" on his website. He notes, however, that "the Supervisor for the Third District has traditionally led in building and maintaining our cultural infrastructure; I will continue that tradition." I'd feel a little more confident about that pledge if it were followed by a sentence that included the words "Ford" and "299-seat." Care to step up to the plate, Mr. Shriver?

August 15, 2014

Curator's guide: The Huntington expands on American art


Shreve & Co. silver vase and tray (c. 1904-7) with California landscapes / Photo: Tim Street-Porter

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens has expanded its American galleries yet again. With this summer's unveiling of five rooms displaying nearly 120 works -- all from the 20th century -- the home of "The Blue Boy" and other older British gems has affirmed its commitment to presenting pieces (including modern ones) from this side of the Atlantic.

For Jessica Todd Smith, chief curator of American art, more space means the chance not only to show more stuff but also to show it in ways that "fill in gaps," "broaden conversations," and spotlight "resonances," i.e., aesthetic and thematic connections. One example: "A Shreve silver vase that incorporates California flora has, depending on where you stand, a lovely backdrop of paintings representing the California landscape."

In our conversations, Smith offered some other thoughts about what you should know and see while visiting the new sections of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art.

The backstory

The expansion has added 5,400 square feet, enabling curators to exhibit several notable recent acquisitions, items that had been waiting in the wings and loans that, says Smith, "enhance our own collection, which is relatively young .... It has helped us explore the 20th century in greater depth as well as areas such as the art of California and the West."

She explains that the nearly century-old Huntington had some American works but didn't have a gallery dedicated to American art until 30 years ago. A gift in memory of philanthropist Scott included about 50 paintings and funds for a building, which opened in 1984. The San Marino institution's U.S. holdings now number more than 12,000 pieces. Over the years, the Scott complex has roughly tripled in size; the latest addition (converted from storage space) has increased the display area to about 21,000 square feet.


Eclectic array

Thumbnail image for lao-dove-august.jpg The first room features early 20th-century landscapes as well as objects such as the Shreve silver. (Smith says the galleries, which cover the colonial period to the 1980s, integrate fine and decorative arts and are arranged "thematically and loosely chronologically.") "The Long Leg," the c.1930 seascape by the realist painter Edward Hopper, has moved here. Joining it is the recently acquired "Lattice and Awning" (1941) by Arthur Dove, the nation's first major abstract painter. "The Dove adds a huge amount to the conversations we can have about artistic trajectory and landscape in the first half of the century," says Smith. "We also can have broader conversations about what was happening nationally because we include California and Western artists such as O'Keeffe and Dixon, along with Eastern artists such as Hopper and Sheeler."

Above: Arthur Dove's "Lattice and Awning" (1941) / The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens


Weston's gift

Edward Weston, one of the pioneers of modern American photography, made 500 prints of his work just for the Huntington. A rotation of selections from this trove -- many from the late 1930s -- will be exhibited in the second room during the next year. The initial lineup includes still lifes and images from the South, the Sierra and Southern California.


'Monumental and muscular'


Sargent Claude Johnson pipe-organ screen (1937) / The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens


A 1937 redwood pipe-organ screen by Sargent Claude Johnson dominates one wall of a room filled with what Smith calls "monumental and muscular" art from the '30s and beyond. The Huntington purchased the huge carved piece -- its first major artwork by an African American -- in 2011. Among its "resonant" companions, says Smith, are two paintings (one a loan) by African American artist Charles White and Reginald Marsh's "The Locomotive" (1935), which, like Johnson's screen, resulted from a government commission.


Geometric abstraction and pop art

Thumbnail image for lao-smith-august.jpgIn the fourth room, Smith suggests viewing Tony Smith's two-piece bronze "For W.A." (1969) with Frederick Hammersley's "See Saw" (1966). These acquisitions are "fine examples of geometric abstraction and minimalism nicely expressed in sculpture and painting." Also of note, she says, are a Smith painting, the Huntington's two Warhols and borrowed works by Ed Ruscha, Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson and John McLaughlin. The curator adds that "more painterly expressions of abstraction" such as Sam Francis' "Free Floating Clouds" are gathered nearby -- in one of three spaces adjoining new rooms that "underwent changes so we could refine themes in adjacent areas."

Above: Tony Smith's sculpture "For W.A." (1969) and Frederick Hammersley's painting "See Saw" (1966) / Photo: Tim Street-Porter


Rauschenberg's inspiration

The prolific and protean Robert Rauschenberg credited a visit to the Huntington in the '40s with inspiring him to become an artist. Smith says this connection and "resonances with the permanent collection" helped influence the Huntington's decision to acquire "Global Loft (Spread)" in 2012. The 1979 multi-image painting anchors the fifth room, complemented by prints lent by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.


Karen Wada is an L.A.-based writer and a former editor at the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles magazine. This is her first piece for LA Observed.

August 3, 2014

Dudamel does melodrama, National Ballet of Canada does downtown

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So who's on the opera conductor pantheon -- which includes the likes of Carlos Kleiber, Leonard Bernstein, James Levine? Now it's time to add Gustavo Dudamel. Even though this news, for a podium personality who has already achieved rock-star status, may not be enough to stop the presses.

But hold on. Before an audience of 10,300-plus at Hollywood Bowl our resident maestro and his LA Philharmonic once again took up the lyric muse -- previously they did the same at Disney Hall with the Mozart-DaPonte trilogy and in other summers other operas at Cahuenga Pass. This season it was the double bill, commonly known as "Cav-Pag," those verismo potboilers that give over-ripe melodrama a whole new name.

Holy Moly! Did he and the band ever give their composers, Mascagni ("Cavalleria Rusticana") and Leoncavallo ("Pagliacci") a workout. Not only that, he urged the singers to ever-more passionate engagement. And while the event was not staged -- the cast stood before music stands reading from scores and wore concert dress -- its impact was next to earth-shaking.

Sometimes, given over-amplification, too earth-shaking. With voices not yet warmed up for "Cavalleria," Nancy Maultsby let out some painfully wide wobbles as Mama Lucia and poor Christopher Maltman, at the end of Alfio's whip-snapping entry aria, even elicited a loud, perfectly-timed double boo from someone sitting fairly close. Michelle de Young, as the wronged Santuzza, belted her anguish with an open-throat and Stuart Neill, in a white jacket that emphasized his mountainous look, used his stentorian tenor to effect as the vengeful Turiddu.

Only Tamara Mumford, as a silvery-toned Lola who slinked seductively onstage in a red gown, gave an inkling of physical characterization.

No early infelicities seemed to faze Dudamel, who coaxed the cast to stabilize as things went on. Despite a mis-adjustment here or there he led the singers to galvanizing climaxes, irrefutable attacks and, of course, drew out the orchestra to luxuriate in those long, lush, sweeping themes that a guy like Mantovani could only dream of.

"Pagliacci" drew a sharp contrast to the opening one-act opera. For one thing Leoncavallo's score has far greater compositional interest, not to mention its "La Strada"-like drama of a poor little commedia dell'arte troupe traveling from one small Italian town to another, run by the jealous chief clown who is married to the prettiest girl around.

Julianna di Giacomo gave us that girl, Nedda, in a shining personification -- she needed nothing more than her dramatic vocal expression, through rhythmically inflected phrasing and sweet purity of tone, to catch the moment's ardor, which flowed unhaltingly from her. A Dudamel find.

And thank goodness for Lucas Meachem, whose refined singing made for a thinking man's Silvio, her lover. The others doubled with the "Cav" cast, but Neill as Canio had the biggest cry at the end or, shall we say, laugh. His line,"commedia è finita" was a howling closer.

o-o-o

A week earlier Dudamel reunited with the Philharmonic for a Beethoven program -- which I heard in its second performance, when the sound engineers veered off the mark. For the Triple Concerto, with the Capucon brothers playing violin (Renaud) and cello (Gautier) and Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the piano, the dial was so badly adjusted that poor Thibaudet's playing at the bass end turned to mud.

Otherwise, this was happily buoyant chamber music, the irrepressibly melodic lines sweetly merging, the themes bouncing back and forth, the orchestral backup adding thrust and heft.

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which followed intermission and saw Dudamel changed from tie and jacket to his looser black shirt and pants, on that sweltering night, had all the thrilling momentousness of its original inspiration. Nothing ever seems too familiar, as this piece is, to dim his connection to the mobilizing musical force.

Whenever the jumbotron cameras fixed on him -- and often they wrongly landed on the two French horn players, whose parts could not be heard (singled out) from the high-decibel tuttis -- he clearly showed a cutback in his physicality, say 70% from those early, all-out podium kinetics that bespoke the very music to audience and players alike.

It was inevitable, then, this restraint against body wear-and-tear. No one can keep up such physical extravagance over a long career without harming himself. To be sure, the hair is also shorter and it flies around less picturesquely these days.

But that does not mean he holds back when it comes to being an inveterate mime with an audience, to wit: telegraphing for the cameras how hot he was -- flicking his shirt-front back and forth like a fan to show folks why he changed from the up-to-the-neck uniform to a blousy garment.

And there were other observations to make when Joshua Bell opened the Bowl season with a pops-leaning program. Namely, HD screens that put enhancing light on subjects -- who included the violinist's friends: Glenn Close, who sang a few songs gamely, and virtuosic musicians who travel other non-classical paths; and an improved sound system that kept good acoustic balance.

Man-for-all-summer-seasons Bramwell Tovey led the Philharmonic bookending the program with Stravinsky's cantankerously sparkling "Fireworks" and "Firebird" Suite No. 2. But Bell, who arguably performs more and in a wider spectrum than any other violinist today, gave us his "Eleanor Rigby" fantasy -- an elegiac and deeply soulful excavation of the Beatles tune that was nothing short of a wonder.

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National Ballet of Canada

But if the National Ballet of Canada -- which put in an appearance at the Music Center Pavilion with Alexei Ratmansky's "Romeo and Juliet" -- turned out to be less than a wonder, it could be blamed on the high-water marks set by several previous versions and performances.

I can say that in this outing Shakespeare's star-cross'd lovers danced with élan, though. Guillaume Coté was a Romeo who curved gloriously into the arc and sweep of Prokofiev's sublime music, thanks to choreographer Ratmansky. And Elena Lobsanova made aptly quicksilver stuff of Juliet.

Best of all, and this might be a small point, it was a relief to see her at the tragic end with feet gone limp, not arched, as all other dead ballerinas tend to make them. And the rest of their naturalistic last meeting was also deeply moving.

But the choreographer missed the ecstasy that Kenneth MacMillan's version created in the couple's balcony scene -- who could forget Alessandra Ferri's beyond-extravagant backbends, with arms flung low in her partner's arms as he lifted and swirled her in their passionate duet.

Ratmansky also missed Prokofiev's plangent cues for regal grandeur in the ballroom drama and more. Sometimes trying to outdo what's already marvelous becomes a fool's errand.

July 23, 2014

A classic LA summer - from Shakespeare to Queen

Summertime -
And the Shakespeare is outside.
Swords are jumpin'
And the concepts are high.
Oh, the language is rich
And the trees are good-lookin'.
So hush, LA audiences,
Don't you cry.

-- apologies to DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin

Midsummer in LA brings with it a remarkable profusion of professional Shakespeare productions in the great outdoors: Shakespeare Center at the VA's Japanese Garden, Independent Shakespeare Company in Griffith Park, the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga. Farther out, you can find Shakespeare Orange County in Garden Grove and the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival in Thousand Oaks.

Taken together (which hardly anyone ever does, because of the distances between the venues), these companies constitute one of America's largest Shakespearean hotspots. All of them qualify for the "professional" distinction by using by using at least some Actors' Equity members on contracts.

The breaking news this summer in this arena is, well, the arena itself that Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles is using for its "Romeo and Juliet" at the VA's Japanese Garden in Brentwood. In all my summers watching alfresco Shakespeare in LA, I can't recall seeing another in-the-round production.

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Jack Mikesell (Romeo) and Christina Elmore (Juliet) at the VA. Photo: Michael Lamont

With the audience distributed in properly raked seating on all four sides of a square, everyone feels close to the action. This is the great benefit of in-the-round configurations. And director Kenn Sabberton magnifies that effect in his "R & J" by sending the actors into just about every section of the space at some point during the play - occasionally using audience members as silent props. This production is continually on the move - in stark contrast to the excessively languorous pacing of Sabberton's staging of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" last year.

Set and lighting designer Trevor Norton has furnished a balcony for the play's most famous scene in one corner of the square, overlooking the main audience entrance. Seated on an aisle, I was able to turn completely to the right in order to watch the scenes that took place there, but I noticed that the man across the aisle hardly ever turned to look at the balcony. Maybe he preferred just to listen.

So be prepared to be somewhat flexible if you truly want to see the entire play. Or almost all of it, that is -- the disadvantage of arena staging is that occasionally nearly every spectator experiences at least one blocked sight line. I noticed one such moment, when the Friar's back blocked my view of Romeo's face, but of course these moments vary depending on where you're sitting.

The advantages of this configuration outweigh these brief frustrations. The immersive quality provides a new perspective - or many new perspectives - on well-worn material. Also, the intimacy enhances our ability to parse Shakespeare's more ornate passages, especially when the lines are as well-spoken as they are by most of this cast.

This is that rare "R & J" in which Romeo seems a bit younger than Juliet - thanks to the puppy-dog scampering of Jack Mikesell's Romeo and the more mature command of Christina Elmore's Juliet -- who is supposedly 13, according to the text. Yet here we can read in the program that Elmore has already received an MFA degree. I wonder - couldn't most productions cut the reference to Juliet's age? It's difficult to find an actress who can handle the intricate language while also appearing to be just 13.

Early on, this is one of the funniest "R & J"s that I've ever seen - especially that balcony scene. But the ending is even grimmer than most - we don't see the usual final image of the two families finding commonality in their sorrow over the bodies of the lovers.

Most of the actors are just about ideal, and they're dressed in eye-catching 1920s finery designed by Holly Poe Durbin. Susan Goldberg's choreography draws on flapper-era steps, and Brian Joseph's score uses wailing, jazzy riffs in the haunting aural climaxes of each act.

The production was promoted as transforming Mr. Montague (Gregg Daniel) and Mr. Capulet (Elijah Alexander) into competing publishing magnates in '20s LA. Facsimiles of '20s Los Angeles newspapers are used as props, and the rowdy street gangs apparently are employed by rival rags. But there is no explicit mention of the families' holdings - the text is almost entirely the Bard's.

This production plays only through Saturday, and it should be high on the list of any summer Shakespeare aficionado.

Independent Shakespeare's and Kingsmen Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"s also ventured into the early years of the 20th century in their concepts. There is still time to catch ISC's version. Staged by Melissa Chalsma, it's briefly vacating the Old Zoo stage in Griffith Park in favor of "The Taming of the Shrew," but it will return for six performances in August, and it's a lively renewal of this oft-revived comedy.

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Danny Campbell, Andre Martin, David Melville and Julia Aks in Twelfth Night at Griffith Park. Photo: Grettel Cortes.

Its most unorthodox feature is that it casts Julia Aks as Fabian, a role that is usually cast with a man. In most productions, Fabian is a distant runner-up in the play's comedy sweepstakes, at least when compared to his fellow conspirators Toby, Maria and Feste. But here the gender change, Fabian's maid uniform, and her role not only as a music-hall partner for David Melville's Feste but also as his lover gives this Fabian extra dimensions. Speaking of the comic characters, Luis Galindo -- the actor who riveted audiences last year in the Scottish play and will open soon as Petruchio in "Shrew" -- does a 180-degree turn to play the distinctly less dashing Malvolio almost as memorably as he played Macbeth.

Those who have never experienced ISC should be aware that because of its free admission (but please donate) policy as well as its quality, it attracts crowds that can be much larger than those at any of LA's other classical companies - on weekends, as large as those at the Ahmanson or the Pantages. If you want a reasonably close spot on the lawn, Thursdays are probably your best bet.

Theatricum Botanicum has the longest season of any of these companies, from early June through early October, so getting good seats usually isn't a problem in rural Topanga. Currently running are four plays in repertory: "Lear," "Much Ado About Nothing," "All's Well That Ends Well" and yet another variation on Theatricum's annual "Midsummer Night's Dream."

Note that this "Lear" is not "King Lear," because this monarch is a queen, played by Theatricum artistic director Ellen Geer. Her three offspring are sons, not daughters, and Gloucester's scions are daughters, not sons. Geer co-directs with Melora Marshall, who plays the Fool. Geer's queen not only rages with the requisite fire, but she creates quite a spectacle as she nimbly climbs over not just one roof but two - the roof of the primary building on the open mainstage and another on the little structure at the back of the Theatricum. No other venue in LA is as capable as the Theatricum at suggesting the vast reaches of the wilderness through which Lear wanders.

All of these companies should be encouraged to program occasional doses of the lesser-known Shakespearean plays, so I salute Geer's decision to stage the seldom-seen "All's Well" (with co-director Christopher W. Jones). But this vigorous production doesn't quite manage to make us believe that all is well about the play itself.

However, "Much Ado," with co-direction by Geer and her daughter Willow Geer (who also plays Helena in "All's Well" and Gloucester's good daughter in "Lear") lives up to its own catch-phrase, thanks to vital performances by Susan Angelo's Beatrice and Robertson Dean's Benedick. It's great to see Dean joining his A Noise Within colleagues Alan Blumenfeld, Abby Craden and William Dennis Hunt in the Theatricum company.

Meanwhile, Theatricum veteran Angelo - who is also a resident artist at A Noise Within -- began her summer by staging "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for Shakespeare Orange County. Under the group's new artistic director John Walcutt, the OC company is making an effort to reflect its neighborhood's changing demographics by incorporating Hitia O Te Ra, an extremely animated Polynesian dance troupe based in Garden Grove, into a bracingly distinctive "Midsummer" that's set in the 1700s in the South Seas. Two performances remain, on July 31 and August 1.

Speaking of Shakespeare Orange County, fans of the Troubadour Theater Company - usually based at Burbank's Falcon Theatre - should note that the Troubies are venturing to Garden Grove under SOC auspices this weekend (Thursday-Saturday) for a rendition of their ever-popular "A Midsummer's Saturday Night Fever Dream," a mashup of the Bard and disco. Then the Troubies will trek to La Mirada Theatre the following weekend (August 1-3) for another round of "Abbamemnon," their hilarious but occasionally sobering blend of Abba and "Agamemnon," which closed in Burbank on July 13.

Both of these venues are much larger than the Falcon, and some of the comic intensity might not extend to the back rows. But considering how hard it can be to snag Troubies tickets in Burbank, those who failed to do so should consider making a trip (or trips) to Greater LA's southeastern precincts.

SUMMER FARE AT THE BIG INDOOR HOUSES: Center Theatre Group is going in the opposite direction from the classics this summer, diving into the shallow end of the pool. At the Ahmanson is the Queen spectacle "We Will Rock You" -- a decade after its US premiere in Las Vegas. At the Taper is the comIc monologue "Buyer & Cellar."

I enjoyed occasional moments in the first act of "We Will Rock You," which uses high technology to poke fun at a future society's obsession with high technology, before it degenerates in the second act into a more basic form of Queen idolatry.

Jonathan Tolins' "Buyer & Cellar" has a few good (albeit snide) laughs in its fictional account of a struggling LA actor (Michael Urie) who's hired by Barbra Streisand to operate a "shopping mall" in her Malibu home's basement. But it's truly depressing to think that this is CTG's current idea of what passes for an LA-set play - just as "I'll Eat You Last", the Geffen's solo show with Bette Midler as Sue Mengers last fall, was Geffen Playhouse's rare nod toward local content.

By the way, the fictional actor in "Buyer & Cellar" was fired from a job at Disneyland, but he consoles himself with the thought he'll have more time "to do LA theater - which is exactly as tragic as it sounds. I dreamed of working at the Taper or the Geffen, but that's like a totally closed whatever."

I'm not sure what Tolins meant by "as tragic as it sounds" - it could be interpreted as a cheap and uninformed gag about the quality and quantity of LA theater or as a more pointed remark about the financial compensation received by most LA theater actors. But if that follow-up line meant that the Taper and the Geffen don't take nearly enough advantage of the vast LA talent pool and LA subject matter, then that's one of the boldest, truest lines spoken at the Taper in years.

By the way, while the Ahmanson is presenting the flashy "We Will Rock You," the very un-flashy but Tony-winning musical "Once" is making its debut at the Pantages - and after seeing it from Row U, I can hardly think of a less appropriate venue for it.

"Once" is a small-scale musical that belongs in a much more intimate theater. I couldn't see facial features, and sometimes I couldn't tell who was speaking. Throughout most of its unnecessarily prolonged length, the entire top half of the view of the Pantages stage is occupied by a brick wall, which is inhabited by people only, well, once -- and even then the two actors who briefly move into that part of our visual field barely move a muscle. The lethargy of this experience made me yearn for a dose of the technological overkill on display in "We Will Rock You" or the Pantages' recent "Ghost."

"Once" is not enough, but seeing it at the Pantages made me hope to eventually see it in one of LA theater's fine midsize or small venues. The tragedy of winning a Tony and consequently having to adapt to inappropriately large houses, in an attempt to maximize profits, strikes again.

July 15, 2014

Kimono exhibit at LACMA

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Kimono photos all from Museum Associates/LACMA

Kimono for a Modern Age at LACMA presents more than 30 of the traditional Japanese garments, on display for the first time in the museum's Pavilion for Japanese Art. The kimono are from the first half of the 20th century and are displayed in tokonomo, described as "traditional viewing spaces as trios that relate in terms of motifs, themes, or approach to the graphic layout of patterns."

Curator Sharon S. Takeda shared some observations with LA Observed in the gallery.

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"These are all daily leisure wear, not ceremonial. The majority of them were made in the Kanto region around Tokyo, made after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Most are made of machine real silk and machine loomed silk and most were pre-dyed before they were woven."

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"They were fashionable- affordable by working class women. Because they were so fashionable it's thought that wealthy women also purchased them."

"I was interested in how they're still the traditional kimono but also that they're modernized. A lot of these are probably thought of as common rather than really high class. It's really more about the machine age and technology."

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"Even today there are different levels of kimono. They can be made in silk, cotton, polyester, rayon, any number of things. If you walk into the department store today you would have different qualities to choose from-machine printed, hand printed, hand dyed, and ikat dyed. So there's a whole hierarchy and price range."

"A lot of these were for a mass market which had it's height during the first half of the 20th century and then it kind of died out or started to dwindle particularly as Western fashion took a stronger hold post-World War 2."

"A lot of this was never handed down with the finely made things because it was considered 'fly-by-night' fashion or everyday wear rather than something precious."

"Kimono for a Modern Age" is on exhibit until October 19.

July 2, 2014

The Fringe binge continues

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Zombies from the Beyond. John Santo.

We're in the middle of the Hollywood Fringe season, although not the Hollywood Fringe Festival itself -- which officially ended Sunday.

Post-festival runs have been announced for more than 50 of the Fringe productions - out of a total of 290 shows. At least a few of these extended shows probably would have been running this month even if the Fringe hadn't existed.

During this year's festival, as I tried to devise a filter to help me decide which shows to see, I was drawn primarily to multi-character shows (as opposed to solos) that were produced by established LA companies, especially those that operate here during the rest of the year. I was hoping that emphasizing such shows would maximize my chances of seeing something worthwhile in the completely non-curated Fringe crapshoot.

After all, an ongoing LA company has to think about its long-term audience, as opposed to out-of-town producers who arrive only for two-week stands or even home-grown one-shot showcase producers. And, because it's logistically easier for an established LA company to extend a Fringe show, these companies produce many of the shows with extensions.

In fact, after five years of the Hollywood Fringe, I don't care how many newcomers it attracts to LA each year. Ambitious theater-related talent arrives in LA every day of the year, with or without the Fringe, and every weekend it seems as if at least a handful of newcomers' shows manage to find theaters to showcase their talents - many of them in the Hollywood district.

No, the Fringe is useful because it provides a structure in which established LA artists can develop their work. Or they can revive successful shows they've already done (as Theatre of NOTE did this year with "Disassembly") -- but for audiences that (theoretically) extend beyond their usual supporters into the ranks of those who are attracted with the assistance of Fringe marketing.

The Fringe is also stimulating because its concentrated geographical area and its concentrated time frame - which creates the ability to see a Tuesday matinee, if you so choose -- help convey an impression of heightened creative ferment, even if most of the Fringe shows don't approach the average quality of the productions that arise from our more far-flung outposts throughout the rest of the year. (By the way, the Fringe itself was more far-flung this year. Its 29 venues - nine more than last year -- included two that are on the east side of Western Avenue. One of these was also south of Melrose, on turf that usually isn't considered part of Hollywood.)

OK, I understand why most of the established LA companies - especially those with their own homes — avoid the Fringe. Why get lost in the crowd? However, unless they have built-in subscription audiences, perhaps they should also avoid producing their own shows elsewhere in LA during the Fringe period, because those shows run the risk of getting lost in the crowd, too. I recently noticed an offer of free tickets to a production at an established venue far from the Fringe activity.

Bitter Lemons, the website that provides handy links to reviews of LA shows, more or less ignored most of the non-Fringe theater scene during the past few weeks. As I write this on July 2, Bitter Lemons has yet to run links to reviews of the Geffen's "The Country House" and the Ahmanson's "The Last Confession," although both shows opened three weeks ago. The site's editor Colin Mitchell was busy participating in the Fringe this year, with his solo show "Linden Arden Stole the Highlights," so the absence of such links is understandable. Still, it's important for the site's Lemon Meter to include links to independent reviews of the larger shows. Larger companies have a lot more money to spend on one-sided advertising than do the producers of smaller shows - and consequently there's probably more public curiosity about whether the larger shows measure up to the hype. (For the record, I've already written about how much I liked "The Country House," but I didn't get much redemption out of "The Last Confession.")

Still, if many of LA's most mature companies justifiably avoid the Fringe, newer LA companies and especially homeless LA companies might well benefit from Fringe participation.

Let's look at some of those shows from LA companies that produced in the Fringe and are now continuing after the Fringe.

Zombina.jpgI've been remiss in not previously seeing anything from the Visceral Company, but I'm glad I saw its "Zombies From the Beyond" as part of the Fringe, at the Lex. James Valcq's goofy musical, in its West Coast premiere, is a full-length take-off on cheesy '50s sci-fi films -- with occasional subversive dashes of 21st-century feminism thrown into the mix. It's one of the rare examples of this genre that doesn't wear out its welcome before the final curtain. Dan Spurgeon's staging is powered by the extraordinary vocal stylings of Alison England as Zombina, the chief alien (right). Preposterously attired, she delivers a performance that could make this show a late-night cult favorite for years - if her voice holds up.

"Dorian's Descent," a musical from Doma Theatre, is less likely to ascend. Chris Raymond's score has a few good moments, amid the excess. But this umpteenth adaptation of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" is way too long (please, drop the entire character of the Demon who makes Dorian do it.) And it contains some rather awkward moments - for example, decades after Dorian's spurned lover commits suicide, her revenge-seeking brother is temporarily misled by the fact that Dorian hasn't aged along with his portrait. Yet the brother himself is played by the same young actor who played him earlier - and this actor, too, doesn't look as if he has aged at all. If Dorian isn't the only character whose appearance resists the passing years, isn't the point of the story blurred?

On to non-musicals.

I didn't see an earlier LA production of Gregory Crafts' "Friends Like These," but it's worth more attention. His company, Theatre Unleashed, unleashed an excellent revival for the Fringe and beyond, staged by Wendy Gough Soroka. At the beginning, Crafts quickly signals that a school shooting is going to happen -- but as he flashes backward to recent events that illustrate the social turmoil in the lives of several students, we're not sure who's going to start shooting. That the teenagers are involved in extra-curricular fantasy role-playing events intensifies the suspense. Crafts' focus is rigorously disciplined - he's not writing about parents or teachers, and we don't learn how the shooter got a gun.

no-homos-ds.jpgBrandon Baruch's "No Homo - A Bromantic Tragedy" won the Fringe First award as the best premiere. It's headed not only toward an LA extension at Theatre Asylum but toward the curated New York International Fringe Festival. Set in LA (extra points for this choice), the play is a wry look at two young men who are best friends, roommates, and supposedly straight - but their friends assume that they're really lovers. Jessica Hanna of Bootleg Theater fame directs a skilled cast (it won the Fringe ensemble award.) Baruch introduces more psychological knots instead of tying up the existing ones, which is refreshing, although it seems odd that no one mentions the word "bisexual," especially regarding the one guy who's actively pursuing a girlfriend. Wouldn't someone naturally bring up the "B" in "LGBT"?

"Things Being What They Are," a Moving Arts production that will continue a run at the Complex, is also about male bonding, although in this case the two men are middle-aged neighbors -- one divorced and one in a troubled marriage -- who have just met as the play begins. Wendy MacLeod's play is a little too committed to predictable tropes about men with very different personalities who find a common bond amid their crises. It feels especially wan in comparison to her "The Water Children," about the abortion controversy - I wonder if that 1998 play would still hold up? Darin Anthony directed.

Lower photo from "No Homo" by Clarke Surrey

June 30, 2014

New girl in town

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Janie Taylor at International Silks & Woolens on Beverly Boulevard. Photos by Iris Schneider.


In the short span of four months, recently retired New York City Ballet principal dancer Janie Taylor has gone from an emotional farewell onstage at Lincoln Center to cruising the streets of Los Angeles in her rental car, poised to build a life as a newly-minted Angeleno. Ballet dancers careers are finite, and Taylor, 33, and her husband, fellow NYCB principal Sébastien Marcovici, felt the time had come to move on from the company where each had spent half their lives performing. "We both had gotten to the place of 'OK, what's the next thing? We were ready to take that step," she said the other day during a downtown conversation at Il Caffe on Broadway. Their final performance was March 1.The couple have a years-long relationship with choreographer Benjamin Millepied (formed during their time together in NYCB), founder of the Los Angeles Dance Project. Millepied's need for a new ballet master presented an opportunity for the pair to start fresh in a new place — with Marcovici at LADP and Taylor free to concentrate on a different creative path.

They officially arrived in Los Angeles in mid-June. Although Taylor is still transitioning from dancing (she's not ready to say 'never, ever again') and definitely plans to guest teach, she wants to build on what has been up until now a side vocation: costume and dancewear design.

Originally from Houston, Taylor started taking ballet seriously at the age of 4. After studying at the School of American Ballet (NYCB's training school), she joined the company's corps de ballet in 1998. She learned to sew at the age of 14, just before moving to New York. The endless need for something comfortable to wear to class and rehearsals motivated her to start making her own leotards. "If that's all you wore all day, every day, you'd do it too!" she said laughing. Taylor also made leotards for some of the girls in the company. "I've always had an interest in fashion, always very experimentally made clothes for myself, and I'm kind of self-taught. I would cut stuff up and figure out how to construct things."


Taylor in 2013 talking about and performing Stravinsky Violin Concerto, one of George Balanchine's leotard ballets.

She recalls being influenced as a young girl by Alicia Silverstone's costumes in Clueless and later on by the look of the dancers in the classic 1948 film, The Red Shoes. Her taste and style influences are eclectic. "I tend to navigate toward graphic things," she says. "I like mixing patterns — especially plaids and stripes. People are always making fun of all the stripes I wear." She's drawn to the silhouette of 1950s women's fashion and loves to search for vintage brooches at flea markets. Hours spent being fitted in the NYCB costume shop were a learning experience. "I guess I was totally annoying — looking at every costume that wasn't for me, and asking questions."

She admires the work of Barbara Karinska, the Russian designer hired by George Balanchine to create many of the iconic costumes for NYCB. "All of her pieces were so beautiful and detailed," Taylor says. "I loved wearing them and analyzing every little thing." Taylor received her first big post-dance commission shortly before leaving New York. NYCB soloist and choreographer Justin Peck asked her to design the costumes for his new ballet, Everywhere We Go, which premiered at the company's spring gala. She had created costumes for a few smaller pieces before, but this was a new challenge. Peck liked one of the leotards she designed for class (striped of course) and wanted looks based on that. "Everywhere We Go" features 25 dancers, both men and women. Taylor had to conceive costumes that complemented Peck's choreography and also stood up to tough performance standards. "There's another mind that has to feel what you're making will express their art," Taylor says, alluding to Peck. "It was fun being on the other side but still involved. It's great to make a little world on-stage."

Still settling into her Los Feliz home, Taylor is already busy with new projects. She's been asked to design fabric and wallpaper. Costumes for L.A. Dance Project are a definite possibility. She's also still finding her way around the city, learning neighborhoods and adapting to all the driving she now has to do (Marcovici doesn't drive.) Although she got her license as a teenager, Taylor never drove in NYC. She only used a car once a year when the company would travel upstate to Saratoga during the summer. Mostly she seems to be enjoying her freedom.

"I've done one thing since I was 2 years old so it feels good to do a bunch of different things," she says. "It's not like I felt suffocated while I was dancing, but it controls a lot of other things in your life. You're always thinking — well, I have a performance tomorrow, or something's hurting and I should rest tonight. Everything you do is about that. It is liberating not to have that stress."

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June 28, 2014

Ballet Preljocaj's Arabic orgy, Ojai's (sort of) opera and more

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"Les Nuits" at the Music Center. Photo: JC Carbonne

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a pageant. Angelin Preljocaj has given us one more outlandish extravaganza and this time the French choreographer-turned-corporate calls his show at the Music Center "Les Nuits," after "One Thousand and one Nights."

It's yet another would-be fairy tale, the last one being "Blanche Neige" (Snow White). This time the frame story concerns Scheherazade escaping the Sultan's death blade by distracting/seducing him with exotic narratives, one after another. But Preljocaj, deep into his mode of dark, existential undercurrents, wields a wand that suggests depraved humanity -- not just abuse of the so-called weaker sex and certainly not its supposed triumph.

There's a scene with male couples, for instance -- feigned beheadings/throat-cuttings in unison; another one, dimly lit, with marauding mujahidin in all-black and head masks, who interrupt the opening montage: a drawn-out, slo-mo orgy with half naked, turbaned women, lounging about amid plumes of smoke, their arms moving in a snake-like tangle to an Arabic-pop-beat sound track. (At least no Mahler to defile this time.)

Sex (simulated, of course) sells. Always has. But nudity has become sort of commonplace. Trust Preljocaj to rely heavily on both. And to assert his glee with perversity too. (Where else but in his company would you see a stage-wide lineup with tall, well-proportioned women wearing long gowns and those with very bowed legs sporting above-the knee dresses?)

So what we have is a leisurely, sprawling rollout of disparate stage pictures taking up about 90 minutes -- with each season Preljocaj produces a more elaborate but less interesting series of superficial vignettes that settle on acrobatics (not dance), that show off bodies and focus on fetishes fit for Vegas. You can just imagine his self-satisfaction in spotlighting a seated woman, her naked back to the audience, undulating so that every ligament, tendon and muscle provide an anatomy lesson.

Does he "incorporate" haute couturiers and commercial composers for this latest offering? You bet. Does he preside at home base over a large, multi-faceted organization built just for him by big-name sponsors and luxuriously housed in Aix-en-Provence -- from which he tours the world in ever-more prestigious venues? For certain.

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Barak Ballet

But then there's his opposite, the Barak Ballet, a local start-up that's just dance, original dance, real dance. At it's essence, we're talking about the heroic venture of Melissa Barak, who for nine years performed with the New York City Ballet, choreographed work for it, and now heads her own company, which depends on the financial kindness of strangers.

So what distinguishes it, besides having all the artistic and administrative attributes rolled up into a single person?

Well, Barak happens to be a very talented dance-maker herself. She also has an eye for tracking down other choreographers' works that rely on substance, not shtick. She smartly recruits superb dancers during their home company's off-seasons. Her choices of music and costume design and her smoothly run performances that click along like clockwork are exemplary.

At the company's recent Broad Stage performance of various ensemble pieces and duets everything was based on advanced ballet technique, showing off dance at its highest level of beauty while exploring contemporary movement motifs and connecting keenly to respective musical sources. Sounds like a Balanchine model, yes?

Among the works was Frank Chaves' "Sentir em Nos," a couple's fierce interpersonal struggle likened, but subtly, to a bull-fighter and his foe; Barak's "For Two," a lovely lyrical duet that actually pauses to take breaths between ultra-sensitive encounters and Darrell Grand Moultrie's dramatic "Voices of Six," with its inserts of small but powerful expressionist gestures.

As for the well-established wing of local dance enterprise, Los Angeles Ballet reprised Balanchine's beloved "Serenade," which, no matter how often it's seen, reveals new facets -- so ingeniously made and sealed together with Tchaikovsky's innocently beseeching score is it. This time, though, when the girl falls in the third movement the lighting stayed too bright, lessening its emotional depth and impact.

Also returned to the bill was that 19th century hallmark of Romanticism, Bournonville's "La Sylphide," which the company again danced to perfection. I saw the cast with Allynne Noelle, so cheery and outgoing as to remove the sylph's sense of elusive spirit, but so committed to the role's detail otherwise that she overcame that flaw. Ulrik Birkkjaer, as the smitten James, flew about with apt passion and managed the devilish entrechats, those jumps-in-place with crossed-feet pointing down like arrows, with urgent precision.

................

Out of town to our north, at the 68th annual Ojai Music Festival, man-of- the-hour Jeremy Denk put together a marathon weekend of propositions -- all of them predictably probing. From the works he chose, to the musicians he enlisted, there was a sense of adventure that festivals ideally have, this one being devoted to new music about old music or new music "classics" or even an actual premiere, such as Denk's brainchild, an opera based on, of all things, Charles Rosen's "The Classical Style," a scholarly tome so acclaimed it's been translated into many languages.

Denk, inspired to lavish his wit and powers of conjecture on it, wrote the libretto and, together with composer Steven Stucky, came up with "The Classical Style, An Opera (Sort of)," which garnered world-wide attention -- both for the novelty of the idea and the fact that it's the MacArthur "Genius" Award-winning pianist-writer putting it down on paper.

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Jeremy Denk at Ojai

Sad to report, though, the performance remained unseen by many at Ojai because the re-vamped Libbey Bowl has poor to negligible sightlines for anyone under 6'2." So there was virtually nothing I could see on the stage. Only in the LA Times, days later, were there photos of what appeared there.

But hearing was not a problem, however limiting that sole prospect may be for a quasi-buffa opera like this. And the unraveling plot was comic -- what with Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven the main protagonists, all caught up in arguments over the declared death of classical music with additional characters personified by the Tonic, Dominant and Sub-Dominant chords. Yes, there were lots of insider jokes and quotes from other composers' works. And Stucky did a capital job of putting it all together.

What turned out to be pure transporting poetry, though, was Denk's piano recital linking works by Schubert and Janacek. First, he explained how the two composers represented cultures crashing in on each other. And then, like an excavator of small, precious relics he played them, revealing degrees of whimsy all the way to oblique shadows of sorrow. His touch, the control, the sensitivity spoke volumes.

At the other end of this spectrum were his Ligeti preludes, those dense, ridiculously complex pieces that Denk also played masterfully weeks earlier when he performed with the LA Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall.

Many events followed -- from 8 a.m. to midnight all weekend long. One standout was the Uri Caine Ensemble with its "Mahler Re-Imagined," a traversal of the composer's well-known themes, from the Adagietto, to "Frere Jacques" to "Ging heut Morgen" brought to their echt origins and sounding like cool jazz or Jewish wedding music or Klezmer rambunctiousness. While it did go a bit too long, who doesn't love the stuff of a festival?

June 22, 2014

Two Geffen premieres, and two plays about addicts

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Sarah Steele, Eric Lange and Blythe Danner in "The Country House." Photo: Michael Lamont.

Geffen Playhouse is producing two premieres simultaneously. One of them, Donald Margulies' "The Country House," is wonderful. The other, Steven Drukman's "Death of the Author," isn't.

Although the plays are brand-new, their depicted situations aren't exactly fresh. The characters in them don't stray from the two professions that are so familiar to the Geffen's core audience - academia (the Geffen building is owned by UCLA, which is just across the street) and entertainment (the Geffen was created by the late Hollywood producer/director/schmoozer Gil Cates.)

Neither play employs cutting-edge techniques. Although the characters in "Death of an Author" discuss advanced literary notions, those ideas aren't successfully reflected in the play itself. As for "The Country House," Margulies apparently decided it was his turn to write a contemporary American play inspired by Chekhov.

But don't yawn just yet — even if you saw "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," Christopher Durang's overhyped and similarly Chekhovian-inspired effort at the Mark Taper Forum earlier this year. Durang wrote a largely uninspired satire; Margulies is much more affectionate toward his equally flawed characters. He avoids the excessive lampooning that drained the life out of Durang's opus.

At the Geffen, the titular house is located in Williamstown, Massachusetts - home of the real-life Williamstown Theatre Festival. The great Anna Patterson (the great Blythe Danner) has called for a family reunion at the family's summer home, where she is preparing for a run in "Mrs. Warren's Profession." It marks her return to acting a year after the cancer-caused death of her 41-year-old daughter, an equally luminous actress, in this very house.

The blood relatives who show up are Anna's bedraggled and never-married son Elliot (Eric Lange) and her recently Yale-graduated granddaughter Susie (Sarah Steele), whose mourning for her mother is perhaps a tad more intense than that of Susie's father, the Hollywood director Walter (David Rasche.)'

Walter, who's nearly as old as Anna, has decided to introduce his new, younger girlfriend Nell (Emily Swallow), also an actress, to the clan. Also joining the group is Michael (Scott Foley), a 40ish friend who once played Marchbanks to Anna's Candida at Williamstown. Although Michael is now a wealthy Hollywood-based TV star and an advocate for building schools in the Congo, he's doing his summertime stage-acting stint in "The Guardsman" at Williamstown.

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Emily Swallow and Scott Foley. Photo: Michael Lamont.

Except for Walter and Nell, the relationships here stir up almost entirely unrequited feelings. Margulies and director Daniel Sullivan confidently orchestrate and navigate the turmoil. The pre-intermission finale is a stunningly funny surprise, and the play ends on a note of lyrical poignance that is, yes, convincingly Chekhovian.

To encapsulate the difference between this play and Durang's, note that the younger trophy fiancé (Spike) in "Vanya..." was a buffoon; the younger trophy fiancée in "Country House" (Nell), is treated much more respectfully. True, Nell does refer scornfully to "LA and all the crap that goes with it" — my advice to Nell, if she wants a non-crappy experience in LA, is to go see "The Country House" at the Geffen. But Hollywood big-shot Walter is also allowed to defend selling out to Hollywood so articulately that you almost might think that Margulies believes him.

By the way, considering that Center Theatre Group's Michael Ritchie ran the Williamstown festival before he arrived in LA (and he grew up not far from it), I began wondering whether he ever entertained the notion of trying to snag Margulies' play for the Taper. He certainly could have brought an insider's perspective to it. Perhaps, however, he thought a play set in Williamstown might look too insular, as if he wanted to show us a slice of his own past. Also, the Tony that Durang won for "Vanya..." may have helped convince Ritchie to do it at the Taper, after which he wouldn't have wanted to do yet another consciously-Chekhov-inspired production so soon — regardless of its quality. In this case, however, the Geffen got the better end of the deal.

Not so with "Death of the Author," next door to "The Country House" in the Geffen's smaller space, staged by Bart DeLorenzo. The only reason to seek it out is to admire Orson Bean's irresistible performance as a swashbuckling English department chair on the verge of retirement.

Drukman's play is a mess. You may have heard that it's about a case of plagiarism, pitting a professor against a student who's about to graduate from a prestigious college. The student tries to deflect this charge by arguing that the unattributed quotes that make up his paper reflect the nature of the genre about which he was writing. Without any presence on the stage of the plagiarized authors themselves, and without any literal visualization of the student's paper for the audience to see, the issue of plagiarism gradually recedes, and it's easy to dismiss it as a serious concern.

Next, the play appears to be about the malleable nature of readers' prejudices and perceptions - or perhaps it's about the class distinctions between the professor, who's from a blue-collar family, and the blue-blooded student.

Then again, the play's title is reflected in a very specific incident from the student's past - which we learn from his ex-girlfriend - or is she back together with him? The role of this only woman in the cast looks like a threadbare plot device instead of an actual character. Meanwhile, a more pivotal character - the dean who makes the final ruling on the case - isn't on the stage any more than the plagiarized authors. And why the oddly upbeat ending, almost as if we've been watching an earnestly uplifting sitcom?

If he plans to rewrite, Drukman needs to think more deeply about what his aim is and how best to accomplish it.

'STONEFACE' AND 'BLISS POINT'

Here's a shout-out to Pasadena Playhouse for picking up the Sacred Fools Theater production of Vanessa Claire Stewart's "Stoneface" from the 99-seat world and bringing it to one of LA's most prestigious stages.

And kudos to Sacred Fools, too, which seems to be remarkably adept at inducing such transfers, compared to the rest of its 99-seat siblings. On the same weekend that "Stoneface" opened in Pasadena, the Sacred Fools production of "Absolutely Filthy" - one of my favorite shows of 2013 - ran for a weekend at South Coast Repertory's smallest space (now let's see it advance to a longer run at a bigger theater.) Sacred Fools also originated "Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara," which moved to the Geffen in 2009. And Center Theatre Group will co-present the premiere of the CTG-commissioned "The Behavior of Broadus," from the Burglars of Hamm, in September at Sacred Fools. While this last tidbit isn't exactly another example of the same smaller-to-larger-theater phenomenon, might it eventually lead to a CTG production at a larger space?

Interactions between the smaller and larger spheres of LA theater should be much more common, and they also should involve the midsize theaters that provide an ideal compromise between the 99-seaters and the larger theaters such as Pasadena Playhouse.

Having said all that, "Stoneface" isn't quite as exciting in Pasadena as it was at Sacred Fools. Some of that is attributable simply to the fact that I had already seen the visual effects. I wasn't anticipating them when I saw them at Sacred Fools, and in Pasadena I was waiting for them. But Pasadena's problem isn't only that Sacred Fools had the honor of unveiling them for the first time but also that we routinely expect larger effects in a larger theater - and they don't seem all that larger.

I was, however, surprised by one thing at Pasadena - that there weren't more changes in the structure of the script. The play has a scrambled chronology that seems unnecessarily arbitrary. Perhaps because I wasn't quite as bedazzled by the effects and by French Stewart's still-remarkable performance as Buster Keaton as I had been when I first saw them, I became impatient with the frequent time shifts.

Of course, most of these objections probably aren't relevant to those who didn't see the original production. And I'm glad that the talent is finally being remunerated (or so I assume) on a level that's usually impossible in the 99-seat world.

"Stoneface" makes it clear that Keaton's alcoholism wasn't good for his art, but it's more about his art than it is about his alcoholism, and it maintains a softly sunny disposition about his life.

Another play with structural problems, Shishir Kurup's "Bliss Point," concentrates more on addicts and addictions - and the portrait is much darker. Directed by Juliette Carrillo, "Bliss Point" is part of Cornerstone Theater's Hunger Cycle. But unlike most Cornerstone productions, it's mounted in a 99-seat theater, the Odyssey, instead of a more site-specific venue that is related to the subject and the community under discussion. As a result, it doesn't convey the usual feeling that Cornerstone is serving a community through art - even if the art is a little rough around the edges.

Actually, I have no problem with the performances and production elements of "Bliss Point." The play's structure is the obstacle. In a series of vignettes, we meet several apparently unrelated groups of characters from two eras and two cities who are struggling with addiction issues, finally discovering how they're related only at the end of the play.

The shifts between times and places in "Bliss Point" are much more jagged - and baffling - than those in "Stoneface." And they inhibit our engagement with the characters. The play becomes an intellectual puzzle more than the searing examination of addictions that might have resulted from a reshaping of the script.

June 9, 2014

Coyotes sing with Garrison Keillor and 'Prairie Home Companion' in LA

keillor-greek-grab.jpgScreen grab from video of last week's Los Angeles show.

How appropriate - the taping of a show titled "A Prairie Home Companion" was interrupted by the howling of coyotes.

It happened Friday evening - but not on the prairie. No, the accompanying coyotes live in Griffith Park, in the middle of Los Angeles.

Garrison Keillor's public-radio landmark was in the home stretch of taping its annual alfresco LA production, at Greek Theatre in the park. Keillor had finished his weekly report and rumination on the latest events in Lake Wobegon, and the band had played a wistful ragtime-inspired musical interlude, which was intended to provide a smooth entry into a gospel number from singer Jearlyn Steele. The evening was winding down.

But the coyotes had other ideas. Somewhere higher up the hill, they began yelping wildly.

The human spectators, who filled most of the venue's 5,800 seats, buzzed and laughed. On the stage, Keillor momentarily seemed uncomprehending of the source of the clamor, but members of the audience quickly shouted that the noise was from coyotes..

Earlier in the evening, Keillor had mentioned coyotes within a reference to the non-human inhabitants of what he called "the largest city park and urban wilderness in the country" (he also mentioned the recently famous mountain lion, who - Keillor joked -- had "moved to Brentwood.") But he probably didn't expect a contingent of coyotes to interrupt his show.

However, he quickly regained control as the howling died down. He said the coyotes had apparently been "moved" by the performances so far. "What they're saying, if I understand Coyote well, is they're saying 'Bring that woman up and sing a gospel tune for the coyotes...Jearlyn Steele."

A few minutes later, however, as audience members exited, I overheard another, more literal motivation ascribed to the coyotes by several people - that the creatures had probably discovered another animal that would be their supper.

After the gospel song, Keillor briefly returned to the subject of coyotes by asking sound effects wizard Fred Newman to converse with the coyotes, prompting a series of coyote calls from Newman, "expressing the coyote that is within each one of us," Keillor remarked. The real coyotes didn't respond. Keillor then asked for some Newman loon calls. When Newman protested that LA had no lakes, Keillor rattled off evidence to the contrary - Toluca Lake, Silver Lake, Veronica Lake and the Lakers - so Newman went through his loon repertoire.

You may have heard the radio version of all this over the weekend. I usually listen to "A Prairie Home Companion" on KPCC, as I drive to and from weekend performances in theaters throughout LA. As an advocate of theater that uses local settings and talent, I've admired how Keillor and company go to great lengths to use local references, wherever they may be - the previous week, the company had broadcast from Flagstaff, Arizona, and Keillor interviewed one of the Slide Rock firefighters.

But when I drive, my attention is sometimes distracted by, uh, driving. This year, I decided to concentrate exclusively on "A Prairie Home Companion" for two hours by attending it in person.

This particular episode didn't use as much LA-based talent as some of Keillor's other LA shows, but many of the script's songs and comedy sketches were indeed dotted with LA references. If a national radio program can find dramatic material within LA, why can't more of LA's own theater companies?

But the most remarkable difference between seeing the show in person and listening to it on the radio had nothing to do with the local markers in the script. Instead, it was watching what Keillor does before the taping and during the intermission.

At several live tapings of TV shows that I've attended in LA, a stand-up comic warmed up the audience to make sure we were all in in a laughing mood. Taking no chances, the TV producers also furnished applause signs giving us cues on when to applaud.

Here, instead, is how Keillor warmed us up for his show Friday. With a microphone in hand, he walked from the stage into the audience and slowly hiked up one of the long aisles to the back of the Greek Theatre and then back to the stage, leading us all in a sing-along of "America the Beautiful" - including the obscure later verses. Then, at intermission, instead of taking a break from his virtually non-stop appearances on stage, he repeated his sing-along in the aisles, this time leading us in "America," yes, but also "I Saw Her Standing There," by the Beatles.

Garrison Keillor doesn't need to provide cues for us to laugh or applaud. These reactions naturally emerge as we watch or listen. It's something that a lot of theater artists should emulate.

By the way, on the other side of Griffith Park last Friday, from 8 pm to 8 am, the Old Zoo area had been taken over by tents and modern cages for a for-profit, 12-hour fright show, "The Great Horror Camp-Out," designed to simulate campers' nightmares for the minimum price of $159 per person. Activists within the Sierra Club had questioned whether an event designed to scare people into associating Griffith Park with confinement, torture and other horror tropes was an appropriate use for this great public space. Let's not forget that two real-life assaults occurred in Griffith Park earlier this spring.

I'm glad I chose "A Prairie Home Companion" over "The Great Horror Camp-Out." Keillor's message isn't all sweetness and light -- in his remarks Friday, he explicitly addressed the encroaching mortality of his baby-boomer fans, and of course those real-life coyotes briefly but vividly provided intimations of the more violent side of nature. But Keillor also reminded us of life's redeeming delights - which go far beyond the gratitude that must have been felt from those who finally escaped from "The Great Horror Camp-Out" at 8 am on Saturday morning.


SOME RECENT PLAYS SET IN LA -- AND BEIJING

Returning briefly to the subject of plays that have LA settings, I should report that not every company is as derelict in this department as Center Theatre Group, which I discussed in my last column. Last night I saw the reincarnation of the Hollywood-set "Stoneface" at Pasadena Playhouse (more on that in a later column), and in recent weeks, at smaller theaters, I've seen a number of plays set in greater LA.

Two of them were quite good -- Emilie Beck's poignant Pasadena-set "Sovereign Body" (now closed) at the Road Theatre in NoHo and Kres Mersky's "Flag Day" at Theatre West. The latter is a domestic comedy with several far-fetched screwball elements, but it generates a respectable number of securely-landing laughs, under the direction of Paul Gersten, through June 22.

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Flag Day


Both of those plays could easily have been set in other cities, with only a few cosmetic changes; their setting in LA didn't seem to be part of their essence. Not so with two plays I saw recently at Los Angeles Theatre Center - Alice Tuan's "Hit" and Company of Angels' "L.A. Views - Traffic Jam," a collection of short plays. "Hit" made a point of venturing into discussions of LA's character - or its many characters - and "Traffic Jam" peered intermittently into LA's past. Unfortunately, I couldn't recommend either of them as satisfying theatrical experiences. Both are now closed.

In my last column I also chided the current incarnation of Center Theatre Group for failing to find and develop ambitious projects - whether set in LA or not -- on the scale of CTG's big and acclaimed productions from two decades ago. I've recently seen two projects on that level that have won acclaim for companies outside California - Arena Stage and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

So I figured I should check out "Beijing Spring," which East West Players revived to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. It's a 1999 musical that had been inspired by the young Chinese protesters from a decade earlier. On paper, this sounded like an example of the kind of big-deal project drawn from recent history that I was seeking from CTG.

But inside the theater, it's not such a big deal. The original 1999 production was in two acts and lasted a little more than two hours. This new version has been crammed into the now-popular no-intermission, shorter-than-two hours format, which isn't big enough.

"Beijing Spring" is hardly sketch comedy or an intimate solo show. Considering the continuing importance of its real-life subject, this is one shallow "Spring."

No one is credited with writing a book for this musical - essentially, it's a staged song cycle by lyricist Tim Dang and composer Joel Iwataki. But the songs offer little depth or originality. The characters remain stubbornly stillborn. In terms of the history, the show assumes that the audience knows who Hu Yaobang was (do you?), and it also provides no details about the previous political activism that the fictional leading character's father and grandfather survived - which supposedly inspired their heir to join the same cause.

Much of "Beijing Spring" looks and sounds as if it were inspired less by what happened in Beijing in 1989 than by what happened in European musical theater in the decade leading up to 1989 - specifically, by "Evita" and "Les Miserables." But those shows had much richer characters and demonstrated much savvier storytelling skills than we get from the generic "Beijing Spring" (which closes next Sunday.)

You don't have to take my word for it - you can also see the first home-grown production of "Les Miz" at La Mirada Theatre through June 22. Indeed, any "Les Miz" newcomers who were alienated from the epic Schonberg/Boublil/Kretzmer musical by the recent botched movie version might want to check out Brian Kite's staging at La Mirada in order to see why the stage version became such an enormous hit.

James Barbour and Randall Dodge are as triumphant as Valjean and Javert, respectively, as anyone who has ever played these roles. As the rascally Thenardier, Jeff Skowron not only offers the requisite comic relief but officially becomes LA theater's hardest-working and most versatile stage actor of the past year - he won an Ovation for "Parade," then appeared in "Sunset Boulevard," "The Producers," "Silence!" and just a few weeks ago, "Into the Woods."

Still, it's a shame that we are more engaged in a musical set in 19th-century France than we are in a musical about a momentous event only 25 years ago in the world's most populous country -- which is still governed by a regime that is so frightened of free expression that it has tried to erase this event from its history.

June 8, 2014

Opera showdown: Are women fickle, immoral and crazy?

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Roxana Constantinescu and Miah Persson in 'Cosi.' Photo: Mathew Imaging.

What do women want, Freud once asked. More important, maybe, is why are men afraid of them? Opera composers, with their librettists, have always poked around for answers. And the spotlight stays on that mystery as the downtown music season ends.

Just consider "Così fan tutte," the last work of the Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy that Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic signed on to at Disney Hall -- it's translatable as "women are like that," in other words, they're fickle, unfaithful and can thus destroy men's esteem.

Well, the production ride this time focused sharply on that eternal question -- women as betrayers (but men as their enablers.) Also, as in "Don Giovanni" and "Figaro," the company stayed true to its goal: proving that opera stagings need not take place within a traditional proscenium and that they can also reach the ultimate hauteur in design/direction.

Oh, it can be tricky. But the Phil has done it again -- mounted a compelling "Così" that changes the atmospherics from rococo farce to today's social currency. For that, thank director Christopher Alden, who always drills down to the various characters' core, in moment-to-moment manner and comportment, just so we can relate to them. Do they slouch? Do they amble? Do they plaster themselves to the floor puzzling over a decision or awaiting an outcome?

And Zaha Hadid's molded white plastic set, a multi-level free-form affair where they do all this, sends them on their chic way, costumed in Hussein Chalayan's hip streetwear that keeps converting before our eyes. The result is no-holds-barred sophistication, carried out by a young, savvy cast that looks as good as it sounds.

Disney Hall certainly affords singers the most flattering acoustic. And Dudamel, with his orchestra only inches from them, kept the music stirring like the tenderest gentle breeze or ripping with a thunderclap but always breathing in sync with the voices. He even sang a line in perfect Italian in his beautiful baritone, with the surprised audience erupting into wild laughter and applause.

Rod Gilfry, as the schemer-in-chief Don Alfonso, stood out, with the able complement of Philippe Sly (Guglielmo), Benjamin Bliss (Ferrando), Miah Persson (Fiordiligi), Roxana Constantinescu (Dorabella) and Rosemary Joshua (Despina).

On to women as immoral: Of all Massenet's operas, "Thais" is the one most loaded with the French composer's deep-down conflict: a war between lust and God, between ways of the flesh and devotion to holiness -- as carried out by the title character and her reformer.

But we can be glad that when LA Opera went searching for a production of it for the company's mainstay star Plácido Domingo, now relegated to baritone roles after depleting his tenorial gold, it found the one from Gothenburg -- a far cry from what San Francisco put on back in 1976 for then-reigning diva Beverly Sills.

That one was a hoot. The courtesan splendor surrounding her spared no detail. A gigantic circular bed stood as her ungapatchked headquarters, with an enormous mirror suspended overhead. She pranced about in gilt belly-dancer garb. And nowhere could we find a trace of high-minded Anatole France in this perfumed hash.

But ah, LA Opera to the rescue -- that is, with the spiffy couture that designer Johan Engels made of fourth-century decadence in the city of Alexandria. The women paraded like pre-cursors of Ziegfield Girls, à la Cleopatra -- but with everything up-to-the-neck, no décolletage -- and the monk corps wore black shiny top hats, even while the sets seemed a poor fit for the Chandler Pavilion stage.

Nino Machaidze (remember her hilarious "Turk in Italy"?) carried off the title role splendidly -- polishing the high notes with pizzazz, if not getting into the teeth of French vocal intimacy -- and Domingo, as Athanaël, gave us a mad monk whose zeal was a mere cover for his fatal attraction to Thaïs, almost forging a growl in his passionate, near-grasp of her. Valentin Anikin's fine basso lent Palemon a persuasive note of caution to the unhappy hero, while Paul Groves was a less compelling Nicias.

But director Nicola Raab's flashpoint came at the end, after the obsessed holy man has dragged across the desert with his repentant party girl to deliver her to a convent. She re-appears there on a platform, totally committed now to a pious life -- it's a surreal scene surrounding her, with sand-dusted monks in their sand-dusted top hats and reclining sand-covered theater seats. As Athanaël looks up at her -- God's radiant bride standing in a gorgeous white gown with designer tiara (eat your heart out Vera Wang), wafting a gossamer scarf overhead and singing her ecstatic high notes to the heavens -- he rails lustfully from below. The two do not hear each other. Author France finally achieves his irony. This scene, a must-see.

Patrick Fournillier maximized Massenet's score coaxing passionate outpourings and even Wagnerian breadth from the orchestra.

But there's more. LA Opera brought us a special end-of-season bonus with "A Streetcar Named Desire," -- yes, Tennessee Williams' magnetic play, here scored by Andre Previn, libretto Philip Littell, and written for Renée Fleming.

On to women as crazy: Everything you loved about the original work (and later the movie starring Brando, Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter) is here. It's tantalizingly intimate -- in the way that so many contemporary operas are not. Previn is a musical couturier; his instrumentation can be eerily harrowing, suggest mad reverie and cut right to the alternating emotional undercurrent, while his vocal line is remarkable for staying true to every dramatic nuance of the text.

Fleming luxuriates in it. Her voice, with its impeccable colorations and its rounded tones high and pure, curves around the notes like a smile trying to hide pain. As Blanche Dubois, though, she is less fey than those who have portrayed the heroine desperately seeking to escape her shameful past, one who "depends on the kindness of strangers." Troubled, yes, but also cunning and glamorous, she comes across strongly. So, too, does Brad Dalton's staging make clear the atmospherics of this southern household drama.

A terrific cast included Ryan McKinny, shirt-less to show off his washboard abs and otherwise a convincing tough-guy as Stanley; Stacey Tappan, whose Stella is a natural as the hopeful sister and who sang with expressive depth and vocal beauty: Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch, eager to be the gentleman for Blanche and even movingly sympathetic at her tragic end. Evan Rogister smartly led a small orchestra upstage behind the singers.

So too can musicians who don't sing make an operatic entrance. Take this one, for instance: A gifted pianist who arrives on the scene from a tiny Chinese province. He becomes an instant celebrity -- a paragon of the New China (after Mao Tse Tung), a magazine cover boy, a 60 Minutes feature -- what with his heroic story of rising from poverty to iconhood via a showmanship that exploits his powerful virtuosity.

Ten years later Lang Lang no longer exaggerates for the world-wide audience, no longer swoons at the keyboard like a silent screen star. Finally the tall, lean pianist has grown into his fabled talent.

And when he appeared with Gustavo Dudamel leading the LA Philharmonic in Prokofiev's Third Concerto everything coalesced. In a slim black suit with open-necked white shirt, a stylish but not extreme haircut, a long graceful body whose home is at the piano, and an ownership of both the instrument and music, he made it all come together like a miraculous whole.

Especially at the final cadence, when he and Dudamel struck thunder in a single electric flash, a depth charge of crackling intensity.

But that wasn't all. Our resident maestro proved once again he's the dancing-est fellow around -- squeezing his orchestra for the last juice of languor in Ravel's "La Valse" and "Valse nobles et sentimentales" and letting the three-quarter rhythms sweep into full plangency, all this inside the brilliant brass shatterings and assorted musical graphics. Ditto Paul Desenne's engaging "Sinfonia Burocratica," which got an irresistibly insistent dance treatment around and about its little sardonic asides.

June 2, 2014

A day at the museum for three Los Angeles designers

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Throughout their careers, designers Clare Vivier, Anita Ko, and George Esquivel have been inspired by museum and gallery visits. So when LACMA invited them to participate in the spring 2014 Wear LACMA collection, there was little hesitation to jump in. Created by fashion advisor (and wife of LACMA director Michael Govan) Katherine Ross in 2012, Wear LACMA gives local fashion designers the opportunity to tour the museum's permanent collection and choose an artwork to use as a point of departure for their own creations. The collaboration is a fundraiser for the museum, and the resulting pieces are sold at the LACMA store and on NET-a-PORTER.com. While mostly priced out of reach for the average customer (the least expensive items, t-shirts by Vivier for $85, quickly sold out) the "Wear LACMA" collection does shine a light on a growing group of clothing and accessory designers who have chosen to live and work in Los Angeles. All three approached the project from a personal perspective.

vivier-purse.jpg"I'm drawn to French things, to graphic pieces with text in them," says Vivier, who is primarily known for her handbags. "I'm inspired by people I see on the street...kind of from afar. I'll see someone when I'm driving or walking and I can't really make out what they're wearing--I'll turn it into something that's inspiring--it's almost like an illustration."

Vivier learned to sew while growing up in Minnesota. After college in San Francisco she moved to Paris, worked at various jobs and met her husband, Thierry, a journalist for French television. She began to design when, after returning to the U.S., the desire arose for a more stylish bag for her laptop. Business took off in 2006. Today there are namesake stores in Silver Lake and Manhattan, with one opening soon in Santa Monica.

A French embroidered man's vest from the LACMA costume collection (circa 1789-94) sparked the idea for Vivier's graphically printed clutches, tote bags, and t-shirts. "That was the piece that stayed in my mind. A lot of R&D work went into how we could print on leather and canvas. We tried a lot of different colors," she explained.

Related from LA Observed: Costume designer Marlene Stewart at LACMA


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"When I came around the corner I said, 'that's it!'" says Esquivel, recalling when he first saw Felipe Santiago Gutierrez's 1876 "Portrait of a Woman with a Marigold." The shoe designer had already decided to use something Latin American from LACMA's collection, "to speak to my heritage," and considered Diego Rivera. In the end he opted for something "less expected." The women's sandal and summer desert boot are his interpretation of the painting's colors and mood.

Esquivel_Sandal.jpgBorn and raised in Orange County, Esquivel lives in Cypress with his wife and three kids and produces his handmade line of men's and women's oxfords, loafers, and boots out of a 3500-square foot workshop in Buena Park. "Half of my business is direct to customer and we also sell at stores like Barney's," he says. He is also the creative director for Tumi Luggage.

Esquivel's turbulent upbringing (a father in and out of jail and living in motels with his mother and four siblings) makes him an unlikely success story, but he has made it all work in his favor. "I gravitate towards beautiful things because I didn't have them as a kid," he says. After discovering shoe-making on a trip to Baja in the early 90's, he worked as an apprentice, began to attract clients and got his first retail account in 2002. "Growing up the way I did you don't know how to dream. But, here I am...Never did I know you could be paid for ideas."


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Ko, a jewelry designer, "went in with an open heart and mind." But when she got to the Korean collection during her museum tour, it resonated with her due to her family roots in Korea. ko-ear-cuff.jpgA reading table from the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) and a 19th century porcelain bottle, both with bat-like motifs (a symbol of good fortune), gave her the starting point she needed to design ear cuffs, a ring, and earrings. Ko grew up in the Palisades and "started designing when I was 8. I was that kid who always made her own necklaces." After a few years at NYU she returned to Los Angeles and launched her business. "I was very lucky to have parents who were supportive. It's like anything. I learned through trial and error."

The first piece she designed was a simple circle diamond necklace. Small boutiques began to carry her pieces and celebrities started to wear them. "I love walking around LA--seeing all the cool girls and all the cool boys. I'm inspired by their aesthetic. I try to design organically when it comes to me, rather than be pressured into a season," she says. "Jewelry lovers come from every walk of life--every socioeconomic class. I love seeing how people express themselves."

May 22, 2014

Where's CTG's next great LA play? Plus: Ghostly therapy

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Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin in "Camp David."

On a recent trip to the other coast, I saw two plays -- within 24 hours -- about southern Democrats who were elected to the American presidency during my lifetime. No, not Bill Clinton.

Robert Schenkkan's "All the Way" is primarily about Lyndon Johnson's successful shepherding of civil rights legislation in 1964, and Lawrence Wright's "Camp David" dramatizes Jimmy Carter's mediation of the talks between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat that resulted in an agreement between Israel and Egypt. In both of these situations, the presidents served as bridges between antagonistic parties -- the kind of presidential role that today seems much more difficult, despite the obvious need.

These two presidential plays were the products of ambitious commissioning programs at leading American theaters -- Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which presented the premiere of "All the Way" before it went to Broadway and which will open the "All the Way" sequel "The Great Society" in July, and Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage, which developed and presented the premiere of "Camp David."

As an LA observer, I left these experiences with an LA-related question. Why isn't our most comparable theater company, Center Theatre Group, turning out comparably substantive and powerful dramatizations of American history that demonstrate how the past informs and affects present-day America?

The last time Center Theatre Group consistently helped forge dramatic works in this sphere was in the Gordon Davidson era of the early 1990s, when CTG played a critical role in the creation of "The Kentucky Cycle," "Angels in America" and "Twilight: Los Angeles 1992."

Schenkkan, who wrote "The Kentucky Cycle" as well as "All the Way," lived and worked in LA in the early '90s. So did the director of "All the Way," Bill Rauch, who was then a recent arrival as artistic director of Cornerstone Theater but since then was snatched out of our territory by that mighty contender to the north -- Ashland, Oregon, where Rauch runs Oregon Shakespeare. For that matter, Bryan Cranston -- the brilliant star of Broadway's "All the Way" (and, of course, "Breaking Bad") -- was an LA boy who attended Valley College and still lives primarily in LA.

I hope that I can safely assume that CTG is trying to obtain the rights to present "All the Way" in LA, preferably with Cranston working on his home turf -- although Cranston's understudy, Steve Vinovich, also has an LBJ-worthy face that's already familiar to LA theater audiences. "All the Way" could be a terrific cornerstone of the Taper's election-year season next year (but perhaps the Geffen Playhouse, which produced a lesser Schenkkan play and also hosted Cranston's last LA stage gig, might also have a chance?) CTG probably also should be trying to snag a production of "Camp David," preferably with its DC star Richard Thomas -- yes, the former John-Boy on TV's "The Waltons" is a very convincing Carter.

But wouldn't it have been great if CTG were developing plays like these and introducing them to the world?

To its credit, CTG last year produced the award-winning premiere of LA playwright Jennifer Haley's "The Nether," which raised topical cultural issues that resonated beyond its particular story. But its scale was small, compared to those of "Kentucky Cycle" and "Angels in America," and it was at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, not at CTG's larger flagship, the Mark Taper Forum. "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," Rajiv Joseph's imaginative take on the Iraq war, also opened first at the Douglas but then received the rare honor of re-opening at the Taper in 2010 -- the most adventurous sign of support for this kind of material that I've witnessed during the Michael Ritchie era at CTG.

But most of CTG's recent nods in the direction of historical or political relevance have been plays that previously opened elsewhere ("American Night", for example.) What did the Taper offer politicos during the 2012 election season? David Mamet's stale White House farce, "November," from the previous election-year cycle four years earlier.

Right now, at the Douglas, CTG is producing the premiere of Kimber Lee's "different words for the same thing". It's an engrossing play about its particular situation, but the lower-case and hard-to-remember title indicates the limited scale of its ambitions. Structured almost entirely in brief cinematic-style scenes, separated by a lot of furniture-moving by the actors, it's about people in a small town in Idaho.

When I first heard where it's set, I felt a twinge of jealousy -- thanks to the Samuel D. Hunter plays that have recently been seen at South Coast Repertory ("The Whale," "Rest") and Rogue Machine ("A Bright New Boise") and now Lee's "different words," contemporary Idaho seems to be getting more attention on the stages of greater LA than, well, greater LA.

That's a subject somewhat distinct from my earlier consideration of the overall ambition of the plays and their themes, but it's an important subject -- and it's an issue that I've regularly monitored over the last few years. Frankly, if I had to choose between more smaller-scale plays set in LA and a few larger-scale plays with clear-cut national or international resonance, I'd go with the former.

In an ideal world, however, CTG would be able to combine the two. It would introduce at least a few big plays with big themes that are set in the big city where CTG is located.

Perhaps that seems like an easier task for Arena Stage, as its home town is also the national capital -- "Camp David" deftly combines specifically local references with international themes. But LA is not exactly a shrinking bird-of-paradise on the world stage.

It's astonishing that CTG, which continues to bill itself as "L.A.'s Theatre Company," can't find more interesting stories in the immensely diverse communities that surround the Music Center in all directions. In recent years, CTG has commissioned some potentially big plays with LA themes, but they haven't emerged from their developmental chambers. Still, every year I hope against hope that "L.A.'s Theatre Company" will avoid that generic-resident-theater feeling by finally paying greater attention to LA, with more involvement of LA talent as well as more LA settings.

The upcoming Douglas and Taper seasons are expected to be announced in the next few months. Does CTG have the will --- and the money -- to go big? And even if it lacks the money, perhaps it might still do something about the LA present or LA history. Is anyone out there writing a play about the groundbreaking LA mayoral showdown between Tom Bradley and Sam Yorty?

LA deserves an honored place at the CTG table -- and on a scale that might also mean something to the rest of America.

GHOSTS ON STAGE: In "different words for the same thing" at the Douglas, a young woman who died a few years ago appears as a realistic-looking apparition who communicates with some of the living. Of course ghosts have a long tradition in the theater -- think "Hamlet" and Macbeth" -- but those old-timey creations were more authentically scary. Now (and perhaps since the days of ""Blithe Spirit" and "Our Town") most of the dead who hang around in plays aren't scary. Instead, their usual role leans toward the therapeutic -- for themselves as well as for the survivors.

In the case of "different words," the ghost finally learns, as part of the climax, exactly how she died. Unfortunately, this is the weakest moment of an otherwise fine-grained play, because the explanation introduces a complicated subplot -- briefly sketched only in words, not in action -- that doesn't seem to have much relevance to anything else that's going on in "different words".

I saw two other plays over the weekend in which the dead remain literally alive for the audience, as representations of the survivors' thoughts. In Bekah Brunstetter's "Be a Good Little Widow" at NoHo Arts Center, a young husband's death in an airplane crash doesn't prevent him from returning to the stage. In Carey Crim's "Wake" at South Pasadena's Fremont Centre Theatre, a somewhat older husband returns from beyond the grave to visitations with his wife, an agoraphobic who runs a mortuary within her own home.

The prevalence of this device on our stages devalues its effectiveness. It has become a cliche that playwrights apparently find difficult to resist.

Wake_Press_1_Web.jpgBut the ghost in "Wake" feels less cliched than the ghost in "Be a Good Little Widow," because the themes of "Wake" are bigger than those of "Widow." The title, "Wake", has more than one meaning, unlike the too-explicit title of "Widow." "Wake" depicts three generations of women, not the two represented in "Widow." The husband's death in "Wake" occurred three years before the play begins, so the play has a longer-term perspective on the aftermath of death, while much of the shorter "Widow" is about the first awful moments after a fatal accident.

Although Crim's tone is realistic, not satirical, her "Wake" contains a couple of wild plot twists that sound as if they might have been conceived by the younger Christopher Durang or the younger David Lindsay-Abaire. These developments aren't completely credible within the play's realistic surfaces, but they at least add welcome dashes of originality

Both of these plays are scheduled to close this weekend. If you'd like to see one -- but only one -- of LA theater's stories about the process of surviving a loved one's death, I recommend the livelier "Wake," which is produced by SeaGlass Theatre and directed by Matt Kirkwood. By the way, based on one particular line in the script, we can even count "Wake" as an LA-set script -- for those of us who care.

Bottom: "Wake" photo by Melissa McCormack.

May 2, 2014

Costume designer Sandy Powell at the Getty

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Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend as Victoria and Albert. Courtesy of the Getty.


For a brief time last Sunday, the real life Queen Victoria and the 2009 movie version played by actress Emily Blunt crossed paths at the Getty Center in Brentwood. Born in 1819 and crowned in 1838, Victoria reigned until her death in 1901. The film, The Young Victoria, examines the monarch's early life and marriage. An exhibit at the Getty Museum, A Royal Passion, Queen Victoria and Photography, provided the backdrop for a conversation between three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell and Deborah Nadoolman Landis, director of the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design at UCLA. Powell designed the costumes for the film for which she won her third gold statue in 2010. She also won for "The Aviator" (2005) and "Shakespeare in Love" (1999). In front of a packed auditorium, Powell and Nadoolman Landis chatted about the challenges and rewards of designing period clothing while on-set stills of "The Young Victoria" cast flashed on the screen behind them. The audience included design students, fans of the film, and "A Royal Passion" attendees.

British-born Powell, 52, has become one of the go-to costume designers for period film. "There's more to do in terms of research — you learn something every time," she said when explaining why she prefers the genre. "It's really difficult doing a contemporary film — actually harder than period — because everybody has an opinion about what a contemporary person looks like — whereas in a period film you kind of have the upper hand."

Powell gave some insight into her creative process and revealed some tricks of the trade. She was attracted to Victoria's story because the script "was about a young vibrant woman who was thrown into the deep end." If she agrees to take on a project after reading the script, meeting with the director is the crucial next step. "Generally if we get on as people it works out," she said with a smile. In "The Young Victoria," Powell's challenge was to show the difference between the pre-coronation, sheltered, youthful girl, and the woman Victoria grew into after becoming queen. For the costume designer, that meant going from girly to "a stronger line, less fussy." In addition to looking at photographs and paintings from the period, Powell was able to do research at Kensington Palace in London, Victoria's childhood home and where her surviving clothing is now stored. She studied what she could for accuracy but, except for well-documented pieces (such as Victoria's wedding dress), Powell primarily made up her own versions "based on the look of the period — the kind of thing she would wear."

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Victoria and Albert at Buckingham Palace, 1854, by Roger Fenton.
Creating the massive amount of costumes needed for a film like "The Young Victoria" (58 changes for Blunt alone) is the sort of task the matter-of-fact Powell is seemingly undaunted by. After her initial sketches, she and her team shopped for fabrics, commissioned hats and gloves, and scoured the internet to find the best dealers for period jewelry. "I like doing the jewelry," she said. "It's one of my favorite bits. We do it at the end of the film when we've got all the clothes. Victorian jewelry isn't that difficult to find...and a lot of the dealers were willing to buy it back after we'd used it." Although Powell takes her inspiration from the fabrics she finds, she is almost always restricted by budget. "You don't always have to buy the most expensive to make things look expensive. You can get away with using cheaper fabrics — it's what you do with them."

Powell often hand paints pieces to look embroidered, and sometimes uses fake fur in place of real. When asked if she's excited by seeing the costumes come together, Powell said, "Of course, the organic process is the most exciting part, watching it develop. The real design moment is not the sketch at the beginning - design is when the costume is halfway there at the first fitting and you say, what does it need? Less here or a bit more there. That's the designing."

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Nadoolman Landis, left, and Powell.
Powell's Getty appearance came at a typically busy time — she flew in for the weekend from Cincinnati, where she is working on a new Todd Haynes movie, "Carol," with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. She did however, seem to enjoy having the chance to reflect on the role of the costume designer in the greater scope of movie-making. "We're creating characters in films. We're helping to make entertainment, summing up the essence of a period in clothing. The characters have to be believable and it's our job to make that happen." Powell answered honestly when a young audience member asked what is the thing she loves most about her career. "I like everything about designing and if I didn't it would be an impossible job to do. It consumes so much of your life - you have to sacrifice everything else for that period of time, whether it's three months or a year. The day I stop enjoying it is when I'll give it up."

Previously on LA Observed:
LA Observed goes to LACMA with costume designer Marlene Stewart (video)

Showcases for Baryshnikov and Von Stade: Meeting the measure or not

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Frederica von Stade


So what do starry eminences decide when the time comes to hang it up? Leave the stage? Not Flicka. Not Misha.

For these two, Frederica von Stade and Mikhail Baryshnikov, we must understand just how ingrained the love of performance is -- she, the lyric mezzo with the tender tear in her voice, the Cherubino who trembled with pubescent fervor and tickled us as the tipsy Périchole or melted our hearts with her "Pretty Little Horses"; he, the dancer who leaped in the air with laughing ease, defied gravity, devoured space, aped Jimmy Cagney moves with jaw-dropping accuracy and put his bravura technique to the service of powerful grief as Albrecht.

There's a reason the world calls them by their nicknames: And it's not because she was America's sweetheart soprano or because he acted in "Sex and the City" cameos.

They don't want to give up the stage and we don't want to let them go.

Take von Stade, for instance. At the Beverly Hills Wallis, which couldn't be a more inviting space for her in the Ricky Ian Gordon/Leonard Foglia one-act opera "Coffin in Egypt," the still-alluring star exuded the same genuineness she's known for. True, the white-haired-matron role adds too many years to an appearance that is otherwise much younger. And her jaunty spirit has been compromised by the requirements of this character -- an old lady looking back on her life with recriminations, regrets and grievances galore.

As such she also had to embrace the vintage vanity of upper-class southern whites, with typically racist references abounding as well as pre-feminist notions of women as second-class citizens -- none of which is too appetizing.

But if only the material had not been so hackneyed. And if Gordon had found some better musical means for the character to express the great dissatisfaction with her life at 90, waiting to die in a miserable Texas town named Egypt. And if Foglia had not resorted to so much repetition in his text, taken from a Horton Foote play.

Luckily, there was some respite from the ungrateful vocal writing -- high and shrieky -- with moments when von Stade could seize on a melodic wisp remindful of "Oklahoma" ("Oh, What a Beautiful Morning") or when she could wax softly nostalgic or be vocally resplendent in red. Losing the amplification installed at the Houston premiere, and here, would have helped considerably, also with the gospel chorus. Others in the cast had well-enacted speaking parts only and conductor Kathleen Kelly led the nine-member chamber ensemble ably.

But the pickings were better for Baryshnikov, what with two of Chekhov's stories within grasp. And although "Man in a Case," his third outing at the Broad Stage, was another instance of the star's cart before the horse -- the producers made a hash out of the Russian writer's first tale, "Case" -- Misha finally gained the upper hand in the second and shorter one, "About Love."

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Tymberly Canale and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Photo: T. Charles Erickson


Here he was at his affecting best: a man in love with a married woman as she suffers a severe depression because of their prohibited union. When he describes kissing her face and arms and hands that are wet with the taste of tears, his voice is deep and burnished, his Latvian-tinged speech earthy. It is Misha, the actor he could ideally be, never better revealed than at this moment.

But "Case's" depiction bore all the signs of unresolved trial and error -- despite the big-name team he surrounded himself with, one that gladly produced this pastiche for the still-luminous luminary. (After all, would there be a draw with a lesser name?)

The set was plain and simple, especially compared to his previous artfully sophisticated ventures at the Broad. As the lead character, Belikov, at first he seemed like a displaced person with a thick Russian accent trying to tell an ol' boy story in the American vernacular to macho jokesters. It definitely misfires -- no matter the add-ons of projections and screens, or the Ukrainian folk dancers and musicians/singers as part of the story, or his signature fillip of a few r&b steps.

As the incoherent format changes, our hero appears in a long black coat, dramatic and stylish, again as he was "In Paris" -- the outsider, the stoic loner beset with proprietary concerns. But the patched-together show did not jell. Too much false construction.

For an object lesson in artistry we had only to see Peter Brook's touring production of "The Suit" at UCLA. Unburdened with having to make a star vehicle, the 89-year-old theatrical wizard put together a marvelous realization of a South African story that reached poetic heights -- in speech, symbolism, music, stagecraft -- all of which had integral meaning, carried along by superb actor/musicians in tidbits from meticulously chosen Miriam Makeba to Schubert to Billie Holiday. Count yourself unlucky if you missed it.

But if you chugged downtown to a weekend of the Paul Taylor Dance Company there was predictable excellence. And the choreographer's signal motifs found their way to such golden oldies as "Airs," his Baroque ode to Handel, with its piety and joy intact, followed by two newer pieces.

In all three we could see his single, slyly humorous i.d. tag -- you know, the "shazam" arms, those sudden angular bolts of lightning in vintage comic books that are akin to the Nina letters in Al Hirschfeld cartoons. They last only nanoseconds and are unmistakably a Taylor emblem.

Otherwise, he gave us "Banquet of Vultures," a brilliantly organized complex of society's vanquishment by a dictator set to dark Morton Feldman music and its delightfully frivolous antidote, "Gossamer Gallants," which makes the inescapable point that sexual politics animates even winged creatures: females flirt and seduce, males gape and grasp, only to be ensnared and browbeaten.

Also downtown, at Disney Hall, and everywhere around the city, we had the Minimalist Jukebox celebration, a humongous event. One heart-wrenching entry was David Lang's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Little Match Girl Passion," performed by the LA Master Chorale under Grant Gershon.

There's a reason this music is universally beloved. It deals in barest simplicity, but the Hans Christian Andersen parable of a child's suffering -- as a beggar hungering in the frigid outdoors, to hallucinating of sumptuous suppers and longed-for grandmothers, to death -- is shot through with stark emotion.

Lang's "Passion," with Gershon and singers as his champion, emerged with a plaintive gorgeousness, its pathos rising from fugal lines sung in clipped phrases that spoke of icy deprivation -- only at the end of which came relief.

Quite a month it was.

April 29, 2014

Couples counseling in 'Premeditation,' ''Knock Me a Kiss,' 'Come Back,' 'Five Mile Lake'

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Scene from "Premeditation," photo by Ed Krieger.

Couples counseling is in session in two rousing productions at Los Angeles Theatre Center -- and in some other theaters around greater LA.

In Evelina Fernandez's "Premeditation," two middle-aged heterosexual couples in contemporary LA are in the throes of marital discord. But this is no earnestly realistic psychodrama.

It's a delirious farce. The narrative proceeds from the premise that one of the wives, Esmeralda (Fernandez), has met Mauricio (Sal Lopez) -- the husband in the other couple -- only when she hires him to kill her own husband, Fernando (Geoffrey Rivas).

And what dastardly deed has Fernando, a UCLA professor, done to merit such a fate? When Mauricio asks this burning question, Esmeralda begins by describing Fernando's habit of leaving his underwear on the floor... and Mauricio immediately begins sympathizing with his would-be mark.

Complications ensue, especially after Mauricio's own long-suffering wife Lydia (Lucy Rodriguez) gets wind of what she supposes to be a romantic tryst between Mauricio and Esmeralda.

"Premeditation" -- as with several other plays developed by Fernandez and her director and husband Jose Luis Valenzuela (who happens to be a UCLA professor) -- achieves a genuine comic brio, on the edge of satire, as it delves into the state of middle-aged marriage. The tone is established at the beginning, as the actors move in choreographed conjunction with mobile set pieces and lively music. Comedy also arises from the juxtaposition of '40s noir imagery -- in costumes, lighting and projections -- with the often-mundane squabbling of these 21st-century couples, who are chained to their personal phones, even as they try to appear aloof and mysterious. But the light-hearted style doesn't guarantee a happy-ever-after ending.

Let's move upstairs from LATC's Theatre 3 to the much smaller Theatre 4, where the endings are even less happy-ever-after in Robey Theatre's production of Charles Smith's "Knock Me a Kiss."

knock-me-a-kiss-ds.jpgIn 1928, the biggest social event of the season for "the talented tenth" of African Americans in New York was the wedding of the rising young Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen (Jason Mimms) to the daughter of the scene's leading intellectual light, sociologist/writer/editor/activist W.E.B. DuBois (Ben Guillory).

A year later, the marriage was kaput. Young Yolande DuBois (Toyin Moses) concluded that her husband preferred the company of his best male friend and that she -- perhaps too late -- preferred the company of the randy jazz musician Jimmie Lunceford (Keir Thirus), who had previously wooed her.

"Knock Me a Kiss" is not only about the younger couples but also about the somewhat strained relationship between the great DuBois and his wife Nina (Rosie Lee Hooks), who is depicted as holding a grudge against her husband for his previous choice, long ago, to work in segregated Atlanta. The discriminatory medical care there, she contends, led to the death of their young son.

But this grim undercurrent within the play is somewhat countered by the raucous interactions among the younger generation -- including Lenora, a wise-cracking best friend (Ashlee Olivia) of Yolande. Lenora picks up the remnants of Yolande's romance with the virile Jimmy.

It's a fascinating tale, told without a trace of rote reverence toward the historical characters, even as it acknowledges DuBois' status. Kudos to Robey and Smith for telling us a story that most of us hadn't heard. Of course, judging from Smith's "Free Man of Color" -- seen at the Colony Theatre in 2010 -- that appears to be Smith's specialty
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Dwain A. Perry's staging is especially refreshing as it arrives courtesy of a company named after Paul Robeson but tells a much more entertaining story than the two solo shows about Robeson that recently opened in LA.

Ebony Repertory Theatre just closed its revival of the longer but lesser Paul Robeson monodrama, "Paul Robeson," and Center Theatre Group just opened the better Robeson solo, "The Tallest Tree in the Forest," at the Mark Taper Forum. "The Tallest Tree," starring Daniel Beaty, is considerably less devoted to hagiography than the reverential "Paul Robeson," but neither of them is nearly as full-bodied a play as "Knock me a Kiss," with its juicy roles for six actors instead of just one.

"The Tallest Tree" is actually a couples play, too -- in which Beaty plays both Robeson and his wife Essie, the former more convincingly than the latter. But at least Beaty allows Essie the opportunity to object vociferously to Robeson's affairs with white actresses -- a topic that was almost entirely avoided in "Paul Robeson."

Before we leave the DuBois/Robeson era, I also should note that "Porgy and Bess" -- yet another show about a troubled African-American couple during roughly the same period -- is currently at CTG's Ahmanson Theatre. Of course, it's set in provincial Charleston, not sophisticated New York. This controversial but Tony-winning version of the Gershwin masterpiece, directed by Diane Paulus from Suzan-Lori Parks' adaptation of the original Gershwin/Heyward libretto, is entrancing. And it's such a big show, by the standards of musical theater if not those of opera, that perhaps I should cut CTG some slack for simultaneously presenting an only-one-actor production, next door at the Taper.

A Noise Within in Pasadena is also reviving an American couples play, William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba" -- which has a psychological trajectory that is somewhat similar to that of "Knock Me a Kiss." In both plays, a father figure strongly disapproves of a young woman's choice of a lusty young suitor, and she decides to go with someone who's considered more suitably marrigeable.

But Inge was less concerned with the play's twentysomethings than with its middle-aged adults -- Doc (Geoff Elliott) and Lola (Deborah Strang), a childless couple who feel empty and jealous as they observe the affairs of their young boarder Marie (Lili Fuller), her jock boyfriend Turk (Miles Gaston Villanueva and her fiance (Paul Culos).

Another major difference between the two plays is that "Come Back" is set a few decades later, in what here appears to be a very white Midwestern college town. But it ain't necessarily so -- Center Theatre Group altered that equation in its 2007 production at Kirk Douglas Theatre. S. Epatha Merkerson played Lola alongside Alan Rosenberg as Doc -- an interracial couple, although no one said anything about it.

Of course, Lola and Doc don't need the extra societal disapproval of crossing racial lines in order to break our hearts, as convincingly confirmed by the performances of Elliott and Strang. That these two are equally successful as the primary antagonists in Moliere's "Tartuffe" right now, also within the spring repertory at A Noise Within, should convince just about anyone that they're among LA's most protean actors. "Come Back, Little Sheba" is directed by Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott with an assurance that muffles any questions that might be raised by Inge's Freudian obviousness.

Finally, let's look at two more couples -- one apparently dissolving, one possibly beginning -- who inhabit the premiere of Rachel Bonds' "Five Mile Lake" at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. These present-day couples aren't nearly as old as those in "Premeditation" or "Come Back, Little Sheba," but they're already feeling some of the anxieties and doubt that beset their elders.

The play takes place in a small Pennsylvania town. To Mary (Rebecca Mozo), the fact that she has never left this town is a curse. But the locale suits Jamie (Nate Mooney), her would-be crush who works alongside her at a bakery counter. When Jamie's Ph.D-trapped brother Rufus (Corey Brill) returns home from New York with his English girlfriend (Nicole Saunders), the city/country divide becomes more intense. No one is really satisfied with his or her place in life.

Many writers try to re-create that Chekhovian feeling in contemporary settings; Bonds comes closer than most -- especially if you compare her play to the explicitly Chekhovian "Man in a Case," currently featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov in a tedious, half-baked experiment at Broad Stage.

Daniella Topol's direction of "Five Mile Lake" allows the subtleties of Bonds' characters to emerge in a style that's a far cry from the urban pace of the people in "Premeditation" or even the stark anguish of the couple in "Come Back, Little Sheba." But the unknown futures of the "Five Mile" folks are tantalizing, too.

Lower photo from "Knock Me A Kiss," photo by Tomoko Matsushita.

April 19, 2014

When 'spoilers' are essential elements of a discussion

Like most of my colleagues who comment on theater, I'm usually wary about revealing spoilers, especially when they're in new scripts.

As a result, occasionally I sidestep information about what happens in a production (as do those who write about other narrative forms such as movies, TV series or books), although in retrospect that information might seem, well, critical to the character of the production.

I'm beginning to think that those of us who write about theater -- especially those of us who write apart from the early-deadline pressure and relatively larger readership of, say, the LA Times --probably shouldn't be quite as cautious about the use of well-flagged spoilers as those who write for what was once considered "the newspaper of record" in LA, or those who write about the other narrative art forms.

Theater is ephemeral. In LA, most productions are available for only a few weeks or months -- compared to the relative permanence of movies, TV series and books. Of course, theatrical scripts remain ready for possible revivals after a first production, but usually no subsequent productions are guaranteed at the moment when a potential theatergoer is deciding whether to buy a ticket to the premiere production.

Even if subsequent productions are likely to take place, what are the chances that they will be as accessible as the current production? The first revival might occur in another continent, for all we usually know.

Tickets to labor-intensive, one-of-a-kind theater events usually cost more than the fees charged for mass-produced movies, TV series and books (which can even be legally borrowed from libraries for no fee at all). Attending theater also usually requires more logistical planning than watching screen imagery or reading books.

For all of these reasons, potential theatergoers deserve to know a little more information in advance than would-be consumers of films, TV or books. And sometimes that information includes so-called "spoilers." After all, one reader's spoiler might be another person's reason to buy a ticket -- or not to buy a ticket.

Many people associate spoilers only with such obvious no-nos as revealing whodunit in a review of an old-fashioned mystery. But spoilers can go far beyond disclosing that the butler did it. Some readers might not want to know in advance about a particularly controversial topic -- or even a particularly distinctive moment of physical comedy -- but avoiding any mention of these components of the production can result in a very superficial critique.

Writers can always issue warnings about spoilers that are approaching soon in an article -- giving those readers who choose to avoid all potential spoilers a chance to stop reading in time to dodge the revelation or the description of something they would rather not know, while providing this additional information to readers who would appreciate a more thorough awareness of what's in store for them. And so:

SPOILERS AHEAD: I'm about to discuss two examples of what some readers might consider "spoilers," so if you really hate the idea of knowing "too much" in advance about the puppetized production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Broad Stage or "Rest" at South Coast Repertory, you should stop reading here.

I'll start with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Broad Stage. It might seem inconceivable that anyone would come up with something surprising, on the "spoiler" level, for a production of one of the world's most frequently seen plays (perhaps the most frequently seen?), yet this Bristol Old Vic/Handspring Theatre production has accomplished the unthinkable.

In fact, it's precisely because many theatergoers might be deterred from seeing still one more "Midsummer" that t'm going to discuss this particular aspect of the current production a little more explicitly than most of my colleagues have.

It involves the you're-so-vain character of Bottom -- the preening would-be star of the mechanicals' amateur theatrics. This Bottom's the top -- the funniest Bottom I've ever seen.

And it's not only because of the talents of actor Miltos Yerolemou in the role. It's because when this Bottom is transformed into the ass who enchants Titania, the actor is splayed over the top of a little cart that transforms into the rough shape of an ass, with his bare buttocks facing up. It's an ingenious and hilarious way to play on the character's name -- and, in retrospect -- it's amazing that we veterans of many "Midsummer"s have never seen it.

All by itself, this bottoms-up Bottom creates a reason to see this one more "Midsummer." And I doubt that my bare-bones, inadequate description of it in the above paragraph will weaken the comic charge it provides in the theater.

By the way, for some unknown reason I was assigned an unusual seat -- in one of the Broad boxes overlooking the audience as well as the stage. Bottom's bottom didn't register nearly as strongly with a friend who sat near the rear of the orchestra. You might want to take that in mind if you have a choice of seats.

Of course, with the Broad run closing on April 19, you might not get much of a choice, I can't recommend the entire production -- it's a little too long -- but most of the other design elements are also much more creative than those of most garden-variety "Midsummer"s. So anyone who would like a new perspective on this familiar and beloved play should take a look.

rest-scr-shirley.jpgThe element within Samuel Hunter's "Rest" that I'm about to reveal could hardly be more different from the rowdy "Midsummer" display of Bottom. Most of the reviews will tell you that the play is about the three remaining residents and the harried staff of a convalescent center in the middle of an Idaho winter -- and how everyone reacts when the most demented of the three residents is reported to have wandered off into the snow.

Without telling you every detail, let me add that the play is also about the possibility of mercy killing. Mentioning this element might prevent some people from seeing the play, but it could attract others who have some professional or personal interest in the agonizing decision-making that's often faced by those who care for the sick or the elderly.

This sounds grim, and "Rest" certainly is no "Midsummer Night's Dream." But Hunter, who has already made waves in the LA area with "A Bright New Boise" and The Whale," leavens the tone with some comic relief from the institution's hapless boss (Antaeus Company co-artistic director Rob Nagle), and he amplifies the subject of indecision over the end of life with a parallel subplot about indecision over the beginning of life.

Directed by South Coast's co-founder Martin Benson, the production also features three South Coast veterans in the roles of the residents -- Lynn Milgrim, Richard Doyle and Hal Landon. Milgrim is sharply nuanced in the pivotal role, and those who have spent several decades watching Doyle and Landon mature into older roles at SCR won't want to miss this latest chapter -- although let's hope that it's far from the last chapter of their SCR saga.

Photo from "Rest" by Debora Robinson/SCR

April 6, 2014

Quick look: Mike Kelley exhibition at MOCA

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Photos by Iris Schneider.


In introducing the Mike Kelley show in downtown Los Angeles, new MOCA director Philippe Vergne and curator Ann Goldstein both talked about when Kelley's show opened in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum on the weekend of the Sandy Hook massacre. Vergne said that Kelley's work is so timely, dealing with the difficulties of growing up, alienation, violence, religion and the complexities of society. "Looking at his work is so unsettling, and it shows how Kelly had his finger on the pulse of many important question," Vergne said. MOCA curator Bennett Simpson presented the show, which was organized by the Stedelijk and takes over the entire Geffen Contemporary and some exhibit space at MOCA on Grand Avenue. "The show will surround you," said Goldstein, the Stedelijk's former director. "It is total artwork. It comes at you from all sides: aesthetic, formal, magical, political."

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Vergne and Simpson at the media preview.

Going underground - and on stage - with 'Floyd Collins' in La Mirada

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Mark Whitten as Floyd Collins, photo by Michael Lamont.


One of the best midsize venues for professional theater in LA County has a somewhat unusual location - its 199 seats are on located on the stage of La Mirada Theatre,
adjacent to the actors.

Normally, La Mirada tries to fill its proscenium-style theater's 1,251 seats in the conventional way -- with the audience facing the stage -- but to get to the current "Floyd Collins," the audience bypasses the regular auditorium. The ushers direct the spectators to chairs placed temporarily on the stage itself -- in a raked, three-sided thrust around the action.

La Mirada introduced this much more intimate seating configuration into its programming last year with a intense production of "Spring Awakening," and now it has followed up that success with a second triumph - Richard Israel's revival of another very dark musical, "Floyd Collins."

The plot follows the plight of a young man who's trapped in a cave in 1925 Kentucky, based on the true story of Floyd Collins, which ballooned into one of the first major mass-media events in the age of radio. "Skeets" Miller, a young reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for covering the story for the Louisville Courier-Journal and later worked for NBC, is depicted by name in Tina Landau's script.

Israel also directed a 2005 production of "Floyd Collins" at what was then the home of the now-largely-dormant West Coast Ensemble - a much smaller venue on La Brea. Now, on La Mirada's large stage, he and designers Rich Rose (scenic) and Lisa D. Katz (lighting) have a lot more room to suggest the expanses of the cave. Yet with the audience only a few feet away from the actors, they also have the ability to preserve the sense of claustrophobia of the scenes set inside the cave.

Still, much of the musical is set outside the cave, as family and media and rescue crews mingle. And occasionally scenes take us into dream territory, where the entrapped Floyd is free to come and go despite his actual predicament.

FLOYD COLLINS-LA MIRADA-3.jpgAdam Guettel's score is the show's ultimate star -- a quicksilver mix of joyful noises alongside the more expected melancholic and mournful strains, of bluegrass mixed with art song. It's performed to perfection by the cast and by David O's band, located in the venue's regular orchestra pit just behind the main bank of spectators. Designer Josh Bessom fills the arena with immersive sound.

The cast excavates the characters with masterful precision. Mark Whitten plays the ambitious but caught caver. Josey Montana McCoy portrays "Skeets," whose diminutive stature helps him reach a position in the cave within touching distance of Floyd. Kim Huber and Jonah Platt as Floyd's siblings and Larry Lederman (who also was in Israel's 2005 version) and Victoria Strong as his parents all offer distinctive perspectives on Floyd's sad saga. A men's trio provides a vaudevillian dash of media satire.

With this production drawing on Israel's initial work at the West Coast Ensemble, it's an example of a phenomenon that LA theater should encourage - using the sub-100-seat theaters as developmental arenas for midsize productions that furnish more remuneration for the talent and better design resources, while preserving the audience's up-close perspective. LA audiences should support such efforts for reasons that go beyond the merits of this particular show.

Still, the merits of this "Floyd Collins" are many - and they're well worth the drive to the southeast reaches of the county. Take the Rosecrans exit east off the 5 freeway to La Mirada Boulevard (go to lamiradatheatre.com for tickets and further guidance.)

Lower photo: Mark Whitten and Kim Huber in "Floyd Collins." Michael Lamont

April 5, 2014

The dancer dies, but the person inside lives on

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Edward Bigalow tying Tanaquil Le Clercq into her costume.
 Below: Le Clercq and George Balanchine. Courtesy of Kino Lorber, Inc.


Melissa Barak is the founder and artistic director of The Barak Ballet in Los Angeles. She danced with the New York City Ballet for nine years.

When I was a young dancer, ballet dancers appeared to be these mythical creatures. I used to think Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov had always just been divine beings, certainly not regular people doing everyday things like I was. As a very young girl who happened to study ballet and loved it, I was quite unaware that pursuing a career as a ballerina was actually even possible.

Metaphorphoses, Tanaquil Le Clercq and George Balanchine.jpgAs I got older and began discovering that I had just as much of a shot as any to become a professional dancer, no company appealed to me more than the New York City Ballet. It was where dance legends seemed to be made. It had a history so rich, it drew me in. Like other young, hopeful ballerinas I watched videos about NYCB all the time and was smitten. I was determined to dance there.

In 1998, I found myself signing a contract with NYCB and I couldn't believe it. I had arrived, but it was overwhelming. I suffered a minor injury in rehearsal just before the gala performance that celebrated the company's 50th anniversary. Instead of getting to perform on stage that night, I watched the performance from the front. I don't remember quite where in the theater I was, but that was when I saw Tanaquil Le Clercq roll right by me in her wheelchair. Tanaquil was one of New York City Ballet's major stars during the company's inception in the late 40's. Her lyrical, sinuous style gave founding choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins inspiration for many of their early works. It was her feminine quality and physical ability that allowed these two significant choreographers to find their voice as makers of dance, thus changing the ballerina ideal forever.

She was being honored that night. Her story was true, this legendary woman I had always heard about and known of but not for all the usual reasons dancers hope for in their careers. She appeared ghost-like to me as she went by, fair skinned with silvery white hair and sharp yet delicate facial features. I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. Many dancers' careers are cut short due to injuries, but her fate was due to an illness that affected her life forever, and right at the height of her career. In the middle of a tour through Europe, the New York City Ballet was performing in Copenhagen when Le Clercq found herself unable to move one day. She was struck with polio, at age 27, and lost all use of her legs. Anybody who loves to dance can only imagine the utter horror.

In the new documentary, Afternoon of a Faun by Nancy Buirski, I learned more about Le Clercq's childhood, her illustrious career with NYCB, and her tumultuous relationships with two of ballets most influential figures, Balanchine and Robbins. Yet what I appreciated most from the film was her display of true heroism — her ability to laugh and be silly with friends during her life when dance was no longer an option. I didn't just learn about a special dancer, I learned about what she was made of as a human being. In the film you see how this courageous young woman must start her difficult journey in what's called an "iron lung" (which was horribly anxiety producing) to acclimating to an entirely new existence altogether. Most often with great ballerinas, you only learn of them as they always were - on stage seeming so far from real. Yet with Tanny, you get to know a rather quirky, cool person who is left with nothing but her very own humanness.

The dancer dies, but the person inside lives on. All of us dancers have to face that reality at some point. As a dancer ages, so does the body. The legs don't go up as high, the joints begin to ache, the years of pushing the body to the limit begin to take their toll. Tanny's life is a story about resilience. It's a lesson every dancer must take in — that you simply can't do it forever and that finding balance and other interests is crucial in order to move forward and find renewed purpose in life.

"Afternoon of a Faun" opens in Los Angeles on April 11. A trailer for the film:

April 1, 2014

'Lucia di Lammermoor' hits the boards again, and action spills over at Royce Hall

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Kronos Quartet performing "Orion: China" by Philip Glass. Kathleen Schenck


Promise them anything but give 'em "Lucia." No one, after all, can resist the Bride of Lammermoor, loony Lucey, who goes mad after being obliged to marry -- not the one she loves, but a noble who can save her brother's Scottish castle -- and stabs that husband to death in their wedding bed.

So when the opening night crowd cheered, whistled and hollered for LA Opera's new production of the Donizetti favorite, based on Sir Walter Scott's novel, it came as no surprise. All those delectable tunes and a savvy soprano, Albina Shagimuratova, who could luxuriate in them -- what else could anyone ask for?

Well, a few things. Better coaching for the lead tenor, Saimir Pirgu, for starters. Then this Edgardo might have entered the stage without comic exaggeration of anger, his arms flying awkwardly in false force and barking his music instead of singing it. (What is it with so many tenors who come here in hard-sell mode and have either forgotten or never learned that bel canto means beautiful singing, albeit somewhat agitated at times?)

He did tone it down as the night progressed and went on to deliver his final farewell fervently, if less than heart-crushingly (as Neil Shicoff did here some years ago).

And couldn't director Elkhanah Pulitzer help James Creswell manage a bit more than the standard stolid priest figure as Raimondo -- so that his mellifluous basso could have a real live character inside it? And what about those stage lapses between narrative and music where the drama nearly falls apart?

Lucia2014-LdL2179-PR.jpgLuckily, the big moments came across well enough, even though the orchestra, under James Conlon, occasionally disconnected from the singers. Designs by Carolina Angulo and Christine Crook set an aptly dark atmosphere to what looks like modern gothic.

But Shagimuratova, a Lucia who knows her way around the stage, could cower like a gullible girl manipulated by a tricky brother and give a well-choreographed version of her big scene: the bride turned bloody. Most important, she has the coloratura chops -- agile and bouncy with a wonderful pulse to those rapid notes. What's more, she's not one of those chirpy canaries, but very Russian, up to being a little metallic on top.

All others in the cast did well, especially Vladimir Dmitruk, an extremely fine tenor.

But it's hard to forget the then-slim and gorgeous Anna Netrebko, who sang Lucia here a decade ago -- how she twirled and swooned and danced while pouring out bell tones and all manner of intricate, nuanced coloratura.

So much for the 19th century. Onto to the present. And hardly any enterprise speaks to that tectonic shift better than the Kronos Quartet. Because four decades after violinist David Harrington founded this iconic string ensemble there is arguably no other that has ventured so far into the realm of theater while pushing the cross-cutural/political boundaries of esoteric new music even beyond the recognized avant-garde.

Just imagine, for instance, its 40th anniversary celebration at UCLA's Royce Hall: in one piece the four musicians performed under strobe lights to suggest the work's title, "Spectre" by John Oswald; in Penderecki's "Quartetto per archi" they stood with their backs to the audience, while reading/playing a huge projection of that composition; elsewhere they intermittently put aside the instruments they play so pristinely to crush and crumple paper on cue.

So I guess you could say that if the music on this bill didn't make a great impact in itself, then at least its dramatization posed a curiosity. But Philip Glass's "Orion," which featured the sensuous lyricism of pipa player Wu Man, certainly needed no physical enactments, nor did Alter Karniol's souful "Sim Sholom," with the cantorial solo played exquisitely by cellist Sunny Yang, a new Kronos member. And to hear Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" prelude reduced from its grand orchestral plushness and slivered into four string instruments was revelatory, like strolling among harmonic skeletons.

Above all, there was the spirit of Harrington permeating the hall, his warmth and deep appreciation of fellow musicians and all the composers he's brought to his platform over the years, the passion with which he embraces them, not to mention a certain gemütlichkeit you will find anywhere Kronos performs.

A similar spirit spread through the largely subscription audience at Royce Hall for LA Chamber Orchestra concerts. Last week the birthday announcement of its long-standing principal oboist drew cheers and whistles from the massed crowd. So did the whole evening's performances merit the same. The music-making, under the rising young guest conductor James Feddeck, was impressive throughout -- at every turn he coaxed expressive pliancy from the players and found shape and form to all the works.

Little wonder, with the added impetus of another rising star, Jennifer Koh, and her eminent mentor Jaime Laredo -- violinists who netted big roles in the program.

First they played as a duo in Anna Clyne's "Prince of Clouds," a wondrous new piece for string ensemble. It hinted of Britten with its far-off wistfulness sounding in long lines -- only to churn with agitation later and contrast with the orchestra's splintering harmonies, before turning meditative.

Second they played Bach's D-minor Concerto for two violins -- she with the richer, fatter, duskier tone and he the lighter and more agile. Their vigor and intensity in the outer movements, their sheer tenderness in the slow one, their vital interchanging of roles, created pure magic.

Last, Feddeck and the orchestra took up Schubert's early Symphony No. 3, its touching innocence and blithe spirit intact. All told, it was one of those perfect nights.

Not so LA Ballet's mixed bill at Royce, which, in one serious miscalculation, showed a lapse in taste and judgment that I've never seen before from directors Thor Christensen and Colleen Neary. More on that later.

StrangLand-LAB-2014sm.jpgWhat was marvelous was the staging of Jiri Kylian's "Return to a Strange Land" (1975), an homage to Stuttgart Ballet's John Cranko who had suddenly died back then. It not only sets a matchless choreographic standard but proved that the company can carry out the artistic high level required by a work so sensitive to tone and expressive subtlety.

There were images of singular beauty and strikingly ethereal hints of sorrow carried on the strains of Janacek's music, with an exquisitely timed release here, a sense of ecstatic quietude there.

And even Christopher Stowell's "Cipher" shows the choreographer's astute attention to Balanchine study, along with Noah Agruss's piquant score that suggests a knowledge of Stravinsky. Alynne Noel defined the pert and picturesque signature movements with great charm.

But don't even ask about Sonya Tayeh's "Beneath One's Dignity," which can't decide whether to reveal Victoria's Secret Fantasies or hi-jack some misbegotten modernisms of doom and gloom. Dignity, above or beneath, was never in supply here.

Middle: Albina Shagimuratova as Lucia. by Robert Millard; Bottom, LA Ballet Photocomposition by Reed Hutchinson and Catherine Kanner.

March 27, 2014

Candid 'Song at Twilight,' rowdy but repressed 'Reunion'

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Sharon Lawrence and Bruce Davison in "A Song at Twilight," photo by Michael Lamont.


They look as different as day and night - "A Song at Twilight" at Pasadena Playhouse and "Reunion" at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. The former is set in a posh Swiss hotel suite, literally during the day as well as back in the day (the '60s). The latter is set in a cheap room in a contemporary Massachusetts motel, long after dark.

Yet both of them (spoiler alerts?) are about the psychological costs of men's repression of homosexual activity from their pasts.

In "A Song at Twilight," Noel Coward wrote about a character much like himself - a clever and somewhat closeted man of the theater. Then, in the premiere in 1966, he took the then-audacious step of playing the character, whose long-ago devotion to a now-dead male lover is revealed as part of the first-act climax.

The play's other two characters are women - the Coward character's understanding wife, and another woman with whom he once had a rather chaste affair. This former beard has obtained possession of his love letters to the recently deceased male lover.

Gregory S. Moss' "Reunion" takes longer to get to its somewhat similar revelation. It also has three characters -- men who meet in the motel room following their 25th high school class reunion. The three of them had also met in the same room following their graduation in the '80s. We learn late in the play (here's a more explicit spoiler alert) that two of these men had a sexual encounter with each other that distant night, in this room. But none of the three men is openly gay, 25 years later.

Considering how candor about homosexuality has become so much more common since the '60s, it's amazing that Coward's play and its characters were more open about the subject in 1966 than are the characters in Moss' brand-new play, set in the present day in Massachusetts.

Perhaps we should allow for the fact that Coward's characters are veterans of the theater, an arena where homosexuals could come out sooner than they did in the general culture. By contrast, the men in "Reunion" clearly grew up in a world where a premium was placed on being conventionally masculine, even macho -- long before Massachusetts pioneered legal same-sex marriage.

Still, while watching "A Song at Twilight," we shouldn't credit only its theatrical milieu for its frank tone. Let's not forget that when it opened in 1966, England was still a year away from decriminalizing homosexual acts - a point that director Art Manke makes in a program note and that Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps makes in a press release. Give Coward himself some of the credit for being such an uncowardly lion.

The remarkably advanced treatment of homosexuality in "A Song at Twilight" is in stark contrast to its dramatic style, which is rather old-fashioned, not only now but even in 1966. But Manke and his team - including actors Bruce Davison, Sharon Lawrence and Roxanne Hart - find a lot of life in the old-fashioned tropes, especially in the second act. (By the way, those who saw a revival of "A Song at Twilight" four years ago at the Odyssey Theatre will probably be somewhat less startled by the play's audacity than those who are seeing it for the first time.)

"Reunion," on the other hand, seems old-fashioned in both its dramatic structure (is it just me, or have we all seen a few too many plays set at reunions of old friends?) and in its rather reticent approach to homosexuality.

This is reflected in the marketing of the production, which doesn't begin to suggest a hint of gay content, as well as in the text. Presumably the marketers (and perhaps the playwright?) wanted audiences to be sufficiently surprised by the revelation of a previous man-on-man moment when it's finally recalled in the theater. But it isn't all that difficult to guess in advance, despite the hush-hush approach.

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Michael Gladis and Kevin Berntson in "Reunion," photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.

Meanwhile, this treatment of homosexuality as an issue-that-still-hardly-dares-to-speak-its name seems a little outdated and slightly condescending to audiences. Simply in 2014 marketing terms, I'm wondering if explicitly mentioning a gay angle in pre-show marketing might actually attract more theatergoers than it would deter.

At any rate, despite its relatively discreet approach to homosexuality in comparison to Coward's play from nearly five decades ago, "Reunion" is hardly discreet in its approach to middle-aged men getting together and behaving again like rowdy teenagers. Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt marshals her cast (Tim Cummings, Michael Gladis, Kevin Berntsen) into impressive displays of man-boy anxiety and anger, fueled by alcohol and '80s rock.

"Reunion" closes Sunday, but "A Song at Twilight" plays through April 13.

March 18, 2014

Captivating 'Harmony' at CTG, bare-chested 'Macbeth' and more

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"Harmony" at the CTG/Ahmanson Theatre. Below, Shayne Kennon and Leigh Ann Larkin. Photos by Craig Schwartz.

Center Theatre Group has been obsessed with young guys' bands in recent years. Just since 2013 began, CTG offered the forgettable new musicals "Backbeat" (about the early Beatles) and "The Black Suits" (about a Long Island garage band.) The 2011-12 season at CTG's Ahmanson Theatre included post-Broadway runs of the dramatically threadbare "American Idiot" (with a Green Day score) and "Fela!" (about the Afro-pop star.)

Finally, however, "Harmony" is redeeming CTG's stubborn faith in this subject matter. "Harmony" is by far the best of the lot.

It's about the rise and fall of the Comedian Harmonists, a popular German sextet that rose during the Depression and fell to the Third Reich.

Part of the tremendous power of this show is attributable to its remarkable real-life story about young men whose lives and careers were wrecked by the 20th century's most famous villains. Also, as many critics have acknowledged, Barry Manilow has created a wonderful original score, sung to perfection at the Ahmanson (move over, "Jersey Boys"), where the heavenly harmonies are in stark contrast to the brutal narrative.

Where some of the critics are drawing an unnecessary and hyper-critical line is all over Bruce Sussman's book.

Yes, it's a challenge to write in-depth roles for so many characters -- six men and two of the women in their lives. But Sussman's script provides focus by framing the story around the reminiscences of the Harmonist who survived the longest -- "Rabbi" Josef Roman Cykowski, whose last job was as a cantor in Palm Springs, not far from where Manilow lived when he became interested in Cykowski's story.

Shayne Kennon delivers a potentially star-making performance as "Rabbi." He not only delivers the goods during the heart-on-sleeve highlights that Manilow has written for Rabbi as a vital young man, but he also captures an acute sense of survivor's guilt in Rabbi's later glances backward, including scenes in which he expresses his regrets in otherworldly cantorial (but English-language) recitatives.

Harmony-Photo-16-ctg.jpgThe other Harmonists aren't written with the same depth, but they are written with vivid individuality. Indeed, one of the themes of the story is that these men create glimmering harmony despite a variety of backgrounds that go beyond Jewish and gentile and despite a variety of vocal registers and body types. Their many variations are part of the reason we're fascinated to watch them in action, and JoAnn M. Hunter's choreography makes sure we notice the diversity among the moves.

Also, in case potential women theatergoers are tired of CTG's obsession with men's groups, be aware that the two wives (Hannah Corneau, Leigh Ann Larkin) here are hardly doormats; they too have moments of musical magic - and dramatically different fates in the narrative.

Tony Speciale directs here, as he did at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta last fall. I don't know the next stop for this production, but I know that LA is lucky to have it with us through April 13.

TWICE MORE UNTO THE BREACH

Seldom do LA audiences have their choice of two concurrent versions of the same Shakespearean history play, but that's our option right now, with "Henry V" up at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice and also in a Porters of Hellsgate production at the Whitmore in NoHo.

I saw both of them last weekend, separated by about 43 hours. They're strikingly similar in their first images. As audiences enter tiny black-box theaters, we see the casts in contemporary casual dress, mingling and socializing on the stage and also backstage, as if they're about to begin a reading of the play. We even get occasional glimpses out the back doors of both black boxes.

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"Henry V" in Venice, left, and in NoHo. Photos by Erika Boxler, left, and Rob Cunliffe, right.


The idea behind this set-up is to acknowledge, as the opening speech by the one-man Chorus notes, that we are indeed in a tiny theater - Shakespeare described it as a "cockpit" - but that we are to imagine that we're in "the vasty fields of France." The main difference between the two pre-shows is that some of the actors sit behind a table in Venice, while some of those in NoHo sit in a semi-circular arrangement facing the audience.

But when the play itself begins, more substantial differences begin to emerge. The NoHo cast is larger than the Venice cast - 17 to 11. The more plentiful NoHo actors usually linger on the stage even when they're not participating in the action, while the Venice actors usually exit from our view when they're not in a scene. So the NoHo stage looks more crowded and retains more of a rehearsal ambience, as opposed to the more immersive look of the Venice.production.

Also, in the programs you'll learn that the 11 actors in Venice play a total of 22 characters, while the 17 in NoHo play a total of 34. The running time in NoHo is slightly longer. By the way, both directors are also on stage as actors. The Porters director in NoHo, Charles Pasternak, also plays the title role. In the Pacific production in Venice, director Guillermo Cienfuegos - using his actor's name Alex Fernandez - plays the Chorus.

The texts, although based on the same "Henry V," are quite different. No adapter is listed in the program of the NoHo production. In Venice, however, director Cienfuegos and Joe McGovern, who plays the title role, get an adaptation credit. They have incorporated a few excerpts from other history plays in order to better establish the previous relationship between the father-and-son Henrys and to bring Falstaff (Dennis Madden) on stage. Cienfuegos also uses lighting and scenic design (Norman Scott ) and fight choreography (Jonathan Rider) in a way that emphasizes the brutally sculptural, non-verbal aspects of combat in a graphic way that's barely suggested in NoHo.

Purists who want a relatively uncut "Henry V" may prefer the Porters version, in NoHo. But it's less sharply focused. I left the Porters production thinking that the company performed admirably in an overly episodic, perhaps overrated play. I left the Pacific production in Venice with the feeling that I had just seen a rich and complex tale unfold before my eyes.

AS THE 17TH CENTURY TURNS

Move forward a few years from when "Henry V" was written and you find "Macbeth," about a different war. The Scottish play is impossible to overrate, for it is indeed one of the best plays ever written.

Macbeth-260.jpgA Noise Within's new version, directed by Larry Carpenter in Pasadena, is almost as male-oriented as "Henry V." Men (Amin El-Gamal, Thom Rivera and Jeremy Rabb) play the witches, assisted by picturesque puppets designed by Sean T. Cawelti; the same three men also play a number of smaller roles. Only two women are in the cast - Jules Willcox as Lady Macbeth and Katie Pelensky as Lady Macduff and Donalbain.

The costumes, designed by Jenny Foldenauer, feature a distracting detail that I've never seen in "Macbeth." The men are frequently bare-chested (although they usually wear other garments over their shoulders), and their torsos are especially exposed when they're in combat -- when you would expect them to be especially cautious about wearing ample protection. It's not as if this is supposed to be occurring in some warmer country than Scotland -- a large map of which sometimes appears as a backdrop. So why the romance-novel-model look? I couldn't figure it out.

Elijah Alexander as Macbeth and Willcox do suggest a lot of sexual passion in their early scenes, but at least at the performance I saw, Alexander's vocal delivery sounded lighter than expected, almost as if he were undecided about how far to pursue Macbeth's indecision. Carpenter visually emphasizes that the Macbeths apparently lost their one and only child, which was also a focal point of Jessica Kubzansky's staging for Antaeus Company two years ago.

Still, the recent LA "Macbeth" that most clearly stands out in my mind is Independent Shakespeare's and David Melville's ultra-visceral version with Luis Galindo, presented last summer in Griffith Park.

Written a few years after "Macbeth," but set in a considerably warmer setting - Spain - Lope de Vega's "La Dama Boba" is receiving a rare revival from the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts in Lincoln Heights, spoken in Spanish with English titles. Lope wrote 1,800 plays, and this one usually isn't listed among his best - it's a formulaic comedy about two marriageable sisters of starkly different personalities, and their suitors. But the BFA's wide stage is handsomely deployed in Margarita Galban's staging.

Bottom photo: Lady Macbeth encourages Macbeth. Craig Schwartz

March 11, 2014

Abelardo Morell makes the national parks his camera

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Old Faithful Geyser exposed on the ground inside a tent by camera obscura. Abelardo Morell


It's not easy to find someone whose right brain and left brain are each working overtime. But photographer Abelardo Morell is more than a creative spirit. In a recent talk at the Annenberg Space Skylight Studio, in conjunction with the current show, Morell called himself a "closet scientist" who has invented a new way of seeing and recording images, or rather re-invented a very old way of seeing using new technology. His recent photography has turned rooms into cameras by employing the technique of camera obscura (literally "dark room") and figured out how to take it on the road. The resulting images of the US National Parks, currently part of a sweeping exhibit honoring 125 years of National Geographic photography at the Annenberg Space for Photography, are stunning and totally fresh. In this digital age, where we are bombarded nonstop with images, that is saying something. These photographs will make you stop and look again.

Morell's technique is to create a pinhole camera you can walk into by creating a tent of lightproof plastic. The image reflected through a pinhole is exposed onto the ground of the park (or sometimes in a hotel room or bedroom wall) and becomes a layered image incorporating the reflected image and the surface it is reflected on. His series on the national parks is seen in the film created for the Geographic exhibit, and like each of the Arclight productions that accompany the Annenberg shows, the film alone is worth the trip.

Morell, whose work was recently on exhibit at the Getty Center and at the Rose Gallery in Bergamot Station, has been a photographer and photography teacher for over 30 years. In his talk at the Annenberg Space, he explained how his photography went from doing simple documentary work of his family, into exploring "the simplicity and mystery of photography itself" by turning common household objects, like lamps and glasses, into tools for actually making images. "In the late 80's I turned my classroom into a camera by taping dark plastic over the windows and making a small opening in the plastic to produce an image projected inside the room," he said.

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Left, Joshua Tree National Park. Right, Yellowstone National Park. Abelardo Morell.


Morell said people had been inside camera obscura before, but no one had ever made a photograph using the process itself. Once he realized that, he was off and running. He turned his living room into a camera, then a hotel room in Times Square, and a bedroom across from the Brooklyn Bridge. He spent a whole summer trying to figure out the correct exposure. "The early ones were 8 hours long...but then I converted to a digital back," he said. For someone who described himself as "anti-technology" in his early days, Morell says "it was like Dylan going electric. Instead of 5-6 hour exposures, now they are 5-6 minutes."

His decision to take this technology on the road led him to the national arks project. "It's fascinating to be inside a tent and see nature," he said. The project has many meanings for him. "It's about the meaning of where we live, the nature of time, the nature of things, the nature of what we see." And, ultimately, who we are.

The Abelardo Morell national parks project can be seen as part of the exhibit, "The Power of Photography: National Geographic 125 Years." The show closes April 27, 2014.

A 'Stand-Off' over Native Americana in 'Cry, Trojans!'

From his seat in the audience at REDCAT on Saturday, Randy Reinholz booed. He was registering his response at the end of the first act of the Wooster Group's "Cry, Trojans!"

WoosterGroup_CryTrojans05.jpgReinholz, the founding artistic director of Native Voices, the Native American theater company based at the Autry, is also an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. He found "Cry, Trojans!" - in which white actors from New York pose as Native Americans in an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" - "offensive and racist," in his words.

A few audience members approached him as intermission began, after he booed. The first group was initially hostile. But his subsequent conversation with other audience members who approached him was "very calm." Someone asked him if he might be a plant from within the production -- in other words, part of the show.

Hardly. This production didn't need to stimulate any additional controversy by using scripted hecklers. Its depiction of Native Americana was already generating angry responses, especially on social media in its LA run - in contrast to the response to a recent workshop run in New York.

As it happens, Reinholz's own company, Native Voices, is currently offering the premiere of "Stand-Off at Hwy #37," a traditionally realistic play that in some ways parallels the situation in "Cry, Trojans!" but in other ways delivers a sharp riposte to the muddled artifice of "Cry, Trojans!"

In Vickie Ramirez's "Stand-Off," set in the present in upstate New York, a small group of Haudenosaunee (aka Iroquois) take a stand against a proposed new road that they contend will cut across tribal land without their permission. The eldest of the group (LaVonne Rae Andrews) smiles as she resists by straddling her chair across the soon-to-be-bulldozed border.

SOH293-shirley.jpgThree representatives of the National Guard arrive to help maintain order, and one of them (Eagle Young) is a member of the Haudenosaunee. He vows to obey his orders from his Guard officer (Matt Kirkwood) without letting his background influence him, but when push comes to shove...

Playwright Vickie Ramirez is herself from the Tuscarora tribe of the Haudenosaunee, with whom she obviously sympathizes, but she isn't deaf to the other side's arguments, especially those of the young black woman (Tinasha LaRayé) who's in the National Guard contingent. Ramirez also depicts the two younger Native activists (Kalani Queypo, DeLanna Studi) as having personal regrets that shadow their motivations. Meanwhile, a New York Times reporter (Fran de Leon) is on the scene, increasingly confident that she has a compelling story.

In other words, Ramirez seems to appreciate the importance of examining the situation without blinders as much as possible, even while registering her own point of view about the dispute. She maintains admirable clarity of vision - until near the end, when the plotting momentarily raises a few questions, after one particular character suddenly reverses course offstage without sufficient explanation.

Still, "Stand-Off" is considerably more lucid than "Cry, Trojans!," which closed Sunday. "Trojans" began as a collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company for a 2012 production of the enormously challenging "Troilus and Cressida" in the UK. Shakespeare's play is set during the Trojan War. In that 2012 effort, the Americans played the Trojans as generic early American Indians, while the Brits played the invading Greeks (and, judging from photos, dressed in present-day military fatigues). Apparently the production attempted to comment on American imperialism through the centuries.

Returning to America after a disappointing reaction to the London production, the Wooster Group's director Elizabeth LeCompte decided to revive the material by assigning her actors to play all the parts on both sides, with the title "Cry, Trojans!," but also with the assistance of a tape of the British voices from the London production.

And so, at the play's official premiere at REDCAT, both the Trojans and the Greeks wore Indian clothes, while a tipi dominated the background. Almost any direct parallel to American imperialism faded - the conflict looked more like an inter-tribal Native war.

The Greeks were distinguished from the Trojans mostly by wearing little black masks atop their Indian outfits, which still exposed enough of the men's skin that the costumes (inadvertently? or ironically?) emphasized how white these actors are. They seemed to be white guys playing "Indians and Indians," as opposed to "cowboys and Indians."

With most of the actors in multiple roles and with Wooster's signature assortment of sometimes opaque design choices, confusion reigned during far too much of this production.

Indeed, even Reinholz, in a written statement after seeing "Cry, Trojans!," allowed that the lack of conceptual clarity prevented him from assuming that the goal of Wooster's "offensive stereotypes" was to provoke -- "It was unclear if the company's intention was to offend by these images and narratives. It is unclear what social change the piece was advocating for by enraging Native people. It is clear - they were racist."

In a talkback after the Friday performance, LeCompte cited a number of secondary sources she used in her research - books, movies, tapes, some of which were created by Native Americans. But there was scant evidence that she had talked to any Native Americans. According to Reinholz, "there are thousands of Native American theater artists, scholars, and community leaders easily available for art makers to call upon. We are not hiding in the margins."

During the talkback, LeCompte said a close friend - a playwright - had told her, "I wouldn't do a play like this without making sure I had a Native American in it." But, LeCompte added, "that is not where I live. I wouldn't do that. I couldn't do that." Then, though her language was vague, she appeared to indicate that she thought that adding Native Americans to the company would be seen as "who's at the party?" tokenism - "and that's horrible to me....Plus it's not about that. It's about everything bigger...We love the piece, we love the stories, we love the films, we love the people...We wanted to tell the story in this way and make it so big that this [lack of direct Native American input] wouldn't be a problem."

New York, we have a problem.

For the record, let it be noted that Wooster has also presented Kate Valk, the white actress who plays Cressida here, in blackface in the title role of "The Emperor Jones." I didn't see that production, but it sounds as it would have resulted in a much more biting satire of racial stereotypes than what we get in "Cry, Trojans!," in which the intent too often remains clouded.

Asked for a comment, REDCAT executive director Mark Murphy emailed to say that "I appreciate that it is a complicated play and a complicated issue. I know that the artists had no intention to offend anyone."

He said the Wooster Group is "a remarkable and influential company and I deeply value our years of collaboration with them. I look eagerly forward to their next projects."

Meanwhile, Native Voices has offered to accept any used or unused tickets to "Cry, Trojans!" for admission to "Stand-Off at Hwy #37," which plays at the Autry in Griffith Park through next Sunday.


Top: Andrew Schneider and Ari Fliakos in "Cry, Trojans! (Troilus & Cressida)." Photo by James Allister Sprang. Bottom: Eagle Young as Private Thomas Lee Doxdater, Kalani Queypo as Darrin. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

March 8, 2014

Misty Copeland: A ballerina from San Pedro has her say

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Misty Copeland performing with ABT. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Misty Copeland has just returned from two weeks performing in Japan, and though severely jet-lagged, the American Ballet Theater soloist is eager to chat. Her excitement about the publication this month of her memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, is palpable, even in a phone call from her home in New York City. "I've known from the time I started dancing that I would be telling my story at some point," she said. "I definitely didn't think it would be this soon!" There is a lot about Copeland's story that has been well documented in the press. In the book (written with Charisse Jones, the former Los Angeles Times staff writer), Copeland herself speaks out for the first time about her emotionally turbulent and often financially precarious upbringing in San Pedro, the court battle between her mother, Sylvia DeLaCerna, and her ballet teacher, Cynthia Bradley, and her ascension in the world of classical ballet starting with her win at the 1997 Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards. The story continues with Copeland's opportunities outside of ABT, including performing with Prince, and her quest to become the first black female principal dancer in an elite ballet company.

misty-copeland-life-in-motion.jpgCopeland, 31, discovered ballet at the San Pedro Boys and Girls Club, where she would spend after-school hours. Bradley, a former dancer, was teaching a class there and quickly realized that she had a dance prodigy on her hands. Copeland was 13 -- generally considered old for girls to start ballet training, but she demonstrated grace, flexibility and the capacity to quickly learn the fundamentals of ballet. She began studying more seriously at Bradley's school. To ease the commute between school and the Gardena motel where the family was living, DeLaCerna allowed her daughter to move in with Bradley and her family.

Copeland switched to home schooling and flourished in her new living arrangement. But after the success of the Spotlight Award, and a subsequent summer intensive course at San Francisco Ballet, she sensed that all was not well between her mother and Bradley. Resentment boiled over and DeLaCerna decided that Copeland, at the time 15, should move back to the motel. Plans were made for her to attend a new ballet school and enroll at San Pedro High School. At Bradley's suggestion, Copeland sued for emancipation. Gloria Allred was brought in to represent DeLaCerna and eventually the emancipation request was dropped. The unsavory episode had ended but Copeland describes in the book how she was traumatized and crushed. (Copeland writes of their relationship today, "I love my mother but I've never really understood her.")

In time, she managed to recover and continue her training in Torrance. The following year she was accepted into ABT's summer intensive program in New York City. She joined ABT's studio company in 2000, became a corp de ballet member in 2001, and was appointed an American Ballet Theater soloist (the first black female ABT soloist in 20 years) in 2007.

"It was really nice to feel comfortable enough and mature enough to be able to look back on all of those experiences that made me the dancer and woman I am," Copeland says of the memoir. "It's amazing to be sharing my story while I'm still in the midst of my career." Copeland has spoken out often about the difficulties connected with being a black ballerina in a world that is mostly white. She fully embraces the fact that she is a role model for young dancers of color, recently becoming the public face of ABT's diversity initiative Project Plié, which offers scholarships to minority dancers around the country. "I'm constantly out there, hands on with kids and mentoring them. They seem to feel I'm like them and I'm real. They're not intimidated. I think for the most part they want to hug me, which is so nice. They see themselves in me. I didn't have that when I first became a professional. It's a very powerful thing."

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Copeland speaks to children.

Copeland's reverence for the tradition and history of ballet has both consoled and sustained her since she began dancing. "I think that coming from my background, I never really felt like I was part of a lineage or anything I could really put my hands on," she says. "Entering the ballet world, there was something that was so comforting about knowing there was such a rich history....It was like, wow, I'm a part of this thing that's so much bigger than me.

"In ballet there is a technique that was built and we still follow that technique. There was just something about the tradition that really drew me in. I think ballet in general was this safe haven that I had never experienced before in my childhood -- feeling like I had this beautiful and fun escape from my everyday life. I still think of it that way. It's a very sacred place -- the stage and the studio -- where you can kind of escape what's happening in the world."

In addition to her book tour, Copeland is busy preparing for ABT's spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House. The company is traveling to Abu Dhabi this month for the touring production of "Coppelia;" Copeland will be debuting in the principal role of Swanhilda, a first for her. Here in Southern California, Orange County ballet audiences can see her dance with ABT next March in the company's new production of "The Sleeping Beauty" at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa. The ballet will premiere here before becoming part of the spring season at Lincoln Center. That means Copeland's family and friends get to see it before New York audiences.

Returning to Southern California to perform is a positive experience for her. "The first time I was on a big stage was at the Music Center," she says nostalgically. "I feel like this is home. It's so cool that I get to come back here and perform for my community."

Misty Copeland will speak at Live Talks Los Angeles on Thursday, March 13, at the William Turner Gallery in Bergamot Station Arts Center in Santa Monica.



Misty Copeland discussed her desire to become the first African American principal dancer in a major company at a TEDx Talk in Washington, D.C. in 2012.


Copeland solo at Gala de Ballet "Despertares" in 2012 in Mexico City.


Previously on LA Observed:
Ballet dancer Misty Copeland comes home to San Pedro
Misty Copeland takes NYC

March 7, 2014

Wooster Group's 'Cry, Trojans' has a theme of young love

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Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk as lovers Troilus and Cressida. Photos by Iris Schneider.

The Wooster Group, the avant garde theater company known for deconstructing and mashing up classic theater in a totally inventive way, is back at Redcat with "Cry, Trojans," their multi-media production of Shakespeare's obscure Troilus and Cressida. I was at Redcat to see the invigorating and elegiac production of "Gatz" produced by Elevator Repair Service, and many of the actors in "Gatz," including the narrator Scott Shepherd, are onstage currently in this production. This time around, my reaction is a lot more subdued maybe because, unlike "The Great Gatsby," Shakespeare's language is dense and harder to easily comprehend.

Wooster Group definitely has its fans and followers and many were in the audience--at least until intermission. The theme of young love was echoed in video screens above the stage that ran scenes of Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood from "Splendor in the Grass" which directly mimicked the actions of Troilus and Cressida onstage. Such staging added another layer to an already layered production which, while sometimes difficult to unravel, was never boring.

wooster2-iris.jpgThe production began with a previous collaboration between Wooster Group and the Royal Shakespeare Company in which each company worked separately until close to production time, embellishing on the theme of conflict between the Greeks played by the RSC and the Trojans played by Wooster Group. In the current independent production, the Trojans became a fictional tribe of early Americans. One element, which included masks and vests worn on the backs of the soldiers and looking suspiciously Roman, added a physical and visual dimension to the action onstage. The costumes were designed by visual artist Folkert de Young and they gave the feeling that each character carried more weight, whether real or imaginary, as they walked onstage to do battle encumbered or emboldened by their comrades on their backs.

While I don't feel that the production was a total success, I salute the creative process that Wooster Group embodies, always pushing the audience to think and imagine in new ways.

The show continues through March 9.

February 26, 2014

A bedazzling "Billy Budd" and Dudamel does Tchaikovsky. And more

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Gustavo Dudamel does Tchaikovsky.


A soul-crushing dilemma that leads to actual suspense -- thought by thought, moment by moment, note by note, measure by measure. Would this be the stuff occupying an opera stage?

Bet on it. Because our local importers of Benjamin Britten works have brought back the composer's full-scale, grand opus, "Billy Budd" in this last, extraordinary centennial gesture to the composer. And rejoice that you can still rush downtown to LA Opera's acclaimed production by Francesca Zambello, borrowed again from Covent Garden (through March 16.)

We all know the easy pathos of Puccini, the soaring song of Verdi -- to name a few bread-and-butter box office faves. But Britten's adaptation of the Herman Melville novella stands as a monument to interior battles of a psycho-social kind, wrapped around anti-war, anti-class rhetoric. And not incidentally it marks the revolution we see today: from the Brits' branding of gays as criminal until 1967, to open declaration of sexual identity -- whatever it may be -- in much of the civilized world. (Hallelujah!)

What's more, the team in charge this time at the Music Center handles it all -- the miraculous score, the full-stage complement with chorus and visuals, the direction of each character's enactment, the orchestra and its various soloists -- superbly.

BillyBudd2014.jpgNo composer better than Britten evokes the sense of mortal aloneness at sea. And here, as in the deadly, grim waters of "Peter Grimes," we get two characters experiencing it -- Billy, the innocent whose goodness doesn't allow him to feel the evil around him; and the Captain, who sees but can't change destiny. Throughout we hear masterly poetic strains in murmuring strings, a plaintive saxophone, a soft rustling of tympani.

And the singers, each an expert in delivering melismatic filigree, ride above all this. The slave-like sailors are actual characters, a thrilling chorus, and at the taking down of Billy they huddle low and grunt out a menacing fugue that can't help but scare an audience.

Alison Chitty's simple yet striking set features a raked platform as ship's deck -- it rises up to reveal the huddled crew below. Atop is a cross-mast suggesting the martyr's "crucifixion" to come. The stage picture, with critical dimension lent by Alan Burrett's lighting, is an integrated whole, ever-changing to reflect the musical mood.

The main triad in this all-male cast carves out the dramatic poles, without any need for female voices. There's Richard Croft, a compelling Captain Vere whose silvery tenor masters that helpless cry of remorse arching smoothly upward in the musical line, and Liam Bonner a brave, tall-standing Billy with a sturdy baritone whose stutter, and background as a foundling, do not hinder the inherent goodness in him. The third is Greer Grimsley, the villainous Claggart, whose animated basso highlights his homophobic hysteria over Billy, whom he is intolerably drawn to and calls "beauty" and, in the end, must see killed -- which he does, unwittingly.

James Conlon, presides passionately over the orchestra and stage, lending all the nuances Britten scores so ingeniously.

dudamel-300.jpgThe other major music event right now is across the street at Disney Hall: it's Gustavo Dudamel, back in town charging up the soundwaves via an ambitious take-your-breath-away Tchaikovsky Festival -- and not just with his LA Philharmonic, but also his fellow-Venezuelans, the mighty Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra as well.

It took only the two names, Dudamel and Tchaikovsky, to sell the Philharmonic to the walls at 11a.m last Friday. Yes, 11 in the morning on a week day! True, that audience looked a bit like the cane-and-conveyance brigade. But never mind, there was everything to warrant a mob scene, especially in the way the band and its leader went at the composer's final symphony, his 6th, the famous "Pathetique," where yes, as Britten often did metaphorically, Tchaikovsky laid bare his anguish over his sexuality in the last movement.

As with some of this score's great readings Dudamel drew out those wrenching strings, which swept all into the vortex of lament with shuddering intensity. Each solo -- with flute and horns in seamless balance -- and each motif became a vital animation of character, all of it pretty damned gorgeous. Even the march exploded into a unison frenzy the likes of which could match what Ken Russell himself would conjure.

At the conclusion Dudamel took 34 seconds to bring down his hand and allow applause, as the musicians sat at absolute attention. He's right, of course, to let the last tones dissipate before any sound intrusion -- even if there's a question about how long that may take...

No one seemed to be looking for signals though at downtown's brand new Ace Hotel, in days of old the United Artists Theatre at Broadway and 9th. At least not from French-born Benjamin Millepied's L.A. Dance Project which staged its first event there in this petite Pantages, an ornately gaudy relic of 1927 now refurbished to a shine, with dribble-castle-like stalactites hanging from the enormous domed ceiling.

Instead the chi-chi crowd seemed intent on enjoying a big mingle, which pushed the curtain to 40 minutes beyond starting time, but allowed all the beautiful trend-makers and followers to be amply seen.

And considering Millepied's career trajectory that milieu makes sense. After all, he went from dancing with the New York City Ballet, graduated to choreographer, then to cast member of Darren Aronofsky's Oscar-winning film "Black Swan," to marrying its lead Natalie Portman to being named LA Dance Project director and, quickly following that, to the Paris Opera Ballet directorship. All the stars are in alignment. Each day seems to bring him a new title all over the world. Minutes ago he was named artistic advisor of the just-formed Colburn School Dance Academy diagonally across from Disney Hall. Now you can call him a Sponsor Magnet, the name that brings donors from Hollywood, and yes, from everywhere. Watch them roll in.

If he stops long enough in any one place chances are we'll see something worthwhile -- remember he did bring us William Forsythe's unforgettable "Quintett" last year and the year before a whole program of his own choreography. But the Ace show -- despite a commission by Van Cleef & Arpels, a piano score by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang, played by the eminent Gloria Cheng, and even some clever electronic hi-jinks -- registered weakly if at all.

Not so the sold-out run of "Love, Noël" at Beverly Hills' Wallis studio theater, which got converted to table-and-chair seating for this cabaret event. It's gone now but L.A. needs to bring it back and soon -- because once New Yorkers get a whiff, say at the Carlyle Hotel café, they won't let it go. Noël Coward's songs and letters in the hands of John Glover and Judy Kuhn, with master pianist David O accompanying them, are deliciously enticing. "Mad About the Boy," for instance, is but one of the literary wit-composer-playwright's brilliant ballads, delivered powerfully by Kuhn.

Classic con artistry in 'Tartuffe' and 'Music Man,' and plays for the Passover season

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Tartuffe (Freddy Douglas) romances Elmire (Carolyn Ratteray.) Photo: Craig Schwartz


Con artistry requires the ability to get the victims to suspend disbelief - the same quality that theatrical artistry usually requires of audiences.

So it isn't surprising that stories of brazen con artists often inspire dramatizations ("American Hustle," anyone?) Sometimes these stories even take place in the world of the actual arts. On Sunday, "60 Minutes" presented a segment called "The Con Artist," about an infamous art forger. It's no stretch to imagine that this criminal's story might easily become a Hollywood movie or a Broadway musical.

But I didn't see "60 Minutes" on Sunday. I was busy watching the bogus band director Harold Hill's gentle swindling of River City in Musical Theatre West's revival of "The Music Man."

Also, earlier in the day, I took in the more savagely funny tale of Tartuffe - a con artist who uses a faux-religious façade to take in his victims - at A Noise Within. Molière's "Tartuffe," which dates back to 1664, is not only a sire of all later satires about conniving hypocrites but also the best of the genre - or at least it seems that way in Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's splendid staging in Pasadena.

Part of the strength of "Tartuffe" is that it's about the title character's deluded mark - the wealthy Orgon (Geoff Elliott, whose mellifluous voice is in risible counterpoint to the goony glasses he's wearing) - even more than it's about the scoundrel Tartuffe himself (Freddy Douglas.)

Orgon has invited the supposedly indigent and ostentatiously devout Tartuffe into his home, perhaps impressed in part by the newcomer's appearance - he looks like Brad Pitt preparing for an upcoming role as Jesus Christ. His rustic rags are in striking contrast to the frippery worn by Orgon's family, which is on display in an elaborate party scene before the dialogue even begins. This wordless scene clearly establishes the general tone of indolence that pervades the household.

Still, everyone except Orgon and his mother (Jane Macfie) is on to Tartuffe - and they are soon roused to join forces against him. The skeptics includes Orgon's wife (Carolyn Ratteray), his brother (Stephen Rockwell), his young-adult children (Alison Elliott, Mark Jacobson), his daughter's intended (Rafael Goldstein) and above all, the chief servant (Deborah Strang.)

The family's anti-Tartuffian strategy sessions yield nothing at first, simply driving Orgon to raise the stakes by threatening to marry off his daughter to the intruder. He doesn't even blink when Tartuffe kisses him on the lips late in act 1. But then act 2 arrives - with one of the funniest revelation scenes ever written.

Rodriguez-Elliott uses the witty rhymed couplets of Richard Wilbur's translation. And she enhances the artifice with a lavish scenic design (Frederica Nascimento) and costumes (Angela Balogh Calin.) Billowing white fabrics create comic confusion as they spoof 17th-century style, and a giant portrait of Tartuffe evokes gravitas when the time is right. Near the end, a king's officer (William Dennis Hunt) who arrives with a handy deus ex machina is converted into an amusing mashup of disco deejay and Ziegfeld Follies emcee.

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Molière's play completely lacks the sentimentality that courses through Meredith Willson's portrait of a con artist in "The Music Man." However, in MTW's production of the musical, which closes Sunday at the Carpenter Center on the campus of Cal Stage Long Beach, Davis Gaines maintains a shrewd slickness in his portrayal of Harold Hill, reminding us that he is a traveling salesman, not a boys' band director. Gaines has one arm in a sling as the result of a real-life accident, but the sling actually feeds into the idea that Harold injured himself in a previous encounter with the outraged victims of one of his previous jobs.

Gaines and Gail Bennett, as Marian the Librarian, sound great, and it's fun to see Troubadour Theater's artistic director Matt Walker as Harold's sidekick. Director Jeff Maynard has no brainstorms that add anything to our previous notions of "The Music Man," but I couldn't stop wondering if Walker is even now using his role to develop ideas that he'll incorporate into a later Troubie production. How about a combination of the songs from "The Music Man" and the story of "Death of a Salesman"?

o o o

AS PASSOVER APPROACHES, three Jewish-themed plays are playing in small theaters. Compared to the Christmas fare that dominates LA's stages in December, these productions are less plentiful but more provocative.

SM3M0123.jpgThe play that's the most pointedly and powerfully Passover-related of this group is Matthew Lopez's "The Whipping Man," produced by West Coast Jewish Theatre at Pico Playhouse. It takes us to the shell of a once-grand house in Richmond in April 1865. The wounded scion Caleb (Shawn Savage) of the (presumably Sephardic) DeLeon family has returned to his family home from service in the defeated Confederate Army, only to find that the rest of his white family has scattered. The house is occupied solely by two of the family's now-freed slaves, Simon (Ricco Ross) and John (Kirk Kelleykahn) - who, after living in this house for years, also consider themselves Jewish.

The three of them have different reasons for continuing to stay in the house, and past wounds emerge into plain view as they hunker down with each other. Still, when Passover arrives, they hold a makeshift seder, with its stories of the previous Jews' escape from slavery. It's a remarkably charged scene. But this family that prays together won't necessarily stay together.

Howard Teichman directed this gripping production, which is scheduled to run through April 13 - the day before seders resume as part of this year's Passover.

Asher-Lev_3NC.jpgMeanwhile, at the Fountain Theatre in east Hollywood, "My Name Is Asher Lev" explores another form of Jewish liberation -- only here the escape isn't from slave masters but from the family-enforced strictures of a Chasidic brand of orthodox Judaism itself. Based on a novel by Chaim Potok, Aaron Posner's script traces the gradual emergence of a free-thinking painter (Jason Karasev) from a culture that discourages free artistic expression.

Stephen Sachs directs a cast of three, with Anna Khaja playing roles ranging from Asher's mother to his nude model to his wealthy gallery owner, and Joel Polis playing Asher's father, the rabbi his father works for, an encouraging uncle and a secular Jewish painter who becomes Asher's mentor.

The play isn't an undiluted screed on behalf of unfettered art; it depicts the pain Asher's parents undergo when they become the unwitting subjects of his masterpiece - and the conflicts this causes within the still-mostly-observant Asher. At times Asher feels like the irreverent child who's mentioned in the seder.

By the way, your eyes are drawn to the actors' faces here, not to any facsimiles of Asher's art - a wise decision. In another play about an artist that's currently running in NoHo, the paintings on display simply can't live up to the extremely lavish words of praise with which they're heralded in the script.

lebensraum-ds.jpgFinally, a few words about Israel Horovitz's "Lebensraum." This fascinating play from the late '90s depicts a what-if scenario, in which a German chancellor actively invites Jews to move to Germany with full benefits of citizenship, as a form of penitence for the Holocaust. Some unemployed Germans are not thrilled by the prospect of millions of new competitors for jobs, but other contemporary Germans are quite welcoming.

As with the previous two Jewish-themed plays above, this one has only three actors, but here they play dozens of characters, covering several individual stories in a remarkably brief running time, with no intermission.

I somehow missed Fountain's production of "Lebensraum" more than a decade ago, so I'm grateful to director Don K. Williams, his skilled cast and the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company for introducing me to this brain-tickling adventure, which holds out hope for the kind of rebirth that's celebrated in the seder. Too bad it's playing only two more weekends at Art of Acting Studio in Hollywood.

February 17, 2014

Sex and basketball -- and why Durang's Tony is wrong

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William Reinbold and Stephanie Zimbalist star in the Colony Theatre Company's production of "Sex and Education." Photo: Michael Lamont


Sex, basketball and cheerleaders. Two productions that opened over the weekend at two of Greater LA's midsize theaters share these popular topics. Let no one say that the stage focuses only on the more esoteric concerns of the elite.

At Burbank's Colony Theatre, the title is "Sex and Education." But basketball, cheerleaders and selling houses are also on the agenda in Lissa Levin's probing comedy set in a high school classroom. The school's hoops star Joe (William Reinbold) and his English teacher Miss Edwards (Stephanie Zimbalist) are both on the verge of graduation - he to college and then (he hopes) the NBA, and she to a new career in real estate.

But Miss Edwards catches Joe passing a note to his cheerleader girlfriend Hannah (Allison Lindsey) during the final exam. So the veteran instructor requires the campus BMOC to stay after class in order to dissect and then re-write his profanity-laden note, which was an effort to get the answer to one of the test questions - and, more important, to arrange a hook-up.

As she analyzes Joe's writing, the two of them tangle not only over issues of grammar and persuasiveness, but also the meaning and value of an education. Meanwhile, Hannah appears on the sidelines in order to deliver little cheers comically emphasizing Miss Edwards' points. Hannah also has a few scenes with Joe that depict events before and after his encounter with Miss Edwards.

Levin's play, which had its Burbank (and area) premiere in 2011 at the smaller Victory Theatre, looks and sounds even sharper at the Colony, under the direction of Andrew Barnicle. It brings potentially fusty arguments to life in a match that has some of the hallmarks of a competitive and fiercely fought basketball game.

Meanwhile, I'll continue the basketball analogies, as I note that the Colony is doing very well on the boards right now, with great rebounding stats to prove it. The company announced last week that its most recent fund-raising efforts raised more than $260,000, enabling it to describe itself as "once-struggling" in a reference to a near-death experience in 2012.

That's great news for LA theater in general. The Colony is one of the most important teams in the midsize theater leagues that offer LA artists and audiences a happy medium between the intimacy of the smaller stages and the better-paying contracts of the larger stages.

Chance Theater, in Anaheim, intends to be one of the newest players in this same league, and it took a big step toward that goal over the weekend, as it opened its new, larger facilities with the West Coast premiere of "Lysistrata Jones," a musical that also offers the lures of basketball, cheerleaders and sex.

The company's new theater, just down the block from its former digs, has been converted into a miniature basketball court. A little more than a hundred fans are seated on one side of the court, while the band occupies a platform on the other side.

J.D. Driskill and Devon Hadsell<br />
Photo by Thamer Bajjali, True Image StudioDouglas Carter Beane's book and Lewis Flinn's score re-set the story of Lysistrata - the legendary Greek feminist who led the campaign to deny soldiers sex until they stopped fighting -- in contemporary America. The location is "Athens University," where the incongruous name of the athletic teams -- "the Spartans" -- indicates the level of haplessness on campus and the level of comedy in the show.

A particularly determined cheerleader vows to lead the basketball squad to victory via a campaign to withhold sexual favors from the team members until they win. A few too many plot machinations follow. The goal of her campaign eventually expands beyond winning a basketball game.

Despite some narrative clutter that makes "Lysistrata Jones" a little too long-winded, the energy level of director Kari Hayter's cast remains high. A few of the lines weren't quite audible in the new space, but enough of the one-liners land to sustain the high-spirited whimsy.

Taking one step at a time, the Chance hasn't yet graduated to using Actors' Equity members in its larger quarters, but it intends to pursue that goal, say the company's leaders. Chance created a considerable name for itself even without Equity contracts, and the talent of its young non-Equity casts is undeniable. But if those actors are to mature into pursuing long-lasting theater-devoted careers, Equity is the next essential step.


NYET: Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" comes with the heavy baggage of high expectations at the Mark Taper Forum.

If you're aware that it won the Tony Award for best play last year, you might assume that it was, well, the best new play -- at least among the shallow pool of new plays that appear on Broadway. Also, many theatergoers - include me in this group - might look forward to Durang's latest because of fond memories of some of his earlier work and the plays of Chekhov, which Durang is gently spoofing here.

vanya-and-sonia-shirley.jpgBut high expectations often lead to disappointment. Durang's recent Tony winner isn't as funny or as edgy as many of his previous plays - remember "Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them" (which Hollywood's Blank Theatre produced in 2009)? And "Vanya..." isn't as heartbreakingly funny as almost any of Chekhov's plays.

Durang gathers contemporary American versions of Chekhovian characters into the sun room of a Pennsylvania exurban house, which looks just a little too comfortable at the Taper. The glamorous middle-aged actress Masha (Christine Ebersole) owns the place and passes through it for the period of this play, accompanied by her latest young stud Spike (David Hull) - might he be her next, sixth husband?

The house isn't Masha's primary home, but it serves as the permanent abode of her seemingly never-employed brother, 57-year-old Vanya (Mark Blum), and their equally unengaged 52-year-old sister Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) - who was adopted into the family.

The play's only characters not mentioned in the title are the young, aspiring actress Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager), who lives nearby, and the voodoo-practicing housekeeper (Shalita Grant). This last character predicts poetic doom in the style of, yes, the ancient Greek prophet who shares her name - Cassandra.

Cassandra serves primarily as one long, tedious joke. But she is merely the worst example of the problem with the entire play - it's an over-extended comedy sketch, in which a few bulls-eye laugh lines are accompanied by many that miss the mark, which then undercut any serious sentiments that might be evoked.

In the evening's worst examples of sloppy writing, Sonia has a long solo telephone conversation in which she clumsily has to repeat what the other person is saying so we can understand her answers, and Vanya has an even longer rant about cultural artifacts he misses from his youth (including his very youngest years - he mentions the '50s more than once, although he apparently was born in 1957.)

This long slog of a speech is apparently supposed to be the play's climax; actually, it's the clearest indication that Durang didn't know how to edit his own work. And David Hyde Pierce, who appeared as Durang's Vanya on Broadway but directs here, surely felt no incentive to suggest any edits on a script that, after all, won a Tony. The play might have become better if it had remained Tony-less.

Middle photo: J.D. Driskill and Devon Hadsell in "Lysistrata Jones," photo by Thamer Bajjali, True Image Studio. Lower: David Hull and Shalita Grant in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," photo by Craig Schwartz.

February 12, 2014

Ry Cooder at The Echo

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Ry Cooder at The Echo. Photos by Iris Schneider.

Ry Cooder was at The Echo last night, backing for Juliette Commagere (his daughter-in-law) on the slide guitar. The show was a free event, part of a month-long Tuesday residency with Belle Brigade, the sister and brother band of Ethan and Barbara Gruska.

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February 10, 2014

'Above the Fold' in Pasadena, drugs on stage, two musicals

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Top two photos from 'Above the Fold' by Jim Cox


Quick -- without checking Wikipedia, do you remember the much-publicized 2006 case in which three Duke University lacrosse players, all of them white, were accused of raping an African-American stripper who had entertained at their party?

If so, do you remember how that case was resolved? I confess -- I didn't remember, and I would guess I'm not alone.

That's one of many points that Bernard Weinraub makes in his blistering new "Above the Fold," at Pasadena Playhouse -- that we often remember the initial headlines about high-profile criminal cases but not the conclusions.

Although he was inspired by the 2006 case, Weinraub has carefully fictionalized it. The play is set in North Carolina, but Duke and lacrosse aren't mentioned. And he has updated his tale to the Twitter-infused present day. Because it's fictional, no one can say that he's distorting the real story as egregiously as an unnamed "New York newspaper" does in his script.

ATF_7.jpgBut it's that newspaper's reaction that Weinraub is most interested in dissecting. He's an alumnus of the New York Times reporting ranks, and his wonderfully dimensional protagonist -- Jane (the splendid Taraji P. Henson) -- is an African-American reporter who's covering the case for the New York Ti--... er, newspaper.

Jane breaks the story in the national media with the eager cooperation of the prosecutor (Mark Hildreth), who is also running for Congress as a white man in a predominantly black district. She says her initial attempts to reach the accused are unsuccessful -- first, because they haven't been identified and then because "their lawyers are freezing me out" (it might be helpful if we saw this actually taking place on the stage.)

Oops. When she finally speaks to the alleged rapists, she begins to regret the tone of her earlier articles. Yet it's too late to suddenly change her tone, says her editor (Arye Gross), who had earlier raised some precautionary questions.

Jane's ambitious. She has an eye on a coveted foreign post for the newspaper. It turns out that the purported victim Monique (Kristy Johnson) has ambitions of her own. But the play never resorts to the cheesy level that some producers might find irresistible -- there is no romance between Jane and the prosecutor, for example.

Weinraub has taken big steps as a playwright since his "The Accomplices" opened at the Fountain Theatre in 2008. And director Stephen Robman whips the ingredients into a compelling journalistic thriller. An intricate projection design by Jason H. Thompson helps convey the currency of the situation, although part of the imagery unfortunately developed a tic on opening night Wednesday, so a slice of the visual field went dark for most of the second act.

Although no one mentions it in the program, "Above the Fold" is a fascinating follow-up to the revival of "Twelve Angry Men" that the playhouse's artistic director Sheldon Epps directed last fall. That production was unnecessarily schematic. Six black jurors gradually were convinced to save the day for the unseen defendant (who was also apparently of color), against the rush to judgment of six white jurors. There were no Latino or Asian-American or female jurors.

Weinraub's examination of the journalistic system, as opposed to "Twelve Angry Men"s treatment of the justice system, is much more nuanced -- less black and white, metaphorically as well as literally. I can't remember a play with a more detailed demonstration of how easy it can be for the media to make mistakes that matter.


Drugs, anyone?

rx-photo-shirley.jpgKate Fodor's "Rx"is a sprightly satire focused on the clinical test of a new prescription drug designed to combat "workplace depression." One of the test participants (Mina Badie), who edits a pork industry newsletter, and her medical monitor (Jonathan Pessin) -- who's as depressed by his own job as she is by hers -- begin an unlikely and perilous romance. News flash -- complications ensue. John Pleshette directs a nimble ensemble at Lost Studio (130 S. La Brea Avenue.)

Illegal drugs launch the very different "Se Llama Cristina," by Octavio Solis, at Boston Court (70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena.) It hinges on the not-entirely-plausible premise that a couple awakens from an illegal drug binge with almost total amnesia. The man (Justin Huen) and woman (Paula Christensen) then gradually prod each other into re-creating their shared past from their returning memories, which include the suspicion that they're apparently neglectful parents. Director Robert Castro emphasizes the script's inherently dreamy quality to explore the turbulent feelings produced by severely flawed parenting, but the ending is surprisingly upbeat. "Se Llama Cristina" is as close to performance art as it is to being a play. Fortunately these performers know how to sustain interest.

Musicals to the Southeast

Since the death of Reprise, the city of LA lacks a fully professional company devoted primarily to producing (as opposed to presenting) musicals. LA fans of musicals now spend a lot of time in their cars on the way to Musical Theatre West in Long Beach and 3-D Theatricals shows in Fullerton (Plummer Auditorium) and Redondo Beach (at the city's performing arts center.)

Last Sunday I combined a matinee of 3-D's revival of Mel Brooks' "The Producers" with an evening performance of one of South Coast Repertory's rare musicals in Costa Mesa -- the Adam Guettel/Craig Lucas/Elizabeth Spencer romance "The Light in the Piazza."


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Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR


"Piazza" follows a North Carolina mother (Patti Cohenour) and her not-quite adult daughter (Erin Mackey) on their vacation in Florence in the '50s. Much to her mother's chagrin, the young woman falls for a brash Italian not-quite adult man (David Burnham) and vice versa, despite linguistic barriers. Then the mother begins to consider her own conventional but threadbare marriage, and tables start turning. Kent Nicholson's crystalline staging is smaller and more intimate than the one that played the Ahmanson in 2006, but the nuances are perhaps clearer and the ending just as moving.

As for "The Producers," I'm guessing no synopsis is necessary, but I'll just say that the leads -- Jay Brian Winnick as Max and Jeff Skowron as Leo -- are as accomplished as their Broadway predecessors but lack the hype that might have raised some expectations too high. Would you believe that Skowron recently won the Ovation Award for best actor in a musical for 3-D's revival of the musical about the lynching of Leo Frank, "Parade" -- which has virtually nothing in common with "The Producers" other than a Jewish connection and the fact that both titles start with "P"?

These are Don Shirley's first reviews for LA Observed. Don was the LA STAGE Watch columnist and copy editor of LA STAGE Times, a website (now on hiatus) published by the LA STAGE Alliance. He was the primary theater reporter for the Los Angeles Times for two decades, writing many reviews as well as news, feature articles, and larger commentaries. He also has been the theater critic of LA CityBeat, a (now defunct) alternative newspaper, and KCRW, a public radio station. Early in his career, he was on the staff of the Washington Post and wrote extensively about DC theater. He is a graduate of USC and also studied at NYU and at the National Critics Institute of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut.

February 6, 2014

New Zealand Ballet vs. UK's modern McGregor and Jacaranda's 'old' new music

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If only "Giselle" had just one act, the second act. Because in that case the Royal New Zealand Ballet's calling card -- here at the Music Center in its U.S. debut -- would leave an extravagantly moving impression.

There it was, this moonlit scene with the Wilis: jilted be-veiled brides in their white nether world, sweet sorrow in the air, gossamer skirts floating as they stepped in hushed, nun-like unison. And there was the queen of their spiritual kingdom, Myrtha, danced with magical definition by Abigail Boyle, imperiously resolute in her condemnation of all the past faltering swains.

Not only that, but Gillian Murphy staked her most credible effort as Giselle here in Wilidom, where her famously steely technique took the doomed innocent beyond human, but also showed the character as a powerful supplicant, begging Myrtha for the life of her lover Albrecht, danced by the high-skilled though self-conscious Qi Huan.

And here, bringing equal impact to the performance, was the extraordinarily artful conducting of Nigel Gaynor, who charged his sizeable orchestra with hitting the dramatic heights in Adolphe Adam's beloved score.

But it's the first act, in the land of the living, where class breakdown between peasants and royalty must pass the bright-lit test of characterization. For all her carefully grafted-on vulnerabilities, though, Murphy remains a pragmatist in her body's manner, not the charmingly fey, terminally naïve thing that is Giselle. Her mad scene lacked the delusional fever pitch of such a creature. And the Kobborg/Stiefel choreographic changes did not help here or elsewhere.

Surely no one could blame Murphy for wanting to inhabit this role, which stands as the Hamlet of the ballet. Also, the well-known ABT dancer now doubles as principal guest artist with the New Zealanders, since her husband Ethan Stiefel took on the post of company director.

Overall this a perfectly decent regional troupe made of well-trained Pacific Rimmers. But not quite at the level of the Los Angeles Ballet.

From another mentality altogether, a contemporary British one, came Wayne McGregor Random Dance to UCLA's Royce Hall. His work, "FAR," is the very model of high-tech and extended boundaries, its idea taken from Ray Porter's "Flesh in the Age of Reason," a treatise on the mechanisms of thought and emotion.

Now you can forget all this and just know that the eminent choreographer has created a feast full of explicated mystery, spoken in an unknowable language. What materializes onstage is a mapping out of the myriad ways bodies can twist and undulate and juxtapose their limbs, torsos, necks and shoulders.

So at first we're watching not humans in their usual expressive modes, but other forms of animated life sparked by dancers who are superb specimens. They move in non-continuous spasms dictated by an electronic score (fade-ins-fade-outs, amplified piano with vocals, mingled sounds) and set against a backboard of blinking lights.The totality is entirely engrossing, a spectacular piece of theater.

Also contemporary: Jacaranda. And not for the first time at this outpost of modernism, was there a packed house (or should I say church?) at Santa Monica's First Presbyterian -- even though no vestige of mainstream music showed up on the program, only what could be identified as outlier soundscapes.

No matter. It was the big names from the past -- composers Stockhausen and Xenakis, those original avant-gardists of the '60s -- who drew the hordes: oldsters with backpacks, elegant arty types, college students and even some unlikely middlebrow greyheads.

Call it a gathering of the enlightened, an enclave of enthusiasts -- all of them game for whatever challenges that artistic director Patrick Scott might dream up in his passion for new music.

To start off the "old" new music there was Timothy Loo, who showed us the extreme difficulty Xenakis imposed on any cellist attempting his solo "Nomos Alpha" -- an arduous series of alternating mystical whispers, purrings, agitatos, tappings and slurs. His brow glistened with sweat. His string-fingering hand wore a white glove to protect it. He also imbued these various sounds with an immediate, human presence-- along with beyond-the-call virtuosity.

And then there was Stockhausen's "Stimmung," which brought VOXNOVA, the amplified vocal sextet from its native Italy for a U.S. debut. Sitting in a darkened circle, with only the green reflection of their music stands for light, the singers induced the audience's familiar head-bobbing during especially hypnotic passages, their voices blending like elastic bands and issuing an occasional auctioneer yell, along with recited lines of poetry.

No such experimental diversions materialized, though, when the St. Lawrence String Quartet dropped by at Beverly Hills' Wallis Theater for an evening of Haydn, Beethoven and multi-faceted Korngold -- the latter well-known in Hollywood for his many film scores, as first violinist Geoff Nuttall entertainingly pointed out, but a composer unfairly consigned to movie music.

It was good to hear chamber music in this acoustically attractive hall, especially given the St. Lawrence's invigorated, alert readings. But violist Lesley Robertson looked like a somewhat inert exile on the wide stage, positioned at what seemed like a far distance from the others. And somehow the push-pull, close interactions we hear in other quartets were hard to find here, one factor being that Nuttall's physical playing -- with his knee bouncing in the air along with a whole range of energetically expressive body movements, contrasted strongly with the other three musicians.

So too did the Ballets Jazz Montréal showcase wide contrasts a few nights earlier at the Wallis. This versatile company featured a lovely, if adynamic, duet choreographed by Benjamin Millepied (remember him, late of New York City Ballet and the film "Black Swan"? He just took the chief post at Paris Ballet after the big to-do of heading the brand new L.A. Dance Project downtown). In total contrast was Barak Marshall's "Harry," narrative musings on war, death and love -- all those pictorial things he illustrates so passionately with his dancers.


January 29, 2014

The greatest concert Pete Seeger never gave


Bruce Springsteen live at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2006.

It was 30 years ago at the Universal Amphitheatre when I saw Pete Seeger for my first and only time, but despite valiant support from Arlo Guthrie, Holly Near and his old Weavers bandmate Ronnie Gilbert, the years by then were taking their toll. His hands were trembling and his voice unsteady, but Seeger, who died this week at the age of 94, was still a powerful musical presence on that stage - a living link between the Old Left of the Popular Front and New Deal that battled the Depression in the 1930s and fascism in the 1940s, and the New Left of the anti-war, human rights and environmental crusades of the 1960s and beyond.

For us, the music that night was secondary: we were paying tribute to a cultural monument, and the air was thick with emotion. But some 20 years later and nearly two thousand miles away, I witnessed the greatest Pete Seeger concert he never gave, and out of the
hundreds of shows that I've seen through the decades, that's the one I'll never forget.

This story begins the previous summer. On August 29, 2005, as I celebrated my 50th birthday with a houseful of close friends in Los Angeles, Hurricane Katrina made landfall outside New Orleans. By mid-day, the situation was spinning out of control into unimaginable catastrophe, but the worst was yet to come. The levees breached in more than 50 locations, the water from the storm surge continued to pour into the drowning city. Two days later, Katrina had dissipated, but by then roughly 85% of New Orleans was under water. The vast majority of residents had been successfully evacuated beforehand, but many had ignored the evacuation orders. While at least 15,000 people were subsequently rescued, nearly 1,500 lost their lives in what is considered the worst engineering disaster in American history.

And so it was that eight months later, when I had the opportunity to join my wife for a legal convention in New Orleans, I strongly resisted. The city couldn't possibly be ready for convention business yet, I argued. It would be disaster porn - out-of-towners gaping voyeuristically at the ruined homes and debris-strewn streets, a decidedly un-magical misery tour of human suffering. I thought the convention planners, union-side labor lawyers, epitomized political correctness run amok - determined to express their solidarity with the Crescent City victims in the most vulgar and misguided way possible.

As it turned out, I was entirely wrong on every count. Tourism is the lifeblood of the city, and conventions like ours represented a desperately needed transfusion. The residents were only too eager to show and tell what they'd experienced. Their relief and gratitude that somebody still cared enough to visit - during a time when some were writing off the city altogether - was genuinely touching. The hotels and restaurants went overboard to share their hospitality and prove they could keep up their standards. I felt humbled, and deeply ashamed of myself.

The convention business concluded, we still had the weekend - and so on April 30, 2006, we found ourselves at the New Orleans Race Track for that year's Jazzfest, a massive annual musical bacchanal that few thought possible to mount successfully so soon after the disaster. But the show must go on, and once again, we had underestimated the city's grit and determination to pick itself up and forge ahead.

After several days spent sampling the wide variety of indigenous talent and local Cajun, zydeco, gospel and blues groups, the grand finale that Sunday afternoon was Bruce Springsteen, who'd been announced as previewing his upcoming album for the first time before the general public (after a small out-of-town tryout a month before in his own Asbury Park, New Jersey.)

seeger-springsteen-inaug.jpgNever a big Springsteen fan, I found myself intrigued by this project: "The Seeger Sessions" was Springsteen's wildly anti-commercial effort to mount a rock 'n' roll hootenanny built around traditional American folk songs and spirituals popularized by Pete Seeger. Springsteen had assembled a band of nearly two dozen musicians - guitar, bass and drums, yes, but also horns, fiddles, accordion and keyboards - held a couple of rehearsals, and gathered everyone over the course of a few days to just bang it out live in the studio, old-school. And there they were, filling the stage like excited kids auditioning for a talent show.

The set blasted off with Springsteen's rousing version of "Mary, Don't You Weep," a full-throated treatment of an old Civil War-era Negro spiritual first recorded in 1915 and widely popularized by Seeger during the civil-rights era. The next few songs, "John Henry" and "Old Dan Tucker" sent me hurtling back to my elementary school singsongs. Then things turned solemn with the purposeful gospel ballad, "Eyes on the Prize" - "Freedom's name is mighty sweet/And soon we're gonna meet/keep your eyes on the prize/hold on."

At the time of its release, some criticized the album for eschewing politics, a "missed opportunity" for pointed criticism targeting the Bush presidency, growing economic inequity and misguided military adventures abroad. But the critics, not surprisingly, got it all wrong. The collection is arguably Springsteen's most political album - and a fitting tribute to Seeger's skill for weaving sharp social commentary into accessible, non-threatening and easily singable folk songs.

"My Oklahoma Home," a superficially jokey tune written by two of Seeger's fellow Almanac Singers in the 1940s (a group that also included Woody Guthrie), tells the tale of a man whose Oklahoma farm is destroyed by drought and tornados, which also carried away his wife - "Mister, as I bent down to kiss her, she was picked up by a twister" - and concludes sadly, "Yeah, it's up there in the sky, in that dust cloud over 'n' by, my Oklahoma home is in the sky." Things turn even darker with "Mrs. McGrath," a mournful ballad about a poor Irish widow talked into sending her son off to join the British fleet, from which he eventually returns, maimed, his legs torn off by a cannonball. The anguished woman cries, "All foreign wars, I do proclaim, live on blood and a mother's pain, and I'd rather have my son as he used to be, than the King of America and his whole Navy."

The set continued with "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live" (including another pointed Bush reference), another spiritual, "Jacob's Ladder," Seeger's civil-rights anthem "We Shall Overcome," then a song that Seeger first performed with The Weavers, "Pay Me My Money Down," and more. But by then, I had been seized by a kind of emotional delirium that I've never experienced in any concert before or since: I can only compare it to the kind of ecstatic religious fervor of a revival meeting.

As I said, Pete Seeger - by then, 86 years old - never performed at that concert. But he was surely there, channeled through the music and clarity of moral purpose and determination to stand up and sing out against injustice. That afternoon, beside the wreck of the city, we felt Pete's power of song lifting us up. He lifts us still.

Photo of Seeger and Springsteen at Barack Obama inauguration concert in Washington, January 2009.

January 7, 2014

Short order artist

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The pop-up installation in the Blackstone Gallery at 9th and Broadway only looks like a fast food restaurant. The whole thing is made of cardboard — like a Caine's Arcade for adults. Place your order, as many have, and artist John Kilduff will paint it for you.

The exhibition comes down this week.

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December 28, 2013

Photo collecting is all in the Vernon family

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Carol Vernon at LACMA. Photo by Iris Schneider.


On a recent morning, Carol Vernon strides into LACMA's Resnick Pavilion looking as comfortable as if she were in her own living room.

The photography exhibit we are soon standing in, "See the Light-Photography, Perception, and Cognition," explores parallels between photography and the science of vision. If Vernon feels at home it's because the images we are surrounded by were, for many years, part of her family's everyday life.

Drawn from the Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, the exhibit gives museum-goers the chance to view 220 of the 3500 images collected by her late parents between 1976 and 2007. Acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2008, the collection essentially tells the history of 19th and 20th century photography. It includes masterworks by Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Steichen, Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Man Ray, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Paul Strand and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. One of the finest private collections of photography assembled in the United States, it is notable for its variety and depth. "The scope of this collection is unparalleled," says LACMA photography curator Britt Salvesen. "The range of styles and balance of American and European photographers is incredibly interesting. Today you could never put together a collection like this."


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"Magnolia Blossom," 1925 by Imogen Cunningham.


For Carol Vernon, to walk through the exhibit is clearly bittersweet. She was in her mid-20s and working with her dad, an industrial developer and builder, when her parents began to collect. "It's always nice to come and see these familiar images," she says. "For many years my office was in their house so I was surrounded by a lot of this. A lot of the collecting happened where I was able to go with them, so it was fun." The initial spark was a chance encounter between Leonard Vernon and Maggie Weston, Edward Weston's daughter-in-law, in her Carmel gallery on New Year's Eve in 1976. One thing led to another, and three months later Carol Vernon and her parents found themselves in a Westwood hotel room.

"There were images on the bed, on the floor, just kind of propped up. They were just gorgeous and we had a field day," Vernon recalls. Her parents bought 17 photographs, mostly dating from the 19th century. Their collection had its beginning. "This was not a studied thing..It really was very organic," Vernon says. "The more they looked at, the more they wanted to know. This was a time when there were only two photography galleries in Los Angeles [the LACMA photography department wasn't officially created until 1984] and there was a lot of learning going on."

The Vernons became well known to curators, dealers, scholars, and artists — struggling and established. "In those years, anybody who was a fine art photographer trying to sell their work would eventually hear somebody say, 'you need to go see the Vernon's'," Carol says. "My parents loved sharing what they had. Nothing would make my father happier than when someone would ask, for example, 'do you have any Weston, or Adams', or whatever it was, and he would pull out boxes and boxes for them to go through. They loved seeing what artists and dealers were bringing them, and learning about what was about to go up for auction. It was a very small community then and they loved having them all in the house."


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"Mrs. Herbert Duckworth (née Julia Jackson)," circa 1867 by Julia Margaret Cameron; "Balance," 1942 by Gyorgy Kepe.

The couple formed relationships with many of the photographers they collected. "Max Yavno was one of the closest," Carol remembers. "He lived in town so we got to know him very well. Great photographer, total ladies man!" Ansel Adams was a frequent dinner guest. "It was really a treat to be sitting at the table with this master. The conversation was wide ranging. It was about photography, what he was doing, what was going on in the world, where he'd been traveling. They were very low-key family dinners."

When asked why her parents took so passionately to collecting photography, especially at a time when the art world was still debating whether photography could be considered art, Vernon is only able to speculate.

"My father had wanted to be a fashion photographer in his youth, though it was probably more about the women," she says. Later on he became an avid amateur, often using his camera while traveling and for family snapshots. The couple was well known among dealers for their ability to communicate without words what they wanted to purchase. "They were just so in tune that they just knew, and it was 'OK, we'll take these and that one over there, and that one's not part of the group," Vernon says.


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"Pyramids of El-Geezeh from the Southwest," 1858 by Francis Frith; right, Vernon and Salvesen by Iris Schneider.


As in all families, things changed. Marjorie Vernon died in 1998, Leonard in 2007. When Carol starts to talk about the experience of moving the collection from her parents' Bel Air home, she sounds like any child who has had to deal with losing her parents. "The day they came and started packing everything up and it was all going into these boxes, and the walls were getting empty...it was a horrible day," she says. "It was the realization my parents were gone. This was the proof that this life was over." Vernon dealt with her grief by reminding herself that she was carrying out her parents' wish. They wanted the photo collection to stay together, preferably in Los Angeles.

The Vernon Collection at one point was in danger of going up for auction. A gift from Wallis Annenberg and the Annenberg Foundation made it possible for LACMA to purchase the collection, according to Vernon and museum sources.

Carol Vernon has inherited her parents' love of collecting. She and her husband, Robert Turbin, adhere to her parents' philosophy of acquiring what you like, and what speaks to you. Their own collection includes paintings, drawings and ceramics, as well as photography. The difference, however, is that while her parents could agree on what to buy without speaking to each other, Vernon and Turbin readily acknowledge that "we actually have to talk about it."


See the Light--Photography, Perception, Cognition: The Marjorie and 
Leonard Vernon Collection
 is on exhibit at LACMA until March 23, 2014.

LACMA photos: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation, and acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin. Except for Julia Margaret Cameron: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation and Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin.

December 4, 2013

Silent screen magic in 'Flute' and a vampire chases 'Sleeping Beauty'

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Pamina (Janai Brugger) bonds with Papageno (Rodion Pogossov) over their shared desire to find a true love. Photo: Robert Millard


Humor, needed now more than ever, comes to our downtown stages in two shows brimming with imagination: a "Magic Flute" that breaks the antique Mozartian mold and Matthew Bourne's hip "Sleeping Beauty" powered by a testosteronic high. And to think they both used to be sex-less little fairy tales, set to extraordinary music.

Think of Mozart in his feverishly sick last months, penning his 1791 score of Die Zauberflöte, that sweetly child-like coming-of-age fable with Singspiel characters straight from a classic story book. And then think the 1920s, silent film, the earliest Mickey Mouse animations, Louise Brooks, Buster Keaton, Nosferatu and just how big a leap this LA Opera premiere made from one to the other.

Truth is, I never saw anything quite like it. For sheer ingenuity and stage/film savvy this one goes beyond mere stylized cleverness.

And it came to LA replacing the well-loved Peter Hall/Maurice Sendak fantasia because company mavens were onto something: a chance to lean forward and give this entertainment/movie capital a dazzlingly innovative, re-thought, all-of-a-piece "Magic Flute" never before seen outside of Berlin's Komische Oper, one devised by Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt with co-director Barrie Kosky of the retro-garde 1927, a London theater company.

GlobalLAO-Gallery-Press-Flute2013-MgF6038.jpgSo hold on to your hats. This staging is a sophisticate's delight. Its constantly sly wit and overall tech management come stream-lined with ever-changing yet logical stagecraft and imagery. Instead of the spiel or dialogue, it uses old-timey screen titles between scenes (1927, get it?) just like in silent films. Accompanying them are Mozart's well-known C-minor and F-minor keyboard fantasies played on an amplified forte piano, the sound a bit tinny like in those old movie houses. Esther Bialas's costumes are body-hugging flapper coats and cloches. The cast comes in white face (an irony is that the romantic leads are both black.)

Everyone appears on a separate, little platform attached high up to a big board -- remember "Laugh-In"? Well, it's sort of like that but the door flaps that open with each set of occupants are full-body size instead of just for heads. And whiz-bang animation supplies the background, complete with a cat cameo and assorted other animals.

It works. And it's impossible not to gasp at how thought-through a piece it is. If, that is, you can do without the heart-melting moments embedded in arias like ""Ach, ich fuhl's" -- which Pamina sings when Tamino has seemingly shut her out (because he's really under a challenge to be silent or to lose her altogether.)

But this is where we want to suspend disbelief and join the fairy tale, where we need to feel what the characters feel, not keep emotional distance from them. The music would pull us into her pool of pain, yet the conceptual catch-all leaves us out because there's no connecting vibration between the two lovers onstage. So I came home and -- for relief -- watched several excerpts of this scene on YouTube...

GlobalLAO-Gallery-Press-Flute2013-MgF3236.jpgStill, the cast onstage could not be faulted. Rodion Pogossov, as the guileless fool Papageno and here a Buster Keaton type, had the best shot at exercising human physicality; in his earthy gold suit and flattened, slouchy hat to match, hands often in pockets, he ambled about, his voice a most pleasing, warm baritone.

The others -- Lawrence Brownlee (Tamino), Janai Brugger (Pamina), Erika Miklosa (Queen of the Night), Rodell Rosel (Monostatos), Amanda Woodbury (Papagena) and Evan Boyer, (a Sarastro who omitted his lowest notes) -- were more locked into their stations, thus sounding somewhat distant but terrific anyway Conductor James Conlon kept things moving along briskly. Still, he gave the laments their lyrical due and led a thrillingly unified chorus.

But no such musical treats lay across the plaza at the Ahmanson. Typically these days for touring dance companies, this Tchaikovsky ballet score was canned, over-amplified and scratchy.

Aside from that deficit, though, do you really think Matthew Bourne would stage "The Sleeping Beauty" and let its heroine be the precious, dainty, delicate innocent girl set upon by a wicked fairy who puts her in a 100-year doze?

SleepingBeauty_Photo 13-M.jpgNot a chance. His idea of Princess Aurora is a cantankerous scamp. She flings herself into any and all waiting arms and races gracelessly like a wound-up tomboy, barefoot, while all the others dancers wear ballet slippers.

And who would be her formidable nemesis, as well as a main character in this production? Not the bent-over, grizzled crone called Carabosse but the menacing male version of her, and later as the villain's son, Caradoc, erect, imperious and vampire-ish. No one will mistake the evil he does or his command of events or the fearsomeness of his presence. Just as Bourne has typically done before, notably in his "Swan Lake," he brings real threat of harm through a male character -- that powerful high chest, neck held as though by steel girders, arms and shoulders sweeping all before him to subservience. Choice.

As Aurora's savior there's Leo the Gamekeeper (elsewhere known as Prince Charming), and he's remindful of any easy-to-like romantic lead in a musical comedy.

SleepingBeauty_Photo 5-M.jpgAll three are cast to strength: most compellingly Adam Maskell in the dual villain role Carabosse/Caradoc; Hannah Vassallo as Aurora and Dominic North as the sweet suitor Leo. The group dances abound in big, juicy movements with expanded chests and extended arms. The most gratifying among them, and the only one with real choreographic artistry and clever design, was the garden party.

On a far smaller scale there was the debut performance of Barak Ballet, a local chamber company founded by Melissa Barak, late of New York City Ballet and a native daughter here. She's artistically savvy, quite ambitious and her opening event at the Broad Stage featured one dazzling work -- a real find -- by New York choreographer Pascal Rioult: "Wien," set to Ravel's "La Valse."

Don't even ask how or why this piece escaped us in the past. New Yorkers saw it in 1995 and it has been performed elsewhere, but no other company has brought it here. Thank you, Ms. Barak.

"Wien" is the name Ravel originally gave to this popular concert piece. And here the French dance-maker illustrated a design of social disintegration that he saw in it.

To the score's swirling, plangent waves of unrest we saw a gaggle of people in street clothes internally pulled and yanked as though caught in a vortex, drawn in one direction or another, sometimes with hunched shoulders, necks bent down, jaws jutting -- remindful of an Expressionist painting. And in the way the group moved around the stage it seemed like birds in changing formations, impelled by some unseen force.

The performance itself was matchless. The credit goes to Barak for recruiting this small contingent of virtuosic dancers, so sensitive to the work's core voices.

November 24, 2013

Northeast objects of art

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Graham at work in his studio. Photos by Iris Schneider.


"It all started as a kid when my grandparents gave me a rolltop desk with all the little drawers and spaces," Clare Graham said in describing his path to becoming an artist. "I was a kid who collected bones of my dead pets, leaves, rocks and I could fill up all those spaces. Now, my studio is 7,000 square feet and it's basically an enlarged version of that rolltop desk."

Perhaps that's how it began, but it's what Clare has done with those collections that makes him unique. Using recycled objects like buttons, tin cans, wire, yardsticks, pencils, soda can pop tops, teddy bear eyes and rosaries, the artist has created an environment that is a jaw-dropping homage to creativity, imagination and perseverance. This weekend his studio was one of many open to the public as part of the Arroyo Arts Collective tour. I was awed by the sheer creativity and imagination on artful display in every nook and cranny of Graham's breathtaking space.

claresstudio.jpg"Sometimes the objects tell you what you need to do. Rosaries are a good example. I had been collecting them for years, but I needed to mass them and get all that prayer power together," Graham said, referring to a totem of 3,500 rosaries towering behind him, reaching up toward the ceiling. As he describes his process, more intuitive than artful, the objects become more than the sum of their parts as pop tops are woven tightly together--he estimates that 250,000 went into a large ball that he can sit on--buttons are stacked and hung, yardsticks are laid side by side to create his version of a Stickley bench. Tin can bottoms are riveted together to make tabletops and cabinets. Dominoes, scrabble tiles, puzzle pieces are rescued from the trash and turned into art. It makes it hard to think of ever throwing anything away. Graham often opens part of his studio, known as MorYork Gallery, to other artists, and hosts monthly music nights in what has become his role as patron of the artists of Highland Park and the Northeast Arts district.

He is currently preparing for his first show at the Craft and Folk Art Museum next year, and has begun showing his work at galleries around town. Word has spread gradually about his artistry. "It's totally word of mouth," he said. "I don't use any of the mechanisms to spread the word about my work. There are tons of images now on Instagram and from cellphone cameras taken by people who have toured the studio. It's interesting to see what they see in the place, their take on what the mother ship is." Indeed, step over the threshold and you are definitely in another world.

The studio was open this weekend with a Tygh Valley Traders Trunk show to benefit the Fowler Textile Council at UCLA, and on Sunday as part of the Arroyo Arts Collective.

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November 23, 2013

The Wallis opens with Graham, Verdi blows out candles

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Barbara Morgan photo of Martha Graham.Used with permission.

An illustrious opening of a Beverly Hills performing arts complex, the Annenberg Wallis. A nod to cultural icon Martha Graham. Also to Giuseppe Verdi, with his delectable last opera, "Falstaff." What else could we say but huzzahs all around?

As the Wallis's first offering, there was the Graham company -- which has not toured L.A. since 2000. Too long. After all, it was marvelous Martha who put modern dance on the map, starting in the 1930s and defining it as the most exhilaratingly theatrical art form to probe the human psyche.

And surely there could be no better welcome back to this city than a bid to inaugurate the Wallis -- a 500-seat theater set in a landmark: the restored, lavishly marbled Beverly Hills post office, a rendition of Italian Renaissance. She would have loved it. Especially the spacious stage with ample wing space and terrific sight lines afforded by the raked rows of seating.

But with Graham long gone -- she died in '91, running her company and even appearing onstage right up to the end at 96! -- it's good to see that the current dancers are equal to the same stunningly high level as those in today's top troupes.

What's more, the bill of fare just seen on the Wallis stage gave its audience a deliciously full spectrum of Graham's historical importance -- from the Denishawn days of exotica and floating gossamer, on to that period when modern dance wrapped itself around political-moral issues.

The program -- planned and narrated by company stalwart, director Janet Eilber, formerly one of Graham's major dancers -- made its mark throughout.

Once again we could think of Käthe Kollwitz's expressionist woodcuts when Katherine Crockett performed "Lamentation," Graham's famous 1936 solo -- sitting on a bench and shrouded in silk jersey, her arms and legs twisting and stretching that garment into angled folds of grief, her hollowed out facial features gripped with feeling, speaking the unspeakable.

Similar angst characterized "Chronicle," an outcry against war, with group dances that were riveting in their sense of defiance and their uniquely austere formations.

MLR_BenchJump_069 copy.jpgBut it was "Maple Leaf Rag" -- a cleverly jokey poke at Graham herself, via emblematic quotes from her own movement vocabulary -- that sent the crowd home happy. For some others, though, the grandiloquent and overly glitzy "Ritual to the Sun," set to Carl Nielsen's "Helios" Overture, looked like someone's misbegotten gloss on the choreographer's signature.

Originality returned the next night, though, with LA Opera's new production of "Falstaff," the Verdian romp that exults in briskly buoyant, multi-part vocal lines and prismatic orchestration so full of fine glitter it fairly lifts off to the sky.

A connoisseur piece by any measure, it serves to celebrate the composer's 200th birthday. What's more, it turns the tables on those who regard Verdi -- exclusively -- as the emperor of Italian opera's deep-felt tragedies like "Traviata" and "Rigoletto."

This one is a comedy. Verdi and his librettist Boito created their Boccaccian delight as an odd little treatise on pre-Renaissance morality (courtesy of the Bard's "Merry Wives of Windsor" and "Henry IV"). It's built around a fallen aristocrat with delusions of importance but with philosophical/psychological underpinnings.

We think back to 1982 when the great god-like maestro Carlo Maria Giulini led the LA Philharmonic in a wholly high-value production with an all-star cast and how, whenever LA Opera revives it, thoughts turn to those performances.

Happily, there were no disappointments or even oddities or directorial revisions this time. And while conductor James Conlon may not have lingered over the lyric heavenliness of its short-lived melodic strains he certainly let them soar and gave great propulsive vitality to the bustling activity captured in the score.

Adrian Linford's traditional designs made for easy access. And director Lee Blakely kept the stage action lively, possibly losing some of the lesser roles' character definition.

GlobalLAO-Gallery-Press-Falstaff2013-FLS5182 copy.jpgBut the main order of business comes down to Sir John Falstaff, and in his portrayal of the fat knight Roberto Frontali made a superb case. First off, his baritone has a full range of tone and expressive color, and you hear the singing line in all of his musical phrases. He even gave off hints of an Italian Renaissance Zero Mostel as an adorable dumpling dressed to the nines for his courting caper -- although not issuing utmost cranky wisdom in the "honor" monologue.

The other standout was Ronnita Nicole Miller as Mistress Quickly, the schemer who leads him to his comic disaster: a dump in the River Thames. Ekaterina Sadovnikova sang prettily as Nanetta, but without making us forget the alluring voice of Barbara Hendricks (who could?), while Juan Francisco Gatell was a quite wiry-sounding Fenton.

Performances through Dec. 1 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

November 11, 2013

Gehry and Salonen discuss Disney Hall

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LA Observed file photo

The goal for Walt Disney Concert Hall was to shake the dust off classical music and architecture and engage the contemporary world and popular culture, according to architect Frank Gehry and L. A. Philharmonic conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen. The two men spoke recently at the Hammer Museum in a conversation moderated by architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, who said the hall was "one of the most positive stories" he has covered. The conversation, on stage at the Hammer's Billy Wilder Theater, was part of the commemoration of Disney Hall's tenth anniversary.

"We did care about the legacy of classical music," Salonen said.. "What we wanted was something like a museum with a dynamic contemporary wing." If someone didn't update the tradition, he was afraid classical music would "come to an end like classic cars. What makes the L.A. Phil unique is that it doesn't impose an old model. The new hall changed the narrative so that the orchestra and the hall became one. That never happened at [the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion]. Disney Hall is a fine-tuned instrument for one purpose - high-quality orchestral playing from whatever century."

Gehry said he felt that the old buildings downtown reflected L.A.'s "insecurity" because they were modeled after structures in other cities such as Lincoln Center in New York City. He wanted to break that mold. "That was so strange for L.A. where everything is freer. With Disney Hall I was trying to break down the scale into smaller pieces. There was nothing in the neighborhood to emulate."

Both Gehry and Salonen gave credit to the late Ernest Fleischmann, who was executive director of the L.A. Philharmonic, for his vision for the hall. "He wanted it to be an infinitely democratic room where everybody would be equal," Gehry said. "There would be no bad seats. We wanted intimacy despite the volume, with the orchestra in the same space as the audience," rather than separated by a proscenium.

"The audience is no longer an anonymous mass," Salonen said. "It feels like we're playing to individuals and we can perceive that they feel something. There's a feedback loop because we're in close proximity. It changed the way the musicians approach things like what kind of socks to wear." The orchestra plays better in Disney Hall, he said, because the audience knows the music is for them and not "some kind of generalized activity. You feel the intimacy and that affects the way we perform. In no other hall have I experienced this. Music should be an overwhelming emotional and physical experience."

Gehry developed one model for the hall with white plaster interior walls that "looked kind of like sails." That would have been fine acoustically, he said, "but we wanted the warmth of wood, to make you "feel closer to the violin and the cello.

He described the day when a musician came in to play as a test while the hall was still under construction. "We sat up in the highest seat," and when the music began, "I was holding Esa-Pekka's hand. From the first second, it was just plain beautiful. We knew then it was going to be a success."

Months later, when the orchestra first rehearsed in the new hall, there were "many tears." One older musician said, "I've wasted four decades of my life and now it sounds like this." On that day, Salonen said to Gehry, "Frank, we'll keep it."

November 9, 2013

Free showing of 'Invisible Cities' on Sunday

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Old Union Station ticket counters become the stage for Invisible Cities.


Union Station was buzzing with activity. Those attending the Hard Day of the Dead rave at LA's Historic Park, dressed for the event, or should I say barely dressed for it, were rushing through the terminal to catch a train to the park in skimpy Halloween costumes that barely covered their butts. There was the guy in the diaper, rushing by next to the young lady wearing knee high mukluks and a thong. But the most common costume in the station had to be the Sennheiser headphones worn by those lucky enough to line up for 160 free tickets to "Invisible Cities" the opera being staged throughout the historic station by The Industry. Yuval Sharon, the force behind the production company that is pushing the boundaries of opera to find new audiences, announced another free show this coming Sunday, on the heels of the resounding success of the opera's run. Last Sunday's free performance was underwritten by generous donors and Sharon has worked hard to fundraise, including with a Kickstarter campaign, to make the program affordable. He said the response has been astounding, and shows have been added throughout the run to accommodate the clamor for tickets.

"Invisible Cities" is an elegaic look at Italo Calvino's book about Marco Polo and Kubla Khan, and his retelling of the stories Polo told Khan about his travels, real or imaginary. With libretto and music composed by Christopher Cerrone, the setting in the station added an adventurous element to the performance as listeners were encouraged to roam freely and encounter the performers — singers and a group of dancers from the LA Dance project choreographed by Danielle Agami. In Sharon's introductory remarks before the live orchestra began in the old Fred Harvey restaurant, listeners were encouraged to "take off their headsets and enjoy the silence, and share their headsets with bystanders" and I noticed quite a lot of sharing going on as travelers stood transfixed trying to figure out what dream they had walked into while waiting for their bus or train. The piece ended in the old ticket area with dancers barefoot and undulating through the booths where tickets to very real trips once were sold. It was an impressive finale to an exhilarating evening's entertainment. It was hard to decide whether the performers or the location should get top billing. In the end, the whole was so much more than the sum of its parts.

Photos by Iris Schneider.


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Rios family watches as tenor Ashley Faatoalia sings at Traxx restaurant.


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Kublai Khan played by Cedric Berry.

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Passing through, headed to a rave.

October 27, 2013

LA stages overflow: Beachy Einstein, zappy Zappa and more

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The deluge is on — so whether it's the landmark "Einstein on the Beach" or Frank Zappa's finally-mounted "200 Motels" or the mind-stretching Nederlands Danse Theater or the multi-cultural Body Traffic or the Bach marathoner András Schiff, you're bound to get gobsmacked in a performing arts orgy.

And to think that it took 37 years before the Robert Wilson/Philip Glass "Einstein" could land its full-complement staging — right here, not in New York — thanks to LA Opera and UCLA. What's more, after this production's worldwide, year-long tour ends in Paris, these original creators of the piece will hang it up.

So what was the intermission-less, four-hour-plus extravaganza like? A dream. One that you walk into and sit immersed in scene after scene, while the cast's sleep-walking characters utter here-and-now aphoristic texts and sing superbly nuanced syllables — all framed by stage pictures that are marvelously spare art works in themselves to music that whispers and roars and lulls and assaults.

If you were lucky enough to be among those in the audience who crouched and side-stepped their way out through the darkened rows (humans with human needs), and then back again, you became part of a unique theater experience that integrated stage and spectators.

And about the title? Ah, yes, the violin virtuosa Jennifer Koh, wearing a white frizzy wig that suggests the fabled physicist, sits at the side playing her amplified fiddle. And, in a favorite vignette, a woman repeats "I was in a pre-maturely air-conditioned supermarket...and saw bathing caps there" while morphing into a Patty Hearst-with-machine-gun persona. In another stunner a Bela Lugosi-like man stands with his black bride in open view on an antique train's end car, the music swells, the stage darkens, the slight movement is glacial — until it ends as the bride suddenly grins and pulls a gun on him.

GlobalLAO-Gallery-Press-Einstein2013-EotB_14.jpgBack to Einstein: He loved the seaside and trains. His theories spawned world-destruction capabilities, also covertly referenced in the piece. No need to look for further allusions. But be glad, after all these years of hearing about it, that at last we had the complete production done with spectacular artistry...

The other vintage work that you'll probably never see again is Zappa's, "200 Motels" harking back to its infamous 1970 concert performance at Pauley Pavilion, when Zubin Mehta and the LA Phil collaborated with the then 29-year-old cross-over composer. It finally had a stage premiere at Disney Hall, the orchestra augmented by a rock band and led by an imperturbable and dedicated Esa-Pekka Salonen.

zappa-motels.jpgThose motels represent the touring icons of Zappa's band, Mothers of Invention. And this piece, a pseudo-satire of the establishment — one that's big on shock value — revels in obscenities and puts on feigned in-your-face sex acts. Angry young man? Seems that way. He was in his 20s. As staged here by James Darrow, "Motels" came across as tiresomely adolescent in its obsessive, ridiculously deployed props of penises that were marched around.

But the good-natured Master Chorale and LA Phil musicians gave the prescribed antics their all (jumping up and down, hollering on cue, etc.), and delivered the scintillatingly angular symphonic parts of the score with full vigor. Hila Plittman, an extraordinary soprano charged with aleatoric high ascents, looked as gorgeous as she sounded and basso Morris Robinson made a booming presence.

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Across the street at the Music Center Pavilion, though, Nederlands Danse Theater marked a strictly adult presence — in the sense of advanced development, not sexual fetish. And for the 30-plus years the company has been stopping here it still epitomizes that chasm between European and American sensibility. Think Kafka and Kundera, less the Beats.

same-diff-jump.jpgAnd nowhere on the program was there a greater sense of it than in Sol Léon's/Paul Lightfoot's "Same Difference," the grabbiest piece of dance theater I've seen in a long time — all of it integrated within sophisticated, inventive stagecraft. In fact, it never let go, starting with the audio. Taped, variegated groans, in superb fidelity and amplified to be heard a block away, accompanied the several characters obliquely making their way onstage and mouthing those groans. Was this parody? Should we laugh? Some did, initially.

Whatever the subject matter, it needed no explanation. An eastern bloc soldier appears, Jorge Nozal, emblematic in his various states and finally fastening us in his gaze as he walks on a plank extending past the stage. So are the various others engaging in neo-Expressionist entanglements with each other. Everyone wants/needs something. The Philip Glass collage score further carried the emotional tone.

Also in the roof-raiser category was the exuberant Body Traffic at the Broad Stage, which made me wonder: How rare is it for a choreographer to compose stories and hitch his dances to their implications? I mean stories that tell of a culture's accepted biases? And then twist them into strands of irony?

Let's just say very rare. Which is what Barak Marshall has managed to do with "And at midnight the green bride floated through the village square," his evocation of an old world that traces back to a brusque, hard-core gender inequality with raucous, gleeful vivacity in an utterly absorbing array of characterizations on stage.

The work is both a playlet, made of related scenes, and a powerful parable. It makes its acute declaration by way of Margolit Oved, former Inbal star and the choreographer's mother, who appears onstage to archly quantify what goes into the bearing and nursing of children. All that is made light of, sardonically, as she repeats her quiet, acerbic summary: "but the husband is the provider."

Everything else that goes on around Oved's narration is an acting-out of her observation. Dancers, in vigorous unison drills, shrug and gesture their shtetl attitudes, evoking every Klezmer mannerism with robust outwardness.

In one vignette a man on a bench, reading his newspaper, shoos away one damsel after another sidling up to him. Best, and most comic of all, a husband and wife stand facing each other maybe an inch apart. He tells her how to cook fish, then lamb, then pigeon — with concise instructions. She argues, with devastating persuasiveness, that killing them is wrong.

But most clever of all is the unique tapestry Marshall weaves, which he animates with a lively collage score — including Barry Sisters songs, Gypsy tangos ("Dark Eyes"), Yiddish and Arabic roof-raisers. At the end couples swirl onstage simultaneously, each dancing a different routine, reminding me of tango show finales.

This sizzling local company — 10 members with a zest for characterization, enormous versatility and high-level technique — not only etched Marshall's work with fine point, they just as easily lavished idiomatic American pop/jazz finesse on Richard Siegal's "O2Joy."

The sheer star value of Andrew Wojtal in his lip-syncing/hi-jinks dance to Ella Fitgerald's "All of Me" had the audience gasping in hysterical delight. But sad to say, Kyle Abraham's "Kollide," is one of those body-adoration, by-the-yard dances just as amorphously molasses-like as its new age-y score. All atmospherics...

On to real matter: Bach at Disney, the Baroque master's "Goldberg Variations," played by the master pianist András Schiff. Arguably, not since Glen Gould's early recordings of the rarely-played, esoteric work hit the two million mark in sales, has there been so much buzz for it. And here the current Bach specialist's opening notes of the Aria fell heaven-sent, like soft, luminous, perfect petals on the keys, conjuring a thought: that if there is a god this music and this performance gave closest evidence of it — no matter that over the long stretch, 75 minutes with all the repeats, there was some loss of focus.

October 25, 2013

Elliott Erwitt gives young Hollywood an excuse to party

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Waiters hold photos by Erwitt. Below, Erwitt with Matthew McConaughey and Camila Alves McConaughey.

Big doings in the photography world around Los Angeles this week. The Annenberg Space for Photography opens its latest exhibition, a showcase of the work of National Geographic photographers this Saturday. But last night at the Leica Gallery the red carpet and velvet ropes were in place and flashes popped as photography royalty bumped up against young Hollywood and its art wannabes. The museum, a posh space hidden behind some hedges on Beverly Boulevard near Robertson, not only exhibits the work of Leica shooters but, I was told by a photojournalist friend of mine covering the event, "sells the cameras and the Leica lifestyle." The Magnum veteran photographer Elliott Erwitt made a rare appearance to herald the publishing of another book, "Elliott Erwitt's Great Scottish Adventure." This one, a tie-in with The Macallan (their fourth in a collaboration with photographers), marks the end of a months-long project documenting Scotland, funded by one of its high end distilleries: The Macallan Scotch Whiskey.

erwitt-mcconaughey-alves.jpgErwitt, looking much younger than his 85 years, had just flown in from New York for the tony book launch, and was leaving this morning on a months-long book tour that first takes him back to Scotland and then on to other cities. The party was a true collision of art and commerce, an odd mix of art-lovers and those who can sniff out an open bar and manage to get their name on the list. "These shots of whiskey go for at least $20 at bars around town," a friend told me as she swirled the caramel colored liquor in her heavy glass. Indeed, bottles of The Macallan can sell for thousands of dollars.

Among the young crowd of beautiful people were some who did not even know who Elliot Erwitt was, or that they were in the presence of one of the greatest photographers who ever lifted a Leica. "I'm here for the ladies," one gentleman said when Erwitt's name drew a blank. "And I'm not disappointed." When Matthew McConaughey, a scotch enthusiast, walked in the door, the paparazzi could relax. They knew they had their money shot for the night. As the event swirled around him, Erwitt chatted with some guests, leaning on the cane he uses with a Harpo Marx horn attached to the handle. Erwitt acknowledged that the Leica around his neck was not just an ornament for the night. He couldn't resist shooting a few pictures just for himself. From the waiters working as human easels to the women in sky-high heels, the evening was a perfect canvas for Erwitt's sardonic eye. Can't wait to see what he made of it.

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Erwitt chats with the photogs.

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Erwitt mingles at the party.


Photos by Iris Schneider

October 13, 2013

Three new photojournalism books from masters of the craft

erwitt-provence-boys.jpgBoys in Provence, 1959. Courtesy of teNeues/Photo © 2013 Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos.


Veteran war photographer Don McCullin started a controversy last month when he declared, after receiving the lifetime achievement award at Perpignan's Visa Pour l'Image Photo Festival, "We haven't changed a thing. Once the Syrian war is over you can bet your life there will be another tragedy in my lifetime. We will not see the end of war and suffering." McCullin has spent decades documenting war and cruelty, from Vietnam to Biafra. But rather than feeling satisfied that his images raised awareness of the tragedy of starvation, or the cruelties of war, he feels disillusioned and inadequate. On a panel discussing the merits of war photography with David Douglas Duncan, 97, famed photo editor John Morris, 96, and several younger photographers, there was much disagreement. Certainly, the images brought home from Vietnam shaped public opinion, turning many against our involvement in that war. But McCullin seemed deeply troubled by his time spent documenting unspeakable horrors he did not try to halt, but only document. "You have to suffer the shame of memory and then you have to somehow live with it, sleep with it, understand it without trying to become insane," he said.

The pull of war is strong. Whether it's the search to expose evil and human suffering, find the adrenalin rush or make a name for yourself, there are many young and old photographers still traveling the globe to document the battlefields and disasters that the world never seems to run out of. McCullin himself headed to Syria last year. But in looking back, he realized he was just too old to run for his life wearing his equipment and a flak jacket. He deemed the mission a mistake. Several photo editors on last month's panel said the risks are just too great, and they no longer will take freelance photos from Syria, not wanting to encourage anyone to risk their lives in search of a great photograph. Most major agencies and newspapers do not have staffers in Syria now, citing its danger.


salgado-iceberg.jpgIceberg between the Paulet Island and the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. 2005 © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images. Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery. Below: Nenet Nomads (Windstorm). Siberia, Russia 2011. © Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas Images
Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery
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Sebastiao Salgado is another photographer of conscience who has spent much of his adult lifetime documenting the world's conflicts and mayhem. He recently decided, for very different reasons, to change course. In a recent TED talk, the renowned and respected photographer, whose luminous black and white images--of drought in the Sahel, gold miners harvesting gold by hand snaking up a mountaintop in Brazil, looking more like ants than people, or oilfield workers, faces stained black with oil, dealing with the gushers running rampant after the Persian Gulf War--almost belie their tragic overtones. He revealed that his doctor told him he must stop shooting disasters and tragedy as his own health was suffering along with that of his subjects. It forced him to reevaluate his life and work, and put the brakes on a career that spanned several decades. "I had lost all faith in humanity," he says in the introduction to "Genesis," his impressive new book.

Salgado, 69, retreated with his wife to his family's farm in Brazil to ponder his future. The two decided to issue their visual wake-up call to the world by spending several years documenting the pristine landscapes and cultures that are at risk unless we change our ways and begin addressing the environmental issues that threaten the earth.


salgado-nenets.jpgThe resulting images, as one would expect from Salgado, are exhilarating, compelling, breath-taking. He spanned the globe on an eight-year odyssey that he calls his "homage to the grandeur of nature," seeking out tribes and landscapes untouched by the modern world. You can feel the cold of Northern Siberia as you gaze upon the Nenets tribespeople walking through a snowstorm or feeding their sled dogs. The book is filled with one natural wonder or remote tribe after another, captured in a way that makes you feel you are right there next to Salgado. These majestic landscapes are so remote it's easy to imagine the sound of the shutter piercing the silence as Salgado worked.

The resulting photographs are available two ways: as a coffee table book published by Taschen, affordable at $65, and as a limited edition two-volume book, each one almost three-feet long, with a wooden stand of its own designed by architect Tadao Ando. In a pre-publication ad in many major newspapers, Taschen offered the two volumes for $3,000. If they didn't need a room of their own to view them properly, I would have made the purchase. Having them nearby to gaze at seems to restore your faith, if not in humanity, then at least in Mother Nature. This is photojournalism at its purest. No ego involved, just conscience and artistry perfectly combined. Two rooms of large prints are currently on exhibit at the Fetterman Gallery in Bergamot Station.

Two other large photo books offer photo collections from masters of the craft. The first accompanies a small show also at Fetterman Gallery by National Geographic and Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. The show marks the publication of his book "Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs." McCurry, 63, has spent most of his career as a Magnum photographer working on assignment for many publications, including National Geographic. He has traveled the world, to India, Tibet, Cambodia, Kashmir, the oil fields of Kuwait after the Gulf War and Afghanistan. It was there in 1984 that he made the most iconic photo of his career: a green-eyed Afghan girl whose face graced the cover of National Geographic in 1985 and riveted its readers. He returned to Afghanistan 17 years later and miraculously found her again, and told that story for Geographic. This large book presents fourteen of his photo essays with text that tells how he got the photos. The chapters present rich color images from his travels around the world and clearly, McCurry is extremely gifted. His images, often bathed in ethereal light, provide a travelogue of diverse locales and faces, showing daily life as well as monsoons, war and hardship.


mccurry-mother-child.jpgMother and child looking through taxi window, Bombay 1993. Copyright Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos.


Unfortunately, though, rather than letting his work speak for itself--and the photographs do, eloquently and powerfully--he decided to package the photography with newly commissioned essays and ephemera collected over the 30+ years of his career. The first photo in the book is a full page picture of McCurry armpit deep in water in India, camera hoisted above his head. The book travels down the path of "how he got the picture" with essays written by someone, not McCurry, reverently describing in detail how these stories came to be and relating how, as a young boy looking at a Brian Brake photo essay in National Geographic, "he could not have imagined that he would one day inherit Brake's mantle as the master of the photo essay..." Of the many qualities that made McCurry a good photojournalist, humility was not one of them.

The book also has pages of beautifully photographed letters, journals, visas, press passes, passports, foreign currency, well-worn shoes, perfectly preserved tearsheets from every magazine and newspaper that ran McCurry's photos, every journal and note he scribbled to himself and seemingly every receipt for every purchase McCurry made over the decades of his career. While it's interesting to see the paper trail that his assignments created, in the end I found it distracting. I kept wondering, where did he keep all this stuff and how did he keep it in such pristine condition while wading through waist-deep water or running with rebels in Karachi? Perhaps that's part of what his Geographic assistants were for.


For me, there is too much McCurry here. Each chapter includes photos of McCurry, often posed with his subjects who oddly seem like props. These add a sour note to an otherwise beautiful book. To my mind, a photojournalist is a fly on the wall, unseen, unheard. The most egregious of these "I was there" mementoes is a series of photos taken by McCurry's assistant on September 11. Sad for all the wrong reasons, his assistant photographed him photographing the twin towers going up in flames. Why were they included? Why were they shot, for that matter? Didn't his assistant have more important photos to take that day? It's quite obvious that McCurry was there, given the hauntingly beautiful images in the book. I wish McCurry had let the photography speak for itself and saved the ego-trip for a presentation to a photojournalism class.

Elliott Erwitt, 85, has also published a scale-tipping new book called "Kolor." Erwitt's sense of humor and sardonic eye has kept me a fan for years, and after a long career, he is at the point where he probably has rooms full of unpublished images. Erwitt has said in interviews that photos take on special significance when they are put together and published in a book, which he does periodically--there are 8 titles on the backflap from his latest book. He felt it was time for another one, and so he went through his stockpile of unpublished Kodachrome slides, edited them and published "Kolor," which he calls his homage to George Eastman, founder of Kodak. The book presents a huge collection of never-seen color work made over the years, including outtakes of his Hollywood film work shot on the set of "The Misfits" and many images taken while shooting commercial work in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Erwitt always kept a second camera at his side on commercial jobs and found time to shoot personal pictures. Many of those are published here, offering a glimpse beyond the black and white photography he made his name with on assignment for Life and other magazines, while working in the editorial and advertising worlds as a member of the prestigious photo agency Magnum.


erwitt-fashion-coat.jpgFashion shoot in New York, 1989. Courtesy of teNeues/Photo © 2013 Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos.


His humor shines through, even if not every image published here makes it onto the top rung of his impressive body of work. Even Erwitt's rejects are worth seeing, and they are paired across the spreads in a way that takes advantage of his off-kilter sense of timing and humor. It's fun to wade through. After decades of producing stellar images, it's impressive to see the result of his longtime passion of documenting life and its simple moments. As a side note, Erwitt, who has always been somewhat reclusive, has recently appeared in a video for a Cole-Haan marketing campaign that featured four still-vibrant artists born in 1928. All beautiful seniors and creative souls in their unique way, they are people whose commitment to their craft keeps them going into their 80's. In Erwitt's case, we appreciate the many laughs he brought us as he held up a mirror to our society while exposing our humanity along the way.

October 11, 2013

Disney stages a surprise, third time's the charm for 'Carmen'

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Defying all odds, Disney Hall celebrated its 10th anniversary without so much as one official standing on stage to bestow thanks to long lists of benefactors or indulge in blandishments and platitudes.

Yes, Gustavo Dudamel fronted his LA Philharmonic and welcomed the capacity crowd to Disney. "A miracle," he called it, that single word summing up the concert venue's brilliant acoustic and architectural wonder.

dudamel-gehry-vert-dp.jpgBut this was no ordinary birthday gala. It was wholly a tribute event to Frank Gehry, the man who patiently took his lumps over the years, yet managed -- through controversy, dispute and economic sputtering -- to create the citadel atop the hill at First and Grand that visitors from around the world flock to see.

The surprise factor turned out to be the architect's persona in the hall -- via his voice heard on audio. What a homey and folksy voice it was, uttering the private words, almost comic and sometimes self-mocking à la Jules Feiffer, explaining how his designs came into being, how they doodled onto a page, only to get crossed out and tossed, over and over again before reaching a final draft.

And at evening's end Gehry was brought onstage, in suit and tie, no fancy-dan tux -- even then without a trace of starchy pomp or self-importance, only a few humble, half-embarrassed bows but mostly gestures to the players and their maestro, amid a mylar confetti drop.

The main revelry, though, came with the music, a smartly programmed hour that showed off the orchestra in sterling form. True, there were intrusive screens everywhere, a Hollywood Bowl leftover. (Even before entering the hall Gehry's more philosophic quotes were projected onto walls of corridors and lobbies, portending something scarily ex-cathedra-like.)

But if you were lucky enough to sit in a side section -- for this time only -- it was possible to look directly onto the stage and avoid seeing the screens. That way you could hear the music without the sensory distraction of unrelated visuals (a montage of other occasions, other conductors). And when that music is so compelling do you really want a non sequitur smack in your face?

No such disturbance entered the scene when Yo-Yo Ma, everyone's favorite guest-star cellist these days, was on hand -- granting Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme his utter refinement, elegance and poise in gorgeous balance with the band, expertly managed by its chief.

In fact, the orchestra played everything superbly, back again in its rightful residence. And that included Adès's "These Premises Are Alarmed," a gloriously wild thing that lives up to its title and generated the players' bracing, clarion excitement.

Dudamel also took a bracing tack with the Rondo Burleske from Mahler's 9th Symphony -- which he powered in with ultra-fast fury. His way with the organ movement of Saint-Saëns's 3rd Symphony required some ear-stuffing, for those protecting their hearing, but he and his cohorts ended on a sentimental note, with a tenderly lush, glittering "When You Wish Upon a Star," honoring the Hollywood icon and the hall's namesake, pictured onscreen.

Across the street at the Music Center Pavilion honors also came to LA Opera, by way of Bizet's "Carmen" -- with the same production it borrowed from Madrid and mounted here twice before. But this time, thanks to Trevore Ross directing a wholly alive cast, every moment on stage counted. And with Plácido Domingo's masterly guidance of the pit orchestra, issuing the score's delicious sweetness and ardor, all kinds of narrative business also became illuminated.

carmen-dp.jpgCarmen, for instance, left alone in the smuggler's camp to brood over her distressful love triangle, brought the third act to a climactic close, angrily flicking her cigarette in a cadential flourish with the last bold chord.

Otherwise, Irish mezzo soprano Patricia Bardon -- vocally sound if not lustrous -- made only a somewhat convincing Gypsy hellion in the title role and was more of a tough cookie than a sensual dynamo.

But Brandon Jovanovich, with a gradual warm-up to the naïve soldier's ultimately obsessional, manic despair, gave a performance worthy of an Oscar. It was his and the defiant Carmen's own human bull fight -- she, testing the limits of life and love; he, determined to possess her -- that took place outside the arena. With each rigid, tense step he stalked her as in a dance of death. His murderous finale was more gripping than that of any Don José I've ever seen -- a rarity in opera because singing, by itself, takes utmost focus. And his darkly resonant tenor did not disappoint.

Other cast members kept up the high standard. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo was a wonderfully animated and agile Escamillo, not the stolid mannequin usually trotted out to sing the "Toreador Song." (Both he and Jovanovich sang for the company before in productions that had, seemingly, absentee directors. Redemption at last, on a grand scale...)

First timers in this "Carmen" were South African soprano Pretty Yende, a Micaëla of silvery tone and gratifyingly natural demeanor as the Madonna interest, and Valentin Anikin, a corrupt Zuniga whose basso sounded as though it got swallowed in a cavern.

But the whole enterprise was absorbing. Set designer Gerardo Trotti's sun-drenched first act boasted a lovely, long perspective of a palm-tree-lined Seville street, and men in Jesús del Pozo's summery pastels wearing borsalinos and berets.

Granted, there was no gritty realism here, no graffiti-scrawlings on walls as depicted in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's landmark production, nor any attempt at a Peter Brooks deconstruction. But Bizet in his own Opéra Comique style, carried out with this degree of attention, is irrefutably captivating.

Top photos: LA Philharmonic. Carmen photo: LA Opera

September 29, 2013

Station to Station at Union Station

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Photos by Iris Schneider

Iris Schneider attended Station to Station, the cross-country traveling public art project that stopped at Union Station on Thursday night. There was a procession featuring cracking bullwhips from track 13 into the courtyard of the station, art-inspired yurts and performances by No Age (above) and Beck. "The evening...was something of a who's who of the L.A. art world," said Deborah Vankin in the LA Times. — Kevin Roderick

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Beck

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A yurt by Urs Fischer.

September 23, 2013

Sometimes art is all about the collaboration

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Melissa Barak and Danielle Agami, photographed in Santa Monica by Judy Graeme.


This October, ballet dancer turned choreographer Melissa Barak will formally launch her Los Angeles based company, Barak Ballet, with a performance at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica. A former member of New York City Ballet and Los Angeles Ballet, Barak tested the waters with a smaller presentation last March at the more intimate Ann and Jerry Moss Theater. "That first show created a lot of excitement and buzz for us," says Barak. Confident that her audience and support base is growing, she's eager to showcase her dancers in a larger venue. The Broad is "more conventional" as a theater than the Moss, she says, and will give her more freedom to stage ballets and include live music. The October program will include two pieces choreographed by Barak and a work by contemporary choreographer Pascal Rioult. Also included is a six-minute solo by Barak that was choreographed by Israeli choreographer (and recent Los Angeles transplant) Danielle Agami. The solo marks Barak's first time onstage since 2011. "When I was putting this performance together a lot of people were asking, when are you going to dance again?" she says.

In choosing Agami, a former member of Israel's renowned Batsheva Dance Company, to choreograph for her, Barak opted to step way outside of her comfort zone. Barak has a traditional ballet resume while Agami, 28, comes from a completely different place, literally and creatively. Batsheva, founded in 1964 as a modern repertory company, was initially shaped by Martha Graham, who served as artistic advisor. Today it is directed by innovative choreographer Ohad Naharin, who developed a unique movement language for his dancers called "gaga." During gaga class, unlike in ballet class, mirrors are forbidden. Naharin has said that gaga "is about clarity of form that doesn't come from looking at yourself but from really sensing where you are in space. It's about delicacy, small gestures, and thinking about movement as something that can heal...It's about giving the dancers the sense that they can go beyond familiar limits on a daily basis. It's about listening to something that is beyond the athletic side of the dancer." It is this movement language that Agami now utilizes in her own Los Angeles based company Ate9.

Barak first saw Agami and her company perform their production of Sally Meets Stu last February at the Los Angeles Theater Center. She had no idea what she was in for, knowing nothing about Agami or her history with Batsheva. "Two minutes in they really had my attention," Barak said. I loved what Danielle brought out of her dancers. I knew this was special and whoever created this was incredibly talented. So I reached out to her."

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Before she would agree to work with Barak, Agami requested that she take her gaga class. "It felt overwhelming and awkward," says Barak. "It's the opposite of ballet..you have so much freedom that you don't know what to do with. I've always looked at myself from the outside, the lines, etc. I'm about the pointe shoes and the music. With her work it's so much more about internalizing, reacting to feelings and emotions from a more human, primitive place. I knew I would grow as an artist working with Danielle...opening up my mind and my approach to what it is to be a human body on a stage."

Says Agami, "It was interesting for me to work with a ballerina. It's not about what her body can or cannot do-it's about breaking her mind. I need to make her change her mind...how she thinks and approaches things. It's almost like therapy. We became friends because it's really about letting go."

In addition to collaborating, the two women have bonded over the challenges of starting a dance company in Los Angeles. "We shared some difficulties in being that 'one-woman show'...where you have to do everything and how we're waiting for the day we will be more about the art and the creation." said Agami. For the time being, Barak, 34, is excited about the inclusion of Agami's point of view in the upcoming performance. "I want my company to be not just my choreography, but about what's new, what other choreographic voices are interesting and what challenges they are trying to present."

The Barak Ballet will perform "LA Moves" on Thursday, October 24th at 8pm at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

September 17, 2013

A look around inside the Broad

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Mayor Eric Garcetti with Eli Broad at today's Grand Avenue event. Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, left, stands with Joanne Heyler of the Broad. Photos by Iris Schneider.


Eli Broad and his wife Edythe, along with Mayor Eric Garcetti and a gaggle of media and museum officials, got together today to tour the new contemporary art venue on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, the Broad. But wait, you might be asking — isn't there already a contemporary art venue on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles? Yes, MOCA will be directly across the street. Broad, the real estate mogul, philanthropist and art collector, was also instrumental in the creation of that museum (he was its founding chairman when the Museum of Contemporary Art was conceived in 1980, and donated $1 million of seed money to get it started.) But recently he felt compelled to add his own building — along with art collected over 40 years — into the mix of architectural landmarks on the Grand Avenue corridor. The building, a triangular soaring honeycomb designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is intended to be unique but mindful of its whimsical neighbor Disney Hall. The design is fascinating but certainly not understated and will probably get its share of visitors just to see the building and its state of the art features and design. Eli Broad also announced today that he wanted his collection to be "shared with the broadest possible audience," and so admission will be free.

MOCAphiles should not worry, however, as the Broad will encourage its visitors to cross the street by constructing a walkway across Grand Avenue, making it easy and convenient to see what's on exhibit at the neighbor's place.

"Isn't this museum going to eat MOCA's lunch?" one of the gaggle was heard to wonder, engaging Joanne Heyler, founding director of the Broad in a question many have asked themselves. Do we really need two contemporary art museums showing relatively the same stuff right across the street from each other? Heyler confirmed the Broad's commitment to working with all the cultural institutions on the Grand Avenue corridor and intimated that Eli Broad will still support MOCA financially. They feel there is enough audience to go around. And given Mr. Broad's finances, the Broad won't have to turn a profit anytime soon.

The city's leaders are trying hard to make Grand Avenue into the town square of Los Angeles. The Broad will be the latest star in their constellation. It remains to be seen how those efforts to draw Angelenos and tourists will pan out, but if it isn't successful it won't be for lack of trying. Ticking off the names of the major architects involved in or near Grand Avenue, Broad listed an impressive lot: Frank Gehry's Disney Hall, Arata Isozaki's MOCA, Coop Himmelb(l)au's High School for the Arts on Sunset, Thom Mayne's Caltrans building down the hill on 1st Street and Jose Rafael Moneo's Cathedral Our Lady of the Angels at Temple and Grand. Judging from the tourists who flock to Disney Hall for souvenir photos of their trips to LA, and the Angelenos who want the building in their wedding photos, the architectural draw is strong. Once the newness wears off, we'll see if the Broad becomes a real destination or a honeycombed ego trip.

Broad and his wife, well-known philanthropists whose name can be spotted around town on various buildings and interiors, were sporting hardhats emblazoned with "The Broad." When asked if this was the first time their name was not on a building but on a hardhat, Edythe laughed. "Oh no," she said, "we have a whole collection of these at home."

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Carpenter Gary Price and finisher Andy Cervantes with honeycomb piece of glass fiber reinforced gypsum for the ceiling of the Broad.


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Garcetti, Broad, Heyler and Diller.


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Guest during press tour of construction at the Broad.

September 11, 2013

Last seen at Hollywood Bowl: Diavolo and the musicians who stole the show

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Are they ready for their close-ups? Decidedly, yes -- if we're talking about certain LA Philharmonic conductors at Hollywood Bowl and their soloists. Big, bright screens deliver them to us in a dimension not possible in the concert hall. We get to see the music as well as hear it.

That happened with podium guest James Gaffigan, pianist Hélène Grimaud and violinist Jennifer Koh.

Not so easily, though, when the subject is Jacques Heim's Diavolo, the thinking man's Cirque du Soleil that ventured its latest, much-ballyhooed epic, "Fluid Infinities" underwritten by the Philharmonic, at the outdoor showplace.

Planted stage-front on the curving surfaces of a giant dome construction, human figures meandered, slithered, crawled and groped their random way. The whole thing was darkly lit and murky -- sabotaging what would, perhaps, be effective in an indoor theater. And it worked at opposite ends of what the Bowl's camera meisters had perfected for concertizing musicians.

So what might have been an eerie speculation on outer-planetary life-struggles ended up looking small and insignificant. That's too bad in a host of ways, chiefly because the Paris-born, locally-based Heim had proved himself 20 years ago to be an original thinker, an artist with a sensibility that goes far beyond the mere mapping out of movement links and their acrobatic properties.

I have always called him the master of metaphor, the one who could over-ride deadly mechanistic formalism to suggest whimsy, humor, simpatico, along with the darker undercurrents of human behavior. What else, from an artist who could and did absorb Jacques Tati, Pina Bausch and Robert Longo?

diavolo-zaslove-v.jpgAfter all, his brilliant "Tête en l'Air" showed us how someone with his "head in the clouds" could be having an unstoppable dream -- as characters in hat and coat, carrying suitcases, tumble inexorably down a central staircase, smoke and light spilling mysteriously from the top. The milieu is surreal, while the state of transit becomes synonymous with teeming life as we know it. Was he Samuel Beckett in motion?

That was then. In the intervening years Heim has become a model of success in the corporate world, with commissions from supporting institutions and philanthropists like Glorya Kaufman bankrolling his company. The irony is that he came upon this Procrustean bed, the Philharmonic, and now must lie in it. Or, to put it differently, the tail can sometimes wag the grateful dog.

Left to his spontaneous, creative impulses -- choosing a theme, a venue, along with other theatrical/musical complements -- he likely would not have signed on to any portion of the Philip Glass 3rd Symphony. But with our resident band as a partner he needed to opt for something orchestral to merit this prized sponsorship.

Many choreographers, notably Twyla Tharp ("In the Upper Room") make a feast of Glass's music, but just when the score's impulse here was exploding with rhythmic drive -- thanks to the players, under Bramwell Tovey's leadership -- Heim's movement scheme was sluggishly exploratory. Yikes.

Not to worry, though. The visuals returned to excellence on previous nights in fascinating, wholly engaging encounters. The trick for getting a close-up advantage that aids hearing the music? Watch the screen, but only for conductor and soloist. Avert eyes from it for shots of the long row of French horns, for instance.

Grimaud1-Copyright-Mat-Hennek.jpgAnd the video crew knew what to do in the case of conductor Gaffigan: let the cameras linger on him. Urging the orchestra on in Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture, the American maestro truly "showed" us the music -- to this and Strauss's "Don Juan" he brought a visceral connectedness that was thrilling. Ditto the camera's focus on Grimaud's long, slender hands with upper palms arching and arms shuddering for her masterly Brahms D-minor Piano Concerto.

In the case of Leon Botstein's outing with Russian composers under Stalin -- wherein the conductor spoke eloquently on their struggles during the Soviet era -- we heard first-rate music making. Such orchestral refinement and nuance in the Shostakovich 10th Symphony and the same values, backing up Koh's riveting account of Prokofiev's 2nd Violin Concerto, made it hard to believe there was but a single rehearsal.

Not all recent music of worth happened under the stars, though. A special event at Sinai Temple found conductor Nick Strimple presiding astutely over a combined choir and assorted other musicians in a sterling program of two honored composers, fugitives from Nazi Germany, who graced this city with their presence: Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl.

The excerpts from Schoenberg's "Moses und Aron" were deeply moving in their multi-branched soundings and Zeisl's Requiem Ebraico soared with passionate lyricism. Here was a find -- rarely heard music of great import.

Diavolo photos: Mara Zaslove. Grimaud photo: Mat Hennek.

July 22, 2013

LA Phil tackles Mahler at the Bowl, while ABT exults

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Michael Tilson Thomas

Big is the word to describe the city's summer scene — with the LA Philharmonic decamping to Hollywood Bowl and the whole humongous American Ballet Theatre occupying downtown's Music Center recently.

Just think, Mahler's Second Symphony, stretching nearly to the two-hour mark (with no intermission for promenade-strolling or dessert-partaking) opened the classical music festivities at the Bowl in Cahuenga Pass. Make no mistake, that's a departure from the usual glam headliners playing some warhorse or other to serenade the picnickers.

Add to that the return of native son Michael Tilson Thomas leading his old band (formerly as principal guest conductor) and you have an exceptional event in the making — one reason being that MTT, among others, has made Mahler a specialty of his, another being that the crowd (only 6,000-plus) was raptly attentive.

The playing, detailed and flexible and expressive, deserved as much, along with gorgeous outpourings from singers Kiera Duffy and Sasha Cooke. Especially so with the new sound system. And under this most probing of conductors there was no limit to the work's range, from quiet gulfs of reflection to lyric tenderness to glorious grandiosity. What audience would not know it's in the presence of Mahler's stupendous ambition, this young composer's unharnessed search for god?

But the wide-open, sprawling spaces of the Bowl may not be the place to contain this wide-open, sprawling "Resurrection" Symphony. And the big screen's presence surely does cut into even the most pristine listener's perceptions — I defy anyone to look away and just listen undistracted to the music in order to get a purer perception of it.

Downtown, on the other hand, and within the Music Center Pavilion's walls, Ballet Theatre put on a show that threatened to burst through the partitions. At its opening night mixed bill before a sold-out house, the company knew how, at the end, to send 'em home happy: stage the Balanchine/Bizet "Symphony in C," a razzle-dazzle, whiz-bang of a ballet that, in its last act, explodes in a combustion of exuberance.

Seeing the full forces onstage — rotating in dizzying waves of phalanxes measure-by-speedy-measure, and so palpably in-sync with Ormsby Wilkins' brilliantly led orchestra — I thought the whole thing was going to rock right out of the house.

Before that came the still-startling, ever-captivating relic from Balanchine's Diaghilev days, "Apollo," to Stravinsky's divine score, played wonderfully under Charles Barker . What a fabulous guide it was to the choreographer forging his then-contemporary path. And what a feast for the eye and ear.

agomes2ro.jpgOf course, it takes supreme dancers and musicians to realize its beauties. No dispute on that score here. But Marcelo Gomes, cast against type, was all beefcake and no sunlight in the title role, making it hard to dispel images of the fair, boyishly aristocratic Apollonians before him, like Peter Boal and David Hallberg, going back even to Baryshnikov and Peter Martins. His reliance on aggressive muscle-flexing canceled the character's whimsical tone.

Still, it was a treat. And the program showcased a new Ratmansky ballet, "Chamber Symphony," one of a trilogy set to Shostakovich works. That it was dark goes with the musical turf and contrasts with the esteemed choreographer's "Bright Stream," which we saw two years ago.

But what immediately distinguished it was the look and feel of that post-war European meme: disillusionment, anomie, gloom — totally in keeping with the composer's milieu. The central character, for instance, a man in loose black suit, open jacket, bare chest, flails about. His signature move, directly from Jiri Kylian or Antony Tudor, for that matter, is a rigid-body fall sideways into a line-up group with waiting arms to catch him. His mood is downcast. His many attempts to join the community fail in the end. But the work's obvious intent and ever-intricate, watchable choreography come across strongly.


The same could be said of LA Ballet's Balachine Festival, part 2, named "Red," after "Rubies." The Royce Hall performance I caught (repeated at Grand Park), as high-polished as any at New York City Ballet itself, proved that the best of Balanchine — with this degree of talent and guidance — will never lose its lustre, its appeal, and across-the-footlights magnetism.

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Allynne Noelle in George Balanchine's Rubies. Photocomposition: Reed Hutchinson & Catherine Kanner.

The same could not be said, though, for the new conglomerate Hubbard Street Dance/Alonzo King Lines Ballet.

First off, the Hubbard Chicagoans, marvelous keepers of the Twyla Tharp flame among other dance wonders, never pretended to be a ballet company. And the King San Franciscans, which specialize in dancercizes or eye-catching, full-body undulations and boneless extensions for their own sake, do what I can only call a corruption of ballet. All this was a shameless waste of superb dancers.

The program's saving grace came in the only non-King piece, Alejandro Cerrudo's "Little Mortal Jump," which brought vast relief in its reward to the mind, as needed as air to the lungs. Thank you, Mr. Cerrudo for bringing back a sense of theater and imagination to the stage. And thank you Hubbard director Glenn Edgerton for injecting this one element of brain vitality into the show.

Middle photo of Marcelo Gomes in "Apollo" © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

July 20, 2013

Adunni Nefretiti

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©2013 J. Michael Walker


Eastside artist J. Michael Walker posts on Facebook:

So, last Monday, in the warmest possible hour of a crazy-hot afternoon, two over-packed cars pulled up in front of my house, and out spilled a cornucopia of sweetness and beauty: the seven women who comprise the music and dance troupe of Adunni Nefretiti, who came, on their final day in LA, and on their "day off" for me to make portraits of them, before they jet off, back home via Dubai, to Lagos, Nigeria. And so, in my tiniest-possible crowded studio, as we drank ice water, gobbled grapes, laughed and joked, we made many gorgeous images.... Axé.

Walker was the author-illustrator of "All the Saints of the City of the Angels: Seeking the Soul of L.A. on Its Streets" (Heyday 2008), and co-editor of "Waiting for Foreign: LA Writers on (and in) Guadalajara."

More of his photos of the troupe.

July 1, 2013

Nude but not vulnerable: the women of Helmut Newton

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The women in Helmut Newton's photos are often nude, but rarely vulnerable. Rather, they are powerful and strong, proud and unabashedly naked. Not to mention drop dead gorgeous. Perhaps it's because of Newton's obvious love for women and utter lack of pretense, but the models, actresses and heiresses who shed their outer garments seem quite comfortable with the photographer and his requests, which often pushed the boundaries of taste, decorum and expectation. Given the fact that many of these images appeared in the early 1960's in the pages of French and British Vogue, they were certainly shocking for their time. Now, many imitators later, we are not as shocked. In fact, the floodgates have been opened. In ads from Calvin Klein to Prada to Abercrombie, there are beautiful young people in provocative poses, in and out of expensive garments, making you feel like a voyeur for leafing through a magazine. Good taste be damned, anything goes. Whether you thank Newton, or curse him, he is probably responsible.

With its current Helmut Newton show, the Annenberg Space for Photography finally manages to solve one of the problems I have had with their photography exhibits: too many images. With big nudes and big women come big prints, and finally, here is a show you can absorb easily, without straining your neck to see the images high up on the walls near the ceiling, or leaving exhausted with the feeling that you have not seen everything because there was just too much to take in. Absorbing it is, mainly because the images are striking, beautifully composed and speak of another era and another world--one of wealth, privilege, and secrets. When Newton first made these images in the 60's and 70's, no one was doing this kind of work.

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He made no apologies for exploring the dark and provocatively erotic side of glamour, sado-masochism, domination and dalliance, images that were inside his head, but, he insists, came straight from reality. In a fascinating and revealing film made by his wife June, playing on a continuous loop in the back auditorium, he says "Every picture is based on reality. It's all real, and happens every day...amongst the rich." He loved visiting Los Angeles and took up residence part of the year at the tony Chateau Marmont. He loved our sunny afternoons, and sought out rich and often famous women to be his subjects, willing partners in telling naughty stories with his camera.

According to one of his assistants, Mark Arbeit, one of three young Art Center photography students who accosted Newton during a trip he made to LA in the late 70's, and eventually began working with the master photographer, the usual rules of photography — avoid high noon, wait for early morning or late afternoon light — did not apply. Newton loved shooting in all kinds of light and when he did it wasn't with an entourage. No Annie Leibovitz army of assistants for him — it was just him and one assistant, one camera and very simple lighting. Locations were critical in his shoots, and could have been in a mansion, or a construction site. While he made his living as a photographer (and quite a good one, getting $10,000 for his commercial photo shoots), Newton was a storyteller, bon vivant, lover of women and life. He was high fashion's favorite bad boy but never lost sight of his mission: sell the clothes.

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One of his models, whom he first approached on the street, was asked to work with him and told she would most likely end up nude. Partly due to the period, when women's lib was beginning, he found models who totally bought into his visual fantasies. His photography was a true collaboration between model, photographer and often, the photographer's wife June, whom he married in 1948. A self-portrait, with Newton amongst some nudes as his wife looks on (top), is one of my favorite photos, showing him shooting in what could be mistaken for a dirty old man's raincoat. In this exhibit, we all get to be willing partners in the not-so-secret and scandalous life of Helmut Newton and friends.

Helmut Newton: White Women • Sleepless Nights • Big Nudes at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City until Sept. 8.

Photographs © Estate of Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton and Los Angeles

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Helmut Newton, the self-proclaimed "bad boy of photography" best known for his provocative, edgy, and highly sexual fashion images, had a decades-long relationship with Los Angeles. Newton, the subject of a new exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography, started coming here from his home in Europe for work in the mid 1970's. By the early 1980's, with wife and collaborator June, Newton was routinely spending every winter in residence at the Chateau Marmont. He continued until his death in a car crash at the hotel in 2004, at the age of 83. A regular contributor to Vogue in Europe and the U.S., and to Vanity Fair, and a prolific maker of advertising images, he found that Los Angeles, and the culture of Hollywood in particular, suited his creative sensibilities.

ASP Fahey Chateau.jpgNewton was drawn to "fantasy, films, and narratives. He was very controlling, like a movie director," said David Fahey, co-owner of the Fahey/Klein Gallery on La Brea and a longtime Newton friend. Newton had close friends in the entertainment world, including producer Bob Evans and director Billy Wilder. In his 2003 autobiography, Newton revealed his fan-like enthusiasm about photographing one of his movie crushes during some downtime in Los Angeles in 1972. "Ever since I saw Jane Russell in Howard Hughes's 'The Outlaw' I have been madly in love with her," he wrote. "I heard she was living nearby so I suggested to my editor that we set up a phony sitting with her, pretend it's for the magazine, a small white lie. The editor complies and everything is set up. In my excitement I got the date wrong but Miss Russell comes down the stairs and very graciously announces that, no matter, she will pose for me today."

Newton writes that, of course, he chose to photograph Russell in her bedroom. "It's boiling hot, my t-shirt is stuck to my body, the sweat is running between my glasses and my eyes. From time to time she looks at me in a funny way. She's found out that she has a madman in her bedroom."

Newton was initially drawn to the Chateau Marmont because it was the "coolest, hippest place...he loved the ambience," said Fahey. In an essay in the March, 2013 Vogue, British actor Rupert Everett describes a 1985 Christmas-time encounter with Newton and his entourage. Everett was still a struggling newcomer, lonely and stranded in Los Angeles for the holidays and staying at the Chateau.

"One afternoon just before the new year, Helmut Newton and his wife June surged into the hotel surrounded by luggage. I attached myself to the group and pretty soon I had slipped into their easy routine. The men set off for work each day each day while I sat around with the girls-June, Tina Chow, and sometimes Wendy Stark. Most nights our group met in the hotel foyer and clattered down to the hotel basement parking lot where we bundled into Helmut's car to go out for dinner. I sat in the back while Helmut-shrieking at the wheel-negotiated the blind corner from the car park onto the street."

The hotel ultimately became a second home for Newton. "I love my winters in the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood," he wrote. "I have this fascination for familiar surroundings. My favorite photos are often those which evoke a strong feeling of 'I have been here before' "

Working in Los Angeles gave Newton endless possibilities for locations, especially outdoors. Photographers Mark Arbeit and George Holz assisted Newton in the early 1980's, when they were students at Art Center. "We drove him around in my old Dodge Dart," Holz said in an interview. "We took him around to places we knew but it was his eye that said yes, this place works, or doesn't work." Holz and Arbeit remember shooting at a Frank Lloyd Wright house, in the hills of Mt. Olympus, and in Manhattan Beach. "He really loved those blond surfers," said Holz.

The Hollywood sign makes an appearance in one image and the gymnastic rings at Santa Monica beach are a key element in photographs of actress Daryl Hannah from 1984. A 1981 image shows actress Raquel Welch fending off a menacing dog and surrounded by agaves in her Beverly Hills backyard.

ASP Fahey Helmut and June.jpgHe learned to navigate the minefield that is photographing movie stars, but he grew annoyed at the presence of publicists. "For a long time during my annual sojourn in Hollywood I photographed a lot of actresses for Vanity Fair," Newton wrote. "They were invariably accompanied by their press agents, who became more and more demanding and obnoxious, standing behind me, looking over my shoulder saying, 'Not from this angle, make her head turn to the right, you are showing too much skin, cover your shoulders.' " Eventually he banned all publicists from his sittings.

Newton, who was born in Berlin in 1920, moved to Paris after a short period in Australia. He loved what he called the "free-spirited" quality of life in the U.S. (even though he often expressed frustration with American art directors and the restrictions placed on his erotic images that didn't exist in Europe.) "He loved Americana...country music and diners," said Holz. He also loved Nudie's, the North Hollywood shop where tailor Nudie Cohn made custom outfits for movie stars and musicians.

Newton was attracted to Los Angeles for another simpler reason. "I think it was exciting for him," said Arbeit.."He was used to older, much darker European cities and he really loved the light here." June Newton, now 90 and a resident of Monaco, has continued the couple's tradition of wintering in Los Angeles. According to Fahey, she typically arrives at the Chateau Marmont on Christmas Eve and usually departs sometime in March.

Top photo: Daryl Hannah in Santa Monica by Helmut Newton for Vanity Fair in 1984. Lower photos: Helmut and June Newton at the Chateau Marmont, © David Fahey from the exhibit film "Provocateur."

June 6, 2013

An Alabaman reviews 'The Scottsboro Boys'

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I was eager to see "The Scottsboro Boys," the Broadway musical onstage at the Ahmanson Theater. The show is based on a true story from 1931 about nine African American teenage boys falsely accused of raping two white girls--one of whom admitted the charge was not true--on a train. The boys were seized in Scottsboro, Alabama and, despite repeated attempts, unable to get a fair trial. It's heartbreaking how much they wanted to believe the truth would set them free. But it was not to be.

The stage production frames the story as a bawdy traveling minstrel show, a carnival spectacle. I couldn't imagine how that could work with such a dark subject and, for me, it mostly didn't. I understand that the show's creators wanted to make the audience uncomfortable, but, to me, the story is simply too tragic for buffoonery.

I'm especially sensitive about this because I lived in Scottsboro for two years and started school there. This was almost three decades after the events depicted onstage, but the town's character was still much the same; change came very slowly.

Scottsboro, in Northeast Alabama, is nestled against the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, where thousands of white people lived in abject poverty (and, no doubt, still do.) As a first grader, my heart ached to see kids come to school barefoot in all but the coldest months. They smelled of the wood fires that heated their houses and cooked their food. Most of their parents were illiterate--couldn't even sign their names. Truancy was a big problem--a county employee trudged up and down the hills every day, trying to get kids to school. Worst of all, those of us in stylish clothes with professional haircuts sometimes got classroom privileges not extended to the others. I hated that.

As racist and behind-the-times as the rest of the South may have been, issues surrounding justice and equality were compounded in Scottsboro by nothing more complex than rampant ignorance. And yes, many of the law enforcement officers, all white of course, were like Rod Steiger's character in "In the Heat of the Night" - uneducated, bigoted men who made snap judgments, asked no questions and took no counsel. That wasn't merely a stereotype. When we lived in Scottsboro, the police chief was known simply as "Bean Belly."

Today, my older brothers and I don't remember ever seeing more than a handful of black people in town, so cloistered were they in their own drab neighborhood with their own churches, substandard schools and meager little grocery stores. They didn't figure into the life of the town except for the few white people who could afford maids or needed manual laborers. We did sometimes see black chain gangs working on the railroad when we ventured out of town.

It's easy to see how the Scottsboro nine could have been falsely accused and held for so long, despite their innocence. White people's words trumped anything black people might be permitted to say. Truth didn't matter. The boys' fate is unspeakable and yet, in that time and place, it's likely no one was surprised.

It's a tragic tale and all the more because it's true. It needs to be told to every generation to remind us of where we've been and could easily go again. But it needs to be told in a way that communicates its gravity. Cruel injustice is not a laughing matter.

Some critics have hailed the show's "lampooning style" as a metaphor for a justice system that was itself a sham. They say the satire puts the travesty in high relief and makes it into art. I can't seem to get to that point of view. Maybe because in Scottsboro, where I learned the Pledge of Allegiance, I also discovered that "liberty and justice for all" was just an aspiration, and not one that everyone shared. At six years old, I found that terribly disturbing. All these years later, I still don't feel like making fun of it.

"The Scottsboro Boys" at the Ahmanson Theater continues through June 30.

Production photo by Craig Schwartz from Center Theater Group

The night shooter

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The velvety, black night serves as both inspiration and backdrop for Los Angeles photo artist Darren Pearson, aka Darius Twin. Since 2007 he has refined his technique in light painting and established a keen following amongst a small but elite community of light artists around the world. His subjects are mostly an array of mythical creatures but his work with skeletons and dinosaurs has drawn the attention of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, which has invited him to stage a live dinosaur "light art" presentation in conjunction with the museum's June 9 centennial birthday bash.

Light painting is both art and science. Using a digital camera with the capacity for long exposures, a tripod and a light source, Darren etches his visions onto the infinite canvas of space. His current camera is a Cannon 7DSLR with a Zeiss 28 lens, which he operates in bulb mode with a remote to open and close the lens when starting and completing his drawings. A simple flashlight on a key chain serves as his light source,but smaller LED lights, fire, Glo-sticks and even steel wool sparklers all can be used to create different photographic effects. For a better understanding he has recorded a great visual demonstration on his website.

A Southern Californian native, Darren moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in graphic design after attending UC Santa Cruz. As many in Hollywood have discovered, LA provides plenty of diversity for the aspiring artist and Darren's endless quest for unique backdrops has produced a spectacular series of photographs capturing Los Angeles by night. After sunset he scouts around LA's hidden underbelly to compile a list of potential locations. To avoid the cities excessive ambient light, he focuses on abandoned locations, many discovered simply by browsing blog sites or from Google satellite images: the sunken city in San Pedro, parts of the LA River, the Old Bank District, bridges and deserted railway tracks have all been catalogued in his photographs. Once he's pin-pointed his location he returns after dark or early in the morning to draw and shoot. Typically he's alone save for the homeless and the odd graffiti artist and so far has attracted little attention but he's alert about his surroundings, "follows his gut and carries a big tripod"!

"Los Angeles," he says "is just a fantastic pace to shoot because of it's versatility." There's plenty of steel and concrete but a lot of natural beauty in Silver Lake, Angeles Forest, Joshua Tree and of course along the Pacific Ocean.

Up until now the focus of his creativity has been, appropriately for Los Angeles, an unparalleled collection of dinosaurs and angels along with a large group of skeletons in various forms of motion. He starts with a sketch, which he saves to his cell phone and later decides what subject would best fit in which locations. Working in the dark, he uses his own body as a point of reference and the skeletal frame of his subjects facilitates his ability to get the proportions balanced. The skeleton, he says "is easy to relate to. There is no gender or skin color, we all have them." His fascination with dinosaurs started as a young boy when he drew them as cartoons and he's never outgrown his love for these prehistoric creatures. As a student he looked for ways to illustrate them within a photograph, but it was the photography of Pablo Picasso's "light" drawings of centaurs and bulls done in 1949 that finally shone the light on the medium he had been searching for. Before each painting Darren researches his dinosaur and practices at least a couple of times to get them to look right. He follows a strict routine; lens, lights, angles. Each swipe of light in space is a small piece of a very intricate puzzle, all of which must be captured in one single long exposure shot. From the first try to a successful painting there is plenty of trial and error.

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The Centennial Celebration of the Natural History Museum provides an exciting opportunity for Darren to demonstrate his art. His goal is to have his work exhibited in museums and although he has done commercial work he feels strongly that light painting be viewed as art. One of the key misconceptions, he says, "is that people don't understand the process" and "think my work is conjured through trickery or computer manipulation." Technology is advancing and he keeps working on new techniques but don't be fooled; there are no short cuts to Darren's photographs. Painting in space requires incredibly swift hands, technical know how and a spectacular imagination.

Darren Pearson will be performing Sunday June 9th from 6-6:30 pm on the second floor of the Natural History Museum.

Artwork: Darius Twin

Previously on LA Observed:
Dinosaurs over Eagle Rock, not in neon

May 28, 2013

Figaro there, Tosca there

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Malin Christensson as Susanna and Edwin Crossley-Mercer as Figaro. LA Phil photo.

First, there was none (back when the sniffy cognoscenti called Los Angeles a cultural wasteland). Then the LA Opera finally took root, fed by the celebrity mega-seed of Plácido Domingo. And now Disney Hall, courtesy of Gustavo Dudamel and his LA Philharmonic, has jumped into the operatic garden.

But wait, in a single weekend we just saw three — count 'em, three — rings of action: LA Opera's "Tosca" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, "Dulce Rosa," a world premiere by Lee Holdridge, inaugurating the company's Off Grand wing at Santa Monica's Broad Stage, and, most stunningly sophisticated of all, Christopher Alden's staging of "Le nozze di Figaro" with Dudamel helming his Mozart-sized band in a makeshift semi-pit at Disney.

Talk about brilliant. This time — in a second outing as purveyor of opera — the Phil found just the right way to incorporate its wonderful self into the milieu of the lyric muse. After all, Disney has no proscenium arch, no wings, no way to hang scenery or place side lights. It's designed to showcase a symphony orchestra.

I suspect it took a whole creative team to figure out the balance between "stage" and "pit." The solution, certainly with Pritzker Prize architect Jean Nouvel's input, along with his prop-based designs, boasted a wrap-around effect.

Sometimes Figaro or the Count or Cherubino would stroll to the front of the orchestra, and maybe even jokingly (when appropriate) jump onto the podium with the maestro. And yes, although music stand lights were low and the instrumentalists wore black shirts and trousers, we could see them — as background. But the big bonus came in seeing a very discreet but eminently follow-able Dudamel — his every small but emphatic gesture and cue and phrase-embrace, as it flowed through his dancerly body to his fingertips, to the band ("see the music"), and to the singers.

And, given that Alden kept the action on his raked stage limited we had equal value music-making and theatrics, with young, astute singing actors who could both understand and mean what they did onstage. Away with the stock operatic lurch-and-lunge stances or the mock exaggerations of comedy. As with his "Don Giovanni" last year and now this "Marriage of Figaro" — it pre-dates "Downton Abbey" by several centuries and is all about large incestuous households filled with nobles and servants — the innovative director strips things down to their essentials.

Forget the routiniers and their shenanigans. Not here.

Figaro, the darkly rich baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer, makes his words sardonic, bordering on angry, when his scene with fiancée Susanna opens — it's all about a bed here, and not an ample one, but the spartan thing that denotes servanthood. We didn't know Mozart-DaPonte could be read as down-in the-mouth but now we do.

And then there are simple touches that signal everything. The Countess, for instance, sung by the splendid Dorothea Röschmann, spins out her "Porgi amor" while fingering Susanna's bridal veil — left on the bed in Figaro's room — as a sad reminder of her faithless husband's designs on the servant girl.

Others in the excellent cast included Rachel Frenkel, who made an un-silly but still intense adolescent in love with love and even lavished some nice flourishes on "Voi che sapete"; Christopher Maltman, a suave and lively and hip Count Almaviva; Malin Christensson, a soberly shrewd Susanna.

Haute-couturier Azzedine Alaïa, who flew the cast to his Paris atelier for fittings, costumed the singers in casual chic for their everyday doings and glorious runway numbers for their fancy occasion. The whole thing had to cost a bundle, but in the realm of corporate arts, and a special event like this, who's counting?

tosca-dp.jpgBack in the real world, though, where next day's dinner must be accounted for, LA Opera came up with a "Tosca" production that might better have been left off the table. John Caird's staging, borrowed from Houston, does everything to afflict an opera company that is charged with offering ever-new takes on bread-and-butter repertory. And although this director boasts a long list of notable credits his tack here is to deal with external add-ons, simply frame the piece in an idea that doesn't fit and ignore the essentials of motivated, interpersonal drama — or, at least, not help his cast do much that is convincing.

So we saw Puccini's musically keyed drama blunted, step by step. Floria Tosca, who is supposed to be Rome's celebrated diva, enters a dark, bombed out church, dressed like a peasant girl and acting like one. Where's the grand flourish to match the composer's notated description? Where's the bright daylight that accompanies her sunny appearance?

Worst of all, when the music tells us that she's running with triumphant news to her lover's jail, the director instead has her gawking at corpses hanging down from the prison ceiling. Not to mention the cartoonish blood-letting scenes where Tosca stabs her nemesis so effortlessly and so often she seems to be plunging her knife through jello and, for good measure, slits the guy's throat, his up-raised hand jabbing the air.

But there is one exceptional treasure in this "Tosca." Sondra Radvanovsky. Just to hear her voice blooming throughout — with its plummy tone, rich dimension, ease at the top, fullness everywhere on the scale — is a boon. And, of course, her "Vissi d'arte" brought the wildest stamping and hollering heard in a long while. Too bad the director couldn't help her find the role's meaty drama.

Nor did the two opposing forces in this Tosca's life fare better. Both Marco Berti as Cavaradossi and Lado Ataneli as Scarpia could easily be mistaken for bank tellers rather than deadly foes, notwithstanding decent vocal strengths. Especially unhelpful were Bunny Christie's designs: Baron Scarpia, the elegantly fearsome Roman chief of police, was gotten up as a low-level criminal ordering his slovenly thugs about in what looked like a garage full of art booty, not the luxe quarters befitting his stature.

dulce-rose-dp.jpgLuckily, there was Domingo conducting — a powerhouse when he used to sing Cavaradossi, and one who now could guide the work with needed sensitivity. But that wasn't all. In something of a marathon he also presided over rehearsals and performances of "Dulce Rosa," racing back and forth between downtown and Santa Monica.

That work, based on a story by Isabel Allende concerning civil war in a generic South American country with all the expected martyrs and heroes, good guys and bad guys, devotion and treachery. It finally builds to a rousing climax via a love triangle.

Holdridge is a facile composer who can score anything called for in the book, be it conflict or romantic tenderness. By the second act he found his stride. The narrative had an urgent musical flow, with Domingo eliciting dark power from the orchestra, although prior to that "Dulce Rosa" had seemed like a Hallmark card of an opera -- especially so Richard Sparks' libretto.

The cast was strong. In the title role soprano Maria Antunez transformed herself from innocent, devoted daughter to heroic champion of her father's cause. Others, also excellent, included Greg Fedderly, Benjamin Bliss and Alfredo Daza.

Of all that went into the physical production it was Jenny Okun's projection designs that dominated and lent atmosphere.

But if you don't want to miss the most intense experience, get to Philippe Beziat's film, "Becoming Traviata," now at the Royal. The brilliant Natalie Dessay, with her director and conductor, take you behind the scenes through the real agonies and ecstasies of creating her character. It's like no other.

Tosca and Dulce Rosa photos: Robert Millard

May 27, 2013

LACMA mounts an exhibition that may be the best thing hardly anyone sees

Nearly all of my contributions to LA Observed tend to be about sports. But, I do sometimes care about matters other than Don Mattingly's penchant for bunting or other such minutiae. For example, my wife and I are members of LACMA. And on Sunday, we ventured out to see the new James Turrell exhibition, being touted as THE thing to see this summer.

Turrell is a light and space artist, which is not an easy medium to display. For starters, a museum needs to set up some fairly sophisticated lighting equipment. And there needs to be space because the light and the space work together.

But, from our first experience with the exhibition, albeit on its second day of display, the space part may require visitors to LACMA to arrive with a great deal of patience to take all of the exhibit in. LACMA is recommending 90 minutes, but it may take even longer judging from our experience on Sunday night.

Continue reading "LACMA mounts an exhibition that may be the best thing hardly anyone sees" »

May 26, 2013

Driving into downtown

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Artist J. Michael Walker wrote this for LA Observed after an experience in Downtown last weekend. The artwork is his too.

Driving into Downtown, I float down Los Angeles Street, and now - early Sunday evening, the shops shuttered, an occasional street person the only pedestrian - I have the whole block north of Fifth to myself. Car parked and locked, I stroll up Fifth a couple of blocks and, detouring into the Last Bookstore and snagging a pair of arcane art books (Wenceslaus Hollar: "Delineator of His Time," and "Gothic Panel Painting in Hungary)", I pay with plastic and pop into my destination next door - CB1 Gallery - for the opening of André Goeritz's monumental woodworks and Kiki Seror's ying-yang porn-art photos and videos.

As happens at art openings, you see one friend: you see them all. Conversation with one acquaintance leads to hugs and news with another. Between the bonding, the attention to the art, and the wine, two and a half hours pass and it's time to go home.

As I set back out down Fifth, smokers ring the gallery door; and a small dark woman dressed in red, whom I'd earlier noticed perusing Kiki's adult-website-based photographs with a knowing, sly smile, harangues some long-gone male with a preacher's wrath.
Rounding the corner at Los Angeles, I spy my car, all alone on the trash-strewn street. Setting my art books on the car roof, I reach into my pocket- and fail to find my car key. The more pockets I check (and re-check), the less I find my car key. It's not in the ignition, and of course it's not lying on the asphalt. I could call AAA to dispatch a truck and jimmy my door, but then I would just have an open car and no key; so I retrace my steps to CB1, silently calling out, "Okay, Exú," - Exú, Lord of the Crossroads, the orisha of opening pathways - "Figure this one out for me."

The gallery's now closed: the artists, the faithful, and the owners hover out front, deciding on drinks, dinner or home. I approach Clyde, the director, and ask if someone happened to find a car key: "No one turned anything in," he responds.

I check in at The Last Bookstore next door: "Not that I know of," the first clerk, who had rung up my purchase, answers, "What kind of car was it?"

"Nissan Versa."

"Gail," he calls out to the tall woman in a cool blouse, who had bagged and handed me my purchase, "Anybody turn in a key for a Nissan Versa?"

"Yessss!" comes her cheery reply and Gail hands me my lucky car key. I kiss her hand and ask, "So, where was it, do you know?"

"Right here," and she peers over the counter, to the floor where I had stood.

As I leave the bookstore she adds, "One of our regulars turned it in; a character called Little Bit."

I'm elated: the scenario for getting home by bus on a Sunday night to retrieve the spare key, returning to Los Angeles Street, and purchasing a replacement key for $130, had not looked pleasant.

Stepping outside, the homeless woman dressed in red, now humming contentedly to herself, catches my eye: "Have a blessed evening," I say, full of gratitude and generosity of spirit for this turn of events.

"Excuse me, sir?" she calls after me, and I expect a request for spare change, deciding in a split second, as I turn to meet her gaze, that I will happily offer whatever she asks.

"Do you like Old School Jazz?" comes the unexpected question, "Because I'm going to perform here on June 15th."

Dazed, I reply, "Sure, I'd love to come. Of course," and I notice her twinkling eyes, her widening smile against teak skin. "What's your name?"

"Little Bit."

Little Bit. Of course.

I raise my car key between us. She acknowledges it without the slightest indication of surprise. Then her smile widens, her eyebrow arches, and she leans in low.

"They say," She whispers, "I play guitar just like Eric Clapton."

"Goin' Down to the Crossroads," I think as I walk to my car: Exú.

I know it's a stretch, but tonight, as the key unlocks my door, I'm inclined to believe her....

April 29, 2013

LA Phil shakes tradition with Mälkki; Brown's legacy at UCLA

Okay. So the pure of heart may have missed it. But when the LA Philharmonic programmed two stellar women as headliners -- conductor Susanna Mälkki together with violin virtuosa Leila Josefowicz -- I said to myself: no male domination here, not for now!

SusannaMalkki.jpgAnd that, folks, is a rarity, a rebuff of tradition. Especially when we're talking about leadership roles. Especially when 2008 almost brought about the first woman as U.S president -- watch out for 2016 -- and when 2013 may see the same as Los Angeles mayor.

Oh, yes, we've had female baton-wavers at the Phil before, starting in the '70s with Antonia Brico, who, with skirts swaying, took the podium at Hollywood Bowl after spending a lifetime by then waiting in the wings (perhaps deservedly!)....and some recent others, including Marin Alsop and Joana Carneiro.

But Finnish-born Mälkki came with elite credentials -- a notable nod from Pierre Boulez to stand as director of the Ensemble InterContemporain in Paris. And she's being hailed as a conductor of today's most heady music, invited even to Milan's La Scala, that most hide-bound, male bastion where catcalls are commonplace and where she became the first woman to occupy the pit.

Mälkki's manner, like Boulez's, is to keep the scores at hand (even overly familiar ones, like Brahms' Fourth Symphony) and leave the baton at home. Ram-rod erect, tall and thin, she's something of a spectacle in a long, close-fitting tail coat.

Her calling card here was the U.S. premiere of the German composer Enno Poppe's "Markt," a thing of astringent beauty and startling clarity of lines, which the orchestra delivered in its full glory, along with powerful exclamations.

Bully for them all. And bully for that other star, Josefowicz, who opened new vistas with her account of Stravinsky's Violin Concerto. How often we've heard this alluring work on which Balanchine set his remarkable ballet (and thus do we "see the music"), yet never so alive or searingly intimate in its slippery asides as this fiddler made it. Mälkki backed up that interpretive stance, emphasizing the composer's devilish little dialogues, alternating the jaunty with the swoony.

In other circles, there were long careers to note. Namely those downtown New York avant-gardists, starting in the 1970s, who took on the same devotion to collaborative spirit as did Diaghilev in early 1900s Paris. Think Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Robert Rauschenberg, Trisha Brown, et al.

Well, UCLA became the open arms of a major Trisha Brown Dance Company retrospective, the choreographer's last hurrah capping her career. There were site-specific offerings, films and theatrical events all over Westwood for several weeks. Its own kind of minimalism, the Brown aesthetic deals with repetitive movement, a softly shifting kaleidoscope of loose limbs swinging and hips undulating back and forth within an endlessly geometric network of patterns.

Guess The Ending became my own game while watching Brown's "Foret Foray" -- because the program note listed the Hamilton High School Marching Band as part of the piece. To be sure, distant sounds could be heard and they got closer and closer. But I was right: the marching musicians would not actually enter Royce Hall on whose stage the piece took place, they would not break into the sanctum sanctorum of this shrine-like, ever-closed-off opus...

At its end, though, Megan Madorin, who could have been Isadora herself -- such floated finger curls and foot falls as even that famous one had not the virtuosity to flaunt -- left us in staggering disbelief of her phantom image.

Brown's most current and, actually, her final piece, "I'm going to toss my arms - if you catch them they're yours" (a farewell title if ever there was one), shows her transition from that long-established uniform of floppy trousers and shirts to sleek swimsuits, a reflection of today's bare-it-all ethos, wherever you look. Who says nothing changes?

Probably not Bebe Miller, who qualifies as nearly vintage, celebrating her company's 27th year. She showcased Angie Hauser and the incomparable Darrell Jones in "A History," downtown at REDCAT. Throughout the piece, Miller seemed to be asking: What do we hold in our consciousness? Over and over, the duo showed us an answer: the creative process -- a whole variety of body linkages that are awkward and difficult. Through spoken word, sometimes by way of softly singing to herself (recorded), Miller also tells us they are dream fragments and that memory is possessed by the physical images of other dances.

But for the Trey McIntyre Project -- based in Boise and seen here at the Broad Stage -- there is no long history, just a wide net in which this gifted, young dance-maker catches fodder for his creative sensibilities. And what fodder that is. Songs of Richard Strauss, for instance (a recording with soprano Jessye Norman) form the basis of "Pass, Away," a mélange of lyrical movement that verges at times on acrobatic but strictly as an expression of intensity, not physicality for its own sake. The tone harkens back to German modern dance innovator Mary Wigman and even German cabaret, but the mode is rapturous, as in Strauss's sweeping music.

Altogether different was McIntyre's other extraordinary work, "Arrantza," a docu-dance of Basque immigrants in America, their recorded narratives heard above tambourines and recorders, their personas a thing of berets and kerchiefs, sneakers and jeans, their gathering place a village plaza filled with seemingly spontaneous but deceptively complex dances. Less known than the Ratmanskys and Wheeldons of the world, McIntyre is a genuine treasure.

And so, of course, is Angela Gheorghiu, who appeared in recital at that same Santa Monica oasis, the Broad.

"Brava, mi diva," shouted a fan from the audience, as the Romanian-born soprano headed out on stage, beaming broadly, taking a queenly stride. She knows she's beloved. And why. It's that magical voice, a liquid column of sound that can seduce with its sheer quality, its smoothness up and down the scale, its lustrous top and that signature Gheorghiu legato. Remember how she even captivated President Obama at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors when she sang "Vissi d'arte?"

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On this night, accompanied ably by pianist Jeff Cohen, Gheorghiu proved to be that same shrewd artist. Oddly, she kept a music stand throughout and used it almost like a prop, swinging it from here to there, making it a point of direction as she sang well-known ditties ("Plaisir d'amour") and other recital-appropriate songs in unrecognizable French before continuing to a whole range of lovely Romanian songs. All of it was gorgeous.

So was the singing at LA Opera's "La Cenerentola," or as it's lately called, "Cinderella." But as one wag put it, much of this Rossini work is repetitive, so that a good edit could ease its three hours to two -- nothwithstanding the lively treatment by James Conlon and orchestra, and the virtuosic performances of Kate Lindsey, Stacey Tappan, Ronnita Miller, Nicola Ulivieri, Alessandro Corbelli, René Barbera and Vito Priante.

Top photo: Susanna Mälkki. Bottom photos: Angela Gheorghiu

April 25, 2013

Paris Photo comes to Hollywood

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Paris Photo is the annual photography fair held in France — transported to the U.S. this weekend for the first time. On the lot at Paramount Studios are gallery spaces, booksellers such as Taschen and Aperture and live artist conversations and film screenings. Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men," is one of the featured speakers. At the preview on Thursday, City Hall's culture maven Olga Garay-English welcomed the organizers to LA and Councilman Tom LaBonge presented a proclamation and a calendar.

Photos by Iris Schneider. Top, looking onto the New York backlot at Paramount Studios from a facade occupied for the weekend by Zucker Art Books. Below, display space inside facades on the studio's New York street.

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March 24, 2013

Artist Shinique Smith visits Charles White Elementary

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New York based artist Shinique Smith is known for taking everyday, unwanted objects and transforming them into complex, colorful sculptures. Some hang from the ceiling in rope-bound bundles, others sit on the floor in bale formations. All are products of the artist's passion for discovering and collecting materials wherever she finds herself in the world. Fabric, discarded wrappers, cast-off toys, old clothing, and second-hand furniture are just some of the items that have found their way into her pieces. Also known for her large-scale paintings and installations, Smith, 42, brings a concern for finding common threads between people to her work. She was first inspired to incorporate used clothing into her sculpture after reading a New York Times Magazine story that followed a t-shirt donated to a thrift shop in Manhattan and eventually became part of a bale of used clothing that was shipped to Africa. Growing up with her fashion editor mother in Baltimore, Smith had a wide range of experiences with travel, art, clothing design, and spirituality, all of which inform her work today.

shinique-this-years-girl.pngAnother of Smith's passions is working with children — she earned a degree in arts education at Tufts University before going on to an MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. This made her a natural choice for LACMA On-site's current project at Charles White Elementary School in the Westlake district near Downtown. LACMA On-site is a partnership with LAUSD that provides art programs and materials to schools, libraries, and community organizations.

"We selected Shinique because we thought her background and artistic practice would resonate with the students. She has natural instincts as a teacher. Her work is fundamentally about transforming everyday objects into something one-of-a-kind, special....and emboldened the students to see their environment through new eyes," says LACMA educator Sarah Jesse. The museum operates a gallery in the school, opened in the former Otis Art Institute on Wilshire Boulevard, and Shinique Smith: Firsthand is the fifth exhibition mounted there. The show has served as a catalyst for artist, museum, and community to interact. It consists of three parts; work by Smith, objects chosen by her from LACMA's Costume and Textile collection, and art by students at Charles White. A new piece made by Smith specifically for the show was inspired by her exploration of MacArthur Park and the downtown fabric district.

shinique-dangling-iris.jpgSmith was first introduced to the students at assemblies last September. She showed images of her art, talked about what inspires her, and posed questions to the students about finding beauty in their everyday lives. The children were asked to collect their own ideas and inspirations in sketchbooks which they later worked from to create paintings and collages that became part of the show. Smith later returned to the school and in partnership with Jesse, conducted workshops with the kids where they made small sculptures out of socks, ribbon, yarn, and tape. All of the students' creations will be assembled by Smith into one giant sculpture, and will remain at the school permanently. Smith gathered unused socks from a New York store that was going out of business, and also during outings in Downtown Los Angeles and Koreatown. During one recent workshop, she gently urged a group of fourth graders to think about the materials they were about to utilize. "Why do you think I use socks? Are you the only people who use socks? People all over the world wear them, so that's something that connects us," she said.

Smith said that working with the LACMA Costume collection was a joy. "This was a first for me, the first time I've used part of a museum's collection (as part of a show), and a great opportunity. I wanted everything!," she said. "I chose objects for aesthetic and formal reasons, things that related to my work. But I also thought about the designers that I knew of when I was growing up. That's why Bill Blass is in the show." Also included, and juxtaposed against Smith's and the students work, are pieces by Geoffrey Beene, Rei Kawakubo, and Yves St. Laurent.

shinique-firsthand-iris.jpgReflecting on exactly when it was she discovered that she wanted to work with kids, Smith says, "Maybe it was about thinking back to when I was a kid, and about the things that worked out for me." She came to the realization, very early on, that she did not want to teach in an everyday situation. "I want to work with kids when they choose to be there, not when they have to be there," she said.

"It's been amazing to have her here," said school principal Irene Worrell. "The students have responded so well to Shinique. They show me their art and I love seeing their eyes light up. It's esteem building. Everyone is successful." The school's primarily Hispanic students are not strangers to art instruction. Charles White is one of the few LAUSD elementary schools to offer art, music, and dance. But getting to the museum can be another matter. Says Worrell, "It's funny, LACMA is only ten minutes away, but for a lot of these kids, it's a world away."

Top and bottom two photos for LA Observed by Iris Schneider. Photo of This Year's Girl, 2009 by Stephen Brayne

March 13, 2013

Ghostly "Dutchman" flies to Music Center while LA Phil and Jacaranda hold court

opera-Dutchman-FDm5068.jpgAt last, a "Flying Dutchman" without irrelevant whimsy or silly symbolism or egotistical re-writing. And not even one tomato thrown (yes, an audience member threw a tomato — at previous director Julie Taymor — for her staging of Wagner's mythic work, mounted nearly 20 years ago by LA Opera.)

This time the company let Wagner be Wagner. It borrowed Nikolaus Lehnhoff's darkly ominous production from Chicago. And through it we could see the composer's roiling conflicts so wildly illustrated in his score, a thing of irresistibly stormy outbursts.

What can I say? But that it's wonderful — even with a last-minute indisposition of the central soprano and her replacement by Julie Makerov, who met the challenge handsomely, despite a few patches of vocal grief, but many more of glory, thanks to her stentorian high notes and thrilling ascents.

opera-Dutchman-senta-FDm5198.jpgBetween conductor James Conlon's all-in approach to heroic orchestral calls like this one and the spectral visions defining the protagonist, you really are swept into the drama and not distracted from it. Here is an ideal mix of stylization and theatrical impact, by the eminent German team of Lehnhoff, Raimund Bauer and Andrea Schmidt-Futterer. It conjures up an ornate Bauhaus ship emerging out of smoky sea depths, with a Wotan-like Dutchman, all in black, hat brim pulled down, framed in an angle of light. The images are striking.

As the title character, that accursed, storm-weary ghost of a captain, Tómas Tómasson gives off the morbid aura of his endless journey and sings in a commandingly dark voice. Makerov, as Senta, the woman who can bring him salvation through her purity of purpose, made a believable heroine. James Creswell, in his best role yet with LA Opera, was her mercenary father, Daland, his rolling black basso used with nuance. And tenor Matthew Plenk, as the Steersman, also sang with idiomatic refinement.

Not least in this Wagnerian cosmos of doom to redemption was the marvelous roaring chorus.

But then there's the current world beckoning. And if you're Gustavo Dudamel leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, you answer the invitation.

After all, the New York Times has just declared our resident band and its starry maestro pre-eminent among orchestras — for commissioning a vast number of new works. Even to the point of tacitly down-grading its own New York Phil. And so lustily does that paper herald LAPO's upcoming tour to Lincoln Center and also Europe, that we're getting to feel like a try-out stop.

Before it played that touring bill-of-fare (Debussy, Stravinsky, Adams), though, we trotted down to Disney Hall to hear Dudamel rouse his confreres to ground-rumbling, deliberative depths in "Siegfried's Death and Funeral Music" from Wagner's Götterdämmerung — a short tease of things to come, we hope.

But in a curious juxtaposition to the Wagner, Gil Shaham was on hand for Brahms' Violin Concerto — such as I've never heard it played. Imagine. If Giacometti were a composer he might turn out the piece this way: remarkably deconstructed, with minimal vibrato, lacking any big, juicy flourishes, played with the slenderest, most refined tone including a cadenza that was nothing if not lean, linear and veering to modern.

And while achieving it all, the tall, thin violinist lurched about on the stage like a Giacometti come rhythmically to life — taking small, staccato steps right up to the conductor's podium, back-stepping to the concert-master's stand. Never in doubt was his intense physical connection to fellow players.

What a contrast beside him, though, when Dudamel & Co. finally had their chance to revel in the concerto's gutsy Hungarian finale, so full of stretched chords and plangent heavings.

More contrast came with guest conductor Charles Dutoit, who asserted uncommon control over the orchestra's outpourings, with an added notch up in refinement. The 76-year-old Swiss is a pro — there's something to be said for age, wedded to talent. Here, in the Mozart 29th Symphony, we could hear him allow plenty of leeway between the margins but always return to that over-arching net that holds the whole thing together. It's called integrity. It's not so readily found.

Then, for heroic imagery, Dutoit and the Phil turned to Strauss's "Don Quixote" — where we heard cellist Gautier Capucon "impersonate" the knightly character as gruffly tormented at the start, daringly soft and soulful at the end, along with violist Carrie Dennis as a Sancho Panza who seemed to dance around the hall in gorgeously robust animation.

But if you're in search of salon splendor — as opposed to downtown's Disney — look no further than Jacaranda, the new-music enterprise in Santa Monica that incorporates the bold and the beautiful — with informed taste, imagination and a polish now brought to a peak of excellence, after a gestation of nine years.

The source of all this wonderment is Patrick Scott — you may remember him from his erstwhile identity: Patrick Marca Registrada (yes, that jokey moniker), the founder of Eyes Wide Open, a performance art group back in the '80s. Together with conductor Mark Alan Hilt he sees to every detail of their small, smart operation here. It's located in one of the premier spots for acoustics and ambience, believe it or not, the First Presbyterian Church on Second St. And it has a following these days of Westside intelligentsia/older hippy types that sells to the walls.

Newly designed, it's spare but warm and light, with a pleasing balance of scale and suggesting a kind of architectural humanity. The only sign of churchiness is in the stark simple, modern cross above the stage, draped with a maroon sash.

Jacaranda's recent concert, a thoroughly designed and thought-out affair, was "Thresholds: The Scandals of 1912-1913," that era in new music where audiences took noisy umbrage at the experimentalism of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg who comprised the Second Viennese School.

So naturally Scott found plenty to theatricalize. For Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire," ably led by Hilt, he had the men in white tie/tuxes and flute/piccolo player Pamela Vliek Martchev in a chic cocktail dress and hat of the period. They all turned in stellar performances, even if Julia Migenes, no longer in good singing form, resorted to shtick instead of capturing the eerie fantasy of the character, a mocking specter who both scorns and feels menaced by the world.

The small pieces by Webern and Berg were striking in their distilled expression and played with scintillating purity. The evening was capped by duo pianists Danny Holt and Steven Vanhauwaerts, whose "Sacre du Printemps" yielded that same overwhelming pagan force as Stravinsky's full orchestration.

Photos from "Flying Dutchman" by Robert Millard/LA Opera

February 17, 2013

Dancer Melissa Barak takes on a new leading role

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Choreographer/dancer Melissa Barak might just be one of those rare people — a deeply committed artist who is equally passionate about business. If this is the case, then she will need all the business savvy she can muster because Barak has big plans. The Los Angeles native spent nine years with the New York City Ballet, four with Los Angeles Ballet, and is now hoping to establish a ballet company in her hometown that will provide it's dancers with "the environment I always wished I had been part of. I want to create my own dance heaven."

We spoke recently at Westside School of Ballet, where she is in the middle of rehearsals for her company's debut. "I've always admired innovation, and building something from the ground up intrigues me," says Barak. It's clear that, for the time being at least, she wants to keep things scaled down. "I'm not shy or embarrassed to say we're going to start small and work our way up. Right now I'm working with several dancers locally and bringing in guests from other companies. Ideally, I'd like to hire fifteen dancers." The company's repertoire will focus on contemporary pieces. "This is going to be all about the 'new'...new voices in choreography,"says Barak.

She acknowledges that Barak Ballet, still in its infancy, is currently a labor of love. She started with a few fund raisers to gather seed money, and proudly says that enough was raised to produce the fledgling company's first official performance on March 31. "This performance is going to be my 'big ask' to the community to help me make this a reality," she says. The program will feature ballets by noted choreographers Christopher Wheeldon, Darrell Grand Moultrie and Frank Chaves, and a new piece by Barak. She is getting a leg up from participating in the Pasadena Arts Council's "Emerge" program, which supports new arts organizations and enables them to have non-profit status. The focus now is on building some private donors. After that, she hopes to apply for grants while continuing to build on other forms of funding.

It's no surprise that Barak, 33, has arrived at this point in her dance career. "Growing up in Los Angeles, I was always choreographing in my head, always loved listening to music, especially classical, in the car." She began to take ballet seriously at the age of 6 and studied at Westside until 16, when she went to the School of American Ballet in New York (the official school of New York City Ballet.) While at SAB she participated in a student choreography workshop and got the attention of NYCB artistic director Peter Martins. She entered the company at 18 and embarked on a kind of split existence, divided between dance and choreography. Her 2001 piece, "Telemann Overture Suite," first created for a SAB workshop, was added to City Ballet's repertoire and earned Barak her first critical success as a choreographer. "That was one of my struggles because I had just started my career and I felt like right off the bat I was seen by my director as more of a choreographer than a dancer. But, I really loved to dance, and that was where I wanted to shine."

Although she spent her entire career at City Ballet in the corps, Barak didn't lack for opportunity. "Even as a corps member, you could really stand out in that company. You're given lots of chances. Toward the second half of my time there I was doing very nice roles. I was very happy with what I was getting to do." Martins continued to support her choreography, and in 2002 the company performed her piece, "If By Chance," featuring a young dancer named Benjamin Millepied, who more recently has become known for choreographing the movie "Black Swan" and founding the LA Dance Project.

barak-sitting-jg.jpgIn 2007 Barak took stock and decided it was time to move on. "I was happy by the time I left, which was on a positive note. I felt good about my career there and about what I had learned and gone through." She returned to California and joined the newly formed Los Angeles Ballet. "I had done the big company thing for so long. This was a small company and I felt like I'd stand out and be able to give what I'd always wanted to give as a performer. It was also nice to be back home in a city I love with a lot of people I know." Barak continued to choreograph and perform, as well as spending part of 2009 dancing with Christopher Wheeldon's company, Morphoses. The relationship with Los Angeles Ballet ended in 2011 and Barak found herself at a crossroads. "I thought to myself, now what? Do I go into another company, go up the ladder and deal with all the politics? Do I want to do all that over again at 31? Or do I want to do my own thing and start something different. I even thought, do I want to continue dancing, or should I go into something completely different? But I love business and I love working with people. Building this company felt like the right thing. I'll still have ballet in my life, I'll be able to choreograph, and who knows -- maybe I'll dance!"

Barak's timing may prove to be fortuitous. With Millepied departing for the Paris Opera Ballet next year, there will be a new opening in the L.A. dance landscape. The two were colleagues throughout her career at NYCB, says Barak."I think Benjamin, with the success of "Black Swan" and appearing throughout the mainstream media, was able to cast a real spotlight on dance in this city...which is a wonderful thing. I've always admired his tenacity and ability to make things happen."

For now, though, Barak is taking it one step at a time. "This first performance is like, what's going to be the response? After this, we'll assess where to go next, " she said. And then, as is her way, Barak's practical side inevitably re-emerges. "A ballet company is no different from any other business. You start small and grow organically. You take your time building a solid foundation with a network of supporters who believe in your vision and you grow as big as the company is meant to grow. You really can't force these things."

Barak Ballet, Sunday, March 31 at 7 p.m. Ann & Jerry Moss Theater, Santa Monica. Limited number of tickets available

Photos of Melissa Barak by Judy Graeme/LA Observed

February 4, 2013

Joffrey Ballet throws 100th birthday bash for "Rite of Spring"

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Joanna Wozniak in "Rite of Spring," photo by Herbert Migdoll

Robert Joffrey worshipped deeply, from afar.

So genuine was his devotion to the legendary past - say the Paris of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, with its wildly rich collection of visual artists, designers, composers and choreographers -- that he bid his company to painstakingly recover some masterpieces from that 20th century peak of creative collaboration.

And lucky Los Angeles was the first city, back in 1987, to gaze upon the Joffrey Ballet's most famous reconstruction of them all: "Rite of Spring," or "Le Sacre du Printemps," as it's known around the rest of the world (also referred to by musicians and dancers simply as "Sacre.")

So, naturally, there it was on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage, celebrating its 100th birthday -- yes, the infamous Stravinsky/Nijinsky ballet that caused a Parisian audience to riot at its 1913 premiere ("ballet brought to barbarism" and "music gone mad" wrote critics.)

Nijinsky's stylized choreography - dancers moving in profile at times, as in bas relief, like figures on a Greek vase; the sacrificial virgin, standing in the now-iconic pose as Nijinsky was often depicted, with head tilted sideways, eyes vacant, knees slightly bent, toes turned in - wholly rejected the classical ballet idiom.

And Stravinsky's cataclysmic score - with its skewed meters and pounding rhythms -- would haunt the halls of concert music from then to now.

Yet, a century later, our vision has broadened, our ears have stretched.

Now that doesn't mean we no longer admire immensely the meticulous Hodson/Archer recreation of the original "Sacre," with its attention to historical detail.

It's still startling, for instance, to see the tightly circling Maidens, facing outwards and lit overhead, along with other intricate interweavings, rock against the score's rhythms of foreboding.

But, pardon me, the whole of it seems puny today. Because the music has eaten the ballet! The visual events onstage are dwarfed by the score.

We're now used to hearing augmented orchestras turn "Sacre" - by itself - into an unequaled feast, more vast and overwhelming than any theater could contain. Our own Philharmonic powers through the score, courtesy of Salonen, Dudamel, et al - even though the pit band here, despite a wayward trumpet entry, did a creditable job, led by Joffrey music director Scott Speck.

Still, the adoring crowds seemed to get what they came for.

Speck also made the most of excerpts from Philip Glass's Symphony No. 3, the basis for Edwaard Liang's "Age of Innocence," which showed off the company's superb dancers - though he could lose the Jane Austen title borrowing.

But William Forsythe's constant-composer-companion Thom Willems surely offers too much of a crashing thing for the choreographer's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," another engrossing exercise in his break-apart-put-together ballets of inordinate intrigue.

Meanwhile other events beckoned. And raised a question...

What, for instance, do Midori, Meredith Monk and Helmuth Rilling have in common? They are all musical brands, that's what.

The still-girlish violinist, known by her single name since blazing into the spotlight as a wunderkind more than three decades ago, recently played with the LA Philharmonic, led by a surprisingly uncommanding Pablo Heras-Casado, and put a virtuosa's shine on Peter Eötvös's 2nd Violin Concerto, cutely titled "DoReMi," and heard in its world premiere.

Intermedia maven Monk, now 71, has been collecting cult fans for four decades. Her brand of vocalizing, unique in the sound kingdom, her clear but complex compositions and theatrical esoterica, drew the usual suspects to UCLA's Freud Playhouse for "On Behalf of Nature."

At the same campus, and in that rarest of occasions - a completely sold out Royce Hall - music lovers showed up on a wet, blustery, cold night to hear acclaimed German maestro Rilling lead the LA Chamber Orchestra in Mozart's 39th Symphony and D-minor Requiem.

Talk about a diverse collection, it would be these three performing artists.

Midori by K Miura.jpgFor the greater part of her career Midori enchanted audiences --- a mere slip of a thing, head bent over her instrument with an inward-curling intensity yet exhibiting powerhouse technique - playing the standard violin warhorses: Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius. But now she has taken on thorny, new music and the Hungarian composer's work at hand proved no exception to the model.

As expected, here was Midori lavishing pinpoint perfection on the Hungarian composer's very graphic composition. She limned its glistening twitterings, lovely as a starry night, then turned to dangerous piercings high on the string before dropping down to earth, snarled and snared in cavernous terrors - the orchestral accents robust, sizzling and full of Magyar markings.

Monk, on the other hand, was always at the cutting edge - or better put, an original. She's another diminutive figure, recognized by her multitude of skinny signature braids (she once called herself "Inca Jewish," having been born in Lima), and alerted us years ago to a voice that ranged over several octaves, did astonishing stunts with dynamics, colorations, glottal clicks and warblings and could plunge the listener backwards to a pre-linguistic state of consciousness. I think of it as primeval. Add to that her astute fellow musicians, the entire stage pictures they paint and you have a unique universe.

But voices don't last. So the denizens at Freud could not sample Monk at her most compelling.

Conductors do last, though. And when Maestro Rilling raised his baton and leaned into the orchestra to draw out the portent from that first long majestic chord in Mozart No. 39, K. 543, we knew immediately this would not be a musical hologram of well-worn music but something created on the spot. This and the Requiem bore such rewards, courtesy of the LACO, guest soloists and USC Chamber Singers. There's something about these serious German conductors (Christian Thielemann, who led the LA Phil some years ago in a rare appearance, is another.) They go to the crux of things.

Photo of Midori by K. Miura

February 3, 2013

'The Snake Can' at the Odyssey Theater gets her thinking

It's been hard to ignore the baggage that comes with aging. As the medicare cards and applications crowd my mailbox, and funerals of friends--not their parents--pop up in my emails, the signs are all around me. I guess I have to accept that I really am that old. Of course, as my mom told me, age is only a number and from someone who'll turn 99 on her birthday in April, she should know. Of course, she's also said "Getting old is not for sissies," and as I struggle with the ups and downs of memory lapses and other annoying changes, I concur. Fortunately I still have a kid in high school--if you want to do the math, I was just shy of 48 when she was born--so I'm hanging on for dear life to my membership in the child-rearing set. I guess in my neighborhood the thing that dates me the most is not my graying hair but the fact that I don't have a single tattoo to show the world how cool I am.

So it was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch "The Snake Can," Kathryn Graf's play about "middle age" at the Odyssey Theater through February 24. "Proceed with caution," the tagline warns, and duly warned, I was worried about seeing another treatise on the travails of navigating the aging process. But the piece was really more about the friendships, loyalties, yearnings and fears that accompany us on our life's journey, and it moved me to tears. Of course, as my children can attest, I cry during commercials, movie trailers and "Story Corps" on NPR. In fact, unless I can find something to cry about in a movie, I deem it a non-starter. So I am an easy target.

But I found the characters in "Snake Can" real and honest, and once the second act unfolded, I genuinely cared about their lives and their struggles.

The play, directed by Steven Robman, centers on three women (Graf has written in the notes that they actually each represent a part of herself): Nina (Diane Cary), an artist who has been living in the shadow of her famous actor husband; Meg (Sharon Sharth), a successful and outwardly upbeat career woman still looking for love after two failed and childless marriages and Harriet (Jane Kaczmarek), a widow with two children who's finally decided after seven years alone that it's time to get out there and date again. These days that means signing up on a dating website that eliminates the drudgery and uncertainty of actually going out, and soon we meet a sampling of what's available for women of a certain age. Of course, we don't need to be reminded of the narrow playing field, but Graf and her women navigate with humor and a good bit of wisdom.

Each of the women has their personal crisis, fostered by the men in, or in and out of, their lives, but what resonated for me was the love and loyalty that defined the long friendships these women have forged over years and years, and the strength and solace those friendships provide.

Their stories are familiar and we can relate, and they are seasoned with a good bit of candor. Afterwards I found myself thinking and talking with my husband about my own journey, and our struggles, triumphs and disappointments. If a good play engenders a good discussion, "Snake Can" more than passes the test. And anything that can make you laugh at getting older is a worthwhile way to spend some time.

January 24, 2013

Millepied not so committed to dance in LA after all

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Either choreographer Benjamin Millepied was ready to move on or he got an offer he couldn't refuse. Millepied, the former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and founder of the one-year-old LA Dance Project, was introduced today as the new director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet, starting in September 2014. Millepied caused a sensation in the LA arts community when he moved here with his future wife, actress Natalie Portman, after retiring from the New York ballet in 2011.

In interviews at the time, Millepied was often quoted expressing his sense of liberation in leaving the New York dance scene and talking about the possibilities of creative freedom in Los Angeles. LA Dance Project, a small and experimental company, and primarily funded by local dance philanthropist Glorya Kaufman, had it's premiere September 22, 2012 at the Disney Hall. Created as an art collective, Millepied's plan for LA Dance Project was to collaborate with artists in multiple mediums and perform not only in traditional venues, but also in alternatives spaces, such as museums.

LA Dance Project has a guaranteed budget for the next three years, the New York Times says, and Millepied is expected to continue to run it until he moves to Paris. Today's news was broken by the New York Times, which also carries an interview with the choreographer.

Previously on LA Observed:
Benjamin Millepied at MOCA
Zocalo goes dancing -- but never back to Saddle Ranch
Natalie Portman, Millepied marry in Big Sur

Photo of Millepied dancing at MOCA in 2012 by Iris Schneider

January 22, 2013

LACMA curators excited about new couture collection

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Evening dresses by Jean Dessès (1956), left, and Madeleine Vionnet (1925.)

"It started with a cold call from someone representing a collector," said Sharon Takeda, senior curator and head of LACMA's Costumes and Textiles department. "Would we be interested in a 20th century couture collection? It was all very anonymous." She and fellow curator Kaye Spilker were recalling the long and involved process of acquiring their latest find, a group of 158 examples of couture designs dating from 1880 to 2008. Nearly fifty important fashion designers are represented, including Coco Chanel, Madame Grès, Madeline Vionnet, Jean Dessès, Jeanne Lanvin, and Alexander McQueen.

The mystery soon began to lift and the two curators discovered that the collector in question was Dominique Sirop, a French haute couturier who in addition to running his own atelier in Paris has also published books on fashion history. "When we learned that the pieces were collected by a haute couture designer we felt that meant the selection would be good. The list of names were a 'who's who' of fashion." said Takeda. When the two curators arrived at Sirop's studio in Paris they were pleasantly surprised. "It was all in a database system with photographs, which isn't always the case with collectors. They (Sirop and his collections manager) had done quite a lot by the time we got there."

120926_M2012_95_85-copy-(1).jpgThe curators were also mostly pleased with the condition of the pieces, which took nearly four days to examine. "Couture isn't always pristine," said Takeda. "Sometimes things have been altered by different owners. Can this or that be reversible? Is the integrity of the initial design there?" Sirop, who had not dealt like this with a major museum, paid close attention to how the curators worked. "I had to kind of educate him" said Takeda. Spilker added, "the people selling the objects don't always think about the museum's costs. There are also multiple steps (once the powers-that-be at the museum approve the purchase) including cataloging, labeling, tagging, and shipping."

Not only were the curators negotiating with a relatively inexperienced seller, they also had to raise the money to buy the collection. Enter philanthropist Ellen Michelson, a member of the LACMA Costume Council who has helped with the purchase of two previous collections, including the one which contributed to LACMA's major 2010 exhibit, Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915. Michelson began her relationship with the department about six years ago during a tour in France with Takeda. A collector of vintage clothing and children's books, Michelson elicits high praise from the two curators. "She is absolutely the best donor one could hope for because she's so generous, and it's no strings attached," said Spilker. "She respects the professional staff and doesn't try to influence us. She likes our scholarship and the time we take with it."

"I think she enjoys learning from us," said Takeda. "She will come down for the day (Michelson lives in Atherton) to visit. We want her to understand what we do. I recently overheard her telling someone that 'getting involved with LACMA and these collections has changed my life.'"

M2012_95_109.jpgAfter nearly two years from that initial phone call, the collection finally arrived at LACMA four months ago. Before being introduced into the museum's storage areas the objects were put through a freezing process that ensured the elimination of any unwanted critters (Takeda's term), which might include moths, silverfish and their eggs. The items have since been cataloged and photographed. Luckily for the department's conservation team, the pieces are considered mostly exhibit ready. "These pieces will form the impetus for a show on twentieth century couture," said Takeda.

As excited as Takeda and Spilker are for the public to see the new collection, that will have to wait. The curators are currently focused on their next exhibit , "Reigning Men: From the Macaroni to the Metrosexual," opening in January 2016. It could be a few years before the couture show opens. As they told me, "stay tuned."

Lower photos: Madame Grès evening gown (1987), middle, and Alexander McQueen evening dress (2007.) Click images to enlarge. Courtesy of LACMA.

January 8, 2013

Celebrating Marion Davies in Santa Monica

Thumbnail image for Marion Davies Beach House 2.jpgLast Sunday, the Santa Monica Conservancy celebrated the birthday of Marion Davies at the Annenberg Community Beach House, which is appropriate since the center occupies the spot where William Randolph Hearst and Ms. Davies once shared an opulent Old Hollywood mansion and now shares the site with the remaining pool and a guest house designed by Julia Morgan in 1928.

guest house.jpgdining room.jpgGiven my passion for other properties in the famous couple's real estate portfolio, I really appreciated the guided tours of the Guest House. Conservancy docents, dressed in vintage, assumed the role of a Davies' contemporary in order to share tidbits about the residence and its owners.

joan crawford.jpgWe had a swell time in the dining room listening to Joan Crawford discuss Marion's parties.

hedda.jpgAnd Hedda Hopper dished about that infamous cruise with the couple while we stood in the foyer.

Later, there was vintage dancing, toasts and cake. Notables in attendance included Old Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker and author Ernest Marquez. I even learned that Charles Hood is the 2013 artist in residence at the Davies Guest House. You can read his beach house blog here.

It was a beautiful day to be by the sea. More pics below and on Flickr.

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January 1, 2013

Visiting Dawnridge with Hutton Wilkinson

hutton portrait.jpgI only have a few minutes left before 2012 turns into 2013. I'm observing the folk tradition that you should envision the best moment of the last year in hopes that it will manifest again in the new one.

My best moment of 2012 was visiting with Hutton Wilkinson at his home in Beverly Hills in April. Interior designer, jewelry guru, businessman, socialite, native Angeleno, author, raconteur, and Old Hollywood maven, Hutton Wilkinson is the perfect embodiment of Los Angeles past, present and future.

I'd been aware of him through his role as protégé and business partner of the late artist and interior designer, Tony Duquette, but had never had the opportunity to meet him until a journalist friend invited me along on a visit to Mr. Wilkinson's compound in Beverly Hills, which includes, Dawnridge, Duquette's magnificent house, for an interview about his latest jewelry collection and its accompanying book, Tony Duquette Hutton Wilkinson Jewelry.

Charming, funny, erudite, gracious and kind, Mr. Wilkinson is one of those people who make you feel smart and witty just being in his presence. Wearing a fantastic silk robe from Duquette's personal collection of Asian textiles, he welcomed us as we stepped into Dawnridge's mirrored foyer.

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"Ask me more questions, " he commanded as we sipped ice tea in the beyond-baroque living room.

"What kind of jewelry looks best on the jolie laide?" I said.

"Pearls! No, you have to have attitude to wear my jewelry. You need lots of self-confidence. Like Elsie De Wolf, you have to make people see beyond [the plainness of your face]."

Continue reading "Visiting Dawnridge with Hutton Wilkinson" »

December 17, 2012

Backstage at the Nutcracker with Tiler Peck of the NYC Ballet

tiler-boada-backstage-iris.jpgBallerina Tiler Peck and her Nutcracker partner, Joan Boada, at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. Photographs by Iris Schneider


Last July I visited with Tiler Peck, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, while she was guest teaching at her old ballet school in Santa Monica. She was emphatic then about her desire to return to her home state whenever possible. This past weekend, she came back to California to dance as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Pacific Festival Ballet production of The Nutcracker in Thousand Oaks. It's her third year helping out with the local production.

Many ballet stars hit the road during Nutcracker season to perform with local companies. Benefits include extra income and stage time, as well as the knowledge that they are inspiring and motivating the younger dancers in the production, many of them still students. "I look forward to this gig every year," Peck told me. "It's fun to share the stage with so many children. Also, my family and friends come and they don't normally get to see me dance in person." This year she performed alongside Joan Boada, a principal with the San Francisco Ballet who danced the Cavalier.

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Peck, right, and Boada stretch in their dressing room.


"One of the things that makes Tiler so endearing is that she always makes time for the kids, always finds time to sign their pointe shoes," said Kim Maselli, the company's artistic director. Young starstruck fans knocked steadily on Peck's dressing room door for a treasured autograph. "One kid wanted me to sign her face in permanent marker!" she said. It was the one request that went ungranted. An hour before the Sunday matinee performance, three eleven-year-old girls, dancers in the show, hovered close by, giggling and gawking at Peck while she prepared her pointe shoes. They declared her their favorite ballerina, and when asked if they had ever seen her perform before this, they said in unison, "only on YouTube!". (Here's a sample.)

The pre-show mood in Peck and Boada's shared dressing room was relaxed and chatty. Since the two didn't have to appear on stage until the second act, there was plenty of time for makeup, hair and gossip. Topics of conversation included Hurricane Sandy, movies, basketball, fashion, and choreography — good and bad. Chocolate was consumed. Boada, who grew up in Cuba, compared notes on Havana with Peck, who recently performed at the Havana International Ballet Festival.


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Left, Peck with her tutu. Right, getting ready to dance.

Peck casually transformed herself into the Sugar Plum Fairy while sharing iPhone photos and holiday plans. Her glittering tutu, made for her by the New York City Ballet costume shop, lay safely on the floor waiting to be put on. "That's the one thing I don't check through luggage," she said.

Peck talked about what she considers to be the highlight of her year: dancing at the Kennedy Center Honors earlier this month. Chosen to dance for prima ballerina Natalia Makarova, one of the honorees, Peck performed "Other Dances," a Jerome Robbins piece originally choreographed for Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Peck admitted to having major nerves, finding it all "crazy" but thrilling at the same time. She had starstruck moments of her own, meeting Glenn Close, Morgan Freeman, David Letterman, Rahm Emanuel (a ballet dancer in his youth), Bill Clinton and celebrities-in-chief the Obamas.

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In the wings between scenes.
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Finally, with warmup clothes over their costumes, Peck and Boada made their way to the wings. Now all business, they became part of the huge machine that is any production of "The Nutcracker," with dancers of varying ages whizzing on and offstage in all manner of exotic costumes. When not on stage, Peck and Boada kept to themselves in the area reserved for them, equipped with folding chairs and box of rosin, which dancers dip the toes of their shoes in to prevent slippage. This weekend was their first time dancing together, so they exchanged tips and checked each other's costumes. Boada at one point smoothed Peck's hair. After the performance, Peck's parents, sister, and grandmother came backstage. Like anyone who doesn't get to see their family as often as she'd like, Peck looked really happy to have them there.

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Cavalier and Sugar Plum Fairy on stage.

The Thousand Oaks stop is the midway point for Peck on her Nutcracker circuit. She performed earlier in the NYCB production (dancing both Sugar Plum Fairy and Dewdrop) and she next heads to Vancouver for a week of performances with the Goh Ballet. Though Peck is a world traveler, Vancouver is a new city for her and she plans to squeeze in as much sight-seeing as possible, along with some last-minute holiday shopping. After that it's back to New York by Christmas Eve. Her family will be spending the holiday with her in New York, giving Peck an ideal ending to what has been, for her, a pretty spectacular year.

The Kennedy Center Honors gala air on CBS on December 26, at 9 p.m.

Photographs by Iris Schneider

Previously on LA Observed:
Ballet star Tiler Peck is a devoted California girl

December 9, 2012

Downton Abbey does LA

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The Downton Abbey roadshow came to town Friday night in the form of an event promoting season three of the wildly popular British program that depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants. The show resumes in the U.S. Jan. 6 on PBS. More than 300 fans (there were thousands of requests for tickets) came to ooh and ahh over cast members Hugh Bonneville, Joanne Froggatt, Rob James-Collier and Lesley Nichol at the Silver Screen Theater in the Pacific Design Center. The audience watched the first twenty minutes of episode one, then Hollywood Reporter chief television critic Tim Goodman moderated a panel with the actors, executive producer Gareth Neame and Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton. I sensed that by now, in terms of press tours, these actors are a well-oiled machine and could probably do these things in their sleep. However, they did seem to enjoy speculating (as they have been doing ad nauseum for the past two years) why Downton is such a hit with American audiences, and updating their characters' story lines.

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Series three has already aired in the UK, and many in the United States have illegally watched the episodes online or in bootlegged files passed by email. (As Eaton acknowledged to me.) But if these people already have seen the shows, they didn't give anything away. Nor did anyone inquire about rampant rumors that certain cast members, Dan Stevens in particular, might not be returning for the just-commissioned season four. This was a polite and respectful crowd, with no hardball questions for actors or producers.

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Fans came in all shapes and sizes and and from many parts of Southern California. Sheri Earls, a manicurist from Orange County, told me she had only discovered Downton a month ago and has rapidly caught up on seasons one and two via Amazon. Waiting on a very long line at the "meet and greet" for James-Collier, who plays gay footman Thomas Barrow, Earls made it clear that she is addicted. "Anna (the ladies maid played by Froggatt) is my favorite. Her spirit is so sweet...and Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) would have to be my heartthrob." At the other end of the fan spectrum were Jennifer Ramone and Jim Dover, from North Hills. The couple, who have watched from the beginning, love the historical aspect of the show. Jennifer, a marketing consultant for Paramount, wasn't interested in meeting any of the cast members: "I've learned to stay away from the talent. I don't want to spoil the illusion." A few fans dressed in costume from the 1920's, the show's current period. All waited patiently to meet each of the actors, who appeared to be having a genuinely good time. At one point Bonneville yelled good-naturedly at a shy fan, "Hey! Take a picture! Whaddya here for?" Froggatt seemed to spend more time hugging than conversing, and James-Collier spent extra time chatting with an elderly woman in a wheelchair who is from Manchester,England, near where the actor was born.

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Next stop for the group is New York City, where there will be more events like this one, and lots more press to do, as well as a season three premiere party hosted by Vanity Fair and Ralph Lauren at MOMA on Monday night. CBS Sunday Morning aired a behind-the-scenes feature on the coming season this weekend. Bonneville also was on NPR's Wait, wait...don't tell me on Saturday in a show taped last week at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles.

Photos: Sean Roderick/LA Observed

December 2, 2012

7 hours of 'Gatz' leaves her wanting more

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One of the great perks of being a kid is that people read to you. I still miss it. That may be part of why I was so enchanted by "Gatz," currently playing 9 performances at the Redcat at Disney Hall. The theater production, put together by the New York-based avant-garde troupe called Elevator Repair Service, brilliantly performs F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" by reading the entire novel onstage, incorporating every written word into the production. In doing so, it becomes so much more than the novel is, or than a play could be--I guess that's why the word transformative was invented.

I admit I was nervous before the show. But it was a nervous anticipation. Could I last seven hours (eight including a dinner break) in a not-that-comfortable chair listening to a whole novel? Within minutes I was swept away. If you're going to read a novel in one sitting, better make it a good one and in choosing "The Great Gatsby," ERS chose well.

I was awed by the beauty of the words, the way they sounded strung together, the images they painted. The staging was quirky and minimal. It allowed my imagination enough room to fill in the blanks, making the event participatory and thrilling. Like good theater should be, it was a very social experience: the intimate Redcat is a perfect venue — everyone knew from the start that we were all in it together and you could sense that excitement as we took our seats.

Set in a dingy office, the play begins with the narrator, Nick, played by Scott Shepherd, finding a copy of "The Great Gatsby" in a Rolodex on his desk. While waiting for an interminable reboot of his aging computer, he picks it up and starts reading. His bored colleagues gradually drift in and out of their workaday doldrums playing the characters so elegantly drawn by Fitzgerald. The seminal novel about the dreams and delusions of the young strivers of New York's upper and wannabe-upper class took flight onstage. The drab office was a perfect contrast to the life, both lofty and artificial, depicted in the book.

There are many surprises. First, it's funny — something unexpected from one of the great tragedies in American literature. But it's undeniable when hearing and seeing it onstage. Of course ERS has helped entertain with its inventive staging and visual touches. You feel you are witnessing something fresh and new. Great art often makes you see something familiar in a totally new way. Director John Collins said recently, "We knew we might fail, but it would be a worthwhile failure."

gatz-shepherd-iris.jpgAs Shepherd reads and the action takes place around him, the novel he holds becomes the most important character on the stage. In fact, when he leaves the book after Gatsby's murder and starts reciting the words by heart, it's somehow shocking to see him go on without the novel in hand.

It was exhilarating, exciting, hypnotic, poignant, heartfelt, intelligent and utterly charming theater. It lasted from afternoon 'til evening and it didn't make me tired. I laughed, I cried and felt everything in between.

When it was over, I was weirdly energized. I confess that somehow I had gone all these years without actually ever reading the novel, having started it a few days before I saw the show. After it was over, I couldn't wait to go home and finish it, relishing the thought of being immersed in the writing all over again.

Elevator Repair Service has been trying since 1999 to do a staging of "The Great Gatsby." Initially, it was not their intention to read the whole book onstage. But in trying to structure a play from the book, Collins and Shepherd said that every time they tried to extract something meaningful from the novel, it always seemed to diminish the work.

After years of wrestling with the book they decided the only way to do this was to read the novel it in its entirety. It took years to get permission from the estate to play in New York and Los Angeles, although it has been performed abroad intermittently since its Brussels premiere in 2006. Redcat finally succeeded in bringing it to its stage. It will run for 9 performances through December 9.

After seeing this production, I watched a trailer for the upcoming film of "The Great Gatsby" by Baz Luhrman, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey McGuire, Carey Mulligan and a cast of thousands. Multitudes of elaborately costumed extras leap off the screen, carousing in opulent locations featuring Gatsby's extravagant mansion lit up like a house on fire. It was a cacophony of excess. Nothing was left to the imagination and I'm sure no expense was spared. The clip only lasted two minutes, but I afterwards I thought "Now THAT was exhausting."

It was so much more satisfying to settle in for 7 hours of inventive storytelling, seated in a roomful of perfect strangers who had gathered together to share something unforgettable.

Photos of the production and of Scott Shepherd by Iris Schneider

The enduring cool of tap

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It wasn't the usual ladies room chatter the other night during intermission of "Anything Goes" at the Ahmanson Theater. "Damn, why didn't I take tap?" one woman said. Others murmured in agreement . I myself was still in a daze, recovering from the blast of energy we had all just witnessed. "People love the finale of act one" said Sean McKnight, dance captain for the national touring company of the 2011 revival of the Cole Porter musical. "They love a huge tap number. It's like coffee. It's energizing and puts people in a good mood."

I couldn't find the Los Angeles cast on video, but here is the first act finale performed by Sutton Foster and the Broadway cast, from the 2011 Tony Awards broadcast.

"Anything Goes," originally produced on Broadway in 1934, takes place aboard an ocean liner traveling from New York to London. It's pure escapist fare with iconic songs one after another, so the Ahmanson audience was already in a happy place when the theater filled with the pounding of tap shoes on floor boards. The cast here stars Rachel York as Reno Sweeney.

It's clear that dancers (and sometimes critics too, it seems) keep a special place in their hearts for tap. Robert Fairchild, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, told me he studied tap as a child, long before he started his ballet training. "It's great for a kid. You get to make noise with your feet." Fairchild, whose dance idol is Gene Kelly, got the attention of New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay during a gala performance last September of "Not My Girl", a Peter Martins choreographed pas-de-deux inspired by music composed by Fred Astaire. "'Not My Girl' began with a tap solo for Mr. Fairchild...that was the evenings freshest dance moment," Macaulay's review noted.

Says Fairchild, "it's a real treat for me to tap with the company. Some people think it's not new age or cutting edge, but tap has evolved and it's such a huge tool to have." Explaining the appeal to audiences, he says "they are watching AND listening. People enjoy the sound of tapping. It just adds another aspect to the dance experience."

Rogelio Douglas Jr., a triple threat performer (singer, dancer, actor) who has appeared in LA in "In the Heights" and on Broadway in "The Little Mermaid" and "Riverdance," started his tap training at age 8. "My mom was a big fan of Sammy Davis Jr. and I loved Gregory Hines. What makes tap different [from other forms of dance] is that you have to be a musician. You are creating music, different rhythms and patterns...Tap is a hybrid art form."

"A lot of singers I know do tap," says McKnight, the dance captain for "Anything Goes. "For them it's part of musicality, and the form of dance they are most drawn to." McKnight frequently teaches dance to children and at the college level. "I always tell kids..do tap, you'll find yourself smiling. Tap dancers are a different breed, they're always happy to tap. The minute you put on the shoes you want to make sound."

Audience response at the Ahmanson confirmed tap's enduring allure. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a sudden rise in L.A. tap class enrollment.

Anything Goes runs at the Ahmanson Theater through Jan.6, 2013

Bonus video: Fayard Nicholas and Harold Nicholas from "Stormy Weather," in what some consider the best tap dancing scene ever filmed. It was shot at 20th Century Fox, per IMDb. Fayard Nicholas died in Burbank in 2006.


Photo of touring company of "Anything Goes," by Joan Marcus

November 25, 2012

A back-to-basics "Butterfly" and other stage highlights

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We've had the whole range — from traditional to poetic to deconstructed, the last one a stunning abstraction by Robert Wilson. But now, in its umpteenth production of "Madama Butterfly," LA Opera has gone back to basics. After all, Puccini's cross-cultural tragedy is a box office shoo-in, so no matter what form it takes, there's an audience beating down the doors.

This edition — by the Ron Daniels-Michael Yeargan team — hails from San Francisco and rolls out across the full horizontal stretch of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's stage — no clutter, simplicity itself, with an almost utilitarian sense of japonaiserie. (Don't look for a cozy love nest here!) But all the central pieces are in place: an innocent geisha from Nagasaki, an American lieutenant who caddishly engineers his way through a fake marriage to her, an honor-bound suicide that becomes the only way out, a small child left in its wake.

butterfly-laopera.jpgAnd so does the cast solidly support the above game plan, albeit with little directorial dimension. Oksana Dyka may look a tad matronly for a 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San who is described as "a flower of a girl" (no thanks to her overly-padded traditional wedding gown), but she boasts a sturdy soprano that can cut through heavy orchestral fabric for her big outpourings. Brandon Jovanovich also trumpets a bright tenor that resounds strongly, as the single-minded Pinkerton who maneuvers his temporary way to her bed, though without anything resembling ardor.

Milena Kitic, a Suzuki full of empathy for the jilted bride, sings with deep expressiveness. Rodel Rosel is an animated, fleet-footed marriage-broker, Goro. Not least, Eric Owens endows the American consul Sharpless with subdued understanding for the sorrowful situation. And Grant Gershon coordinates stage and orchestra ably, with emphasis on the score's soaring melodies. However, the question of whether a tiny child — Garret Chang, as Trouble — could sit quietly onstage for at least a half hour proved a distraction from the high drama going on around him.

But, ah, our memories of past "Butterfly's" do not evaporate. Could anyone forget Maria Ewing in the title role — that porcelain figurine of a geisha, a picture of stillness and gravity (no pattering feet or metaphoric wing-fluttering) — even though she lacked vocal heft? Or Tom Allen as the horror-struck, husky-voiced Sharpless, shadowing the tragedy to come? Or Plácido Domingo's dashing lieutenant, enveloping his bride in tender eroticism? Or the dark, Debussyean currents Kent Nagano unearthed in Puccini's score?

Sometimes, though, memories get reinforced. Take the performances of Barbara Cook, for example.

Yes, she can still make you cry. Such is the pinpoint pathos that the cabaret singer extraordinaire unfailingly evokes — at 85 — -together with all the other magical facets of her artistry.

She walks onstage now with a cane, to roaring ovation, and (reluctantly) sits in a chair huddled against the piano's crook (remember Mabel Mercer?), where, even seated, she can glitter and be gay. That's what Cook did at Disney Hall — backed up by the LA Philharmonic, led to loving effect by the savvy Rob Berman and surrounded by her own superb, hand-picked instrumental quartet.

So what is it about her, you're wondering. Why is she a Kennedy Center honoree, a master of the master-class, one who draws gifted musicians and composers to her side and other famous singers to her feet?

Well, if you have a discerning ear you'll know: it's the same as for any purveyor of art songs — and I say this because she raises American show tunes to the level of Lieder.

You can hear it in her phrasing, which purifies to poetry and emerges as natural utterance, not words mashed into music. It's in the voice itself which spans to an architectural overview so that every line makes sense. It's in the coloration within a single note — all at the service of expression and word pointing. It's in the manner of delivery, with a legato that's like a leaf floating on a breeze as it turns this way and that.

Never mind that her pitch strayed a bit at the start or even that she ever so mildly resorted to parlando at times. Just try, if you can, to not come to tears listening to her sing Sondheim — in this case, "No one is alone," from "Into the Woods." I wish I could tell you more about this emotional mystery, how she touches the innermost heart. It happens regularly: a few years ago at a Cerritos concert with "Anyone Can Whistle" and, until she retired it, with "Send in the Clowns." Something about Cook and Sondheim...

As for her forays into those foot-tapping bar-room ditties, she loses me. It's the sophisticated intimacies that Cook unveils that are hers alone — in songs that capitalize on sophisticated intimacies.

But the always-questing singer digs deep into the lore; she lavishes great regard on composers and librettists by name. I especially love how she explains why Cole Porter, for all his cleverness, escaped her — how she never could fantasize "flying too high in the sky with a guy" — until the day she sang "I've Got You under My Skin" as a slow, serious confession. And what a coup that was at Disney with her quartet's masterly arrangement. The same goes for "Bye Bye Blackbird," deciphered (and sung) as an antidote to "House of the Rising Sun" (a capella), about the enslaved girls' misery at a brothel.

esa-pekka-salonen-1.jpgAnd, again, dramatic misery engulfed Disney Hall when Esa-Pekka Salonen returned to the podium, with his Philharmonia Orchestra for Alban Berg's "Wozzeck" - forever destroying the myth that it takes a fully-staged performance to bring powerful immediacy to a work like this.

What a night it was. The house lights completely up, no props, the mostly male cast in black suits fronting the band. And yet, all vestiges of their semi-staging in London a few years ago, with costumes and video, had rubbed into the portrayals — they were vivid, riveting. As the haunted proletariat Wozzeck Johan Reuter was believably delusional, made so by his antagonists: Peter Hoare, an aptly hectoring Captain; Kevin Burdette, the equally cruel Doctor; Hubert Francis a preening Drum Major; and Angela Denoke, his common-law-wife who showed him no regard but provoked him to murder.

Salonen wrung from the orchestra a lean, clarified sound that could explode with the score's roiling anguish or taper into palpable hopelessness or exquisite yearning - momentous from beginning to end.

Also with house lights up, and deliberately so, is the jaunty, almost ironic "Hamlet," courtesy of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and playing through Nov. 25 at the Broad Stage. Touches of late-night humor here and there prove that nothing is beyond reach anymore.

LA Opera photos: Robert Millard

November 8, 2012

Time travel: Bo Diddley and The Duchess on 'Shindig!'

1960s television had its moments. Bo Diddley and Norma-Jean Wofford on ABC's "Shindig!," originally aired August 18, 1965.

Diddley died on June 2, 2008 at home in Archer, Florida. Diddley gave Wofford, who followed Peggy Jones as his guitarist, her stage name The Duchess. She left the band in 1966 and died in Fontana, Calif. on April 30, 2005.

October 25, 2012

Show of Stanley Kubrick materials to open at LACMA

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Woman at LACMA checks out posters from Kubrick's movies. Judy Graeme/LAO.


"Stanley Kubrick" (at LACMA) is the first retrospective exhibition of the legendary filmmaker's work in the U.S. It's co-presented with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and originated in Frankfurt, Germany. Included is archival material, annotated scripts, photographs, costumes, cameras and equipment, set models, and props.

The show is accompanied by a film retrospective at the Bing Theater beginning in November. The exhibition opens Nov. 1 and runs through June 30, 2013.

October 20, 2012

Alice's ballet adventures from Canada

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The National Ballet of Canada's hugely ambitious production of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" (in Los Angeles for a brief three day run at the Music Center) has much to offer. A world-class choreographer in Christopher Wheeldon, an original score by Joby Talbot, superb dancing, romance, and a surprise ending. There's even a tap-dancing, if slightly twisted, Gene Kelly-esque Mad Hatter. But for me, the real stars are the sets and costumes (by Bob Crowley) and the special effects.

alice-red-queen.jpgAlice's journey must be a theatrical designer's dream and in this case the creative team didn't hold back. Our heroine's wild descent down the rabbit hole and inevitable shrinking and growing are experienced through video projection (used frequently throughout the show and designed by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington) which employs a mix of animation and stills. The "Mad Tea Party" blazes with wacky color, the Caterpillar and his magic mushroom have been given an exotic Oriental twist, and the Queen of Heart's garden and courtroom are a geometric revelation. The costumes are sumptuous, and humorous when they need to be. A clear audience favorite is the super-sized Cheshire Cat who, through the use of puppetry, moves his independent body parts at will to surprise and confound Alice.

It's always a pleasure to experience a story and characters you think you know in a new way. The ballet is long, running a little over two and a half hours, but the anticipation of each scene and how the designers might wow us helped it to move along quickly. This interpretation of the much loved children's classic is a collaboration between the Canadian company and London's Royal Ballet and first premiered in 2011. It's only here through Sunday, Oct. 21 so those who want to see it should take a cue from the White Rabbit and move quickly.

Video tour of the costumes and sets back home in Canada:

National Ballet of Canada website

Photos: Cylla von Tiedemann

The Scapegoat *

"Surely he hath borne our Griefs, and carried our Sorrows/Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of GOD, and afflicted." - Isaiah LIII, 4

LONDON — I heard the sad news about George McGovern, the former senator and Democratic presidential candidate — age 90, in hospice, said to be "unresponsive" — as I was on my way to the Tate Britain to visit its stunning exhibit on the Pre-Raphaelites, whose unsparing naturalism and often tragic subject matter suddenly suited my newly melancholy mood.

Wandering through the galleries as I glumly reflected on that dainty euphemism, "unresponsive," i.e. comatose — and his daughter Ann's more blunt assessment, that her father was "nearing the end" — I looked up from my reverie and found myself gazing at "The Scapegoat," the extraordinary 1851 work by William Holman Hunt. The biblical quotation above adorns the top of the frame, while below the inscription reads, "And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited." (Leviticus XVI, 22)

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I was utterly transfixed by the power of this painting, whose grim composition offered an almost mystical relevance to my ruminations. Inspired by Hunt's first visit to the Holy Land and his research into Biblical legends, it depicts the hapless goat ritually cast out into the wilderness by the ancient Hebrews, bearing a scarlet cloth on its horns representing the collective sins of the community.

As portrayed by Hunt, a bleaker scene could hardly be imagined. The luckless beast stands in the foreground, mouth agape as it gasps for breath, its doleful eyes rolled heavenward in futile supplication as it totters on faltering legs. Around it, a barren landscape of perfect desolation: the salty flats of the Dead Sea, littered with the skeletal remains of other doomed creatures who perished before.

I'm always wary of resting too heavily on metaphors — as the British humorist Spike Milligan said of cliches, they're like handrails for a crippled mind — but this one was inescapable, and it sent me hurtling back into time 40 years before, when I worked in McGovern's presidential campaign.

As it was for many of us, it was my first foray into politics. Although 18-year-olds had been granted the vote a year before, I was still too young to cast my own ballot. So, fired up by youthful idealism and undisturbed by any intrusion of political reality, I plunged into fevered volunteer work on the McGovern campaign, my 15-year-old brother in tow beside me.

The Vietnam War raged on, despite Nixon's promised "secret plan" to end it, and the draft was still in effect. Rejecting the moderate findings of an obscenity commission originally charted by President Johnson, Nixon threatened a new crackdown on smut, not exactly a top policy priority for a teenage boy with raging hormones. And his "Operation Intercept" program aimed at interdicting cheap Mexican marijuana flowing over the border - well, let's just say any adolescent of that era with a measurable pulse had compelling reasons to prefer McGovern.

That said, I had learned at my father's knee that Tricky Dick represented everything loathsome in postwar American politics. He launched his career in 1946 by Red-baiting FDR liberal Rep. Jerry Voorhees out of his long-held congressional seat, then followed that up by cross-filing in the Democratic primary two years later and obscuring his Republican affiliation so effectively that he defeated the Democratic opponent in his own party primary. Two years later, in 1950, capitalizing on his exploits as an anti-Communist crusader in pursuit of alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss, he defeated incumbent Sen. Helen Gahagan Douglas by attacking her as "pink right down to her underwear." By 1952, Eisenhower plucked him out of the Senate to join the ticket as vice-president. But not everyone who liked Ike also liked Nixon, and explosive revelations of a hidden slush fund from political supporters soon prompted his legendary "Checkers" speech, a desperate but successful effort to save his career. After a failed presidential run in 1960 and in quick succession, the California gubernatorial defeat in 1962 - capped by his embittered blast at the press, "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore" - the political establishment pronounced him dead and buried.

Until, that is, a reanimated Nixon rose from the grave in 1968 with what became known as a "Southern strategy" of thinly-veiled racial messaging coupled with pandering to fears of urban unrest and vows to restore law and order. By 1972, the Nixon campaign - "Four More Years," "Now More Than Ever" - was rolling in lobbyist cash, run by a sinister cabal of lackeys heading up a campaign operation called The Committee to Re-Elect the President (aptly known as CREEP), while in the background lurked a mysterious unsolved burglary hinting at even darker misdeeds yet to be revealed.

In short, Nixon to us was The Fiend Incarnate. And imbued with youthful idealism and base adolescent self-interest, we eagerly enlisted in what cynics mockingly dismissed as McGovern's "children's crusade."

We did it all, from cold-calling potential donors to writing them personal thank-you notes. We set up for events, greeted walk-ins, canvassed precincts, handed out door-hangers, put up lawn signs. We stuffed envelopes and leafleted factory gates. We met visiting pols who'd agreed to host local fundraisers, including then-state Sen. George Moscone, later to be elected - and murdered - as mayor of San Francisco. Once, we even crashed a Nixon homecoming rally at the Ontario Airport, talking our way in and getting as close as we could to the candidate's podium before proudly stripping off our jackets to flaunt our McGovern for President T-shirts. How we avoided getting pummeled by the crowd or roughed-up by security I'll never know.

Heading into the final stretch, we dialed names off mimeographed lists to get out the vote, and even drove people to the polls on Election Day (for a kid with a license less than a year, the liability today would be unimaginable.) Oblivious to the polls, we knew that somehow good would triumph.

And so, on election night, we were stunned - and crushed - when McGovern was buried by a 49-state landslide in which he lost even his own state of South Dakota.

He broke our hearts, and as the song says, the first cut is the deepest. But where some turned away in disgust and disillusionment, I found a new sense of engagement and empowerment. Yes, we lost. But we did something that mattered: We believed. We participated. We acted.

And not long after, when the Watergate scandal exploded and the foulness of Nixon's "White House horrors" was finally revealed to the world, we felt we had finally been vindicated.

McGovern, however, never recovered. His campaign was — is — viewed by party regulars as the low-point in modern Democratic politics, emblematic of everything wrong with the nomination and vetting process, a casualty of naive amateurs and interlopers, the very apotheosis of far-left, unelectable self-destructive kookery.

Forty years down the road, there's a lot I wish he would have done differently. His foreign policy isolationism looks more like modern Republicanism than the FDR global engagement I prefer. His cavalier and irresponsible VP selection of Sen. Thomas Eagleton rivals that of Sarah Palin. He made it almost a point of pride to alienate the core constituencies any Democrat needs to win. And ultimately, he just had no clue what he was up against, which raises real questions about what might have followed as President.

As I said, metaphors can be over-extended. But George McGovern never deserved to become the lonely scapegoat for the entire Democratic Party's failure of imagination, of principle, of nerve, and ultimately of competence.

He was an honorable, decent, idealistic and conscientious politician. Now he is dying, abandoned and alone in the political wilderness. With his passing, it's long past time for Democrats to lift the burden of all the sin and iniquity they have inflicted on his reputation and show him the respect and affection he surely has earned.


Editor's update: McGovern died early Sunday morning, Oct. 21, under hospice care in South Dakota. He was 90 years old.

'The Flat' explores complicated family history

arnon-goldfinger-iris.jpgWhen Arnon Goldfinger's 98-year-old grandmother Gerda passed away, the Israeli filmmaker and teacher set out to make a short film about her flat in Tel Aviv. He remembered it from his childhood as a place where Germany was very present. Although they had emigrated from Germany to Israel in the 30's before World War II was fully raging, his grandmother and grandfather never assimilated into Israeli culture. Their books, spoken language, furniture and clothing remained as it was in Germany, simply transported to another city. In order to process her passing and say goodbye to her, Goldfinger set out to see what he could learn about her from the things she left behind. He thought about what he had always told his students: In your work, you must do something that is meaningful to your life. And the most meaningful work is that which you really do just for yourself. But he hoped that perhaps what was meaningful to him would also be meaningful to others.

So, he brought his camera crew to his grandmother's flat and filmed everything as he and his family unearthed her treasures, her ephemera, and eventually, her secrets.

Although his grandparent's story is a very individual one it brings up issues that we all deal with in our lives, from the mundane--what do we save and what do we throw away—to the very emotional--what do we share with our family, what do we talk about and what do we hide?

"The film is talking about very basic things," Goldfinger said recently as he passed through Los Angeles to discuss it. "Friendship, longing for the motherland and our connection to our past." He talked about how the second generation of Holocaust era survivors rarely asked questions, for fear of bringing up painful memories. It was easier for the third generation, a bit removed, to ask the tough questions about a painful past. But in talking to audiences at his screenings, he discovered that many children of all backgrounds know little of their family's history.

Goldfinger's film is really about two families, his grandparents and a family in Germany to whom they remained connected during and after the war. In a probing, yet sensitive way, Goldfinger peeled back the layers of their history and discovered some troubling surprises. He knew he could never have asked his grandmother the questions he tried to answer after her death.

But in making this journey to unravel a tangled web of secrets, "I feel much closer to them now," he says of his grandparents. "They became much more human. I felt compassion and sometimes anger. I feel I know them better but that knowing is connected to emotions. When I learned what she was hiding, I was astonished. But people are very complicated. Not everything is in your control."

For many of the German Jews who emigrated to Israel, their connection to their past and to their adopted country was fraught with many conflicting feelings. "When the State of Israel was started, the pioneers and leaders wanted to make a new nation--fresh, brave, strong, with no connections to the Diaspora, to weakness. Of course, it was an illusion," he said. "No one can live without the past."

"The Flat," Goldfinger's exploration of his family's complicated and very unique history, is haunting, thought-provoking and universally human. It opens at the Landmark Theatres on October 24.

Photo of Goldfinger: Iris Schneider. Photo of Gerda and Kurt Tuchler © Goldfinger / Tuchler Family Archive.

October 7, 2012

The LA Phil goes dancing at Disney Hall

dudamel-at-dance.jpg
Disney Hall is not just alive with music these days -- it's throbbing with dance. For their kick-off gala, Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic enlisted nothing less than American Ballet Theatre stars and stage-worthy others as the featured attraction.

And that's a relatively new activity for the house that Frank Gehry built to show off the city's musical jewel.

So here was the question: what space did our celebrated conductor and his band occupy -- while dancers trod a cleverly arranged mid-level ad hoc stage? The answer: one just below the jerry-rigged platform that cleaved out seats from the hull-shaped hall. Conclusion: the orchestra did not play in an actual pit, but occupied an approximate one, just below the fleet-footed collaborators. The verdict: it all worked surprisingly well, the logistics, that is.

chairman.jpgThe best meeting of minds between "pit" and stage came in Barak Marshall's choreography for "The Chairman Dances" from John Adams' "Nixon in China." It's a distinctly rousing pièce d' occasion -- one that catches the ethnic flavor with red flags flying, white fans flaring and regimental corps enlivened by the dance-maker's signature semaphores. What's more, the 10-member Body Traffic brought terrific energy to the task, as a grateful complement to Adams' rip-roaring rhythmic engine. And not least, the piece fit its frame to a T.

So did Josh Rhodes' episode from Bernstein's "On the Town" work out well, with wit to boot - although the familiar piece had four sailors here instead of three.

Those were the easy parts. But when it came to ballet repertory icons and the absolutely critical heartbeat collaboration needed between soloist and conductor things became iffy.

So no matter the sculptural perfection of Roberto Bolle's "Apollo" variation, with his young god's commanding insouciance, Dudamel and Co. could not muster Balanchine's and Stravinsky's accents, critically-timed here to the dancers. Ditto the "Swan Lake" excerpts for him and Veronika Part. Yes, the two performed with that sense of ingrained virtuosity and depth of expression. But, like watching people talk on screen with audio out-of-sync, the power of their dancing was short-changed. Also there were no wings to fly into, so steps had to artificially halt so as not to hit a wall at full momentum.

Apparently, none of the musical misalliances escaped Dudamel's notice.

"It takes a great specialist to accompany dancers," he said at an interval, implying his apology for not being one!

black-swan-laphil.jpgStill, there were wonderful moments: as when Part, the Black Swan Odile, surreptitiously turns her head back to see if her trickery has worked on the duped Siegfried, Bolle; and there was Martin Chalifour's accompanying violin solo to their pas de deux -- with its fine, old Slavic vibrato - which brought out the narrative's romantic darkness.

No matter what, these are two gorgeous dancers; the glitzy gala audience roared with appreciation and Dudamel and the Phil gave full-out performances, concluding with the finale of Stravinsky's "Firebird," music that defies anyone not to love it.

The next night, with not a trace of dance feathers floating down, the musicians alone took center stage, but continued on the Stravinsky path -- this time with that other storied ballet score, "Rite of Spring," or "Sacre du Printemps" as the 1913 Parisians who rioted in its cause called it.

And you can be sure that Dudamel ripped into the pagan ritual, a model of modernity, with cataclysmic force. But there was less of the razor's edge here that some others find and more emphasis on earthiness - all those deep, rich, lower-string glissandos - without ever slighting the lyric wisps left hanging seductively in the air. If there's sensuality to be had, the Phil and its director will latch onto it.

The same goes for fullness of sound elsewhere. Which means that their outing with an all-Beethoven program boasted robust, big-breadth playing that blazed and soared in the "Eroica" Symphony. They luxuriated in it. And how the band loves to be given its head!

Somehow, though, the smaller-scaled vision of pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in the C-Major Concerto No. 1 did not conflict with Dudamel's zestful approach -- they got along quite nicely. The tall, slender no-nonsense Norwegian did strike his own kind of blow - with pristine pianism that found the living breath of Beethoven. It came in his phrasing, built on the impetus for these sentences, their beginnings and endings that were of a complete, single impulse. Great musicians - be they singers or instrumentalists or dancers all have this gift. He's one.