Stage Raw: The Masochism of L.A. Theater
NEW THEATER REVIEWS
STAGE FEATURE on plays without words: Hamlet Shut Up! and Violators Will Be Violated
THE MASOCHISM OF L.A. THEATER
First, to throw some pre-emptive perfume in the direction of the stink-bomb I'm about to toss: I think the quality and vivacity on our local stages, particularly in the smaller venues, is often beyond reproach. I wouldn't keep writing about it after two decades if there wasn't something profoundly satisfying about discovering fresh approaches to old themes and old plays. Evidence gathered over the past seven days: Accomplice: Hollywood - a site-specific walking tour through new and old Hollywood in which the audience deciphers carefully laid clues in order to unravel (and participate in) the kidnapping plot of a movie actress. Slogging down Hollywood Boulevard, the audience meets up with a number of characters on the streets: a screenwriter (sitting alone at a courtyard eatery, while one of the audience is taken upstairs for a 15-minute Tai massage); a fey gossip columnist (we meet him sitting alone at an Internet cafe); and an asshole producer (we're guided into Micelli's and treated to appetizers while he confuses our purpose for a pitch meeting, stares us in the eye and shouts "Goodbye!" -- until we realize he's speaking to somebody else on his cell.) Add to that Casey Smith's Violators Will Be Violated, an insane, scatological and hilariously perverse mime show about sundry forms of self-destruction (Circle X at Son of Semele Theatre); a tender, profound staging of Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney at that same venue; and Jonas Oppenheim's delightful Hamlet Shut Up! -- the Bard's well-known play performed without words, as though a silent movie on stage, at Sacred Fools.
This leads to the responses to Don Shirley's hit piece on the L.A. Times' reluctance to cover local small theaters, which he posted to his L.A. Stage blog column.
Don is probably the best arts journalist in town. Always was. He's snarky, skeptical, passionate, and backs up his frequent annoyance with evidence that's sourced. In his latest post, he gave expression to a fury that's been simmering in the community for at least five years - that the L.A. Times, where he used to work, devotes so much of its theater coverage to New York, London and movie stars, relegating the smaller theaters in Los Agneles to incremental coverage that's buried in the back pages on Fridays.
Never mind the Times' out-of-town ownership, its blatant East Coast bias, its equally blatant contempt for the theater in its own back yard manifested not in hostile reviews but its long insistence on all-but ignoring the scene, I find some of the respondents' comments on Don's article - summed up as Wouldn't It Be Better if the Times Gave Us More Coverage -- disheartening.
Aside from Doug Clayton's salient practical advice to seek a new model, the problem gets revealed by the collective psychology in so many of the remarks. Really now, if you're at a party, and somebody whose attention you seek keeps snubbing you, there are two core responses: You can say, "I must be a piece of crap because I'm being ignored -- no spurned -- by this Important Person; if only they would throw me a kind word or a hostile word, any word at all!" This is fundamentally neurotic and part of a spiral of self-destruction.
And, by contrast, there's, "To hell with them. This is humiliating. I'm going to find a better party." That, to me, is a healthy response. This also exists in the community, but not so much in the comments on Don's post.
As a community, we can't really wonder why theater-makers in other cities condescend to us if we're incapable of respecting ourselves. I remember one small theater producer's words, at a rave review from the L.A. Times (buried in Friday's paper, not a front page spread). She said, "This proves that everything we've been striving for over the years has been worth it."
That's just pathetic. You need the L.A. Times to give you that kind of validity? -- the same newspaper that generally won't even sneeze in your direction?
Continuing to carp on and covet the L.A. Times, with all the evidence of recent history, the international decimation of print journalism, etc, etc., is simply an exercise in masochism, which says more about us than about the L.A. Times. It's time to pull our head out.
"Every single sellout mainstage success at Sacred Fools - every single one - did not take off until coverage in the Times. Some of them did okay or reasonably well or even had the occasional sellout night, but all the runaway successes, sold out night after night after night, did not start selling like crazy until the Times coverage." says one of the comments, trying to demonstrate the box office significance of Our Lady of Spring Street.
Excuse me? Not only is this unwittingly insulting to the other newspapers and bloggers that have been trumpeting Sacred Fools over the years -- among the reasons "some of them did okay or reasonable well" -- what do they presume the role of newspapers to be? Since when was any newspaper's primary purpose to give you sell out crowds night after night? Nice when that happens, but . . .
The comment continues: The show that followed, (Savin' Up for Saturday Night), "Did well, but didn't take off as expected." (Them's some mighty Great Expectations.) The writer blames this on the lack of an L.A. Times review. I saw the show, and wrote about it. Enjoyed it a lot, but could come up with a plethora of reasons why it didn't do as well as Louis & Keely, reasons that have nothing to do with the Times being there or not being there.
Even in the comments section, there are conflicting reports on the box office significance of a Times review, which would echo a parallel situation in New York. I was told by at least six off-Broadway producers that unless the Gray Lady serves up an unqualified rave, an NYT review is largely irrelevant to the aim of getting butts in seats. Even a scathing review can't keep audiences away from shows they really want to see (Jewtopia springs to mind) - a significant and healthy departure from days of yore, says commercial producer Cameron Mackintosh. The monolithic Frank Rich era of theater criticism is over, thank goodness, which is no reflection on Ben Brantley or Charles McNulty, but on the shifting ecology and technology in the relationship between a newspaper and the community it serves.
Crying out for more attention from the L.A. Times is crying out for a bygone era, as fruitless as it is pointless. The depth of upset over this reality is a painful reminder of some communal pathology of chasing the unattainable. The fury and frustration is perfectly understandable, but the insult needs to processed into a new form of self-respect.
It's essential to realize that the work is valid without acknowledgment from any blogger or critic, or parent, or partner, if it's created from the earnest endeavor to sort out the confusion of our lives, and to share the insights that ensue with anybody who will watch.
It doesn't take the L.A. Times or anybody else to give those insights credence.
Finally, it isn't really the purpose of media outlets to promote your show, but to discuss it. Sometimes the two can overlap, but criticism that has any value doesn't start with the aim of offering pullquotes and selling tickets. That's what publicists are for.
The difference between adolescence and adulthoood lies in how you respond when, say, your disinterested parents can't bother to see your show. Do you crumble, or do you move on?
Check back here Monday afternoon for New Reviews of:
ABSINTHE, OPIUM, & MAGIC: 1920s SHANGHAI The Grand Guignolers take a luxury cruise to Shanghai, the most decadent city of the 1920s. Artworks Performance Space, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8:15 p.m.; Sun., 6:45 p.m.; thru Jan. 3. (800) 838-3006.
ACCOMPLICE: HOLLYWOOD Part game, part theater, part tour: "It all begins with a phone call disclosing a secret meeting location. Aided by clues and mysterious cast members strewn throughout various locations such as street corners, bars, iconic landmarks and out-of-the-way spots, the audience traverses the city streets, piecing together clues of a meticulously crafted plot." Tickets: www.AccompliceTheShow.com. Hollywood Blvd.,
GAY APPAREL: A CHRISTMAS CAROL Dickens get dicked: Jason Moyer's homoerotic re-imagining of Charles Dickens' holiday classic. Lyric-Hyperion Theater, 2106 Hyperion Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (800) 838-3006.
THE HOUSE OF BESARAB A new environmental adaptation of "Dracula" with Travis Holder. Audience members eat and drink in the venue's historic Deco Bar before the show. Hollywood American Legion, 2305 N. Highland Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 9 p.m.; Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (310) 203-2850.
THE GROUNDLINGS HOLIDAY SHOW, at the Groundlings Theater on Melrose Avenue. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 10 p.m.
PANDORA Neo Acro Theatre's story of two young women from different worlds. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (323) 465-4446.
ROBBIE JENSEN: THE 12 STEPS OF CHRISTMAS Tony Matthews and Matt Schofield's comedy takes the audience to a "Robbie Jensen Life Skills Workshop.". NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 20, www.plays411.com/robbiejensen. (323) 960-1053.
THE SANTALAND DIARIES Nicholas Brendon stars in David Sedaris's one-man play about an out-of-work writer who takes a job as a Macy's Christmas elf. The Blank Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 20, www.theblank.com. (323) 661-9827.
STATED INCOME Two guys plot to cheat the tax system, by Hugh Gross. Pan Andreas Theater, 5125 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (323) 962-6207.
THREE TALL WOMEN Edward Albee's study of contemporary womanhood. El Centro Theatre, 804 N. El Centro Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 20, www.westcoastensemble.org. (323) 460-4443.
WACADEMIA Joe Camhi's satirical comedy about a hit man who has to take care of his father, whom he tries to teach political correctness in the same environment with his wife, who is suing an academic colleague for sexual harassment. Actor's Playpen, 1514 N. Gardner St., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 19. (323) 874-1733.
SOUTH COAST REP PRESENTS A READING OF Beau Willimon's Spirit Control -- "the story of an air traffic controller trying to avert disaster. Dec. 7, 7:30 p.m. at SCR in Costa Mesa. (714) 708-5555.
OMAN . . O MAN! Debbie Allen's saga of Omani and American roommates at a military academy. Royce Hall, UCLA, Dec. 10-12. (310) 825-2101.
N(E)IG(H)G(BO)ERS The Matrix Theatre Company and the Public Theatre New York present a staged reading of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins' play as part of a workshop en route to the Public Theatre. Sunday, 1 p.m. 7657 Melrose Ave. Los Angeles (323) 852-1445. Free.
GUEST OF HONOR Staged reading of a new play by Dave Field about Scott Joplin's lost opera. Meta Theatre, 7801 Merlose Avenue. Dec. 9, 8 p.m. (323) 860-6625.