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Sweet Tonic and Gibberish 

Stephen Legawiec's The Medicine Show

Wednesday, Oct 27 1999
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Here‘s an idea that’s been brewing since I saw Space (still at the Mark Taper Forum), Tina Landau‘s gush-filled ode to the cosmos and our changing views of it, in a production with visual beauty, romance, sound, fury -- and an alien abduction or two. If Space actually had a point, you could envision it as something Charlotte Bronte might have penned for the millennium. And it’s really quite gutsy of the Taper to turn the keys of the theater over to writer-directors with grand and beautiful ideas, even if those ideas do wind up flopping about the stage like beached fish, suffocating from such toxic self-importance that even levity is no antidote.

That the track record of the Taper‘s writer-director experiments has been so dreary of late -- what with Landau, and the Gordons, David and Ain -- does give one pause for reflection. Perhaps they’re looking for talent in the wrong places.

The Taper does have a back yard called Los Angeles. Let me say that again, with emphasis: The Taper has an artistically fertile though economically parched back yard called Los Angeles, home to writer-directors such as Robert Prior, who -- with his troupe, the Fabulous Monsters -- turns fiction into camp and back again. Recently, Laural Meade and Susan Rubin‘s Indecent Exposure Theater Company’s Harry Thaw Hates Everybody, a play with music developed in the Taper‘s New Works Festival, offered a brainy if bumpy ride through the decadence of the Roaring ’20s. On a good day, the Actors‘ Gang’s Tracy Young can melt both logic and history into stirring spectacles (Euphoria, MedeaMacbethCinderella, Four Roses), a feat heartily matched in the collaborative efforts of About Productions (Vox, Memory Rites, Properties of Silence). Then there are the Sacred Fools, Evidence Room, Open Fist Theater Company, Theater of Note, Zoo District, Bottom‘s Dream, Wolfskill Theater, Oxblood and other companies capable of cutting through the theatrical malaise -- in storefront or warehouse venues, no less. If the Taper has some extra keys lying around, they’d do well to toss them in them in the direction of such companies: It‘s unlikely they’d wreck the place, though they might bend it a tad out of shape.

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Like Robert Prior, Stephen Legawiec is a visionary writer-director with an idiosyncratic view of theater that ties into an obsession with folklore and legend. For The Medicine Show, the audience is led by lantern-wielding guides down a dusty trail from the parking lot of Coldwater Canyon Park to the stage proper -- a clearing in the brush identified by a free-standing billboard announcing a production of “The Birds,” a performance based on a Navajo legend that will culminate in a festive bird dance, or so we‘re told by the ditty-crooning top-hatted Driver (Legawiec), dressed in the garb of a 19th-century MC and stationed at a workbench.

Why the dance? And what is the significance of the bird masks? “I don’t know!” he barks flippantly at the audience, while carving a puppet. There‘s to be no show today. The actors are all suffering from a mysterious malady. Three have died, he explains cheerfully. The French-speaking Eskimo prop girl (Alyssa Lupo), who is doubling as a nurse, appears from behind the billboard, trying to repair a broken hammer as Driver describes his plans for the puppet: a wandering boy, terrified of demons, maybe carrying a lantern . . .

At that moment, we see a lantern moving in the shrubbery, carried by a Boy (Ogie Zulueta), who crosses behind the billboard onto the playing area, pleading with the prop girl, in sign language, for food. During the hourlong performance, he will dream of being teased and tormented by gibberish-speaking demons (masks by Beekie Kravetz); he will die and be resurrected, accompanied by dissonant a cappella chorales and boisterous drumming.

Throughout, Legawiec examines the ceremonies of death and healing, and the oddities of language. As in last year’s The Cure, much of the language is invented. Which is Legawiec‘s way of showing the universal shapes of ritual without locking himself into an anthropological exhibit. In The Medicine Show, spirits speaking some Slavic-sounding comedy wind up capering through a Navajo dance against a sagebrushed backdrop of the Wild West. It would be a different experience were there even a telephone pole in view, or if The Medicine Show were staged indoors. This work is truly site-specific.

At the performance I attended, a blanket of fog shrouded the set, pierced somewhat by a quarter moon. The cumulative impact was mesmerizing. And although the company provides a supply of paper towels to dry the seats from the condensation, do bring a jacket.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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