By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In Moscow, you can visit the apartment building where Bulgakov lived and wrote. Graffiti artists have lovingly inscribed the building’s walls with portraits of characters from The Master and Margarita, now a Russian cult classic, published in 1966, long after his and Stalin’s deaths. The stairwell leading to his rooms is often decked with carnations brought by passersby. The flip side of all that persecution is that the Russians really know how to love their artists. Moscow’s subway stations have names in their honor — Chekhovskaya, Pushkinskaya, Mayakovskaya. When have we named a train station after a writer? (There was, briefly, a stop on the Long Island Railroad named Melville Station, after Herman, but that was changed to Pinelawn in 1899.)
There are many writers today, in Russia and America, feeling much the same despondency as Bulgakov, and who live by much the same code of pointless faith. (Some of them are called screenwriters.) What, then, is persecution? What hope does an unknown playwright have in a culture lacking arts subsidy, where the theater is held to a commercial standard for its survival, where a very good play like The Glory of Living — already tested in other theaters and approved of by critics — gets an excellent and successful production that costs the theater $5,000? And that’s when the actors aren’t even being paid.
Show me the difference between a culture that persecutes its artists and one that neglects them. Persecution is probably more honorable; at least, it gives the artist credit for being a threat. This is the reason that ARTEL is developing its performance on the life of Bulgakov, not so much to attack the Soviet system — a dead horse that needs no further flogging — but to draw parallels between Soviet institutions and ours. Their workshop, Variation #50 (a terrible title), received a trial run at Highways Performance Space last weekend. It was a nonlinear, imagistic, biographical and beautiful exercise dedicated to the proposition that one must continue the work because the work must be continued.
In Los Angeles, we critics see theaters put on plays as though in a slaughterhouse, one after another along the production line, busy people rehearsing between cell-phone calls and auditions for other projects, rehearsing for reasons rarely understood with clarity. Too often, the result is a carcass. When artists reach an understanding by reaching for an understanding of what they’re doing, and why, the nature and purpose of doing theater in a city as absurd as Los Angeles begins to emerge. That’s what I saw onstage at Highways last week.
ARTEL hopes to present the performance in a longer run at its Hollywood space in the spring.
THE GLORY OF LIVING | By REBECCA GILMAN | Presented by VICTORY THEATER CENTRE, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank | Through Dec. 22 | (818) 841-5421
VARIATION #50 | Created and presented by ARTEL at HIGHWAY PERFORMANCE SPACE, 1651 ?18th St., Santa Monica | Closed