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 his solo performance The Common Air (co-written with director Robert McCaskill), running at Hollywood's Asylum Theatre, Alex Lyras plays a series of travelers in the environs of JFK during a terrorist bomb scare that leaves most of them stranded. In a pro forma technique for solo shows set in airports, six characters in search of an airplane intersect through fleeting conversations while waiting to depart to various stations in life. Lyras plays the all-male sextet with precision, distinction and dazzling intellect. An immigrant Iraqi cabby in a tank top waxes poetic, celebrating America's cavalier "disregard of abundance" as well as his own, imaginary reality-TV show. Through all this, he wipes his armpits and blows his nose with the same kerchief. In gridlock, he dances in the street.
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Dancing through the misery: Lyras' Iraqi cabbie in New York
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One very wired Hamlet
Seconds later, Lyras' pristinely coifed and manicured art trader named the Dealer serves up worldly erudition, reminiscing and rationalizing how he once fled while his partner was beaten into a vegetative state during a gay-bashing incident, and how our narrator abandoned his so-called friend to a drooling fate.
The Champion is a lawyer who serves up a justification for situational ethics while championing the cause of a white rapper/DJ whom he just met, named The Spinner (we'll see him next). The Spinner is being sued for copyright infringement after using the content of an audiotape he found in a trash canister — content he remixed into a hit. Explains The Champion, "This composer threw the tapes in the trash... Where I come from, that's intent to discontinue use."
Lyras has been performing the show for years, and that time spent with it shows in the crispness of each subject's definitive idiosyncrasies, and in the absence of blurring between characters — all delicately enhanced by Ken Rich's original score and sound design.
The Common Air is richer than Danny Hoch's or Eric Bogosian's solo showcases because it cuts beneath a reliance on mere character and poeticism in reporting on life. What Lyras discovers is a philosophy of global solipsism summed up in The Champion's staccato speech: "CNN told me [it] has no idea what's real; entire airport's transfixed [into] a television set; they're making it up as they go."
Each character has some refrain about inventing his own reality, my favorite being that of The Signifier, a West Texan donning a beret (having just returned with his son Tyler from Paris), who, through a yokel's drawl chastising young "Taahler" for spending his life attached to digital interface, reveals that he holds a chair in philosophy at University of Texas, Austin. "'We're working hard ta pervide ya with infermation.' I interpret that to mean, 'We don't know what the hail's going on. Stop askin' ivry five minutes.'"
Invented reality reaches far beyond words, The Signifier adds: "The whole airport's a simulation. The checkpoints, the X-rays, the National Guawrd. We all know they don't really stop innibahdy. They're a symbol of a barrier."
Somehow, The Signifier gets this all in between blithely aggressive cell-phone calls to his ex-wife, punctuated by tag-team hang-ups, over custody of Tyler. "Look, you create whutever reality you need to, dahrlin," he tells her. "I'm over here creatin' my own. Wanna switch?"
There's no fear of digital technology further distracting Tyler — or us — from "reality," he suggests. Such distraction started eons ago with language itself, our first attempt to make it all up as we go along; words are "signifiers," or road signs, around which we create the roads.
Elizabeth LeCompte's much-ballyhooed Wooster Group production of Hamlet (now in a brief engagement at REDCAT) takes the premise of life's being a digital interface one step further — juxtaposing live actors performing Shakespeare's play against the looming backdrop of digitally remixed and re-edited black-and-white film footage of John Gielgud's 1964 Broadway production starring Richard Burton. (Liev Schreiber, Kenneth Branagh and Ethan Hawke also put in brief video appearances.) Not only do the living actors — performing on and around platforms and a long free-rolling table with detachable "throne" (set by Ruud van den Akker) — shout out instructions to technicians situated high in the audience bleachers to "skip the Gertrude part" and fast-forward; they also themselves perform a microballet of little bounces backward while walking or descending stairs, as though they too are figurines on an aging celluloid strip that occasionally slips a sprocket.
Adding yet a third layer of alternate reality, an onstage video camera captures images in tight focus of the live actors that get simultaneously broadcast onto small screens. So when Polonius (Roy Faudree) lies murdered in Gertrude's (Kate Valk) chamber, or Ophelia's (Valk again) drowned corpse awaits burial, we see their video images frozen and framed on a small screen at the bottom of the larger one that's broadcasting Richard Burton's skyward glances and Eileen Herlie's tightlipped anguish as the Broadway Gertrude of yore. (Video design by Reid Farrington with Andrew Schneider.)
The digital splendor that the Woosters have made their calling card gets further enhanced by the team of sound designers (Geoff Abbas, Joby Emmons, Matt Schloss and Omar Aubair), who manufacture a sound-around swoosh when Rosencrantz flips his flowing hair, and meticulously calibrate how the voice of Scott Shepherd's Hamlet melds into Burton's, while Shepherd simultaneously replicates each of Burton's ghostly gestures. The production's more evocative aspects derive from the fleeting images of the film's spectral actors delivering a line or two before vaporizing into stardust.