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Stare Down! 

John Clancy's The Event and ARTEL's Kharmful Charms of Daniil Kharms

Thursday, Mar 11 2010
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If you find yourself at Son of Semele Theatre on a Tuesday through Thursday night, and I hope you do, you'll find a pair of one-man shows presented by a company called NeedTheater. The first of these, a play called The Event, is scripted by John Clancy. A slender, silver-haired man (Paul Dillon) with thick facial features and a rumpled dark suit ambles onto a bare stage. He gives the impression that even his five-o-clock shadow doesn't get to any appointment until about 7:15, and makes no apologies for the tardiness. There's just that kind of swagger to the Man, as he is known, barely concealing his otherwise-muted contempt for us, as well as for himself.

Before he gets to his almost Beckettian explication, however, he stares at us. It is the first in a sequence of direct challenges to why, exactly, we felt compelled to drive to a neighborhood near Virgil and Beverly, to sit in a dark room filled with strangers, with the presumption of being entertained by him. If presumption is too idealistic, let's just go with hope.

How did we get here? "By chance by advertising," he explains. Among his early lines, he says, referring to us: "They hope to be entertained." (His entire discourse is spoken in third person.) He then stares at us once more. "That hope is now flickering."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JASON PAUL BENNETT - All the stage is a world: Paul Dillon in The Event
  • PHOTO BY JASON PAUL BENNETT
  • All the stage is a world: Paul Dillon in The Event

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He eventually offers a meticulously crafted diagnosis of the role he is playing in this theater, in this moment in time, how he arrived at this point via rigorous rehearsals to perfect the technique that attempts to fool a roomful of strangers that he is speaking the truth, when he's actually faking it. Then there's the role we are all playing in this charade, in these fleeting moments in real time, during which our actual lives are passing at a speed from which we would be terrified, were we slightly more cognizant of what's really going on.

He may be a crank, but he's right. He has a passage devoted to the days when a phone used to ring without a message machine, and there was the presumption of, "Oh well, I guess they're not home." This somehow didn't lead to the panic of feeling disconnected. It led to an understanding through established protocol that you can try again and reach your friend or relative or business contact when they're near a phone that's plugged into a wall. And that was okay.

Being away from a phone is no longer permitted and yet, the Man ruminates, there's this inexplicable feeling of being untethered from our own society, despite all the texting and social-networking technologies. Perhaps this happened in the past five years. Perhaps it happened a long time ago, and we're only now growing aware of it.

Clancy's analysis expands into an allegory for the roles we are all playing in life, equated to the various frauds of the 21st century: the faked lines, spoken by rote, the stream of pleasantries en route to the grave, the drifting thoughts rolling around while the faked lines written by somebody else are being uttered. The physical costume that "the actor" doesn't even own. The anonymous lighting technician , who's calling the cues, in order to secure the fake effect for a fake "insular economy of friends going to the theater." So it's not just dot-coms, the mortgage and debt industries that have false economies. Playwright Clancy simply uses every conceivable aspect of the theater as an allegory for all the world being a stage. That he does it so simply turns his one-act into something like one of those luminous shafts of light that shoot up into the night from a truck outside some celebrity event or advertising event.

Ian Forester directs Dillon in a pitch-perfect interpretation. Dillon, a fine actor from Chicago, has been stepping out onto our small stages for years, and he imbues his brittle and wryly funny interpretation with what I'm presuming is a deeply felt understanding of what it means to perform in L.A.'s intimate theaters. But, of course, he's probably just faking it.

The other, unscripted play by Lawrence Bridges, also directed by Forester, consists of an interviewer asking a series of personal questions to a different actor each week. I saw Morlan Higgins, a powerful bearish presence (and a great actor), who turned each question into a spontaneous story with the craft of an Irish scribe. The event was about its own spontaneity. At one point, even Higgins asked, slightly bemused, "How much more of this is there?" — proving his own sensitivity to the flagging energy in the room. The interviewer, however, was bullish, and kept on asking questions as audience members checked their watches. With this concept, it takes two to tango.

Over at Art/Works Theatre in Hollywood, after having passed through a carnie show lobby, where you can purchase vodka, tape-on mustaches and coconut-potato soup, you enter a theater where all the seats are draped in white sheets. There's a Gothic chandelier suspended slightly off-balance. A large winter bough of some deciduous tree hangs in the sky. This is all the backdrop for ARTEL's vivaciously interactive dance-cabaret Kharmful Charms of Daniil Kharms — an ensemble-created sequence of short tableaux, honoring the early Soviet author Daniil Kharms and his absurdist mockery not just of life, but of the official art that was presumed to reflect it.

In some ways Olya Petrakova's staging is a clown show answer to Clancy's comparatively singular ruminations on our theater.

Much of it is just gorgeous: a 17-person ensemble crooning chorales of traditional Russian folk songs that send the roller-coaster wagon from a muddy pit of slapstick into ethereal heights.

If it made logical sense, it would betray its purpose, and that of its author. It does, however, flounder at 105 minutes sans intermission — not from any lack of craft or vigor, but from a lack of shape. This is simply an issue of editing and sculpting, and it can't be removed from the context of what this city is capable of incubating.

The kind of work ARTEL (American Russian Theatre Ensemble Laboratory) is developing takes time and research. It doesn't come from the pen of one author but from the collective energy and impulses of an ensemble, until one leader straightens it all out. We have a few companies dedicated to this brittle process, including Ghost Road Theatre Company and Theatre Movement Bazaar. Not unlike the work developed by The Wooster Group in New York, it stems from a European model in which a work is developed over months, and then entered into a repertory that can play for a decade, often on tour.

Because of the economics here, L.A. is the perfect city to house such companies. But we all have to understand that to reach a standard of excellence on these terms takes years.

When I saw the Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki's Elektra at a Polish theater festival last year, each gesture and transition couldn't have been so breathlessly choreographed had the troupe not been performing this work for more than a decade, which they had.

Perhaps the most foreign notions in our trendy city of short attention spans are tenacity and patience. Here's a troupe that has the former, and deserves the latter, from the sheer combined forces of its talent and passion. ARTEL is making a slow, steady artistic ascent. With the proper investment and discipline, this is one company, and a performance, that could rise to breathtaking heights.

THE EVENT/THE INTERVIEW | by JOHN CLANCY and LAWRENCE BRIDGES | Presented by NEEDTHEATER at SON OF SEMELE THEATRE, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A. | Through March 25, needtheater.org.

KHARMFUL CHARMS OF DANIIL KHARMS | Created by ARTEL | ART/WORKS PERFORMANCE SPACE, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Through March 20.1 (800) 838-3006.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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