In small theaters, bold new artistic strokes don't necessarily lead to long-running productions — at least not in L.A. In fact, one can see the inverse in a quartet of old-fashioned, even creaky, plays now onstage at local theaters, all bathing in the glow of love-letter reviews from local critics and a continual flow of patrons through their doors — even if that flow is really a trickle, since none of these theaters holds more than 100 people.
All are imports from other cities, with two of the three dating their openings to decades ago: Ingmar Bergman's Nora, now at Venice's Pacific Resident Theatre, debuted in Munich's Residenztheater in the early 1980s, while a pair of Horton Foote one-acts at Hollywood's Open Fist Theatre, called Foote Notes, were written in 1976 and 1983. (Samuel D. Hunter's A Bright New Boise, now at Rogue Machine Theatre, is the newcomer of the group, having debuted in New York in 2010.)
With their classical-romantic sensibilities, all three productions are well-acted and tenderly staged, which may be a key to their recent popularity here. What benefit is it to most people, after all, when a theater production veers to the outer margins of experimentation? What joy do most audiences feel when a production sabotages traditional expectations of what a play should be, of how it should be shaped?
The best argument for supporting artists on the edge, and the theaters that produce them, is that the artists we now lump into conservative classical and romantic genres were once regarded as marginal. They made their names by breaking the rules and sabotaging expectations. From Eugene O'Neill to Thornton Wilder to Tennessee Williams, their work became "classics" because what they did stuck, despite critics and audiences with more conventional tastes endeavouring to wipe them aside or, worse, to ignore them.
So it's worth a look at the older two in this trio of nostalgic productions, to see what about them endures. After all, it's not easy for any production opening in the heady fall season to survive the winter holidays intact.
Why, for example, would anybody want to see Ingmar Bergman's Nora — a spin on Henrik Ibsen's 1878 A Doll's House, now extended at PRT through the end of January? The last time it was spotted in the region was in 1998 at La Jolla Playhouse.
Bergman's adaptation is more efficient and scaled back than Ibsen's, but the plot is one-to-one. Characters still waddle around in lovely, turn-of-the-century garb (costumes by Daniella Cartun). When not in scenes, actors wait patiently upstage, sitting on hardback chairs against the theater walls. When needed, they walk into the action. This kind of stylized realism can be traced to the mid-1920s and the plays of Thornton Wilder and Bertolt Brecht, if not earlier.
Under producer-director Dana Jackson's cinematic, nuanced staging, moralist patron and bank manager Torvald Helmer (Brad Greenquist, nicely self-satisfied and imperious) still pompously lectures his deceptively flighty wife, Nora (Jeanette Driver), on the evils of forgery, secrecy and, worse, buying on credit. This last point certainly reverberates with contemporary troubles in Washington, D.C., if you interpret this as a play about financing.
But that's not really the point. This play is, and always was, about one woman's suppression and emancipation. The premiere of Ibsen's play caused a small riot in the theater — a rage against Ibsen's sympathetic view of Nora choosing to abandon her husband and children at play's end, in order to find her own identity. Today, people nod in quiet sympathy.
I kept thinking of director Lee Breuer's jocular A Mabou Mines Dollhouse, and his telling gender joke in having small people (actors about 4 feet tall) cast in the male roles, with all of the women as Amazonian giants. Breuer also blew the corsets off the style of Ibsen's 19th-century realism, transforming the play into a kind of opera. Nora's final monologue on liberation is an "anthem," Breuer said, so he set it to a military march. During this anthem, Nora stripped off her clothes and removed the pretty blond wig she'd been sporting through the production, revealing her bald head. She wasn't so much "nude" as naked, facing down an icy world. You couldn't walk away from that production not seeing the play inside out and upside down.
Jackson's perfectly lovely production is timid by contrast, although it has the virtues of a topflight ensemble (including Martha Hackett as Mrs. Linde, Scott Conte as Nils Krogstad and Bruce French as Dr. Rank) and a particularly intriguing Nora as played by Driver, an Englishwoman amidst a cast of Americans — its own kind of isolation. Her showdown with Torvald is searing, in the style of Downton Abbey. I would speculate that the company chose the play as a vehicle for its actors to put their best talents forward in a museum piece and a costume parade. There's sense to this strategy, but it also comes attached to a certain intellectual lethargy.
Hollywood's Open Fist just announced the extension through Feb. 9 of its double bill of Horton Foote one-acts under the collective title Foote Notes. Both plays, "A Young Lady of Property" and "The Land of the Astronauts," are set in set in Foote's Gulf Coast town of "Harrison, Texas," the former in 1925, the latter in 1983.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and screenwriter owes much to the homespun, slightly modernist style of Thornton Wilder and Eugene O'Neill. Foote's characters banter about gossipy and microscopic concerns until you realize he's carving a beautifully calibrated scene that strikes emotionally like thunder — all accomplished with indescribable tenderness.
There's such a scene in "The Land of the Astronauts," which circles for a long time around a local police station where housewife Lorena Massey (Laetitia Leon) has "lost" her husband (Aaron McPherson). A sympathetic (maybe too sympathetic?) deputy (Matt Little) has led her to another city's jail where the man is being held, deranged and despairing for having worked his whole life and attending night school for years, yet still unable to make any headway into NASA's space program. Numb with the futility of his ambition to become an astronaut, he can barely look at his wife. With compassion that's theologically wise, she comforts him while keeping a respectful distance, before gently leading him home to their young daughter (Taylan Wright).
It's a soap opera, of course, but it comes steeped in a metaphysical grandeur whose gentleness is quite unexpected and poetical, thanks in large part to the actors, and the torrents of emotions surging beneath their words.
"A Young Lady of Property" appears at first like the inverse of Nora. A precocious 15-year-old girl (Juliette Goglia) has inherited a house from her mother. She plans to sell it in order to finance a move to and career in Hollywood, until she changes her mind and decides, unlike Nora, that her future lies in home, husband and family. This would appear to be Foote's reactionary answer to the Women's Movement of the 1970s (the play was written in '76) — until the child's father (understudy Rod Sweitzer) tries to sell the house out from under her in order to finance his move to Houston with his new bride (understudy T. Lynn Mikeska). Suddenly, we're back in the land of a defiant female trying to buck a patriarchy, though the female in this case just wants to be home with kids of her own.
The conundrum is smart and appealing precisely because it engages not in arias or anthems but in weird and unpredictable human clashes. It doesn't need to be "spun" by a director to feel contemporary or textured.
Because these plays are not as well-known as Ibsen's, they retain the capacity to surprise on their own terms. And the devoted ensemble, including a live chorus that crosses the stage between scenes, does both of Foote's plays justice under Scott Paulin's loving direction.
Perhaps what makes a play relevant isn't whether it's presented in an "old" style or a "new" style, but whether it's capable of sidestepping the commonplace and taking us by surprise. Foote Notes demonstrates how such a play doesn't need to be brash, so long as it offers a view we might not have anticipated.
A BRIGHT NEW BOISE | By Samuel D. Hunter | Rogue Machine Theatre, 5041 W. Pico Blvd. | Sat., 5 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Mon., 8 p.m. (added perfs Sun., Jan. 13 & 27, 3 p.m.; through Jan. 27 | (855) 585-5185 | roguemachinetheatre.com
FOOTE NOTES | By Horton Foote | Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Feb. 9 | (323) 882-6912 | openfist.org
NORA | By Ingmar Bergman, adapted from Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House | Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Jan. 27 | (310) 822-8392 | pacificresidenttheatre.com