sequence of events while seeing shows over the weekend brought on one of those moments where you look around and say, things are not as they were 10 years ago. In this case, what's different is that "ensemble-created" theater, the subject of our Theater issue last April, has become far more acceptable.
This realization occurred on an unsightly strip of Beverly Boulevard between Virgil and Alvarado. Son of Semele Ensemble, a tiny theater run by Matthew McCray, barricaded behind an imposing steel-picket gate, is hosting its third annual Company Creation Festival, running through March.
On Friday night, as part of that festival, local dance company Opera del Espacio presented Alicia Tycer's Space: The Final Frontier. (Another entry, Fabula Hysterica's Asylum, is reviewed by Deborah Klugman this week.)
Son of Semele belongs to the Network of Ensemble Theaters, a national support organization for companies that choose to create theater by a process other than starting with a script, booking a space, rehearsing the play for a month or so and then putting it on for, say, a three- to six-week run.
Nobody quite knows how to describe what these ensemble theaters do. In some companies, for instance, the actors come up with the text, which isn't so much "written" by a playwright — if there even is one — but recorded and edited. Sometimes, however, there's a playwright in residence, who creates a text from actor improvisations based on a researched theme.
What appears to be willingly sacrificed here is narrative storytelling, but even that's not a hard and fast rule.
Whatever you want to call or not call the shape-shifting work being created by ensembles, it's telling that a tiny theater such as Son of Semele should host its own festival, offering a much-needed supplement to REDCAT's highly competitive New Original Works festival.
It's also telling that McCray's own play, Eternal Thou, will close out the Studio Series at Costa Mesa's behemoth regional theater, South Coast Repertory. SCR has similarly opened its doors to a significant number of L.A. ensembles, this season alone including Critical Mass Performance Group, Theatre Movement Bazaar, Rogue Artists Ensemble and sketch-comedy troupe Lost Moon Radio.
As directed by Tanya Kane-Perry, Space: The Final Frontier is an almost entirely conceptual work that examines the relationship between architecture and theater. Projections of designs by M.C. Escher float on a plastic curtain backdrop. An ensemble of four women and one man (Amanda Gomez, Jessica Miller, Tycer, Ramona Young and Jonathan CK Williams), dressed in billowy cotton, like maenads, crosses the stage in slow motion or cavorts and dives by and through one another while reciting — sometimes in unison, sometimes solo — from the writings of architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Jul Bachmann, Stanislaus von Moos and Steen Eiler Rasmussen. From a cross-beam at the front of the stage hangs a series of plastic drapes that roll like shower curtains (design by Eric Harris). At one point, the actors wrap themselves in these curtains, depicting the power of space to confine as well as to comfort and liberate.
The cumulative effect of all this is that of an academic treatise straining to be enhanced by the kinetic power of design and dance. That goal is frequently met, thanks to the evocative quality of Kane-Perry's choreography, and the way the bodies collide and seem to roll through each other. But those visceral high points do collide with the pedantry of actors — through the voices of the architects — explaining what the piece is about, even while they're performing it.
Just up the street at Bootleg Theatre, at the very same time (though I saw it the following night), Theatre Movement Bazaar premiered its dance-theater extravaganza Track 3, adapted by playwright Richard Alger from Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, and continuing the company's recent fixation with the Russian writer. (Track 3 comes on the heels of The Treatment, the troupe's riff on Chekhov's short story "Ward 6," and its four-man Uncle Vanya spin, Anton's Uncles.
Alger's lean, contemporary adaptation is strikingly faithful to Three Sisters' primary events, while being as much a slightly glib, playful commentary on the play and on Moscow, as adapted to our age. There's undeniable, almost indescribable charm to director-choreographer Tina Kronis' staging, filled with gorgeous songs and chorales performed by the superb company, which also has actors snapping their heads in unison to recorded piano ragtime accompaniment. Yet the production almost willfully bypasses Chekhov's depictions of lost opportunities, of regret, of time leaving us all behind, and the agony that ensues.
When director Stein Winge opened the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1985 with a similarly abstracted interpretation of this same play, Kim Cattrall's Masha clung to the military officer Vershinin walking out of her life, splayed on the ground and clutching one of his legs as he struggled to leave the stage, dragging her across the floor. Here, that same moment is depicted by Dylan Jones and Mark Doerr with a hugging embrace, as though he were leaving for a weekend ski trip. The production then gallops along to its next tableau.
What lingers, however, is the production's most soulful image (it could use more), the construction of a toy house from books and teacups.
Like McCray's play Eternal Thou — a theatrical survey of the intersection between humanity and androids, based on the writings of Martin Buber, which was born last year at Son of Semele Ensemble — Theatre Movement Bazaar's Track 3, too, is bound for South Coast Repertory's Studio Series next month. The determination by regional theaters across the land to present local and international ensembles simply didn't exist a decade ago.
This trend has largely to do with funding by the Duke Charitable Foundation and the Mellon Foundation in the last five years for regional theaters to present ensemble-created work.
It also has to do with the director of L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs, Olga Garay, who came from the Duke Charitable Foundation. While there, she started a theater initiative in 1999, funding Theatre Communications Group to host discussions among national theater leaders.
Those talks led to the realization of the divide between institutional theaters and ensembles, and the folly of that divide. This led, fairly swiftly, to millions of dollars dispersed to regional theaters for presenting ensembles. It also led to the funding of the Under the Radar festival in New York, which took place this month, and Radar L.A. Festival, coming back for a second time in September.
All of which has reinvigorated the contours of America's theater. And you can see that even on Beverly Boulevard.
TRACK 3 | By Richard Alger | Presented by Theatre Movement Bazaar at Bootleg Theatre, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Westlake; Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Feb. 10 | (213) 389-3856 | bootlegtheatre.org
COMPANY CREATION FESTIVAL | Son of Semele Ensemble, Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; through March 3 | (213) 351-3507 | sonofsemele.org