Theater audiences, beware! Run for cover if you need to. Big ideas are crashing down like meteors, from UCLA to Pasadena.
Australia's Back to Back Theater visited UCLA's Ralph Freud Playhouse over the weekend, as part of the international theater program of the university's Center for the Art of Performance series, with a much-traveled marvel called Ganesh Versus the Third Reich. In this now-closed performance, largely about the rehearsal of the performance that's on display, the Hindu deity Ganesh — the fellow with the elephant head — near the end of World War II descends from the skies to rural Poland, where Hitler is in hiding.
The purpose of his visit is to reclaim the swastika — that image stolen and co-opted by the Nazis from the ancient Sanskrit symbol. Because theological symbols, from the Sanskrit wheel of life to the crucifix to the Star of David to the crescent and the star, are bridges between life and the afterlife, held sacred and not for sale, and not for the taking.
If the swastika is not returned, Ganesh's father will destroy the universe, so the story goes.
Meanwhile, over in Pasadena's Theater @ Boston Court, David Weiner's poetical new play, Cassiopeia, places an introverted theoretical physicist named Quiet (Doug Tompos) in an airplane seat next to a talkative maid, Odetta (Angela Bullock), who speculates that the pair know each other from years ago. Both are from the American South. Through a bout of turbulence, when she finally realizes that their plane is not falling out of the sky, she remarks, "Maybe it's not our time, after all." He corrects her: "...[T]here actually is no such thing as 'our time.' ... We each carry our own time with us." When she asks him where, exactly, in the South he lived, he replies, "In the middle."
The guy really doesn't want to make small talk — not while he's scribbling down a mathematical formula for the shape of the universe onto a napkin.
Things can get exciting, as well as cryptic, when characters are contemplating the universe. In Cassiopeia, named after the constellation opposing the Big Dipper, things get both exciting and cryptic, thrilling and frustrating.
A play trying to bottle the time-space continuum along with theories of mortality, the divide between Baptists and Methodists and the inability of people on one planet to see the movement of the stars as anything resembling how they appear on another planet, leads to a bottle neither half empty nor half full. It's a bottle overflowing with ideas that wash randomly down the river in the middle of the set, while the two characters speak lyrical speeches trippingly. A third, named The Voice (PaSean Wilson), beautifully sings and narrates.
Have no fear that the 75-minute tone poem is performed by the two main actors seated in adjoining chairs, as though on that airplane. Though there is one such scene, it's brief. The larger part of the play unfolds with each of the characters in isolation, occupying one of two platforms bifurcated by a wooden ditch that represents a river — thanks largely to a swath of blue fabric that keeps expanding and extending from The Voice's dress.
E.B. Brooks designed the costumes, and Stephen Gifford the set, which, with Jeremy Pivnick's lighting design, results in the experience of sitting inside a three-dimensional poem written by W.B. Yeats. That part is truly exhilarating.
The other part, at war with exhilaration, is the play's determination to dedicate 90 percent of its text to audience address/narration. The play has a situation and a backstory that's shrouded in mystery — a terrific perk — but it contains a dearth of actual scenes.
None of the creative team is foolish — particularly not director Emilie Beck, who's responsible for the gorgeous production design. It's clearly a strategic decision to choose recitation, as in an oratorio, so that it might inspire reflection on how to connect the sundry ideas pouring from this play. These ideas land from what are mostly speeches by the principal characters, speeches interwoven so that we might consider how they're juxtaposed, and the meanings of those juxtapositions. Perhaps dramatic scenes might have intruded upon the desired qualities of rumination and the interconnection of disparate thoughts.
I found it to be a test and, finally, a test of patience. A beautiful production design and a swirl of scintillating ideas can go only so far without actual scenes. Perhaps the writing isn't quite musical or poetical enough. A little soap opera, in the midst of this oratorio, could have gone a long way in a play that's aiming to be about everything beneath and beyond the sun and the moon.
Ganesh Versus the Third Reich also contained multiple layers and meanings, but they settled onto each other more cogently. The piece was devised and originally directed and designed by Bruce Gladwin. Its tour is directed by Kate Sulan.
The premise is the making of a play about the return of the Nazi swastika, stolen from Sanskrit mythology, as rehearsed by an ensemble of men who have some kind of brain disorder (Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price and Brian Tilley), and directed by an outsider, i.e., a man with full mental capacities as well as training in the theater (Luke Ryan). (The "impaired" performers were actually impaired, not faking it.)
So there were scenes played out on a bare stage with rehearsal chairs and much explanation of what the play was supposed to accomplish. The looming central idea, however, was that the gods of another epoch and the Hindu faith were descending into Nazi-occupied Poland in order to confront the leader of a cult dedicated to the persecution and extinction of people with disabilities.
"It's a play about power," the director explained, to which one of the impaired wistfully replied, "Then it should be a good play!" with a twist of sarcasm. Name a play that isn't about power.
The juxtapositions here were lucid. Ryan's director got so exasperated with his wards, and their droll, ongoing critique of the play and the process, that he turned on one of them, violently, so that the rest had to gang up and banish the director from the hall. Yes, a play about power, in which the "director" was a microcosm of Nazi megalomania.
Mark Cuthbertson's production design, blended with Andrew Livingston's lighting, employed a series of translucent plastic curtains that, when pulled across the stage's width, transformed the playing space into a mythical and magical place that was incomparably transcendent without being in the least bit slick.
The production never let you forget that it was being performed by mortals, not gods — some overweight, some with speech impediments, some who moved awkwardly. This was integrally tied to its larger purpose, an examination of mythology and how that relates to what it means to be human.
CASSIOPEIA | By David Wiener | Boston Court Theatre, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Wed., Feb. 20, 8 p.m.; through Feb. 24 | (626) 683-6883 | bostoncourt.com
GANESH VERSUS THE THIRD REICH | Presented by Australia's Back to Back Theatre | Ralph Freud Playhouse, UCLA | Closed