Fireworks in a Dark Sky
We saw a lot of good work on local stages this year, though fewer of the bursts of light that you’d be inclined to remember and talk about months or even years later.
Heading the list of shows people aren’t likely to quickly forget would be touring productions of Mabou Mines’ DollHouse— a literal inversion of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House strikingly well performed by towering women and height-challenged men — and Slava Polunin’s Slava’s Snowshow, an ensemble clown show that was at times languorous and at times anarchistic, especially when the clowns took audience members’ coats from their backs during intermission. UCLA Live presented both at year’s end. At the same venue, Canada’s STO Union performed its minimalist Revolutions in Therapy, a smart, self-aware parody of therapy and theatrical conventions that, like Slava’s Snowshow (albeit more with psychobabble than with images created by movement and huge, floating props), also ruminated with droll irony on the point of just about everything, given the rampant brutality and precariousness of existence.
But it was the Greeks who rode into town like an invading army. Sarah Ruhl brought her half-baked Demeter in the CitytoCornerstone Theatre Company, Stephen Sachs staged an elegant, operatic Hippolytusat the Getty Villa, Son of Semele Ensemble produced Iphigeniaas a rave (I found it splashy and hollow), and Circle X brought Ruhl’s more carefully considered Eurydiceto [Inside] the Ford. Meanwhile, Santa Monica’s City Garage dedicated its season to a trilogy of adaptations by Charles Mee (a gorgeous Agamemnon, plus The Bacchaeand Iphigenia).
There were also several fine world premieres proving that Los Angeles artists can actually generate ideas of their own on the home court. Actors Co-op premiered a trilogy of exquisitely produced front-porch dramas by Arlene Hutton (The Nibroc Trilogy), one of which was a world premiere. Roger Guenveur Smith’s The Watts Towers Projectplayed at the Kirk Douglas as a one-man show, a moving docudramatic homage to the monument that Simon Rodia built; Julien Nitzberg and Roger Neill’s Gilbert & Sullivan–esque musical, The Beastly Bombing, was a savvy goof on our 9/11 age at the Steve Allen Theater; and Richard Montoya’s Water & Powerpremiered at the Taper.
With Water & Power, Montoya took his Culture Clash sketch-comedy sensibility in a completely new (for him), less jokey and more Sam Shepard–ish direction via his contemporary noir mystery about twin brothers, a cop and a senator, both floating in the murky waters of local politics. The play may not have blazed trails, but it was a phenomenon, a serious new play at the Taper that was a hit, playing to frequently sold-out houses. It remains mind-boggling how it could have been ignored in an L.A. Times essay earlier this year critiquing the record of producer Michael Ritchie.
As for Ritchie himself, after a very rocky start in his first year, dismantling Gordon Davidson’s core play-development labs, he now appears to be trying out a number of strategies, from staging local artists and companies to spiffing up musicals for Broadway. Like Davidson before him, Ritchie has drawn stars to his stages (the Taper, the Ahmanson and the Kirk Douglas Theatre), used his venues as booking houses, and shown a penchant for nostalgic musicals and an acknowledgment of the need for new work. Davidson, though, was more motivated by passions for social justice and was more eager to work directly with playwrights, whereas Ritchie prefers to work with companies and creative teams. Ritchie has also proven himself more daring when it comes to putting new works on his larger stages. (Davidson usually waited until works he developed had proven themselves out of town, much to the frustration of local scribes.) Ritchie’s record of successes and failures is probably no better than Davidson’s, though certainly no worse.
Where Ritchie’s heart lies remains an open question and an important one. He deserves at least a couple more seasons to answer it. The sheer mechanics of keeping three midsize theaters solvent is enough to preoccupy anyone for a year or two. Ritchie is among a handful of locals in a position to move Los Angeles theater into a leadership role nationally, and has expressed a desire to do so. We eagerly wait to see what, exactly, that means, and the scope of his view.
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