Jennifer Lamar has become something of an expert on censored plays; as the artistic director of the GuerriLA Theater company, she is producing Banned Plays,a bill of scenes taken from works that had gotten killed on opening night by police-department theater critics or were closed by magistrates before they opened. Guided by the like-titled Banned Plays,Dawn B. Sova’s 2004 reference-book survey of 125 proscribed stage works, Lamar tracked down the scripts and obtained rights to about two dozen of these, which were eventually winnowed down to 10 plays, directed by Michael Donovan. A brief narrative explaining each of the chosen plays and its legal history leads into a presentation of the key, offending scene.
Censorship probably came into being hours after humans first began expressing themselves artistically (who knows what politically incorrect cave drawings were effaced by Paleolithic prudes in Lascaux?), and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is the first play known to be ruled unacceptably subversive by authorities. Lamar skipped Lysistrata, deciding it had already been done plenty of times, and went after a broad spectrum of work that offered religious, sexual and political offense — “I pretty much span the gamut with this show,” she says.
Lamar says her research revealed an intriguing fact: Most censorship is not imposed by monolithic government fiat, but rather by the handiwork of offended individuals who happen to occupy some key positions in local society.
She says that one play particularly intrigued her: Paul Shyre’s The President Is Dead, a work written in the conspiratorial Zeitgeist of the late 1960s by a playwright normally known for such folksy Americana as Hizzoner and Will Rogers’ USA. Prepared for a 1969 production at Washington’s Ford Theater, the play compared similarities between the assassination of presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. Lamar says it was yanked at the last moment — “It seems to me that someone got to them.” Then again, after she got hold of the script, Lamar discovered something else: “It’s not that well written.”
Lamar is an energetic woman who, fittingly, for producer of Banned Plays, was born in Boston. After her family moved to Miami, she became a child stage actress at the Players State Theater, eventually becoming a theater major at Washington’s Catholic University and USC. Then she signed on as a model with the Wilhelmina agency, which set her on the American and European runway circuit for years, during which time she lived in Milan. Eventually, a day of reckoning arrived.
“I guess,” she says, “everybody sits down at one point and says, ‘All right, now what was my passion?’ She returned to theater and has been in Los Angeles 12 years, forming GuerriLA Theater in 2002. The nonprofit company donates up to half of its box office to charities. (Banned Plays’ January 27 opening night benefits PEN USA.) It’s distinguished from other groups by a peculiarly L.A. quirk — the company performs most of its shows in the Hollywood Hills home of one of its members.
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“The house has two living rooms that comfortably seat 40 to 50 people,” Lamar says of her company’s unusual venue. “Because I perform in the house there’s no lighting, no tech. It’s all just about the writing, acting and directing. I do all my shows with four folding chairs, a coffee table and a futon and very minimal props.”
Banned Plays has been running at the house for several weeks to private audiences, but is now ready to move to a photography studio near Theater Row. GuerriLA Theater’s lean, mobile philosophy will probably be evident even here.
“I don’t perform in theaters,” Lamar says. “I own my 60 chairs, I can go anywhere.”
BANNED PLAYS | Scenes from: Oh! Calcutta!, Salome,Ghosts, The Captive, The Boys in the Band, Margaret Fleming, The Beard, A Patriot for Me, Waiting for Lefty and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You | GuerriLA Theater at Area 101, 1051 N. Cole Ave., Studio B, Hollywood | Through March 4 | (323) 850-3240 or www.guerrilatheatre.com