"I think the future of the form in these changing times is really about plunging into the unknown and new contexts. I think we're at a point where those risks are going to have to be taken. The future doesn't lie in the status quo."
The above quote is not from some recent CalArts grad forming a new grunge theater in a warehouse off a downtown alley. It's from the 43-year-old artistic director of one of our most enduring midsize theaters: Cornerstone Theater Company's Michael John Garcés.
When a couple of local drama critics got together recently and published a conversation urging us to strengthen the tier of multidisciplinary performances (combining theater with dance and music), it was met with a parody on the Antaeus Theater Company blog, as though theater with music or dance were some radical concept. The parody urged such wacky practices among critics — that we should mime our reviews, for example, in order to reach the pinnacle of such "experimentation," a blank page. (L.A.Times' Charles McNulty and I were the local critics being swiped at.)
This kind of reactionary resistance to even the most benign of suggestions, to salvage the wreckage of an art form for future generations, falls into a gaping historical abyss. Even the adage, "what's new is old, and what's old is new" circumvents the history of the theater as a history of shape-shifting. If this weren't so, all of our actors would still be performing in amphitheaters, wearing masks, togas and platform shoes, and reciting oratory in unison.
Just how long can we keep on rationalizing the eternal verities of doing things the way they've been done for the past 50 years? In order to answer that question, next time you're at the Odyssey Theatre on the Westside, or the Taper downtown, count the number of walkers and even oxygen tanks employed by theater patrons. Then try to find the patrons under the age of 30. (You may require binoculars, or even a Geiger counter.) Do we really wish to celebrate stasis, or to cheerlead the art form into its oblivion?
Any theater practitioner with even the most remedial instinct for survival is pondering seriously how to speak to younger audiences. There are dozen of options. Combining theater with live music and dance (which is different from musicals) is just one. The economics of the times point to a direction in which theaters may have to take on the sensibilities and administration of indie rock bands. Not surprisingly, this takes us to REDCAT.
The Polish band Natural Born Chillers backed up director Radosaw Rychcik's adaptation of a French play by Bernard-Marie Koltès, In the Solitude of Cotton Fields. The visiting show was presented last weekend at REDCAT, before a youngish, hipster audience. The production came from Poland's Radosaw Rychcik/Stefan Zeromski Theatre, and was co-presented by REDCAT and the Polish Cultural Institute in New York.
Stage smoke billowed around the band and the two actors, Wojciech Niemczyk and Thomas Nosinski. In the original text, their characters are the Dealer and the Client; here they're unnamed.
In a show of post-modern Polish techno punk, the production took a single moment of eye contact, a sliver of interaction between two men engaged in an anonymous sexual pickup, a prelude to prostitution, and exploded that moment with sound and poetry and psychology in order to expose the matrix of connections between desire, power and economics.
The dealer (Niemczyk) presented a soliloquy (translated from Polish in a supertext projection) espousing his skill to offer whatever is needed, a blend of boasting and generosity. ("I'm not here to offer pleasure, but to fill the aching void of desire to the brim.") He was answered by the client's (Nosinski) comparatively brutish response. It was the kind of friction that could have been conjured by Tennessee Williams.
These monologues were presented in pools of smoky light into a microphone. Later the men faced each other across the diameter of a single circle of light. The dealer described the uttermost human torment — not physical pain, but sexual arousal severed and then disdained, like an error. With this, he made sounds into the microphone that started as a mockery of weeping, then escalated into wails and then shrieks of despair with the capacity to blow out eardrums, had the theater not provided earplugs.
There also was a film, combining snippets of porno with romance and clips from westerns — visually cementing the blend of sex and power.
Accompanying these ruminations were interludes of punk choreography — apt for Marta Stoces' costumes, which had the actors adorned in tight black suits from the early 1960s, exposing white socks beneath the trousers' almost parodic short cuffs.
The performances were each kinetic, with a profound linkage of desperate emotion to our cultural void. It was a strategically assaultive production that I'm not sure I'd want to experience again, but am grateful I didn't miss, for its being so resonant, so alive and, at times, moving.
There's a similar moment of desire mingled with incomprehension between a nun, Isabella (Karron Graves), and the deputy of Vienna, Angelo (Geoff Elliott). In the embodiment of hypocrisy and abuse-of-power, Angelo's attempting to bribe her with the release of her brother, Claudio (William Patrick Riley), whom Angelo just sentenced to death for fornication out of wedlock — if she will have sex with him.
If you haven't caught on by now, the play is Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. The production, which opened over the weekend, launches A Noise Within's final few productions at its Glendale venue, before the troupe moves on to a new, custom-built midsize theater in Pasadena.
In these difficult times, with theaters closing, how can one not wish a company that's accomplished so much, administratively, to thrive? Its move is the culmination of an ambition, call it a dream, that's been imagined for well over a decade. Bravo to them for their tenacity.
Now, if only they would stage Shakespeare — and this weird, wonderful black comedy about moral hypocrisy and the sputtering engines of justice — with some vivacity.
No, they don't have to put a rock band on the stage. No, they don't have to choreograph entire interludes and soliloquys. But please, something other than the predictable recitations that mark this oh-so-staid production.
Isabella's appeals at least have some juice, but her determination to allow her brother to die for her chastity, and his astonished response, are so damnably polite, under co-directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott's modern-day staging. The shift to modern times offers little more than an opportunity for costumer Julie Keen to show her wares through a 21st-century lens.
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However, there's little that belongs to our century in the muted theatrical sensibility. Even the bawd house, a strip club with women in bikinis dancing sedately in a red neon glow, feels like an apology to subscribers for showing a smidgen of flesh.
Prisoners in this play are losing their heads and being swapped out in a comedy of intrigue that's an antecedent to Monty Python. Here, the play comes off as almost squeamish.
IN THE SOLITUDE OF COTTON FIELDS | Adapted by director RADOSAW RYCHCIK from a text by BERNARD-MARIE KOLTÈS | Presented by RADOSAW RYCHCIK/STEFAN ZEROMSKI THEATRE, POLISH CULTURAL INSTITUTE IN NEW YORK and REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., dwntwn. | Closed
MEASURE FOR MEASURE | By WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | Presented by A NOISE WITHIN, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale | In repertory through Dec. 5, call for schedule | (818) 240-0910