Stage Raw: The Masochism of L.A. Theater

Stage Raw: The Masochism of L.A. Theater

STAGE FEATURE on plays without words: Hamlet Shut Up! and Violators Will Be Violated


First, to throw some pre-emptive perfume in the direction of the stink-bomb I'm about to toss: I think the quality and vivacity on our local stages, particularly in the smaller venues, is often beyond reproach. I wouldn't keep writing about it after two decades if there wasn't something profoundly satisfying about discovering fresh approaches to old themes and old plays. Evidence gathered over the past seven days: Accomplice: Hollywood - a site-specific walking tour through new and old Hollywood in which the audience deciphers carefully laid clues in order to unravel (and participate in) the kidnapping plot of a movie actress. Slogging down Hollywood Boulevard, the audience meets up with a number of characters on the streets: a screenwriter (sitting alone at a courtyard eatery, while one of the audience is taken upstairs for a 15-minute Tai massage); a fey gossip columnist (we meet him sitting alone at an Internet cafe); and an asshole producer (we're guided into Micelli's and treated to appetizers while he confuses our purpose for a pitch meeting, stares us in the eye and shouts  "Goodbye!" -- until we realize he's speaking to somebody else on his cell.) Add to that Casey Smith's Violators Will  Be Violated,  an insane, scatological and hilariously perverse mime show about sundry forms of self-destruction (Circle X at Son of Semele Theatre); a tender, profound staging of Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney at that same venue;  and Jonas Oppenheim's delightful Hamlet Shut Up!  -- the Bard's well-known play performed without words, as though a silent movie on stage, at Sacred Fools.

This leads to the responses to Don Shirley's hit piece on the L.A. Times' reluctance to cover local small theaters, which he posted to his L.A. Stage blog column.

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Don is probably the best arts journalist in town. Always was. He's

snarky, skeptical, passionate, and backs up his frequent annoyance with

evidence that's sourced.  In his latest post, he gave expression to a fury that's been simmering in the

community for at least five years - that the L.A.

Times, where he used to work, devotes so much of its theater coverage

to New York, London and movie stars, relegating the smaller theaters in

Los Agneles to incremental coverage that's buried in the back pages on


Never mind the Times' out-of-town ownership, its blatant East Coast

bias, its equally blatant contempt for the theater in its own back yard

manifested not in hostile reviews but its long insistence on all-but

ignoring the scene, I find some of the respondents' comments on Don's article -

summed up as Wouldn't It Be Better if the Times Gave Us More Coverage

-- disheartening.

Aside from Doug Clayton's salient practical advice to seek a new model,

the problem gets revealed by the collective psychology in so many of the remarks. Really now, if you're at

a party, and somebody whose attention you seek keeps snubbing you,

there are two core responses: You can say, "I must be a piece of crap

because I'm being ignored -- no spurned -- by this Important Person; if

only they would throw me a kind word or a hostile word, any word at

all!" This is fundamentally neurotic and part of a spiral of


And, by contrast, there's, "To hell with them. This is humiliating. I'm

going to find a better party." That, to me, is a healthy response. This also exists in the community, but not so much in the comments on Don's post.

As a community, we can't really wonder why theater-makers in other

cities condescend to us if we're incapable of respecting ourselves. I

remember one small theater producer's words, at a rave review from the

L.A. Times (buried in Friday's paper, not a front page spread). She

said, "This proves that everything we've been striving for over the

years has been worth it."

That's just pathetic. You need the L.A. Times to give you that kind of

validity? -- the same newspaper that generally won't even sneeze in

your direction?

Continuing to carp on and covet the L.A. Times, with all the evidence

of recent history, the international decimation of print journalism,

etc, etc., is simply an exercise in masochism, which says more about us

than about the L.A. Times. It's time to pull our head out.

"Every single sellout mainstage success at Sacred Fools - every single

one - did not take off until coverage in the Times. Some of them did

okay or reasonably well or even had the occasional sellout night, but

all the runaway successes, sold out night after night after night, did

not start selling like crazy until the Times coverage." says one of the

comments, trying to demonstrate the box office significance of Our Lady

of Spring Street.

Excuse me? Not only is this unwittingly insulting to the other newspapers and

bloggers that have been trumpeting Sacred Fools over the years -- among the reasons "some of them did okay or reasonable well" -- what do they presume the role of newspapers to

be? Since when was any newspaper's primary purpose to give you sell

out crowds night after night? Nice when that happens, but . . .

The comment continues: The show that followed, (Savin' Up for Saturday

Night), "Did well, but didn't take off as expected."  (Them's some

mighty Great Expectations.) The writer blames this on the lack of an

L.A. Times review. I saw the show, and wrote about it. Enjoyed it a

lot, but could come up with a plethora of reasons why it didn't do as

well as Louis & Keely, reasons that have nothing to do with the

Times being there or not being there.   

Even in the comments section, there are conflicting reports on the box

office significance of a Times review, which would echo a parallel

situation in New York. I was told by at least six off-Broadway

producers that unless the Gray Lady serves up an unqualified rave, an

NYT  review is largely irrelevant to the aim of getting butts in seats.

Even a scathing review can't keep audiences away from shows they really

want to see (Jewtopia springs to mind) - a significant and healthy

departure from days of yore, says commercial producer Cameron

Mackintosh.  The monolithic Frank Rich era of theater criticism is over,

thank goodness, which is no reflection on Ben Brantley or Charles McNulty, but on the

shifting ecology and technology in the relationship between a newspaper

and the community it serves.

Crying out for more attention from the L.A. Times is crying out for a

bygone era, as fruitless as it is pointless. The depth of upset over

this reality is a painful reminder of some communal pathology of

chasing the unattainable. The fury and frustration is perfectly

understandable, but the insult needs to processed into a new form of


It's essential to realize that the work is valid without acknowledgment

from any blogger or critic, or parent, or partner, if it's created from

the earnest endeavor to sort out the confusion of our lives, and to

share the insights that ensue with anybody who will watch.

It doesn't take the L.A. Times or anybody else to give those insights credence.

Finally, it isn't really the purpose of media outlets to promote your

show, but to discuss it. Sometimes the  two can overlap, but criticism

that has any value doesn't start with the aim of offering pullquotes

and selling tickets. That's what publicists are for.

The difference between adolescence and adulthoood lies in how you

respond when, say, your disinterested parents can't bother to see your

show. Do you crumble, or do you move on? 

Check back here Monday afternoon for New Reviews of:


Grand Guignolers take a luxury cruise to Shanghai, the most decadent

city of the 1920s. Artworks Performance Space, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd.,

L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8:15 p.m.; Sun., 6:45 p.m.; thru Jan. 3. (800)



theater, part tour: "It all begins with a phone call disclosing a

secret meeting location. Aided by clues and mysterious cast members

strewn throughout various locations such as street corners, bars,

iconic landmarks and out-of-the-way spots, the audience traverses the

city streets, piecing together clues of a meticulously crafted plot."

Tickets: Hollywood Blvd.,


Dickens get dicked: Jason Moyer's homoerotic re-imagining of Charles

Dickens' holiday classic. Lyric-Hyperion Theater, 2106 Hyperion Ave.,

L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (800) 838-3006.


A new environmental adaptation of "Dracula" with Travis Holder.

Audience members eat and drink in the venue's historic Deco Bar before

the show. Hollywood American Legion, 2305 N. Highland Ave., L.A.;

Thurs.-Sat., 9 p.m.; Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (310) 203-2850.

THE GROUNDLINGS HOLIDAY SHOW, at the Groundlings Theater on Melrose Avenue. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 10 p.m.


Neo Acro Theatre's story of two young women from different worlds.

Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m.;

thru Dec. 20. (323) 465-4446.


Tony Matthews and Matt Schofield's comedy takes the audience to a

"Robbie Jensen Life Skills Workshop.". NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia

Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 20, (323) 960-1053.


Nicholas Brendon stars in David Sedaris's one-man play about an

out-of-work writer who takes a job as a Macy's Christmas elf. The Blank

Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2

p.m.; thru Dec. 20, (323) 661-9827.


Two guys plot to cheat the tax system, by Hugh Gross. Pan Andreas

Theater, 5125 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru

Dec. 20. (323) 962-6207.


Edward Albee's study of contemporary womanhood. El Centro Theatre, 804

N. El Centro Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec.

20, (323) 460-4443.


Joe Camhi's satirical comedy about a hit man who has to take care of

his father, whom he tries to teach political correctness in the same

environment with his wife, who is suing an academic colleague for

sexual harassment. Actor's Playpen, 1514 N. Gardner St., L.A.;

Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 19. (323) 874-1733.


SOUTH COAST REP PRESENTS A READING OF Beau Willimon's Spirit Control -- "the story of an air traffic controller trying to avert disaster. Dec. 7, 7:30 p.m.  at SCR in Costa Mesa. (714) 708-5555.

OMAN . . O MAN! Debbie Allen's saga of  Omani and American roommates at a military academy. Royce Hall, UCLA, Dec. 10-12. (310) 825-2101.


Matrix Theatre Company and the Public Theatre New York present a staged

reading of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins' play as part of a workshop en route

to the Public Theatre. Sunday, 1 p.m. 7657 Melrose Ave. Los Angeles

(323) 852-1445. Free.

GUEST OF HONOR Staged reading of

a new play by Dave Field about Scott Joplin's lost opera. Meta Theatre,

7801 Merlose Avenue. Dec. 9, 8 p.m. (323) 860-6625.

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