'Tis is the season when many of our theaters go into a state of suspended animation for the express purpose of making it through the holidays. Not that they cease programming. After all, there's the landlord to consider.
Rather, seasonal faves (A Christmas Carol, The Santaland Diaries, Theatre of NOTE's A Mulholland Christmas Carol, etc.) get dusted off and pulled out of storage in order to placate a theatergoing public that would rather experience lighter fare for the holidays, while shopping, eating and otherwise avoiding the dread of facing families who offer the soul-crushing challenge of reflecting upon one's contributions and value over the course of the year.
The need for diversion might explain why Sacred Fools Theater Company would drag out by the hair Michael Green's 1964 parody of amateur theatricals, The Coarse Acting Show, onto its stage. Director Paul Plunkett says in program notes that he'd staged the show in Albuquerque, N.M., 20 years ago, and that this reincarnation should be embraced entirely for fun. No problem there.
Green is a British humorist and journalist who penned a series of "coarse" works on themes ranging from rugby to sex. (His book on journalism bears the title Don't Print My Name Upside Down, itself a window onto Green's style of broad comedy.) The purpose of The Coarse Acting Show is to expose and celebrate incompetence in the theater. As Green himself noted, "The Coarse Actor's aim is to upstage the rest of the cast. His hope is to be dead by Act Two so that he can spend the rest of his time in the bar. His problems? Everyone else connected with the production."
Theater's petty debacles have been an ongoing source of amusement and amazement, from Shakespeare's troupe within A Midsummer Night's Dream that performs a ludicrous "tragedy" that looks suspiciously like Romeo and Juliet, to Michael Frayn's backstage farce Noises Off, to the Groundlings' Beverly Winwood Presents: The Actors' Showcase, to Brad Schreiber's 2006 book/chronicle of stage gaffes, Stop the Show! A History of Insane Incidents and Absurd Accidents in the Theater.
Green also noted how hard it is for amateur actors to pull off the role of a Coarse Actor — that the actors must be very, very good. There is some evidence of that standard on the Sacred Fools stage, where an acting teacher offers the audience a demonstration of her students' acting technique between scenes from plays by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Beckett and Italian opera — plays that have already been mangled even before the actors show up to inflict further damage upon them. Still, there are too may languid stretches during which the cast pushes so hard and obviously beyond the margins of competence that the parody implodes. What seems to be required is a kind of explosive humor that comes from brittleness and conviction gone subtly awry.
This kind of humor was demonstrated locally several years ago at an industrial-warehouse theater during an edgy production of Medea. Electric guitar punctuated the text. The central character, arrested for the crime of murdering her children, was eloquently defending her actions as just retribution against a philandering husband, for whom she'd given up her own family, her homeland and all the protections they provided.
A row of spear-carrying guards stood behind her as she testified to the audience, when one patron inadvertently released the tiniest of farts. It was a small theater, and the flatulence was heard around the warehouse. All heads turned to the source, where a number of people were looking accusingly at their neighbors, in order to deflect blame from themselves. It didn't take long for a subtle wave of laughter to start on the other side of the audience. Within seconds, entire rows were trying to suppress the paroxysms of mirth with silent shaking. The contagion spread to the stage, where the spears started shaking as the actors holding them bit their cheeks in order to prevent bursting out loud with laughter, while poor Medea defiantly defended her crimes against humanity.
The production had been done in, at least for a few minutes, by the tiniest, subtlest explosion, and the humor derived from the earnestness of everybody's shared and respectful attempts to deny that stark reality.
At Sacred Fools, Ruth Silveira comes as close to that mark as anybody. She plays wine-tottling Shirley Severin, the slender, silver-haired Founder and Chief Instructor at the Los Angeles Dramatic Series. "History is filled with dead people," she intones, "which is where acting comes in."
Silveira has a perfectly calibrated, ingratiating smile as she explains the origins and techniques of the acting craft, starting with her company's performance of Oedecles, King of Thebes (A Play in the Old Greek Style).
"Greece is far away, and ancient Greece is even farther," she explains sincerely. But with characters named Scrotum (Jonathan Palmer, delightfully droll) and Hysterectomy (Perry Daniel, similarly wry), it's probably not necessary to push the jokes too hard. Here the chorus turns the parody into a mugfest that, if food, would be the equivalent of honey spread over jam.
It's enlightening to hear Ms. Severin explain how "about a hundred years after the Greeks came Shakespeare. ... He did invent the Shakespearean-style play" leading into a parody called 'Tis Pity She's the Merry Wife of Henry VI (Part One). You get the idea. The absurdism/Beckett parody combining Waiting for Godot with Endgame entirely misses the dartboard, and even the barn on which it hangs.
Not so Chekhov's The Cherry Sisters, which derives considerable physical humor from the ancient footman Piles (Brendan Broms) trying to plug a samovar's leaking nozzle with his finger during a crowd scene, when he's needed on the other side of the stage.
There are two stars in Rob Mersola's new comedy, Dirty Filthy Love Story, which just opened at Rogue Machine. The first is David Mauer and Hazel Kuang's set. In a coup de theatre, the entire back wall of what looks like a cardboard-cutout living room drops forward and slams to the ground, revealing the home to be the garbage-bag, stacked-boxes and strewn-clothes rat's nest of the play's hoarder-protagonist, Ashley (Jennifer Pollono).
The other star is Joshua Bitton's understated performance as the mentally challenged garbage man Hal, hired by Ashley's next-door neighbor Benny (Burl Moseley) to clean the trash from her side yard so he can sell his home. The sexually charged romance between Hal and Ashley grows increasingly macabre, homicidal and strained, and the play's main joke really turns on the passionate, nihilistic attraction between them.
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Pollono and Moseley were too screechy at the performance reviewed, under Elina de Santos' absorbing, sitcom-style direction. And I couldn't understand why, in one scene, Benny would fail to defend himself against the lovers, who have targeted him for death. After all, they've already struck him with a frying pan that's now sitting in front of him on the couch. But when he regains consciousness, rather than pick up the weapon, he merely rants about his plight. Such details can be worked out. This is a world premiere, after all.
Mainly, though, the play is about its premise and nothing more. With transitional songs referring to a world under siege by garbage, this is a work that could actually be about something. Either it needs to be as thin as farce, or reconsidered more deeply.
THE COARSE ACTING SHOW | By Michael Green | Presented by Sacred Fools Theater Company, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 2 & 9, 7 p.m.; through Dec. 15 | (310) 281-8337 | sacredfools.org
DIRTY FILTHY LOVE STORY | By Rob Mersola | Rogue Machine Theatre, 5041 W. Pico Blvd. | Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 & 10 p.m.; through Dec. 29 | (855) 585-5185 | roguemachinetheatre.com