Not meaning to beat a dead horse, but seeing a triple-header of local stage productions on Saturday brought into stark counterpoint my respect for local theater and my annoyance with War Horse, the National Theatre's much-beloved touring spectacle now at the Ahmanson.
After standing accused by offended readers of lacking a heart, because I was so peeved by War Horse's bloated fairy tale of a young Englishman and his equine who both find themselves in the trenches of France during World War I, John Grady's one-man show Fear Factor: Canine Edition at the Hollywood Fringe last year comes to mind.
New Yorker Grady's performance also was about animals, about his exalted love for his dog. The show has been to New York, Ottawa and London since its brief visit to Hollywood's tiny Theatre of NOTE in the summer of 2011. Fear Factor is a droll confession in the style of Spalding Gray about the quality of the bond between Grady and his dog, a bond more authentic, honest and selfless than he has than with any human being — leading up to Grady's harrowing decision to have his dog euthanized.
Both War Horse and Fear Factor provoked tears from this jaded heart, but there's a difference between being moved by what you realize even at the time is de rigueur sentimentality, and being moved by recognizable abstracts from life. The irrepressible stagecraft and puppetry in War Horse may well linger in memory, but the wry, penetrating essence of Grady's simple but far-from-simplistic yarn sticks like glue, more than a year later.
The difference for me between why the former is ultimately hollow and the latter hallowed lies quite simply in the quality of their words, and the insights they reveal. In literacy.
This distinction ties into Chris Hedges' 2009 book of essays, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and The Triumph of Spectacle. Though there are reckless leaps of logic throughout the book, it contains a core truth applicable to the only remaining purpose of our theater: to change our minds and our hearts before we all die of apathy and isolation.
As a culture, Hedges posits, we've become slowly, incrementally and increasingly addicted to diversions and illusions, and these start with the growth industries of our most trivializing entertainments — reality TV, the cult of celebrity, porno — leading to a growing public indifference to the more stark realities of private and civic life, and their attendant responsibilities. Meanwhile, we use the vast resources of the Internet mostly to confirm what we already believe. Conservatives and leftists are simply reading different literatures, so that we're now living and dying in bubbles of our own selection, all at the expense of literacy — the glue of words and ideas that bind us, and keep us listening to contrary ideas.
The three shows I saw on Saturday, like so many stage productions seen here and beyond, are literate. That's the best way to describe their attempts to use words that burst the bubbles of our own solipsism and isolation in the pursuit of an idea or emotion that might not have occurred to us before we arrived at the theater.
Daniel MacIvor's late-night solo play House at Rogue Machine is a latter-day Notes From Underground, directed by Brian Nitzkin and splendidly performed by Donnie Smith, about a man on the margins of sanity describing the events that landed him in group therapy, which he loathes. We're on guard about everything he says, watching a street-corner philosopher for whom things haven't gone well.
A man who never pursued his ambitions of becoming an engineer, our hero has a brittle, sneering contempt for those around him, including his mother, whom his father left to join the circus, to play in a freak-show tent as "the saddest man on Earth." Our hero went to visit his dad, saw his act and found himself unexpectedly and inexplicably moved by the silent, still image of the man freighted with despair.
Were this just a bath of self-pity, it would be grist for hecklers. But the mocking intensity of Smith's presence, with glaring eyes, a rich gravel voice and overriding defensiveness, keeps us tethered to empathy. He speaks of a dream in which the characters from his past descend on him like birds, clutching him and lifting him over the scenes of his past, "over a highway to a secret field." It's a performance that forces us to consider life's precariousness, and how best to cope with it, before we too fall off the edge of the world, as we all do at some point.
Literacy also lies at the heart of Steve Yockey's Very Still and Hard to See, a new play just closed in a world-class rendition by the Production Company at the Lex, and directed by Michael Matthews; and in John Flynn's excellent staging of Irish playwright Enda Walsh's The New Electric Ballroom, at Rogue Machine.
In Very Still, after tumbling down a manhole, a pompous architect (Andrew Crabtree) makes a Faustian bargain with a demonic spirit, Obake (CB Spencer) — accompanied by the hounds of hell, superbly portrayed by the snarling ensemble, attired in black — to live and fulfill his innermost desire if he will simply move a hotel of his design that's under construction a few feet to the left. He says all kinds of stupid things when goaded, such as, "My buildings will last forever!" But he does what he's told, in exchange for the realization of his discomfiting fantasy — to molest a child. What unfolds is a series of macabre vignettes about visitors to this haunted hotel, magnificently staged and performed sometimes against the backdrop of regal redhead Obake observing from her throne with sneering satisfaction. The final scene occurs on the day of the hotel's demolition, during which the architect's molestation victim comes forward. Need more be said about hubris, morality and mortality?
The New Electric Ballroom was performed at UCLA in 2009 for only five performances by Galway's Druid Theatre Company. A companion piece to Walsh's The Walworth Farce (similarly premiered at UCLA's international festival before being later, excellently restaged last year in more intimate confines at Theatre Banshee), Electric Ballroom studies three sisters (Lisa Pelikan, Casey Kramer and Betsy Zajko) and an interloping fishmonger (Tim Cummings) in a remote Irish village. The quartet engages in a kind of playacting, reincarnating fantasies of transformation and moments from their past when hope slipped away. Imagine a cross between James Joyce and Jean Genet.
"People talk," one of them says in an oft-repeated anthem. Words, a series of recitations, lie at the play's heart, stories that roll from their mouths and out into the wind, becoming the entrapments of gossip and legends that help describe an indescribably intractable existence.
Director Flynn sculpts the play's amorphous essences into an event that makes emotional and metaphysical sense. What lingers is the expression of Zajko's face when Cummings' once awkward and smelly fishmonger leaps on the table to start singing and dancing disco. We see a world with new vistas sparkling in her eyes.
Russian novelist Vasily Grossman wrote, "Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness." Evil has always cowered before that kernel, Grossman continues.
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From Theatricum Botanicum's Heartbreak House in Topanga Canyon to Independent Shakespeare Company in Griffith Park to scrappy new plays at Theatre of NOTE, Playwrights' Arena and the Open Fist Theatre Company, our theater's commitment to literacy, without a sane hope in the world of turning a financial profit from it, is our manifestation of that kernel of human kindness. Lunatic, selfless, shameless kindness in the face of the evil that's our indifference and isolation.
HOUSE | By Daniel MacIvor | Presented by Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd. | Fri.-Sat., 10 p.m.; through Aug. 11 | roguemachinetheatre.com
THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM | By Enda Walsh | Presented by Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd. | Sat., 5 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Mon., 8 p.m.; through July 30 | roguemachinetheatre.com
VERY STILL AND HARD TO SEE | By Steve Yockey | Presented by the Production Company at the Lex | Closed