The international performing arts program formerly known as UCLA Live has been reinvented. It needed to be reinvented after 2010, when university officials squashed UCLA Live's linchpin, the presentation of international theater, as curated by David Sefton. An Anglophile Englishman abroad, Sefton was an eclectic presenter in Los Angeles, bringing in acts from the tried-and-true Royal Shakespeare Company spearheaded by Ian McKellen performing in a repertory of King Lear and The Seagull, to choral theater from Poland, to the British comedian Dylan Moran, amidst an array of classical standards and sometimes grating new work from, as they say, all corners of the globe.
After axing Sefton's International Theatre Festival, UCLA Dean of Arts and Architecture Christopher Waterman explained then: "A significant downturn in ticket sales as a result of the poor economic climate is the real culprit. Because of steeply declining revenues, all program and academic directors were required to review their initiatives and, in many cases, make difficult decisions to balance their budgets. While we recognize that the International Theatre Festival has many supporters who will be disappointed, we want to emphasize that eliminating the festival from this season's offerings will allow UCLA Live to continue to provide a broad range of unique and high-quality performances throughout the rest of its program."
Sefton said at the time that he had obtained financial commitments to finance that coming season but that the university was insisting on what Sefton described as the unprecedented requirement that all funds for the upcoming season be banked in advance. Sefton said thanks but no thanks and currently is grazing in happier pastures, curating international theater in Australia for the Adelaide Festival.
That backstory is all so much blood under the bridge: International theater is back at UCLA, because — um, the poor economic climate has so improved since 2010? Don't think so. UCLA has wrung its hands, and then washed them. The new program has a new director and a new moniker. UCLA Live is now CAP UCLA, acronymic for Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, and it's curated by Kristy Edmunds.
Before Saturday's performance of Rhinocéros, a performance of Ionesco's play at Royce Hall by Théâtre de la Ville-Paris, which launches CAP UCLA's 2012-13 season, Edmunds stood in front of the stage and proclaimed with excitement and relief the "return of international theater" to UCLA, eliciting a well-deserved round of applause.
The selection of Théâtre de la Ville-Paris — in a co-production with Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg and Le Grand T (Nantes, France) — and its Rhinocéros is telling for the understandable caution with which Edmunds is launching her first season. Next up in theater — not counting the return of Laurie Anderson in the "spoken-word" category — is London's Cheek by Jowl Theatre's presentation of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore at the Freud Playhouse in January, followed that same month in the same venue by Australia's Back to Back Theatre (featuring professional actors with disabilities) presenting Ganesh Versus the Third Reich. (You might be seeing a motif: Rhinocéros could be subtitled "Jean Versus the Third Reich.") In February, Australia's Circus Oz rounds out the theater season in February with a clown-acrobat show, From the Ground Up, at Royce Hall.
Théâtre de la Ville-Paris is among the most mainstream of French theaters. Here it's presenting Eugene Ionesco's most famous play. The production at UCLA, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, was first presented in Paris in 2004, so it's been kicking around for almost a decade. UCLA snared its U.S. premiere before the show tours to UC Berkeley and the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, Mich. In a presentation not part of its college tour, the production is headed to BAM in October, in its "Next Wave" festival, which is certainly a liberal interpretation of "next wave." Such are the times we live in.
It's a perfectly lovely rendition (spoken in French with English subtitles), done in two hours sans intermission — a beautifully staged and luminous rendering of what every critic since Martin Esslin has already told us what this play is about.
Though the text has been tinkered with — at least the English-language translation was still being revised on the second night — what Ionesco describes in his own play as being "avant-garde" feels like a comfortable pair of old shoes. (Rhinocéros was first presented in 1959, so even then it was a retrospective look at the French failure of resistance to the Third Reich, some 15 to 20 years earlier.)
If you're not familiar with the play, Berenger (Serge Maggiani) is a mildly dissolute and apathetic employee at a newspaper. He's hanging out in the town square, being chided by co-worker Jean (Hugues Quester) for his rumpled clothes, his drinking and his failure to brush his hair.
Maggiani's sad-sack Berenger just doesn't care that much. Suddenly, a rhino crashes through the town, then a second — Demarcy-Mota's breathtaking staging depicts this through the tautly choreographed and synchronized body angles of the townsfolk. These visits provoke extended discussions of whether the rhinos have one horn or two, and the dissection of how we use and abuse turns of phrase so absurdly to understand and to misunderstand what's so clearly passing before our eyes. The main culprit is the Logician, played by Gerald Maillet with delightful self-importance and self-satisfaction.
What follows is a series of transformations of humans into pachyderms. People in tight suits and skirts and red ties start wearing leather. (Corinne Baudelot's costumes are complemented nicely by Yves Collet's set of gray-black platforms with a ramp on either side of the stage. When the ramps fold up, the actors are left stranded on them at precarious angles.)
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By play's end, the haunting image of rhino heads in a pack appears through a smoky scrim, while Berenger, alone and with, at last, a quixotic sense of purpose, says, like Churchill, that he will never surrender.
At the risk of sounding glib, it's easy to chide those who don't stand up against Nazis. But the fascism of our times is far more intricate and international — as seductive as it is grounded in fear. Rhinocéros speaks to our age, too, but not in this museum-gallery production, which shows what seems in retrospect so evident and easy, rather than what's disconcerting and discomfiting not about who we were but about who we are.
It is, nonetheless, a pleasure to see international theater back at UCLA, to see this door opened once again. May it remain so.
RHINOCÉROS | By Eugene Ionesco | Presented by Théâtre de la Ville-Paris and CAP UCLA at Royce Hall | Closed | cap.ucla.edu