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O'Neill and Steinbeck Onstage

Deborah Strang and Steve Coombs in The Grapes of Wrath
Deborah Strang and Steve Coombs in The Grapes of Wrath
PHOTO BY CRAIG SCHWARTZ

The debate in politics over pending "sequestration" goes back and forth like a ping pong ball — from the view that hatchetlike budget cuts will send the country reeling and careening into yet another Great Depression to the contrary view that it's about time Washington come to grips with reckless spending by the federal government. Nobody thinks sequestration, with its mandatory 2.4 percent across-the-board cuts of the federal budget, is a good idea, whether because of the way the cuts will be made with a bludgeon rather than a scalpel, or because its intent to force compromise was so ill-conceived in a political culture where compromise is a relic of a former era.

If you're after some classical perspective on what we're facing, it's helpful to look at America long before the term "Great Society" was coined by Lyndon B. Johnson, a time even before Franklin D. Roosevelt's entitlement programs sent a safety net out to those who had been most impoverished by either a national economic calamity, rotten luck or rotten judgment.

Frank Galati's much-admired 1988 adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath is being presented by classical rep company A Noise Within, in a staging by Michael Michetti that's so evocative, so enveloped in musicality (a quintet of live musicians wanders the stage) and acted with such tender restraint, Steinbeck's empathy and wisdom provide both a cautionary tale and balm on the wounds of our current political folly.

Meanwhile downtown, REDCAT presented a trio of one-acts by Eugene O'Neill, collectively called The Early Plays, in a co-production by a pair of established experimental companies from the other side of the continent: the Wooster Group and New York City Players. Though this now-closed production appeared only over the weekend, its view of America — similarly accompanied by music and songs — and of Americans as being largely a nation of lost souls, aligns closely with Steinbeck's.

These aren't productions that make you feel proud; rather, they portray human anguish that manifests itself in a call to action that might even be regarded as patriotic. Whether or not audiences are so moved, these productions certainly put our nation in the context of an engulfing poeticism, and that's more than sufficient for a work of art.

New York City Players' Richard Maxwell directed Early Plays (composed of O'Neill's works Moon of the Caribbees, Bound East for Cardiff and The Long Voyage Home) on an austere, gray set (by Jim Clayburgh and Elizabeth LeCompte, with additional set elements by Bozkurt Karasu) consisting largely of platforms, steel ramps, poles and ropes, which suggest the nautical environs on and around which the plays unfold. The works are informed by O'Neill's early years as a merchant seaman. The characters are mostly men — with the exception of prostitute/barmaid women played by Kate Valk and Victoria Vazquez. In their juxtaposition against each other, the three plays have the tonality of a classical sonata — a spirited allegro, followed by an andante and closing with another allegro.

Moon of the Caribbees, taking place in a West Indies port, is a shipboard slice of life depicting the brusque, brutal, American-Brit-Celtic repartee among the sailors. Much of its beauty lies in the staging of the figures into tableaux, as though the men are part of the set design. The testosterone effect is amplified with the arrival of the women, leading to an accident resulting in a burly sailor named Yank (Brian Mendes) plunging onto cement below from an overboard hoist.

The lugubrious Bound East for Cardiff is lit (by Michael McGee and Jeff Englander) by only four lanterns, shrouded in fog, as Yank lies dying in a bunk accompanied by his shipmate of five years, Driscoll (Ari Fliakos). The etude consists of a simple existential concept, echoed in Steinbeck, that most of us are born and die in a desolate world where nobody much cares where we're from or where we're going. That point is underscored by the crew ceremonially hurling Yank's corpse overboard into the watery expanse.

"The Long Voyage Home" tells the story from a tavern of a callow Scandinavian sailor (Bobby McElver) eager to return home to his aging mother, but he's drugged and kidnapped onto a departing Cape Horn–bound vessel notorious for the brutality of its captain.

The production has one conspicuous annoyance, stemming from director Maxwell's determination to sidestep the plays' antiquated melodrama by having characters speak in deadpan, flattening out their dialects so that they tilt into self-mockery.

The unfortunate consequence of the strategy is to give the impression that actors such as Fliakos and Valk, who largely retain the musicality of their characters' speech, are accompanied by actors either just learning their way around the plays, or ridiculing them.

There are no weak links in Michetti's staging of The Grapes of Wrath. It, too, is a study of characters adrift, American refugees of the Great Depression, starting with the decision of the Joad family to leave Dust Bowl–cursed Oklahoma for California.

Melissa Ficociello's set consists of rolling wood-plank flats that come to represent hovel walls and railroad cars. The ongoing musical accompaniment — guitars, bass, violin — turns the journey West into a kind of documentary. Here, too, the tribe on the move must bury the aged and an infant — those not strong enough to endure.

On the horizon of the dusty plains is the hope of opportunities afforded by the Golden State, where they imagine they can pluck oranges from the trees and crush grapes with their feet.

Matt Gottlieb beautifully portrays an evangelical preacher turned humanist, spending much of the action off by himself pondering where on earth he's going and what on earth he's done. Mostly he's struggling for a definition of what's holy, and it usually settles on something closer to men and women than to God: "When you're working together, harnessed to the whole shebang."

The anguish here is inflicted by both God and men, particularly by the sheriffs of Hooverville, who remind us what Cesar Chavez was fighting for and against.

The stage is populated by wonderful actors, such as Deborah Strang as Ma Joad, indescribably nuanced in her portrayal of a dignified woman whose strength is cleaved by apprehension; by Lindsey Ginter as her simple husband, perpetually eager to avoid conflict and to accommodate; and by Steve Coombs as their short-tempered, ex-con son, who's quite the opposite of his dad.

Amidst the brutality of what would today be called climate change, the play is a battle cry for all of us to treat each other with dignity. Its humane view is almost theological, biblical, in its depiction of one character's sacrifice for his people.

Both the adaptation and the staging are wistfully free of sentimentality, like a fresh breeze that clears away all that dust.

THE GRAPES OF WRATH | Adapted by Frank Galati from John Steinbeck's novel | A Noise Within | 3342 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena | Sat., Feb. 23, 8 p.m.; March 3, 2 & 8 p.m.; in rep through May 11, see website for schedule | (626) 356-3100 | anoisewithin.org

EARLY PLAYS | By Eugene O'Neill | Presented by the Wooster Group and New York City Players | REDCAT, 631 E. Second St., dwntwn. | Closed

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Related Locations

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REDCAT: Roy & Edna Disney/CalArts Theater

631 W. Second St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012

213-237-2800

www.redcat.org

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A Noise Within

3352 E. Foothill Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91107

626-356-3100

www.anoisewithin.org


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