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Radar L.A. Festival

Los Angeles Poverty Department's State of Incarceration
COURTESY OF LOS ANGELES POVERTY DEPARTMENT

Click here for theater reviews on Steven Leigh Morris' Stage Raw blog.

It was a bit disconcerting to settle into a back seat of a car, parked atop a downtown garage on Second Street, having to adjust a knee to avoid a large plastic red keg from which wires extended to little boxes marked "explosives," while a timer clicked down. No, it wasn't a kidnapping, just a play: Will Hackner's Warriors (directed by Vesna Hocevar), presented as part of Moving Arts' Car Plays series in the Radar L.A. Festival, which just closed.

In the car's front seat, Morgan Krantz and Darren Capozzi played Marine Corps vets venting on the injustices of the world, and of their places in it. One locks the other out of the car, an attempt to spare the life of the one outside; he pleads desperately for re-entry, slamming a palm on the window.

Radar L.A. was a mostly downtown performance festival curated by REDCAT's Mark Murphy and Center Theatre Group's Diane Rodriguez, along with Mark Russell of New York's Under the Radar festival.

Meanwhile, at downtown's Biltmore Hotel, hundreds of the nation's theater makers were in town for Theatre Communications Group's 50th anniversary conference. Though the TCG conference's location in L.A. — for the first time — wasn't responsible for the conception of Radar L.A., it was timed to tap an audience of national TCG conference visitors with a predisposed curiosity for a festival of this sort.

Radar L.A. was conceived as a West Coast branch of Under the Radar, which takes place annually at New York's Public Theater. Whereas Under the Radar throws its net across Europe, Radar L.A. aims to focus on the cultures and concerns that inform this city, mostly across the Pacific Rim. This inaugural year's participants included local companies such as Los Angeles Poverty Department and Latino Theatre Company, alongside visitors from places such as San Francisco (Pan Afro Homos), Austin, Texas (Rude Mechs), and Chile (Teatro en el Blanco).

Meanwhile, the noncurated Hollywood Fringe, now in its second year, ran simultaneously, closing this weekend — a blast of 200 shows staged almost entirely along a walkable strip of Santa Monica Boulevard between Seward and El Centro. The area became a magnet for young theatergoers, with food trucks parked along the boulevard and a bar situated inside the portable tent of Fringe Central. A new educational outreach program with the L.A. Unified School District had 300 students from Bancroft Middle School attend U.K. import How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse.

The conjunction of the two festivals in June lent the impression of a poor cousin to Edinburgh in August, where the noncurated Edinburgh Fringe runs side by side with the curated Edinburgh Festival. But while the Edinburgh Fest includes budget-busting opera, symphony orchestras and the elite of mainstream international theater, Radar invited provocative companies that aren't household names. The two Fringe fests share a spirit of wacky ebullience, but while the Edinburgh Fringe has had more than five decades to figure out its niches, logistics and economics, ours is in its infancy. Among its baby steps in the right direction: This year's presales outpaced last year's total sales. Press rep Stacy Jones says overall attendance spiked 20 percent over last year, with a larger number of shows selling out this year than last.

The open question, and challenge for Radar L.A., whose reps are talking about a return in 2013, is how it will fare when there's no TCG conference in town to provide the artificial bubble of attendees. What follows is a sampling of Radar L.A. performances:

With a few notable exceptions, such as Car Plays, the foreign entries in Radar L.A. showed a broader perspective and greater theatrical ingenuity than the local shows.

"That's because they're road-tested," Russell explained as we found ourselves at REDCAT walking into Amarillo (Teatro Linea de Sombra, from Mexico).

Therein lies one great divide between American and international theater. We're still of a prevailing mindset that the kinds of plays that "matter" are written by playwrights, developed in workshops, then rehearsed for four to six weeks for a production lasting just about as long. Then, if the playwright is lucky, the work gets a whole new production elsewhere.

Radar L.A. aims to show work devised by companies, created through the collaboration of performers, director and writer, rehearsed for months, with the goal of touring. A few U.S. companies employ this model, such as New York's Mabou Mines and the Wooster Group, or L.A.'s Actors' Gang and Ghost Road Theatre Company, but since the demise of touring repertories in the early 20th century, these companies are few.

This would explain why some of the local troupes simply reinvented previous productions. Moving Arts, for example, resurrected its Car Plays concept of yore, with new works 15 10-minute playlets, each set within a car. Each audience member observed only five playlets, each offering in one of the five cars in one of three rows. Audiences for the other two rows of cars saw completely different bills.

You can do the math, given that only two audience members fit in a car, maxing out capacity at 30 per show, and demonstrating how fine a theatrical treat can be in this most intimate of venues. Carhops opened and closed car doors for attendees to jump into or out of the theaters-on-wheels. The event was so well timed and organized that it took on the feel of a live amusement park ride.

Kiff Scholl's clever The Audience turned the obviously voyeuristic underpinning on its head by having the audience members sit in the front seat. A pair of men (David Youse and Ron Morehouse) got into the back seat, thanking the carhops and assuming that we, in the front, were the actors. "Are they going to say something?" "Did you pick up milk?" "I'd rather not discuss this right now, not in front of them." "Maybe the point is to see how we'll react if they don't say anything." Finally after a moment of silence, "This is kind of Beckett-like, you know. It's really kind of cool, don't you think?" "Oh, I don't know." "Well, it's only 10 minutes." The verisimilitude generated moments of superbly orchestrated awkwardness under Matt Bretz's direction.

The sight of an audience member wiping away tears as he left the front car in our row set the stage for Morgan Krantz's Custody, directed by Steve Lozier. Tony DeCarlo portrayed a father, explaining to his preteen son (Sean Eaton) how the boy needed to make a grown-up decision as to whether to live with him or his mother, now that she had left. The plausibility of the kid, who kept reiterating how much he loved his dad, having to make such a choice showed a heartbreaking sliver of agony in real time.

Car Plays is a brilliant and inventive concept, a kaleidoscope of situations that draw snapshot portraits from life, with soulful acting and cinematic detail that's so close to home and physically intimate that it blurs the distinctions between theater and life.

Wish I had nicer things to say about Fierce Love (Remix): Stories From Black Gay Life, presented by Pomo Afro Homos from San Francisco. It, too, is a series of sketches, by director Brian Freeman, Eric Gupton and Djola Branner, based on the experiences of black gays. It's extracted from identity politics of the 1990s, and despite some accomplished performances and choreography, even its comedic skits couldn't rise above a subterranean indignation and self-righteousness.

Los Angeles Poverty Department's State of Incarceration placed the audience on bunk beds amidst the "inmates" of a California prison. Directed by John Malpede and Henriette Brouwers, and performed by people living and working in L.A.'s Skid Row, it consisted of scenes from prison, including confrontations with guards, poems and a ritualistic serving of prison food to the audience. It wavered between authenticity and contrivance — authentic in the use of silence and real time, viscerally ensnaring the ennui and entrapment of being in prison, to a degree: The "guards" donned sunglasses and bore ominous glares, but since they weren't in uniform, both the authenticity and the art-as-life conception tripped over their own shoelaces.

Ireland's The Company performed an animated theatrical equivalent of an early Picasso, entitled (As You Are Now So Once Were We), scintillatingly staged by Chilean Jose Miguel Jimenez. Ciaran O'Melia's design used cardboard boxes to depict doors, beds, kitchens, the bathroom of Ensenada Restaurant on Spring Street and a kitchen in Ireland. Much of the action consisted of the performers gracefully shuffling the boxes to and fro in order to create and re-create settings for the scenes and soliloquys intercut between Ireland and L.A. The kaleidoscopic structure of snippets, played and replayed, culminated in the story of the actors crossing Spring Street into the L.A. Theatre Center, in order to perform the piece that we were now watching there. Spaces and times intersect and geography is merely artifice, the piece suggested. And reiterated. And suggested again for about 20 minutes too long. Charm and whimsy can get four fine actors and a clever idea only so far before boxing them in.

A high point came from Mexico: Teatro Linea de Sombra performed Gabriel Contreras' Amarillo, using the broad swath of the REDCAT stage to paint a living picture of travels across the border into Amarillo, Texas. Mostly keeping pedantry at bay, Jorge A. Vargas' staging used a series of visual tableaux to capture a state of mind, of being "nobody." Of the six actors, Raul Mendoza took the focus as the everyman migrant, uttering slivers of poetry while making gazelle-like leaps into a looming wall (set by Jesus Hernandez). As the character dehydrated somewhere outside Amarillo, cloth bags hung from the sky sprayed the desert sand onto the stage in showers, recaptured on the back wall from an overhead angle through video cameras.

Two performances shared much the same idea: Chile's Teatro en el Blanco performed another festival highlight, playwright director Guillermo Calderon's Neva — a fantasia set in 1905 St. Petersburg, Russia, featuring the widowed actress Olga Knipper, whose husband, Anton Chekhov, died six months before. She's now come to St. Petersburg — after having performed Chekhov's plays in Moscow while he was dying in Yalta — to join an acting troupe there. But she finds she's unable to act, or to act truthfully, since witnessing her husband's death. In the brooding light of a floor lamp, three magnificent actors (Trinidad Gonzalez, Jorge Becker and Mariana Munoz) portrayed a kind of therapy session for Olga, by re-enacting, with wry humor, the death of Chekhov from tuberculosis, amidst much discussion of "truth" and "love" and "art," while the Russian Revolution beckoned beyond the theater doors.

"Don't you see there's a revolution outside, it's 1905, the world is ending, all your 'love' and 'art' are nothing," one of them berates with pre-Soviet rage. At an opening-night party, Mark Murphy mockingly thanked the author for "telling us we shouldn't exist." Not only were the performances droll to perfection, the event contained the raw incendiary power of a bomb tossed into the art-loving crowd.

The Rude Mechs, from Austin, Texas, toyed with much the same idea in Kirk Lynn's The Method Gun. Directed by Shawn Sides, it profiled the Rude Mechs impersonating and documenting the decadelong process of a straggling company to stage A Streetcar Named Desire in the absence of its fictitious leader-teacher, Stella Burden (probably a parody of Stella Adler). The Burden Academy's Streetcar has inexplicably dropped all the play's central characters. The students, however, are blind to the absurdity of the venture, though their rendition did, when performed, start to make a certain, loopy sense.

Where Neva draws a vicious paradox, The Method Gun resorts to satire that lurches into parody: "Stella never quit working. She quit getting hired."

The Rude Mechs' performances (Thomas Graves, Hannah Kenah, Lana Lesley, E. Jason Liebrecht and Shawn Sides) were amiable beyond reproach, but with the Neva and Method Gun side by side, the shortcomings of the latter's glibness became as apparent as the sobering accomplishment of the former.

Now that the tornado of performances and conference has blown out of town, questions remain as to its impact. Will journalists from the NEA Institute, who created a "pop-up" newsroom called Engine28 — and some of whom did burst the bubble and take in Fringe events — relay their perceptions of L.A. to the rest of the country? Will the surreal and sometimes loopy style of foreign performance from Central and South America, brought to us by Radar L.A., break our entrenched wall of kitchen realism, which is starting to resemble a border wall?

Perhaps the biggest gift of the summer came from the L.A. Times, whose panel on the state of our theater (Broadway producers, a playwright and Tim Robbins talking about and to themselves) all but snubbed the small-theater community that produces 75 percent of the work here. Furthermore, after this neglect was made pointedly clear through aggrieved unanimously angry responses on the newspaper's own theater blog, the panel completely avoided audience questions — even those that had been solicited ahead of time.

After the panel left Zipper Hall, local theater makers lingered in a state of shock and dismay over the lucidity of how they'd been further disregarded. Let's just say it was a clarion, galvanizing call to action.