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The Purpose of Theater in Absurd L.A.

Regurgitating roses onto the book of the dead: Keirin Brown in ARTEL’s Variation #50 (Photo by Taso Papadakis)

In the quiet, outer reaches of Burbank on Victory Boulevard stands the Victory Theatre Center, which, since 1979, has been staging all manner of thoughtful works — from political tracts by Donald Freed to Rebecca Gilman’s The Glory of Living, a welcome hit for the theater. (The production closes this week.)

For almost three decades, co–artistic directors and spouses Tom Ormeny and Maria Gobetti have been keeping their subscription-based, two-theater venue more or less solvent — often less rather than more. The two-story building looks just a little bit odd from the street, with its rounded deco corners and stucco veneer, standing out like a plastic Christmas reindeer on someone’s lawn in May.

Through the years, I’ve listened to Ormeny and Gobetti rail against the decline of the art form, the lack of subsidy, the lack of houses, the lack of support, the lack, the lack.

“Houses are down all over,” Gobetti told me in the lobby last week. “Ron [Sossi] says the same over at the Odyssey [in West L.A.]. But this show [The Glory of Living] has been a hit. We were able to make back expenses.”

“So you were able to recoup the production costs?” I asked naively.

“Oh, no,” she replied, as though that would be asking for a miracle. By making back expenses, she means that the box-office revenues paid the rent and utilities on the building. The costs of actually putting on the play, Gobetti estimates, ran about $5,000 — a deficit that came out of the theater’s production budget. And this was a hit.

“And what is the purpose of all this?” St. Anthony asked the devil in the midst of hell.

That The Glory of Living should be a crowd-pleaser defies expectations and is another example of the unfathomable mysteries of theater. It’s a study of sociopathology set in rural Alabama that follows Lisa (Rachel Style), the blithe 15-year-old daughter of a prostitute (Saige Spinney), as she hooks up with a hot-tempered drifter named Clint (Martin Papazian). Together, they seduce vulnerable young women (Iris Gilad, Melanie Wilson and D. Taylor Loeb) into seedy motel rooms to satisfy Clint’s sexual appetite and Lisa’s bottomless need for a purpose. Oh, and Lisa’s job is to shoot the victims in the head after Clint has raped them. Sweet.

By the fourth time Clint wrapped his fingers around trembling Lisa’s neck, threatening to choke her for some perceived insult to his intelligence or masculinity, about eight people among the theater’s aging subscriber base had walked out — not necessarily a bad thing if the production is touching nerves. Of course, these things are subjective, but Carri Sullens’ direction was so in step with the ensemble’s horrifyingly grimy descent into the cesspool of their lives, I’m pretty sure nobody walked out because of the actors’ ineptitude. Perhaps the audience thought The Glory of Living was going to be some inspirational holiday pageant. The reason this production has been drawing more audiences than it’s been offending is that it rings disturbingly true. In our age, truth is so rare on any stage — including political ones — that it commands respect. The truth contained within this “hit” cost the Victory Theatre Center $5,000. Something is deeply, seriously wrong with that picture.

Another married couple, Olga Petrakova and Bryan Brown, have been running a theater company since March 2006, though they weren’t married when they started. The travails of sustaining an acting ensemble in Los Angeles drove them to the brink of wedlock. Yes, life is strange.

The company — a “theater laboratory” in the Eastern European style — is called ARTEL, and there were 12 company members when they started. Now there are four: Petrakova, Brown, Keirin Brown and Llana Turner. They lease a space in Hollywood and have been subrenting it for the past 18 months in order to keep their laboratory solvent. In the meantime, they’ve been developing, as an ensemble, a performance piece based on the life of Russia’s seminal novelist-playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, author of such novels as The Master and Margarita and plays such as Molière. Putting in about 18 hours per week of research and rehearsal, they regularly assess what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it — two excellent points of departure. And depart they have. Eight of the actors decided, at various intervals, that they were really here to be on TV and in movies, and ARTEL’s brand of intellectual and physical intensity wasn’t for them. Those who remained did so because they became married to the work, or to each other.

Bulgakov was a scholar of Christianity and satirist of Soviet culture. For these gifts, Stalin tortured him not by sending him to Siberia or threatening his family, but by getting him an administrative job in the Moscow Art Theater and then forbidding the production of any of his plays, a brand of psychological cruelty that makes our waterboarding and cross-dressing seem unimaginative.

Bulgakov was convinced, with good reason, that nothing he wrote would ever be published or staged. And yet he kept writing. This is called faith. It often comes attached to the kind of despondency that Bulgakov frequently expressed.

In Moscow, you can visit the apartment building where Bulgakov lived and wrote. Graffiti artists have lovingly inscribed the building’s walls with portraits of characters from The Master and Margarita, now a Russian cult classic, published in 1966, long after his and Stalin’s deaths. The stairwell leading to his rooms is often decked with carnations brought by passersby. The flip side of all that persecution is that the Russians really know how to love their artists. Moscow’s subway stations have names in their honor — Chekhovskaya, Pushkinskaya, Mayakovskaya. When have we named a train station after a writer? (There was, briefly, a stop on the Long Island Railroad named Melville Station, after Herman, but that was changed to Pinelawn in 1899.)

There are many writers today, in Russia and America, feeling much the same despondency as Bulgakov, and who live by much the same code of pointless faith. (Some of them are called screenwriters.) What, then, is persecution? What hope does an unknown playwright have in a culture lacking arts subsidy, where the theater is held to a commercial standard for its survival, where a very good play like The Glory of Living — already tested in other theaters and approved of by critics — gets an excellent and successful production that costs the theater $5,000? And that’s when the actors aren’t even being paid.

Show me the difference between a culture that persecutes its artists and one that neglects them. Persecution is probably more honorable; at least, it gives the artist credit for being a threat. This is the reason that ARTEL is developing its performance on the life of Bulgakov, not so much to attack the Soviet system — a dead horse that needs no further flogging — but to draw parallels between Soviet institutions and ours. Their workshop, Variation #50 (a terrible title), received a trial run at Highways Performance Space last weekend. It was a nonlinear, imagistic, biographical and beautiful exercise dedicated to the proposition that one must continue the work because the work must be continued.

In Los Angeles, we critics see theaters put on plays as though in a slaughterhouse, one after another along the production line, busy people rehearsing between cell-phone calls and auditions for other projects, rehearsing for reasons rarely understood with clarity. Too often, the result is a carcass. When artists reach an understanding by reaching for an understanding of what they’re doing, and why, the nature and purpose of doing theater in a city as absurd as Los Angeles begins to emerge. That’s what I saw onstage at Highways last week.

ARTEL hopes to present the performance in a longer run at its Hollywood space in the spring.

THE GLORY OF LIVING | By REBECCA GILMAN | Presented by VICTORY THEATER CENTRE, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank | Through Dec. 22 | (818) 841-5421

VARIATION #50 | Created and presented by ARTEL at HIGHWAY PERFORMANCE SPACE, 1651 ?18th St., Santa Monica | Closed


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