Weather Balloons and Unemployment

Earlier this month, a large, runaway weather balloon captivated the nation because a 6-year old boy was alleged to have been trapped inside, floating precariously in the wild blue yonder over Colorado. Meanwhile the boy’s father, Richard Heene, despaired (or pretended to despair) that he had let his son board the craft, which had accidentally become untethered from its moorings.

Heene, who understood how easy it would be to fool a nation and its press corps, despaired with Hollywood-trained acting techniques, oblivious to the fact that the hoax he was perpetrating would lead to criminal charges and public outrage. Heene is (or was) a construction worker and handyman in an economy where home construction has stalled, but he’d turned in a hysterics-laden performance on ABC’s reality show Wife Swap, and was using his balloon stunt as an audition for additional reality TV work. If one buys into the innate perversity of our culture and its blurring of fact and fiction, his audition for employment in some virtual reality makes perfect moral sense. The probable prosecution of Heene will doubtless appear as a scene in a made-for-TV movie; the only question is whether Heene will play himself.

A wave of new productions about the psychic costs of joblessness has recently opened in L.A., including George F. Walker’s The End of Civilization at North Hollywood’s Sidewalk Studio Theatre, and Lucy Thurber’s Scarcity at the Imagined Life Theater (see New Theater Reviews). Then there is A Noise Within’s Crime and Punishment, adapted by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus from Dostoyevsky’s novel, and Manfred Karge’s The Conquest of the South Pole, which just opened at Hollywood’s Elephant Performance Lab in a production by the Smith and Martin Company. Both focus their attention on unemployed dreamers not unlike Heene, linking unemployment and poverty to desperate, deluded attempts at personal redemption.

These are not new stories, or new plays, just as unemployment is not a new economic condition. A report in Monday’s New York Times links a recent surge in teen runaways to continuing high joblessness nationally — a historical trend. Yet California’s current 12 percent unemployment rate (well above the national average, and at least five points higher than what is reported, if one includes the jobless who have given up seeking work) does make these plays locally pertinent.

L.A. is no stranger to Campbell and Columbus’ adaptation of Crime and Punishment for three performers. Actors Co-op presented the same adaptation only last year, while employing much the same brooding tone as the production at A Noise Within, where lighting designer James P. Taylor’s lingering clouds of smoke accentuate sculpted shafts of light on Michael C. Smith’s set of creaky, wooden platforms, as well as stairways to some imagined Heaven. Such is the world of Dostoyevsky’s stench-ridden 19th century St. Petersburg, and of the guilt-ridden mind of protagonist/unemployed student Raskolnikov (Michael A. Newcomer), whose debt load rivals that of Bernie Madoff’s investors, at least in relative terms.

The 80-minute play skims off the novel’s major moral and theological themes in an absorbing theatrical fever-dream, a psychological tango between buoyant police detective Porfiry (Robertson Dean) — who clearly lives on the good side of town, and says so — and the impoverished Raskolnikov, an author on the psychology of crime, who uses arguments borrowed from Nietzsche to justify crimes by a small subset of elite visionaries who move society forward. Napoleon, for example, committed all manner of murders to nudge an empire. (“Great leaders of men are by definition criminals.”) Is that so different from an unemployed student such as Raskolnikov bludgeoning a pawnbroker — a vile woman who extorted the poor and whose old age rendered her with no future to speak of — if the money stolen from the deceased could be used for social programs to better society? Raskolnikov, after all, did give the entirety of money sent to him by his mother for his own survival to a prostitute, Sonia (Holly Hawkins) — not for services rendered but to pay the cost of her father’s funeral. Raskolnikov may have blood on his hands, but that doesn’t mean he’s without Christian charity, or fantasies of resurrection. The dark side of Raskolnikov’s theory of “extraordinary men” being exempt from the law (currently employed by any number of celebrities to excuse Roman Polanski from the legal consequences of sodomizing an underage girl whom he drugged) is that it anticipates, and theoretically excuses, Hitler and the Khmer Rouge.

“Your idea is something horrible,” Porfiry tells him gingerly, trying to massage a confession out of him. “But you’re not.”

Raskolnikov’s theory is an aspect of his ferociously intelligent insanity that poverty may well have driven him to. Having “nowhere else to turn” is an anthem that describes a number of people in this adaptation.

Craig Bilknap stages the work crisply with technical aplomb, though it’s all a bit actorly: Newcomer’s student is an emotionally constant star who wears his guilt on his sleeve, at the cost of some suspense. Dean’s detective makes a nice transition from bubbling frivolity at the outset to thundering resolve as he brings down the gavel of justice. In a number of female roles played by Hawkins, ranging from the prostitute to the pawnbroker, the distinctions between them are subtle, yet their common persona is lucid and pleasing. Bilknap’s overuse of Bill Frogart’s sound design of period orchestral works, often accompanying huge swaths of action, tilts the production into something resembling a romantic-melodramatic film.

Manfred Karge is a German playwright, whose 1988 fantasia, The Conquest of the South Pole (translated by Tinch Minter and Anthony Vivis, for its Royal Court Theatre premiere) has found its way to a few American cities, a list that now includes L.A. thanks to the ambitious programming of a young troupe named Smith and Martin Company.

Again, we have wooden platforms and stairwells (set by Erin Horahan), and a cesspit of unemployent in some undefined city. A quartet of men (played by Bob Kundrat, JB Waterman, Tyler Fowler and John Pick) could easily have escaped into televised football, but instead, without explanation or exposition, enter a comparatively assertive world of dementia, re-enacting the 1911 trek to the South Pole by Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his team, based on a written chronicle that one of them has discovered. That story becomes their virtual reality, enacted around hanging laundry, and exasperating La (Hutchi Hancock), and Braukman’s (Pick) stern wife, who is pregnant by Slupiaek (Kundrat), leader of the deluded pack.

Rory C. Mitchell’s direction offers just the right blend of whimsy and gravitas, and the faux expedition does take on a fantastical reality of its own, juxtaposed against their earthbound disappointments. Also earthbound is the acting technique on display: If the performers here had the training and skill of the company at A Noise Within, and if they possessed the spontaneity and charm of Smith and Martin, great results might ensue. Perhaps they could speak to each other.

In one scene, La guns down Slupiaek’s domesticated pigeons (great stick puppets by Justin McInteer), and Slupiaek’s expression was like that of Heene as he discovered that the authorities were not impressed by his escapade.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT | Adapted by MARILYN CAMPBELL and CURT COLUMBUS from the novel by FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY | Presented by A NOISE WITHIN, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale | Through December 17 | (818) 240-0910, ext. 1

THE CONQUEST OF THE SOUTH POLE | By MANFRED KARGE | Presented by SMITH AND MARTIN COMPANY at the ELEPHANT PERFORMANCE LAB, 6324 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through November 22 | (323) 960-4429


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