Immersive theater — a fancy term for site-specific performing art — is the rage in this country, and this past weekend the La Jolla Playhouse made its first extended venture into the trend with its Without Walls (WOW) Festival.
There were more than two dozen events to be experienced in four days, almost all of them in anything but a theater. Over the course of 12 hours on Saturday, this critic attended two musical performances, two dramas, two dance works, a cryptic performance-art installation and a phantasmagorical puppet show. I could have gone to even more, had I stayed on-site for a quick dinner from a food truck.
The University of California at San Diego campus, where most of the performances took place, is difficult to navigate, but ubiquitous, well-informed volunteers festooned in fluorescent green T-shirts kept me on schedule. There were plenty of parking spaces in lots next to the “Festival Village” (though Thursday and Friday must have been tough for patrons competing with students and faculty for the few available parking spots).
Those flamboyantly bright T-shirts were invaluable visual aids to spotting the location of Seafoam Sleepwalk, a magical mashup of Botticelli's The Birth of Venus and kaiju films (aka Japanese monster movies) that took place in the surf of La Jolla Shores beach. Puppeteer Basil Twist and his crew simulated a 20-foot-tall head and torso of Aphrodite arising from the Pacific Ocean, overseen by sound designer and performer Yumiko Tanaka. The contrast between the humongous puppets and tiny toddlers charging into the surf, or of surfers shooting the curl behind a giant sea monster, was amusing.
After that: Have you ever heard of the Anton Chekhov play Platonov? Me neither. The 21-year-old Chekhov wrote a five-hour-long play that was rejected, tossed in a drawer, and not published until 19 years after he died. WOW featured a two-hour distillation of that work by director/stage designer/cameraman Jay Scheib.
Imagine that Chekhov sat down to write Three Sisters, then smoked a whole bunch of crack and wrote the play in one sitting. The result would be Platonov. The themes of his mature plays — characters unable to overcome obstacles; infidelities; unrequited love; drunks; lost estates — they're all in Platonov, only dialed up to hysterical excess.
This outdoor production — which continues after the festival weekend, through Oct. 13 — has a modular set with openings in the enclosures that allow the audience to see one or more actors. However, because these small rooms block spectators' sightlines, video cameras follow actors into the rooms and project them onto a large screen above. The play is still being tweaked, so I hope Scheib can find some blockings that allow us to take our eyes off the screen and watch the actors at ground level.
The eight-person cast is strong, but especially good are Mikeah Ernest Jennings, portraying the charismatic but shallow Platonov; Natalie Thomas in the role of his married mistress, Sonya; and Judy Bauerlein as the vain widow, Anna.
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Another 19th-century realist, Henrik Ibsen, and his Hedda Gabler were the inspiration for a four-person theatrical dance work, Hedda-ing, by San Diego choreographer Sam Mitchell. Shoving 20 people onto a tiny art installation — Do Ho Suh's Fallen Star, a cottage perched perilously on the edge of a tall building — doesn't allow much room for large dance moves, so the production tilts more toward theater.
Speaking of tilting, audience members inside the house suffer severe disorientation due to the intentionally false center of gravity that the house's perspective forces on them. The physical unease that the cottage causes is mirrored in the psychic discomfort of the two Norwegian women (Siri Jontvedt and Snelle Hall) performing in the space, one of whom represents Hedda (or do they both?). In the outside portion of Fallen Star, Sam Mitchell dances in a suit and tie without any pants, partnered with a fully clothed Jason Dorwart in a wheelchair.
I'm guessing that Jennifer Barclay's 25-minute-long play, Counterweight, is not the first to be staged on different floors along an elevator shaft, but for the most part it's a good ride (as long as you're not claustrophobic). Only five people could see the play per performance, as we needed to squeeze into an elevator two deep. There were three floors, each one a different couple's love story.
None of these playlets was really specific to elevator lobbies — they could have been done onstage with blackouts from one scene to the next. The connecting narration is provided by an old-fashioned elevator operator, Betty Jean, and her story — about her unrequited love for an adjacent elevator operator whom she has never met — seemed forced. Lisel Gorell-Getz was appropriately perky in this role and did what she could with the material given her. The production, by Moxie Theatre, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, was effective.
Musical offerings included a somewhat problematic outdoor staging of a problematic composition (La Perfezione di Uno Spirito Sottile) by Italian modernist composer Salvatore Sciarrino. Despite wonderful performances from flautist Rachel Beetz, soprano Stephanie Aston and percussionist Dustin Donahue, Sciarrino's quiet, repetitive musical gestures stood little chance against the onslaught of traffic noise from the La Jolla Village Drive grade behind the performers.
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Our Star Will Die Alone was advertised as death-metal music, but it was the most tepid I've ever heard. No cookie monster vocals? A moderately loud pattern repeated over and over that got a little quicker? That's not death metal, it's outpatient clinic metal.
The most satisfying musical experience was Sara Watkins' bluegrass pop quartet playing in the beer garden, which you could hear for free. Many festivalgoers were present, but few of the attendees seemed to be on campus just for her set. A pity, as these musicians were tight and the songs were pleasant. Unlike the other festival offerings seen on Saturday, Sara Watkins and her boys didn't push any envelopes, but sometimes performing a simple song as well as you can is reward enough.
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