President Obama pledged once again to fight climate change in his inauguration speech yesterday. It’s about time. In recent weeks the urgency of this vital worldwide issue had been drowned out in the national conversation by all the financial brinksmanship and calls for better gun control and immigration reform.
Meredith Monk also tries to do something on behalf of environmental sanity in her new On Behalf of Nature, which I enjoyed at Freud Playhouse last Friday. But the only specifically environment-friendly feature of the piece seems to be the fact that the costumes were assembled from the performers’ old clothes instead of being created fresh for the production.
The rest of the performance was an enchanting sensory experience, primarily thanks to Monk’s choral-intensive score and only secondarily to the rather basic movements the cast enacted on stage. But although the sounds uttered by the singers entranced, they were completely wordless, suggesting emotions now and then but literally communicating nothing specific.
Monk discussed this aspect of the work in LA STAGE Times last week:
“As a person who works in music, in nonverbal artwork, I couldn’t do a political tract about it. It was very challenging to find out how can I work with this without making a message piece. I knew it’s not my way. I wish I could do it that way. I feel like the more messages, the better in terms of people being more aware of what’s going on. But I just can’t work that way. I make music.”
That’s fine, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far in the face of a gradually impending calamity on the order of climate change. As we sat in the climate-controlled interior of the Freud, with no plants or animals or rocks or running water on stage that might go so far as to visually depict non-human natural phenomena, On Behalf of Nature struck me as an experience that was almost completely detached from actual “nature”. I probably would have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been branded as existing On Behalf of Nature.
More theater artists should come up with articulate dramatizations of what’s at stake in the climate change discussion. Every little moment of conversation about the subject might help generate the political will that’s necessary to accomplish anything at all in response to this enormous challenge. Along those lines, coming to REDCAT Jan 31-Feb 3 is red, black & GREEN: a blues, from Marc Bamuthi Joseph, The Living Word Project and director Michael John Garcés (of Cornerstone Theater). I haven’t seen it, but it’s said to use hiphop “to create a kaleidoscopic investigation of collective responsibility in an era of climate change.”
MORE ON CAP UCLA: Monk and the premiere of On Behalf of Nature were here as part of the CAPUCLA series, which has risen from the ashes of the former UCLA Live. Theatrically speaking, the series also recently brought Cheek by Jowl from London to the Freud for a wild and woolly ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore with a contemporary design and lots of vigorous choreography. And late last year, CAP UCLA imported a production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros — unfortunately, to the inappropriately large Royce Hall instead of the Freud.
The name “CAP UCLA” isn’t nearly as catchy or as descriptive as “UCLA Live.” But from my perhaps narrow viewpoint, the main problem with CAP UCLA, compared to UCLA Live, is that the runs are so short that, on my weekly column schedule, I can’t write about the shows until after they have closed. (Another problem for many people is the $11 UCLA now charges for parking. I usually avoid this by finding street parking, accompanied by a vigorous walk if necessary — but finding a spot can be so competitive that it’s best if I decline to discuss that topic any further).
A couple of Australian imports are about to arrive as part of CAP UCLA — Back to Back Theatre with Ganesh Versus the Third Reich at the Freud this weekend, and Circus Oz with From the Ground Up Feb. 7-10 at Royce Hall, in its first LA appearance since the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984. I can’t vouch for them sight unseen and probably won’t be writing about them at any length, if at all.
Generally speaking, however, I urge LA theatergoers to support CAP UCLA’s efforts to once again enrich the Westside theatrical scene. There were some empty seats on the opening nights of both ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and On Behalf of Nature. Given the short runs, that’s especially distressing. LA theater’s first effort should to support its indigenous theatrical scene, but that scene is likely to become even better if Angelenos also have as much access as possible to adventurous and better funded work from elsewhere.
AND AT THE BROAD: Of course CAP UCLA now has competition in its own back yard for interesting midsize imports, thanks to Broad Stage in Santa Monica — which didn’t exist during much of the time when UCLA Live was thriving. And most of Broad’s theatrical bookings usually have the advantage of staying longer than a few days.
Currently, Mark St. Germain’s Freud’s Last Session is staying at the Broad for nearly a month. Compared to the Broad’s opening salvo of 2012, David Cromer’s re-imagining of Our Town, it’s a very small and somewhat predictable production — just one conversation, in one room and one act, between Freud (Judd Hirsch) and C.S. Lewis (Tom Cavanagh) in which they mostly spar over the former’s atheism and the latter’s Christianity. Tyler Marchant is the director.
The atmosphere is heightened by the time and place — London, 1939, on the eve of both World War II and Freud’s decision to undergo assisted suicide to stop the pain from the terminal cancer inside his mouth and throat.
I was given a seat much closer to the stage than the seats I’ve usually received at the Broad, and it provided the intimacy that I might have encountered if the production had been in a 99-seat theater. Within the play’s limited framework, I found the conversation quite absorbing. But I might have felt differently if I had to pay the top-Saturday-night price tag of $137 for a ticket or even the lowest price tag of $54 for a seat farther back.
Those prices might seem more palatable to theatergoers if the production included another one-act on a related theme for no additional charge. Some talkback sessions were included during previews, but the only remaining talkback will occur after the 5 pm show on Feb 3, featuring the two actors and Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries. At least the parking at the Broad is free.
Freud’s Last Session, Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tue-Fri 7:30 pm, Sat 4 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 5 pm. Closes Feb 10. www.thebroadstage.com. 310-434-3200.
For a fascinating comparison of male characters who played around with more than one woman (simultaneously) a half-century ago and similar creatures today, it’s instructive to take a look at both Boeing-Boeing, now at La Mirada Theatre, and The Grand Irrationality, at the Lost Studio.
Boeing-Boeing is Marc Camoletti’s farce, vastly popular in France over the years, about Bernard, a young playboy who shares his time and his apartment near Orly Airport among three fiancées who work as what were then called “hostesses” or “stewardesses,” now known as flight attendants. Each of the three is ignorant of the other two and thinks she’s his fiancée. They are American, Italian and German.
Each of the women has a strong, even dictatorial personality, but at least initially, each is determined to become Bernard’s wife and give up any career plans. But Bernard believes his copy of the airline timetables is reliable enough to enable him to balance their three flight schedules (on different airlines) so that they remain blissfully ignorant of one another’s existence. Trying their best to assist Bernard in his schemes are his French housekeeper and Robert, his newly-arrived long-ago pal from Wisconsin
The schemes go awry. One of the reasons is because engineering advances in the aircraft are making the aircraft fly faster. Coincidentally, Jeff Maynard’s production at La Mirada opens just as engineering changes in the latest Boeing aircraft are breaking down, causing all its flights to be canceled, at least temporarily.
Of course most of the verities about male and female roles in the early ’60s have since broken down as well, exposed as outdated stereotypes; nowadays, many flight attendants are men. Camoletti was in part anticipating that breakdown by demonstrating how foolish Bernard was to rely on his master copy of the timetables.
Some of the play’s many resolutions are strangely unpredictable. All three of the women never get together at any one moment, so the full magnitude of Bernard’s deception and embarrassment never quite reaches the boiling point we expect. Two of the women eventually lose interest in Bernard, without realizing what was going on (as many critics have pointed out, all the women must have been hard of hearing not to overhear what was going on).
These independent choices made by two of the women make the play seem a little more modern, which may explain why another revival of it won a Tony as best revival in 2008. On the other hand, these same developments also make the play considerably less hilarious than expected — I’ve laughed a lot harder at a number of other farces. At the same time, the characters never morph into dimensional human beings, and the shenanigans occasionally are protracted to the extent that the play might better be called Boeing-Boring.
The shallowness of Camoletti’s artifice is especially obvious when juxtaposed to The Grand Irrationality, a contemporary play by a British woman, Jemma Kennedy. Once again, three women of three different nationalities are in contention for the attention of one man, Guy, although only two of the women — an American business associate in the advertising world and a French charity worker — are would-be romantic partners. The third is his desperate unmarried sister, who is English like Guy, and who is also a single mom with post-partum depression.
Modern men — even young and available men — have other concerns besides bed-hopping, Kennedy points out. Guy has an ailing widower father — an ex-radical graphic artist — as well as a demanding sister. And we actually see Guy working for a living, trying to concoct a glamorous ad campaign for a group of “women’s” soft drinks in tandem with the American woman who sleeps with him, and considering how to handle a pro-bono ad campaign for the French woman who might sleep with him.
Not surprisingly, The Grand Irrationality is much more realistic for our age than Boeing-Boeing must have seemed even in its own age. It’s a bit strange, however, that a woman has written a play replete with talk about women’s issues in which the protagonist is a man.
Working in the tiny Lost Studio with a script that has several locations, Grand Irrationality director John Pleshette lacks the resources to make his production move as smoothly as the one-set Boeing-Boeing does in La Mirada. But after a full evening of watching buffoonish characters in Boeing-Boeing, theatergoers might look forward to spending more leisurely-paced time with the more developed, conflicted, contemporary characters in The Grand Irrationality.
If I were advising Kennedy, however, I’d suggest she change the title before the next production — from The Grand Irrationality to something more like, well, Boeing-Boeing.
Boeing-Boeing, La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Wed-Thu 7:30 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Feb 10. www.lamiradatheatre.com. 562-944-9801. 714-994-6310.
The Grand Irrationality, Lost Studio, 130 S. LaBrea Ave., LA. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 4 pm. Closes March 3. www.plays411.com/grand. 323-960-4443.