Some audiences want their theater to be as theatrical as possible. Acknowledge the artifice, and use its tools to explore themes that might not be apparent in realistic settings. This is the world of such disparate current productions as The Fantasticks, Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers and Timon of Athens.
On the other hand, some theatergoers not only prefer realistic settings but seek to make them as raw and unfiltered as possible. In productions such as Long Way Go Down, Cops and Friends of Cops and Trainspotting, we glimpse into actual worlds that most theatergoers wouldn’t otherwise see — even if it’s difficult for theater to rival the verisimilitude of film and video.
Of course, many other productions try to mix elements from both camps. But today I’m concentrating on the above productions, most of which are exemplars of a more purist approach — either for artifice or against it.
The Fantasticks is Exhibit A for artifice. Before I discuss the problems with the show itself, I’ll state upfront that Amanda Dehnert’s staging of it at South Coast Repertory does a better job of disguising those problems than any other production I’ve ever seen. Talk about artifice — while you’re in the theater watching this Fantasticks, it’s easy to forget its problems as well as your own.
For decades after the Harvey Schmidt/Tom Jones Fantasticks opened in 1960, the biggest problem hanging over the show was its song that appeared to make light of “rape.” This had its roots in a previous Fantasticks, which opened in London in 1900 as an English adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s Les Romanesques from a decade earlier. That first English version was written by a woman, no less — Julia Constance Fletcher, under the pen name George Fleming — but she apparently had no problem using “rape” for its old-fashioned meaning as an “abduction” that could be the subject of jokes, instead of its meaning as “forced sex.” Librettist/lyricist Jones brought the same archaic meaning into his production in the largely non-feminist culture of 1960.
As the 20th century edged closer to the 21st, that meaning of “rape” as “abduction” virtually disappeared from the larger culture, but it didn’t really vanish from The Fantasticks. I complained about it in a review of a 1988 production of the show by East West Players, and another LA Times reviewer griped about it in 1994. Dehnert’s revival is the first I’ve seen of The Fantasticks in the 21st century, so I’m happy to report that it uses the nearly “rape”-free version that was written by lyricist Jones in response to his own discomfort on the subject (he told me in a 2004 interview that he “hates” the old lyrics).
Still, after I left The Fantasticks and started thinking about the show, the spell wore off to the extent that I again began to notice its other retro qualities, too. The show’s lovers are 16 (Luisa, played by Addi McDaniel) and nearly 20 (Matt, played by Anthony Carillo). Their neighboring fathers (Gregory North, Scott Waara) manipulate them into marriage (at 16, for her?), but when the young people learn of that manipulation, the marriage falls apart. While the boy goes off to seek adventure (and ends up wounded from his experiences, which remain mostly murky and symbolic), the girl stays home, flirts with El Gallo (Perry Ojeda) and wears a mask to shield her from life’s harsh reality. Then El Gallo deserts her, Matt returns, the couple is back together — apparently ready to live happily ever after. Just about every turn of this tale raises severe plausibility questions in the 21st century.
Dehnert’s staging includes ingredients of the three previous productions of The Fantasticks that she directed on the East Coast, including lots of magic tricks and a big sign inspired by a Rhode Island amusement park that is used to illustrate the moon and sun. However, it also subtly alters the show to fit SCR, which is on the eve of celebrating its 50th anniversary, just as The Fantasticks itself recently marked the big 5-0.
Two of SCR’s founding artists from five decades ago, Richard Doyle and Hal Landon Jr., play the show’s two old-timers, with the script slightly altered to note that the characters (as well as the actors) have been working together 50 years (instead of the original 40). They also get in a sly little reference to the bridge that connects South Coast Repertory with South Coast Plaza.
Doyle’s character Henry refers to the fact that he once played Peter Pan. Now, it might be hard to imagine Doyle playing Peter Pan, especially if you always picture Peter as being played by women or boys. On the other hand, we currently have the evidence that a man — albeit a much younger man than Doyle — is indeed capable of playing Peter.
The younger man is Daniel Shawn Miller, and he’s in Michael Lluberes’ Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers, at the Blank. This is very different from the Peter Pan that we’re accustomed to seeing at La Mirada or the Pantages, whenever Cathy Rigby decides to take it out again. This one is based on J.M. Barrie’s book Peter and Wendy.
The artifice employed here is very low-tech. As directed by Michael Matthews, it appears to be a deliberate attempt to replicate the let’s-pretend atmosphere of real children’s make-believe. The characters don’t employ any tricks to “fly” — they are lifted and carried by fellow cast members.
But as the casting of the fully grown Miller indicates, this isn’t a version for kids. Here, the youngest Darling child, Michael, has died, and Mrs. Darling (Trisha LaFache, who doubles as Captain Hook) appears to be flirting with suicidal thoughts. Her own envisioning of Peter and his shadow might well be an evocation of her dead son who never grew up. Also, this Peter and Wendy have some surprisingly suggestive physical moments. Although this Peter may not want to grow up, indications are he can’t always get what he wants.
Lluberes’ play probes more deeply into the psychology behind these characters than most versions, but it stops short of endorsing any one clear-cut point of view. It’s a Peter Pan that is designed to get the audience to think about what it all means. As a result, it may not enchant in quite the same way as many other versions, because it’s specifically designed to do more than enchant.
You could say the same for Charles Pasternak’s staging of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens for the Porters of Hellsgate. In this column, I once offered Timon as an example of the Bard at his most seldom-seen, so I was glad to see the Porters tackle it, at Actors Forum (a different venue for those who have seen this group’s productions farther west in NoHo). How often will any of us get another chance to see it?
It’s a play that is often described as “schematic.” At first we see the generous and gregarious Timon surrounded by flattering parasites. But his beneficence eventually drains his accounts, and suddenly all of his former friends reject or ignore him. He becomes a hermit and a misanthrope. In a strange (and blatantly contrived) turn of events, he stumbles upon a new source of money, but it’s too late to re-open his heart.
The tale feels hortatory, almost as if Brecht might have written it to make an instructional point about his or our society. Pasternak uses mostly modern costumes and even introduces an American flag into the proceedings, yet the script never quite feels as if it’s set in America or the present day. Additional scenic or musical strokes might have helped achieved that. Thomas Bigley is a little too muffled (and possibly, just a little too young) for the title role — in the first half, he already looks as if he knows this won’t last, so his shock at the derailment of the gravy train doesn’t register strongly enough.
The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tues-Wed 7:30 pm, Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 and 8 pm, Sun 2:30 and 7:30 pm. Closes at the June 9 matinee. www.scr.org. 714-708-5555.
Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers, Blank Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes June 16. www.TheBlank.com. 323-661-9827.
Timon of Athens, Actors Forum Theatre, 10655 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Sunday. http://PortersTimon.brownpapertickets.com. 818-325.2055.
And now on to a couple of examples of slice-of-life realism that take us into brutal situations without much textual artifice at all, except for the fact that we have gathered in a small room to watch these actors re-create these events.
Zayd Dohrn’s Long Way Go Down takes us to what appears to be a rough-hewn garage in or near the town of Ajo, in southwestern Arizona. An immigrant-smuggling coyote (Michael Keith Allen) and his 20ish son (Dan Evans) are watching over a young Mexican woman (Michelle Ramos) whom the coyote has just transported through the desert. Her boyfriend (Orlando Chavez) — who apparently has also just crossed, although there is a little less clarity about his backstory — is out trying to raise $1000 to pay off the cost of the coyote’s services.
The tension explodes in somewhat unexpected ways, guided by director Don K. Williams. One or two of these ways are also a little unbelievable, but I don’t want to give away crucial surprises. Let’s just say that I was less than convinced by the use of one particular weapon. But the desperation in all the characters is clearly etched.
The production is from the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theatre Company, in its Art of Acting Studio, which is tiny in terms of seating capacity but surprisingly expansive in terms of stage space — on two levels, allowing brief scenes to take place outside the main location.
Ron Klier’s Cops and Friends of Cops is the first production of Vs. Theatre Company in its new home at an even tinier space — the Pico storefront (or is it a storeback? You still enter the space from the rear door) that was formerly occupied by Black Dahlia. It’s an even more suspenseful thriller than Long Way Go Down, and its intensity is increased by the fact that it’s rigorously set in only one small part of one room — a bar outside St. Louis that’s frequented by cops and “friends of cops.”
The fact that the action never leaves the room provides sharp focus, and we’re so close to what’s going on that I didn’t sense a single moment in which that action was confusing or ambiguous. While the material might sound like TV cop show fare, Klier — who directed his own play — makes sure that our prolonged proximity to these characters matters to an extent that you wouldn’t get if you were witnessing a series of brief scenes on a screen.
The violence in this setting is frighteningly realistic. The ensemble of five — including Johnny Clark as the one odd man out, Paul Vincent O’Connor as the grizzled but occasionally lyrical bartender, Gareth Williams as a casually racist veteran cop and Rolando Boyce as his younger black partner, and Andrew Hawkes as another cop — make every moment count. I have to give a special nod to Hawkes for an extraordinary second-act sequence that I can’t possibly describe without giving away a crucial detail.
For something equally graphic, we still have the long-running Trainspotting to turn to, apparently for just one more weekend. This depiction of the ‘80s sex and drugs scene (although not that much rock ‘n’ roll) in Edinburgh has some violence, but not on the level of Cops. No, its specialties in the no-holds-barred sweepstakes are profanity (if you can understand it through the Scottish accents), nude or nearly-nude sexual encounters, shooting-up scenes and, to an even greater extent, scatological scenes involving toilets — and the lack of toilets.
I first saw Roger Mathey’s staging, from seat of the pants Productions, a decade ago. I was better braced for the content this time around. And I had forgotten that this extremely raw show nevertheless relies on a lot of direct-to-the-audience narration in almost every scene — a technique that it shares with The Fantasticks, to come full circle.
The episodic Trainspotting narrative was drawn by Harry Gibson from Irvine Welsh’s novel. It sags in spots, and it certainly lacks the tight precision of Cops. However, the cumulative impact is considerable — and considerably sobering.
Long Way Go Down, Art of Acting Studio, 1017 N. Orange Dr., Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8 pm. Closes June 7. www.artofactingstudio.com.
Trainspotting, Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm. Closes Sat. www.plays411.com/trainspotting. 323-960-7785.