Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.

Porn! Suicide! And How the Theater Copes

Share on facebook
Share on pinterest
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

Warning: I’m about to disclose a few details about Tim Crouch’s distinctive and disturbing production The Author. These include narrative twists that you probably didn’t read in the reviews or in the feature article here.

Tim Crouch in the title role of his THE AUTHOR. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

I feel free to do so, because the production closed its brief run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre yesterday. It’s too late for anything you read here to ruin the element of surprise at the Douglas. And your chances of seeing The Author elsewhere are probably slight.

However, if you want to avoid the remote possibility that reading this article might spoil some future experience of this play, you could choose to skip those details. Crouch himself would be the first to point out that you must take responsibility for your choices in the media you consume. That applies to this article as well as to other media.

I hope you’ll keep reading, however, because Crouch raises questions and topics that go far beyond the experience of this one play. Anyone who tells or consumes stories in any medium is likely to be intrigued and provoked by his treatment of these issues. And the fact that The Author was presented here by Center Theatre Group raises additional issues that I’ll discuss later in this commentary.

The Author placed the audience literally onstage at the Kirk Douglas. The stage was surrounded by black fabric that erased any evidence of the theater’s regular seats, which were presumably behind the black curtain to the north. The audience sat in 120 chairs on two sets of raked risers that faced each other, with 60 chairs on each side. The space in between the two risers was wide enough to allow individuals to leave, if they were so inspired, but it served no other purpose — no scenes were enacted on this narrow non-stage except for staged walkouts by three of the four actors, late into the one-act’s relatively brief running time.

Until those exits, the actors sat among the audience — two actors on each side, spaced far enough apart from each other that at least one of them was relatively close to every audience member. They engaged nearby audience members in some light banter, and at the performance I saw, the audience joined in singing “Happy Birthday” to a spectator.

The title character of The Author — played by Crouch and called “Tim” by other characters — supposedly wrote a play that was presented at the Royal Court Theatre in London. That fictitious play apparently had a cast of two — an older man (Vic Llewelyn) who played an abusive father and a younger woman (Esther Smith) who played the abused daughter. The characters in The Author itself consist of these three veterans of that other play, plus a theater fan (Chris Goode) who attended the final performance of that play.

That fictitious production wasn’t exactly a play-within-Crouch’s-play, because it was not re-enacted for us. But from the characters who sat among us, we heard a lot about it, particularly the extensive research that was done by the Author and the cast. Their preparations for grappling with the difficult subject matter included interviews with a battered woman and watching a lot of gruesome documentary footage about real-life atrocities.

Chris Goode in THE AUTHOR. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Goode’s character, representing audiences everywhere, at one point commented on how safe the theatrical experience is, even though it sometimes deals with horrific subjects.  As we relax in our seats, we assume the actors are just pretending when they re-enact brutalities, even though they usually try to help us suspend our disbelief by making violence look as authentic as possible. I couldn’t help but think of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, seen last year at CTG’s own Mark Taper Forum. The fact that other media, such as TV, might make us feel even cozier and more complacent while we’re watching ghastly images was signaled in The Author by the sudden intrusions of a couple of familiar and reassuring TV theme songs.

Yet we learned, later in The Author, that Goode’s character wasn’t as safe as he had thought. Following the closing night performance of the fictitious play in London, it turns out that he was physically assaulted at an after-theater event by Llewelyn’s character, who admits that he found it very difficult to drop the abusive quality of the role he was playing, once the performance was over.

Even more shocking was the revelation of what happened to the Author himself, at a party he threw at his house for the cast and their spouses, several days or weeks after the play closed. The young actress, who brought her baby to the sleep-away party, inadvertently discovered that after she and her husband went to bed in a guest room, the Author watched online child pornography in the presence of the baby.

Unlike those plays that would re-enact this and possibly other sordid events in this story, Crouch didn’t show us the subsequent confrontation between the Author and the actress. But apparently this encounter with his own dark side was literally mortifying to the Author. He finally wrapped up his own story by explaining how he committed suicide as a result.

The only actor left onstage at the end of The Author was Goode, playing the generally cheerful audience surrogate. (He reminded me a little of the Man in Chair in the partially-CTG-developed The Drowsy Chaperone, perhaps because I recently saw 3-D Theatricals’ excellent Fullerton revival, which also closed yesterday.)

Only Goode’s character was left to try to make sense of the harrowing narrative that leaked out in fits and starts throughout the performance. That was also the task of the real-life audience at The Author, and CTG is continuing that discussion by holding an “AfterWords” event at the Douglas on Thursday evening, with attendance limited only to those who saw The Author and who RSVP to a particular phone number that was distributed to audience members as they left the theater.

Crouch first came to LA’s attention last year with his an oak tree at the Odyssey Theatre, in which a different actor played the second major role (Crouch played the first) at each performance, with very little preparation time. I found that technique gimmicky and too much like a showcase.

In The Author, however, Crouch zeroes in on the nature of the relationship between theater and life — or between other media and life — in a way that deftly manages to avoid exploiting real-life traumas, at the same time that it examines how the media sometimes exploit real-life traumas, with the willing cooperation of the audience. It’s a remarkable achievement, and CTG deserves kudos for presenting the US premiere.

By the way, CTG is still developing the Civilians’ docu-drama project about LA’s pornography industry. I’ve rooted for it here and here. Now that I read that the project at least has a name, Pretty Filthy, and that the first workshop of the completed script is scheduled for March, I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product ASAP. But I can’t help but wonder if the questions Crouch raises are going to affect the storytelling style of Pretty Filthy.

AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT THEATRICAL TREATMENT OF PORN is currently found at East West Players, in the premiere of Paul Kikuchi’s Wrinkles at East West Players. It’s a sitcom about a 73-year-old grandfather (Sab Shimono) who becomes involved as a performer in geriatric porn, much to the initial dismay of his attorney daughter (Amy Hill).

Amy Hill and Sab Shimono in WRINKLES. Photo by Michael Lamont.

Of course most people would agree that porn involving consenting adults isn’t nearly as reprehensible as the sort of child (really, infant) pornography that is alluded to in The Author. Actually, it’s unfortunate for the purposes of the drama within Wrinkles that this is so obvious, that no one is able to make a convincing case that the character is doing anything wrong. The man himself is never forced by Kikuchi to engage in any serious self-examination of why he’s doing what he’s doing, and even the man’s daughter eventually comes around to acceptance of his new avocation. Cue the TV theme song.

No graphic images ever invade the stage during Wrinkles, so it’s hard to know exactly what geriatric porn is all about. In this case, contrary to what Crouch might say about graphic imagery, more specific imagery might have raised at least a few disturbing questions that could have made the play less forgettable.

Wrinkles, East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo. Wed-Sat, 8 pm; Sun, 2 pm. Closes March 13. 213-625-7000. www.eastwestplayers.org.

‘JUMP’ and ‘CUT’ ARE BOTH METHODS OF SUICIDE AS WELL AS COMPONENTS OF A FAMILIAR FILM TECHNIQUE. And any discussion of theatrical treatments of the responsibilities of artists in handling difficult subject matter should also consider Neena Beber’s Jump/Cut, at the Theatre of Arts (formerly the Egyptian Arena.).

Brett Mack and Melissa Lugo in JUMP/CUT. Photo by Michele Young.

In Beber’s play, two lifelong buddies enter adulthood with very different prospects — Paul (Brett Mack) is a fairly glib go-getter and would-be filmmaker, while Dave (Michael Perl) is a brilliant guy who can hardly rouse himself from the couch because of a debilitating and sometimes frightening mental illness.

How better to help a friend than to make a movie about him? It’s actually the idea of Paul’s new girlfriend Karen (Melissa Lugo), who almost immediately begins to attract Dave, too. Soon the three of them are constantly turning on the camera to record every detail of their life together — which may not be the best kind of therapy for the increasingly suicidal Dave.

Beber’s script, which premiered in Washington in 2003, seems downright prescient in its highlighting of issues that have only become more important since then, with the rise of YouTube and Facebook. It’s consciously structured in filmic terms, with some extraordinary video contributions by Adam Flemming, and it plays on the idea of using film techniques to organize lives as well as films.

But it also ignites theatrical fires in Paul Millet’s ferocious staging — with unblinking performances by the two men in particular. While it doesn’t raise questions about the role of the audience, as Crouch does in The Author, it certainly should cause some soul-searching in those who trade on “reality TV” — so it’s especially appropriate that it now has at least a temporary home here in LA.

Jump/Cut, Arena Stage at Theatre of Arts, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood. Thur-Sat, 8 pm. Closes March 26. 310-947-5280.  http://jumpcut2011.tix.com.

SPEAKING OF CTG’s PLAY DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM, as I was a few paragraphs ago. CTG has commissioned a piece from LA’s own Burglars of Hamm (whose most recent triumph was Land of the Tigers at Sacred Fools and then at the Lost Studio in 2009).

And, in an apparently unrelated piece of news, CTG also is presenting the Rude Mechanicals of Austin as part of the DouglasPlus series and the Radar LA Festival, at the Douglas in June.

That June slot is an enviable gig, because it also will coincide with the Theatre Communications Group’s national conference, here in LA. So a show at the Douglas might be attended by many of the bigwigs of American non-profit theater.

The Rude Mechanicals’ LA-bound production, The Method Gun, is about an acting ensemble. For that matter, so was Land of the Tigers from the Burglars of Hamm.

…from Act One of LAND OF THE TIGERS

Did anyone consider asking the Burglars to re-create their Land of the Tigers on the Douglas stage, possibly during that same June period of intense scrutiny of LA theater, possibly in addition to the Rude Mechanicals production? Although I haven’t seen the Mechanicals’ production, perhaps the two productions could bounce off each other beautifully, and with so many theater professionals in town, the audience would probably be theater-savvy enough to get the jokes.

In addition to providing potentially national exposure to one of LA small theater’s best productions of recent years, inviting the Burglars to stage their already acclaimed Tigers could also revive CTG’s seemingly dormant program of offering the Douglas stage to smaller LA groups.

Intimacy Direction Panel

Intimacy Directors are professionally trained to oversee scenes involving intimacy, nudity, and sexual content. Meet our amazing panelists who will be joining us this Saturday, Sept 21st for our Intimacy Direction panel!

Read More »

Must the show go on?

Theater making is intimate and emotional work, so it is vital that theater makers feel safe when creating. When we fail to center the needs of our workers, we perpetuate burn-out culture.

Read More »