Bankrupt at the Old Bank. Felder Sings. ’60s Fantasias.

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As I watched The Vault: Bankrupt at LATC Saturday night, I was struck by resonances that went beyond the impressive success of this particular show.

Brenda Banda, Vicki Syal, Stephen Buchanan, Sam Golzari, Theodore Lange IV, Aaron Garcia and Esperanza America Ibarra in “The Vault: Bankrupt”

The production is primarily a lip-smacking satirical response to the overall economic crisis, which was precipitated in large part by the collapse of the real estate market — which, in turn, is usually attributed primarily to lax enforcement of weakened regulations in the banking business, and of course to plain old greed.

The Vault: Bankrupt covers much of that in a clever, cartoonish way. Yet the show also carries more specific metaphorical weight when you consider the history of the building in which it’s being produced.

This edifice on South Spring dates from 1916, when it was in the heart of a downtown neighborhood that was, at one point, called “Wall Street of the West.” The structure was known as the Security Bank building. You can still see an entrance to a vault whenever you go downstairs to use the rest rooms.

In 1985, the city used Community Redevelopment Agency money to buy the decaying structure — which was now part of a desolate neighborhood that had fallen off the map of most real estate interests. It was soon transformed into Los Angeles Theatre Center, which offered three midsize theater spaces, a smaller black box that is the site of The Vault: Bankrupt, offices and rehearsal spaces and a grand lobby.

That lobby was soon filled by theatergoers going to or coming from the theaters, mixing and mingling. The resident company created an extensive menu of adventurous and very diverse art in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Vicki Syal, Brenda Banda, Jasmine Orpilla and Aaron Garcia

But it didn’t last. The surrounding neighborhood didn’t revive as quickly as people had hoped — the recession of the early ’90s was no help, and many potential theatergoers still had security concerns. Probably even more important, the theater company had been saddled with the responsibility to maintain the building and with enormous debt obligations.

Security Bank had been transformed into Insecurity Bank.

After the company collapsed in 1992, the city itself started managing the building through its Cultural Affairs Department, which brought a few interesting productions into the spaces — but the quantity of productions dipped considerably, and the building seldom seemed as fully alive as it had been.

In 2005, after many convoluted twists in the process of trying to decide which private operators might operate the building, the city council awarded the contract to a partnership between Latino Theater Company — which had roots in LATC’s former resident company — and the Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture. But the new operators also were given ongoing maintenance responsibilities on a scale that would defy the resources of most nonprofit theaters. On the upside, the neighborhood was now much livelier than it had been in 1985 or 1990. On the down side, another and much deeper recession was waiting in the wings.

Fidel Gomez

Cut to this year. In January, the city council ordered both the theater company and the museum to get out of LATC, citing — in part — a legal squabble between the two groups and also a failure to maintain the building’s reserves. Last week, LA STAGE reported that the two groups were resolving their dispute and that the museum would exit the partnership. On Friday the Downtown News reported that an April 20 hearing is scheduled for a legal resolution of the theater-museum lawsuits and that the city attorney has been authorized to hold private talks with the Latino Theater Company —  which is not only still occupying LATC but which has scheduled a series of spring events there.

The first of these to open is The Vault: Bankrupt. The show follows the adventures of a middle school teacher (Sam Golzari) as he attempts to obtain a loan for a condo from a bank run by a literally blood-sucking manager played by Fidel Gomez, one of the Vault’s two directors (the other is Aaron Garcia, who’s also in the ensemble).

The show has a somewhat sketch-derived quality, similar to that of the company’s previous The Vault: Unlocked, which satirized the gentrification of the downtown area in which LATC is located. But Bankrupt is tighter than its predecessor, and it generally entertains even as it broadly lampoons the real estate and banking crisis. The music supervised by ensemble member Jasmine Orpilla helps tremendously.

Fidel Gomez and Sam Golzari

The Vault productions are done in partnership with Latino Theater Company, but there isn’t much overlap between the personnel of the Vault and the Latino Theater’s mainstage productions. In other words, the Vault is introducing a burst of younger talent into the Latino Theater and LATC (and it’s not all-Latino either — Golzari, who plays the protagonist, is the London-born son of Iranians). The Vault provides a response to anyone who might fret that the Latino company is too insular.

Since the city first announced that it was evicting the Latino Theater and the museum from the premises, I haven’t heard of any other likely candidates stepping forward to try to take over LATC. It’s possible that the city might be legally obligated now to do another request for proposals for management plans. But in the absence of other ideas, the city would be smart to consider a new arrangement with Latino Theater — perhaps a deal that would allow the company to concentrate more on the art and less on the maintenance of the building.

The Vault: Bankrupt, Los Angeles Theatre Center Theatre 4, 514 S. Spring St., downtown LA. Thur-Sat 9 pm. Closes April 21. www.thelatc.org. 866-811-4111.

***All The Vault: Bankrupt production photos by Koury Angelo

 

Last week I discussed the care with which producers should vet their scripts that are ostensibly “non-fiction.” I was writing in response to the flap over a few fabrications in Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which has yet to play LA. This week, however, I have a few questions along these lines about LA shows I’ve seen since then.

 

Hershey Felder in “Lincoln – An American Story”

Lincoln — An American Story is Hershey Felder’s latest. Until now, I had been enjoying Felder’s work about composers. But Lincoln is an unwelcome stretch for him. He has abandoned the keyboard and instead employs a 45-piece symphony orchestra, which plays his music. And he sings.

Felder doesn’t have a great voice, but it’s not a bad voice either, and it sounds somewhat well trained. However, here’s he’s not playing himself part of the time, as he does in most of his other shows. He’s playing a character — Dr. Charles Leale, the 23-year-old Army medic who was the first doctor on the scene at Ford’s Theatre and supervised Lincoln’s care until the president died the next morning. I’ve read Leale’s own account of what happened that night, and nowhere does he mention that he sang to Lincoln while he tended to his wounds. That doesn’t prevent Felder’s Leale from doing just that — and even earlier, we hear Leale singing “Hail to the Chief”, supposedly along with the crowd, when Lincoln enters the theater.

In his program note, Felder writes extensively about all the research he did on this show. But the closest he comes to suggesting that it isn’t an entirely factual account is when he writes about “the story’s musical embellishment.”

Now, perhaps most spectators will suspend disbelief about Leale’s singing, as they might at a musical. But for me, it’s easier to suspend disbelief about people suddenly breaking into song if many characters are engaging in it — this is something that so seldom takes place in real life that we can assume it’s a theatrical convention and enjoy it. In this case, however, it’s conceivable that Leale might have sung “Hail to the Chief” and later tried to soothe the dying president by quietly singing. But Leale himself didn’t seem to make that claim, and I found much of the singing distracting.

 

Hershey Felder

Lincoln really seems to be more about Felder than it is about Leale or Lincoln. He has sung occasionally in his other shows and led audience singalongs. But here he seems to want us to concentrate on his singing. Unfortunately his singing is also competing at times with the virtually unceasing orchestral accompaniment — which he probably also wants us to concentrate on, after his years of service to other composers. The story of Leale and Lincoln would have been much better told without all the aural overkill.

Lincoln — An American Story, Pasadena Playhouse, Tues-Fri 8 pm, Sat 4 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes Sunday. www.PasadenaPlayhose.org. 626-356-7529.

*** All Lincoln —  An American Story production photos by Craig Schwartz

 

Two plays in small theaters are covering famous events of the ’60s, in somewhat hallucinatory styles: 1969, a Fantastical Odyssey Through the American Mindscape, at Theatre/Theater, and The Magic Bullet Theory, at Sacred Fools.

Fortunately, no one will think of these as Daisey-style “non-fiction” productions — the words “fantastical” and “theory” in the titles should provide sufficient reasons for the customers to know in advance that suspension of disbelief is required.

Still, both of these plays deal with real historical figures and raise questions about which — if any — of the details in these depictions are based on historical fact.

Pat Scott, Kenneth Peterson and Rod Keller in “1969: A Fantastical Odyssey Through The American Mindscape”; Photo by Brett Mayfield

My favorite of the two shows is 1969, a collection of loosely connected picaresque stories about mostly well-known figures, with moments of lyrical and moving writing by Damon Chua, some eye-opening video by Adam Flemming and precise direction by Tony Gatto.

Two of the real incidents depicted, involving a US senator and an astronaut, are so well-known that when they end differently from the way they actually ended, this will be obvious to most people — at least most of us of a certain age. I have no problem with this kind of “fantastical” what-if speculation.

However, the real-life person whose depiction I wondered the most about is William J. Murray, the son of famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. He rebelled against his mother, and he’s very much alive now, writing regularly as a relatively well-known Christian right-wing agitator. The play depicts his youthful rebellion, as well it should, but much of it is seen as a result of wartime service in Vietnam that supposedly turned him into a post-traumatic basket case — before he joins a band of hippies. Was this accurate? I’m not asking this rhetorically; if someone out there knows the answer to this question, please comment. In my brief attempts to Google more information about him after the play, I found nothing about any military service in Vietnam.

The Magic Bullet Theory seems to waver between satirizing JFK assassination conspiracy theories and suggesting a theory of its own. I never felt confident that I understood the intentions of the writers, Terry Tocantins and Alex Zola — and this was even after I read this interview with them and director J.J. Mayes.

Terry Tocantins and Michael Holmes in “The Magic Bullet Theory”; Photo by Amani/Cook

The script flails around so much that no one is likely to take it seriously. However, the central character Charlie is especially problematic. He’s depicted as being a willing participant in a plot not to kill JFK but to frighten him — but he then accidentally hits the mark and the president is dead. He’s also depicted as being based on the real-life Charles Harrelson, a shady character (now dead) who was probably more famous for being the neglectful father of actor Woody Harrelson. Apparently at one point the older Harrelson actually claimed to have been involved in the assassination, so — I found myself asking — are the authors taking his claim seriously or aren’t they?  If he were depicted as an entirely fictional schlemiel, I wouldn’t have wondered about this.

By the way, both Madalyn Murray O’Hair and Charles Harrelson became indisputably involved in real-life crime stories — the former as a murder victim and the latter as a murderer. The Magic Bullet Theory touches briefly on this latter chapter of Harrelson’s life, but 1969 doesn’t mention the story of O’Hair’s murder. Perhaps someone should start writing fuller plays about these two people — and their acrimonious relationships with their well-known sons.

1969, GatChu Productions at Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., LA. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. www.1969theplay.com. 323-930-0747.

The Magic Bullet Theory, Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., LA. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun April 15 7 pm, Sun April 22 2 pm. www.sacredfools.org. 310-281-8337.

 

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.