Theater Coverage Cuts at the LA Weekly. Save Me and Creditors

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LA Weekly’s theater coverage is being slashed as of January 1.

The number of capsule theater reviews per week will drop from the current non-holiday norm of seven (allocated) or eight (sometimes allowed) to only two. The publication’s deputy editor for arts and culture, Zachary Pincus-Roth, said he preferred the phrase “around two” — he allowed for some “flexibility each week, depending on what’s happening.” But it’s safe to say that the Weekly’s free-lance reviewers will find their compensation severely reduced.

Steven Leigh Morris’ commentaries on theater will appear every other week, instead of every week, and the length of those essays will drop from 1,200 words to 800. On the weeks when Morris’ column doesn’t appear, the space will be occupied by articles about other stage-related arts such as dance, comedy, classical music and opera.

la weekly headerMorris says he doesn’t expect the current listings to be reduced, except that a much smaller proportion of them will include a capsule review. The two reviews that appear each week will probably be written by at least some of those who are currently the Weekly’s free-lance reviewers — Pauline Adamek, Paul Birchall, Lovell Estell, Mindy Farabee, Mayank Keshaviah, Deborah Klugman, Jenny Lower and Neal Weaver — but those reviews will now be assigned by Pincus-Roth instead of Morris. Pincus-Roth said that the listings also will be accompanied by more small, reported articles about the arts.

Pincus-Roth has some experience as a free-lance theater reviewer himself — for Newsday in New York, he says. He also covered theater as a reporter for Variety and other publications in New York, even serving as a Tony voter one year, before moving to LA in 2007. Here, he estimated that he goes to the theater “once a week or once every other week.”

Morris called the cutbacks “disheartening,” but he said he believed that the local Weekly management “has done everything in its power to keep that section vibrant for a long time. Those days are over.”

Pincus-Roth, however, denied that the decision was made solely by the Weekly’s corporate overseers — Denver-based Voice Media Group, which in September 2012 was spun off from the Weekly’s previous owner, Village Voice Media Holdings.

“It was a local decision, basically,” ultimately made by the Weekly’s editor Sarah Fenske, Pincus-Roth said. “This decision was hers, based on the budget.”

Steven Leigh Morris
Steven Leigh Morris. Photo by Eric Schwabel.

The cuts are “obviously disappointing,” Pincus-Roth said, but he emphasized that the theater free-lance budget has been much larger than the free-lance budget for most other coverage areas. “We will take this opportunity to think about what we’re doing to cover other areas” such as comedy, dance, and classical music in the hopes of making the total coverage of the arts “more comprehensive.”

The Weekly plans to continue the annual LA Weekly awards for achievement in theaters with fewer than 100 seats, although the adjudication process may change after January 1 if fewer critics are seeing fewer shows. The cutbacks are not expected to affect the next LA Weekly awards, scheduled for April.

Morris is investigating a plan to take the Stage Raw brand, which has been used to identify the Weekly’s theater blog, to its own website, with the help of community-based fund-raising, but nothing has been settled. Underlying the effort, he said, is the question: “Is there sufficient need to justify the cost?”

The cuts at the Weekly will apparently leave the Los Angeles Times as LA’s print publication that runs the most theater reviews. Although the number of Times theater reviews has been drastically cut in recent years, the Times ran 17 LA-area theater reviews in November (plus a review of Sleeping Beauty, if you want to include an imported dance production that was presented by a local theater-oriented company). After January, the Weekly could possibly reach that level of coverage only if Morris devotes considerable space within his column to commenting on shows that aren’t reviewed by free-lancers.

NO SHORTENING, NO SKATING: This is from the “About Us” page of the website of the LA Weekly’s parent company Voice Media Group (VMG): “While an increasing number of daily papers shorten stories and hire consultants to tell them what to print, VMG papers thrive by cultivating source networks, generating truly original story ideas, and digging into stories rather than skating across their surface.”

TWO FROM SCANDINAVIA: Here comes the winter gloom. But before we’re diverted from the meaning of that transition by the lights of the holidays and by the sometimes spectacular qualities of LA winters, let’s turn our attention briefly to Scandinavia, where the denizens know winter much more deeply than we do

No one ever accused Scandinavia’s two most famous playwrights, Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, of being too light and summery. Although Strindberg’s Creditors is technically set in a Scandinavian summer, it’s metaphorically set in the winter of the soul, and so is Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. Each of these is currently in production in LA.

Lujan Harris Nelson
Justin Lujan, Natasha Harris and Shannon Nelson in “Save Me.” Photo by David Nett.

The seldom-seen Creditors, at the Odyssey Theatre, has received more of the attention, so I’m going to begin with Save Me, an adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, which will play one more weekend at the Dorie Theatre in Theater Row’s Complex. It was conceived and directed by Valerie Rachelle and written by Rachelle and Rick Robinson for the recently-dormant but now-resuscitated Lucid by Proxy company.

Rachelle has set the play in contemporary America, apparently in some state with a legislature that uses the name “Assembly” for one of its two halves. Gee, that might be California, right? The Save Me state isn’t specifically identified as our own, but it’s easy to imagine that Rachelle is thinking about California.

Despite this re-setting, Rachelle sticks surprisingly close to the Hedda Gabler script. Sure, some of the cosmetic details have changed. This Hedda doesn’t go into the next room to play the piano — she goes there to listen more intently to recordings such as Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “Save Me.”  She refrains from such self-consciously antique references as “vine leaves in his hair” and isn’t afraid to indulge in a little profanity.

In a more significant change, Rachelle breaks the realistic surface of the action with brief interludes in which Hedda — and sometimes other characters — wordlessly move to the sounds of Aretha and others, non-verbally expressing what’s going on inside their brains. You can think of these as very short daydreams, appropriately set off with more concentrated lighting. The stifling repression that’s apparent in most of the play is momentarily broken, perhaps appropriately so for a perhaps-California version.

Does this dilute the play’s pressure-cooker quality and make the final explosion less surprising? Well, it might for those who have never seen Hedda Gabler. For those of us who have seen it more than once, these additions provide an unexpected and lively portal into the subconscious and the subtext. And, when the final climax occurred on Saturday night, I still found my jaw dropping as if in shock — even though I knew exactly what was going to happen.

Shannon Nelson and Jack Sochet
Shannon Nelson and Jack Sochet

It’s true that a couple of narrative factors are less plausible nowadays than they would have been in 19th-century Norway. Evan, the new name for the tortured novelist who once had a fling with Hedda and now is toying with Hedda’s former classmate Thea, still keeps the manuscript of his novel only in the format of one typed, paper copy, attempting to explain that choice by referring to himself as a Luddite. But while an old and famous author might still be able to pull off not having a digital copy, it’s hard to imagine that a young and unpublished novelist would even think of such an option.

More important, in 2013 it’s difficult to take seriously Hedda’s airy dismissal of the notion that she might vary her bored days by seeking outside employment. True, she has apparently been pampered (her father in this version was an apparently-disgraced ex-senator — it isn’t clear if that meant a US senator or a state senator.) But even wealthy heiresses nowadays usually make at least a pretense of trying to find an interesting job. That this Hedda wouldn’t do so makes her manipulations of everyone else look more like the symptoms of a mental basket case than like the products of a pre-feminist wife who has no healthy outlets for her self-expression.

Still, Rachelle’s staging has a gut-wrenching effectiveness, aided immeasurably by an incendiary performance as Hedda by Shannon Nelson — who impressed me earlier this year as the Sally Brown “little sister” character in Absoluely Filthy. Nelson receives sterling support from her five onstage colleagues.  Save Me is scheduled for only two more performances.

Meanwhile, across town at the Odyssey Theatre, I finally got to the New American Theatre’s version of Strindberg’s Creditors. And I’m glad I did, especially on the same weekend that I saw Save Me. Jack Stehlin’s character in Creditors is a bitter manipulator almost on the scale of Hedda, but look at this — his Gustav, unlike his female counterpart in Ibsen’s play, doesn’t become suicidal. He more or less remains in control.

Jack Stehlin and Burt Grinstead in "Creditors." Photo by Ron Sossi.
Jack Stehlin and Burt Grinstead in “Creditors.” Photo by Ron Sossi.

Unfortunately, Creditors isn’t nearly as good a play as Hedda Gabler. While Ibsen built a sturdy narrative with many developments gradually building and interweaving en route to the final scene, Creditors ends on an abrupt and somewhat baffling and unexplained note that denies us the chance to see its three characters interacting with each other at the same time.

But that’s not the fault of director David Trainer or Stehlin or his co-stars Burt Grinstead and Heather Anne Prete, nor presumably of the translator David Greig. New American Theatre’s return to the Odyssey is in good hands, even if the vehicle has inherent flaws.

Save Me, Complex., 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm. Closes Saturday. or 800-838-3006. 

Creditors, Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., LA. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Dec 15. 310-477-2055 x 2.


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.