Today, a very special guest writer, taking on the latest from the LA Theater Center, The Crook: A Rehearsal, and by association, all of American pomo theater. Without further ado…
A week ago tonight a young woman dragged me to the Los Angeles Theater Center, an opera-house-like chocolate box in the filth of Downtown, a few short blocks away from Skid Row. No longer a producing theatre, LATC houses small rental productions. It is about to be turned into either a corny Shakespeare-for-the-people theatre, or a “Chicano History Museum,” depending on who you talk to. In the present moment it’s a dowager queen in a shit-stained cardboard box. The most sumptuous and, I might add, most theatrical element of LATC is its lobby, down which one can imagine Gloria Swanson sliding to greet a top-hatted Joe Kennedy many moons ago.
The inside has the unpleasant feel of all the city’s Equity-waiver houses: sweat-soaked and junk-food-debris-laden, each one has the texture of a car floor that hasn’t been cleaned since 1984. In this sad space, I entered to discover a row of actors sporting costumes from disparate eras sitting on five folding chairs. As the show began (without the dimming of the house lights), we clunked into a faux “rehearsal” of what the program tells us was a post-Civil-War-era blockbuster: “The Black Crook,” a melodramatic excuse for can-canny musical numbers. (One would never guess from the production that “Crook” was the “Armageddon” of its age.) In a style unfortunately indebted to the late Reza Abdoh, the “Crook” text was chopped up and handed to the five actors in patterns that morphed and–well, made no sense. Abdoh-ian dance numbers, including one involving dropped pants and self-rump-slapping, interrupted the Reconstruction-era chatter without significantly raising the energy level.
Then the piece de resistance. An actor who resembled Abdoh’s muse, the cadaverous Tom Fitzpatrick, materialized to read the words uttered by Jim Jones into a mike before the Guyana massacre. And yes, believe it or not…the cast actually patrolled the aisles and handed the audience…Dixie cups of KOOL-ADE!
To make this long story shorter…seeing this show provoked an experience theatre-makers must know well: that is, the last-straw moment, the epiphany of “I’ve had it! I can’t STAND this stuff any more!”
To make this story even shorter: Here’s my contention. Theatre has long ceased to be able to compete with movies and television (and now the Web and video games) as a popular art form. The tricks it can turn are too rarefied, too sensually niggardly to appeal to a mass audience. And quite candidly, the stuff theatre junkies always appeal to as Theatre’s Undeniable Essence, as in Maya’s friend Deb Margolin’s wishful-thinking commencement address, that is to say, the Irreducible Physical Presence of Human Beings, really has little to do with most theatre. It has something to do with the Artaudian gymnastics of Reza Abdoh’s shows; or the fascistically regimented group movements of William Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet; or maybe even the
flopsweat that pours right next to you as Eric Bogosian has a conniption fit
in a small space. But in most of the theatre practiced today, that sentimental favorite, Up-Close and Personal Human Flesh, has little role in the affair. Is there any fundamental difference, let’s say, between your local neighborhood production of “Wit” or “Angels in America” and the productions of those plays Mike Nichols directed for HBO–except that Nichols’ hand is surer than Joe Yeoman Director’s, and the cast is a lot more qualified?
My problem isn’t with the Theatre of the Un-Fleshly. Middlebrow problem plays have been with us as long as the McCormick Reaper. If they vanish from your local LORT theatre, they will reappear on “Law and Order” or “The L Word.” Lesson-teaching humanism; “observant” psychological portraits; the touching frailties of everyday life; the pleasures of quick-witted journalism–these will always be with us. What’s problematic is the other side. The poetic, ecstatic, whites-of-the-eyes-showing, tongues-speaking theatre. The lyric, the larger-than-life. It’s this theatre that has let us down.
When I was “growing up,” I got into theatre because the period in which I was maturing (the mid-to-late eighties) was one where the cinema, my first love, was at an all-time low ebb. (Film geeks: you have ten seconds to name a great American movie in the span between “Blue Velvet ” and “Reservoir Dogs.”) It was also a period where the “avant-garde theatre” was at high tide. Great directors like Joanne Akalaitis, Anne Bogart, Richard Foreman, Robert Woodruff, Lee Breuer and Peter Sellars got to tackle the classical canon, not just in a basement in the Bowery, but on the biggest stages of America’s regional theatres, in productions that far outpace today’s Broadway in scale and spectacle. Breuer staged the last act of Wedekind’s “Lulu” on the foley stage of a major motion picture; Akalaitis brought the fifty-character blasphemies of Genet’s “The Screens” to the big stage of Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre (literally dismantling the auditorium’s architecture in the process); Foreman staged an NC-17 dadaist farce by the punk novelist Kathy Acker with giant David Salle paintings in a blowout at BAM that suggested a wildly decadent pajama party at Versailles. It seemed like a great time to sign on.
But shortly thereafter, the money for this progressive work dried up. (Ph.D. thesis-ists can speculate as to whether it was Bush 41’s recession, the Mapplethorpe scandals, or none-of-the-above.) One thing led to another, and here we are–handing out Dixie cups of pretend Kool-Ade, fantasizing about, but not following through on, putting the audience out of its misery.
I have in recent months started to write about visual art in Los Angeles for an art magazine. I lament that my task consists most times of reviewing empty rooms. I stand in them, I take my notes, I return home to my computer…often months go by before I collide with another spectator. But there is a crucial difference. The circuit of production in the art world goes something like this…
art school > > artist > > dealer > > art press > > collector
Now, somewhere in there, insert “the audience.” (I’d say, insert it *after* “collector.” Or, if you like, before.) One might think the “collaboration” between the art press and the collectors unholy. And yet it has its benefits. One of them is that the art that sells must pass a certain critical muster. Hoky-shmoky middlebrow stuff that’s made to “connect with its audience” would never receive a critical nod, hence would never become “valuable.” The academic/art-critical world keeps the standards high and the collecting world keeps the prices high. Ghastly-elitist? Hideously late-capitalist? Maybe; but in acknowledging that it isn’t in competition
with the kitsch that Aunt Myrtle puts on the rec-room wall, the American art world has been able to self-select and keep the level of the conversation generally quite high. The art world doesn’t pretend to be a friend of Homer Simpson. It is not a populist form as a whole, whatever certain community-minded practitioners may do with it. But in its rarefied way it can evolve toward a very high level of thought and feeling.
Theatre in America, on the other hand, made the mistake of getting down in *what it thought was* the mire. I am reminded of the moment in the 1984 presidential debates when Walter Mondale said, defensively, “Actually, I LIKE President Reagan!”–a concession the natural born winner never felt he had to courteously make to his opponent. Theatre felt it had to compete with TV and movies rather than go it alone and explore its own language courageously. Now, any theatre middlebrow will tell you that’s because, by cracky, American theatre is a populist thing–not interested in your Frenchy snobbism, but wanting to get out there and press the flesh with the real
folks! I once had a major artistic director tell me with a straight face that his theatre “was kept honest by our working-class audience.” And so what, I asked him, was he offering his working-class audience this month? “Private Lives by Noel Coward,” he said without a hint of irony.
No, America’s theatre management class has sought to connect with real folks by “telling real stories” and all that rigamarole-y–which means, generally, putting on a cheap version of last year’s New York hit, “Wit,” “Proof,” “Doubt,” or some other monosyllabically titled play about cancer, schizophrenia, altar-boy-fondling, learning to drive from a pedophile, or something else topical.
Some of these scripts (particularly the ones by Rebecca Gilman, the uncoronated queen of this genre) are smart, surprising, funny, and rich with un-obvious nuggets of characterization. None of them, of course, can remotely compare in entertainment value with a solid episode of “Law and Order,” “The Sopranos,” “The West Wing,” “The Wire,” or some other quasi-journalistic middlebrow fare. Is it that the TV writers and actors are always better? Hardly. The difference is that in a recorded-image medium, the viewer is given a certain kind of sensory relief. We follow Bill Petersen holding a manila folder as he stalks down a hallway, pursuing a germ on a pubic hair, or Martin Sheen as he moves from a limo to the Rotunda. One side of Tony Soprano’s phone call takes place in a strip joint, the other in a racetrack. The sheer speed and variety of the image gives even the stodgiest TV program the advantage. This may seem obvious; it’s something a survey of eight-year-olds could set straight for you in a minute; and yet somehow, stubbornly, theatre-makers refuse to believe it.
So the only theatre that can be of value is theatre that dispenses with that op-ed-page jive and appeals to our senses of delight in a different way. Surely we have all seen something, whether a Peter Brook minimalist epic or one of Peter Sellars’ stripped-down lecture/demo oratorios, where the theatre became a sensorium of exotic debauches for the price of a cup of coffee. The theatre can win not by fighting on “their” terms, but by calmly asserting itself on its own terms. Even a well-acted problem play will never be as captivating as its mass-cult equivalent. But a work of poetic theatre can offer us something any medium’s most “accessible” work can’t. That is: a pass code to a level of complexity, ambiguity, a richness of language…something one might call, with apologies to John Kerry, Nuance.
I don’t need to list off the Biblical scroll of dazzlements that are What Theatre Can Be at Its Best. All I can report is what the “poetic” theatre, the Art theatre, the theatre-that-is-not-hacky-middlebrow-pap, offers us today. It gives us Dixie cups of Kool Ade, and stale quotations. If you live in New York, and are looking at downtown theatre, it’s likely that the junk you’re watching pallidly apes the Wooster Group and, especially, Richard Foreman. If you live in the boondocks, you will hear words that tinnily echo Mac Wellman and Erik Ehn, and watch bodily contortions that mock Anne Bogart. If you live in Los Angeles, you should really just stay home.
I have spent many evenings in Los Angeles’ REDCAT, looking at full-fledge superstars of the avant-garde theatre play to crickets. Or rather, to theatre students (and maybe a few dance majors; and a couple of TA’s). Why? Because the American theatre, in trying to play catch-up with movies and TV, has given audiences no context for even the strongest work. A masterpiece like the Wooster Group’s “House/Lights” would play to bafflement in most American theatres, as if someone had dropped a Stan Brakhage short between reels of “Revenge of the Sith.” It’s not that audiences are necessarily blinkered or dumb; it’s simply hard to feed a five-course Ethiopian feast to someone who’s had PB&J three times a day for the last thirty years. You can’t expect delight, only shock and a reach for the security blanket.
There’s also something deeper at work. Anyone who’s reading this who sees theatre regularly, high, middle or low: Where is the talent migrating? What have you seen in recent years–and be honest here!–that you could make a rational case for as legitimately top-shelf? What writers and directors in the theatre have you encountered who are as thrilling as Charlie Kaufman, P.T. Anderson, David O. Russell, Kimberly Pierce or Steven Soderbergh? Or as insightful or craftsmanly as the makers of the best TV shows you enjoy? Or–let’s face it–as pleasure-giving as the pop musicians you love?
Is there some “But on the other hand” upbeat coda to slap on to all this? Not really, except that it’s my one-man mission to keep a certain Flame of the Uncoolly Highbrow burning against all odds–because if somebody doesn’t keep the guttering flame going, it’ll die out for good. If some theatre artist within the sound of my voice reads this and decides to tell me to go fuck myself by making his/her own work, something that refuses to respect my or anyone’s codes of what’s valid and worthwhile, then maybe there’ll be a glimmer of light at the end of this tunnel.
Till then…make that Kool-Ade a double.