Monday, July 5, 2010

Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Mark Taper Forum, July 2010

Martin McDonagh's "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" at the Mark Taper Forum, 7-4-10:

McDonagh's splatter-comedy is certainly edgier and messier than any other Taper show I can recall in recent memory, though its uniformly dim-bulb characters and willingness to go for the most obvious and cheap, albeit inordinately grisly, jokes make this a decidedly empty...for lack of a better term, "Jacobean COMEDY." The cast is certainly committed and fearless and kudos to the crew who have to clean up after every performance. I suspect you've got a show here that will skew younger and be very popular with the hip horror-comedy crowd, of which I'm normally a proponent (nobody loves as good cat brains dribble more than me). I guess I just hoped there'd be a moment when McDonagh would opt for something just a little more resonant or provocative rather than just settling for a compendium of dumb -- often VERY dumb -- jokes that would be considered racist in their treatment of its characters who are, to a man and woman here, unrepentantly dim. And to what end? So they can serve as unwitting pawns in a theatrical exploration of the comic possibilities of torture, dismemberment, psycho-pathology and splatter-core.

If younger audiences are drawn by the specter of Chris Pine having a jolly good time chewing up the scenery, I suspect the amoral Tarantino crowd will have a field day with this show. But if one is tempted to think about what it all amounts to after the fact, one begins to suspect it's plenty of sound, blood, guts and fury signifying not much.

For all the rumination about how "important" and intellectually challenging the Taper's previous production, "Bengal Tiger" might or might not have been, this is the antithesis: bloody stupid fun that seems hell bent on proving the Irish underbelly is beyond both hope and redemption. Do I buy that? No more than I buy the moral vacuum at the heart of Tarantino's cinematic entertainments for hedonistic hipsters, which is what McDonagh seems intent to emulate. Afterwards, I couldn't help asking myself why the comic grotesqueries of Tracy Letts' equally violent "Bug" and "Killer Joe" seem so much more theatrically satisfying. The reason I came up with is that Letts (at least in those two early -- and vastly superior to his ponderous later -- plays) didn't just settle for cheap laughs, loud guns and buckets of blood. The behavior of his characters found resonances in our greater cultural dilemmas. By contrast, McDonagh seems content to wallow around in this odd blending of Neanderthal sentimentality and savagery that settles for one dumb (and only occasionally funny) joke after another.

Well-performed, stylishly produced theatrical junk food is still, when the stage blood has all been mopped up, nutritionally empty. So, in the end, for all its messy bravado, this is just another adamantly shallow "entertainment" that encourages little or no substantive food for thought...

Monday, January 18, 2010

Project: Wonderland

It's been about 13 years since I first saw Robert Prior's inventive and whimsical Fabulous Monsters production of "Project Alice" at Glaxa in Silverlake. So many years later, this visionary director has brought back a fuller, more ambitious and re-imagined rendition of his take on Lewis Carroll's classic in "Project: Wonderland," the first must-see show of 2010. It's fairly simple conceit, Lewis Carroll becomes Alice as he hallucinates the source material for "Through the Looking Glass," becomes a jumping off point for one theatrical vision after another, ably manifested by a talented and energized cast, an abundance of inventive costumes, puppets, live music and choreography. All this is anchored by the Lon Haber's clever and winning performance as Carroll/Alice. The real star here, though, is director Robert Prior and his vivid love of theatrical pageantry, spectacle and whimsy. Staying surprisingly true to much of Carroll's original text, Prior and his team of designers and collaborators have crafted a show filled with images and moments that linger long after the performance. There is no great message here, only ample evidence that an inspired theatrical artist collaborating with a talented ensemble and team of resourceful designers can still create a sense of awe and...wonder.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A friend told me that Maurice Sendak based the beasts in "Where the Wild Things Are" on members of his family. Though I wasn't aware of this while watching Spike Jonze's film, it makes sense. They're a diverse but decidedly urban Jewish collective in the movie, if one wants to analyze them that way. First and foremost, though, the slim original material simply emphasizes all the more that this is really a Spike J. movie, and as such, it's one of his best. "Adaptation" is still my favorite, but mostly because of Charlie K.'s script. Here, the real vision is Jonze's, approved of by the author who, I think, saw that Spike was making an original, difficult and complex film that is both fantastical on a primal level and peculiar on a personal level. This is a portrait of a boy injured by divorce and filled with uncontrollable urges that I think are part and parcel of the experience most boys endure, overwhelmed by testosterone and emotional chaos. I know it's a fair reflection of my overwrought emotional cataclysm at that age, and the spirit that still propels my basic creative punk energies. It ain't easy and it ain't pretty. And WTWTA is probably the first film I've seen in a long time (going back to early Truffaut) that spoke to that chaotic mess that is a boy's childhood as seen from the inside.

"Bleeding Through"

The writing/producing team of Theresa Chavez and Rose Portillo have been creating exciting and innovative theater experiences here in L.A. for many years, so any chance to see new work by them is a treat. Working from Norman Klein's novella "Bleeding Through" has given them some intriguing material to work with but also saddled them with a difficult conceit: finding a theatrical correlative for Klein's blend of cultural criticism, personal obsessions and sociological commentary. Hence, the presence of the "Unreliable Narrator" in this environmental enterprise. It's a conceit that works occasionally but never completely meshes with the rest of the production...actually a pretty accurate description of much of Klein's writing which has always worked far better as provocation, posing more questions than answers. Onstage, however, the double vision encouraged by this blending of fictional narrative and historical commentary only occasionally creates the kind of theatrical connection one might hope for. As a result, this is a production that engages the mind far more than the emotions, unlike earlier memorable collaborations by Chavez and Portillo.That said, however, there is much to like and admire about this production, beginning with its environmental setting designed by Akeime Mitterlehner. Rarely has the fourth wall been more porous, and the opportunity at intermission to actually explore the setting is a particular pleasure. Live music and video projections help create a dream-like atmosphere, and the cast, led by Lynn Milgrim and Elizabeth Rainey do their best to integrate narrative strands from the past, the present and, less engagingly, the personal quest of the narrator. The local neighborhood of Angelino Heights as it exists in its present incarnation, its past heyday and as it is preserved as a cinematic backdrop for countless cinematic crime dramas, is the real protagonist here, and I suspect one's investment in this production will be in direct proportion to one's interest in the history of the local community. Still, I recommend this production not only because of the earnest dedication and obvious talents of its creators, designers and cast, but also because it's a show that's unafraid to be ambitious. It takes real and often tantalizing risks in search of new ways of forging connections between who we are, where we live and the collective memories, and sometimes fantasies, that unite us.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Every artist, writer and scholar longs for a place of refuge, an island dedicated to calm and reflection, an oasis, where they can work uninterrupted by the logistics of everyday life, inspired by the natural eloquence of their surroundings and invigorated once again by the creative charge and pure joy of what it is they love to do. The Whiteley Center is such a place, a gift to everyone who visits, whether for a few days or a few months. In its ten years, I’m guessing it has become a treasure to everyone who has spent time there and a home away from home for the soul of the poet, the artist and the explorer in us all. May it endure, and may its legacy enrich the hearts and minds of its fortunate guests and their audiences, readers and students…
—Dan Duling, Playwright

Thursday, October 15, 2009

In Praise of the Whiteley Center, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington State

In celebration of the Whiteley Center’s tenth anniversary

A few years ago, when my friend novelist Diana Wagman told me about her idyllic week at the Whiteley Center, I immediately went online to find out more about this remarkable facility. As a lifelong theater artist struggling to find the time to complete my new play, even a brief sojourn at the Whiteley Center sounded too good to be true. This month, as I complete my first visit to this amazing institution, I am happy to report that my time here has proven to be not only inspirational and restorative but also ideal for completing a draft of my new play, “Monstrosity.” As I return to Los Angeles with plans to workshop the play and seek collaborations with various directors and theaters, I will never hesitate to cite the Whiteley Center for its vital role in assisting my creative endeavor. My sincere thanks to Arthur Whiteley for his generosity and Kathy Cowell and her friendly, helpful staff for their support. May this first decade firmly establish the Whiteley Center as an enduring treasure for all writers, scholars and artists who are fortunate enough to take advantage of this magical setting.

Dan Duling, Los Angeles Playwright, October 2009.
"Gogol Project" at Bootleg Theater, Los Angeles

The ambitiousness of this company is evident and this technically complex show is further proof of their desire to create theater that is both audience-friendly and provocative. Kitty Felde's blending of three short stories by Gogol into a tapestry of Russian absurdism is brought to life with puppets, multi-media and a very complementary score by Ego Plum -- absolutely the ideal musical collaborator for this company's vision. There's no shortage of whimsy but there's also a dark undercurrent of potential violence behind each of Gogol's allegorical tales about power, position and the thin line between social order and madness. The production drops the viewer into this world and let's one catch up as the characters become more familiar and engaging, with the final refrain, "I choose crazy," stating the most logical of all coping mechanisms for an undeniably harsh existence. Still, it's the creativity of the puppet design and performance that keeps the proceedings from getting too grim, and the company's committment is never in doubt. Rogue Artists Ensemble is becoming one of L.A.'s most intriguing companies to follow and one can only hope that more folks will have an opportunity to see them in action. Their productions are a reminder of how exhilarating creative play in the theater can be. Abandon literal-mindedness at the door and you'll have a great time.-->