Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Theatre Droppings: L.A. Noise

I can't seem to go very long without a theatrical fix. I just gotta get into a theatre and see something dramatical. My buddy Judy is the same, and arranged for me to attend three local offerings during my L.A. Holiday stay.

I have been curious about A Noise Within since I lived in L.A. 15 years ago; even then, they were a theatre company to watch. They seem to specialize in language-heavy plays, with an emphasis on Shakespeare, and they have grown into a very well-known company. This season, they are doing two sets of rotating repertory, a pretty ballsy feat in this economy. Perhaps their seasons have always run this way, I don't know. But this winter, they've been presenting Richard III, Crime and Punishment, and Noises Off, as part of a season they are calling "On the Wings of Fate!"

Take a look at that play list, and you may scratch your head a bit at the last offering. Not really sure what the hilarious backstage farce Noises Off has to do with Fate, winged or otherwise, but nevermind. A Noise Within certainly needed a comedy to offset the cynicism of R3 and the gloom of Crime and Punishment. Yikes.

Judy arranged an outing to Noises Off. I have seen the play a couple of times, including a major production at Arena Stage a few years ago, and a high school production, directed by Judy herself, back in the 80s. The play is always lots of fun, and in the hands of this Noisy Gang, the show is a scream. I particularly enjoyed Jeff Irwin and Geoff Elliott, the latter playing the director of the show-within-the-show, as well as actually directing the show. Got it? Anyway, he's got the Michael Caine accent down pat, and it works well for the role. In fact, everyone was well-cast, but the production suffered from one huge miscalculation. Take a look at this set:

It fulfills the requirements of Noises Off perfectly, with stairs, balcony, lots of doors and a window or two. It's the traditional box set for the show. What you don't see from this shot is, this production is actually performed on a three-quarter thrust stage. Try as they might, the company has been unable to move much of the lunacy onto the thrust. It's simply the wrong configuration for this kind of show. About half the audience is sitting on either side of the thrust, and are missing some of the comic bits. More than once, we heard the audience roar with laughter at a bit which we, buried stage right, could not see.

A Noise Within's space is upstairs at a Masonic temple, and they may well be forced into the thrust staging with all their shows. If that's the case, they should have postponed producing Noises Off until completion of their own theatre, where this farce could be splashed across a proscenium stage, where it is most effective.

My second theatrical outing in LA was to A Bohemian Shindy. That's what the one-night only evening was called, don't ask me exactly what it means. Here's how the producers described the event:

Certified talents, flavorful works, and corruptable vibes. Ingredients include a food installation and cocktail paring,live music, short film, clowns, burlesque, dancing, slide shows, one-acts, death defying interludes, a DJ and more! Park the camel. Join the Shindy.

The evening consisted of about a dozen different performance pieces; some were one-act plays, but most were more unusual items such as the rap artist who performed his first number in a polar bear suit. The first act included a couple of filmed pieces, with a slideshow about New York City being particularly endless. The two actual one-acts were the standouts, including one directed by Judy. Yellow, by Jose Rivera, was a very brief (only 10 minutes or so) but pointed examination of wartime patriotism. The show starred one of my old friends from my salad days, Barbara Hancock.

Barb and I were pretty tight for several years, during a period in which we both were studying with the late, great acting coach Bobbi Holtzman. Since then, Barbara has left acting behind to pursue other interests, but has been kept in the theatrical loop by her husband, the terrific character actor Sam Anderson. Sam's had a very long career in TV, film, and on stage, and has been a recurring actor on Lost since its first season. The two of them together, playing husband and wife, were very special. Adding to the significance of the event was the cameo appearance of the couple's real-life son, Ben, whom I have been teaching at Notre Dame High this week. The theatre is so incestuous!

I left this Bohemian Shindy at intermission, and understand that the second act was actually more enjoyable than the first; according to the single-page program handed out to the audience (a program in which director Judy's last name was misspelled, it was that kind of production), I missed some fun clowning and something called an aerial hoop solo. (?)

The final production I caught in L.A. was arranged by Judy to be a surprise to me. Sunday afternoon, we drove down to the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood to see Alan Cumming's cabaret act, entitled I Bought a Blue Car Today. Cumming has been on everybody's radar for quite a while, winning the Tony for the revival of Cabaret a decade or so ago, and appearing in films such as the X-Men franchise. I was thoroughly enchanted by this guy, whose vocal stylings are much smoother than one might expect, judging from his strident vocal performance on the cast album of the aforementioned Cabaret. His choice of material was eclectic and smart, and he interspersed his songs with hilarious stories of his interactions with America At Large (he's Scottish by birth). He related the tale of his appearance on a Macy's Thanksgiving Day float, and his appointment as an Officer of the British Empire (the OBE) by Princess Anne. His interaction with the audience and with his own band was endearing and self-effacing, and if he weren't already married, well, I might park my camel and join HIS shindy anytime...