Newsflash: Theater is Alive and Well in Los Angeles (Evidence Within)
Every time I think I’ve had enough of the fear-based tail-chasing pettiness that permeates much of Los Angeles Theater I see a couple shows that pull me back in and I’m reminded that even though LA Theater still remains in its adolescence when it comes to the business of making theater, at times, the theater itself soars and the rest of the bullshit fades away.
Deaf West’s incredible Spring Awakening, earmarked for Broadway with most of its cast and creative team intact, is one such example, but the latest comes from two companies who, while always delivering well-intentioned, imaginative and mostly solid work, have finally, at least for me, delivered something truly special.
These two shows are superb, up and down the line, Failure for me is the standout of the two, but only because it feels like something brand new and it also feels, at least to me, that this is the show where Coeurage has finally arrived. They have always supplied plenty of energy and sincerity to their work and an ensemble enthusiasm that permeates everything they’ve done to this point, but with Failure it all seems to have finally come together. In my opinion, the utterly brilliant Gregory Nabours who has been a regular with Coeurage for years, will in very short order be recognized as one of American Theater’s best musical talents. And I mean best, right at the top, Sondheim-like. Here is a man whose music simply flows out of him effortlessly catching us all up in its majesty and melody, but with Failure he adds performance chops that take it a step higher. This could be the show, or at least SHOULD be the show, where this tremendous talent takes his place as one of the best in the business in American Theater. It also elevates Coeurage to the top as well, at least here in LA.
But Picnic is equally enthralling, mostly because Inge’s play is so very good and so very timeless, but also because the actors and director Cameron Watson have paid attention to that most rare of ingredients in LA Theater: story.
And here, for a moment, as a contrast and compare, I need to mention another show that I saw recently that has been receiving almost unanimous praise from the critics, almost, but for me has gone the other way and forgotten that most rare of ingredients: story. That show would be Sacred Fools’ Astro Boy and the God of Comics. While the theatricality of the production has some worthy moments and it’s always interesting to watch live drawing occurring right before your eyes, I kept asking myself throughout, “When does the story begin?” The play reads more like a really interesting entry from the pages of an Encyclopedia Britannica. There is nothing to hang our hats on, no central cathartic character who changes or really risks anything or has to overcome obstacles, it’s all sound, a little fury, and no story. While cinematic theatricality has become a central aesthetic to LA Theater, sometimes breaking new ground along the way, without an engrossing story, that kind of spectacle can only hold my attention for ten or fifteen minutes. If I don’t care, I’m not there. This is a flaw that permeates many of the shows I see over at Sacred Fools, Behavior of Broadus was probably the one that managed to bring the strongest of narratives, but even it sputtered near the end, Stoneface and Watson, hits from years past, lacked engaging narratives as well, but for the most part, staging and acting were stellar enough that they managed to hold my interest. With Astro Boy, however, the thing just never got started, never turned a corner, and I found myself waiting for a bus I knew would never come.
Another show that unfortunately fell into the “lack of story” is a little ditty that just closed over at Zombie Joe’s Underground called Bereaved. While the first twenty minutes of the show had that typically wonderfully ZJU-esque electrified black farce running rampant through its veins, something the folks over there almost always deliver, mid-way, the show tried to actually say something and failed. Some good performances and some infectious enthusiasm couldn’t save it.
But that’s the bad news, the good news, is we have Picnic and Failure showing us again how transporting and uplifting good theater can be. If you have friends that you want to convert into lovers of theater, bring them to these shows, if you’ve had some bad experiences lately in the hallowed halls of LA Theater that have crushed your soul, go see these and let their theatrical waters cleanse you of those wounds. And if you know nothing about this thing called “Los Angeles Theater” that so many have been touting this year, go see these shows and you will become wise in the ways of the wiley daze that plays and stays for days and days.
That’s right, poetry, my brothers and sisters, always a good sign, not because it’s good poetry, but when I find myself bustin’ a rhyme here at the Lemon it’s usually because I’m feeling pretty good and I have the folks at Antaeus and Coeurage to thank for that.
Now go see some theater.