Thursday, June 21, 2007

Of pit bulls and pit bands

Cubed and Quartered. Claire Bennett’s set for the Road Theatre Company’s production of Mickey Birnbaum’s Big Death, Little Death, which has its West Coast premiere at the company’s Lankershim Arts Center space through July 21, shows a raft-size chunk of ceiling simultaneously before, during and after it breaks free. Similarly, Birnbaum’s nihilistic screed on struggling through adolescence without a believable dream to pursue, attempts concurrently to show the causes, effects and possible future of one family’s loss. The ceiling has collapsed under the weight of a discarded pit bull, which innocently is left for dead at the top of the show and resurfaces like a depth charge as it nears its end. While the puppy matures within the walls of the home, the rooms of the house are filled with an empty embrace of death. There are ghostly appearances by a mother (Rhonda Aldrich) who died in a car wreck after picking up her soldier husband (Jeff Le Beau) back from the first Gulf war. There’s the surviving father’s emotional death, which he attempts to relieve by photographing death scenes. But Birnbaum connects these mini-voids to the vast cultural void that explains everything from infidelity on the home front to infidels at war. The teenage kids, Kristi (Jeanne Syquia) and Gary (Sean Wing), tossed about in this black hole, fill it to distraction with a comparatively safe flirtation with death, Death Metal music (performed live nightly by the scorching pit band nestled house right). Death Metal, an offshoot of rock that probably traces back to Black Sabbath, may not have had the respect of other forms, but it had what it takes to stay relevant long after more mainstream genres got dusty and classic. Whereas those other forms were deaf to the punk, grunge and rap movements, Death Metal's rawness allowed it to feed off them, growing ever heavier and darker. This music is both the most off-putting part of the show (earplugs are eagerly handed out) and the aspect which adds the greatest energy to the production. Like a cubist painter does with images, Birnbaum breaks the narrative into chunks and welds the scenes back together with the band's acetylene torch sound. He’s not always successful, and the whole story sacrifices some impact to its fondness for obfuscation and dead-ends: bringing the dog in as a character may be in the spirit of the show but it does nothing for the nice arc the human characters had going. It’s a fine cast throughout, with standouts by Syquia, Wing, and Ann Noble, as Gary’s quirky guidance counselor Miss Endor, who unravels into a Death Metal erotic reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver’s Zuul in Ghostbusters. The others are Ammar Mahmood, Mark St. Amant and Zach Dulli. It may not be the most cohesive experience in a theater this year. But it is likely to be the most jarring. And thank God there are people willing to dedicate a production slot to that noble cause.
Sean Wing and Jeanne Syquia

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Fallen Speaker, A Father Found

The absence of something can be a heavy burden, and eventually not knowing the details of her parents’ early lives became unbearable for Marissa Chibas. In ‘Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary,’ which CalArts recently provided with an evocative production at its REDCAT space in Disney Hall, Chibas dramatizes her one-woman journey into a family's extraordinary past.

Like Dan Evans' simple set – a raked, sand-covered square beneath a narrow, wing-spanning projection screen of pegboard – Chibas' story incorporates powerful symbols. Broken radios, spectacles, a microphone, a blind man and some massive parade ground loudspeakers advance her personal story of discovery as they resonate an underlying theme of communication.

At rise, she kneels inches in front of the first row of the audience. She rises in a pool of light and turns to address a house full of her contemporaries, telling of a near-death experience of her own in the Venezuelan Amazon, which she enters by stepping onto the platform and into the past. An effect by lighting designer Rebecca M.K. Makus sends ripples from her bare foot across the sand as if she were reactivating the spilt contents of a ruptured hourglass. Colbert S. Davis IV weaves a fabric of frequencies that blend ocean waves, radio static and political speeches into a beautiful sound cue as she wades up stage through lost time. (Adam Flemming's remarkable video creation – which must wrestle with an impossible aspect ratio twenty times as wide as it is tall – is constantly filled with supplemental visuals that complement without distracting, like the fuzzy image that may combine a low line of breaking waves with a sound wave.)

Chibas takes us across the water to Cuba, across the years to the 1950s, and through fading photographs to meet her extended family – ancestors as well as current Cuban cousins. Her mother was a captivating beauty whom Miss Cuba judges in 1959 awarded duplicate top prizes despite her second place finish. Her father was so much the conscience of Cuban injustice that after articulating what would become the revolution's written architecture, he saw problems ahead and had concerns, which in turn caused Castro to drop him from the circle of founding fathers. And her uncle, Eddie Chibas, Cuba's most popular and influential radio personality, raised rabble-rousing to the level of oratory before ending one broadcast with his suicide in a disquieting call to action.

'Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary' is another of the wonderful one-woman shows we have seen this year in Los Angeles. This seems to be an age of theater reminiscent of the halycon first days of the singer-songwriter, in which the same artist lives through, writes down, and eventually performs a story with personal investment no one else can rival.

In the theater these stories are amplified by three-dimensional imagery. For Chibas, the most versatile icon is the massive metal speaker, now lying in the sand, which once hung above the stage with the others. It's a stark reminder of the great communicators who fell – from grace or by their own hand. Chibas' reconnaisance has artfully righted them all, and reminded us that we keep our currency by maintaining the stories of those who went before.

There is a moment in the play where Chibas is validated by a coincidence of great signficance. Similarly, the brief drive home following the show provided an illustrative story about the resuscitative power of language. Appropriately, it came through the radio. A story on the ill-fated Scott expedition ended with the reading of the explorer’s final letter to his “widow” before he froze. Even in a woman's voice, the words of the letter brought Scott alive again. He could be clearly seen, huddled under a skin of frozen canvas, packing himself like gunpowder into each word, to be revived in some unimaginable future, through a strange speaker, to share a night ride home.

PHOTO/RALLYING STRENGTH. Marissa Chibas, above left, discovers her presence in her father's past. Raul Chibas, right. Her uncle Eddie Chibas' funeral center.