Saturday, June 27, 2009

Let’s Play Hardball

‘Farragut North' by Beau Willimon, directed by Doug Hughes
Geffen Playhouse • June 16–July 26 (Opened 6/24, rev’d 6/25)

Among the intrigues in Beau Willimon’s Farragut North, a winning backroom drama about high-stakes political campaigns and the operatives who play them, is whether an upbeat “love of the game” or a weary cynicism will ultimately own the play’s tone.

Giving buoyancy to the more optimistic option is last year’s Presidential contest. For many, certainly the majority watching the Geffen Playhouse staging (through July 26), the election of Obama was an episode of mold-breaking that promised a new era of integrity at the top. That backdrop provides subliminal updraft to an early confession by communications manager Steve Bellamy (Chris Pine). This time, he says, he really believes in his candidate's potential for good. Though Farragut is not about Obama, his election has leavened the playing field enough to allow that Steve may be expressing inner insights and not self-delusion, and not just blowing smoke.

Farragut North arrives in Westwood as an intact import from New York’s Atlantic Theater, except for four new cast members, including Pine. Pine not only adds huge marquee value – he's Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ universally praised new Star Trek series prequel – he is a solid lead returning to the Geffen after appearing in the first casting round of the West Coast premiere of Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig.

The arena for Willimon’s five political operatives – who include wannabes, wunderkindern, interns and hardened vets – is Des Moines, Iowa before the Presidential Caucuses. What were, in the earlier eras Farragut recalls, smoky backrooms and arm-twisting contests, are now, thanks to wireless communications, anywhere and everywhere. David Korins creates the restrained unit set of lounge booths, bar tables and hotel beds, shifting to a barrage of projected video collage by Joshua White & Bec Stupak. Those oppressive clips of TV reporters remind us that what we're seeing is not what we get: the public is at the end of the information food chain.

Willimon keeps us guessing about these characters throughout act one. That a solid 70 minutes of talking heads kept a full house coughless and riveted attests both to his skill at dialogue and suspense and director Doug Hughes' sure hand with pacing and tone. That the stage proscenium’s aspect ratio seems destined to be one-upped by the big screen is confirmed in his bio. He is currently adapting Farragut to film.

Part of the magic of the rising arc of act one is Willimon’s ability to make every character equally suspect without making them seem the same. Whether it is New York Times reporter Ida (Mia Barron), lowly staffer-on-the-make Molly (Olivia Thirlby), campaign manager Paul (Chris Noth), opposition campaign manager Tom (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), spokesman Steve, or press director-in-waiting Ben (Dan Bittner), all are utterly contemporary, but with a touch of the Bard's big-theme flaws to give the play even deeper resonance. Steve’s travails amount to over-ambition undermined by over-confidence, up-ending the adage that “you can’t shit a shitter.” It seems more likely that he who lives by the spin may not realize someone has him in full pirouette until he lands flat on his ass.

To close the play, a communications representative addresses the audience with a prepared statement that puts a public face on the outcome of all the wrangling we’ve just witnessed. We suddenly realize that these are the first words of the play that would have reached the public. It's Willimon's final word on the matter: We do not know what's really going on and how complicit the media is in the packaging process. The spokesperson's statement is, in a word, crap.

Set, match. Cynicism wins.

WITH Mia Barron, Dan Bittner, Chris Noth, Chris Pine, Olivia Thirlby, Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (u/s – Troian Bellisario, Robyn Cohen, Thomas Fiscella, Peter Swander) PRODUCTION David Korins, set; Catherine Zuber, costumes; Paul Gallo, lights; David Van Tiegham/Walter Trarbach, sound; Van Tiegham, music; Joshua White/Bec Stupac, video; James T. McDermott/Jennifer Brienen, stage management An Atlantic Theater production.
Photo: Chris Noth, Chris Pine, Olivia Thirlby, Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Michael Lamont)

Sunday, June 07, 2009

'Touch the Water' (Cornerstone Theater Company)

For the fourth play in its four-year, six-production cycle of original work exploring how laws impact contemporary American life, Cornerstone Theater Company is premiering Julie Hébert’s Touch the Water, a river play (through June 21). After plays on immigration, reproductive rights and penal retribution, the “Justice Cycle” turns to law and the environment.

Touch the Water delivers its environmental message in an environmental staging by Director Julliette Carrillo. The audience bleachers face a found-art set by Darcy Scanlin sitting beside a rare stretch of Los Angeles River where water and vegetation have reclaimed it from the concrete. The “River,” a 50-mile channel that travels from the western San Fernando Valley through the Glendale Narrows and L.A. Basin to Long Beach, serves as the central flood control system for (and punch line for jokes about) metropolitan L.A.'s unnatural landscape.

The overarching tone of Hébert’s script is one of loss, with the concrete trough as a symbol of man's break with nature and lack of vision for an urban landmark that would bring L.A. beauty, recreation, and civic pride in the way the Seine serves Paris. However, the play is itself a lost opportunity. While Carrillo’s design and technical team have given the play a wondrous world for its premiere, with a compliant moon joining Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s award-worthy lighting design on opening-night, Touch the Water, like a walk along the broken channel floor, proves an uneven ramble.

According to the playbill, the Justice Cycle explores “how justice functions in society.” But there’s more of ‘cycles’ than ‘justice’ to Touch the Water: natural cycles of rain, run off, and reclamation; human cycles of spiritual rebirth and social responsibility; a real meandering subplot about cycles of violence; and, most importantly, the life-cycle of cement: “Snakes shed their skin and are reborn,” one character says. “Rivers are snakes.”

Although the play's heavy nativist tone and anthropomorphizing may undercut the aspects that are factual, a redevelopment plan exists to make the L.A. River a real waterway that retains its flood-control functions while returning it to a natural habitat and adding recreation benefits.

Admirably, Carrillo dives in after Hébert, investing the proceedings with sincerity and reverence. These Cornerstone plays are the product of careful real-world participation, going to the community members for their expertise, and in some cases to draft cast members. While nice on paper – particularly grant applications – from a purely theatrical standpoint, non-actors can compromise the impact. While Someday (reproductive rights) and For All Time (retribution) did not suffer from their expanded cast, the drop off in Touch is more noticeable.

Cornerstone's mission is a two-way street: giving voice to urgent issues and unheard communities through theater, and promoting back to those communities and their extended publics renewed appreciation for the power of this art form. Touch the Water's dual responsibility is to inspire its audiences to appreciate the majesty of nature and the magic of theater. Real actors are alchemists who need protection, too. Fortunately, two of Cornerstone's real magicians – Shishir Kurup and Page Leong – are here to share their considerable talents, and break up the non-actor speeches that recall the skit portion of a seminar.

While Hébert's script may be trying to satisfy too many constituencies, her lyrics – co-written with composer Kurup – are a solid contribution, delivered on a sound system that, despite mic'ing all the actors, never draws attention to itself. Costumer Soojin Lee creates a fantastic menagerie of river wildlife by recycling everything from flattened aluminum cans to coat hangers. And, without benefit of spot operators. Alcaraz employs a warm palette that always bathes its actors with pinpoint, flattering light – even when they are on the opposite bank of the river. Quite an achievement. Kudos, too, to stage manager Marisa Fritzemeier and her board operator.

Touch the Water, a river play, by Julie Hebert, directed by Juliette Carrillo; music by Shishir Kurup; lyrics by Kurup & Hébert; Cornerstone Theater Company • May 28-June 21, 2009 (Opened, rev’d 6/4) World Premiere

WITH Neetu S. Badham, Lane Barden, Matt Borel, Ceci Dominguez, Ricky Dominguez, Ben Fitch, Richard Fultineer, Rachel Garcia, Liebe Gray, Ubaldo Hernandez, Joel Jimenez, Shishir Kurup, Page Leong, Joe Linton, Lewis MacAdams, Laural Meade, Pat Payne, Gezel Remy, Jennifer Villalobos, Terry Young, and Laural Meade & Rachel Garcia, puppeteers MUSICIANS Danny Moynahan, Ben Fitch, Richard Fultineer, Marcos Nájera, Shishir Kurup, Neetu S. Badhan PRODUCTION Darcy Scanlin, set; Soojin Lee, costumes; Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, lights; Benajah Cobb, sound; Danny Moynahan, music direction; Marisa Fritzemeier, stage management

Photo Illustration: Against L.A. River backdrop, Lewis MacAdams (Roger Vadim), Page Leong (Isa Pino, Shishir Kurup (Luis Otcho-o Authermont), Rachel Garcia (Ardea, a Great Blue Heron). Show photos by John Luker; L.A. River by Timo Elliott (Wikipedia)

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Hunger Signs?

The kind of serial coincidences that are recalled in this column's head may not connect or be meaningful, but the experience of stumbling upon them is always fun. So, in that spirit, her's the most recent.

This week, within a 24-hour period, a synchronistic triptych occurred. On Thursday morning, I was watching a Layers Magazine video podcast about the Adobe website design product, Dreamweaver. Perhaps because I had not eaten breakfast, when Rafael “RC” Concepcion tossed off an aside of ‘bacon and eggs,’ it slid across the pate, then back again. “You can name your site anything you,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. Name it ‘bacon and egss,’ if you want.”

My mind made a substitution, as I preferred ‘chorizo and eggs,’ a favorite I had not subjected myself to in quite some time. By the time I returned my attention to the podcast, I needed to scroll back to where I derailed.

Ten hours later I was sitting in bleachers along an Atwater Village section of the Los Angeles River for opening night of Cornerstone Theater Company’s ‘Touch the Water,’ a play about the Rio de Los Angeles State Park Bowtie Parcel. I was reading through the bios when I heard the four musicians begin to take the stage. Apparently one was lagging behind and, after being chided by the others, made his way out, providing the first lines from the stage, an adlib’d “I needed to get my bacon and eggs scarf!” I looked up to see Marcos Najera carrying a long scarf with a couple of attached circles of fabric that looked like sunny-side-up eggs.

I smiled thinking it odd to have these first words of the evening touch back on the most memorable words of the morning.

On Friday morning, making my way back to the mountains from where I’d spent the night in West L.A., I stopped at a Trader Joe’s in Rancho Cucamonga. It was the first time I’d found this location; the first time I’d been off the 210 at this exit. But the nice clean TJ was comfortingly familiar. I joined several other morning shoppers, silently navigating our carts around the aisles. We all seemed to be shaking off drowsiness. I thought I’d see about a cup of coffee from the testing station at the rear of the store, where I'd seen columns of insulated paper cups. As I headed over, another shopper came out of another aisle. Breaking the store silence, the woman behind the counter asked the approaching shopper is she “would like to sample some chorizo and eggs?”

That was sufficient to wake me up, and I dispensed with the search for coffee and turned my cart for the check-out islands.