The Playgoer: The Civilians Play L.A.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Civilians Play L.A.

This Beautiful City Photo by Craig Schwartz

By Steven Leigh Morris

A few years ago, reflecting on The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, presented early at the then new Mark Taper Forum, where he was artistic director, Gordon Davidson remarked on the death of the docudrama, that theater couldn't compete with the ability of the video camera to capture the microscopic physical detail and subtext of people being interviewed, and what they reveal behind and beneath their words and gestures. Co-writers Steve Cosson and Jim Lewis, working with song-writer-lyricist Michael Friedman and New York-based The Civilians theatre company, demonstrate that one creative solution to this puzzle is to use musical theater to inflate the scale of the presentation, rather than try to put it under the microscope of videocam naturalism.

This Beautiful City, which opened on Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, is an ode to Colorado Springs, Colorado, and follows multiple views from all sides of the local political and theological equations, as pastor Ted Haggard rolls into town, sets up his mega-church and takes a dive when he's outed and finally confesses to using meth. The six-actor company (Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Herberlee, Stephen Plunkett, Alison Weller, Cosson and Lewis) depicts a range of residents whom the actors interviewed for this piece, from an atheist to religious zealots to one trans-gender “girl”. Mercifully, these are not parodies that load the argument to spoon feed what an audience from Silver Lake or Soho wants to hear, but interpretations reaching for the deepest and most sincere comprehension of the characters, of how life's agonies turn into religious conversions, how God and Jesus become substitutes for a kind of unqualified love and compassion that simply don't exist in Colorado Springs, or anywhere else on Earth.

Some of the interviews are sung – a four-piece band sits perched high, while sermons by evangelists and baptist preachers have their own, innate brand of musicality and choreography. The piece is too long -- the rise and fall of Haggard defines its rhythm, but it keeps going for another 20 minutes, as though it's caught between its commitment to be a musical, docu-dramatic portrait of a city, and the almost classical-Greek study in the hubris of one mega-church leader. Right now, it's trying to be both.

Still, if you want to understand this country and why it's gone off the tracks, Colorado Springs is a pretty good place to start. And if you want to understand Colorado Springs, The Civilians bring it to life with an honesty that gets under your skin, can inspire and scare the crap out of you.

The Man Who Wasn't There

Odgen Nash has a poem that goes like this:

"Yesterday on the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there,
He wasn't there again today,
I wish to God he'd go away."

I write this by way of introducing the grand opening of UCLA Live's Seventh Annual International Theater Festival, and U.S. premier of adapter-director Barry Kosky's staging of Edgar Allen Poe's “The Tell-Tale Heart” -- a one-man performance featuring Austrian actor Martin Niedermair. The show and festival are supposed to open tomorrow (Wednesday), but they won't, because Niedermair isn't coming.

He would like to come, but the Department of Homeland Security has denied his visa.

His visa is being denied because Actors Equity has determined that the role, being recited in English, could, conceivably be played by an American, and Homeland Security routinely checks in with the appropriate labor union in order to make its determination of whether to grant a work-related visa.

Explained Equity spokesperson Maria Somma, the organization subcontracted by UCLA Live to petition for artists' visas, Traffic Control Group, submitted paperwork that said the performance was culturally unique. “We rejected that because we didn't find anything that was culturally unique about it.”

Somma says that Traffic Control Group then changed the paperwork to say that the actor “supports the director,” and that Equity was having none of it. “We believed an American could do this role. We have an exchange program, but there was no exchange offered in this situation.”

So what if Mabou Mines were a German company performing in English. And what if they did A Doll's House in English, which everybody does, but with dwarfs and what have you. Would Equity have denied them the right to perform because American dwarfs were being denied employment?

“Every case is individual,” Somma replied. We look at the totality and the specific situation.”

The totality of the situation is that no American actor is being denied employment; the show is simply not being performed.

That'll show 'em.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Equity is a pathetic facsimile of its former, honorable self. It's the John McCain of unions. Members: unite and overthrow!