Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "After All, People Might Talk" (on Joe Orton's Loot)

after all, people might talk
by Douglas Messerli

Joe Orton Loot / Los Angeles, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble / the performance I saw was with Howard Fox on June 16, 2019.

In playwright Joe Orton’s comedies things usually begin bad and quickly get worse—or at least more frenetic. The “villains” almost win out in the end, while the pious forces of society such as the police and priests get punished, or more often, are simply exposed for being the true scoundrels working against the social order. Wild sexuality, homosexuality, incest, robbery, and even murder are treated by Orton as far more fun than a life of order and religiosity.
      It is no wonder, accordingly, that his second play Loot, which first opened in 1964, drew outrage from much of British society. That it has been so often staged since (I’ve seen two productions just in Los Angeles) perhaps demonstrates how morality has shifted or simply how much fun his dark comic plays are. Certainly Orton’s version of black comedy completely altered the theater world—far, far more than the angry young men plays of John Osbourne and others or kitchen sink dramas of Arnold Wesker or Shelagh Delaney.
      The new production of the noted Los Angeles theater Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, although a bit rough at moments in its directorial (by Bart DeLorenzo) timing, did not disappoint, even in the often audience did.

    Any play that features two young gay men, Hal (Robbie Jarvis) and Dennis (Alex James-Phelps) who have just drilled through the wall of the funeral parlor where Dennis works to steal a large amount of “loot” from the next-door bank; a nurse, Fay (Elizabeth Arends), who has just done away with her patient, Mrs. McLeavy in order to marry that woman’s church-going husband, McLeavy (Nicholas Hormann); and an investigating policeman, Truscott (Ron Bottita) who pretends to be from the water board, and who apparently wouldn’t even wince at actually applying such a torture device, has my vote right from the beginning.
      Truscott, evidently based on a real thuggish and abusive policeman, Harold Challenor, in Orton’s topsy-turvy world is the true force of evil in this farce, while even the sexual high-jinx of Hal and Dennis (one must recall that homosexuality was still banned in England and the Stonewall uprising in the USA was about five years in the future), their seemingly successful robbery, Dennis’ determination to marry Fay (he is clearly bi-sexual or perhaps, given his good looks, even pan-sexual) and even Fay’s murder (evidently not her first) can’t even begin to match the open brutality, lies, and abusiveness of Truscott.

     This is a play in which you truly hope the thieves and murderer get away with their crimes. After all, the boys need the money to settle down together, and Fay has once more run out of funds, while Mrs. McLeavy (Selina Woolery Smith) was quite clearly a blind, old woman already on her deathbed, and her cliché-spouting husband certainly might deserve a change of venue. Surely Mrs. McLeavy’s black dress, trimmed with an emerald lining (costumes by Michael Mullen), looks better on the young Fay than it might have ever on the old wife.

       The central problem of this work is where to hide all that delicious cash. The gay lovers suddenly perceive there is no better place, particularly with Truscott mussing around while turning off the toilet and beating up Hal’s highly confused old Da, that the coffin would be perfect, but where to put the body already inhabiting that spot?
       Despite Truscott’s endless attacks, they are mostly bluffs since he seems to be the most stupid and blind chief of police in existence, a bit like the one in Robert Altman’s film, years later, Gosford Park, a work obviously influenced by the likes of Loot.

       A lot of humor of this work exists in its endless site-gags, some of which, despite the generally excellent acting of the play’s characters, just didn’t quite come off. Yet the wit of Orton’s dialogue is so infectious that even the appearing and disappearing coffin and body, a bit clumsy at moments, doesn’t truly slow down the play much.
       The problem is with any Orton work is to speak his outrageous witty lines without any attempt to give credence to their absurdity. This playwright’s fictions simply won’t survive with campy winks. Orton’s writing “pretends” to be as serious as Osbourne’s tortured couples, while all the time revealing the absurdity of their situations. The cast at the Odyssey primarily succeeded, but, once again, there were moments when the dialogue was perhaps slowed down a bit, or, even worse, sped up, going right past the audience’s ability to catch up with the satire. Orton’s plays combine post-modern wit and old-fashioned comic athleticism in a way that is extremely difficult to portray for young actors. And despite the director’s program declaration that Orton’s play has not aged, I’d argue that in the horrible cynicism in which we today live, the writer’s irony has been somewhat lost.

      When the country has selected a president that behaves somewhat similarly to the policeman Truscott, making the rules up as he goes along, and might be very willingly accept a bribe of 30% of the loot, or even vindictively kill off the pious old coot who knows too much about the events, it has become a bit more difficult to laugh out loud.
     And as in Harold Prince’s 1970 film Something for Everyone—another offspring of Orton’s comic outlook—it is Fay who finally whisks away the handsome young prince, Dennis, explaining that when she and he marry, it wouldn’t look right for him to remain with Hal: “after all, people might talk.”

Los Angeles, June 17, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (June 2019).

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "A Great Opera Brought Into the Repertoire" (on Meredith Monk's Atlas)

a great opera brought into the repertoire
by Douglas Messerli

Meredith Monk Atlas / at the Disney Concert Hall, June 11, 2019, directed by Yuval Sharon

One might imagine that an opera with a plot that is more like a travelogue than a coherent narrative or story, whose set consists of a giant space-like orb, and songs without words primarily made up of what critic Bonnie Marranca has describe as encompassing “glottal effects, ululation, yodeling, speech song, and animal sounds” would be something one would not desire to sit through for several hours. Moreover, even the Joseph Campbell-like mythological adventure at the heart of Meredith Monk’s Atlas is not only vague (based somewhat on the life of adventurer Alexandra David-Néel) but, at moments, is downright hokey, with the small band of travelers and their spirit-guides encountering troupes of agrarian, artic, and desert dwellers before finally spiraling off into space that often combines a kind of silly symbolism with outright fantasy. Unlike Marranca, I am not a great admirer of the Modernist Symbolism.

      Yet, sitting at Disney Concert Hall last night, both my theater-going companion, Deborah Meadows, and I agreed that we might have wished it would go on for even a bit longer, perhaps like one of John Cage’s Europeras.

    The first major production of Monk’s Atlas since its 1991 premiere at the Houston Grand Opera, this Yuval Sharon-directed work might not even been imagined as possible given Monk’s reluctance in this and in other works to produce performance scores, her own deep involvement in the work (in the original she played the central heroine), and her reliance on a group of performers with whom she had worked for years sharing her special brand of vocalization, choreography, and theatricality.

     Indeed, as critics have long wondered, could a work Meredith Monk continue to exist without her? Monk may well have wondered that herself, and fortunately when Sharon, working for the past 3-years as a special conductor for the LA Philharmonic, approached her with the idea of reviving it, she agreed—with only one important stipulation: that she be in no way involved in it. From the smile on her face during a well-deserved standing ovation Tuesday evening, it was apparent that she was pleased by the results. As Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed observed, Atlas had now been transformed from a Monk performance piece to an opera by Meredith Monk. And surely, given the success of this performance it will now be revived internationally. In this sense Sharon has given the world a new work to join the opera canon.
       Nearly everything about this work succeeded. First there was the set design by Es Devlin, which stunned everyone in its imposing and eerie presence even upon entering the hall. His huge, 36-foot spacecraft orb not only served as a canvas Luke Halls’ projections of earth, moon, and extraterrestrial space, but through moving panels and retractable steps, served as a living quarters at times for the group of travelers on their way to and from their several journeys.
        Beautiful choreography by Danielle Agami articulated Monk’s own vision of the relationship between music and body as did the sound by Mark Grey.
        The space itself had been utterly transformed, as four front rows of seats of the theater had been removed in order to create a small pit wherein the LA Phil New Music Group, conducted by Paolo Bortolameolli, sat.
         And then, most obviously, there was the glorious music both from orchestra and on-stage. Consisting of 25 short vignettes, the singers trace the early years of Alexandra (Milena Manocchia) living at home in Illinois with her parents (Kathryn Shuman and Jimmy Traum) to her (now sung by Joanna Lynn-Jacobs) numerous travels with fellow companions Cheng (Yi Li), Erik (John Brancy), and eventually the more self-centered Franco (Dylan Gentile) along with two spirit guides (Miguel Zazueta and Kelci Hahn).
         In their voyages they encounter not only the different communities I describe above, but fascinating and horrifying figures that challenge each of them: a Hungry Ghost (Sharon Kim), an Ice Demon (Jessica Beebe), and a Lonely Spirit (Juecheng Chen).  
      By voyage’s end—after an absolutely glorious Out of Body Chorus, sung near the orchestra pit, an older but surely wiser Alexandra (Ann Carlson) returns home to quietly unpack her accumulated possessions.

      What is truly amazing is not only the truly unbelievable (and I do mean hard to be believed) singing by all cast members, but the fact that even without words we can truly comprehend their mix of vowels, rhythmic glossolalia, and complex vocalizations. Even the early opera mutterings of her mother and father are clear expressions of their fears and sadness for their daughter’s desire to leave them. And for all the yodels, screeches, shouts, and bangs, Monk’s music remains, almost like some Broadway ditties, in the ear. All night—a night in which our building lost all its electrical power—I kept hearing the opera’s musical refrains.
       And as for its lack of a coherent “story,” well we all know the story though the experiences of our lives, the necessities of packing and leaving home. Even at my rather advanced age, I still have numerous dreams of planes, trains, and other forms of transportation which I’m using to take me away from and back home.
      And most of us who have read the Odyssey will already know this story. Indeed, the mother in this opera, a bit like Penelope, is constantly knitting throughout the first scene. And the female hero must undergo some of the very same challenges that the Greek hero encounters. Only, as this version makes clear, it is only as an entire world community working together that we all are to survive our wanderings through life.
       A lesson, apparently, that this new version of Monk’s great opera reveals to us through Sharon’s reinvention of her work. I hope that, before I die, I can see it again many a time.

Los Angeles, June 12, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (June 2019).