Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Tracey A. Leigh

Why History? – Two productions lean on the past, differently, to speak to now

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The cast of “Indecent” at the Ahmanson through July 7.

The cast of “Ladies,” ending its run at Boston Court Pasadena this Sunday, June 30.

In the past week I have seen two theatrical endeavors – both nearing the ends of their runs – which tackle current social issues by looking at the past. In one case, the history is given theatrical flourish, but is fascinating in its poignant accuracy. In the other, an acknowledged incomplete understanding of history gives a playwright license to turn an antique moment in time into something it never was in order to make a point. Both work as pieces of theater, which fascinates me as a long-time teacher of history and a historian, as well as a theatrical critic.

Why use history to make a modern point? When is it essential that the history be true, and when doesn’t it matter that much? It appears it depends on the purpose history is given in the work itself.

The first of show for discussion, closing this Sunday, is “Ladies,” in its premiere run at Boston Court Pasadena. Playwright Kit Steinkellner uses the inspiration of four historical 18th Century intellectual women who formed The Blue Stocking Society, or (as the playwright says) were feminists before that term was invented, to explore the role of women as writers, artists, sexual independents and free spirits. In this case, the rather uninformed assumptions admitted by the play itself make for fuzzy history, but important social commentary.

The second show is the national tour production of Paula Vogel’s Tony-winning Broadway play-with-music, “Indecent.” At the Ahmanson only through July 7, the show essentially chronicles the life of a controversial 1907 play. Developed in the rich artistic world of eastern Europe’s Yiddish theater, where it was acclaimed, the piece ran into a firestorm when it opened much later, in English and heavily adapted, on Broadway. Why the difference, and what happened to those involved becomes a cautionary tale on the American Dream and the rise of authoritarianism.

Whether using historical figures as the poet does (i.e.: with less interest in accuracy than in spirit) to make a contemporary point, or telling a documentable story of increasing intolerance as a cautionary tale about echoes to be found in our society, the use of history is elemental to each production’s impact. That the role of history in one is pretty much the opposite of its role in the other is fascinating, in that they both succeed in placing a current issue in the longer story of human art and intellect.

In “Ladies,” director Jessica Kubzansky has the four Blue Stocking members emerge from a modern base, and revert to the modern narrative simply by putting on glasses. Thus the back-and-forth between a conceived repressive past and a questioning present become seamless and fascinating. The historical figures are real, and did exist. They include a novelist, a painter, a poet, and the woman who has brought these others together to, in this play anyway, advocate for women’s place in the arts.

How much of what results is an accurate look at the women’s lives, and how much is a modern lens clumping together more and less repressive time periods is immaterial to the point of the play. Rather, this is a playwright’s own wrestle with a past once inconceivable: that women rejected docility in favor of artistic expression before the concept of women’s rights was articulated in English culture. It is the wrestling which matters, not the really rather inaccurate sense of the society which created and either supported or rejected the Blue Stockings (a term which eventually morphed into a catch-all designation for academic-minded women in Britain).

Meghan Andrews, Carie Kawa, Jully Lee, and Tracey A. Leigh create the four women plus servants, husbands, and other occupants of their world, then shift to offer commentary not only on those women’s stories, but the playwright’s internal monologue concerning them. Costumes by Ann Closs-Farley allow quick character shifts, and even occasionally become characters all their own. The focus on women as physical beings, and on desires they may have had along the way is universal, and in the end history (such as it is here) becomes a mere tool for a very modern philosophical musing.

On the other hand, “Indecent” is the true story of Sholem Asch’s play “God of Vengeance,” written in Yiddish in 1907, about an oppressive father whose fortune comes from running the brothel downstairs, and his young, innocent daughter who finds true love – to that father’s horror – with one of the prostitutes below. After a long and successful run in Jewish theaters around Europe, with its leads becoming stars of note throughout that world, it heads to America, is a hit in Yiddish circles there, and then – in a bowdlerized version – becomes a scandal on Broadway, with its cast convicted of indecency.

The story is real, and in this case the history is told with considerable accuracy, yet the story itself is not entirely the point. Once again the tale of artistic freedom, embraced in one part of society and yet increasingly rejected by the more powerful as violating societal norms, and the echoes of that increasingly powerful provincialism and intolerance in our modern world, especially toward recent immigrants, give a gravitas beyond what is simply historical. Indeed, there are elements which speak to Carlos Santayana’s famous phrase that “those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.”

Steeped in the traditions of Jewish Europe, with much of the dialogue in Yiddish (in print and in translation to English on the wall above) there is a strong cultural center to the piece. Yet, at the same time, the openness of an artistic Europe is placed against the rigid rules of decency which infected even the segment of the Jewish population of the US anxious to achieve assimilation: where Yiddish culture is rejected for a shot at the American mainstream. Indeed, much has been written about the freedom of the culturally rich Yiddish art scene in New York in the early 20th century, and how it vanished. This in part because of fears of deportation as exclusionary immigration laws stifled attempts to use the US as escape from the rising terror – the “return to morality” via fascism – overseas.

The intolerance here is both internal and external, with those who cannot abide the loss of freedom returning to a Europe where soon more than freedom will be lost. Still, the moral authority which deems a famous play indecent, the sense of fear surrounding immigration policies, the perceived need to meld into the mainstream to avoid hatred, not to mention the intolerance toward a positive view of lesbian love, sounds a lot like the more judgmental elements of modern America.

Under the guiding hand of Tony-winning director Rebecca Taichman a remarkably versatile cast – Richard Topol, Elizabeth A. Davis, Joby Earle, Harry Groener, Mimi Lieber, Steven Rattazzi, and Adina Version, with musicians (who also are active characters) Matt Darriali, Patrick Farrell and Lisa Gutkin – sing, play, and dance as an elemental expression of culture. They create a myriad of parts to flesh out the story of the play, and its author who wrote only stories and novels, leaving his own play in a dust his actors could not, and the performers whose lives were forever changed by the parts they played. It is a powerful picture of disconnects, fears, and foundational beliefs.

In the end, it is striking to what extent each play’s historical context proves essential to the playwright’s point. Whether that arc of history is deeply, affectingly accurate as in “Indecent,” or almost an artifice, as in “Ladies,” giving a sense of the long arc of history provides a needed underpinning to talking about the world in which we currently live. And that, to some extent, is why history remains important: we are still human beings capable of making the same mistakes those before us did, or learning how not to, by looking back to look forward.

What: “Ladies” When: this production’s last two performances, Saturday June 29 and Sunday, June 30, are both sold out Where: Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena

What: “Indecent” When: through August 7, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $155. Info: 213-972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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Loss, Resilience and Disaster: “Colony Collapse” Engrosses at Boston Court

Chris Connor and Riley Neldam as the distanced father and son in "Colony Collapse" at The Theatre at Boston Court [photos: Ed Krieger]

Chris Connor and Riley Neldam as the distanced father and son in “Colony Collapse” at The Theatre at Boston Court [photos: Ed Krieger]

For many who have been paying attention, the concept of “colony collapse” is a part of the larger concerns over a poisoned environment and the threat to humanity this involves. The term is the common name for the disappearance of honey bees, particularly in North America. Originally thought to be a disease, now seen as a consequence of certain pesticides, the condition causes bees to venture from the hive only to become disoriented and fail to return. As the hive shrinks, it gradually reaches an unsustainable level: too few bees in too bad a shape to sustain the queen or her larvae. The hive dies out.

Take this as metaphor in the aptly named “Colony Collapse” by Stefanie Zadravec, now in a world premiere production at The Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena. The play examines manifestations of tragedy and loss, and the human resilience which often kicks in, at least eventually, unless the people it happens to are too weakened for that to occur. Beautifully constructed to juxtapose several stories of parents whose children have disappeared against the tale of a teen whose parents are unable to parent him, it proves intense and absorbing from start to finish.

Director Jessica Kubzansky knows how to use the Boston Court performance space particularly well, dressing her stage with the characters in ways which fill the space, and using sound as irritant and underscore to the desperate power of the play itself.

Initially one meets the parents of the disappeared: Jully Lee as a mother who let go of her young son’s hand just a moment only to find him gone, Adrian Gonzalez as the young father who gave in and let his son walk home from school only to have him never arrive. Julie Cardia is the frustrated mom who tossed her rebellious teenaged daughter from home only to have her vanish, with Tracey A. Leigh and Leandro Cano as loving parents of an autistic boy who disappeared out an open door when his mom fell asleep on the couch. Each creates a carefully crafted portrait, as each character makes an individual passionate plea for understanding, wrestles with horrific guilt, and slowly, specifically, finds a way to carry the burden of loss.

Balanced against these, the play concentrates on the family of Jason, whose divorced, meth-addicted mother, Nicky, finds him useful only as a crutch, and whose father, Mark, recently released from a prison sentence associated with Jason’s actions and, along with his second wife Julia, finally clean and sober, wants nothing to do with him at all. Tired of trying to keep his mother from starving or selling herself, Jason pushes his way into his father’s world. This includes a large orchard Mark has taken on but knows nothing about sustaining, try though he might.

Emily James' ghost Girl ties the play's themes together.

Emily James’ ghost Girl ties the play’s themes together.

Floating through these scenarios is the ghost of a girl who disappeared, who becomes the play’s narrator and occasional philosophical touchpoint. Through her we examine the insignificance if individual lives, even as we watch the affect each individual in the play has on their own immediate worlds.

Emily James proves fascinating as The Girl, the ghost stringing elements of the play together from a wide variety of physical vantage points. Paula Christensen offers up a not-quite-stereotypical tweaker as Jason’s mother, edgy and strung out, ready to pontificate on motherhood even while totally incapable of living that role. Sally Hughes creates the fragile Julia, for whom addiction was a matter of escape from a life she can see beginning to fray. Chris Conner’s balance of detachment and sentiment in Mark creates a very slippery support for either Julia or Jason to hang on to.

Yet what truly captures the attention above all else has to be Riley Neldam’s Jason. Strong but hurting, lost but searching for definition, he manages to create in the character a sense of adulthood that the supposed adults cannot reach, while still carrying the vulnerability of a teenaged boy. Still, what is to become of someone so connected to adults incapable of connection?

Engrossing though it is, “Colony Collapse” is not easy watching on any level. The sense of loss which permeates the play is quite palpable, and very intense. Yet, though it concentrates on a family which cannot help but destruct, the periphery balances this with a strong sense of, if not redemption, at least the possibility of moving forward. In a world where these kinds of intimate losses happen virtually every day, perhaps that is what one must cling to, if only to avoid the collapse of one’s own colony.

What: “Colony Collapse” When: Through March 20, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance Wednesday, March 16 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $35 general, $30 senior (62+), $20 student Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

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