August: L.A. County
Theatricum Botanicum, the press, and the union
Perhaps it’s Quixotic, but I find Theatricum Botanicum to be a kind of beacon, a shining light on the hills of Topanga Canyon. The alfresco venue was co-founded by TV actor and Old Leftie Will Geer, whose fame was cemented – if fame is ever cemented – by his role as grandfather Zebulin Tylor Walton in the 1970s TV-series The Waltons.
Geer, also the lover of gay activist Harry Hay, was a pro-labor union social activist, blacklisted for refusing to testify against his colleagues before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and he hung out with buddies such as Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie. This land is your land. You don’t have to be an Old Leftie, or even to like Old Lefties, to comprehend the network of principles, and the courage to defend them, that formed the character of the man, and of the theater he created with his wife, Herta Ware.
Also, Geer emulated his grandfather, a botanist; on the Theatricum Botanicum property, you’ll find a sampling of every plant species mentioned in the body of Shakespeare’s work. The place, with its bridges and babbling brooks, is an idiosyncratic refuge, and Geer’s descendants have kept alive his theater and his legacy: His daughter Ellen Geer, granddaughter Willow Geer, and Heta Ware’s daughter Melora Marshall, are all part of the company.
As a union man, what would Geer have thought of his actors’ union, Actors’ Equity Association, and its decision to overrule a 2/3 vote of its local membership and dismantle the 99-Seat Theater Plan, which permits union actors to volunteer for stipends at intimate theaters when contract work isn’t available? Would he have followed the model of Tim Robbins and Noah Wyle, union men who have challenged their union? Or would he have trodden the straight and narrow path of Charlayne Woodard, with her I’m-a professional-and-professionals-shouldn’t-be allowed-to-volunteer mantra — even at small theaters that lose money by design?
In 2001, Theatricum Botanicum staged a production of Marc Blitzstein’s Brechtian 1937 opera, The Cradle Will Rock, about the attempt of one Larry Foreman to unionize Steeltown U.S.A.’s workers in a direct challenge to the local tyrant factory-owner, Mr. Mister, who also runs the local newspaper. Actors bounded into the audience bleachers bearing picket signs, urging the audience toward defiance against a factory whose position would not budge. They sang in unison. What’s the point of singing if it’s not in unison?
It’s the 21st century now, and all that is upended. Mr. Mister is now the union itself. Despite so much talking and the landslide opposition vote of its membership, the union’s position in intractable. Mr. Mister even runs the union press. Larry Foreman is Pro-99. What’s the point of singing if it’s not in unison? When there’s not enough sustenance, self-interest and confusion start to undo the fabric of a culture. That’s what we’re seeing in our beleaguered theater community, and in some ways, that’s also what playwright Tracy Letts is reporting on from Pawhuska, Oklahoma, in August: Osage County, currently playing on Theatricum’s outdoor stage against a backdrop of woods and chaparral: Two matriarchs, sisters Violet Weston and Mattie Fae Aiken (respectively Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall) want what they want, and they’ll spurn and savage their own families to get it.
Letts penned the screenplay for a star-studded 2013 movie after his stage play received the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 – the same year an economic collapse roiled the American economy. The original 2007 Steppenwolf production, a variation of which appeared in New York, was way faster-moving than Mary Jo DuPrey’s staging at Theatricum Botanicum. The Steppenwolf version was both more fun and more facile, and that’s not entirely a compliment. DuPrey slows it down so that it breathes. It breathes so deeply, that it gives itself, and us, time to peer inside the workings of its pathologically twisted characters, so that it’s fun without making fun.
Alcoholic patriarch Beverly Weston (Tim Halligan) was a minor poet and scholar of T.S. Eliot in general, and of Eliot’s epic poem “The Wasteland” in particular. In the opening in scene, he explains all this to a stoic, newly hired housekeeper, a Native American named Johnna (Jeannette Godoy). The symbolism of Johnna’s desperate poverty blended into her personal dignity, juxtaposed against the chaotic implosion of the invaders who destroyed her tribe, is perhaps all you need to take away from this comedy. It could be sub-titled, “When Manifest Destiny Ran Out of Gas.”
After that opening scene, Beverly disappears in what appears to be a suicide by drowning, while out on his boat.
That’s when the family moves in: three sisters (Susan Angelo, Abbey Craden and Willow Geer) and two of their spouses — one would-be and one estranged-spouse, to be more precise (Mark Lewis and Aaron Hendry). The sisters have arrived ostensibly to support their mother, Beverly’s widow, Violet (Ellen Geer), a woman, suffering literally and metaphorically from cancer of the mouth, who’s been traversing her wasteland propelled by illegally obtained narcotics.
Daughter Ivy (Craden’s performance is a gentle, genteel rendition of hard-earned self-respect) is unmarried and slipping beyond child-bearing years. She has a thing for her oft-maligned, hopeless cousin, Little Charles (Sam Trueman, a bundle of neuroses). Whether that incest is more taboo than it first appears depends on whether or not you believe a story of mistaken identity told by the perpetually spiteful Violet. And so we’ve been flung from The Wasteland to Oedipus the King. None of us really knows who we are.
I’m not sure a more farcical approach could have survived Topanga Canyon’s extremely vocal crickets. The wonderful cast works hard to be heard, as they must. That takes a bit more time, a few more breaths. And lends the play a depth that the predilections of a broader farce would mask – and have masked elsewhere.
Perhaps it’s the money grubbing at the drama’s core, set in rural Oklahoma, that explains its resonance — the same greed, domestically, we’ve seen mirrored in bank bailouts and CEO protections while an entire middle-class, middle-aged generation lost their jobs and their accompanying social safety net.
Or perhaps the play’s resonance can be explained by the recognizable comedic lunacy of an extended family living on fumes, like Death of a Salesman but with a sense of humor – the end of a civilization exposed through the rapidly decaying fabric of its civility, its generosity, and its curiosity.
Willow Geer’s Karen is way too stuck on herself and on her pervy beau, Steve (Mark Lewis, with perfectly rendered suave creepiness), to recognize that he’s hitting on her 14-year-old niece (Judy Durkin, in a performance laced with nuance).
Melora Marshall rolls in like tornado as Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae Aiken, mostly railing against her son, Little Charlie, which goes a long way to explaining his ingratiating stream of apologies and void of self-respect. Alan Blumenfeld is, by temperament, a comedic actor. Yet in his role as Little Charlie’s father, he defies expectations by serving up a quality of mercy towards Little Charlie that’s kindness personified.
It’s a performance so tender, it underscores the play’s anthem, played out as much in behavior as in words, that human action is motivated by either kindness or cruelty, and that everything else is pretty much nonsense.
And Now for Some Good News:
The L.A. Weekly has finally dropped all long-form theater criticism – long form being 800 words, or one page in the new, reduce-sized book. (This word count shrank from 1200 words about two and half years ago to accommodate the diminished acreage.) This recent decision is part of what I’d guess you could call a trajectory. This isn’t to say stories about local theater have been dropped, or capsule theater reviews (now about two per week, in print, down from 12 in the paper’s heyday). Management conceded that web-hits for the longer-form reviews were on the rise, but explained that the numbers were still not sufficient to justify the continuation of these kinds of articles. The stories being sought in the newly revamped arts section (where theater will now get one slot per month, a 50% cut from three weeks ago, and a 75% cut from three years ago), need to be “fun” and “quirky” to qualify for publication.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with fun or quirky. Of greater concern is that the motive for fun and quirky derives from a metric of click-bait-journalism – chasing an audience rather than challenging an audience – not just chasing a larger audience, but the largest audience possible, while abandoning those who don’t fit a statistical bulge – abandoning them and the stories that might interest them. The impact of that business strategy on the dilution of content should go without saying. Let’s just say the balance is shifting further.
Not so long ago, the L.A. Weekly employed as a columnist the erudite and opinionated classical music critic formerly of the New York Times the Herald Tribune, and Newsweek, Alan Rich. He used to have a weekly classical music column in the L.A. Weekly. Even though his column generated modest hits, compared to, say, articles on rock music and film, those readers that followed him did so with an intensity that the editors then believed justified his column. Until they didn’t. Rich’s column, and coverage of classical music itself, was largely excised from the paper in 2008.
The theater is next.
Why, you may ask, do you never see stories about the theater on network TV – unless, say, Al Pacino is heading the cast? This is less so in other countries, and even in other American cities, where theater continues to linger as part of the larger culture. So long as theater is perceived as some exotic frill, of marginal interest, it’s not going to be discussed by outlets aiming to reach the largest possible audience. Its marginalization, its existence in a bubble, will only be reinforced and perpetuated — the domain of cranks and eccentrics who speak of the theater as a calling rather than a business.
And this is why, collectively, it’s so essential for theater-makers to strive in innovative as well as classical ways to keep theater relevant to people’s lives. I can think of no better strategy than having schoolchildren and college students write their own playlets, even those who have never been to a theater or read a play, have them write about their lives or their fantasies, and have them see those plays enacted, in public. I’ve seen this strategy played out, and I can assure you, it’s transformative and it’s enduring. From there begins the long haul of education and exposure that our public school systems, also, have largely abandoned. To some extent, this is what theaters, from Actors’ Gang to Independent Shakespeare Company to Theatricum Botanicum, are already doing.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Critics largely understand, for example, when theaters are chasing an audience rather than challenging an audience. Even though for theaters, finding their audience has become more arduous (in an age of 20th-century theater’s creeping irrelevance) than for a newspaper to find an online audience. Critics tend to sneer, if only in private, when theaters conspicuously play to and try to placate the crowd, and we praise a theater that has the guts to do its own thing. This is not because we want theaters to be empty or living invisible on the margins, but because we want the theater, and the press that reports it, to mean something, to lead rather than to follow, to provide alternatives to yet another revival of The Phantom of the Opera, and Buzzfeed.
True, better to have Phantom revivals than no theater at all, but would it not be better still if brazenly commercial enterprises such as Phantom employed union actors? (An Equity casting notice advises that the summer, 2015 touring production Phantom of the Opera is not available for union actors.) Wasn’t that what the protests in Steeltown U.S.A. were about? People with deep pockets cutting more slack for people without?
Dear Violet and Mattie Fae: We understand that you like to control things and that you’re exceedingly stubborn, but rather than keeping union actors out of 99-seat theaters, where nobody makes any money and people try to make art, wouldn’t your efforts be more in keeping with the traditions and ideals of your union to get your actors into the Pantages? Why do you keep picking on Little Charlie, instead? Because the unemployment figures within your own union demonstrate that whatever it is you’ve been doing all these years simply hasn’t been working.