Fallujah; Women Laughing Alone With Salad; The Understudy
By Myron Meisel
The Emotional Carnage and Immediate Urgency of Long Beach Opera’s Extraordinary Fallujah
One of the perks of doing a column allows me to craft my own schedule. So it was only after booking the past week’s theater attendance almost entirely on the basis of what plays most caught my interest, that it emerged that I was seeing five works in five days all authored by women. And now, looking backward as I write, I notice with surprise that thirteen of the last fifteen shows I have attended were also written by women (if one counts Julia Wolfe’s extraordinary oratorio Anthracite Fields, done at Walt Disney Hall, for which she assembled and arranged her sung texts), without even noticing that was happening — it wasn’t any conscious goal.
This would seem to matter a great deal, though the biggest portion of that significance may be that it’s just that interesting art transcends issues of mere stats. Put another way, while strategy may exert the most influence leveraging from the top down, progress is made by degrees from the bottom up, one unbiased decision on the merits at a time. That noted, what matters always is the work itself.
The world premiere of Fallujah, with libretto by Heather Raffo and music by Tobin Stokes, manifests such immediate urgency that I implore you to secure your tickets to the few remaining performances before finishing this review. For those of more homely persuasion, Friday night’s performance will be simulcast on KCET in probably its most culturally alert endeavor since its divorce from PBS. This new opera begs to be seen in performance, or at least one so stingingly vivid as this mounting, designed and directed by Long Beach Opera artistic director Andreas Mitisek, and I doubt any audio recording would do it remotely as much justice. The television may be superior to missing it entirely, though the primal axiom of theater is that you have to be there.
Generated from the experiences of Marine Lance Corporal Christian Ellis and others both in combat and then dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome upon returning home, Fallujah also incorporates the inescapable terror of ordinary Iraqi citizens confronted with even more omnipresent consequences of the conflict. Fallujah was the highly contested urban battlefield where, in 2004, four American civilian contractors were burned and hanged from the city’s now-infamous bridge, arousing vengeful retaliation from our troops, under orders to storm house-to-house, shooting anyone who had not evacuated.
There were extraordinary barbarisms and anguished attempts at humane engagement at odds on all sides. Raffo, an American actor and writer of half-Iraqi descent, engaged in sensitive and extensive research and interviews and masterfully marshals compassionate regard for the moral quandaries and emotional carnage of all involved. The exceptional achievement of her dramatic writing resides in her ability to compress emotions without sacrificing their slippery complexity, resulting in epigrammatic expression ideal for rendition in song. She conjures up a visceral social awareness of the casualties of violence to both perpetrator and victim, suggesting a degree of interchangeability between them that transcends the reductive clichés of war’s hellishness.
Raffo’s poetic sensibility finds a complementary support in Stokes’ polyglot score, bereft of sentimentality, prone to a rockish aggression without employing its sound, often relying on intricate mood-setting and supplying a foundation of contrasts. I’ve never encountered his music before (he’s recorded a Concertino for Bass Clarinet, but I couldn’t score a copy), though he’s amassed considerable credits as a composer of Canadian documentaries, as well as a prior opera collaboration with Margaret Atwood (Pauline). Nevertheless, this is that rare opera indeed in which the music conscientiously serves the libretto, instead of providing the primary vehicle for development of the piece’s ideas.
As befits a world premiere performance after extended development, a palpable sense of collaboration permeates the overall experience, as elements of design, movement, lighting and interpretation collude with a percolating freshness that suits the work’s topicality. The choice of venue proves to be a crucial inspiration: a cavernous space in the Army National Guard building that allows a football field-like horizontal playing space that hides different levels, in which players can suddenly appear to be both subjectively far away from the characters, yet all equidistant from the audience. It’s conscious artifice that conveys an unreality of perspective, which in turn endows a perception of candid commitment to the real truths of battlefield anxieties and reflexes.
Performances are all top-notch, given that Stokes’ settings manage to be disturbing yet intimately sensitive to the voice and to the rhythms of the language. Although, for a protagonist, LaMarcus Miller’s Philip does not dominate the proceedings by driving the action or engaging in an heroic arc, Miller’s incarnation of inner torment or of ambiguous bravado cuts deeply, anchoring the opera in a most convincing portrayal of great psychological depth. It may be the finest LBO leading turn since Nmon Ford in Ernest Bloch’s Macbeth in 2013. And as his adoptive mother, the company’s ubiquitous mainstay, Suzan Hanson, always an impressively flexible and lovely singer (she will appear solo in LBO’s next production of Poulenc’s version of Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine), has matured from a good actress to one so in command of her inflections and effects that I for one would love to see her tackle straight acting roles as well.
Also particularly effective is an apparently last-minute deployment of an opening video of interviews with veterans suffering PTSD, all of whom were engaged with the production. It sets the context poignantly, as well as being the opening salvo of truly superlative video design by Hana S. Kim, whose subtle visual strategies integrate powerfully with the momentum of the narrative. It set me in mind of last year’s best documentary film (among so many), Of Men and War, itself a lifetime-later reprise of John Huston’s seminal 1945 Let There Be Light.
Opera deserves to be exciting, provocative and, despite its reputation, relevant. To tackle contemporary issues using the tools of musical theater may be among its highest purposes. I wish there would be an unending stream of inevitably uneven efforts to bring the world of now into the form, but I take comfort that LBO and other enterprising companies with faith in its living dynamism will undertake to present them.
A Polarizing and Congenially Raunchy Women Laughing Alone with Salad
From Kate Crackernuts through Crumble (Lay me down, Justin Timberlake), Lascivious Something and Roadkill Confidential to her best work to date, the award-winning Everything You Touch, Sheila Callaghan has purveyed a consistently inventive theatrical vision, always identifiably hers, yet with a flair for ranging variations across a spectrum of anger to whimsy. With two shows currently running locally — the proudly scabrous Bed at the Echo in Atwater Village and the more congenially raunchy Women Laughing Alone with Salad at a contrasting venue, the Kirk Douglas in Culver City — as well as her regular work in television, Callaghan has amassed a track record as one of our most valued playwrights. She has always written for the stage with a flexibility to ply her talents just as she chooses, and there’s every reason to expect that even greater creative freedom lies ahead.
For the presenting Center Theater Group, Salad actually represents a genuine risk of polarizing its core audience. Even before opening, there was word of walkouts and disaffected audience reaction (although the demographic trended towards those even older than I). Callaghan delights in being a graphically funny writer whose humor punches with an ideological twist, jokes whose wit gets under the skin without the salve of reassurance that the humor is all in good fun. She’s a sharp satirist who doesn’t spare the viewer and delights in trafficking in uncomfortable issues of irrational behavior underpinned by demanding psychological insecurities. She isn’t shy about hostility: sometimes you have to wonder whether a character is repressing fury that needs to be released, or aggressing with malice what ought to kept within.
In this play, body issues are the ostensible subject, although actually only a jumping-off point for an examination of gender roles that tweaks cliché without indulging in it. The opening image illustrates the title, as three women sit alongside one another as strangers on a park bench, each indulging with plastic implements scooping out containers of iceberg. They feel amusement at their own stereotype, and their ironic delight is infectious. Then a man plants himself in the middle of the bench, a spanner in the works of female solidarity, however ludicrously embodied.
This male representative, “Guy” (David Clayton Rogers), has a too-close relationship to his Gorgonish mother, Sandy (Lisa Banes), a former feminist activist now obsessed with the physical maintenance of staving off the aging process. His girlfriend Tori (Nora Kirkpatrick) suffers from severe eating issues. Escaping to a dance club, he espies the charismatically comfortable Meredith (Dinora Z. Walcott), an attractively normal-proportioned woman inevitably dismissed by the others as excessively ample.
The action essentially unfolds accordingly to relatively established dramaturgical beats, though Callaghan’s extravagantly bawdy dialogue continually edges the material into outlandish realms that nevertheless sting in their exaggeration of recognizable verisimilitude. It’s daring, yet in its way also careful to manage its transgressions. While the climax of the first act may well seem to be a rambunctious threesome, Callaghan tops that with one of the most chillingly original mother-son comic-horror scenes since Noel Coward’s The Vortex, a coup brilliantly brought off by Banes. (On the downside, the premise that the ‘70’s second-wave sisterhood would terrorize out of the movement a woman who chose not to abort doesn’t convince as period-likely.)
In the second act, Callaghan tips her hat to one of the seminal English playwrights of the last half century, Caryl Churchill, whose landmark classic, Cloud 9, is receiving a superlative, essential revival by the Antaeus Company, as more fully discussed by Terry Morgan in his Stage Raw review. Churchill’s extensive work now seems so enduring, its power so undimmed, that she comprises a serious challenge to the dominance of Harold Pinter in the literature, and her influence might eventually prove as pervasive.
As in Cloud 9, characters here cross-dress to assume roles in counterpoint to how we’ve seen them previously: Banes’ mother is now her son four years later, having followed her advice in abandoning his muse for marketing, while the other two women become bro-bonding male creative execs whipping up seductive images of shaming women into buying a new tranquilizer, and Rogers dons dress and wig as the new senior management of unimpeachable attainment, deploying her advanced education in future-wave feminism to master the dominance of corporate power.
The satire in the second act, which really functions structurally more as a coda, may be a more conventional stripe, but the ironies plumbed are more subversive and tonally unsettling. It withholds any release, let alone resolution, offering no reassurance of the intractability of the issues raised. It’s brave, it probably doesn’t quite work, yet it is intellectually honest and propounds some insights with genuine novelty.
Like the lesser (and less perverse) effort, Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers (currently at the Geffen, and reviewed for SR by Gray Palmer), the implication is suggested that true gender equality does not imply only a lofty level access to achieve excellence, but rather equal opportunity to be mediocre, to be a tool of the system, to be ruthless, selfish, even to be what is now called “a dick.” So long as men are rewarded despite — and even because of — these ineffably human limitations, while a double standard of dismissal pertains to women who are expected to be perfect and then condescended and damned for it through an undermining rhetoric of can’t-win dismissal, there is no legitimate social equity. Equality of opportunity implies an equality of shared human frailty and failings, ideally somewhere beyond judgment alone.
All four players, Walcott and Banes especially, feast on their multiple roles, and the high production values meaningfully enhance the sardonic vitriol of the work. Lighting by Elizabeth Harper, sound by John Zalewski, costumes by Ann Closs-Farley, set by Keith Mitchell and projections by Keith Skretch are masterfully employed to create a novel atmosphere capable of lewdly comic brightness amidst barely repressed existential despair. In short, it seems very much a show directed by Neel Keller, all elements consistent with his own trademark style that can’t quite be pinned down, though it’s easy to recognize and feel comfortable in good hands as he proceeds to lead us through discomfiting acknowledgments of how fucked up even the most quotidian aspects of our existences may be.
Theresa Rebeck’s Dexterous and Savvily Realized The Understudy
Coming a generation earlier than Callaghan, Theresa Rebeck (Mauritius, Seminar) mapped out a career course for many like her to model. Her early comedies boasted a fresh perspective that hadn’t been encountered before onstage (The Family of Mann, Bad Dates, Spike Heels), and she continued to develop her sensibility into more commercial theatrical directions (also while working in television). Her 2009 piece, The Understudy, receives its west coast premiere in a nine-performance engagement at the tiny Working Stage space.
It’s kind of an exercise, though dexterously and savvily realized, as exercises are meant to be. An embittered, failed stage actor (he’s just changed his name) reports for his sole run-through as understudy for an action movie star in the unlikely fantasy of an undiscovered, three-hour hit Kafka adaptation on Broadway. Equally fanciful, the preening and presumptively untalented blockbuster hero is himself understudying an even bigger, never-seen Hollywood megastar (who earns ten times his quote), who is assaying a multitude of parts in the play while ever open to take another lucrative movie role.
Rebeck understand actors and nails rehearsal misbehavior cold with considerable drollery and intermittent perceptiveness. Her mock Kafka is a hoot, and the controlling conceit of a Kafkaesque backstage intrigue mostly sustains the antics. Braxton Molinaro as the insecure understudy convinced of his superior gifts, Max Bunzel as the vain celebrity with more chops than are apparent, and in the showiest role, Magdalene Vick as the put-upon, wronged stage manager (those unsung champions of every show) all impart savory flavor to roles that, while built upon stereotypes, never descend to them. Within highly limited resources, director Laura Henry displays a sure hand.
The energy ultimately flags as the action must progress toward some resolution, but while one of Rebeck’s lesser efforts, The Understudy is still a pleasurably satisfying entertainment, a good night of inside theater.
Fallujah, Long Beach Opera at Army National Guard, 854 E. 7th Street, Long Beach; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sunday March 20 at 2:30 p.m. (Friday performance will be simulcast on KCET); through March 20. (562) 432-5934, longbeachopera.org. Running time: One hour, 33 minutes.
Women Laughing Alone with Salad, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1:30 & 6 p.m.; through April 3. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org. Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes (with intermission).
The Understudy, Working Stage Theater, 1516 N. Gardner St., Hollywood, Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through March 27. (800) 838-3006, theunderstudy.brownpapertickets.com. Running time: One hour, 15 minutes.