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A New Season

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Well, the new theater season opened officially last night in Los Angeles. The gala premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre kicked off what promises to be an era of new beginnings here on L.A.'s stages.

And new beginnings aren't just taking place on stage or here in Los Angeles. Last week, the French Press reported that in Afghanistan, for the first time in a quarter century, a play by William Shakespeare was performed in public. Yes, a two-week run of Love's Labor's Lost opened in downtown Kabul. For a country that recently prohibited women from showing themselves in public--without a burkha--the thought of Afghani citizens communally enjoying one of Shakespeare's romantic comedies is good news indeed.

Other optimistic news closer to home is that the Los Angeles Times has finally hired a full time theater critic, and a good one at that. Long rumored to be trying to lure a established name from New York, the Times delivered by convincing Village Voice Theater editor Charles McNulty to come west and provide L.A.'s paper of record with an authoritative voice on the dramatic arts. This comes at key time, as this season is a particularly exciting one, and hopefully Mr. McNulty's distinguished status and informed writing will help people in the region--and beyond--discover the promise that Los Angeles holds as a major theatrical hub.

In the next few months L.A. theater enthusiasts will be able to experience the following: Isabelle Huppert performing a Sarah Kane play, the second staging ever of David Mamet's comedy, Romance, the first productions of the Open Fist Theatre Company and the Actors' Gang in their new spaces, a dance piece directed by the director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou, the highly anticipated return of Mark Rylance and the Globe Shakespeare Company, and Meryl Streep on stage...let me repeat that: Meryl Streep on stage.

One of other eagerly awaited events of the new season is, of course, the first piece to be produced by the new head of the Center Theatre Group, Michael Ritchie, who chose to inaugurate his days here in LA with the1935 Sidney Kingsley play, Dead End.

Sure, Dead End is not an exactly an auspiciously titled play to kick off a new regime, but expectations were heightened last week when the play's lavish set was revealed.

In terms of size and scale, the set is perhaps the grandest piece of production design the Ahmanson or Taper has seen. Four stories of Upper East Side tenement buildings rise from the stage and the orchestra pit has been converted to a giant water tank so that New York's East River could be recreated inside the theater.

At opening night last night, the spectacular set earned big cheers at the curtain went up and again during the curtain calls--but sadly there was very little else to applaud. As another KCRW commentator joked at intermission: ---Great set...and how about the set, oh, and did I mention, great set.---

Unfortunately, the set is the main event. The acting, with only a few exceptions, is not inspired, and Sidney Kingsley's play itself is too straightforward and earnest to really connect with today's audiences.

The biggest disappointment though is that rather than use the vast, elaborate stage to create interesting tableaus or daring bits of blocking, director Nicholas Martin simply sets all the action front and center, even if it means people having very private discussions right in the middle of the street.

At least at the premiere there was plenty to watch off-stage. In the audience were members of Monty Python, the captain of the USS Enterprise, cabinet officials...well, cabinet officials from the NBC Bartlett administration...but the Mayor did show up, the real mayor of LA. Really. And he almost got splashed Shamu-style when one of the Bowery Boys cannonballed into the water.

So all in all a fun, but bumpy start to the new season, but still a lot to be optimistic about.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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