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FROM THIS EPISODE

Timing Is Everything

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

One of the benefits of L. A.'s equity waiver theater scene is that it affords artists the ability to react quickly to current events. Whereas lumbering Hollywood studios and Broadway organizations can take years putting a project together, a small 99-seat theater can get a topical production up on stage in no time at all. For example, Baghdad fell only a few months before the curtain went up on Embedded, a local production that was one of the first theater pieces to directly address the Iraq war.

When hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans last September, it didn't take long to realize that it could rival 9/11 and Iraq in terms of headline-inspired theatrics. Indeed, last winter, a play titled Floodgate had a reading at the Geffen, and last month The Evidence Room mounted a production of a play titled Inside the Creole Mafia--with the handy subtitle, &quotThe; Post-Katrina Version."

Inside the Creole Mafia was originally produced in 1993. It's a two man performance piece--a sort of two-headed monologue about the people and culture of New Orleans. Inside the Creole Mafia stars its creators, the always interesting actor Roger Guenveur Smith and a musician/artist I haven't seen before, Mark Broyard.

Both are wonderful hosts as they introduce the audience to the names, customs, and music of New Orleans. Smith and Broyard riff off each other for 90 minutes, and listening to these two use language, is like hearing a jam session of two old jazz veterans. Speaking directly to the crowd, finishing each others sentences, or making up things on the spot, their verbal filigree is the major draw of the show.

To be honest, I can't imagine this &quotPost-Katrina; Version" being much different than the pre-Katrina one (apart from asides about &quota; chocolate citiy" and &quotbetter; Reagan than Nagin"), but one can't really accuse them of trying to cash-in, as money from some performances is being donated to hurricane relief efforts.

Ultimately, though Inside the Creole Mafia is more about mood and soul than plot or politics. People desiring didactic screeds against FEMA or Bush-bashing should look elsewhere, but if you like your theater and politics on the mellow side, then sitting back and soaking in this slight, but soulful evocation of Creole culture should provide welcome shelter from the ongoing storm of sanctimonious political plays.

Wars and calamities are not the only thing that can spring small theaters into action. Last fall, when Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was a sure bet that we'd be seeing a good deal of the British playwright's work in the near future.

One local company was well positioned to start putting on Pinter, as they had launched a full survey of his career a few years ago. The Lost Studio only got a few plays in before getting sidetracked, but Pinter's Nobel inspired them to get back on the boards, and now they're staging one of his signature works, No Man's Land.

This 1975 play originally starred John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, and it's in possession of all things Pinteresque: short, opaque dialogue; a bleak, ominous mood and characters who are subtly but brutally struggling for power.

I hadn't seen No Man's Land staged, so I was eager to see this production as I set out for the theater on Sunday. But what followed was an hour almost as absurd as a Pinter play. Sunday, you'll recall, was the Los Angeles Marathon--which meant that many of our city's streets were closed. Wherever I turned to try and get to the theater on La Brea was a dead end--where I was greeted by city traffic officials who spoke in a clipped, vague fashion that Pinter himself would have enjoyed. I wanted to add to the absurdity, when they would ask, &quotWhere; are you trying to go?" by answering, &quotI;'m trying to get to No Man's Land."

I never did find the theater. I gave up my search after looking in the newspaper to find the exact address--so that I could just abandon my car and walk--only to be reminded that the company staging this No Man's Land was called The Lost Studio.

For those who can find it, No Man's Land runs at The Lost Studio through March 26. Inside the Creole Mafia continues at The Evidence Room until April 2.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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