It’s time to start paying attention to the Echo Theater Company.
I say that in the same way you might discover after a couple of years that someone has become a dear friend or that the restaurant you go to every week is really good.
Since the Echo Theater Company moved east to Atwater Village in 2014, they’ve been on a roll. Looking back, that move focused the company (or perhaps focused the audience by placing them in the right context). The company has made my top ten list the past two years and they’ll likely repeat again this year after their last two productions “Dry Land” by Ruby Rae Speigel and their current show, “One of the Nice Ones” by Erik Patterson. Both plays, in their own way, are brutal, essential theater.
“Dry Land” takes place in a high school swim team’s locker room. It begins, quite literally, with a punch to the gut. Amy and Esther are on the high school swim team. Amy is pregnant and she definitely doesn’t want to be. In the opening scene, she asks Esther to punch her in the stomach in the hopes of ending her pregnancy. This does not work and after getting Esther to steal her mom’s debit card, Amy gets an abortion pill. She takes it, has nowhere to go, and ends up in her one refuge – the swim team’s locker room.
What happens next is graphic and daring for playwright Ruby Rae Spiegel and the Echo Theater Company to put on stage. We, in the audience, watch these two young women deal with an abortion. There’s blood, there’s pain, there’s shame, and it’s profoundly disturbing and powerful. We experience these high school students dealing with life alone. It’s a difficult scene to watch.
“One of the Nice Ones” by Erik Patterson (which I reviewed this week and plays through August 28th) is a comedy – a dark black comedy. It’s set in the offices of Tender Form Weight Loss Systems. Tracy, our protagonist, works there selling – what we assume are – scam diet programs over the phone. Her job is to keep people talking just long enough to sell them something. Tracy uses a wheelchair but, spoiler alert, she doesn’t need one strictly speaking. While her co-workers think she’s a paraplegic, she really isn’t. She wants to be so badly that she’s willing to sleep with her boss and blackmail him so she can try and travel to Mexico where a doctor will sever her spinal cord in a horrifying act of self-negation.
Horrifying, until playwright Erik Patterson has Tracy through a bout of amnesia (it sounds hokey but in context it works) recount the horrors of her pubescent coming of age where boys and men were so horrid to her and her body that self-negation and disconnection feel tragically appropriate.
Again, not easy territory for an audience. Looking back, in both of my reviews for these shows I found myself saying this was not theater for fragile ears. That tells us as much about the power of the Echo Theater Company as it does the state of the theater. These are plays that will challenge an audience. They are uncomfortable. They make you think.
Importantly, these are also new plays. These are not artistic choices made with the comfort of experience. These are bold decisions to embrace the untested, the unknown. What’s made these choices pay off is the acting and casting has been superb. The company has made bold choices and backed them up.
These aren’t plays you would see at a larger theater (say the Mark Taper Forum or the Geffen Playhouse). That’s a shame but that’s a reality. Part of that has to do with the intimacy of their stories. These are plays that need the audience to be close, the space to feel confined and pressurized. They are also plays that don’t play to a broad theatrical audience of “fragile ears.” These are not, strictly speaking, “a fun night at the theater.” It’s hard to imagine the ad campaign that sells teenage abortion and elective disability to 750 people a night in Los Angeles.
These are plays that need to be done in an intimate, small theater – what we know in LA as 99-seat theaters. That’s not because they are not good plays or productions – to the contrary, they are essential.
Which leads us to the inevitable question right now in Los Angeles theater: what happens to a remarkable company like the Echo Theater Company if the 99-seat plan vanishes in December?