An Exciting Failure

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

For the past decade, Theater Movement Bazaar has been busy defining a style, an aesthetic.

Tina Kronis and Richard Alger are the creative duo at the company's helm. They've covered everything from Cold War nuclear angst mixed with sexual politics to international espionage through the filter of Orpheus and Eurydice. Alger provides the words, Kronis the choreography and direction.

Alger's texts have more in common with a DJ remixing rhythms than with a traditional playwright. His scripts have sampled everything from Strindberg to the Betty Crocker Cook Book.

Kronis sets these words to a precise choreography that provides a physical punctuation and visual through-line. The worlds they created were a wonderfully bizarre mash-up of the wackiness of Richard Foreman mixed with the gestural precision of Pina Bausch.

Their latest world premiere at Boston Court Theater, The Treatment is an adaptation of an Anton Chekhov short story title, Ward 6.

We follow a country doctor who's stuck running a hospital in rural Russia in the 1890's. His medical philosophy is basically: my patients are all going to die in the end anyway so why bother deceiving them with treatment. He thinks himself superior to everyone in town and can't find anyone worthwhile to talk to - so he's retreated to his study where he's lost himself in books and shots of vodka. Then one day he's passing by "Ward 6," the looney bin, and an inmate challenges him:

"Why are we locked up and you free to come and go?"

To which the good doctor offers the foreshadowing reply, "As long as prisons and asylums exist, someone must be locked up in them."

As the play opens six men in ghostly, half-light and deconstructed costumes break into a high-stepping dance of gestures and gyrations. Then a weekly staff meeting at the hospital erupts into a synchronized ballet of awkward glances and scribbles. We're in familiar Kronis and Alger territory.

But as we get deeper into the heart of the story a curious thing happens - their trademark style recedes. Rather than witty asides and crisp choreography we have something closer to ...well Chekhov.

Trouble is the audience isn't quite ready for it and the play hasn't quite earned it. The mechanics of a short story are different from the demands of the theater and Chekhov's story is more of a meditation on suffering, empathy, and sanity than a gripping drama. We find ourselves, like our reluctant protagonist doctor, on a train to Poland with no real idea why we're going there.

If you're interested in a single play - this one disappoints. The style doesn't support the 90 minutes or help focus the story to its emotional core.

But if, like me, you're interested in Theater Movement Bazaar's larger body of work and the evolution of two artists who have committed to making ensemble theater in LA: The Treatment is an exciting failure. They are moving into deeper more complicated territory where clever commentary and witty choreography isn't enough.

That's exciting.

The Treatment plays at the Boston Court Theater in Pasadena through March 25.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Banner image: Banner image: (L-R) Mark Skeens, Mark Doerr, Jake Eberle and Jacob Sidney in The Treatment. Photo by Ed Krieger