Formally Excavating the Past

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

Form is a beautiful thing and right now it's filling two stages in downtown LA that couldn't be more different in scale... and yet are oddly both resurrecting the past and relying on the power of form to tell the hidden stories.

The first you've probably heard of director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan Lori Parks' adaptation of Porgy and Bess at the Ahmanson.

The second is tucked away on Chung King Road in Chinatown: Susan Simpson's noir puppet drama Concrete Variations.

Let's start with the big one Porgy and Bess. This is the touring production of the controversial 2012 Tony Award winner. The controversy, in a nutshell, surrounds Ms. Paulus bringing on playwright Susan Lori Parks to help, in her words, in the "excavating and shaping and modernizing" the 1935 opera. Now for the purists this was sacrilege. Here was an American masterpiece, Gershwin! How dare anyone suggest its dramaturgy was less than stellar!

Step back and there's the poetic irony of a scandal being caused by an African American playwright being brought in to work on an opera about black folks written only by white folks.

My advice, Google the scandal after you see this amazing production. Ms. Paulus' clean and elegant direction brought me closer to not only the musical's characters but to the lyrical form itself. Juxtaposing the simple struggle of good versus evil is the remarkable musical complexity. They don’t write ‘em like this anymore so even if you're not a lover of musicals, this is a show not to miss.

While you're resurrecting the past downtown, you should shift scale entirely from the grandeur of "Catfish Row" to the dark and seedy streets of 1950's LA for Susan Simpson's puppet noir Concrete Variations.

For those of you not familiar with Ms. Simpson's work or home base Automata, these aren't the kind of puppets that come with an ice cream sundae.

Ms. Simpson has crafted a classic noir thriller swirling around a lesbian cop, some salacious photos and, of course, a couple of mysterious murders. The two hour story traverses the city stopping in seedy diners, underground dyke bars, rooftop stakeouts, and ritzy sex parties. It's all the classic cliché elements until you remember that the lead actor is barely a foot tall - which in this case makes it all the more engaging.

To give you a feel for it: when you sit in one of the theater's 40 odd seats, in front of you is what looks a bit like a bar; behind it, a series of cubbyholes holding all the puppets and meticulously crafted scenery. A trio of puppeteers clad in black with workman-like aprons serves up the manipulated drama on this bar-top stage.

If you've never been to Automata, well who can say no to experimental puppet noir?

Porgy and Bess plays at the Ahmanson Theater through June 1 downtown.

Concrete Variations plays at Automata through this Sunday in Chinatown.

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

Running Time for Porgy and Bess: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission
Running Time for Concrete Variations: 2 hours with one intermission

Banner image: Concrete Folk Aaron looks up from the paper in a scene from Concrete Variations. Photo: Susan Simpson