LA's the Thing

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

Luis Alfaro's latest world premiere Painting in Red produced by Playwrights Arena, is a loose adaptation of Calderon's The Painter of His Own Dishonor.  Even hearing the two titles, you get a sense of the distance between the plays. It was originally developed as part of the Golden Tongues series hosted at UCLA to encourage local writers to adapt Spanish Golden Age plays. Mr. Alfaro was an obvious choice. Over the last decade, he's written a handful of inspired adaptations, mostly of Greek plays.  The standouts have been his Electricidad at the Taper and Oedipus El Rey at the Getty and Boston Court.  Mr. Alfaro, at his core, is an Angeleno and poet.  In his most inspired adaptations, the ancient stories dance between a timeless permanence and an entirely new life.

Calderon's original The Painter of His Own Dishonor is roughly the story of an honor killing.  Its plot line is suitably baroque, following an older painter and his young disenchanted wife.  She's still in love with her previous fiancee, who's been lost (everyone assumes) in a shipwreck.  Many of the details from the original appear in Mr. Alfaro's adaptation but they're completely transformed.  The shipwreck?  Well, remember a few years ago how Olivia Newton John's beau mysteriously disappeared from a fishing trip?  So does Mr. Alfaro and it leads him to have the Aussie singer loom in the background of the play almost like a patron saint.  The rest of the play finds life circling the downtown LA loft art world and its exiles.

This adaptation is challenged by a less than thrilling tension with the original plot.  For all its tweaks, the play is still driving towards a murder.  The trouble is Mr. Alfaro's heart doesn't seem to be in it.  And who can blame him for not wanting to embrace an honor killing?  The result is new writing and Jon Rivera's direction that's light and comic with a sort of brooding shadow lurking in the background.  The two tones are discordant and never really resolve.

The reason to catch the 80-minute one-act in its final week, is to experience an LA audience being treated to LA.  One of Mr. Alfaro's gifts is an ear for the community and the pop cultural icons of the moment.  A Painting in Red is full of LA references from Langer's to the latest Little Tokyo noodle shop, from the death of Joan Rivers to the etymology of Villaraigosa's name.

Critic Don Shirley has long lamented how the plays produced in LA, especially at our larger theaters, often speak more to the Lower East Side than Echo Park.  But in Mr. Alfaro's audience,  there's a joy of recognition, an immediacy.  He's speaking directly to us about our city.  More LA theaters, and playwrights, could learn from this gift.

A Painting in Red plays through this Sunday at the Greenway Court Theater on Fairfax.

Now, at the risk of being a local hypocrite, there are some touring shows you shouldn't miss over the next couple of weeks.

Elevator Repair Service's Arguendo at REDCAT.

Robert Wilson, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Willem Dafoe at UCLA. And if Lear's your thing, Shakespeare at the Broad.

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

Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission.

Photo: Blake Boyd