The Cart before the Horse

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

OK, there are these young lovers and their love is thwarted by their pompous elders. So they ask their wacky servants to help out, and hilarity ensues.

That is the shortest description ever of Commedia Dell-Arte, a theater style that sprang up in 16th Century Italy with troops of traveling performers who told mostly comedic stories using masks and stock characters...the swaggering captain, the hapless servant, the pompous doctor. It's a tradition the venerable Los Angeles theater company, the Actors' Gang, has turned into their style, what they actually call The Style. And The Style is in evidence with their latest production called Break the Whip.

But the play - which attempts to bring to life the history of the Jamestown colony and the first settlers in America - begs the question: in the theater, should form follow function? Do we begin with a style or do we begin with a story?

The new play is written and directed by the Gang's artistic director Tim Robbins. Robbins tries to weave together an earnest saga of the struggles of the inept and lazy English colonists, the noble Indian tribe, and the industrious Angolan slaves. The epic drama has a cast of 23 actors, three live musicians, shadow puppets, masks, three languages and subtitles.

Having a tough time finding the connection between Italian Commedia and the plight of American settlers? So does this production.

Which brings us back to the question - where do you begin? For the Gang, style is the point of departure. The mask - literally and figuratively - comes first and the interior life second. Sometimes this approach is revelatory. The mask reveals a hidden truth. In Break the Whip, Robbins announces at the start that the goal is not to tell the stock myths of the English settlers - think Pocahontas. Instead, he's interested in the stories of the forgotten, the oppressed - namely the slaves - both black and white. A great idea, but what we end up with is a bold, physical, irreverent style with an earnest, didactic tone - and it's not a happy marriage.

Which is a shame because the Gang is going after something epic both in terms of style and storytelling. It's thrilling to see 23 dedicated and talented actors throw themselves at this story. And theatrically it's all there with the shadow puppets, masks, African dance, billowing blue silk rivers, talking bears - it's kind of a 99-seat-theater version of The Lion King.

I couldn't help wondering if the Gang's signature style wasn't getting in their own way.  The masks - in this case literal masks, the stock, old-school Commedia masks -  rather than exposing deeper truths, served as - well as - masks keeping us at arms length.  I just wish that the form came from the story and the need to tell it - rather than the other way around.

Break the Whip plays at the Ivy Substation in Culver City through November 13. For info on the play text the word “curtain” to 69866.

Which comes first for you - the style or the story? Join the conversation at

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

The Actors' Gang
Ivy Substation
9070 Venice Blvd
Culver City CA 90232

Banner image: (L to R) Colin Golden, Jean Louis Darville, Scott Harris and Adam Jefferis in Break the Whip. Photo by Christopher Ward