A Raucous 'Peace' and Intoxicating 'Encounter'

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

A simple, joyous belief in theater as entertainment radiates from two productions currently playing here on the west coast.

peace300.jpgThe first is the annual production of a Greek classic at the Getty Villa's outdoor amphitheater. Peace marks the fourth staging seen on the Getty's stage — and it is the most enjoyable yet. Directed by Cornerstone Theater founder Bill Rauch and adapted freely — really freely — by Culture Clash and John Glore, Aristophanes' rarely revived comedy becomes a noisy, stinky, shaggy riot. This version of Peace loosely follows the plot points of the Greek master's 2,500 year old work, keeping the giant pile of feces, the flying dung beetle, and the heap of stones that have to be moved in order to rescue a woman named “Peace.”

peace171.jpgAs with their best work, Culture Clash uses this classic structure as a hanger on which to showcase their own topical, LA-brand of humor. Sometimes this style can get old fast (as in their last show about the Zorro myth); likewise, director Rauch's penchant for multicultural kumbaya theater. Working together though, Culture Clash and Rauch bring out the best in each other's work — Culture Clash ensures that irreverence always thumps any incoming sanctimony; and Rauch keeps the Clash focused on the drama, steering them from the whirlpool of improv navel-gazing.

peace167.jpgThere are many things to praise: the acting, the costumes, the use of the Getty's space, and especially the mariachi music played by a trio of women known as “Las Colibri.” Also noteworthy is Rausch and the Clash's courage to be equal opportunity offenders. They make fun of easy targets like Republicans and Michael Jackson, but they also skewer sacred L.A. institutions like the Getty itself and its problems with Italian antiquities agents. (Peace even pokes fun at this radio station during an extended gag where Aristophanes shows up for a taping of Bookworm.)

The show's sense of humor is perhaps not for everyone; but on the night I attended, the audience howled through most of the show. The jokes are often cheap and vulgar, but most Athenian Old Comedies were pretty bawdy too. Previous Getty stagings may have looked more authentic, yet this production of Peace feels more true to the spirit of theater's ancient traditions.

encounter1.jpgJust as Culture Clash has honed its signature style through years of performing, so to has the Kneehigh Theatre troupe under the direction of Emma Rice. Seeing this Cornish company has been a highlight of recent trips to the UK, so it's great to report that Kneehigh is finally making its West Coast debut in San Francisco with their production of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter. Rice's staging of this British chestnut shows off her proclivity for performers doubling as musicians, scaffolding sets that transform into different environs, and most of all: an unabashed love of old-fashioned stage magic and make-believe.

encounter11.jpgThere are only nine performers on stage in Brief Encounter, but you'd swear there's many more. (The cast is different from when I saw it in London, yet the performances still sparkle.) Rice rarely gives her actors a moment to breathe: one minute they're acting out a difficult scene center-stage, and the next minute they're making sound effects or playing a musical instrument in the background.

encounter5.jpgFor theater lovers, all this action is catnip; but Rice's post-modernism doesn't detract from Coward's plot, nor the restrained, passionate emotions of his repressed, British suburbanites. Rice also pays homage to the show's past as a one-act play, radio drama and, of course, a classic David Lean film — but unlike so many screen-to-stage adaptations it also stakes out its own artistic ground. As both a simple love story and as innovative theater, Kneehigh's Brief Encounter is live performance at its most enchanting.

The U.S. Premiere of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter runs through October 11 at American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco; Culture Clash's update of Aristophanes' Peace runs through October 3 at the Getty Villa in Malibu.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.