This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
Supporting local theater is one of those earnest, well-meaning things—like adopting puppies, volunteering at soup kitchens, and voting in non-presidential elections—that many Angelinos talk about doing more than they actually do.
Indeed, Los Angeles theater needs more people to support it—but the corollary to that is that Los Angeles Theater needs to give people something to support.
The Actors' Gang and Culture Clash are two local troupes that embody the potential that West Coast Theater can exhibit. The Actors' Gang, founded in LA over 25 years ago, consistently produces provocative theater that doesn't have its sights on Broadway. Culture Clash, founded in San Francisco around twenty years ago, has been a steady presence here in the southland recently, creating comic theater that is unabashedly LA-centric.
This summer however, both companies have rolled out new shows that fall far short of expectations; examples of why independent theater in LA is in such dire need of support.
The Actors' Gang's adaptation of Gulliver's Travels is the type of production that begs for descriptions like "imaginative" and "creative." P. Adam Walsh's staging employs shadow-play, miniatures and wacky costumes in an attempt to render Swift's novel on stage. What his colorful antics fail to do is engage the audience on either a narrative or intellectual level. Combined with Josh Zeller's script, the experience feels like CliffsNotes brought to you courtesy of Romper Room.
Culture Clash's Zorro in Hell is a loose investigation of the Zorro myth and legacy. Translated out of art-speak, an "investigation" means that Culture Clash didn't bother to write a play, but merely wrapped their old, sketch comedy routine in a black cape and eye mask. Some of the jokes are amusing, but when compared to their Chavez Ravine—which smartly sewed local history and humor together—the satire in Zorro in Hell brandishes a pretty dull blade.
It should be noted that these two shows have avant-garde trappings (Gulliver's sets, Zorro's magical realism, best personified by Kyle, the Grizzly Bear psychoanalyst) and both have political undercurrents.
Unfortunately, both shows' agitprop and stagecraft feels lazy and unexamined—leaving audiences with half-baked productions of tepid themes and vague narratives.
The mix of knee-jerk, liberal politics and quirky, light-Brechtian style is very much in fashion at theaters all over California. This school of theater proposes that coarse language or scatological humor automatically makes a piece daring, that bashing politicians equals depth and that just because something is put on a stage, it should be called "Theater."
Zorro in Hell and Gulliver's Travels are certainly not the worst examples of this brand of wannabe-theater; but the fact that both are from our region's better troupes is disconcerting. Mostly, they show just why people in Los Angeles feel like they need to "support" local theater, instead of enjoying it—to say nothing of being enraged or challenged by it.
Gulliver's Travels runs through September 8 at the Actors' Gang; Zorro in Hell continues through September 9 at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Hollywood.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.