Crowning Achievements

Hosted by

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

In the next few days, two of the biggest cultural events of the year will be taking place.  One will happen here in LA, with the eyes and ears of the world watching; the other is simply an announcement, but it is a historic one: on Monday in New York City, one lucky playwright will be awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

This year, three plays are rumored to be shortlisted: the plucky musical In the Heights, which will be coming to the Orange County Performing Arts Center next summer.  The droll relationship comedy, Becky Shaw, written by Law and Order scribe, Gina Gianfriddo.  And finally, Ruined, the new play by Lynn Nottage.

RuinedConventional wisdom suggests that Ruined will win.  The play’s subject matter is the most serious — Ruined is about a Mother Courage-like woman who runs a brothel and bar in a war-torn African village — and the awards Nottage won for her 2004 play Intimate Apparel should count in her favor.

Personally, I feel that of the three, Becky Shaw is the most lasting of these three pieces.  All possess strong writing and their productions showcased vibrant performances, but I feel both In The Heights and Ruined are more fashionable right now — and thus, more likely to win. This isn’t to say Becky Shaw is a masterpiece; it has some real flaws; however, its characters are so rich, I suspect actors will still be eager to dig into Gianfriddo’s juicy dialogue for years to come.  

The other major American cultural event of this week is Esa-Pekka Salonen's finale with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Next season, the podium at Disney Hall will be the realm of the Venezuelan wunderkind, Gustavo Dudamel, whose youthful, demonstrative conducting style boasts more theatricality than most Broadway choreography these days.  But that’s looking ahead.

This weekend, Salonen is the focus, and it’s fitting that the program features the music of Igor Stravinsky.  Under Salonen, the signature piece for the LA Phil has been Stravinsky’s score to the 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring.

StravinskyNot only was it a shrewd move by Salonen to emphasize the orchestra’s connection to Stravinsky (given that the émigré composer lived in West Hollywood for much of his later life) but it also played to his and the L.A. Phil musicians’ modern-leaning strengths.  

One of the most memorable performances of the past decade was Salonen and the orchestra’s explosive playing of The Rite of Spring at the opening of Disney Hall.  It’s fitting then that Salonen has chosen another stage work by Stravinsky as his swan song: the 1927 musical adaptation of Oedipus Rex.

This 50-minute version of Sophocles’ play is a mash-up of operatic and dramatic styles, and director Peter Sellars has turned the stage at Disney Hall into something resembling a Greek amphitheater.  Oedipus and his queen stand above the citizens of Thebes (represented by the chorus and orchestra) and sit on ornate Ethiopian thrones.  Sellars has also linked the work to another composition by Stravinsky written three years later; The Symphony of Psalms, which acts here as a spiritual epilogue to the Oedipal tragedy. 

Jean Cocteau’s original French text has been translated into English and its spoken here by Viola Davis, who incidentally, was the actress who played the lead in Lynn Nottage’s play Intimate Apparel when it played at the Taper five years ago.

Should be an exciting weekend.

Peter Sellars’ staging of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex runs tonight through Sunday as part of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s farewell to the LA Phil; the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama is announced this Monday.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner Image: Mathew Imaging