LA's Avante-Garde Premieres: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

In these early weeks of the fall arts calendar, most of LA's larger theaters are serving up leftovers from Broadway's last few seasons; however, two key venues have mounted significant World Premieres by two acclaimed stage artists. REDCAT recently hosted a short run of Richard Foreman's latest theater piece, What to Wear. Foreman has been a staple of New York's downtown theater scene for almost 40 years and this marked a rare West Coast appearance of the auteur's work. What to Wear was a world premiere--but to be honest, it's very similar to shows I've seen at his theater in the East Village. Like those, What to Wear has a barely discernible plot, lots of kooky costumes, and Foreman's booming, big-brother voice that interrupts the proceedings every few minutes.

Ducks play a large role in What to Wear, as do golf clubs, crowns, and plaid skirts. If pressed to describe What to Wear, I would say it's an Alice in Wonderland-themed fashion show as envisioned by the French Cubist painter, Fernand Léger. Clearly, there's some fun being had with the Ugly Duckling parable; but beyond that, it's hard to say. What to Wear is a classic example of abstract, almost absurdist, performance art.

For those willing--or wanting--to spend time in a theater and just let images and sounds wash over them, What to Wear is a feast. The sets and costumes (also designed by Foreman) are striking in their own bizarre way, and the music (composed by Richard Gordon) sounds both poppy and avant-garde, suggesting a mix of Philip Glass and early Hans Zimmer.

Watching What to Wear gave me the same feeling I have when looking at a Matthew Barney film or installation: I can't say that I'm enthralled by these two artists' oceans of extravagance, but I am often struck by the undertows of meaning or poetry that occasionally lap against my senses. Even at their most ridiculous, Barney and Foreman continue to convince me that in their own minds, these worlds of fantasy they've created make perfect sense to them. What to Wear is silly, haunting, and never boring--largely because Foreman instinctively knows to keep his dizzy pageants short.

The same cannot be said for Heather Woodbury. Her expansive new work has an equally expansive title: Tale of 2Cities: An American Joyride on Multiple Tracks. The show is so long it must be performed over two nights. Woodbury grabbed people's attention with her ten-hour, one-woman theater piece called What Ever. A Tale of 2Cities is shorter by half, but not short enough. Two hours into this "American Joyride on Multiple Tracks" I had to press eject.

Experiencing A Tale of 2Cities is like watching a improv session and a poetry slam competing with each other on the same stage. The piece feels unrehearsed and unthought-out. Some of the actors compensate for this by exaggerating their lines and racing through them--as if speed alone will make nonsense into an aria.

The two cities in Woodbury's tale are Brooklyn and Los Angeles--in particular the neighborhoods affected by the destruction of Ebbets Field and the erection of Dodger Stadium. This is certainly fertile ground for theater. Culture Clash farmed it well in their 2003 play Chavez Ravine. Certainly there's room for multiple versions of this story, but in focusing on the epic scope of her narrative, Woodbury has neglected to put the flavor of the people and places she's writing about on stage. The cast of six actors (plus Woodbury) is talented--especially Winsome Brown, who injects real personality into her monologues--but they are overwhelmed the excess of words and the lack of stagecraft. Woodbury calls her work a "living novel." Perhaps it will evolve. Right now--to paraphrase the deceased author's book that inspired her title--her Tale of 2Cities is far from "The best of times."

Heather Woodbury's Tale of 2Cities, Parts 1 & 2 run through this Sunday at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.