Linguistic Elegies

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

A big, ambitious, and rough new drama is currently receiving its World Premiere in Culver City. It's called The Wake and it's a must-see before it moves north to Berkeley Rep and inevitably east to New York.

The Wake is the latest play by Lisa Kron, the playwright who wrote Well, a self described "one woman show with other people." Well has never made it to Los Angeles (despite runs off-Broadway, Broadway and Northern California) and it should, preferably with Kron playing the narrator; but until it does, we have The Wake, although its run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre is far too short.

heidi-wake.jpgThe Wake does not star the playwright, instead its main character, Ellen, is played by Heidi Schreck. Schreck is an actress of incredibly quiet magnetism. As in the recent Off-Broadway hit, Circle Mirror Transformation (which was just announced as coming to South Coast Rep next season) Ms. Schreck is the object of seemingly everyone's affection in The Wake. Schreck is attractive, but not aggressively so in some perfect, supermodel way, she holds your attention with her presence, her posture, her sense of being real, flesh-and-blood person.

Her Ellen feels like someone you may know, someone who's living in the wake of real-life events from the past 10 years: Bush v. Gore, September 11th, the Iraq war. The Wake of the title is a play on words — in direct addresses to the audience, Ellen looks back on her life, like someone on a ship, staring at the path left behind in the water. The Wake also suggests a period of mourning. For Ellen, who's obsessed with George W. Bush, America died on December 12, 2000 (the day Al Gore conceded the election) and the years since then have been a sort of solemn vigil, as she and the political left watches over the nation's lifeless body, a Terry Schiavo waiting to be revived.

Kron's play is filled with political arguments and though its plot is little more than a love triangle, the subtext is much grander. Kron's play is, in a quieter, more intimate fashion, trying to do for the Bush II era, what Tony Kushner did for the Reagan years with Angels in America. Director Leigh Silverman employs video projection, giving us CNN highlights (or lowlights, as Ellen no doubt sees them) of W.'s administration, but most of Kron's political points come from the characters and their lives — not from headlines.

For those fearing yet another Bush-bashing play, Kron's work is a critique of the opposition: Ellen will tell anyone who will listen why the country shouldn't go it alone in Iraq or that American exceptionalism is a fantasy, but The Wake forces us to see how her actions are at odds with her words. The same policies Ellen decries politically are exactly the methods she employs in her everyday, personal life.

The ideas in Kron's play are worthy of an audience's time alone — which is good, because The Wake is over two-and-a-half-hours — but it's the quality of the acting, and Silverman's strong direction that make it great theater.

lang_arc1.jpgSadly this is not the case with South Coast Rep's current World Premiere. The new play by Julia Cho, The Language Archive, also features a short run and a strong cast — plus it has Neil Patel's gorgeous set that doubles as spacious library (complete with rolling ladders) and an artisanal bakery. Despite this heavenly combination of bread and bookshelves, the play itself offers little nourishment. The tone is whimsical, but the jokes—mainly involving a squabbling ethnic couple—are leaden.

Kron's The Wake is an example of how theater can address both the epic and the personal in a powerful fashion; Cho's new play is a reminder that without strong, clear, or daring ideas, a playwright is tempting the audience to stay home and watch HBO.

Julia Cho's The Language Archive continues through Sunday at South Coast Repertory; Lisa Kron's The Wake also runs through Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image of (L-R) Heidi Schreck and Emily Donahoe in The Wake: Craig Schwartz