Ken Roht is one of Los Angeles- most innovative local artists and in years past, a show in which he served as director or choreographer, would no doubt be the most audacious experimental work around. But these days L.A. is practically swimming in notable avant-garde theater.
These past two weeks saw the opening, not just of Ken Roht-s newest work, Growing with Ghosts, but also the world premiere of Peach Blossom Fan at REDCAT, as well as U-Bung, a lively piece of Belgian dramaturgy presented by UCLA Live!
All three of these stagings are spunky, youthful, and formally ambitious. U-Bung, a Flemish term, meaning practice, consists of a silent black and white film-starring adult actors-projected in the background while upstage, a group of child actors mimic the action on screen and recite the dialogue from the film-s missing soundtrack. U-Bung asks the question: do we ever really grow up-or is adulthood merely childhood with bigger words and fancier clothes?
It sounds interesting, and indeed it-s an inventive theatrical idea-but sadly, the actual events that make up U-Bung-s narrative are clich-d and because of this, the work starts to feel like a Foley session for a Flemish knockoff of La Dolce Vita rather than a complex and original piece of theater.
Ken Roht-s Growing with Ghosts, like U-Bung, is also a meditation on childhood and adulthood. The show opens with a dance number about the joys of reading performed by 10 librarians in drag. This serves as a whimsical prelude to Roht-s installation/musical that tracks the metaphorical journey from the pregnant gardens (i.e. birth) to a George Melies-inspired version of heaven-with stops at toddler-hood, puberty, and middle age along the way.
Musically, the show might be described as Slim Goodbody meets Grease with a little dose of Schoolhouse Rock. Visually, it might be described as-well, actually Roht-s vision really shouldn-t be described. It must be seen, or perhaps more accurately, experienced. Growing with Ghosts almost seems like a ride at an amusement park, except that instead of delivering you at a gift store at the end, Roht-s work provides a deliverance from a secular, or mundane view of life. Our modern lives may fit into discomfortingly similar patterns, Roht seems to be saying, but at every point along the way, there are things filled with wonder. The same can be said about his raucous, rambunctious, but ultimately touching new work. Like Growing with Ghosts, Chen Shi-Zheng-s Peach Blossom Fan, a contemporary re-interpretation of a 17th century Chinese opera, aims to immerse the audience in a total theatrical environment. The entire space at REDCAT has been transformed into a post-modern Chinese -house of leisure- and upon entering, theatergoers are greeted by a gaggle of glam-rock geishas.
A few years ago, Shi-Zheng directed the 19-hour Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion in a traditional fashion, and watching Peach Blossom Fan, it is impressive to see how the Chinese-born director keeps the same manners and styles present in this updated piece.
Unfortunately, Shi-Zheng-s new work lacks the cohesion of Peony Pavilion. The cast, made up of both Cal Arts students and professionals, is uneven. Acting styles vary wildly, even within the same scene.
But even if the sum of Peach Blossom Fan-s parts don-t add up to a perfect gesamkunstwerk, the individual parts themselves are dazzling. Shi-Zheng-s staging is both intelligent and incredibly striking-the giant mosquito and the decorated plastic supermarket freezer flaps are inspired touches. Mary Lou Rosato is a captivating actress and Steven Merritt-s songs are laconic and witty, yet full of emotion.
Despite its flaws, Peach Blossom Fan is intoxicating theater and one of the most important performing arts events of the season. Its last performance is this Saturday night at REDCAT. Ken Roht-s Growing with Ghosts closes on Sunday at the Center for the Arts in Eagle Rock.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.