Terra & Thugs

Hosted by
In the wake of the Globe Theater's all-male TWELFTH NIGHT, it is interesting to note that two other Los Angeles theaters are currently presenting plays that also have almost entirely male casts.

At the Odyssey Theater, a new production titled AMONG THE THUGS features a cast that's all men--nine actors who portray countless soccer hooligans and one actor who plays a literary icon.

AMONG THE THUGS is a stage adaptation of a book by Bill Buford--the fabled editor of Granta who went on to become Tina Brown's fiction editor at the New Yorker. Buford, in fine participatory journalistic fashion, immersed himself in the world of British Football fans during the 1980's-and amazingly, he lived to tell about it.

Buford's book is full of scenes of urban warfare: street riots, stadium-sized brawls, even a neo-Nazi recruitment party. With only a small cast and few props, director Steve Pickering impressively brings these scenes to life.

On the page, Buford's descriptions of the soccer matches are vivid; but on the stage, the violent stomps and militaristic cadences of the football chants can be viscerally felt. The frenzied mob atmosphere becomes palpable, which gives the mostly anecdotal work a genuine theatricality.

As with any dramatization of a book, detail must be sacrificed for generalization--but sadly, the adaptation by Tom Szentgyorgi jettisons the soul of the book (which is rooted in social politics) in favor of a more audience-friendly conflict: the slippery relationship between journalist and subject. Yes, there is a dramatic conflict in Buford's compliance with the thugs, but it seems like a subplot. But how these thugs became thugs--and moreover why they became thugs, these are the questions the book tries to answer, which the play shies away from. Granted, no one goes to the theater wanting to hear a sociology lecture, but it seems almost negligent that a play set in England during the eighties fails to mention the name Thatcher even once.

Still, this is an ambitious work that seems to be connecting with audiences. The young cast is energetic and the staging economic--and often quite powerful. The final scene of the play is particularly so. The hooligans chant for their favorite team, Man U--and as the word "United" is repeated over and over, it begins to lose its meaning. The lights eventually go down, but the thugs linger, angrily flailing about in the dark.

At South Coast Repertory, audiences do get to see one actress--albeit briefly--in the play TERRA NOVA. Nina Landey plays the wife of Robert Falcon Scott, the British explorer who set out with a team of men to discover the South Pole in 1911.

Ted Tally's 1977 play is a dramatic re-enactment of that fateful journey, so Landey is seen only in flashback. The majority of the play is devoted to five men as they trudge their way through the icy tundra of Antarctica.

The initial scenes of the play are awkward, with lots of clunky exposition that is not helped by shaky British accents--in particular Don Reilly who as the main character, sounds like he's impersonating James Mason. But after the requisite tough-guy lines like "I always wanted to see spit freeze" are dispensed with, the play does find its own rhythm, one where the inherently interesting subject matter and the subtle characterizations are allowed to surface.

South Coast's production values are high, so the bleak emptiness of the world's coldest and least-populated continent is nicely evoked. Big icy walls frame the set and authentic period photographs are occasionally projected in an effective manner. (It also felt as if the air conditioning in the theater was cranked up a few notches).

TERRA NOVA does provide the basics for an enjoyable evening of professional theater, but what it lacks on almost every level is spark. The play's topic may have been novel back in 1984 when it won an Obie Award, but these days it seems like every night on cable television there's a new documentary about some doomed 19th century expedition. Tally's play may about the bold discovery of new ground, but this production of TERRA NOVA feels like familiar territory.

This is James Taylor with Theater Talk for KCRW.