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CTG's Desai decision...and the Ahmanson's '1776.' Hitting the Road in 'Scintilla.'
Plus 'Private Lives' and 'Ava'
Snehal Desai is approaching a high wire.
No tightrope in LA theater is higher than the balance beam that challenges the artistic director of Center Theatre Group — the job that Desai will assume in August, after leaving his similar position at the much smaller, Asian-American-specific East West Players.
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He will be in charge of programming the Mark Taper Forum and the larger Ahmanson Theatre at LA County’s downtown Music Center, beginning with the 2024-2025 season. Eventually his domain will also include the Kirk Douglas Theatre — although the midsize Douglas, in downtown Culver City, will probably have to close temporarily, sometime after two final productions of the 2022-2023 season occur there later this year, in order to accommodate the construction of a housing/retail project on the east side of the Douglas.
No one disputes CTG’s historical status as LA’s flagship non-profit theater company, with the biggest budget in town — $46 million revenue for the fiscal year ending in June 2020.
But earlier this month LA Times theater critic Charles McNulty ranked CTG third among LA County theater companies, in terms of its current quality. Pasadena Playhouse was in first place on McNulty’s best-three-theaters list, and the runner-up was Geffen Playhouse. Ouch.
Much of the attention to Desai, after the selection became public last week, focused on the fact that he will be the first CTG artistic director “of color”. The headline of the announcement article in the printed LA Times last Saturday (in the “Column One” location at the top of the left side of the front page!) was “Theater company names its first leader of color”. With more room in the online version, the headline expanded to “In a watershed moment for L.A. arts, Snehal Desai becomes first person of color to lead Center Theatre Group.”
Desai is a second-generation Asian-Indian-American who grew up in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, south of Allentown.
Nowadays, it seemed inevitable that CTG would avoid choosing another white male artistic director, after Gordon Davidson (served from 1967-2005) and Michael Ritchie (2005-2021). The biggest suspense in the search for a new leader was whether a woman of whatever color would finally get the job or whether it would be another man, but finally one who wasn’t white.
Another factor was of equal interest to me, to McNulty and probably to many others who follow LA theater closely. Would the new artistic director be someone who had toiled in the LA theater trenches, or someone imported from elsewhere, as Ritchie had been?
Desai moved to LA a decade ago, when he was named the literary manager at East West Players, before his promotion to the top job there in 2016. The list of EWP productions he has directed includes “A Nice Indian Boy” (about a gay couple in northern California) and the musicals “The Who’s Tommy,” “Allegiance” and “Assassins.” As East West’s leader he also collaborated with other LA theaters on several productions. East West was one of the “associate producers” of CTG’s world premiere of the David Henry Hwang/Jeanine Tesori musical “Soft Power” in 2018.
Desai intends to honor a previous commitment to direct the musical “Spring Awakening” at East West, after he’s on the CTG staff, said East West’s PR and marketing manager Gavin D. Pak, noting that the project is already in pre-production for its October 26-November 19 staging.
Some of the other contenders for the CTG job might have worked in LA theater for more than a decade. But Desai has been around the area long enough that he’s apparently already considering doing site-specific work in unorthodox places, a possibility that he mentioned in an interview with McNulty. (By the way, the site-specific specialists at LA-based Cornerstone Theater Company have announced the imminent departure of their own artistic director Michael John Garcés.)
Desai, 43, is probably aware that he isn’t the first Desai who will run a professional theater in LA County — that honor almost certainly goes to Shashin Desai (apparently no relation), who created International City Theatre in 1986. He retired in 2011 but his wife caryn desai took the reins and still runs ICT, in Long Beach.
East West’s Desai has become involved in some LA theater issues that go beyond his own company. In 2021 he wrote a blistering response to some of the problems with LA Stage Alliance’s Ovation Awards program, ending with an announcement of East West’s withdrawal from the group — which appears to have helped precipitate not only the quick end of the Ovations but also of LASA itself.
Beyond the Ovations, LASA was the non-profit service organization that represented most of LA’s theaters on joint advocacy, and so far it hasn’t been replaced by anything comparable. It would be a bit ironic if, due to the absence of another version of LASA, the new leader of LA’s biggest non-profit theater is some day asked to lead advocacy efforts for that same constituency.
Of greater significance for Desai’s high-wire act, CTG’s new artistic leader surely understands a few demographic facts about LA County. In 2022, according to the US census, the county’s “Hispanic/Latino” residents outnumbered those in the “White alone, not Hispanic” category, who outnumbered those in the “Asian alone” classification, who outnumbered those in the “Black or African American alone” group, who outnumbered many smaller racial or ethnic brackets.
Theatergoers in all of the above groups probably would like to see themselves represented in CTG productions — assuming that they even know that CTG exists.
Desai also will be CTG’s first gay artistic director — if that means anything in particular these days. As a post-graduate, Desai toured as a performance artist with his own solo “Finding Ways to Prove You’re Not an Al-Qaeda Terrorist When You’re Brown (And Other Stories of the Gindian)”. “Gindian” was a reference to “gay Indian.”
Those who are disappointed that CTG still won’t have a woman at the helm might take some comfort in the fact that the current “helm” could be defined not only as the soon-to-arrive Desai, but also as the CTG managing director/CEO Meghan Pressman, plus four associate artistic directors — one of whom (Lindsay Allbaugh) is female — plus producing director Douglas C. Baker. This group, minus Desai, is assembling the 2023-2024 season, said CTG communications director Brett Webster. It will almost certainly be announced before Desai arrives in August, but he’s likely to be thoroughly briefed on the ins and the outs of the season, starting now.
Pressman is the person who has welcomed recent CTG theatergoers with a page in each program, just as Desai sometimes welcomes audiences at East West with live, in-person introductions of performances.
As it turns out, Pressman and Desai have known each other as classmates and friends since graduate school at Yale School of Drama. Because of this past, a presumption exists that they’ll work well together as a team. Let’s also presume that Desai no longer feels compelled to prove that he’s not an Al-Qaeda terrorist.
Anyone who is still upset that a woman won’t be the next CTG artistic director should see the current CTG booking at the Ahmanson, “1776”. In case you haven’t heard about this revival of the 1969 musical by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, you should know in advance that it isn’t your grandfather’s “1776”.
Co-directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus cast everyone in the show — including the represented Founding Fathers — with women, transgender and non-binary actors. The current Supreme Court would never approve this departure from “originalism.”
But I approve. I had become tired of same-old same-old revivals of this musical. The casting reinvigorates it.
The original “1776” made it clear that many of the founders were determined to maintain slavery. But this new version also includes several moments when you realize the political point of the cross-casting — that these proponents of freedom completely ignored the freedom of women.
Still, this “1776” expands beyond drag-king satire. I became as absorbed in the contents as I was in my first experiences of the musical.
Shouting ‘fire’ inside a theater
With the recent rains producing such lush landscapes around LA County, it’s easy to forget that when the greenery turns brown, dried by the summer heat, more of it will be available to burn in the late summer and fall. Warming temperatures intensify the winter’s atmospheric rivers and floods — and then the heat and wildfires a few months later.
While the contours of this cycle are now widely known, perhaps dramatizations of the consequences — stories of individual human beings who are at the battlefront, so to speak — can increase the sense of urgency in the combat against climate change.
That partially describes the situation in “Scintilla” — Alessandro Camon’s new play at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood. Somewhere in California “wine country” (the locale isn’t precisely defined), a wildfire rages. Inside an ex-vintner’s home, a familial dispute also rages over whether to flee.
Marianne (Taylor Gilbert) is inclined to stay, but her adult son Michael (Kris Frost) is determined to change her mind. Michael’s girlfriend (Krishna Smitha), Marianne’s ex-boyfriend and neighbor (David Gianopoulos) and a homeless handyman (Carlos Lacámara) offer different perspectives to the debate, which gradually evolves into a discussion that extends far beyond the current fire. Meanwhile, alerts on Michael’s phone warn that the flames are closer and closer.
Camon packs a lot of factors into one gripping situation, but nothing struck me as a glaring contrivance. The references to climate change feel natural. Ann Hearn Tobolowsky’s staging sustains the rising tension, and Gilbert masterfully inhabits all of Marianne’s complexity. Stephen Gifford’s set on this small stage is attractive enough to see why one might think twice about abandoning this home, but the other designers contribute effectively to the case for flight.
Another climate-related production that I saw last week, “Dimanche” at BroadStage in Santa Monica, is more scenically expansive but also much more abstract, lacking the human dimensions of “Scintilla.” A production from two touring Belgian companies, with hardly any dialogue, its local visit was brief, so I won’t belabor the comparison.
The ‘Private Lives’ of Amanda, Elyot, ‘Ava’
“Coachella isn’t the only thing getting heated in Palm Springs” proclaims a promotional email from Independent Shakespeare Company. That isn’t a direct reference to global warming, but to the fact that ISC’s revival of Noel Coward’s classic comedy “Private Lives” sets the last half of the action in California’s 1950s-era Palm Springs, after the first half takes place in Acapulco. This is in contrast to Coward’s original 1930 locales of Paris in the second half and Deauville, the French resort city north of Paris, in the first half.
It’s often a good idea to make a classic’s setting more local, as long as it doesn’t seem artificial, and “Private Lives” fits well into Acapulco, Palm Springs and the ‘50s. But perhaps the location that theatergoers should think about is Atwater, for that’s where the company is producing Coward’s play, in ISC’s first full production inside its studio since COVID began. No, do not go to the company’s summertime outdoor venue in Griffith Park. Yes, wear masks in the studio.
Predictably enough, the older ex-spouses Amanda and Elyot are delectably played by ISC’s long-married leaders, Melissa Chalsma and David Melville. Although Chalsma is ISC’s most frequent director, Nikhil Pal staged this “Private Lives,” perhaps to help make sure that a completely neutral arbiter was in charge. Brent Charles and Asha Noel Iyer play the younger Victor and (“don’t quibble”) Sibyl, respectively.
Geffen Playhouse’s current production, “Ava: The Secret Conversations,” probably would have benefited from scenes more solidly set in 1950s Southern California. After all, that was the prime time and place for the central character, Hollywood movie star Ava Gardner.
Instead, “Ava” is set in 1988 London. Gardner (Elizabeth McGovern) had lived there for two decades. In “Ava,” she’s in her mid-60s, after a stroke (she died in January 1990), and she is collaborating on a book about her life with a British journalist, Peter Evans (Aaron Costa Ganis). She recalls scenes from her tempestuous “private life” in ‘50s Hollywood. To a limited extent, Ganis also assumes the roles of her ex-husbands, two of whom (Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra) were more famous than Gardner was, in quasi-dream sequences.
McGovern, a former Hollywood star who has lived in London since the 1990s (she is perhaps better known now for the England-set “Downton Abbey” than for her earlier roles in the US), wrote the “Ava” script. It’s hard not to surmise that she wrote it primarily as a vehicle for herself. The play’s premiere occurred in London a year ago, and McGovern the actor has some strong moments in her play.
Perhaps the McGovern name will attract younger theatergoers more than the name of Ava Gardner herself would have. But the fact is that most of the drama of Gardner’s life occurred when she was much younger. The memories of it in “Ava” seem relatively distant and dim.
A play with a younger actress playing Gardner during her glory days — and with different actors playing her husbands but perhaps with McGovern playing the older Gardner — sounds a lot more interesting than this hazy “Ava.” Even then, many contemporary theatergoers who aren’t familiar with Gardner might wonder why they should care.
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