Fumbles at two flagships. A frustrating finale for a lustrous 'Fair Lady'.
A sudden overhaul of CTG's mostly-male plans. South Coast Rep barely re-opens. What's missing from the Dolby version of Bartlett Sher's revival of 'My Fair Lady'
Greater LA’s flagship theater companies — Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles County and South Coast Repertory in Orange County — entered the fall with fizzles instead of fizz.
Center Theatre Group’s stumble occurred offstage. A September 30 announcement of the next seasons at CTG’s Mark Taper Forum and Kirk Douglas Theatre revealed a slate of planned productions written mostly by men. The only exception is a Taper production in April of Pearl Cleage’s 26-year-old “Blues for an Alabama Sky” — which has already received two major productions in Los Angeles County, most recently at Pasadena Playhouse in 2011.
When COVID struck in March 2020, CTG was on the verge of an April 1 Taper opening of the LA premiere of “The Antipodes.” It’s one of the more recent works of one of America’s most acclaimed women playwrights, Annie Baker — most of whose plays have strangely failed to reach LA at all. Aptly enough, “Antipodes” is set in a professional writers’ room where only one woman is among the official participants. Baker’s play should have been at the front of the line when CTG re-opened its stages, but CTG no longer has the rights.
The lack of women in the 2021/22 lineup triggered loud complaints, which gained decisive clout when playwright Jeremy O. Harris threatened to withdraw his “Slave Play” from its opening slot in the Taper re-opening season, scheduled for next February.
“As an Angeleno and a lover of theatre, I think Los Angeles audiences deserve an equitable showing of the playwrights working in the U.S. right now,” Harris emailed and tweeted.
It worked. A week after Harris warned of his play’s possible removal, CTG acknowledged “that our 21/22 season was heavily imbalanced when it came to gender” — and that therefore the subsequent 2022/23 season at the Taper would employ only “women-identifying or non-binary playwrights,” including a majority of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) writers. CTG also declared that the 22/23 season at the smaller Douglas would be similarly (although not “entirely,” as at the Taper) focused on the creations of women, non-binary and BIPOC playwrights.
Harris quickly reacted by confirming that his “Slave Play” is firmly back on the Taper schedule. The opening is still planned for February 16.
One of the wrinkles in this controversy is that CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie, who probably played the largest role in compiling the female-deficient 21/22 season and who was quoted extensively in the season press release justifying the selections, is leaving. He had earlier disclosed that he will exit CTG on December 31, after 17 years. His replacement hasn’t been announced, nor has a date for that announcement.
So the female-focused pledges for the 22/23 season that stanched most of the protests were issued not by Ritchie but by the five-member “artistic team” that is listed under CTG’s top brass on the “Our Staff” page of the CTG website. The “team” includes Luis Alfaro, Lindsay Allbaugh, Tyrone Davis, Neel Keller and Kelley Kirkpatrick.
Is there any chance that their promise to produce only women’s plays at the Taper in the 22/23 season could confuse or deter artistic-director applicants, who might wonder whether such pledges would undermine the authority of the job? Could the next artistic director try to revoke the policy, if so inclined?
Then again, considering that CTG’s only artistic directors have been two white men — the founder Gordon Davidson and Ritchie — chances loom large that the next artistic director could be “women-identifying”, BIPOC or both. And this agreement conceivably could make that possibility even likelier.
Three of the five “team” members fit under some part of that demographic blanket.
Allbaugh, the only woman on the “artistic team,” joined CTG in 2004 and rose through its ranks, after a stint as co-artistic director of the little Elephant Theatre Company. Alfaro is better known as one of LA’s most honored homebred playwrights; Chicano or at least Latinx characters frequently appear in his scripts. The ascent of Davis, who is Black, to the “team” followed three years of work in CTG’s Education, Engagement and Community Partnerships department.
Of course, when many organizations seek new leaders, the deciding boards of directors overlook the existing staff in order to import a bigger name or a more experienced leader from elsewhere to fill the top job. Many observers thought that this was among the reasons why CTG hired Ritchie, who was the producer of the Williamstown Theatre Festival when it won the regional-theater Tony Award in 2002.
But if the CTG board looks “elsewhere,” could that please include “elsewhere in the LA area”? As I’ve written earlier, it’s time for CTG to hire an artistic director who already knows LA and its theatrical turf.
A brief addendum to CTG’s commitment to present plays by “BIPOC” writers:
The second initial in that acronym, “I” for Indigenous, is also its most neglected. On CTG’s website, the “Exposing America’s History Onstage” page offers brief summaries of 12 CTG productions dealing with American history. Only one of them, “Black Elk Speaks” in 1995, is primarily focused on Indigenous history, and it was written by two white men.
LA has more Native Americans (including multiracial people who identify as part-Native) than any other large American metro area, according to usafacts.org. On the recent Indigenous People’s Day, October 11, perhaps some of CTG’s potential artistic directors paused briefly to think about this?
I am throwing away my…‘Shot’
Let’s move on to the less-than-grand re-opening of South Coast Repertory’s home base in Costa Mesa — on the larger of the building’s two stages.
Artistic director David Ivers is performing a new monologue, “A Shot Rang Out, A Play in One Man,” by Richard Greenberg — many of whose bigger plays also opened first at South Coast, although Greenberg is an inveterate New Yorker. According to a program note, Greenberg wrote this script so that it could be performed by a single actor and streamed, if in-person audiences couldn’t yet gather. Tony Taccone directs.
Ivers portrays an actor who is literally returning to a stage for the first time since some pandemic-like event changed life as he knew it. Yet COVID is never mentioned. Greenberg avoids any discussion of the details of the calamity that precipitated the actor’s retreat. Instead, the actor announces that his intended theme is “In Praise of Lesser Things.”
We hear a lot about two old movies that involve marital straying, “The Seven Year Itch” and “Any Wednesday”, which this character watched during home confinement. Then he finally begins to address something more personal and serious — his relationship with his wife, her recent illness, their recent separation. If this were a duologue, with a role for an actress as the wife, it might be considerably more engaging.
As it is, “Shot” almost seems to be trying to convince returning audiences that theater itself is a “lesser thing” — an event that might as well be streamed, which at least would spare spectators the feeling that they’re trapped in something resembling “a hostage situation” (Greenberg’s phrase). A cliched final scenic gesture involving balloons doesn’t help. After driving more than an hour each way, to and from this piddling production, I finally felt, well…“shot.”
However, let’s also note the good news that South Coast’s new season is not nearly as male-centric as the next CTG season. The next three scheduled productions are mostly by women:
1. Cheryl L. West’s adaptation of “Last Stop on Market Street,” a young-audiences production derived from a Newbery Medal-winning book (which was written and illustrated by men)
2. “What I Learned in Paris,” yet another previously-seen-in-LA play by Pearl Cleage — the same playwright whose “Blues for an Alabama Sky” is the only exception in the the men-writers-dominated 2021-22 season at CTG (see above)
3. the US premiere of LA-born but Canadian playwright Christine Quintana’s “Clean,” with Spanish translation and adaptation by Paula Zelaya Cervantes. It’s set in Mexico and will be presented in English and Spanish with subtitles in both languages.
Why Eliza’s exit involves less exercise in Hollywood
When Bartlett Sher’s revival of “My Fair Lady” opened at Lincoln Center in New York in 2018, the word quickly spread that it had a fascinating closing scene. But many of the critics declined to be specific, in order to avoid being accused of “giving away the ending.”
The ending of this narrative has had problems that date back to its original non-musical source. In George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play “Pygmalion,” after the former “guttersnipe” Eliza Doolittle is educated to look and sound upper-class by the tyrannical phonetics teacher Henry Higgins, she goes off to marry her eager, wealthy but rather foolish suitor Freddy. Some observers found that an unsatisfying resolution.
The producer of the 1938 Hollywood movie undercut Shaw’s wishes and changed the ending to suggest that Eliza and Henry might now begin a romantic relationship, minus Freddy. In the mid-‘50s, the creators of “My Fair Lady,” the musical adaptation of “Pygmalion,” followed the lead of the movie instead of the play. Shaw had died in 1950, so he couldn’t complain.
However, with the rise of feminism in subsequent decades, the supposed future coupling of Eliza and Henry began to seem more and more contrived. Reviewing a 1980 revival, with Rex Harrison playing Henry at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, LA Times theater critic Dan Sullivan expressed his impatience with the ending. In real life, he wrote, Eliza would “walk out for good. Maybe the company should try this some night. It would be just as much a happy ending, and rather closer to the one Shaw had in mind.”
Fast-forward 38 years. Here is how director Sher described the ending of his 2018 version in a 2019 interview with Laurie Winer (who had also served as the LA Times theater critic), in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
"We tried to restore Shaw’s intention, of ending with a transformed Eliza being freed into the world. The difficulty is that in 1911 she would not have had a lot of options. We spoke to historians to make sure we understood exactly what her economic options would have been. We didn’t want to say she’s sailing out into the world on her own because that would have been very hard to pull off. She exits up the aisle and through the auditorium to convey a sense of her going into the future, so we could tip our hats to…Shaw and to a feminist future without it being overstated or overintellectualized. You have to get all the way to the end of the show to see Henry Higgins realize he was wrong. And that’s powerful, that’s a story of power and agency."
But those who see Sher’s mostly glittering revival on its tour, including in its current stop at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, won’t see Eliza defiantly striding up the aisle away from Henry and through the auditorium to confront her future.
My impression of the final scene at the Dolby was that after Eliza returned to Henry and he says only, “Where the devil are my slippers?”, she softly turned away from him without actually leaving his quarters — but also without fetching his slippers. The gesture looked ambiguous, to put it nicely — or confusing, to put it more critically.
In a telephone interview, Sher explained that the logistics of taking a tour from city to city, including different physical configurations at various theaters, didn’t permit the extra excitement of his originally designed ending. But he added that he was trying to suggest something similar for the tour’s audiences by having Eliza step off the stage deck and into the wings.
I certainly didn’t see how this could be interpreted as her bold march into a fragile but more feminist future. I wish that I had seen the same ending that New Yorkers saw.
By the way, if you’re wondering what the current LA Times theater critic Charles McNulty thought about Sher’s revised ending in New York, he endorsed it in a 2018 column, pointing out that it’s more in accord with “Shaw’s skeptical vision. Only a die-hard sentimentalist would object to the final moments” — although McNulty didn’t spell out what happened in those moments.
If you’re wondering whether McNulty was therefore disappointed by the ending or anything else at the Dolby (including different actors from those he saw in New York), we don’t know. He hasn’t written about the touring version at the Dolby, although it opened there on October 8.
Of course the scene I’m discussing constitutes maybe 1% of the show’s length. It’s an important 1%, but the other 99% is in fine form at the Dolby. The wonderful cast is led by Shereen Ahmed as Eliza and Laird Mackintosh as Henry. Michael Yeargan’s revolving sets and Donald Holder’s lighting are loverly.
With a little bit of luck and the right venue, perhaps one of LA’s professional, non-touring musical companies can some day use the Sher model in order to do something similar with the ending of this Lerner and Loewe classic.