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The Taper tapers
Plus "Into the Breeches!" in Long Beach. Katori Hall's 'Mountaintop' and 'Tina'.
The Mark Taper Forum, often referred to as the “flagship” of Los Angeles theater, is “tapering” in a way completely unrelated to its naming donor S. Mark Taper.
“To taper,” according to the dictionary, means “to diminish gradually.” That definition came to my mind when I heard that the Taper will suspend operations after its current "A Transparent Musical" closes — because of increasing production costs and decreasing revenue from ticket sales and donations.
This means that the final scheduled production of the current season, “Fake It Until You Make It,” as well as a touring version of “Cambodian Rock Band” that had been announced for next season, won’t happen, nor are any other productions currently scheduled at the Taper. Larissa FastHorse’s “Fake It Until You Make It” would have been the first play by a Native American playwright on the Taper stage, and she expressed her feelings about the decision in an illuminating LA Times commentary
Speaking of faking it until you make it, CTG’s announcement offered a vague “hope” that the Taper will be used “in innovative, non-traditional ways through special events and community-centered programs starting as early as the fall.” I have no idea what that means, but I “hope” that it doesn’t exclude professional actors from participating.
Meanwhile, the non-profit Center Theatre Group that runs the Taper will continue to book commercial tours in the larger Ahmanson Theatre, which is adjacent to the Taper at the Music Center in downtown L.A. However, as previously announced, CTG’s midsize Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City will also have to close temporarily during the coming season, due to construction in an adjacent building. And CTG is laying off employees or not filling open positions in 10% of its current staff.
The most optimistic way of looking at the Taper’s current trouble is that it might draw more attention to the enormous Los Angeles theater scene that exists outside the Music Center. This might be a good time to consider seeing professional productions elsewhere in downtown LA — and from Long Beach to Hollywood to Santa Monica to Topanga to North Hollywood to Pasadena.
The Pasadena Playhouse has had its own collapses in its long history, but it revived several times. Just this year it won the regional-theater Tony award — only the second winner from LA County, after the Taper won the same award in 1977. As a voting member of the American Theatre Critics Association, which recommends the winner of this award, I couldn’t be more delighted with the Playhouse’s progress.
The Taper itself closed in 2007-2008 to accommodate a $30 million remodel. Taper subscribers at the time were offered options at the Ahmanson and a couple of extra shows at the re-opened Taper.
Still, the Taper has occupied a central place for so long in the public’s notions about LA theater that its absence, however temporary, will leave a gaping hole in our cultural fabric — just as LA is preparing to host the world during the 2028 Olympics.
CTG’s founding artistic director Gordon Davidson made the Taper famous with such titles as “The Devils,” “Zoot Suit,” “Children of a Lesser God, “The Shadow Box,” “Jelly’s Last Jam,” “The Kentucky Cycle," “Angels in America” and the original “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992."
Snehal Desai, who was named CTG’s third artistic director just a couple of months ago, might now have less immediate pressure to rescue the Taper — but more future pressure to restore its programming to its past glory.
He also faces an ongoing post-pandemic lethargy that apparently is still preventing a lot of people from leaving their streaming devices in order to experience the extra thrill of seeing other living human beings onstage as well as in the audience. And of course he faces the 21st-century’s mandates to represent previously unrepresented groups — in ways that will appeal to broader audiences as well.
The county, the city, foundations, and individual donors should do what they can to help the Taper survive. Subscribers should make a mental note to check what the Taper’s latest status is. When programming resumes, their attendance will be vital.
In a rare mention of LA theater in a section of the LA Times outside the Calendar section, regular op-ed columnist LZ Granderson places the meaning of the Taper suspension in a much larger historical and social context. That’s a good sign.
As a noun, a “taper” can mean “a slender candle.” In one of theater’s most famous speeches, Macbeth utters the despairing words “Out, out, brief candle” (you can hear this in the current “Macbeth” at the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga).
Let’s hope that phrase will never refer to LA’s Taper.
In case you hadn’t noticed, today I’m interrupting my usual timing of posts in order to comment on the Taper suspension, less than two weeks after my most recent post, which began with a detailed discussion of the Taper’s current production “A Transparent Musical.” When I wrote that June 9 post, I didn’t understand the irony that the “Transparent Musical” script incorporates the now-customary “land acknowledgement” of indigenous lands into its actual script — just a few weeks before the Taper would cancel its first production by a Native American playwright.
I also didn’t realize that “Transparent” will be the last opportunity for us to see a full-scale production at the Taper until — who knows when? If you want to bid farewell to the Taper before this “pause” begins, you should know that “Transparent” will close this Sunday, June 25. But now I’ll discuss another production closing Sunday that I can recommend with fewer qualifications than I mentioned in my ruminations about “Transparent.”
Long Beach’s Brant’s ‘Breeches’
“Into the Breeches!,” at International City Theatre, which is more or less Long Beach’s somewhat smaller version of the Mark Taper Forum, is a rollicking comedy set in Long Beach in 1942, when most of the men who played roles on a local theater stage were off fighting World War II. So the women take the reins — and the roles — in the scheduled productions of Shakespeare’s “Henriad” (in this case, a combination of the plays about Henry IV and V).
Playwright George Brant deftly weaves some of today’s hot-button topics into the drama — and into the cross-dressing comedy. Although the original production was set in Rhode Island, the ICT production is explicitly set in Long Beach, with place names that work well and add local flavor. The cast is led by Meghan Andrews as the the wife of the absent artistic director, with sterling support from Leslie Stevens as an aging would-be ingenue and Holly Jeanne as the wife of the resistant board president. Director Brian Shnipper nimbly leads them through the more somber moments as well as the funny stuff.
From ‘Mountain High’ in ‘Tina’ to MLK in ‘Mountaintop’
Playwright Katori Hall currently has two different productions at major LA theaters.
The Pantages Theatre in Hollywood is hosting a Broadway tour of “Tina,” the bio-musical about the late superstar Tina Turner, whose death on May 23 (LA time) is noted on the program cover (actually, because she died in her Swiss home, most sources say she died on May 24). The tour also will play Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa, July 11-23.
Hall receives primary credit for the book, but Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins share a secondary credit. I don’t know who wrote what, but I found the narrative more skillfully handled before the intermission than after it. Of course the entire book is structured around not only Turner’s biography but also performances of many of her hits (including the aforementioned “River Deep — Mountain High”). Two women share the role of Tina each week; Naomi Rodgers on opening night certainly generated glimpses of Turner’s star quality.
Let’s turn to the play written entirely by Hall, “The Mountaintop,” which was first produced in England in 2009. It’s set in Martin Luther King Jr.’s motel room in Memphis (where Hall spent most of her childhood and teen years), the night before his 1968 assassination. After seeing two smaller-theater productions of it, I felt that I had not yet reached its proverbial mountaintop. An important narrative development (which I will not spoil here) struck me as a bit contrived in those earlier LA renditions.
But I’m now a convert, thanks to Patricia McGregor’s dazzling staging at the Geffen Playhouse (and perhaps to the greater resources of the Geffen, compared to the smaller theaters). Jon Michael Hill as King and Amanda Warren as a motel maid — who is the key to that narrative development that I mentioned above — caught me up completely in their fervent but also funny performances. And the design team lifts us out of a mundane motel room into a sort of spiritual stratosphere.