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Troubies Streak Through Greek Week
"Lizastrata," "An Iliad," "The Enigmatist," "Our Man in Santiago"
Troubies and their in-person audiences are fervently connected to each other.
If you were to read a script by Troubadour Theater’s resident auteur Matt Walker without having already seen the live production — or, worse, any of the Troubie troupe’s shows — you might be baffled by the Troubie phenomenon.
But at the Getty Villa’s outdoor amphitheater, the Troubies’ primary address in recent years, the stream of laughter begins immediately and seldom abates.
This year’s edition is, as usual, a musical — “Lizastrata” (with an “z”). It mixes the story of Aristophanes’ classic Greek comedy “Lysistrata” with melodic moments that were made famous by Liza Minnelli. Into this melange, Walker sprinkles a hundred or so references to what’s happening in our popular, political and local cultures — right now. Only then is the Troubies recipe ready for the Getty stovetop and the company’s adoring fans.
Befitting the basic plot of the original “Lysistrata” — the women of Greece refuse to have sex with the men until the men stop fighting and killing each other — “Lizastrata” is about as bawdy as live theater ever gets (it’s officially not recommended for anyone under the age of 15). Yet with men playing most of the women and women playing most of the men, there are a few anatomical limits to what can be explicitly displayed.
No problem. The production’s costume designer Halei Parker and “additional phallus designer” Joe Seely valiantly stepped into the breach — or should I say the breeches? — and crafted a carefully caricatured parade of not-so-private parts.
Walker wrote parodic new lyrics for songs that are usually associated with Minnelli, but he also reached beyond Kander/Ebb standards and uncovered “I Gotcha,” a Joe Tex song that Minnelli blitzed through in her 1972 TV special “Liza With a Z.” The musical textures are supported by the “beautiful” “Troubadorchestra,” at the back of the stage. (By the way, although all of this is supposedly happening in Malibu, the Villa address is actually in Pacific Palisades, immediately east of Malibu. I suppose that playing with the word “Malibu” is more fun and evocative than doing the same with the double Ps).
In the title role, Cloie Wyatt Taylor is allowed to concentrate all of her formidable presence on only the one character, in contrast to the other cast members (including Walker), who play at least two roles each — of whatever gender.
Now I’ll retreat briefly from the possible implication of my first sentence — that the Troubies rely entirely on live audiences. In fact, during the pandemic they shot a snappy video comedy series “The ODDyssey,” based on “The Odyssey,” also presented by the Getty. I mentioned it in my first Angeles Stage column in June. At the time, I thought that it might serve as the spine of this year’s live Getty show, but now I realize not only that its narrative is too long and complicated for the usual running time of a Troubie production, but also that the return to live Troubies performances at the Getty required something completely fresh and current. “Lizastrata” admirably fills that role.
Unfortunately, I must apologize to readers who might now be inspired to rush out and buy tickets. As I type this, the Getty website reports that all remaining performances are sold out — and that the show will be recorded. So it’s possible that later we can see a video version, although it won’t be quite as “fresh and current” by then.
In the meantime, I would guess that the Getty would still be able to find space for one particular ticket buyer, if she were interested — Liza Minnelli. I know nothing about her current whereabouts or condition, but her 75th birthday was the occasion for a starry toast on Zoom in March. Still, what good is sitting alone in your Zoom? Come to the Troubies’ cabaret.
‘An Iliad’ needs other voices
Speaking of theatrical adaptations of the Greeks, A Noise Within has re-opened its “within” venue in east Pasadena by transforming its pandemic-era presentations of “An Iliad,” by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, from online videos into live stage productions, again in two rotating versions — one with Geoff Elliott as the Storyteller and the other with Deborah Strang.
When the videos were released for home viewing, I liked Strang’s performance and mentioned it briefly in the same column that included my comments about “The ODDyssey.” I didn’t see Elliott’s rendition until I saw it live, in the theater. I admire his performance, too — and the musical counterpoint to their words by cellist Karen Hall. The two versions were directed by the same Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. Yet I hesitate to attempt meaningful comparisons between the two, considering the difference in the presentation platforms that I chose and the time that has passed since I saw the Strang video.
Also, I’m tired of this version of “An Iliad,” which I had initially seen in 2014 at Broad Stage in Santa Monica, with O’Hare performing and Peterson directing. Although Homer’s sweeping, multi-character narrative might long ago have been preserved via solo storytellers, does this mean that 21st-century theatrical productions should always employ only one actor?
Actually, Peterson and O’Hare began to raise this question themselves in the authors’ note preceding the published script: “Though we definitely invented this play to be performed by one lone figure, we recognize that it could be performed by more than one person, and would encourage people to find their own way.”
After reading this permission slip from the authors, I immediately wished that A Noise Within had brought something tangibly new to the stage versions — perhaps by using at least two actors at a time. One of the reasons we like to see live theater, especially if we haven’t seen it in more than a year, is to be in the living presence of different viewpoints, different voices. Differences add an inherent sense of drama.
The underlying enigma of ‘The Enigmatist’
That same point about the importance of using different voices to cultivate drama also applies to the Geffen Playhouse’s re-opening show, “The Enigmatist,” in Westwood. It’s centered completely around only one person — David Kwong, puzzle master extraordinaire. No live musician provides accompaniment, as in “An Iliad.”
True, audience members sometimes join Kwong on the stage, adding snippets of extra voices. And Kwong discusses the outline of a tantalizing, potentially dramatic story from the history of his field, about the early-20th-century textile mogul George Fabyan. Besides creating his own cryptography lab on his palatial estate, Fabyan initially hired a couple who later disproved his own theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays (these two also later married each other). All of that sounds like fertile material for an actual play.
But no, Kwong (above, in photo by Jeff Lorch) keeps interrupting the Fabyan story in order to serve the production’s primary purpose — to demonstrate his remarkable puzzle prowess, as if it needs to be proved over and over again. Although some of his challenges truly appear to defy all explanations, there is no suspense about whether he will solve them. “The Enigmatist” is, on one level, about the unpredictable, but on another level it’s completely predictable.
Moles making mayhem
Of the couple of new plays I’ve seen lately in small theaters, one is slyly satisfying, while the other is a dud.
By far the better play is Mark Wilding’s “Our Man in Santiago,” at Theatre West. Playing off the title of Graham Greene’s spy comedy, “Our Man in Havana,” Wilding concocts a what-if farce about a trio of CIA agents who are working in Chile in 1973, attempting to help trigger the end of Salvador Allende’s left-leaning presidency.
A grizzled veteran of similar efforts by the Company elsewhere is trying to tutor — and perhaps to scapegoat — a fresh-faced newbie whose only previous gig was in turmoil-free New Zealand. Their preparations in a Santiago hotel room, close to Allende’s office, are interrupted by two phone calls from their own president’s Oval Office in Washington. The hotel suite’s back wall slides open, and we witness the micromanaging President Nixon (Steve Nevil) and Secretary of State Kissinger (Michael Van Duzer).
Wilding’s script, Charlie Mount’s direction and a sterling cast sustain a degree of suspense as well as a wry sense of humor. Of course, we’re also reminded of the downsides of more recent US interventions in, for example, Ukraine and Afghanistan.
Fortunately, we can cheer up by concentrating on Theatre West itself. It actually became healthier during the pandemic, when an anonymous “angel” bought its Cahuenga Pass home (between Barham and Lankershim) and extended the company’s lease for at least five more years.
The “dud” that I mentioned, above, is Marilyn Anderson’s “As Good as Gold,” in which three women screenwriters hire a younger man as their front, as they try to sell their macho action script in Hollywood. Contrivances collide, yet important scenes never appear in this overextended would-be farce. It’s at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills on the heels of the company’s much better Hollywood comedy “Taming the Lion.”