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What might be on tap at the Taper...in its current meantime?
Plus "Les Miz," '60s Chicago in Capistrano, 'Stew' and 'Crabs'
A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the Mark Taper Forum.
In mid-June LA’s biggest resident theater company, Center Theatre Group, announced its alarming “pause” in programming at the Taper, because of increasing production costs and decreasing revenues from tickets and donations. “We hope," said CTG, to use the Taper space “in innovative, non-traditional ways through special events and community-centered programs starting as early as the fall.” The fall begins next month, but no such programs or events have been revealed.
Additional statements on the website report that there will be no 2023-24 season at the Taper, but don’t disclose when the 2024-2025 season might begin.
Recently I’ve been brainstorming, mostly within my own brain but also in a previous post, about this conspicuous vacuum at LA’s most prominent stage. One question keeps bubbling up. Couldn’t CTG import already established productions from elsewhere into the Taper? It does so regularly at its larger Ahmanson Theatre (“Peter Pan Goes Wrong” opens there next week after closing on Broadway last month), next door to the Taper, and it has previously done so at all three CTG venues.
Or is CTG/Taper too broke? I’m sure that some of its longtime subscribers would substitute “woke” for “broke,” but more on that later…
Remember CTG’s Block Party at CTG’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City? It was a program announced in 2016 that, beginning in 2017, brought a few already established productions from LA’s smaller theater companies into the mid-size Douglas. Unfortunately, the Douglas is scheduled to be closed for a while next year to accommodate next-door construction.
Before the Douglas is indisposed, CTG plans to produce “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” there, August 20-September 17, “in association with” the small LA-based IAMA Theatre Company (although the phrase “Block Party” apparently has been retired). It’s a play about a group of rowdy teenaged girls in Miami, circa 2008; its premiere was off-Broadway in 2019. It will be followed by an only-recently-announced November-January show, “Dog Man: The Musical” — a touring production from the youth-and-family-audience-oriented TheaterWorks USA, which is based in New York.
Many Taper productions over the years also were staged somewhere else first. Late last year, for example, the Taper presented Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s” in a co-production with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, following its run in Illinois.
So CTG has a lot of experience importing tours and co-productions. Is it truly financially impossible to bring at least a couple such productions into the Taper during this “pause” — at the latest, next spring?
If necessary, wouldn’t some of CTG’s wealthier supporters or even Los Angeles County Arts & Culture step forward to make sure that the conspicuous emptiness at the almost literal center of the LA County-owned Music Center doesn’t remain dark for long — especially when the Douglas, too, is closed?
I assume that such discussions are ongoing. But I started scouting and quickly discovered a few productions that conceivably might be candidates — they’re appearing or will soon arrive at other Southern California theaters that are at least roughly in the same category as CTG, as the best-known nonprofit theater companies in their distinctive areas.
I was looking primarily outside Los Angeles County, but still within southern California. I doubt that most producers would want their show to play the Taper plus, say, the Pasadena or the Geffen playhouses. There would be too much overlap in the audiences. And productions that are already underway outside southern California might be more expensive to transplant into LA.
Is South Coast Repertory — the theatrical mainstay of Orange County — too close to downtown LA? I go to SCR, in Costa Mesa, to see just about everything, because I consider it to be located in what I define as “Greater LA,” but I doubt if a substantial number of CTG subscribers also subscribe to SCR.
Coming up next at SCR, in October, is Octavio Solis’ “Quixote Nuevo,” an adaptation of the Cervantes novel set in the Texas borderlands. It has received many productions in the last five years, beginning with its premiere at Cal Shakes in Orinda (just east of Berkeley). The SCR production features Herbert Siguenza, a CTG veteran from the LA-based Culture Clash, in the title role. But that production will move to Seattle, then Portland in the early part of 2024 (the SCR production is “in association with” Seattle Repertory and Portland Stage). It’s not scheduled in LA — as far as I’ve heard.
I’ve never seen the play, but at least from the descriptions I’ve read, it sounds as if “Quixote Nuevo” will certainly arrive in LA in some production eventually — why not sooner than later, if CTG’s “pause” is scheduled to continue into late spring or next summer?
But perhaps it’s too late for CTG to hop aboard that tour, and perhaps CTG planners would indeed worry about SCR’s proximity. In that case, look farther south, in San Diego, where I would guess that hardly any overlap of the audiences at the Old Globe Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse continues all the way north to downtown LA.
I formerly saw productions at the Old Globe and La Jolla with some regularity, when the LA Times paid me to travel to San Diego to review them. But those days are long gone. Without doing a lot of research, I can’t recall when I last saw anything at either theater. So I would eagerly look forward to the chance of seeing productions from those theaters on the Taper stage during CTG’s problematic “pause.” I’m not going to pick any favorites in advance, but look at these companies’ websites and you too might wish that some of these productions could travel to LA.
I should also mention International City Theatre in Long Beach. Located within LA County itself, the theater has an audience that would probably be deemed too likely to overlap with the Taper’s. On the other hand, the similarity of the venue’s physical configuration to the Taper’s would probably be an advantage in terms of adapting a production from it to the Taper. ICT is scheduled to announce its next season soon.
Beyond the effects of the COVID pause, I can’t authoritatively parse the many different factors that might have led the Taper into this rabbit hole in the first place. But I’ll note a few ironies about the decisions that were made.
After the COVID closure, the Taper re-opened live performances with “Slave Play” by Jeremy O. Harris in February 2022 — but only after Harris himself, in October 2021, had threatened to cancel the production because of the almost total lack of women writers in CTG’s plans for that 2022 season at the Taper and the Douglas. In response, CTG quickly pledged to program its next season (2022-2023) at the Taper “with entirely women-identifying or non-binary playwrights” — a majority of whom would be BIPOC.
Harris was satisfied enough to quickly change his mind about his intent to cancel the “Slave Play” production. It was a box-office hit, but part of that was probably due to its status as the post-COVID re-opening attraction, as well as the publicity surrounding Harris’ stance about the missing women playwrights. Meanwhile, CTG did indeed announce an all-women/nonbinary 2022-23 season.
All of this transpired during the transition in leadership from previous artistic director Michael Ritchie, who had announced the “Slave Play” season in the first place, to a group of associate artistic directors, in the absence of an immediate replacement for Ritchie. (The new artistic director Snehal Desai, whose appointment was announced last April, presumably wasn’t involved in these earlier decisions).
In retrospect, the first problem that arose was the severe lack of savvy in deciding — even if inadvertently — not to include any fresh plays by women in the initial 2022 comeback season.
But the next problem was the possibly dangerous precedent of allowing any playwright a limited veto power over the selection of other productions in the company’s next season. No single playwright knows the many factors that an artistic director must balance at any one time. That decision to let Harris dictate those extraordinary terms might have contributed to an impression among many, including me, that the production of “Slave Play” itself wasn’t as extraordinary as the hype that preceded its arrival.
Because the artistic director of the all-women-or-nonbinary 2022-2023 season was a committee of five instead of just one person, decisions probably became even more complicated. And then the money for that season ran out before it could be completed. In June, two of the scheduled productions by women were canceled.
The first casualty was the scheduled premiere of what would have been the Taper’s first play by a Native American writer, Larissa FastHorse’s “Fake It Until You Make It.” In a commentary in the LA Times, FastHorse wrote that CTG “turned down a co-production with another theater” which she believed might have added enough money to the budget to have allowed it to open as planned. The second cancellation was a touring production of Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” — a play that had originated in 2017 at, yes, South Coast Repertory. Its current tour, not involving SCR, played in Berkeley last winter and is now scheduled to play Seattle’s ACT, September 29-November 5.
Perhaps “Fake It Until You Make It” and/or “Cambodian Rock Band” will have first dibs on the Taper when it re-opens. Indeed, the CTG website still indicates that “Fake It” is merely “postponed.” But who knows when the re-opening will occur, or what will happen in the meantime?
The CTG board should act to secure the money to return to producing at the Taper ASAP. The Taper is an indispensable center of LA theater — but as each inactive month passes, its audience is likely to erode even further. Maybe emergency donations from some of the company’s better-endowed supporters or foundations might hasten the return of professional actors to the Taper in theatrical runs that extend longer than any “special events.”
In fact, the current appetite for live theater might well be larger because of the ongoing strikes in Hollywood, which have stalled fresh supplies of some of the streaming temptations that might have lured previous theatergoers to stay home during the last 18 months.
Of course now it’s up to Desai to make the final programming decisions. But he should have the financial resources to make those decisions sooner instead of later.
‘Into the Woods,’ ‘Les Miz’ up close
Speaking of CTG’s imports of tours, while I was grateful for the chance to see the tour of Broadway’s latest “Into the Woods” at the Ahmanson, as I reported in my last post, I also felt that my press-night seats were too far back in the theater (although, for the sake of balanced reportage, more distant seats are probably more representative of the experience for most of the theatergoers).
I decided to see it again. Using the charts of available seating options, I found a pair of $40 seats in the fourth row, adjacent to $165 seats. The catch is that they were at the left end of that row, and therefore the sight lines to the back of that side of the stage weren’t great. But with the orchestra at the back of the stage, the actors occupied the front more than they might have if the orchestra had been in the pit, and for me the much closer proximity to the stellar actors was worth the price.
Last night, I found myself in a similar position at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, at the right end of the second row, for the LA opening of the latest tour of “Les Misérables,” another musical from the same era as “Into the Woods”. This time I was using a press comp, so I didn’t have to buy it, and my seat location was a surprise.
I had never sat so close to the Pantages stage. In this production, the orchestra is in the pit, so perhaps I missed the view of some of the stage-left scenic elements near the back. I was able to glimpse one component that I probably wasn’t supposed to see — a TV monitor on the other side of the backstage.
Still, I enjoyed being closer to the cast, especially when Nick Cartell’s Jean Valjean ascended the heights of his second-act solo “Bring Him Home” — which, in its melodic simplicity, is such a refreshing contrast to the abundant bombast in the rest of the score. This production also will play at the Segerstrom in Costa Mesa, Sept. 19-Oct. 1.
‘La Havana Madrid’ is really in Chicago and Capistrano
This is my first post since South Coast Repertory opened its annual alfresco attraction at Mission San Capistrano. This year it’s “La Havana Madrid,” Sandra Delgado’s “immersive documentary theatre experience,” or at least that’s how it’s described in the script’s subtitle. It supposedly takes place in a Latin nightclub in the 1960s in Chicago. We hear Latin music, witness the actors dancing, and we also hear some of their personal immigration stories.
Pleasant, yes. Immersive, not so much. We’re in the mission’s vast and picturesque plaza, with the sun gradually setting in the west, not a smoky Chicago cabaret. The script was commissioned by the Goodman and Teatro Vista, both of them in Chicago. The characters are originally from Cuba, Puerto Rico or Colombia — not, say, from Mexico or Central America, the sources of most of Southern California’s Spanish-speaking/singing immigrants. The production feels a bit…out of place as well as out of time. Perhaps SCR could have used the original as a model for a more local adaptation? It probably doesn’t matter in terms of planning your theatergoing — it closes tonight.
‘Stew’ needs a smaller pot. The ‘Crabs’ have a ‘Bucket’ list.
This is also my first post since Zora Howard’s “Stew” opened at Pasadena Playhouse, and it closes Sunday. In a kitchen in the Black-majority city of Mount Vernon, New York, around the last turn of the century, a mother (“Don’t ask her age,” says the script) is trying to make a big stew, occasionally assisted by her two daughters and one grandchild. The atmosphere is generally more tense than not. But the ending feels a bit tacked-on, because it involves a character who isn’t even on the stage. The performances, under the direction of Tyler Thomas, are strong, but the play would probably be more effective in a smaller venue.
Speaking of smaller venues, you might want to check out the premiere of Bernardo Cubria’s “Crabs in a Bucket,” an Echo Theater production in Atwater. The subtitle is “how bitterness ruined the fun,” but there is still a lot of fun, as well as lot of bitterness, in Cubria’s script, Alana Dietze’s staging and Lou Cranch’s costumes.
Three anthropomorphic crabs are in a bucket, obsessed with the idea of escape, even though they don’t understand what awaits them if they do get out. Then a new crab arrives from the great outside. The play is an allegory about human competition and cooperation. It’s slight, but it remains appropriately sly, too, with winning performances from Xochitl Romero as the oldest and crabbiest of the lot, as well as Anna LaMadrid, Jordan Hull and Michael Sturgis. The only moment when my bitterness began to transcend my fun was during an excessively aggressive strobe-light sequence in the middle aisle — I was in an aisle seat. I’d advise sitting on the ends of the rows, as I did at the much larger Ahmanson and Pantages.