The Radar L.A. international contemporary theater festival opened the Fall season with a wealth of material to choose from in a wide range of venues and approaches. Unfortunately the density of the scheduling and overlapping times across the downtown and westside locations required that one had to make one’s selections at the sacrifice of other equally interesting productions. Thus I ended up seeing only three works on one weekend as more than that would have been an overload of stimulation. But each of these works proved that experimental multimedia performance theater is alive and well in the hands of some very accomplished artists.
Though very different in their narratives and visual styles all three works explored questions of history and memory, cycles of life, death, and culture. Two of the works, Dogugaeshi and Clouded Sulphur/Death is a Knot Undone were performed with puppets and visually compelling stage sets that transported the viewer into a shifting dimensional time/space continuum through the manipulation of sound, light, and most importantly — scale. By letting go of our conceptions of reality we are invited to enter the world through a different portal. The fact that we are all inhabiting the same physical space at the same time is crucial to the experience, and what continues to make live theater and performance a vital and irreplaceable art form in the age of the ubiquitous homogenizing screen.
Dogugaeshi, originally commissioned by the Japan Society in 2003 was conceived by award-winning puppeteer, designer and director Basil Twist and created in collaboration with musician Yumiko Tanaka. After touring Japan and the U.S over the last decade it finally arrived in Los Angeles at REDCAT. Dogugaeshi is the name of the mechanism used in the traditional folk puppet theater that originated in Awashi Island and Tokushima Prefecture, Japan and thrived in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is constructed of intricately painted sliding screens (fusumo-e) that open and close in rapid succession creating an almost cinematic animation-like effect. In Twist’s Dogugaeshi tatami rooms open inside of rooms in a diminishing perspective of grids, like boxes inside of boxes ad infinitum. The screens depict timeless landscapes and new cityscapes, animals and plants, and decorative patterns within the architectural frames. In addition the screens move in multiple directions – center to edge, right to left, forward and back, and pivoting with surprising speed, thus you can never be sure where you will find yourself next, or what characters in the form of the puppets will appear and when. Magical things happen inside this world where past, present and future meld into a unified field in a state of process. Nature and culture dance together. Spaces change color. You speed into the vortex of abstract geometry, and come out resting in tranquility with birds and fish, chrysanthemum and rabbits. And let’s not forget the giant tiger, or the very red Shinto shrine. A bamboo shade rolls up revealing a floor covered in tea candles like stars in the sky.
The main puppet character is a sassy and wily white Fox who first appears with a candle. We go along with his investigations and travels both within the dogugaishi sliding screen space, which ironically in Twist’s version was the size and shape of a very large flat screen television, and outside of that space on the larger stage. Musician Tanaka, dressed in traditional kimono and performing live on shamisen, koto, and voice, appeared and disappeared on a revolving disk on the right side of the stage, jolting us back and forth between two different scales in space. She was also on occasion visited by the Fox who traversed both worlds with ease swishing his impressive tail.
Twist and Tanaka connected cultural traditions with contemporary references. In one scenario the screens swayed, panels spun, and objects fell, accompanied by a rumbling sound that intensified just like in an earthquake. The resonating beauty of Tanaka’s traditional live music was counterpointed by an electronic mix of pop music on changing radio stations, and 1940s ballroom dance music, along with ambient wind and water, drums and voices. There were images of swirling dark clouds over modern Tokyo, and a video of an old woman on the island now joined to land by a bridge. One emerges from this hour long journey as if from a dream or a deep meditation with lots to contemplate about the nature of reality, time, space, art and perception, and our place in it all.
Clouded Sulphur (Death is a Knot Undone) took us to a very different more personal world. In the small tight space of Automata, there was no separation between audience and set. Instead we were giants in a Lilliputian world, gazing into an alien place, but at the same time oddly familiar. Tiny figures raking barren soil, toiled to the sound of an industrial metallic drone. What are they searching for? The answer lies in the evocations of the recited and sung texts matched by the actions of these miniature puppets who inhabit a bleak unforgiving landscape where sorrow, survival and spiritual transcendence collide.
This collaboration between director and designer Janie Geiser and playwright Erik Ehn is based on a text from The South by Edmond Jabes in the Book of Questions Vo1 that appears to be taken from actual testimony regarding the disappearance and murder of a fifteen year old girl named Brenda Sierra whose body was found near the Crestline Highway in San Bernardino County in October 2002. This was melded with another article from the L.A Times in 2009 about the brother Julio, his tattoo of a crying Tasmanian Devil dedicated to his little sister with the words R.I.P.Bren-Bren, and his suffering. The third character in this story is their sister Faviola who embodies perseverance, the one who endures and persists. What transforms this story from one more prosaic account of unsolved, inexplicably senseless violence and family loss into a parable, is the infusion of myth, symbolism and poetry represented by the body and spirit of a lynx cat which is also the name of a barely visible obscure constellation of stars, and the fleeting presence of the beautifully colored butterfly Clouded Sulphur. All were brought together on the desecrated rocky terrain of our age. The fracturing of the spoken text and the atmospheric sound mix by composer Valerie Opielski, along with Carole Kim’s evocative video projections, counterpointed the illustrative nature of the visual action, giving the performance an eerie tension that fluctuated between dream and nightmare.
The scenario was one of struggle and transformation as the little puppets were hand manipulated by Bunraku-style black clad figures. Faviola searches for clues pitting herself against the hard ground. She encounters the lynx and rides him. Brenda is an apparition, both ever-present and unseen wandering through the time and space of her life and death. Neither bones nor body offer redemption. Predators, scavengers and prey traverse both physical and psychological space. Coyotes, lynx, bear, deer, humans. Which is which? People turn into trees. A helicopter comes to the rescue. And the Clouded Sulphur butterfly functions as an ephemeral metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence, its beauty and tragedy, as we bear witness.
Unlike the poetic metaphors and visions of spiritual transcendence offered by the previous two performances, Hospital confronted the issues of life and death with a raw kinetic in-your-face socio-political message that leaves you simultaneously laughing and crying at the ludicrousness of our free market healthcare system. A collaboration between the Rotterdam-based theater collective Wunderbaum, and John Malpede’s Skid Row performance group Los Angeles Poverty Department, this production was a non-stop ninety minute assault of words and actions combining comic absurdity with the dynamics of reality TV and the clichés of television medical melodramas. A very engaging and energetic group of performers appeared in the multiple roles of doctors, healthcare workers, patients, friends and family as they deconstructed this very contemporary and controversial issue. They spoke directly to the audience as well as each other in a cinematic montage of scenes set on a platform stage designed as TV studio replete with hospital bed, instrument trays, lights and projection screen.
The narrative structure around which the action took place was the actual medical history from birth to (projected) death of John Malpede himself, looking appropriately older, thinner, and generally more subdued than the rest of the raucous cast. This was supplemented by various accounts by company members of their disastrous experiences with the medical system and its dysfunctional Kafkaesque bureaucracy. These interludes functioned as “documentary” segues between the hysterical antics of the operating “theater”.
It began with a pregnant woman going into labor and giving birth to Malpede in Witchita Falls, Texas in 1945. We also learned that black doctors were not allowed to deliver white babies there. All of the ailments along the life cycle were likewise matched with the evolution of healthcare from the 1950s when the doctor still made house calls in Chicago, to the introduction of Medicare for the elderly in the1960s, to1970s NYC when Malpede was young, healthy and uninsured. Then come the 80s when Reagan opened the doors and released the poor with mental health problems onto Skid Row and Malpede started his theater group in L.A. The 90s brought us HMOs and finally we arrive in 2013 with Obamacare.
Along the way we were bombarded by cheerleading pharmaceutical reps, incompetent doctors, a video of actual eye surgery, a litany of bills, and a scary projection of where we might end up in 2033 if we continue to make illness a major profit-making industry. The finale presented us with the alternative — a fantasy future of what enlightened healthcare might be like. It is in this imagined setting that the very elderly Malpede “dies” peacefully, surrounded by tender care and solemn music.
It is always a challenge to present subject matter that’s in the news without having the commentary fall into the trap of either didacticism, or mere repetition of the obvious. Hospital succeeds in large part due to the virtuosity of the performers and their self-aware sense of parody. They manage to strip righteous rhetoric, hyperbole, data, and double talk, of their well-dressed wrappings and leave them naked in the examining room. At the same time the performers remain immensely likable with all their own human imperfections showing.
Two weeks later as part of REDCAT‘s 10th anniversary season, the subject of history and memory, cycles of life, death, and culture takes on global proportions in Cynthia Hopkins’ multimedia work This Clement World. In this full-scale musical production Hopkins effectively sets her own personal struggle within the much larger picture of the endangered life cycles of our shared habitat – the Earth itself. She takes us on a journey to awareness of what is at stake through her own awakening to the majesty and fragility of our planet and the inter-dependence of all life. How small we are in our self-centered concerns against the enormity of the potential extinction of the very world we depend upon. How blind we are to nature’s rebuttal to civilization’s excesses.
The realities of climate change were revealed in all their complexities through multiple projections of film images that interfaced with live performance of spoken and sung texts and music. This combination fractured time and space into the geologic, the historical, the personal, and the possible. The melting shifting glaciers of the Artic that was the backdrop of Hopkins’ narrative excursion, functioned as a metaphor throughout. In her seamless transition between characters and their recitations, she navigated a delicate balance between fact and fiction — the experienced, the researched, the investigated, the confessed, the witnessed, the imagined, the feared, the desired.
After recovering from a long battle with drugs, alcohol, and depression, Hopkins set out on an excursion of discovery to the Artic along with twenty-one other explorers from various professions in the sciences and arts. This was no luxury cruise, but rather a hard working trip on a restored 17th century schooner with a seasoned but laconic Dutch captain at the helm. They encountered an exquisitely beautiful world of sea and snow, ice and sky, bear, reindeer, seal, and birds, in which they were intruders as well as witnesses to the effects of climate change. They also faced hazardous life-threatening conditions in which the ship could have been trapped in ice, yet they still went on in order to reach their destination. The film of this journey functions as irrefutable evidence of the future at risk.
Hopkins presented us with interlocking facets of the big story by inhabiting a cross-section of characters, each from a different point in time. First as her unadorned homespun self armed with accordion and melodic vocals, accompanied by a ten piece band and a chorus of eight. Then as history’s angry ghost in full native garb, she informed us that “this is not my language”, and that we have raped her people, enslaved nature, spread poison, and are an endangered species. Later the same woman will remind us that we eat and drink too much along with a whole list of our destructive habits.
In a sleight of hand gender switch Hopkins appeared as a bemused visiting space Alien disguised as Bubba, an “amiable dude” sporting a baseball cap, the same plaid shirt and jeans, a mustache, and vocal cadences that resemble Bill Clinton’s with a message that might have come from Al Gore. He instructed us on the history of the universe and our planet, and what we are in for up ahead if we continue with our misguided ways. You could project a lot into this character depending on whether your beliefs are governed by religion, inspired by science fiction, or fueled by politics.
Jeff Sugg’s stage design brought with it a history of techniques from the last thirty years of ground-breaking multimedia theater and performance from Laurie Anderson to the Wooster Group. He adapted them to a very contemporary message and a fresh sensibility in a way that was polished without being slick. Technology was neither the driving force nor the subject, simply a tool used wisely.
Hopkins speaks to us, not at us, about serious matters with surprising and refreshing clarity, humor, thoughtfulness and humility. She is witty and smart but without ironic detachment or intellectual pretention. She is emotionally vulnerable but not sentimental. And her music draws on the best traditions of folk and rock rather than either minimalism, or pop synthetic electronics. Instead she relies on the power of the human voice and acoustic instruments.
This Clement World is both a warning and a plea for enlightened action. It is a call to humanity to recognize what we have and what we have to lose, and to see it all in a different light. Hopkins tells us that “we cannot go back to innocence” and “taking responsibility is exhilarating”. The performance concluded with Hopkins’s own moving version of This Land is Your Land, with some new inspiring lyrics, and a lot to think about. Are we ready and willing to sacrifice for a better future? This Clement World may leave you hopeful or sad, or a bit of both.