Son of Semele’s genesis was marked in 2001 by the opening of Founding Artistic Director Matthew McCray’s play Earthlings.
The company’s evolution is evident with its 2nd Annual Company Creation Festival, which McCray says is dedicated to ensemble-developed work that is in line with the company’s mission, which is in part to forge new ground in content, form and style.
While Son of Semele’s encouragement of both collaboration and experimentation is admirable, and the four festival productions do deliver on the promise to involve ensembles and venture into experimentation, what stumps this reviewer is the lack of breadth in both material and audience.
Three of the four shows were created and performed by youthful 20-somethings who might be talented actors – most seem to hold degrees from places like Harvard, Tisch and Carnegie-Mellon – but they have so little life experience, that watching them attempt to tackle topics such as poverty, existential angst and loss is akin to watching children play dress-up.
Among the three one-acts put on by young folks, “I Wonder If It’s Possible to Have a Love Affair That Lasts Forever or Things I Found on Craigslist” is the most polished. There is innovative and organic use of theatrical elements. The show is, overall, clever and succinct. The themes surrounding growing up and finding (and losing) love and discovering who you are by connecting to your past are pretty much universal.
But, while the show is cohesive and interesting, it still lacks a smidgen of insight.
Between the other two stories by seedlings (yes, this focus on age is condescending, but arguably all criticism is condescending), “As Long as Fear Can Turn to Wrath,” a modern take on Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath, and “Roses,” an abstract ditty, avowedly in the vein of Samuel Beckett, the former showcases superb acting within its less-than-superb wallow in melancholia; and the latter, at least on the night I saw it, actually made me want to plot my own demise.
In “As Long as Fear Can Turn to Wrath,” there was not much story-wise for me to grab onto. The action was static misery with no movement beyond to garner either hope or perspective. While The Grapes of Wrath is my favorite novel, this play is merely a 60-minute exercise in adaptation and a showcase for tremendous acting.
During “Roses,” I felt as though I were watching a parody of, rather than homage to, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The two actors, in all their exuberance, ran back and forth spouting empty questions and answers as though they were trying to be existential, but because of their absence of awareness and lack of genuine emotional connection to the abstract material, did not succeed.
And, at the end, when the two performers grew more specific and personal, the text was so banal and the delivery so self-serious, that I actually caught myself thinking of ways I might off myself.
Way 1: Eat all my hair until I choke in my chair.
Way 2: Eat all the contents of my purse until one of the items causes me to seize.
Way 3: Peel off my skin with my ATM card and leave in my stead a pool of blood, meat and bones.
I felt (and feel) terrible for having thought the play terrible because the actors put so much energy into it and the director seemed to love it.
The director sat in front of me and laughed so loudly and blatantly at lines and actions that were not at all funny, it felt as though I were watching the play in a home for the mentally afflicted, with the play’s director being the one most afflicted.
Regarding the lack of audience at all four shows – there were four or five people including myself on three of the four nights – I have a message for the theater company: If you don’t publicize your plays, no one will see your plays, and hence any feedback you do receive will not be representative.
Performing for friends, family and other theater artists potentially makes the work more insular, not more explosive or daring. (I mean, why give my critical voice so much disproportionate weight?)
And having next to no audience certainly precludes the work from having any measurable social impact.
Of the four festival shows, the most wide-reaching and sophisticated was and is “Reactor: Simple. Clean. Efficient.,” which was conceived and directed by Brenda Varda.
As an inspired painting is created in layers, this play was written and presented in layers. It manages several topics at once.
At its core, the play is domestic discord juxtaposed to and/or rising out of environmental, cultural and socio-political discord.
The play poses many questions, including, “What happens when the bread-winner of a family accepts a Faustian bargain for the sake of the family? Is that what all bread-winners essentially do? And, if so, at what cost?”
And “Can a daughter save her nuclear family from a meltdown any more than a scientist, politician, nation or world can save the world from nuclear disaster or its equivalent?”
In “Reactor…” there is diversity of age, perspective and style, so all audience members are likely to connect.
And Varda employs multiple media to energetic effect.
Live guitar riffs amplify projected ocean waves, which reflect the ebb and flow of aired family grievances that are the purported byproducts of nuclear fission – when we split atoms, what else do we split? – Or, are these domestic squabbles instead, and more generally, the byproducts of man’s quest to use science as a tool to manage nature? And is such a quest even possible? Is science the God we should worship, or is love?
While I would have appreciated a more flexible rhythm – the entire play is electric fast – and a few more emotional pulls – perhaps even a contemporary movement piece at the midpoint (since movement is one of the media used) with no text whatsoever to show how the characters feel on a subterranean level – I was and am intrigued by how much my mind was and is still reeling.
During the show, I had so many realizations I needed to jot down, I borrowed paper from someone sitting – and also reeling – near me.
If you want to see a collection of plays produced by a company that has collaboration and experimentation in mind – if not always to realized end – then venture to the Son of Semele theater for their Annual Company Creation Festival, including their 2nd Annual festival which culminates this weekend.
If you wish to witness one of Los Angeles’ greatest artistic minds at play, and you don’t mind savoring the treat in an intimate (and hopefully not empty) venue where you can imbibe cheap wine during the show, then see, specifically, Brenda Varda’s “Reactor: Simple. Clean. Efficient.,” which plays this Wednesday, February 29 through Friday, March 2.
Bring a notebook to record all the epiphanies you’ll have, and as you record them, take special note of Brenda Varda’s fissionary wit.