So, as I mentioned in our last chapter, there have been three shows (among the hundred I’ve seen) that I nearly walked out on. As I said then, there are probably dozens of others that could have made this list, but three were three that drove me close to the brink.
It’s at this point that I mention something I’ve mentioned previously; a show I liked a lot, but probably shouldn't have: the production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” in Berkeley. It was done by the Berliner Ensemble – Brecht’s own company – in what was then its farewell tour (they’ve since reconstituted). The chance to see one of my favorite Brecht plays performed by his own company was irresistible, so we went.
The play, for those who don’t know it, is an allegory about Hitler’s rise to power, seen through the filter of the Chicago mob: Hitler as Al Capone. The play was written in 1941 (when Hitler was still a threat), and according to our friends at Wikipedia (in an entry I have to rewrite because it’s so badly done – the annoying use of “whilst” for “while” leads me to believe it’s a Brit) – and, as always with Wikipedia, consider the source – it was written in Helsinki while Brecht was waiting for his American visa. It wasn’t produced at all until 1958 and not in English until 1961, even though Brecht intended it to be produced in America.
Yeah, it's a wee but obvious, but it's Brecht, after all.
The production, while good overall, had its … unique moments, such the opening, which had the actor playing Ui on all fours, acting like a dog (including barking and growling) while the song “The Night Chicago Died” played for about three minutes. That could strain any audience’s patience, but it was a good prologue for what followed; if you could tolerate that, you could tolerate anything else they were going to do.
Some time after intermission, then, it came as a surprise to us when another patron, who’d obviously had enough, rose noisily from his seat, loudly slammed the lobby doors open, and yelled “This is a nightmare!” While I don’t blame the guy for not liking the production – it was not to everyone’s tastes – but I’ll never understand why he stayed until after intermission to express his distress. If you find it that bad, just leave when there’s a break.
Imagine three minutes of this.
But I’ve digressed yet again.
Let me deal with the three plays that came closest to driving me to a similar scene.
First is the 1985 production of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. LATC was a failed early experiment to revive downtown Los Angeles. Even though it’s active in a new incarnation, it was originally an offshoot of LA Actors’ Theatre, a group which was founded by a number of TV and movie actors who wanted to do challenging theatrical fare. (I particularly remember a very good “Waiting for Godot” with Donald Moffat, Dana Elcar, Ralph Waite, and Bruce French.) LAAT worked in a very small space in Hollywood off Santa Monica, but their success there, and the city fathers’ wishes to revitalize downtown, led to them establishing an outpost in downtown LA.
We're waiting, we're waiting ...
(A small digression here – really, from me?) Even though it was hard to believe in those days of the mid-80s, downtown LA used to be chock-a-block with people. The movie palace district – the only one in the country, I believe – is a marvel of architecture and gives one a sense of what the movie-going experience used to be like. Nowadays, it’s filled again with restaurants and clubs.)
The lobby of the Theatre Center.
Anyway, LAAT was given a former bank building downtown to turn into a theatre space. In those days, there were three theatres in the complex. I saw a number of shows there, some good (“The Petrified Forest” with Philip Baker Hall in the Bogart role and Rene Auberjonois in the Leslie Howard part; a few things by Spalding Grey) and some, like “The Three Sisters,” were so staggeringly bad as to make one wonder if it was intentional. The director was Stein Winge, a Norwegian who apparently had little command of either English or Chekhov. (I saw an early preview and got a glance at his notes, which were in Norwegian and seemed to be obsessed with the clock in the set’s drawing room.)
It was an interesting cast. Some appropriate actors – Stephen Tobolowsky as Baron Tuzenbach, Cliff DeYoung as Vershinin, Caitlin O’Heaney as Natasha, and Gerald Hiken as Dr. Chebutykin – and some wildly inappropriate actors – Meg Foster as Olga, Ann Hearn as Irina, and (the most bizarre of all) Kim Cattrall as Masha.
Regardless of the casting, a good and sensitive director could have made it all work. But Winge was anything but good or sensitive. Dan Sullivan (the fine then-critic for the LA Times noted in his review that the evening began with Olga’s “first speech about its being a year since Father died (being) delivered from the floor, she having taken a spill.” It was all downhill from there, with self-indulgent performances and lame attempts at slapstick and physical comedy (that didn’t even qualify as garbage) prevailing. I particularly remember, 30 years later, Cattrall’s reaction to Vershinin leaving. She bawled her head off, sounding like an air-raid siren, and grabbed DeYoung around the neck, then slowly worked her way down his body, ending up clutching one leg as he tried to limp his way off-stage. It went from WTF? to “really?” to funny to embarrassing over the course of what seemed like two minutes. (Doesn’t seem that long? Count it off.)
There was every reason to leave, but it was hypnotic, like a slow-motion car crash. At every occasion where an interpretive choice could be made, they’d make the wrong one, and it was fascinating to wonder and watch just how they’d go wrong next.
It remains of my great evenings of theatre-going, but for all the wrong reasons.
Sullivan notes in his review that it ran 3 and a ½ hours, but I know better than that. As I said, I saw an early preview and, even though I couldn’t bear to go back, I knew one of the actresses (who will go unnamed). I was driving home from Hollywood one Saturday night, and, seeing that it was nearly 11:30, thought I’d stop in and say hello to her; maybe go for a drink. I drove to the theatre, parked, and went to the lobby – only to find out that the show was still performing. Over the course of the run – and this was only about three weeks later – they’d been so over-indulgent that they’d added 20 minutes to the running time. I love Chekhov, but not that much.
As it turned out, LAAT soon went bust (even though, as I mentioned, someone else has since taken over the building), mainly because the neighborhood was so dicey. There was one night when, after the shows let out, the audiences had to be held in the lobby because some kind of gang war had broken out in the nearby streets.
Either that, or they were theatre-lovers who’d just had enough.
Tomorrow: Lear and the Lily.