ZOOT SUIT TIMELY REVIVAL

Experiencing the stage production of Zoot Suit nearly 40 years ago was for me an intense introduction to my new home of L.A., exposing its racist history in a docu-drama, presented in a fanciful flash of costumes, song and dance, and story line.

The revival at the Mark Taper Forum now through April 2d doesn’t have the shock of the new for a now native me, as I comment on public radio 97.5 KBU and select websites. Some of the stage contrivances of flash backs, and a narrator have become prosaic production props, the shifting raw open set a familiar construct.

But the play as a penetrating portrait of home town prejudice is still affecting today as ever, and perhaps more so in wake of President Trump’s pronouncements deriding Mexicans and his insulting immigrant edicts.

Reviving a 40 year old play, depicting racist events plaguing Latinos 40 years before, in 1942, and not incidentally 150 years after the Civil War, and is still relevant today, has to say something about our society.

With that as history, to be sure, Zoot Suit, now as then, is a joy to watch, even if in the last row and an imperfect sound system .

Its conception is a wonderful stage conceit, especially given the drift of theatre in the 70s, and stands as a shinning tribute to the memory of the Taper’s then artistic director Gordon Davidson. He is given proper credit in the insightful program notes of Stephen Lavine and Janet Sternburg.

It was Davidson who commissioned the production from Luis Valdez, then a young, fiery Latino dramatist. That the now 75 year old, Valdez directs the revival lends the evening at the Taper a wistful aiur.

As for the production, it time and place is announced by a curtain splashing a Los Angeles Times front page of 1942 . to be sliced open by a giant switch blade knife , through which struts the flamboyant Zoot suited El Paucho, wonderfully played by Demian Bichir.

Indeed, the entire cast is excellent, the song and dance routines exuberant, the dramatic interludes touching, if somewhat cliché and in need of some editing. But then this is a revival, not a adaptation.

Zoot Suit is what it is, relevant to the fractured history of a fractured evolving city, a landmark of theatre production, and a deep bow to Latino talent.

Tickets are tough, but worth the effort, especially if you call L.A. your home.

 

THE QUEEN REIGNS AT THE TAPER

A taste of Ireland is being served straight up at the Mark Taper these days, with a kick of a raw Irish whiskey, compliments of the playwright Martin McDonagh, and so I comment in a review for public radio 97.5 KBU and select websites everywhere.

You’ll smile, and shudder, whatever, for if you love the power of theatre, the language and the immediacy, of life being unveiled before your very eyes, the brilliant revival of McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane is not to be missed.

But be forewarned, it’s very Irish, not the “top of the morning to ya”, Irish, but “may the devil swallow you sideways” Irish, full of insight and scorn, the constant conflict of love, hate and freedom and family.

The set, the actors and actresses, the witty and wicked dialogue, you feel transported from the Taper in a familiar downtown L.A to the Abbey Theatre in dour Dublin.

And then on stage it is a cave of a cottage in the dank town of Leenane, in the hill country of Connemara, in far western Ireland. The lighting is dim, the details bare and depressing, right down to a dirty sink filled with dirty dishes.

A hard rain is falling outside, its drumbeat at times drowning out the dialogue, spoken with appropriate bile, in front of an old television set that drones on and on. Here feeble and frail in a rocking chair we meet Mag, the mother from the hell, spewing commands her to seemingly dutiful daughter, Maureen, scampering here and there, simmering.

Of note, Marie Mullen, who nearly twenty years ago, in the original production on Broadway, won a best actress Tony for her portrait of the daughter, here plays a scowling Mag. Talk about a tour de force.

As the mother, she is a lethal mix of the maternal and malicious, lonely, leering, domineering; yet you somehow you feel sorry for her, trapped as she is in a rocking chair.

The daughter is played by Aisling O’Sullivan, with veiled ferociousness of a conflicted trapped animal. As for a plot, Maureen, unmarried, fortyish, living at home chained to her mother, has a chance to break free, and into the welcoming arms of suitor, to be whisked off to beckoning America.

I wont tell you more, but be prepared to be shaken, as I was.

The Queen at the Taper reigns at the Taper through December 18th. And if you go, have a tea before you go to calm the nerves, and after the bows are taken, perhaps go for a shot of whiskey.

 

 

CALARTS AS AN L.A. ICON

Cities can be simply distinguished by a particular attribute, however arbitrarily. For example, New York it is finance, the symbol, money, the setting, Wall Street; Washington, D.C., the attribute, government, the symbol, the politician, the setting, the U.S, Capitol building.

Distinguishing Los Angeles is more problematic, as I comment this week on public radio 97.5 KBU, and websites everywhere.

Thinking beyond the benign weather and semi desert setting by the sea, I propose it could be arts and entertainment, and its personification, the gazpacho of cultural diversity. The setting is more debatable.

There is, of course, the iconic Hollywood sign. Some say the Venice boardwalk, or a beach scene, on a warm weekend. Others more contrarian, the traffic choked freeways.

From my perspective, L.A. more than most world cities is an evolving metropolis, and therefore an apt descriptive setting in my opinion would be a happening place.

With this as a measure, and as an idiosyncratic critic, I suggest the setting be CalArts, the Valencia based undergraduate and graduate school of 1,500 students pursuing careers in the visual, performing, and literary arts.

Though there are other art oriented schools in L.A. what makes CalArts special for me is not any physical icon, but the diversity of its students reflecting L.A.’s ethnicity , energy and excitement. After all, what is a city, but its people.

And I like the idea expressed by CalArts president Steven Lavine, that the school can only be good as its students, and that CalArts IS committed first and foremost to attracting a diverse student body that reflected L.A. and the world.

Indeed, I love the school’s catalogue that declares admission is based solely on the applicant’s creative talent and future potential; that test scores are not particularly important, and that the students who do best in CalArts tend to energetic, enthusiastic, self-motivated, fast learners, idiosyncratic aesthetes, verbal and visual adventurers, risk takers, those who are smart and vocal and possess a critical eye.

It adds that having formal skills helps, but those are things that can be taught; that having raw intelligence and an adventurous side matters more. Above all, it was found the students who do best are those committed to design and who are willing to put the time and energy into their own development and learning.

What made me think about CalArts – the so-called news peg for this piece – is the imminent retirement of Lavine, whose nearly 30 noteworthy years as president, from the school’s early struggles to its present prominence, in many ways parallels the rise of L.A. as the disputable creative capitol of the world.

To be sure, this category has not yet been christened by those who keep lists. But I feel it’s deserving, and in the tradition of L.A. as a trendsetter, beginning as a boomtown, then a tinsel town, and today the new media, and tomorrow, who knows.

But whatever, I feel CalArts will persevere and prosper, if it indeed stays true to Lavine’s vision of an intercultural , international and interdisciplinary pursuit of the arts, as an integral element in an evolving of democracy, addressing the pressing social issues of the times.

 

 

 

 

 

NEIGHBOR BOB DYLAN HONORED

A pause in my usual weekly reviews and recommendations on public radio KBU and select websites of cultural endeavors from wherever, to add my voice to the chorus of congratulations for my next-door neighbor for being awarded a Nobel Prize.

Yes, I’m talking about Bob Dylan, who doesn’t live exactly next door, but around the corner a half mile or so away, and I know is at home only occasionally, being on the road and seemingly performing constantly, everywhere.

In the score of years we have lived on Point Dume here in Malibu I’ve only seen him once, in a car, which I happily report was going under the speed limit.

Actually, I met him once, 52 years ago, in 1964, when he was a rising star and recognizable, with that wild, wiry hair, the slouch, and sheepish, if not a sly grin.

He was in a coffee house where else but in Greenwich Village, at the next table being interviewed by the music critic Nat Hentoff, who was a mainstay, in a then defiantly different Village Voice

I was a reporter at the New York Times, but to the exasperation of my editor occasionally wrote books review and critical commentaries for the Voice. I also knew Nat, havin met him several times, at the paper’s infamous parties hosted by its infamous publisher, the writer Norman Mailer.   It was very much a scene back then in a gritty, restive Village, and Dylan was a part of it.

At the time he was coming under a lot of criticism by the Voice and folk song purists for playing an electric accoustical guitar at a recent concert, I believe it was in Forest Hills, where he was actually booed. I was in the crowd that said let the kid do his thing, and cheered him.

And so seeing him, a few steps away, shook his hand, and to annoyance of Nat, said something to the effect that I liked what he was doing, and thought it was time for folk music to move on. I remember he smiled that shy smile, and murmured what I heard as a thanks.

He is the only Nobel prizewinner I ever met.

But not bearing witness to this, the only other Malibu story I eve r heard was from my late neighbor and friend, Al WInnikoff. He claimed to be Dylan’s realtor, and said he used drive him around looking at properties.

Al also fancied himself a singer, songwriter, and guitar player, and said on several times he got to perform for Dylan. Having tolerated Al’s indulgence, I can only shudder to think what Dylan experienced.    10.14.16

 

 

 

 

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GETTY ENGAGING AS EVER, ESPECIALLY IN FALL

Fall is finally here, and the crowds are definitely smaller at the southland’s popular museums. Gone are the Summer tourists, as I comment on my arts and entertainment wrap for Malibu’s public radio KBU.

Indeed, on a recent Saturday there were spaces on the more accessible parking levels in the Getty’s underground garage and no lines waiting for its trams up to the center’s campus.

There were no lines also in the pleasant café featuring a reasonable menu, and with seating indoors and out, make it a good time to visit.

This places it high on my to do list whenever we have visitors from afar, and definitely if there are particularly engaging exhibits on display.

At the Center now is a must for anyone interested in the contemporary cultural forces at play in the evolution of art. The exhibit, labeled “London Calling,” is a revealing and provocative selection of paintings by six artists who took root in post World War Two in England.

There in largely destroyed London they challenged the then popular rising trends of abstract expressionism, conceptualism, and minimalism, to paint reality, in a raw, rough and lush style, focusing a critical eye on the human figure and landscapes.

Included in this so called school of London, though I feel a better label would be the London gang, were the more recognized Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and R.B. Katjai. They and others in the gang present a reality that is riveting and haunting. Go see it.

Also on display to the end of November are two very different photography exhibits, for which the Getty has a special curatorial affinity.

The more engaging exhibit, entitled the Real and Ideal, displays the emerging art of photography in France, from 1847 to 1860, Through a fascinating selection of dated photographs, illustrated is the debate at the time whether the new medium was art or science, and what would be its future, depicting the real or ideal.

Bear in mind that at the time novelists and painters were also struggling with the question whether to represent everyday subjects and the world, as it was, the good, bad and ugly, or some fanciful conceit.

In contrast to such questions, the other exhibit at the Getty examines the work of a contemporary photographer, Richard Learoyd. His focus is distinctive, very personal large-scale color photographs that prompt you as the viewer to connect with the subjects.

Both exhibits run through November 27th, at the always engaging, and now more accessible Getty Center.  9.23.16

 

THE REDCAT THEATRE, THE CUTTING EDGE OF L.A.

 

From my catbird seat in Malibu I love the cultural blooming in Los Angeles, in particular the avant-garde art, cutting edge dance and-music, experimental theatre and inventive film. It is what I feel makes L.A. such a great place to live and learn.

What I frankly don’t love is getting to the varied venues scattered across the Southland. Traffic downtown, to the arts district, to Bunker Hill is most times off putting, driving a pain and using mass transit actually worse.

You have to learn to beat the traffic.

That is one of the reasons I like the Redcat Theatre, tucked in the southwest corner under the Disney Concert Hall at Grand Avenue and Second Street, almost as an after thought to the iconic, undulating Frank Gehry conceit. The theatre is about what happens in it, not the architecture.

Curtain time for its evening performances are at 8.30, a little later but allowing for traffic to lighten or lingering at a dinner. Best for me are the Sunday performances, scheduled at 7, when traffic tends to be even lighter, parking painless and returning home easier and earlier.

But first and foremost is that the Redcat founded by the trendsetting California Institute of the Arts – known as CalArts – has been a well spring of creativity, outshining the region’s other more prevailing, and pricey, institutions.

In my opinion, if you want to be on the cutting edge of culture, and get a glimpse of the future, now, get to the Redcat. Whatever is being presented might not work, might indeed by uncomfortable, but for sure you’ll stay awake and be challenged, and probably will not easily forget what you have seen.

Me, I’m going to the Redcat this weekend to catch a dance performance of the center for national choreography of Monteplier, France. The performance is said to be wild, combining contemporary dance with folk dances, in an explosion of vitality by eight male dancers, energized by two on stage percussionists.

In its review, the Le Monde of Paris declared the performance “the joy of being alive, of being together momentarily, and the visceral excitement of dancing. “

Certainly sounds like more fun than beating the visceral excitement of driving in heavy traffic.

 

GERMANS AND JEWS BEYOND GUILT

Having in maverick past written and produced documentaries, I have a special affinity for its capacity for story telling, using real events and involving real people.
 
I also have liked the documentary’s latitude for encouraging advocacy and personal expression, which I must confess I have indulged in as an unrepentant commentator.
 
But most of all I have appreciated the documentary’s potential for presenting issues that challenge my personal biases, as I comment this week on 97.5 KBU, radiomalibu.net and select websites everywhere.
 
So if you have ever thought about, or frankly sought to avoid, the issue of Germany and Jews, consider finding time to get to one of the two Laemmle Theatres, in West L.A. or in Encino, to see the documentary “Germans & Jews.” It runs for a week.
 
The film explores the complicated relationship between Germans and Jews in postwar Germany, with Berlin a focus. As described by others and echoed here, the film is “at once uncomfortable and provocative, unexpected and enlightening.”
 
Beginning with a gathering of second generation Jews and non-Jewish Germans at a dinner table, the film moves from the present to the past, and back again, surveying the waxing and waning of guilt, anti Semitism, and, yes, holocaust fatigue.
 
Along the way we learn that Berlin and Germany have been increasingly attracting Jews, and have the fastest growing Jewish population in Europe. And that includes an influx of Israeli Jews, taking exception to their country’s treatment of the Palestinians.
 
Most of all we hear from both Jews and Germans of the struggle to come to terms with their tortured past, with perhaps I thought a soft touch of self satisfaction. For some it is no so easy to forget.
 
Whatever your roots from wherever, you more than the likely will experience the well crafted and composed film on a personal, gut level. I did, as a first generation cultural Jew from Eastern Europe.
 
Havjng once done a documentary on a Berlin that I knew before and after the Wall. I was snapped to attention by the film’s opening interview consisting of the quote: “My father said there are two kinds of people in the world: Jews and Nazis. “
 
It was what my “shtarker” father had similarly barked on awkward occasions, and that I had purposefully forgotten at the urging of my mother, who counseled that the mark of a survivor is not to look back.
But as the documentary Germans & Jews reminded me, sometimes you do.
 

Art of Photography as Social Commentary

Family, friends and fans, a new arrow in my quiver. In addition to my planning and design commentary City Observed on 97.5 KBU FM heard Saturdays locally , and on radiomalibu.net everywhere, there is Arts and Entertainment Observed, a new broadcast feature heard Sundays. The first focused on the art of photography as social commentary. It follows:

At the Skirball Cultural Center off of the 405 a particular searing pictorial commentary on one of the more shameful, egregious –it is hard to find the appropriate word for it –outrages of World War Two. And sadly perpetrated by United States, replete with cloying rationale by President Roosevelt.

The incarceration of tens of thousand of United States citizens, men, women and children, –who happened to be of Japanese descent — in a barren dust bowl 220 miles northeast of Los Angeles for no other reasons other than they looked Japanese, was a flagrant violation of civil rights and the constitution.

No matter, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, they were ripped from their homes and possessions. Of local note this included several Malibu families who owned nurseries in the civic center area.

They lost their land that probably would have made them among the largest landowners in Malibu today, and we would no doubt have something very different than the crass clutter of shopping centers.

Lending particular note to the exhibit is that most of the photographs were taken by the already then renown Ansel Adams, best known for his stunning landscapes.

He was asked to document the outrage by no less then the camp director, a friend from the then and still progressive Sierra Club. The photographs are captivating, as are the artifacts documents and newspaper articles of the day, reflecting the prejudices and hysteria of the that prompted the incarceration, and the artifacts of coping within the camp.

Also shown are photographs by Dorothea Lange and Toyo Miyatake. A recognized and respected photographer, he had worked with Edwin Weston, and was nonetheless incarcerated.

Another incarcerated artist but at a camp in Utah was Mine’ Okubo. Her sketches and paintings from that trying time are shown in another gallery at the Skirball , and is entitled Citizen 13660.

That was her family’s assigned camp number, and the title of her subsequent book depicting the harsh life in the camp.

Okubo later participated in a redress action that extracted an apology and reparations from the U.S. government.

The exhibit at the Skirball runs to February 21st.

Coincidently, at the nearby Getty, also running to Feb. 21st, are the photographs of Ishiuchi Miyako, entitled Postwar Shadows.

Included are haunting images of objects that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and despondent post war scenes of life under the American occupation.

Also at the Getty is an exhibit entitled The Younger Generation, Contemporary Japanese Photography.

All of the artists are women , which is interesting in respect to the subject matters, but also from the perspective that Japan is very much a male chauvinistic society. It is known there as “girl photography.”

 

11.15.15