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Who needs external distractions when these shows provide them at no extra charge?

(Self-)Interrupted Programming 

Who needs external distractions when these shows provide them at no extra charge?

By now, most of us have endured one live show or movie plagued by unscripted audience participation.

Sometimes it's from the terminally clueless, like the undernourished Duke professor who brought a crinkly paper bag of Wendy's French fries (and a medium Frosty--which he slurped through a straw) to Ariel Dorfman's performance of Picasso's Closet, two weeks back. Signal-to-noise gets upended when boors provide the ongoing play-by-play to dates of apparently even lower wattage. And don't forget doting parents whose little ones talk, roam the aisles and even crawl on stage (it's happened).

So, resolved: Audiences being what they are, one occasionally has to deal with interference.

But what happens when a show generates its own?

Actually, such disruptions have not been limited to punk rock and insufferable postmodernism. Mid-century comedian Jimmy Durante regularly punctuated his ersatz "concerts" with the tag line "Stop the music!" before starting his critical tirades.

In this era, contemporary artists sometimes deliberately disrupt their own performances, radically varying the pace or juxtaposing incongruous visual or audio elements into live work. They do so to draw attention to the smooth, artificial surface of conventional performance, or to inject a note of protest, turning a single author's "monologue" into a dialogue on race, class or gender, with views from multiple sources.

Then there's the Compañia Nacional de Teatro's abysmal production of El Automóvil Gris.

While film director Enrique Rosas' silent 1919 Mexican film of the same name unfolds on a screen above, two improbably paired characters lurk at opposite corners of the stage. The man wears a military uniform (and fake moustache) similar to the villains in the potboiler on screen; the woman is dressed in seemingly traditional Japanese garb.

At first she ostensibly voices the lines of on-screen characters in Japanese. A comically high pitch suits some characters; a lower one fits others. Then she starts speaking Japanese and Spanish. After a while, the man takes a turn, narrating in Spanish. The two begin talking on top of one other, in different languages, more or less simultaneously.

Allegedly this babelogue is undertaken, the program notes, "to make this work more accessible to the varying audiences."

But for American audiences not fluent in either tongue, all this terribly postmodern gambit actually does is throw an effective verbal and visual barricade between the audience and Rosas' film. They do go on. They're loud. They're occasionally funny. And for the most part, they might as well be speaking gibberish.

If El Automóvil Gris actually intended to cross cultural barriers and convey the beauty, poetry and wit of the now-lapsed Japanese Benshi tradition of silent film narration and commentary to American audiences, the production would have been more effective by using actors speaking English.

In itself, the Benshi concept--a film world, narrated by a single off-screen character--is of interest. But that character must actually be understood.

As it was, local actor Thomasi McDonald occasionally got the odd English word in edgewise between simultaneous Japanese and Spanish discourses, grilling the film's characters about the life of crime.

But this alleged "tribute" to a Mexican cinema classic frequently made fun of much of it--satirizing the film's melodramatic acting, plot devices and politically conservative agenda. In one scene, nonsense lines--conjugating the Spanish verb "besar," to kiss--were attributed to a police inspector in an office.

The subtitles helped a bit at first, before becoming as opaque as everything else in this production. Prior to conveying the preceding "besar" joke, they satirized poor translation. After, they used clever-clever typography tricks to convey specious, poetic nothings, before the film abruptly ended in sobering documentary footage: the execution of the actual "Gray Automobile Gang."

The grainy footage of real men being shot to death, made the previous cheap jokes, postmodern posturing--and particularly the lip-service given the cause of cross-cultural understanding--a lot more tawdry.

But by then, a large number of audience members had already left this disaster--which ultimately seemed more an incomprehensible, foundation-subsidized, foreign-language episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 than a sincere tribute to either silent film or a Japanese tradition in performing arts.

By comparison, at least it was clear why director Derek Goldman put those little speed bumps in front of the 35 brief monologues that comprise the StreetSigns Center's production of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.

Anna Deavere Smith's second synthesis of ethnography, journalism and civic theater astonished the world upon its premiere in 1992, mainly due to the methods and means of her performance.

After a trial exonerated the policemen caught in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, a massive riot broke out in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992. In the end, 58 people were killed, 2,000 were injured, and one billion dollars in damages resulted from widespread looting, burning and civic unrest.

Afterward, Smith interviewed almost 200 people from all walks of life about their experiences, editing those interviews and, even more astonishingly, performing them as a one-woman show--impersonating street kids, legislators, lawyers and liquor store owners with an uncanny degree of accuracy.

The journalistic accuracy put into gathering and presenting the stories made Twilight a compelling mosaic of loss; a snapshot of a massive tear in the common fabric of our culture.

Such a work begs disturbing questions of the society which created it. For me, it also raises the professional question of how subsequent productions should be evaluated.

For a work with such an overtly journalistic element, truth weighs heavily: The direct quote, the precise reenactment of original interviews--stammers, vocal tics and all--are at the heart of Smith's attempts to represent her conversations with the witnesses with maximum fidelity.

But if that's the standard, do we demand all subsequent productions be a living xerox of Smith's original? Isn't the true criteria of someone performing former L.A. police chief Daryl Gates (one of Smith's subjects) the degree to which they look, sound and act like him?

There's the old show-biz joke about the impressionist who went broke, though he could do letter-perfect impersonations of the second five presidents of the United States. To those who know, he sounded exactly like them.

The subtext of the joke: no one knows (or, probably, cares) what John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson or Martin Van Buren sounded like while alive. It's generally accepted we don't need an impersonation to convey the larger truth of who they were.

But Gates, Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Charlton Heston are all public figures still very much with us. Unavoidably people will ask if those performances really sound and look like the originals.

One could then argue that a Twilight production might strive to merely convey the "poetic truth"--not the literal one--of its lesser-known or anonymous characters. But following that logic, we conclude that some characters in Twilight just aren't as important as the others: Somehow, there's not as compelling a need to get some of the lesser-known characters "right" as there is with the famous.

It's a sentiment entirely at odds with the civic dimensions of Smith's work, as best I understand them. All of the voices here are crucial. All deserve the highest fidelity theater can give them.

While Goldman and I may disagree, he honestly foregrounds the "staged" conditions of the monologues by having cast members verbally detail each characters name and occupation--and then clapping their hands together, mimicking the type of old Hollywood movie clapstick one sees snapping shut on camera just before a director calls, "Action!"

But repeating this a couple of times would have sufficiently made the point for the evening: Yes, these are staged reenactments of a staged reenactment, not the real thing. Instead, actors repeatedly flinched as clapping hands met in front of their faces; more of a disruption than either actors or audience really needed.

Jordan Smith's turn as a juror hounded by the public and the press after the initial King trial was moving, as was Courtney Rollins' chilly observations as an anonymous gang member. Rick Lonon captures the everyman feel of Reginald Denny, while Sarah Kocz impresses once again as Elvira Evers, a woman pregnant when she was shot during the riots, and as irascible Stanley Sheinbaum.

Tessa Joseph showed similarly commendable range, and Etheldreda Guion brought authority as King's aunt, Angela, and activist Queen Malkah. Carl Martin acquits himself well as Latino sculptor Rudy Salas and dry forensic scientist Dean Gilmour. But Torrey Lawrence finds the heart of darkness in the incandescent rage of protesters Henry "Keith" Watson and Paul Parker.

Twilight falters at the end when it parcels out individual words of gang activist "Twilight" Bey's narrative to all of the performers on-stage--and even less wisely forces everyone to perform the same b-boy moves at more or less the same time.

Until then, Streetsigns' Twilight rings with at least the poetic truth of a staged reenactment of a staged reenactment--which seems precisely what it's attempting to do. EndBlock

  • Who needs external distractions when these shows provide them at no extra charge?

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