With all that’s happening in the Los Angeles theater scene, it can be hard to keep track of the many opportunities to see original work. On a recent trip I managed to see two excellent productions within a few days of one another, both in downtown L.A., and both produced and directed by women. One, THE B-SIDE: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons” A Record Album Interpretation presented by The Wooster Group at REDCAT offered me a chance to reconnect with a group whose work I’ve known for several decades and that had an outsized impact on my interest in theater. The other, FILL FILL FILL FILL FILL FILL FILL presented by We The Women in a workshop production at the Los Angeles Theater Center represented an entirely different, yet equally distinctive strand in the tapestry of live performance that’s emerging in downtown Los Angeles circa 2019.
In part inspired by The Wooster Group’s earlier record album interpretation of “Early Shaker Spirituals,” THE B-SIDE delivered an unforgettable, yet deliberately ambivalent charge of elemental vitality and documentary realness. The piece was created by performer Eric Berryman, who gave a matter of fact curtain speech describing the origins of this collaboration in a conversation he had with director Kate Valk while waiting on her table at a New York restaurant. I have no idea how the meal was, or how big the tip, but it was certainly a good night for Berrryman, who has now seen his dream of performing this unusual set of field recordings fulfilled, and for the Wooster Group, which has been operating continuously for more than four decades and continues to create entrancing and relevant performance.
Phillip Moore and Jasper McGruder joined Berryman onstage in a fascinating and at times oblique session defined by the two sides of an obscure vinyl record, “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons.” Comprised of work songs, prison ballads, and satirical “toasts,” this ethnographic recording from 1965 was compiled by folklorist Bruce Jackson. The performers listen to the record through wireless earpieces whenever Berryman cues it up on a turntable. Once the record begins to spin, all the audience hears is the voices of these three men as they sing or speak along with the otherwise unheard field recording.
The harmonies are rough and appealing, and the music is consistently soulful and resonant, but it’s the unexpected aspect of the toasts that gives THE B-SIDE its shape and signifying power. The work’s ambiguous climax comes with “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” a satire of money-grubbing preachers that sees Berryman soliciting dollars from the front row audience, even as he follows along with the narrative that’s beaming straight to his ear canal. Combined with the use of elegant, non-standard recorded and live video, the overall effect is at once heartfelt and unnerving. The Wooster Group continues to innovate and evolve, and it’s great that REDCAT makes it possible for us to keep up with their output.
Two nights later I was at the Los Angeles Theater Center, just a few blocks from REDCAT, for FILLx7, a new play by Steph Del Rosso directed by Santa Barbara native Kate Bergstrom and presented as a workshop productin by We The Women. This hard driving feminist satire featured Jennifer Kim as Joni, a twenty-something everywoman who loses her rockstar raison d’etre Noah (Grant Harrison) in an implausible yet all too believable on stage break up. He brings her out after a successful show and tells her, in front of an audience, that he “wants to see other people.” It’s a moment everyone who’s ever loved at least knows about, yet here it’s delivered in a fresh context, one that makes it all the more apocalyptic and unapologetically insensitive.
From there, Joni’s newly single life begins to spin as rapidly as the show’s ingenious use of a rotating carousel indicates. Early in her race to find herself, Joni must follow the movement of the rotating disc in the floor, racing with one leg to keep up with the other that’s anchored firmly to a spinning world that wants to throw her off. Throughout the evening, and as we get closer to Joni, the staging and the epic physicality of the individual performances move the story steadily onward. As the id to Joni’s ego in a risqué sequence about a threesome, Nathalie Love uses the freedom of satire to explore the furthest reaches of onstage, um, energy. When she eventually finds an appropriate media outlet for her post-breakup development – a reality television game show about the “perfect woman,” Joni takes what any woman over the age of twelve would expect – vindictive jealousy from ex Noah, who claims she’s only trying so hard to become herself because she wants to get him back.
In different ways, these two recent theater experiences communicated the reality of the current downtown L.A. theater scene very effectively. Younger people are taking advantage of an unprecedented moment to display what they have to offer in an urban theater destination that’s got something for everyone – as long as that everyone is ready for anything.