HIPSTER TIP OF THE WEEK
Brad Schreiber's non-fiction book investigating the Patty Hearst case, REVOLUTION'S END, is a matter of the right writer coming together with the right subject matter. Many journalists have been enticed onto the dance floor with rich girl Patty in her guerilla garb and Kalashnikov rifle - most recently Jeffrey Toobin in American Heiress - but no one else has been able to break it all down and connect the dots persuasively before this. Schreiber gave himself up to the twists and turns of the story, following the winding path with more determination than any writer before him. As he related in a recent stop on his book tour, he finally ran into a brick wall and was afraid all his work might have been in vain; then he stumbled upon the man who possessed the Federal government's dossier on Patty Hearst - and was willing to show it to him. The result is a quintessentially '70s story, West Coast style, that takes us into the realm of government mind control, drug-dealing and contract murders, all in the name of discrediting and undercutting the grassroots leftist movements that were flourishing in California. Schreiber's book was just awarded the 2017 Silver Medal in True Crime from the Independent Book Publishers, and it is well deserved. The Twisted Hipster has some experience in this arena, and I am simply in awe of the way that Schreiber tracks down his elusive leads and gets it all on the record. This is your government, folks. This is how it works. You need to know this. (Skyhorse Publishing, 2016)
CHECKING INTO "THE HOTEL PLAY" AT USC'S RADISSON
Two things right up front: I am not a fan of site-specific theater. And if you can somehow wrangle a ticket to the final few performances of Playwrights Arena's The Hotel Play, then by all means go for it. You'll have an interesting experience - it just may not be the one that Artistic Director Jon Lawrence Rivera, who conceived this play, or the 7 playwrights who wrote it, had in mind.
The idea behind site-specific theater is, to a certain extent, a literalizing of the phrase "if these walls could talk." I have been to numerous crumbling churches and synagogues and nursing homes and hospitals for the criminally insane, not to mention museums and childcare centers - all locations for site-specific plays that attempt to evoke the spirits of the place, to conjure these spirits and capture their conflicts, their tales of human yearning and suffering. But theater, by its nature, is artificial. It presents human behavior in a designed construct intended to effect the audience in a specific way, to yield certain results. But placing this artificial construct in a real setting only tends to make it seem more artificial, not more real.
Without a doubt the best site-specific theater I've ever seen were Richard Foreman's early plays in his loft in downtown New York City. These events always featured Foreman himself at the control panel running the show and starring his girlfriend Kate Mannheim (usually in some form of undress) and had titles like Rhoda in Potatoland. The evenings were erotic, funny, weird, unpredictable and deeply personal. They seemed to present a map of Foreman's imagination, of the fantasies he had in his loft. It could be argued that this theater piece would also be effective in a black box theater space with a regular stage manager running the lights and sound, and I'd have to agree. But there was something about being in Foreman's loft and having him at the controls that made this experience different, and one that I've never forgotten. These plays had no real socio-political significance, nor did they aspire to. But they seemed truthful to the theater maker's obsessions, including the darker side of his nature, and they drew you in, sometimes unwillingly. The walls definitely seemed to be talking, and to be doing so in an uncensored way.
The First Act of The Hotel Play takes place in six rooms of the USC Radisson, and the Second Act concludes on the patio by the outdoor pool. The conceit of the play is that the Class of 1992 from a South Central High School is having a 25th Reunion, stirring up all the old ghosts from the Rodney King riots. Seven women playwrights have written the scenes in the rooms and on the patio - Paula Cizmar, Velina Hasu Houston, Jennifer Maisel, Nahal Navidar, Julie Taiwo Oni, Janine Salinas Schoenberg and Laurie Woolery. Sixteen actors work hard to convince us that we are observing them in their most intimate moments as they prepare to meet downstairs for the reunion. There are unresolved issues from those tragic times which will be resolved tonight - or so we are promised. And to a great extent they are. Whether we actually care that much is another issue, one that I'll let each audience member decide for himself or herself.
I had a directing teacher a long time ago named George Ferencz who always told us that our task as theater makers was to "beat the street." By which he meant that we had to make something that was more interesting than what people could get for free outside the theater. But when your theater is in fact outside on a pool patio, then that task becomes a lot more difficult. Police cars raced by with sirens blaring, fire engines raced by too, and at one point there was a horrifying shriek of brakes on the unseen street, which was thankfully not followed by a crash of metal. But any hope these actors had of engaging our emotions was pretty much undercut by "the street," until I felt my attention wandering to the interesting people in the audience, a truly diverse group of Angelenos whose chatter between scenes was often more interesting than the melodramatic dialogue that took place in the rooms. There was a captivating scene between a drug-dealing son and his male-to-female transgender mother, which did get richer later on when the son stood up for his mother to the woman who had had a crush on her in high school. But too often the scenes simply didn't beat the street, while striving too hard to make statements of socio-political consequence.
Still, I had a great time at The Hotel Play because it felt like an event, and a specifically Los Angeles event at that. Los Angeles is a city of transients - not a new idea, even kind of a tired one, but it struck me in a new and powerful way on this particular evening. Maybe it had to do with the sadness of those hotel rooms, unchanged by its many occupants, where we audience members were voyeuristic ghosts, crammed into the spaces between these bickering characters, skittering out of the way as they lurched in this direction or that one, while we froze awkwardly next to women examining their bodies in the mirror with displeasure and applying way too much makeup.
Or maybe it had to do with taking the train down there and back, rather than driving my car, as I usually do. The train was packed - something I don't experience often here - and the riders included the Phantom of the Opera, who hung near the back. It brought back memories of New York City, of course, where I took the subway to school every day for years. But the trains here are different, narrower, more intimate, and they don't go underground. That may seem like a small thing, but it isn't. When the subway goes underground, there's nothing to look at but each other, except that no one in a New York subway likes being looked at. Also there's no smartphone reception down there. Staying above ground the whole way, I could really take in the Los Angeles sprawl, and what an enormous number of people there are here, trying to make a life, to keep things together.
A few stops into the ride back, a good-looking young man burst into the train car, saying to everyone and no one, "Wouldn't you believe me if I told you that I was serious about getting my shit together this time? Wouldn't you give me a second chance and go out with me?" His gaze settled on a young woman who was sitting beside her boyfriend or husband. "Wouldn't you give me another chance if I told you that this time it was going to be different?"
The young woman shrugged and said, "Maybe don't keep reminding her how you messed up before. That doesn't really help your case."
"But it's all gonna be different now, that's my point," he said. "If I can just get my shit together."
"If?" the woman said to him, shaking her head.
Soon she and her male companion and most of the other folks in our car got off the train. The young man sat down opposite me. I noticed that his shirt was inside out. Somehow it made me doubt that he was ever going to get his shit together. But hey, who was I to judge?
"Hey, I'm Antonio," he told me.
"Twisted Hipster," I responded.
"Huh?" he asked. Then he smiled as if just getting the joke. "That's a good name for you," he said.
I smiled back. Really, who was I to judge about anything? Maybe the play hadn't been great, but the evening had been full of surprises, and wasn't that the point of going out for the night?