KPBS AIRDATE: April 3, 1996
Mythical, magical, spiritual things often come in threes. Now, Triangularity is attempted by two San Diego theaters, each presenting a trio of plays. In one case, it’s a veritable holy trinity. In the other, three’s a crowd.
At Ensemble Arts Theatre, actor Tim West turns director, boldly tackling three short 1989 plays by Romulus Linney, who’s been called “one of the best kept secrets of the American theatre.” In three different voices and varying genres, the playwright examines the plight of the poet, which could be any artist — or any woman — of any time, who is forced to confront the nefarious forces that seek to limit personal freedom and creative expression, and to bend or break the spirit.
West and his formidable ensemble are most eloquent in the first piece, “Komachi,” staged beautifully and simply in the style of Japanese Noh drama. “Hrosvitha,” in the manner of a medieval morality play, is only slightly less successful. “Akhmatova,” a poet’s name which I could swear everyone in the cast mispronounced, is starkly set in Stalinist Russia. The plays’ titles are the real names of three historical women who fought for their creative souls.
This is a very powerful evening of theater. West is definitely a director to watch; he has an auteur’s eye and an actor’s sensibility. Betty Matthews does some of her best work here, as the silently graceful Komachi and the stalwart Akhmatova. Sean Flannery is chilling as the casually cruel Russian Minister of Culture. And in all his roles, Michael Severance is agile, versatile and riveting.
Each of the five talented actors appears in all three pieces, some as singers of haunting liturgical music, and some as hayashikata, Japanese flute players. The evening is highly satisfying, and, in these arts-repressive times, both affecting and resonant.
Uptown, quite surprisingly, something very stirring and beautiful is happening at Sledgehammer Theatre. Those may not be the first adjectives that leap to mind when discussing the in-your-face Sledge-men. But director Scott Feldsher has slowed down his pace and his pulse for the tripartite “U.S. Highway Love Slaves.” At this point, we only have a duet; part three, “El Molina Rojo,” is yet to be produced.
The pieces are united in their post-apocalyptic vision of Southern California, each a study in restlessness and rootlessness, a shadowy specter of the vanishing American dream. They were commissioned by Sledgehammer Theatre, to be written as screenplays.
Feldsher has effectively merged the media with Dave Rosenthal’s “Speed of Amnesia.” The pace is languorous, and the blackouts, at first, feel more like a series of snapshots than frames of a film. But the stage pictures are so gorgeous, the emptiness so profound, that we are absolutely transported and transfixed. This is Feldsher’s quiet, poetic side, and I loved it. Ditto David Ledsinger’s beautifully barren landscape, Phil Beaumont’s evocative sound and William Zukley’s gritty lighting.
The cast is forceful, but Jim Johnston stands out, adding weight and stature, as he always does, to his solid surroundings. I couldn’t get the bone-chilling rhythm and chant of the Bone Rattlers out of my head…. This production has simply got to be experienced.
Would that I could say the same about part two, Eric Ehn’s “The Silver.” Despite all the hype, and the spectacular idea of having local musical wunderkind A.J. Croce playing live improvised piano accompaniment, this two-hour staged silent film is, like its characters, deadly. As the screenplay puts it, “There are eight people left living in San Diego, each of them performing his or her own obsessive alchemy in order to render meaning.” I know that’s what playwright Eric Ehn is trying to do, but he never speaks to me. I find his opacity stifling, and I found this play interminable. Croce notwithstanding, skip the heavy metal of “The Silver,” and head straight for the magnificent memory loss of “Amnesia.”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.