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PERFORMANCE ART REVIEW : Doing the Poet at a Site to Match the Man

September 23, 1988|RAY LOYND

You don't wrench life from the gorilla poetry of Charles Bukowski in a conventional theater. That's much too decorous.

Legendary L.A. poet-laureate Bukowski, whose 30-some books have brought him cult status here and popular acclaim in Europe, demands a bar, a brothel, a brewery. Short of that, at least a couple of toilets--with people on them.

Welcome to environmental theater and the premiere of "The Works of Charles Bukowski," staged by theater arts grads from Cal State Los Angeles in a warehouse loft dubbed eMCee Studios east of downtown L.A.

The environment is classic Bukowski. Down a dank brick alley and up the back of an industrial building you find a high-ceilinged coven carefully conceived, you might say, For Bukowski, With Love and Squalor.

You sit anywhere you can, on the floor, on a handy step ladder, on a sagging mattress, next to those toilets (but get ready to move when four of the actors dramatize Bukowski's "men in urinals"). You step gingerly around the beer cans, the junk, the flotsam that is pure East Hollywood motel hell.

Should Bukowski, who's 68 and lives in San Pedro, pay a visit to this show, he'll probably never leave.

The only other space in town that's fit for Bukowski is Al's Bar, L.A.'s other gritty theatrical/industrial venue. The point is that Bukowski without booze and cigarette smoke (there's both, from actors and audience, at eMCee (sic) Studios) is like Bukowski without horse players, womanizing and flophouses.

Eight actors, under the production banner of the Fillmore Assn. for the Arts, dramatize Bukowski's poetic lowlife dialogue selected from more than 30 of his works (all from books published by California's Black Sparrow Press). The show, which runs about 90 minutes, is an uneven ensemble effort but it is a theater piece, not a poetry reading. That's because it attacks Bukowski's prose and free verse on his own turf--with theatrical daring.

Every poem finds a visceral metaphor, whether it's lovers in a shower (naked forms silhouetted in sexual play behind a shower curtain), an actor sitting stark naked talking from a table or, later, another actor assuming the posture of urination between parked cars, unzipping his fly and, well, everything. The women stay clothed, the men (a few) don't. Pants, shorts, come down.

A woman directed this production, Cal State L.A. theater arts professor Joanne Gordon. The production germinated in one of her directing classes, but she didn't dare try it out on campus.

Gordon flings Bukowski's ferocity, his neon-cultured L.A. madness into your lap (that's where the actors are most of the time). Bukowski's passion, his hilarity, his vulgarity, his (Allen Ginsberg) howl are most vividly caught by actors Robert Villanueva and Armando Duran.

(The production was Villanueva's concept. He selected the works and also did the moody sound design, which effectively ends the show with a Tom Waits' vocal.)

The weak links in the acting corps are the three actresses, who lack visceral projection. On the other hand, Bukowski, like Hemingway (whose stoicism he suggests), is not easily taken as a woman's writer. Feminists hate Bukowski and his hard women. But that's deceptive. They might listen closely to a love poem here: "For Jane, With All the Love I Had, Which Was Not Enough."

At 2140 E. 7th Place (just east of Santa Fe Boulevard), tonight through Sunday only, 8 p.m. Donations: $6; students and seniors, $2; (818) 798-1305.

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