Earlier this year, South Coast Rep produced a play called "Ghost in the Machine" by David Gilman. In it, a musicologist is ecstatic when he thinks he has discovered a pattern in the work of a composer who makes complex compositions from sounds chosen randomly by a computer. In the unordered density of this music, the man believes he has located the first five measures of a 16th century choral work by Martin Luther, a coincidence so mathematically unlikely it would seem to signal the existence of God.
I thought of this play when I looked over the year in L.A. theater. And if anyone can find a pattern in the vast, spread-out and utterly divergent terrain that was theater in and around Los Angeles in the year 1995, I'll join his or her cult.
Even so simple a task as dividing local theater into convenient segments defies pattern-finding. Let's start with the shows produced by the only behemoth in town, the Center Theatre Group, which produces at the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson and the Doolittle as well as at the tiny Taper, Too. After that, the categories become location, location, location.
Center Theatre Group. The year began for CTG on a terribly earnest note at the Mark Taper Forum, with "Black Elk Speaks," a play with dance and music that told the story of the genocide of the Native Americans. Striking a tone perfect for these politically correct times, "Black Elk" fetishized the Indians' anguish and seems to equate a stiff recounting of their suffering with high art. It was followed by a more sophisticated but similarly dull and virtuous three-hour adaptation of Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Woman Warrior" at the Doolittle.
Patrons may have wondered whether they would be earning some kind of Scout badge for sitting through such excruciatingly P.C. theater.
Both of these pieces were funded in part by AT&T grants. Mere coincidence? More common ground (do I hear the strains of Martin Luther here?): Both were authentic autobiographical stories adapted by white writers (Christopher Sergel for "Black Elk" and Deborah Rogin for "Woman Warrior") for largely white audiences who were asked to contemplate the purity of "the other" and the perfidy of their own kind. In other words, on these stages, 1995 began as just another chapter in the story of forced politeness going on across the country in the arts.
Meanwhile, in its tiny 99-seat annex, the Taper, Too, Center Theatre Group produced a 90-minute autobiographical story both moving and delightful. Marga Gomez's one-woman show, "A Line Around the Block," was the wonderfully observed, deftly told story of a problematic show-biz father, a man who ran the Teatro Latino in Harlem, and his young, at-first adoring daughter, Marga. The fact that the family is Latino is inherently important and at the same time irrelevant to the charm of the piece. The play opens at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York in March.
Back on the Taper stage, attention to the white man's moral burden continued in "Three Hotels," a fascinating if bloodless Jon Robin Baitz play that examined the hidden cost to an American businessman who markets milk formula for babies abroad, where uneducated mothers in underdeveloped countries misuse it with terrible consequences. Richard Dreyfuss was chillingly flat as the man who operates in a world where "any action is justifiable as long as the results are profitable."
The high point of the year, both for the Center Theatre Group and perhaps for all of Los Angeles, was another Taper show, this one about art that is made out of pure passion. Zoe Caldwell was brilliant in her portrayal of an aging, nasty, yet somehow still luminous Maria Callas in Terrence McNally's "Master Class." The play is now a certified Broadway hit, with Caldwell a virtual shoo-in for the Tony in June.
And blessedly, the year that began with "Black Elk" ended with "Candide," a beautifully sung production that restored several songs and was lovingly directed by Gordon Davidson. "Candide," from Voltaire's great short novel, takes a clear-eyed look at the perpetual ignominy of men, and it speaks both wittily and sensibly of our need to use self-knowledge to achieve true responsibility in the world. That grown-up and timeless message, combined with Leonard Bernstein's gorgeous music, ended the year on a true grace note.
Los Angeles at large. The most powerful producers brought us the most expensive musicals: The arrival of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's "Miss Saigon" at the Ahmanson was inevitable, given "Phantom of the Opera's" great success there (both shows were produced by Cameron Mackintosh). "Miss Saigon" is so cleverly produced that some people didn't notice that it lacked the emotional punch of the creative team's former triumph, "Les Miserables." Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," that easily dismissible yet entirely pleasurable bauble, came to the Shubert and stayed. Can "The Lion King" be far behind?