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KCET's 'Works V' an Interesting Experiment

September 30, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The video camera can be a cruel thing when pointed at the theater artist. Recording a performance, the camera flattens the three-dimensional textures on stage and frames only a part of the action, leaving the rest of the director's stage picture, well, off-stage. But for performers who get off the stage and do environmental theater--performers like Cornerstone Theatre Company--there's a real chance to point a camera at the show and keep it vital.

That almost happens in Cornerstone's video version, directed by Bill Rauch, of Alison Carey's "California Seagull: The Short Cut," her contemporized take on Chekhov's "The Seagull." It's the middle section of a three-part, one-hour compendium, "The Works V: screenpLAys," on KCET-TV Channel 28 tonight.

Bringing together three of L.A.'s more original playwriting voices, this triple-play of plays is less a sample of the city's smarter, hipper theater than it is part of an ongoing experiment to test if playwrights and video artists can just get along.

Writer-performer Luis Alfaro thinks so, as he plays to Laura Greenlee's camera with relish in "Chicanismo," combining his humor-inflected political bromides, his specifically Chicano (as opposed to Latino) point-of-view and his ever-refined skill at playing multiple male and female roles.

A gallery of characters ranging from an effete Gap store manager to a frustrated Chicano studies professor to a single mom are intercut with shots of street life. The montage doesn't always work, but Alfaro's physical transformations as a performer are perhaps more amazing on video than they are on stage.

*

Cornerstone's and Carey's "Seagull" is the most ambitious of the video pieces, both in its involved mise en scene and its deliberate visual spoofing of TV soaps. Carey's original stage version transposed "The Seagull" to Southern California and Hollywood temptations; this approximately 20-minute version reduces that adaptation, plucking out the dramatic high points while retaining four original cast members.

While Christopher Liam Moore amusingly accents the jejune qualities of his frustrated performance artist, the usually superb Page Leong as his actor-love plays too loudly and broadly to the camera. Shishir Kurup exposes all of his hotshot director's vapidness.

Han Ong, a usually startling and original stage voice, feels somehow hemmed in here with his "not XL," directed by video artist Ming-Yuen S. Ma. In their introduction to this story of a young homeless hustler (played gently by Ong), both Ma and Ong suggest that they didn't always see eye to eye on this video translation. Ong, a real wordsmith, expresses some doubt about what a camera can do to his words; Ma sees the story as a natural for street filming.

In this case, Ong may have had the right instincts. Where on stage his work is tough and poetic, "not XL" on video comes off as a rickety melodrama, with Ong as a man-boy "killing time," picking up men (like the good Shem Bitterman, himself a playwright) and talking with a social worker (Natsuko Ohama). It's all pushed too close to the pseudo-realism of a movie-of-the-week on a budget, but with none of the visual charge suggesting the incredible danger and tragedy of the streets.

* "The Works V: screenpLAys" airs at 9:30 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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