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Challenging the Audience

About Productions' 'Memory Rites' stretches boundaries of traditional live theater with a diverse collaboration.

June 07, 1998|Philip Brandes | Philip Brandes is a regular theater reviewer for Daily Calendar

How's this for high concept: Latina actress finds herself forced to deconstruct her personal and cultural identity while auditioning for the role of Joan of Arc as staged by lunatic surrealist director Antonin Artaud. With a soundtrack by The Motels.

"Pretty Woman" meets "Blue Velvet" by way of Roland Barthes? Hardly grist for a major studio pitch--and the three principal members of About Productions theater company couldn't be happier about it.

Huddled around a table in a hip Silver Lake coffeehouse, Theresa Chavez, Alan Pulner, and Rose Portillo enthusiastically affirmed their commitment to producing challenging original works that push the traditional boundaries of live theater.

"We're always interested in exploring issues of gender and identity, redefining a historical moment in terms of contemporary issues, and of course one of our favorite themes--the clash between the inner spiritual voice and social acceptability," explained Pulner, a writer and performance artist who co-founded the company with Chavez in 1988 while the two were pursuing graduate studies at California Institute of the Arts. "So pairing Joan with Artaud was a meaningful association--they were both outcasts whose private truths put them at odds with their worlds."

"Vox," the play they're discussing, was About Productions' well-received entry in last year's LocoMotion festival, an annual series showcasing a consortium of Los Angeles theater groups. A mix of sociology, psychoanalysis, existential whimsy and religious inquiry, the work both required and rewarded an above-average cerebral effort to untangle its densely packed cultural and philosophical associations.

The wiry and animated Pulner--a self-styled "typical single gay male" from Providence, R.I.--readily conceded the eclectic nature of the company's approach. "We're always working with three or four ideas--we can't focus on just one thing! We like to make connections between things, so a lot of our work involves combining diverse themes and styles."

"That's how we work," agreed Chavez, an interdisciplinary artist with a background in dance and photography as well as the social sciences. (Chavez is married to Times Daily Calendar editor Oscar Garza). A seventh-generation Angeleno, she credits much of her interest in cultural identity issues to growing up in a multiracial Monterey Park district. And while multicultural issues figure prominently in her work, Chavez carefully distinguishes it from stereotypical ethnic cheerleading.

"All three of us are comfortable with complexity," she said. "And if that's demanding for an audience, so be it. We're just not interested in any kind of commercial success that compromises the things we care about."

Chavez and Pulner's nontheatrical backgrounds inspired them to pursue an alternative to what Chavez calls "the traditional patriarchal model of theater, with white males at the helm." Instead, they try to adapt "the more inclusive and in some ways more democratic model already embraced by the visual and performing arts" to find new ways of exploring issues of gender politics and social commentary.

Their work aims to inform as much as focus on aesthetics, says Portillo, a Los Angeles native who still lives in the same house in which she grew up. "That's important to the three of us, because we're all teachers." Chavez teaches classes in Interdisciplinary Studies at CalArts, Pulner teaches grammar school for the Los Angeles Unified School District and Portillo teaches high school students through Will Power to Youth and Plaza de la Raza.

Many of the trio's recurring themes and issues--and some new ones--are reflected in "Memory Rites," the company's latest work, which opens June 13 at the 2100 Square Feet Theater on San Vicente Blvd. in L.A. Conceived as the sequel to "Vox" in a thematically related trilogy (with the final play due sometime next year), "Memory Rites" is the story of a video artist suffering from retrograde amnesia as she struggles to reclaim her identity from oblivion.

Though distinct from "Vox" in story and characters, Chavez said, the piece was an organic extension of the previous work. "The idea began in conversations about Joan of Arc regarding issues of control and light and essence--self-determination. There were perspectives that we wanted to explore that were burdensome to that piece. So we put them on hold until we found a new perspective to look at [them]."

That perspective was supplied by Portillo, who chanced upon a New York Times article about a sculptor who had lost her memory in a car accident. "The statement I found fascinating," Portillo recalled, "was when she said, 'What I remembered was that I was an artist.' It really hit on that essential question of 'Who are you when everything is wiped out?' "

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