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Theater Review

Overwrought Staging Ambushes a Daring 'Chosen Few'

November 06, 1998|DARYL H. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California Repertory Company is inaugurating its Edison Theatre in downtown Long Beach with an apocalyptic four-play cycle in which war is, quite literally, hell, with battles raging above a yawning, smoking nether world.

Unfortunately, art, too, can be hell when artistic ambitions go this frustratingly awry. Howard Burman's "Among the Chosen Few" teeters beneath the weight of its own pretensions, finally collapsing under the added burden of overblown staging.

Still, no company moves forward without taking chances, and this group--an apprentice-mentor mixture of Cal State Long Beach graduate theater students and professionals--has certainly done that by making the leap from the Cal State campus to its own facility. The all-out gusto with which it attempts "Among the Chosen Few" is but another indication of that derring-do.

Burman is Cal Rep's artistic producing director, as well as the author of many of the scripts it has produced. In the two-part "Among the Chosen Few," he tells four stories about humankind's seemingly unquenchable thirst for blood: in Greek myth ("Setting Fires"), during the Crusades ("Heirs of the Kingdom"), in Nazi Germany ("The Last Knight") and in a post-cataclysmic future ("White Ash People"). No matter how much progress humans make in these tales, barbarianism clings to their souls--though enough compassion lingers, too, to give us hope.

*

Music--from Wagner to gospel--is incorporated into each story to provide an ironic counterpoint. Each play runs about an hour, with the first installment in many ways the best. Spun from tales of the Trojan War, it uses the warrior-king Agamemnon's sacrifice of his only daughter, Iphigenia, as a mythic example of humankind consigning its young people to war and death. From there, the ideas steadily dwindle, play by play, into the final piece: an attempt at absurdist comedy that is out of character with the gritty dramas that have preceded it.

Danila Korogodsky's blasted, rusted set design calls to mind, among other things, a meat-packing plant. It's full of tricks, including a stage floor that can be rolled entirely open, like a horizontal garage door, to reveal hell's gaping depths.

Director Joanne Gordon makes abundant use of all this as the backdrop for her nightmarish visions. Actors pop through craters like corpses from the grave; zombie armies trudge along the treacherous landscape. None of this is ever dull to look at, but it's too self-conscious, merely drawing attention to its avant-garde artiness.

Portraying a series of generals, Richard Kinsey--grave, brave and ramrod-straight--leaves a strong impression, as does Katie Johnson, portraying a number of strong-willed, put-upon wives.

The best news is that the 99-seat theater--a bare-walls, industrial-looking space that can be rearranged into a variety of configurations--can comfortably handle a production this large. Here's looking to the future.

* "Among the Chosen Few," California Repertory Company, Edison Theatre, 213 E. Broadway, Long Beach. Performed in two parts Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7 p.m.; alternating parts on Fridays, 8 p.m.; both parts on Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Ends Nov. 21. $20. (562) 985-7000. Running time: 4 hours, 15 minutes.

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