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He's Staging the Revolt

UCLA's first International Theatre Festival sought bold, revolutionary work. Not the kind that tells familiar stories. Or even tells stories at all.

September 15, 2002|SCOTT TIMBERG

David Sefton knows what it's like to suffer for his art.

"I found myself trapped in a room with a French puppet theater of found objects," says Sefton, who's just put together UCLA's first International Theatre Festival. "Stuck, for two hours, watching a man playing with potatoes and making funny noises." Another winner: "Eight-hour, high-naturalist versions of Russian masterpieces, done in Polish with no subtitles. Believe me, I've done a lot of those. And one of the most annoying things you see are these new New York companies--it's like being stuck in a religious cult, where people are just worshiping this stuff, laughing hysterically. I sit there thinking, 'What are you all laughing at?' "

Amid the sea of dross, though, the 39-year-old Liverpudlian beginning his second season running UCLA Performing Arts swears he's found gold. UCLA's new season is full of unusual work, in music, dance and spoken word, but the theater festival is the boldest, the most ambitious swath of 2002-03's offerings. Many of these pieces--only a few can really be called plays--are non-narrative, abstract works that rope several genres together at once.

The festival--eight works that run from late September to early December--includes a play about punk rock and the Dada movement ("Lipstick Traces"), a radically irreverent adaptation of Racine by New York's avant-garde Wooster Group, and a version of "Woyzeck" with music by Tom Waits. "Woyzeck," in fact, will be the first fully staged work by Robert Wilson to come to Los Angeles; several of the performances are exclusive U.S. engagements or West Coast premieres. Although UCLA's offerings typically are staged in Royce Hall, most of the theater festival will appear in the more intimate, 583-seat Freud Playhouse.

For the festival's first year, Sefton is trying to define the term "theater" as widely as possible. "I'm trying to nail my colors to the mast to a certain extent, start to mark out the territory," says Sefton, who recalls both the Manchester club owner in the film "24 Hour Party People" and a mad scientist. "And much of the work here either is or was revolutionary."

There's no question that the offerings are adventurous. The question that remains, though, is whether people will come out for theater--theater of the kind rarely seen in Los Angeles--in a town that owes its fealty to the movies.

UCLA has a lot riding on the festival: About a quarter of Performing Arts' $9.2-million budget--which covers 193 performances of 86 productions--is devoted to these eight shows. Some signs are good: "Woyzeck" has already become the second fastest-selling show of the season, after Yo-Yo Ma's "Silk Road Project."

UCLA's season was born of Sefton's frequent flying: He spends about half his time traveling the world. Over the last year, he saw roughly 20 times more theater than he was able to book--not seeking anything specific but hoping to be floored. "I've been looking to get enthralled, excited and enthused enough," he says, "to want to go through all the trouble it takes to bring a theater company to Los Angeles." Don't look for anything that comes out of Eugene O'Neill's line of heightened realism, any British work--ironic given Sefton's origins and the torn-from-the-headlines plays currently galvanizing the London stage--or much traditional storytelling. "I think there is a lot of narrative theater in L.A. already," Sefton says. "I can't really speak to the quality. But that's already here. When you say theater to people in L.A., that's what they picture: actors shouting at each other on stage, in an Elizabethan drawing room." (Next year's theater festival, which he's already begun to book, includes more narrative work.)

The Wooster Group is renowned in hipster circles for its deconstructing of familiar masterpieces and for graduating Willem Dafoe and monologuist Spalding Gray. (Dafoe may appear in the group's UCLA production of "To You, the Birdie!," which is based on Racine's "Phedre.") Its method, evolved over a quarter century, is based on distance, not emotional warmth.

"Behind the Wooster Group's aesthetic is a distrust of--even a contempt for--the theater's tendency to naturalistically depict human feeling, and by doing so to evoke emotional responses in the audience," Charles Isherwood wrote in a recent Daily Variety review of the Racine piece, performed in Brooklyn. The Wooster gang, he writes, "wants you to think about feelings, not feel them." The Wooster Group is working in a venerable line of international theater going back at least to Brecht and Beckett, but its iciness may not appeal to a city whose culture tends toward more direct heat.

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