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THEATER REVIEW

'Utopia' finds place in skid row debate

December 08, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa kicks off Los Angeles Poverty Department's "Utopia/Dystopia," an exploration of the social, economic and cultural conflicts that are shaping the future of downtown Los Angeles. No, not the actual mayor, but an actor from the company adopting his persona and political sentiments. The gist of his somewhat syrupy speech: His heart belongs to the struggling people, but skid row needs a serious makeover.

The production, which opened Thursday at REDCAT and runs through Sunday, examines the ways gentrification is rationalized and implemented. Is cleaning up crime the engine of what used to be called "urban renewal" or are real estate interests driving the show? Does civic responsibility ever trump commercial prosperity? If the homeless are scattered, does that mean we can pretend they no longer exist?

These are loaded issues, and the cast, under the direction of John Malpede, approaches them with a passionate commitment that makes the occasional lack of theatrical polish easier to overlook. This is a community composition that's been informed not just by satirically tweaked documentary sources but also by some of the performers' firsthand experiences with addiction and homelessness. If the acting isn't always confident and the staging occasionally muddles the storytelling, there's something more important at stake.

The outcome of a series of grass-roots workshops involving skid row denizens and those living and working around them, the piece attempts to shed light on something quite basic -- those hard-to-solve problems encroaching on gleaming Bunker Hill are actually people whose rights should not be tied to the ability to pay rent. What's more, these folks may have a connection to the area deeper than a corporate developer's, if you take money out of the equation.

And who can do that these days? Which is why it's so illuminating to hear one performer note that, despite its name, skid row is a place where recovery is pervasive, community outreach is the norm and empathetic leaders have built institutions that turn lives around.

OK, but how well does "Utopia/Dystopia" work as a performance?

The look of the piece promises more than its execution delivers. Black-and-white and color images of the downtown area are juxtaposed on screens that hang on a set featuring a towering house of cards that looks as though it could double as makeshift shelters. Bodies wrapped in blankets are strewn beside upright vacuums that threaten to Hoover them up.

Two guitarists, strumming in a Woody Guthrie vein at the back of the stage, sing about a public ordinance and the way "dystopia is perfection's shadow."

The lighting, by Jeff Teeter and Henriette Brouwers, lyrically conjures night moods and a free-flowing atmosphere of theatrical possibility.

But the ensemble, a mix of company regulars and community participants, lacks the presentational brio that this kind of piece requires.

As a result, we're placed in a strange relationship to the actors, wishing them well even as we feel let down by their craft. A more interactive workshop environment would seem a better fit for the material than a traditional performance that preserves the gulf between the audience and the action.

The last thing we need is to feel more separate from these stories. Yet by communicating this message, "Utopia/Dystopia" can be counted a partial success.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

'Utopia/Dystopia'

Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Ends: Sunday

Price: $20

Contact: (213) 237-2800

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

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