Based in Northern California, in the small town of Blue Lake, the Dell'Arte Company is an acting ensemble that has specialized in physical theater for the last 30 years. The company will be performing "The Golden State" at the 24th Street Theatre in downtown L.A. for three weeks beginning Friday. As part of a residency at Occidental College, it presented this same updated and relocated adaptation of Moliere's bitter comedy "The Miser" in the campus' Keck Theatre on Saturday.
At once utterly simple and supremely elegant, the white-cloth stage within a stage designed by Giulio Cesare Perrone promised a level of distinction also evident in Amber Parker's lighting effects. Even the prospect of dying in a California wildfire became a gorgeous adventure here, while Tim Gray's music and sound effects helped sustain the feeling that Moliere's intricate, sometimes outrageous plot was unwinding in our own backyard.
Unfortunately, Lauren Wilson's text turned out to be toothless satire, never really taking on human greed (much less capitalism) but focusing on peppering the stalest character stereotypes with contemporary references. Worse, sustained opportunities for physical theater occurred only in Act 2, leaving the first half of the evening talky, static and lame.
As in "The Miser," the text revolved around an avaricious domestic tyrant whose children were kept in near poverty, thwarting their ambitions and romances. But Wilson's jobless, useless California family -- every member pursuing a younger lover after the shortest acquaintance -- never became an index to the ills undermining life here but rather a cartoonish irrelevance. And, much of the time, the characters proved more annoying than amusing.
Nasty jokes about Latinos, gay men, aging women, the governor and the Russian mafia did provide a kind of guilty pleasure when coming from or aimed at an obviously despicable source -- Moliere's miser, in this version a woman named Gertrude Hopper. But here, Wilson changed the characters who remain nominally sympathetic in Moliere into obnoxious blowhards.
Each actor did execute gestural and facial mannerisms that enlivened the endless speeches, with Joan Schirle's arsenal of tics and double-takes as Gertrude helping her avoid becoming tiresome as long as possible. Her golf-club duel with her son Cubby (the unrelievedly strident Tyler Olsen) showed director Michael Fields to be a master of wild physical comedy, a quality in short supply Saturday.
Sadly, Fields let Barbara Geary as the lovelorn daughter, Sylvia, get lost in all the farcical antics, so the sight of her putting a gun to her head and pulling the trigger generated no effect -- comic or tragic. John Achorn supplied a transfusion of hearty energy late in the proceedings as Bunny, the agent of the plot's resolution.
As the irresistible Federico -- desired by both Gertrude and Cubby -- Adrian Mejia wore the silliest costume but contributed the most creative moves, reinforcing virtually every line with witty body language. Only Guillermo Calderon as the overeducated gardener Luis managed to establish a comic presence grounded in reality, rather than offering just another gloss on a cliche.
Keight Gleason and Laurabeth Greenwald worked hard as tough-talking immigrant maids, but the problem with "The Golden State" on Saturday was not lack of effort. No, to the contrary: Everyone pushed and strained to sell an inherently unfunny text, making it worse by pretty much bellowing it in an intimate theater.
Light and shadow? Major and minor moments? Tragic implications? No chance, no way. "The Golden State" should have been sharp, stylish and spontaneous in the commedia dell'arte tradition. Instead, it bludgeoned you with the obvious, like desperate TV sketch comedy. And maybe that was the most California thing about it -- the sense of Moliere transformed into a sitcom hack.
'The Golden State'
Where: 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Feb. 24
Price: $15 (students, teachers) and $25
Contact: (800) 838-3006 or www.24thstreet.org