Entering the down-low entrance of the Walt Disney Concert Hall for a show at REDCAT, I always feel a little more hip -- you know, in that neo-futurist kind of way. Even if the SoCal sun is blazing, the desire to be dressed in black -- preferably something French and black -- is inevitable. As I wend my way past the gallery with all those menacing objets d'art twisting and dangling in all directions and head into the oh-so-pomo lounge for an unpronounceable European beverage, it's as though I've truly become a cosmopolitan citizen of the new downtown.
For the last five years, under the leadership of Executive Director Mark Murphy, innovation and eclecticism have been enshrined at REDCAT. And in keeping with its California Institute of the Arts parent organization, this forward-flashing 21st century venue has taken a daringly interdisciplinary approach to its arts programming.
As a cultural observer, I applaud the commitment to this uncommon mission. Artistic disciplines in the States have become specialized to the point of complete insularity. A neo-Renaissance attitude is exactly the right antidote to his kind of arid creative provincialism.
But as a theater partisan, I have to admit to being somewhat underwhelmed by REDCAT's limited helter-skelter offerings. An amorphous amalgam of New York notables, relatively obscure international companies, community groups and local wild cards, the theatrical menu since I arrived in L.A. three years ago has yet to reveal a burning vision.
Now in setting out to be a meeting ground for all the muses, REDCAT can't allow one to hog the institutional spotlight. Fair enough: Drama queens can chill when they have to.
But from my perch, the pickin's have been slim: Michael Gordon and Richard Foreman's avant-garde opera "What to Wear" and the Wooster Group's multimedia "Hamlet" (not the artists' best work but welcome nevertheless). "The Last Escape," Wroclaw Puppet Theater's adaptation of a Bruno Schulz story (nonessential, but glad to make its acquaintance). A reprisal of the Actors' Gang production of "1984" (already produced at the company's enviable Culver City headquarters). Several well-intentioned semi-professional performance pieces, such as Elia Arce's wartime meditation, "The Fifth Commandment," and Los Angeles Poverty Department's activist examination of skid row gentrification, "Utopia/Dystopia" (both of which made up in topical concerns what they lacked in polish). A choreopoem or two.
Is it just plain greedy for a theater addict to want more?
The brochure and press materials are invariably promising. But many of the events cross-listed as theater are really music or dance works presented with "a theatrical flourish," as the blurb on REDCAT's website for Ann Magnuson and Adam Dugas' "Dueling Harps" tellingly phrased it.
I like a theatrical flourish as much as the next guy, but sometimes you want the whole cake, not just the icing.
The big theater offering this fall was New York-based Elevator Repair Service's "The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928)." The piece was effective only in a desultory way, but I admired its cockeyed ambition and deadpan drollery.
But anyone in the mood for more radical theater this season -- as distinct from radical dance-theater or a concert given a radical theatrical flourish -- would be advised to turn to UCLA Live's International Theatre Festival -- really, the town's best bet when it comes to world-class deconstructions of classics and auteur-driven collages.
I wish REDCAT, with its intimate state-of-the-art facility and its philosophical openness toward directorial adventure, would pick up a little more of the cultural slack. UCLA Live's theater program, dynamically curated by Executive and Artistic Director David Sefton, is largely confined to the autumn months, and REDCAT is an obvious year-round hub for this kind of performance.
Granted, importing Peter Brook's or Robert Wilson's latest would probably break CalArts' bank. But surely there could be a more bustling program of performance artists, experimental collectives and other avant-garde trendsetters. I don't want Murphy to substantially reduce what he's doing in other areas; I'm asking him to strategically sharpen his theater programming, if the economic downturn won't allow him to beef up his offerings any time soon.
Still, with few philanthropic heroes who would like to see Los Angeles at the forefront of theatrical exploration (as it already is in the visual arts and classical music), this doesn't have to remain a plaintive critic's idle wish.