Theater review: ‘The Author’ at the Kirk Douglas Theatre
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Shakespeare famously turned the stage into a metaphor for life. Tim Crouch, a contemporary British playwright-performer of a playfully experimental bent, goes one step further — he transforms the audience into a good portion of the show itself.
For those of a spotlight-avoiding nature, be warned: “The Author,” which opened Thursday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is interactive with a capital I. At the start of the piece, I had the kind of butterflies I used to get on the first day of school when everyone in the class would have to introduce themselves. I knew I was in trouble when I was ushered into what appeared to be a backstage area divided by two blocks of stands directly facing each other. Conspicuously missing was anything resembling a stage. Instead of staring into an empty space, theatergoers were forced to gape at one other. I would have paid the stage manager a week’s salary to kill the house lights.
The awkwardness somewhat dissipates as, one by one, the four-person cast, occupying different sections of the audience, engages the crowd. Before I continue, however, let me say that I think “The Author,” which is being offered as part of the adventurous DouglasPlus series, is a worthy curiosity. I recommend the experience to intrepid theater folks who are as content contemplating a theatrical event as consuming one. But if you’re planning to attend the production, which ends Feb. 27, it would be better to read this review afterward. Spoilers are unavoidable, and the show’s novelty is integral to its meaning.
Ensemble member Chris Goode plays a dorky playgoer. He thinks he’s at London’s Royal Court Theatre, which is where “The Author” was first performed in 2009. He exchanges names with those sitting around him while excitedly waiting for the show to commence. When nothing happens, he muses aloud to nervous laughter, “What are we supposed to do, I wonder?” Eventually, other cast members reveal themselves. Crouch (who wrote and starred in the Obie-winning “An Oak Tree,” which was at the Odyssey Theatre last year) assumes the part of the author of the drama the Royal Court playgoer is champing at the bit to see. This drama isn’t enacted for us at the Douglas, but we will become acquainted with its brutal subject matter through reports from its leads, played by Vic Llewellyn and Esther Smith.
The abuse that takes place in this fictitious work involves a father and daughter. Llewellyn shares his troubled feelings about portraying the perpetrator; Smith fills us in on how she prepared for the victimized role. Crouch tells us that this play was “a personal lament.” He justifies the bloody cruelty by noting its omnipresence in the real world. “Society is defined by its edges, isn’t it?” he adds. “Not by its center.”
There’s mention of an anti-war protest that Smith took part in with other actors. But “The Author” isn’t so much making a statement about societal violence as it is interrogating the dangers inherent in representing trauma. At the heart of this work is the same artistic issue that Plato and Aristotle wrestled with in Ancient Greece: What is the legitimacy of depicting human horror?
Plato worried that it inured us to what we, as good citizens, should never tolerate. Aristotle argued that human beings are by nature imitative, that we take pleasure in pondering even what is painful when it sharpens an awareness of the truth, and that confrontation with the worst of our human situation, rather than being a source of contagion, serves a cathartic function.
Crouch, conscious of both the Platonic perils and the Aristotelian retorts, leaves the matter unresolved after taking us to an extreme point that many will no doubt resent being brought to. Without giving too much away, the ending revolves around a baby — a resonant choice for a play originally done at a prominent English theater where controversial things have befallen infants in Edward Bond’s “Saved” and Sarah Kane’s “Blasted.”
Unlike, say Peter Handke’s “Offending the Audience,” “The Author” adopts a much friendlier meta-theatrical stance. Icily avant-garde this isn’t. Sitcom music from “Taxi” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is soothingly piped in. And the actors strive throughout to become our chums (although they may have gotten more than they bargained for from Thursday’s chatty opening night audience filled with quite a few teachers).
Although hemmed in by its own scripted nature, Crouch’s theatrical sleight of hand blurs the line not just between spectator and spectacle but also between ordinary characters and extreme behavior. The genre of the story each of us is starring in, the piece suggests, is ours to decide. Tragedy is just one wrong choice away.
-- Charles McNulty
“The Author,” Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 27. Price: $20-$25. (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes (no intermission).
Photos, from top: Actor Chris Goode (center, plaid shirt with glasses); actor Vic Llewellyn (center) interacts with the audience. Credit: Robert Lachman /Los Angeles Times