New problems dictate new forms and the miracle of inventive theater is its ability to create them as needed.
Take Bill Cain’s “Stand-Up Tragedy,” which opened over the weekend at Taper, Too. How does it explore the inhospitable, graffiti-riddled growing-up years of young Hispanic boys living dangerously on Manhattan’s Lower East Side? By tuning in to their frenzy, their tempo, their beat. And how does Cain do this? By matching content to a hard-edged, elliptical style that often mixes it up between thoughts and words, cuts close to the precision of dance, but remains very much an actors’ theater.
“Stand-Up Tragedy” takes place in a small Catholic school for Hispanic boys--the kind of school where playwright Cain himself taught for four years. The action, or rather interaction, takes place among three teachers, a principal and four boys. A traditional writer would have given us this story of one troubled kid and one crusading teacher’s effort to rescue him in traditional terms. Not Cain.
He telescopes the action by emulating the speed of that life--with partial exchanges, direct address, fast cuts, perpetual motion, rap songs and rap dances that telegraph rather than tell the story. When you’ve grasped events at mid-sentence, Cain moves you along. No time to waste.
Actually time does get wasted, mainly in the second half, where things should careen to their conclusion faster than they do. (The show runs two and a half hours with an intermission; two hours would serve it better.) But it’s a dazzling technique. And quintessentially theatrical.
Credit must go to director Ron Link for fully realizing this script. Link (who staged John Godber’s “Bouncers” and “Shakers,” two shallower scripts requiring a similar jump-cut style) has cast some of the same actors in “Stand-Up Tragedy,” along with well-selected new ones. Vaughn Armstrong portrays Father Larkin, the crusty, hard-nosed priest who runs this school, without falling into a single cliche. He is alternately fighting off the cynicism that grows with the job, and keeping his young teachers’ frustrations in check. It’s a juggling act, beautifully conveyed by Armstrong with not an undue motion or emotion.
“Bouncers” veterans Dan Gerrity, John C. Cooke and Jack Coleman play the three teachers--superbly. Lance Slaughter, Anthony Barrile, Ray Oriel and the excellent Michael DeLorenzo (at once moving and detached as the troubled Lee) are their unruly wards. This company of eight provides ensemble performance at its best.
Nathan Birnbaum is responsible for the rap music and Shabba-Doo for the often spectacular rap choreography, reminiscent of the rap element in “Three Ways Home” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Good ideas apparently have their own spontaneous combustion. The two plays are very different, but steeped in a similar dead-end world of drugs and despair--an ambiance that extends to set and lights, contributed at Taper, Too by Yael Pardess and Michael Gilliam.
Pardess’ set is suitably telegraphic: a back wall covered in graffiti, a row of steel lockers whose frames resonate like gunshots under the pounding of the boys, and a series of windows with broken panes. But Gilliam’s furtive lights and Jon Gottlieb’s chilling sound play at least as great a role in transmitting the piece’s disquieting pulse and throbbing sense of danger. The dovetailing of these elements--acting, dancing, directing, designing and sharp writing--delivers a real one-two punch.
It’s ironic, because everything that has seemed unimaginative and superficial about the Mark Taper Forum’s recent main stage forays into ethnic exploration (shows such as “Green Card” and the current “Sansei”), the Taper, Too, is getting absolutely right .
Why? Is it that the atmosphere of the Too is more experimental and less intimidating? That the talent there is bolder or better? That the choices or the shows are? One can only speculate. But it may be worth noting that the plays at Taper, Too have been tested first (here or elsewhere) and produced after. More significantly perhaps, they have stemmed from someone’s private impulse rather than from an arbitrary decision to explore society by commission.
This is an oversimplification of a complex issue, but “Stand-Up’s” toughness and “Sansei’s” tameness demand to be pondered.
At 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East in Hollywood, Tuesday through Thursday, then next Monday through April 6 and April 9-13 at 8 p.m., with a matinee April 9 at 2:30 p.m. Ends April 13. Tickets: $15; (213) 972-7204.