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STAGE REVIEW : LATC’s ‘Minamata’ Is Confusing, Captivating

Reza Abdoh throws images and sounds across the stage like a kid playing 52 pick-up.

In “Minamata,” at Los Angeles Theatre Center, those images and sounds sometimes coalesce into arresting patterns that begin to make a giant statement about the cultural imperatives that plunder our planet.

Just as often, though, the primary purpose appears to be to show off the fecundity of Abdoh’s imagination and the extraordinary versatility of his cast. This isn’t an entirely unworthy goal, but it’s not on a par with helping to save the world. Abdoh’s show-off impulse also leads to moments when his internal editor completely gives up the ghost, and confusion reigns.

Even at its worst, however, this is a remarkable production, as fascinating as it is frustrating. It signals that some of our home-grown theater artists are ready to venture beyond the blue horizon of familiar forms and ambitions, across the frontiers of the art.

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The title is taken from the Japanese fishing town that was the victim of mercury contamination by a chemical company. Yet the events at Minamata are only the springboard for director Abdoh and his co-writer Mira-Lani Oglesby.

At the outset, a self-described lawyer (Mark Rosenblatt)--without naming names--refers to the famous photojournalistic account of the aftermath of the Minamata poisoning, by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith, and more or less dismisses it:

“Pictures are symbols. And through pictures, information becomes symbols. Symbols are forgettable. Aesthetic. This play wants to be more than aesthetic. It wants to be more than about some crazy diseased cats and Japanese people.”

Well, this “Minamata” (as opposed to the book of the same title by the Smiths) is surely about more than Minamata. But it’s ironic that the Abdoh/Oglesby text sneers at the “aesthetic” as “forgettable,” for Abdoh’s work is many times more “aesthetic” and symbol-laden (and ultimately, more forgettable) than is the Smiths’ book. The aroma of artiness is in the air at LATC as it never is in the book.

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If you want to know what actually happened at Minamata, or if you want to empathize with the suffering of the people of Minamata, go to the book, not to the theater. Which is evidently what Abdoh and Oglesby themselves did, as they later cite the Smiths’ descriptions of the symptoms.

If, on the other hand, you want to make the connections between the poisoning of Minamata and, say, the deforestation of the Amazon jungle or the computerization of telephone operators’ jobs, then Abdoh is your guide. Which is not to say that every connection rings true, but that he does attempt to paint the big picture.

Characters from Minamata are represented here, but they are altered to fit Abdoh’s larger aims and his heightened style. For example, the Minamata birth defects are depicted when a stocky man in drag (Tony Abatemarco) gives birth to a mutant baby girl who’s played by a naked man (Ken Roht). The characterization of the company doctor (Mark Christopher Lawrence) who first suspects the source of the poisoning is so distorted that first-time viewers may not realize he’s the company doctor.

In fact, large pieces of Abdoh’s staging are so hectic and unfocused that first-time viewers will miss much of what’s going on. Our eyes are repeatedly diverted from the essential to the extraneous; in some scenes, actors appear to do calisthenics on the periphery of our field of vision, as if Abdoh deliberately wants to splinter our attention. I had the luxury of seeing the show twice over the weekend; much of it clicked only upon second viewing, but some of it remains elusive.

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What works best, the first time out, are the musical numbers, whether directly related to the Minamata tale (a haunting Japanese funeral song) or not (abstract dances which depict an increasingly mechanized world or a spirited folk-rock rendition of “Kentucky Woman”). Composer Fredric Myrow and choreographer Rene Olivas Gubernick provide the lyricism and the pulse which keep this show moving even through its thorniest patches.

The performances also remain focused even when the text doesn’t. As a spectral Expert Witness, who descends from above like a modern-day Hitler, Tom Fitzpatrick embodies the forces of dehumanization with crisp precision. Abatemarco is howlingly funny. Boyish-looking Andy Taylor leaps effortlessly from rigorous gymnastics to playing the cello to playing the saxophone. Lawrence has a booming voice and presence that converts quickly into an ineffectual whine, when the occasion calls for it.

Among the women, Maureen Kelly’s supercilious doctor’s wife contributes much of the evening’s comedy. Karole Foreman is a bundle of concentrated energy, even (or especially) in the nude. Semina DeLaurentis and Emily Kuroda unfortunately get the bulk of the responsibility for intoning straightforward information, but they do it with dispatch and a sense of irony.

Timian Alsaker’s blond wood platform adds a welcome note of simplicity, and lighting/projections designers Douglas D. Smith and Bradford Fowler add a parade of evocative images to the backdrop.

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At 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through May 21. Tickets: $22-$25; (213) 627-5599.


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