The labor movement has long been close to the heart of the folks at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon. They can get pretty passionate about it, and in "Workers U.S.A." they're often lyrical and never dull.
This revival of the show, which premiered briefly last summer, is tight and entertaining, even though a lot of the material has the sepia glow of old photographs we've seen before. It chronicles labor problems in America from an 18th-Century strike, the beginning of our country's struggle for workers' rights, up to current injustices, ending on the insistently ongoing plea to "boycott table grapes."
A sort of quasi-narrator (Richard Sherrell) bounds onstage in a hard hat--he's working just over the hill and got permission to attend this meeting--and sets the show's mood: "History always mentions what the big shots do, but history is really about workers trying to make things better for their families."
That's what makes "Workers" fascinating: the sudden realization that nothing changes. The common man is still in trouble. Jobs are scarce, living for many is beyond their means and the "big shots" are still raking in high profits.
The voices in "Workers U.S.A." are loud and clear. And they sing with energy and compassion. Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall catch the poignant sound of Appalachia, Nathaniel Harris' powerful voice rings with a longing for freedom, and the entire cast, all in several roles, is dedicated to making its point with fervor. But it's still a cry in the wilderness.
"Workers U.S.A.," Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon, Topanga; Sundays, 1:30 p.m. Ends June 30. $11; (213) 455-3723. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
'1994' Ponders Earth After Ecological Blight
It may not matter that few people today are making a living. We may solve that problem by destroying the planet. That's the "telling" at Santa Monica Playhouse in "1994--A Telling of Tomorrow."
Tellings are how what we were, what we are and what we might be are transmitted in the future, 35 years after the devastation of 1994--which was "no one's fault."
The viewer is part of that future breed, witnessing a telling by a group from another "enclave" as clown-faced "Nostalgites" detail all those things people thought necessary in the Before Time--before 1994 when those same things ripped open our ecology.
There is also a story line of sorts, about the leader of the humanist enclave (Evelyn Rudie) and her dream of the group's advancement and security, and the things she learns from and teaches to Tracker (Chris DeCarlo), a loner who wanders the Wasteland outside the enclave looking for The Garden with which he hopes to begin replenishing Earth. And there are a couple of youngsters who may become friends and may even become the next Adam and Eve.
The story is almost too simple. What the piece has to say is not. Rudie is strong as Jo, and is matched by some of the younger performers, particularly Inara George as a young woman fascinated by Tracker, Greg Crane as Runt, Tracker's protege, and Ilyse Mimoun as the girl Runt might wind up with.
Written and directed by Rudie and DeCarlo, with a very listenable score by Rudie and Linn Yamaha, with wonderfully ingenious staging for the small space and inventive choreography, "1994" may say things we've heard before, but they bear repeating, especially in this high style.
"1994--A Telling Of Tomorrow," Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica; Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m. Ends July 31. $16; (213) 394-9779. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Saroyan's Lulls Make 'Razzle Dazzle' Fizzle
The Group Repertory Theatre's artistic director, Lonny Chapman, played Tom in the second Broadway revival of William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life" in 1955, repeating the role in his own exceptional staging in North Hollywood a few years ago. Chapman became a friend of the playwright, has taken some little-known bits and pieces of the writer's canon and formed them into the Group Rep's current "Razzle Dazzle."
Saroyan did have razzle-dazzle--some of the time. His voice was firmly planted in the humanism of the 1930s, often seen lightly through a rosy glass. He had moments of brilliance and very often soaring flashes of poetry. But only some of "Razzle Dazzle" works.
Saroyan was an uneven writer. When he was turned on, and when this company hears his voice clearly, the production--under Chapman's guidance--is engaging.
Appearing as a gentle Saroyan, Chapman is kind to his friend, who was volatile and sometimes obsessive about his work. As Elmer, a confused failure who keeps on trying (a typical Saroyan image), Larry Eisenberg hears the playwright's voice impeccably and is about as pure Saroyan as he can be.
Only one of the playlets presented comes near to Saroyan at his best, about a writer (Rajan Dosaj) visited by some of his characters, but several of the lyrics (by Saroyan and Chapman, music by Malcolm Atterbury Jr.) are top-notch and provide performance opportunities to the estimable talents of Kathleen R. Delaney, Jeffrey Sherrard, Michelle Elayne and Leslie Ann Welles.
"Razzle Dazzle," Group Repertory Theatre, 14900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood; Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends July 13. $15; (818) 769-7529. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.