Theater gets its weird back. How REDCAT and CAP UCLA shows celebrate the offbeat
What I miss most about alternative theater, the kind of work REDCAT and the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA specialize in, is the feeling of strange delight. That sense of being in the presence of the offbeat, of being tickled by novelty, of new sensibility dawning.
Group enclosure is an essential part of the alchemy. Gathering in a specially designated space fosters the impression of being in cahoots, not simply with the artists piquing our curiosity but with our fellow audience members.
The charm of these unconventional escapades can only be approximated in the digital sphere. On screen, the weirdness is flattened. Passive voyeurism replaces collusive camaraderie.
But while we wait for live performance to return, let’s at least remind our palates of the taste of the unusual. Robin Frohardt’s “Plastic Bag Store: The Film,” courtesy of CAP UCLA, and Elevator Repair Service’s “Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge (In Progress),” a REDCAT virtual presentation, bring quirky lenses through which to see stubborn social problems anew.
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Frohardt, an artist, puppet designer and director, created a public art exhibit in Times Square that conjured a mini-market stocked with hand-sculpted grocery items, all made from discarded, single-use plastics. This immersive installation was intended to give rise to a puppet theater piece, but the COVID-19 pandemic altered the plan.
The live performance component was turned into a film that was shown at the site to a limited audience. “Plastic Bag Store: The Film” captures both the store, with its rainbow array of brands all begging for attention, and the filmed puppet story, which focuses on the way a mindless culture of consumption has wreaked environmental havoc.
I kept imagining what it must have been like to be in this space of kitschy plastic comestibles. This unusual art project is a recycling job of wry imagination, but Frohardt’s whimsy is on a mission.
The effect of humanity’s consumerist mania on the planet is traced from its emergence in the ancient world through today’s orgy of plastics to a future dystopian ice age in which toothbrushes, combs and cigarette lighters are prized artifacts from a mysterious people known as Most Valued Customers.
Shadow puppets fill in the ancient Greek backstory involving a fellow named Thaddeus, who markets water in disposable vases that the polis can’t get enough of. The faux documentary style can seem cutesy, but gravity builds in the middle section when a museum custodian named Helen (a puppet of haunting middle-aged individuality) ushers us into the contemporary age. (Freddi Price’s original music subtly ratchets up the somber stakes.).
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Helen collects plastic detritus not only in the galleries she cleans, but also on the streets and subways. Anxious about what our society will leave behind, she places a message in a plastic water bottle, scrolled on a museum postcard and CVS receipt about what life was like on the island of Manhattan when banks, pharmacies and food franchises ruled the world.
The third section centers on an old man from the future who discovers Helen’s missive while ice fishing. His archaeological analysis of our disposable culture mistakes a lid with a straw for some kind of ancient compass. The humor is evanescent, but the question of legacy lingers disturbingly.
After seeing “Plastic Bag Store: The Film,” I couldn’t help viewing the containers in my refrigerator and cupboards with stark horror. My kitchen seemed like a nonbiodegradable crime scene, a stockpile of toxic flotsam and jetsam destined to lodge in the guts of birds and marine life and leave posterity scratching its head about the values of a truly lost civilization.
In 1965, novelist and public intellectual James Baldwin and conservative sage William F. Buckley Jr. were invited to the Cambridge University Union to debate the resolution “The American Dream Is at the Expense of the American Negro.” Two eloquent voices, one fired up by the civil rights struggle, the other espousing a blend of free-market capitalism and traditional values, squared off in what turned out to be a mismatch of the ages.
Baldwin soared with moral conviction, Buckley struck out with obfuscation and snobbery. In “Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge (In Progress),” ERS replays a debate about racial equality that continues to disconcertingly resound, as though not much has changed in the last 56 years.
Conceived by Greig Sargeant, who plays Baldwin, and directed by ERS Artistic Director John Collins, the production doesn’t attempt to conjure back to life these historical figures. There’s a gap between the performers and their roles that creates almost a palimpsest effect, keeping 1965 and 2021 simultaneously in view.
Ben Williams gives only a light touch of Buckley’s flamboyant patrician flourishes. Sargeant’s sports jacket seems like it might have come from his own closet. The mode of performance forces us to think harder about the intentions behind the presentation.
Two other performers, Christopher-Rashee Stevenson and Gavin Price, portray Cambridge college representatives who introduce the opposing sides. It’s somewhat disorienting to hear Stevenson, a Black actor, arguing against the idea that America has a serious race problem. But the production preserves a tension that invites us to experience the opposing positions at a critical remove.
Dramatic illusion isn’t wanted here, and perhaps for good reason. These are times that require us to be fully awake.
A coda involving Baldwin and his close friend Lorraine Hansberry (April Matthis), who died just a few weeks before the debate took place, offers a snapshot of their intellectual intimacy. The intriguing scene feels tacked on at this point. But as the title spells out, this is still a work-in-progress.
Which reminds me of another pleasure of alternative theater — that of catching a performance discovering its groove.
‘Plastic Bag Store’ and ‘Baldwin and Buckley'
‘Plastic Bag Store: The Film’
Where: streaming through UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance
When: 7 p.m. Thursday; also on demand from 7 p.m. Saturday to midnight May 2
Running time: 1 hour
* * *
‘Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge (In Progress)’
Where: streaming through REDCAT
When: 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Running time: 1 hour
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