Review: Moments of serendipity at San Diego’s Without Walls Festival
SAN DIEGO — After months spent raising money and working out the logistics, La Jolla Playhouse pulled off its first-ever Without Walls Festival, in which more than 20 works were given multiple performances Thursday through Sunday at sites on or near the shared Playhouse and UC San Diego campus.
There was a bustling Children’s Day of art-making Saturday in a grassy quad and a trio of dance performances, along with site-specific and roaming theater pieces.
The artistic quality was uneven, and there were no big breakthroughs, perhaps because the festival’s offerings had no theme beyond the site-sensitive and sometimes interactive nature of the presentations.
The sites were unexpected. They ranged from a nearby surf spot (Basil Twist’s wonderful “Seafoam Sleepwalk”), an elevator (Moxie Theatre’s sweet and original “Counterweight”) and a power plant (“Cornerstone” by UCSD grad students) to the 15 automobiles lined up for the engaging 10-minute productions of Paul Stein’s “The Car Plays: San Diego.”
You can’t get much more intimate with actors than sitting in the same car with them. Such reversals, stretches and challenges to the traditional performer-audience relationship happened time and again during the festival, and they played a big part in its overall charm.
If the curatorial judgment behind the festival was unsteady, as a community gathering and cultural draw, Without Walls succeeded handily. Ticketed performances were well attended. And the central gathering spot offered memorable moments of serendipity.
In one accidental encounter, the actors of the Dragon Knights Stiltwalkers in gorgeous, Julie Taymor-quality bird and animal costumes met the bewildered refugees of “Kamchàtka.” That Spanish company works improvisationally; the actors were exceptionally skilled in creating real people experiencing real emotion, in real time.
“The Car Plays: San Diego” and Jay Scheib’s live, outdoor film experience “Platonov, Or the Disinherited” continue this weekend. Given the resources assembled by Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley, with some steadying of artistic vision and a bit of logistical tweaking, WoW could become a fixture on the local performance scene.
A few highlights:
Twist’s “Seafoam Sleepwalk”: UCSD sits less than a mile inland from the sandstone cliffs and curving shoreline of La Jolla. Twist staged his riff on the birth of Aphrodite at Scripps Beach, a spot the audience shared with parasailers to the north and baffled surfers to the south.
The master puppet maker donned a wetsuit for his pool-set 1998 masterwork “Symphonie Fantastique.” The new piece plays with the mythological origins of the love goddess born from the sea.
“Seafoam” opens with two actors coming ashore on stand-up paddleboards and proceeding to a knock-about battle. Soon after comes the brilliant and funny moment when the goddess lifts her head — all golden hair and dewy cheeks and fluttering eyelashes — from the waves.
Scenes are cued to a pastiche soundscape by Yumiko Tanaka, who also provided live accompaniment. A pair of putti with golden wings fly about the goddess, and four humans frolic like Mark Morris dancers moving to baroque chamber music. All’s well even when a quartet of sea slugs emerge, their big seaweedy bodies swaying and dancing like a mini corps de ballet.
Trouble starts when the slugs evolve into humans. Aphrodite turns her face and becomes a toothy, open-mouthed demon moving toward shore. The two faces of love, perhaps, one of which devours.
“The Myth Project: Altar” by choreographer Patricia Rincon: This ambitious and well-performed dance piece proved a moving and deeply “site specific” event. In a mini-canyon on campus surrounded by a eucalyptus grove sits the irregularly-shaped, bright red Che Café. The building is covered in murals evoking liberation struggles, similar in style to those in San Diego’s famed Chicano Park.
For the dance piece, the charismatic, white-bearded Mario Acevedo Torero, the original muralist at the campus site, sat typing a little history of this once-radical gathering place. And then the dancers burst forth, their explosive energy harking back to the café's 1980 origins in student political activity, to its revolutionary namesake Guevara and the days when Angela Davis was a regular speaker on campus.
Rincon, who chairs the dance program at UCSD, had the performers lead the audience on a kinetic journey around every gorgeously painted exterior of the building. She works in an idiom that mixes jazz, modern and contemporary dance and embraces hip-hop. The cascade of dances to rhythm-driven fusion, techno and house music showcased two especially gifted artists, the Ailey-style virtuoso Brian Bose and the powerfully balletic Kenna Crouch, while celebrating the space, its history and its site.
“100% San Diego” by Rimini Protokoll: This was the only festival piece staged in a theater space, and the three-member German group did what it has already done in 15 cities. The group surveyed the county of San Diego and chose 100 residents to represent an exact statistical cross-section.
The most eye-opening and touching moments of the resulting piece came as each of those 100 introduced him or herself, their little cameos enriched by an iconic object from their lives — a guitar, a teddy bear, a surfboard, a recipe book, a Bible.
An overhead camera projected the kaleidoscopic images of the 100 moving about the stage as they lined up in yes, no and on-the-fence categories in answer to a long series of questions about their views on politics, culture, religion and hot-button issues.
Despite an excellent sound score and the presence of a live salsa band, the piece grew wearying. Statistics say only so much, even when animated by real people. The Chicano comedy trio Culture Clash and Pina Bausch in her city-specific dance theater works have offered more insightful and more artistically satisfying views than this one.
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