Walt Disney Concert Hall's REDCAT electrifies, yet more can be done

Walt Disney Concert Hall's REDCAT electrifies, yet more can be done
Disney Hall's REDCAT features eclectic programming. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

The real estate mania that brought the financial system to the brink of collapse has also had a deleterious effect on the arts. Too many refurbished show palaces and money pit museums have found themselves at the mercy of their mortgages.

When overhead costs soar in unpredictable economic times, adventurous programming is the first thing to suffer. A rising commercialism is the price we pay as a cultural community for fancier digs.


But for every rule propounded by a furrowed-brow critic there is a thrilling exception. Walt Disney Concert Hall has had a transformative effect on an art form, a neighborhood and a city's self-esteem. Here the innovative brilliance of Frank Gehry's design has been matched by the creative ingenuity of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, discreetly located at Disney Hall's southwestern corner, has benefited from the electrifying aura. There probably isn't much overlap between the L.A. Phil audience — one of the most ardent and adventurous audiences for classical music in the world — and REDCAT's hipster crowd, but there is the same privileged sense of a magical space.

REDCAT is an interdisciplinary contemporary arts center that showcases envelope-pushing work in the visual, performing and media arts. And boy, is it arty in there.

Installations defy you to name what you're looking at. The cafe sells not only fancy European beverages but books by continental theorists. And the theater is a magnet for work that eludes neat categorization.

Care to see a dance piece about mourning set to a harpsichord score and enlivened with video animation? REDCAT is your best bet.

Under the leadership of executive director Mark Murphy, REDCAT has carved out a niche that can be summed up in two words: innovative and eclectic.

Five years ago, to mark the fifth anniversary of REDCAT, I extolled the way the institution had been holding fast to its interdisciplinary aesthetic at a time when so many nonprofits were unabashedly selling out. But I also expressed a wish that Murphy would "strategically sharpen his theater programming," arguing that REDCAT could be filling a larger gap in Los Angeles' theater ecology.

There have been some memorable highlights since then — the Wooster Group's deconstruction of Tennessee Williams' rarely revived "Vieux Carré"; Elevator Repair Service's marathon rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," "Gatz." But REDCAT still isn't firing on all cylinders. Whenever theater is on the menu, it's a treat, but treats aren't something one can build a healthful diet around.

Budgetary realities are no doubt holding REDCAT back, but the vitality of the space and the loyalty of its intrepid following (if you haven't experienced the special charge that attends opening nights there, book a ticket this fall) have me hoping that this next chapter in the company's history will be more robust.

Money, of course, galvanizes. If I were a rich man, I'd know where a portion of my philanthropy would go. But even without a windfall, the leadership can do more to take advantage of its unique resources.

One bright prospect is this month's multifarious theatrical smorgasbord, Radar L.A. REDCAT is presenting this international festival of contemporary performance with the California Institute of the Arts, in association with Center Theatre Group and a consortium of other partners.

The event brings together Los Angeles-based artists with experimental companies from Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Japan and New Zealand. And if this year's festival is anything like the inaugural one in 2011, the city's theatrical pulse will noticeably quicken.

Institutional success, of course, is judged in myriad ways. One measure of REDCAT's achievement this last decade is that it has left us hungering for more.