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Entertainment & Arts

Review: In ‘Adler & Gibb,’ the business of art — painted with familiar brushstrokes

Cath Whitefield, left, Ayla Moses (in a part played by rotating actresses), Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart and Gina Moxley in Tim Crouch’s “Adler & Gibb.”
Cath Whitefield, left, Ayla Moses (in a part played by rotating actresses), Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart and Gina Moxley in Tim Crouch’s “Adler & Gibb.”
(Craig Schwartz )

Last week an artistic leader greeted an opening-night audience with a spiel about why supporting theater is more important now than ever. She was referring to the new political reality, and I was surprised to find myself feeling impatient. Yes, art is vital to the sane functioning of society. But something feels askew when artistic managers turn politics into a sales pitch.  

Tim Crouch, the experimental British theater artist, has been shedding light on art’s potential for exploitation, misunderstanding and deception in ingenious works that cleverly keep an audience off-balance. Of course, in using art to critique the business of art in such pieces as “An Oak Tree,” “The Author” and “ENGLAND,” Crouch has been an agent of art’s redemption.  

He’s at it again in “Adler & Gibb,” which opened Wednesday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of the adventurous DouglasPlus series. This latest performance work, which Crouch wrote himself and co-directed with Andy Smith and Karl James, investigates a fictitious dead artist named Janet Adler, who left the art world at the peak of her fame to live with her artistic and romantic partner, Margaret Gibb, away from the madding crowd in some rural backwater.  

A student (Jillian Pullara) intermittently delivers a presentation on Adler, providing background on the woman who “challenged artistic orthodoxy” and became the radical voice of her generation before rushing off into the woods with Gibb and together issuing the characteristically cryptic statement: “Shoot the wounded. Save yourselves.”  (The prankish nature of the duo’s conceptual art seems like another of Crouch’s jokes on the contemporary art scene.)

Louise (Cath Whitefield), an actress, travels with Sam (Crouch), her acting coach and occasional lover, to the house that Gibb (Gina Moxley) is still living in after Adler’s death. Louise wants to star in a film about Adler, and her art dealer husband has bankrolled this expedition in the hope that this movie will raise the value of Adler’s art, much like Julian Schnabel’s film “Basquiat” juiced the market for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work.

Money makes the artistic world go round. Louise conducts her research with all the courtesy of a home invasion. When she explains that she’s arrived on a rescue mission, an aghast Gibb replies, “Did I send up a flare? Did I leave a trail of breadcrumbs? … Remind me? Did I at any moment — to your recollection — present myself as in any way, any conceivable way, being in need of rescue?”

Tim Crouch and Gina Moxley in "Adler & Gibb."
Tim Crouch and Gina Moxley in "Adler & Gibb." (Craig Schwartz)

This recap may make it seem as though Crouch has written a fairly straightforward play. Nothing could be further from the truth. The production moves in such a stylized and fragmented way that the first third of this roughly 80-minute piece is more or less impenetrable.

Obscurity can be tantalizing, and I enjoyed the presentation of the student, with her tattoos and rainbow-striped dress, and the presence of a girl (a rotating part played by Olivia Abedor at Wednesday’s opening), who matter-of-factly hands out outlandish props. But the seated whispering woman at the back of the stage seemed like an enigmatic distraction. (Turns out she’s the assistant director, Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart, and she’s instructing the girl what to do, though no one I spoke to after the show had a clue what her purpose was.)    

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Perhaps the least persuasive layer of the collage is Sam and Louise’s neutral banter into microphones. The production doesn’t set out to dramatically illustrate the scenes, but the dialogue here is lifelessly abstract. One needn’t have to care about characters to follow their journey, but it’s not a good sign when you wish they’d stop talking.

There’s something slightly derivative about “Adler & Gibb,” which was originally produced at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2014. Crouch and his team appear to be borrowing from postmodern performance traditions (including even a soupçon of the Wooster Group) in a kind of avant-garde-by-numbers production that leaves out what has distinguished Crouch’s work in the past — the bold interrogation of the audience’s role in the theatrical event. 

The secondhand nature of the work is compounded by the familiarity of the thematic material — the cult of the artist (including the privileging of the biography over the work), the corporatization of the artistic experience and the way the art world uses sanctimony as a subterfuge for greed. These are worthwhile concerns, but the critique has been more potently leveled in earlier Crouch works that implicate the audience as much as they do the commercial system built around artists. 

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‘Adler & Gibb’

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Jan. 29 (check for exceptions)

Tickets: $25 to $70 (subject to change)

Information: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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