One of the great joys of theatre – or any art form, for that matter – is that it can tackle any individual subject and yield an infinite number of varied experiences, each one as individual and unique as the perspective of the creative mind behind it.
Often, those different interpretations can be starkly opposed to each other in almost every way, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of this than with two plays currently onstage in Los Angeles.
The first is the West Coast premiere of “Occupant,” at the Garry Marshall Theatre in Toluca Lake. Written by the late Edward Albee, the out playwright widely recognized as one of America’s greatest dramatists, it’s an intimate, two-person exploration of the life of sculptor Louise Nevelson.
Constructed as an “interview” with Nevelson, albeit taking place several years after her death, the play juxtaposes the “facts” of her life against her own personal memories – of her childhood in a Jewish settlement outside of Kiev and as part of an immigrant family in Maine, of her failed marriage to wealthy shipping magnate Charles Nevelson, of her experiences traveling and studying art in pre-WWII Europe – to build a portrait of a woman who struggled against the barriers imposed by cultural convention to come into her own as a successful and influential artist.
It’s an intriguing premise, and Nevelson is a figure richly deserving of such public exploration. Her monumental wooden sculptures alone were enough to ensure her lasting significance, but her role in challenging expectations about “appropriate” women’s art – and indeed, “appropriate” women’s behavior – made her into a feminist icon.
However, Albee’s play – which pre-supposes a certain amount of familiarity with Nevelson and her work, despite its own acknowledgement that only “some” audience members will have heard of her – is far less interested in her cultural significance than it is in debating the difference between truth and illusion, the conflict between private identity and public persona, and the reason for creating art in the first place. All of these are worthy themes; but Albee explored them throughout his legendary career – and while his biting, acerbic dialogue is here as much a treat as always, it must be observed that he doesn’t appear to have had much new to say about any of them when he wrote “Occupant.”
It doesn’t help this production that director Heather Chesley seems unclear in her guidance of the piece; the “post-mortem interview” conceit doesn’t take on much import beyond providing a connection to the playwright’s absurdist roots, and the back-and-forth antagonism between Nevelson and her nameless interviewer has a shapeless flow that makes it feel more like an exercise in verbal sparring than a conversation with intent.
The performers, Martha Hackett and James Liebman, seem somewhat hobbled by this aimlessness. It’s a particular handicap for Liebman, who as the interviewer should presumably exert some sort of guidance; he never seems sure of where he is taking the conversation, or indeed why he is even having it. Hackett certainly brings a lot of color and character to her portrayal of Nevelson, and she is given several opportunities to shine with lengthy reminiscences about her experiences and influences; but she, too, suffers from the apparent lack of purpose to the proceedings.
Still, things pull together in the second half, as the play and its characters get around to focusing on the meat of the matter. It’s here where Nevelson discusses her breakthrough, as an artist and as a woman, and brings home the point that her life was about becoming the person she always knew she should be – to fully occupy the persona she had envisioned for herself. It’s a powerful message; unfortunately, its power is considerably diluted by the meandering game of intellectual ping-pong which precedes it.
If “Occupant” takes an intellectual approach to the relationship between art and artist, “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk”could be said to go as far in the other direction as possible. This imported production from England’s Kneehigh Players, currently onstage at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, is as emotional, romantic, and fanciful as its title suggests.
Written and directed, respectively, by Daniel Jamieson and Emma Rice, it’s the kind of production that thrills to its own theatricality. Drawing influence from the English “panto” tradition, and heavily incorporating live music (performed by onstage musicians who are often participants in the action), it weaves the story of early modernist painter Marc Chagall and his first wife, Bella, from their courtship in the Russian Jewish community of Vitebsk, through their experiences in St. Petersberg during the Soviet Revolution, to their last years together as expatriates in Europe and America.
Its focus, however, is less on the biographical details of the pair (though it imaginatively dramatizes events from their life throughout) than it is on the way their love for each other informed Chagall’s art. It is, as director Rice says in her program notes, “first and foremost a love story,” and its brisk 90 minute runtime is entirely devoted to the subject of love – of these two for each other, yes, but also for their village, for their family, for their country, for their art, and for life itself. Sometimes it’s a bittersweet tale – the Chagalls’ life during the roller-coaster of the revolution was harrowing, and throughout their marriage there was always the inevitable pull of artistic creation turning husband away from wife; but ultimately, it’s a resounding celebration of the way their love infused all aspects of their lives like the inner glow of Chagall’s fantastical creations permeates all of his paintings.
Entertaining, tender, funny, and heartbreaking, “Flying Lovers” dazzles, as a cohesive whole; nevertheless, the work of its two stars deserves to be credited as a major contributing factor to its success. Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood are astonishingly good in their roles; adorned in white-face and old-world costumes that pay homage both to the theatrical roots of the piece and the origin of its real-life characters, they are called upon not just to embody these two souls through a script which is simultaneously intimate and presentational, but also to sing, dance, and perform acrobatic feats – sometimes all at once – even as they do so. That they succeed in all these things is commendable; that they do it with such grace, panache, and obvious talent is remarkable. These are surely two of the worthiest performances to be seen on the L.A. stage this year (no small feat in this “city of stars”), and they deserve to be singled out as such.
What connects both these plays, of course, is that each one deals with a real-life artist. Both were Jewish, born (at roughly the same time) in settlements inside of deeply anti-Semitic Russia. Though one emigrated with her family to America while the other remained in his home country for most of his early career, both of them were heavily affected by their cultural origins; and though each eventually found success, the paths they took to get there were as different as not only the work they created, but as the two plays that now illustrate their lives for L.A. audiences.
As for the plays themselves, while one focuses on the need to self-actualize as the primary creative drive of its subject, the other emphasizes the need to capture and preserve the cherished memories of life and love; nevertheless, they both speak of the need to rise above hardship and oppression and express the self through art.
In today’s treacherous era, each of these stories carry the weight and urgency of a much-needed call to action. They exhort us to find and use our own voices of expression, no matter what form they take, against the barriers we face.
That said, unless you are a die-hard theatre buff (or a hard-core Edward Albee fan), “Occupant” is a show you can afford to miss.
“Flying Lovers of Vitebsk,” on the other hand, is a must-see.
“Occupant” – Garry Marshall Theatre, 4252 W Riverside Dr, Burbank, CA 91505
February 2 – March 4, 2018, Thursdays & Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm, Sundays at 3pm
“The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” – Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210
February 3 – March 11, 2018, Tuesdays thru Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays and select Sundays at 2pm and 7:30pm