LAST LOOK: WHEN THE BEST LOCAL PRODUCTIONS WERE LONG BEACH ORIGINALSBy Greggory Moore
FIRST LOOK / LAST LOOK: During the final week on the calendar, the point at which we pivot away from one year and toward another, GreaterLongBeach.com is examining a small assortment of people, events and trends—last looks at some that made 2011 memorable, first looks at others that promise to make 2012 interesting.
Today, a last look at two pf 2011′s best shows in Long Beach theatre—LOLPERA and Entropy General—which just happened to be original Long Beach productions.
IT WAS A GOOD YEAR FOR THEATRE in Long Beach. While perennial powerhouse Cal Rep didn’t have its strongest year, International City Theatre staged not one but two musicals this critic-who-isn’t-crazy-about-musicals quite enjoyed; and the Long Beach Playhouse succeeded in its explicit goal to offer a range of works that better reflect the heterogeneous demographics in our mini-metropolis.
But in my Long Beach theatergoing experience, 2011 will be remembered for original plays—two in particular: Ryan McClary’s Entropy General (Alive Theatre) and LN&AND’s LOLPERA (the Garage Theatre).
When last December I caught the Garage Theatre’s workshop production of Act One of LOLPERA, it was clear to me that so long as co-creators Ellen Warkentine and Andrew Pedroza didn’t form a suicide cult with director Jessica Variz, they were headed for brilliance with their little opera about searching for meaning in a dystopian world of fast-food digital diversion, featuring a libretto crazy-quilted from LOLcat pics/captions from icanhascheezburger.com.
I’m happy to report that LN&AND and Variz are alive and well, and in October delivered LOLPERA with a cast that well executed the many paces through which the trio put them. No, it wasn’t absolutely perfect. The design of the theater meant the audience didn’t have the actors and screen in the same sightline, which, since there was so much good going on all over the stage—Variz directed the shit out of this show–meant the show was better than the audience’s experience of it. There was probably too much recitative in Act Two and not enough cat-costuming (there’s definitely room for the bucket to be more than mere a deus ex machina expropriation from The Wizard of Oz). But it might survive on its cleverness alone, even if it didn’t contain some shockingly memorable musical motifs and choreography/blocking that is, to use an apt word for the holiday season, joyous. And while it may be no surprise that the lolz are in full effect, somehow the Garage team infuse the whole shebang with social commentary aplenty and even poignancy.
Some have questioned what kind of shelf life is possible for an opera inspired by a presumably ephemeral fad such as LOLcats—no matter how good that opera is. But how good it is does matter, because if it’s good enough, the artistry can transcend the subject matter and act as a sustaining force. Moreover, there’s something to be said for capturing a quirk of a particular stage in human history, however narrow that stage is.
And then there’s the simple fact that, ultimately, LOLPERA isn’t really about LOLcats or the Internet or anything but us, people who have a history of looking for meaning where there is none. That theme is eternal, and so I won’t be surprised if successive productions mean that in 2036 I find myself writing a 25th-anniversary commemorative essay on this little masterpiece. Stick it in a time capsule. LOLPERA may last.
While that didn’t surprise me, Entropy General absolutely did. Don’t get me wrong: Alive Theatre has done some work I’ve liked. But they never equaled the impressive heights they hit in their first year of existence with Lucia Mad—until this summer, when they put on Entropy General in the MadHouse.
Ryan McClary, a regular company member of Alive, delivered the still-itinerant troupe with a killer piece of writing that is a general meditation on entropy framed within the confines of a hospital, the institution where humans try to forestall the entropic decline of other humans for a trice, even though “[e]very trip to the ER is nothing but an existential tax dodge.”
That meditation, though, manages to be funny and sad, heartwarming and hella depressing, clever and deep and silly as all get out—somehow without breaking the flow of the whole. It’s a neat trick, which was pulled off by the deft direction of Turner Munch and a strong cast that clicked to create a totality from numerous very distinct components—set pieces and slapstick, quick patter and long pauses, realism and surrealism. It all came together as well as you hope will every hospital at which you ever find yourself a guest.
Aside from originality and great writing and direction, something these two great plays had in common was good casting. And one actor who found herself a scene-stealer in both is Ashley Allen. In LOLPERA, Allen played Serious Cat, the iron will behind the evil LOLcat Corp. From start to finish and every moment in between she was such force—be it vocally, kinetically, and even just the responses and faces she makes while in the background—that it was hard to take your eyes off of her even before she dons the simultaneously sexy/amusing short skirt (amusing because the shortening of the skirt symbolizes her fully embracing the dark side) in Act Two. Then there was her trio of turns in Entropy General, where she excelled in set pieces as a dominatrix of a hospital risk-management specialist and a vaudevillian drug-company rep interspersed between her stints as a cheerleader-cum-corpse that functions as the script’s narrative glue. With so much work to do, she never missed a beat.
They say that sometimes you should stick with your guns. In Long Beach this year, the greatest theatrical successes came when we stuck with our own.