a kate west review
an International Festival of Contemporary Theater
produced by REDCAT (The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater)
with Center Theatre Group and the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival

Influential theater ensembles from Chile, Mexico, Japan and Australia are among the companies to be featured alongside Los Angeles artist when REDCAT launches the international RADAR L.A. Festival. REDCAT serves as one of several venues for the groundbreaking festival, which features 15 productions that are fueling the dialogue about the evolution of contemporary theater.

As a venue for bringing cultural diversity to Los Angeles theater, the above festival is great. Keep in mind however, that just because a piece was written in a language you are unfamiliar with, doesn't automatically mean that it is brilliant. It would be a disservice to these hard-working artists to give them points for being "exotic" (i.e. the tiresome Angelino habit of giving a standing ovation to every play you are even mildly impressed by). So on artistic merit alone, here are three festival samples reviewed:

by Teatro Linea de Sombra
directed by Jorge A. Vargas
written by Gabriel Contreras
631 W. 2nd Street, Los Angeles 90012
running June 16 - 19

The renowned Mexican visual theatrical troupe Teatro Linea de Sombra (roughly, Shadow Line Theater) brings us "Amarillo", the story of one man's attempt to cross the U.S. border. Destined for Amarillo, Texas, speculation arises as to what happened to him on the way and why he never arrived.

Raúl Mendoza is this everyman, the typical migrant trying to find a better life in another country. In fact, he says as much in his monologues, calling himself by several names, as he could be any number of those desperate souls south of the border. At one point he layers up with different clothing, which could represent all he owns in the world, as well as a piece of each person passing through on the way to the American Dream. We follow him up to the point he disappears, his relatives never to know his fate.

The rest of the cast is made up of women (Alicia Laguna, María Luna, Vianey Salinas, Antígona González) who portray lovers, muses, dancers and chorus. Jesus Cuevas is the main voice of this chorus, chanting in an almost Tibetan baritone and singing to the main character throughout his journey. Through them we get glimpses of life and love, the people hoping back home, snippets of human longing.

But don't expect a linear story. The company specializes in visual art, shown to full multimedia proportions with a huge screen projected on the back wall, several cameras following the action on stage in black and white and footage of various scenes depicting images of illegal alien life, such as passing trains and haunted faces. When Mendoza's character gets stuck in the desert, the women bring out jugs of water and bags of sand are flown in from the rafters. Cutting them open with a knife demonstrates time (and life) running out for our wrung out protagonist. One of them is even shaped like a heart and is lifted skywards, fatally wounded.

Director Jorge A. Vargas gives us a technically interesting show, filled with props, cameras and screens but also a stage essentially bare of any set, so it is not visual stunning in any traditional sense, and at times even desolate. Also, the story is an old one, covered many times, and while the company is to be commended for innovation, it is difficult to separate the sledgehammer message of obvious truth from the minimalist deprivation of the senses. Still, the poetic nature of the piece is worth a listen (some of it in Spanish).

Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech
by Chelfitsch
directed & written by Toshiki Okada
at Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC)
514. S. Spring Street, Los Angeles 90013
running June 17 - 19

The Asian company Chelfitsch (roughly, selfish), combines simple stories with stylized movements (often as formal as in Kabuki theater). In "Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, And The Farewell Speech," office workers contemplate an upcoming farewell party and some daily minutia of typical office life.

While three temporary employees are having lunch, they come up with ideas for a farewell to one of their own. Each of them stands and monologues his/her thoughts, while making deliberate movements to accent their ideas, which they also repeat endlessly. It is definitely amusing to watch them take so formal an approach to picking a take-out menu from Hot Pepper Magazine and the audience revels in this originality. Then two permanent workers discuss air conditioning in the office, repeating the dialogue and movements several times, with only slight variations. Finally, the co-worker being let go gives a rambling speech to her awkward colleagues.

The choreographed movements and repetitive dialogue are quite fascinating and Director/Writer Toshiki Okada shows this technique well, for the most part. By the end though, the final speech goes on a bit too long (and might be hard to follow, given that is in Japanese, with subtitled English, as in the rest of the piece). Actors Taichi Yamagata, Riki Takeda, Mari Ando, Saho Ito, Kei Namba and Fumie Yokoo do a good job of maintaining this highly disciplined blocking, however. It is a funny piece altogether and while some of the movements are inexplicable (touching toes while talking to a co-worker), others are delightfully quirky, like rapidly fanning a magazine. A fun show to take in, contemplate and discuss.

by Teatro en el Blanco
written & directed by Guillermo Calderón
631 W. 2nd Street, Los Angeles 90012
running June 14 - 18

Teatro En El Blanco (roughly, Theater In The White) has been wowing Latin American audiences for years and now brings its latest production "Neva" to the festival. Olga Knipper (Trinidad González) is Anton Chekhov's widow and is found at a St. Petersburg rehearsal space during the Russian Revolution. Her fellow actors (Jorge Becker and Mariana Muñoz) take turns placating her diva tendencies, while worshipping her artistry.

Director and Writer Guillermo Calderón depicts a delightful peek into the absurd drama of the actors world, while real chaos and drama drum outside the windows. Olga is haunted by the death of her beloved and plays her heightened misery to the hilt (wonderfully played by González). Jorge Becker and Mariana Muñoz equal her in their schizophrenic back and forth rants, merging lines of a play with their own realities until no one is sure which world is real. The exaggerations are hilarious (even in subtitled English in a Spanish play) until the final speech by Mariana Muñoz takes your breath away.

The passion in this piece is riveting and very (literally) focused as the stage is a raised platform spotlighting the three actors in intimate detail. A definite must-see.

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