Theater Reviews: STILL. and BOB BAKER’S THE CIRCUS (PlayhouseLIVE from Pasadena Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on October 9, 2020

in Theater-Los Angeles,Virtual


No one has articulated the black American experience in such a way that I, as a white man, “get it,” as has James Baldwin. His cool, unflappable, authoritative delivery is one thing, but his writings — which brilliantly connect the dots between American slavery and growing up Black in America in his day (which parallels the racism of today) — smack me into silence by the Capital “T” Truth. Since Baldwin, many African American artists have turned to the spoken-word genre to unleash their feelings. It is definitely a form of poetry, but it is written to provoke a reaction from the audience. Often, it will have rhythms of hip-hop or other kind of beat to enhance the presentation. It’s not just for coffeehouses or political rallies: Sondheim used a spoken-word context for the Witch’s monologue about her garden in Broadway’s Into the Woods.

Now available streaming from The Pasadena Playhouse is a new spoken-word show by poet, performance artist and professor Javon Johnson. With Still. [sic], commissioned by the Playhouse after the murder of George Floyd, Johnson offers a series of vignettes that cleverly draw parallels between his experiences as a Black man, such as gentrification, to something insidious — in this case, cancer. No one can refute that the Oakland-based Johnson is a superb writer or that his stories of frustration have heft, but for all of his hard-hitting, necessary, confrontational poetry, which is to be expected during this time of never-ending flashpoints for the Black community, it is essentially rap that is oddly one-dimensional and extremely one-sided — and hardly theatrical (the old adage that out of limitation comes creativity does not apply). I understand it isn’t Mr. Johnson’s intention, but here there are no solutions, no imaginings of how we create a better world; just a hope that the world won’t be what he has known when his unborn daughter — due to arrive during this epidemic — arrives.

Recognizing that he is playing to an empty theater, I found that neither he nor director Donny Jackson (who keeps Johnson center stage the entire time) create a context in which it feels like Johnson is talking to me; as such, he never really reaches me in the way that Baldwin can. And I want so badly to be reached — to have someone create a theatrical space where that utopian imagining of a racist-free world can actually come into being — even if only for the span of a 42 minute show.

In its attempt to bring theater to our homes, the Pasadena Playhouse presents digital offerings similar to those from the global theatrical community: discussions on Zoom, pre-recorded shows, solo outings, readings — you get the gist. Naturally there are some shining lights, and Mr. Johnson’s work is one of the first I’ve seen professionally captured. Yet while most of you have been sitting safely behind Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+, Stage and Cinema has already received almost 2000 emails about 10-minute plays and discussions and such; given the technical snafus, fake backgrounds, and that weird acting on Zoom (basically a phone), or pre-recorded fundraisers disguised as theater, most should never see the light of your screen. Such a sad time.

One middling effort as part of the Playhouse’s lineup of readings, discussions, classes, et al., is Bob Baker’s The Circus. I saw it live long ago and the parade of Baker’s unbelievably creative marionettes was delightful — in person. Here we have a homemade video recording of a performance from 2017 which puts as much emphasis on marionettes as it does on the nonplussed faces of the puppeteers. The production which celebrates all things Big Top is filmed in such a way that it’s difficult to concentrate on the show’s raison d’être: the marvelous marionettes. This effort coming from a major theater company feels amateurish. And it’s under the appellation of PlayhouseLIVE but pre-recorded three years ago?? I assume the thinking is this: the more digital offerings, the more money that could be made in donations. (Still. is $19.99, The Circus is $14.99, which is a deal considering Disney is charging $29.99 for a screening of Mulan.)

How wonderful it would be if the PLAYhouse actually produced a PLAY. For example, there are a handful of theaters quarantining the cast together for 14 days and having a maskless performance in which artists remain 6 feet apart from each other, or having a married couple appear in a two-hander, or rethinking video (see scenes from Angels in America recorded for AMFAR). I wonder if that’s where Pasadena Playhouse and others need to go, considering social distancing will most likely be around for another year or more. In that way, we won’t burn out, but be inspired that theater can and will return to business as usual not so far into the future.

for tickets, visit PlayhouseLIVE

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