Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Also see Sharon's recent review of Sorrows and Rejoicings
At the center of David Edgar's play Pentecost is a newly-discovered painting, which, if it is what it purports to be, would change the history of art: a religious painting, done in single-point perspective, predating the first use of the technique in Italy by nearly 100 years. What if the generally accepted Italian masterpiece is merely a copy of an original in an unnamed Eastern European country? What would it mean for the Eastern European country, trying to become a real player on the world scene, but whose national museum to date contains mostly folk art and forgeries? And what should be done with the painting? It is currently behind a wall in a building that was once a church, but has had many purposes through the years. Should it remain? Should it be brought to the museum? Who owns it, and lays claim to the money it surely would raise? In the act of restoring it, should the painting on the wall in front of it, a piece of communist propaganda of minimal artistic quality and lesser historical significance, be completely destroyed without a second thought?
At the end of the first act, just as conclusions are being reached regarding the actual age of the painting - and the audience is really getting a handle on the different sides of the debate - Edgar throws in one more unexpected, question: who the hell are we to stand around a church having arguments about art, when there are people outside who have no home, job, or country? All the talk about the painting means nothing when the arguing art historians and the painting itself are suddenly taken hostage by a multi-cultural group of refugees seeking political asylum. The painting has been hidden from the audience for the first act, as though we are not yet ready to see it until we see it through the eyes of the refugees considering the real bottom line of its value: is it worth enough to the Western world that its safety can be exchanged for passports and work permits for eleven stateless nationals and their families?
Edgar's script is extraordinary. Even before the refugees enter and change the course of the play, the topics it addresses have expanded beyond simply artistic ones. The Eastern European nation in which the action takes place is trying to find its place in the modern world after the fall of communism, and this goal shapes the responses of its leaders. They all speak English, sometimes using inappropriate colloquialisms (the Minister of Culture refers to the "great hot shit art discovery") in what looks like a small impoverished country's pitiful attempt to fit in with the "cool kids" on the playground we call Earth. But the country must also come to terms with its history - many of its citizens want to look backward and embrace their old language now that they again have the country to themselves.
The standout performer in this production is Leo Marks, playing the American art historian Leo Katz. He's the "Ugly American" and the embodiment of Western liberal guilt all rolled into one - quick to reply with scathing condescension to anyone so foolish as to disagree with him, but also packing enough victim status (as a Jew visiting a country with an unimpressive history under Nazi occupation) that he is the first of the hostages to show sympathy toward the cause of the refugees. Marks gives a magnetic performance, both with his delivery of Edgar's speech and his reactions to the situation in which he has found himself. Whenever something significant happens onstage, a quick glance to Katz to gauge his response is worth the look; Marks is an actor who is always present in the moment. Other castmembers turning in notable work are Don Oscar Smith as Oliver Davenport, the English art historian who is out of his depth with Katz, and even farther out in a hostage situation; and Lauren Campedelli as the Palestinian leader of the asylum-seekers (watch Katz squirm when she calls him a Zionist).
Edgar attempts to humanize the hostage-takers, by telling how they each came to be stateless, but their true humanity appears during a nighttime scene in which, by candlelight, they make music together and exchange folk tales by awkwardly interpreting for each other. When they are adding to the impromptu symphony of rhythm, or discovering that their own culture's ancient legends are similar to those brought by other refugees, they are not vicious criminals, but simply good people. And that this point is made through music and art neatly brings the play back full circle to the significance of the painting on the wall.
The ironic tragedy of this production is that, for a play that concentrates so much attention on language and being understood (the title itself referring to the day when Jesus' apostles spoke in tongues and were therefore understood by everyone to whom they spoke), it is tremendously difficult to understand. The Evidence Room has set its production in a long barn-like room with the painting on a wall at one far end and the church door at the other. The audience is seated on a few rows of chairs running down each long side wall, facing the center of the room, and each other. In concept, this is a terrific idea, physically bringing the audience into the church and including them in the action of the play. But it fails because the performers, who are not miked, frequently cannot be heard. Once the refugees enter and set up camp throughout the entire stage area, attention is constantly diverted from the main action of the play by little bits of stage business being performed by the "background" refugees. It isn't that what they are doing is inherently distracting, and it wouldn't be if upstage on a traditional proscenium stage, but when it takes place between some audience members and the action they are meant to be watching (as it invariably does for some audience members at any given time), the whispered speech, clicking shoes, and rustling clothing make hearing the play itself impossible. Likewise, sound effects that are intended to represent street noises frequently drown out debates at the painting end of the room for those closer to the door. The acoustics of this environment would be difficult under the best of circumstances; when dealing with heavily-accented characters for whom English is a second language, simply hearing Edgar's powerful words is a near impossible task. This is an ambitious production of a stunning play, but it frequently fails to reach its audience due to staging which does not make being understood a higher priority.
Evidence Room presents the Los Angeles premiere of Pentecost by David Edgar. Director Bart DeLorenzo; Set Designer Jason Adams; Costume Designer Barbara Lempel; Lighting Designer Lap-Chi Chu; Sound Designer John Zalewski; Production Stylist Ann Closs-Farley; Associate Director Jeff McDonald; Dramaturg Scott Horstein; Dialect Coach Joel Goldes; Associate Producer Lori Nelson; Casting Director Liz Davies; Stage Manager Beth Beecham; Board Operator Dani Ringwald; Paintings John Zalewski; Props Connie Monaghan.
Pentecost plays at the Evidence Room Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., through July 7th. Tickets are $15 for Thursday and Sunday performances, $20 for Fridays and Saturdays. For reservations and information call (213) 381-7118, or click http://www.evidenceroom.com