Review: Recent Performances Briefly Noted

Nov. 5, 2017 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"Bright Star," The Ahmanson, Oct. 11-Nov. 19, 2017

"State of Siege," Center for the Art of Performance, UCLA, Oct. 26-27, 2017

L.A. Dance Project, The Wallis Beverly Hills, Nov. 2-4, 2017

Bright Star

There is one excellent reason to buy a ticket to Bright Star, now at the Ahmanson.

Carmen Cusack is simply cracker-jack in the leading role. This sublime actress is reprising the part she played when the show ran on Broadway last year. She sings beautifully, expressively, making more out of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s undistinguished bluegrass score than it deserves. She’s also a fine actress, able to portray convincingly a character that moves back and forth between the 1920s and 1940s throughout the evening.

In short, Cusack is a delight to watch. She is extraordinary whenever she’s on stage, which, fortunately for the audience, is most of the time.

There’s little else to recommend in Bright Star, unless you like banjos, foot stomping, earnest country folk, and a heavily contrived narrative about star-crossed lovers who, miraculously, reunite after 25 years. The show ran only briefly on Broadway last season. It' easy to see why.

Théâtre de la ville

The French philosopher Albert Camus gained fame as a young man in the 1940s with the publication of his two signature novels, The Stranger and The Plague, introducing the concept of the individual’s disaffection from modern society to generations of college students.

Both books expressed themes Camus focused on throughout his short career – he died unexpectedly at age 46 – alienation, of course, and also the quest for a meaningful life and opposition to totalitarianism. It’s this last idea that is the subject of State of Siege, his 1948 play that has been revived by the Paris acting troupe Théâtre de la Ville and is touring the United States now.

The work is a ham-fisted political allegory about the evils of authoritarianism. It’s set in a Spanish town taken over by a dictator called The Plague and his secretary, Death. Those are not-so-subtle reminders of the author’s message. And that’s just the beginning. Everything about the play and the production is palpably obvious, from the blunt writing to the declamatory acting to the severe, unadorned all black set.

That the piece was performed in French with English supertitles (often hard to read because they went by too fast) doubtless made the experience even more frustrating for most theatergoers. It’s a production only a fervent avant-garde drama enthusiast could love. Still, its anti-totalitarian message continues to resonate today, and it was instructive to see this rarely produced political tract shed some light on what the existentialists and the absurdists who followed them were all about. We don’t see much of that anymore, perhaps for good reason.

L.A. Dance Project

Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project is the kind of smart, polished company that you would expect from an artist who once led, if briefly, the Paris Opera Ballet. The dancers are elegant and precise. It’s a pleasure to watch them even if the choreography is less engaging than the dancing, as it occasionally was on the four-ballet bill presented at The Wallis.

The program opened with Closer, an impressive early work of Millepied’s from 2006. David Adrian Freeland, Jr. and Janie Taylor performed the 16-minute meditative duet with memorable power and romanticism. For the first two-thirds of the ballet, the dancers never separate, except for a few fleeting seconds. They move as one unit. It’s only in the last one third that they dance apart before intertwining themselves on the floor in an extended final sequence. Pianist Richard Valitutto offered a lyrical rendering of Mad Rush for Piano by Phillip Glass. The composer’s repetitive, undulating cadences accentuated the hypnotic, sinuous quality of the choreography and dancing.

Noé Soulier’s Second Quartet for four dancers was the evening’s highlight and clear audience favorite. The movement is random, disarming, sudden. It is sometimes awkward, as when the dancers throw themselves to the floor, then lift themselves up and heave down again. Tom De Cock along with Soulier composed the quirky percussive score consisting primarily of drums, gongs and bells.

I was less taken with the evening’s last two ballets, both choreographed recently by Millepied. In Silence We Speak, a duet for two women, seemed to go nowhere. Orpheus Highway, on the other hand, is an ambitious attempt to meld the live dancers on stage with a film projected on the backdrop. The movie takes place in a field near a small town railroad siding or in a parking lot at night. Sometimes the dancers on stage mimic what is going on in the film; sometimes their movements contrast with it. Integrating the film with the live choreography is the challenge here. While it didn’t quite come together into a whole that made sense to me, it was gratifying to watch. This company always is.