LONDON, After a stormy opening at the Edinburgh festival and a successful run in a small fringe theater in London's Notting Hill Gate, that nomadic and indestructible American band known as La Mama was invited by Michael White, an impresario almost as dauntless as La Mama, to present Paul Foster's "Tom Paine" in a West End theater. Although the company has its champions, the press reception was not good and at the moment it doesn't appear the play will last for its intended seven-week run.
The social phenomenon of La Mama is more overwhelming than anything it has actually done. Of all the avant-garde troupes roaming the continent, it is closest to the muscular tradition of the commedia dell'arte, not only in its improvisational tendency, but also in its social tenacity; consider the hardships its actors have undergone and the obstacles they have overcome. Economically, they are probably better off now than they have been for years, pulling down an Equity minimum salary (or better) and generally accepted by London as an important American import. But artistically, the West End stint has drawn attention to imperfections no one was too concerned about in the fringe theater.
The play is intellectually lightweight - being random selections from Tom Paine's biography without the organizing drive of an underlying concept - but the manner of presentation is highly sophisticated. Director Tom O'Horgan's specialty is complex dramatic structure, contrasting as many different styles as possible. And so the performance freely mingles naturalistic improvisation, straightforward dramatic narrative, stark moments of alienation, crude music-hall, and Artaudian corps-de-theatre.
Unfortunately, the troupe is obsessed with exposing the theatrical convention in which it is working. Reminders that they are actors, we are an audience, and the spectacle a made-up entertainment are as constant as they are puerile. The "alienation" device is effective when an audience has begun to get involved with the fiction of the play; then it works like a splash of cold water to bring them round and to avoid over identification. But La Mama hasn't the necessary technique to involve an audience in the first place, and so its endless bursts of anti-illusionism tend only to draw attention to its inadequacy.
Playwright Foster is also to blame. No sooner has he begun to bring together the threads of the Paine story than he stops his narrative and invites his actors to sit down, light up and discuss (ad lib) the implications of the American revolution. Not only are the La Mama actors entirely ill-equipped to intellectualize the issues involved, but it is a gauche piece of play writing to introduce such a "break" before any sound material for discussion has been tossed in.
When the play demands conventional characterization and a modicum of elementary theatrical conviction, the troupe flusters, squirms and itches to get back to what it enjoys doing most: horsing around in a wild improvisational style that gets it off the high-wire of individual characterization and into the net of collective by-play. I don't blame the actors for craving the security of group actions. It is as enjoyable to get lost in a crowd as it is diverting to watch crowd movement on the stage. But Foster's play lays down other demands, and these the troupe is simply not up to.
There are several striking moments, most notably when the actors become a knife-sharpening chorus to Paine's fear of the guillotine and, again, when Paine's arrogance is given a mock coronation by the rabble. The play veers toward genuine relevance when it suggest that revolutionary ardor is only the reverse side of personal weakness, and that the same forces that corroded the American revolution have continued to rot the Union since 1776. But these are only tantalizing asides, not dramatized blocks of thought reinforcing a solid theatrical structure.
Ultimately, one feels the author has been too awed by his subject. Wanting to say everything about Paine, he hasn't synthesized what was most important. We get the more obvious quotes from Paine's writings, but we never get the integration of that conflict which was individual conscience pitted against an implacable establishment.
A few of the somewhat pro reviews by London critics have latched on to the company's zest, energy and boundless physicality. These are certainly the most impressive things about the group, just as they would be with a stranger who, after being introduced to you, proceeded to somersault out of the room. But the playing out of physical sub-text, which is the company's stock and trade, is effective only when the technique actually corresponds to the sub-text. Otherwise it becomes a fascinating irrelevance.
In "Futz", for instance, the correspondence is perfect and that is why Rochelle Owens's play is the best thing in the La Mama repertory. But with almost every other piece, there is a glaring disparity between what the play is doing and what the actors are doing. In most cases, what the actors are doing is more impressive than what the play is doing, but when La Mama comes up against a piece of material that makes conventional demands (and "Tom Paine" does, to a large extent), the inappropriateness of its style is clearly revealed.
Esthetic distance is also a la Mama problem. When I first saw the first Act of "Tom Paine" in a 50-seat theater in Denmark, I was literally enmeshed in the action, a willing victim to the troupes remorseless physicality. But at London's Vaudeville Theater, where the proscenium arch cruelly frames and highlights every choice choice an actor makes, the slackness of the company's work becomes painfully evident.
The La Mama troupe combines the best and worst aspects of American avant-garde thinking. It proceeds out of a commendable contempt for conventional theater practice, is properly opposed to the insular and specialized "artistic effects" of main-stem theater, but believes that a revolutionary stance is the same thing as a revolutionary platform - that the radical gesture is tantamount to radical reform. It has more heart than brains, and, unfortunately, it needs more brains than heart for the sort of work it has cut out for itself.
The flowerpowery "love" mystique it peddles along with
its other wares is, for me, the most odious thing about the troupe.
I want to love it for the quality of its work, not because it pelts me
with plastic flowers at the final curtain. What La mama needs more
than anything else at the moment is a powerful dose of self-criticism,
and a little more contact with its enemies.
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