By Will Bowen
La Jolla Playhouse’s four-day WoW (Without Walls) Festival in October appears to have been a rousing triumph. Playhouse Managing Director Mike Rosenberg called it “an unqualified success,” adding 1,400 to 1,600 people visited the festival each of the four days, which was way more than expected. Playhouse Director of Education Steve McCormick said the festival was “awesome!”
One of the best of the 20-some performances was an experimental work called “Platonov” or “The Disinherited” (an adaptation of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s first play) written by MIT Theater & Music Department Chair Jay Scheib, who also directed it.
The play was preformed in a small, makeshift house built on the grass in front of Galbraith Hall on the UC San Diego campus near the “Stonehenge” Stuart Collection art piece. The audience was positioned on outdoor folding chairs in front of the stage
This exciting, daring, and at times threatening, play has to be classed as a grand example of innovation in the tradition of directors like Anne Bogart or Joseph Chaikin.
What was so unique was that it was both live theater and a movie at the same time. Scheib was right there on stage in the middle of the action with his actors filming them up-close with a hand-held video camera. The result was projected in real time on a 35-foot screen above the stage. The audience had an unparalled opportunity to compare and contrast the story as a play and as a movie.
Of course, the viewer’s eyes went back and forth between the real action on stage and the film above that was subtitled with the dialogue spoken below. It was like simultaneously being at Old Globe’s Shakespeare in the Park while attending a drive-in movie under the stars. The production made you think about why movies are so popular, while many theatrical companies struggle financially. Scheib reminded patrons that the New York City Opera cancelled its 2013-2014 season.
Audiences seem to like the larger-than- life images projected on the big screen. Maybe it’s because the images are so large (or the camera brings you in so close and focuses your attention so well) or maybe it’s the richness in the coloration or texture of the images that the camera provides.
Scheib said our emotional involvement in the cinematic image is the kind of thing that prompted German theater great Bertolt Brecht to configure what he called “The Alienation Effect,” actions that make us aware that the play is not real life and that we are in a theater.
“Brecht said we want to get lost in the illusion that cinema provides ... but that obscures our vision of the real world reflected in the play. The technique of film and a play simultaneously is like an alienation effect because it makes us aware of both mediums and prevents us from becoming emotionally lost in the story so we can better think through what is happening before us,” Scheib said.
But then Scheib seemed to contradict himself, when he added, “The whole point with this play is to make theater more like the movies. For live theater to survive in the future it must become more engaging ... this play was an experiment in that direction.
Also noteworthy about the production was its great physicality. It wasn’t just dialogue from people standing around; there was lots action in the form of blood, guts, gunshots, knife wounds, physical struggles, crashing through walls and sensuality on stage.
And there was something very special about the cast; you had the oddest sensation that you knew them all from somewhere.
Scheib said he grew up on a farm in Iowa. He was educated at Columbia University where he studied under Anne Bogart, one of the top contemporary directors. He began to work internationally early in his career, and at age 20, he was invited to work in Europe. He was named Best New York Theatre director in 2009 by
Time Out New York
and was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2011. He also won the Edgerton Award and the Richard Sherwood Award. Recently, he was hailed by A
magazine as one of the 25 artists who will most shape the next 25 years in American theater.
“I break a lot of the rules of theater. I am not afraid to do so, but sometimes I think I should be a little more careful about which rules I do break!” Scheib said. “My ideas for the theater just come to me. I travel a lot and am frequently alone on trains and planes, which is where the ideas sometimes come. I like to make drawings of these new ideas.”
Scheib will take “Platonov” to New York, then to Europe and China. After that, he plans to make a film based on Tolstoy’s novel, “The Power of Darkness.”
Laine Rettmer played Jacob, the servant to the Voynitsev Family in “Platanov.” She grew up in Kansas where she started acting at age 4. She later earned her theater degree at NYU. Scheib wrote a very long and emotional monologue for her that opens the play. Rettmer said he did this as a “deconstructive reversal” because Chekhov usually only gave the servants a few lines to speak. At the end of her monologue she ends up crying.
“Being in this play is very good acting practice for me because every night I have to go into this huge emotional outburst. The way I bring on the tears is through the back story of my character. She has lost her child and this is so present in my mind that it helps me to cry,” Rettmer said.
Yesha Jordan played Platonov’s wife. She earned her B.A. in theater from Clark University in Atlanta and studied dance at the Laban Institute in London. It was amazing to watch her stretch out with incredible yoga postures on the lawn in front of the theater before the shows. “I have a deep interest in experimental theater and have been in three of Jay’s productions. I am not seeking fame, I just do it just because I love it!” Jordan said.
Todd Blakesley played the wealthy but unlucky in love, Porifiry Glagoyev. Blakesley is a local actor who was born at the old Scripps Hospital on Prospect in La Jolla and went to Scripps Elementary School and La Jolla High.
Blakely has been involved with the San Diego Fringe Festival and was cast as Richard III at the Intrepid Theater in Encinitas. In the 1970s, he had his own theater in Mission Beach called The Crystal Palace, where he staged “dream imaging” theater. He made the cover of the
La Jolla Light
“I am an older actor and have worked through all my fears about performance,” Blakely said. “I just love being up on stage. I’m actually able to feel the audience and adjust my performance accordingly to get them more involved.”
This Christmas, Blakely will play the lead in “The Gift Seller” at Alliant University for Scripps Ranch Theatre. Stephen Metcalfe, who lives in La Jolla, wrote the play.
Anouschka Trocker crafted the sound design. She flew in from Berlin for the WoW performances. In Berlin, Trocker works on radio plays, which she said are quite popular. “It gets dark at 4 p.m. in Berlin in the winter, so Berliners like to listen to a play as they busy themselves around the house in the evening,” Trocker said, adding that German “documentary theater” is based on careful examination of what is going on in society.
— For more information, visit jayscheib.com or friend him on Facebook and follow what he’s up to.