Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Sacred and the Profane

Sunday in LA defied my expectations: the church service I attended in Hollywood with friends turned out to be far more thought-provoking and aesthetically satisfying than the theatre performance I saw (also in Hollywood) later that night.

I met up with Kathie and Bob, close friends originally from Georgetown who relocated to LA four years ago so Bob could pick up the threads of his acting career. Years ago Bob was a professional actor in DC, working at Arena Stage and Olney, landing roles in films, and building a nice resume. Acting gigs, however, do not pay school fees, nor do they feather the nest except in the rarest of instances. Bob, now comfortably retired, can pick up projects while soaking up rays in L.A. It's quite a nice life.

These generous souls are hosting me for several days. We met up on Sunday morning at Ecclesia, a three-year old church based at the Pacific Theatre, a grand art deco building from the thirties, on Hollywood Blvd. The service is a strange amalgamation of early church egalitarianism, liberation theology, traditional liturgy, and evangelical fervor--all held together with excellent rock music and slick Power Point slides. The congregants are ethnically diverse but largely young and hip, many working in Hollywood. One glimpses Oscar nominees among the wannabes, but in typical LA fashion, everyone is cool with it. I was impressed by the church's commitment to a non-hierarchical structure, with congregants fully involved in the service. The church pushes its members to pledge time and risk safety in doing outreach. A group had just left for Africa; another was about to depart for Burma. The church is especially keen on helping homeless people on their doorstep in Hollywood, and I was also pleased they are targeting the grim issue of sex slavery.

Ecclesia has thought carefully about their policy on outreach. They provide support to indigenous, well-established groups so as not to come off as the outsiders bringing money and Western values to impoverished (and therefore culturally vulnerable) countries. The young man preaching the sermon reminded congregants that it's far easier to write out a check than help an actual individual. I was impressed and moved.

After the service, we met up with D. Paul Thomas, the associate rector of Ecclesia, his wife Debbie, and their daughter Dee at the Larchmont Grill on Melrose Avenue, the sort of place that is seemingly ubiquitous in L.A. It goes without saying that the food was spanking fresh and meticulously prepared: I had a superb salad nicoise with lightly grilled ahi tuna. The service was relaxed yet attentive. I'd kill for an equivalent eatery in Annapolis.

Halfway through lunch we were joined by D. Paul's other daughter, Shelley, who just graduated from Cal Arts with a major in international music. A mesmerizing (and striking) young woman, with intense eyes and Angeline Jolie lips, she too burns with evangelical fervor, only this time for global music. She sings Middle Eastern and South American music with her band around town; shortly she's off to Morocco to "absorb the musical rhythms," as she said, of that culture. I adored her instantly.

Over lunch we debated topics ranging from theology, to the Democratic campaign, to the direction of the music scene in L.A. It was the sort of intense, thoughtful conversation I haven't experienced in a long time and reminded me of what I so miss about L.A.: the openness and the eclecticism. D. Paul is especially fascinating, an actor who doubles as a minister. In him, one glimpses the aesthetic and the spiritual fires that probably animated ancient Greek theatre. So often one hears the truism about the affinity between performance and ritual, but in our contemporary culture, we rarely see it in action. I would like to know D. Paul further.

After nearly three hours, we drove back to Pasadena, where Kathie and Bob live. Their condo is lovely and comfortable, and they made me feel immediately at home. We rested and then hit the freeways once again that evening, heading back to Hollywood for a benefit performance at the Matrix Theartre, where Bob has done some work. The benefit in question was for Sister Cities, a new play by Colette Freedman headed for the Edinburgh Arts Festival. While I loved the notion of a play featuring all women (there are parts for five actresses), I didn't much like the script, which I found glib and unbelievable. Basically, Freedman marries Marsha Norman's unspeakably bad play, 'Night Mother to Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart--and not to good results. The premise is fairly simple: four half-sisters congregate at their mother's flat, where she has just committed suicide. Over the ensuing 70 minutes we learn that Mom, unbeknownst to three of the daughters, suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) and was assisted in her suicide by the one daughter who lived with her and therefore was privy to the horrors of the disease. While the script featured some nice comic moments, the bulk of dialogue required the half-sisters to scream epithets and accusations. No one cried; no one evinced a single emotional moment that rang true. Mainly, the characters threw off sitcom one-liners when they weren't telling each other to fuck off. This was not, to put it mildly, good writing.

I felt sorry for the actresses, who gave the script their all, but there's only so much one can do with lousy material. There were some pacing issues, mainly with missed beats at key moments of emotional reaction, but for the most part I liked the energy and physicality these talented women brought to their roles. As this was a benefit performance intended to raise money for the trip to the Edinburgh Arts Festival, I expected the plea for bucks before and after the show. I was, however, disturbed to see pitches to corporations for product placement. Is this what theatre is coming to? Let's raise the audience's consciousness about ALS while hawking toilet paper? Not good --not good at all.

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