BACK STAGE WEST
January 29, 1998
LOS BIOMBOS/THE SCREENS
at East L.A. Skills Center
Reviewed by Rob Kendt
Like many of the stage productions to which globe-hopping director Peter Sellars lends his vision and name, Los Biombos/The Screens hovers stubbornly between fiasco and epiphany, daring us to evaluate its thoroughgoing assault on convention by any conventional terms to which we're accustomed. Sellars' ambition can't be faulted, nor it is easy to dismiss the absolute, nigh cultish conviction he's able to inspire in his collaborators. But it's worth wondering whether the combination of Genet's acidic phantasmagoria of revolution, Sellars' alienating, performance-arty poor theatre, and the missionary zeal of the producers, the community-building Cornerstone Theater Co., is a happy triangle or a match made in hell.
It feels closer to hellish, truth be told. Staging Genet's rambling, ritualistic epic across various spaces in a chilly, lofty upper floor of the East L.A. Skills Center, Sellars throws sightlines and seating plans largely to the audience's own devices. He's trimmed the original substantially, but it still clocks in at nearly four hours. And, in his first L.A. collaboration with Cornerstone, Sellars puts a cast of 32--a majority of them non-professional community artists, the sort of joyous local hams with whom Cornerstone regularly does exquisite work--through some strenuously detailed paces.
It all comes off with stunningly straight-faced aplomb--which in many cases means the performances are stiff and halting, but overall gives the production a formidably controlled surface, even at its most chaotic. Actors switch or double up roles from scene to scene; perform simple, stylized choreography as they speak, and declaim the play's rough poetry impressively if blankly. Geoff Korf's dusty, severe lighting and Lynn Jeffries' suggestive set pieces emerge from unexpected places, as do whole scenes; wall-size canvases by Gronk are placidly carted through as scenic punctuation; Dori Quan's costumes stay in an iconic, workmanlike primary palette. There is a unity and concentration of vision that comes through here.
But to what end? Genet's bleakly imaginative play dramatized the Algerian uprising of the 1950s as an almost occult apocalypse, while Gloria Alvarez' adaptation (with Sellars, Jeffries, and Pete Galindo) is a rather shopworn despairing picture of L.A. as a war zone of white property interests, militarized street strife, and a resilient underclass that's paradoxically above it all. One comes away from this rancorous, unplayful play with several striking images--especially a loud punk seance led by the amazing Lilia Ramirez and the tireless Blues Experiment band--but little substantial to chew on.
Standing out from the cast, which includes members of the Chicano artists collective los undocumented, are Luis Lopez, Ibrahim Saba, Cornerstone member Shishir Kurup, Sandra Galindo, Claudia Lozano, and L.A. Poverty Dept. founder John Malpede. Strikingly, few cast members don't get a shining moment of force, clarity, or dry humor. Ultimately it's inarguable that Sellars and co. have done something monumental with Los Biombos; the question only remains to what ideal it's a monument. In his program bio, Sellars thanks cast and crew for "a tremendous life experience." Whether it's such a tremendous theatrical experience is profoundly dubious.
"Los Biombos/The Screens," presented by Cornerstone Theatre Co. in association with los undocumented & East L.A. Skills Center, 3921 Selig Pl., East L.A. Jan. 17-Feb. 1. (310) 449-1700.