Learning Curve

Forget Juilliard and the Pasadena Playhouse. Why waste your money on an expensive acting program, when you can have the brainwashed members of Theater Mitu guide you through the eight canonical acting philosophies in their inventive, but ultimately off-putting multi-media project Dr. C (Or How I Learned to Act in Eight Steps), now playing at the 3LD Technology Center? Based equally on the written treatises of theater luminaries as disparate as Aristotle, Stanislavski, and Anne Bogart, and the jerky, overexcited gesture acting of the 1920 silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Theater Mitu presents an Orwellian machine dance of incredible deft and magnitude. Eight company members (designated to play theater abstractions like “acting,” “audience,” or “critic”) are prodded around by a robotic voice as though they were mere algorithms in a grand computer program, commanded to compute “acting.” Projections of text, lights, music, and movement are used to calculate each theatrical philosopher in his or her own aesthetic idiom, and along the way the troupe of singing actors lament their fate as cogs in a robotic system.

If conceivers Ruben Polendo and Jocelyn Clarke set out to achieve a stimulating new type of sensory experience, they’ve done a laudable job. But if they also hoped to offer some larger comment on the theater, or even “convert” anyone to the joyous practice of theater, they have fallen quite short. This notion of conversion is inescapable – most of piece exudes a perplexing religious air, as though one has stumbled into some strange cult of theater clerics mid-ritual. True, there is some spirituality inherent in the art form, and the question of how artists interact with these “holy” texts is broached well here, as the performers literally commingle with projections of that text. But frankly, this text was never intended to be sung, chanted or shouted. For Peter Brook to suggest “theater is life” in the book The Empty Space is one thing, but to have it intoned repeatedly by eight wildly gesticulating, sweat-drenched actors in close proximity will likely scare off even the most devout theater apostle – case in point, me.

I have been a theater artist and critic for about five years now and I love the theater intensely, but once Eight Steps passed the succinct Aristotle introduction and moved into the more elegiac Adolphe Appia step–singing phrases like “Music is the direct expression of our inner being,” my initial response was one of embarrassment. This is what the normal people think of us, I said to myself: a bunch of self-aggrandizing hippies that roll around on the ground together, orate about how great they are, and then charge admission. Admittedly, this first response is too harsh and probably an unfair reply to what Polendo, Clarke and Theater Mitu aim to accomplish, but nevertheless, I couldn’t shake my feelings of discomfiture until the rousing Bertolt Brecht segment.

Along with the all-too-brief transitory scenes, the explosive, self-aware Brecht cabaret entertains enough to make up for the other flowery mumbo jumbo. Adam Cochran gives an exhilarating performance, swinging from a tangled knob of microphone cords, as hilarious texts such as “be alienated” or “one of the cast members is secretly gay” or “Matt Carlson voted for Bush” are projected around the stage. Here the pretentious mood is shattered, affording, in my opinion, a more honest expression of the theatrical experience.

Polendo, also the director, certainly stages the piece impeccably. The convention of the computer program is expressed clearly and we quickly learn the rules of the operation – an introduction to the philosopher, a frenetic reading/representation of their text, and finally an analysis of video footage. Throughout, Kate Ashton, Alex Hawthorn, and Jake Wilten deliver the mechanized environment faultlessly as respective designers of lights, sound, and projections. Candida K. Nichols' unique costume designs also deserve special notice. The company members are all intrinsically committed to the piece's demands, with Justin Nestor and Cochran leaving particularly lasting impressions of zeal.

In a lot of ways, Dr. C (Or How I Learned to Act in Eight Steps) presents a complete picture of the theatrical world. When I say that I’m embarrassed by the more egotistical “method-y” aspects of this production, it’s certainly not Theater Mitu’s fault – I’m really embarrassed that artists in our medium are sometimes encouraged to take themselves so seriously. It’s hard to blame a brave company for having the ingenuity and courage to dust off our more self-important old texts and have some fun with them. Especially Brecht – that was IMMENSELY FUN.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post