The University Players' production of Maria Viera's new work at Cal State Long Beach poses an interesting question: If, as postmodernist Jean Baudrillard maintains, we live in a universe in which every art form has been exhausted, is it still possible to create anything meaningful, or are we just, as the title suggests, Playing With the Pieces?
What may have made for a rousing coffeehouse debate doesn't translate into good theater. A filmmaker (Joseph Dal Porto), a choreographer (Miranda Carvalho) and a playwright (Clifton Kessler) are adapting the latter's avant-garde play, The Lifeof One, into (inexplicably) a movie musical; as befits the reductive and self-referential nature of postmodernism, the play within the play is actually taken from CSULB playwriting grad Wesley Hattan's absurdist piece of the same name. As each tries to impose his/her vision on the work, we're subjected to a series of scenes presented in a mélange of styles and forms, including minimalist drama, dance numbers and a short film. Of course, since no meditation on the state of the arts in postmodern society would be complete without the obligatory swipe at celebrity, the movie star Julie G. (Julie Gutenplan) gets thrown in for good measure.
Maybe postmodernity means never having to make sense. Since narrative is irrelevant, unnecessary or outmoded, why bother with coherent structure? Just slap some shit together. Part of the problem is the source material; from what we see of it, Hattan's theatrical pastiche just isn't very interesting. But the biggest problem is that like most vehicles for Big Ideas, Viera's play is bereft of any tangible dramatic stakes. The actors are reduced to mouthpieces for various elements of critical theory, resulting in performances that are tepid and unfocused. The end product may satisfy a handful of knowledgeable academics, but God help everybody else. You know you're in trouble when the highlight of the piece is the nearly straight-up A Chorus Line number at the top of Act Two. It's like we said in the '80s: fuck art; let's dance!
PLAYING WITH THE PIECES BY THE UNIVERSITY PLAYERS AT CAL STATELONG BEACH, 1250 BELLFLOWER BLVD., LONG BEACH, (562) 985-7000. OPENS FRI. TUES.-THURS., 7 P.M.; FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M. THROUGH DEC. 7. $10-$12.