For nearly 15 years, Orange County theatergoers could see and hear things on stages connected with Dave Barton that they could experience in no other theater.
Unfortunately, they probably never will again—at least not until another highly politicized, brutally honest, unwavering champion of expression at its finest and most furious decides to launch a theater company here again.
Barton, who reviews art for this august publication, is one of three guiding forces behind the Monkey Wrench Collective (MWC) and was the main artistic force behind Rude Guerrilla Theater Co. (RGTC), which held court in Santa Ana from 1998 to 2009. Artistic differences sundered that company, and Barton, along with Bryan Jennings and Greg Adkins, rolled the dice on starting a new entity in downtown Fullerton, opening MWC in the summer of 2010.
Theatre Uncut at Monkey Wrench Collective, www.monkeywrenchcollective.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. $10-$21.
The gamble lasted about a year and a half. Despite renting a space on Harbor Boulevard, the theater was hard to see from the street, and—let's face it—what self-respecting douchebag or hootchie mama is going to opt for in-yer-face theater when there's Jäger bombs to be had at two dozen bars and restaurants within projectile-vomiting distance? Whether Fullerton or any part of Orange County is too artistically challenged to support an unapologetic left-wing slate of programming that veered far more toward NC-17 than PG, or whether the theater didn't do enough to reach out to the plethora of folks who routinely crowd into other theaters (y'know, such as staging one of them Neil Simon or musical thingamajigs) is open to debate.
What isn't is that MWC closes its doors this weekend. Barton and his cohorts are planning on staging shows in Los Angeles; a production of Cockroach, which opened in Fullerton two months ago, is currently showing at the Hudson Guild Theatre. Good luck to them. And too bad for those OC theatergoers who yearn for plays designed to agitate, provoke and challenge as much as to purely entertain.
The collective's final OC production, Theatre Uncut, illustrates what made RGTC and MWC so distinctive in the county's theatrical landscape, as well as why each failed to click with more conventionally minded theatergoers. It's more content- than form-driven and relies far more on language than glittering production values, and its unrelenting attack on capitalistic excess and decay, while pleasing those who share a similar perspective, probably won't convert any new minds. But the questions posed by the eight short plays and monologues, while uncomfortable, are keenly important and relevant. Though all very different, a through-line is obvious, as eloquently stated in the final piece: "This situation is all fucked-up, and it has to change."
Written by the kind of playwrights with whom Barton has cultivated deep relationships over the years (young, decidedly left, British writers), the pieces are set against the backdrop of the austerity measures implemented in the U.K. last year, the sharpest cuts in public spending since World War II. And though very British, echoes of the Arab Spring and Occupy protests reverberate through many of the pieces—augmented by director Barton's effective use of video between them—much of which seems like it could have been pulled from the nightly news last night. All, in some fashion, critique the inhumane, heartless treatment of the many by the few, something that apparently is as serious in the U.K. as it is in America. And the targets nestled in the writer's cross hairs, while obvious, deserve every shot fired at them: corporate greed, big-bank hocus-pocus, governmental oppression and Ayn Rand's grotesque idea of selfishness as virtue.
The pieces that work the best are, oddly, those that are often the hardest sell in an evening such as this: monologues. In Laura Lomas' Open Heart Surgery, a young woman (a compelling Katrina Klein) sits bedside next to her sedated lover, who is awaiting surgery. Though the least overtly political of the eight, there is a sense that Lomas' piece is less about the tearing up and putting together of one sick human than one sick political-economic system. In Clara Brennan's Hi Vis, a mother (an astonishingly mesmerizing Cynthia Ryanen) delivers a heartbreaking, if funny, monologue about the need for her to visit her sick child in disguise due to health cuts. The mother's outrage, sadness and absolute defiance about giving up on herself—or her child—are palpable; this is not merely the highlight of the night, but also one of the most effective monologues ever witnessed from this corner.
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The other pieces, though graced by fine acting and writing, are very short plays, which is the most difficult of all playwrighting endeavors. With little time to develop characters, situations or ideas, they seem more like undercooked sketches than complete pieces—although the disturbing juxtaposition of a sick cat and a sick man in Jack Thorne's Whiff Whaff is quite memorable.
And, very soon, all that will remain of Barton and his friends' wild, adventurous, cage-rattling ride through OC theater will be just that: memories. As the most ephemeral of all art forms—in the moment now; in the artistic ether the instant it's done—theater is also the most underappreciated. All I can say from this end is that many of my most searing, jaw-dropping, sublime and, yes, even beautiful theatrical memories were experienced in spaces helmed by Barton. And I'm more than a little bummed to see the curtain fall for good. Who the fuck wants to drive to Los Angeles for theater?
This review appeared in print as "A Monkey Wrench Deferred: The Fullerton theater collective concludes its too-short existence with a well-crafted bang."