Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Whatever you may think of Stephan "Bax" Baxter's skills as a curator—and we've had very mixed feelings—he's a damn-fine organizer for politically conscious art. A guy with the biggest fucking heart on the planet, his volatile love for his fellow man and punk-rock embrace of the underrepresented has raised (according to his website) more than $30,000 for local charities. Homelessness, musicians dealing with cancer, gay equality, pet adoption—Baxter's organization has been at the forefront of reminding people that life isn't perfect in cozy, affluent Fullerton. His haranguing presence has put politicians, police and the morally lazy on notice, and he's connected enough that when he calls for a protest, people actually show up. And it doesn't appear he's giving up any time soon.
Tired of the kids making a mess as they play fort in the living room? Take them to this miniature city, all within the confines of an industrial park building, and let them make a mess there. Kids from infants to 8-year-olds will go wild as they debate Obamacare in the mini-doctors' offices sponsored by Kaiser Permanente; perform an avant-garde play in the small theater; farm plastic fruit and vegetables with rakes and baskets; create a masterpiece at an art studio; build stuff while wearing goggles and orange vests at the construction site; go fishing and build boats at the marina; shop at a tiny Ralphs; go to the beach, where there are lots of sand and buckets and beach chairs—wherever their imaginations take them. It's a living hell if you don't have (or can't stand) children, but an educational, relatively cheap excursion that helps build an active interior life in your child. Better than a night at Chuck E. Cheese.
Last time we visited BC Space in Laguna Beach, we got a personal tour after the closing of the "Capital Crime$" group exhibition. Several pieces had been removed already, leaving sad, empty holes, but photographer/political activist/gallery owner Mark Chamberlain filled us in on what was missing, walking us through what was left. Art is everywhere once you climb the stairs—in every corner and every room. Even the bathroom has something to look at while you're doing your business. The money Chamberlain makes as a commercial photographer subsidizes the tough, topical, completely non-commercial work hidden in the upstairs gallery . . . all in a shopping area of downtown Laguna where you wouldn't even notice it if you didn't know it was there. And now you do. Per the website, "Gallery hours are irregular and event driven, but appointments for viewing may easily be arranged by contacting the gallery." Call now.
While the Laguna Art Museum continues to give it a run for its money each year, the Orange County Museum of Art's first exhibition of 2013—"Richard Jackson: Ain't Painting a Pain," curated by Dennis Szakacs—was so amazing it nailed the honor this year in mid-February. Exhilarating, thoughtful, angry and subversive, it's a travesty Jackson's fantastic body of work didn't get one of these earlier. The museum's second exhibition—curator Dan Cameron's downsized and retitled "2013 California-Pacific Triennial"—is just as adventurous, offering people walking through its doors a veritable roller-coaster ride of art from the Pacific Rim.
Did you know there's a Joan Miro-cast bronze statue in the lobby of a Costa Mesa office building? Yeah, neither did we. But now that we do, we can't take our eyes off it. It's described as a "bird" by various websites, but we know Miro's work. The Spanish Surrealist was as obsessed with sex as we are. Take a long hard look at the statue. It ain't no bird.
Fox's mixed-media, socially conscious painting is heavy on black outlines separating figures from their backgrounds, his people often caught in a colorful nature scene at odds with the technology: umbrellas don't work, businessmen swirl down into whirlpools while still talking on cell phones, butterflies sniff at lost electronics, obese birds sit at the top of collapsing staircases. His 3D figures often lift and separate from their place on the canvases, rising above, possibly escaping. If we had a Kebe Fox coloring book as a kid, we'd be much cooler than we are now.
While up-and-coming playwright Samuel D. Hunter's new play, The Whale, lacked a little meat on its bones, Matthew Arkin devoured the titular role as a 600-pound man consumed by guilt, Moby Dick and eating himself into the grave. The physicality was impressive (playing a good drunk takes more skill than you think, as does playing a morbidly obese man quavering on his feet and inching across the stage at a snail-like pace), but so was Arkin's emotional resonance. His acute sadness and desperate attempts at reconciling with his daughter lent the real weight to this flawed but memorable show. Even more interesting: Arkin's performance at South Coast Repertory made you feel less sorry for his character and more proud of his commitment to go out the way he wanted.
Cast as Mary Bland, the sexually repressed, anal-retentive female half of a far-less-than-powerful power couple in Eating Raoul: The Musical, Anna Kate Mohler imbued her character with a complexity that was remarkable for such an intentionally campy show. Her transformation from Donna Reed to Bonnie Parker was completely believable in that she didn't overplay it. There wasn't some sinister psychic trauma going on here; she saw a way out of her humdrum existence and attacked it with gusto. It also didn't hurt that Mohler, who also shined in STAGEStheatre's production of The Great American Theater Park Musical last year, sang like one of them birds that can sing real purty.
LA Bitter Lemons, the best aggregator (if not best website devoted to Southern California theater) of local theater reviews, gave powerhouse playwright Noah Haidle's latest work, produced by South Coast Repertory, a 54 percent on its Lemon Meter. Only three of the nine reviews of Smokefall came in as sweet, with six either bittersweet or bitter. What's that mean? Most local critics have their heads up their asses. Or they just missed the honesty and grace in this mesmerizing play about a family whose home serves as perhaps the most important character. Echoes of T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett and even Sam Shepard reverberated in the play, with its allusions to time, existential angst and wanderlust. Haidle's ideas soared into the ether, and the play's inventive structure kept the audience on its feet. It was also a play with an enormous heart, which made the breaking of that heart all the more emotionally arresting.
You name it, and director (and co-creator) Marshall Pailet nailed it in this Chance Theater production: outstanding production values, a blistering pace, visceral choreography, ample T&A, and terrific performances. The gleefully over-the-top parody of a certain movie is also a deceptively sincere homage to not only the female dinosaurs who populated the island, but also to the even-more-dimwitted, barbaric humans who inherited their world. Issues of sexual identity, teen angst, wrestling with authority and basically trying to fit in to a universe whose cosmic odds always seem against you permeate this play, and this production triumphantly presented them. It wasn't the deepest, most intense or most important play on a local stage in the past 12 months, but it was absolutely the most entertaining and memorable.
You could choose OC's newest theater company, the Alchemy Theater Co., but it has only done one show to date, so give us time. Instead, what about the UC Irvine Drama Department? Its shows usually last only a couple of weekends, so getting a review in these space-constrained times is problematic at best. But the arsenal of undergrad and graduate talent, plus a ridiculously well-rounded and smarty-pants faculty (Robert Cohen, who founded the department in 1965, is STILL there as a professor) elevates all its productions—whether experimental drama or antique classics or contemporary pieces—well above the norm. Two new theater companies, helmed by UCI professors but semi-autonomous, have also come out of the department recently: the New Swan Shakespeare Festival, with an emphasis on the Bard and American musicals in an intimate, moveable space, and the Counter-Balance Theater, charged with highly physical productions based on great literature.
Usually, large ensembles who throw themselves with frenetic abandon into a fast-paced, no-holds-barred comic romp get all the praise. They're all on the same energized track and sustain that momentum through an entire performance. But the four actors in Bill Cain's crisis-of-religious-and-familial-faith play at South Coast Repertory worked as a razor-tight ensemble fused through masterful performances that worked like different pieces of a clock without ever missing a tick. Tyler Pierce, as a conflicted priest, and the always wondrous Linda Gehringer, as his dying mother, played the main characters, but their relationship was only heightened by the presence of Aaron Blakely and Jeff Biehl. Each character was sharply defined, but instead of solitary trees standing on their own, they coalesced under Ken Nicholson's stellar direction into a dense canopy far greater than the sum of its parts.