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The Democracy Zone: Theater of the People, By the People, For the People

Ed Rampell: The rest of this world premiere production presented by the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company at the Art of Acting Studio Los Angeles is also quite cinematic, a fast moving, often comic pastiche with seven filmic vignettes commenting on America’s contemporary political scene
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DEMOCRACY (SIC) Theater Review

Don Williams’ com-dram democracy (sic) opens with a movie-like montage, accompanied by a throbbing recorded rock soundtrack and flashing lights designed by the aptly name RAY Jones. (Look closely and you’ll glimpse a red flag with a hammer and sickle in the background.) The rest of this world premiere production presented by the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company at the Art of Acting Studio Los Angeles is also quite cinematic, a fast moving, often comic pastiche with seven filmic vignettes commenting on America’s contemporary political scene (and what a scene the players make!).

Riffing on TV’s famous Twilight Zone anthology supernatural series that debuted on the tube in 1959, hosted and co-written by Rod Serling, Alex Best plays an ersatz Serling who welcomes spectators to a “dimension of imagination” called “the Democracy Zone” - a demented domain that I must say is truly “demo-crazy.”

In it, smarmy 700 Club-type televangelist Rev. Roberts (James Warfield) presents a TV show with a Christian conservative author guest (Jennifer Ann Weisner) ballyhooing her god and country tome endorsed by a Trump-like prez. These ultra-religious zealots put the MENTAL into fundamentalism in the recurring Rev. Roberts sketches.

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(Here, the reviewer rants and raves: BTW, the fact that many “bored again” so-called Christians voted for The Donald - just about the most un-Christ like person the human imagination could possibly conjure up - is proof of their bankrupt ideology that compensates for their viciousness with a veneer of virtue. A skimpy veil of Veronica, to be sure! Would Trump be able to pass through Jesus’ “eye of a needle”? The computer says “no.”)

Meanwhile, back at the review:

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In democracy (sic)’s movable feast, Carlis Shane Clark portrays a terrified African American abducted by neo-nazi types. Steve Humphreys depicts a rightwing shock jock whose manic broadcasting of toxic talk is disrupted by a female caller (also portrayed by Weisner who, like the other thesps, plays multiple parts). Putting the “sick” into democracy (sic), seductive Stacy Jordan plays a sexually repressed super duper über-Christian stalker and so on, in this 90 minute one-acter with a variety of tableaux exploring Trump’s USA careening off the rails.

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The final vignette seems to reference Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, the 1972 film starring Stella Adler’s most famous acting protégé, Marlon Brando. (His grandson, Shane Brando, attended the Art of Acting Studio L.A.)

Deploying lots of risqué language democracy (sic) includes startling, imaginative word play - an inventive, off-color Pidgin English of sorts - during banter in scenes that spoof alt right gibberish. Weisner and Warfield expertly, admirably deliver the tongue twisting doubelspeaking dirt. I thought these scenes were the best part of the show, creating a lingo as George Orwell did with “Newspeak” in 1984, the concocted language of totalitarianism. The concept of “doubletalk” emerged out of 1984, and it is today the lingua franca of politicians and pundits who strive to obscure the truth (with “alternative facts”) and, as Orwell aptly put it his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, to “defend the indefensible.” Williams’ version of his political patois, however, is far bluer than Orwell’s, so listeners’ with virginal ears should beware of democracy (sic)’s - uh, shall we say - “aural sex.”

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After Friday’s opening Don Williams told me he first got the idea for democracy (sic) after the 2004 presidential election. Believing Democrat John Kerry was robbed of electoral victory by George W. Bush, the playwright was so angered that he started writing this play. The 2016 election of Trump outraged Williams even more, inspiring him to complete the excursion to the Democracy Zone he’d embarked upon 12 years earlier. (Thus the act of theatrical catharsis has spared America from yet another serial killer going ballistic and exploding with a shooting spree, LOL.)

Press notes state that this frequently funny original satire “closely examines the epidemic of hypocrisy in American culture.” In doing so, democracy (sic) remains within the hallowed heritage of an L.A. theater that has one of the stage world’s most prestigious pedigrees. Located near Theatre Row, the Art of Acting Studio L.A. and Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company are affiliated with Manhattan’s Stella Adler Studio of Acting. Executive Producer Tom Oppenheim is the N.Y.-based grandson of Stella, that American apostle and avatar of the Stanislavsky Method. democracy (sic) is written by Don Williams, Managing Artistic Director of the Art of Acting Studio and directed by the Studio’s School Director, Johnny Yoder.

democracy (sic) is in the cherished tradition of The Group Theatre, which this Stella Adler-influenced company directly traces its roots back to. Director Harold Clurman was one of The Group’s co-founders and Stella’s husband for 20 years. Clifford Odets, The Group’s foremost, pioneering playwright, wrote some of the Great Depression’s most searing, radical “proletarian theatre” plays, such as Waiting for Lefty, which The Group premiered on Broadway during the 1930s. At the end of this pro-labor, pro-union classic The Group’s cast led enthusiastic audience members in militantly chanting “strike!”

If Honest Abe returned to 2017 America I imagine the Great Emancipator would reflect that the democracy he envisioned has indeed “perished from the Earth” and amend his Gettysburg Address to now read: “Government offs the people, BUYs the people and forces the people.” Methinks Williams and his madcap crew would, albeit perhaps ruefully, agree with this diagnosis of a democracy in the final stages of decline.

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The Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company production of democracy (sic) runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and on Monday Oct. 9 (a good way to celebrate John Lennon’s birthday!) at 8:00 p.m. through Oct. 14, 2017. The Art of Acting Studio L.A. is located at: 1017 N. Orange Dr, L.A.,CA 90038. Reservations here.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

Film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Dziga Vertov’s documentary The Man with the Movie Camera plus shorts by V.I. Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein on Friday, 7:30 p.m., Sept. 22, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. This is part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month through November. For info: laworkersedsoc@gmail.com. Rampell is a co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist(see: https://www.generosity.com/fundraising/hollywood-blacklist-tribute).