An inconvenient truth at the on-pause Mark Taper Forum

| July 27, 2023 | 0 Comments

“How did you go bankrupt?” Hemingway wrote that — although the quote is sometimes attributed to Fitzgerald — the answer was: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Theaters fail the same way.

As reported in the Los Angeles Times (6/20/23) and elsewhere, the Mark Taper Forum is “pausing” production due to financial difficulties. The Taper’s executives point to a variety of reasons: COVID-19 shutdown, inflation, subscribers’ failures to return and competition from other media, especially streaming.

Let me offer another inconvenient possibility: during Artistic Director Michael Ritchie’s 16-year tenure (which ended in 2021), the Taper slid slowly into irrelevance.

Founding director Gordon Davidson was known for plays that were provocative, political and liberal — so-called “Taper plays” such as “Zoot Suit,” “The Kentucky Cycle” and “Angels in America.” Does any play resonate that strongly from Mr. Ritchie’s tenure, or, worse, from the last three years, when the Taper tried to make up for shortcomings in diversity, equity and inclusion with plays that were more politically correct than dramatically compelling?

If you want to rebut me by pointing to the Taper’s awards, nominations and premieres, etc., during that period, I would counter that what you are pointing at is the diminished state of American theater in the 21st century.

The upside to this slippage is that other theaters have taken up the slack. The Tony award-winning Pasadena Playhouse’s Sondheim season was first-rate. The Geffen substantially upped its game with “The Inheritance,” its two-part gay epic. If the Geffen’s recent premiere of Ramiz Monsef’s “The Ants” (about the clash between the homeless and privileged) was less than successful, it was at least home-grown in the Geffen’s playwright development program. The Ahmanson brings in significant Broadway plays, including the recent “Into the Woods” by Sondheim, which featured perhaps the best cast in a musical I have seen in Los Angeles. The new Gloria Molina Auditorium at Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights debuted in June with a powerful revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of A Salesman” with a Latino acting ensemble.

One of the most significant theaters filling the Taper’s vacuum is the Fountain, now running its 40th anniversary production of Jane Chambers’ lesbian dramedy, “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove” (through August 27; 323-663-1525;

The Fountain’s founding producer, Deborah Lawler (who passed away recently), chose a space in the then decidedly untrendy East Hollywood to plant her flag. In 1983, she produced “Bluefish Cove,” and it ran for an astonishing two years, putting her theater on the map. The nine women who make up the current ensemble (especially lead Ann Sonneville) do a first-rate job trying to breathe life into a frankly dated play: the newly divorced straight girl lands in a lesbian summer enclave, falls in love only to find that the woman she loves is dying of cancer.

In an era where everything from “Killing Eve” to day-time soaps has a lesbian story line, it might have been best, dramaturgically, to let this pioneering play rest. I say “dramaturgically,” not “politically.” LGBTQ+ rights are under increasing attack, as are our gay, lesbian, and trans brothers and sisters themselves. Much has changed in 40 years, except bigotry and hate.

The Taper opened in 1967 at one of America’s most socially divisive periods. It took a stand politically, but won audiences by doing plays of depth and merit in a world-class manner. It was the quality of the work that counted then and has counted since the day Aeschylus brought a tragedian before the Athenian public, and it’s what should count now.

The day before I sat down to write this column, nine robots held a UN-sponsored press conference on the future of AI (CNN, 7/8/23). They promised not to rebel or replace us. Maybe we can get them to do Shakespeare or even Sondheim.

Or maybe our major theater can recover and redefine itself by declaring what makes us human and return to produce that with passion, commitment and, above all, excellence.

I’d buy a ticket to that.

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Category: Entertainment

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