Not only will I tip my hat to The Coeurage Theatre Company, but if you don’t tip your hat as well, I’ll be inclined to knock it off your head myself.
I say again, not for the first time, not the last, Los Angeles has the most dynamic and imperative theatre in the nation and this despite near insurmountable obstacles; an inexplicable apathy on the part of the region’s entertainment industries to a fertile testing ground of talents, the miserliness of municipal governments, and that evil empire on the East Coast.
But perhaps the greatest threat to the future of LA theatre is the town’s lack of comprehensive audience building.
There is something wrong when I attend a play and the audience is made up exclusively of elderly ex-New Yorkers who arrived in the sunshine state in advance of the Dodgers.
Thankfully, there are some theatres and organizations toiling to remedy this situation: The 24th Street Theatre, Zombie Joe’s Underground, The Actors’ Gang, Bitter Lemons and a special place of honor on that list goes to The Coeurage Theatre Company which has put their money where their mouth is – literally!
The Coeurage Theatre Company has a standing box office policy of “pay what you want.” That’s “want,” not “can.” To quote from their mission statement:
“Each patron decides what a theatre experience is worth to him or her…”
This is nothing if not ballsy.
And their “ballsiness” (Did I just make up another word?) is apparent in their choice to stage Steven Fechter’s The Woodsman.
Initially conceived as a play in the year 2000, The Woodsman’s journey to the stage was via a rather roundabout route. This detour arose after Fechter, along with Nicole Kassell, adapted his play for film, and then their script proceeded to win the 2001 Slamdance Screenplay Competition.
So, flash forward three years, and the The Woodsman premieres in movie houses nationwide as a vehicle for Kevin Bacon and wife Kyra Sedgwick. Kassell directs.
The film came up against some harsh criticism from those who took offense at Fechter’s sympatric depiction of a child molester, but overall the film and its stars found favor with critics and audiences alike.
Flash forward once more, its 2009, and after restoring the script back to the original play format, Fechter’s The Woodsman finally makes it to the stage, no doubt to his great satisfaction.
But if he imagined the play would provoke less hubbub than the film, there he was wrong. It made no difference multi-plex or black box The Woodsman would prove a lightning rod of controversy and condemnation.
Marlene, my lovely wife, felt such a profound repulsion towards the subject matter that I all but hadda drag her along, protesting the whole way she didn’t want to see a play about a “monster.”
The word is from the Latin root: Monēre = to warn and monstro=to show. So how did it come to mean something “fearful”?
Perhaps because the “warning” we derived from looking on a “monster” is in being “shown” that beneath the label a “monster” is only a human being the same as us.
And perhaps it’s having that truth exposed that is so frightening.
Nothing is soft pedaled or sugar-coated in Fechter’s play.
Walter (Tim Cummings) is a troubled figure.
After serving time for molesting two young girls Walter finds the world he’s put in is no less a prison than the one he was released from. There are no bars in his drab second floor apartment tucked away in a poorer part of town, only peeling wallpapers but its still a cell to Walter.
A place he returns to after his warehouse job or the sessions with his therapist (John Klopping) and where his time passes in self-imposed solitary confinement.
His isolation complete except when his parole officer (Gregor Manns) decides he’s due some harassment and the sporadic visits from his brother-in-law (Cesar Ramos) telling him his sister still won’t let him near his niece and nephew.
In the dark hours of night, Walter grapples with his inner demons, those phantoms punishing him for what is past, and those more terrifying that torture with the lash of craving.
Then one morning, standing at his apartment window with a hurried cup of coffee before work, Walter discovers a man giving rein to secret cravings of his own.
Walter watches as the man across the street tries to entice a young child into his car, identifying the tactics the predator plays against his prey.
This time the man fails. But Walter knows he’ll come back, that he won’t be able not to, just as Walter is unable to keep from following a young girl (Katie Pelensky) into a local park and striking up a conversation with her.
Then Nikki (Joey Nicole Thomas), a coworker from the warehouse, dismissed as a dyke by the other guys on the dock, bursts her way into Walter’s life. Nikki pursues Walter with a forcefulness that triggers his suspicions she may be part of some scheme by his parole officer to entrap him.
What Nikki’s appearance brings is the chance for salvation, a very small chance.
Jeremy Lelliott’s direction echoes the desolation of both the play and its characters with an austerity that is poetically grim, working on a nearly bare stage that expresses the bleakness of the narrative with aching eloquence.
Cummings is an oft seen actor in LA (War at the Banshee, The Normal Heartat the Fountain). Here he achieves a hollowness to the character, emptiness brought on by guilt and self hatred, that infuses the audience with the wish to fill it, and thus, before they become aware of it, some slender sense of compassion has stolen from them.
John Klopping as Rosen the therapist succeeds in revealing both the zeal and the absurdity found in those whose idealism fuels an obsessive-compulsive striving to help others.
Cesar Ramos is precise and convincing as Walter’s brother-in-law, who stoically confronts the searing reality we all deny, that we never truly know even those we thought we knew best.
As Lucas, the unsympathetic parole officer, Gregor Manns falters into some heavy handedness but manages to convey the source of his brutality as the suffering he has seen, and thus salvages his performance from falling into caricature.
Pelensky’s role by rights should have gone to a much younger actress. The closeness of the venue and the demands of the play, I think, require the reality of a child.
This said Pelensky is both sincere and poignant in the role that embodies Walter’s temptation and epitome.
What is missing from Thomas’ otherwise excellent performance is missing in the play. The source of her character’s strength is desperation. Every sexual obsession, like every sexual fetish, is an effort to relieve the real anxieties of life by fabricating an imagined solution from within our erotic fantasies: some victims of sexual violence will fall into bondage role playing,
some survivors of childhood abuse find themselves in abusive relationships and some seek healing in a repetition of the wounding.
It is by searching their reflections off the cracked mirror of a parallel past that empathy first emerges allowing Nikki and Walter to find themselves, then each other.
The Woodsman is a play that tests our humanity. If you leave the theatre without feeling some rise of redemption or flicker of forgiveness…well you’ve failed the test.
The Coeurage Theatre Company’s production of The Woodsman will run until the first week in June.
Future productions for the 2015 season will include Failure: A Love Story by Philip Dawkins slotted for July/August and The Sparrow by Chris Mathews, Jake Minton and Nathan Allen, scheduled to open October/November.
At this time, there is some uncertainty if the company will continue producing at Lyric Hyperion Theatre & Café, or will need to find another venue for themselves.
But wherever The Coeurage Theatre Company eventually settles it would be well worth your time to search them out.
By the way, Marlene ended up loving the play. She passes.
* * *
BY STEVEN FECHTER
DIRECTED BY JEREMY LELLIOTT
FEATURING (in alphabetical order)
Venny Caranza, Tim Cummings, Julianne Donelle, Mark Jacobson, Nardeep Khurmi, John Klopping, Gregor Manns, Katie Pelensky, Cesar Ramos, Christopher Salazar, Erin Sanzo, Joey Nicole Thomas
(Production Photos by NARDEEP KHURMI & JOHN KLOPPING)
MAY 8—JUNE 13
THURSDAY, FRIDAY, & SATURDAY AT 8PM
FOR ‘PAY WHAT YOU WANT’ RESERVATIONS:
LYRIC-HYPERION THEATRE & CAFE
2106 HYPERION AVENUE
LOS ANGELES 90027