… artistic directors …

Ellen Stewart, the astoundingly brave and brilliant founder of La MaMa theater in NYC’s East Village, died just about a year ago, Jan 13, 2011.  Since, from the time she founded her experimental theater group in 1961 to the time of her death, La MaMa created approximately 3,000 productions.  (!)  I doubt anyone could have seen all of them — except Ellen Stewart.  But some of the greatest theater I’ve ever seen, simply unforgettable productions, were at La MaMa.

What will happen to La MaMa now that Ellen Stewart is gone?  Here’s what I’ve noticed so far.  Things are busy at La MaMa which is a good sign.  They’ve been serving as a venue for some other exciting theater groups and performers which keeps their performance spaces — the tiny and the large — active.  They’ve also mounted their own productions since the loss of Stewart and these, in my view, have been less successful.

Stopped Bridge of Dreams, La MaMa’s own production, is a case in point.  It has a lot of trendy elements, from Oriental influence and allusions to the use of video and “multi-media” — not much multi, mainly, video — but these seem mainly there to distract one from thinking about that there’s no real play here.

While there’s not really a plot, there’s a situation, though it takes awhile catch on to it.  We’re up in the air in a transcontinental airliner that functions as a brothel and the characters are the prostitutes plus the Madam.  We hear about the clients but never see any.  The denizens of the plane have some ghostly characteristics but they’re alive — somewhere in the numinous between life and death and past and present, though that doesn’t quite work out either.

The characters have various relationships among themselves.  A central relationship is between the Madam and a young man who is or is not one of her thousands of unborn aborted children; you may guess that this is a tense relationship.  There’s a flirtation or two.  Although the prostitutes populating the plane seem suited to the environment, and generally not looking to leave, there’s seems to be an underlying ennui.  Or maybe that was my ennui waiting for this to be over.

This all takes place under monitors that just below ceiling level run the full length of the long theater, with screen-saver like videos suggesting the heavens, clouds, etc., and also some panoramic shots of cities approached as for landing from above (my favorite shots).  Cameras provide varied angles and greatly magnified close-ups of the performers interacting or narrating, live or filmed ahead of time.

There’s reference to an early “floating world” Japanese novel with narration from it of the tragic story of a young girl who grows up to be a prostitute and supplants the current Madam as the new Madam of the plane.  The old one will drift off to become a cloud — at least that’s what she says.

Speaking of video … The Wooster Group, an outstanding off-Broadway group, pioneered the use of videos and other tech, slick and mod-appearing devices in their plays in ways that are challenging, witty, and make one see things in new ways.  The video-driven multiple points of view in Stopped Bridge of Dreams rely on some aura of innovation, but are unsearching.  This play doesn’t lead one to see things in new ways, through tech or otherwise, it’s more watered down Sci Fi.

The author, director, designer, John Jesurun, has an imposing lists of honors and activities for his theatrical work, including back in 1996 a MacArthur “genius award” Fellowship.  So much for all that.  The — to now — falling off from quality of the La MaMa productions since the death Ellen Stewart drives home that among the real geniuses of the off- and off-off Broadway scene are the Artistic Directors.  Creators such as Ellen Stewart, and — to name just a few current — Brian Kulick of Classic Stage, Jim Simpson of the Flea Theater, Jonathan Bank of Mint Theater, Elizabeth LeCompte of the Wooster Group, and others, make it happen.

Although their theater groups each differ profoundly one from another, these artistic directors share imagination, intense individuality, leadership, love of theater, and perseverance against great odds.  They unite individual vision with habits of personality that, to me, are quite astonishing, they are like iron in their toughness.  If you want to look for genius, in my view, here’s where.

About that question, how will La MaMa fare?  Give it time.  Great artistic directors need apply.

Stopped Bridge of Dreams  plays at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre in NYC’s East Village through February 5, 2012.

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