September 22, 2019

Performance as Life, Life as Performance

I have been thinking about “performance” for about two weeks now — its virtues, its limitations, its prevalence even when unintended. In short, I have been trying to figure out what makes a performance work, what makes it succeed.

This question of performance was stimulated for me by Lisa Kron’s one-woman theater piece “2.5 Minute Ride” currently playing through March 5 at the Tiffany Theater (8532 Sunset Blvd.; 310-289-2999). It’s an emotional and engaging play, one that alternates between sadness and antic humor as Kron carries forward a series of separate — though related — stories: About the trip she took with her father to Auschwitz, where his parents were killed; about a family outing to an amusement park and resort in Ohio, which served her and her Michigan family as their holiday retreat; and about her brother’s wedding to an Orthodox young woman in Brooklyn.

Along the way she offers some wonderfully funny side trips that touch on everything from her lesbian attitudes and lifestyle to a touching and satiric glimpse of her mother’s concern with age, which results in her refusal to pose for any photograph. In all, it is a 70-minute ride that leaves the audience a bit breathless.

After watching Kron’s performance, I began to mull over just what I had seen. Autobiography to be sure. Also a complex story — actually, short stories — that owed much to the author’s voice or point of view, but which also relied, for effect, on the pacing and the juxtaposition of sequences about her father, her brother and her own irreverent friends.

Kron, like the monologist Spaulding Gray, who will appear at the Alex Theater April 16, is actually attempting on stage to create a first person portrait for us, one that, while humorous and exaggerated, nevertheless is an authentic creation of self: A projection that purports to let it all hang out.

Her self-portrait is also most definitely Jewish: Wry and satirical in her presentation of others, mocking in her own turn before the mirror. Hers is a world defined by Jews; where gentiles, when they intrude into the story, are always kept at bay; they are strangers who either misunderstand Jews or mean us harm. It succeeds I think because the piece seems honest in its account and generous in its willingness to be vulnerable. We trust the performer’s voice.

As it happens, the next two weeks, of my life at least, were filled with performances.

First, there was an evening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where actor-director Tim Robbins interviewed Studs Terkel, our leading oral historian and writer-interviewer par excellence. Terkel is 87 and Robbins just about half his age, so it was puzzling at first to see the two in juxtaposition. But then Terkel — who was the star of the evening — explained that he had appeared in the Chicago production of the play “Cradle Will Rock” in 1938; Robbins of course recently directed a film version of the play’s somewhat aborted opening in New York City in 1937.

Terkel sketched scenes for us from his life in answer to questions posed by Robbins. It was a dazzling evening (Jan. 20) with Robbins graciously settling into the supporting role of straight man. We were presented with a portrait of the storyteller as performer. We caught glimpses of Terkel refracted through his encounters and interviews with others — both high and low — and bore witness to his off-the-cuff comments about people and politics in 20th century America. The autobiography was more literal than Kron’s theater piece, and yet less direct. It swept us along because of Terkel’s personality. We could not get enough of his sly wit, his delight in the people he had met and interviewed through the years and his desire to share his enthusiasms. He engaged in a compact with us, and we in turn were grateful to him for that stance.

A few evenings later, there was another “performance” that caught my attention: A dialogue on Syria and Israel at the University of Judaism, with two Mideast experts, UCLA professor Steven Spiegel and former Jerusalem Post editor David Makovsky. No autobiography here. Just two knowledgeable professionals sharing their fervor with an audience of about 400 as they related anecdotes and insights for those assembled, analyzing the politics and players in Damascus, Jerusalem and Washington. It was an evening filled with passion — about something outside the performers, namely journalism and politics. I admired the performances because of the unfeigned excitement of the two men, who in fact were experts not actors. What made the occasion work was that they were neither reluctant nor afraid to put themselves at risk as they shared their stories with us.

Finally, a written performance, this one by the Los Angeles Times. Last Monday (Jan. 31), the Times published a brief five paragraph correction to one of its Column One articles that had appeared on the newspaper’s front page. That story dealt with Holocaust deniers who questioned the extermination of European Jews by Nazi Germany.

Now the Times, on page three, was notifying its readers — under the heading For the Record — that its original story had contained a number of factual errors. These included: mistakes on the number who died; on the academic respectability of some of the deniers, who it turns out were disavowed by their universities; and on the accurate claim that victims’ remains were made into lampshades — a claim rejected by the reporter in the original story, but now affirmed by the editor.

No mention was made by the Times of the alleged objectivity of the reporting, which attempted to balance two competing “equally justified” points of view, or of the reporter’s slant, which emphasized the price deniers paid for their exercise of free speech. Nor was any explanation given as to why the corrections to the record had taken 24 days to assemble — the Column One story appeared Jan. 7. For the Record tended to be spare in its account, without context or elaboration; a correction that lacked a sense of accountability. In all, I would say, not a stellar performance, not a class act. — Gene Lichtenstein