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It will be equally impossible to forget another “touring” performance: Bill Camp as The Man in Notes from Underground at La Jolla Playhouse (based on the Dostoevsky novel and originally staged at Yale Rep). Barefoot on a snow-covered floor, wearing a headset mike, his face often projected across the rear wall, Camp began with the book’s first words: “I am a sick man. I am a wicked man. I am an unattractive man,” and then backed them up. He played all four seasons often, it seemed, at once: funny, confused, passive, angry, the later percolating into a massive eruption. In the end The Man took on the full hatred of the audience. He just stared back, as if he didn’t care, so long as your reaction was violent.

I’m always curious about what makes a great performance tick. As I watched Feldshuh and Camp (and Rob McLure playing Charles Chaplin in Limelight), I applied the Technique Test: pull back and check out the craft, find the hooks and stays in their strings of moments. See the actor. Impossible. They were so focused you couldn’t break yours.

Ditto Ruined at La Jolla Playhouse. I had read Lynn Nottage’s play before (it won the Pulitzer Prize in drama for 2009) but had no idea it could sting — or sooth — so deeply.

Civil war storms around Mama Nadi’s demilitarized bar/brothel in the Ituri rain forest. Somehow, with gunfire not far away, she accommodates miners, rebels, and soldiers of the Democratic Republic of Congo and provides relative safety for her girls. Then forces close in.

And somehow the play (and the excellent Liesl Tommy–directed production) managed to find positives amid convincing chaos. The ensemble cast was amazing, and the sound/score so integral it became clear only afterward that Ruined is also a musical with choreography, songs, and an ongoing, pulselike beat.

When you reach that place where words fail and emotions brim, sometimes it’s tempting to corral — and distance — your response with metaphor. So Ruined is about “survival” or “exploitation” or what the author calls the “war on women.” And it’s all these in triplicate, but so much more, and far more immediate. As with the Technique Test, it wouldn’t let you pull away. As the song goes, the play and production were far better than a metaphor can ever, ever be.

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Prosperina Dec. 31, 2010 @ 1:03 p.m.

Jeff Smith nails it again - as usual: "The result in theaters: artistic timidity. Stage the familiar, the nonthreatening, the audience-stroking; show steaming pizzas, not famished faces." Everyone sees this elephant in the theatre lobbies, but no one is willing to point it out! THANK YOU Jeff Smith -- THANK YOU ion theatre! sheesh! I'm beginning to agree with Jerzy Grotowski: (paraphrased) 'everyone's a performer and theatre has become superfluous'. I'm always enlightend by reading Jeff Smith's columns and articles -- theatre and history -- he digs deeply into his subject matter and gives us such great lessons about the play, the theatre, and even philosophical and sociological trends! The kinds of things theatre ought to be doing. Thanks for pointing out some great mind-expanding theatrical pieces that are fighting through the sludge of 'cuisine theatre' that has become accepted as 'cutting edge' - Jeff Smith: a thinking man's (and woman's) kind of theatre critic for our times - post modern and otherwise. Thanks!

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