L-Train to Eldorado at the Zellerbach Playhouse
Bernard Weiner,
San Francisco Chronicle ,San Francisco, Calif.
Jun 3, 1988. pg. E.7

(on the photo: Rebecca Major)

" `L' Train to El Dorado," being offered by New York's award-winning Squat Theater at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Playhouse through Sunday, is a fascinating, multi-layered piece of experimental theater. It is also a work-in-progress, still rough-hewn, as the audience at Wednesday's opening was informed before the show began.

It's about one man's descent into despair and near-madness as, after a romantic breakup, he grows more and more isolated in the urban jungle. Eventually, his psyche and soul in tatters, he finds he can survive emotionally only by becoming wooden, a tree - attracting neighborhood dogs, and pretty young girls who can't believe they're actually conversing with an oak.

(In Stephan Balint's clever "Letter from Eldorado," published in the program, the play's hero writes to his mother: "My skin is thick and dry, my inside is hardened, my limbs have gotten much longer. Remember, I was balding before; now I am completely bald but, believe it or not, every spring my hair grows back.")

Squat long has been famous for its conceptual pranks, especially one where audiences inside its storefront theater were watched by "audiences" outside the glass windows. Here, the gimmick is to keep us constantly puzzled as to whether we're watching a play based on reality, or a play about a film about a play based on reality, or a play about a film about a play based on fantasy, or a play about a film of a film about a play about a film, and so on.

Often, you're not quite certain what level you're on - a mind-bending state aided greatly by the super stage design of Eva Buchmuller, which moves the story from real furnishings to flats to painted backdrops to neon-lighted hotels, all of which is evocatively highlighted in Michael Chybowski's lighting design. Connie Kieltyka's expert sound design brings in the life of the streets.

The 90-minute play opens with the faces of a man, James (Mark Boone Jr.), and a woman, Ann (Eszter Balint), projected onto larger-than-life cutout sculptures in a bed. Their conversation is a kind of soap-operaish argument about commitment and faithfulness. "You lost your body on the way home," that sort of thing.

The next major scene in writer-director Balint's script has James in a butcher shop, ordering a quarter-pound of "sin, sliced thin." While the butcher goes about his business - and while a mysterious plastic bag jumps and slithers about, never revealing its contents - James admits to having been unfaithful to Ann with, among others, a 12-year-old girl. He walks offstage, a loud gunshot is heard, and his wrapped package of sin flies back into view.

Well, I don't want to give away too much. Suffice it to say that the script's scenes constantly shift from the realistic - one where James pops in to visit his solicitous mother is a classic - to the fantastical, and to ones in between where a group of devils (complete with horns) is trying to make a film documentary about James' "rotten" soul.

The play can be accepted on the surrealistic level or seen as a metaphorical view of James' guilt-ridden psyche, plagued by devils of his own making as he runs the movie of his life through his tormented brain. (And, on another level, " `L' Train" is a pointed attack on the intrusion of media imagery in our lives, here aimed at the devilish film crew.)

Despite the heaviness of the major theme, the play evokes a good share of hearty laughter. For example, in one scene, set in Buchmuller's blighted urban landscape, James is nearly at the end of his emotional tether, crying out to God for assistance. The devil-director yells "Cut!" and tells James that he's not coming through realistically enough. Even when James breaks down, sobbing on the floor, the director tells him his agony is not believable. Anyone who has worked in stage or film will recognize this bastard immediately.

A junkie/scam artist keeps breaking into the shooting session, until the director finally has had enough. He yells "Cut!" His assistants (offstage) slice the man's head off, and, when it's break time, quench their thirst with his blood. Good, gory fun.

The Squat production constantly throws the audience off-balance, both by playing around with conceptual levels and by shifting media. We're watching a play in a theater, but much later we're led to wonder if maybe we haven't been in a movie theater, along with two teenage girls we meet on film, watching something called " `L' Train to El Dorado." Later, the incorrigible James, as an oak, tries to seduce one of the young girls. The devil-director takes out his knife and draws a heart on the tree. End of play.

The script is repetitive, arcane at times, stylistically awkward at points (a musical number comes out of nowhere, for instance), and contains too many conceptual conundrums for one play. Quite obviously, Balint and the Squat troupe recognize that they're dancing around a theme and haven't quite fastened on its proper structure yet. But Balint, Balint, Buchmuller and Co. continue to demonstrate that Squat possesses a deep well of creativity from which to draw.


PHOTO; Caption: The romantically distraught James turns into a tree who propositions girls in Squat Theater's ' 'L' Train to El Dorado'

about the Zellerman playhouse:

San Francisco Chronicle: Sep 29, 1987

In an era of tight-money in the arts, it's nice to take note of some hopeful developments, in particular the opening of new performance spaces. Two new theaters will be opening in Berkeley this season.

Berkeley's Black Repertory Group, which has been operating out of a cramped storefront on Alcatraz Avenue for nearly two decades, finally will move into its new home, the Birel L. Vaughn Theater at 3201 Adeline, in November, with Danny Duncan directing "Green Pastures." It's been a long, hard struggle for founder/executive director Nora Vaughn, but finally she's going to be able to show off her new 250-seat theater at an afternoon open house Sunday, October 11.

This makes two new spaces for black theater companies in the past several years - the Oakland Ensemble Theater is the other - which says a lot about the health of black theater in the East Bay. San Francisco's SEW Productions/Lorraine Hansberry Theater is moving into a permanent 300-seat new home, in the Downtown YMCA Center at 620 Sutter Street, next February, with the West Coast premiere of OyamO's "The Resurrection of Lady Lester."

A unique new theater space is being created on the stage at UC Berkeley's large Zellerbach Hall. It's called OnStage Zellerbach, and Cal Performances will inaugurate the new 240-seat performance space in February. The space will feature flexible seating, arranged in tiers, which can quickly be constructed and dismantled for small-scale performance, in between Zellerbach Hall's regularly scheduled mainstage events.

The OnStage Zellerbach schedule includes: Keith Terry and Blondell Cummings (February 4-6), World Saxophone Quartet (March 4-5), David Parsons Dance Company (March 18-19), David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir (March 25-26), Ellen Webb Dance Company (May 6-7). New York's innovative Squat Theater, originally scheduled to present the West Coast premiere of "L Train to El Dorado" June 1-5 at the OnStage, will be housed instead at the larger Zellerbach Playhouse next door.

Bernard Weiner,DAILY DATEBOOK,San Francisco Chronicle, Sep 29, 1987. pg. E.6

Copyright Chronicle Publishing Company Jun 3, 1988


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