Entertainment

The Actors’ Gang’s back with stylized in-person theater

Waiting to see the Actors’ Gang perform Dario Fo’s “Can’t Pay? Don’t Pay!” in Culver City on a balmy evening in March 2022 feels a bit like living a fairy tale: specifically, “Sleeping Beauty.” The part where the kingdom wakes up from its cursed slumber and resumes life as if no time has passed at all.

Back in March 2020, “Can’t Pay? Don’t Pay!” was only a few weeks into its run when the pandemic shut it down. Exactly two years later to the day, the show reopened.

It’s not as if those behind the play spent those years in suspended animation, just waiting for the spell to be lifted. The cast and crew worked on other projects (several on Zoom). But most of them happened to be available when the Actors’ Gang decided to remount “Can’t Pay? Don’t Pay!” as its first post-pandemic, in-person production.

There are a couple of different faces in the cast. And the set isn’t exactly the same. The director, Bob Turton, initially staged the show in the round. “I was like, ‘The audience will be right on top of you! It’s gonna be so real!’” he recalls, laughing. “And then COVID happened and I was like, ‘Oh, God. We have to put ‘em back in the audience, and we have to create an actual set.’”

So it’s not as if everything stayed the same. But it still feels as if we’ve just woken up from a long, involuntary nap. It’s all a little surreal. Like when Tim Robbins, artistic director of the Actors’ Gang — also an Oscar-winning actor, not to mention a director, writer and musician — emerges out of the Culver City darkness and strolls into the historic Ivy Substation, the former power station for L.A.’s defunct trolley system that has housed the company since 2005. And then, when you follow him in, you are told you don’t have to wear a mask or show proof of vaccination. This policy is in keeping with the latest L.A. County recommendations, but walking into a room with a bare face still feels subversive, even risky. (You are welcome to wear a mask if you want.)

Another thing takes a bit of getting used to, maybe especially after two years of watching small screens in lockdown, is the Actors’ Gang’s distinctive approach to performance, often referred to simply as “The Style.” It’s, well, stylized: theatrical, big, loud and mannered.

“The Style,” Robbins tells me a few days later in a Zoom interview, emerged in deliberate opposition to kitchen-sink realism. Robbins co-founded the Actors’ Gang in 1981 with what he describes as “a bunch of punk rockers out of UCLA who saw theater in a different way than people in the theater department saw it.” Not that they were outcasts there, he adds. They had sympathetic teachers. “It was more that when they taught us the lessons about German expressionism and absurdism and even early realism, we understood that that core was something that was missing from the current state of American realism.

“I’ve never thought of theater as possessing a fourth wall,” he continues. “That you’re just like observers of human behavior in some kind of human zoo. I didn’t buy that. Because it’s denying an obvious reality. There are people there that have come to see a show, and there are people there that have come to do the show for them.”

In other words, the audience is an essential element of the equation. That’s one reason the Actors’ Gang didn’t reopen last fall, when some other theaters resumed programming; there were still too many restrictions. “That’s a pact we have with our audience. We can’t violate that pact. We thought, we’re going to wait until all of us can come,” says Robbins.

An actor onstage.

Steven M. Porter in a scene from “Can’t Pay? Don’t Pay!”

(Ashley Randall Photography)

In 1984, Robbins and the Gang took a workshop with the actor Georges Bigot, of the French company Théâtre du Soleil, which was visiting L.A. for the Olympic Arts Festival. The avant-garde ensemble, created by Ariane Mnouchkine, worked in the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition, using stock characters and masks. “There was something about the way they approached theater that was ritualistic,” says Robbins, “acknowledging of the audience, not afraid to be telling large stories about man and power and God and those kinds of huge stories.”

“The Style” has not always been everybody’s cup of tea, and the Gang has consistently gravitated toward eclectic, highly political material that doesn’t necessarily rope in the masses. Dario Fo, an Italian playwright who died in 2016, is right up that alley. When Fo won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1997, the Nobel Committee praised him for “emulating the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.” “Can’t Pay? Don’t Pay!” is one of Fo’s most produced works.

Set and first performed in 1974 in Milan (this translation, by Actors’ Gang member Cam Deaver, relocates the action to present-day U.S.), it begins in the wake of a protest at a supermarket. Fed up with skyrocketing prices, women have resorted to looting. Our heroine, Antonia (Kaili Hollister), absconds with so much stolen food that she asks her neighbor, Margarita (Lynde Houck), to help haul the bags into her apartment. But where to hide them? Not only are the women’s law-abiding husbands, Giovanni (Jeremie Loncka) and Luigi (Luis Quintana), due home from work, but the police and the FBI (both groups played by Steven M. Porter and Stephanie G. Galindo) are also searching door to door for suspicious groceries.

Thinking fast, Antonia and Margarita hang bags around their necks and button up their coats over them. Now all they have to explain is how they’re suddenly nine months’ pregnant.

The night I was there, after a few beats of stunned silence, the audience was overcome by a kind of helplessness in which literally anything could set us off. We even chuckled when the characters interrupted the action with long denunciations of the corruption inherent in banking.

“That’s one of the challenges of Dario Fo,” concedes director Turton, who starred in the Gang’s 2019 production of Fo’s “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” before venturing into directing. “These plays are so hilarious and so fun and so funny, but they are political, and there’s usually like a thing at the end which is like, ‘And now the whole point of everything!’ We struggled with: What is that line between making the point and honoring the writer but also not preaching to the audience too much?’”

For Robbins, the mixture of comedy and politics is the whole point. “If you want to do theater about stuff that matters, find a way to make it funny,” he says. When he first read Fo, back at UCLA, he recalls, “I was already predisposed to theater that asked questions, that tried to address the society that we’re living in. But I had never seen it really be funny.” It was because of Fo that Robbins took a playwriting class and began to write for the stage himself. “So in a way, Dario’s kind of the ground zero of inspiration for me wanting to write and create theater.”

The Actors’ Gang didn’t do any Fo plays until “Accidental Death,” after some of them had met Fo himself. In 2014, their production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was visiting Milan, Fo’s hometown. Robbins invited Fo to see the show, and he accepted. Cast member Turton remembers Robbins popping in backstage to say, “‘OK, everybody, don’t freak out, but Dario Fo’s coming to the show tonight.’ We’re like, ‘What?’”

At the curtain call, Fo was the first one on his feet, cheering. He visited the cast backstage and praised them in Italian. He painted a painting for them and wrote them a letter. The letter, says Robbins, “was basically affirming the work that I and the Actors’ Gang had been doing for the past, at that point, 35 years, and it was an acknowledgement that what we were doing was the magic of theater.”

Robbins and Fo struck up a friendship that lasted until Fo’s death in 2016; it also inspired the Gang to do some Fo plays. After the success of “Accidental Death,” Robbins decided to take on “Can’t Pay? Don’t Pay!” next. Along the way, he persuaded Turton to try his hand at directing.

Turton remembers this pivotal conversation with an air of bemusement. “Tim came to me and said, ‘Hey, do you want to direct?’ And I was like, ‘No. I don’t want to direct. I don’t know how to direct.’”

“Can’t Pay? Don’t Pay!” is Turton’s second directorial effort, after 2019’s revival of Robbins’ 1986 play “Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle.” So he must like directing, despite his enduring surprise at finding himself doing it at all. “I think Tim saw something in me,” Turton says. “That he thought I would enjoy it, or that I would be good at it, and he was totally right.”

Asked what he saw in Turton, Robbins cocks his head. “He’s a good actor. It’s in conversations that I’ve had with him about the work that we’re doing. About a willingness to have humility when he approached directing for the first time. That was what sold me.”

Anyway, Robbins likes to promote from within the company, he says. “I’ve brought a couple of directors up that way. They already know the vocabulary, and it’s more sustainable. My ambition is that there will be five, six solid directors that will take this into the next 20 years. Because I can’t do this forever. I’ve done it for 40 years. At some point I have to transition into a lesser role in the company. If not just some kind of, like, plaque on the wall.”

How about a statue in the courtyard?

“I think that’s a little too much,” Robbins demurs, conceding after a beat, “Maybe a bust.”

‘Can’t Pay? Don’t Pay!’

Where: The Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd, Culver City, CA.
When: Thursdays at 8 pm (pay-what-you-can), Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 8 pm. Check for exceptions. Through April 30.
Tickets: $25-34.99
Contact: 310.838.4264, [email protected]



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