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Theater review: 'England' at Skirball Cultural Center

November 11, 2011 | 12:54 pm

Tim crouch
Tim Crouch, Britain’s best mannered theatrical subversive, is at it again. Standing in the lobby of the Skirball Cultural Center with his performing partner Hannah Ringham, he politely gathers a small, straggly audience for what appears to be a tour of the Skirball’s new exhibition, “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” but is actually a prelude to his devious little play “England,” written expressly for art galleries.

Anyone who enjoyed “An Oak Tree” at the Odyssey Theatre last year or “The Author” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in February will surely be intrigued to see what else Crouch has up his nontraditional storytelling sleeve. Like his other works, “England” has a narrative but, in keeping with his usual method, the fragments are delivered in such a way that an audience cannot just sit back and expect its entertainment to be spoon-fed to them.
 
This rule-flouting drama, first performed in Edinburgh in 2007 and running through Sunday at the Skirball, doesn’t reward passivity. The effort required is more than just physical, even though spectators for the first half of the play will be asked to troop around parts of an exhibition inspired by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”

Artifacts and images of female victimization and communal healing provide an odd background for a theater work that is very much preoccupied with art as commodity. “England” has been performed before fiendishly expensive Andy Warhols and is headed next week to the posh corridors of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. It’s a credit to the versatility of the piece that it can also thrive in a gallery space exploring creativity as social activism and political outcry. Some potency is undoubtedly lost in the first half, but once the piece moves inside a theater and the global concerns of the story grow wider, a curious resonance develops between these disparate Skirball offerings.

Crouch and Ringham, both dressed in neatly pressed button-down shirts, take turns as the English narrator, a man or a woman (depending on who’s speaking) whose American boyfriend is a high-rolling international art dealer. The lines, spoken with what can only be described as a kind of cheerful neutrality, are at once declarative and elliptical (“My boyfriend can speak four different languages. He’s a citizen of the world. I have no languages.”)

The narrator is living quite comfortably, courtesy of the boyfriend, in an expensive duplex surrounded by art, including a small Willem de Kooning. (“Nobody believes us when we say it’s the real thing.”) But health concerns begin to darken this picture of urban bliss. The narrator has a heart problem that requires a transplant. Death seems imminent, but the boyfriend won’t allow it. He’s not accustomed to having his will denied. A heart is eventually located, and in the play’s second half, a meeting occurs in an unspecified Muslim country between the narrator, who has recovered from surgery, and the wife of the man whose death renewed the narrator’s life.

Crouch and Ringham again take turns as the narrator while introducing another character, the interpreter of the seething burka-clad widow, who suspects her husband was murdered for his organs. This awkward encounter departs from the humble-gratitude script that the narrator, self-effacingly privileged though privileged nonetheless, was counting on.

“I came to give her a gift, a present, tell her,” the narrator, clearly flustered by the uproar, says to the interpreter.
 
“England” cunningly lures the audience into examining the unspoken advantages of its position in the world and the way in which courtesy and cultural refinement can be a convenient cover for exploitation. This is a compact piece, but once again Crouch has shown that small-scale originality can provoke large-scale conversations.

RELATED:

Theater review: 'Twelfth Night' at A Noise Within

Theater review: 'Peace in our Time' at Deaf West Theatre

Theater review: 'Next Fall' at Geffen Playhouse

 — Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty
charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

"England," Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A, 8:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday. Ends Sunday. $20 www.skirball.org or (877) 722-4849. 1 hour, 5 minutes

Photo: Tim Crouch and Hannah Ringham. Credit: Martin Kaufhold


 
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