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Theater review: 'State of Incarceration' at the Los Angeles Theatre Center

June 17, 2011 | 10:19 am

Among the many worthy entries in the Radar LA Festival, it's hard to imagine another with quite the raw, immersive punch of "State of Incarceration" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. This latest work from Los Angeles Poverty Department doesn't just tell audiences what it means to be trapped in the California penal system. It dropkicks them into the experience, with inescapable force.

Developed collaboratively with the Poverty Department's Skid Row artists and in dialogue with organizers and recent parolees, "Incarceration" transpires as interactive ritual, from entry to release to re-integration. A dance studio upstairs at LATC is transformed into a wall-to-wall cellblock of bunk beds, where attendees settle amid lounging inmates. They move to the center aisle for a droning invocation of the "mystery of incarceration," from ancient Egypt to the Twin Towers and back again, and an airtight 90 minutes of experiential truth is underway.

In the selfless hands of directors John Malpede and Henriëtte Brouwers, the piece operates as verité and allegory, polemic and entreaty, usually at once. Certain cast members don caps and sunglasses to become correctional officers, circling the bunks with seemingly random, deliberately chilling assurance. The text moves from scabrous admissions to poetic allusions, with some unexpected laughs, uncomfortable silences and heart-stopping shifts, and the final communal meal is a masterstroke.

All credit, literally and figuratively, goes to the cast, whose artless investment and heartfelt passion is remarkable, humbling and beyond criticism. It would be wrong, in fact impossible, to single out any one player, because their conjoined honesty and absolute concentration is what makes "State of Incarceration" a work of purposeful art as important as it is unforgettable.

— David C. Nichols

"State of Incarceration," Los Angeles Theatre Center, 4th Floor, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Saturday, 5 p.m. $20. (213) 237-2800 or Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Photo: Los Angeles Poverty Department, "State of Incarceration." Credit: Anne Maike Mertens.