Los Angeles

“Carplays”

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)

It was hard to feel you weren’t sinning a little at “Carplays,” “an unabashed celebration of our love affair with the car,” a series of eight performances presented in various locations by this museum and the Center Theater Group/Mark Taper Forum. Angelenos should feel at least a little abashed over the air and noise pollution and the energy drain caused by their love affair with the car, but the audience showed no apparent ambivalence at the opening event, a parade of vintage and art cars under MoCAs canopy outside the massive “Automobile and Culture” show. Actor Howard Hesseman provided a commentary as the cars glided by; most were driven by their owners, recognizable monied names. With only a few artist’s cars in the parade—Anna Homler’s The Whale, 1981, for example, and Phil Garner’s and Nancy Reese’s Don’t Fight the Wheel, 1984—the event felt like an unabashed celebration of materialism and a gaudy display of wealth. Car fanatics in the crowd showed themselves early, however, and for some, the sponsors clearly hit an emotional chord.

The extremely snappy brochure for “Carplays” declared that the series was “a green light to new combinations of art forms that stretch beyond the bounds of tradition,” but in most of the work no such combinations were attempted. Like MoCA’s “Explorations” performance series last year, also supposedly interarts, “Carplays” mainly did little more than locate interesting theater and dance artists in a museum setting, placing them in the context of the art world. Collaboration between artists of different disciplines happened only occasionally, and when it happened it didn’t always work.

A performance by the Rudy Perez Dance Ensemble took a stab at collaboration, with a text by Susan La Tempa, music by Paul Dunlap, and a classic Bentley standing on stage. But the piece was purely a Rudy Perez dance concert, classic minimalism; its elements failed to intermix dynamically enough for it to be truly collaborative. Among the theater pieces presented were monologues and dialogues about how people feel about cars and vice versa; short plays written and performed by Bill Talen, Leon Martell, Elizabeth Ruscio, and Shelley Berc amounted to engaging acting in an art setting, and may have pleased the event’s funding agency, the National Endowment for the Arts’ Theater Program. More popular with local critics was a live talk show at the nearby Itchey Foot restaurant, in which performance artist Spalding Gray coaxed funny stories out of comic Marshall Efron and members of the audience. But this conventional piece was certainly not the promised “new art.”

Adjusting the Idle, by Antenna Theater’s Chris Hardman, was more intriguing. Hardman’s latest experiment in “Walkmanology,” the piece required audience members to move through seven rooms on the mezzanine at MoCA wearing audio headsets. The tapes they heard told stories about human-to-car relations and gave them tasks to do, such as begging Dad for the car or singing the Texaco song. Hardman and his colleagues moved among the listeners, graciously conducting their movements. The most interesting thing about the concept was the isolation the participant experienced; the headsets created private worlds in which one felt quite unembarrassed about acting out.

The triumph of the series was KabbaLAmobile, a collaboration between Rachel Rosenthal, artist the Dark Bob, and Tom Anthony’s Precision Driving Team. The audience sat on bleachers in the parking lot of the city’s Department of Water and Power, two words that took on myth and magic during Rosenthal’s monologue on cars as symbols of human and metaphysical energy. Dressed like an angelic road warrior, head shaven and painted, Rosenthal strode majestically from the parking garage. To the swelling tones of the Dark Bobs synthesized score, she climbed a steel scaffold in the center of the lot, and from the top histrionically chanted and rapped from cabalistic literature, the Hebrew Book of Creation, and automobile magazines. Enter the cars of the driving team, three men and three women who drove in configurations corresponding to Rosenthal’s ranting. For a finale, one car circled her on its right wheels, its left ones high in the air, while she orated about transmissions and stainless steel; she ended with a long quote about blood, the soul, and the breath of deliverance, taken from the 12th-century poet Abraham Ben Samuel Abulafia. And at last she was carried off on the hood of the car while the music swelled and the water rose high in the fountains of a pond on the roof of the garage.

KabbaLAmobile was a true collaboration in which disparate elements were mixed in a fully thought-out way, and impeccably performed. It did what “inter-arts” is supposed to do, freshly linking ideas and images. One hopes that the sponsors and participants of “Carplays” will use it as a model for further “new combinations of art forms.”

Linda Burnham