Los Angeles

Los Angeles Poverty Department, No Stone for Studs Schwartz

Boyd Street Theater

No Stone for Studs Schwartz, 1987, is an unlikely success, but it packed this theater on Skid Row for two months and, at this writing, is still playing to enthusiastic audiences and rave reviews. Even though its story line is barely coherent and its cast often appears nearly out of control, this group improvisation by the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) displays an energy and craft that has made it the hottest ticket in town, drawing audiences to a dangerous downtown neighborhood crowded with street people who huddle in dirt lots over bonfires of trash.

Studs Schwartz is a flashback life-story of a small-time union organizer as he flees the mob from Brooklyn to Chicago to Miami to Key West to Jamaica, plus additional scenes in Vietnam and Israel. It’s a musical comedy of sorts, jamming bits of calypso and “Hava Nagila” in between its brief but information-packed love scenes, fistfights, and digressions about current events. Essentially, it’s a rambling rap you might hear from any of the impassioned orators who wander the streets outside the theater, looking for someone who will listen. It’s a manifestation of the neighborhood’s character.

Because of the enormous amount of publicity surrounding this production, anyone in the audience would already know that LAPD is composed of street people who have been organized into a performance troupe by John Malpede. Malpede is a performance artist and an advocate for the homeless (he is both a paralegal and an artist-in-residence at a free law center on Skid Row). In 1985 he started leading workshops with local homeless people, which evolved into LAPD, a multiracial group of about 20 who have produced more than 50 street performances and theater shows reflecting the social, psychological, and political forces that shape their lives.

The story for Studs Schwartz came from Jim Beame, a nonstop talker who lives on the street. Directors Malpede and Bill Kerr structured Beame’s complicated story, based on events and characters from Beame’s long life on the road, into a flexible form that would accommodate the special needs and abilities of the group. Beame plays Schwartz and Malpede plays his alter ego, shadowing him onstage and harassing him whenever he strays from the subject. The other cast members play mobsters, molls, family members, and hustlers swirling through Schwartz’s life, and each is ready to play more than one role, standing in for those who don’t show up or can’t get it together. The whole cast kibitzes from the wings in a chorus of prompting and commentary on the action: “That’s bullshit!” “What happened to the miscegenation scene?” Although the ensemble careens close to chaos at times, the flexible structure allows hilarious patter, intense interactions, and moving soliloquies. Local writers have compared it to the best of Brechtian theater and the energy of the Wooster Group.

The improbable successes of LAPD amount to good performance work that flows with some of the best current theater thinking. More than that, its social context makes it an examination of the dynamics of some frequently overlooked aspects of American life.

Linda Frye Burnham