Call it survival of the fattest: Corporate blobs like to eat independent information and entertainment sources for lunch. That's no news flash--witness the recent profitable surrenders and unnatural deaths in the local media. They're easy to rationalize: That's the way it goes. But what happens when a group of people decides that, actually, that's not the way it goes? Holdouts against sellout are everywhere--in local arts, look for a moment at Theatre de la Jeune Lune, who manage to make survival in a Darwinian arts hell seem like a blast--particularly with The Kitchen, a revival of their 1984 adaptation of Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen.
Ask whether the tightening economy has had any effect on the troupe's collective psyche and you ignite an explosion of throaty laughter from Barbra Berlovitz Desbois and Dominique Serrand, two of the 18-year-old company's founders. But the laughter is followed quickly by grim tones. "It's severe," says Serrand. "It's basically the same principle as what happened in the Eastern countries under the Soviet bloc, which was censorship that was very simple: If you say anything, you won't have any money."
Now don't forget, these guys are the lucky ones. Jeune Lune has been blessed with relatively large donations--including a real whopper from the National Endowment for the Arts to purchase the warehouse that they transformed into a showpiece theatrical space. But these days the NEA itself is endangered, amid a general dry-up of arts funding. Funders are holding the broom, and Jeune Lune, like all the other arts organizations, learns to limbo in limbo. With a self-imposed mandate to produce work of national stature while employing a full-time company and an army of contract workers at livable wages, that involves some fancy footwork.
But talking with Berlovitz Desbois and Serrand, one senses a special combination of qualities at work, which is perhaps the secret of their survival: a streak of despair over the new economics, white-hot passion for their work, a hardcore sense of family, and a marvelous arrogance--the sort that enables Serrand to announce plans not only to survive but to become a sort of hub for the local theater community. "If we had a bit more money we would have a second space--and a third space, and a fourth space--and you would see a lot of theater in here." For example, Jeune Lune already offers rehearsal space and other help to Hidden Theatre and other small troupes, even as the company is working on a massive original ensemble piece for its fall season. It's tentatively titled "The America Project," and will perhaps be performed over two nights.
Why not? And as long as they're undertaking the impossible, why not gather 20 actors onstage in The Kitchen to artfully toss dishes around, or fashion towering, delicately balanced sculptures from cooking implements? Risk is the element we all must learn to breathe these days, and it's the stuff of this piece.
This is the sort of production you don't want to explain too much, but simply tell people, check it out. Watching The Kitchen is like having your eyes massaged: They're rhythmically stimulated by a large ensemble of bodies moving in time, twirling, marching, chopping, stirring, and throwing things constantly. In short, this is astounding physical comedy without a net (and it's accompanied by some excellent live accordion music).
The set is a restaurant kitchen complete with commercial ovens, a punch clock (which never moves), and innumerable funny-looking cooking tools. Here, an ethnic smorgasbord of workers makes crappy food for faceless patrons, pushing their bodies and minds to the limit twice a day every day, for lunch and for dinner, for their whole lives. "It gets worse but you get used to it," a newcomer is told. In the course of gearing up for the lunchtime blitz, we discover things about these characters--mostly that their lives are pretty much their work. Among an overall strong cast, Stephen Epp, Alejandro Aguilera, Joel Spence, and Luverne Seifert are standouts as, respectively, a Jewish pastry chef, his swishy Latin cohort, a cocky Italian dude, and a crass German neanderthal.
Wesker's play was originally a social protest against the deadening effects of assembly line-style labor, and it still works that way, despite Jeune Lune's brilliant choreographic take. Underneath the dancing, the singing, the comedy, and the aerial ballet of dishes, there's a profound sense of loss--both of individual potential and of meaningful personal connections. Everyone here hates their work, but no one can seem to throw a wrench in the cogs.
Of course, given current labor conditions, that's as relevant today as it was in the '50s, when the play was written. Watching the Jeune Lune troupe, it's clear that what enabled them to produce this play was quite the opposite of the conditions in The Kitchen: an environment in which imagination, thought, and individuality are valued--in fact, required. It's fun to watch and it's flat-out inspiring.