By Don Shirley
21.03.2017 / La Observed
In many LA voters' minds, the city's recent electoral battle over Proposition S boiled down - perhaps simplistically -- to choosing between LA's past, represented by the Yes campaign, or its future. Should the city try to better preserve its single-family homes and their reliance on cars or should it continue to develop its denser urban hubs and their reliance on other forms of transit? The urban-hub camp, No on S, won decisively, garnering about 7 out of 10 votes.
So there should be an eager audience for "Remote L.A.," Center Theatre Group's engrossing headset-guided walk through parts of LA's primary urban hub, in the vicinity of CTG's own downtown headquarters.
"Remote L.A." is not a traditional city tour. Participants don't follow a personable guide who relates colorful historical anecdotes and explains the architecture of the landmarks.
Instead, we follow the instructions of "Heather" and then "Will," unseen GPS-like voices who speak primarily about bigger and more current matters - the relationships between human beings and robots, groups and individuals, public manners and private thoughts, democracy, death -- often with wry undertones and recorded musical accompaniment.
This daytime-only tour (11 am and 4 pm on weekends, 4 pm Tuesdays through Fridays, through April 2) gathers at the Music Center. But the group then walks to the actual trailhead, so to speak, in the lush and currently blooming gardens of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, near Olvera Street. After the donning of the headsets (choose from three types) and the distribution of free TAP cards, Heather takes "the horde," as she calls the group, to Union Station, where we watch and applaud a "performance" by actual passers-by.
Then the "horde" boards a train for Pershing Square station. After exploring the area southeast of the square, including the seldom-noticed St. Vincent's Court, the group returns to the square, where it briefly pretends to stage its own faux-"demonstration" for whatever cause an individual might choose. It's a minor echo of the actual Women's March demonstrations that occurred there on January 21.
"Is this one of the places where democracy starts?," asks Heather. Then, a few moments later, "I like the idea that the majority decides. As long as I'm able to predict the result."
Passing through the Biltmore Hotel and beyond on 5th Street, the tour becomes more active, including brief moments of light dancing, foot-racing and step-climbing. Soon after the more acerbic "Will" takes over the narration from "Heather," the "horde" breaks into three smaller "herds" and enters the maze of the Bonaventure Hotel. But it re-unites in time for a scenic conclusion, on a terrace with a view.
The total walk, including before-and-after walking, covers about four miles in about 100 minutes, requiring a level of physical effort that is perhaps unprecedented at CTG performances. Some CTG regulars who frequent the company's more sedentary programs might not feel comfortable with these challenges. But apart from that consideration, "Remote L.A." takes a giant step in the right direction for CTG.
I can't recall a new production, at least in Michael Ritchie's decade-plus of running CTG, that focuses on contemporary LA as intensely as "Remote L.A." - which is an overdue achievement for a company that has long called itself "L.A's Theatre Company." The concurrent "Zoot Suit," at CTG's Mark Taper Forum, examines an important chapter in LA history, but creator Luis Valdez hasn't devoted much effort to overhauling this Taper landmark in order to reflect present-day resonances. By contrast, "Remote L.A." seems as up-to-date as the hordes of young adults who have flocked to live in downtown LA in recent years.
The parents of this production aren't from LA or even from the United States. It's from the German company Rimini Protokoll, created and conceived by Stefan Kaegi and Jörg Karrenbauer, who have staged many other "Remote" tours customized for other cities. CTG's Diane Rodriguez saw the Santiago version at a theater festival and was inspired to generate an LA version.
Normally, I would hope that something called "Remote L.A." would be created by LA artists. But I didn't hear anything from "Heather" or "Will" that sounded inappropriate for LA. Perhaps it takes an outsider's eye to notice certain dramatic qualities of downtown LA that most residents might overlook.
I left "Remote L.A." with the impression that there is nothing remote about this notion of downtown LA as a vibrant urban hub. I wish that "Remote L.A.," which accommodates only about 50 people at each performance, could be extended for a much longer run, so that more Angelenos and maybe some tourists, too, might discover this unforgettable urban adventure.