|By Travis Michael Holder
After over 21 years as Theatre Editor for Entertainment Today, its demise—along with LA Reader, Beverly Hills Post, West Hollywood Weekly, LA Theatre, Salon City, Gorgeous, and Boulevard magazines for which I also wrote through the years—was capped for me when I was told by my editor at BackStage that they were dumping all of us longtime theatre critics and stopping reviews of live theatre on both coasts. This from a New York City-based publication called BackStage, for Terpsichore’s sake.
The reason BackStage theatre coverage was scrapped? Well, of course, it was simply a corporate decision. Theatres didn’t “support the page,” we were told. In other words, the fuckers didn’t advertise—as though small theatres have the budget to run ads, right?
There was a small community weekly in those days that openly told people they would review their productions, but only if the producers in turn bought an ad to run with it. The publication and its resident critic were widely criticized and ostracized for such a blatantly unethical demand yet, less than a decade later, even such venerable institutions such as Wall Street Journal routinely charge for content.
In our current world overtaken by clickbait journalism, where most small privately-owned local publications around the country have been buried alive by cutthroat corporate takeovers, the only thing at issue is today how to promote ad revenue. Reporting the news be damned today and so nothing is the same for journalists, particularly those committed to promoting the arts. Like ET and my other onetime outlets mentioned above, our town’s onetime king of the undergrounds, LA Weekly, met such a fate several years ago.
The choking out of theatre coverage in the Weekly ended the longtime tenure there of Steven Leigh Morris, who as Theatre Editor had helped put LA theatre on the map. The guy lived through the vivisection of the popular print edition of the Weekly when it was sold in a corporate merger and, unlike some of us, he even survived the disappearance of print journalism in our online world.
Entering the Atwater Village Theatre for the world premiere of Red Ink, Morris’ timely and sharply satirical new play mourning the death of print journalism, the playwright said he hoped I would enjoy his homage to “our once noble profession.”
Luckily, Morris’ insightful and imaginative ability to find the humor in our situation saves the day and keeps Red Ink from descending into a sense of hopelessness. Jerome, clearly his alter-ego in the piece, has not been as lucky as its creator. Where Morris has gone on to many other successful endeavors, including the well-received online Stage Raw covering LA’s too-often maligned but ever-scrappy theatrical community and a Distinguished Contribution Award from the LA Drama Critics Circle, poor Jerome has been committed to the nuthouse.
As part of his therapy, it seems, he is encouraged to reenact the details of his departure from the job he loved by utilizing his fellow inmates to take on the roles playing his suffering coworkers and soulless corporate archenemies. It’s akin to Front Page morphed with Marat/Sade in a script created by Woody Allen.
Morris’ crafty tale winds in and out of these two realities, giving director Nike Doukas and her gifted troupe of beloved LA actors a wonderful opportunity to pull out all the proverbial stops.
As Jerome, Leo Marks assays the very definition of a tour de force performance, never once having the luxury of leaving the stage as his character relives the journey and then alternately observes the dastardly details of his career’s downward spiral.
All other actors play multiple roles as the people haunting Jerome’s life, including Tracey A. Leigh as both a doomed coworker and his long-suffering wife; Steven Culp as one of the facility’s orderlies, a difficult news reporter about to get the ax, and an imaginary entrepreneur only Jerome can see; while recent Stella Adler Art of Acting Studio graduate Michelle Bonebright-Carter makes an impressive appearance in several roles, including Jerome’s concerned and loving daughter.
Jocelyn Towne winds through the action as a completely incongruous ballerina in moves nicely choreographed by Cate Caplin, also credited for creating a sensual tango performed by Towne and Marks as she periodically transforms into the dastardly new publisher’s ruthless henchman whose job title includes seducing Jerome to get him onboard with the company’s policies.
As Murray, that Harvey Weinstein-y bossman who could give a shit about the news as long as he has enough income to sit at the beach in Maui fanned by nubile young handmaidens and sipping pina coladas, Peter Van Norden’s performance is priceless, especially when he returns to being Murray, a Lennie Small-esque lumbering fellow inmate with a penchant for JuJuBes.
None of the pieces of this wildly absurdist puzzle could possibly fit together without the skill of Doukas, however, who brilliantly and innovatively stages the rapidfire action of Morris’ firecracker of a play on this tiny playing space with audience placed on three sides just to add to Jerome’s suitably claustrophobic situation.
Sad and frustrating as the subject may be, feeling even more disillusioned with humanity than ever before, especially for anyone who has personally crawled through the muck of it and has come out the other side, is the greatest danger here, but Steven Leigh Morris’ Red Ink is beyond simply a biting, often hilarious, on-the-money treatise laying bare the immorality of corporate greed. It echoes everything wrong as our society and its “leaders” step over us all while cavalierly destroying everything we should be desperately holding dear.
We need such courageous and thought-provoking artistic expression more than ever if we are going to get through this discouraging period in our existence. James Baldwin said the precise role of an artist is to “illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”
THROUGH FEB. 10: Playwrights’ Arena at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Av., LA. 800.838.3006 or playwrightsarena.org