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Hollyween; Play7

LETTER FROM L.A.: Hollyween; Play7

copyright 2002, Jim Chevallier


                Halloween in Hollywood might seem redundant, given how many people already spend their lives in costume. (Or in disguise, which isn’t exactly the same thing.) Still, this time of year is marked by at least two traditions: the West Hollywood ‘parade’ and the Day of the Dead. Since these correspond to two of the city’s larger cultural groups - gays and Mexicans -, each of these is infused with a certain exuberant pride.

New Yorkers should know that, unlike the Village’s fest, West Hollywood’s ‘parade’ is really more of a promenade than a procession. Santa Monica Boulevard is closed off for a long stretch and a mix of people in and out of costume walk up and down in no particular order. Over the years, more and more concessions and stages have been added along the route. I’ve seen some great costumes there over the years – a princess riding a large dragon; six Filipino men in matching Carmen Miranda outfits; a coterie from the French royal court with period outfits made of plastic strips -, but none of the breathtaking floats that mark the New York event.

                This year, I chose to go see Chauncey DeVille Productions  and Sacred Fools’ production of “Dracula”, whose colorful music hall take on the story was a fine complement to the madness in the streets. Vampires and lunatics – what could be more fitting for the evening? A friend who did go to Santa Monica Boulevard told me it was very crowded, with far more people out of costume – that is, spectators - than in.  Since the most terrifying thing down there is usually the parking, I don’t regret missing it this time around.

                It’s fitting that Frida, the movie about Frida Kahlo, came out just before the Day of the Dead this year. I doubt you can understand Kahlo’s work without knowing Mexican traditions such as this one, which treats death and celebration as natural playmates. Thanks to Conquistador priests, it now follows All Hallows Eve (Hallow E’en, as the Brits used to say) though the Aztecs had celebrated it during the summer.  Iconographically, it’s a perfect marriage of the Catholicism that brought you dancing skeletons on church walls and the often morbid Aztec festivities. Saturday, I went to Olvera Street for one of several Dia de la Muertos celebrations. Though Olvera Street - touted as the oldest street in Los Angeles -  is lined with touristy taco and souvenir stands, on this night its Mexican character seems far more authentic. Several altars are set up around the plaza at one end, apparently in memory of real people. Aztec dancers in ornate feathered outfits perform nearby. Long lines form at the churros stands.

                In one of the buildings that goes between Olvera (a pedestrian street) and Cesar Chavez, a gallery is hosting an exhibit of various works of art on the theme. Basically, this means skulls – silver and gold skulls, cut-out skulls, crudely sketched skulls… - intermixed with gaily colored cloth and tiny bits of mirror. The exhibit brings children’s drawings together with sophisticated art, comfortably embraced by one colorful culture. Kahlo would have felt right at home.

                  How do small theater companies get people in to see what is often well-reviewed, high-quality work – playing to half-full houses? Off-off-Broadway theaters in New York may want to drop by, the Web site of Play7, for one idea. Last week, the fifteen theaters cooperating in this effort held a party at the Echo, a club in Echo Park. While the free food and cheap drinks probably helped fill the large club, the point of the event was to let people know they could buy seven vouchers for $77, allowing them to see as many plays. The vouchers are good for a year (plus mailing time) and can be given to friends as well.

                Play7 includes theaters like Sacred Fools, Zoo District and Ensemble Theatre/LA, all respected groups that present exciting, well-reviewed work.  By making it cheaper and simpler to see their work, they’re now being as creative in their marketing as in their productions. I suspect theater companies across the country will watch this initiative with interest.