Theater Reviews

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Presented by Center Theatre Group, Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City
Through Oct. 14

For almost 90 minutes -- using a dazzling combination of hip-hop poetry and singing, and impossibly eloquent, intense acting, all laid over the superstructure of a brilliantly fluid dramatic structure -- Matt Sax regales, pleads with and entertains his audience at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. In his ambitious mix of poetry, power and pretension, he's like the "upstart crow" of Shakespearean fame.

On an unadorned square platform in the middle of the stage, lit like a boxing ring, Sax and the characters he portrays tell through flashbacks the story of an urban outcast named Sir John, a Darth Vader-like hip-hop master who dreams of music and becomes apprenticed to a book seller in a distant hood.

As he rises from his humble beginnings as a gifted, highly impressionable child abused by selfish drama-queen parents, Sax tells how a young Jewish boy named Clifford survives by expressing his vulnerability through performance art, unnecessarily weighed down by some serious psychobabble.

The tools Sax brings to his amazing presentation are a magnificent voice that ranges easily through many octaves both raucous and lyrical, a tool chest of sound effects, the clever use of microphones as characters themselves, a plastic face that would do justice to a jester and the usual hip-hop arsenal of stylized gestures. At one point, he crosses the footlights to interact with a delighted audience.

As far as hip-hop goes, however, Sax avoids the absolute cutting edge. He grabs his crotch with more caressing delicacy than conviction, and he pulls back from a tentative foray into sexual profanity (to the apparent approval of the audience). Although younger audience-goers might see this as a sellout -- not to mention that the darker ending of the Chicago production at Lookingglass Theatre has been toned down -- audiences could still be skewered demographically down.

In fact, taking its cue from Sax, who in a Los Angeles Times interview claimed that he hasn't "seen another full-musical hip-hop theater piece yet," the Douglas Theatre has engaged in guerrilla marketing tactics that include the plastering of posters on youthful turf.

In the program book, Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie, admitting that he is "not naturally inclined toward hip-hop," compares Sax to Lily Tomlin, Eric Bogosian, Whoopi Goldberg, John Leguizamo, Charlayne Woodard and Danny Hoch.

Whether Sax merits the flattering comparison, he certainly merits checking out. Not only does he display the burning ambition and manic energy that can be the foundation of a successful Hollywood career, he also seems to be on the verge of a persona uniquely his own.

CLAY
Presented by Center Theatre Group
Credits:
Playwright: Matt Sax
Developed in collaboration with: Eric Rosen
Additional music: Jon Schmidt and Johnny Williams
Director: Eric Rosen
Set designer: Walt Spangler
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer/orchestration: Joshua Horvath
Associate producer: Kelley Kirkpatrick
Production stage manager: Elizabeth Atkinson
Performer: Matt Sax
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