Los Angeles Theater Review: CIVILIZATION (ALL YOU CAN EAT) (Son of Semele)

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by Jason Rohrer on October 12, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


We buy products because they consume us.  Ultimately our products replace us, because if you are what you eat, it follows that what you eat also is you.  And at that point, does the food chain even need you anymore?  Supernumerary to your own plans, it’s easy to end up as someone else’s capital.

"Civilization (All You Can Eat)" at Son of Semele.Jason Grote’s 2011 play Civilization (All You Can Eat), which opened this week at Son of Semele, brutally dissects the American scene into a desperate middle class and a blue collar nearly subsumed by its appetites.  It’s a persuasive demonstration that American values essentially come in two brands: Wal-Mart and Costco.  These characters fuck, fight, and flail through the financial collapse leading to the 2008 presidential election; they might be suicidal (Peter James Smith); certainly they are close to breakdown (Dan Via).  Our kids (Mary Quick) might be running toward awful fates, but how can you parent effectively when you have to eat and feel sorry for yourself (Laura Carson)?  We are subjected to teeth-grinding meals with loony, maybe dangerous friends (Sarah Rosenberg); but if you can’t abandon people, you can always use them as punching bags.  Career, faith, integrity: you’re lucky if you get one of the three to work (Inger Tudor).  Little gestures that might not have meant much when wallets were flush now take on sinister overtones.  Fear’s not far away.  You paid good money for it.  And here it comes, delivering itself: personified greed, anthropomorphized animal vitality (Alexander Wells), lurking and surging your way.  It’s terrifying, but at least it gets your heart going.

"Civilization (All You Can Eat)" at Son of Semele.Composed of moments strikingly different in tone – some light as a feather, some blunt as a board – Civilization benefits tremendously from Ken Roht’s choreography, which serves a more than interstitial function.  Mr. Roht transfers and distills emotional content into physicalized thematic essays, subverting and explicating the text with mesmeric beauty.  Director Don Boughton stages Mr. Grote’s scenes as dynamic, efficient attacks upon the sleazy, Thomas Kincade, go-to-sleep, eat-up sensibility that lards our national consciousness.  It’s invigorating to see a talented company reject the prop of pandering and embrace the restrictions of a difficult art.  Any play that doesn’t reassure or rely on sentiment is a tough sell, but this is the kind of show that would play if nobody came, because it’s not trying to sell as much as it’s reveling in creation.  Ideally, Civilization will not see an empty seat its entire run, because one theatrical product like this can act as spot remover, erasing memories of a shopping cart full of shows pushing the status quo.

"Civilization (All You Can Eat)" at Son of Semele.Mr. Grote’s big, complex, magical universe is presented in a space that, at first glance, seems too small to contain it.  But imagination and skill make much of little, and in creative hands this space is more than adequate; it is exactly right.  Birgitte Moos has designed a versatile set around a geometric centerpiece echoing the order sought by the characters, and Brandon Baruch has lighted it with ingenuity and restraint, collaborating with the excellent actors to create a multiplicity of locales and moods.  Dennis Yen’s soundscape delineates the various realities competing for the dollars of our attention, and Jamie Westfall’s costumes quietly tie this horrifying carnival to the ground.

"Civilization (All You Can Eat)" at Son of Semele.


photos by Matthew McCray

Civilization (All You Can Eat)
Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd.
scheduled to end on November 10, 2013
for tickets, visit Son of Semele

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