A&E: Skid Stuff at the IMA (via the IMS)

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This week, a California artist visits the IMA (via Indianapolis Motor Speedway), a British playwright hits hard at Washington, and a Swedish singing group’s tunes become a Broadway sensation.

When you call a piece “2005 Indy 500 Victory Donut: Traces of Dan Wheldon,” you aren’t just suggesting that audiences look beyond your abstractions, you are demanding it.

The Wheldon piece is part of “Ingrid Calame: Traces of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” the latest exhibition in the IMA’s Forefront Gallery. The piece occupies the entire first room, surrounding visitors with four sides of floor-to-ceiling boldness. Like all the works in the exhibition it’s based on tracings that Calame and her team made of markings found at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s a form that Calame has been working in for years-beginning with stains from her studio and evolving into major work based on tracings taken from the concrete embankments of the Los Angeles River.

There’s sense to the system: Artists since the beginning of time have used the out-of-their-control real world to provide starting points for their in-control art. Once you accept that idea, why not make use of oil stains and skid marks built up over years at the IMS?

It works spectacularly in the Wheldon piece. The traces are writ large-bringing to mind a signature in a foreign language of giants-and terminate incomplete against the gallery ceiling and floor. There’s a sense that no gallery can hold the size of these markings and that the forces that originally created them aren’t quite entirely knowable. And with its bold red foundation, the work is oddly joyful.

Wheldon should be proud. So should the artist and the IMA. I’ve visited the piece twice this week and, in both cases, felt something of what I call the Speedway Rush-that sense of man’s heroic efforts to keep awesome power in some semblance of control that is familiar to anyone who has ever attended the 500.

The remaining two rooms bring things down to a smaller-and, I think, less powerful-scale. They showcase two other variations in the Calame repertoire. One type uses colored pencils on trace Mylar and overlap painstakingly acquired details from the IMS with similar marks from the L.A. River embankments. Why juxtapose the two? No satisfactory explanation is apparent-even after reading the lengthy, and interesting, accompanying program.

The bright enamel paint-on-aluminum pieces, on the other hand, offer greater visual pleasure-the materials make esthetic sense in work built from race-car roots (see photo above). But, again, why bring the L.A. River tracings into this?

Still, it’s a fascinating process and another sign that the IMA is inspiring and instigating new work that’s important, adventurous and engaging to academics (see the recent New York Times story) and armchair art patrons alike.

David Hare’s play “Stuff Happens,” which chronicles the rise to the Iraq war with a cast of characters that includes George Bush and a cabinet of others, is a compelling, problematic, fascinating, dancing-with-greatness play being given an ambitious and largely successful presentation by the Phoenix Theatre. It’s the kind of work that requires a large, talented cast, a box-office-be-damned attitude, and a trust in its audience, all of which are present here. Producers rarely get standing ovations. I’m giving the Phoenix one right now. There’s no other theater in town I can imagine doing this play justice … or, indeed, doing it at all.

Given the polarization of the country, “Stuff Happens” could easily fall into the familiar. But it’s neither obvious nor frivolous and rarely seeks the easy laugh. It’s political (of course), inconsistent (although said to be based largely on documented conversations and speeches, the play often breaks out into editorializing and speculation) and surprising.

Yes, you can just go and, depending on your political persuasion, get angry at the Bush administration or angry at the playwright. But if you can forget its real-life roots and take the same approach you might with Shakespeare’s royalty plays, you might find something richer going on. Woven into this story is a pair of major tragedies in the persons of Colin Powell and Tony Blair. These are the characters changed the most by the proceedings and they are the ones who will reverberate with audiences if the play is still being staged hundreds of years from now.

After all, we don’t care too much about the politics in the real worlds of Henry V or Richard III. It’s the compelling characters, not historical accuracy, that ultimately decides if a play can stand the test of time. In any case, while there’s still time, see this one.

“Mamma Mia!” returned to the Murat Theatre last week in all its spandex glory and, among its ample other pleasures, it proved that a tour doesn’t have to fall into the trap of trying to carbon-copy its previous incarnation.

Particularly, this one sports a boyish Sophie (Carrie Manolakos) who gives a greater desperation to her quest to find which of her mom’s three back-to-back-toback partners is her bio dad. In a role often played for cuteness, this Sophie finds a fine balance between being the nice girl next door and a partier just a drink or two away from appearing in a “Girls Gone Wild” video. In addition, this time Sophie’s impending marriage is an interracial one-and the lack of comment on that fact gives “Mamma Mia!” an even richer flavor than its past Indy visit.

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