A&E: Booker blitzes downtown

Keywords Environment / Government

It is likely that “Chakaia Booker: Mass Transit,” the 10-piece exhibition running through April 1, will invite a greater negative reaction than the two previous public art shows that dotted downtown. Unlike Tom Otterness-with his rounded smileys masking money-is-evil messages-and Julian Opie-many of whose “Signs” could have served as, well, signs-Booker creates work that is abstract, defiant and unpolished. The pieces-constructed from tires-aren’t pretty, they aren’t funny, they aren’t slick and they don’t seem aimed to please.

As such, they represent a huge leap forward for the Arts Council of Indianapolis’ public art initiative.

It takes guts to confront the public with work with rough edges, and the tough black surfaces of Booker’s creations don’t blend easily into their environments. Anchored in the midst of sidewalk crossings and building entrances, they are difficult to avoid, demanding attention. And their very nature-some seem meticulously designed when seen from one perspective and artlessly sloppy from another-doesn’t allow the mind to settle on one interpretation. While driving, “Gridlock” at Washington Street and Capitol Avenue may seem like a pair of creatures in a horror film, only glimpsed from the corner of your eye. “Pass the Buck” at Meridian and New York streets can suggest a bird landing or an oddly fallen jewel. At some point, will it be a bed for a homeless person? Perhaps. But that will only fuel rather than diminish its fascination.

A day into the exhibition, there was already an unidentified something splotched on one of the seats of “Layover.” Gross? Yes, but it also speaks to the evolving nature of the art. Unlike the work of the two previous artists, Booker’s will take on different looks and meanings as our environment and our people influence them. I’m looking forward to seeing the pineapple-like “Holler” (at Indiana and Senate avenues) after a snowstorm. Will the lantern-shaped “Plus or Minus?”-an image recalling the Underground Railroad-feel different as school groups inevitably climb through and around it? And will visitors to the City-County Building take out their frustrations on “Take Out”?

Factor in that many also have a window quality-an opening that makes what is seen through it part of the art experience itself-and you have work likely to continue to intrigue, frustrate and engage until it vanishes in the spring.

Last Monday, I returned from a 13-hour-each-way car ride with my sanity relatively intact. And for that I credit the talented folks at L.A. Theatre Works.

LATW is a company that offers scriptin-hand performances of plays new and old featuring top-notch casts (who sign on, in part, because they have to commit to only a week’s work). I make it a point to see the company whenever I’m in Los Angeles, which isn’t as often as I’d like. Thankfully, I can get my LATW fix through the recordings it makes of those shows. You can find a jaw-dropping range of plays for sale at www.latw.org, and the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library has a number of them in its circulating collection. (By now, alas, I think I’ve borrowed them all.)

On this trip, thanks to LATW, I spent two of those hours caught up in a wonderful new production of George Bernard Shaw’s classic play “Major Barbara,” starring Roger Rees (a recent guest with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra for its “Rite of Spring” program). Later in the trip, another two hours were spent hearing a favorite actor of mine, John Heard, join a strong cast in re-enacting the efforts of The Washington Post to publish leaked government information in “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers.” And Laurence Fishburne and company made 90 minutes disappear as they performed the edgy, Harlem-funeral-home-set play “Our Lady of 121st Street.”

I had put off the final LATW selection in my roadtrip collection because of its generic, unfamiliar title-“Secret Order”-and its potentially didactic subject matter (cancer research). But the play, by Bob Clyman, proved so compelling that I wished my trip were an extra half hour so that I could have finished it in one sitting. In it, Richard Schiff of “The West Wing” plays the mentor of a young researcher who may have found the key to a cancer cure. The first-act optimism, though, quickly shatters as agendas, politics, secrets and paybacks muddy the science. (Hint to local theater companies: the show only requires a fourperson cast and surely you can do some marketing to the local medical community. If you liked “Proof”… )

As with the best of LATW’s work, “Secret Order” effectively eliminates any thought of the absence of sets, costumes or lighting. Instead, all the focus is on great storytelling, terrific acting and crisp direction.

F.Y.I.: Clowes Hall has just announced that the L.A. TheatreWorks production of “The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial” will be part of its 2008-2009 season-so you won’t have to travel to California to hear one of its productions live. Expect to hear more about it from me as the Jan. 30 performance approaches.

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