Eric Eisenbrey directs Andrew Nienaber and Jay Fraley for "Truth and Beauty"
The truth about 'Truth & Beauty'

Rude Guerrilla gives the in-your-face piece by performance artist Ping Chong its West Coast premiere.

August 30, 2002

Special to the Register

The mention of the words "performance art" isn't likely to paint a pretty picture for most people, and few would consider the art form to have any true relation to theater. But for 30 years, performance artist Ping Chong has been creating original plays in New York City that qualify as legitimate theater.

A baby boomer (born 1946) raised in New York City's Chinatown, Chong has written, produced and directed more than 25 works for the stage - many of them garnering Obie Awards and other honors. In 1975, founded his own company.

With their mixture of various elements - including movement and dance, puppetry, video clips, slides, and bizarre and often elaborate scenic designs - Chong's plays are definitely avant-garde and "in your face," so it should come as no surprise that Orange County's own Rude Guerrilla Theater Company would become the first U.S. troupe besides Chong's to stage the artist-playwright's "Truth & Beauty."

An often surreal exploration of corporate materialism and greed, the influence of the media, and the prevalence of guns and gun-related violence in U.S. society, the play gets its West Coast premiere at Rude Guerrilla's Empire Theater in the Artists Village in Santa Ana on Sept. 6. It certainly wouldn't be the first time in its six-year history that Rude Guerrilla has pushed the creative envelope. The troupe is well known for staging shows depicting graphic sexual content, nudity and violence, but that's only part of its theatrical mission. Founder and artistic director Dave Barton seeks plays that express his social conscience and that of other company members.

Ironically, though, Barton shied away from attempting to stage "Truth & Beauty" at the Empire. "The multimedia scared me off," Barton said recently. "It involved the use of video, projections, and a Plexiglas set. The descriptions in the script were mind-numbing."

It was the enthusiasm of company members Eric Eisenbrey and Jay Fraley that persuaded Barton to schedule the show. Fraley had brought the play to Eisenbrey's attention last year after a copy of Chong's script was published in American Theater magazine. Fraley liked the script's "intensely creative performance-art aspect" and its "provocative" nature.

Eisenbrey, scheduled to direct for the September slot, said he "read it and fell in love with it. Though it's very tech- heavy, the dialogue and the play's message is important. I came to Dave with a good idea of what I wanted to do." Barton was sold.

The play, which requires only two actors, was originally written by Chong, who incorporated some of the improvisational material of his two original cast members, Michael Rohd and Jeffrey Rose, into the script when he directed the show's only full production, in 1999, at the Virginia Tech School of the Arts.

Recognizing Rude G's limited resources, Eisenbrey has streamlined the text's technical demands considerably, substituting the use of sound effects, music and realistic- looking props wherever possible. He was able to avoid the logistical and cost barriers of having to create the necessary video images by obtaining the original staging's tapes from Chong's video designer.

Eisenbrey said that, rather than a conventional play, "Truth & Beauty" is "really more of a series of scenes." There are roughly 15 in all - some fairly brief, others more protracted.

They're tied together, Eisenbrey said, "by the underlying story of a young guy who can't deal with the world anymore and decides to drive across the U.S. At the end of the play, we realize he's planning to blow something up, and that marketing guys are using the idea of exploiting all-American-looking kids like Tim McVeigh to sell their product."

Chong, Eisenbrey said, uses the play to "talk about consumers, how corporations are secretly controlling our country, and how separated families have become and how hard it is for them to interact. It touches on violence and questions religion." The theme of corporate greed, he said, comes through loud and clear.

Fraley, one of the two RGTC cast members, said that the pieces' "most important message is about gun violence - the out-of-control, wild wild West stance taken by the NRA and the easy accessibility that has created a culture where kids are out killing each other with guns."

Andrew Nienaber, who co-stars with Fraley, cites the El Mozote massacre as another powerful scene. In that event, which occurred in El Salvador in 1981, "a (Salvadoran) government army sponsored by the U.S. went in and wiped out a whole village."

The massacre, he said, "is interwoven with a scene about the School of the Americas, a school run in Georgia that trains foreign military personnel in counterinsurgency." Chong's technique, he said, "automatically generalizes the audience reaction and perception of what's going on in the scene."

Chong uses this specific-to- general technique, Eisenbrey said, in most of the show's scenes, many of which have been taken directly from news reports of specific events.

Eisenbrey, Fraley and Nienaber express admiration for the insights Chong brings to vital questions about American society. The playwright, Fraley said, "definitely brings an Eastern sensibility to his subject." The actor's initial reaction to reading the script? "It was so powerful and so strong, its message so clear and its execution so intelligent that it's one of the best scripts I had ever read."

Nienaber said Chong "forces audiences to think about whatever issues he's bringing to the front, in not- so-subtle ways. Yet, while it's overtly political, there are some subtleties in 'Truth & Beauty.'
THEATER | REVIEW Vol. 8 No. 01 September 6 - 12, 2002
The Revolution Is Being Advertised

by Joel Beers

Ping Chong's Truth and Beauty is open to wildly varying interpretations. One reader might be most affected by Chong's wicked, trenchant assessment of America's postmodern consumer culture.
Another might be intrigued by Chong's commentary on guns and teenagers.

Or by the abuses inflicted on innocents in the name of promoting democracy.

Or the multimedia mosaic Chong's script demands.

But Jay Fraley-one of two actors charged with pulling off this demanding, intensely technical, two-person play-says he brought Truth and Beauty to director Eric Eisenbrey because it's that rarest kind of performance art: it's good.

"The first time I read this script, I was struck by how it was a really intelligent, well-written and
well-constructed piece of performance art and how it would be a very good thing to bring into our repertory," says Fraley, a lifelong fan of LA performance-art icons Rachel Rosenthal and John Fleck.

Fraley performs in the play's West Coast premiere (with Rude Guerrilla stalwart Andrew Nienaber), and he's one of Orange County's most versatile and believable actors. He's able to crawl into the skin of characters ranging from the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie to Satan himself and seem genuine in whatever role.

That's not what this play requires-and that's exactly what attracted Fraley. "This play isn't kitchen-sink reality; it's not character-driven," Fraley says. "It's very much driven by the playwright's political view, and with so much dancing and movement and synchronization and everything else involved, it's also very technique-oriented."

For instance, near the play's end, a rabbi converses with a killer. The conversation evolves into an exploration of the existence of God. Method acting and its derivatives would call for an actor to approach that situation by trying to find the character's emotional truth-"Be the Rabbi." Chong, however, is "very specific," Fraley says, "wants the actor rocking and moving and becoming progressively more erratic
and the dialogue becoming progressively more erratic. The nature of the speech doesn't involve some strong emotional level as much as it requires a really strong sense of timing and structure and rhythm and making it work with the language."

All this talk of technique and performance art would be interesting but ultimately meaningless if there were nothing else to Truth and Beauty. But Chong's play is compelling in its intellectual density. It's hard to describe what the play is about because it's about so much. The two actors portray a wide range of characters, from TV ad designers and troubled teens to absent fathers and nun-raping soldiers of fortune.

The closest thing to a linear throughline, according to director Eisenbrey, is the recurring character of a young man "who is a product" of corporate America's campaign to raise a world of good consumers-even if it means destroying the rest of the world in the process. "This is an underlying character who is sick of all that he has been fed and sick of his father who can't communicate with him-and that's why he leaves society and drives around for six months," Eisenbrey says.

The young man's story is brought full-circle when a couple of slick ad designers realize that this "disaffected" and "very angry" youth driving aimlessly on the highway and who is "sick of everything around him" is "very, very, very . . . American." He is, in other words, a demographic, a consumer icon. "Think James Dean," the ad designers say. "Think Kurt Cobain, think Timothy McVeigh. . . . It's about co-opting the loner image . . . but at the same time making everyone proud of those open roads-red, white and blue. . . . We're going to compress everything this guy hates about our society into a 30-second, prime-time spot, and we are going to redeem him." Redeem him with what? The product these guys are pitching,
of course.

That idea would make an interesting play in itself. But Chong is supremely talented (he has won a slew of big, East Coast-type awards, including a 2000 OBIE Award for Sustained Achievement), creative and angry. In his hands, the story is suddenly timely; Chomskian ideas pepper the script. The play's broadest theme is encapsulated in a passage that Chong says should be delivered by an onscreen whisper:

"The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy."

And how does that propaganda effort manifest itself? In what Marx called commodity fetishism-in the creation of a culture in which desire and identity fuse with commodities in order to make the thought of owning a world of things equal to love and happiness.

"There has never been a propaganda effort to match the advertising effort in the 20th century in the history of the world," says a character in Truth and Beauty. "More thought, more effort, more creativity, more time, more attention to detail has gone into selling the immense accumulation of commodities than any other campaign to change public consciousness in human history."

Later, an unseen voice asks us to think about what TV ads tell us about the world we live in. The voice relates some examples of commercials: winter turning to summer at the blink of an eye; a simple shampoo bringing intense sexual pleasure; sunglass-clad ballpoint pens staring at inviting women in bikinis; old women becoming suddenly young, offering sex and beer to young men. "If an anthropologist from Mars were to look at the society where these messages were everywhere, they'd conclude that this society is dominated by a belief in magic," the voice continues. "Where goods have incredible power."

It's difficult to say what's more mind-bending in this conversation about Truth and Beauty: capitalism as the most sublimely revolutionary society of all, or performance art that is really, really good.

Truth and Beauty at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway,
Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Opens Fri. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.
Through Sept. 29. $12-$15.

Aspiring actors Jody J. Reeves, Andrew [Nienaber] and Eric Eisenbrey act out a scene outside the Empire Theatre on Wednesday.
The Daily Pilot

For Eric [Eisenbrey], Andrew [Nienaber] and Jody J. Reeves, their day jobs at local arts organizations aren't enough. At night, they work on "Truth [&] Beauty."

Young Chang
Daily Pilot

One works for the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.
Another works for the Philharmonic Society.
The last works for Opera Pacific.
But no, none of them work on stage.
They sit instead in air-conditioned offices in front of computers for most of their days. They deal with spreadsheets and patron relations and administrative behind-the-scenes tricks that make it possible for the shows you know and love to land on stage.
They do what they should to pay the bills.
But by night, Eric [Eisenbrey], Andrew [Nienaber] and Jody J. Reeves do what they want.
For Rude Guerrilla Theater Company's production of "Truth [&] Beauty" at The Empire Theater in Santa Ana, [Nienaber] is one of two actors. [Eisenbrey] directs him in the performance art show. Reeves stage manages the whole deal.
"From sitting around all day, it's nice to be more creative and original at night,' said [Eisenbrey], 23.
[Nienaber] agreed, but took his opinion even further.
"The only reason I have a day job is 'cause I have not yet found a way to survive only in the theater," said the artist relations coordinator for Opera Pacific.
The long title means that [Nienaber] makes travel and housing arrangements for visiting artists and makes sure they have what they need.
[Eisenbrey] is a marketing associate for the Center, which means he figures out the previous day's sales figures, makes and sends out spreadsheets showing these numbers, helps close out advertising aspects of shows and makes sure all the invoices and bills are coded right and dropped in the right account.
Reeves is a patron services manager for the Philharmonic. She sells tickets, handles major donors, takes care of everything that has to do with patrons and how they're serviced.
She doesn't think her day job is all chore, though.
"It's always teaching me new things," the 28-year-old said. "Tbe main reason I went to look for a job in the arts industry was I needed to have a full-time job and I wanted to be surrounded by an environment I love."
As stage manager for "Truth & Beauty," a joint effort by playwright and performance artist Ping Chong, Michael Rohd and Jeffrey Rose, Reeves's responsibilities aren't that different from her job at the Philharmonic Society. She's in charge of everything from lighting cues to making sure the stage is ready before the audience trickles in.
"My job at the Phil really helps me with the production aspect of it," she said. "I am able to be a part of how you book an event, all the aspects behind the contracts, what's supposed to be paid for and the marketing aspect."
Marketing guru [Eisenbrey] got involved with "Truth [&] Beauty" because he was attracted to the politics of the story and its take on issues like consumerism and corporate control.
He hopes to one day act or direct full time. The UC Irvine graduate, who has a degree in theater arts, might even move to New York next year to make that dream come true. 'My main goal is to always be involved with the arts, whether it's on stage or off stage," he said "I think that's why I enjoy working here at the Performing Arts Center. Even though it's business, I'm still getting to work with the arts and promote [it.]"
[Nienaber,] who chose to work at Opera Pacific because he wanted to be in the entertainment industry, said it's common knowledge around his workplace that he pursues acting and his true passions in his free time.
"Half the people around here do, ironically," said the 26-year-old.
[Eisenbrey's] colleagues have also seen his show at the Empire Theater. But for this director-hopeful, working at the Center is more than just his way of paying the bills.
"I want to stay in the arts," he said. If I don't make it or if I can't purse the acting or directing career I'd probably pursue, I'd do this... I'm just feeling out both sides of the game."