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‘Bust’ brings an L.A. story to Studio Theatre
By Peter Marks, Published: December 5
If Lauren Weedman is an acquired taste, I’ve acquired it. She’s a gust from the satiric jet stream, blown east from Los Angeles for an 18-day stand at Studio Theatre. Imagine the agitated test-tube offspring of Diane Keaton and Robin Williams, emerging from four hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 405, and you’ll have some idea of the frazzled, protean state of her comically tortured mind.
She entertainingly binds her passions for irony and impersonation in “Bust,” her 90-minute, one-woman show, during which she digests the voices and emotional bearings of a passel of women and men, and spits them out as perfect-pitch portraits of self-absorption, self-delusion, self-affirmation and, occasionally, plain old selfishness.
It’s an identifiably cosmopolitan and provincial L.A. that she conjures, from her embodiment of a callous casting director for a soft drink commercial, to a hyper-loquacious jail inmate with a crystal meth itch. A Washington audience may not commune as knowingly as one from California with the spa, beach and exercise culture Weedman evokes: There’s a scene in a sauna with a witty pantomime involving breast implants, for instance, that takes you an extra second to process. And it does require some translation skills for an Atlantic brain to fully grasp how dominant a force body consciousness is on the opposite edge of the continent.
But the neuroses on display here are universal, and Weedman proves to be a witty ambassador of Pacific values, even as she trains a microscope on her own. “Bust” is an account by the actress and playwright of her efforts to redirect outwardly her solipsistic life, by becoming a volunteer counselor in the Los Angeles County Jail system. “I just wanted to do something that wasn’t about me,” Weedman explains, playing herself in an orientation meeting for the volunteer program, Beyond Bars. “If I did one thing in my day that wasn’t about my career — or weight loss — that would be okay.”
Weedman occupies the bodies of her fellow recruits; the orientation leader; the guard who leads their tour of the jail; the prisoners to whom she’s assigned and other assorted chaplains, corrections officers and friends. The proceedings are muscularly choreographed by director Allison Narver, with the excellent assist of Allen Hahn’s well-defined lighting design. They help to underline the strengths of Weedman, one of those disciplined mimics who can summon a distinct intonation and posture for each character: she’s an Anna Deavere Smith perched on the corner of Sunset and Vine.
Unlike Smith, though, the most satisfyingly fleshed out character is the author herself. We learn, for example, just enough about the desperate conditions of each of her prisoners to understand her own limited usefulness as their liaison to the outside.
The Lauren Weedman she portrays in “Bust” has a compulsion for narrating her own wiseacre stream-of-consciousness in public, even on such inappropriate occasions as the introductory session for the jail volunteers. It’s the self-deprecating, Woody Allen school of comedy: her jokes typically don’t seem to make the other people in her stories laugh. And there’s always the tension in her storytelling of what happens when you’re not being clearly understood.
This plays out particularly strongly in the other major strand of “Bust,” which concerns a confessional article she writes for Glamour magazine, recounting a time in her adolescence when, she says, she made a spurious claim to have been raped. It was a cry for attention at a low point — she tells us no charges were brought against anyone as a result — and she adds that the offer to write came only after a third party confided the anecdote to the magazine editor from New York.
The journalistic result was a personal disaster for Weedman, who felt her admission had been distorted in the editing of the article: her impression of the editor, an uber-glib Manhattanite with the smarmy habit of addressing her as “girlfriend,” is one of the juiciest the actress executes. This story takes on added meaning during a confrontation with the inmate she counsels who is facing the most serious charges, and who asserts that her public defender has already assumed the worst about her. Without turning into an editorial itself, “Bust” allows us to see how Beyond Bars becomes an antidote to the poison of the entire Glamour episode.
Weedman is a natural observational artist — perhaps the single most important attribute for successful solo performance. To fill a stage entirely with one’s own thoughts and gestures seems an act both foolhardy and brave. My hat is off to the brave fools like Weedman, who not only try, but can also pull it off.
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Allison Narver (Director) has directed, for Seattle’s Empty Space Theater, world premieres of Lauren Weedman’s Bust; Judy Gold and Kate Moira Ryan’s 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother; Louis Broome’s Texarkana Waltz; 1984, adapted from George Orwell’s novel; and Valley of The Dolls, adapted for the stage by Narver, Jason Cannon, and Burton Curtis. Select regional credits include Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at 5th Avenue Theater (Seattle); A Christmas Carol, Eurydice, and The Clean House at ACT (Seattle); The 100 Dresses and Robin Hood at Seattle Children’s Theatre; Three Tall Women at Seattle Repertory Theatre; Bust at City Theatre (Pittsburgh), Boise Contemporary Theatre, and REDCAT Theater (Los Angeles); and Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s upcoming production of Animal Crackers. Narver has also directed the world premieres of The Fatty Arbuckle Spookhouse Revue, Radio Pirates (book, music and lyrics by Chris Jeffries), and Glen Berger’s Bessemer’s Spectacles. Her New York credits include Second Hand Dance at The New Victory Theater, Texarkana Waltz at The Kirk Theatre, and as Resident Director on Julie Taymor’s production of The Lion King. Ms. Narver has served as Artistic Director for The Empty Space Theatre, The Yale Cabaret, and Annex Theater (Seattle), and earned her MFA from the Yale School of Drama.
Allen Hahn (Set and Light Design) has designed Three Tall Women for Seattle Repertory Theatre, The Lady with All the Answers for Pittsburgh Public Theatre, The Front Page for Playmakers Rep, Ghosts for Geva Theatre, and numerous productions in New York City. His work in opera has been seen at New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Glimmerglass, and the Spoleto USA Festival, and internationally for opera companies and festivals in France, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, and the UK. He has also designed world premiere operas at Juilliard and the Royal Danish Opera. Mr. Hahn has worked with the performance company The Builders Association since its inception in 1994. He has also worked with artist Tony Oursler on installations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and ARoS Kunstmuseum in Denmark. His design work was selected for exhibition in the 2007 Prague Quadrennial and he served as Lighting Design Curator for the American exhibit at the 2011 Quadrennial.
Mark Nichols (Original Sound Design) currently works as a freelance Director of Photography in Los Angeles. He is the composer of the operas How to Survive the Apocalypse: A Burning Opera, Little Boy Goes to Hell, and Joe Bean. He designed the world premiere of Bust at Empty Space Theatre in Seattle. His score for Caucasian Chalk Circle is performed up to a dozen times per year around the world.
Eric Arnold (Production Stage Manager) graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a BFA in Stage Management in 2009 and has been working in DC ever since. Mr. Arnold is currently in the middle of his third full season as resident ASM at the Folger Theatre, where he has served backstage for seven shows including Henry VIII, Cyrano, and Orestes: A Tragic Romp. Mr. Arnold has also recently stage managed Stop Kiss at No Rules Theatre Company and Birds of a Feather at The Hub Theatre.
Her film credits include Imagine That, Date Night, and she is currently shooting Judd Apatow’s Five Year Engagement starring Jason Segel. Weedman’s first book, A Woman Trapped in a Woman’s Body: (Tales from a Life of Cringe), is a collection of comedic essays and was developed by Weedman into a pilot for The Fox Network. Bust was voted Best of the Arts by The Seattle Times, Seattle Magazine, and Boise Weekly. She received the Alpert Award in the Arts for Playwriting for Bust. She continues to develop her show, Family Values (aka NO…YOU SHUTUP), which was originially commissioned by Boise Contemporary Theater and featured as a part of Los Angeles’s REDCAT Theater New Works festival. Weedman currently lives in Santa Monica by the Baja Fresh.
"We artists are indestructible; even in a prison, or in a concentration camp, I would be almighty in my own world of art, even if I had to paint my pictures with my wet tongue on the dusty floor of my cell." –Pablo Picasso
The United States currently has more incarcerated citizens than anywhere else in the world—a total of 2.3 million people. According to the Pew Center on the States, more than one in every 100 adults is in jail or prison. Susan Urahn, the Pew Center’s Managing Director, admits that the United States is a country in which incarceration is an easy response to crime. On the other side of the bars, artist-activists like Lauren Weedman, Ashley Lucas, Monique, and others are making American’s burgeoning prison population hard to ignore.
Prison advocacy takes many forms, including using art to tell the stories of these potentially overlooked citizens. As the child of an incarcerated parent, artist-activist Ashley Lucas wrote Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass, a one-woman performance based on prisoners’ experiences. Through monologue, voice-overs, and video, Lucas weaves interviews and letters from inmates and their families together with her personal experience. She also collected prisoners’ poetry, narratives, and visual art into the book Razor Wire Women.
Tenacious is a magazine filled with articles, essays, poetry, and art by formerly and currently incarcerated women across the United States. The magazine exposes the fallacies of the prison system and gives prisoners an outlet for their stories and experiences, along with the opportunity to challenge the prison conditions.
Monique, the 2010 Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actress, visited The Ohio Reformatory for Women in 2007 to perform and film "I Coulda Been Your Cellmate,” a stand-up comedy routine about fate and fortune, and how the women behind bars fell on the wrong side of both. The film incorporates interviews with the inmates, giving them the rare opportunity to have their stories heard. At the beginning of the routine, Monique declares to a crowd of about 2,000 inmates, “We live in society that threw you away and said you weren't valuable, and that you were trash. I don't believe that."
Friends Outside, the advocacy group that inspired Lauren Weedman’s one-woman show, Bust, describes their vision: “All those impacted by incarceration live with dignity as contributing members of our communities.” Weedman’s autobiographical play follows the comedian into LA County jails, where she volunteers for Behind Bars to provide support for female inmates.
These artists use their work to give voice to people who have been systematically silenced, and to illuminate their humanity, despite their pasts. Ashley Lucas explains why she continues to be an advocate for those behind bars: “They [may not be] totally blameless, innocent people, but regardless of what they have done, they are still human.”
It’s hard to categorize Lauren Weedman. Her eclectic body of work, spanning theatre, film, television, and memoir, has led to a delightfully bizarre notoriety: during a residency at the prestigious Macdowell Colony, Weedman went virtually unrecognized by her artistic peers, until the kitchen staff identified her from her appearances on VH1’s Best Week Ever. Her best known and breakout role was her stint as a featured correspondent on The Daily Show, an ill-fated experience she has summarized as “making jokes about the Amish and trying to get Jon Stewart to love me.” Though her time on air was brief, it provided Weedman with ample material: she hilariously recaps the ordeal in both her solo show Rash and her memoir, A Woman Trapped in a Woman’s Body: Tales from a Life of Cringe.
The uncomfortable, often humiliating, but undeniably humorous experiences of her personal life form the foundation of her solo work. Weedman has depicted her search for her birth mother (Homecoming), the fallout of a heinous lie she told in college (Wreckage) and, most recently, her anxieties over starting a family (No…You Shut Up), all while showcasing her enviable nimbleness as a performer, portraying dozens of characters ranging from highbrow to unsavory, in the course of an evening.
While she continues to rack up film and television gigs—she recurs as Horny Patty on HBO’s Hung and co-stars in the upcoming Judd Apatow-produced comedy Five Year Engagement—Weedman seems to have found her artistic niche with solo performance. “I’ve done standup, but it’s not what this is to me,” she says. “The last two shows I’ve been focused on trying to make a narrative—plot-driven, character-driven, semi-autobiographical, fast-paced dark comedies.” Bust certainly adheres to this formula: while the plot is based on Weedman’s experience as a volunteer advocate at a Los Angeles women’s prison as she simultaneously navigates professional mishaps and Hollywood superficiality, the play isn’t strictly autobiographical. As Weedman says, “I love blurring the line between truth and fiction, mostly because you can make things funnier. Plus, I can be really honest about my life because you don’t know what’s true. Then I can say, ‘Oh! You were offended by that? Yeah, that part was made up.’”