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Artel’s 4th Annual Russian New Year ~ THIS Saturday January 13th @ Art/Works Theatre ~ 6569 Santa Monica Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90038 ~ 7:30PM ~ $5 Suggested donation to clean up after the destruction.

ARTEL (Russian: артель) 1. A labor collective, artels historically were semi-formal associations for various enterprises: fishing, mining, commerce, etc., comprised of loaders, loggers, thieves, beggars, and others. 2. A cooperative association, or commune of democratically-minded artists. 3. a.merican r.ussian t.heatre e.nsemble l.aboratory 4. Physical Theatre Ensemble, located in Los Angeles, California, investigates theatre at the crossroads of varied cultures and histories through collaborative, well-devised process, committed to continuous education, exploration and the development of theatre as a vital force in human evolution.

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L to R: Keirin Brown, Olga Petrakova and Marc Devine. Photo by Taso Papadakis.

When I was 14, my maternal uncle married a woman of Russian ancestry named “Olga.” Their house in Meudon, aka ‘Little Moscow,’ on the outskirts of Paris, had standing room only for Russian-speaking relatives and a scattering of neighbors who had fled Communist USSR. Smiles shone through their blue eyes, while glasses of vodka glimmered in their hands. Even though I wasn’t allowed to sip the magic water, I drank in their intoxication with my entire body and soul. The Russian tongue’s plaintive music held me spellbound like a Slavic Siren song to my feminine teenage Odysseus, its velocity tempting me to spin around and around like a Giggling Dervish. Russian also has a lot of ‘chhh’ sounds like in chocolate, my favorite comfort food, plus when my aunt’s mother hollered at her, she didn’t say ‘Olga’ like we did. It was “Ouulllga!” and it sounded as familiar as a mother’s tender embrace and as distant as Russia, the beloved and lost motherland. Years later, but a few weeks ago, I was transported back to my Aunt Olga’s house by entering the lobby of Hollywood’s Art\Works Theatre, only to discover it peopled with blue-irised men and women of Slavic heritage. I wasn’t totally surprised when the head of this clan introduced herself to me as “Ouuullllga…”

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Bryan Brown and Olga Petrakova, co-founders of ARTEL. Photo by Taso Papadakis.

The advertisement said ‘ARTEL’ would perform songs, poems, etudes and compositions in English and, most importantly to me, Russian. I yearned for the show to fire-up, and the performers to shoot me straight to paradiseka with one lick or two of their caressing, yet ardent, native tongue. But in the tradition of the Grotowski and Gardzienice theater groups from Poland, this Laboratory Ensemble didn’t want me to go anywhere…they wanted me to stay right there with them, using one unlikely trick to keep us cemented to our seats: They didn’t say a word.

“Meyerhold, Chekhov, Vakhtangov, Grotowski and Stanislavski all were/are searching for the roots of theater which are not reliant on a playwright’s text. Their work has been about rediscovering what we are losing in humanity and synthesizing it for modern culture. Greek chorus, Commedia dell’Arte, Clowning are not based on text. They require songs, dances, physicality. They require performers who want to give themselves to an audience to learn something more about humanity. They require spectators who want to reinvent what theater is. They require a mutual search for revelation,” says Bryan Brown, co-founder with Olga Petrakova of ARTEL.

Brown continues, “A lot of our work is the enticing of creativity. Enticing our Clowns to reveal themselves, enticing our fears to reveal themselves so their energy can be redirected into more dynamic performance. Enticing audiences back into the theater. Enticing audiences out of the theater. Enticing audiences to share their own creativity (through barter). Enticing communities to come together and experience themselves in new ways. Enticing communities that may normally be apart to meet under the banner of art.”

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Olga Petrakova. Photo by Taso Papadakis.

Clowning (especially in the tradition of Slava Polunin, who is at UCLA until January 7) is an essential aspect of our work. Like Beckett, we believe clowns to be the encapsulation of a performer, able to express the range and depth of humanity without trying to “tell” an audience what they should specifically be feeling or understanding in this moment.”

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In a mock funeral paying tribute to ancient Slavic pagan rituals, a group of village misfists tease and give a young bride (Bryan Brown) in marriage to an unusually lively corpse (Olga Petrakova). A young man with a tape recorder hammers away at an old typewriter, then slowly extract from it its white sheet of paper, chews it down then leaves us to listen to the sound of his recorded typing. A mummy, a butterfly or maybe Scheherazade (Valerie McCann) liberates herself from the confines of her many veils to find what?

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Valerie McCann. Photo by Taso Papadakis.

ARTEL is at its best when its skilled band of Clowns, amidst set pieces picked up on the street and adorned in costumes that cross gender, time and space, tantalize us into participation using grunts, squeaks and mocking laughter instead of words.

The tales unfold as cryptically as our dreams, forcing the house to dig deeply into collective buried memories of folk tales, legends and myths that both excited and terrorized us as children. ARTEL’s mischievious sketches connect us back to our inner pranksters and spread the forbidden truth that when we good little boys and girls professed we wished to be a Prince or a Princess, deep inside we really wanted to taste the existence of the Dragon or Wicked Witch.

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A red-headed country Madonna (Ilana Turner) with oversized lips as red as Dorothy’s shoes is dragged through a miniature door by a gang of tricksters who seem to threaten their victim but could also be setting her free. Once standing, the crimson virgin pulls nails from her juicy chops, hammers her bridal gown to a wood board then scrawls the word ‘HOME’ in salt at the door step of an imaginary cell/house.

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Ilana Turner. Photo by Taso Papadakis.

The vivid and comical tales are subversive for Hollywood, because they don’t spoon feed audiences with a beginning, nor tuck lethargic and overstuffed souls to bed with an end. “What are you revolutionaries doing in Hollywood?” I asked Bryan. He explains, “Our work in LA is necessary. In a town where people are isolated, we offer a space to build community.” Community seems the right word. ARTEL’s theatrical offerings invite you to reciprocate. When two masked characters repeat political slogans of the real and surreal fed to them by their spectators, it’s not what the slogans say that necessarily matters; it’s that we read them together.

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Bryan Brown and Marc Devine. Photo by Taso Papadakis.

If ARTEL was making a point that art, like politics, is not just meant to move and entertain but should engage and inspire, I surely got it. By the end of the show, when Bryan’s androgynous character sat his butt down to show off his hairy legs and his unquestionable acting skills in reading us a poem – alas not even in Russian, but English – my wildly awakened spirit slowly sunk like a failed soufflé. There was nothing for me to do but sit and listen. I was back in passive mode: my body felt a few pounds heavier and my enlightened soul dimmer.

I don’t know if ARTEL consciously brought that change of mood but it didn’t last. The evening ended with cheerful singing and dancing and active participation of the audience. The spectators who had bartered their way in, were asked to take the stage by reading poems or teaching songs to the ARTEL gang.

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It is currently ARTEL’s desire to make these invigorating works-in-progress a monthly community event in 2007. The first of these events will be this Saturday, January the 13th for their 4th Annual Russian Old New Year presenting GOGOL-MOGOL TeaRoom Performance Salon, Part II. Artel invites you to help them “beat last year’s 270 people attended number.” In the great Slavic tradition, you can expect performance by the ARTEL Clowns, dancing, drinking, “music and Voice performances and improvisations by you guys.” Wear anything you want but “decadence is appreciated.” Bring food and drinks because, “IT IS YOUR PARTY!” Suggested donation $5.00 “to clean and patch up the place after the destruction.” For more info and to RSVP please check http://artelscalendar.blogspot.com/.