The Ruskin Group theatre company recently celebrated their fifth anniversary with a performance of one-acts culled from their “Café Plays” series, a silent auction, delicious food and drink, and holiday good cheer, all within a single convivial evening.
Like most small theatre companies, The Ruskin Group tells an all-too-familiar tale of continuing struggles to survive, but if the support and adoration of the invited audience is any indication, they have built a substantial following that should, at least for the time being, insure their worthy presence in Santa Monica for the foreseeable future.
The Ruskin Group operates out of a converted aviation building in the Santa Monica airport. Their neighbor a few yards to the east is the huge Santa Monica Art Studio, and directly across the street, small airplanes languish on the edge of an airfield. It would seem to be an odd choice of venue, but intrepid theatre companies have a rather proud history of breathing artistic life into cast-off buildings. (Over the years, this reporter has been involved with groups that have made theatres out of factories, churches, and even strip joints.) The Ruskin Group’s cozy theatre is a fine example of the single-mindedness and vision it takes to create a performance space and thriving artistic community out of what can only be described as discarded remnants, and John Ruskin and Managing Director Mikey Myers are to be commended for their tenacity.
Over the past five years, The Ruskin Group has numerous critically-acclaimed productions to its credit, most recently a revival of Chazz Palminteri’s Faithful. But the company’s ongoing artistic centerpiece is The Café Plays, produced monthly, wherein writers are given two actors’ photos and then must write a ten-minute play for them in four hours. An additional four hours of rehearsal follows, and then the plays are performed that night. It’s a case of run and gun, and it requires bravery and abandon, particularly on the parts of the actors, but as most creative people in any discipline know, often one’s first, unfettered idea or impulse is the best. The anniversary performance featured a representative sampling of the Café Plays, and the results, although not surprisingly a tad uneven, nevertheless evinced a remarkably high standard of work.
A ten-minute play needs at least one major revelation or reversal to be satisfying for the audience. This is, of course, within the purview of the playwright, and most of the writers managed to create a fun, dramatic surprise or two; the audience, via their laughter or collective “oohs” and “ahhs,” for the most gave their stamp of approval. (Spoiler alert: the following paragraph gives away several plots.)
Among the best-written pieces was Chris Mulkey’s Mine Cough, a comedic riff on two Nazis, one of whom is currying favor with the other. The play turns out to be a sly commentary on last year’s Screen Actor’s Guild strike, as the Nazis are scab actors rehearsing a scene they are about to film. There Will Be Bacteria by Jason Matthews, a farce about a germophobe and his girlfriend’s attempts to cure him was hilarious; and The Leaving by Ed Horowitz was a touching look at an unlikely friendship between two patients, one a transsexual former male rock star, the other troubled female “cutter” in a mental institution on the day of their release.
The acting was solid, and stand-out performers included Jim Roof, a gifted comedic actor with world-class timing and delivery who tore it up as both the germophobe in There Will Be Bacteria and as a vulgar, horny blue collar Sisyphus in Naked On The Isthmus, Ed Horowitz’s satire of Greek drama. The lovely Shannon Malone did a fine turn as a hottie-Jocasta in Isthmus; the multi-talented Mr. Mulkey was riveting as a burned-out loser holed up in a Mexican whorehouse in Mr. Horowitz’s Legacy; and in the evening’s finale, Dylan McDermott and Olivia D’Abo made for a funny, touching, and strangely sexy couple in The Leaving. McDermott’s turn as the burned out English rocker proudly sporting both breasts and a heavy five o’clock shadow was a perfect little gem of a performance.
In addition to artists like Mulkey, McDermott and Ms. D’Abo, The Ruskin Group has a few other notable industry supporters, including actors Ed Asner and Anthony Franciosa, and playwright Eve Ensler (“The Vagina Monologues”). However, it is ultimately up to the community to show up for the Ruskins, and for that matter, all our local artists. And hey, no only do you get a good show at The Ruskin Group, but there’s also ample free and easily accessed parking. What could be better?