Once a thriving cinema in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles, the King Hing Theater has sat vacant since 1996. Back in 2003, LA Downtown News reported that film director “Quentin Tarantino is set to sign a lease agreement for the vacant King Hing Theater…”, but nothing ever came to fruition. This forgotten theater is where Heidi Duckler chose to produce her most recent site-specific creation, WHEN I AM KING.
Founded in 1985, the Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre has performed in multiple alternative spaces throughout Los Angeles and elsewhere. The sites have included a local laundromat, an empty swimming pool, a subway terminal building, the Herald Examiner Building; to name only a few. Heidi Duckler’s work causes one to take a different look at common spaces around us, and she strives to breathe new life into otherwise uninspiring areas. I never knew that the King Hing Theater existed or that it sits abandoned. Duckler’s WHEN I AM KING proves how, if renovated, it could be used to serve the Los Angeles art community in a variety of ways.
Using a similar format to the Music Center’s Moves After Dark Series, the audience for WHEN I AM KING is divided into four groups, entering the theater at 10 minute intervals. Each group is led by an usher carrying a flashlight to direct her/his group where to go, where to sit and when to move on to the next “scene”. Performances are mainly solos that take place behind and in front of the cinema’s projection screen, in the projection room, the box office area, theater lobby and other smaller rooms throughout the building. Along the path we also see other images including a small likeness of Queen Elizabeth II. For the finale, however, all four groups converge in the main theater where the entire Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre cast performs to live music by composer Joel Virgel. Here the theater seats lie in piles, while overhead is the beautiful string installation by Production Designer Dan Evans, The strings extend from the projection booth, and an adjacent viewing area, all the way down to the stage; like the projection light one sees during a movie.
The focus for WHEN I AM KING is the human desire to be the best in one’s field, to be famous, or to conquer and rule. Duckler examines the strong woman behind the powerful man, the struggle to climb the ladder of success, the businessman behind the rich and the strings that must be pulled to get to the top. The strongest scene was Double Feature. Using video projections in a room with several windows and performer Teresa Barcelo, Duckler looks at how a person’s persona is fractured into different compartments while moving through a very public life. Designer Dan Evans has created projections that are perfectly coordinated to compartmentalize the wall and windows, producing colorful geometric squares like those of artists in the De Stijl movement. Another memorable scene was Ruling Party. Dressed in a light pink suit and tie Micah Abbrey gives a strong performance using his popping/breakdance skills to move throughout the room filled with old projection equipment and strips of film. At one point, Abbrey dons a white cap equipped with a small light to illuminate his way atop, over and around a projection table.
The overall experience of WHEN I AM KING is filled with provocative images, but far too often the movement is overshadowed by the surroundings. During the finale I found myself focusing on the shadows cast by Evans’ string installation or the lone figure standing still in the small viewing room above, rather than the action taking place underneath it. Duckler’s work involves the audience in a totally different way than sitting in a proscenium theater watching a dance company perform onstage, but one still feels like an outsider. It felt like walking through an art museum and staring at works by not-so-well-known artists; only here, the artwork is alive. The performers are strong movers and execute Duckler’s movement with precision. The cast includes Reshma Gajjar, Ryan Walker Page, Micah Abbrey, Jillian Meyers, Sammi Lee, Teresa Barcelo and Nicholas Heitzeberg; as well as musician Joel Virgel who sings and plays live for the final scene The Reign Forest. His score for this scene is quite powerful.
WHEN I AM KING runs for three more performances; October 27, 28 and November 4. For information and tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/964360.