Garden of Alla: Resurrecting a Silent Star
Spend some time in Los Angeles with a historic preservation junkie and you’ll probably hear about the Garden of Allah. It was a sprawling celebrity-packed hotel with 25 villas practically across the street from the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard. The buildings were razed in 1959 to make way for other buildings that were razed in 2021. Los Angeles can be brutally contemptuous to its own history.
Before it was the Garden of Allah, the hotel was the cheekily named Garden of Alla, the private 1920s home of silent screen superstar Alla Nazimova. Romy Nordlinger is on a one-woman crusade to raise awareness of the practically forgotten Nazimova. She wrote and performs Garden of Alla, a well-crafted and engaging solo show at Theatre West, playing through July 23.
If Nazimova is remembered today, it is mostly as a queer icon. Nordlinger presents a detailed portrait pf this complicated figure. It starts with Nazimova (née Leventon) as a youth in Russia; she fled abuse, censorship and pogroms to get to New York. She set records on Broadway, then moved west for a quintessential Hollywood life: film stardom and many lovers, both male and female.
Nordlinger describes Nazimova as “an iconoclast who speaks to our time as no one else can. Homophobia, sexism, racism, antisemitism, ageism: Alla was fighting these contemporary struggles back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but alone and without a Twitter account.”
How has the world forgotten Nazimova, who played Hedda Gabler on Broadway and Camille on film, the highest-paid actress of her day and inspiration to some of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights? Perhaps because her self-funded Salomé, called the first art film, was a flop, perhaps because of her out-of-the-closet life. Nazimova was vilified as a sexual deviant and ended her days in a single room at the Garden of Allah Hotel (renamed by its new owners).
Well-curated and -designed video projections by Adam Jesse Burns and an evocative soundscape incorporating original music, by Nick T. Moore, match the high quality of the script. Lorca Peress directs with a light touch: Nazimova is a diva, but never goes over the top. Together, the sights, sounds and Nordlinger’s controlled acting transport us a century back in time and a few miles to the south of Theatre West.
Nordlinger may be alone onstage, but her energy and the show never lag. The fascinating facts—including a fair amount of name dropping—keep coming. Early on in the show, Nazimova notes, “Life is not a tragedy, it’s a force and we may as well laugh at the punch line,” adding, “an artist is only dead when the last person to remember them dies.” If that is so, she will be around for a long time, thanks to this homage.
Garden of Alla plays at Theatre West through July 23, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. A screening of Nazimova’s Camille follows the July 15th show. Tickets are $35 with online advance purchase, or $40 at the door; they can be purchased here. The theater is located at 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West.