Parnell, based on his earlier work, is clearly no hack, although the difference between being a freelance artist and a scribe-for-hire suggests a lot about the difference in quality between Wit and QED.
Much like Feynman, a character named Hoother (Matthew Fox) in Glen Berger’s The Wooden Breeks (at Hollywood’s Open Fist Theater) lives to increase and refine his descriptions of nature. Holed up sometime during the 19th century in a Gothic lighthouse in the fictitious Scottish town of Brood, he pores over illustrated appendices of “Ferguson and Ives’ Inventory of Natural Things” — the latest of which concerns “Moths and How They Flap.” (You may remember Berger and his flair for madcap scientists from Great Men of Science, Nos. 21 & 22, produced in 1998 by Circle X Theater Company.)
Hoother hasn’t been out of his tower in years when a beautiful traveling saleswoman named Spoon (Martha Demson) finally challenges his agoraphobia by sending him various missives, along with live bluebells to add to his collection of flower illustrations. Quite a few of the male townsfolk are falling for Spoon, thereby falling in step with her strategy to meet her sales quota.
Berger’s allegorical carnival, a stylistic blend of Charles Dickens and Dylan Thomas, is all about clawing out of the boxes fate insists we occupy, about the fear of living death rather than living life. And indeed, among the scandals of The Wooden Breeks’ era were reports, both as rumors and in the popular press, of scratch marks on the inside of coffins, creating a general panic that people were being buried alive. Which explains why Spoon is hawking a “bell device” that reaches down through the earth and into one’s coffin, so that should one awake while terminally confined, one can simply ring for assistance. (Here, perhaps, lies the origin of the term “cold comfort.” “Breeks,” on the other hand, is colloquial for “trousers,” while the “wooden breeks” of the title was a period expression for coffins.)
An intricate plot lands Spoon inside a coffin with a broken “device.” (Sales reps, beware of quotas.) Though the play involves a three-hour trudge through some thick Celtic atmosphere, Dan Fields’ direction turns the playwright’s nimble ironies, robust language and theme of entrapment into sharp, even visceral focus. Berger writes beautifully, and Fields’ vivacious staging includes metal puppets, Philip White’s vivid original score, Van Broughton Ramsey’s pleasingly murky costumes and Dona Marquet’s stone-and-rust multipurpose set. Plus grand performances also by Bart Tangredi, Rob Moore, Seth Ullian, Russell Milton, Shana Wride, Irene Tassiopulos and Adam LeBow.
QED | By PETER PARNELL | Presented by the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through May 13
THE WOODEN BREEKS | By GLEN BERGER | Presented by OPEN FIST THEATER, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood | Through April 21