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Ghosts in the Machine 

Exhuming American history

Thursday, Jul 29 2004
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Photo by Glen Pearson

It’s no accident that Ambrose Bierce was rediscovered during the 1960s — only such a questioning and egotistical era would provide a literary passport to this man without a century who’d vanished into the Mexican Revolution 50 years before. During that decade, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Bierce’s most famous short story, was made into an anti-war tone poem by filmmaker Robert Enrico, and The Devil’s Dictionary was reprinted unabridged to become an iconoclast’s bible. Looking back at the career of the jaundiced San Francisco newspaper columnist, it’s easy to see Bierce as the spiritual godfather to ’60s Bay Area gonzos like Hunter S. Thompson and Warren Hinckle.

Playwright Mac Wellman’s 2001 work, Bitter Bierce, or, The Friction We Call Grief, may represent a new attempt at rehabilitation, one that Bottom’s Dream is presenting at the Zephyr Theater. Seventy-five minutes of straight-ahead biography, this one-man show begins with actor John Billingsley charging onstage like a defiant G. Gordon Liddy, albeit holding a cabbage.

Reality,” he quotes from The Devil’s Dictionary. “Noun. The dream of a mad philosopher.” Billingsley’s Bierce will liberally cite his lexicon throughout an evening filled with the slow, rolling laughter of an audience catching up to Bierce’s meaning. “Disobedience: The silver lining of servitude. Alone: In bad company.” He also regales us with a family tree of pun makers, rebels and nonconformists, while seamlessly weaving in excerpts from his fiction, including “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “An Imperfect Conflagration,” all the while leading us along the timeline of Bierce’s fame and misfortune. There was the head wound he received during the Civil War, also the residence and success in England for his venomous satire, acclaim for tautly written ghost stories, and the move to San Francisco, where William Randolph Hearst eventually made him the Examiner’s premier columnist and critic. Our narrator confides Bierce’s low and lower periods, of course: a failed marriage, the death of two sons — one by gunfight, the other from alcoholism — and political spats with Jack London and Teddy Roosevelt. Finally, there is an unshakable sense that, by the end of the 19th century, Bierce and the country have outgrown each other — he despised the war-loving “patriots” then in ascendance, while many found that his celebrated misanthropy had become a form of literary rheumatism.

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Despite Wellman’s efforts, Ambrose Bierce will probably never find a posthumous welcome outside of the 1960s. His main artistic sin was to write in the short form and to be known for, but — unlike Wilde or Carlyle — not studied for, his aphorisms. Occasionally we find Bierce’s imprint on modern writing (everywhere from Playboy’s “Unabashed Dictionary” to cartoonist Edward Sorel’s political “Bestiary” that appeared in Ramparts during the ’60s). However, having adopted a hostile, masses-are-asses stance toward socialism, Bierce would be consigned to the role of “reactionary” individualist, even though his defense of Chinese and African-Americans once marked him as a radical. Today the left won’t touch him because of political correctness, and the right prefers instead to rediscover truly incorrect cranks like the Texas satirist William Cowper Brann.

The Zephyr production unfolds on set designer Susan Gratch’s spare but tellingly decorated apron: A red-velvet curtain hangs upstage behind an American flag, a tufted chair and a table. We’ve entered not only a room from another century but also, possibly, Bierce’s own purgatorial cell in which he is doomed to pace until Judgment Day — a feeling heightened by Michael Roth’s bony musical commentary. Billingsley turns in a flawless performance under James Martin’s astute direction, bringing to life not merely an obscure literary figure but a dead reputation as well. If the actor’s emotional range falls shy of complete, it is only because of the material Wellman has given his character, who veers from splenetic to melancholic, but seems unwilling to quite let everything hang out.

Billingsley’s Bierce is compelling but not lovable in that fuzzy way we prefer our curmudgeons to be. And as we watch Wellman’s play, it isn’t difficult to understand why this brooding loner can still haunt and taunt his readers. Bierce’s dictionary, which has fallen into the public domain, can be found online and sometimes appears with a typical warning for our modern eyes:

“Since the material here represents the view of one individual and was written in the early years of this century, there will no doubt be material here that you will find sexist, nationalist, racist, or just generally offensive. Proceed at your own risk.” We shouldn’t want it any other way.

 

K.C. Davis’ play Raree is set in the Philadelphia of 1747, when the City of Brotherly Love perched on the edge of an uncharted continent. This Meadows Basement production, presented at Theatre/

Theater, imagines the lonely, deadening isolation that might have permeated life in a colonial outpost surrounded by wilderness, Indians and the French. No wonder it seemed like a good idea for young Faith (Krista K. Carpenter) to invite a notorious English poet for a visit. Richard Savage (Kelly Boulware) — friend of Samuel Johnson, convicted murderer, Jacobite sympathizer and boozy lech — arrives late one night like a COD package. Or is he DOA? Attired in foppish finery (credit costume designer Angel Terrazas), Savage barely has the strength to fall through the door and onto the floor.

The house at which he’s so inauspiciously arrived is home to three middle-class sisters whose father is away on business. (No, they’re not planning to move to Moscow — or even to Boston.) Faith is the dreamer, Hope (Samantha Montgomery) the melancholy one. The eldest, Charity (Heather De Sisto), who witnessed their mother killed by the same Indians who then kidnapped her, is a morbid cynic who’s visiting from New England. Something of a fourth sister, a surly Irish servant girl named Megan, immediately strikes up a love-hate thing with Savage, venting upon him resentments of things British while basking in his witty repartee and formidable knowledge of kite flying.

In her own way, Megan is actually a pagan version of Faith — we first meet the servant applying some postmortem dentistry to a hanged soldier, acquiring the dead man’s tooth for a bit of conjuring. The Redcoat’s spirit (Matt Saunders), however, is none too appreciative, and soon begins haunting Megan, even as other parts of his still-roped corpse begin disappearing. Almost as frightening is the appearance of Charity’s upright minister husband (Ira Steck), who’s been scandalized by his runaway wife and arrives to win her back and to lecture us about the Indians.

As might be guessed, Savage becomes, to varying degrees, the objet d’amour of all the women characters, even as he delivers self-loathing soliloquies. Director Thomas Craig Elliott nicely layers on the first act’s outré atmosphere, with assistance from Matt Richter’s twilight lighting plot and Meg Taylor’s moody sound design. There’s a sense of mystery here, and it’s not confined to guessing who’s going to get laid first — something’s not quite right about our poet, and the unease we begin to feel about Savage bleeds through much of the show’s humor. Unfortunately, Davis never fleshes out, so to speak, that mystery until the very end of three acts. By then his mildly spooky play has wound down like a Chekhovian rewrite of Dark Shadows.

Elliott’s production has its own problems, mostly stemming from a cast whose actors cannot move their voices beyond a tone of plaintive declaration. This is a play whose characters really need to distinguish themselves from one another (although Carpenter is marked by a deep suntan), but Elliott is satisfied to have them all sounding virtually alike. The ensemble’s deadpan tone has worked before for other Meadows Basement projects, especially Hors d’oeuvres, but as good as it is to see a young company stretch, the new material seems a bit out of reach for them. Only (and it’s a big only) Boulware has both the vocal ordnance and the sophistication to carry his role, and every moment he’s on the scene takes flight.

But he cannot shoulder this long evening alone. The titular raree is a small wooden box with an eyehole through which characters glimpse edifying scenes from the Bible or literature. Savage has brought one with him from England; its oblong shape is a not very subtle allusion to death, although after two hours of this gothic melodrama, it begins to remind us of another kind of box, one normally found in a living room with a remote control resting nearby.

BITTER BIERCE, OR, THE FRICTION WE CALL GRIEF | By MAC WELLMAN | BOTTOM’S DREAM at the Zephyr Theater, 7456 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood | (323) 860-9860 | Through August 13

RAREE | By K.C. DAVIS | MEADOWS BASEMENT at Theatre/Theater, 6425 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood | (323) 782-6218 | Through August 15

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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