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What Is Art Good For? Two Plays Answer the Question 

Ghost Road Company adapts Nathaniel Hawthorne as Zombie Joe's does Oscar Wilde

Thursday, Apr 4 2013
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With the arts always the first programs to be budget-cut in school curricula, and with the cries of woe on editorial pages that we're not training enough mathematicians and scientists who can keep our nation competitive on the international stage of commerce, it's hardly a shock that artists creating art for its own sake should be particularly touchy about the value of what they produce, and the arbitrariness of how such value is determined.

Ghost Road Company has devised a sometimes absorbing, sometimes cryptic theater piece, The Bargain and The Butterfly, inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne's story "The Artist of the Beautiful," based largely on this idea but with more neuroscience, and a touch of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein thrown in for good measure. Conceived and created by Katharine Noon and the Ghost Road ensemble, it's being presented at Artworks Theatre in Hollywood through April 7, before it travels to Poland.

"All art is quite useless," Oscar Wilde wrote in his preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. These are the words that close director Vanessa Cate's stage adaptation of snippets from Wilde's writings at Zombie Joe's Underground in North Hollywood through May 18, entitled Fragments of Oscar Wilde — a work similarly punctuated with questions about the value of art-for-art's-sake and woven into a spider's web of lust, repression and spirituality. What Wilde actually meant was questioned by a young fan, Bernulf Clegg, to whom Wilde sent a handwritten explanation: "Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct or to influence action in any way. ... A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. ... We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. ... Of course a man may sell the flower and make it useful to him, but that has nothing to do with the flower."

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Hawthorne's 1844 story tells the saga of a slender young man, Owen, an apprentice for Peter Hovenden, the elderly owner of a clock shop. Owen squanders Peter's profits with his distractions — such as the owner's daughter, Annie, with whom he's smitten (though she marries instead Owen's friend from school, Robert Danforth — a strong, sensible blacksmith), and Owen's obsession for carving figurines that are of no practical value. When Owen takes over the shop due to Peter's failing eyesight, his inspired contraptions, diverting his attentions from the concrete duties of keeping the trade solvent, are scorned for their uselessness. One day, he presents to his beloved Annie the result of a secret project, an ornately constructed mechanical butterfly. That his efforts for her are largely in vain doesn't trouble him, because he grows to understand his connection to what inspires his creations: the quest for eternal beauty.

Ghost Road changes the protagonist from the young man to the owner's daughter, Annie (Christel Joy Johnson), who is consumed with building a contraption — not a butterfly but a "soul" made of glass and metal, in order to bring back from a coma her twin brother, Owen (Brian Weir), who exists as a phantom presence. Owen is depicted not only by the actor but also by a life-size papier mâché mannequin lying on a table placed in a cubicle enclosed by translucent curtains. When Annie finally gets her device assembled with the help of a glassblower named, yes, Robert Danforth (Doug Sutherland), she connects it with tape to the mannequin in the hope that an electrical charge will animate the inanimate, leading to her brother's return. This scene is hypnotic.

Robert is a practical but curious guy whom Annie keeps berating by insisting that he can neither see nor understand what she's up to. This may have been intended to underscore her transcendental gifts, but telling somebody who wants to understand that they can't understand is a gratuitously churlish characteristic.

Still, Danforth likes her and her project, but not enough to propose marriage. Peter is still Annie's father, here named Father, and played by Ronnie Clark, who sports a long beard, reads passages from Hawthorne's story and tells Annie that she's out of her mind. On this point, he's right. The research for the piece includes a genetic anomaly found in both schizophrenics and highly creative people. At one point, the play articulates the difference between a genius and a madman, concluding that the genius is right, whereas a madman is merely deluded. Only time can tell that difference.

There's also a character named Mother (Jen Kays), another phantom parked mostly high on a platform. She died giving birth to Annie and Owen. Mother re-enacts her own experimental excursions into alternate realities by eating pages from the volumes of books she reads, washing them down with water, infused with ever-increasing doses of arsenic as a tincture.

Upon realizing where Annie got her character from, my empathy settled with Father, who wanders Maureen Weiss' bookshelf- and clock-adorned set looking slightly lost.

It's a visually impressive and well-acted spectacle. Clark's lighting design includes a trio of suspended lightbulbs and the frequent use of flashlights beamed onto actors' faces, then snapped off after a telling line.

Images of characters eating words before spewing the pieces of paper from their mouths are genuinely intriguing. It's certainly another way of looking at storytelling. But attaching a layer of themes about schizophrenia and creativity to Hawthorne's comparatively simple, elegant story about the purpose of art and its relationship to commerce results in a grab-bag of meaning and significance. Its beauty is evident. Its point, less so. In its defense, this resembles what Oscar Wilde said about art.

I had an easier time with Fragments of Oscar Wilde at Zombie Joe's. The acting is more wobbly than at Ghost Road, but Cate's staging is really of a piece. Lit by floodlights — as are all the shows in this tiny venue — Cate gets to the heart of Wilde's aesthetic: art nouveau, Orientalism, silks and sex, moralists being tempted by sensuality. It all taps Wilde's struggles with his then-criminal homosexuality, his flights of fancy, his struggle with aging and appearances, with the eternal and the ephemeral, with the lust raging through him and how that might have some bearing on the art he was trying to create, and to its connection with God — his connection with God.

There are excerpts from Dorian Gray, "A Florentine Tragedy," "The Nightingale and the Rose," Salome and "La Sainte Courtisane" that weave through each other into a tapestry that's part homage, part examination of why so many artists continue to create objects and music and performances with no idea of how their worth will be assessed.

Such an activity contains elements of delirium and of virtue. Ghost Road Company and Zombie Joe's Underground deserve credit for both.

FRAGMENTS OF OSCAR WILDE | Adapted and directed by Vanessa Cate | Zombie Joe's Underground, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Sat., 8:30 p.m. (no perf April 6); through May 18 | (818) 202-4120 | zombiejoes.com

THE BARGAIN & THE BUTTERFLY | Conceived and directed by Katharine Noon | Ghost Road Company at Artworks Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through April 7 | (310) 281-8341 | ghostroad.org

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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