By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
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."
4850 Lankershim Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Category: Community Venues
Region: San Fernando Valley
6569 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90038
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.