A central character in A Fried Octopus is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The diminutive French painter-printmaker-draughtsman, who devised his art from the boulevards and alleys of late–19th century Paris, is depicted here by Kirk Wilson, who wanders the stage with absinthe, the potent liquor glowing green in the bottom of his glass.
The surreal, cryptic and emotionally evocative choreo-play, created by co-writer/performer Alicia Adams and co-writer/director Justin Zsebe, is at the Bootleg Theater, where Adams serves as artistic director.
The six-actor performance, depicting a fever dream that might have inspired Lautrec's paintings of dancing girls and prostitutes, stems from the premise that absinthe, aka the "green fairy," sent those who sipped it into hallucinogenic reveries.
Contemporary chemists, however, assert that the spirit could have had no hallucinogenic effect, since it's merely a liquor, albeit one with 90-plus-percent alcohol content. Hallucinations might have been caused by toxins mixed into the drink. Perhaps those, like Oscar Wilde, who claimed to feel tulips brushing his legs after drinking absinthe, were making it all up.
This puts the entire dream-play premise of A Fried Octopus on the rocks, if one is to be overly clinical and literal. But if you have a penchant for the clinical or the literal, this is not a show for you, anyway.
There are smidgens of characters. Adams, droll and rendering lines with a twist of mockery, portrays a dancer who "needs to see a doctor." This "need" is repeated in dialogue through the work like a refrain, as does another repartee snippet, which uses irony to approach the core of the work's view, that art is a life response to the encroachment of death: "Alcohol is a slow killer, they say." "That's all right. We're not in a hurry."
The play was written for the actors; in the text, the characters' names match the actors'. In one scene, Michael Dunn poses nude for a painter, and there's considerable dialogue devoted to the relationship between the observed and the observer. Another refrain in the text: "Advanced physics tells us that on the subatomic level, the very act of observation alters the thing observed."
There are lovely performances also by Kera Armenderaz and Lulu Brud as models and dancers, and by Will Watkins playing a kind of Harlequin.
Visually, the scenic, lighting and costume design (by Jason Adams, François-Pierre Couture and Ann Closs-Farley, respectively) are an embodiment of a brightness that corresponds to the work's theme of finding light in the darkness. Drapes of white parachute cloth line all but the proscenium of the stage's perimeter, dangling from ropes, clipped there via clothespins. Not only does this create a visually acute wonderland but the lighting also allows the scrim to turn translucent, so that the actors appear in shadow behind it. Throughout the performance, the actors slice away at these silky borders, creating entrances, until the silk is all pulled to the floor, revealing the theater walls and creating a billowing ground of white fabric.
Though not entirely in bright hues, Closs-Farley's costumes ensnare a true-to-period, pantaloon-and-fishnet-stockinged essence of art nouveau.
The play itself is not a drama but a 90-minute recitation distributed among the cast, an assemblage of philosophies derived from sources ranging from Philip Littell to Charles Mee to interviews with David Lynch and Wooster Group actor Scott Shepherd.
The two main themes running through the play, as though on parallel tracks, are life to be found in death and decay; and beauty that can be found through art in the midst of ugliness. The play's view is that the pursuit of that beauty in art, from that ugliness, allows life to prevail over death, like light over darkness. A summation of this comes near the closing: "Writing remains. Words fly off. ... You will see my body fly away into a thousand sparks. I will fly away. My crisis will shatter into millions of crystal splinters, like stars pricking the sky. I will disappear. Dis-membered. I will return."
Another new play written by a theater's artistic director, Stephen Sachs' Heart Song, which just opened at the Fountain Theatre, also looks at the capacities of art to overcome the seeming finality of death. Act One is as literal — with explanations about the purpose of art that border on the tendentious — as A Fried Octopus is abstract. Act Two, however, becomes a different play from Act One, and a better one.
The art on display is flamenco dance, beautifully performed under Shirley Jo Finney's direction and Maria Bermudez's choreography, and the play's premise is how an unemployed, middle-aged, lonely and out-of-shape Jewish New Yorker, Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap), is invited — no, goaded — by her Japanese masseuse (Tamlyn Tomita) into joining a flamenco dance circle, run by Katarina (Bermudez).
From these classes come the explanations, mostly by Gypsy Katarina, about stomping, and awakening the spirits of the dead, and how the shawl, flung in circles, comes to represent the garment that both cradles infants and serves as funeral shroud — all terrific stuff but laid on a bit thick, spoken in a gush of rapture, while the others in the ensemble nod in pious agreement.
Rochelle, an only daughter, is facing down the one-year anniversary of her mother's death, for which she's supposed to enshrine her memory with a gravestone. Another dancer, Daloris (the always fine Juanita Jennings) is a cancer survivor, attributing her life to flamenco. And so, as in A Fried Octopus, Heart Song urges art to embrace and live with death, in order to celebrate light and life.
Dunlap, a consummate clown, turns in a magnificent, heroic performance, but even she can't defy Act One's sitcom quips:
"Jews love global warming. It means we don't have to go to Florida."
"You should listen to your body." "We're not speaking."
"I accept others. I accept they're all assholes."
In Act Two, however, the dance lessons and dubious jokes all but disappear, and the play turns both more domestic and more far-reaching as it reveals the legacies of persecution against the ancestors of the four principal characters, one Jewish, one Gypsy, one Japanese and one African-American. It becomes a drama about coping with loss, in which Rochelle enacts the Yahrzeit ceremony, marking the anniversary of the death of a loved one, with her flamenco circle in a tender and beautiful ritual. The Holocaust, Japanese internment and American slavery take center stage, along with how art and friendship emerge as balm for these deepest of wounds.
Rochelle, who was told nothing of her ancestry by her father, reveals a garment that she has just learned belonged to her mother — the striped prison garb her mother, who survived the Nazis, wore at Birkenau.
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After the play, one audience member sat shell-shocked, and told her seatmate, "I asked my father to tell me something about my mother. He sent me a photo of her in a death-camp uniform. Said he wouldn't talk about it. He lost everybody. It was just like in the play."
There's no arguing with that.
A FRIED OCTOPUS | By Alicia Adams and Justin Zsebe | Bootleg Theater, 2200 Beverly Blvd., Westlake | Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; through June 8 | (213) 389-3856 | bootlegtheater.org
HEART SONG | By Stephen Sachs | Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through July 14 | (323) 663-1525 | fountaintheatre.com