Funerals emerge as a metaphoric backdrop in the West Coast premiere of Mac Rogers' Viral, as well as in Billy Elliot — The Musical, the London and Broadway sensation now enjoying a regional-theater presentation at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. The latter concerns a coal mining town in the U.K. being buried by Margaret Thatcher's union busting. The former is a comedy about assisted suicide. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Both are worth seeing.
Rogers' new comic drama, presented by Moving Arts at the Bootleg Theatre, is entirely about a death wish — specifically, a trio of Portland slacker-scammers trying to cash in on Oregon's liberal assisted-suicide laws. Control-freak filmmaker Colin (Daniel Dorr) uses a website to lure in a Bay Area subject, Meredith (Alicia Adams), for his latest opus: a video documenting a suicide by sleeping pills. Colin claims to be an artist. He doesn't wish to traffic in violence or to show a drop of blood in his movies — just the ethereal transformation as a body passes from fragile life to its expiration. Colin is a Fellini of the snuff-film industry. He's also a bully to his partners, siblings Jarvis (Oscar Camacho) and Geena (Mariel Higuera).
There are two answers to the premise's most glaring question: Why would they make this film? One hope is that one of the online snuff films will go "viral" and lead them all to a better neighborhood. But this can only be accomplished with the help of a distributor named Snow (Mark Kinsey Stephenson), who parades around the tawdry apartment with an evangelist's theatricality. The other reason is the trio's sexual predilection for watching people die.
If you can accept this much (I was cautiously willing to do so), the next challenge is trying to believe that a character such as Meredith, in Adams' magnetic performance of wry intelligence and droll expression, would be willing to put the end of her life in the hands of such crass incompetents and obvious frauds.
In Darin Anthony's staging, Colin opens many of the short scenes as a bundle of frayed nerves. His chronic anxiety is clearly a cause of his bullying, and that bullying gives Meredith a fleeting reason to defend Colin's fluttery, docile girlfriend, Geena — providing Meredith a reason to live. This is one of the play's many welcome threads of irony.
Like the suicidal Jessie Cates in Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother, Meredith has no terminal disease. She's simply a middle-aged woman alone, bereft of hope or ambition, weary of her financially impoverished, dead-end life.
Meredith has a refrain: "I don't care." She also mentions at least twice that she has no money. Is that reason enough to play dead, to be dead, with these clowns? Or would that question fade were they less neurotic?
Anthony's production toys with the style of a David Mamet–like comedy, such as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross — a portrait of inept desperados trying to live the American Dream. That the Dream is here dependent on a vicarious pycho-sexual-social obsession with death is both cynical and pointed. That any emotional investment in this play results in feelings of disgust is its primary virtue. It's an unblinking look at pathologies. I only wish it were slightly more believable.
In one of many striking images in Brian Kite's staging of Billy Elliot — The Musical, an army of northeast England miners, having had their strike busted by Mrs. Thatcher, descends en masse into a pit, the lamps on their helmets blazing forward, as they sing the rousing "Once We Were Kings": "The ground is empty and cold as hell, but we all go together when we go."
This emblemizes a funeral for the trade union movement in the U.K., and for the town the union once protected. A 12-year-old child (the excellent Mitchell Tobin), having horrified his family by taking ballet classes, will flee to pursue the opposite of solidarity: individuality and self-expression at the Royal Ballet School in London. The hit musical, based on the film, and with Elton John's songs, builds its canopy over these contrary poles of solidarity and individuality, celebrating and sentimentalizing both.
The spectacle is awash in tropes — motherless child (brother, do they milk that one), foster mother (the dance teacher, Vicki Lewis), effeminacy in the face of machismo, a father (David Atkinson) who barely understands what's going on. Add an equine, and you've got War Horse all over again. The Brits program this stuff on autopilot.
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I couldn't stand the cloying 2012 touring production at the Pantages, yet I was at times quite moved by Kite's staging of a very strong ensemble at La Mirada, and by Dana Solimando's original choreography — not to mention the superb pit orchestra (musical direction by John Glaudini). This is a new staging, contrasted against the production-line creative process of touring shows. Perhaps it was the freedom that allowed this production to feel so human. A motto about musicals: Just because they're shlocky doesn't mean they can't be true.
VIRAL, Moving Arts at Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Westlake; through Feb. 6. (213) 908-5322, bootlegtheater.org.
BILLY ELLIOT — THE MUSICAL, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada; through Feb. 8. (562) 944-9801, lamiradatheatre.com.
Correction: The wrong name was given for the actress playing the dance teacher in Billy Elliot — The Musical. The actual name is Vicki Lewis.