When Los Angeles theater is at its best, it's usually at its best in the smaller theaters that have both the comparatively modest overhead and the guts to produce new works without looking over their shoulders to what London or New York thought of a play, or a playwright. We're at our best when we produce plays from a kind of local, rabid conviction.
Two productions illustrate this principle. They each look at life after death, though in polar opposite styles, illustrating the range of what might be called the "L.A. Aesthetic."
One side of that aesthetic is camp parody of movies or movie genres — hardly surprising, as it fits the cinephile ethos of our movie town. The downside of the aesthetic is its tendency toward facile glibness, which rises to the surface when craft isn't properly in place. No such worries in Re-Animator: The Musical, based on Stuart Gordon's 1985 film Re-Animator, itself an adaptation of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's 1922 Gothic short story "Herbert West — Reanimator."
Gordon is on hand to direct the new musical, which just opened at the Steve Allen Theater in the Center for Inquiry–West. The first two rows are called the "splash zone," where audience members are invited to wear plastic trash bags to protect their clothes from the spews of red goo, projectile-vomited from internal organs extracted from sundry cadavers by actors, the spiteful, manic glint in their eyes revealing that they're having way too much fun.
Gordon's film pulled out the stops of the horror genre with a kind of glee that's, well, re-animated in this musical.
The centerpiece is a love story (of course) that's a joke on every love story ever written. Idealistic young hospital intern Dan Cain (Chris L. McKenna) has a poor time accepting the death of patients. Standing by a gurney, over the body of a woman who has flatlined, Dan administers CPR in vain, prodding her with electro pads, until the chorus of medics has to sing, "She's dead, Dan/Get it through your head, Dan." His distress over the cessation of life becomes an obsession that threatens his impending marriage to beautiful Meg Halsey (Rachel Avery), daughter of the local university's dean (George Wendt).
Big Dean Halsey is an amiable, conservative fellow who's accepting of Dan as a potential son-in-law, despite his lack of old-money social credentials. Well, amiable until he's accidentally murdered, as he later interrupts a gooey romantic interlude between Meg and Dan by crashing through the door as a psychotic zombie. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
The romance is wrapped around a conflict between dueling scientists: self-proclaimed plagiarist Dr. Hill (Jesse Merlin, in a mop wig, whose pinched facial expressions would creep out the most openhearted social worker) and a newcomer to Hill's lab, Herbert West (Graham Skipper, possessing the salty charm — and costume — of an embittered undertaker). While Hill drools over Meg, West rents a room from Dan (since Meg won't move in until they're wed). When the romantic couple's pet cat disappears, then ghoulishly reappears post-mortem via West's experiments (props by Jeff Rack), Dan enters a Faust-like partnership with West, seeing the potential fulfillment of his God-defying desire to harness the science of immortality.
Mark Nutter's music and very witty lyrics (recalling songs by Tom Lehrer) careen from modern opera to light opera, from melodramatic wailing to — when the story gets really gruesome — Gilbert and Sullivan–style patter songs.
The special effects (by Tony Doublin, John Naulin, John Buechler, Tom Devlin and Greg McDougall), such as a body decapitated with a shovel and intestines unstrung from a corpse, are about as good as it gets — gory without being so naturalistic as to bypass parody.
The keys to this kingdom, however, are the combination of the brilliant comic ensemble and Gordon's pristine craftsmanship as a director — his perfect unity of styles, and his sculpting of each short scene to bring narrative turning points to the fore, supplemented by Jeff Ravitz's lighting and musical director/arranger Peter Adams' building of suspense. Adams performs the score on a synthesizer tucked into the side of the hall, creating the slightly cheesy ambiance that's the life force of Grand Guignol.
The other side of the L.A. aesthetic is an earnest devotion to mythic sagas and inventive interpretations of ancient Greek plays. The flip side of movie parody, this genre could be fulfilling a hunger for alternative, non-Hollywood forms of storytelling. Theatre of NOTE's ravishing production of B. Walker Sampson's Alceste (adapted from the Euripides play of the same title, and directed by Darin Dahms) also grapples with the afterlife, taking on a love story with a majestic, surreal whimsy. It closes this weekend.
The play was developed by Soho Rep in New York, but Theatre of NOTE took it further and is presenting its world premiere.
When it comes time for Adamet (Trevor H. Olsen) to die, Apollo decides to allow someone else to go to the underworld in his stead. In the legend, his parents turn down the "offer" of dying instead of him, being quite pleased with their lives and questioning what's to be gained from such pointless self-sacrifice.
Deciding to go in his place is Adamet's ferociously devoted wife, Alceste (Lorianne Hill), who in this version is tormented by the Apollo-like Man With Blazing Necktie (Lynn Odell).
Once Alceste proceeds into the Underworld, can Adamet resist the temptations of a gorgeous seductress, Woman in Bright Bathing Suit (Jennifer Flack)?
The play is as much about memory as it is about loyalty and mortality. One particular image lingers: The Ferryman at Large (Ezra Buzzington) escorts Alceste through the icy depths. Jessicah Neufeld and Jeremy McDonald's animated backdrop projected onto a screen shows snow gently falling onto a landscape. The Ferryman, singing Harry Nilsson's pop ballad "Remember," stands over Alceste as she builds her own snowman. The face she's sculpted is that of her husband — long ago, far away — but she can't quite remember who it is.
It's one thing to forget, but this is different. This is a remaining scrap of memory, a ghost essence.
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Re-Animator: The Musical explores the same subject with comic repartee about the 12 minutes after the brain expires: "We lose our memory/Goodbye cells. Goodbye senior prom. Goodbye to Aunt Marie."
It's all very jocular, whereas at Theatre of NOTE, the same idea is lyrical and haunting, as though these two beautifully produced productions are playing tug-of-war.
RE-ANIMATOR: THE MUSICAL | Book by Dennis Paoli, Stuart Gordon and William J. Norris | Music and lyrics by Mark Nutter | Directed by Gordon, based on his 1985 horror film, based on the H.P. Lovecraft story | Steve Allen Theater, Center for Inquiry–West, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m, through March 27 | (800) 595-4TIX (800-595-4849)
ALCESTE | By B. Walker Sampson | Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through March 12 | (323) 856-8611 theatreofnote.co