Untitled Warhol Project at the Odyssey and Red Barn at Atwater Crossing, Reviewed

(Left to right) Nikhil Pai, Ashley Nguyen, Dana Pollack, Erika Soto, Claudia de Vasco, Matthew Michael Hurley
(Left to right) Nikhil Pai, Ashley Nguyen, Dana Pollack, Erika Soto, Claudia de Vasco, Matthew Michael Hurley

In the program notes to the new musical Red Barn, which he co-authored with his wife, the show's director, Melissa Chalsma, actor-playwright David Melville invites us to Google the term "anthropodermic bibliopegy." This refers to books documenting the judicial proceedings of a murder trial. These books are bound in the dissected human skin of the convicted killer, after the execution.

The practice goes back centuries and was not always carefully implemented. (There are stories of petrified nipples being sighted on one or more book covers.) The rare book collections at several Ivy League colleges are alleged to contain examples of such bindings, but Melville's reason for mentioning it has to do with just such a manuscript that describes the trial proceedings of the 1828 Red Barn murder trial in the village of Polstead, England, where Melville grew up.

The manuscript gets a mention near the end of the musical (presented as a workshop by Independent Shakespeare Company at Atwater Crossing), which follows the life and execution by hanging of the murderer, a bachelor gentleman farmer named William Corder (Matthew Michael Hurley). He wooed and promised to marry a mole-catcher's daughter, Maria (pronounced Mariah, and performed by Mary Guilliams). The isolated Red Barn is where Corder took her for sex, resulting in an out-of-wedlock child, who came to a suspicious end at the age of 1 week. (This was, at least, the third child whom attractive Maria bore out of wedlock, each one to a different man.)

William kept insisting to Maria that he planned to elope with her to Ipswich, which he never did. The musical raises the possibility that William further protected his domestic tranquility by feeding his infant rat poison, though, right in front of the dead baby, he pleads in the Red Barn to his despondent mistress that the child's death was just a terrible "accident."

In that same Red Barn, Maria's putrefied corpse was discovered in 1827. Let's just say she died of unnatural causes. For the several months that her body was rotting, Corder successfully persuaded her father and stepmother (played by Robert Alan Beuth and Claudia de Vasco) that their daughter was living contentedly in London (where he had relocated and married another woman). Corder managed this through a series of letters he wrote to them. They found it odd that she never wrote, but they believed him. He was, after all, a gentleman, and they had no expectation of speaking with her directly.

As already mentioned, this is a workshop production of a piece that's still in development. As such, it has much to recommend it. The ensemble of more than a dozen — some of whom double as musicians (David Bickford on piano, Melville and Ashley Nguyen on guitar, and musical director Dan Schwartz on bass) — lead to some stirring chorales and stage pictures, as directed by Chalsma. Melville's song cycle runs the gamut, from country folk and rock to Kurt Weill–like dissonances. (The musical contains echoes of both The Threepenny Opera and Sweeney Todd.)

At this stage of development, it remains more anecdotal than universal, capitalizing on the moral and ethical turpitude of an English con man, someone between Tartuffe, Mack the Knife and Sweeney Todd. Yet so far, William Corder lacks their nihilistic and annihilistic convictions.

Red Barn aches to be a revenge melodrama, and this can happen once William Corder believes in something, other than weaseling out of awful predicaments of his own making. It comes close, once the village hunts him down and drags him to the gallows. Still, criminals like Mack the Knife and Sweeney Todd rage against the injustice and hypocrisy of authority. They possess charm, charisma and, to a certain extent, followers. They earn the epithet, protagonist. William Corder likewise needs to stand for or against something with sharper focus. Something sharper than expedience. Once that discovery is made, Red Barn has the capacity to transform an exotic and macabre local folk tale into a legend.

The Odyssey Theatre's Student Outreach Program (Odds) and the Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy have teamed up with Theatre Movement Bazaar's Tina Kronis (choreographer) and Richard Alger (playwright) to create a dance-performance piece based on the life of Andy Warhol.

The piece deserves a better title than Untitled Warhol Project (at the Odyssey Theatre through Nov. 18), which is, remarkably, both retro-hip and lame in the same breath, tired from overuse.

The work itself is not tired. It's the brainchild of co-director Leslie Ferreira, who approached Kronis and Alger to help develop his idea for a stage biography of Andy Warhol, based on interviews, set to movement, and including some original text. This is why Alger's credited contribution is "text engineer" rather than "playwright."

The vivacious cast of 17 (students of LACC's Theatre Academy) move gracefully and impressively through Kronis' sly, sassy dance moves. In the interviews and dramatic scenes, the ensemble shows a sophisticated and wry intelligence, along with the tiniest hints of callowness in the delivery that comes from youth portraying characters more seasoned by life than the performers.

As in Red Barn, costume racks appear on the stage, from behind which actors pull their garb for upcoming scenes. Abel Alvarado and Catalena Lee's costumes take us through the '60s era of Warhol's Factory, a hangout for transvestites, socialites and artists, in general.

The text is explicitly biographical or consists of excerpts from interviews. Daniel Button and Gabrielle Lamb double as the title character, capturing Warhol's sexual confusion and ambivalence.

Button is pleasingly droll when answering an interviewer citing another interviewer accusing Warhol of not being original.

Warhol simply agrees. I'm not original, he says. Yes, I do copy. It's easier.

The performance gets to the heart of a paradox that's now moved well beyond the art world into the modern information age: Warhol's celebration of the facile and the famous. Warhol once exuded about his love of Hollywood and its celebrities.

Warhol believed that artists create things that aren't needed, whereas the famous have something everybody wants. This is terrible news for people trying to create something original and profound.For these people, even in the 1960s, Warhol was the prophet of a cultural apocalypse.

In the play, he is both the embodiment of pretentiousness and its opposite: plainspoken and distracted, he turns a movie camera on one of his "superstars" (the title given to the big personalities who were part of his inner circle) just to explain and walks away. It's easier that way. The camera does all the work, he says. Whatever happens, happens. Whatever doesn't, doesn't. This is one of the birth pangs of postmodern cinema, high art that looks a whole lot like reality TV.

"Whatever happens, happens" is very much part of Warhol's life philosophy, tethered directly to his philosophy of making art. It shouldn't be as agitating as it seems, and as it was, to neurotics and control freaks. Warhol's view is actually as liberating as surrender.

The staging and the play get to the heart of that idea. Even when superstar Edie Sedgwick loses her mind and her life, Untitled Warhol Project is a lovely, oddly sweet event.

UNTITLED WARHOL PROJECT | Created by Leslie Ferreira, Tina Kronis and Richard Alger | Presented by the Odyssey Theatre and Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy | 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thursdays-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. | Through Nov. 18. | (310) 477-2055, odysseytheatre.com.

RED BARN | By David Melville and Melissa Chalsma | Presented by Independent Shakespeare Company at Atwater Crossing | 3191 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village | Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. | Through Nov. 18, | (818) 710-6306, iscla.org, atwatercrossingkitchen.com.

The ensemble of Untitled Warhol Project

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