In Michael Kearns' Bang Bang, there's a psycho-sexual serial killer named Dr. JackL and MisterHide&Seek (David Pevsner in a bravely unrepentant performance) whose fetish is to stand nude with his head masked in leather, to make Internet contact with his hitherto unknown male victims before meeting them (ostensibly for a romantic interlude) in their abodes, where they've been instructed to await him while lying naked on their stomachs with their buttocks raised. After sundry manipulations of their exposed regions, Dr. J inserts a pistol into their anuses, per their agreement. That's the erotic charge, the danger they bargained for. What they didn't bargain for is that the gun would be loaded, and its discharge would be the culmination of Dr. J's gruesome fetish. The play describes him masturbating over the blood and guts he created.
The collisions of sex and death, of eroticism and grief, have propelled Kearns' stage works for about 40 years, and Bang Bang, a new play at Santa Monica's Highways, provides no exception to that pattern, which is really an artistic calling. Sex is on his brain, and on his stages, while he is lamenting the loss of friends from the kinds of predilections he's striving to better comprehend.
Kearns' rich history on the national theater scene includes him being one of the first legit actors to come out as gay, in the 1970s, and also to announce to the world in a comparatively homophobic era that he was HIV-positive. He performed his own solo portraits, creating a montage of people with AIDS in two internationally touring works, Intimacies and More Intimacies.
The difference between Intimacies and Bang Bang — both are compendiums of soliloquies in the guise of being plays — lies in the theme that unifies the monologues. That theme has shifted from infection by AIDS to our national obsession with firearms, and the ravages it causes.
A woman named Sandy (a stark and intense interpretation by Lizzie Peet) describes with understated despondency the emotions of a person who loses her husband and her child to a random shooting. Prostitute Bea Watson (JoNell Kennedy) discovers her young daughter being molested by her male pimp. Unfortunately for him, Bea has a gun easily accessible.
Kearns' frame is a documentary being filmed by Peter Lange (Michael Matts), who crawls around the stage with a video camera during the monologues. He's assisted by his lover, Padric (Mike Ciriaco) — himself portraying a playful Dubliner named "Bang Bang," a historic character known for using a church key as a mock pistol to stage faux shootouts on Dublin's streets. The larger point is that the divide between a fantasy and a tragedy can be extremely tenuous.
Kearns' poetic writing runs into occasional conflicts with Mark Bringelson's spartan staging, and its cavalier male nudity. That staging decision offers a diversion from the play's inherent morbidity, and tests the balance between Kearns' earnest investigation of emotions and the production's sexual pandering. I'm sure the latter makes for savvy marketing, but it also delivers the perception that the play's dark areas need buffing with, well, buff.
Over in North Hollywood, Zombie Joe's Underground has created a cottage industry out of treating violent and gruesome death throes with jocularity, in pieces such as Urban Death. Here, the theater founder's own work, Witch Ball, contains much winking at the devil, as it follows a cobalt-blue ball containing "evil, good and neutral spirits," which occasionally break free and wreak havoc, from the Carpathian Mountains through ancient Romania into Nathaniel Hawthorne's Salem, Massachusetts, abode, then west to contemporary California.
The play resembles Leslie Boehm's 1993 movie Twenty Bucks, which, in a similar fashion, follows the trajectory of a single 20-spot and the characters who possess it and pass it along. Here, however, the cobalt-blue witch ball tests the stresses of paganism versus Christianity among those who contact it.
Under Roger K. Weiss and Nancy Woods' co-direction on the bare black stage, the ensemble of seven players and three narrators is occasionally rough around the edges, but the spectacle largely sustains from the intrigue of keeping up with the swift-moving action, and the glee with which the production races across continents and eras. The barefoot players' colorful linen costume pieces and cobalt-tinged, glittery makeup add to what's at core a sense of humor. There's no nudity; rather, the actors ooze sexuality in the way they slither and seduce with a gaze. As in Bang Bang, sex also meets death, but here that meeting is as wry and buoyant as a fairy tale.
GO! Bang Bang at Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica; through April 25. (310) 315-1459, highwaysperformance.org
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GO! Witch Ball at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; through May 9. (818) 202-4120, zombiejoes.tix.com
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