It's a warm Saturday afternoon a month before the start of the Hollywood Fringe Festival and LOLPERA is in its first day of rehearsal. Cast members have just finished a run-through of the work's dramatic opening number in the living room of Director Angela Lopez's Long Beach apartment. The word "masterbate," which was sung loudly and repeatedly as part of the chorus, reverberates off the walls.
"Okay, that was good," Lopez casually tells the group, many of who were also a part of LOLPERA's original run at the 35-seat Garage Theatre last October, when it was L.A. Weekly's pick of the week. "Let's try it one more time -- starting from 'Ceiling Cat rode invisible bike over teh waterz.'"
Yes, those are the stage directions, which in this show can't help but sound a little silly. As an opera based on the Lolcats internet meme, LOLPERA's plot, aria, characters and libretto are culled from the wide range of user-generated images that combine photos of cats with overlying text of their grammatically incorrect and adorably poorly spelled thoughts.
In addition to its own universe of jokes, characters and reoccurring references, the Lolcat phenomenon has also spawned a series of dedicated blogs, image generators and a project that translated the entire bible into Lolspeak ("In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem"). In 2009, a New York theater troupe even presented I Can Has Cheezburger: The MusicLOL.
LOLPERA goes beyond Lolcats-influenced things, though, digging deep into the social significance of the Lolcats, turning seemingly innocuous refrains such as "I has a bukkit" and "no mor badz" into existential quandaries, and making one cat's love of "cheezburger" into a metaphor for religious dominance throughout history.
Co-creators Ellen Warkentine and Andrew Pedroza have called it "an experiment in meaning."
"It was a joke at first, like, this is what we are doing with the Internet?" Warkentine says of how she first began writing songs based on the meme's reoccurring characters such as Ceiling Cat, Basement Cat, Happy Cat and Dreamer Cat. "I had a bunch of funny vignettes, but Andrew motivated it past that. We thought, 'Why don't we heighten this thing into a playful opera and make it grandiose?"
The two Temecula transplants have been mind-melding on cheeky musical theater projects since high school when they wrote impromptu scenes during parties and forced their drunk friends to perform them at the end of the night.
Now firmly planted in Long Beach, Warkentine teaches theater at an LAUSD elementary school and Pedroza is a consistent figure in local theater productions. For almost a year, LOLPERA was merely a personal project that the two friends tended to in their down time, with Pedroza sifting through tens of thousands of Lolcat photos and Warkentine penning songs on the unexpected thematic connections they discovered. In October 2010, they workshopped LOLPERA's first act at Long Beach's black-box Garage Theatre and the following year was the full two-hour production. Now it'll be in both the Hollywood Fringe Festival and the New York International Fringe Festival this summer.
Since LOLPERA first premiered with its standard good vs. evil (Ceiling Cat vs. Basement Cat, if you will) premise, a lot has happened on "teh internets." More cat-related memes have inevitably made their rounds -- such as the pixilated video of Nyan Cat shooting a rainbow out of its pop tart body, which has garnered more than 70 million YouTube views. And of course there was the mid-January website blackouts in protest of SOPA and PIPA, two anti-piracy bills that many believed would lead to unnecessary censorship from the government. With two more years of web happenings to work with, Warkentine and Pedroza found another round of allegories embedded in the Lolcat's sagas and are crafting an updated version of LOLPERA to premiere at HFF.
"We're keeping it fast and fun with lots of LOLs, but simplifying and defining things a lot more," Pedroza explains. "Act two will still be bizarre, but more connecting to larger issues like censorship. We'll be playing with fear factors, dystopias, oppression, rebellion and riots. It's about standing up for valuing humanity over technology."
Each line in LOLPERA is accompanied by its corresponding Lolcat photo -- which is projected behind the actors like supertitles at an opera. But the hard part is communicating what the words aren't saying -- and that's where Lopez comes in. After choreographing LOLPERA's first run last year, it was decided her experience with not just dance, but movement in general, was crucial to have in the director role.
"As director, I can get into the nitty gritty of how everyone is moving in relationship to the slides and each other," Lopez says. "The language in Lolpera is so nonsense that in order to tell the whole story you have to aid it because the words don't do much."
A video promoting the show