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Flashes in the Pan

In the late ’80s, on Beverly Boulevard a few blocks east of CBS Television City, stood a relic, the Pan Pacific Auditorium -- a looming, cavernous, boarded-up shell of a former public-entertainment center. To hop the chainlink barricade and crawl through the gaps in the building‘s wooden shutters on any given afternoon in 1989 was to enter an archaeological site, a haunted house of spiders and shadows and streaks of dust-filled sunlight. Where once had been the floor of a bowling alley and movie theater were gravel and broken glass (albeit some of the bowling lanes were still intact), and to shout was to hear one’s voice in triplicate. Foraging through the rubble there, I came upon a Coca-Cola bottle the likes of which hadn‘t been produced in 30 years; a rusted California license plate at least that old; a plywood poster, half caked in mud, for a Spencer Tracy movie; some empty film canisters; and hundreds of feet of celluloid, sprawled on the ground like the intestines of some slaughtered animal. The Pan Pacific was a kind of Hagia Sofia of Tinseltown, a decrepit monument to the sundry civilizations that had come to worship thousands of years -- no, make that a few decades -- earlier. (Such is history in our amnesiac pop culture.)

I was also there when, a few months later, a fire crew punched holes through the roof in an attempt to douse the flames that would soon engulf the building’s vaulted husk. As black billows poured out over the Fairfax District, it was evident that, in L.A. time at least, an entire era had just gone up in smoke.

Watching Lypsinka! The Boxed Set (at the Tiffany Theater on the bounce from New York City‘s Westbeth Theater Center), you might easily imagine that creator and performer John Epperson, a.k.a. Lypsinka, scavenged those strips of film, along with some old 78 rpm records, from sites like the Pan Pacific in order to create a kaleidoscopic collage of show-tune excerpts and scenes from old flicks -- an entirely lip-synched solo drag act as haunting as it is haunted.

On the surface, The Boxed Set is merely the latest -- and, in part, recycled -- entry in the 10-year repertoire of the ruby-lipped redhead, who dresses up here in late-’40s slacks or summer dresses (costumes by Bryant Haven) and, with high-society elegance (there‘s none of Jackie Beat’s shadow-butching here), shows off her lightning-flash physical agility as she jumps from song sliver to movie scene and back again. With its speaker-rattling decibel level, the show actually assaults us with recorded snippets from Sunset Boulevard, Gypsy, Carrie et al., in which we hear the ghost voices of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Stanley, Faye Dunaway, Marilyn Monroe and the other famous femmes Lypsinka silently impersonates.

Beneath the veneer, however, it becomes evident that this is neither a string of parodies nor a walk down memory lane for former drama majors. After perhaps 15 minutes, we notice how, under Kevin Malony‘s direction, Lypsinka is slinking, not snapping, from highlight to highlight, shoulders stooped, with an expression somewhere between droll and contemptuous, as her celebrity spirits keep intruding, relentlessly. The subtle mocking gestures -- a neck thrust forward, an indignant sweep of the hand -- seem more and more to be perfunctory, so that The Boxed Set becomes a show not so much about sending up show-biz icons as it is about replicating the artifices for which we remember and record them, reminding us of how the history of our culture is largely a history of style, of how the speed or angle of a head turn, the framing of a line, the flinging of a hem, the pacing of a song, can come to embody people and whole eras, both recalled and reinvented. If Hollywood is as influential as people in Hollywood like to believe, if her icons are role models and a foundation for identity (including gender identity), Lypsinka’s strategically disaffected performance suggests we‘re on our way to becoming . . . no one.

For The Boxed Set is more about crisis than it is about celebration, more about fakery, smoke and mirrors than it is about character. At least three times in this 70-minute set piece, Mark T. Simpson’s lights home in on Lypsinka‘s terrified face. The first time this happens, her head becomes trapped inside a spider’s web that visually revolves ever more quickly around her. And no wonder she‘s alarmed: Here she is, a man in women’s dress, forging a persona out of Hollywood‘s phantoms. Is this any way to “be somebody”?

Rick Sparks’ fine direction of his and Gary Carter‘s adaptation of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? treats Horace McCoy‘s 1935 novel (still famous today thanks to Sidney Pollack’s 1969 film adaptation) about a Depression-era dance marathon on the Santa Monica Pier as a tender act of archaeological reconstruction, absent Lypsinka‘s layers of irony. Not that Sparks doesn’t know how to take a decade and run with it: His staging of Doug Field‘s satire of ’50s sexual repression, Down South, which premiered locally last season at the Complex, is now slated for an off-Broadway run later this year.

In a philosophical melding of The Lower Depths and Day of the Locust, a group of Hollywood wannabes with nothing better to do enroll in an elimination contest for either the cash prize -- a reward for staying on one‘s feet for the better part of a month -- or the complimentary sandwiches and bunk beds provided during the fleeting breaks. Set designer James Eric has bifurcated the audience into two bleachers facing each other on opposite sides of the dance floor and separated from it by railings. Extended from one end are the dressing rooms, the bunks and, on an upper platform, the promoter’s office.

The endurance contest is of course a metaphor for a metaphor -- for Hollywood and, by extension, for a society that capitalizes on the desperation and misery of its inhabitants. Contestants in mothballed sweaters (fine costumes by Shon LeBlanc) are indebted to sponsors who have a financial stake in their clients‘ agony. One such sponsor (understudy James Distefano) keeps his ward (Emma Warg) going with cocaine and reefer. Weeks into the marathon, as contestant James (Steven Ruge) goads his exhausted and very pregnant wife (Whitney Weston) to keep running in circles during the “derby” -- a humiliating human horse race gazed upon by bejeweled Hollywood royalty -- the sight of a Wrigley’s gum poster suspended over these grim proceedings is a piquant touch indeed. Later, the management offers $50 bonuses to couples who pledge to marry on the floor (“You can divorce later”), and a fellow named Chester (David Bicha), lodged in a cube of ice and wheeled around the floor as part of the freak show, keeps testifying through his shivers that he‘s doing fine, all the while making public-service announcements on behalf of his sponsors. Meanwhile, the central couple, seen-it-alldone-it-all Gloria from Texas (Gretchen German) and wide-eyed hayseed Robert from Arkansas (Paul Marius -- imagine Bill Clinton at 20), stumble into a shadow of a romance, but serve mostly as witnesses to the horrors.

The culmination of which is an utterly implausible pseudo-tragic gesture by Robert (given the way his character unfolds in the play) performed valiantly nonetheless in the service of the potboiler genre. No directorial comment from Sparks: He lets it through in the larger interest of historical veracity, like a paleontologist choosing to exhibit a skeleton with missing bones.

In so doing, McCoy’s romantic fakery lies exposed, providing evidence of why his good novel is not a great one, and how quickly “style” ages. What‘s an actor to do with a line like the one from Robert that closes Scene 6: “We are all drawn west . . . and now we’ve come as far as we can go. We stand on a bluff over the Pacific. Now there is only one thing to do. Spread our wings and fly.” Marius recites it with a Clintonesque earnestness, and with his fingers crossed that the audience won‘t giggle.

Antaeus Theater Company was robbed a couple of weeks ago during a break-in that cost it a number of power tools and, most wrenchingly, handmade commedia masks valued at $5,000. Any assistance in recovering the lost property will be welcome. Antaeus can be reached at (818) 506-5436.


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