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Grand Illusions

Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog is a perfect little musical for Los Angeles theater -- not because it‘s a perfect production, but because it’s about the perennial struggle to be taken seriously. It also happens to be quite a bit of fun.

Produced by Circle X Theater Company, which likes to use its grubby thespian paws to grapple with history, lunatics and the way the two collide, Laura Comstock is a new work conceived and written by two of the company‘s founding members, Jillian Armenante and Alice Dodd. This is the same duo responsible for the goofy goth-lit theatrical compendium In Flagrante Gothicto, which walked away with a bucket of awards a couple of years back, including this paper’s nod for playwriting. In that production, Armenante directed Dodd in a central role, as in Laura Comstock, and also as in the 1998 production that put Circle X on the L.A. theater map, Glen Berger‘s comedy Great Men of Science, Nos 21 & 22. The new musical reinvents Great Men’s obsession with the frenzied industriousness of inventors competing with both time and each other in order to accomplish something worth remembering -- much the same incentive for a theater company in a film-company town. Firmly embedded in its heart is the humiliation that comes from scrambling for recognition.

Set at the turn of the century, in the formative years of filmmaking, Laura Comstock is about the movie business, with its attendant themes of fame and immortality, and the absorption of art by commerce. Yet this is not one of those Merton of the Movies--type satires of some studio or indie shoot. Rather, it‘s about bursts of light, one picture after the next, that generate an illusion of motion that isn’t really motion at all. It‘s about sleights of hand and the vaudeville magic-act roots that the movies share with Broadway. The stage is populated by mostly French loons -- cinema pioneers the likes of Georges Melies, the Lumiere brothers, the wife and son of Louis Le Prince, the ghost of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdini, and the play’s centerpiece, Alice Guy (played by Dodd), who was the inventor of narrative moviemaking.

Guy directed over 300 films, and as the first female studio head played some part in the making of 400 others. She spent the later years of her life trying to find and salvage the body of her work, celluloid that was melting into oblivion. And when she died in 1968, at the age of 95, not one American newspaper carried her obituary.

Meanwhile, Thomas Edison (Christopher Carroll) has power companies named after him. (You won‘t find a more apt metaphor.) The musical argues that he was miscredited as an inventor, having created nothing except, perhaps, the ability to employ real inventors, and thereby have their creations patented in his name. “Who cares what grease monkey makes it in the lab,” he sings, “I’m the guy who puts it on the slab.”

Armenante and Dodd are not the first to present the theory that Edison, in an attempt to kill his competition, was responsible for the mysterious disappearance of Louis Le Prince, the man who probably invented the motion-picture camera. In Laura Comstock, Le Prince‘s widow and son spend years pleading that the memory of his accomplishments not simply vanish, as if in a hat trick. And though the elder Le Prince filed for a U.S. patent for his camera in 1886, and was granted a British patent in 1888, speculation remains over whether Le Prince’s contraption ever actually projected an image. The U.S. Patent Office granted Edison the first American patent in 1891 for a similar device, naming him the inventor of the movie camera. That “grease monkeys” such as Le Prince and Guy are largely forgotten, while marketers like Edison are household names, is not only emblematic of America‘s higher regard for commerce than for creation, it is the primary source of Laura Comstock’s rabid indignation.

Though the production‘s drama may lie with such cosmic injustices, its primary appeal derives from its innate theatricality. Circle X has never appeared to have any money in its coffers, which has compelled a kind of stagecraft that depends on lights and shadows and puppets and sundry battery-operated claptrap, the heady whimsy of which has become the company’s calling card. Here, actors in Paul Spadone‘s circus-act costumes drape sheets on Gary Smoot’s atypically open set (scenes sometimes appear stranded in the cavernous theater), crowds gather and glimmers of light and shadow trick us into a willing deceit -- the reality of orchestrated, breathtaking mirages, including archival footage from Melies‘ Trip to the Moon and spectacles of natural wonder captured by the Lumiere brothers.

Gerry McIntyre’s campy choreography could have come from a Busby Berkeley musical, and Chris Jeffries‘ charming, vaguely melodious music and lyrics play on some fuguelike and quirky rhythmic juxtapositions (additional lyrics by Armenante and Dodd, piano accompaniment by musical director Paul Hepker). Vocally, the production is seriously wanting, which raises larger questions about membership ensembles staging musicals when they have a dearth of singers. But the problem is fortunately mitigated by the chorales, which draw their strength from numbers.

Laura Comstock transfers a motif from early film to the continuum of history: “many little moments strung together,” as sung by a chorus. This fuses beautifully into the very structure of short, jumpy scenes, some of which seem to bear little narrative relation to what follows, though they do in the abstract. The effect is that of a flip book of cartoon sketches. Each character is little more than an attitude -- grief, ambition, chicanery. Which leads to the strange observation that Dodd’s sweetly charismatic Alice Guy, or Carroll‘s sleek, bullying Edison, or the clowning, antic Joe Fria and Tim Sabourin as the Lumiere brothers, are in the service of a machine that’s larger than any of their singular talents. The musical‘s central idea lies not in anybody’s character or plight, but in the collisions of attitudes and people -- as through the quick-turn slapping of pages, you might see some motion, you might not, for motion is in the eye of the beholder.

John Lovick‘s strategically anti-theatrical Ghost of Houdini, for instance, never interacts with anybody else and continually interrupts the action with excellent magic tricks for no apparent reason. “All life’s a circle,” he announces deadpan, shrugging off his own platitude, while pulling out a quintet of copper rings. Somehow he interlinks and separates them, and then makes some rubber balls disappear. It‘s all an allegory for the unfathomable workings of the world, which no longer impress him. He is dead, after all: rubber balls and people, here in a flicker of light, gone in the next.

LAURA COMSTOCK’S BAG-PUNCHING DOG | Written and conceived by JILLIAN ARMENANTE and ALICE DODD | Presented by Circle X Theater at the 24th Street Theater, 1117 W. 24th St. (at Hoover) | Through August 25