MORE

Pas de Mort

Photo by Taso PapadakisWatching Phinneas Kiyomura’s grim black comedy Lydia in Bed, a viewer will appreciate not only what is on the stage at Theater of NOTE but also what is absent elsewhere in Los Angeles — tough, cruelly funny stories that confront sexual experience with an honesty that might be called full-frontal. Paradoxically, candor is the least-favored value of the titular character, an acting student played with fragile cunning by Millie Chow. Lydia, we learn through one of her many acting-class monologues, comes from a Salvadoran family headed by a Jesuit priest who, during the 1980s, was hounded by the Reagan-backed oligarchy. Or not — everything Lydia says is subject to immediate, if not plausible, denial. (She certainly makes no effort to explain how her father was a Catholic priest.) The play begins with one of those interrogations everyone in America receives and conducts about “roots,” a search for the truth that is both aggressive and trivial. Grave: What are you? . . . Racially. What’s your background? You look . . . are you Hispanic? The Grave here is not a destination but a middle-aged widower who is the emphysemic father of Lydia’s new boyfriend, Bob (Kiyomura), and lover to a local drug dealer named Reesa (Lauren Letherer). He’s played with cynical charm by Phil Ward, who gives Grave a veneer of existential nonchalance that is always cracking under the weight of his selfishness. Almost as soon as Bob begins dating Lydia, who insists on a take-it-slow celibacy, she jumps in the sack with his dad, setting up an Oedipal firestorm that we see coming miles away but have no idea just how it will ignite. Until that explosion, Lydia in Bed swings merrily between a college romance and a psychological autopsy reminiscent of John Steppling’s plays. Bob’s a student at Syracuse University and an artist who, tellingly, only paints on glass. (Set designer T.J. Moore hangs Bob’s abstractions about the stage like giant microscope slides.) His Boy Scout uniform shirt and virginal enthusiasm for Lydia mark him for a naive child, yet, like Reesa, we can’t help but feel protective of Bob. Lydia, however, emerges as a self-hating succubus prone to cutting her arm whenever depressed. Abetted by Dan Jenkins’ moody lighting, the play is smothered by an air of gloom that you might slice with a knife, except that the dialogue does it for you. Kiyomura knows how to write pithy while mostly avoiding the temptation to simply write one-liners. He also shuffles scenes so that one moment is cut off in the middle, then continued later on, often introduced out of chronological sequence. Deep in Act 2 we become aware of a crime that will soon be committed, but this revelation in no way lessens the story’s gnawing tension. Even though the effect sometimes seems contrived, overall it helps build the story’s sense of mystery and forces us into the role of detectives, as we try to figure out who might not be onstage by curtain fall. The play’s main weakness is a second-act drift that unfortunately undermines both the shuffle strategy and the script’s frequent monologues and makes the night’s 80 minutes seem a little longer than necessary. Lydia in bed — really Photo by Kevin Sharp Still, director Sam Roberts has assembled a solid cast that is all the braver when you consider that several members appear nude and simulate sex acts that Roberts stages with a violent choreography. This in itself might not be so novel, but taken together with Kiyomura’s pitiless dialogue, it forces audiences to consider the confluence of lust and violence that always lies just beneath polite conversation. After Reesa punches Grave in bed and he demurs her demand for more sex, she offers a compromise: “Then just give me head. It’s got my blood up, all this provocative behavior.” Letherer turns in a smart portrayal of Reesa, the hard-bitten dealer who pays Grave’s bills, while Ward adroitly plays Grave as a man who is both tormentor and comic foil. Chow, as the eponymous hair-biting nymph, is neurotically sensual while showing us both the need and the danger of truthfulness. “I had a good day in class today,” she says toward the end of her acting class. “A breakthrough. I’m not going to act anymore.” Just when you thought it was safe to put away the lava lamp, along came Shag, a.k.a. illustrator Josh Agle, with his paintings of tiki bars peopled by skinny-tied hipsters and Cleopatra-eyed vixens. It’s easy to see why the Orange County artist has become enormously popular — and shamelessly commercial. (Agle makes Andy Warhol look like Ben Shahn.) His droll tableaux of jet-setting swingers and wolf-headed Lotharios don’t merely replicate the visual tropes of the early, pre-lysergic 1960s, they authentically reflect that period’s hedonistic hubris and embrace of the cool. The Shag canvas is a cocktail napkin come to life with an Esquivel soundtrack. Shag With a Twist, a collaboration between the artist and San Pedro City Ballet, marks an extension of the “shagsthetic” to dance. Twist, currently playing at the Los Angeles Theater Center, is a murder mystery — or more accurately, a party set against the backdrop of a murder. Hosts Othal and Eldon (Katie Russell and Jamie Benson) throw a cocktail soiree whose organizing principle is the couple’s brightly colored Tupperware collection. One by one their guests arrive — angular, big-haired figures straight from Planet Shag. Among them are a seductress named Kitty (Katie Malia) and Dodge (Jordi Ribera), the kind of swarthy operator who used to be called a Latin lover. When guest Slinky (Ashia Myers) is found murdered — a giant corkscrew protrudes from her back — the suave but somewhat bumbling Inspector Sergay (Shell Bauman) arrives on the scene with a fez-wearing monkey named Mr. Cuddles (Raul Machorro). Created by Shag and director-choreographer Cynthia Bradley, this wordless show is a wry and stylish tribute to the painter’s playful artistry. While composers Chris Lang and Cesar Benitez’s deep lounge score is suitably breezy, costumer Joel Berlin is Jesuitically faithful to Shag’s visual vocabulary (Kitty wears a cat-eared hair band and come-hither tail) and the young, 15-member dance ensemble performs with athletic gusto. Twist has no shortage of sight gags — in one scene, a coroner (Jesse Schoem) performs an autopsy on Slinky as though the procedure were a life-sized version of the game Operation. The question is, why is so much talent spread on such a kitschy vision? Josh Agle’s prolific line of canvases, bar accessories and stationery may be disarmingly cute, but come on — it’s not as though people recall where they were when they saw their first Shag. Almost equally as puzzling is why the 80-minute show has an intermission — or for that matter, a second act. Everything that needs to be known and shown appears in Act 1 — the rest of the evening seems forced and comes with a couple of false endings. (Mayor Hahn, who attended opening night, fled with his aides during intermission. Perhaps he’d read the script.) There are more than a few similarities between Twist and choreographer Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words, which opened a month later at the Ahmanson Theater. Both Shag and Bourne share an obsessive interest in 1960s fashion and are perceptive scenarists working without a book, but Twist is the less-theatrical work. As a narrative expression, it is a wisp of cotton candy, and even the producing company, Jetsetter Productions, seems to lack basic theater smarts — which may explain why the opening-night show began 45 minutes late and the house had no ushers to herd the hundreds of people away from the free-cocktail lanai bar set up in the lobby. Shag With a Twist’s Achilles heel may simply be its retro aesthetic. Audiences can only invest so much interest in a work that is essentially a celebration of mimicry. (Even the critically acclaimed Play Without Words betrays a certain banality of style over content.) More important, even though retro has become such a given in the world of fashion and entertainment, it remains a sterile construct, an altar of imitation and mugging. There have been notable stage works based on the works of graphic artists, particularly cartoonists. Shows like You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, based on the Charles M. Schulz strip, Peanuts, and American Splendor, inspired by the comic books by Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb, brought their source material into three-dimensional life; Shag With a Twist, however, merely echoes a hollow worship of nostalgia and, at best, perfectly anticipates the past.LYDIA IN BED | BY PHINNEAS KIYOMURA | At Theater of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood | Through June 4 | (323) 856-8611 SHAG WITH A TWIST | BY JOSH AGLE and CYNTHIA BRADLEY | Jetsetter Productions at the Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown | Through June 11 | (888) 515-7424