Since last year’s launch of the ABC Project, Annie Lesser's poetic explorations of romantic volatility have established her as an accomplished miniaturist in Los Angeles' experimental immersive theater scene. In the ongoing series of 26 one-on-one and two-on-one actor-audience interactive duets, her ABC plays have delivered big emotional wallops that are all the more profound for their relative brevity and almost claustrophobic scale of intimacy.

With C(ovell), the C play of the cycle, which takes its name from its site-specific performance venue — East Hollywood’s Bar Covell — Lesser abruptly reverses direction in both the scale as well as the almost symphonic complexity of her most ambitious and wryly funny work to date. The show has been designed to accommodate 15 audience members and is the first ABC production to incorporate both food (flatbreads, antipasto, cheese) and wine, the latter in tongue-in-cheek drinking games and what often seems like an unending series of head-spinning toasts offered by the play's genial characters (though mineral water is available for the alcohol-averse). A VIP ticket doubles down on the narrative with up-close private encounters and other performance premium takeaways. At three hours and with nine performers, C(ovell) may be compact by Shakespearean standards, but it represents a monumental tribute to the ambitions of Lesser’s expanding immersive alphabet.

The heart of C(ovell) is “The Game,” a mysterious, 90-minute team competition whose rules and purpose seem to get murkier as the evening progresses. Its carefully orchestrated illogic is one of the show’s genuine pleasures. Lesser’s playful, semi-nonsensical lyricism and emotionally wounded comic caricatures evoke the double-edged paradoxes and existential absurdities most associated with Lewis Carroll, beginning with C(ovell)’s equivalent to the Adventures in Wonderland’s plunge into the rabbit hole of the unconscious: “Are you ready to gamble with the unknowable?” cryptic emcee Lena Valentine asks as she guides audience members from the bar’s public room into an interior playing space. “Losers may lose, but winners may lose too, and even if you have the chance to fall, it’s fun to see the great fall with you.”

Terence Leclere as Sad in Annie Lesser's  C(ovell); Credit: Photo by Annie Lesser

Terence Leclere as Sad in Annie Lesser's C(ovell); Credit: Photo by Annie Lesser

Once inside, the audience is free to roam among C(ovell)’s fancifully costumed cast of strolling minstrels, magicians and commedia-painted mystics, who perform off-kilter vaudevilles in a carnival-like preshow. It sets the stage for the game’s blackly comic mediations on the fateful influence that family and trauma stamp on all of our lives.

To that end, Terence Leclere is mordantly hilarious as Sad, the morose, harmonium-playing twin-sibling complement to Dana Benedict’s beaming tap dancer Happy. Their brothers are Scott Sytten’s inept balloon clown and mentalist Dumb, and Orion Schwalm’s harlequin accordionist Klutz, who, contrary to his name, gracefully delivers one of C(ovell)’s two surprisingly affecting original ballads (Leclere is a soulful standout on the other). The animal act of ABC veteran Keight Leighn’s controlling Lion Tamer and Katelyn Schiller’s semi-feral Tiger/Lion give perversely funny new meaning to the concept of identity crisis. Card-trick magician Matt Price and Russian Gypsy fortuneteller Dasha Kittredge round out the cast of engaging Carrollian archetypes.

Though not every idea in C(ovell) always connects, and its level of interactivity can be demanding for its more timid audience members, the sheer fertility and invention of Lesser's script and its unfailing capacity to surprise continue to be the most exhilarating signatures of the ABC Project's impressive output.

The ABC Project at Bar Covell, 4628 Hollywood Blvd., East Hollywood; through April 2. eventbrite.com/e/covell-tickets-31784153258.

LA Weekly