Weren’t we supposed to be the forward-thinking country that saves the world
from oppression and ignorance? How exactly did we end up aping the cronyism, corruption,
thuggery and doublespeak of the former Soviet Union? If, like me, you feel that
we’ve all crashed through the looking glass in the first five years of this century,
and that who we are as Americans has been upended in some cruel political or even
cosmic joke, there are two comedies on view in different corners of the city you
might enjoy. Both address questions of identity and existence in strikingly literate
and refreshing ways. Both spin from Jacque’s adage inAs You Like It, “All
the world’s a stage,” by commenting on life through the theater. True, theater
homage plays are famously insufferable for their insularity and self-satisfaction,
but none of that exists in either of these works. The most remarkable quality
of both plays, and their productions, is their sense of wonder — uplifting not
because of some plot calculation or theater in-jokes, but because of an open-heartedness
in which the plays themselves acknowledge their omniscient, bewildered playwrights,
who appear to be trying to fathom exactly where the action is headed, even as
it unfolds. The chaos that ensues, rather than being rambling, is as cheerful
as it is artful, reflecting life as a play that’s being written and rewritten
before our eyes — like our new century.
The title character in Tom Jacobson’s Bunbury is an offstage character in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest. He’s little more than a literary reference, a joke turned into a gerund (“Bunburying”) that means visiting a friend in the country for a jolly, gay time. Perhaps because he hasn’t a clue about his subterranean stature in world literature, or who Oscar Wilde is, Bunbury (Sean Wing) is quick to poke fun at an iambic pentameter-spouting female visitor in Renaissance attire who calls herself Rosaline (Ann Noble) and claims to be Juliet’s rival, spurned by a cousin named Romeo. At first Bunbury believes that Rosaline is a practical joke, an actress playing a role in a contrivance set up by his pal, Algernon (Zach Dulli). Bunbury swaggers while Rosaline has difficulty absorbing the meta-literary truth of her below-the-radar existence as a stage character. (She’s also just a reference in a classic who never actually makes an entrance in it. ) Eventually, Bunbury will be equally shaken by his own lack of literary and worldly significance.For these and other reasons, this duo of nonentities stumbles into a Veronese sepulcher for the final act of Romeo and Juliet.In a spontaneous rewrite, Rosaline, in her first and only entrance, saves the doomed, love-struck couple, thereby altering the play forever and securing her place in Shakespearean lore. The effects are profound: Whisked back to his Edwardian era, Bunbury suddenly discovers Lady Bracknell (Peggy Billo) referring to the well-known “romance” (rather than the tragedy) of Romeo and Juliet; inspired by Shakespeare’s optimism, Chekhov sends his three sisters to Moscow in Scene One, resulting in a starkly abbreviated classic. Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire are now studies in salvation and hope. The defining stanza in Edgar Allan Poe’s best-known poem now reads, “Quothe the peacock, anytime.” Godot shows up, and so on. Literature is ruined, but people feel better reading it. Or do they?Though the charm and humor of Jacobson’s conceit never wears off, its failure of internal logic does wear on. Shakespeare wrote a few plays of dubious quality — Titus Andronicus, Timon of Athens,even the wondrous Measure for Measure contains dueling tones of moral indignation and macabre slapstick that give migraines to any self-respecting director. None of this harmed Shakespeare’s influence on subsequent literature. Were Romeo and Juliet added to that suspect list, there would still have been Hamlet and King Lear for Chekhov and Beckett to hang their hats on.And despite the happy endings to As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors,Godot still doesn’t show up, and Chekhov’s three siblings never make it out of the provinces. To pin all that quizzical, comical hopelessness on a pair of teenage Italian suicides just doesn’t support Jacobson’s many magical, romantic ideas: that literature is a time-straddling chain; that the stories we absorb have the capacity to lift us beyond our limitations; that none of us is insignificant — even if we’re denied an entrance on the world stage.Though some of the Brit accents get clogged in the jowls, Mark Bringleson directs an elegant, elemental production with particularly fine performances by Noble, a spunky redhead Rosaline with eyes containing charcoal fire; and Michael Dempsey’s gorgeous turns as soapy Friar Lawrence and delicate, old Algernon. There is one particularly enticing idea that Jacobson does make manifest. It’s really the centerpiece for what Bunbury could become, should Jacobson choose to repair it: For a reason that appears random, Bunbury starts carrying a lily, ambling through and revising literature, like God. Near play’s end, he’s recognized as such by Algernon, now an aging scholar. That Bunbury, the fictional nonentity, is God, contains the duality of the existence and nonexistence of a deity that should satisfy Jesuits and agnostics in the same stage light. It’s a logical extension of Jacobson’s metaphysical musings in Ouroboros, his last play staged at this theater. There, too, pairs of characters got caught in time warps beyond their comprehension; there, too, the shape of things, however loopy they seemed to mere mortals, was actually the intricate, fallible design of a Divinity. If God exists, Jacobson will keep writing, and rewriting, if only to offer some larger purpose for why everything that’s civilized and humane appears to be going up in flames. David Greenspan’s She Stoops to Comedy (at Evidence Room)
takes place around a bed, a curtain and a few chairs. It also takes couples and
spins them, as though in a bingo wheel, just to see what comes out. John Fleck,
whose resemblance to a hyperactive farm boy with a dual personality plays perfectly
into his portrayal of a lesbian diva of tragic drama, Alexandra Page, whose rocky
relationship with a musical comedy buff, Alison Rose (cherubic blond Dorie Barton),
gets seriously tested when Alison takes the role as Rosalind in a summer-stock
production of As You Like It. After the production’s Orlando gets snatched
up by Hollywood, Alexandra auditions for and (of course) gets the part, having
glued on arm hair to disguise herself as “Harry Sampson” in order to reunite with
her beloved, estranged Alison. A man playing a woman playing a man trying to win
back her female lover is a gleeful riff on Shakespeare that takes gender bending
to heights of frivolity and delight, and Fleck’s bipolar approach is amazingly
persuasive and kinetic. Enter Kay Fein (Shannon Holt), who careens between being
an anthropologist and a lighting designer, an identity entirely dependent on which
draft she’s using in any given scene. All of the characters are a bit jittery,
being at the mercy of an indecisive scribe. Kay gets coupled with actress Jayne
Summerhouse, and the expression of mild panic on Holt’s face when realizing they
have a scene together, and that she’s cast in both parts, is actually funnier
than the scene itself. Tony Abatemarco’s perfectly textured, self-pitying, bitter,
AIDS-stricken, alcoholic, sexaholic Simon Languish has an aria with the self-referential
anthem, “Who needs another play about him?” even though the play isn’t actually
about him at all. Simon’s pileup of woe, as he falls in love with Harry (who’s
actually Alexandra with body hair), hangs somewhere in a comedy zone between the
pathetic and the ludicrous.
Bart Delorenzo directs a witty production with performances that spark and flag. Greenspan wrote the play for New York actors he knew, and the tapestry from that kind of homespun yarn is hard to replicate. As in Jacobson’s play, however, its charm is unremitting.For traditionalists, there is a hetero couple: a self-obsessed director, Hal (Sean
Runnette), who’s really trying to make it as an indie filmmaker while staging
the Bard in Maine, and his too-devoted assistant, Eve Addaman (Mandy Freud) —
a name that sums up the essence of Greenspan’s concern. “In the beginning, God
created…” Both Jacobson and Greenspan are trying to fathom what happened next.
BUNBURY | By TOM JACOBSON | Presented by ROAD THEATER COMPANY, 5108 Lankershim
Blvd., North Hollywood | Through Dec. 4 | (866) 811-4111 or www.roadtheatre.org
2220 Beverly Blvd. | Plays indefinitely | (213) 381-7118 or www.evidenceroom.com

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