On a Wednesday night two weeks ago, a human-sized head of happy-looking kale named Salad Bar and a similarly sized pink-and-white bag of popcorn named Donkey, both made of new-looking fabric, made appearances at Echo Park alt space Machine Project. Puppets animated by unidentified individuals whose legs were visible from about the knees down, they sat on the stage in the comically ornate theater that currently takes up Machine’s basement.
The theater’s ornateness is comical mostly because of how it contrasts with the workspace vibe of the main upstairs room, where Machine hosts most events and workshops. You get to it via a winding DIY ladder that leads you right onto the stage or via inauspicious backstairs. So maybe, like visitors on this particular night, who came for a vague preview of Asher Hartman’s new production, Purple Electric Play! (abbreviated PEP!), you’ve been sitting on a folding chair at ground-level listening to informal presentations and watching video teasers on a projector screen. Then you descend into a room where the chairs are well-preserved antiques, mauves and crimsons dominate, and certain fixtures resemble fixtures uncannily resemble those from the small theater Marie Antoinette built at Versailles circa 1780.
Of course, the kale and popcorn puppets, characters in PEP!, are more overtly comical than the theater itself. But if Hartman’s past work is enough of a clue, both puppets’ cheeriness will become more complicated not far into the production. And when it turns out that Salad Bar has a conflicted interior life, this probably won’t seem absurd or trivial.
Machine Project has backed four of the six performances Hartman — a playwright who also directs, paints and works as a psychic — has written since 2010, and it hosted this preview to raise excitement in hopes of raising more money to pay cast and crew. At this point, their IndieGogo campaign is about halfway to its $10,000 goal.
Machine’s founder-director Mark Allen sees Hartman’s work as dealing with “complex forms of affect,” or the hard-to-describe feelings complicated experiences cause, better than much else he’s encountered, and he wants to bring Hartman’s work to bigger audiences. His works include See What Love the Father has Given Us, a booby-trapped whirlwind in which God and Jesus worked at Circuit City; and Glass Bang, in which audiences followed performers around Neutra’s Mulholland Drive Lovell House (at one point, an audience member was asked to climb into bed with two actors). They ran for just a weekend or two, while PEP! will last for more than a month — even people who aren’t already in the know should be able to get tickets. (Update: Actually, all the tickets appear to be sold out.)
The cast members were all present at the preview/fundraiser, which, with the exception of the puppets, included no actual performances — the play wasn’t ready yet, and, even if it had been, Hartman probably wouldn’t have wanted to give anything away. Philip Littell, who has a distintive beard and thin mustache and a long history in experimental theater, made a pitch for the play in which he described himself as Hartman’s “Eve Harrington.” Like the protagonist of All About Eve, he says, he’s been insinuating himself into the life of his idol (Hartman) ever since seeing a Hartman play at the Santa Monica performance space Highways two years ago. Hartman, who often knows who his performers will be before he knows what a script will entail, initially wrote PEP! for Littell and Jasmine Orpilla, the striking, black-haired actress who played God as a sometimes-vulnerable seductress who could instantly transform into a bastion of power in See What Love.
Hartman started his writing process by sitting in the theater when it was built a year ago, channeling the energy. (“It helps that Asher is unembarrassed completely about his other career as a psychic,” Littell observes.) He saw alabaster legs with marzipan toes and a man with flaming hands who had been tortured. This prompted him to research the French Revolution, and the play became an exploration of the creative class’ relationship to revolution and violence. It has no clear time frame. The costumes evoke the 1970s. References include 18th-century France, Johnny Cash and Simon Cowell.
The way Hartman writes, his script changes constantly in response to working with the actors. “I sort of developed the text on them,” he says of Littell, who would play the Star, a traditional celebrity, and Orpilla, who would play the Vital Organ, an entertainer who becomes a revolutionary.
“What I like about Asher is that he’s an outsider,” Littell says. Hartman studied theater as an undergraduate at UCLA, studied art as a CalArts grad student and transitioned from painting to performing and playwriting.
“There’s no, ‘We-know-how-to-do-it’ feeling. With Asher, you build the tools together to build the frame,” Littell continues. “I feel very honored always in the working process.”
Kalean Ung, who came on to be Orpilla’s understudy, has worked with Critical Mass Performance Group and other experimental troupes. She attended a few rehearsals before getting an in-depth email from Hartman explaining that he had decided to write a new character for her. The Vital Organ, who openly embraces violence as a tactic, needed an alter ego (also called the Vital Organ) who feels more conflicted about violence’s efficacy, Hartman felt. The Audience, played by Joe Seely, was added to the script, too, as were the puppets.
“It feels organic, like it comes from the group,” Ung says of the way the play has developed, but that doesn’t mean she entirely understands what’s happening. “I feel like I’m growing into this beast of a piece.”
The rehearsal process is like a game of trial and error, trying out different inflections and personas until the words and actions start to feel right together.
As of press time, the always-changing script ends in an intense crescendo that includes a pop ballad and the brutal beating of a puppet. “There’s no takeaway message. It’s more of a struggle,” Hartman says.
But, as with past performances, See What Love especially, he’s making a conscious effort to keep the unpredictability and ambiguity from feeling arduous or alienating, and trying to get the time to less than an hour and a half. “There’s a constant reframing,” he says. “Every scene is quick. The mood changes. Action happens all around you.”
Machine Project, 1200-D N. Alvarado St., Echo Park (213) 483-8761, machineproject.com.
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