Chapel Perilous Theatre Ensemble

at Baird Hall


Pillar Studio

Much more a suite than an exercise in counterpoint, A Fugue for Strangers is a set of monologues created by Chapel Perilous Theatre Ensemble out of 12 weeks of writing and movement workshops and rehearsals. An ambitious fusion of densely choreographed mime, movement, and story telling (portentously performed to the music of, among others, Philip Glass) Fugue attempts to create, as Dawn Hillman, one of the six directors, puts it, “a journey of alienated, disjointed souls.”

Disjointed indeed. However intriguing the seven solo speeches (all performed by their writers), Fugue’s whole is less than its parts. Unlike American Blues Theatre’s Monsters III, no theme connects these exercises. The design elements–John Musial’s darkly expressionistic lighting, Whitney Blakemore and Rob Whitaker’s intricate set, and the choreography of Kathy Randels, Hillman, and the ensemble (a mix of tableaux and stylized steps)–promise a more intense and, well, perilous enterprise than we see.

Most successful of the monologues is Nathan Carver’s bittersweet “A Girl in Every Town,” a series of woeful encounters between a traveling salesman and women who have caught on to his line. As directed by Jeff Christian, Carver offers a take on romantic losers that has neatly suited his story to his style.

Kerry Catlin’s “The House,” directed by Mariann Mayberry, spins out a young girl’s abrupt sexual awakening on her birthday. Though her loss-of-innocence monologue breaks no new ground, Catlin’s moment-to-moment intensity convinces so well that the material’s familiarity is no encumbrance.

The same driven story telling lifts David O’Donnell’s “A Story Told” (staged by Kelly Ann Corcoran), a bizarre vignette about a compulsive confessor whose mind has broken since he supposedly saw a flower bloom from buckled pavement; even if his monologue seems stunted by its cryptic poetry, O’Donnell conveys the man’s obsession. Equally perplexing, Meghan Strell’s “New Year’s Resolution” depicts a Chicago woman with a strange spiritual link to her songwriting brother in New York; in Hillman’s staging the story seems less consequential than Strell’s impassioned delivery of it.

Sometimes, sharp observation isn’t enough. “Something for Nothing,” by Marie Vlasin, is a crisp caricature of an obnoxious Starbucks customer who, lonely for contact and hopeful of extorting a free bag of coffee from the beleaguered barista, holds up the line as she tells the story of her life. Lisa Herbert’s staging brings out the woman’s nastiness–the challenge would be to suggest the pathos beneath.

Two pieces are weird without being compelling. In “Bullet of Revenge,” Brad Light athletically impersonates, of all things, a bullet. Just before it kills its victim the projectile takes on the rage of its shooter. In Jay Paul Skelton’s staging Light takes a long, long time to reach this point, thus providing another reason for gun control–to curtail the speeches of boring bullets. Finally, in “Dr. Strangemutt or How I Learned to Love the Dog,” an ardent rant by Dennis McNitt, a frantic dog lover compares the breeding of dogs for viciousness to DNA alteration. It goes over the top a bit too calculatedly, but if boiled down should make a great audition speech.

The theater’s air-conditioning is barely felt.

If ever a bunch of Angelinos worked overtime to earn the Big One (no less than eight on the Richter scale), the male denizens of Hurlyburly do. An endurance feat that’s catnip for actors but can be bread and water for an audience, David Rabe’s bilious 225-minute epic anatomizes four Hollywood phonies and the spiteful, petty, misogynistic, solipsistic world they’ve assembled out of countless cool cruelties.

Rabe’s prime self-made victim is Eddie, a casting director who confesses he’s “distracted by myself” (as if identity is some kind of encumbrance). Elaborately self-alienated, Eddie has achieved mastery as a passive-aggressive manipulator, a ranter who imagines that the world’s wrongs (like the neutron bomb) will extenuate his own calculated meanness. Eddie, his nihilistic roommate Mickey, and their lethally unhappy actor friend Phil have turned each other into so much “background,” the foreground being their empty, resume-ridden lives.

Impressively, Rabe can laugh at characters who fester before our eyes. But his chief feat is to create a tour de force out of the obvious. It’s not news that Hollywood encourages self- absorbed, self-hating, game-playing, power-crazed, and emotionally stunted opportunists. Hurlyburly, Speed-the-Plow, and The Road to Nirvana have milked this cow dry.

Of the four Hurlyburlys I’ve seen, only the star-studded premiere at Goodman Studio Theatre conveyed the coked-out enervation of Rabe’s disillusioned bullies, mired as they are in mid-life crises and career corruption. At the other extreme, Cactus Theatre’s strong version presented them with a manic, desperate edge; their self-destructiveness was almost infectious.

Pillar Studio’s revival lies somewhere between burned-out and wired. It’s energized by a young cast’s eagerness to pursue the plot over various cliffs, but their youth keeps them from exploiting the characters’ self-satire; much in Shannon Stepan’s staging is taken too literally to serve the humor. The play also requires but hasn’t been given psychological camouflage–quirky grace notes distinguishing one character’s despair from another–to disguise the fact that Hurlyburly is talky to the point of overwriting and makes its case far too early.

A young actor who at first seems too casual to convince, Michael Shannon plays Eddie with mumbling distractedness, an affectless deadpan from a dead soul. It turns out to be a shrewd choice when Shannon finally explodes.

The other powerhouse performance belongs to Mark Vallarta, who depicts violent Phil as someone so out of sync with life he finally stops trying to connect. The violence Phil commits is just a more open, perversely honest version of Eddie and Mickey’s cerebral hostility.

Creating more of an ordeal than even Rabe intended, the fifth-floor theater is not air-conditioned.