Poison Nut Productions

at the Rudely Elegant Theater


at the Rudely Elegant Theater

Angel City is quintessential early Sam Shepard–which means it’s virtually impossible to explain rationally. Shepard’s plays are always firmly entrenched in myth and archetypes; but in his early works the myths crash and explode around the stage with no apparent rhyme or reason, the characters spewing lyrical mumbo jumbo in some surrealistic landscape steeped in testosterone. And always there’s some kind of cowboy, a man from and of the desert, a romanticized version of Shepard himself.

In Angel City the cowboy’s name is Rabbit, and the landscape is a futuristic vision of Los Angeles in the style of Blade Runner. Rabbit’s been called to Hollywood by a movie mogul named Wheeler and his sidekick, Lanx. He’s traveled there by horse and buckboard (Rabbit refuses to fly), equipped with Native American pouches of magic; he’s stopped off at every mission along the way to pray and has no idea what he’s in LA to do.

Rabbit has a reputation as a shaman, a healer, and it’s suggested that he’s helped folks in the movie biz before. But this time Rabbit is required to perform a miracle, and he can’t leave until he does. In the process he’s forced to confront his identity–he’s a trickster, a sham, an artist with no real power. Finally, overcome by his vision of LA, Rabbit is sucked into the power structure there, which he loathes.

Angel City is more a play of dreams and ideas than of action. There are through lines–the most cohesive is Wheeler’s physical deterioration and eventual metamorphosis into a lizard–but if you hang on to the story too tightly, you miss the point. Shepard paints pictures with stage images, language, and music (the script calls for tympani and saxophone performances), and he requires the audience to put it all together as best they can. It’s easier to feel what this play is about than to know it.

The basic themes of Angel City, however, are quite clear. It is essentially a condemnation of Hollywood and of America’s preoccupation with the movies. There is a brilliant scene (well staged by Poison Nut Productions) in which one of the characters repeats over and over, with slight variations, “Hey, what do you say we go to the movies?” Although it’s said benevolently–in this production the character is almost like a suburban dad–the sheer repetition seems to twist the words into a threat. The movies, Shepard seems to be saying, are sapping America’s life force. And Los Angeles, in turn, is sucking the life out of its artists.

The function of the artist is Angel City’s second major theme–and in some ways it’s the more interesting one. Rabbit is clearly Shepard’s stand-in, a shyster shaman/artist, equal parts true spirituality and pure hokum. Shepard seems to be struggling with his own feelings about working in the motion-picture industry. Of course this theme also dates the play, for Shepard has since become well ensconced in Hollywood–no longer the lonesome cowboy riding into the city of dreams with a woman named Oolang.

Poison Nut Productions presents a technically sparkling but emotionally tame production of this wild and difficult play. Music designer Jeff Mackevich has done an especially remarkable job. He steers clear of the hard-core, down-and-dirty rock/punk usually associated with early Shepard, providing instead an eclectic feast of classical music, 1940s popular tunes, and modern alternative music. The juxtapositions are marvelously jarring–we never know what will come next. The music plays upon both our fantasies that the movies are larger than life and the fact that the industry has become a kind of hell.

Set designer Rob Caldwell has had the advantage of working in the exquisite Rudely Elegant theater/gallery space, which combines class and kitsch with its tastefully strewn objets d’art. The stage is actually an extension of the entire space–there’s no curtain between the lobby and the theater. The stage area itself combines the simple with the complex. The main playing area is sparse, outfitted here with only a high-tech television monitor, a large set of tympani, and a huge leatherette chair. But the oval back window that dominates the room with its beautiful and eerie three-dimensional futuristic cityscape has a ledge that can also serve as a playing area. Lighting designer Anwar Khuri heightens the window’s impact with saturated color changes that completely transform its appearance. Unfortunately Robert Perrone’s merely serviceable costumes don’t meet the creative standards set by the other designers. Rabbit’s costume actually seems to hinder the actor’s task: the only visible signs of his status as a male earth mother are the odd designs on a very corporate-looking trench coat.

Directors Steven Milford and Mark Yoder play with all the levels and dimensions the space offers, and move the actors from real time to dream time with ease. They could have used a fight choreographer, however: the climactic fight scene at the end is disturbingly pallid. The actors have varied success with their roles. The strongest by far is Will Morison’s Tympani, another artist brought in before Rabbit whose rhythms failed to provide the miracle. Although Morison’s playing is limited, his on-the-edge deadpan manner is riveting. And he captures the inertia and frustration of a failed artist who eventually chooses to live in his dreams. Timothy Hutchings is disappointing as Rabbit, in part because he looks so small and boyish. Hutchings portrays Rabbit’s confusion and frustration well, but he’s a long way from the mythic cowboy’s power. Only when Rabbit becomes poisoned by Angel City, in a lively homage to Beetlejuice, does Hutchings show the moxie that should have been there from the start.

Saxophonist Mackevich (who alternates with Scott Rosen) must be applauded. Though he never speaks, Mackevich’s playing is magic; his character provides the mythic qualities that the rest of the cast lack. This saxophonist adds a chilling depth to an already macabre piece.

The Rudely Elegant’s late-night offering, Tales From the Unicorn Rodeo, also aims for the wild and strange. It misses. Storyteller Joshua Safford, coming from “daily performances” in LA and the Renaissance Faire circuit, performs this one-man show.

All the stories involve fantastical creatures: leprechauns, frog princes, monsters. Basically these are folktales with some sex thrown in. If Safford had told only a few, I would have enjoyed them, I think, for he has a winning demeanor and a nice way with a story. But he tells eight of them, rarely altering his story-telling voice or the range of his characters. As the evening wore on he also developed an irritating vocalization, a sort of “hmm” punctuating the end of every sentence.

But most disturbing was the tone of some of the stories. One particularly distressing story was actually quite charming until the end: it involves a leprechaun and an Olympic hopeful and a play on words. But the moral is: “Be careful, because fairies have diseases.” Safford has already used the word to mean both spirit folk and homosexuals, so the double entendre is clearly intentional.

The other distressing piece is Safford’s grand finale, in which a clever idea goes wrong. “Where the Wild Things Are (Metal Max Is 18)” uses the words from Maurice Sendak’s children’s story but elaborates on it with pantomime and props. Max is now 18 and a metalhead, and to him “wild things” are babes. Safford introduces the piece well, with a clear tongue-in-cheek intention. But the piece ends up not mocking but reinforcing every awful sexist stereotype around. I have nothing against dildos onstage, but they’re not inherently funny. And I’m sorry, but blow-up dolls and a dick being bitten off don’t send me into gales of laughter either.

Safford describes his show as “more current and energetic than traditional story telling, but too sweet to be performance art, it falls somewhere in between. In the cracks.”

And that’s where it should have stayed.