By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
One prominent stage director in town confessed to me that he found Blood Bondage, the quasi-evangelical vampire saga that marked ProgreXssive Arts' first full production last year, perversely enthralling and funny. Any show that climaxes with a battle between an evil mentor bloodsucker with an English accent and a charismatic undead protégé who's founded his own church--with invisible lasers shooting out of their palms, no less--does possess a kind of "genre-blender" appeal. But I felt playwright Jeffrey Seidman and director Vikas Adams had instigated a bit of bait-and-switch. Press materials warned of "adult content," and the show delivered a tame tutorial about Christian redemption. Imagine how Protestant ticketbuyers would feel if a show was advertised as "Christian" and featured little scripture but oodles of profanity and onstage rutting. I happen to think matters of spirituality are just as intimate--probably more so--than sexuality, so c'mon, folks, don't hoodwink me with a sermon.
ProgreXssive Arts has returned with a more professional, seemingly less purposeful and definitely more unconventional staging of Beth Henley's 1996 compilation of playlets known as L-Play. After Blood Bondage, I can't help but hunt for a wise baby in any manger ProgreXssive Arts guides me into. Mississippi-born Henley is not a writer overtly interested in sermonizing, but her scene series based on themes starting with the letter "L" is ambiguous enough so that the desperate can read almost any kind of world view into it. (The show's director Adams insists the play is a puzzle, and his production is littered with design clues to its "solution.") And so it is with anything conceptual: The emphasis on form gives you a vessel into which you can pour anything you want. But if ProgreXssive Arts was trying to save my soul, the clue-ridden message here was so buried in existential chaos I missed it. Actually, L-Play, which has been staged only a handful of times to generally awful reviews, is really just Henley's excuse to string together a series of audition and student-actor scenes. Don't get hung up on the "L" thing--the best of these are tender and tart and eerie in their self-containment. One critic accused the author of willfully trying to discard her Crimes of the Heart/Miss Firecracker popularity, but this show feels more like a playful pause than a complete break from tradition.
Adams has taken an awkward makeshift space--a small classroom at the Bath House Cultural Center--and scrappily used it to accentuate the show's non sequitur weirdness. Audiences sit (or lie) on four mattresses in the middle of the floor while the scenes play in narrow walkways around us. The sensation of being surrounded by some very strange people adds a nice tension to the evening; Adams has guided himself and five other actors to sit on, lean against, lift and rearrange a series of rectangular sculpture stands; lightmeister Jeff Brewer projects planes and rays of shadow and light.
The performers are uniformly punchy and eager to submerge themselves in their brief characterizations. A bespectacled Adams himself is one of the highlights as "Learner," an earnest poetry student determined to infuse art into verse dedicated to a girl he adores named Lucia. Even more impressive is Emily Ko as a bimbo-ish bar girl who's the object of a bet in "Lost"; she returns as a grandmother in a gauzy white eye-mask in "Leaving," bequeathing items from a mysterious box to her inquisitive granddaughter (Claire Wladis).
The other vignettes in L-Play slide bit by bit into deeper quagmires of ponderousness. Audra Oakley's costumes get more outlandish--clown get-up and crutches--as the three-part raving of the appropriately titled "Lunatic" progresses, but we feel Henley spinning her wheels here. "Life" is an outright eye-roller despite its slapstick flourishes, an obtuse creation story with Ko, Wladis, Brad McEntire and Jimmi Wright that turns out to be a destruction fable about the food chain's cruel natural order. This seems to be the closest Henley offers us to a moral--that the weak will be vanquished--but seems more nihilistic than Adams' hints of "puzzles" and "solutions." Whatever ProgreXssive Arts may have up its sleeve, the company has met its basic theatrical responsibility--matched the enigmatic L-Play with performers who find the core of dramatic dilemmas in just minutes.