From the first line of Christhelmet, you know you're in for something special in this gritty, great new musical written, directed by and starring Matthew Posey at his 40-seat Ochre House Theatre. "There's gonna be a lot of feelings felt this summer," warns Rosie (Dante Martinez), the jaded barkeep of a lowdown dive somewhere in the bowels of Los Angeles.
So set 'em up, Ro. He's got a little story he wants us to know. It starts on the morning after the night before, when all manner of ugliness erupted in the gloomy drinking spot. Fights are entertainment among Rosie's regulars, but stabbings are a new turn. The worst that usually happens is when neighborhood heavy Athalgarde Christhelmet (Posey, in full white beard, giving his character the best name in any new play this year and giving a mesmerizing performance) roughs up scrawny Horsy John (Mitchell Parrack) for not paying the vig to a never-seen loan shark named Penny. Horsy John is a blackout drunk who spends every extra dime on numbing juice. He's never going to get that debt squared.
There is no happy hour at Rosie's, merely long days of boozy misery for those who wobble unsteadily onto its bar stools. (Scenic artist Isaac Davies has created a bar set that keeps magically shape-shifting.)
Continues through July 26 at Ochre House, 825 Exposition Ave. Tickets, all $15, are at 214-826-6273.
Patron Karl (stunningly authentic Bryce Jensen) is a tiddley old queen who sips Rob Roys and bursts into tears at the mention of his AWOL lover, François. Heavily pregnant single girl Donna Mañana (Marti Etheridge Schweitzer) swigs white wine as a flagrant eff-you to the fetus. Arnie (Kevin Grammer) stumbles in wearing a hospital gown, having escaped treatment for pancreatic cancer just long enough to step beyond "the vodka curtain." His daughter Chelsin (Cassie Bann) chases after him and ends up passed out on martinis. Mystical street-izen Mary Tonto (Carla Parker), clad in layers of filth printed with images of Bugs Bunny, begs for a drink and summons storms from the heavens when her crumpled dollar is refused.
And everybody sings.
Posey, that crazy-prolific genius, has created his best new show since Mean, his 2012 musical about Charlie Manson. Like Christhelmet, it was set in a So-Cal bar populated with sorry souls. But if Mean felt like a rockabilly Helter Skelter, Christhelmet is The Iceman Cometh singing the blues and in only two (not four) acts. Every performance is sharp. No clichés. No easy choices. They all seem to get drunker with every swallow. You can almost smell their stale breath as the actors get right up in the faces of the front rows in the intimate Ochre House.
In O'Neill's epic, down-and-outers drink their lives away, sharing pipe dreams over cheap shots. Posey's characters also get a chance to share their hopes and dreams, but in song. "Whiskey Is My Jesus," sings sick, desperate Arnie. In the bouncy "I've Got This," preggo Donna sings "I've got danger in my manger," as the men at the bar blow into beer bottles like flutes. (The three-piece band led by Donna Valone on guitar is tight. Stefan González plays congas and vibraphone; Trey Pendergrass is on keyboards and drums. The trio also composed the music to Parrack and Posey's original lyrics.)
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These songs aren't the soaring ballads and happy patter numbers of typical musical theater. Posey's songwriting style is dark, almost Shakespearean with a dash of Weill, with odd interior rhymes and syncopated rhythms. He's not a great singer — think sleepy Tom Waits — but he performs with hypnotic intensity, particularly on the end-of-show "White Window."
Schweitzer is the one cast member who can sing on key, but no matter. Christhelmet will remind you of Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective, in which oddball characters suddenly burst into song to reveal things about themselves that mere dialogue can't express.
What characters say in Christhelmet can be pretty damn funny, too. "It's bizarro world!" shrieks Karl. "Everything is topsy-pervy!" He also wonders "Death, where is thy thing?"
Death, like the unseen villain Penny, lurks in every dusty corner of Rosie's. As in O'Neill's Iceman Cometh, Posey's journey into a jaundiced netherworld will end with redemption and bloodshed. Last call in this joint can be murder.