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Review: 'Five Small Fires' fans obscure flames at Bootleg Theater

Fueled by youth and passion, Poor Dog Group toys with the deliberately obscure in “Five Small Fires,” the collective's latest offering at Bootleg Theater.

A group of young cultists, who are being sought by the authorities, have holed up in a community center in Glendale. The space is strikingly bare, save for a few video cameras and microphones -- instruments for streaming the group's post-apocalyptic message over the Internet.

In oblique, poetically charged interchanges, the cultists consistently refer back to a transformative but arcane ritual they recently underwent on a relative's cow farm in Costa Rica. Gradually, the dire and bloody nature of that ritual becomes apparent. 

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Jesse Bonnell, Poor Dog Group's co-founder and the director of this ensemble-created production, has received several prestigious grants and commissions over the last five years of the group's existence, and his creative track record is undeniably impressive.

In recent years, Bonnell and his acolytes – conventional actors they are not – have found inspiration for their performances in Dionysian ritual, and indeed, the post-modern maenads in “Fires” have apparently engaged in dark and revelatory rites down Costa Rica way.

Throughout, the company seems intent on jettisoning any notion of conventional stagecraft. The tiny monitors in Efren Delgadillo Jr.'s spare set are barely visible to the audience, and the actors are apt to cavalierly drop their microphones mid-rant – a jarring effect, as is their tendency to deliver lines pointedly upstage. 

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If all this is intended to suggest that we, the audience, are secondary to the performers' self-absorption, point taken. Yet if Bonnell and his fellow bacchantes aim for a shared sacramental experience, they fall short of the mark. The group's repetitive and aimless antics may transport the actors themselves to a state of meditative bliss, but the audience seems an afterthought in this frustratingly obscure experiment.

“Five Small Fires,” Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Ends March 29. $25. www.bootlegtheater.orgwww.poordoggroup.com, Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

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