It has become something of a commonplace since Hamlet first uttered the precept that the purpose of acting is "to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature."
Argentine theater auteur Mariano Pensotti deconstructs this idea in dizzying fashion in "Cineastas," a conceptually rambunctious performance work now at REDCAT through Saturday. By the end of this one-hour, 45-minute collage, you might suspect that Shakespeare's proverbial mirror is of the fun house kind, reshaping reality under the guise of simply reflecting it.
The production, written and directed by Pensotti, employs schematic divisions only to confound them. On a two-tiered set designed by Mariana Tirantte, who also did the costumes, the artistic passions and struggles of four filmmakers are pursued to the point where it's no longer possible to say which is more real, the life or the work.
On the ground floor of the staging, these fictional filmmakers grapple with the problems, personal and professional, of realizing their cinematic visions. On the upper level the visions sputter to life with jocular buoyancy, a product of perseverance, accident, interference and bumbling trial and error.
The four artists cover various niches of filmmaking. Gabriel, who is diagnosed with a terminal illness, is a commercially successful director who has come home to Buenos Aires to make a Hollywood-backed comedy with a Mexican star. Mariela, of Russian ancestry and in search of a stable identity, is a cult filmmaker who makes award-winning experimental documentaries.
Lucas is an impoverished filmmaker who works at McDonald's and is devising an anti-corporate film that will avenge himself on his employer. Nadia, burdened by the success of her last film, is stymied in her attempt to write a screenplay for a French producer showering her with money.
It's an admittedly overstuffed cross section, and some of these figures and their fictional projects are blurrier than others. Pensotti, however, would rather his stories sputter and spin than straightforwardly unfold.
As with his "El Pasado Es un Animal Grotesco" (The Past Is a Grotesque Animal)," his production tracing the divergent destinies of young would-be bohemians in and out of Buenos Aires that was presented at REDCAT in 2012, "Cineastas" is more attuned to resonance and ironic counterpoint than to conventional plot development.
His latest piece, performed in Spanish with English supertitles, complexly explores the dynamic relationship between artists and their subjects — the wayward, unpredictable tango of storytelling and self-expression.
Pensotti doesn't so much build his thematic material as exhaust it. A more concentrated form would have intensified the work's potency — and perhaps limited some of the more didactic touches.
Fortunately the production bounces forward with jaunty vigor. An ensemble of five actors not only flits between characters but also between dramatization and narration. (Microphones are picked up by multitasking actors who comment on the tale as they advance it.) Unfazed by the swirling sprawl, the performers derive energy from the quirky tilts of Pensotti's imagination.
The movie dreamed up by the disaffected fast-food worker — centering on a kidnapped man who's tortured with hamburger meat and forced to don a Ronald McDonald clown suit — is the deranged comic pinnacle. Gabriel's race against mortality provides emotional ballast.
Moviemaking is defined at one point as the attempt "to make time stand still." But of course it's the crazy flux that characterizes human existence — a contradiction this spirited theater piece valiantly sets out to capture.
Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., L.A.
When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Ends Saturday
Info: (213) 237-2800, http://www.redcat.org
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes