At first, Erin Courtney's play "A Map of Virtue" presents itself as a quirky love story: Sarah (Megan Branch) and Mark (Sam T. West) stand side by side onstage and deliver alternating accounts of the first time they saw each other, as if answering an unseen interviewer's questions.
They speak hesitantly, naturalistically, with wry humor. If love is a matter of shared interests, they're a perfect match. Both are fascinated by birds and symmetry, obsessions that also run through this experimental drama, which won an Obie Award in New York in 2012 and is being revived here by a new L.A. theater company, Barker Room Rep, at Atwater Village Theatre.
A paranormal event prevented Mark and Sarah from meeting that first day, they explain, but they ran into each other again, and then again, in unexpected places, recognizing each other every time but never quite meeting. Along the way Mark's "small bird statue," a token of a childhood trauma, found its way into Sarah's pocket. Her ensuing compulsion to create paintings of the bird statue brought her fame and fortune but offended Mark to the point of vandalism. Rather than lovers, they had somehow turned into enemies.
But Mark and Sarah finally do meet — and, anticlimactically, become friends. Sarah has a husband, Nate (Donald Rizzo), and Mark has a boyfriend, Victor (Ryan Ashton). A scene in which Sarah and Mark make small talk with Nate at a party seems disappointingly mundane. But then the three of them accept an invitation to another party from someone named June (Mary Jane Gibson), who turns out to have a weird boyfriend named Ray (Ian Merrigan), and things get really freaky.
Playwright Courtney and her director, Mark Sitko, both studied at Brooklyn College under the playwright Mac Wellman, whose work rebels against stodgy theatrical conventions like, oh, plot and character, and who has influenced younger writers including Annie Baker, Young Jean Lee and Sarah Ruhl. Sitko founded Barker Room Rep, named after the room at Brooklyn College where Wellman meets with students.
Accordingly, "A Map of Virtue" chucks familiar storytelling techniques in favor of formal and thematic exploration. It's a kind of staged poetry. Scenes are arranged in a symmetrical pattern, designed to mirror each other on either side of a central event, like a bird's wings.
The story is narrated by Mark's bird statue, portrayed by actor Michael Rahhal in an arresting, skimpy costume (by Randal Sumabat). The bird statue recites terzanelles, a type of poem with a fixed number of lines and a strict rhyme scheme. (It wouldn't be surprising to learn that the script itself can be read as a terzanelle.) Bird imagery is laced throughout: bird tattoos, bird head masks, interesting facts about birds, even birdcalls. Sound designer Bobby McElver, of the Wooster Group, has weaved an ominous, rumbling soundscape of slowed-down birdsong played through subwoofers, which the audience can feel pulsing through the seats.
It's not always as easy, though, to find an emotional connection to "A Map of Virtue." Often the dialogue is quite funny in an offbeat way, as when Nate remarks, toward the end of a harrowing experience, "If we hadn't just been kidnapped, this would be a great weekend getaway."
But overall, the clinical rigor of the play's structure, the randomness of its events and the low-key affect of its performers make it more intellectually compelling than entertaining; this is apparently the point. Plays like this are supposed to thwart our expectations and leave us disoriented, stripped of our stifling preconceptions about the purpose of theater. All right: Mission accomplished. Now what?
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‘A Map of Virtue’
Where: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday (ends Saturday)
Tickets: $20 in advance, $25 at the door
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
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