It’s only a matter of time before John O’Keefe finds the wide audience he deserves. Amid the general sitcomland of current local theater, the work of this Bay Area performance artist, marked by an uncommon regard for language and an unsparing yet ultimately compassionate view of the human condition, offers an adult alternative. If his followers can be said to constitute a cult, it is most certainly that of literacy.

“Ghosts,” now in its Los Angeles premiere at the Burbage Theatre, offers an ideal introduction to O’Keefe’s imaginative conception. A meditation on the afterlife related in vignette form by a host of characters who have crossed to the other side and returned to tell of their experiences serves not as a reminder of death, but of the undying nature of the human spirit.

Performed without intermission on a bare stage, “Ghosts” is a skillful blend of old-fashioned horror show and newfangled experimental theater, directed by the author with a fluidity that suggests--often quite literally--poetry in motion. And something more than that: The piece’s opening chorale, enacted in total, disorienting darkness, seems nothing less than the whispered passage of souls in transition.

As always with O’Keefe, there are moments of purely esoteric rambling (notably an extended, Castaneda-like monologue on the transmutability of existence). But there are also moments of high comedy: a character wanders into the house, seemingly by accident, and pulls up a chair; a phosphorescent dustrag magically sweeps the way clean for the next arrival. There’s even a conventional white-sheeted specter whose painful inability to walk through walls illustrates the central theme in deliciously satiric terms.


For all its underlying sense of fun, however, “Ghosts” remains a heady work, a very real symphony of ideas. Possibly more than any other modern American writer, O’Keefe revels in the natural musicality of the spoken word. His prose melodies are performed/sung/played by an eloquent five-person ensemble who wander through Jim Blickensderfer’s eerie, crepuscular half-light with the apparition-like grace--and tremendous poignance--of true lost souls.

Among their various voices--which include Rene Assa, Mark Bringelson, Tina Preston and Jenny Shapiro--the most unforgettable is that of Mimi Seton, better known as the author of last season’s acclaimed “Wazo Wazo” and here indescribably chilling as a woman brutally murdered by her husband. Hers is a truly otherwordly presence, and the story she has to tell is enough to keep you awake nights. Thinking.

Performances at 2330 Sawtelle Blvd. run Thursdays through Sundays at 8:30 p.m., through June 30 (213-478-0897).