If there is a war going on in theater, it is between the legions fixed on life as depicted by film and television, and the legions concerned with language and how a performer can speak to an audience. The first is obviously seductively commercial. The second is more difficult, absolutely essential and seldom done well.
John O'Keefe has been obsessed with this second path for many years. He always writes or directs or (when the material demands it) performs with the collective energy of a football team in the fourth quarter. His group works, like "Mimzibim" or "Babbler," are giddy assaults, like a trio doing free jazz, losing control but nevertheless finding new notes to play.
His solo works are his real metier, but nothing he's managed before has suggested the pure narrative power of his new piece, "Shimmer," at the New Playwrights Foundation. Stripped of the embellishments of his other works, "Shimmer" shows O'Keefe as a writer/performer in sinewy form, direct and passionate.
O'Keefe tells us his adventure as an imprisoned juvenile delinquent with a sense of unbounded excitement at recalling his own past. His nickname at Iowa's Hooker Hall--Captain Spacey (he dreamt of being an astronaut)--becomes not just symbolic of the desire for freedom, but ironic as well: O'Keefe has become a penetrating observer of earthly human behavior and the magic in everyday moments.
Yet the quest for freedom, the holy grail where life "shimmers," is his yarn's impulse. As in the best literature on the juvenile mind, the series of incidents are keenly linked by a young boy's expanding self-consciousness. The climactic encounters with the outside world electrify because they're seen through a boy's eyes.
And this is what makes "Shimmer" a remarkable exposition of what one man, alone with his words on stage, can do. O'Keefe has managed to make his language visible, kinetic, cinematic, and in very human ways.
Great theater confers a sense of privilege passed from actor to audience, the sense that this moment in the dark will never happen exactly the same way again. "Shimmer," itself about life's gossamer quality, celebrates that privilege.
At 6111 W. Olympic Blvd., on Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., through March 12. Tickets: $12; (213) 466-1767.