It’s been almost half a century since Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett became the beacons of a new artistic movement that came to be called theater of the absurd.
Distilling man’s most fundamental philosophical questions into brutal farce, their landmark plays, including “No Exit,” “The Balcony” and “Waiting for Godot,” still surprise audiences with a roller-coaster intellectualism that elicits squeals, giggles and an unsettled feeling.
“Monuments,” Revolving Door Productions’ staging of a new Steve Spehar play at the Tribune Theatre, follows faithfully in the philosophical footsteps of Genet, who is openly idolized in the production, by taking on the big issues of life and death in true absurdist style.
Things get weird early on, and the weirdness compounds for 2 1/2 hours in a plot that revolves around a man who attempts to dramatize his own death.
At its best, “Monuments” is a delirious hallucination about what we make of our lives. The play’s protagonist, a theater director named Henry (Bradley A. Whitfield) has a production deadline to meet, and no script.
He hits upon the brilliant idea of translating a recent dream, in which he seems to be dying, into a play. As work on the play progresses, Henry’s private life, as well as the private lives of everyone involved with him, metamorphose around the images of the dream.
Will Henry finish his dream, and if so, will the “awakening” be his death? Is artistic creation a kind of death? Is death the ultimate creative act?
Director-playwright-actor Spehar manages to keep these and other weighty concepts airborne for about a third of the time. In spite of a plot that meanders off the fast track of farce into soap opera, and a script that desperately needs an editor, at the core of “Monuments” there is an existential comedy that gets up enough speed to loop-the-loop in some very funny and mind-bending complications.
Production values are minimal, but Spehar makes imaginative use of the small stage. Theatergoers should be forewarned about the bleacher seating (bring a pillow) and the outdoor lobby (dress warmly).
The questions called up by “Monuments"--absurdists never supply answers--are compelling and universal. Starting with the nature of dreams, and the power of the individual mind to influence events on the three-dimensional plane, Spehar has mixed a heady philosophical cocktail.
As theater, it would be more effective trimmed and sharpened, like an arrow. As it is, it is too bulky to fly the distance.
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* “Monuments,” Tribune Theatre, 116 1/2 W. Wilshire Ave., Fullerton. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends April 9. $5. (714) 525-3403. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.
Bradley A. Whitfield: Henry
Matt Tully: Daniel
Jennifer D. Rendek: Maria
Steve Spehar: Gabriel
Darri Kristin: Eve
Christopher Michael Egger: Gabriel No. 2
Erica Dewey: Marion
A Revolving Door Production. Written and directed by Steve Spehar. Producer: Nick Boicourt Jr.