New Works Wear Out Absurdist Thread


The straightforwardly named “A Festival of New Work” at Theatre of NOTE is offering plays from writers associated with the now-defunct Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop. In the course of this two-night series of five plays, the playwrights carry on a conversation more with each other than with a ticket-buying audience.

The plays have a sameness to them, as if each author had agreed to stick by a charter calling for work that is at once insular, symbolic and darkly absurdist--Donald Barthelme meets the young Sam Shepard. Each play begins in the middle of a willfully obscure scenario, and the audience is asked to jump on the train and figure out where it is going. Trouble is, you may not care where you are going, and in some cases you might just want to get off.

Certain plays make more of this aesthetic than others. Wesley Walker’s “Freak Storm,” the last play of Evening B, is the most fully realized work, comically and dramatically. Walker, who also directs, accomplishes something rare in this series--he knows how to energize his ideas. His hilarious use of Robert Oriol’s funky score to frame scenes, for instance, gives this black comedy an extra kick.


“Freak Storm” takes place in an apocalyptic Malibu, where extremely odd occurrences always go unexplained. Maritime (a funny Jessica Margaret Dean), apparently mentally disabled, is ordered about by her lustful father, Don (Jack Kehler), who uses her to fetch him drinks and is constantly frustrated by her inability to make it across the room without dropping the glass. His wife, Miriam (the admirable Diane Robinson), is coolly neglectful and politely ominous. When her husband says, “I don’t think I’ll survive this night,” she answers, “You won’t. . . . Sorry.”

Walker cheerfully accumulates colorfully absurdist details with a twist, much in the manner of novelist Donald Antrim. At some point, Miriam strips off Don’s shirt and rubs him with what looks like egg yolk and human hair. No one blinks when Maritime is abducted by a man (Robert Stoccardo), who strips off his panda suit and carefully ties a bloody rag around his penis. Though these details can be enjoyably inexplicable, they don’t add up to create something of heft.

Cheryl Slean’s “Temple” (Evening A) shows the “New Work” aesthetic in its least appealing light. The air is thick with pretentiousness as we follow the love lives of two sisters--a nasty, castrating heterosexual named Jersild (Lauren Roedy Vaughn) and a wistful lesbian named Elsa (Sara Hammerman). They are followed by a Greek chorus of actors, apparently all dead people, who sometimes echo the lines of the characters and sometimes step forward to recite their own completely disconnected and pointless monologues. All of this is punctuated periodically by the banging of a very loud drum, which is helpful in keeping the audience awake. “Temple” is sheer self-indulgence, a playwright in love with the sound of her words, who presents banality as if it were profundity.

Murray Mednick’s “Dictator,” which begins the festival, at least has coherence, although it, too, suffers from an ennui in its storytelling energy. It is directed by Diane Robinson (in all other cases the playwrights direct their own work). An imprisoned Latin American dictator (Armando Duran) is visited by a series of characters, most of them connected to the American government, which is keeping careful tabs on the man. He was a linchpin, apparently, in the CIA, selling drugs on the streets of Los Angeles, but as long as he agrees to forget all about it, he will be allowed to find a new life eventually as a deli owner in New Jersey.

Though well-written, “Dictator” never makes clear why we should be interested as the title character changes from a warlord into a gentle, even ordinary, man who writes a novel. Mednick’s main point of interest is probably in how Americans vilify people they use to do their villainy, but this point is made so softly that a viewer may walk away unsure of what he was supposed to have learned.

Guy Zimmerman offers another apocalyptic landscape in “La Clarita,” which also suffers from pretentious obscurity. Hank Bunker’s “Futon Dialogues” offers two good performances from Tony Forkush and Denise Poirier as a couple who can’t find the energy to break up. At least in this case, since the play is about paralysis, form and content complement each other beautifully.


* “A Festival of New Work,” produced by the New One-act Theatre Ensemble and Headlight. At Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Series A, Thursdays and Fridays, 8 p.m.; Series B, Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends May 18. $12 each or $20 for both series. (213) 856-8611. Running time: Series A: 2 hours, 20 minutes. Series B: 3 hours, 30 minutes.