Mystical ‘Chokecherry’ Takes a Fearless, Poetic High Dive
In a world of timid wordfolk, playwright Erik Ehn keeps his radio tuned to the unruly language of the night sky.
Ehn’s plays sound straightforward enough. In “Chokecherry,” a sweet, sad 75-minute tale getting a plaintive Bottom’s Dream world premiere at Culver City’s Ivy Substation, L.A. schoolteacher Nola (Bonita Friedericy) leaves her husband, Bram (Mitchell Gossett), and relocates to South Dakota, near Devils Tower.
Among her new students there is Bea, a disabled and abused 12-year-old. Nola wants to adopt her, take her away from her foster mother (Jennifer Griffin). At Nola’s behest, Bram drives across the country to join her.
That’s the surface. Ehn’s a poetic high-diver, though, and “Chokecherry” uses his premise to plunge into the mystical. Not for nothing does this work draw from Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Just past the halfway point, “Chokecherry” cracks open and sends its characters down into Limbo’s Lake of Sorrows.
I had the pleasure five years ago of seeing a truly unforgettable Ehn production. The Undermain Theater in Dallas staged the premiere of Ehn’s interlocking poetic playlets, “Beginner,” with such delicacy, even the craziest head-spinning passages followed a kind of otherworldly logic. One line from “Beginner” suggests the longing inherent in “Chokecherry”: “I pray the world of love will make/Real this world of seeming.” Nola and Bram put off “the work of love,” as Ehn characterizes it, long enough to hurl them spinning into separate orbits.
The Bottom’s Dream staging by director James Martin is neat, elegant and fervently acted. Ehn’s fantastical conceits require an imaginative leap. Nola’s unseen students are depicted by an empty sweater or a shirt. Speaking by way of an electronic voice modulator, Friedericy speaks for Bea, sounding (too much so, perhaps) like Mercedes McCambridge’s “Exorcist” demon. The dreamy progression of “Chokecherry” receives a vividly harsh contrast from Griffin’s performance. A fine and flavorful singer-actress, Griffin adds throaty vocal fills for the transitions.
Even on its idiosyncratic wavelength, Ehn’s one-act isn’t helped by having Nola’s conversations with Bea run together into an extended, frazzled blur. Often the observations turn into little 17-metaphor pileups (“Human being is a bag of tears/Body is a bag of tears/We grind the road to lens/I look and Andromeda appears”).
Yet for those willing to swing with it, this is valuably odd stuff. Not that it’s necessarily a virtue, but “Chokecherry” makes more conventional sense than several of Ehn’s earlier works, “No Time Like the Present,” “New” and his various, dense “Saint Plays” among them. They’re all linked, however, by a sense of fearlessness, a certain hermetic quality--as well as an ache of loneliness.
Ehn also happened to come up with one of the better stage directions I’ve ever read, for his play “New.” “Everybody looks healthy enough,” he wrote of his characters, “but they’re all broke and hopeless because they have MFAs in literature.”
“Chokecherry” is likewise rife with the broke and the hopeless. And they’re all becoming different, stranger people before our puzzled eyes.
* “Chokecherry,” Bottom’s Dream, Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Ends March 19. $15. (310) 281-9517. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.
Bonita Friedericy: Nola/Bea
Mitchell Gossett: Bram
Jennifer Griffin: Mother/Singer/Waitress
Written by Erik Ehn. Directed by James Martin. Set and lighting by Susan Gratch. Costumes by Bobby Brewer-Wallin. Sound by John Zalewski. Stage manager Derek Bjornsen.
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