Dim lights reveal two bowler hats lying on the floor. As if moved by ghostly forces, the hats edge jerkily across the stage before zipping into the wings.
It’s a fittingly odd image to open “all wear bowlers,” the weird, wacky, impressively innovative performance piece being presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. The brainchild of Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle, “bowlers” is performed by the two actors on set designer Jarek Trusczynski’s deceptively bare stage. The setting may be simple, but it yields its share of surprises and proves a fitting framework for the flights of invention to follow.
The production grew out of a chance comment made to Lyford about his pronounced physical resemblance to Stan Laurel. An actor with roots in experimental theater, Lyford began exploring the films of Laurel and Hardy and boning up on the works of prominent absurdists. After Sobelle came on board, the concept began to solidify. Rigorous workshops, including training sessions with master clown David Shiner, helped Lyford and Sobelle perfect the vocabulary of what they call “physical ventriloquism.”
The rigor behind this production is evident. Initially produced in Philadelphia, the play -- directed there as here, by Aleksandra Wolska -- went on to a sold-out run in New York and a Drama Desk nomination for “unique theatrical experience.”
“bowlers” is certainly that, one of those daunting experiences that beggars description.
A few snippets will have to suffice: The characters of Wyatt R. Levine (Lyford) and Earnest Matters (Sobelle) are introduced in a silent film, courtesy of filmmaker Michael Glass. While composer Michael Friedman’s convincingly period musical score tinkles in the background, Wyatt and Earnest -- little tramps sporting Tara Webb’s appropriately shabby costumes -- are seen wandering along a winding road in a dry, rustic landscape. The dynamic between the characters is quickly established. Wyatt is the hapless patsy, a la Stan Laurel; Earnest is his domineering but equally clueless pal, a sort of Oliver Hardy without the padding. Lost and woebegone, the two clowns stop to consult their map. A close-up reveals a white page, bisected by a single squiggly line with the words “You Are Here” scrawled beside it.
It’s existential. It’s Dada-esque. It’s funny. And the action becomes even more bizarre when the characters burst out of the movie screen onto the stage. (The purposeful misdirection of Randy “Igleu” Glickman’s lighting design contributes to this and other effects.) Staring out at the audience in horror, Earnest exclaims, “There’s people here!” A silent universe of two has expanded into the unknown.
An almost indescribably clever sequence follows in which the actors leap between the stage and the film in increasingly frantic progression, while their filmic images perfectly mirror their live movements. In another scene -- the most visually eloquent of the evening -- the actors, sitting side by side and with only an empty bowler hat, a valise and a white napkin, create the remarkable illusion that a third person is sitting between them. It’s a creepy image right out of Magritte.
These are only a couple of moments in the mind-boggling barrage that constitutes the show. Admittedly, some of the bits are marginally less witty, merely common magic tricks that drag on a whisper too long. But the play’s absurdist veneer lends even these familiar illusions fresh charm, and the perfectly choreographed slapstick coalesces into something delightfully darker. Rubber-faced, lithe-limbed and sleight-handed, Lyford and Sobelle are surreal vaudevillians who ply their craft in an alternative dimension.
‘all wear bowlers’
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Oct. 28
Price: . $20 to $40
Contact: (213) 628-2772, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes