Pervasive pertinence underscores the austere punch of Chris Thorpe's remarkable "Static," which plays the Skirball Cultural Center through Saturday. In its U.S. premiere, this searing two-hander from England's acclaimed Unlimited Theatre uses minimal means to illuminate its subject -- the gap between temporal experience and televised perception of global tragedy -- and attains maximum reach by doing so.
Written by Thorpe in 1999, when the horrors of Kosovo were still media fodder, "Static" presents its interlocking monologues in ritual manner. Without prelude, actors Clare Duffy and Jon Spooner appear behind the simple platform, staring from the darkness until audience discomfort results. As one, they ascend the stage, find their lights and the dual first-person narratives of "Static" are underway.
For 40 minutes, these prototypes relate their divergent situations. She, a refugee from an unspecified country, bears witness to genocide. He, an urban proletarian en route to dinner, muses on his surroundings. Their personas emerge from Thorpe's superb, poetic writing, which is darkly funny and wrenchingly acute.
The man relates his account of an elderly shopper at odds with an automated register, who "stands bewildered as they try to feed her check through the machine. She's even got her own pen, and holds it up as if to prove that she isn't lying." As throughout, the refugee woman listens intently, though whether to him or the echoes of bullets through heads "when they came," it is impossible to discern.
The man's casual cheek and the woman's terrible calm proceed toward a convergent climax both simple and profound and best left unrevealed. Suffice it to say that "Static," a hit at the 2000 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, makes its universal point at the place where war scene and television screen collide and blows our minds in the process.
Both players are beyond praise, attuned to each other with a technique that conceals technique.
Duffy must maintain tension while avoiding both undue emotionalism and detachment. That she achieves this balance is a testament to Duffy's arresting concentration, and when she locks eyes with us, the chasm behind her gaze sends shivers down the spine.
The impish Spooner, who restaged the piece from original director Paul Warwick's template, matches Duffy at every turn. His affable naturalism ideally contrasts with Duffy's stylized modulation, and he controls his expressions and physical responses so thoroughly that a sudden shift to profile lands like a slap.
It is deeply apt that "Static," part of an ongoing trilogy by Thorpe, should share its gallery space with "Rwanda/After, Darfur/Now," photographer Michal Ronnen Safdie's stunning chronicle of genocide. Safdie captures the unthinkable with a technical polish that only heightens the heartbreaking power of the images. So does "Static," which, despite its title, is achingly vital and a must-see event.
Where: Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Friday,
7 and 9 p.m. Saturday
Contact: (866) 468-3399 or www.ticketweb.com
Running time: 40 minutes