Los Angeles, like any big city, has paved over and built atop so much of its past that it’s hard to envision a time of ranches and farms — when life was spent on horseback, work was often backbreaking and entertainment was a community dance.
The highly imaginative Rogue Artists Ensemble is doing its best to offer glimpses of that history by re-creating moments from the 1870s through the early 1940s as lived by a particularly colorful local figure, Eugene Plummer. His family once owned a vast swath of what today is Hollywood. By the time he died in May 1943 at age 91, he was well known for hosting yearly old-timers picnics and for retaining the aura of rancho-era Los Angeles as he lingered in the shade of pepper trees on what had been the last remaining acres of family land, watching a new world take shape.
His late-in-life reminiscences, styled into tales that seem a wee bit tall, were captured in a 1942 book that is the basis for “Señor Plummer’s Final Fiesta,” an immersive, interactive presentation on that last parcel of land, now Plummer Park in West Hollywood.
To bring Plummer’s heyday back to life, the park’s Great Hall has been transformed, with a saloon, courtroom and myriad other real and imaginary locales crafted indoors and the porch and partial interior of a ranch house constructed in the courtyard, eight spaces in all. A cast of 20 — and puppets of all kinds — enact the stories, which sometimes break into song.
At the start, visitors find themselves at a World War II-era book launch party that’s purportedly sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, which indeed put novelist and screenwriter John Preston Buschlen together with Plummer to deliver the book “Señor Plummer: The Life and Laughter of an Old-Californian.” A talk by Buschlen is interrupted as supernatural forces seem to take control and an unexpected attendee enters: a life-size puppet with gray hair and round spectacles, looking just like the elderly Plummer pictured moments before in Buschlen’s slide show. Soon more Plummers materialize, at various ages in his life, as well as people in his tales. Theatergoers choose one to follow into the environments beyond.
To experience the full range of stories, a person would need to make three visits, according to the show’s director and Rogue’s artistic director, Sean T. Cawelti. Don’t worry about being a completist, though. Just keep following characters and let the adventure lead you where it may.
A church-like space honors Plummer’s mother in a towering mural that depicts her in the manner of a devotional painting. Panels in it pop open to reveal miniature puppet shows detailing her enterprising life. In an adjoining room, a book magically reacts to talismans placed on it, projecting images of Los Angeles’ past onto the walls.
Music spills out of a saloon, where a piano player and singer entertain a room reflected back on itself in the bar’s mirror. If you encounter young Plummer there, he might invite you to follow him to a hideout cave of the bandido Tiburcio Vasquez. Lantern-light illuminates a rocky passageway. Inside, a glowing opening reveals a shadow-puppet show depicting a mission that Vasquez entrusted to Plummer.
You pass from one dream-like place to the next, encountering such visions as a land shark with a fearsome, toothy snout and a lady of the evening with lamb’s ears poking through her white curls.
One drawback: The episodes are so short and fragmentary that we don’t get much out of them, especially in our perpetually disoriented state as we zip through locales and time frames.
But the performers (a range of ages and ethnicities), playwrights (Diana Burbano, Tom Jacobson and Chelsea Sutton) and a small army of designers deliver a lively night in this collaborative presentation by West Hollywood’s Arts Division and Rogue Artists.
All routes culminate in the title’s promised fiesta, by which point you won’t want the adventure to end.
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‘Señor Plummer's Final Fiesta’
Where: Plummer Park’s Great Hall, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays and Nov. 5; ends Nov. 18
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes