In a Fringe synchrony, I recently saw back-to-back shows set in 1992, both focusing on women engaged in nonviolent revolution, both looking back.
An actress who marched with Martin is now slow-marching alone toward death.
It’s an intriguing idea, a person we’d like to meet. Her life dedicated it to a revolution she, like Dr. King, will not live to see.
In La Bete, June Carryl introduces us to Marian Davis — backstage, before and after the first act of what may be her final show.
Playwright Carryl plainly knows the theatre, and has a way with words. She sets her two characters — Davis (played by Carryl herself) and producer/director Alan (Mark Motyl) — in a many- layered moment.
On the surface, they battle with a familiar ferocity. She’s struggling with her lines and tries to pass it off by doing the diva — blaming the writer, belittling her stage manager, refusing to wear a wire. He’s seeking the mix of patience, placating and pushing that will get the play to opening curtain in passable shape.
As the layers peel, we learn that this is her comeback show, after an unspecified hiatus, and that he’s mortgaged his house to mount it. And when she twits his anxious control with “That’s why I never married you,” she reveals more than she means to.
Finally, we — and he — learn that what she’s taking pills for is fatal.
If this show has legs, she won’t be running with it. He fails to convince her to go at once to the hospital, but she does accept the wire, and they’re ready for the second act.
Actor Carryl knows the emotional and vocal ropes, and plays the range of her instrument from quiet melancholy to a frenzy of mortal fear, all in the small space of Marian’s dressing room. Motyl gives us a producer/director and friend, trying to carry on while bearing an emotional tie whose limits he has long since accepted — though he’ll still put his (and his family’s) life at risk for it.
What this duo (or trio, really, including Carryl the writer) doesn’t give us is context, an experience of their connection to the rest of the world. And thus to us.
Marian speaks two or three times of having marched with Martin Luther King, and of the revolution they sought to make. But it doesn’t become real to us as a passionate part of her life — instead, an unexplained obsession with Charlton Heston intrudes, eclipsing each of her memories. Nor do we learn anything about — much less feel — how her political and artistic lives are connected.
In place of live connections, we get odd loose ends. Marian picks up a dressing table photo and gazes at it several times, but never says who’s in it. She’s interrupted by a phone call that plainly deflates her, but never says who it was, or what was the bad news. Alan uses his cell phone to contact crew members in the theatre, but not the world outside.
Even the play’s title is unmoored, tied to no meaning. “The Beast.” Surely not the Broadway play about Moliere, nor Zola’s novel La bete humaine. Perhaps a bete noir — depression, that menaces all mortals, or whatever Marian’s besetting enemy is? We never find out.
La Bete is well-produced, with a clear minimal set, accurate costumes and effective simple lighting. It’s crisply directed (by James Carey) and well-acted. But the story’s ties to the world it claims to be part of are unclear, and need to be developed. Perhaps in the next redaction, with more than 45 minutes onstage, Carryl and her cohorts can fill out the picture with the skills they display in this version.
La Bete, by June Carryl, directed by James Carey.
Presented by JCMM Productions at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd.
Sunday June 29th at 4:00.