In When I Was Sacred, author-director-actress Nina Carlin plays with the devil. Such Faustian ventures are what the Fringe is for.
Carlin’s devil is a post-apocalyptic female Lucifer (played by herself) who bursts into the last coffee shop standing in LA.
She invites several friends to play — her sidekick Vampeere (Deon Summervile), the shop’s owner Shelby (Wellesley Daniels) and her employees (Brian Richard Robin and Nick Gallager), an aimless wraith (Olivia Davis), a revenant Tony Soprano (Nick Justice) and the historical hybrid Freuda Kahlo (Grace West).
In the chaos after Hell has arisen and overtaken our world, odds and ends — and survivors — are scattered randomly about. So are many good ideas, among them the notion that the shop’s coffee (in the absence of beans and delivery systems) is improvised from the blood of those who have not survived.
One of the most fetching ideas is the character of Kahlo. A mashup of Frida and Freud, she suggests great possibilities. Will she share — like the Greek seer Tiresias — the wisdom of having dived deeply into sexuality from both genders? Alas, the mayhem moves so fast she never holds the stage long enough.
Like Freuda’s insights, the shop’s espresso guignol recipe gets hinted at several times. It becomes clear at the Hamlet-like end, when all but Shelby lie dead upon the floor and she muses on all the coffee she can now make. Though whether she’ll have customers is anybody’s guess … and did she perhaps dream it all?
When I Was Sacred, like its infernal setting, bristles with bright fires here, there, everywhere (amid some shadowy static moments). Carlin’s writing is lit by flares of incandescent wit, and under her direction characters erupt like latter-day commedia dell’arte clowns. She also has a gift for sudden bursts of manic group activity, mocking the musical-theater trope of a troupe breaking into dance and song.
But the play, in this first incarnation, is like Los Angeles (even before Hell overwhelms it) — there’s far too much going on to pay attention to any one thing. The madcap writing and staging don’t pause long enough for any character — or the story — to develop. The hour’s over before we know it. The appetizers have tickled our palates, but the meal hasn’t arrived.
Writing a play — not to mention directing it, or taking a major role in it — is playing with the devil. Who hides in the details. And in the speedy sketch of Sacred, the details lie glitteringly about, promising greatly. None of them gets picked up and examined enough to fulfill that promise. But make no mistake — the promise is there.
“He was likely,” says Fortinbras over the slain Hamlet, “had he been put on, to have proved most royally.” Carlin has had an hour upon the stage, and has, with her friends’ help, shown us much. She is likely when put on — in a longer format, after a slower period of gestation — to prove most royally.
When I Was Sacred, written and directed by Nina Carlin.
A Spinster Daisy production, at The Lounge Theatre #1, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd.
Sunday, June 22 at 12:00 noon and 10:00 pm.