Open Fist 2: Declaiming poetry with Murray

Do you know Murray Mednick?  For more than 50 years, he has been an indefatigable force in experimental (read “small”) theatre.

He began on New York’s emerging Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway stages in the ‘60’s and ‘70s, then came west to found and run the Padua Hills Playwrights workshops and festivals in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In 1996, he retired to write, churning out even more plays than before.

Mednick’s lifelong quest has been to see theatre as a literary art, with language as its heart.  He was part of a generation (Miller, Albee, Fornes) who listened to the way people talk — on the street, in the park, at the office, in their living rooms and bedrooms and kitchens – and put that on the stage. It’s hard to realize, in our era of Mamet, Shepard and Parks, that this was an idea playwrights had to fight for.

The Mednick mantle has lately been taken up by Open Fist, a longtime Hollywood troupe.  For three years, they’ve been working on a six-play cycle Mednick wrote early this century.  Collectively known as The Gary Plays, the cycle chronicles the decline and fall of an unknown LA actor; disabled by chronic anxiety, existential doubt, and addiction, he collapses when his son is murdered.

This year, Open Fist is putting all six Gary Plays onstage in Atwater (where they’re guesting while their theatre is being rebuilt).  You can see the six one pair at a time, on different days, or all at once on Sunday.  I chose the Sunday marathon – six plays in nine hours, with an intermission and a dinner break.

The pre-show is promising: Scene designer Jeff Rack (a co-founder of Wicked Lit) sets before us an intriguing broken wall of large, hanging geometric shapes; upon them, Hana S. Kim (known for her work in theatre and opera) projects cloud-like marblings of color.  John Zalewski’s sound hooks us with a meandering melodic line that we follow, irresistibly, like a mystery.  Clearly, Open Fist has enlisted some heavy hitters for this project; and they’re on their game.

Amanda Weier, Jeff LeBeau, Derek Manson in “Tirade for Three” (photo: Darrett Sanders)

Tirade for Three begins with the gentle soundtrack exploding in bombast, an almost deafening visceral analog for the inflated self-importance we will meet in Gary.  Then the two-member chorus introduces him, with an irony that escapes him, as “The King.”  For the next half-hour or so, the three exchange spotlit positions every few moments, speaking in turn, facing the audience.  They unspool Gary’s story, at times arguing, bringing to mind Freud’s image of the ego, superego, and id.  They don’t physically interact, facing us in an extreme “presentational” style – like Brecht without the circus.

Tirade feels like a trio descant on a Hamlet soliloquy, as we learn Gary’s story – his life in the world (minimal) and his life inside his mind (maximal).  He and his interlocutors wield language with facility, and often a keen edge, but always in the common register (though they may pull in a word or phrase from a higher register, such as academe or psychoanalysis, for an effect – usually ironic).  Overall, this is a fun and promising beginning: quite intellectual, but a successful experiment with an extreme form of storytelling.

We expect (or at least I did) that Girl on A Bed will add more ways of presenting story; and it does.  We meet 11 new characters — a pair of high school girls, the parents of one of them, a school counselor, Gary’s wife and son and mistress, a doctor, a drug dealer, and the Angel of Death.  (We’re not going back to black-and-white Kansas realism, Toto.)  Dan Reed’s lighting leads us swiftly among playing areas, characters move in and out of them, and the eponymous girl is wheeled about the stage.  Still, the default position is facing out; and some characters do not move at all.

Peggy Ann Blow, Jeff LeBeau, Amanda Weier in “Gary’s Walk” (photo: Darrett Sanders)

Since the first two plays began Gary’s unhinged quest to find his son’s drive-by killer, I thought we’d be following his trail after the break.  The third play Gary’s Walk, does indeed focus on his pilgrimage down the LA River to the sea with his son’s ashes.

But in the fourth, Out of the Blue, although he encounters his parents and unplugs his mother from life support, it’s the girl, Laura, who takes the center of the story’s meaning.  We follow her from Valley girl disillusion into serious despair, heroin-fueled porn acting, and death by overdose.  We learn from inside the thoughts and feelings of someone who was before seen only from outside as an object of lust, fantasy, and pity.  Her insights largely shape the cycle’s guiding wisdom.

Again, the presentation is static.  Gary’s Walk is livened by such directorial tricks as having Gary and his chorus change directions every few moments on the walk to the sea, with Kim’s starkly beautiful projections shifting behind them.  But Out of the Blue plays almost like a 16th-century masque (or a 19th-century vaudeville revue, one of Mednick’s secret vices); people sit or stand facing us, only moving to step down center to address us directly.

The final plays take us to an ayahuasca ceremony (two, actually), and a Malibu rehab resort.  In DaddyO Dies Well, Gary’s stepfather gives him a ride on the soul-revealing drug as a parting gift (while Gary’s ex-wife takes a similar trip in Peru).  His hoped-for apotheosis does not arrive, at least not onstage.  (Is it ob-scene, in the Greek sense, so powerful it must occur offstage?)

We last see Gary in Charles’ Story, clean and sober, a drama therapist at the rehab center.  He gives a mangled solo version of Agamemnon (strange therapy, in which the clients take no part), then the Malibu hills burn and everyone flees.  Agamemnon — are we to note that Gary’s world has sacrificed its best daughter in order for anyone in it to move?  As for the title: Charles is the girl’s father, banished to the rehab resort by his domineering alcoholic wife.  He doesn’t reveal his story, and I can’t guess why the final play bears his name.

Yet again, the staging is unmoving — in both senses of the word.  The monologs are “stand and deliver,” while the dialog (thanks to chairs and deck lounges) is mostly “sit and deliver.”  After more than five hours, this declamatory style palls.  To be sure, Mednick uses language — and ideas, and humor — with great skill, but these begin to feel like plays whose mother was scared by a poetry reading.

Open Fist’s troupe is impressively skilled, and they make use of every conceivable piece of stagecraft to keep the story alive.  Jeff LeBeau, Kelly Van Kirk, and Darrell Larson create a remarkable continuity as Gary in successive stages, firmly holding our empathy despite his excesses.  Derek Manson and Amanda Weier maintain Gary’s complex inner gallery with specificity and wit (while also giving life to other characters); Carl J. Johnson and Barbara Schofield deftly deliver Charles and his wife, he in strangled understatement and she with wonderfully imperious egotism.

Laura Liguori, Phillip C. Curry in “Girl on a Bed” (photo: Darrett Sanders)

And there are performances that startle with their force. In Rondell, Philip C. Curry richly embodies a laconic, laughing, addicted buddha; as Antonio, Peggy Ann Blow insinuates the leering Death Angel into every life, convincing them –and us — that resistance is futile. Norbert Weisser does a lovely, layered  turn as a sarcastic yet inadequately armored film producer.  And as the sacrificed girl, the wide-ranging Laura Liguori rises from death to  embody the most compellingly alive and insightful character of the entire cycle.  (Would Mednick be surprised?  If she’s his Iphigenia, I’d guess not.)

One other performance demands mention: Guy Zimmerman’s as director.  Guiding a company through six plays at once seems an unimaginable undertaking, yet he executes it well.  Within the stylistic unity required by the author, Zimmerman deploys a full array of theatrical techniques — working imaginatively with the designers, leading his actors deepen their characters, using movement and placement wherever possible to enhance expression. The cycle as a whole may overwhelm, but each play is strong and effectively realized.  (Out of the Blue is the weakest, due to the extreme immobility and emotional flatness of Gary’s parents; Zimmerman is so inventive everywhere else that I fear the text’s stage directions may call for this.)

Murray Mednick’s legacy is secure.  We now take for granted the uses of common speech he has never ceased to champion and explore.  And while it has its limits, the presentational style is a valuable and effective storytelling tool no theatrical artist would want to be without.  If The Gary Plays are a bit too much to absorb in a single day, let us recall that they were written over a decade, amid other works, and that their author may never have asked (much less insisted) that they appear together.

Open Fist deserves thanks — and admiration — for the consistently high level of artistry they bring to this immense project.  It’s a service to American theatre, and a rich offering to the LA theatre world that Mednick has called home to 40 years.  These plays should live in the repertoire; we can only hope they’ll be so artfully staged again.
The Gary Plays, by Murray Mednick, directed by Guy Zimmerman.
Presented by The Open Fist Theatre Company, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Thursdays (Part I: Tirade for Three and Girl on a Bed) at 8:00;
Fridays (Part II: Gary’s Walk and Out of the Blue) at 8:00;
Saturdays (Part III: DaddyO Dies Well and Charles’ Story) at 8:00;
Sunday, June 4, (Parts I, II, and II) at 12:00;
through June 10th.

Tickets:  <> , (323) 882-6912.