by Brian Sonia-Wallace
Figure 8 is a sketch-show Californication for the stage, dealing with sex, drugs and depression in the greater LA area. Whether or not the action lives up to the subtitle of biblical sin is up to the viewer.
Theatre of NOTE’s world premiere production features consistently high production values and solid acting. The play presents a series of eight vignettes, loosely illustrating the seven deadly sins (and an added eighth sin of apathy…how LA), and most sketches share certain characters or illuminate untold stories from one another. Theatre of NOTE is to be lauded for encouraging new playwrights and new work, so I am saddens me that my harshest criticism of this show was Phinneas Kiyomura’s writing, which was quick and clever but never quite closed the loop of its own figure eight.
The eight vignettes range from side-splitters to head-scratchers. The opening announcements and first scene occur in a radio station interview. Here the sound levels are way too high and the characters are so involved in their own world that they forget there is an audience waiting to be let in, too. The next story left me equally nonplussed, with an adulterer, his painfully mentally disabled wife, and a vengeful priest. This introduced two recurring elements: passing stabs at religion in a half-hearted attempt to live up to the ‘sin’ of the subtitle, and an interesting focus on handicapped characters. For a play about Southern California’s foibles, the production featured only one Hispanic character (a janitor, and played by a non-Hispanic actor…really?) but hinted at what an interesting play it might be with compassionate and compelling narratives around disability.
The third story starts to pick up the pace, featuring a slacker and hardworking janitor (the stoic and actually quite good Darrett Sanders) on the same night cleaning shift. The night is interrupted by the slacker’s drunken friends, with a stand-out performance by Kirsten Vangsness as a volatile drunken slag who staggers and flashes her way through several skits. Though not particularly illuminating a sin, the piece deftly illustrates the characters’ desperation and attempt to find solace from the horrors of war and everyday life in sex and, maybe, real connection. The fourth story is thoroughly entertaining as well, though less clear in what it is saying, as Brad C. Light’s hilarious Eastern European pimp casually confronts the lapsed Mormon who has just come out of the shower after his porn shoot.
Stories five and six are the weakest, revolving around an unbelievable doctor’s office visit with inexplicable incest and lots of shouting and a workplace firing with random lesbianism and, of course, lots of shouting. Figure 8 is weakest when dealing directly with sex, where it attempts provocation but ends in hackneyed stereotype. As of 2012, can we agree that certain male fantasies are no longer provocative and, when not essential to a plot, should be confined to the netherworlds of the internet?
Fortunately the vignettes end on two strong notes. First, the titular Figure 8 sketch could easily be a very good play in itself. Revolving around ’8′ as a symbol of cyclical eternity, the piece features Alex Elliott-Funk’s strung-out rocker from the opening, mostly in a heroin coma, and the phenomenal Alina Phelan as his deaf girlfriend struggling to hold onto him in a barrage of words and sign language but fundamentally alienated from his world of music. The staging is gorgeously simple, the relationship rings true, and the mix of sign language, photography, and song makes for a really holistic theatrical experience that doesn’t just tell its story but forces the audience to feel it. This is theater.
The final vignette, with Eleanor van Hest as a coke-addled elementary school teacher trying to feel something, is hilarious and tragic in its own right, but doesn’t really do anything to tie the stories up except imply that the apathy of modern life is a sin, or is at the root of sin, or, like, something. Totally. The stories hint at a greater cohesiveness but never get there, ending in a disconnected jumble. The ‘seven deadly sins’ conceit never gels, with the stories never quite being specific enough to their sin and the characters feeling less like sinners and more like 20-somethings figuring things out with delusions of biblical grandeur. Some of the stories are excellent, and the desire to make them connect is plain, nothing truly depraved or extraordinary ever happens. The final two sketches are the best, and they drop the sin conceit almost entirely to talk about unrequited love and listlessness.
On the up side, co-directors Mr. Kiyomura and Jerry Kernion keep the pace fun and lively, moving seamlessly between stories with the help of David Campbell’s brilliantly simple set. Even the slick scene changes help tell the stories, always a mark of professionalism. An overlapping layer of multimedia projection (created by Bryan Maier) accompanies the performance and follows the storylines by putting the video and pictures the characters take up for the audience to see to further immerse them in the play’s world. With such strong production values and acting, what Figure 8 really needs is a good editor and a few more drafts.
Figure 8 is performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 7:00 pm, and runs through March 24th, 2012.
Theatre of NOTE is located at 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd. just north of Sunset in Hollywood.
Ticket prices: $25.00 general admission, $20 students and seniors.
Reservations online at http://theatreofnote.com/ or by phone at (323) 856-8611.