Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre in North Hollywood premiered an original play this weekend, titled The Fainting Couch. Honestly, I had zero notion what to expect. When I walked in, the stage did indeed have a couch upon it. Lying there, sprawled really, I saw a young lady in striped tights and pink tutu.
Robert Riemer. Almost immediately we meet the second character, a diminutive figure known as The Small Fool (Donna Noelle Ibale) who enacts a little scene of doomed love with the Ballerina. Entering into the scene then is The Big Fool (Ricky LaCorte) followed by what we know instantly to be the antagonist of the piece. They call him both The Boss and The Magician (Rehyan Rivera).
Most obviously, people reading a review want to know what the show is about. Here that gets a bit complicated. In a nutshell, one can call it a tale of tyranny. The Magician somehow made the other three characters and keeps them as slaves. He sexually abuses The Ballerina (portrayed fairly graphically at one point) while controlling and torturing all three. Naturally, they seek to distract themselves and eventually a plot emerges to achieve freedom.
Which sounds many times more straightforward than it in fact is.
First, and this doesn't seem immediately obvious, that comment of about his making them proves important. As I left the theatre and dwelt upon what I'd seen (btw, a good sign I was so inclined) the more vital certain hints seemed to me. The biggest was how each of these three were a part of him. Some aspect of himself. He seems to most loathe The Little Fool, the weak and most cowardly of them. Yet he finds The Big Fool, whose greatest characteristic is a stupidity so vast he worships a coconut, quite acceptable. He is the physically strong one, the one who also lusts after The Ballerina and calls it love.
I think trying to figure it out in any realistic context remains hopeless. If anything I'm reminded of Sam Beckett's Waiting For Godot or maybe Edward Albee's Tiny Alice. Kinda sorta. One initial thought was Theatre of the Absurd but the story, odd as it was, made far too much sense. Rather what unfolded for the hour-long show seemed to me an existential dream or fable. And therein lay a bit of the problem.
My prejudices about acting and writing and story-telling in general tend towards general principles. One of those remains specificity. I maintain it is an actor's job to know precisely what it is they are doing when in character. They needn't know it intellectually. Intuitively will do nicely. But nothing kills a performance's quality than lack of focus. Much of stagecraft consists of honing that focus. For example, certain choices tend to be vague by their very nature. Anger is one, mostly because the concept lends itself to generality. Anger about what? Indignation is better than mere anger, just as righteous indignation (or for that matter self-righteous) is better still. Weeping rage, with its implication of fury arising from pain, again is better than the generic "anger."
Half the cast of The Fainting Couch, specifically The Ballerina and The Small Fool, used specificity with great skill amid what is a very symbolic, even surreal work. Even a kind of remoteness in the former eventually proved to presage her story's end.
But the rest of the cast, while showing some really excellent physical technique, didn't come up to the same level when it came to creating characters. The Magician was ultimately all attitude, someone pretending to be The Joker. I never felt his emotional connection to the others, which is really odd when you consider these beings are part of him! (At one point I wondered if maybe this was taking place inside the mind of someone with multiple personalities) He seems to be a sociopath, but that I deduce from the writing not the performance. Likewise The Big Fool had loads of energy, but he sprayed it in every direction. He naturally got much better at the end when an almost-normal conversation takes place. Well, yeah. In a "realistic" context acting is easier. Mr. Riemer's play, written in such an arch style, requires stylized acting -- a much trickier form than what we see on film or television or most stages these days. Two achieved it. Not perfectly but well. But two others did not, and so the quality of their performances varied quite a bit. At times they were spot on, but others they missed the target by a mile. The other two at least hit the target throughout.
The Fainting Couch will play Saturdays at 8:30pm October 6 through November 3, 2012, at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group at 4850 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood. Call (818) 202-4120 for more information or buy tickets. If your taste is for the edgy and experimental, I recommend this work.