Spoilers Ahoy! Times Six!
This marks my first time reviewing works by the Echo Theater Company in Atwater Village. Upfront I'll say this experience has me hoping to do so again. The Echo One Acts 2014 consists of six one act plays, all commissioned and set in one type of location--a bedroom.
What Are Doing on the Bed? by Shawna Casey, impressed me least of the evening's scripts. Not for any of the usual problems with new plays (at least in my experience) but a subtle one of focus. The story sounds simple, and charming enough. A cat named Sugar Puss (Sarah Jane Morris) and a dog named Rex (Garrett Hanson) discuss the former getting on the bed while the humans are away. What a fun premise! And I can find little fault in either performance. Yet neither Sugar Puss nor Rex seemed particularly real as a cat or dog, at least not as written. For one thing, they both demonstrate rather a startling degree of education! I'd accept that if only I understood it. Just as I don't quite see a cat being so terrified of a cricket. But that didn't alter the play's charm or the performers' abilities, especially in terms of physicality.
Wesley Walker, on the other hand, has plenty of focus, albeit in a hyper-intuitive dream-like world of its creation. Fact is, I'm still not sure I understand it, but find thoughts about the play bubbling to my mind's surface. Not surprisingly given the title, it deals with General Sherman (Darrett Sanders) of Civil War fame, at a time later in life when he toured giving lectures about his exploits. He's clearly a man struggling with guilt, which somehow seems to become the focus of a pair of Irish sisters. Colleen (Alana Dietze), who acts as a surprisingly personal maid/servant to the General, and Aibhllin (Jeanette McMahon) the seeming mastermind behind what-ever-it-is that happens. Are the sisters real? What happens at the end? I don't know--but the question doesn't go away in my mind.
Note: This play rather brilliantly deals with on-stage nudity. Sherman enters from his bath with a towel before him, making his naked state obvious. We get used to it, and when the towel is discarded for a time, we've adjusted.
As We Sleep by John Lavachieli might count as the most naturalistic play offered, the most conventional in many ways. It builds upon the (if done well, very reliable) trope of WASPs poking each other to get an emotional response--motivated by frustration, loneliness, a sense of emptiness--then getting way more than they bargained for. Anne (Jennifer Chambers) is in bed at the end of a good but oddly disquieting day and starts asking her husband Ben (Michael McColl) questions as he tries to finish a novel. I've no complaints about the script at all. It worked and gave both actors the chance to really show their stuff, offering in lots of nice hints and clues what their lives are and have been. But this kind of thing really does require high quality realistic actors to carry it off--and director Kevin Hoffer wisely chose a pair well able to carry it off! Not only was I surprised (not to seem too immodest, that just doesn't happen too often) but the characters interested me so much it bothered me being unable to make out the novel Ben was reading! I really wanted to know! Kudos!
Brian Tanen was my favorite of the six. Not perhaps because it was objectively the best (whatever that means) but because it suited my own taste for dark whimsy. Such a simple, compelling notion! Birdy (Parker Phillips) is a British Bobby (police officer) first at the scene at a nice middle class London home where three children have vanished. Enter Detective Inspector Pye (Tara Karsian), a tough-as-nails but not at all cruel veteran of nearly two decades. She's seen a lot and finds Birdy's cheerful hopefulness childish and un-serious. What makes this most powerful is that we recognize the crime scene! This is the Darling home! The missing children? Wendy and her brothers John and Michael! To Pye, the notion of leaving a dog as a babysitter confirms her suspicions Mrs. Darling is on drugs. Birdy's half-joking suggestion the children flew out the window is utter nonsense. No, Wender and her brothers were abducted by someone who knew them, someone with a key to the front door which they subsequently locked. The reason for such a crime will almost certainly prove grisly and perverted in the extreme. What could play like an SNL skit, though, ends up much more, a means of letting we the audience feel a struggle between hope and despair, optimism and despair, imagination versus probability. No small credit for this achievement goes to the actual production as well the script!
Miki Johnson contains what was frankly the best performance of the night, which by now you might realize is my giving high praise indeed! I refer to Lala (Erin Washington) who has the fewest lines and by far the longest stage time in this play. She is a prostitute, one who listens amazingly well and despite what is clearly a sense of vast practicality, retains a matter-of-fact compassion. That she does this all while listening proved very compelling! She didn't do anything to grab the audiences attention--no big gestures, or subtle commentary with a look. No, she simply listened and in that listening made decisions. We see her with three clients: Donald (Justin Huen) who seems to be at the point of meltdown and even suicide. Richard (Karl Herlinger) who seems to have melted down long ago, if indeed he ever was much more than we see him now--a man who reacts to Lala as a thing and brusquely rejects her tiny attempt to be human with him (she clearly doesn't think it'll work, but nonchalantly makes the effort anyway). Then there's Bill (Gareth Williams), the drunken cripple who just wants someone with whom to talk. Talk but not listen, because he clearly just doesn't expect anyone to go that far. Yet Lala does--and when she proves it at the end, he bursts into tears. I almost did as well.
Laileen on the Way Down by Jen Silverman ended the night with humor and charm, based on a simple but profound idea--the story of a young man named Jack (Jesse Fair) finally coming to see his mother Laileen (Carol Locatell) as the human being she is, rather than his expectations wrapped up in the word 'Mother.' This takes place, hilariously, as they break into the bedroom of a motor home where Laileen left her dentures after giving some guy oral sex. Jack is hardly an experienced burglar, and his mortification at everything about this wars with familial loyalty. She, on the other hand, remains very matter of fact. When Francis (Daniel Hagen) walks in on them, but tries to be a good host and offers them something to drink, this sets the stage for the two men to have a very laugh-worthy yet inspiring conversation. Francis is middle-aged, not a senior citizen like Laileen. Yet he was hoping she'd come back. Not because Francis himself is so desperate or maybe fetishistic about the elderly, but because Laileen dazzles him. With this realization, Jack sees the world a little bit anew. Including himself.
Clearly I'm recommending The Echo One Acts 2014 which show Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until August 24, 2014 at 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90039. Tickets are $25 and in this critic's opinion worth it!
Note: I could find no link to any website or page dedicated to actor Michael McColl, which to my mind means he uses a middle name or some variation of his name but I lacked time to search further. My apologies.