Theater Reviews: The Blue Iris; Elephant Room

The Blue Iris
The Fountain Theatre  |  5060 Fountain Ave., L.A.  |  Through Sept. 16  |  Tickets $30-34  |

Having just celebrated his 80th birthday, renowned South African scribe Athol Fugard shows no sign of slowing down. He is currently finishing a year in residence at New York’s Signature Theatre after collecting a lifetime achievement Tony Award last year. And since 2000, when he was enchanted by Fountain Theatre co-artistic director Stephen Sachs’ production of The Road to Mecca, Fugard has made the cozy Hollywood theatre his West Coast home, sending a new play every couple of years for Sachs to stage, usually to great acclaim.

The latest collaboration in this unique relationship is the U.S. premiere of The Blue Iris, a 70-minute meditation on love, loss and hope that is exquisitely staged and acted, even as the play’s structure keeps us at an emotional arm’s length.

Set in the barren South African desert region of the Karoo (Fugard’s birthplace), the play takes place in the charred remains of a farmhouse that was recently destroyed by a violent storm. The owner, Robert Hannay (Morlan Higgins), ignores the pleas of his black housekeeper, Rieta (Julanne Chidi Hill), to abandon the ruined home because he feels the ghost of his wife, Sally (Jacqueline Schultz), who died after the storm, is present. Driven by deep-seated guilt, Robert is desperate to discover what Sally’s spirit needs from him.

When he finds a perfectly preserved painting of a blue iris in the rubble, the first of Sally’s many botanical paintings and the only one to survive, the picture sets off a stream of memories for both Robert and Rieta, with dark and dangerous revelations resulting, and long-unspoken truths revealed.

Higgins and Schultz are skilled Fountain and Fugard veterans, each bringing clarity and raw emotion to their roles. Hill is equally strong, carrying Rieta’s secrets with dignity and nuance. Sachs works wonders with the challengingly static play, and the emotional stakes rise refreshingly when Sally appears. But Fugard has handcuffed the actors with long passages of expository recollections from the past that don’t actively engage an audience. As expertly delivered as these are, particularly in Higgins’ meticulously honest performance, the characters’ greatest discoveries feel private and off-limits to us.   

The production values are up to the Fountain’s high standards, with Jeff McLaughlin’s magnificent set and lights and Peter Bayne’s sound creating a richly realized world. Naila Aladdin Sander’s costumes are specific and appropriately distressed, and Misty Carlisle’s props provide the evening’s theatrical climax with the titular painting.

While The Blue Iris might not sit side-by-side with Fugard’s greatest works, it is always interesting to see what happens when this famed writer puts two or three characters in a room with some profound conflict. And nobody does it better than Sachs and the folks at the Fountain. —Christopher Cappiello

Elephant Room
Kirk Douglas Theatre  |  9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City  |  Through Sept. 16  |  Tickets $20-50  |

The Kirk Douglas Theatre offers perhaps the most eclectic seasons in Los Angeles; one can generally expect the unexpected when catching a show at this risk-taking venue. Be that as it may, the zany theatrical happening Elephant Room is apt to surprise even the adventure-loving Douglas audiences. Think gaudy Vegas magic act mixed with Saturday Night Live, topped with a dash of Samuel Beckett on speed—or better yet, on laughing gas. The resulting concoction isn’t a paragon of coherency, but it‘s often screamingly funny.

The Center Theatre Group-commissioned piece was originally workshopped at the DouglasPlus series in November 2009 under the title Next Stop Amazingland. It subsequently premiered in Philadelphia in September 2011, followed by productions at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., last January, and St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York in March. The writer-creators—Trey Lyford, Geoff Sobelle and Steve Cuiffo—have requested that critics keep one aspect of the production secret. Let’s just say that the actor-magicians playing a zany trio of boisterous entertainers (called Dennis Diamond, Louie Magic and Daryl Hannah—a hilarious unisex namesake to the once-popular actress) are extremely talented and funny fellows. And their writers aren’t exactly slouches, either. Meanwhile, director Paul Lazar keeps the zany and meticulously paced show spirited and audacious, even when it veers into unapologetic silliness.

This might be thought of as a play within a play, if it truly was a play in the first place. The nonlinear script doesn’t so much shatter the fourth wall as ignore that it exists. On opening night, some game audience members got involved in the madness, with one man (L.A. Stage writer/critic Don Shirley) speaking to an actor from his seat, and three other viewers coming up onstage. A particularly brave lady shared an improvised scene with Hannah about a brash flirtation at a party.

The shell of a narrative is about a goofy trio of questionably capable entertainers hanging out in a grubby recreation room, which appears to teeter atop cinder blocks. (The wonderful set design, suggesting a cheesy roach motel, is by Mimi Lien. Other impressive designs include Christopher Kuhl’s lighting, Christi Weatherly’s costumes and Nick Kourtides’ sound effects.)

The confident but bungling colleagues attempt to practice their craft, when they aren’t being distracted in myriad ways, or when they break into deliberately awful song-and-dance routines. One particularly hilarious disruption is Diamond’s phone call from an amorous Dalai Lama. Objects such as eggs disappear and reappear, a cooked omelet somehow materializes and milk suddenly oozes out of the most unlikely places. A number of other amazing visual effects and sleight-of-hand tricks occur. As for that curious title, don’t go expecting metaphors. This ain’t Waiting for Godot. —Les Spindle

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