Theater Review: HERE WE GO and THIS IS A CHAIR (Inkblot “C” of Open Fist Theatre’s Rorschach Festival)

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by Tony Frankel on February 20, 2020

in Theater-Los Angeles


When the author is famed English playwright Caryl Churchill, theater about death and life’s surmounting surrealism isn’t depressing at all; it’s exhilarating. The author of Cloud Nine, Owners and Top Girls has written many short works as well, and right now two great one-acts are being given a minor production by Open Fist Theatre at Atwater Village Theater.

I’m not sure if life is becoming more surreal, or if it just seems that way because of electronic devices fluttering in our eyes with alarming speed. Still, how is this for surreal? I spend over an hour in traffic to get to the theater where a rotating rep of plays just opened last weekend. As any great surrealist would advise, I started at the end of Open Fist’s Rorschach Festival: Inkblot “C”, an evening of two Caryl Churchill plays. No, not plays. One-acts. No, not one-acts. Playlets. One is 35 minutes long and the other is 17 minutes. And that, folks, is the entire night.

Thank Dionysus that the playwright is Ms. Churchill, whose blend of comedy and commentary always makes me ponder the enormity of life. Quite often, she leaves me devastated. But really? 52 minutes total playing time? Well, hell’s bells, if that’s how it’s gonna be, you better get some across-the-board stunning direction and acting, which doesn’t happen here (neither does the set, which is practically nonexistent except for furniture). Meshing some awesome performances with some misfires is typical of most small L.A. Theatre, but this feels like a reading without scripts. It held my attention somewhat, and did indeed have me thinking about our mortality; it’s just a shame that the overall experience was as slight as the running time.

For the better part of her long and distinguished career, Churchill, who is 81, has veered from realism in order to explore themes of gender and politics while accentuating obsession with power. Quite often, as with This Is a Chair (1999) and Here We Go (2015), she strays into Theatre-of-the-Absurd territory, vacillating between naturalism and surrealism with such rapidity that it’s difficult to glean any meaning from her work, let alone follow what’s going on. The plays at hand were very easy to follow — but it’s still up to you to decide what, if anything, is going on.

On the cover of her published play, This Is a Chair, the image is that of René Magritte’s iconic 1929 painting The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe). But here the surrealism is the grey area between eight topical supertitles and their corresponding scenes. Some of the scenes are completely natural, while others stray into Martin McDonough territory. The lack of unity between scenes only plays up the disconnection and obliviousness in today’s world, but the inconsistency of successful scenes lies in the hands of director Martha Demson, who doesn’t even ensure that actors have the same focal point when looking out at us; there’s also little in the way of a sense of space.

The first scene, “The War in Bosnia”, has actors Alexander Wells and Debba Rofheart meet for a date that doesn’t happen. The actors are terrific, but beats lack specificity and we have no idea where they are. The best scene is the last, in which the title “The Impact of Capitalism on the Former Soviet Union” is projected while absolutely nothing occurs below it. Blackout. Great, cheeky fun.

At least director Matthew McCray uses imaginative staging for Here We Go, although actors still lack a focal point when looking at the same thing! Matt Richter’s wireless color-changing lights, which actors use like candle holders, and Tim Labor’s stunning sound design bring an eeriness to the work which should have been supplied elsewhere. We are at the wake of a man (Alberto Isaac), whose monologue about his journey to the afterlife makes up the second part of this apolitical piece, while the third has him frail and in the hands of a caretaker. (I love how Churchill’s narrative goes backward!)

In the first part, attendees at the wake face front to tell us how they will meet their demise; it sure makes the idea of mortality resonate even though half the actors’ faces were half-lit here — surely that couldn’t have been intentional. Schulyer Mastain (with a delightful brogue), David Shofner and AlgeRita Wynn are all immensely watchable with fine turns; others not so much, as Mr. McCray doesn’t give them much to make each moment sizzle. Mr. Isaac’s ineffective acting lost me completely — until those final devastating images where simply dressing and undressing are so difficult that it’s painful to watch.

This evening wasn’t as painful as that, but as is typical with small L.A. theater, you’ll be thinking about death for all the wrong reasons.

photos by Darrett Sanders

Rorschach Fest Inkblot “C”
two plays by Caryl Churchill:
This Is a Chair and Here We Go

Open Fist Theatre Company
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Ave
Fri at 8; Sat at 4 & 8;
Sun at 4 & 7; Mon at 8
(check calendar for schedule)
ends on April 5, 2020
for tickets, call 323.882.6912
or visit 
Open Fist

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