Theater Reviews: GHOSTS, NEVER SWIM ALONE and LANDSCAPE (Inkblots “A” & “B” of Open Fist Theatre’s Rorschach Festival)

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by Marc Wheeler on March 2, 2020

in Theater-Los Angeles


Theater isn’t just what it brings to us, it’s also what we bring to it. At least, that’s the general idea behind Open Fist Theatre Company’s Rorschach Fest, a series of five experimental one-act plays from risk-taking playwrights: John O’Keefe, Harold Pinter, Daniel MacIvor, and Caryl Churchill. These shorts get divided among three separately-priced programs (Inkblots) playing in repertory at Atwater Village Theatre for Open Fist’s 30th Anniversary Season. Reviewed here are Inkblots “A” and “B” – or as I see them, two “ink splats” (Ghosts and Landscape) followed by one “ink-credible” short (Never Swim Alone). (See Stage and Cinema’s review of Inkblot “C”  — Caryl Churchill’s This Is a Chair and Here We Go.)

Not to be confused with Ibsen’s seminal Ghosts (1881), Inkblot “A” consists of a 70-minute one-act written and directed by John O’Keefe. Debuting in 1981 at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, this Ghosts is an overwrought phantasm better left haunting the Reagan years. In it, a group of six actors, all dressed in black and barefoot, descend upon a pitch-black theater, whispering repeated overtures from the great beyondor, at least, from offstage. That’s where it all goes wrong, and it doesn’t get any better from there. These “ghosts” are here from the afterlife to talk about their former lives on earth. An older woman gets wheeled out on a dolly to tell her tale. Another ghost rocks in a chair, laughing hysterically. A third ghost laments a violent death at the hands of her pedophile husband. And yet another shares their story in front of a sleeping woman in the front row. (Long, repeated blackouts are invitations for nappy-time.)

Ghosts is a parody of itself; an SNL skit of blackbox theater where earnest actors deliver a cacophony of dialogue — whether in unison or overlapping — punctuated with annoying, high-pitched cackles and sing-song gobbledygook. When the lights come back on, five-dollar wine awaits just outside the theater doors. Life after death at last.

Inkblot “B” begins with Harold Pinter’s Landscape, an oddity as disconnected from reality as its characters are with each other. In this 45-minute one-act — directed by Chris Cappiello — a wife (bright-eyed Laura James) and husband (stoic Tom Noga) sit alone at a table. The wife is reminiscing about a day at the beach long ago. She’s nostalgic. He’s… listening? Evidently not. After she cuts off, he begins his own “remember when” tale: something involving a pub and a pond. Back and forth they speak, each one showing no indication they’re even in the same room as the other — even as they sit mere feet apart. Two old souls, individually adrift. And while it’s clear this Pinter piece is purposefully artificial, the long pauses between each speaker, occasional intertwining of dialogue, and “held” looks from actors at the end of their respective monologues, all make us wonder how much is simply misguided direction or forgotten cues. Either way, the overall point is clear: after all these years, these spouses are but strangers to each other. Unfortunately, we’re as emotionally detached as they are.

Making these Inkblots worth sitting through — finally! — is the second of two plays in Inkblot “B”: Never Swim Alone by Daniel MacIvor. While the work utilizes a similar repetition of dialogue as found in O’Keefe’s Ghosts, here it’s much more effective; each repeated phrase is as welcome as a beloved song’s refrain. MacIvor’s writing is so dizzyingly poetic — and under Amanda Weier’s direction, so well-timed — it occasionally warrants accompanying choreography. In this astute 45-minute short, two suit-clad businessmen, Frank (Bryan Bertone) and Bill (Dylan Maddalena), compete on a beach — or at least on a childhood memory of one — for the title of “First Man.” A referee (Ann Marie Wilding) guides them through a series of tests — each one, in essence, a proverbial dick-wagging contest for her to judge. Rat-racing and virility are put to the test, scrutinized under the ref’s watchful eyes. Each round is a hilarious illustration of the social pressures put upon — or emanating from — the hairier sex, as they strive for coveted prizes of strength and status. Never Swim Alone is a delightful work. Its structure is inventive and fresh; its charming cast of three is quick-witted and engaging.

These Inkblots offer abstract impressions through which to see ourselves — each one a unique example of what theater can be. Yet experientially they’re like night and day. While reactions to unconventional theater may say something psychological about the viewer, it’s worth noting that the work with the clearest vision was the most successful. Or maybe that just says something about me.

photos by Darrett Sanders (Never Swim Alone, Landscape);
Elif Savas (Ghosts)

Rorschach Fest Inkblot “A”
Rorschach Fest Inkblot “B”
Never Swim Alone;

Open Fist Theatre Company
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Ave
check calendar for rotating rep:
Fri at 8; Sat at 4 & 8;
Sun at 4 & 7; Mon at 8
ends on April 3 and 5, 2020

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