Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Through February 26
I am taking an online class from my old college about comparative fairy tales – not the cutesy Disney stuff, but the darker, more horrifying tales of little children falling into wells and drowning, or witches being shoved into ovens and roasted alive. So perhaps it was no surprise that, as I was watching playwright Julia Jarcho’s dark kaleidoscopic tale of danger and menace, I suddenly realized, “Oh my goodness – this is just Little Red Riding Hood!” And not the sweet Little Red Riding Hood, either – it’s far more of a brooding modern day variant of the tale, rich with menace and elements of ambiguous weirdness.
But to call this play a fairy tale isn’t quite accurate either: There are odd tangents and unexpected developments that are simultaneously creative, imaginative and impenetrable. You may not know exactly what you’re seeing, but it still packs quite a dynamic dramatic charge.
In an anonymous American city, a sweet young lady (Lindsay Plake) ventures into a Christmas tree lot, looking for a tree. She chats genially with the two grim dudes who are working as salesmen, and develops a crush on handsome and masculine Alesh (Anthony M. Sannazzara) —though she’s unnerved by his creepy one-eyed partner, Gregor (Andrew Loviska). As they talk, it becomes clear that the men barely speak English. The girl doesn’t realize it but that they are discussing, in their own language, how they are going to drug and murder her. She just thinks they’re funny and cute – but then they perform a horrific act upon her.
Later, Sannazaro and Laviska return as two homicide detectives investigating the murders (There’s more than one). They brutally interrogate a suspect (Plake, in flannel male drag) whom they think knows more than he is saying. But the two cops have secrets of their own. Finally, in a weird epilogue that must be seen to be believed, the three performers don animal suits and pretend to be raccoons devouring the corpse of one of the dead characters.
Director Frederique Michel stages the surreal elements with a crisp panache that’s peppered with terrifying dark humor. It’s really all very original and disturbing on an elemental level. Amidst the intriguing mood of menace and unpredictability, Michel sets up a number of questions that might have answers — or not, giving the almost gleefully maddening and oblique nature of the text. For instance: Is there some connection between the three sets of characters who are played by the same actors — or is this just a theatrical conceit to display the performers’ versatility.
Although one might wish for a quicker pace during the first half, the ensemble demonstrates compelling adeptness. Laviska is particularly spooky as the one-eyed killer, and then intriguing as the guilt-racked detective. Sannazzara is downright creepy as the leering tree salesman, and then affecting as the other (somehow sad) cop. Plake actually holds it together with a series of scene-stealing performances —as the hapless victim in the early scenes and the oafish suspect later on. Of the sequence in which the three performers portray raccoons —well, it’s just truly bizarre, especially when taken as part of the dream-like fairy tale context.
City Garage, Bergamot Station, 2625 Michigan Ave, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. through February 25. (310) 453-9939 or www.citygarage.org. Running time: 70 minutes.