Reviewed by Neal Weaver
The Fountain Theatre at the Caminito Theatre, Los Angeles Community College
Through October 14
This play by Deborah Lawlor, co-founder of the Fountain Theatre, is perhaps a fictionalized personal memoir. It’s about Freddy Herko, a gifted young dancer and pianist, whose talent blazed in New York City’s avant-garde scene in the 1960s, only to be snuffed out by drug addiction. Herko died when he leapt naked from a fifth-floor window when he was only 28.
Herko was an artist, a musician, an actor, a dancer, a choreographer and a teacher. He studied or danced with major dance figures, including James Waring, Merce Cunningham and Valentina Pereyaslavic of the American Ballet Theatre.
Watching Lawlor’s play, with its depiction of the drug culture, is a bit like being transported back to the 1960s. Some scenes depict LSD trips, including bad ones, and other ‘60s tropes. The play also reflects the style and attitude of the Judson Poet’s Theatre and the Judson Dance Theatre (of which Herko was a co-founder).
We first see Herko (Marty Dew), wearing a jeweled jock-strap, bounding athletically from platform to platform and swinging on poles at Andy Warhol’s studio, where he appeared in a few films. We then flash back, via a shadow play, to Herko’s childhood, when his parents wanted him to be a concert pianist, and lavished training on him till he decided he really wanted to be a dancer. His father was horrified.
As the narrative proceeds, we see Herko attempting to create his first dance work, a fairytale ballet, and relying on speed to keep going at a relentless pace. He moves in with a young dancer, Shelley (Katie McConaughy), who falls in love with him, even though she knows he is gay. As he becomes ever more drug-dependent, unreliable, and insensitive to those around him, Shelley and his friends, including his mentor James Waring (Mel England), make heroic attempts to save him, to little avail.
Lawlor intends her play to be a celebration of her subject, and his talent and charisma. But she has created a nearly insuperable task for Dew: he must convince us of Herko’s legendary charisma, talent, and charm — even though it’s nearly impossible to act a legend. Dew’s a capable and attractive performer, both as actor and dancer, but he must rely on the supporting ensemble to convince us that Herko really was a heroic figure. And that never quite happens.
Lawlor treats his death abstractly, eliminating the more sensational details. But it’s still controversial today: was his leap a suicide, or the result of his drug-induced belief that he could fly?
Director Frances Loy has given the piece a huge and colorful production. She’s assisted by the actors and a large and dedicated ensemble recruited from Los Angeles Community College’s Theatre Academy. Besides Dew, McConaughy and England, the cast includes Susan Wilder who, as the older, present-day Shelley, acts as narrator. The choreography is by Cate Caplan.
Tesshi Nakagawa designed the huge set, and Jillian Ross designed the many costumes for Warhol Superstars, dancers and others.
The Fountain Theatre at L.A. Community College’s Caminito Theatre, 855 N. Vermont Avenue, L.A.. Wed., 3 p.m., Oct. 4 & 11; Thurs., 3 p.m., Oct, 5 & 12; Thurs., 8 p.m., Oct. 5 & 12; Fri., 8 p.m., Oct. 6 & 13; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m., Oct. 7 & 14. (323) 663-1525 or www.FountainTheatre.com. Running time: 60 minutes with no intermission.