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The Importance of Being Bunbury

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Just exactly what was Algernon, dapper hero of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, doing when he claimed to be off in the country "Bunburying"? According to L.A. playwright Tom Jacobson (The Orange Grove, Ouroboros), he was meeting up with his gay lover Bunbury, a character who never appears in the play. Jacobson has taken this idea and run with it to create an entire play around those less-than-famous offstage characters: Bunbury, Rosaline (Romeo's girlfriend before Juliet), George and Martha's imaginary son, and others.

This rambunctious, big-hearted play-about-plays is Bunbury, playing at the Road Theatre at the Lankershim Arts Center in North Hollywood through Dec. 4th. Jacobson takes the modern idea of characters turning on their authors and each other, and lets them try to redirect the course of literature. The writing is funny, poignant, and provocative. In rewriting Wilde, Bunbury tries to rewrite the world.

When Bunbury (an earnest Sean Wing) discovers Algernon (Zach Dulli) has betrayed him for Cecily (Stephanie Stearns), he and Rosaline (Ann Noble, very passionate) decide to stage a revolt of offstage characters. They want to get back their lovers and change the course of theatre, and Bunbury is determined to seem less than trivial. With the aid of a time-and-literature-travel magic lily, they go back to the last scene of Romeo and Juliet and prevent Romeo's suicide. But the plan backfires, hilariously, and these two star-crossed characters don't get what they want.

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Instead of Romeo (Scot M. Burklin) going off with Rosaline, Juliet (Stephanie Stearns) awakens and he predictably chooses her. Rosaline doesn't get her Romeo. Bunbury can't make Algy leave Cecily. And this saccharine happy ending in Shakespeare acts as a powerful literary influence, causing Flaubert to give Madame Bovary a second chance, Chekhov to let the Three Sisters go to Moscow, and Poe to turn "The Raven" into "The Peacock." Bunbury and Rosaline try to make amends by meddling in more literature, from A Streetcar Named Desire to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but the more plays they alter, the farther away they get from achieving their own desires.

The concept of this play is clever enough for even Wilde to be amused, and Jacobson gets a lot of mileage over having Bunbury and Rosaline jump into plays and confront various characters. Bunbury loves how happy everything is getting, whereas the more Shakespearean Rosaline tries to put back some of the pathos. But eventually this wears thin. What really seems to be driving Bunbury, and the story. is his desire to make love to Algy - or failing that, other famous closeted characters.

When Bunbury finally gets to confront the elderly Algy (an incredible Michael Dempsey), and tell him that he altered literature to seem more significant to him, it turns out that Algy has spent his life studying the literary motif of the man with the lily - who is, of course, Bunbury, bopping through the modern drama saving tragic people from themselves. Although Wilde didn't write them together, and Jacobson can't quite find a way to bring them together, they have still spent their lives mutually concerned and obsessed. This is a sad and powerful statement about thwarted love and the fate of gay lovers in Wilde's time - and perhaps still in ours.

Jacobson sees a broad significance for Bunbury, perhaps more than the original character can support. In his author's notes, he writes "Bunbury is in many ways Wilde himself: witty, intelligent, generous, kind-hearted, manipulated by his lover, and about a century ahead of his time." This certainly refers to Jacobson's character, and to Sean Wing's performance, but we feel that the cipher in Wilde's text doesn't go this far.

Perhaps this argues something even more radical than that Bunbury was Algernon's lover - it argues that the most important characters in any piece are the ones off stage, and the most important people in our lives the ones we ignore. The importance of being Bunbury is exactly that he is ignored. Jacobson wants us to look more closely at the people and things in our lives that are swept under the carpet.

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We get to see a lot of very talented actors having fun sending up literature in this piece, and Jacobson makes his cast work hard for their jokes. There's lots of linguistic and punning humor. Mark Bringelson's precise direction and athletic blocking runs the characters over every corner of the set, and after some awkward moments in the first scene, the timing was exquisite.

This cavorting play is anchored by strong design. Sibyl Wickersheimer's set makes a limited space seem boundless. The playing area is divided into three platforms, the central one elevated and skewed off the level. All three are patterned and carpeted. The stage looks like a M.C. Escherized chessboard. The actors run around this board, hide behind it, and play on both sides. Samantha Wright's costumes fulfill the difficult task of conjuring context where there is none, and David B. Marling's sound design adds humor and texture (although we were wishing for more sound earlier on in the play.)

We also enjoyed the two silly puppets, a peacock and a porcupine, designed by Tony Urbano and Carl Johnson. These animated animals open wings, scurry round the stage, and seem to act without assistance. The unexpected arrival of puppets brings out something suppressed in even the most hardened adults, and these two creatures certainly had the audience shrieking with joy. Theater is at its best when it uses its own conventions, and these puppets helped place Jacobson's work in a kind of Punch-and-Judy literary burlesque.

Bunbury plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm through December 4th (dark Nov. 24) at the Road Theatre at the Lankershim Arts Center in North Hollywood, 5008 Lankershim Blvd. Plenty of free street parking is available. Tickets are available online at TheatreMania, or by calling (866) 811-4111 or (818) 761-8838.