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What We Found There: Preludes To Madness, Fugues of Frenzy

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The Son of Semele ensemble is one place where Los Angeles theater audiences can always expect the unexpected. We were prepared for physical theatre, innovative sets, political statements, sex and poetry, when we went to see John Glore's new play Preludes and Fugues at SOSE last Monday. We didn't know we would have already seen part of the production!

Glore is the author, among other works, of a strange and beautiful one-act play, What She Found There, about Celia, the girl who comes out of Looking-Glass World when Alice goes in, and what she tells a hazardous-waste truck driver in our world after she screws him. We first saw this oneact in a high school acting workshop, years ago. In his collaboration with SOSE, Glore decided to interpolate the entire text of What She Found There halfway through Preludes and Fugues as one of the strange dreams of his characters.

Like a composer returning to an old theme, Glore brings back Celia, and the result is astonishing. Four musicians, nervous to the point of hallucination about a string quartet they have to perform tomorrow, embark upon a night of nightmares, sex dreams, mistaken identities, car chases, drinking, and tears. Some of them meet Alice. One finds himself reborn as his dead daughter. One relives Eve's decision to eat the apple, and another becomes Satan and the snake. One dreams, horribly, of having lost his cat. What results is a psychological phantasmagoria of the four artists' minds, and an original, frightening and inspiring piece of avant-garde writing.

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The play opens with a blank stage - a central platform and four rotating panels in each corner. As a classical quartet plays, lights flicker on and off of the four panels, representing the themes and variations of the four musicians. Eventually, the four actors come in and finish off the quartet. This long, slow opening made the audience thirst for physical bodies on the stage.

Once the musicians finish playing, the characters assemble and start bickering. The charismatic cellist (Jeremy Gabriel) bashes the second violinist (Ray Paolantonio). The two women, Michelle Silver and Kristen Brennan (1st violin and viola) both seem preoccupied with their own problems. The group splits up, yelling at each other, and vowing to do better tomorrow. It's a perfectly straightforward opening to an anything but ordinary play.

After this first scene, the characters and their relationships become more and more complex. Some of the nightmares are humorous, others are violent. Almost all are sexual. Brennan and Silver evoke five different moods by the arch of a foot, the tilt of a head. Paolantonio tries to find the words to describe sex, without actually having it. A series of ephemeral, symbolic props, sheets, apples and potatoes, Halloween objects, helps populate one dream after another.

As they get closer and closer to performing the actual quartet - and the afternoon of the concert - the dreams converge, and the four actors start speaking with and over each other, like a quartet for voices. The four stories become one and the performers achieve a moment of desired perfection, but at the cost of great personal turmoil.

Glore's writing puts a great burden of precision on the actors, and director Edgar Landa has blocked his actors as exactly as a composer writes his notes. Every gesture, every hesitation, seems perfect, and the actors behave more and more like dancers as the play progresses. The writing is difficult and sometimes obscure, but the actors are so passionately committed to the text that it is always emotionally present. This ensemble brings a difficult piece into clarity, with the substantial aid of Barbara Kallin's lighting and scenic design, and sound design by Sara Huddleston. Ryan Poulson's original score gives this production musical blood.

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Son of Semele is still the theater to go to if you want to be surprised, shaken, stirred, and never bored, and if you want to see the very idea of theatre challenged and reborn. Here's what their website says about the next show, BARE, opening November 29:

"Theresa and the beloved Pope consume (and regurgitate) beating hearts in an attempt to avoid bodily disintegration.  A starving child pleads for attention, not to mention a little food. An attentive husband wants to be devoured.  A neglected wife yearns for some sweet skin to skin lovin'.  A hungry Grizzly Bear has stopped eating and so, his fur falls off in giant clumps.  Inspired by the parallel feeding tube tales of Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II."

We couldn't make this up if we tried, nor would we want to. But if Son of Semele sometimes errs on the side of extremism in pursuit of original, political theatre, we'll be there, with bells on. Even if we have to watch John Paul II eating a beating heart.

Preludes and Fugues plays Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 7 pm until Oct. 23 at the Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd, Silverlake, CA 90004. Free street parking is available. Tickets are online at the SOSE website. For information, call (213) 351-3507.