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With Frenemies Like These: A Vibrantly Creative Dive into 'Pool (No Water)'

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The basic thing about artists, when one removes issues of quality or meaning, is that they create art. What kind of art isn’t particularly important; what’s vital is that artists are compelled to create, often with whatever medium is close to hand. Paint, ink, stone, data—any of these can be exposed to the artist’s vision and be transformed into art. Or, as in Mark Ravenhill’s Pool (No Water), the misery of others can be a fruitful medium. Monkey Wrench Collective’s impressive new production of this play overflows with talent, from the brilliantly dark writing to the protean choreography, from Dave Barton’s confident direction to a superb ensemble. All that, and did I mention it’s funny to boot?

Once upon a time there was a group of artists who happily endeavored in the exciting thickets of ill-paid hipsterdom, a gathering of artistes so self-important they dubbed themselves “The Group.” One (Jessica Lamprinos) among these servants of the Muse unexpectedly found great fame and moved away and up in the world, over the next decade becoming more a patron than a compatriot. Feelings of envy and bitterness aside, when the famous one invites her old friends to a party at her big house, The Group attends. The hostess suggests midnight skinny-dipping, and to start the festivities, she dives into the pool. Which, unfortunately, has been drained of water. Crack! The Group gets her to a hospital and stays by her side in the months to come, quickly getting a dreadful idea and putting it into gleeful practice: exploiting her comatose, shattered body as art.

Lamprinos is coolly captivating as the calm central figure, who simultaneously wants to recapture the feeling of belonging to The Group yet clearly knows herself to be far above them, a mask of genuine affection worn over a core of sincere condescension. The ensemble (Peter Balgoyen, Christopher Basile, Terri Mowrey, Cynthia Ryanen, Alexander Price, Keith Bennett, Sean Engard, Bryan Jennings, Jeffrey Kieviet and Melita Ann Sagar) delivers consistently amazing work, in constant conversation and motion, a whirlwind of kinetic energy that nevertheless manages to convey the intimate thoughts and small moments of each member of The Group with pinpoint precision.

Director Barton’s most striking achievement here is that of clarity, at once sending the ensemble careening around the stage in a carnival of debauchery and desperation and at the same time deriving a clear gestalt from the maelstrom. He also stages set pieces to remarkable effect, especially the fall into the titular declivity, the hostess standing above the others screaming as a bright red pattern is projected behind her, the ensemble slapping their hands to represent her breaking upon the concrete. Angela Ann Lopez and Lee Samuel Tanng’s choreography is fantastic, not only as a display of physical vitality and aesthetically pleasing movement, but also as a major component of the play’s storytelling, where almost every motion is in service of character or plot on a level of ambition and achievement that very few shows even attempt.

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Although it’s a compact piece of work, Ravenhill’s play touches on subjects such as envy underlying friendships, the question of morality in creating art and how doing monstrous things becomes easier when done by a group. He’s also somewhat evenhanded in his character depictions, because although the people do cruel things and really enjoy them, they also care for the hostess in their way and suffer pangs of guilt and self-loathing. In England, Ravenhill is considered a major modern playwright, having plays produced in many of the biggest theaters in London, and he’s currently the writer-in-residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Here, Pool gets its L.A. premiere in a small venue, with little publicity. Monkey Wrench Collective has brought us a genuine theatrical gift, and we’re lucky to have it.

"Pool (No Water)" runs through June 17 at the Flight Theatre. Tickets are available online.