THEATER IN THE DARK presented by the Odyssey Theater Ensemble
by Ramona Pilar Gonzales
pLAywriting in the city
As theater makers and theater goers know, the experience of a play isn’t limited to what happens on stage for the 60-120 minutes of the production. One doesn’t just experience the play, but experiences the theater that houses the play, the people who work at the theater and, especially in Los Angeles, whatever feat of automobilian madness one had to endure to get to said theater to watch said play.
Currently, I am one of the 7% of the population of Los Angeles County who use public transportation to get to where I’m going. On any given day, even when I was driving, I almost never had cause to go to the Westside. Were it not for the assignment to review “Dark” presented by The Odyssey Theater Ensemble, I might have gone another six months or so before I went out that way. But I heeded the call of duty and made the just-under-two-hour commute from Northeast Los Angeles to Culver City.
Travelling on foot, by light rail, subway and bus affords an amazing array of sights, sounds, smells (which, on a bad day one can taste) and tactile experiences. It can be a sensory overload: crazy man shouting about white devils while his guitar bangs against the side of the bus driver’s booth; trying to hold on to the railing while standing and keeping an eye on your breasts to shield them from wayward hands; tuning out the racist quips from the older white woman as brown families who remind you of you and your grandma when you were a kid exit the bus, “They always leave from the front of the bus when the driver told them to go to the back. They think they’re special, don’t they? They always do that.”
Watching the demographic of the bus change by neighborhood gives an overview of the people who rely on public transit (new arrivals and old locals, the DUI afflicted) and the people who use it just because (out of state imports who don’t have the car culture in the blood and bar hoppers).
The Odyssey Ensemble Theatre is almost adjacent to the 405 Freeway, the bane of commuter LA’s existence. From the bus stop at Sepulveda and Santa Monica Blvd, it is less than half a mile down a few long, industrial blocks. The degree of heightened awareness I employed on the bus amongst a bunch of people needed to be increased when I, a single woman, walked beneath the scattered streetlights to my destination.
I entered the theater still in “go” mode, mind and senses spiralling – “I hope the empty seat next to me stays empty. Oh. Crap.”, “Am I hungry? I might be hungry. I think I saw a Zankou. Or should I wait to get home. In 4 hours.”,” Are there props? How long is this thing.”, “I hope no one else has to walk over me. Man, get here on time, people.” ,”Wow the stage is sparse. I wonder how they get around in the dark.”
The answer to that last question is pretty innovative: a string grid system set up across the stage, which the actors use as a guide to hit their mark in the dark.
We, the audience, are then informed that we will be lit with infrared light and that the ushers will be equipped with night vision goggles to come to our aid, if needed. All we need to is to wave our programs in the air for assistance. And then the lights go completely out. So I’m sitting there in the dark imagining Buffalo Bill stalking Clarice Starling and I hope and wish and pray this doesn’t turn into a scare-fest. Immediately after, I hope and wish and pray that it does.
At first, it was hard to listen because I was stubbornly trying to see. I knew it was going to be dark (hence the name) but I wanted to see if I could see. The only things that were unintentionally visible was an “Exit” sign, a bit of faded light on the ceiling, and a few pieces of glow tape on the stairs next to me.
As the pieces progressed, the theater actually seemed to get darker. I thought my eyes would adjust and I’d be able to see something, but all I could see were rolling dark clouds, each set darker than the last.
The pieces varied in tone, but none of them took advantage of the innate fear of the dark a lot of people have. Perhaps it was enough to be in a pitch dark room with people you don’t know. There is a certain degree of trust inherent in doing even that, considering all the terrible things – real and imagined – that can happen in the dark.
The bulk of the pieces were performed completely in the dark, like “The Tunnel” by Friedrich Durrenmatt, which made a brilliant use of sound to ramp up the tension of a train going through a mysteriously long tunnel. A few pieces used light as a punctuation or, an exclamation point as in “Elegant Dinner,” a delightfully dark sketch.
The big standout for me was “The Happening” (performed by Beth Hogan) which had a wonderful audience participation component and used the dark as a means to be mindful and focus on the excitement that can be found in the simple act of going to a grocery store. The piece also encouraged, and somewhat relied on, audience interaction, which was a brilliant component to the piece, and another point for live theater versus film.
The cast were magnificent, full stop. The performances sounded seamless. Even if there were a few that I enjoyed more than others, they were PERFORMING IN THE DARK. Accents changed, volume raised and dropped, everything they did added to a very unique production.
Some pieces were more active and engaging than others, but the real gem of the experience was the simultaneous sensory deprivation and stimulation. After the hustle and bustle of the journey to the theater, it was surprisingly calming to sit in the dark, relax and let one of my senses take a back seat to the others and let someone else drive.
Who – Odyssey Theater Ensemble
What – Theater in the Dark – “Dark” and “More Dark” premiered 11/10/12, Written by: Sheila Callaghan, Ernest Kearney, Lynn Manning, Anna Nicholas and Ron Sossi; including selections, adapted for the dark, from previously published work by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Dorothy Fortenberry, Will Hackner, Edgar Allen Poe, Danny Robins and Dan Tetsell, William Shakespeare and Matei Viesnec. Directed by: Jeremy Aluma, Michael Arabian, David Bridel, Vesna Hocevar, Matthew McCray, Jamie Robledo and Ron Sossi. With ensemble members: Alan Abelew, Jack Axelrod, Marcia Battise, Denise Blasor, RonBottitta, Sheelagh Cullen, Jean Gilpin, Beth Hogan, Kristina Lloyd,Anna Nicholas, Cary Thompson and Terry Woodberry
Where – Odyssey Theater – 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, CA 90025
When – “Dark”: October 20, 2012 – December 16, 2012
Ticket Info: Tickets available online, (310) 477-2055 ext. 2, www.odysseytheater.com
Price: Wednesdays-Fridays: $25, Saturdays & Sundays: $30. Running Time: 90 minutes – no intermission