The American Haj

Pilgrims follows strange affairs of the heart

Photo by Keith Ian PolakoffStrange things occur when boys meet girls: strange, wonderful things that lead to blissful smiles and quivers of love, and terrible things that lead to self-imposed tortures of the heart and bitter hatred.

There's a little of both in the plays that make up Pilgrims, an adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert's collection of short stories of the same name. Gilbert is an emerging writer (she wrote the novel Stern Men, and her magazine article was the basis for the movie Coyote Ugly) who's brought to the stage here by adapter Shira Piven and the California Repertory Co.

Each of the four pieces that make up Pilgrimscould easily lose some fat, but there's enough to suggest that Gilbert is fascinated with flushing out simple situations—in this case, the mad march of the heart—in complicated ways. Whether it's the solipsistic protagonist in the evening's first play, The Many Things That Denny Brown Did Not Know (Age Fifteen), the yearning yokel fallen for a dancer in The Names of Flowers and Girls, or the lonely divorcee with incestuous tendencies in Tall Folks, the main characters are often looking for love—but with people who are apt to betray them. They are pilgrims bound for a relationship with an unpredictable god.

The most engaging of the three pieces was Denny Brown. Brown (a genuine Chris McCool) is your not-so-typical confused adolescent trying to make sense of everything—from his absurd parents to his best friend's sister, who has taken an inexplicable liking to him. This is a goofy, loopy ride, with director Eberhard Kohler displaying a frenetic hand in interpretation. Some of the bits work very well, such as having his enthusiastic and talented ensemble encircle the audience while trying to answer Denny's questions about the meanings of words; other choices—like the gratuitous deployment of a really talented stripper—fail wretchedly.

After this piece, half the audience crams into the small green room while the other half journeys to a bus parked outside the theater. I was part of the green room crowd that saw The Names of Flowers and Girls.The site-specific play features a man playing his own grandfather (the sincere Rory Cowan) looking back on the night he went backstage to meet an experienced, seasoned dancer, Babette (a talented, believable Tannis Hanson). There's a lot of thrusting and parrying here, and truth be told, I'm not sure I got the point. But my impression was that people can enter into relationships for quite different reasons, and there's no telling who is going to come out on top. For instance, the character of Babette is obviously more experienced and jaded than the grandfather, but as the story unwinds, we see that her apparently strong sense of self is a cover for some deep-rooted fears. (Reliable sources among the other group say they played passengers on a bus driven by a woman picking up a succession of former lovers.)

Everyone reconvenes for Tall Folks, on this night a long ride to nowhere. Ellen (Callan White) owns a bar across the street from a new tittie bar. She drags her nephew along to check out the competition and encounters a range of freaky characters, a sexy stripper and some of her darkest desires. Again, Kohler makes full use of the stage, and this piece is always visually interesting. But the constant stimuli mean making sense of the material is difficult at best.

That could be said for the entire production. A lack of directorial focus in favor of lots of directorial ideas—some of which are admittedly ingenious—makes for a night that, ultimately, disappoints. There's a sense of keen humanity in the groping, lonely characters at the center of Gilbert's plays, but this production doesn't always convey it.

Maybe it's simple projection—we bring to the theater what we're feeling in our own lives—but there's a painful thematic similarity among the three stories: the need we all have to find somebody worthy of our love and how so many of us sabotage our own quest by choosing the wrong people.

The title Pilgrims suggests that Gilbert's characters are all embarking upon the most turbulent, unpredictable of journeys: the search for a genuine connection with some supreme power. And even though they choose wrong, they do choose, and that's a win in itself. Though burned and bruised, these characters aren't yet beaten—at least they're not afraid of making another choice. As that great chronicler of human relationships, Frasier Crane, said not too long ago, love is always a risk, but it's a risk you have to take.

Pilgrims by the California Repertory Co. at the Edison Theatre, 213 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 432-1818. Wed.-Thurs., 7 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m. Through May 18. $17-$20.

 
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