A Touch of Ludwig

After bitching at length in this space last week about the shortcomings of a group of short plays by local playwrights, the last thing this lowly scribe was looking forward to was yet another production of a group of short plays by a local playwright. Fortunately, "No More Angels," comprised of six plays by Stephen Ludwig, avoids the stale, commonplace situations and gimmicks that mar so many short-play offerings.

Ludwig, whose Accidental Dancers earned the much-coveted new-play award last year from this august publication, is a very talented playwright whose strengths are finely displayed in this Rude Guerrilla production. In some measure, all six of Ludwig's plays deal with connection. Siblings attempting to connect with one anther over the terminally ill body of their mother; young lovers, confused by sexuality and commitment, struggling for union; a lonely cybergeek desperately pining for human connection by surfing the Net for the one website that will fulfill his every dream.

But while there are similar themes to these six plays, the most refreshing aspect of Ludwig's work is that none of the plays repeat one another. Each is substantially different in terms of tone, form and content. This is one playwright who isn't afraid to test his muse or to take risks. He's not afraid to write. And while sometimes those risks don't completely pay off, there's no mistaking that this is a real playwright aggressively pursuing his craft.

Bearing Witness begins things, and we immediately realize we're not in for a night of situation comedies or domestic drama. A killer awaiting execution rants at length about the murderous gene at the heart of the human animal. Everything from the Old Testament to Columbine is referenced in the monologue, and while Ludwig never truly ties things together, the sheer scope of the vitriolic dialogue is effective. (Sadly, less effective is Bryan Jennings' portrayal. He's all surface histrionics, no real character underneath the rant. And it's very hard to make out his words sometimes, a criminal offense in a piece that desperately needs to be heard.)

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From death row we turn to the apocalyptic, weird and occasionally stunning Gift of the Beast. Four women in various stages of life meet and express their fears, hope and anger. It's an existential nightmare, with the women frantically trying to make sense of nonsense and order out of chaos.

After these forays into murderous rage, apocalypse and terminal illness in The Mother of Memory, we're desperately in need of a break. And that's what we get after intermission with joy.com.Stephen Wagner portrays Howard, a cyber junkie who has alighted upon the website joy.com. Afraid to click his mouse button for fear that joy.com is just another disappointing marketing or product-oriented website, he wrestles with himself in frustrating and funny fashion. The point here is obvious and effective: a lonely man who yearns for connection and genuine joy in his life is unable to achieve it because instead of living, he sits and endlessly analyzes.

After a brief excursion into the frustrations of commitment in A Reverie of Friends, we get the funniest play of the lot: Vacation Escape. Robert Rios is a tourist who has checked into an exotic hotel for some rest and relaxation. But he comes face to face with Joey, who serves as bellhop, concierge and local policeman. Wagner again shines as the chameleon-like Joey in a performance that is both skillfully restrained and manic. It's an intriguing and very funny piece, but by revealing his hand as to who Joey truly is, Ludwig deflates the more absurd and even ominous air of his piece.

Together, the six plays are an impressive representation of Ludwig's versatility. There may be no more angels, but there's definitely a local playwright who bears watching and hearing.

"No More Angels" at Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Thurs., Sept. 13, 8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through Sept. 16. $12-$15.

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