So this is how one memorable chapter in the history of Orange County theater ends: not with a bang, but a whimper.
It's not that the two Mark Ravenhill one-acts chosen by Dave Barton as his Orange County storefront-theater swan song are plaintive or whiny. They are finely crafted, if a bit elliptical, and Barton's four female performers are captivating. It's just they lack the visceral components (swinging dicks, boobies, shocking violence) of the Ravenhill plays that helped put Barton and his theater companies, Rude Guerrilla and the Monkey Wrench Collective, on the local, even international radar.
In fact, it was the great success of the last Ravenhill play he produced, pool (no water), in which a successful artist is physically abused—and filmed—by a group of friends as she languishes in a coma, that eventually led Barton (who doubles as an arts writer for this infernal rag) to drop the curtain on his 15-year career here. Produced first in Fullerton, then at South Coast Repertory's Nicholas Studio in May 2012, Barton realized that selling out the latter show was his artistic pinnacle, at least in Orange County storefront theater.
Ghost Experiment at Stages Theatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through May 26. $18-$20.
He'd already shut the doors at Monkey Wrench in December 2011 and seemed determined to focus on his film-production company, Bryton Films, as well as seriously delve into Los Angeles theater. But then Stages Theatre, needing someone to manage the programming side of things, asked him last summer if he was interested; he was. But while he helped schedule the current season under the auspices of the theater's board, the two parties decided several weeks ago that the experiment wasn't getting an extension.
Which leaves Ghost Experiment as the last time OC audiences will have Barton to kick around. And it's fitting that it's composed of two short plays written by Barton's favorite playwright. This is the 13th production of a Ravenhill play directed by Barton and the seventh American premiere. In addition to exposing Ravenhill to Southern California theater circles, Barton has lectured in London on the works of the British playwright, who is in his second year as writer-in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Co., and has had a personal and professional relationship with him.
The first piece being performed at Stages, The Experiment, is 20 minutes or so of bizarre. The highly versatile Rose London plays three characters: a woman grappling with the hazy memory of her and her husband experimenting on their child in order to find a cure for a terminal disease; the twin of that child; and the father of the child. But we really have no clue whether the child in question actually belongs to this man or woman, or whether it belongs to a neighbor, or if the whole thing was just glimpsed in a documentary. Ravenhill provides no resolution or confirmation, leaving it up to the audience to figure it out. Unfortunately, I think most people might sum it up as did the confused dude I overheard in the lobby: "Great memorization and acting, but what we she talking about?"
Ghost Story is far more firmly planted in something resembling reality. Lisa (Jill Cary Martin) has approached Meryl (Brenda Kenworthy), a New Age healer, to help to guide her on her journey to beat cancer. The two women couldn't be any more different: Lisa is scared, angry, helpless and hopeless, while Meryl seems the epitome of strength and positive vibes. But it really wouldn't be much of a play if neither changed, right?
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It's a gem: heartfelt, dark, with astonishing character arcs. Both Martin and Kenworthy have worked with Barton extensively over the years, and their performances—along with Katrina Klein's as Meryl's partner—capture both the restraint and aggression in Ravenhill's words. And it is as satisfying in its ultimate ambiguity as The Experiment is not.
Both pieces deal with uncomfortable themes—child abuse and dealing with the reality of death, just for starters—honestly and with no blinders. Which makes them fitting odes for Barton, whom I first met a few years after the Weekly launched in 1995. His first piece was an original, ridiculously overcharged screed against anti-abortionists and organized religion; I thought this guy has enormous passion, but not an ounce of craft (probably like the dope who reviewed his early plays). To watch his work as a director evolve over the years, to see where he's taken it, has been to observe one of the great personal artistic successes in OC history.
It was always hard for Barton to get OC audiences into his theaters; his companies were about the material, not marketing. But his knack for choosing plays, usually written by contemporary playwrights, that were always honest—brutally so, at times—and thought-provoking leaves us with one undeniable thought: The work he chose to do mattered. And that's something all local theater practitioners should remember.