It's 10 p.m. on a Wednesday in the part of downtown Los Angeles that lies in the shadows of the Sixth and Seventh Street bridges. The labyrinth of dark, narrow streets winds through a warehouse district virtually deserted at night. Unless you're looking to score crack, there's not much reason to be down here after dark.
But tonight, there's a circus in the neighborhood, right across from the stately National Biscuit Co. building on Mateo. There are sexy lion tamers, deranged clowns, bareback horse riders, acrobats, jugglers, perverts, con men, sadists, masochists and a performer whose act consists of getting repeatedly slapped in the face.
There is also a terrorist in the mix, a psychological time bomb whose presence could drive this dilapidated circus into financial and emotional chaos.
It's rehearsal for He Who Gets Slapped, Russian playwright Leonid Andreyev's darkly funny play about—surprise—a guy who gets slapped. The show marks the debut production for the Wooden Leg Theatre Co., a Los Angeles-based collective that reeks of Orange County.
The four people who slapped the company together are Mike Brainard, Gavin Carlton, Steven Lamprinos and Danuta Tomzynski. All but the one with the Z in her name have worked extensively in Orange County theater as actors, directors, producers, writers, designers or all of the above. They've assembled an awesome cast for their debut production, most of whom are no strangers to Orange County theater audiences, including Mike Martin, Matt Tully and Bradley A. Whifield. Hell, they've even recruited Denny Moynahan, a.k.a. King Kukulele, to play one of the clowns.
Add those Orange Countians to the LA-based people in the cast, who include everyone from Macedonian sound designers to veterans of French circuses, and you have some serious talent at the Shed, the cavernous space leased by the Zoo District Theater Co., which is sub-leasing the space to Wooden Leg.
Directing the piece is Carlton, an impossibly talented actor and director (Talk Radio, Julius Caesar, The Elephant Man at Stages, among others) who isn't shy about why he's doing theater in LA. "The reason I moved to LA is to get work," said Carlton, a graduate of Chapman University's film program. "It's unfortunate, but Orange County theater doesn't get [industry] people out. It gets the community out, but it's not going to help me get the funding I need to mount my next project."
Armed with his talent and track record and surrounded by a talented cast and crew, Carlton is diving into the crowded waters of Los Angeles theater with He Who Gets Slappedand its rogue's gallery of circus freaks. The basis for a great 1924 silent film, the play operates on several tracks. It's a love story, a tale about a man suffering from a midlife crisis, a parable about the perils of unfettered capitalism. No—scratch that last one. Though Andreyev wrote the play shortly before the Russian revolution, Carlton has removed any anti-democratic swipes from his working script.
Carlton was drawn to the play for its bold, outrageous characters; the visual possibilities for a play set in a circus; and the more personal story about "a man who is dealing with the loss of a past life and who is trying to find a new one," he said. "But he finds that the same things he was disgusted with in his past life are in his new one."
The political commentary just got in the way, Carlton said. "There are a lot of comments about how democracy was going to ruin Russia and how communism is the way to go," he said. "But it felt like something the author just tacked on, a second plot that didn't serve my vision."
Though the overt political references are gone, Brainard—who plays He, a man with no past who appears at the circus, demanding work as a clown—says the political "overtones are still there because the characters are still there." Characters like the Baron, a gluttonous lech who could serve as the poster child for corpulent capitalism, and Mancini, a freeloading parasite who would sell his own blood for a chance at the brass ring.
Those greedy characters fueled by base wants make He Who Gets Slappeda fitting parable for 21st-century America, at least in Brainard's opinion.
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"At the time it was written, Russia was transitioning from the kind of place we're in right now," Brainard said. "People who had money hung on to it, made more of it and kept it away from the people who didn't have it. But that just made the people who didn't have it want it even more. "
In such a society, what happens to the man who yearns to discover absolute truth and believes he has found like-minded souls only to realize they're chasing after the same petty wants and desires as everyone else?
Well, he gets slapped. But he doesn't go down without a fight.
He Who Gets Slapped at the Shed, 660 Mateo St., Los Angeles, (323) 664-8691. Opens Thurs., March 14. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through April 26. $15.