Who do you want your Tom Stoppard to be? For years, average theatergoers flocked happily to the more accessible works of the Czech-English playwright, whose charming yet quirky takes on the befuddlement of human memory and the nature of art have delighted audiences (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Arcadia) and earned him an Academy Award for screenwriting (Shakespeare in Love).
But there's another Stoppard, one whose oeuvre is composed of lesser-known works that frustrate conventional categories of meaning. Take his 1972 play, Artist Descending a Staircase, currently on display in Long Beach. Part murder mystery, part memory play, Artist attempts to retrace the steps of three elderly avant-garde artist companions on the day one of them has apparently been murdered, flashing back in a series of scenes to 1914 and then cycling forward to the present.
The title is a metaphor—the narrative cycles down a spiral staircase of time. It's also a pun because the artist in question (Christian Velky) has been killed in a fall down the stairs. Upon unraveling the mystery, we are left with the dissatisfying notion that we must rely on the imperfections of human memory to tell the stories by which we give meaning to our lives, evoking the absurdity of King Lear in the play's final moments.
Don't estimate this production's value by its actors' execution. The show has a real garage-band feel, appropriately echoed by the impoverished setting—an art gallery in downtown Long Beach called Artists Reaching Kids. (Director Jamie Sweet explains in a preshow curtain speech akin to a vaudeville impresario that they were "kicked out" of their last space and that they'd have to hold curtain because some people might have gone to the other space by mistake.) The actors (Velky, Matt Anderson and Eric Hamme) have trouble convincingly portraying the three artists' ages, and Sweet has blocked the play so that some actors are actually speaking upstage—into scenery.
But the lack of polish simply adds to the genuineness of this experience. Sweet has selected a terrific piece, and none of the complexity is lost on him or his otherwise fine cast. In fact, one can go so far as to say that this artists co-op is exactly the type of company that should be presenting this difficult and vital play: they're visibly not caught up in the bullshit of trying to impress a bunch of subscribers and are instead committed to the work itself.
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Artist Descending a Staircase by the Garage Theater Company at ARK Gallery, 530 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 856-9370. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. $10.