Until last weekend, the record for theatrical minimalism was held by Samuel Beckett's "Not I," a monologue for a disembodied mouth.
But now we have Rita Valencia's "Confessions in Total Darkness" at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions.
The audience is led up a candle-lit stairway in groups of three. We enter a dim space that has been cordoned off into curtained alcoves, like a hospital ward. Each alcove contains six folding chairs, arranged as on a very narrow bus, with one seat on each side of the aisle. But the three seats on the left face north, while those on the right face south.
A hanging light bulb goes out, and we are in the black. A sound is heard--a steady hum, like freeway traffic in the next canyon. (Brooke Halpin did the soundscape.) Then we hear voices, without being able to make out the conversation.
Now we hear a young woman's voice--Valencia's. She is talking about her life and her "sins." Or, better put, her learning experiences. She's not in hell, like the woman in "Not I." She is simply looking at what she felt at a particular point in time, and how she went on from there. . . .
After 20 minutes of this (the piece takes about an hour), one viewer began to feel as though he were floating in an isolation tank, the woman's voice becoming an obbligato for his own meditation. This may well be the purpose of "Confessions in Total Darkness." Narcissism is one of the sins examined, and perhaps Valencia and director Tony Abatemarco mean to remind us how easily we are plunged into it.
But if the purpose of the piece is to shut out all outside distractions so that the listener is forced into intimacy with the text, this underestimates certain laws of attention. "Confessions" is a beautifully measured piece of prose, as I found when reading it afterward. But it's also a rather writerly one. The syntax isn't always plain, and the associations are somewhat private.
Tracing the figure in the carpet isn't difficult when the reader can stop and go back. But this is just what we can't do in the theater, even when the lights are on. Valencia's prose is eye-writing, rather than ear-writing, even when read as nicely as the author reads it. It's too easy to lose touch with it in the dark.
As an experiment in sense deprivation, the evening has interest. It never quite achieves "total darkness," however: There is some leakage from the green exit signs. And it's surprising that director Abatemarco doesn't do more with that intriguing seating arrangement. It does deconstruct us as an audience, but no more so than any other spacing would have.
Back in the '70s, the Academy Theatre of Atlanta staged an evening of Michael McClure plays by the low light of an old-time radio dial. At our feet we felt the presence of beasties going bump in the dark. Here, we waited for the bump, but it never came. Maybe that was part of the experiment.
Plays at 1804 Industrial St., Saturdays and Sundays at 8 p.m. Closes Sept. 24. Tickets $8. (213) 624-5650.