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THEATER | REVIEW

Gene Play

'Xenogenesis' takes a darkly comic look at the consequences of genetic tinkering.

January 15, 1998|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Timing could not have been more kind to "Xenogenesis," a darkly comic play about the "genetic revolution." Just days before the show opened in Los Angeles, an entrepreneur in Chicago announced plans to open a human cloning clinic.

That real-world news unavoidably colors "Xenogenesis," a look at the world in the year 2042, when manipulating genes has become commonplace. Stephen Serpas' quirky play manages to be more than a sci-fi parody though, largely because of its tight eight-man ensemble.

Los Angeles theater is full of sitcom scripts and actors who pine demonstrably for big-screen assignments. Rarely does one encounter a play like this, one that might have been a low-budget science fiction movie--a little bit "Rocky Horror Picture Show," a little bit "Blade Runner." Startlingly, it works on stage.

The tale is framed by a father-and-son talk about their family history. It seems that Grandpa Jimmy (Chet Grissom) had this tendency to reproduce asexually--a result of some genetic tinkering by bio-entrepreneur Henry Bekman (Chris Olson).

In a flashback, Jimmy--pregnant and scared--takes off on a cross-country journey to find his real parents (he was adopted by a family in the Midwest) and solve the riddle of his unique ability. The play shifts quickly between past, present and future, piecing together Jimmy's story and the unpredictable relationships among the other characters.

Director Patrick Murphy's staging is minimalist yet highly stylized. The actors use no props, effectively--and sometimes hilariously--miming their way through. Bekman's lackey, Sumpter (Christopher Holloway), climbs, crawls and even blowtorches his way through a wall to break into a Chicago hospital--and he never leaves his chair.

The adequate set by Keith McQueen is dark and moody, but most of the ambience in "Xenogenesis" comes from the work of sound designer Adam Kroloff. When they aren't acting in one of their multiple roles, the actors man microphones on the fringes of the stage and add sound effects.

The result is, at first, distracting as they "dub" in the sound of every footstep. As the audience adjusts and the effects are used more sparingly, they become more effective. For instance, Bekman's high-tech lab is evoked simply with the sounds of his chirping pet birds and the whooshing of the hermetically sealed doors.

At the core of the show, though, is a team of eight young men whose actions are as choreographed as the best-run football play. Scenes shift instantaneously, and the actors change roles the same way. Kenny Williams gives a notable performance as Lou, the FBI agent who has good reason to be obsessed with the pregnant teenage boy.

Murphy keeps his actors going at a sweat-inducing pace, and the play demands full attention. The rewards are in the details--the sounds, the expressions, the revelations--and the discovery that parts of this wacky play aren't so far-fetched after all.

BE THERE

"Xenogenesis," at the Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Ends Feb. 14. $12.50. (818) 508-3003. Running time: two hours.

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