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A Mystery Reels Through the Early Days of Movies

July 25, 2002|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The latest offering from the Circle X Theatre Company, "Laura Comstock's Bag-Punching Dog," a world-premiere musical now at the 24th Street Theatre, is the ground-floor production of what could well be a theatrical event. Despite a shaky vocal performance or two and a few rough patches in thematic cohesion, this consummately well-realized entertainment is a technical knockout with Broadway potential.

Written and conceived by Jillian Armenante and Alice Dodd, who also co-wrote Circle X's smash Gothic spoof, "In Flagrante Gothicto," the play offers a sweeping overview of the earliest days of the film industry.

Perhaps the most famous historical figure here, Thomas A. Edison (Christopher Carroll), emerges as a conscienceless huckster who specializes in preempting the innovations of others. But then, by this account, hucksters abounded among early cinematic innovators, depicted here as a slapstick aggregation of schemers, dreamers and downright charlatans.

The most serious plot element derives from the mysterious disappearance of one of the earliest innovators and the subsequent murder of his son, both unsolved mysteries to this day. The circumstances surrounding these long-ago events were certainly suspicious, but Dodd and Armenante don't quite make the case for a full-blown conspiracy.

Left in sharpest focus at play's end is the unjustly neglected Alice Guy (Dodd), a brilliant female film director and innovator who, by the end of her long life, had been so completely expunged from the annals that not a single newspaper carried her obituary--a telling and disheartening omission.

It all makes for a captivating melange, by turns riotous and heartbreaking. Chris Jeffries' wonderful score (Dodd and Armenante contributed additional lyrics) ranges from the toe-tapping to the elegiac. The design elements--Kathi O'Donohue's lighting, Gary Smoot's set, Paul Spadone's costumes and Tim Labor's sound--are flawlessly rendered. Musical director Paul Hepker keeps the sound crisp and professional. Choreographer Gerry McIntyre contributes whimsical dance sequences.

Presiding over this dizzying blend is Armenante, who also designed the production's fascinating archival film footage. As director of this alternately cheeky and profound production, Armenante is masterful--a visionary innovator in her own right.

*

"Laura Comstock's Bag-Punching Dog," Circle X Theatre Co. at the 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St., L.A. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 25. $20. (323) 461-6069. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

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