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An Absurdist Tale for Kids Is Undermined by Glitches

June 06, 2002|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Men in suits and bowler hats, green apples, puffy white clouds in blue skies, a floating boulder, black umbrellas: The imagery of Belgian Surrealist painter Rene Magritte dominates Barry Kornhauser's play "This Is Not a Pipe Dream."

Kornhauser's exploration of theater, art and reality is a play-within-a-play, fed by Magritte's observations and signature images, including his seminal pipe painting, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," and his self-portrait obscured by an apple. This unusual fantasy romp is one of youth theater's most difficult to pull off well, and Bread and Jam Children's Theatre of Los Angeles' production at the Secret Rose Theatre struggled with it opening weekend.

At its heart, "This Is Not a Pipe Dream" is a sensitive story about Magritte's childhood experiences with a rigid, disapproving father, the drowning death of his supportive mother and his own drive to express himself without words. Fittingly, little is quite what it seems.

The sometimes thoughtful, sometimes wacky play deliberately keeps the audience guessing about the nature of reality, but it also progresses in fits and starts. It is frequently interrupted by explosive bouts of silent-movie-style comic anarchy, with actors in black suits and bowler hats turning into slapstick clowns who club each other with (foam) pipes or administer an ego-deflating kick in the pants. The same actors also play actors, breaking character to grumble about the script. Throughout, an interlocutor serves as narrator, ringmaster and audience informant.

This absurdist approach requires sure footing and absolute clarity not to lose audience members along the way. Bread and Jam director Tekla Ackelson-Wright and her cast of professionals, led by Jason Jack Beeber as Magritte, Stacey Jack as Interlocutor and Mike Firek as Magritte's father and a bowler-hatted Anonymous Man only partially succeed.

Lack of rehearsal might be to blame, judging from bobbles in timing and dialogue at the show's first matinee. Technical glitches, however, were nearly fatal. Magritte quotes were muffled by scratchiness in the recording. Lighting mishaps not only left a good bit of the action in shadow, but negated much-needed visual interest by rendering projections of Magritte's work nearly invisible.

Bread and Jam is capable of better. Despite these problems, the company has clearly made a considerable effort to bring this rarely seen play to young audiences--an effort that includes Les Salva's Magritte-inspired set design and Valerie Wright's period and humorous costumes. Whether it can pull it all together at this late date is a question mark. Here's hoping.

*

"This Is Not a Pipe Dream," Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Saturdays-Sundays, 1:30 p.m. Ends June 16. $6-$10. Running time: 1 hour. For ages 8 and older. (818) 981-0866.

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