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Theater Review

The Modern World Prays for Answers

'On earth as it is in heaven,' a haunting work by About Productions, examines four individuals who are searching for meaning in their lives.

October 11, 2002|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One unavoidable consequence of living in an era of cultural relativism and information overload is the loss of ready-made answers to spiritual questions. Another is a profound sense of isolation from one another, heightened by the absence of a shared value system.

Both of these modern maladies of the psyche figure prominently in the latest interdisciplinary creation from About Productions: "On earth as it is in heaven" at the 24th Street Theatre.

Combining words, movement, music, abstract sculpture and light to explore the mystery of prayer in our secular age, this haunting work illuminates the thorny relationship between spiritual uncertainty and alienation. Not only are the problems connected, the piece suggests, but also in our grappling with the former lies at least a glimmer of a solution to the latter.

Employing the prism-like narrative equivalent of a Cubist painting, co-writers Theresa Chavez (who also directs), Laurel Ollstein and Rose Portillo tackle these issues from the fragmented perspectives of four characters from diverse walks of life. Their isolation is established in opening choreography that has them darting restlessly around the stage, never acknowledging one another, before launching into their individual histories. Each examines from a different angle the role of prayer and its potential to fill the holes in his or her life.

Visiting her family reservation, a thoroughly "assimilated" American Indian (Portillo) finds herself unexpectedly reconnected to her long-forsaken cultural roots through the mystical insights of her dying aunt. A coolly rational neurologist (Alberto Antonio Araiza), hiding from his inability to deal with clinical death, buries himself in empirical research into strange brain activity during prayer. A former dancer (Ollstein), facing a deteriorating body that modern medicine is powerless to remedy, attempts to reconcile the spiritual and physical dimensions of her being. An angry teenage prostitute (Jesse Ramirez) embraces self-destructive behavior to exact revenge on his deeply religious mother.

Telling these stories through interlocking monologues is a risky structural device that serves in far too many modern plays as a Band-Aid for inability to craft dialogue. Here, however, the form is essential to the theme of alienation, not only in emphasizing the vast distances between the characters but also in moving toward an underlying commonality of human experience through parallel themes and images that emerge in the respective soliloquies. These people never meet for coffee at Starbucks, but their fragmented identities commingle and increasingly reinforce one another.

The play's challenging, densely packed visual, verbal and aural associations repay careful attention but leave little opportunity for viewers to coast on theatrical cliches and expectations.

Balancing the heady thematic content are the rich emotional textures in Anne LeBaron's evocative original score. Recorded string quartet, harp and wind instruments are accompanied by a live percussionist (Joshua Jade or Zack Behrens), in angular, rapidly shifting moods suited to the characters.

The equally inventive visual components include Noah Riskin's hand-held lights and an abstract set design of suspended rectangular plexiglass panels designed by architect Gustavo Rincon and Plasis Design. In combination, the images thrown by body-mounted lights on the semi-opaque panels transform the actors into eerie figures reminiscent of a Francis Bacon painting.

All four actors display solid control of their characters, although Portillo and Araiza turn in the more layered performances. Araiza's wistful ruminations on the limitations of intellect are starkly complemented by Portillo's intense descent into ritual.

The play's tough-minded vision permits no easy assurances; simply "finding religion" is not an option here. But what is possible (and ultimately essential) for these characters is groping through their individual pain toward a terrifyingly partial, unromanticized access to faith in the modern world.

"On earth as it is in heaven," 24th Street Theatre, 1117 24th St. at Hoover, L.A. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 27. $15-$20. (323) 692-2854. Running time: 1 hours, 15 minutes.

Editor's note: Theresa Chavez is married to daily Calendar editor Oscar Garza.

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