Exploring the fertile border between dream and nightmare, between circus and multidisciplinary movement theater, the Junebug Symphony, from France, is most of all a showcase for the unique DNA of 28-year-old James Thierree, its writer, director and star.
Thierree's great-grandfather was Eugene O'Neill, a seminal theater poet intent on revealing people's deepest natures. His grandfather was Charlie Chaplin, a comic genius who specialized in showing how people are undone by the obstacles of the material world. His parents were pioneer new circus artists in Europe. Great genes, and Thierree makes the most of them.
At the Freud Playhouse on Thursday (opening night of a five-performance UCLA run), he and his brilliant colleagues wedded a hallucinatory theater style related to some of O'Neill's most experimental plays to a sense of physical comedy akin to some of Chaplin's most memorable routines. The subject: a sleepless night. The treatment: deeply whimsical and poetic.
From the moment Thierree gets undressed for bed, the Junebug Symphony offers one startling display of quick-change stagecraft after another. After the bed insists on turning into a precipice, and his body literally falls apart, we find him reading a hot book (we know it's hot because the pages keep bursting into flame), and worrying over a portrait of soprano Uma Ysamat that refuses to stay as painted.
Not only does the portrait's actions confirm all the gossip that circulates about artists' models, but a walk-in closet also keeps issuing deafening invitations to dance. And before long, Thierree is confronting a defiant doppelganger named Magnus Jakobsson with a penchant for high diving into the wings and a boneless contortionist named Raphaelle Boitel with a disquieting knack for climbing the walls.
No wonder Thierree's head emits clouds of smoke. On this night, a door, an armchair and a candelabra all become strange new environments, and even the potted plants have a will of their own -- not to mention hands and feet.
The 90-minute stream-of-unconsciousness ends, more or less, at a beggars' banquet in which the place settings are neatly arranged (and stuck) on Thierree's body, and the kitchen implements are enlisted as armor in a battle between a giant rhino and griffin. But not before we see Thierree roller-blading while playing the violin, cycling backward at high speed, balancing on a giant sphere, sharing a gymnast's mat with Jakobsson and a high trapeze with Boitel.
The point: When we leave our bodies (or vice versa) in sleep, we can do anything, and even if our imaginations run away with us, they release a sense of untapped potential -- the realization of all those illusions about ourselves that O'Neill called pipe dreams and that Thierree physicalizes with Chaplinesque flair. His performance is thus not merely funny and amazing, but also life-affirming because he can do waking just about everything we can do only in fantasy. And for that he deserves all the riches, renown and acclaim this grim little world can bestow.
At once the name of a performing company and its current vehicle, the Junebug Symphony provides more evidence about the reinvention of Western theater and concert dance by the same kinds of wandering popular entertainers who started the whole thing to begin with. If only our political leaders were as accomplished and inspired in their way as Thierree is in his, the future would be secure.
The Junebug Symphony performs today at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m., Freud Playhouse at UCLA. $15 (students) to $40 (half-price for children 12 and younger). (310) 825-2101.