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He's the surreal thing

Scottish performer Oscar McLennan brings his bizarre perspective to UCLA's International Theatre Festival.

October 12, 2003|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Old acquaintance was not forgot when David Sefton glanced at a theater festival bill in Dublin, Ireland, two years ago and was surprised to spot Oscar McLennan's name.

Sefton, director of UCLA Live, was there to scout much bigger game: Robert Wilson's staging of "Woyzeck," with music by Tom Waits, which later became a centerpiece of UCLA's first International Theatre Festival.

But he also made sure to catch McLennan, a memorable blast from his past. The obscure but critically well-regarded writer-monologuist from Glasgow, Scotland, was delivering a performance piece called "The Quiet Bastard" in an art gallery. Some 20 years before, in his hometown of Liverpool, England, Sefton had managed a 100-seat theater, a deconsecrated synagogue with a leaky roof. It's where he first was transfixed by the piercing McLennan gaze, which is fairly unforgettable, according to those who have seen him perform.

"He has an almost psychotic appearance on stage," Sefton says. "The thing about Oscar that's so striking is his ability to go to the dark side with a certain degree of humanity and wit. There's a surreal quality to what he does, but the pieces are strangely accessible, considering they're so dark."

They adjourned after McLennan's performance to a nearby pub. Over pints, they made a deal: He would expand "The Quiet Bastard," a meditation on the allure and heartbreak of moviemaking, from 30 minutes to an hour and bring it to UCLA. Now billed as "The Quiet Bastard: The Director's Cut," it will run for five performances this week in the second annual International Theatre Festival.

McLennan, 48, arrives in the shadow of Hollywood with a piece that probes a strange Hollywood of the mind. The title character is a cinematic auteur, or so he tells us, who operates alone in a desert waste. He conjures oblique, disjointed scenarios fueled by his obsessions, yet hopes, absurdly, that they can grab a mass public. McLennan acts out these "films" to the sound of a whirring projector. His shadow is framed by a sprocket-holed square of celluloid beamed against the wall. The mood swings from the bursting joy of creative flight to the depression that enshrouds the character when he broods over his lack of industry cachet. Still, he has hopes, and they're riding on "The Road to Hell," in which Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour set out on camelback for lighthearted Middle Eastern adventures and end up debauched, crazed and hollow-eyed.

"This will be the biggie," the Quiet Bastard proclaims in one of his fits of enthusiasm. "An all-star cast, a musical with a moral.... And the moral: It doesn't matter how big you think you are. The desert is bigger."

Life as a dream

It isn't exactly autobiography, but it's still personal, McLennan says, speaking by phone from the Dublin home he shares with Anne Seagrave, his romantic partner of 17 years. She too is a performance artist and the designer of soundscapes and visuals for "The Quiet Bastard" and some of McLennan's previous shows.

"I take aspects of myself and exaggerate them," he says. "I find reality hard to define and see life as a kind of dream world. When [the Bastard] gets on a creative high, everything becomes rosy and brilliant and translucent and alive. I think that's very much within me. I probably have manic-depressive tendencies I keep in check with a sense of perspective and a sense of humor."

McLennan's sense of perspective was tested with this project. "The Quiet Bastard" began as a novel inspired by a photograph he came across in an art school library: military jets flying over a desert landscape, with four men visible below and an American flag planted near them. He spent three years writing it, sipped champagne with Seagrave after a London book publisher phoned excitedly to say her assistant was raving about it, then fell into a funk for several months when she called back, having read it herself, to say that what she really wanted was a nice travel book. He recovered by paring the novel into a performance piece.

McLennan is a self-taught performer grounded in rock 'n' roll and traditional Celtic music. He moved to London from Glasgow at 18 and, three years later, became the singer in Zzitz, a punk band with a theatrical flair it got from the 1970s American group the Tubes and the musical theater-influenced Glasgow rock troupe the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. In the 1980s, a circuit of comedy cabaret clubs sprang up in Britain. Before it calcified into routine stand-up joke humor, Sefton says, it was a haven for the crazy and the experimental, and McLennan was a regular. He became known for a piece called "Letter to Mother," in which he wore a bedsheet, then shed it to expound, naked, about sexual inhibitions and other forms of insecurity. McLennan says the audience response sometimes verged on riotous.

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