One doesn't normally associate avant-garde theater with sweetness. Although it defies easy description, Will Eno's nonlinear romance "The Flu Season," a production by California Repertory at the Edison Theatre, contains a richly humane core that Stefan Novinski emphasizes in his sensitive staging.
The action is set in a psychiatric hospital during a harsh winter, a milieu that Eno evokes with Proustian specificity. Sibyl Wickersheimer's stark set and Nick Solyom's lighting design emphasize that this is, indeed, "flu season," a time of crystalline natural beauty and hidden peril.
The stage is flanked by Prologue (Catherine Reeder) and Epilogue (Josh Nathan), a sort of chorus that comments on events before and after they occur. A character reminiscent of the Stage Manager in "Our Town," the unabashedly sentimental Prologue sets the halcyon scene, while the sardonic Epilogue foreshadows the disaster that will follow.
The story follows the arc of two romances. New patients at the facility, a Man (Mark Frankos) and a Woman (Sarah Goldblatt) have an ill-fated affair. At the same time, the hospital's administrators, a Doctor (John Short) and Nurse (Marjo-Riikka), fall in love.
The interactions between the characters are poetically cryptic. Key to deciphering Eno's intentions is Epilogue, who acts as a sort of alter ego to Eno. Harsh critic and analyst, Epilogue interrupts the proceedings to remind us that this is, after all, fiction. Epilogue may emphasize the artifice of the writer's craft -- but his rationalism doesn't hide his raw emotional connection to the material.
Thanks to a stringently naturalistic cast, we too feel these characters' pain. But final analysis reveals several cheats on Eno's part, most noticeably the Man's herky-jerky transformation from nice guy to unfeeling brute and the Woman's from strong female to victim. Even a nonlinear narrative requires a little motivation behind its major plot twists.
-- F. Kathleen Foley
"The Flu Season," California Repertory at the Edison Theatre, 213 E. Broadway, Long Beach. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. matinee March 18. Ends March 18. $20. (562) 985-5526. www.calrep.org. Running time: 2 hours.
'Bash's' killer monologues
In cataloging ordinary folks' limitless capacity for what he calls "matter of fact brutality," playwright-filmmaker Neil LaBute pulls no punches. Neither do his characters in the superbly staged guest production of "Bash" at the Odyssey Theatre.
Bad behavior -- unapologetic and unredeemed -- is a familiar theme in LaBute's work ("In the Company of Men," "The Shape of Things"). His sharpest and most economical writing, however, is in this trio of confessional one-acts about unexceptional people who've each killed others.
Their stories, unfolding in masterfully constructed monologues addressed to the audience, span a motivational gamut from willful negligence to homicidal rage to premeditated murder. Even more horrifying than their actions is the narrators' lack of concern or responsibility for the consequences -- and the ease with which they draw us into a world with no moral foundation.
Dan Bonnell's precise staging hits all the right notes with only the subtlest embellishment -- projected shadows of a wire cage, guilty hands lighted in red. In "Iphigenia in Orem," Brian Cousins shines as a likable Utah businessman whose initial disarming small talk sets up a dreadful revelation about a death resulting from a practical joke and the numb guilt he carries as he goes about his daily routine.
When the squeaky-clean, self-absorbed college students -- hot tempered, homophobic jock (Jon Beavers) and his perky girlfriend (Mandy Siegfried) -- begin their story about a Manhattan weekend trip in "A Gaggle of Saints," dread builds under their amusingly vapid prattle as elements of violence surface in increasingly graphic detail.
"Medea Redux" features Candace McAdams as a chilling latter-day incarnation of the archetypally wronged woman, calmly recounting her calculated retaliation against the former schoolteacher who seduced her when she was 13.
LaBute's use of Greek tragedy for underlying structure does nothing to ennoble these characters -- if anything, it underscores how bankrupt their tawdry lives are in comparison (tellingly, they all relate their situations to popular movies). Unlike morality tales that affirm integrity by its absence, "Bash" offers no easy comforts -- daring us instead to find our own way to fill the ethical void.
Sentimentalists need not apply.
-- Philip Brandes
"Bash," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 12. $20. (310) 477-2055 or www.odysseytheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
True 'Picture of Dorian Gray'