For a play that is presented in a small theater, on a small stage and with a set so minimalist that the three folding chairs in the first act loom like the proverbial ‘gun over the fireplace mantle’, the latest offering from poet /playwright Murray Mednick which is co-directed by Mednick and Padua Theater Artistic Director Guy Zimmerman, has a lot going on. That it works and is so accessible on any level you choose to experience it, or that it chooses to engage you, isn’t an accident. This is the work of a thoughtful craftsman using the canvas of Los Angeles as his background and an artist’s exploration of his own life experience and interior dialog as filter, mirror and pathway out of a maze of sadness and loss – with just the right amount of absurdist humor to make it really hurt.
Comprised of two plays (The Fool and the Red Queen and Gary’s Call Back which are individually plays six and seven from playwright Mednick’s octet known as The Gary Plays), the current offering invites us to an audition and within that process to view a bit of performance art (based upon Euripides Orestes), a scene from a screenplay being written as the audition is taking place and (the main character) Gary’s struggle with several of the major themes of his life, which are resolved as the script is completed. In The Fool and The Red Queen art employs actors not only to tell its story but also, through the exploration of their psyche, to find its story.
The play opens with a ‘call back’. The subject of The Gary Plays has been asked to meet with director Chauncey (Jack Kehler) and Rondell (Gray Palmer) to both try out for a role in an as yet unfinished film and to help in crafting the ‘protest / love story’ envisioned by his interviewer / antagonists. John Diehl’s Gary serves as a wonderful everyman – forcing one of the play’s primary questions: Aren’t we all on perpetual audition for the role of our self? It becomes apparent that Chauncey and Rondell (like most of our own inquisitors?) are devoid of all but the most cursory and uninteresting ideas. But through their not so clever (and even less conscious) prodding of Gary they allow his working through of his personal sorrows and tragedies to give form to their ‘creation’. We see that all vampires don’t require fangs or hypodermic needles to draw life from another person’s soul.
With Chauncey and Rondell’s prodding, and Gary’s willing surrender, he (and we) are called, along with the Fool (Bill Celentano’s terrifyingly wonderful realization of this key character spans the synapse between the real world and the mélange of the unconscious so unnoticeably that he makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role), to the presence of the Red Queen. When Julia Prud’Homme in the roll of the crimson monarch orders no one in particular to ‘Bring me my Fool!!’ we all feel the primal summons. And when she goes further to explain ‘He‘s the only one who listens to me’, the futility, the resignation and at the same time the comfort that comes from familiarity – even a painful familiarity – starts to work on the audiences mind and digestive juices.
The play’s observations about the roles that women in particular, and the force of the feminine in general, play in our unconscious life is worth noting. They are objects of beauty (Serena: gentle, lovely, clothed in white and only present in photographic images), voices of criticism and disapproval (the Red Queen, whom it should be noted is also miserable in the role which she has chosen and has also been typecast by her willing Fool) and all seeing voices of wisdom, comfort and conciliation (Peggy A. Blow’s beautifully written and beautifully played ‘Inkeeper/Chorus’, who’s observations precede and echo the conversations and situations taking place before us).
Jacques Lacan observed that ‘we are born into language . . . before we are there it has built a world around us’, that also plays a major part in defining and shaping us, and Mednick’s writing asks that we free ourselves a bit from language as well as allow it to become our compass; sometimes with absolute clarity and sometimes with a bit of fog across the landscape we are traversing. But even the fog, of topographical vision and of meaning, can assist us on a revelatory tour of the pathways through the subconscious.
How does fog enhance a journey? In its obscuring of the landscape (or the ideas) immediately before us it frustrates and complicates a life lived by habit (and I sense habit or it’s bigger brother addiction are major themes within Mednick’s writing). It also allows us to miss those guideposts and monuments that we think are significant but actually serves to help us in avoiding seeing the meaning behind our wanderings. And so ultimately it requires that we apply a focus to trips that we are accustomed to making without conscious thought, that we establish a presence of attention, which moves us out of an unconscious life, lived on automatic pilot, and that we instead engage with reality.
The next step is a different sort of leap. For the dominant and abiding message of mass culture in a consumerist society is that all reality is external, monetized and decided for us. But in Mednick’s script, and in the beautiful realization of his written words by this ensemble of actors, he proposes that reality has as much to do with what is going on within you as without you; that the struggle to understand who I am and where I am and what in the hell is going on here might be just as important as the decisions that advertising and commerce demand we make.
The Fool and the Red Queen, which opened May 19 and runs through June 24th as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival is a wonderful amalgam of theater, poetry and (if you are so inclined and willing to go with it a bit) therapy that deserves more than one viewing. I have seen it twice so far and plan to see it again.
The first time through, it pulled me into the story’s surreal dimension. Without dreams or poetry we are left with madness. Each of these expressions of humanity, one a natural force and one a construct of language, thought and feeling, serve as both pressure relief valves and as guides to the internal maze of life. In The Red Queen and the Fool Murray Mednick and Guy Zimmerman have allowed us to glimpse the intersection of two worlds that each vie against each other for the totality of our attention. The truth seems to be that neither is complete without the other.
Jeffrey Atherton’s set design masterfully supports the conscious and the unconscious story unfolding before us. The sparseness of props and furnishings serve to allow the viewers own dreams and visions to take their place alongside those of Gary / Rikki and the rest of the characters.
Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes strike a wonderful balance between LA kitsch (in the case of Chauncey and Rondell) and fairy-tale realism.
Lastly Matt Richter’s lighting also deserves comment as he supports without prodding the journey down the rabbit hole when we move from the cold hyperrealism of the ‘audition’ to the dreamlike summoning of the Red Queen for her fool(s).
Rating: Highly Recommended
The Fool and the Red Queen Queen Showtimes Friday and Saturday @ 8:PM, Sundays @ 7:00PM May 19 through June 24 at The Lounge Theater: 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. Hollywood, CA Phone: 323.960.7740 www.plays411.com/RedQueen