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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

In years past, when dramatists wanted to make an allusion or use history to suggest a metaphor, chances are they would look to the bible — or some ancient Greek, Roman or even Norse mythology.

Sometimes they still do. Neil LaBute name checked Oedipus with his play Wrecks, his one-person, one act about a used car salesman who sleeps with his mother.

helter_skelter.jpgHis new one-act, Helter Skelter, which was recently the big draw at the Open Fist Theater Company's First Look Festival of Plays, alludes to the Charles Manson killings of 1969, using that infamous event in the same way that playwrights of yesteryear riffed on the events of the Trojan War or Caesar's Roman Republic.

There's nothing wrong with pop mythology, it can be an effective tool in a writer's cabinet; but in Helter Skelter, LaBute leans too heavily on the analogy. Without the gimmick of the title or the way the killing of Sharon Tate mirrors the violent conclusion of the play — all you have is another sour portrait of modern relationships. LaBute directed this local premiere himself, so the performances oozed his particular brand of cold awkwardness; but ultimately, LaBute's invocation of Los Angeles mythology has no bearing on the drama, save for the dramatic equivalent of a pun.

Two other local productions share an allusion to a more classical myth — the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde. After Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde are probably western civilization's most famous unrequited lovers. Dating back a few centuries prior to the star-crossed lovers of Verona, Tristan and Isolde's doomed affair has inspired countless plays, operas, novels — even a 20th Century Fox movie three years ago starring James Franco.

The Elixir of Love, currently running at LA Opera, features an extended allusion to Tristan and Isolde, which makes sense given that both tales use the old gimmick of a love potion to kick start the drama. It would be great to report that Steven Lawlesss' production of Elixir delivers all the intoxicating bubbliness of a great Hollywood romantic comedy. The music is lyrical, and the giant set is pleasant to look at, but the chemistry on opening night just wasn't right. Perhaps that will improve as the run continues, but for me it was an Elixir to like, not to love.

Across town in Santa Monica, another production makes reference to Tristan and Isolde: The City Garage's revival of The Chairs the 1952 "Tragic Farce" by Eugene Ionesco. Here, allusion seems like a throwaway Ionesco's Old Man says to one of his guests, "Will you be my Isolde and let me be your Tristan." Like in LaBute's play, this shout-out foreshadows the climax of the drama, but in Ionesco's text, and in Frederique Michel's staging, the allusion is subtle and folds in into the movement of the play. In Helter Skelter, the allusion rings out like a siren and instantly you know how the play is going to end.

Unlike many past City Garage stagings, this revival of The Chairs stays pretty close to the text. Besides doing away with a blackboard and updating a line about the radio (it's changed now to say "the internet") Michel delivers a vision of The Chairs that is clear and accessible. The director needs no gimmicks since the two lead actors, Cynthia Mance and Bo Roberts, play Ionesco's Husband and Wife (and their many guests, ranging five decades in age) with both focus and dedication. It's not a revelatory production, but a sober presentation of an absurdist play that remains both daring and timeless.

Ionesco's The Chairs runs through Sunday at the City Garage; The Elixir of Love continues at LA Opera through September 30.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.


Banner image: Paul Rubenstein

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