A Warehouse and a Dream

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

There are works of theater that hold a mirror, or a magnifying glass to life. We go to the theater to examine life as we know it. Think: the Greeks, Shakespeare, Death of a Salesman.

Then, there are works of theater that hold a prism up to life. When we enter the theater, we're transported to a fantastical world. The world we know morphs into something bizarre and wonderful. Think: Alice in Wonderland, Becket, the work of Richard Foreman.

The new epic avante-garde opera by O-Lan Jones called Songs & Dances of Imaginary Lands falls squarely in the fantastical prism category.

The piece is a remarkable conceptual feat; it's written by 21 librettists and 11 composers and performed by 18 actors and a live orchestra - all wrangled by the singular vision of director, choreographer, composer O-Lan Jones. The result is an irreverent, eclectic collage of nearly two dozen songs that run the gamut from opera to Middle Eastern dance music to a men's choir.

It's a wonderful irony that this public spectacle takes place in a huge abandoned car dealership in Culver City – cars being the symbol of our southern California isolation. The whole evening has the feeling of a carnival fun house as the audience travels from one scene to the next. Adding to the amusement park feel are two golf cart led “trains” that carry half the audience through the world of the piece – solving LA's public transit issue at least in the world of make believe.

We loosely follow the journey of Tom and Sue who've lost their identities and must travel through a rabbit hole of sorts in the back of a Social Services office. On the other side, they encounter an altered fantasy land where they try and relearn who they are. While the framing device may be familiar, the worlds created are anything but . . .

And here's the thing about works of art that bend reality rather than reflect it. It's tough to create an imaginary world that's as vivid and compelling as the one we live in.

O-Lan Jones has made this even more challenging by picking 21 different writers to create these worlds. Each, on their own, has a unique and bold style. The trouble is with so many different voices, the piece never finds a voice that speaks consistently to the audience. The music, the style, the location, the story, everything shifts so constantly there is little to hold on to.

So . . . if you are looking for theater with a clear narrative you can sink your teeth into - you'll walk away from Songs & Dances of Imaginary Lands disappointed. If on the other hand, you're willing to go on the ride and embrace a sort of treasure hunt mentality - there are jewels to be found.

The show plays through July 18 in Culver City. For info about the show, text the word “curtain” to 69866.

Which do you prefer the prism or the mirror? I'd love to hear your thoughts at KCRW.com/theater.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Songs & Dances of Imaginary Lands
Runs July 8-18, Thurs - Sun at 8pm and Sun at 2pm at The Songs & Dances Warehouse
8810 Washington Blvd. Culver City, CA
Tickets and information

Banner image: Jason Adams in Tom's Family Tree. Photo: Michael Tullberg