An ugly story told beautifully

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

John Sinner's pop-up theater, installation, event An Invasion of Decency! sticks to a downtown aesthetic.

What does that mean?

In other cities, geography, like "downtown," can often articulate style or approach or scale. The correlation between the art and address in New York is, while not perfect, usually quite strong. Where you go determines what kind of work you're going to see.

In Los Angeles, that's been far from true. Our sprawl doesn't lend itself to such tidy boundaries. You are as likely to see a classic work in Pasadena as North Hollywood or even Venice. Our aesthetics, inside of companies that are run by actors or organized around playwrights, tend to be eclectic to a fault.

That's beginning to change and it's both exciting and promising.

Looking specifically at downtown, there are a group of companies and artists that are embracing, in different measures, similar modes of making work. They are all embracing the cities architecture and space to create site-specific work forged outside of traditional theaters. They are crossing the borders of genre freely.

The companies I'm thinking of are The Industry, Four Larks, Wilderness, and clearly John Sinner's company fancyplayground.

The irony for Mr. Sinner is he can claim ties to a downtown LA aesthetic that dates back to Reza Abdoh's work. Everything old is new again. So perhaps it's less about something new than simply waiting for everyone else to catch up.

This slippage of time between past and present is central to An Invasion of Decency! When you enter a nondescript brick warehouse through the roll-up door to the sound of a live drummer obscured somewhere inside and a soundtrack of experimental theater drones (the audible kind not the surveillance kind) you might feel a bit like you're stepping into a New York loft party from the 80s or 90s. It's the expanse of white space, the charmingly retro slide show, and the overall beautiful aesthetic.

When you're led, moments later into the makeshift theater at the back of the white warehouse, this feeling of familiarity continues. If you're a lover of experimental theater, you've seen this world before.

The story is a dysfunctional, abusive family. Mom's a pill popping mess. The four children, three girls and a boy, seem to inhabit a world that's a bit like a Grimm's fairytale prison if it were inspired by Richard Foreman and costumed, beautifully, by someone who frequented a thrift shop filled with high fashion wigs and Moliere's old costumes.

It's an ugly story told beautifully.

That's both its greatest strength and fault. I wanted things to pack more of a punch. I wanted the political to be more shocking; the emotion to breakthrough style into something more raw befitting our challenged time.

In the end, what's important is that this scale of work is being done in Los Angeles and it's not alone. If you're a devotee of the experimental, past and present, it's worth the trip.

An Invasion of Decency! plays downtown through November 13.

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

Running time 2 hours without an intermission.

Photo: James Goodkind