Head in the Oven

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

On February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath turned her gas oven on and opened the door. She carefully placed wet rags under the door to the kitchen so the fumes wouldn't seep into the next room where her one year old son and two year old daughter were sleeping. Then she placed her head in the oven and waited to die. What was going through her mind at that moment?

That's the question at the center of the dark comedy called Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath currently being produced by Rogue Machine in Hollywood.

As you enter the theater, you're greeted by that startling image of a woman on her knees with her head in an oven. It's Esther Greenwood, the main character - and Plath's doppelganger - in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. Suddenly, Esther comes to life and is caught in a series of hallucinations. There's a conversation with her oven. She gets trapped in a 1950's sitcom-style cooking show where the dishes are 52 liar lasagna, black tar brain souffle and finally a baked dish called "a perfect life." She's bombarded by images and memories of her life: her dismissive father, her pushy mother, her shock treatment, and her philandering husband Ned Pughes - a thinly veiled reference to Plath's real-life husband Ted Hughes. It's a dizzying hour and fifteen minutes, mostly brought to life by a single actress.

I say mostly because the production relies on a ton of video...literally wall to wall. All of the other characters in the play are pre-recorded vignettes that are impressive projections that feel almost three dimensional. The video becomes one with the contours of the set. When our heroine's young daughter cries for mommy she's a projection inside the cabinet door. When mom comes for a visit she's a collection of pixels looming ominously over the fridge.

The strength of the play is watching a woman frantically try and sort through memory and depression and make sense of what she's decided to do. At its best, these events come fast and furious, and they're all created and conducted by an actress in the room with us. What we should be experiencing is the virtuosity of live performance. The beautiful paradox of experiencing a character who's out of control captured by an actress who's totally in control of time, space and the audience.

The trouble is the video is all pre-recorded - and so what we end up experiencing is an actress trying to sync up to the projected image. The actress is no longer in control of time - the video is. It's the trap of video in the theater. How do you include a technology without displacing the actor? Without losing the power of the theater?

Because at the center of the play is a woman considering suicide, the quintessential ‘to be or not to be' moment. And what could be better suited to the theater - plain old theater - than that.

Nevertheless, Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath is still very much worth seeing and plays through April 17 at the Lounge Theater in Hollywood.

For info on the show text the word "Curtain" to 69866.

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

Banner image: John P. Flynn