The Origin of Theater?

Hosted by

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

The new show Hyperbole: origins begins with a quick history of LA from the Indians all the way through Sig alerts, all captured with little more than a hunk of styrofoam and some dolls on toothpicks. While not necessarily historically accurate, or politically correct, the saga brilliantly captures the stereotypes of LA LA land.

The central conceit of Hyperbole: origins is ‘Origin Machine.’

The actual ‘Origin Machine’ is a console with flashing lights and glowing red buttons. It’s the kind of thing a trekkie with a soldering iron would cobble together if let loose in a RadioShack for a weekend. This gizmo has the ability to derive the origin of anything placed in front of it’s camera eyes.

So, in the opening moments of the play, a picture of LA is held up to the projected ‘scanner’ and the next thing you know we’ve got the origin of LA played out with puppets on a green styrofoam version of the Hollywood hills. There’s an Indian doll with dark braids. Moments after she’s stuck into the styrofoam vista, she’s joined and then baptized by a white cardboard cross. One of the puppeteers spins the doll’s head around and suddenly we go from dark braids to blond pigtails.

As a framing device, the Origin Machine is sort of genius. Building the play literally and figuratively around an imagined machine that can tell us where we come from opens up a world of possibilities. You could point it at the hipster in the third row and find out he was boy scout back in Des Moines with a dad who was an accountant. In a city like Los Angeles with so many fake facades and such a tenuous grasp on its own history, a real origin machine would be a frightening miracle.

Sadly, the rest of the evening isn’t quite as original as the play’s opening. We move from the specific, inspired history of LA, to a generic series of origin tales: the origin of man, the origin of music, the origin of fire -- using the same techniques. It’s a blend of story theater, Blue Man Group and Mummenschanz without the taut precision.

These little vignettes are surrounded by oddly high production values -- multiple projection screens, moving lights, remote controlled speakers and technically -- it’s impressive. Unfortunately, rather than creating a beautiful paradox between the simplicity of the physical acting and the complexity of the design -- we realize how thin the story telling is.

In the last three months I’ve seen three ‘quasi’ puppet shows -- the dinosaurs at Staples, the Actors’ Gang’s take on Jamestown, and now the ‘Origin Machine.’ In all three the spectacle was spectacular, but ultimately it trumped the storytelling. These shows all make the Hollywood CGI blockbuster mistake. They become wowed by style and forget that what audience’s crave is a really good story told well.

Hyperbole: origins plays at Inside the Ford, the small theater under the FordAmphitheater in Hollywood through December 12.

For info on the show text the word “Curtain” to: 69866.

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

Banner image of Alex Levin (Stan) and Thu Tran (Ducis) in Hyperbole: origins: Rogue Artists Ensemble