The Poetry of Fluid Time

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

Tucked into the third floor of the Alexandria Hotel in downtown LA is the Company of Angels tiny, black box theater. There's something wonderfully disorienting about the journey you have to make through LA's forgotten history and re-discovered present to get there. There's a collision of eras: a once grand staircase dry-walled-in covering all but glimpses of its opulent past; a theater lobby overlooking a 1906 ballroom with huge arched windows revealing downtown's hipsters heading to the latest nightspot.

It's appropriate that playwright Virginia Grise's world-premiere of Blu is performed in a space caught between times.

Blu circles around the struggling young, matriarch Soledad as she fights to keep her family together and safe in East LA. She has three children: Gemini, her youngest girl; Lunatico, Luna for short, her middle son; and Blu, her oldest boy who's seduced into joining the military and heading to Iraq. Then there are the loves in her life: first the father of her children, Eme, who's locked up after three strikes, and now Hailstorm, her lesbian lover. Beneath their feet, the cracking concrete and gang infested streets. Over their heads the whirling blades of ghetto birds - that is to say, police helicopters.

Playwright Grise gives voice to this uncomfortable family with a lyrical, choral script that keeps shifting and layering different times and locales. The seduction of 15-year old Soledad by Eme is echoed by the same words whispered by Hailstorm 15 years later. Time becomes slippery as past and present mix to form what feels as much like a dream or a poem as a play.

What keeps Blu from descending into a precious cliché is the work of New York director Laurie Carlos and a gritty, honest ensemble of actors. Carlos keeps all the characters visible throughout the hour long performance. Even as we watch Luna and Gemini perched on a rooftop, we feel Blu impatiently circling. The action swirls around us and we're never allowed to settle into a single scene.

Director Carlos embraces the flow of the words and choreographs a poetic dance of gestures that at times seem purely abstract and then captures a complex physical narrative. As Soledad pleads with Eme to change his gangster ways, his body performs the painful gyrations of being handcuffed, stumbling drunk, and finally forced to the pavement: all three strikes compressed into a few moments. It's a beautiful, if terribly tragic, dance.

Oddly, it's the plays strength that reveals it's weakness. Line by line we get an imagistic window into this family who can't escape their past, their destiny. What we don't really get is a story. All the poetry and movement capture moments but never add up to the larger narrative that I longed to hear. Which is too bad because playwright Grise has a wonderful ear for a neighborhood we don't hear enough of on LA's stages.

Blu plays at the Company of Angeles in downtown LA through November 13.

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

Running Time: one hour.

Banner image: From left Blu (Xavi Moreno) and Lunatico (Phillip Garcia) in Virginia Grise's world premiere of Blu. Photo by Graham Kolbeins