The Responsibility of Image

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

In the opening moments of What the Moon Saw or I Only Appear to Be Dead at Son of Semele, a group of actors are huddled in a circle onstage. They wear yellow reflective pants, red suspenders and blue t-shirts emblazoned with "N Y F D." Instinctively, we recognize where we are and what's coming next. Suddenly, they all gaze skyward. A bright spotlight illuminates a single, black firefighter's boot suspended in midair. The boot slowly begins to tilt. The actors watch in horror as a stream of fine white ash falls onto the stage. A young girl utters, "First the moon comes crashing down. And now the sky? What next?"

Ten years after 9/11 the iconography is still potent and touches emotions that at times seem too raw, too fresh for a full decade to have passed.

poster.jpgIt's appropriate that New York playwright Stephanie Fleischmann uses the brutal world of fairytales as a way to digest the horror of that day. With the work of Hans Christian Andersen as a departure point, she's written a four-part meditation that imagines a world where fairytales are forced to grapple with post-9/11 New York. Conceptually, it's clever.

There's "The Little Mermaid" struggling to find a kiss as the towers crumble. "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" is a Marine Corps reservist called up to fight. "The Little Match Girl" finds herself homeless beside the wreckage of Ground Zero longing for a fireman and another life.

The power of fairytales and myths is they help us make sense of our most primal fears. They provide us with a boogie man to fear or an evil witch to hate so the terrors of real life seem less daunting. What playwright Fleischmann leaves out of her fairytales is Hans Christian Anderson's evil troll - the bad guy.

Without a villain, Fleischmann's writing can't really find a through line to connect her metaphors or the separate tales. Throughout the play a TV reporter asks "Where were you when the moon fell?" inviting each of us to go back to the moment the towers fell. So I kept going back…but rather than going deeper I felt lost. The beautiful metaphor of the moon falling began to feel cheap because it never evolved.

Director Matt McCray doesn't help matters. Rather than keeping the images clear and the narrative line taut, he gets lost in layering image upon image and style upon style. We have puppetry, shadow puppetry, a stage within a stage, cartoon word bubbles, vaudeville, to name but a few. The result feels more cluttered than inventive.

And here's where the power of that opening 9/11 image comes back to haunt the production. To quote from a more modern New York fairytale, Spiderman, "With great power, comes great responsibility." After two hours, What the Moon Saw doesn't live up to that responsibility.

What the Moon Saw or I Only Appear to Be Dead plays at the Son of Semele Theater in Silver Lake through October 9.

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

Running Time: 2 hours

Banner image: (L to R) Marissa Pistone, Edgar Landa, Alex Smith and Melina Bielefelt in What the Moon Saw or I Only Appear to Be Dead. Photo by Matthew McCray