Liana and Ben
Reviewed by Vanessa Cate
Circle X Theatre Co.
Through March 26
If the truth lies in stories, as playwright Susan Rubin suggests, what truth is to be garnered from the labyrinthine text and strange staging of Liana and Ben?
Liana (Kimberly Alexander) has stayed young and beautiful for the past 250 years as the result of a deal struck with Ben (Jonathan Medina), a mysterious and powerful character reminiscent of Lucifer or Mephistopheles. All Ben asks in return is to be shown proof that there is good in humanity.
However, Ben has picked a poor muse. Perhaps Liana is not lying when she tries to convince Ben that she’s been searching for goodness through art (if I were tasked to prove humanity’s goodness, perhaps that is where I would start too). But she has certainly been distracted by her own whims and pleasures, to the point where she’s made no progress whatsoever over the centuries.
Her current lover, Michael (Tim Wright), has also made a deal with the devil in order to learn the truth in all things. He is unable to lie. Together, along with Alice (Mara Marini), Liana’s patient (she’s a psychologist) everyone makes their way down to the underworld to meet with Hades (Darrell Larson) and confront the undead Jean-Peal Marat (an uncredited projection).
The play attempts to look at life, immortality, truth, and the deeper meaning of existence from all angles. To do this, it embraces many different mythologies and literary inferences, including Faust, the Devil, Hades, Persephone, Alice in Wonderland, Dorian Gray, and the historical figures of Marat and his killer Charlotte Corday. This is a thrilling idea (for example, who wouldn’t want to see what happens when Lucifer and Hades meet in the underworld?), but for all the setup the execution is muddled and the stakes are low. Why should we care if the unlikeable and self-obsessed Liana’s pact comes to an end if she fails to uphold her side of the bargain? Anything the characters might have contributed to heighten those stakes is painfully missing, as everyone is so flippant and changeable in all things.
The language is muddled and self-indulgent, but more curious is the direction. Mark Bringelson has stripped both humanity from the actors and appropriately heightened style from the staging. The result is a largely miscast group of performers who seem uncomfortable with the material and even more uncomfortable on the set. Designed by Alan E. Muraoka, this elephant in the room is the most memorable part of the production (for good or bad). It consists of two massive grey planks — rather like two see-saws — positioned in the middle of the stage, with mirrors and walls suitable for projection on either end, and with the audience seated on either side. While it’s an intriguing design, the see-saws were too creaky and clunky, and the performers (especially the women in high heels) too obviously uncomfortable in their environment for it to be much more than a distraction. Perhaps with more refinement, this innovative design could be successful.
What I can say for the piece is that it is ambitious. But fortune does not always favor the bold, and in this case the play is merely a head-scratcher. And although this may not be the best showcase for her, Kimberly Alexander displays strong presence and ability, even with such befuddling text.
Circle X Theatre Co. at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles 90039; Fri.-Sat. 8p.m., Sun. 7p.m. through March 26; www.circlextheatre.org; Running time: Approximately 95 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.