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House of the Rising Son

House of the Rising Son
Paul Witten and Steve Coombs
Prior to House of the Rising Son, my experience with Tom Jacobson's plays was limited to Bunbury, Ouroboros, and The Twentieth Century Way. Each play was clever (and in a completely different way from the others), but the cleverness tended to overwhelm the play. It was as if Jacobson thought up a terrific concept, and then wrote an entire play out of the concept. House of the Rising Son is different; here, Jacobson allows his cleverness to take a back seat to elements of story and character. To be sure, the play still contains touches of the impressive creativity we've seen from Jacobson before, but they're now in service of an overall whole. The result is that you don't leave the theatre thinking about what a smart playwright Jacobson is, but, instead, thinking about the play.

Indeed, if anything is taking center stage in the cleverness department, it's Richard Hoover's remarkable set. The single set is three main locations (and several subsidiary ones) at once: a New Orleans sitting room; a modern lecture hall; and a cemetery. While some set designers would approach this triple-purpose problem with a nondescript set and perhaps a few pieces that can slide in and out to represent the different locations, Hoover lays it all out there simultaneously. For example, there is a stand-alone fireplace, above which is mounted a flat-screen television. And the entire unit—fireplace and TV together—stands at an awkward angle on the floor. Darken the rest of the set (courtesy Jeremy Pivnick's lighting design), put some slides on the TV screen, stand an actor next to it, and you've got your lecture hall. Turn off the TV (and simply ignore its presence) and the fireplace fits in the Southern living room. Darken the whole set and the tilting monolith suggests an old tombstone. The three locations fully coexist in the single set—and this, too, serves the play, as it marvelously hints at overlapping realities.

The story itself begins as Dr. Trent Varro (Paul Witten, in smart-is-sexy mode) gives a lecture at a Los Angeles museum while a younger man, Felix (Steve Coombs, working more on the sexy-is-sexy angle) tries to catch his eye from across the room. (Trent's lecture is about parasites, and when he speaks of "a whole world hidden in plain sight," you may take a second to think about that set design again.) In the meantime—and actually interwoven with it—we see an older father and son back in New Orleans, arguing. As both scenes unfold, we learn that the Trent/Felix attraction is, in fact, mutual, and the two run off to get to know each other better (mentally as well as physically) in a nearby cemetery. We also learn that the men back in New Orleans are Trent's father and grandfather—actually, Trent's father (Patrick John Hurley, as the peacekeeper) and very homophobic grandfather (Rod Menzies, as the intersection of older Southern gentleman and phenomenal jerk). So when Trent, in a spur of the moment decision, invites Felix to come home with him for the weekend and meet the family, you can see where this is going.

In fact, you can't. Sure, there are some clues along the way that more is going on here than meets the eye. Certainly, there's something delightfully otherworldly in the mix, as we discover when Felix, shining his flashlight around the cemetery, lets it rest on Trent's father's face (in his overlapping scene in New Orleans) and actually sees the man. But it's all leading up to a first-act curtain reveal that raises more questions than it answers, and a second act that thoroughly satisfies. On one level, the play is about Trent and Felix, and whether they can have the relationship they want, given the problems caused by Trent's family. On another level, the play is about parasites and extinction, the survival of humans (and groups of humans), and the supernatural and the poetic. And when Jacobson weaves them all together, the result is a terrific play.

House of the Rising Son continues at the Atwater Village Theatre through May 29, 2011. For tickets and information, see www.ensemblestudiotheatrela.org.

Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles—Artistic Director Gates McFadden; Producing Directors Laura Flanagan and Sarah Malkin—presents the world premiere of House of the Rising Son by Tom Jacobson. Directed by Michael Michetti. Set Design Richard Hoover; Lighting Design Jeremy Pivnick; Original Music & Sound Design Bruno Louchouarn; Costume Design Christina Haatainen Jones; Properties Designer Lindsey Garrett; Dialect Coaches Tracy Winters and Tuffet Schmelzle; Production Manager Rebecca Cohn; Stage Manager Nicole Rossi; Assistant Director & Slideshow Design Shaina Rosenthal.

Cast:
Dr. Trent Varro/Maureen - Paul Witten
Felix Martin/Tod - Steve Coombs
Garrett Varro/Lendell - Patrick John Hurley
Bowen Varro/Robert - Rod Menzies/Nicholas Hormann

Photo by Shane William Zweiner


- Sharon Perlmutter






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