By Patrick Hurley
Circle X presents the world premiere of Liana and Ben, playing now at Atwater Village Theater. Calling itself a modern take on Goethe’s masterpiece Faust, this play only skims the surface of the complexities of man’s finite potential, and indeed gets completely lost in the scrambling of mythology and modernity, resulting in a somewhat incoherent hodgepodge of Wikipedia facts and first level dialogue.
Inviting comparison to a masterwork is the first issue the play must overcome. It suggests it’s a “modern take” on the classic tale, and yet fails completely to touch on the most important thematic development of the piece…the pursuit of moving beyond the finite potential of man’s perception of experience. The sense of dissatisfaction with the immutable destiny of man to search for some kind of happiness. Indeed, Faust only sees contentment in an image of the future, thus propelling the notion that humanity is always in pursuit of a better life. This play wants to invite this theme in, but gets lost in the rules of its own world. Dream sequences mixed with, I guess, surrealism or magical realism serve as means of exposition and explanation rather than dramatic action, and so we have nothing to track but a paper thin idea that eventually devolves into bewilderment.
Liana (Kimberly Alexander) is a therapist, who we first meet in session with Alice (Mara Marini) and they are having a conversation about time being a river, and that if it is a river it must be possible to travel up and down it to different parts of it. Trying to expound on Einstein’s theory of special relativity that suggests time as a fourth dimension that slows down or speeds up depending on how fast you move relative to something else. Therefore, suggesting the idea that someone travelling at the speed of light, would age much slower than someone on Earth. I’m not sure why the conversation about time happens in this play. I could postulate that it wanted to make a connection to the idea, but it doesn’t.
Next we meet Ben (Jonathan Medina), a mysterious man who comes in to explain to the audience, not directly, but through his dialogue to Liana, in the awkward expository way that no playwright should ever do, that she is over two hundred years old because of a deal she made to stay young and beautiful if she can prove humanity is worth saving. If we unpack this idea, we’re left with an offer of an appeal to narcissism to prove intrinsic human worth. And save from what? At one point, Hades (Darrell Larson), tells Liana that there are 7 billion people on the earth, and 3 billion must die. But why? Because it’s a plot point?
Then there’s Michael (Tim Wright) a man who falls in love with Alice. He’s also an Astro-physicist, a point that has some relevance, I’m sure, just not serviced in the action of the play. He also acts as savior to Alice, from the lecherous rapist Hades. And with Ben as savior to Liana, the play makes the incidental, I assume accidental assumption that a woman needs a man in order to have agency. The play bounces back and forth from therapy sessions to dream sequences, to flashbacks, to the underworld, to a Manhattan high rise balcony. All of this is, I guess, in pursuit of something close to the retelling and modernizing of the Faust story?
Then there’s the Persephone myth mixed in. The myth that the Greeks used to explain the changing of the seasons; a myth that her mother Demeter is vital to, and absent from here. The myth is also significant in how it personifies the natural process of life and death, and the cyclical nature of all of living things. It doesn’t do this. The play uses it to victimize Persephone, she becomes the damsel in distress. And the pomegranate seed moment with Alice, for those of us who know the myth, is not an allusion, it’s preposterous.
Writer Susan Rubin has created something confounding. And mixed together elements from different literary sources, or Google searches, that only confound it further. The more the play goes on, the harder and harder it gets to track. And then there’s the misfires in the adaptation. For Goethe, the character of Faust was meant to represent all of mankind, Liana represents white privilege. Mephistopheles is a foil to Goethe’s Faust, he preaches sophisticated dogma meant as philosophical negation, but it’s an argument. A solid appeal to the baser instincts of man. In this play, the evil character Hades, is merely a one dimensional rapist with a constant erection, and no real power, as evidenced by his surrendering. Also, how did Persephone escape him, and why, oh why does she return?
In the end, this production suffers from a script that simply doesn’t work. It has inklings of thematic development, but no real developing action. We go from point A to point Z skipping most of the alphabet in-between. So we’re left a little frustrated and completely befuddled, proving that if you invite comparisons of your own work to one of the most significant pieces of literature, people will look for the parallels. It’s a risky move because when the work doesn’t yield those results, we’re all the more disappointed.
LIANA AND BEN
By Susan Rubin
Directed by Mark Bringleson
Through Saturday, March 26
Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm
Sundays at 7:00pm
ATWATER VILLAGE THEATRE
3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90039.
Tickets are $25. Students and Seniors are $20. Previews are Pay-What-You-Can at the door. For tickets, buy online at www.circlextheatre.org.