By fifteen minutes to showtime, a transportive tone had already been established in the lobby of the LOFT Ensemble. Marionettes hung suspended in corners and instrumental, lullaby-esque renditions of well-known songs (Coldplay's "Clocks," for example) played over the sound system.
Through the lobby and into the theater, the small wooden stage was empty save a large mason jar. Audience members filed in, chatting and settling into their seats until a bell indicated the production's imminence, and in short order the audience had hushed and turned stage-ward. And then...black.
A complete sleep-like darkness, more profound then the average pre-show dimming. And then light -- first hesitant and sputtering, then steadily intensifying -- emanating from the mason jar, flooding the intimate space with a gentle glow. This was but the first of many techniques successfully employed to draw the audience into the whimsical, Gothic dreamscape of "LoveSick."
Our dreamers, Benjamin and Sophia are, at first glance, diametric opposites. Benjamin resides in a gloomy cemetery with his henchmen, reading morbid "Grave News," tending to his bloodthirsty pet alligator, and watching and re-watching his favorite film, "Nosferatu." (All done in Poe-ish verse, I might add.)
He wore a cape as a boy, of the vampire rather than the superhero variety. Sophia, in stark contrast, wears pink and smells like frosting. She lives with her fellow cheery frolickers in a toy box in town by a flower garden and passes her time brightening people's days and encouraging recycling. By all accounts (including their own), each should find the other repellent. And yet, the one can't help but be drawn to the other.
Of course, every love story has its obstacles and those abound in the darkly comic forms of Sally and Frank, Benjamin and Sophia's respective pursuers. Sally -- exactly the sort of grim vampiress Benjamin thinks should tickle his fancy -- is brilliantly acted by Deborah Baker Jr. whose Elvira-like performance was a standout.
Unfortunately, the character of Frank, though with its merits and certainly serving a purpose, was nowhere near a sufficient parallel with Sally, though that role, too, was well-played by Jason Ryan Lovett.
Posing even more of an obstacle than their admirers, however, are the dreamers' own defense mechanisms, erected in response to past anguish. As the play progresses, often very humorously, the tone darkens and intensifies as the dreamer's realities begin to seep through sleep's borders.
Benjamin and Sophia experience increasingly lucid (and increasingly painful) memories of their childhoods, both shaped by a parent's sick, even fatal relationship with love. Benjamin's mother was especially haunting, with Vanessa Vaughn lending a dramatic, classic-Hollywood-type appeal and beautiful singing voice to the role.
LOFT Ensemble sets "break[ing] past imagined limitations" as part of its mission and promises with "LoveSick" to take the audience on a "Wonderland-like journey." The production accomplishes its own goals and delivers on its promise. This is in no small part thanks to the tour de force that is Larissa Wise, who wrote, directed and starred in "LoveSick" as Sophia.
Wise deftly handled a role that could easily have veered into the grating, tempering the childishness the role called for with a sense of hard-earned wisdom and determined optimism. As far as direction goes, Wise explores (almost always very successfully) what can be done with staging, lighting and music, constructing some of the most impressive visual scenes I've experienced in independent theater.
Adam Chambers as Benjamin is an extraordinary talent, with spot-on comedic timing and much dark, tortured charisma. Both his and Wise's roles were beautifully and comparably developed. All too often in love stories, one character is more fully fleshed out than the other, who remains flat and unconvincing; both Benjamin and Sophia had depth and dimension, and Wise had the restraint to let some of her characters reveal themselves gradually over the course of the production.
Another performance worth mentioning (all demonstrated much talent) was that of Noah Benjamin in the role of Man 1: His enviable mustache and rumbling baritone alone are worth the price of admission.
The cast, directing, writing, staging and everything in between were superb and this reviewer was more than happy to tag along on the dreamy journey that was "LoveSick." The dream may have ended, but it was beautiful while it lasted.
"LoveSick" runs through March 10 at LOFT Ensemble, 929 East 2nd St. #105 in Los Angeles. For info or tickets, call 213-680-0392 or visit loftensemble.com.