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The Ecstasy of Ambiguity: Asher Hartman's Purple Electric Play

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Joe Seely as The Audience telling the story of a murder he committed in a 7-11. Fluorescent painting by Candice Lin. | Photo: Marianne Williams

The experience of Asher Hartman's latest work at experimental art and performance space Machine Project begins upon walking through the door of the Echo Park storefront. In the script, which was available for purchase afterwards, it reads, "The Audience enters a storefront, which is barren except of table and couch (sic). A young man sits at the table taking names of guests when they arrive. When not interacting, he plays a game of hang man..." Each weekend night for a sold out run this November and December, 17 privileged ticket-holders are gathering here, watching this young man play hang-man, waiting to descend into the basement to view the extravaganza titled "Purple Electric Play! (PEP!)."

Though Hartman has a CalArts degree in studio arts, he comes from the theater, and has worked in that mode for his entire career -- even his most interactive and experimental pieces are influenced by a nuanced knowledge of theatrical evolution, and "PEP!" is a bold testament to this depth of understanding and affection for traditional theater.

"PEP!" is also about revolution, power, and violence. In light of Ferguson and the Eric Garner case, with news of nationwide protest emerging simultaneous to glitterati art world missives from Art Basel Miami, the packaged world of contemporary art has never felt so distant from political activism. A work so challenging and unapologetic, contemplative and compelling, provides a needed space for questioning where our true politics lie. To literally, put our money where our mouth (or tooth, or tongue) is.

Also a practicing psychic and conceptual writer, artist, and thinker, however, Hartman's work is rarely designed for easy consumption. His site-specific process, aside from rigorous research, also relies on an intuitive practice -- this is overt in his "Krystal Krunch" collaborative work with Haruko Tanaka -- but underlies everything he does. As he says, "Like pretty much all writers, my process is very intuitive, and I'm a practicing psychic, so it's not unusual for me to get visual images that are very strong."

The power of these images emerge from site, and Hartman is known for siting his plays in unusual locations, crafting their meaning and affect around specific actors and the environment. His recent body of work (nearly all the site-specific plays produced or co-produced by Machine Project) includes "Glass Bang," a play created in conjunction with the Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. initiative, that took place in a Schindler house and revolved around an affluent man that returned home after a trip to find his housesitters have taken over. The audience in this production were free to move around, leave, and engage with the play as they liked - they were cast as guests at a dinner party, and the line between audience and actors became quite malleable. Other work, like "Annie Okay" at the Hammer Museum and "See What Love the Father Has Given Us" at Machine likewise did not take place in theatrical settings, but encompassed their whole environments. In fact, Hartman could not remember the last time he worked in a theater -- "not since the 80s!" he laughed.

 Jasmine Orpilla (left, as The Vital Organ) and Philip Littell (The Star, right) cavort with puppets (l to r) Donkey, LoPhat, Starvation, and Salad Bar. | Photo: Marianne Williams
Jasmine Orpilla (left, as The Vital Organ) and Philip Littell (The Star, right) cavort with puppets (l to r) Donkey, LoPhat, Starvation, and Salad Bar. | Photo: Marianne Williams

Despite Hartman's history of interactive, unusually-sited work, "PEP!" is very much Theater, and its setting is unmistakable as such. The jewel-like proscenium designed by Joe Seely (also an actor in the play) bears an uncanny resemblance to Marie Antoinette's personal playhouse in Versailles, replete with gold molded ceiling and decorative wall sconces. But the "theater" itself is a bit misleading -- like the artist's previous work that took place not on a proscenium but in a Schindler house, or a walkway in the Hammer Museum, Hartman is known for using an entire architecture and environment as a single space. He never thinks of his productions as "proscenium-based," and described how, at Machine, "sitting underground you're really aware of the above-ground as well, and the people to the side, you've got the coffee shop on one side and Echo Park Film Center on the other side, pipes run all the time, and I thought, that is really interesting, the total environment of the theater." This is no gilded box for the blithe consumption of entertainment -- the people and facilities in this particular environment are explored and sometimes violently interfered with by the cast, and one can never quite lose oneself. It stays too real. First to appear is The Star (Philip Littel), a complicated and charismatic comedian who embodies aspects of Maurice Chevalier, Johnny Carson, and many other performers ("not least of which is Philip himself," Asher noted to me), as well as The Vital Organ, a tough, damaged and vibrant character played by Jasmine Orpilla. The cast then grows in number and complexity -- a split channeling of the Vital Organ into Kalean Ung, who begins the play seated in the middle of audience, to Joe Seely, who plays a character actually called "The Audience," innocently buffoon-like and fragile at first, before mutating into something menacing and terrifying and deeply pathetic. Aerielist and puppeteer Drew Thautaussie, Chelsea Rector, and other special effects technicians, puppet characters, and puppet handlers rounded out the cast.

 The Audience (Joe Seely) entertains the entertainers (left to right) Philip Littell, Jasmine Orpilla, Kalean Ung | Photo: Marianne Williams
The Audience (Joe Seely) entertains the entertainers (left to right) Philip Littell, Jasmine Orpilla, Kalean Ung | Photo: Marianne Williams

The Star and his cohorts break the fourth wall almost immediately, with Littel stepping into the audience and offering condolences to individuals in a suspect French accent, undeterred by the passive-aggressive behavior of Vital Organ II in its midst. The play then spirals into a non-linear series of abrupt vignettes, circling around deeply considered themes of violence, revolution, and how the creative class reconciles their output with their politics. Dramatic, violent, and hilarious moments are punctuated by all manner of theatrical effects -- from Czech black light theater to black magic to shadow boxes to puppets, extreme lighting, musical theater and an enormous, terrifying, sparkly tongue lashing back and forth, licking the front row of the audience. The play is visually striking, gorgeous, expertly deploying the talents of artists Joe Seely, Nina Caussa, Aubree Lynn, Caroline Kim, Patrick Ballard, Drew Thautaussie, Candice Lin, and Ellen McCartney to produce a frenzy of imagery and visual effect. The generosity of pleasurable entertainment in the show, like its humor, stems from the Hartman's own fascination with his environment. As he said, "the mechanism of the theater is really interesting to me, the lighting, the fly space, things that come down on you or light you up, or light the space up, or take that light away -- the magic of it is really entrancing."

Jasmine Orpilla and Kalean Ung as The Vital Organs awaken to the revolutionary ramifications of their lost tooth. | Photo: Marianne Williams
Jasmine Orpilla and Kalean Ung as The Vital Organs awaken to the revolutionary ramifications of their lost tooth. | Photo: Marianne Williams

In the manner of a Greek play, it is molded for a particular audience -- namely, the creative class. It is a space for contemplating one's relationship between creativity and politics, and calls into question artistic agency. This audience, however, is by no means monolithic, and the play has the capacity to mutate itself. Hartman says that "some days you feel like you're playing for the power structure; and sometimes you're playing for people who want to begin the revolution. So whoever's in that room, that's the play." Both Machine Project founder Mark Allen and Hartman remarked that audience reactions depend on their comfort with ambiguity -- but Hartman was surprised at how easily especially younger audiences flow with how "the actors turn on a dime, sometimes embody three people at the same time," despite the lack of a traditional narrative structure. He attributes this facility to immersion in social media, the daily habit of processing enormous amounts of diverse and conflicting media information. Though "PEP!" is absolutely indebted to the work of Richard Schechner, Richard Foreman, Johanna Went, and other experimental theater vanguards of the 70s and 80s, it is so resonant with our times that it begins to slip into a hybrid cultural space that feels quite sharply current.

 The Mother's Tongue emerges from the theater's void.  Aubree Lynn and Nina Caussa, creators. Pictured puppeteers; Drew Thataussie. Kalean Ung and Jasmine Orpilla are in the foreground. | Photo: Marianne Williams
The Mother's Tongue emerges from the theater's void. Aubree Lynn and Nina Caussa, creators. Pictured puppeteers; Drew Thataussie. Kalean Ung and Jasmine Orpilla are in the foreground. | Photo: Marianne Williams

Yet despite the clear importance of Hartman's work, experiencing a play of this kind is rare. The maturity and nuance of "PEP!" is due to the rigorous process of its creation -- Allen and Hartman set no date for its release but agreed to work on the play as long as it needed. It ended up needing a little more than a year of intensive rehearsal, research, writing, and revision, done wholly in collaboration with the actors, the space, and artists involved. This proved a logistical challenge, and Machine tried some indiegogo crowd-funding that guaranteed contributors a ticket in conjunction with cheaper flash ticket sales to raise funds in a way that felt "economically democratic." Still, ambitious experimental work of this kind is even more difficult to produce than it is to describe. As Allen puts it, "I think much of the performance you see in L.A. is often one person or in an improvisatory form which isn't based on extensive rehearsals. So how to support something that takes a year to make with intricate sets and multiple actors, and doesn't involve a product that is backed by the art market, is a really interesting challenge. It's one I'm obviously involved in trying to figure out through Machine."

What now? Hartman offers no answers because none exist, but he succeeds in rearranging what we think we know for sure into a far more critical state of ambiguity.

Jasmine Orpilla and Drew Thataussie dance as graph people who lose their heads. | Photo: Marianne Williams
Jasmine Orpilla and Drew Thataussie dance as graph people who lose their heads. | Photo: Marianne Williams

Further Reading on Asher Hartman's "Glass Bang:"

Asher Hartman's Glass Bang

Asher Hartman's "Glass Bang" is an a experimental musical performance staged in L.A. at an R. M. Schindler-built modernist home on Mulholland Drive in Laurel Canyon.

 

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