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|A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Laura Comstock's Bag-Punching Dog
by Laura Hitchcock
Jillian Armenante and Alice Dodd are again ravaging the past with ravishing results in their latest production, Laura Comstock's Bag-Punching Dog, presented by Circle X Theatre Company at the 24th Street Theatre.
Their multi-award winning In Flagrante Gothicto (our review) pillaged Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Rebecca for a hilarious romp in which these images of strong women in a strong man's world fight back against the stereotypes they've become. This time around the focus is the beginnings of cinema, back when it was still a gleam in the 19th century eyes of inventors Thomas Edison, W.K.L. Dickson, LePrince, the Lumiere Brothers, magician George Melies and first woman director Alice Guy. Written and conceived by Armenante and Dodd with delightful music and lyrics by Chris Jeffries, the piece is a collage of the many dramatic elements that eventually made the movies. It's not always coherent but the whole rises above the minus of some of its parts.
Edison is depicted as the villain of the piece, hanging on to his patent at the expense of contributor Dickson and, perhaps, a conspirator in the mysterious death of young LePrince whose vanished father had a rival patent. "Good morning, Mr. Edison", one of the show's best numbers, is sung by chorus girls in innocently satiric adoration.
The brilliance of Melies who was the first to exploit the trick possibilities of the camera is displayed in an exuberant performance by Jim Anzide. A subtle metaphor for Melies' eventual failure is shown when the girl he caused to disappear in an early scene fails to disappear later, perhaps because he doesn't have enough help. Another moving metaphor is the ghost of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (Houdini, the magician) who a charmingly low-key performance by John Lovick, performs magic acts between scenes, underscoring the tricks and illusions that fascinate.
A clip from Melies' masterpiece A Trip To The Moon (1902) is among the remarkable archival footage assembled by Armenante, beginning with a clip of Eadweard Muybridge's battery of 24 cameras which caught Leland Stanford's race horse in motion. Armenante also uses such early movie metaphors as the dying swan collapse of a character, which we see in cartoons to this day, and Keystone Kops capers for the Lumiere Brothers. The play's short scene structure reminds us of early film's roots in vaudeville. Many little moments, sings a marionette repetitively until somebody gives her a whack.
Alice Guy is initially one of a string of secretaries who type in unison (only Alice has flair) and uniformly approach their boss with dripping with apologies. Only Alice really has something to say and the guts to say it. She proposes making what is surely the first industrial and turns it into a wonderful cabbage-rose number. Alice Dodd, who can range vocally from a delicate soprano to a real belter, brings a dainty subversion to the role of the pioneering Alice Guy.
Johanna McKay is moving as Lizzie, David Heckel's fine voice abets his range between an idealistic young inventor and the bitter possibly malevolent rival who invented Biograph, and Christopher Carroll projects a self-satisfied Edison with a tenor you'd like to hear more of.
The lyrics are sharp and pointed, commanding poignance in Lizzie LePrince's lament about becoming selfish and indifferent after the loss of her husband. Her emotions are echoed in a dancer whose robe sweeps like white wings and one of the evening's most telling lines expresses her view of movies as anodyne. Emily Dickinson has said one of those little anodynes that deaden suffering.
Remember the dog portraying His Master's Voice in the very first victrolas (prehistoric CDs)? He's there, depicting Thomas Edison's lack of imagination, and he shows up again underscoring that concept as the title character, Laura Comstock's bag-punching dog.
The concept here seems to demonstrate that invention is the break-through and the artist takes it from there. The play ends with a tribute to Alice Guy, whose many films were lost and forgotten and who died without an obituary at age 95. Melies also ended his career selling newspapers in the Paris Metro. It's good to see these pioneers given their just due, if only in many little moments, by an ensemble of such talent. And while we're at it, the piano score, deftly rendered by Paul Hepker, begins with what sounds remarkably like a trill from Broken Blossoms, D.W. Griffiths' 1919 classic starring Lillian Gish.
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