Up Is Down, East Is West

For the first of many “don’t try this at home” sequences, in Aurélia’s Oratorio the lights come up on a timeworn, three-tiered chest of drawers. A hand and a foot pop out. Then red high heels. Then another hand, but at least one drawer too far to connect to the first. Okay, we’ve got a giant inside a chest of drawers. But where’s the room? The hands and feet coordinate so well they must belong to the woman whose face slowly materializes, with large, watery, silent-film eyes. But she exists in conflicting realities — the chest of drawers and her quadruple-jointed body — the one deconstructing the other.

There’s a famous sketch of a rabbit/duck: look one way, you see the rabbit; look another, a duck. The trick is trying to see both at once. Those who claim they can are either visiting from a quaternion hyperdimension or are lying through their teeth.

Even if the chest of drawers is rigged, the question lingers: how? Okay, so each drawer has no bottom. But still, how can you cram a person into such a confined space, let alone — since the woman can’t be doing some stunts by herself — two?

For 70 minutes, the elastic, irrepressible Aurélia Thierrée un-jibes time and space: effects (like a kite flying its handler, or an alarm clock putting her to sleep) cause their causes; inanimate objects assault people (especially clothes: beware of black sport coats bearing gifts); and fictions, like a toothy cartoon monster, can have a devastating chomp. Thierrée becomes an Alice in a dualistic Wonderland — like a photograph and its negative — well, either Alice or the time-obsessed White Rabbit, perennially late for an appointment.

Thierrée even kaleidoscopes the looking glass. We assume a proscenium stage will have four walls: that east will be east, west west, and that gravity governs what rises and falls. Thierrée’s stage, like space itself, is warped. When she tosses white towels off stage left, they come back stage right. Objects move backwards and upside down. At one point, Jamie Martinez, a lithe dancer and Thierrée’s co-contortionist, walks up a curtain.

You could call the biggest effect “Curtain Quake.” Thierrée toys with a seemingly endless red sash. Like the towels, it goes out east and comes back west. Suddenly she’s in the air, the sash wrapped around her ankles. Then the stage shakes with Richter-jarring intensity, and the curtains flop akimbo.

Thierrée’s parents, Jean Baptiste and Victoria Chaplin Thierrée, performed Cirque Invisible at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1995 (Victoria is the daughter of Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neill, daughter of Eugene). Victoria wrote and directed the Oratorio, which paints a far stormier world than Invisible. Even the music feels absurdist: an oratorio is an extended composition based on scripture. For this show, an accordion accompanies many routines. And people and objects flip-flop so much you can take nothing for granted. Some puppets are friendly, others menacing, and another, suicidal. Dangers lurk everywhere, not counting those that Thierrée risks whenever she rises aloft.

The evening has lulls, in part because while the magical effects are spectacular, others don’t translate. They prompt thought — what did that last one mean? — rather than wonder (also, the Curtain Quake, which uses the entire stage and feels like a finale, comes too early). Nonetheless, when Thierrée’s battling red sashes, or getting rained on by a dotted lace scrim, or performing extraordinary physical feats, she not only makes the stage a wonderland, she owns it.

A time capsule with a difference. Eleven years ago, the artistic director of the Fritz Theatre, Bryan Bevell, performed The Fever by Wallace Shawn. Bevell earned raves as a nameless, wealthy man who awakens into a nightmare of poverty and becomes trapped between worlds: one that celebrates life and art; the other that tortures and murders to preserve the status quo — his status quo. Try as he might to rebuild barriers against his guilt-drenched new awareness (the privileged are privileged for a reason, etc.), the man exists as if in a bass drum, banged from both sides.

Seeing Bevell back on a local stage after a nine-year hiatus recalled memories of the old Fritz Theatre days (one of the few companies that critics ran to in the ’90s) and his many contributions. But there was a difference: he has grown. His performance had more surface and more depth. Bevell eliminated all the acting from the earlier effort. He spoke simply, as someone confessing something to a stranger. The thoughts came in pulses, received consideration, and went. He never betrayed a technique behind them.

And the feelings didn’t force themselves on the audience. They forced their way through Bevell to get out, often interrupting a sentence along the way. What the audience did with them was their business. One would love to quibble with Shawn’s narrow, formulaic thesis. But watching Bevell perform once again was a joy.

Aurélia’s Oratorio by Victoria Chaplin Thierrée
La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive
Directed by Victoria Thierrée Chaplin; cast: Aurélia Thierrée; technical direction, Gerd Walter; costumes, Chaplin, Jacques Perdiguez, Veronique Grand, Monika Schwarzl; lighting, Laura Bernadis, Philippe Lacombe; sound, Chaplin, Paolo Barchcchi
Playing through February 28; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.

The Fever by Wallace Shawn
Compass Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Run concluded.

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