Synesthesia is a neurological condition involving an involuntary cross-wiring of the senses, in which people may taste what they feel, smell what they touch, and see letters in color, something like this:   

Though random population studies have determined that 1 in 23 individuals have some kind of synesthesia, I’d never heard of it before seeing Stacy Sims’ As White As O, now in its World Premiere engagement at North Hollywood’s Road Theatre Company. Perhaps that’s why I found it hard to identify with its synesthete hero Jack, that and Jack’s particularly dysfunctional upbringing. On the other hand, even though Sims’ play is often too fringey for my more mainstream tastes, many terrific performances, some great scenes, Sam Anderson’s fine direction, and a design that begs to be seen and heard make the production worth a look-see.

As White As O opens with glamorous gallery owner Clara (Lauren Clark) imperiously barking out orders for tomorrow night’s gala unveiling of the “gingerbread” house Jack’s deceased artist father built. That’s right.  Inside Clara’s gallery is an actual domicile decorated with buttons and bottle caps and license plates and Legos and other bric-a-brac, which Clara (once Jack’s father’s lover) has had transported from Rabbit Hash, Kentucky to New York.  Her team of assistants—nerd Chris (Joe Calarco), gay guy Adam (Jennings Turner), and slacker Matt (Tj Marchbank)—scurry about doing as they’re told even as they keep switching the radio from classical to Broadway to hard rock and back, with Matt declaring about Clara in no uncertain terms “I would totally fuck her!” 

Enter Jack (Vince Tula), the artist with synesthesia, who soon finds himself answering questions posed by a voice coming in over the loudspeaker (or is the voice only in his head?). 
–Jack.  What color is my voice? 
The voice asks Jack to talk about his life with his father.  “Tell me about it in color,” the voice says. “Otherwise it’ll be Clara’s version.”

Jack begins his story, the story of a child born in Cincinnati of a mother who died while he was still a baby, and of a Kentucky teenager who spent his days making music and getting high.  He describes synesthesia thus:  “It’s like knowing a foreign language and never using it. ‘Ladder’ is a shiny red word.  ‘House’ is an eggshell yellow word.  When I have an orgasm, I see licorice.”

Clara has found three letters hidden inside an old TV set, letters from Jack’s father, who drowned ten years ago. Curiosity about the letter addressed to him as well as a desire to stop Clara from making a spectacle of the house his father never completed have brought Jack to the Big Apple.

Will Jack be able to stop the exhibition of his father’s life work?  Will he be able to unravel the mystery of Dad’s death?  Will Jack be able to reconcile with the demons of his past?  Will he discover the identity of the mysterious crazy lady hanging around stage left? These, and other questions will be answered in As White As O, whose cast of characters is completed by: 

•Ed (Ramón de Ocampo), Jack’s supportive fellow artist/best friend 
•Vivian (Heather Williams), Ed’s very pregnant performance artist girlfriend
•Lily (Kate Mines), Jack’s kooky ex-girlfriend who changes hobbies as often as most people change their shoes.  (She once went from being a yoga pupil to a marathon runner to a Sylvia Plath wannabe in a mere matter of days.)
•Eva (Keelia Flinn), the girlfriend that got away, who Jack finally reconnects with in New York eight years after leaving town, though unfortunately Eva seems to have moved on.
•Sam (Mark St. Amant), Jack’s manic-depressive father, who appears in flashback-fantasy sequences.
•Grace (Elizabeth Sampson), a woman locked up in a mental institution who spends her days alternately playing Mommy to a baby doll or acting like you’d expect a woman in a mental institution to act—totally bonkers.
•Gladys (Bryna Weiss), Grace’s endlessly patient nurse.  Gladys would have to be, since more than a few minutes with schizophrenic Grace is likely to send the average individual, or audience member, climbing up the walls.

As White As O is at its most interesting and compelling when it’s at its least artsy.  It’s at its most entertaining when its colorful supporting players are center stage. Mines is simply sensational as the ditzy Lily. Calarco, Turner, and Marchbank are terrific as the gallery’s Three Stooges, aka “Frick, Frack, and Fuck-Anything-That-Moves.” De Ocampo does wonderful, subtle work as the play’s most emotionally stable character.  Williams is equally fine as his pregnant girlfriend, and gets to enact the funniest “performance art” piece since Maureen’s “Over The Moon” in Rent. I particularly liked Clark’s ballsy, sexy turn as Clara. St. Amant is never anything but excellent, and his work as the deeply troubled Sam is particularly three-dimensional. Flinn has many lovely moments as Eva.  Weiss makes for a sympathetic nurse Gladys.

As Grace, Sampson has the kind of scenery-chewing roles that actors love to sink their teeth into, and she plays it for all it’s worth. However, a very little of Grace goes a very long way, and her solo scenes are so frequent and drawn out that the character ended up getting on my nerves when I ought to have felt moved by her plight.

Finally, there is Jack.  The very talented Tula gives himself over completely to the role, and is never anything less than believable—and frequently quite touching.  On the other hand, the (for me at least) strange nature of his condition made it hard for me to identify with him, or to feel as much sympathy for him as I ought to have. Also, on a purely personal note, the character’s odd Rabbit Hash accent proved an irritating distraction to this reviewer.

There is no ambivalence whatsoever in my feelings about As White As O’s amazing design package.  David B. Marling’s sound design is one of his most vivid ever, and goes a long way towards allowing us to “feel” Jack’s synesthesia as much as it is possible for audience members without the condition.  The play’s many transitions from present to past and from reality to fantasy allow lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick to once again show why he’s among L.A.’s very best.  It’s almost worth the price of admission to see Desma Murphy’s detailed recreation of Sam’s one-of-a-kind house. Adam Flemming’s sensational video design takes us from Kentucky to New York with detours to Jack’s past and into his fantasies. Mary Jane Miller’s costumes are as varied as are the characters who wear them.

I generally avoid seeing “out-there” theater as it is simply not my taste, and whenever As White As O veered into the bizarre or surreal, it lost my interest.  Fortunately, there are enough very authentic characters and scenes, and some very funny ones among them, to perk up my attention whenever it began to lag.  Though ultimately not quite my type of play, there’s still a lot to recommend in As White As O.

The Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Bl., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
October 23, 2009
                                                                                                           Photos: Matt Kaiser

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