IN THE COMPANY OF JANE DOE


When was the last time you saw a surreal screwball comedy about human cloning? Tiffany Antone’s In The Company Of Jane Doe is just that play, and as might be expected from the preceding description, quite a unique concoction it is.  Though Antone’s decidedly unusual blend of the nutty and the bizarre does lose momentum in its second act and may leave you scratching your head as you exit the theater, its wild and crazy cast of characters, imaginative design, and terrific performances make it well worth a look-see.

We first meet blonde-and-beautiful yet prim-and-proper, black business-suited exec Jane Doe (Jessica Runck) in the middle of one of her dreams, a weird and wacky nightmare that quite possibly continues throughout the length of the play.  Cut to Jane’s therapist’s office where work-stressed Jane is describing said dream to bespetacled but glamorous Dr. Annabelle (Coco Kleppinger).  “You were telling me about the ‘incidents,’” the doctor reminds Jane, one of which was finding snowshoes in her briefcase instead of the important files that were supposed to be there.  Jane’s persistent dreams about polar bears and other Arctic-related phenomena have been getting in the way of the development of her new product brainstorm, “Dippy Cheese,” and thereby securing a much longed-for promotion.

Enter Dr. Snafu (Isaac Wade), who hears crickets every time he says his name (and so do we, thanks to Efrain Schunior and Josh Cuellar’s highly imaginative sound design). Dr. Snafu (comic actor extraordinaire Wade’s most deliciously outrageous characterization yet) informs Jane that she might well be a perfect candidate for his “program” and hands the “stressed, pale, and confused” Jane The Manual, so that she may better inform herself on the procedure he is proposing.

Back at her job, it’s business as usual for Jane, her desk piled ever higher with stacks of work and no time to get it all done. There’s even less time for a love life.  Though Jane clearly has a thing for her handsome coworker Samuel Schlick (Trevor Algatt), she can’t seem to manage to get all her romantic ducks in a row. (When she learns that Samuel is planning on being at Saturday’s company picnic, she’s all smiles until the realization hits that she’s once again double-booked herself.)

To Jane’s astonishment, it turns out that The Manual is a handbook on cloning, and that Dr. Snafu’s plan for her is to clone a second Jane, or as he puts it, to “double your pleasure, double your fun.” Having a Jane #2 to do her work for her will give the real Jane the free time she’s been craving and allow her to take that polar vacation she’s been postponing for so long. What could be better?

There’s only one small hitch.  Jane neglected to inform her doctors about her “multiple surgeries,” and the resulting clone turns out to be petite, dark-haired Jenny (Sara Kaye), an odd little creature who looks, talks, thinks, and acts nothing at all like Jane, though she does have Jane’s original nose. Jane might be able to deal with this unexpected twist, however, were it not for Jenny’s fascination with all things Jane, including hunky Samuel.  (If you’ve seen All About Eve, you’ll get the picture.)

Director Mary Jo DuPrey clearly knows the how-to’s of staging screwball madness, the first rule of which is keep things moving at a frantic pace in Mack Sennett Keystone Cops fashion. In The Company Of Jane Doe zips along lickety-split all through its first act and partway into its second, when a tonal shift slows things down considerably. Scene changes are as fast and furious as the action, with lab-coated supporting cast members scurrying on and off-stage, furniture and props in hand. 

These featured players include Adina Valerio, a hoot as Jane’s sassy but harried secretary Ruby and Hannah Beck, Olivia Choate, Christan Copeland, Corwin Evans, Brian Ruppenkamp, Mark Silverberg, and Elissa Wagner as the scientists working on Jane’s case (and other assorted characters).  In quite possibly the play’s funniest sequence, the scientists opine on Jane’s case, each one more uproariously preposterous than the next.

Runck does lovely comedic work as the one “straight” character in Jane’s twisted world—Jane herself (though everyone around her is supposedly saner than she). Kleppinger, so wonderful in last year’s Adeline’s Play, is a standout again, showing off her versatility as Jane’s staid but sexy therapist. The ingratiating Algatt is perfectly cast as the good-looking object of both Jane and Jenny’s affection. As Jenny, Kaye shows off a quirky charm (and just the right hint of deviousness).  Choate, Evans, Copeland, Silverberg, Ruppenkamp, and Wagner are terrific too, particularly Ruppenkamp’s effete, big-haired scientist who gets laughs with his every line. Finally, in a category by himself is the comically gifted Wade, whose Dr. Snafu is an totally hilarious bundle of description-defying quirks.

Design elements are tops all around. Marika Stephens’ set is a brighter, whiter version of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, all out-of-proportion shapes and twisted angles.  Furniture too is bizarrely angular, with Jane’s desk chair legs cut way short so that Jane is dwarfed by the desk and the stacks and stacks of papers atop it. There are some great props as well, like the rusty garden tools Dr. Snafu uses in his operating room.  Sohail Najafi’s excellent lighting design takes Stephens’ icy white set and lights it from within and without in bright, alternating hues.  Schunior and Cuellar’s aforementioned sound design also features the echoes of voices inside Jane’s head, phones ringing in Jane’s office and her secretary’s repeated phone greeting, amid other odd noises.  Regine Linhares and Nicholas Hirata’s costumes are every bit as original and offbeat as might be expected.  

In The Company Of Jane Doe reconfirms the talent and versatility of the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble.  In the end, I’m not sure I could tell you what it all meant, but aside from the second act’s draggier moments, Antone’s surreal screwball comedy about human cloning makes for an entertaining and quite definitely “different” evening of original theater.

Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, The Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd Street, Santa Monica. 
www.powerhousetheatre.com

–Steven Stanley 
January 14, 2010

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