The personal tragedy of the still unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey has, in the years since her death, been eclipsed by the ensuing media side show, one that continues to this day.  Playwright Gregory Moss satirizes our endless fascination with JonBenét in his black comedy House Of Gold, now getting its West Coast Premiere by Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles in a production worth a look-see despite considerable shortcomings, thanks to imaginative direction by Gates McFadden, a brilliant performance by award-winning theatre vet Jacqueline Wright as JonBenét, and a sensational production design.

Nearly everyone wants a piece of JonBenét Ramsey, both figuratively and literally, in playwright Moss’s overly exaggerated universe. Mother (Denise Crosby) lives her unfulfilled dreams through her daughter. Father (Tony Pasqualini) bemoans the fact that his tiny tot is getting too big to sit on his lap, though he’s more than willing to eke out every last moment of not necessarily paternal pleasure. A creepily handsome Joe (Graham Sibley) cruises JonBenét from his car, then takes her home for a bit of one-on-one adult attention.  A bullied Afro-sporting (and very white) African American wannabe named Jasper (Alex Davis) befriends JonBenét, though not without hidden agenda. JonBenét’s grandpa (Melvin Weiss) spends his days nearly catatonic.  A detective (Keith Arthur Bolden) investigates the murder and performs a graphic though cartoonlike autopsy on JonBenet’s body as her ghost looks on.

If this all sounds more than a bit icky, you’re absolutely right, though House Of Gold is rarely boring, at least not throughout most of its surrealistic, often quite funny ninety minutes.

Moss’s play is all over the place, even introducing a quartet of shirtless tattooed muscle-hunk bullies (Chris Arvan Josh Heine, Matt Little, Eric Schulman), whose sole dramatic purpose seems to be to make Jasper’s life hell, though what this has to do with JonBenét is anyone’s guess.

Crosby is droll indeed as a zombie-like housewife in the play’s bizarro opening sequence, and equally scary as she makes up JonBenét for her final pageant. Pasqualini and Sibley are both suitably sinister—and very good—as two of the adult men in JonBenét’s life. Davis shines as the proverbial 97-pound weakling with delusions of size and importance. Bolden does his accustomed rock-solid work as the detective. Arvan, Heine, Little, and Schulman have little more to do than look hot with their 2011 gym bods and de-rigueur tattoos. Weiss has even less to do in a thankless role which keeps him under wraps throughout most of House Of Gold’s hour and a half running time.

Fortunately, there is Wright at the center of all this, giving a bravura performance that makes House Of Gold, if not must-see theater, than at least theater worth checking out. Riveting, spunky, disturbing, naïve, perky, precocious… Wright’s JonBenét is all this and more. You realize you are seeing an adult. You think “Thank goodness it’s not a real child up there.” You marvel at the subtlety and depth Wright brings to an over-the-top role.

House Of Gold’s production design is nothing short of sensational, from Kurt Boetcher’s imaginative, multicolored set design to Elizabeth Harper’s flashy lighting to David B. Marling’s dramatic sound design to Christina Haatainen-Jones’ inventive costumes to Shaina Rosenthal’s clever props.  (Does the functioning 3-wheel coupe count as a prop?) Best and most vivid of all are Alexander Mirecki’s video design and William R. Parks’ projection design, including an Oscar nomination-worthy animated opening and closing sequence by Drew Christie. Amy Rowell is stage manager. Amanda Weier and Derek Manson are production managers.

“Morbid” and “unappetizing” is how the Washington Post described House Of Gold when it World Premiered a year ago. It is no more sunny or savory this time around, but thanks to Wright, McFadden, and the abovementioned design phenoms, those in search of something out of the ordinary could do worse than give House Of Gold a gander.

Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave, Atwater Village.

–Steven Stanley
October 28, 2011
Photos: Tom Bertelsen

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