Ovation Award winner Damon Chua takes audiences on an LSD trip through the year 1969 in his ambitious new play 1969: A Fantastical Odyssey Through The American Mindscape, and though he may have bitten of more than any play or playwright can chew, some particularly fine performances and what could well be the year’s most exciting video design make this a psychedelic voyage that adventurous theatergoers may want to take a chance on.

1969 examines only fragments of that eventful year through its trippy lens. (The Civil Rights movement is conspicuously absent, as are any actors of color.) Central to its focus are the Apollo 11 flight to the moon, the Chappaquiddick Island death of Mary Jo Kopechne (with a young Teddy Kennedy at the wheel), the war in Vietnam as seen through the eyes of shell-shocked vet William J. “Bill” Murray, and the cultural battle being fought by a pair of outspoken women, conservative Christian Anita Bryant and Bill’s atheist mom Madalyn Murray O’Hare.

Along its hallucinatory path, we meet characters as diverse as Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins and his young son Junior, Bobby and Teddy Kennedy, and assorted aliens, hippies, TV pitchmen, and gay space travelers … precisely the types of individuals you might expect to encounter on a drug trip, the very nature of which leads to both 1969’s strengths and its weaknesses.

At its best, 1969: A Fantastical Odyssey Through The American Mindscape offers some of the most dazzling imagery you’re likely to see on any stage this year, large or small. Chua’s script gives several of its cast members particularly rewarding roles to play, and for anyone who lived through the late ‘60s, it hits its mark for nostalgia’s sake alone.

At the same time, Chua’s high-striving comedy-fantasy-drama, like any psychedelic trip, doesn’t quite hold together or make as much sense in the sober light of day than it did while being lived “under the influence.”

That’s not to say that 1969: A Fantastical Odyssey Through The American Mindscape is anything close to a failure.

Director Tony Gatto has taken a script originally intended as the barest-bones black-box production, and working with set designer David Mauer, lighting designer Joel Daavid, sound designer Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski, costume designer Michael Mullen, and above all video designer Adam Flemming, has turned it into a visual-auditory feast that must be seen and heard to be believed—particularly since it’s being presented on a limited-budget 99-seat stage.

A gigantic “TV screen” dominates Mauer’s set, onto which are projected animated and live-action video images and behind which live actors perform as newscasters, spokespersons, and other assorted TV figures, with video and live action images often projected and performed in tandem. (In one particularly impressive sequence, a live couple of actors reenact a 1969 TV commercial for Florida Orange Juice alongside a pre-recorded Anita Bryant, who then pops out on stage in the person of a living, breathing cast member.)

Other design wonders are a Tree that is both scenic, lighting, projection, and costume designs and live performance; a space capsule that combines set, projection, and lighting design with a real live actor inside; and a series of TV commercials that are at once real and hallucinatory.

 There are some fine performances indeed among 1969’s cast of eleven, who have been given the challenge of playing real characters authentically and TV characters in the heightened style of a ‘60s sitcom, a mishmash of styles that doesn’t work quite as well as it should. (Then again this is an LSD trip we’re on.)

The finest work is, not surprisingly, being done by those who play it the most true-to-life, namely Rod Keller, an adult actor who is heartbreakingly real as 8-year-old Junior; Meredith M. Sweeney, who radiates an honest-to-goodness inner glow as Mary Jo; Pat Scott, real and sympathetic as war-damaged Bill Murray, and Rebecca Avery (who also appears as a spacewoman and as Mike’s mom), terrific as outspoken Madalyn Murray O’Hare. Brett Fleisher’s otherworldly Tree is another standout. Annie McCain Engman shines in a pair of couldn’t-be-more-different roles—Anita Bryant and Hippie Girl. (She’s also a talk show guest and an astronaut’s wife.) Brendan Farrell, excellent as Apollo II astronaut Michael Collins, also gets the fun of playing an alien and a TV host called Dick-Cavett-Lite.

Completing the cast with terrific moments each are Chloe Peterson (TV Mom, Secretary, Bikini Girl, and 12-year-old Talk Show Guest); David Pavao (Tv Dad, Newscaster, Dr. Ufo, Mike’s Dad, Crest Pitchman, Apollo 8 Astronaut, Bully, and Hippie); Ken Peterson (Bobby Kennedy, Newscaster, Bill’s Brother Jon, German Scientist, Hippie, Mike’s Brother, Apollo 8 Astronaut, and Brillo Pitchman); and Kyle Overstreet (Teddy Kennedy, Newscaster, Bully, Hippy Hank, Mr. Cephas, Ford Spokeman, Panasonic President, and Apollo 8 Astronaut).

Some of 1969’s most interesting scenes are those imagining what might have happened had the Apollo 11 not returned from the moon, including excerpts from the very speech prepared for President Nixon to deliver in case of mission failure: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace.” On the other hand, the introduction of time travel as a means to rewrite history seems one element too many in a play already crowded with elements.

Flemming’s videos, Mauer’s set, Daavid’s lighting, Slawinski’s sound effects, and Mullen’s costumes are all wonders of imagination and ingenuity. Sugano’s hair, wig, and make-up design are pretty terrific as well.

1969: A Fantastical Odyssey Through The American Mindscape was developed in collaboration with Brimmer Street Theatre Company and presented with the help of Rogue Machine Theatre. Fayna Sanchez, Gatto, and Chua are producers and Christian Nova and Kristy Nova executive producers. Daniel Coronel is stage manager and Essence Brown co-stage manager. Bent Anton is lighting design assistant and Kelly Elizabeth production assistant.

I have the feeling that the more you know about 1969, the more you’ll appreciate 1969: A Fantastical Odyssey Through The American Mindscape, and though it doesn’t work as well as I’m sure its writer hoped it would (at least for this reviewer), I found much to enjoy over the course of its two acts. And as for its design—well that alone makes it work a look-see.

Theatre-Theater, 5041 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
April 1, 2012
Photos: Brett Mayfield

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