Edgy contemporary romcom meets seductive classic film noir as the latter might unfold in an addictive online multi-player computer game not so coincidentally titled “Noir” in Mac Rogers’ Hollywood Fringe Festival hit Ligature Marks, recast, redirected, and restaged by Theatre Unleashed in a production that held me in its quirky, funny, romantic, fatal-attraction spell from intriguing start to breathtaking finish.

LM_11 Sean Fitzgerald stars as Terry, just released from two years spent in a minimum-security prison for a crime he felt compelled to commit … if only to escape from his clingy, needy girlfriend Jill (Liz Fenning) and their go-nowhere relationship.

Twenty-four months have now passed and with nowhere to go upon his release, where should Terry show up with the intention of crashing a single night and then getting on with life as far away from Jill as humanly possible but his ex’s not-so-coincidentally nearby apartment.

Not surprisingly, or there would be no play, Jill convinces Terry to stay (with the promise of a month’s worth of an ultra high-speed Internet connection that will allow her ex to play Noir to his heart’s content).

LM_02 Since Terry and Jill are about as odd an odd couple as odd couples can get, the comedic takes center stage in Ligature Marks’ first “act” as Jill keeps finding ways to get on Terry’s nerves (and get him in her bed) and Terry keeps resisting, however ineffectively.

Along the way, Terry explains his fascination for Noir, a three-level game involving murder, cover-up, and post-crime life, the reason for which we will discover in Ligature Marks’ utterly breathtaking second half.

LM_09 Suffice it to say, life imitates art (if you consider online video gaming art), though you won’t find me revealing here just whose murder gets planned, executed, and ultimately paid for—or does it really? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Theatre Unleashed managing director Gregory Crafts discovered Ligature Marks at this past summer’s Hollywood Fringe Festival and determined that very day that it should begin TU’s 2015 season’s “global conversation about men and women,” a decision whose wisdom is borne out in production as laugh-out-loud funny and edge-of-your-seat compelling as any I’ve seen in a good long while.

Under Jacob Smith’s smart, taut direction, the sensational Fitzgerald and Fenning deliver two of the year’s most indelible performances.

LM_01 Imagine Sean Penn crossed with Tom Hanks (albeit back when they were in their early thirties) and you’ve got some idea of the qualities Fitzgerald brings to Terry, as off-putting as an online gaming-obsessed slacker can be yet still likeable enough to keep you from wanting to leave some ligature marks of your own on his neck.

LM_03 As for Fenning (a blend of Meg Ryan circa You’ve Got Mail and Scarlet Johansson circa today), you won’t see a more captivating, mesmerizing performance any time soon. Were Jill played by a less appealing, less sympathetic actress, you might find yourself rooting for someone to off her asap. Fenning is so darned adorable that even at Jill’s most tenaciously needy, you can’t help feeling Terry must be crazy not to want her in his life, adding complexities to their relationship not necessarily there on paper.

Rogers’ ingenious script lets both actors play several characters, or in one case, several versions of the same character, and it is here that both Fitzgerald and Fenning get an actor’s rarest gift—the opportunity to show just how much they can do when given the chance.

Smith doubles as scenic designer, giving us so deliberately nondescript an apartment set that one audience member was prompted to comment, “I’ve lived there,” and haven’t we all?

LM_05 Crafts’ lighting design starts out basic lights up-lights down on Smith’s white-walled set, then does exciting, dramatic things to match Ligature Marks’ exciting, dramatic second half. Cameron Stark’s terrific costumes are character appropriate just as well-chosen contemporary costumes should be. A just-right alternative-rock soundtrack links scenes throughout.

Additional program credits go to stage manager Stark, production manager Erin Scott, scenic painter Ann Hurd, and master carpenter Jeff Soroka.

I didn’t see Ligature Marks at the Hollywood Fringe, but thankfully Gregory Crafts did. It is theater at its most thought-provokingly electric and well-worth the fully-staged post-Fringe production it has been granted by Theatre Unleashed.

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The Belfry Stage, Upstairs at the Crown, 11031 Camarillo St.. North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
March 2, 2015


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