Questions of love and mortality propel Still Life, Alexander Dinelaris’s mostly compelling look at a couple of damaged souls with a shared belief in death’s imminent arrival, a Rogue Machine West Coast Premiere that proves most effective when centering on its two leads, stunningly portrayed by Laurie Okin and Lea Coco.
A photographer whose shots have, in the words of art academic Joanne (Susan Wilder), “not only managed to chronicle but elucidate the rage, the fear, and the irrepressible optimism of an entire generation,” Carrie Ann (Okin) could hardly care less about the awards ceremony at which she’s being honored, warning the students in attendance that “the world before us is disappearing before our eyes. Shoot it before it’s too late.”
Trend analyst Jeff (Coco), meanwhile, is being pressured by his ad exec boss Terry (Jonathan Bray) to come up with a new campaign for a popular fried chicken franchise, a feat which the latter does in no time flat. “We’re tired of being afraid to live. You weren’t scared then. Don’t be scared now. Eat your chicken.”
Minus a reasonable excuse not to join Terry at a downtown art exhibit promising “hot chicks in cocktail dresses getting bombed on champagne,” Jeff soon finds himself making Carrie Ann’s acquaintance, her exhibit of “championship chickens” prompting one pretentious albeit prophetic observer to remark, “They’re us, proud, beautiful, ridiculous, showing off all the time but still so fragile, so afraid, living every minute wondering when the ax will come down and take our heads off.”
Despite romantic sparks, neither Carrie Ann nor Jeff may yet be ready for love. Dysfunctional father-child relationships have scarred them both, Carrie Ann in particular, the recent death of her photographer father Theo (Frank Collison) having robbed her of her ability to even pick up a camera, let alone snap the shutter.
Still Life works best when the spotlight is on its star-crossed protagonists. Indeed, it’s almost possible to imagine Dinelaris’s play as a two-hander, though if for no other reason than plot, it helps to have Sean (Nardeep Khurmi), Jeff’s physician best friend of twenty years, around.
In Carrie Ann and Jeff, Dinelaris has created two thoroughly messed-up characters whose happiness we root for, and with actors as talented, charismatic, and chemistry-blessed as Okin and Coco, interest remains high whenever it’s the two of them onstage.
Fortunately, Carrie Ann and Jeff’s story keeps drawing us back, particularly when fate deals one of them a blow that ends up transforming both their lives.
On a dramatic roll following her Scenie-winning star turns in Birder and Dying City, Okin’s angry, defiant, wounded Carrie Ann once again merits cheers.
Combining sensitivity, depth, and edge (not to mention action-hero looks), Coco’s Jeff deserves equal attention, and not just by those with the power to sign him to a major movie or TV deal.
Director Michael Peretzian keeps the pace swift throughout numerous scene changes, eliciting all-around terrific supporting performances, most affectingly from Khurmi as a trend analyst’s best friend ever.
Tania Verafield’s quirky Jessie, Wilder’s steely Joanne, and Collison’s heartbreaking Theo are all winners too, with triple snaps each to Alexandra Hellquist and Jennifer Sorenson as a sextet of very different women.
Tom Buderwitz’s ingenious set facilitates quick scene changes gorgeously underscored by sound designer Christopher Moscatiello. Leigh Allen’s evocative lighting, Halei Parker’s just-right costumes, and Nicholas E. Santiago’s videos of Carrie Ann’s and Jeff’s art and ads are the Grade-A designs Rogue Machine audiences have come to expect.
Still Life is produced by John Perrin Flynn and David A. Mauer. Mari Weiss and Betsy Zajko are assistant directors. and Ramón Valdez is stage manager, Amanda Bierbauer is production manager, and Mauer is technical director. Casting is by Victoria Hoffman.
Though it would benefit from a trim, Still Life is well worth paying a visit to Rogue Machine at the MET Theatre. Carrie Ann’s still lifes may focus on death, but Still Life makes it movingly clear that even in the face of the unthinkable, there is still life left in us all.
Rogue Machine @ The MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood.
March 13, 2017
Photos: John Perrin Flynn