Pompeii, L.A.: city of angels, city of ashes. A Fringe review

Nikki Hulowski, Morgan Grau, Sam Stralak in L.A. Pompeii, Cardiac Theatre. Photo by db photographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Pompeii, L.A. (Stage 3, Walterdale Theatre)

Exposés of the arsonist Hollywood machine that makes, then torches, its child stars, ashes to ashes, are a dime a dozen, onstage and screen. Pompeii, L.A. is one of those, if more striking than most for the fragmentary blam-blam of its scenes. 

But wait; 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, we’re rolling. With its weird apocalyptic vision this 2013 fantasy/satire by the Australian playwright Declan Greene, Pompeii L.A. is after something more.

It conjures an America built on a fault line, with a volcano ominously throbbing underneath. The distinction between real and fictional has been incinerated, dusted with ash till it never existed. This makes things a lot more interesting, as you’ll see in the Cardiac Theatre production directed by Harley Morison.

It starts playfully with a question: “is there any hope?” Judy Garland (Elena Porter) is being jokey with a nervous make-up girl (Nikki Hulowski), before a Johnny Carson appearance. This scene bleeds into the scene where the girl arrives home to find her terrified boyfriend wrapped around a table leg. Real? Cinematic? A false distinction in Pompeii, L.A.

Cut to rehearsals for a catastrophe movie about an eruption and horrific car crash in L.A., getting rehearsed. A starlet (Hulowski), wildly miscast as an environmental scientist can’t learn her lines. One of the stars (Morgan Grau) storms out. There’s a scene with an actual catastrophe and car crash. Or are they actually actual? Impossible to tell.

Similarly, hospital scenes move in and out of layers of fantasy: the former child star Johnathan Brandis (Sam Stralak), who’s become the anonymous go-fer who can’t remember his name on the set of the catastrophe movie, is alone. He’s laid out, hallucinating a visit by a grotesque president. Wait, euwww, it looks like a president we know…. 

The actors, who change characters constantly, commit to every layer of reality (or lack thereof). But in an effort perhaps to give them equal credentials, perhaps, I wonder if the production needs to linger over the scenes, rather than quick-cutting between them and superimposing them. What should flicker you dizzy seems more like a series of close-ups.

But the vision is there, and well worth catching in this ambitious production: Kafka with glamour, a dream without a wake-up clause, fantasy with nothing substantial to extrapolate from. That’s the trouble with living on a volcano. Well, that and the heat.

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