LOS ANGELES — It was a hot Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles. Too hot. I dragged myself to a friend’s gray Volvo station wagon and prayed as I turned the key. The car started. As the engine purred, I cringed at the heat glowing off of the leather seat. I gunned it to Highway 5, swerving between cars as I went, and slid off into a parking spot a block away from Automata.
A nonprofit focused on puppet theater, experimental film, and other “neglected art forms,” Automata is housed in a tiny storefront on Chinatown’s Chung King Road. Last week, the organization mounted Concrete Folk Variations, a noir puppet play set in McCarthy-era Los Angeles that was written, directed, and designed by artist Susan Simpson. It was no typical noir, however; in addition to the unusual form, Simpson’s central character is a butch lesbian detective and former cop, Loretta Salt. The twisted plot involves a murder, secret romances, and the stoic detective as much as it involves the LA lesbian community more than two decades before Stonewall happened on the other coast. For gays and lesbians, this was an era of hiding one’s sexual identity and regular police harassment — a time that few today are old enough to remember and that many are too young to even wonder about. Perhaps that’s why Simpson felt the need to tell her story now.
That story is fascinating and grips viewers immediately. It begins with Salt, who’s sick of her job as a beat cop; she’s been on the force for years, yet due to overt sexism, she isn’t being promoted and doesn’t stand a chance to be. Though masculine in her appearance, she’s still a woman and it’s 1947. Simpson’s astute wardrobe choices for the stone butch character include a tiny blazer and slacks — the kind I associate with my grandfather’s style. Salt’s outfit matches her rough, disgruntled, gravely voice and attitude.
A wild car chase to Pasadena ends in an accident that leaves Loretta limping — a disability that, in a nice touch, the actors who handle her movements retain throughout the play. The young rookie trainee who stepped on the gas and caused the disaster walks away without a scratch. Loretta quits the force, but soon after learns that a woman — an important philanthropist, wife of a political figure, and overall LA socialite who also hangs out at lesbian dive bars in secret — has been murdered. The dead woman’s lover comes to Loretta asking for help. Loretta can’t say “no,” but saying “yes” brings with it other, far deadlier consequences.
Actors Dan Rae Wilson, Moira MacDonald, Zachary Schwartz, and Jonathon Williams wear all black and slickly operate the variety of wooden puppets, bringing them to life in an startlingly realistic manner. They move the jaws of the characters as they “speak,” while the words come from another cast of voice actors: Hilario Saavedra, Mark Simon, Kendra Ware, and Anne Yatco, who are positioned off-stage. Live music by Eric Potter intensifies the drama of the movements and scenes but at times becomes distracting, adding too much of a folk element when the audience is expecting hard-boiled crime.
Not every character has its own puppet, but somehow Simpson pulls the illusions off, perhaps because the audience’s disbelief is already so far suspended. The play is also amplified and magnified by mini-cameras that zoom in on set props such as a newspaper and photo albums, which offer evidence of secret queer relationships and political blunders that could be used for blackmail within this historically accurate fictional world. In the 1940s–60s in Los Angeles, it was quite common for people who frequented gay bars to try and ensure there was no visual evidence that they’d been there; until the 1970s, same-sex dancing was banned in the county. In one scene in Concrete Folk Variations, the audience sees a photograph taken in a Los Angeles lesbian bar that was supposed to be kept hidden. This type of attention to historical detail makes for an even better and more believable theatrical experience.
The zooming camera feature also helps translate the film noir style to the tiny stage, via enlarged black-and-white evidence photographs, but there’s some difficulty with the transition nonetheless. And the play felt a little long to sit through, especially on a hot Los Angeles day. Concrete Folk Variations was originally presented as a three-part serial in 2008–2009 at the Manual Archives in the LA neighborhood of Silver Lake; the rendition at Automata featured all three parts together. The plot contains so many twists and turns that you start to feel like you’re lost driving around Los Angeles, looking for something a car can’t take you to.
What remains unclear about the play is the reason for its puppet-storytelling technique and its relevance to today. Is Simpson attempting to offer a nostalgic look back at the days when being queer was a secret, and the marriage question wasn’t even on the table? Back then, a community formed around the secretive bar scene. What type of communities do we have today, when “gay and lesbian” has become another consumer identity being marketed to? These are questions that Concrete Folk Variations did not, perhaps could not, answer.
Performances of Susan Simpson’s Concrete Folk Variations took place May 2–11 at Automata (504 Chung King Court, Los Angeles).