LOS ANGELES — Asher Hartman’s experimental Purple Electric Play! utilizes an eclectic range of dramatic forms including rock opera, puppets shows, vaudeville, and black light theater to create a non-narrative production about revolution and class struggle that is also a meta-exploration of theater itself. It jumps from the French Revolution to 1960s political movements, from dramatic soliloquies to disco interludes and slapstick, all in a dizzying fashion that keeps the audience struggling to keep up. If this description leaves you scratching your head as to what PEP! is actually about, that’s exactly what Hartman wants. The play gathers up many different threads, but resists uniting them into a concise and tidy tapestry.
PEP! may float about temporally and thematically, but it is anchored by the specific setting in which it is performed. It takes place in the ornate and intimate basement theater of Machine Project, and Hartman created the play specifically for this space. In addition to being a playwright and painter, Hartman is also a psychic, and this ability played a major role in the conception of the play. “Hartman started his writing process by sitting in the theater when it was built a year ago, channeling the energy,” Catherine Wagley wrote recently in the LA Weekly. “He saw alabaster legs with marzipan toes and a man with flaming hands who had been tortured. This prompted him to research the French Revolution, and the play became an exploration of the creative class’ relationship to revolution and violence.”
“We started with readings from the French revolution and the ways in which class and social position played such a role in catalyzing the revolution, the way in which intellectuals were a big part of really tipping things over into revolution,” Hartman elaborated when I spoke with him last week. “I was impressed with the way in which the creative classes, the intellectual classes, the professional classes, were a big part of the turn of events of the period.”
This in turn led him to thinking about the current political climate in the US and how he could create a piece that engages with the creative class in LA on these issues. “I wanted to think about addressing a particular people around these really critically difficult questions in the US; revolution and political violence,” Hartman explained. “They’re extraordinarily complex, so the complexity of the piece corresponds to shifting emotional, psychological, and practical ideas around revolution.”
Another major influence on Hartman when writing PEP! was the way in which television shows from the late 1960s reflected the political and social upheavals of the time. When I mentioned that the large puppets resembling a bag of popcorn, a ramen noodle package, and a ball of lettuce reminded me of the psychedelic kids’ show H.R. Pufnstuf, Hartman gleefully exclaimed, “Yes! H.R. Pufnstuf! Bewitched, Yellow Submarine, I Dream of Genie … there’s so much strange, magical, bizarre imagery from that time, that in some ways addressed the fear that the white middle class in particular had about the way the world was changing, and in some ways even catalyzed revolutionary sentiment.”
Hartman wrote the play with two actors in mind: Philip Littell and Jasmine Orpilla, who play The Star and The Vital Organ respectively. It took a year of re-writes and rehearsals with the entire cast before PEP! took its final form. The play’s dynamic strength hinges on the actors’ impressive ability to rapidly shift between the numerous personas in Hartman’s frenetic and fractured script.
Despite its focus on class and revolution, PEP! is definitely not a straightforward political parable. “That’s not the way we address anything any longer,” said Hartman. “The play is rather structured … like Facebook, or the way we cull information from so many different sources.” These myriad – often conflicting – viewpoints, voices, and forms of expression are what make the play both so confounding, but also so engaging and original at the same time. “If PEP! does anything to its audiences, it creates uncertainty,” Hartman writes in his director’s notes, “and in that field there is radical, wide potential.”
The first six-week run of Purple Electric Play! sold out before the show even opened, but Machine Project will be adding another shorter run from January 8–18, 2014. Check Machine Project’s website for updates.