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A CurtainUp Review
Dead, Therefore I Am

By David Avery
When I set out to kill myself, I didn't consider the future of the dead..—J.T. Blackwell in a head-only soliloquy.
Dead, Therefore I Am
(l-r): Max Leavitt and Karen Jean Olds
Photo: Ed Krieger
I wish that I thought that Dead, Therefore I Am was a much better play than I do, because a great deal of obvious effort went into the production. Max Leavitt's latest work swirls with references to Egyptian mythology, Shakespeare, psychology, history, and pop culture, but for all that drains away ignominiously with only the whiff of its own vanity left behind.

The promising opening features a lecture on the science of beheadings, given by a French revolutionary, and then moves to a splayed wicker basket containing the (removed) head of our main character J.T. Blackwell (Max Leavitt). He presents a comedic dialog on the status of his (completed) life. Summary: not good. Though he intended to kill himself, he was ironically murdered after making the decision not to go through with it.

The story proper commences and we travel back a few days into the past to find J.T. living in his parents' garage. The set is riddled with slacker ennui images like Nirvana posters and a reproduced painting of Van Gogh's self portrait to make sure we get the tortured artist motif. Subtle this ain't. J.T. is clinically psychotic and has hallucinations about the god Anubis controlling him. He appears to have gone off his meds and is attempting to self-medicate via alcohol and non-prescription drugs. This is not going well. His next-door neighbor Sophie (Karen Jean Olds, also referred to as STD) takes care of him sporadically, and I mean that in several senses (nudge-nudge, wink-wink).

Throughout the play, we get to watch the tortured protagonist pontificate about his circumstances, fight with Anubis for control of his life, and spar with his infatuated neighbor, all while desperately trying to work up the nerve to off himself. To this end, he builds a guillotine. One wonders what the parents think of his new project.

A play about a pain-stricken artist is not necessarily a bad conceipt, assuming the audience cares about the subject. J.T. as a character is too self-absorbed and non-empathetic to be interesting. He reminds me of the many, many people in LA who are too wrapped up in their own delusions to understand why their life is not fulfilling. And though we can see Sophie as an enabler in some ways, her actions at the end of the play both make no sense and call into question her own grasp of reality.

All this said, the play isn't without charms. There are good metaphors and interesting parallels in the writing (the tie between Winston Churchill's "black dog" and the god Anubis is fetching), the acting between J.T. and Sophie pretty good, and the exchanges between J.T. and Anubis (especially toward the end) get downright funny. The tight staging and lack of scene changes give it an existential Waiting for Godot feel, and the opening monologue by our deceased protagonist is strictly film noir.

Some of the choices, however, are too brazenly obvious. The clown-dressed psychiatrist (Nicholas Vitulli) who is more interested in dispensing mood-altering drugs than listening to the patient is a fairly unsubtle indictment of society's desire to medicate psychiatric problems rather than understand them. While a brief video clip added to the existential aspect of the production featuring cars and drivers and sideshow hucksterism, I'm not exactly sure why it was included other than to confirm the Last Lion Theatre Company's mission statement is multi-media presentations

As writer/director/star, Max Leavitt can't be faulted for lacking versatility. Now if he could keep the better elements of his work with interesting characters, he'd be on to something.
Dead, Therefore I Am
By Max Leavitt
Directed by Max Leavitt
Cast: Philip Gough (Man in Robe), Max Leavitt (J.T. Blackwell), Michael Nagle (Sportscaster, Guy in Car), Karen Jean Olds (Sophie Taylor Deno), Nick Paonessa (Sportscaster #2), Nicholas Tucci (Anubis), Nicholas Vitulli (Dr. Beaurieux, Claude Crum, Dr. Licht)
Sets: Six 14 Productions
Lighting: Paige Selene Luke
Costumes: Rose Coleman, Sarah Robinson
Sound: Ian Dull
Video projections: Seth Sherwood
Stage manager: Katrina Renee Herrmann.
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission
The East Theatre at the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038
From 4/17/09 to 5/24/09. Fridays and Saturdays @ 8pm, Sundays @ 3pm.
Tickets are $20
Reviewed by David Avery on April 17, 2009
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