Lights, Camera, Misappropriation! A Tinseltown Theatre Exposes the Skullduggery That Produced the Motion Picture. (Critic's Notebook).(BagPunching Dog)(Theater Review)

Article excerpt

Los Angeles's Circle X Theatre Group, formed in 1996, defines its artistic goals in a mission statement so elegantly worded as to be positively dramatic: The company proclaims that it's "dedicated to highly provocative and boldly theatrical productions of new and rarely seen plays. We believe in imagination over budget, adrenaline over inertia and excellence over all." So far in its brief career, the theatre has substantially supported those claims, racking up three Ovation awards (13 nominations), two L.A. Weekly awards (5 nominations) and five Backstage West Garland awards. So it's not surprising that, last July, it ventured boldly into new territory with its first musical: Laura Comstock's BagPunching Dog. With sparkle, originality and a provocative theatrical pulse, the show proved so popular that the run was extended into the fall.

Perhaps the subject is a natural in a town that's nearly as famous for highstakes business deals as it is for moviemaking. Creators Jillian Armenante and Alice Dodd--founding members of Circle X who triumphed as a team two years ago with In Flagrante Gothicto, a satire of classics like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights--have created an off-center, experimental script that uses the evolution of the cinema to make a broader statement about cutthroat competition and the lengths inventors have gone to ruin their rivals.

The play's title refers to a vaudeville act filmed by Thomas Edison, one of the main targets of Laura Comstock. Armenante and Dodd portray this oft-celebrated man not as a genius who single-handedly invented the motion picture camera but as a villainous, boastful egomaniac who exploited his brilliant assistant W.K.L. Dickson and worked overtime to keep the world ignorant of Dickson's monumental contributions (who knew?). But the show's intricate tapestry stretches beyond this pair to encompass other inventors with claims at least as legitimate as Edison's: the Lumiere Brothers, who are credited with producing the first public film screening in 1895, and Frenchman Auguste Le Prince, who just happens to have mysteriously disappeared in 1890 after his bout of technological innovation.

AS LAURA COMSTOCK RELATES, Le Prince's wife Lizzie and son Adolphe tried desperately to prove that Le Prince conceived and tested the camera before Edison. Armenante and Dodd speculate that Le Prince and, later, his son were killed by competitors--possibly by Edison himself--and this subplot gives a dark, mesmerizing undercurrent to the production's surface buoyancy.

Deftly commenting on the themes of creativity and imitation while maintaining a lighthearted atmosphere, Laura Comstock zips from one incident to another, taking many unpredictable turns. Armenante's free-flowing directorial approach communicates a sense of joy, locating a perfect middle ground between realism and caricature so that the issues of plagiarism and piracy retain force without turning melodramatic and preachy.

The show looks beautiful as well. Grainy images on screens and walls convey a period authenticity in the many scenes that incorporate film footage. One particularly memorable sequence features the Lumiere brothers' footage of a speeding train tearing down the track--an image that, in a notable historical incident, so terrified turn-of-the-century Parisian audiences unfamiliar with film that they dispersed in panic to avoid being crushed. Equally compelling are archival excerpts from Georges Melies's 1902 Trip to the Moon and glimpses of Indo-Chinese dancers, gondolas in Venice and an Egyptian sphinx--early examples of location shooting. …