The Promise of Happiness

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The opening minutes of Murder Blood Bear Story offer a scary tableau: a vital young woman cringes on her knees, making a spiritual obeisance to a potential catastrophe she hopes will save her from despair. There is no bear, not represented onstage except as a projection between the persuasion of an actor and the faith of her audience. But it’s there.

This is a play, more than most solo theater pieces one can see at the Hollywood Fringe or elsewhere; it’s a crafted and affecting artistic exploration, not an exercise, not a whim – I hope. Writer and actor Katelyn Schiller uses the unfortunate term “whimsical” in her published description of the piece, and others I wish didn’t pigeonhole and reduce the affair, like “dramedy” and “openhearted.” The artist is openhearted; certainly her character here, Blue, is that. And the piece is sometimes funny, and it is very dramatic. But Schiller’s strengths lie elsewhere than in writing blurbs describing her own work. Her strengths are many.

The fable of a precious creature crushed by life into a madwoman whose giddiness covers a bleak existential crisis, Murder Blood Bear Story is much further developed than its pastiche title would suggest. On a terrifying hunt for what she calls happiness, Blue entertains her chance acquaintance and possible killer with dance, with song, with stories of other happenstance meetings: with sad and lonely folks, some of them tragic, and with well-adjusted, relatively normal people too. What attracts Blue to all of these characters is the happiness she sees in them, an emotion we aren’t always able to perceive, too. Some of these figures are institutionalized, and so is Blue sometimes. In this world people find what they can. They go where they are allowed. It’s not enough for Blue. She escapes further, seeking in the most dangerous wilderness for what one can only find within.

For all its intelligent evolution, this piece has an in-progress feel, a lack of precision in structure and theme. I want it to get not necessarily longer but bigger. Director Payden Ackerman is in a tough spot. It’s hard not to be permissive with a writer/performer, and I can’t imagine it’s easy to rein in Schiller’s winning personality. But I see an advisory hand here. Tension builds, story mounts, moments land. Whatever he contributed, Ackerman didn’t make Schiller resistible, so thanks to both of them.

There is a willful poetry in Schiller’s words and behavior, in her oblique approach to playwriting (that might just be impatience with direct narrative) and in her push-push-achieve acting style. It’s not easy to tell what’s her device, what the character’s, and this can of course be a coup, when it’s not a misfire. It’s very possible that the author will disagree with my interpretation of her intentions. Ambiguity is a delicate balance between the room one wants to give one’s audience and the far field to which it may stray. I found a correct and bitter logic in the play’s climax; my theater companion found a more optimistic message. What you will find, and I hope you go to seek it, is yours, perhaps more than it is Schiller’s. But it is she who will have led you to it.

Murder Blood Bear Story plays:

Sunday June 14 at 5:30 p.m.

Saturday June 20 at 10 p.m.

Monday June 22 at 5:30 p.m.

Thursday June 25 at 10 p.m.

Elephant Lab, 1078 Lillian Way in Hollywood

for tickets visit www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/2122?tab=details