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Art and Life Replicate Each Other in LA Premiere of ‘Reborning’ at Fountain Theatre

Kristin Carey, Joanna Strapp in 'Reborning'.

Kristin Carey, Joanna Strapp in ‘Reborning’.

by Mindy Farabee

Sometimes art imitates life and sometimes life imitates art. And somewhere in between, sometimes things get curious.

Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre recently opened a play dealing with parenthood, the mystery of creation and the scars of loss. What it’s literally about is reborning, a thriving subculture in which artists spend hundreds of hours creating and collectors spend thousands of dollars buying vinyl dolls meticulously fashioned to resemble real babies.

Reborning began in the United States in the 1990s, when a few enthusiasts started painting over and otherwise altering (or “reborning”) store-bought dolls to make them appear more realistic. Now, however, it has become an international phenomenon. One unassembled, limited-edition kit for making the dolls recently released online sold out in less than three minutes.

The play, Reborning, centers on an artist and the increasingly unnerving relationship she develops with a client. Zayd Dohrn wrote it after the birth of his first child. In stumbling upon the curious art form, Dohrn found a perfect vehicle for exploring the terrifying vulnerability of new life. He also made something of a mess. “I tried my hand at making a couple dolls,” Dohrn says. “It didn’t turn out well.”

The show has previously been produced in New York, San Francisco and Anaheim (at the Chance Theater in 2012), with local reborners employed to create dolls.

The Fountain called Amy Karich, an Orange County stay-at-home mom who sells her reborn creations online. Karich, who also designed dolls for the Chance production, works out of a studio tucked into the tidy rolling hills on the outskirts of Laguna Beach. A slant-roofed add-on to the back of the family home, Karich’s workshop sits on one of those quiet, planned streets with an abundance of two-car garages, stacked rows of matching terracotta-hued roofs and artfully spaced palm trees.

Amy Karich in her studio.

Amy Karich in her studio.

Inside, her studio testifies to a flurry of activity. A paint-drenched sponge lies on her desk amidst jars of paints, brushes and beads. Against the walls sit boxes of eyeballs and a small table of disembodied doll parts. Teething toys, bassinets and pastel blankets dominate the decor.

“I’m not even a baby person,” announces the petite, blond mother of four, with the hint of an ironic smile.

That she’s going on the record at all is a pleasant surprise. The fact that some buyers have suffered miscarriages or found themselves unable to conceive prompted several articles casting them as mildly deranged. “People feel like they’ve been burned in the press,” says Dohrn, to explain why lately the subculture has taken on a slight air of secrecy.

Some clients ask for dolls with particular characteristics, occasionally including a picture. Other clients are more vague. One asked for 13 moles, though Karich could place them where she chose. The dolls aren’t usually used as toys — they’re mainly for display.

Artists become known for certain trademarks, such as color palates, and Karich says her skin tones are a signature of her work. She plucks the head from a nearly completed newborn to illustrate. “I put stork bites on them,” she says, pointing to the pinkish birthmark on the back of its head, which can appear during birth.

“All kinds of traumatic things happen at birth,” she adds. “Newborns … can have pressure marks anywhere. Because sometimes the baby will be resting against the bottom of the tailbone [for instance],” she says, absentmindedly rubbing her lower back.

Zayd Dohrn at the Fountain Theatre

Playwright Zayd Dohrn at the Fountain Theatre

“I love that she said that,” Dohrn says. “When you hear Amy talk, you understand what humans go through [during birth], the adventure they’ve been on and how it shows up on their bodies.”

Karich, whose dolls routinely go for $1,500 apiece, might spend 150 hours creating one. The details she adds reinforce that these aren’t toys but objects meant for display, intended for serious collectors. Artists favor Genesis paints, and stuff glass or zinc beads inside the dolls to give them an authentic heft. (“Some people have been known to use kitty litter,” Karich says, turning up her nose at the idea.)

Karich fishes out handful of handcrafted eyes from beneath a crib. “These are made of mouth-blown glass, produced in Germany. They go for $30 to $40 a pair,” she says. Her newborns also come with detachable magnetic umbilical cords, made by snipping off the finger of a vinyl glove and stuffing it with cloth painted to resemble bloody tissue, before tying it off with a real medical clamp.

“It’s very relaxing to me to be able to create,” she says.

In translating her dolls to the stage, a few adjustments were necessary, such as designing a deeper mottling for the skin to render it more visible to an audience.

There is one aspect of Dohrn’s play that Karich finds not terribly realistic: The reborner allows her client far too much access. Karich doesn’t even give out her phone number, in order to set boundaries on her time. But her clients are nearly all repeat customers. Relationships inevitably form, and personal details are shared — some tragic, but mostly clients just send news about their children.

“Most collectors are mothers and perfectly normal people,” Karich stresses. “Some people could be filling some sort of void with the dolls … but it’s not a void that causes them to treat the dolls like real babies. They are just another group of people, interested in something.”
Mindy Farabee is a writer and critic living in Los Angeles. A former LA Times staff writer, her work has also appeared in publications such as Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, San Francisco Chronicle, The Millions, the Boston Globe, and LA Weekly. This post originally appeared in the LA Weekly
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Fountain Theatre Earns Nine LA Weekly Theater Award Nominations for Excellence in 2013

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup in 'The Normal Heart'.

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup in ‘The Normal Heart’.

The Fountain Theatre has been nominated for nine LA Weekly Theater Awards for its acclaimed 2013 productions of The Normal Heart and Heart Song.  

  • Revival Production of the YearThe Normal Heart
  • Direction – Simon Levy, The Normal Heart
  • Leading Female Performance – Pamela Dunlap, Heart Song
  • Leading Male Performance – Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup, The Normal Heart
  • Supporting Female Performance – Lisa Pelikan, The Normal Heart
  • Supporting Male Performance – Verton R.Banks, Matt Gottlieb, Fred Koehler, The Normal Heart

Zombie Joe’s Underground will host the 35th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards on April 7 at Exchange LA. The awards honor what the paper’s committee of critics have deemed the best work performed in theaters of 99 seats or less in the 2013 calendar year. 

"Heart Song"

Pamela Dunlap in “Heart Song”

Click here for the full list of nominees. 

Fountain Theatre Artists Honored at LA Weekly Theater Awards

Diarra Kilpatrick accepts her Best Lead Actress Award.

Diarra Kilpatrick accepts her Best Lead Actress Award.

Fountain actress Diarra Kilpatrick and sound designer/composer Peter Bayne were both honored at the 2013 LA Weekly Theater Awards Monday night for their work on the Fountain Theatre’s acclaimed production of In the Red and Brown Water. Directed by Shirley Jo Finney, the hit production ran for 5 sold-out months at the Fountain from October 2012 through February 2013.

Sound designer/composer Peter Bayne.

Sound designer/composer Peter Bayne.

Diarra Kilpatrick won the Weekly’s Best Lead Actress Award for her thrilling and mesmerizing portrayal of Oya, the troubled young woman from the Louisiana projects with dreams of becoming a track star. Peter Bayne received a Special Commendation for his sound design and composition of the lyrical and haunting original music.   

In The Red and Brown Water

Fountain Theatre Honored with 8 LA Weekly Theater Award Nominations

"In the Red and Brown Water" (photo by Ed Krieger)

Diarra Kilpatrick and cast in “In the Red and Brown Water”

The Fountain Theatre has received 8 LA Weekly Theater Award Nominations plus 1 Special Commendation for sound designer Peter Bayne.

The 8 nominations for the Fountain Theatre are:

PRODUCTION OF THE YEAR
In the Red and Brown Water, Fountain Theatre
 
ENSEMBLE
The Blue Iris, Fountain Theatre
LEADING FEMALE PERFORMANCE
Diarra Kilpatrick,  In the Red and Brown Water
 
SUPPORTING FEMALE PERFORMANCE
Jacqueline Schultz, The Blue Iris
Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill in "The Blue Iris"

Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris”

 ADAPTATION
Tarell Alvin McCraney, In the Red and Brown Water
 
COSTUME DESIGN
Naila Aladdin Sanders, In the Red and Brown Water
 
SOUND DESIGN
Peter Bayne, In the Red and Brown Water
Peter Bayne, The Blue Iris
 
SPECIAL COMMENDATIONS
Peter Bayne, composer, In the Red and Brown Water
production photos by Ed Kreiger

The 34th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards, celebrating the best work on LA’s intimate stages will be at the Avalon on April 8. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., show starts at 7:30 p.m. 

Fountain Theatre’s Acclaimed ‘In the Red and Brown Water’ Extends to Feb 24

LA Premiere Held Over to Celebrate Black History Month

“In the Red and Brown Water” (photo by Ed Krieger)

The Fountain Theatre has extended the Los Angeles premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s lusciously theatrical and boldly original In the Red and Brown Water through the end of February, in honor of Black History Month. Performances will continue through December 16 as previously scheduled, then resume on January 5 for an additional eight weeks through February 24.

Lyrically weaving together elements of urban contemporary realism with West African mysticism, In the Red and Brown Water tells the tale of Oya, who can run faster than anyone—but not fast enough to escape her destiny. Her journey from the promise of youth to the complicated yearnings of womanhood is joyous, raucous, raw and brazenly beautiful.

The Fountain production has been declared “100% Sweet” by Bitter Lemons, a website that aggregates Los Angeles theater reviews, and which, in a rare editorial comment, writes, “Once again, the Fountain Theatre shows that they are the class of Los Angeles theater, big or small… this is simply what theater is meant to be.” The Los Angeles Times raves, “CRITIC’S CHOICE! Beyond the fact that it is sensational, the Fountain Theatre’s production of ‘In the Red and Brown Water’… introduces Los Angeles audiences to a dramatic poet in the process of discovering his singular voice and shows how magnificently one of L.A.’s better small theaters can serve bold new talent.” The LA Weekly agrees, “GO! A visceral fable that rises up from the underbelly of America,” and Back Stage calls In the Red and Brown Water “a production that explodes in sounds, imagesand extraordinary performances.”

It took the Fountain three years to obtain rights to produce McCraney’s play, which first exploded on the theater scene with a production at New York’s Public Theatre in 2009. On his personal Facebook page, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic Charles McNulty posts, “I love [the Fountain Theatre] production — even more than the one at the Public Theater. LA Theater is not to be underestimated!”

In the Red and Brown Water is helmed by multiple award-winning director Shirley Jo FinneyDiarra Kilpatrick stars as Oya in “a lead performance that is so good you wonder if somehow the designers may have concocted some kind of CGI image in front of your eyes instead of a living breathing human being; her movement, range of emotion and depth of passion is so indescribable that it will literally take your breath away.” (Colin Mitchell, Bitter Lemons). The ensemble also includes Dorian Christian BaucumPeggy A.BlowGilbert Glenn BrownJustin Chu CaryStephen MarshallSimone MissickIona MorrisTheodore Perkins and Maya Lynne Robinson.

Performances of In the Red and Brown Water continue through February 24 on Thursdays (through December 13 only),Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Sundays @ 2 pm (dark December 17 through January 4).  Call (323) 663-1525 or go to www.FountainTheatre.com.

Critic’s Rave for Smash Hit ‘In the Red and Brown Water’ at the Fountain Theatre

“Sensational!” – LA Times

Diarra Kilpatrick and company.

RAVE! CRITIC’S CHOICE! “Beyond the fact that it is sensational, the Fountain Theatre’s production of “In the Red and Brown Water” by Tarell Alvin McCraney is important for two reasons: It introduces Los Angeles audiences to a dramatic poet in the process of discovering his singular voice and it shows how magnificently one of L.A.’s better small theaters can serve bold new talent.” – Los Angeles Times

Peggy Blow, Diarra Kilpatrick and company.

RAVE! “Every player scores a memorable impression, above all the luminous lead Diarra Kilpatrick, who can inhabit a simple soul yet express her intensely complicated inner torment … [Director Shirley Jo Finney] indisputably remains at the top of her game.” Hollywood Reporter

RAVE! “A production that explodes in sounds, images, and extraordinary performances.” – Backstage

RAVE! “An astonishing accomplishment! Skilfully aided by director Shirley Jo Finney, the superb cast works poetry, myth, dance, chanting and music into the mix.” Total Theater

RAVE! “Electrifying! … A unique piece full of dancing, singing, haunting story telling and enchanting characters … It is like nothing you have ever seen before and something that is utterly fascinating and highly entertaining.” – ALittleNightMusing 

RAVE! GO! “Compelling! A visceral fable that rises up from the underbelly of America.” – LA Weekly

Diarra Kilpatrick and Gilbert Glenn Brown

RAVE! “Perfection! Finney’s excellent directorial work … The casting is flawless.” – LA Beat

RAVE! “Unforgettable! An excellent cast!” – ArtsinLA

RAVE! “This is the show to see!” – CaribPress

RAVE! “A new, important, and original voice in American theatre … a talented cast … Especially moving … heart-wrenching” – BlogCritics

Diarra Kilpatrick and company.

RAVE! “Diarra Kilpatrick is a breath of fresh air in her daring performance … Gilbert Glenn Brown nearly steals this show (at least as far as the women are concerned) with an explosive and arousing performance … terrific … hilarious … a steady cast anchored by theater veterans Iona Morris and Peggy A. Blow.” – Donloe’s Lowdown

Iona Morris and Diarra Kilpatrick

Simone Missick and Maya Lynne Robinson

Diarra Kilpatrick, Dorian Baucum and company.

Now Playing! (323) 663-1525  More

LA Weekly: The Timeless Voice in Fugard’s “The Blue Iris” at the Fountain

Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris”

by Steven Leigh Morris

A series of poems by Thomas Hardy, grieving after the death of his first, estranged wife, inspired Athol Fugard‘s latest play, The Blue Iris, now receiving its U.S. premiere at Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre, directed by Stephen Sachs.

Athol Fugard, the internationally renowned Causasian South African dramatist who writes in English, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because of his early writing career dedicated to battling his nation’s apartheid policies (in plays such as Blood Knot, 1961; and Master Harold and the Boys, 1982). Fugard was as brave as a playwright could be, joining the ranks of Chile‘s Ariel Dorfman and Czechoslovakia‘s Václav Havel by risking prison for writing works that looked askance at the policies of their authoritarian governments. It was a baton they passed along to the likes of Russian punk band Pussy Riot.

But when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in South African prisons, and in the nation’s first multiracial elections became the nation’s first black president, the purpose of aging white liberals such as Fugard became ever more nuanced and difficult to define. After all, South Africa’s brave new future also contained a raging AIDS epidemic, and the continuation of unspeakable poverty, revenge and violence.

That transition is what Fugard has been writing about since 1994, in a series of plays set in his beloved Karoo, among them Valley Song (1996), Sorrows and Rejoicings (2001),Victory (2007) and his latest, The Blue Iris.

Invariably, they concern an aging white man and young “colored” (the South African term for mixed-race) woman. In Valley Song, presented here at the Mark Taper Forum, the young woman, Veronica, needed to come of age, to escape the confines of the Karoo for a faster life in the city. She was an innocent, and a symbol of the future.

Sorrows and Rejoicings (also premiered here at the Taper) concerned a white, male poet from South Africa who went into exile inLondon. When he returned to the Karoo, he was dying. There he met the young colored woman he left behind, Rebecca. She answered his abandonment of her by burning his early poems. The essence of Fugard’s anxiety was spoken in a single line from that play:

“For your soul’s sake, Rebecca, I hope you know that what you did was terribly wrong. What you turned to ash and smoke out there in the veldt was evidence of a man’s love, for his country, for his people — for you! Don’t reject it. … Rejoice in it! Because if you think you and your New South Africa don’t need it, you are making a terrible mistake.”

In Victory, which received its U.S. premiere at the Fountain Theatre, also directed by Sachs, the aging white man (Morlan Higgins) found himself being robbed and held hostage by the young colored woman (born on the day Mandela was released from prison, and consequently named Vickie in honor of this victory) and her boyfriend. The old man was Vickie’s educator and mentor. Her petty criminal alliance was a representation of how the innocence of Veronica and the hope for the future in Valley Song had corroded in Fugard’s eyes.

Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill

Fugard’s plays have been getting ever more despondent, and The Blue Iris contains his most austere view to date. Morlan Higgins returns as Robert Hannay, eking out an existence in the Karoo near the charred remains of a house where the colored woman, Rieta (Julanne Chidi Hill), once grew up and worked as a housekeeper. Robert still grieves for his wife, Sally (Jacqueline Schultz, appearing as a phantom), who died of a heart attack shortly after a lightning strike that burned their home. (Jeff McLaughlin‘s set depicts blackened beams and detached doors amidst piles of detritus.)

Sally begged Robert not to leave the night of that storm, but he was determined to buy a new breeding ram, and so now he lives with the agony of his decision on that night of decimation. Rieta stands by him, for reasons unveiled in the play. She endures his conjurings of Sally.

Some verses of one poem by Hardy, “The Voice,” embody Robert’s state of mind:

“Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,

Standing as when I drew near to the town

Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,

Even to the original air-blue gown!

“Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness

Traveling across the wet mead to me here,

You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,

Heard no more again far or near?”

Sally, a painter by avocation, floats through the play on the day Rieta discovers Sally’s only painting that was untouched by the fire. It’s a botanical portrait of a blue iris, which for Robert brings back the memory of when Sally found the flower on the floor of the drought-blasted veldt — a single symbol of hope in a withered landscape otherwise punctuated by the death of plants and sheep.

That particular flower, however, has poison within its beauty, enough poison to “bring down an ox,” which is why the local farmers so loath it. That’s what Sally was trying to capture. What looks pretty contains toxins. And there you have the parable for the contamination of a hope-filled future.

Sachs’ meticulously rendered production features a trio of impeccable performances. These include Schultz as Sally’s ghost, who arrives as though via tornado, chattering and desperate, before she’s sucked away by that same wind tunnel, to explain the meaning of her painting, and of how in painting it she failed to convey that meaning.

Then there’s Higgins as Robert, and his fastidious, lumbering search for his own meaning amidst the remains, his world-weary eyes, the sonorous, aching tone in his voice. Hill’s Rieta offers a spritely foil — she’s as impatient as she is pained. Their joint decision, the only decision in the play, is whether she and Robert, both tramps and Platonic lovers, should stay or go, together or apart. And there’s an allegory in that, too, about circumstantial bonds and inexorable isolation. The play is saturated in allegories.

Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins

To fully appreciate The Blue Iris, however, one might look beyond Thomas Hardy’s poems to W.B. Yeats‘ poetical drama Purgatory, also set by the remains of a charred house. Purgatory also studies a man grieving for his late wife, trying to release her from purgatory. She, too, paces between life and death, listless in her travels beyond existence. The other character in Purgatoryis the man’s son, representing a hope for the future that stands on the brink of corrosion.

Both plays wrestle with how past and future can possibly travel any road together. And yet they do, as they must, as they always have. The ensuing, combustible emotions are what provide the fire of our most timeless poems and stories, where writers such as Yeats and Fugard ache to fathom the unfathomable.

Steven Leigh Morris writes for the LA Weekly.

THE BLUE IRIS | By Athol Fugard | Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Sept. 16. |   (323) 663-1525       |fountaintheatre.com