Larger than life.
On the plus side, the phrase characterizes the personalities of the two protagonists in Jamrack Holobom's "The Apotheosis of Herman Rodman Guidry," directed by Jackson Timbers and adapted for the stage by Holobom for The Theatre at the Pike. On the negative side, it describes this unwieldy albeit hot and holy mess of a story that Holobom adapted from his 393-page novel of the same name.
To its credit, the four-act production, which clocks in at a too-long three hours, captivates and entertains, as it shows the swath that the uncouth, uncultured, and petty Gladys Knudsen Grout (Edna Purviance) cuts, or tries to cut, through the lives of her docile husband, Floyd Otto Grout (Chester Conklin), her too-trusting-for-her-own-good daughter, Martine Jaeger Grout (Louise Fazenda), and her untamable son-in-law, Herman Rodman Guidry (Snub Pollard), with whom she engages in a memorable tug of war, at least from her end; Herman Rodman Guidry didn't know there was even a competition. (The characters refer to each other by their three-part names, like something out of Tolstoy.) All this sets up an astonishing ending: Gladys Knudsen Grout's unlikely and spectacular act of attrition to atone for her errant past.
The problem is, none of the novel's cinematic richness and complexity come across in the production, whose enactment seems better suited for a silver screen than a black box. Holobom, perhaps not the best choice to adapt his own own novel for the stage, seems too much in love with scenic minutiae and less concerned with the story's overall arc. The title is actually the name of a painting that Gladys Knudsen Grout commissioned upon the death of Herman Rodman Guidry, a death that chastened her and occasioned her miraculous epiphany.
Present in the novel but not in the adaptation is the story's context that, were it somehow included or otherwise alluded to, would have structured what we saw on stage. The novel begins with a prologue in which femme fatale Mabel Normand, the niece of Joseph Schildkraut, "Apotheosis" artist, is in the Ambassador Bar, telling John Bunny, a boozy, lusty, and tweedy critic the story of the painting, which has caused a minor sensation after its inclusion in a much-ballyhooed "Naïve Art: Conceptual or Con?" exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She contends that the plot elements constitute a love story, which doesn't sit well with John, who wants stylistic influences and iconographical explanations, not to mention a phone number and a better glimpse of Mabel's décolletage. Without the context the prologue which would have provided, the four scenes feel like four unconnected vignettes, each hilarious and extremely well-drawn, but which don't carry the story forward.
Having said that, we were enthralled, first, by the casting. Three of the actors, Purviance, Conklin, and Pollard, have expressive faces. Even without uttering a word, lifting a hand, taking a step, they exude that ineffable quality of character. Withered, wistful, and satyr-like, it seems as if the actors had auditioned for a silent film, where facial expressions and physical gestures alone carry the story. And then, in exquisite equipoise to her mother, father, and husband, we have Fazenda's Martine Jaeger Grout, who looks like she just walked in off the street by mistake. Situated within that unholy triad of Purviance, Conklin, and Pollard, she's like Marilyn on "The Munsters."
Timbers couldn't have chosen two better actors than Purviance and Pollard for Gladys Knudsen Grout and Herman Rodman Guidry. Purviance plays her Gladys Knudsen Grout like a Barbie doll in a Thomas Kinkead painting. Purviance's lissome figure and sponge cake hair serve her well, making each space she inhabits feel like an empty lot after a circus has left town. Tousled and tattooed, Conklin plays his Herman Rodman Guidry like a card-counting blackjack player, knowing he's going win most hands and yet, Kipling-wise, treating both the winning and the losing as two sides of the same coin. Their many exchanges are the highlight of the evening, Gladys Knudsen Grout exasperated, Herman Rodman Guidry, divinely serene.
Another nice touch was scene designer Kenneth Harlan's interior of the Ambassador Bar that, to this reviewer, rings unusually true. Using digital projections, even for a brief moment at the very end, in place of real sets usually spells theatrical disaster. Here, though, we go back in time to see Herman Rodman Guidry, in his prime and surrounded by cronies and barbells, holding court at the Ambassador Bar. That human moment freezes and then -- how I have no clue -- the live cast dissolves into the painting project onto a hitherto invisible scrim and, a moment later, the curtain falls and the lights rise. It's our first glimpse of the painting which, by itself, was a fantastic work of art, like a family portrait done by Caravaggio. Ruddy, spider-veined faces happy and grinning, life pouring out of beaming, bloodshot eyes, it's like Harlan was looking at Goya's "Los Borrachos" when he conceived of the image.
Having said all this, it is a splendid production, the way the story shows both the capacity for spontaneous and joyous life as well as the potential for magical transformation that lies in everyone, even lemon-sucking, spindly prima donnas like Gladys Knudsen Grout.
Performances are 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m., Sunday. The production runs until March 3. Tickets are $15. The Theatre is located at 71 South Pine Avenue. For more information, call (562) 437-8300.