SAN FRANCISCO – Last Planet Theatre is the Berkeley-based stage company that mounted the Wallace Shawn theater festival at last summer locally at the Julia Morgan Center.
On Friday, the company opened its new production – “The Lament of the Wolf-Bat,” written and directed by Last Planet artistic director John Wilkins – at the Cell Space artists’ collective in San Francisco.
Performed by 13 actors on a large stage, “The Lament of the Wolf-Bat” is a sprawling, dense, complicated and non-linear story that feels like a series of quickly changing dream vignettes.
Set somewhere in America in 1847, play moves anachronistically in time and geography – including one scene in a Polish prison – telling the story of a young man named Andre who life is endangered by predatory wolf-bats seeking male victims who are virgins.
The fact that Andre is married to a somewhat promiscuous woman named Eva confuses the issue as to whether he is a virgin or not. Many times watching this show I was not exactly sure what the play was about.
Early in the story, Andre goes through a knifing ritual with a sultry woman. He then has visions of the prophet Moses, who materializes to give Andre guidance in his life.
Andre’s brother Casey is a baseball nut. Casey dresses in modern-day baseball clothes, carries a baseball bat, and constantly talks baseball.
At times, the baseball bat Casey carries is equated to the wolf-bat Andre fears. The play’s story has the quality of a dream, in which one kind of bat can become another kind of bat.
Similarly, the concepts “desert” and “dessert” become interchangeable to drive the story line of a later scene.
In his complicated mix of reality and internal vision, in danger of attack from wolf-bats, Andre is harnessed and tortured, figuratively and literally.
Coming to his aid is a Polish assassin named Bereftski, who knew Andre’s imprisoned father in Poland in 1829, and who is obsessed with the Holocaust.
In trying to figure out what this play is about, for a while it seemed that maybe the wolf-bat’s pursuit of Andre and other male virgins is some kind of 1847 metaphor for the emotional youth and inexperience of the new American psyche.
Later, the play seemed to be about repressed Freudian sexual issues between men and women.
In its final scene, however, “The Lament of the Wolf-Bat” makes a sharp hairpin turn, and suddenly becomes a routine domestic story, explaining away all of its earlier mystery.
In an odd way, even though all the mystery is cleared up, this sudden denouement is actually disappointing. It seems to trivialize the earlier, denser story by revealing it as a fairly routine conflict over money and property – although the antagonist’s hatred and greed are never clearly explained.
Ultimately, “Wolf-Bat’s” difficult journey doesn’t bring much in the way of insights or transformations. And running nearly two hours without an intermission, the show is a long haul.
Playwright Wilkins has directed a vigorous production. Most of his actors do strong work. Cody Bayne shows some real versatility playing two distinct characters – Andre and Andre’s father. Sarah Neal is a playful, blood-thirsty, sexual wife Eva.
Chris Pflueger creates an unctuous Minister Sinstra, an evil holy man who facilitates some of the story’s malevolent turns. Roger Loesch, as a smooth talking lawyer, serves as narrator for some of the scenes.
Michael Leitch is an energetic baseball maniac Casey, and Matt Leshinskie an alternately enigmatic and compassionate Polish assassin Bereftski.
Fight choreographer Michael Ditmore has staged a very good sword duel at the play’s climax.
Watching “The Lament of the Wolf-Bat” is like listening to someone for two hours tell you about his long, complex, involuted dream. Although there are interesting moments, the dream’s power is much greater for the dreamer than for his audience.
“The Lament of the Wolf-Bat” runs Thursday through Saturday, 8:30 p.m., at the Cell Space, 2050 Bryant (at 18th Street), San Francisco, through July 8. For tickets and information, call 510-845-2687, or visit the web site (www.lastplanettheatre.com).