Go Ahead: Plunge Into Tom Jacobson's Talented Tryptich.

Leigh Kennicott Reviews - Theater
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Tom Jacobson’s latest venture has become one of the theatrical highpoints of the year, bringing three smaller theatres together to produce his tryptich, The Ballad of Bimini Baths. Echoing the same approach given to Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Elliot plays earlier, three theatres portray overlapping characters seen at different stages of a prophetic story of early Los Angeles in each production.

Although each play approaches the same characters from different angles, I believe it is important to see them in an order that will makes ones’ understanding of the events grow. However, since they opened at different times, I saw them as they became available, and I echo that progression here.

Plunge, produced by Son of Semele, opens with the sort of location that we might expect. The enclosed space resembles the dressing room and enclosed bath of a “private” room in the celebrated Bimini Baths, which flourished until the hot springs were capped in 1951. As if waiting for someone, Reverend Edward Reynolds (Dan Via) sits, adding notations to a small notebook that will soon figure prominently in the story.

Time flashes forward and backward, and locations morph from palatial mansion to the baths themselves, as Everett C. Maxwell (Gary Patent) enters from a reception celebrating the launch of Otis Institute of Art. Maxwell, the actual curator of the Museum of History, Science, and Art in 1915 was the beneficiary of the gift.

From the start, the relationship between Reynolds and Maxwell is enigmatic, perpetually shifting in time, place and persona. The two men share a dark secret that unfolds in glimpses; gradually the twin stories fall into place.  But not until the end, can we imagine which of these scenarios represent the truth. But there is no question, ultimately, that Jacobson’s is a brilliant achievement in playwriting.

Although the three plays deal with the explosive topic of hidden sexual impulses, there is plenty of humor sprinkled throughout. Jacobson’s description of “The Last Supper” is particularly funny.(One favorite turn-of-the-last-century pastime, which gave rise to Laguna’s Pageant of the Masters, placed people in tableax vivant impersonating famous paintings).

David B. Marling’s sound design brings back the sounds and sense of one hundred years past, as well as filling in key clues as to our whereabouts from scene to scene. Michael Mullen’s costumes, too, orient us to a different time and space. His turn-of-the-last-century bath-suits, in particular, are a kick. But one of the difficulties, for me, was the set. Although expertly rendered by Michael Fitzgerald, we can never escape the specificity of the baths, no matter where we are told the scene is set.

More than one patron has commented on the confusion of trying to follow this storyline, which renders other characters played, in adept succession, by Dan Via to Gary Patent’s vulnerable and charming rendition of Maxwell. This difficulty, I believe, can be rectified by first seeing Jacobson’s Mexican Day. Told in a more straight-forward manner, Mexican Day sets the stage and fills in many question marks for Plunge. For the entire trilogy, stay tuned!

Plunge continues Tuesdays at 7:00, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 5:00 pm through July 1st at the Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles 90004.  Buy tickets online at http://www.sonofsemele.org.