If there’s such a thing as a nostalgic view of an apocalyptic future, then the world premiere of “Celebration of the Lizard” captures it. Taking the music of the Doors and stringing the songs together with a sci-fi-ish, mythic narrative thread, writer Joel Lipman and director Sam Woodhouse can’t be faulted for their sincerity — their oh-so-serious take on the material unmasks not just affection, but downright worship. Jim Morrison, it seems, is their god, or at least their guru. But while it’s all very intriguing, the accompanying imagery lacks potency, and the style of playing is oddly distant, resulting, in The End, in a bit of a bland trip.
A lighted sign reading “Obey” greets audiences as they walk into the theater, and the silence of a barren, decrepit landscape is punctuated with occasional recorded, bossy announcements demanding attention from “all sectors.” This is post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. A band sits caged in a glass case stage left.
In the frenetic opening moments of the show, the Stranger (Jeff Meeks) accidentally kills a cop in an altercation, and at the urging of long, curly-haired, and therefore apparently wise El Capitan (Danny Peck), heads out to the desert in search of Far Arden, a mythic paradise few believe exists.
Along the road, the Stranger picks up a hitchhiker, to whom he confesses his desire not to kill anymore, but soon, in self-defense, he kills the hitcher, too. “Riders on the Storm” plays in the background.
He then encounters the Queen of the Highway (Karole Foreman), who wants to hear more about Arden. But soon, the Stranger is taken hostage by a group of suspicious desert-dwellers, all refugees from the dying city, who take him to see their leader Antonio (Baruti).
Antonio is threatened by the Stranger, who, although he’s hesitant to admit it, believes that out there somewhere is a better place. To keep control of his cronies, the tyrannical Antonio needs for them to think that this life — where they wake up in the morning and get themselves a beer — is the end of the line.
Antonio, with his Spy (Ken Roht), plots the Stranger’s death, but with the Queen of the Highway’s help, he escapes, and in the second act, “breaks on through to the other side” when he encounters the Lizard Woman (Michele Mais), who makes him realize that to reach Far Arden, you’ve got to open your mind, man. The Stranger, we discover, is actually the Lizard King, and by the end, he leads the people to freedom in the crystal ship.
Woodhouse succeeds in getting all this to proceed without evoking giggles, thanks in large part to some courageous performances, especially by Meeks, who sings, moves and acts with total commitment.
Mais, Foreman, Baruti, Roht, and Peck all have terrific voices. O-Lan Jones’ arrangements work best when they move away from the familiar sound of the songs, as they do with “Waiting for the Sun” and a couple of others tunes.
The entire style here, especially represented by the jagged, free-flowing movements of Gina Angelique’s choreography, brings back the days of Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre, whose pacifist anarchism fits right in with this material.
But that group, which heavily influenced the musical “Hair,” which also comes to mind here, was all about creating an organic theatrical experience, making sure the audience was always in the here and now.
“Celebration of the Lizard” aspires to exactly this sensibility, but it lacks the most fundamental element: a connection with the audience. It would be harder to imagine a show that called for the actors to wade out into the audience more than this one. The only time they really face the audience members head on and sing “to” them rather than “at” them, is during the curtain call.
As it is, the show keeps a cool distance, and while some of the stagecraft is fluid — the pretty backdrops, the clever, simple ropes representing the ship — the images just don’t take us anywhere special. Trevor Norton’s lighting is especially unimaginative. The music, it turns out, is our only friend.