What did the 1960s mean to the American population? Free love, the Kennedys, the Bay of Pigs, NASA, atheism, homosexuality, Vietnam, and much, much more.1969: A Fantastic Odyssey through the American Mindscape does justice to its subtitle by exploring the mentality of the people who made the 1960s what they were: a tumultuous time of unprecedented social upheaval for each class and race.
At the very least, the writing is brilliant. Incorporating contemporary television advertisements, news events and biblical verses, the play absurdly pins opposites in direct confrontation. A tortured Vietnam veteran makes love to a free-love hippie in front of the Tree of Knowledge, which tempts the couple with crab apples. An obvious allusion to Adam and Eve, this vignette characterizes the chaotic decade, combining playwright Damon Chua’s innovative style with historically accurate data. As a result, Chua recreates the 1960s without succumbing to the inevitable Leave It to Beaver stereotypes, which are rampant in many other productions and books.
Since the playwright includes many subtle references, the director superbly blends reality with the supernatural, the present with the past and the atheistic with the religious. In the center of the stage, stands a twelve foot TV screen. On it, projections of news announcements and TV commercials interject the stage’s action. Occasionally, the projections stop, and the television comes to life with the appearance of the perfect nuclear family. To show how the television affects reality, this perfect family leaves the television and comes to the stage. The direction is dynamic and lively, and the audience can never guess where the next scene will take place.
Versatile and creative, the ensemble aptly conquers the multi-directionality of Gatto’s vision, as well as the writing’s multifarious meanings and allusions. Creating a visible group cohesion, the troop works well together, underlining each others’ strengths and downplaying the weaknesses. Notable mentions include Ken Peterson for his uproarious portrayal of the German Scientist and Annie McCain Engman for her superb singing voice and her bold sexuality. All in all, there is not enough praise to be said about this truly talented collective.
Chua’s 1969 presents the question, “What would people in 1969 think about homosexuality, space exploration, religion, and everything else?” Instead of answering the question with preachy monologues, the play’s characters embark on a journey of self-discovery that can be related to the present-day. Although 1969 experiments with theatrical form, the play escapes that stigma through extraordinary writing, pioneering direction and inspired acting.
Playing at Theatre/Theater, 1969: A Fantastic Odyssey through the American Mindscape will be on stage through April 29. Tickets cost $25, and the theater is located at 5041 West Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles.
Natalia Evdokimova has been involved with theater throughout her life and has reviewed theatrical productions for local and citywide publications since 2005.