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Theatre Review (LA): ‘Gallery Secrets’ at the Museum of Natural History

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NHMLAAt the landmark Natural History Museum in Exposition Park, Chalk Rep’s Gallery Secrets presents a quartet of short plays in four different exhibit spaces. To commemorate the museum’s 100th anniversary, the plays run the gamut from 1913 to the present day, and each one incorporates the gallery it occupies into its story.

The entire piece runs 90 minutes without intermission, so each segment is brief. Audience members are divided into four groups and escorted to the spaces by various characters – docents from various time periods, giggling girls on the night of their senior prom, and perhaps a ghost or two. It’s quite imaginatively done.

In the 1913 Rotunda is A Vast Hoard, written by Tom Jacobson. The play features real-life characters Frank Daggett (Joseph Gilbert), the museum’s original director, and wealthy benefactor Harris Newmark (Rod Menzies), whom Daggett tries to talk out of taking back portraits of himself and his wife on the night before the grand opening. Authentic characters are also featured in Ruth McKee’s Skins and Bones, set in the 1929 African Mammal Hall, in which a couple of young paleontologists (Katherine Sigismund and Joel J. Gelman) fall in love despite museum regulations against employee fraternization.

1978’s Gem and Mineral Hall is the stage for Zaklyyah Alexander’s Under the Glass, about a middle-aged couple (Brian Johnson and Blaire Chandler) who must face the husband’s imminent demise. Finally, Boni B. Alvarez’s Prom Season is performed in the present-day Dinosaur Hall, where a security guard (Angel Star Phoenix) attempts to talk a young high school senior (Marie Ponce) out of going to bed with her much-older boyfriend (Justin Huen), possibly getting pregnant and ruining her future, as she did.

Out of necessity, there are no sets and props are minimal, but who needs elaborate staging with a dynamic background like this? A couple of the pieces were a bit difficult to understand, being performed in high-domed galleries designed for quiet observation, not talk. And, as previously mentioned, they’re all so brief that none outstays its welcome. Certainly the most successful is Under the Glass. It has the most well-developed storyline, solid performances, and even a song.

A running theme is the notion that spirits inhabit the place, an evocative and engaging idea. And one has to admire the timing and coordination it took to keep everything running smoothly. Halel Parker’s costumes, so important for evoking the various time periods, are fine, and the directors (Andrew Borba, Jennifer Chang, Janet Hayatshahi, Jeff Wienckowski) have done a good job with the actors.

Overall, it’s a captivating evening of site-specific theater at one of the most intriguing sites in town. Gallery Secrets at the Natural History Museum, 900 Exposition Boulevard, Los Angeles, runs weekends until October 13. Reservations can be made online or by calling (213) 763-3499.

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About Kurt Gardner

Writer, critic and marketing expert whose passion for odd culture knows no bounds.