January 27, 2018 at 12:50 pm PST | by John Paul King
Playwright’s brilliance shines through rough “Bloodbound”

Mike Bash and Hunter Lee Hughes in “Bloodbound” (Photo by Soinja Brenna)

“Bloodbound,” now onstage at the Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, is the world premiere of a new Michael Kearns play, and as such it should be an exciting prospect for anyone who has followed the career of this Los Angeles legend.

Kearns has made his reputation – as an actor, an activist, and a behind-the-scenes force in theatre – by pushing boundaries, both public and private.  That has meant nudity (there’s none here, for the record) and sexual content, of course, but it’s always been his desire to delve into uncomfortable subject matter that has raised his work above the level of mere titillation; he has made the effort to address the kind of issues that scare most people off – most ferociously the subject of AIDS at a time when it was only discussed in whispers, if at all, within mainstream culture – in the hope of breaking down barriers, taboos, and stigma. He has always delighted in going where no one else has yet dared, or at least going one step further, and as a result his material has always been edgy and provocative.

In 2018, however, audiences are a bit harder to shock.  Even in the dangerously regressive social atmosphere that has manifested itself since the election of our current president emboldened the voices of prurience and bigotry, there are very few taboo discussions left to have.

Though that may not be the reason, Kearns has chosen to turn his spotlight inward with “Bloodbound,” and it works to his advantage.

Delving deep into his own life – both past and present – Kearns has constructed a free-form narrative in which he pokes and prods the demons that lurk within his memory and have, presumably, been poking and prodding at him all along.  The play is a thinly-veiled autobiographical piece in which an actor-turned-playwright (getting older, openly gay, veteran of everything from soap operas to guest-shots on “The Fall Guy” to porn) has decided to lay bare the deepest secret of his past.  Before doing so, however, he must first secure permission from the man who shares that secret – his straight big brother, currently serving a long term in prison for the violent barroom murder of a former childhood friend.  The brother, of course, has secrets of his own; through re-enactments of past scenes from their lives, both together and apart, the two men slowly unravel the complex web of influence that has been woven around them by a shared transgression from many decades before.

Before getting to the big reveal, Kearns divulges a host of other secrets, too.  “Bloodbound” is more of a confession than an autobiography, a litany of sins acknowledged and released (if not quite repented) by an author deconstructing his own life for public observation.  It’s this quality of candid self-exposure that brings power to the play, far more than the nature of its content.  Illicit drugs, rampant sexual misconduct, externalized and internalized homophobia, unthinkable acts of violence – we’ve heard it all so many times that we scarcely raise an eyebrow upon hearing it again; but Kearns explores these things within a narrative that is essentially a heartfelt unbosoming, so that we hear them in a different way.  He makes us into confidants, not spectators, and makes the experience into something that feels almost sacred instead of merely sensationalistic.

Structurally, Kearns’ piece is almost post-modern in its approach, a collage evoking theatrical styles that range from the gothic introspection of Tennessee Williams to the absurdist surrealism of Samuel Beckett to the bleak neo-naturalism of Sam Shepard.  Framed by a conceit in which the playwright character (his name is Vincent) conjures scenes from past and present, it follows no linear storyline, but rather moves back and forth through time in a pattern that ultimately leads to the climactic revelation which ties the brothers’ individual life stories inexorably together.  Shot through with melancholy, but peppered with dark, self-referential humor, it aims to entertain even as it makes us uneasy before releasing us – along with its characters – with its final act of confession.

It’s also a play that revels in language.  Kearns is a true wordsmith, and – although he excels in creating conversational dialog – his plays truly come to life when he allows them to sail away on flights of linguistic adventure.

Mike Bash, Hunter Lee Hughes, Greg Ainsworth in “Bloodbound” (Photo by Soinja Brenna)

All this seems like the basis for a thrilling evening of theatre; and it should be, in fact deserves to be.

Unfortunately, in its debut incarnation at Highways, one can only catch glimmers of its magic.  The performance feels like a workshop production – more than a staged reading, perhaps, but nowhere near a fully-realized presentation.  There is no set, to speak of, only a few pieces of furniture and a black curtain which occasionally opens or closes; the lighting is similarly utilitarian, mostly the room’s own fluorescents and a couple of strategically-placed professional instruments.

Of course, bare-bones production values are hardly a barrier to a great performance; magnificent theatre can be made in an empty room by the light of a single candle, provided the director and cast have done their work.

Here, however, the actors seem under-rehearsed; it’s as if they are still in the process of discovering their characters and wrapping their minds (and their tongues) around Kearns’ florid language.  They have not yet managed to make these words their own, and as a result they have a hard time taking us along through the highs and lows of the play.  Indeed, this sometimes creates difficulty in following the through-line of the story, and as a result there are some important moments which end up being more confusing than revelatory.

This is not to say there isn’t some fine work on display.

Gordon Thomson (best known from his days as Adam Carrington on “Dynasty”), who plays Vincent’s brother Anthony, has an ease of bearing and a commanding voice that are a perfect match for this kind of material.  Mike Bash and Hunter Lee Hughes, who play the younger versions of the brothers, have a tender chemistry that makes the close relationship between these two men tangible and believable.

Greg Ainsworth is less successful as Vincent.  As the show’s narrator and central figure, the character serves not only as a stand-in for the play’s author, but as a master of ceremonies, and Ainsworth fails to achieve the larger-than-life quality necessary to give “Bloodbound” the shape that its free-form structure requires.   Much of this seems due to a struggle with the words (perhaps a function of opening weekend jitters), but it also has to do with a performance style geared more for on-camera subtlety than theatrical flourish.  That underplaying serves him well, however, when he steps into the show’s more intimate scenes, allowing him to convey Vincent’s inner journey with a quiet, humble grace.

Despite their obvious talent, though, the show’s quartet of actors seem to be in over their heads.  It is, of course, the director’s job to help the cast chart its way; to guide the pace, orchestrate the rises and falls of the action, and to isolate and emphasize the key moments so that they are delivered with the full weight they deserve.  Mark Bringelson, a longtime collaborator with Kearns and a professional with an impressive resume both behind and ahead of him, has surely attempted to accomplish some of these all-important tasks, but the results fall short – suggesting that scheduling obstacles may have contributed to the not-quite-finished flavor of the proceedings.

Whatever the reason, the result is that this should-have-been-electric premiere performance is, instead, far from perfect; even so, as a new contribution from an important LGBT luminary, it is worthy of attention.

What comes through at Highways, despite the rudimentary staging and the unpolished performances, is the unmistakable voice of a playwright who has something important to say.  Kearns has never been one to keep things hidden – after all, he was the first actor to admit on television that he had contracted HIV – and, in many ways, this new work feels like the culmination of a lifetime of divulgence.  The difference here, perhaps, is that instead of opening himself up for the sake of social activism, he seems to be doing it out of a need to make sense of his own life.

As a result, “Bloodbound” feels like his most honest play to date, a work that is all the more intimate for being so public.

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