Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children offers trio of takes on our unhappy existence

Maybe better in two dimensions: (left to right) Corey de Danann, Jeff Redman, Madison Olimb, and Steven Bucko
Duane Atter

It's hard to go wrong telling stories about the obstacles the world gleefully places between us and simple, Tao-drenched happiness (the theme is one of a sturdy handful that are universal). Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children offers three short narratives combining frustration, miscommunication, and the undertow of dread that (from a certain perspective) stalks all things. It also does so, thankfully, with abundant humor.

All three stories derive from a roughly 20-year-old comic-book series of the same name. Unlike Off-Leash Area's 2005 production of Psst!, which mined the idiosyncratic visuals and motion of its graphic-novel source, here the emphasis is on storytelling (in other words, the tales are presented in stripped-down, small-theater mode, with little attempt to capture the word-image amalgam of the graphic page).

In Beneath This Useless Universe, Henrietta (Corey de Danann) sits listlessly staring into space, until the arrival of hooded Death (Madison Olimb) stirs her to declare that she's ready to punch her ticket to What Comes Next. The joke is on Henrietta, however; Death is bored, and needs company, and wants to show off card tricks and hang around the apartment for days on end.

It doesn't really work. Olimb, obscured behind a mask, does a bit of Grim Reaper gravitas in the early going, then abandons it once Death starts berating Henrietta's (switch on your irony meter here) lifeless existence—in the voice of a youthful, strident roommate. This may have been the intended effect, but the notion of the Angel of Darkness reviving a stale, dead spirit requires more gravity, less aggrieved pep talk.

I Am Paul's Dog follows, and owes a debt to, the 1950s Philip K. Dick story "Roog," in that both lampoon and celebrate the visceral perspective of a dog while semi-cruelly juxtaposing it against the inscrutable human world the dog inhabits. Here the canine is Buster (Jeff Redman), narrating his life in service to the clueless human Paul (Steven Bucko). Redman sells this stuff with a canine eagerness to please, describing the allure of trash cans, the tedium of the kibble dish, and the delight of being able to lick one's own crotch.

Ahem. Buster's story soon descends into boredom and ennui, particularly when Paul lands an undesirable (for Buster) girlfriend (played by Bucko). Redman throws himself into a couple of Buster's would-be transcendent acts of rebellion, neither of which amounts to anything, of course, because Buster is entirely unaware of the parameters of his universe (and of course he is not alone in this).

It's pleasantly entertaining, and it gnaws away at the futility and lack of comprehension that underlie our lower moments.

By the Light of the Screaming Moon, ending the evening, throws together, with deadpan inevitability, prom night and mass suicide (I won't reveal the connection here, but the whiskers and painted noses the actors sport aren't those of domesticated kitties).

Olimb finds a comfort zone as a teenager presented with a night of pleasure followed by mass death, along with go-with-the-flow date Bucko, and de Danann and Redman as thumbs-up parents who pretend everything's peachy even as they plan the next morning's mass exodus into, yes, What Comes Next.

So a theme emerges: gently spiky fantasies about unhappiness, and our hopes of breaking through (though death wishes infuse all three at various points). As a piece of theater, Beautiful Stories finds stretches of cohesion, though we're on unsettled, uncertain soil. Without the distraction, and enhancement, that undoubtedly accompanied these tales in their comic-book form, for too much of the time we wander into thickets of unformed melancholy verging on desperation. These fantasies take place at a distance from us, like half-remembered bad dreams, intermittently interesting but with their meaning slipping stubbornly from our grasp. 

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