Birds of Pray: CounterPulse’s Barn Owl

A multimedia, interdisciplinary theater piece combines New Age religion with bowling to yield a uniquely American experience.

Teddy Hulsker (L) as Mommy, Evan Johnson (R) as Uncle Al in BARN OWL. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

“Bowling alleys are utopias,” Evan Johnson says.

Many people might come to a different conclusion. The home of a formerly quintessential communal American pastime, bowling alleys have faded from their place of pride, no matter how satisfying it is to hear a ball smash through all 10 pins while you have a beer in your other hand. In spite of computerized scoring, interactive screens, and slightly better footwear, their Day-Glo Formica interiors are now the site of sad-emoji sociological treatises like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.

But Johnson, a playwright and performer, is speaking less about the neighborhood AMF than of his interdisciplinary piece Barn Owl. Engaged for a three-night run at CounterPulse (May 31-June 2), it uses the proverbial mechanical claw to grab the plush toy of life at the fictitious Galaxy Lanes in the aftermath of a well-known UFO-related disappearance.

Heaven’s Gate was Michael Cimino’s 1980 Western epic, a clunker of such magnitude that it triggered the collapse of United Artists. But it’s also the name of a millenarian religious group, arguably a crystal-clear case of a cult, whose 1997 mass suicide under the supposed guidance of charismatic leader Marshall Applewhite coincided with the arrival of Comet Hale-Bopp. (Applewhite believed the Earth was about to be wiped clean or recycled, and that a spacecraft tailing the comet was the only means of escape for his followers.) Johnson, whose prior work dealt with cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, is fascinated by Heaven’s Gate — but not simply for the ghoulishness or shock value.

“The group formed because of people who believed not just in extraterrestrials but that they themselves were linked to something extraordinary and out-of-this-world,” Johnson says. “They started meetups, generally about looking for UFOs and going away on a ship.”

Presented in partnership with Intersection for the Arts and Z Space’s Technical Development Residency Program, Barn Owl is an experimental riff on a family that’s been deeply affected by Heaven’s Gate. Loosely summarized, it’s the story of Alfie, a young person who grows up in Mt. Shasta, Calif., reared by his well-meaning but not entirely positive namesake Uncle Al after his mother (“Mommy”) leaves Earth on a UFO. Uncle Al wants to make a professional bowler out of Alfie, but to no avail, as the latter embarks upon a less literal but not less profound cosmic journey of his own, becoming Harmony and going on to open a New Age bookstore in Mt. Shasta with the aid of another character, the possibly extraterrestrial Dr. Peep.

Directed by Libby King, with choreography by Clove Galilee, stage designs by Bernadette Flynn, and lighting by Christian Mejia, Barn Owl is about looking back on the people who raised you and trying to come to some sort of understanding about how the hell that happened.

“I think it’s sort of like why the Heaven’s Gate thing is so out-there, because people go, ‘Why would anyone do that?’ ” Johnson says. “It’s the easiest thing to write off because it’s a UFO cult, and we’re trying not to answer the question of ‘Why did this happen?’ but ‘Why did that person need that?’ Why did Mommy need that?”

To convey the non-binary Harmony’s unusual life trajectory — and everything else — Johnson and video and sound designer Teddy Hulsker made use of multiple screens, both projections and standard televisions, most often to broadcast images but also simply as a standard light source.

“We have a roving flatscreen that’s 50 inches [across],” Hulsker says, “and a projector that fills the back wall of CounterPulse.”

In something of a Baudrillardian sense, they express the hazy feeling of memory — or maybe the fact that today, our memories are less reminiscences of events than recollections of photos or home movies of those events. Uncle Al has a dream of building Galaxy Lanes — which theater-goers might recognize as Pacifica’s Sea Bowl — and turning it into a roadside attraction so people pull over to stop. As characters who aren’t especially easy people to comprehend, Uncle Al and Alfie/Harmony test the boundaries of empathy, provoking a question of when understanding the other might turn out to be destructive.

Apart from some psychedelic space wallpaper with bowling-pin rocket ships, two other tropes recur throughout Barn Owl. The first is the titular bird of prey. Owing to the sounds they make and their nocturnal ways, barn owls are rather frightening beings. (Johnson calls them “mysterious, enigmatic, majestic creatures, terrifying and beautiful all at once.”)

They’re handy signifiers for a bridge between our world and the next, too: Seeing Barn Owl’s barn owl reminds one of Twin Peaks’ warning that “The owls are not what they seem.” Their faces also resemble theatrical masks or even the dead-eyed visage of the 1990s-era, gray-skinned alien, and it all came about after Johnson visited an exhibit in Santa Barbara on birds of prey called “Eyes in the Sky.”

The other is the use of 10 senior actors, some of whom may not have thespian credits to their name, and at least one of whom is in his 80s.

“We make a ceremonial dance, consecrating the space that also involves bowling,” Hulsker says. “It was created during our workshop at Z Space, but it’s still my favorite part of the whole show. Watching [the elders] dance is so refreshing. These people aren’t trained professionals.”

Adapting the choreographic cues to accommodate the capabilities of everyone’s bodies was fine, as was the costume design. When the cast went to Sea Bowl to shoot, Johnson worried that they stood out too much.

“They blended right in,” he says. “Our costume design was right on the money. There were, like, a ton of Als there.”

“Our general vibe is that we’re OK if this looks super-fake,” Hulsker adds. “We want it to look so fake that it looks awesome.”

Barn Owl, Thursday, May 31 through Saturday, June 2, 8 p.m., at CounterPulse, 80 Turk St. $20-$35; counterpulse.org.

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