Adversity and a tight creative bond birth a truly unique performance

By Bliss Bowen

Mike Tempo (from left), Darrell Larson, Rob Sullivan and Paul Lacques share a brotherhood of words and music in “Crazy Underneath the Trees”
Photo by Victoria Jacobs

Hanging around the artists presenting “Crazy Underneath the Trees” at Beyond Baroque on Friday, it’s hard to keep a straight face. Written and performed by actor / poets Darrell Larson and Rob Sullivan, “Crazy” features live music improvised by I See Hawks in LA / Double Naught Spy Car guitarist Paul Lacques and “worldbeatnik” Bonedaddys percussionist Mike Tempo; they’re all friends who have collaborated on various projects over the past 30-some years, and joke frequently.

Their easy familiarity undergirds “Crazy” — and their humor counterbalances the gravity of the “collaborative poem,” which deals with breakdowns.

“We both broke down, Rob and I,” Larson recalls. “His was mental and mine was physical. I ended up in the hospital, and he ended up in the UCLA psych ward.”

While “trying to help each other out of the dark woods,” Larson says, he and Sullivan began writing about their experiences and reading drafts to each other. They eventually realized, “There’s
a piece here; there’s a conversation going on.” Hearing guitar lines behind their words, they called Lacques and Tempo, and began meeting “every couple months or so” to perform at bars, black-box theatres and an art gallery. What emerged was “Crazy Underneath the Trees.”

“We just have this text in our hands, and we read it, but everything else is whatever happens: blocking, any movement, or the music,” Larson says. “None of us wanted to rehearse. … It was about trying to help each other heal. The piece has this honesty, a spirit in it that’s unusual, and people respond to that.”

Larson, a veteran stage and film actor (“Mike’s Murder,” “Rachel’s Getting Married,” “Stepmom”), curated the popular “Act of the Poet” series at West Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont in the 1990s and remains a fixture in L.A.’s literary community.

Sullivan’s a poet and playwright who recently authored the scholarly book “Street Level: Los Angeles in the Twenty-First Century.”

The two previously collaborated on “The Night Song of Montgomery Clift,” and Larson directed Sullivan in some plays. With “Crazy,” they listen to Lacques and Tempo riff on their words and roll with it.

“There are no cues,” Larson says, laughing. “That’s the wonderful thing about it. We’re all too spaced out by now to remember anything anyway.”

You could say the roots of “Crazy” stretch back to the 1970s, when Larson was in a production of Sam Shepard and Patti Smith’s “Cowboy Mouth.” As he recalls it, Lacques was working in a then-popular local band called Sandy and the Rattlesnakes who began performing after the play. Later Larson did another play, “Mad Dog Blues,” for which he recruited Lacques and Tempo. These days, he says, “I look for opportunities to collaborate with them.”

Now they’re congregating with Sullivan at Lacques’ Highland Park studio to record “Crazy Underneath the Trees.” It’s a warm January afternoon and Sullivan is celebrating his birthday.

He is the quietest of the four, thoughtfully observing the studio setup and listening to exchanges about mic positioning, pop screens and sonic bleed.

Tempo steps outside for a smoke while Larson and Sullivan venture a trial run through some text before playfully harmonizing on the phrase “suicidal ideation.” Lacques recommends keeping their speaking tones conversational.

“I’m selling it too much,” Larson worries. “Too loud. Just murmur.”

“Read now, rehearse later,” Lacques advises.

The paradoxical nature of permanently preserving something that changes with each performance is lost on no one.

“None of us have discussed what we’re gonna do,” Tempo observes. “It’s just another way to explore the piece.”

“We definitely couldn’t and wouldn’t do it if we weren’t [longtime friends],” he adds. “This wouldn’t even be on the table. It’s about trusting each other as an ensemble after knowing each other for so long. We let somebody get out on a limb and we’ll either follow them or not; it’s that trust that’s so much a part of theatre. That’s one of the things that Paul and I like about working with these guys, is that ensemble thing.”

Asked how it compares to improvising with a band, Lacques says “Crazy” is becoming more musical.

“We’ve done this about 10 times, eight times now,” he estimates. “It started out that these guys would read and we would sort of make a soundtrack; now it’s much more interactive. It’s more like a band.”

“We can kind of see each other’s thought bubbles,” Tempo explains.

Larson offers suggestions about a musical prelude, then realizes Lacques isn’t following a script.

“Script?” Lacques quips. “I didn’t know what it was about until the last performance.”

Without missing a beat, Tempo wisecracks, “I knew it was about an hour.”

Lacques and Tempo repair to a separate recording room and start jamming, Lacques’ guitar figures spiraling
around Tempo’s rubbery grooves. Soon Larson and Sullivan begin layering their voices on top. The music’s rootsy and real, curious; a bit primal. Listening, it seems likely that Shepard and the Beat Poets would understand where they’re headed.

Paul Lacques, Darrell Larson, Rob Sullivan and Mike Tempo perform “Crazy Underneath the Trees” at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3, at Beyond Baroque, 681 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. $10. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit beyond-baroque.org for venue info.

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