The show takes a surreally skewed look at the chaotically eventful titular year, centering on several fictionalized portraits of actual people whose lives loomed large on America's cultural landscape. Mary Jo Kopechne (Meredith M. Sweeney) was the young woman who died in Teddy Kennedy's car crash at Chappaquidick. Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins (Brendan Farrell) orbited the moon, arousing fear and fascination in his 8-year-old son Junior (Rod Keller). Anita Bryant (Annie McCain Engman) was the homophobic spokesperson for Florida orange juice who used her Christian beliefs as a club to belabor Americans about the ears.
Madalyn Murray O'Hair (Rebecca Avery) is presented as Bryant's ideological adversary, a militant, strident, and outspoken atheist. O'Hair's son Billy Murray (Pat Scott) is played as a shell-shocked Vietnam vet, though he would later become an adviser to George W. Bush. Other real-life figures include Bobby and Teddy Kennedy (Ken Peterson and Kyle Overstreet). Presiding over all is the sinister Tree (Brett Fleisher), a shape-shifting, peripatetic plant who becomes at various times the Florida Sunshine Orange Tree, the Tree of Knowledge, and a diabolical deus ex machina.
Director Tony Gatto has mounted a busy, visually fascinating production, with spectacular help from the designers: David Mauer's handsome, flexible set, Michael Mullen's sometimes fantastic costumes, Joel Daavid's vibrant lighting, Adam Fleming's video, Joseph "Sloe" Slawinski's rich sound design, and Sugano's fanciful hair and makeup.
Many of the actors play three or four roles in varying styles, ranging from the broadly stereotypic to the realistic. Sweeney, as Kopechne, remains sweetly vulnerable despite her mind-bogglingly improbable adventures, which include a trip to the moon in a Soviet space capsule piloted by 8-year-old Junior. Keller deftly avoids most of the pitfalls awaiting adult actors playing children and makes Junior an appealing if not entirely credible figure. Bryant and O'Hair are essentially one-note characters, but Avery and Engman inhabit them with conviction. As Billy Murray, Scott can't compensate for the part's sketchy writing and passivity, but he maintains an engaging presence.
The most vivid performance comes from Fleisher as the wickedly insinuating Tree, wearing his bizarre costume with panache and exuding undefined menace. The versatile ensemble also includes Chloe Peterson and David Pavao in multiple roles.
Presented by GatChu Productions, with the help of Rogue Machine Theatre, at Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. March 23–April 29. Fri. and Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. www.1969theplay.com.