Category Archives: Santa Monica

Comedy of Terrors: “Exit the King” at City Garage

Natasha St. Clair Johnson and Troy Dunn in “Exit the King” at City Garage
Photo courtesy of Paul Rubenstein

If the death of one man is a tragedy and a million a statistic, where does Everyman‘s death fall?  So asks Ionesco as his infinitely mutable Bérenger rages against mortality in “Exit the King,” just opened at City Garage.  This was one of the plays that introduced me to small theatre,  that distinct art form with which I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship ever since.   I didn’t know what to make of Ionesco when I first encountered him.  It was late 1993 and the Independent Theatre Company (ITC)  had staged “Exit” at their tiny House of Candles Theatre on Stanton Street in the lower East Side of New York City.    I had heard of the absurdists,  knew they were “important,” and that this play along with “Rhinoceros” were considered essential by those who knew about such things.     I don’t remember anything specific about the production apart from walking out with more questions than answers and yet willing to try the playwright again.

Chief Garagistes Frédérique Michel and Charles Duncombe have crafted their own translaptation  of the now well-known story – a petulant, arrogant, self-absorbed bigamist struldbrugg of a King Bérenger the First (Troy Dunn) is fading after four hundred years and doesn’t want to go, gently or otherwise, into that good night.   He pouts, sulks, screams, and tantrums  through the five stages of grief as his two wives and small retinue, emblems of his body and the body politic, try to ease what’s left of his mind.  Only the second wife, the keening Queen Marie (Lindsay Plake) shares his belief in the unfairness and tragedy of it all.   The rest try to prepare him for the inevitable, each according to his or her means.

Michel preserves the one act structure and plays up the comedic elements for most of it while not overplaying the house style.  Other than the Doctor’s (Anthony Sannazzaro) Pythonesque silly walk, the movement work is kept in check in favor of  the  text.  There is not much extraneous business and Duncombe’s set supports the action unobtrusively.  (The Actors Gang staged “Exit” 20 years ago, turning a tragicomic romp into a two act slog.  That, my second encounter  with the work, did not survive the merciful intermission.)   We begin to suspect that the King really isn’t and that we’re seeing the end of Everyman Bérenger, majestic in mind only, with other characters representing parts of his failing kingdom-cum-body.   The Doctor and Guard  (David E. Frank) quietly back off the stage leaving him defenseless. Much put-upon Maid Juliette (Kat Johnston in a fine, understated turn) leaves and the myriad autonomous functions of the body, life, and living leave with her.

To the question is this a one character or a six character play, the answer of course, is two.  It’s a bit of a setup but the comedy is a sweet headfake to the denouement between Bérenger and his first wife, the imperious, practical, and sensible Queen Marguerite.  The final scene between the resonant Dunn and cool, elegant, swan-necked Natasha St. Clair Johnson is the slow, terrifying, inevitable waltz that’s on all of our dance cards.  When that end comes, we know, life goes on without us.  Johnson has been appearing frequently in recent productions but is exceptionally well-matched to this role and this moment, the only truly regal presence.    The stage, unencumbered by videos or effects,  smoothly darkens as he ascends his throne for the last time with a single spot closing over his alternately tortured, frightened, desperate, pleading face.   This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.  It is one of those theatrical moments that can leave audiences holding their collective breath before a well-deserved exhale and wild applause.  Or it could have had it not been for the goober taking cellphone photos at intervals throughout the evening doing so at this juncture.  The flash came on in the dying light and to top it off, he began clapping before the fadeout to which the production had been building for the preceding 99 minutes.

Despite Bérenger’s resemblance to 45 (or vice-versa), “Exit” is not the overt political call-to-arms that is “Rhinoceros”  and certainly not the out-and-out political comedy that is “La Leçon/The Lesson” which Liz Pocock knocked into orbit in 2004 at the company’s old Promenade location.  Even if it were that call, the world is voting the other way these days and by and large, the world doesn’t go to see plays.   “Exit”‘s scope is smaller in respects, grander in others but this strong production is certainly worth a visit to Bergamot Station between now and 14 July.

Exit the King
by Eugène Ionesco, translated and adapted by Frédérique Michel and Charles Duncombe
Directed by Frédérique Michel

Running through 14 July 2019 at City Garage
Building T1, Bergamot Station
2525 Michigan Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90404

Fridays, Saturdays 8:00pm;
Sundays, 4pm

Admission: $25; Students w/ID & Seniors (65+): $20; Sundays “Pay-What-You-Can” (at the door only)
Box Office: 310-453-9939
Online ticketing through Brown Paper Tickets

And here’s King Louis the First with Steely Queen Keely with their take on the final curtain.

Youtube Channel: Mew Suay

 

Expectation Values: ‘St. Joan’ at The Broad Stage

Taken by itself,  Bedlam’s production of Shaw’s ‘St. Joan’ was well-performed and well-received.  Four performers gave it their all and the audience acknowledged them enthusiastically at the end of the three hour evening.  Unfortunately it suffers when compared to director Eric Tucker’s 2005 effort in the SFV.   Fallible memory is part of the problem.  It is too easy to add details to an enjoyable evening – details that creep into memory even though they may not have occurred.  At more pressing issue is the misfit between the production’s ambitions and the venue.  The Broad Stage seats 499 in relative comfort, a far cry from the tiny warehouse off of Vineland with bleacher seating moved in-show by the cast.  The conventional proscenium stage dilutes the impact of the performances with every passing row.  Those of us who selected the “on stage” option were seated in the back of the hall for the first and third acts and brought on stage only for the second.   The website stated that the audience would be onstage for one or two acts, not being clear which production (‘Hamlet’ runs in rep) would have which.

The 2005 production had Tucker, David Neher, and Eloise Ayala performing the twenty-plus non-Joan roles to better effect than the three performers who divided the tasks here, playing from the aisles and seats as the show progressed – common festival approach that feels oddly out-of-place indoors.  It is hard to see subtle character shifts from a long distance and the uneven accent work didn’t help matters.    The second act allowed those onstage to see and hear up close the back-room dealings and intrigue that make so much of this play.  There is something about the maid, though. Aundria Brown is a compelling Joan, elevating the production whenever she’s on.  We get Shaw didactic, Shaw political, Shaw polemical, Shaw militant, and Shaw comical in spades.  The payoff is when imprisoned, tortured, and bullied Joan recants her confession in a marvelous third act speech preferring death to  dungeon life away from her land, her animals, and her soldiers.  For this seldom seen Shaw pastoral (‘Village Wooing’ being a notable exception), we are again in the back of beyond with the impact correspondingly blunted.  It would have made more sense to have the audience on stage for this than the courtly intrigue although it would have required a major rethinking of the staging and stagecraft. This production does include the final dream sequence where the characters reassemble and wrap things up in a sweet epilogue.

It would have been nice to see the Bighead/Bedlam minimalist aesthetic continue in Los Angeles but no one can blame Tucker for heading back east.  Grapes may grow best in stony soil but arts organizations need more arable land.  This  ‘St. Joan’ ultimately has to compete against its younger, poorer, fearless, and reckless self.   It’s fighting a fond memory and there are few tougher opponents.

Hamlet and St. Joan
Bedlam Theatre Co.
in repertory at The Broad Stage
5 April to 15 April 2018
1310 11th Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Tickets: Box Office: 310 434 3200 and online at The Broad’s website

Nice Work if You Can Get It: ‘Lear’ at City Garage

Playwright Young Jean Lee has a Guggenheim, two Obies, a couple of Duke Foundation awards, a basketful of government and private grants, multiple commissions, a screenplay, a Berkeley degree, and her own theatre company whose mission is to produce the work of Young Jean Lee.

God help us.

http://www.citygarage.org for details of her take on King Lear

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLcGawEtnRQ&spfreload=10

Grinding gears – “Hamletmachine: The Arab Spring” at City Garage

http://www.citygarage.org/uploads/images/News-Images/Hamletmachine-Flyer_web.jpg

Image courtesy City Garage

“If you feel dissatisfaction
Strum your frustrations away
Some people may prefer action
But, gimme a folk song any old day”
— Tom Lehrer “Folksong Army”

Heiner Müller adapted Hamlet to his purposes in 1977 when the Germanies were split and Moscow ruled with no end in sight. ‘Hamletmachine’ has since become a darling of the late-night set and the adaptation further reschnootered according to the needs and means of its producers.  Magda Romanska flipped the point of view in ‘Opheliamachine’ presented by City Garage in 2013 and now the Garagistes take a second try at the original.  It is a tough slog even for the interested, receptive participant.

It is unclear whether the playwright gave explicit permission for his six page text to be freely interpreted and amended but that’s what happens to it.   The tyrannical regime is now in a generic middle east, the people revolt, and the fallout is unpredictable.  What this has to do with two Hamlets, Gertrude in a wedding dress, Marx in a wheelchair, and  Ophelia in a bomb vest is anyone’s guess.  Video projections cover rioters, dead children, and modern mullahs preaching holy war.  Bits and pieces of Shakespeare peek out in a turbulent, loud, and ultimately opaque river of words.   A bizarre fashion show emceed by a latter-day Marie Antoinette stands out as a caution against the consequences of unchecked inequality. Read it as a fundamental difference between West and East, proof of their equivalence, or anything else that catches fancy. For those who believe no explanation is necessary, for those who don’t none is possible.

It is no fault of City Garage that the Paris attacks  coincided with the day of the opening.  The preshow chatter was the normal silliness, easily silenced with headphones.  Duncombe’s short curtain speech suggested that the events raised important questions in context of the play and invited dialogue after the performance.  Normally it is best to leave opening night parties to  friends and family to chatter with the cast.  The gravity of the day’s events led to unmet hopes for a little more substance.  The company proudly quotes Brecht’s maxim that Art is a hammer with which to shape reality. While it may be true, the  Shakespeare machines are weak evidence.  The contrast between action and contemplation is much more stark in Shaw who wrote “Nothing is ever done in this world until men are prepared to kill one another if it is not done.”  While this can be easily rationalized as strategy versus tactics, it is a better representation of history and a grisly predictor of our future.

‘Hamletmachine’ is the first salvo in City Garage’s Post-Modern Shakespeare Series. It runs until 20 December 2015 followed by Young Jean Lee’s ‘Lear’ and Duncombe’s ‘Othello/Desdemona’ in February and April of 2016.

Hamletmachine: The Arab Spring
by Heiner Müller, adapted by Charles Duncombe
Directed by Frédérique Michel

Fridays, Saturdays 8:00pm; Sundays, 3pm through 20 December 2015
Admission: $25; Students w/ID & Seniors (65+): $20; Sundays “Pay-What-You-Can” (at the door only)
No performances Friday 11/20 and Friday 11/27.

City Garage
Bergamot Station Arts Center
Building T1
2525 Michigan Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Purchase online at Brown Paper Tickets
Box Office: 310-453-9939

Orgon Therapy – Tartuffe by Molière: A Reality Show at City Garage

Chelsea Militano and George Villas in ‘Tartuffe…’:  Image courtesy Paul Rubenstein and City Garage

“Tartuffe” has become a secular passion play for LA audiences.  It’s staged frequently, in a variety of styles, and it’s message always underlined as particularly timely and pertinent to the day.  Frédérique Michel and Charles Duncombe’s translaptation is a light, fun romp and a surprisingly  faithful representation of the story.  This is not CG’s “Patriot Act: The Reality Show” from 2004.  That systematic destruction of a naive, patriotic schlub by the surveillance state and its media enablers was eerily on point and prescient.  This is Molière as maskless commedia of Beverly Hills riche on a spiffy modernist set.  Then as now, Bo Roberts plays the dupe.  M. Orgon’s  home, daughter, and trophy wife are slowly suborned by a homeless holy man.  We watch the con much like a television audience might with the occasional video projection providing backstory.   The similarity to modern reality shows is an exercise for the viewer.  I don’t watch tv, I don’t even own one.

The bulk of Michel’s cast goes full throttle, each inhabiting his or her own world-within-a-world.  Saucy maid Dorine (a gender-bent J. Carlos Flores) takes on her bosses in Spanglish, daughter Mariane and her beau (Megan Kim, John Hayden) carry on in Valspeak, noble young Damis (Johnny Langan) is hell-bent on saving his family while harboring feelings for his stepmother.  Roberts’s Orgon fumes and blusters, Trace Taylor shines as Mme. Pernelle, and David Frank’ restrained Cléante is the only sane one of the bunch.  At times  supporting players come off as talking past one another.   The two characters typically allowed depth are Orgon’s wife (Chelsea Militano) and the titular Tartuffe (George Villas) and so it is here.  Willowy, elegant Militano, who would be at home on a volleyball court, plays Elmire as absolutely comfortable with who and what she is.  She likes the sweet life, regards it as her due, and has no qualms marrying into it.  Waugh had it right.  Manners are especially the need of the plain.  The pretty can get away with anything. Villas executes the piety and sleaze nicely and the famous seduction scene with Orgon in the arras flies.

Politics is deferred to the last ten minutes. It’s no secret that this play ends with all being restored for the noblesse thanks to the all-seeing eye that looks favorably on the rich and punishes the aspirant.   It is all right to marry for money but running the ruling class’s con game against itself will not be tolerated.  There might even be the merest flash of sympathy for Tartuffe-as-Uriah-Heep, feigning humility as the only way to take his revenge on a hopelessly stratified society.  So, we have a fine production of a classic play but the lingering question is why and why now? The countless stagings of Tartuffe and other satires have made as much a dent in hypocrisy and gullibility as have e-petitions for social justice.  The establishment knows that no lasting movements will result from either and simply keeps on keeping on.   CG loves Molière and has been alternating highly abstract works with accessible ones.  It is likely that this is a little fun and frolic to limber up for an ambitious season of  reinvestigations of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies.  Müller’s Hamletmachine is next followed by Young Jean Lee’s Lear  and Duncombe’s take on Othello.


“Tartuffe by Molière: A Reality Show”
September 11 – November 1, 2015

Directed by Frédérique Michel
Produced by Charles A. Duncombe

City Garage: Bergamot Station Arts Center
Building T1
2525 Michigan Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Fridays, Saturdays 8:00pm; Sundays 5:00pm;
Box Office: 310-453-9939
Admission: $25; Students w/ID & Seniors (65+): $20; Sundays “Pay-What-You-Can” (at the door only)
Online tickets at Brown Paper Tickets

Timepiece: City Garage gets its stopwatch

Jeffrey Gardner and Renee Ulloa-McDonald in Timepiece at City Garage
Photo: Paul Rubenstein, courtesy City Garage

Charles Duncombe tries his hand at memento mori in the recently-opened Timepiece at City Garage. An attractive young woman looking forward to her future and all the usual accessories gets handed a left-turn at Albuquerque in the form of a clock that she can’t let go. This is a biological clock no doubt and since it’s handed to her by a top-hatted gent in whiteface (Jeffrey Gardner) we know that the endpoint is not little ones but The Final Curtain.

What follows is a brisk dialogue covering several of the stages of loss tweaking scientific reductionism, religion, and conventional morality as required. Whether afflicted nice girl Betty (Renee Ulloa-McDonald) is talking to five different characters or five different aspects of herself is an exercise for the viewer. Either reading applies but it wouldn’t be City Garage unless it were a hybrid. It’s a strong piece for the quartet of actresses – McDonald, Nili Rain Segal, Megan Kim, and Katrina Nelson under Frederique Michel’s direction. Nelson especially stands out as a once-optimistic woman turned jittery and bitter after a slide down the razor-blade of life. Other aspects of the script and production don’t fare as well confusing volume for substance. Humorous props, slapstick, and sight-gags maintain a mostly light touch over the heavy subject matter. One wonders further if there’s any autobiographical impulse behind this story.

Timepiece is a good introduction to the Garage’s m.o. for the curious. It walks the middle ground between Opheliamachine and When the Rain Stops Falling while preserving the design elements, movement, and sociopolitical focus for which Michel and Duncombe are known. And unlike the past couple of shows, this one landed bang-on the expected 90 minute running time on opening night.

“Timepiece”
January 23 – March 1, 2015
Fridays, Saturdays 8:00pm; Sundays 5:00pm
Admission: $25; Students w/ID & Seniors (65+): $20; Sundays “Pay-What-You-Can” (at the door only)
City Garage at Bergamot Station Arts Center
2525 Michigan Ave. Building T1
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Tickets online at Brown Paper Tickets

Roly-poly Fishheads at City Garage

Image Courtesy City Garage

City Garage has taken an unusual step with ‘When the Rain Stops Falling,’ Andrew Bovell‘s time-hopping tragedy-cum-mystery playing at Bergamot Station until 23 November 2014.

London – late 1950s. Henry and Beth Law are expecting their first child. It is unreasonably rainy even for that city and there are hints that Henry has a problem. He eventually abandons his family, leaving his son Gabriel to wonder about his father in due course of time. In Australia, the Yorks of the Coorong lose a young son to the ocean and the parents never recover from the loss. Bovell progressively links these two seemingly unrelated families over three generations and eighty years. It’s an often engrossing mystery kicked off by the adult Gabriel pulling enough from his tight-lipped and frail mother to realize that any answers he may find will come from another continent.

It’s not a simple progression. The play starts in 2039 with an unpromising monologue but slowly improves – each scene shifting back or forward several decades as young Laws and Yorks anticipate and their older versions recapitulate. Bovell adds clues and throws fakes skillfully, ratcheting the tension and unease requiring the audience to assemble a timeline and genealogy from vignettes. He doesn’t tip his hand until he wants everything to coalesce. The audience will be pleased with itself for ‘getting it’ and ‘it’ is genuinely horrifying.

This work is a odd choice for the boundary-pushing City Garage. The language is structured, intentionally repetitive, and occasionally poetic but not heightened at the level of ‘Caged,’ ‘Bald Soprano,’ or ‘Opheliamachine.’ There is a nice puzzle to be solved but there isn’t much abstraction or ambiguity. There isn’t a political message apart from a nod to overfished oceans, the collapse of American hegemony, and climate upheaval. This is the kind of well-made wonder-bread sandwich normally associated with PRT or the CTG.

Perhaps Bovell’s ambitions struck a chord. There is symbolism aplenty – fish, fish-heads, and fish soup figure prominently across all timeframes. There is a heavy rain that destroys without cleansing. Exiled characters at war with their families wander in foreign lands with sands as red as blood. They try in vain to purify themselves, madness is everywhere. The women are prescient to the point of prophesy and yet no one can escape fate. Bovell’s aiming well past the kitchen sink and at the Greeks. Audiences will assuredly be split on whether he succeeds. The cast is up to the script with Courtney Clonch and Ann Bronston standing out as the young and old Beth Law and Scarlett Bermingham as Gabrielle York. A high point of the evening is Clonch’s methodical, brutal cross-examination of husband Henry (George Villas) leading to the departure that ultimately sends Gabriel on his own disastrous quest.

There’s also a nagging question of why ‘Rain’ is a play, at all. It is a fine literary work and would be terrific on the radio. City Garage is also known for movement and stagecraft, most of which seems superfluous here. Anthony Sanazzaro’s video projections of rain, ocean, and sky are nice (does the Southern sky really look like that?) but Charles Duncombe’s sound design is sufficient to frame the events. Director Frederique Michel has her actors move themselves, furniture, and eat pretend fish soup wordlessly for stretches to no clear purpose. Ostensibly a 90-minute one-act, opening night stretched to two-and-a-quarter hours with a chunk of the overrun due to the moving blackouts. The recent Bulgakov/Moliere had similar timing problems. City Garage has certainly earned the right to do a straight-up play with a beginning, middle, and end (although not necessarily in that order). It is unclear what, if anything can be legally trimmed from the script but perhaps the Garage could use a new stopwatch.

City Garage
Bergamot Station Arts Center
Building T1
2525 Michigan Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90404

Purchase tickets online at Brown Paper Tickets or call the Box Office at 310-453-9939 to reserve seats.

Fridays, Saturdays 8:00pm
Sundays 5:00pm
Admission: $25
Students w/ID & Seniors (65+): $20
Sundays “Pay-What-You-Can”
(at the door only)

 

Anticipation – Bulgakov/Molière at City Garage

Santa Monica’s City Garage has mounted overtly political, unabashedly Eurocentric work for over fifteen years. They have a strong commitment to ensemble, a flair for the physical, and a unique visual style. It is hard to describe a City Garage production but you know it when you see it. Spare yet layered, every light and shadow in its place, and always, always a trace of red.

Bulgakov has been “in” among LA’s artzsche-fartzsche types for the past several years. Michael Franco’s 2000 adaptation of the sprawling Master and Margarita was a highlight of the late lamented Zoo District Theatre. The Garage’s last production was yet-another take on this story. Charles Duncombe, responsible for the company’s hallmark production design, also creates

Photo: Paul Rubenstein via citygarage.org

work and on Friday we have the opening of his adaptation of Bulgakov/Molière or The Cabal of Hypocrites at Bergamot Station. According to the synopsis, M&M is woven throughout this exploration of politics, mass-culture, and subversion. My first experience with City Garage was an over-the-top Duncombe and it wasn’t a good one. It took a few years before I darkened their door again. But his subsequent work such as Patriot Act and Caged snuck up on me and have stuck in my mind. He does nuance very effectively. I’m curious to see whether he takes – or if he even can take – that tack with such in-yer-face themes and established, vivid characters.