Notes on Bulgakov/Molière at City Garage

The anticipation is mostly justified in City Garage’s sumptuous Bulgakov/Molière.  This is a monster production in a small venue, in need of some trimming, but expertly performed and playing – in all senses of the term – to the company’s strengths.

It is a daunting story for the uninitiated.  The difficulty is of a different stripe than many of the company’s shows. There isn’t as much abstraction and it is not a dance- your-dissertation exercise in Po Mo Lit crit. There is, however, a lot of material, its associated context, and a large cast. More than passing familiarity with Russian history and literature is required. An equal exposure to the conventions of commedia, Tartuffe, and The Imaginary Invalid will help.

We start with Mikhail Bulgakov in limbo in 1930 USSR.  He’s not (yet) in a labor camp but his plays are either savaged or silenced.  He writes a letter through his mistress’s husband to the theatre-loving Comrade Stalin, requests exile, and consigns his manuscript of The Master and Margarita to the fire.  He’s visited, Dickens-like, in his drunken  sleep by the characters he’s burned and they transport him to America where they enact his forbidden Cabal of Hypocrites.  That’s only the first of the nesting dolls.  Duncombe has Cabal hop through the Louis XIV into the smartphone eras and back again as he examines all manners of Faustian bargains and whether an artist can accomplish anything without being subverted by the forces around him. The intrigues are depressingly fresh with parallels to St. Joan and The Life of Galileo.  Patronage, public or private, comes at a price.  It makes little sense to speak of politics and religion separately.  Men of the theatre are philandering jerks in any century and in any country. Neither the political left nor the right are spared in the process. In a sweet tip to the topical, we’re reminded that even when administrations change, little changes for the arts either in the paltry amount of funding or the immense and mutually conflicting expectations against that funding.

The cast, many new to the Garage, is mostly topnotch under Frédérique Michel’s direction.  Nathan Dana Aldrich is terrific as the Satanic Woland and a sleazy Baptist Reverend.  He moves easily between funny and frightening, no moreso when he offers false absolution to Mme. Bejart (a fine Kat Johnston) Molière’s long-suffering, dying consort.  Renee Ulloa-McDonald lights it up in multiple roles including a Hollywood agent and the Reverend’s lieutenant.  George Villas delivers as Moliere and Alex Pike gives Louis XIV unsuspected depth when required in addition to all the flightiness.  David Frank is a bit of a cipher as the titular Bulgakov, spending much of the evening in his smoking jacket watching Cabal unfold.

By plan or by accident, City Garage’s actors are typically above the 99 seat average in voice quality.  Combine that with a compact, acoustically live space and the vocal pyrotechnics can be dazzling.  Andy Fitzgerald owns the stage as Louis’s Chief of Staff.  This is the guy we all know from work – he might have had a core of good within him but then he got his MBA and planned his rise.  There’s no metric he won’t track, no deal he won’t cut, no fact he won’t spin.  Fitzgerald plays it just without overplaying it.   With his Vanilla Ice haircut and red suit, he is more than a generic Woland minion.  The evening might even have belonged to him if it were not for the resonant R.J. Jones, especially in a dynamite turn as a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher – part James Brown, part Little Richard.  It gets dangerously close to stereotype here but he’s got much more to do than this and he does it all very well.

There’s yet another Valentine to the Theatre subplot, suprising because City Garage is not known for sentimentality.  Early on, the authoritarian Moliere gets patronage American style.  He has to go to funding meetings, gets unwanted help from arts administrators, and is told à la Coriolanus to ask the plebs their opinion.  He has to deal with his actors who are incited to demand pay, respect, and a voice in the company.  The opening night audience, well aware of the Garage’s charismatic leadership and the small theatre world in general, got every little bit of it.  But it is here that Duncombe’s Mahlerian ambitions work against him.  There’s too much of it.  No matter how tight the ensemble or how wonderful the playing, when the subsidiary theme comes around for the umpteenth time, those with watches glance at them, the moreso when the magnetic characters are sidelined for long stretches.  The expected two hour and fifteen minutes run time stretched to nearly three to a rather conventional ending.  The Lucullan feast could stand to lose a few items from the groaning board.

The stage, staging, lights, and sound surpass expectation and Josephine Poinsot’s costumes are especially fine.  There were the usual opening night hiccups including what appeared to be an actor playing on through injury right around the time Molière gives his “the show must go on” speech.  Despite its length, this is still a show worth seeing and a worthy addition to Duncombe’s repertoire.

As an aside: It’s unfortunate that Bergamot Station’s galleries close between 5pm and 6pm when City Garage’s curtains are usually at 8pm. I understand that there is a vast gulf between those that buy art and those that attend small theatres. It would nevertheless be pleasant to look at some of the installations before a performance.

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

Box office: 310-453-9939
or via
Brown Paper Tickets

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