By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
City Garage is situated in an alley adjoining Santa Monica‘s Third Street Promenade -- that mecca of consumerism around which the other legit stages in the immediate area devote themselves to sketch comedy and other comparatively feel-good entertainments. But where such troupes as Second City, at the Mayfair Theater, swiftly folded, City Garage, in its little cabin behind Fourth Street, has for the last decade been slogging away at cryptic, newish European writing. This is a theater that, over the past three seasons alone, has devotedly put on plays by Ginka Steinwachs, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Michel Tournier and now Heiner Muller -- heady, abstract works by playwrights from France, Poland and Germany whose writings, if not for City Garage, would remain unknown to most Angelenos, plays that nobody else in the region has had the savvy, or the gall, to touch.
I suspect that one of the reasons City Garage has endured over the years -- despite chorus lines that clump rather than snap, mangled dialogue and a general sense that the company is floundering in material that’s stylistically beyond its reach and training -- is that so many of the actors have paraded onstage in the buff, or in fetishist attire, in ways only dubiously justified by the material. It‘s a shrewd strategy: When the novelty of all that flesh wears off, you can tune in to Fassbinder -- and vice versa.
Pinch me if I’m dreaming, but if its current production of MedeaText: Los AngelesDespoiled Shore is any indication, City Garage appears, at last, to be growing up. Never before has this company looked so much like an ensemble, moved with such synchrony and poise. Never have director Frederique Michel‘s stage pictures seemed so rarefied, so cleansed of the kind of redundancy and excess that’s characterized many of her productions in the past. Never before has the nudity made such sense or been executed with such acute sensitivity to gesture and body language. This intoxicating production may not be perfect, but it‘s certainly the best work by this theater to date.
Charles A. Duncombe Jr. has adapted Muller’s rather dense Medea texts -- the sum of which is only a few pages -- into a full-length play set in and around Los Angeles. The result, powerfully enhanced by Michel‘s staging, is a kind of semijocular SoCal dystopia, a garbage-strewn beachscape collage in which masked demons spout poetry, movie execs snort coke, and the faces of various academics, commenting on the action from the wings, are beamed live via an upstage video screen. This chorus of sorts deconstructs the deconstruction, wrapping themselves in ontological knots -- in the middle of which sits bloodied, naked Medea (Andrea Isco, one of three actors who share the title role), whose beautiful, tormented visage embodies this production’s soul.
In Euripides‘ legend about betrayal and revenge, Medea is a young woman so devoted to her husband, Jason, she helps him steal the coveted golden fleece from her father, King Aeetes, then sacrifices her own brother, sending him in the lethal path of Jason’s pursuers, in order to protect her husband. For her trouble, many years later, Jason dumps his aging wife for a princess (Jody Moschetti). Medea responds by murdering her own children by Jason -- an understandable, if excessive, gesture.
The story has received countless cinema, opera and stage adaptations over the years. In his late-‘60s play The Golden Fleece, A.R. Gurney Jr. used the legend to serve up a fairly linear commentary on contemporary American marriage. Here, however, Muller’s primary interest is neither family nor storytelling; he chooses instead to shatter the story, as though throwing a vase against a wall. In the shards one can find glimmers of insight, images whose very disarrangement speaks to the fragmentation of society. Duncombe Jr., in his adaptation, expands upon Muller‘s concerns, filtering the myth through a prism of mid-’80s feminism. When Medea gets dumped for a nubile younger woman, the adapter connects this to the lure of pornography and its disembodied images. In an amusing monument to male selfishness and egocentrism, Cristian YoungMiller, one of three briefcase-toting Jasons, explains how really, truly difficult it is for a fellow down at the studio. (“I‘m sorry, this is about me.”) Near play’s end, a chorus of women preen as they mock lurid phone-sex come-ons, exemplifying through words the pictures of disassociated body parts that pass for sexuality in our disassociated culture.
The drawback is that these are exactly the images one would expect from a play subtitled Los AngelesDespoiled Shore -- generic images already too much in circulation to describe with much nuance our city and the popporno culture of greed it has come to represent. The work is so bereft of references to L.A.‘s subterranean and minority cultures, you’d think it had been created by artists from Munich, London or Seattle, rather than by people who‘ve been digging artistic trenches in our own back yard for more than a decade. There’s a reason L.A. sets fire to itself every 30 years or so, and it seems odd to exclude that from a locally situated play about rage.