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Grave New Worlds 

When misogynists and robots take over

Wednesday, Jul 5 2000
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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.

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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.

Czech playwright Karel Capek was a household name in the ‘20s, a social satirist most remembered for reconstructing the Czech noun robit -- meaning drudgery or servitude -- into the household term “robot.” To his own dismay, his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) became his legacy. Capek felt that it was far from his best effort, and dramaturgically he‘s right. But who’s quibbling about craft when it‘s 1920, and you’ve just witnessed an exotic variation on Frankenstein, a hybrid of Strindberg‘s symbolism and Jules Verne’s whimsy -- a play about androids taking over the human race. And although R.U.R.‘s internal logic is often as ludicrous as its characters are wooden, it crackles with bolts of wit and prophecy (about the perils of corporate downsizing, for starters) that more than justify Jerome Guardino’s shaky revival for Lonny Chapman‘s Group Repertory Theater.

On an exotic island, Domin (Arlen Boggs) -- as in Dominus, as in God -- manages a robot factory with the idea of eliminating drudgery for humans, while simultaneously driving down the cost of labor, thus driving down prices, thus allowing for a leisure -- and, in this case, slave -- economy. The hard-working robots are devoid of emotion, but occasionally have fits of aggression, perhaps born of futility -- a kink in the works traceable to tinkering by one of the scientists, who threw a few too many human ingredients into the vats of synthetic intestines and brains.

The play begins as Domin and crew are visited by the company president’s daughter, Helena (Casey Ging), a guileless beauty who is repelled by the scientists‘ inhumane attitudes toward the inhumans, and seeks to stir a robots’ rebellion -- even though she‘s too artless to stir up a bowl of soup. This renders Helena’s attempts to organize the workers, at least in this production, something of a lampoon -- strange in the context of a play by a card-carrying socialist that ends with a cloyingly sentimental ode to the beauty of the world, and to humanity, as against the encroachment of the machine age, war and greed. (Perhaps the parody is more of Helena‘s naivete rather than it is of her fledgling Marxism, but here it’s awfully hard to distinguish between the two.)

The play finally settles on a point about the hazards of the military-industrial complex, with robots profitably marketed as soldiers. Needless to say, by Act 3 the robots have banded together abroad and returned home to wage a class war, fully armed and with chips on their plated shoulders -- not quite computer chips, but close enough for discomfort.

Capek once noted that his play was about humans, not robots -- a point that fails to come across here. The lead performers are, alas, too robotic to illustrate much distinction between them and their machine counterparts. (The problem may be compounded by eerie, entrancing portrayals by the actors playing the androids, particularly by John Crimarco as rebel leader Marius.) Bonnie Scott‘s set has a retro charm: pentagonal set pieces and a matching dual-color scheme that feels straight out of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland circa 1955 -- an effect that, like the production itself, blurs the line between the campy and the earnest.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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