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Political Toys in the Attic 

The Empire Builders takes City Garage up a step

Thursday, Apr 15 2004
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Photo by Paul M. Rubenstein

Santa Monica’s City Garage is the most politically charged theater in a city that traditionally believes that e-mail, not theater, is for messages. Sacred Fools and the Actors Gang in Hollywood tie for second. Though Sacred Fools is currently running Theresa Rebeck’s lame Clinton-era comedy, View of the Dome, a far braver choice was its pre-2000-election play, Ric Keller’s Dubya 2000 — a grotesque commedia parody of the Bush family that ended with a narrator begging the audience to vote and to keep George W. out of the White House. Dubya 2000 was largely dismissed by critics for being overt and rude, which of course was its driving purpose. It was also horrifyingly prophetic in its suggestion of catastrophes to come, arising from the Texas clan’s cloistered, Orwellian lunacy. The play ran for about a month and died. It was brilliant.

The following year, City Garage crashed the gates of propriety with a rage of similar intensity, staging Charles A. Duncombe’s original adaptation of a text by Heiner Müller, Frederick of Prussia: George W.’s Dream of Sleep. As the 18th-century Prussian ruler (having had inclinations to poetry knocked out of him by his sadistic father) disemboweled great swaths of Europe, our own president sat perched center stage, dozing through the history lesson. Shortly into the run, a trio of passenger airliners crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and City Garage found itself with a patriotism problem. The producers shuttered the production within a week or two. Occasionally, theater changes the world. Unfortunately, in this case, it was the other way around.

In the intervening years, defiant critiques of American culture and foreign policy have emanated from the City Garage stage. But this time, a changing world — or at least accruing evidence of falsehoods, duplicities and cloistered, Orwellian lunacy on the political stage — has contributed to rising public disillusionment and anger that well serve City Garage’s greater purpose. Sometimes, when people are sufficiently furious, they really crave more than mere entertainment in their downtime. With its sardonic, belligerent satire, City Garage has become the Air America Radio of local theater. Furthermore, this year the troupe reconfigured its ensemble, which, in its latest production (Boris Vian’s 1958 farce, The Empire Builders), now executes resident director Frederique Michel’s rigorous cabaret stylizations almost without a hitch or a wobble — lapses that cursed former CG productions with an earnest quality. (If your play is trying to connect industrial pollution, pornography and violent intervention in foreign countries, the quality you most want to avoid is earnestness.) Here, the actors portray elastic cartoons so perfectly calibrated, their slapstick wrenches the gut.

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A stairwell forms the centerpiece of Duncombe’s production design. A Father (Jake Eberle), Mother (Katharina Lejona), their daughter, Zenobia (Maia Brewton), and Maid (Maureen Byrnes) flee up that stairwell to a series of ever smaller apartments whenever they hear a horrifying noise that sounds like a heartbeat from some unknown source. Up and up they go, costumed in black and red, cheerfully celebrating their capacity for survival while blithely pummeling a bandaged scapegoat (Cristian YoungMiller), whom they label “danger” and who appears in each abode, perennially wounded and groaning in misery.

Zenobia is the one character who acknowledges the nightmare — at least, she expresses it in exasperated shrieks while clutching her temples when a Neighbor (Bo Roberts) meets her for the fourth time as though they’ve never met. Waiting for Godot, anyone? One by one, the family members fall away from Father who, like Eugene Ionesco’s Berenger in Rhinoceros, wrestles with capitulation. Vian and Ionesco both wrote about feelings evoked from childhood memories of the Nazis.

They both also expanded that terror into a broader philosophy on the nature of existence, where death at the end of a firing squad is not so different from death at the end of old age, where the pointlessness of death suggests the pointlessness of life, where meaning is an arbitrary construct. And though the French were colonizing Algeria at the time, Ionesco’s and Vian’s were peacetime reflections.

We, however, are at war. That Michel douses the action with speeches on Homeland Security (sound design by Paul M. Rubenstein) funnels the interpretation to Bush’s war of terror, whereby perpetual fear engulfs the nation so that we’re goaded to clamber up the stairs. Perhaps in an election year and with our democracy at stake, Michel’s narrower take is more urgent than just narrower. After all, it’s not oblivion that lies at the top of Duncombe’s stairwell, it’s a Diebold voting machine.

THE EMPIRE BUILDERS | By BORIS VIAN | CITY GARAGE, 1340 Fourth St. (alley), Santa Monica | Through May 23 (310) 319-9939


America’s Children

Who’s the bigger baby?

Is it Ruth Seymour? KCRW’s (89.9 FM) station manager recently sacked wry commentator Sandra Tsing Loh and, in 1997, Joe Frank. Last Friday in a double-bill at Evidence Room, the pair presented their fictionalized accounts of those events. Are we really to believe, as they imply, that someone with Seymour’s honey-toned pledge-drive voice could behave impetuously? No, not possible.

Is it Loh? Her sin was letting “fuck” slip into one of her prerecorded episodes for KCRW during the post–Super Bowl Tit/FCC-inspired decency tornado, which snagged up Loh and tossed her around with Janet Jackson, Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge. “I’m not a media whore,” Loh explained. “I’m a media hooker.” Nice distinction. Still, how many disgruntled employees get to rail against their ex-boss on the op-ed page of the L.A. Times, and then spin it into a new performance?

Could it be Joe Frank? After an 11-year stint on KCRW, Seymour “retired” him for reasons, illuminated by Frank onstage, that have nothing to do with bad language. If he were a grownup, would he still be harping on a seven-year-old pink slip? Well, maybe.

Perhaps it’s the crowd lining the sidewalk to get into Evidence Room, as though KCRW’s intrigues, and all they signify, really matter. Don’t we all have anything better to do? Of course not. That’s why we’re here.

Smart and funny in their respective works in progress (directed by David Schweizer), Loh and Frank used contrary approaches to grapple with their fury, and with the continental divide between what’s “appropriate” and what’s funny. With self-effacing introspection, Loh reached outward — from Lenny Bruce to Muslim women being shot for “indecency” — to fathom the significance of her job termination.

Frank turned inward with a droll and obsessive short story about a former impulsive and despotic employer at a radio station where he once worked. The sight of a paraplegic guiding his wheelchair via a tube connected to his mouth should make one count one’s blessings, Frank intoned. But rage against that Westside radio boss keeps crashing into his grace, and propelling his story.

Loh and Frank appeared almost heroic in their shared curtain call, as though they had just stood up to the tyranny of apartheid rather than the tyranny of Seymour. In moments like that, we’re all America’s children.

—S.L.M.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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