By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
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By L.A. Weekly critics
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At 7 p.m., Anthony Sandoval leads warm-up exercises with the ensemble of 12 Joe’s Garage actors — four of them from Open Fist’s resident company. Sandoval is an invited guest instructor and student of Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, with whom Sandoval studied at the University of Delaware and, later, in Japan. Sandoval is taking the company through Suzuki movement exercises for balance and breathing, which appear like a blend of martial arts and U.S. Army drills. They are, by design, tortuous tests of mental discipline and physical stamina.
The company forms two lines of six. They’re dressed in leotards and sweats; some wear kneepads. Each actor crosses toward the opposite line of actors, walking pigeon-toed, stepping on a beat that Sandoval claps out with his hands. Among the goals is to sink into each step, to complete the gesture, regardless of its contortion, and to do it on time. This is a warm-up for the brutal choreography that’s to come.
Now they’re in a circle. Keeping their torsos erect, they’re to dip with their knees and then return up on eight counts that are clapped out, then 10 counts — dipping slowly is more stressful. Now they execute a clean jump, a quick turn and an exclamation of “ha!” — which releases the accrued stress.
After a 10-minute break, director Patrick Towne and choreographer Jennifer Lettelleir take over. Towne’s co-writer/producer, Michael Franco, crosses the front of the stage, speaking into a flashing Bluetooth cell phone in his ear.
Jason Paige portrays musician Joe, and the cast is rehearsing a scene from his suburban garage, where the solipsistic bliss of his music is interrupted by a police squad responding to an excessive-noise complaint. Herbert Russell, a gifted, roly-poly comedian, leads the squad, which strides in, with mimed weapons drawn. But this isn’t an episode of Law & Order — it’s closer to the Keystone Cops.
As they drag Joe away, Towne is concerned that the police exit is too realistic and too sloppy.
“Stride, stride,” he barks at the cops while pacing in the risers. “Stride till the thighs hurt.”
Now they’re working on the song “Catholic Girls,” featuring Joe’s girlfriend, Mary, played by wide-eyed Becky Wahlstrom with heartbreaking naiveté.
David Castellani, as Mary’s priest, Father Riley, repeats with exaggerated nasality the one-line refrain “Catholic girls” — between which the chorus of singer-dancers toss in one-line commentaries: “Catholic girls/With a tiny little mustache/Do you know how they go? In the rectory basement/Father Riley’s a fairy/But it don’t bother Mary.”
Choreographer Lettelleir is working on jazzy moves for the chorus, trying to capture the blend of perkiness and perversion at the heart of Joe’s Garage. They work through the moves with house accompanist Scott Nagatani, and then with both the piano and CD playing simultaneously.
Joe croons, “When they learn how to blow” — answered by Father Riley, “They’re learning to blow/All the Catholic boys!”
Lettelleir jumps in to choreograph stylized fellatio — considerably larger than life — to a chorus line of young women on their knees, mouths gaping open like hungry carp. They bear animated expressions of disgust and alarm, bobbing necks accompanied by fake gagging and spitting that Lettelleir is working to coordinate. Wahlstrom, also on her knees with her back to the audience, sways her head to and fro. One of her wrists flings away some imagined goo, right on the song’s beat, then the other wrist. A few measures later, all will repeat. It’s clear that the musical’s point of view is carried largely by the choreography, which depicts porn’s generic eroticism as part of a numbing machine.
Towne says he’s lost a couple of actors due to religious conflicts with the play. “‘Why are there so many blowjobs, so much sexuality?’ they asked. So we had a meeting, I tried to explain the satire. ‘I don’t think Frank is celebrating this stuff,’ I told the cast, ‘there are some people who will walk in here and will think solely that it’s obscene. You’ve got to be ready for that and take responsibility for it.’”
Lettelleir keeps sharpening the choreography, until Wahlstrom complains, “This is a 10-hour BJ!”
“The Suzuki work is really paying off,” says Towne without a trace of irony. He’s right. The fellatio has moved beyond titillation through parody into an ugly and allegorical grinder, shredding whatever it means to be human.
For almost 30 years, the rights to a stage production of Joe’s Garage were tied up by the Zappa Family Trust. Along the way, however, in 1995, Towne cast Moon Unit Zappa (one of Zappa and second wife Gail’s four children) as Bianca Jagger in a local production of a play called Waiting for Studio 54. Gail Zappa oversees the trust and therefore controls the rights to Joe’s Garage. Towne, who’d come to L.A. from Chicago after working there with the sketch-comedy company Annoyance Theatre, says he had a long-standing desire to direct a production of the musical. Finally, after Gail attended the show to see her daughter perform, Towne and his producing partner, Franco, drafted a formal proposal for a pitch meeting with Gail. Franco says the deal was eventually sealed with a handshake and that Gail was relieved they weren’t “pushing papers in her face” like so many applicants who had come before.
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