“This theater is not about dicks — the text is what is important!”

So says Frederique Michel, artistic director of Santa Monica‘s City Garage, which she runs with her husband, scenic designer and dramaturge Charles Duncombe Jr., in an alley behind the Third Street Promenade’s food court. There are no dicks in evidence during this afternoon‘s rehearsal of a scene from the Kaufman-Hart chestnut Once in a Lifetime, although three of the run-through’s nine actresses are nearly completely naked. The topless women seem so blithely unaware of their nakedness that its shock effect soon wears off, as it no doubt will when the scene is later played for the L.A. Weekly‘s annual theater awards show.

“I love a woman who is not perfect,” Michel had confided in her mascara-thick Parisian accent before the rehearsal began. “Nudity is not always particularly pretty, but it is always a powerful statement.”

Michel and the Garage (the theater’s located in an old brick car barn once home to Model T‘s and Packards) have a reputation for presenting work that has been challenging but often, some might say, challenged. Where else in L.A. would you find plays by Heiner Muller, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Tadeusz Rozewicz — let alone with more female flesh than at the Hooters just a few doors down? On the other hand, the quality of the work has varied wildly from show to show, although there has been a discernible improvement over the last few years.

During the Once in a Lifetime rehearsal, Michel sits in the dark, her face an expressionless mask — only her hands move about as she instructs the ensemble on a difficult movement number involving a synchronized dance kick. For the first hour, a Pomeranian dog that is part of this production barks incessantly.

“If you are not kicking at the same time, you will look stupid!” she calls out.

Twenty years ago, Michel arrived in L.A., via London and Montreal, to break into movies. She’d been classically trained for the French stage and revered Marivaux and Shakespeare, as well as the theories of the late Polish critic Jan Kott. Michel, however, found L.A. to be “a meat market, the belly of the whore. This is a city that creates monsters.”

Michel was repelled by what she saw as a culture of hypocrisy about sex — a low level of pornography informing everything, she says, from the Weekly‘s “escort” ads to Times reviews that carry nudity advisories. “People in this town think nudity is dirty and always equate it with sex. You don’t learn to love a woman through pornography.”

She soon dropped her acting ambitions and, by the mid-1980s, founded the Aresis Ensemble in Santa Monica, performing first in a theater off Main Street and later in one on the pier. Today she is proud of the fact that City Garage is now the only company in town that doesn‘t cast from the outside, auditioning instead among its 35 members, whom Michel directs in acting workshops with her own steely panache.

“I hate acting teachers,” she says, “because they just want to create a safe place for their students and tell actors how great they are even if they are not, because they want their money.”

Yet Michel’s venue is no charity rental, and, in addition to box-office receipts and grants from Wells Fargo Bank, the California Arts Council and the L.A. Goethe- Institut, the company is kept afloat through a system of dues in which Michel‘s actors pay $60 per month.

“I’m a tough person to work with,” she acknowledges. “I tell my students I‘m not a baby sitter, I’m not your mother, a lover or psychiatrist.”

True enough, despite her petite figure and girlish sweaters, heels and anklets, Michel can be an intimidating presence. One actress fled her class before even enrolling, then returned days later, to heatedly inform Michel that she was not taking the workshop.

Michel takes it in stride. “I scare people so much,” she says. “‘Oh, you are working for that French bitch!’ is what people tell my actors when they hear they are in a play here.”

By the end of rehearsal for Once in a Lifetime, the actors have begun to kick more or less in unison, using the word inspiration from the script. Even the Pomeranian has calmed down and is no longer barking.

City Garage has come a long way in a few years, starting to pull off some difficult and often dense texts with remarkable skill. If it can maintain a consistent level of performance and direction, and overcome the prurient snickers about its insurgent nudity, City Garage stands to become a serious destination for audiences attracted to cerebral works.

“‘Inspiration’ is the cue,” Michel calls out to her actresses about the dance kick, her mouth finally buckling into a faint smile.

FREDERIQUE MICHEL, artistic director of City Garage. High points: The FetishistThe Night Before the Forest; Medeatext: Los AngelesDespoiled Shore; The Skriker.

LA Weekly