June 2—October 18, 2000
L. A. Weekly — Pick of the Week!
L.A. Times — Critic’s Pick!
Based on the Medea texts by Heiner Müller
adapted for City Garage by Charles A. Duncombe Jr.
Directed by: Frédérique Michel
Production Design by: Charles A. Duncombe, Jr.
Cast: Jeff Boyer, Jennifer Dion, David Frank, Ilana Gustafson, Liz Hight, Andrea Isco, Katarina Lejona, Cynthia Mance, Jody Moschetti, Stephen Pocock, Christian YoungMiller
L. A. Weekly — Pick of the Week!
MEDEATEXT: Los Angeles/Despoiled Shore
by Tom Provenzano
For a director or an audience to tackle a work by Heiner Müller is almost, by definition, a great adventure. The German dramatists plays consist of brief, fragmented scenes — in part linear storytelling but mostly surreal musings on characters and events. His plays are meant to be entirely reconfigured by adaptors, directors and actors to create unique stagings. In this difficult and rewarding production, Müller’s convoluted MedeaTexts are a great match for one of L.A.’s most determined advocates for European theater, director Frederique Michel. Her work here with adaptor Charles A. Duncombe Jr., based on Carl Weber’s translation of the original manuscript, delivers the mythical story of Medea and Jason into a contemporary Los Angeles filled with rampant greed and enshrouded with the cult of celebrity. The classic tale follows Medea’s murderous revenge upon her unfaithful husband Jason, for whom she had helped secure the legendary Golden Fleece. A number of actors play Medea simultaneously, creating characterizations ranging from a highly sexualized woman to an unfettered intellectual. Several Jasons likewise move in and out of the scenes, exposing horrible aspects of maleness. The mise en scene, all designed by Duncombe, is beautifully gruesome, beginning with the opening image of a naked. bloody Medea kneeling in sand. Duncombe’s transformation of the story to a grotesque vision of locally induced egoism is often a simple, elegant retelling. But the production becomes most exciting when the performers fracture the story (almost beyond recognition) into a series of events – from clownish pantomimes to poetry to live video documentary interviews.
LA Times — Critic’s Pick!
Challenging ‘MedeaText’ Plugs Into Modern Culture Theater
Review By F. KATHLEEN FOLEY
June 9th, 2000
Director Frédérique Michel and her longtime associate Charles A. Duncombe, Jr scale exhilarating heights in “MedeaText:Los Angeles/Despoiled Shore,” a radical retelling of the Medea legend based on Heiner Müller’s original play, as translated by Carl Weber. The production has its rough edges, including a couple of amateurish performances and the occasional slip into tonal excess — a not-uncommon City Garage failing. Despite these shortcomings, an atmosphere of rigorous professionalism prevails, from Michel’s stringent staging to Duncombe’s wonderfully evocative production design to Lee C. Smith’s inventive costumes, which feature such bizarre innovations as a see-through cellophane hoop skirt — a melding of Old World decorum and New Age license that is very much to the philosophical point.
Set in a bleak, postindustrial Los Angeles dreamscape, the play opens with Medea (at least, one of them — the role is played by three actresses) sitting in a sandbox, nude. Medea’s hands are red with the gore of her recent slaughter, yet she stares expressionlessly out at the audience, devoid of affect or emotion. White masks are evenly interspersed among the trash-strewn sandboxes that border the stage — a double-edged symbol of Los Angeles as terminus, both geographical and spiritual, where the land drops abruptly into the sea but the sewage of Hollywood mass culture seeps ever outward. The female anatomy is prominently on display throughout, although not in any exploitative sense. The play evolves into a piercing examination of male entitlement and female rage, with a particular emphasis on the constant objectification of the female form, from network television to Internet porn.
Challenging and abrasive stuff, this is far from a feminist diatribe. The dialectic is evenly balanced and surprisingly funny. In one amusing video segment, projected live on an screen, “scholars” face off in front of cameras to discuss Medea’s motivations, each passionately promoting his or her own skewed agenda. Various Jasons in Armani chat glibly on cell phones while a fetish-clad chorus cavorts hilariously. Medea’s alter egos, pale women in black leather jackets, sweep about like birds of prey. And all the while, Medea sits, staring. In Michel’s clockwork staging, the actors move with the eerie inexorability of automata, dehumanized and pitiless. But it is Duncombe’s adaptation of Müller’s meager text that is the true triumph of the evening. A theatrical exegesis that expounds brilliantly upon the original, Duncombe’s reworking plugs into the malaise of modern culture — that dreary, fleshly round — and sharply illuminates the spiritual emptiness that results when human beings are relentlessly reduced to objects.
Grave New Worlds
by Steven Leigh Morris
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 Müller — 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 Angeles/Despoiled 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 Müller’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 Ae’tes, 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, Müller’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 Müller’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 Angeles/ Despoiled Shore — generic images already too much in circulation to describe with much nuance our city and the pop/porno 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.