March 19—April 25, 2004
LA Weekly — Pick of the Week!
Production Design by Charles A. Duncombe
Cast: Maia Brewton, Maureen Byrnes, Jake Eberle, Katharina Lejona, Bo Roberts, Cristian YoungMiller
LA WEEKLY — Pick of the Week!
Political Toys in the Attic: The Empire Builders takes City Garage up a step
by Steven Leigh Morris
April 15, 2004
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.
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.
March 31, 2004
Reviewed By Laura Weinert
It is irresistible and possibly worthwhile to take a politically inspired allegory about the ever-present fear of a mysterious, invisible enemy and weld connections to current issues: the purportedly ubiquitous terrorist threat, the dangerous state of panic and helplessness that results. Boris Vian’s 1959 play tells the story of a middle-class family pursued by an inexplicable noise that forces the family members to flee upward through their own home to progressively smaller quarters, leaving behind all the comforts they once enjoyed while maintaining a semblance of calm and denial. Their only release seems to come when they beat on a mysterious, dark-skinned, bandaged man who appears in the corner everywhere they go.
The program notes inform us that they play was based on Vian’s childhood experience of the Nazi occupation, and that it was also written at a time when French colonialism in African and Asian territories was coming to an end, a time when France was experiencing an increased influx of “dark-skinned immigrants.” Vian died before this play would be produced, debated, scrutinized for relevance and meaning. It seems important, however, to note that Vian’s friend and translator, Simon Watson-Taylor, has related this anecdote: When a friend of Vian suggested this play was a satire on French colonial policy, Vian replied, “Ha! A splendid idea! But I hope you’ll agree that doesn’t prevent an absolutely mythical myth from assuming any number of other meanings.”
Frederique Michel’s direction seems determined to contextualize the play as a kind of potential indictment of current American policy, with program notes that discuss the administration’s aggression, arrogance, and implicit use of fear to prevent scrutiny. We hear recorded voiceover speeches on “homeland security” between scenes. Yet not only do these elements encourage a more limited interpretation of the play than Vian might be comfortable with, they also seem to intrude upon what is most compelling about the production: the tight, terrifying, absurdist, French world that Michel and her cast so skillfully create.
Michel’s staging is often dance-like, each character possessing an odd assortment of physical ticks. A few moments of physical theatre are a pure delight to watch, particularly between Jake Eberle, as our desperately “prudent” father, and his sophisticated, aquiline wife, played by Katharina Lejona. Maia Brewton is well cast as their defiant daughter Zenobia, the only one in the play who admits and addresses the madness their lives have become. Maureen Byrnes is their quirky, amusingly repetitive maid Mug.
Charles A. Duncombe’s functional, mobile set evokes the oppressive, shrinking world of this play. And of course the production could not work without Paul M. Rubenstein’s carefully crafted sound design that creates a noise so haunting and horrific, yet so eerily unidentifiable.
LA WEEKLY – Pick of the Week!
March 25, 2004
by Steven Leigh Morris
French scribe Boris Vian’s brutal postwar comedy instantly brings Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros to mind – the same style of absurdist, domestic farce later used by Christopher Durang, but here saturated in political allegory. Perpetually fleeing the roar of an enigmatic heartbeat, a couple and their daughter keep finding refuge upstairs in a series of ever-smaller apartments attached to the same stairwell. Like Ionesco’s villagers, they try to make the best of the growing menace, while blithely pulverizing a bandaged scapegoat figure (‘danger’) who’s present in each abode. Vian was alluding to the Nazi threat; 50 years later, his politics of terror have an entirely new resonance. Under Frederique Michel’s direction, the ensemble crackles with delirious wit so that the underlying horror is felt in the marrow.