Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles; Tartuffe by Moliere: A Reality Show; A Flea in Her Ear; and The Object Lesson
by Myron Meisel
In Luis Alfaro’s new adaptation, Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela), an undocumented fugitive and a topnotch seamstress obsessively doing piecework while never leaving her home, explains that the basis for the quality of a well-crafted dress depends upon the fabric “… and the stitching.”
The same might be said of three updatings of standard texts that opened this past week, all of which have often been sorely vulnerable to bad productions and — fortuitously — all of which work satisfyingly well. I say this with sincere relief; having seen at rough count some five renditions of Medea and a like number of Tartuffes over the past five years, my sated senses required some unaccustomed jolts.
Alfaro’s classic fabric is sourced from Euripides, and his innovative stitching transports the Greek tragedy into contemporary Boyle Heights, just as the original playwright had created a dramatic elaboration of a more ancient myth. Alfaro has not only created perhaps the most accessible adaptation of the notoriously abhorrent shocker, he has certainly conjured up the funniest. This represents true populist theater intended to appeal an audience far broader than the art crowd, and while the situations and characterizations deftly traffic in familiar archetypes, they nevertheless still morph inexorably to the maltreated woman’s inescapably furious and climactic revenge.
The Getty Villa’s annual foray into a full production in an amphitheater redolent of antiquity is this time intended to feel utterly contemporary. And Alfaro’s deployment of savvy insider-Los Angeles references score well with the crowd, though some of the touches are subtle: Michocanas are perhaps the most scattered of the Mexican diaspora, unconcentrated in singular neighborhoods, which only emphasizes Medea’s utter isolation from the life outside, as well as providing her protection from deeply dreaded notice.
Her opportunistic husband Hason is played by Justin Huen, who like all the other principals in the cast, is a well-versed veteran of past Alfaro Hellenic reconfigurations like Electricidad and Oedipo El Rey. Rapaciously eager to assimulate, Hasan expresses his masculinity not least by his facility to so compartmentalize his feelings that he can sincerely profess his devotion to Medea even as he and their doted-upon son thoroughly betray her in every imaginable way.
Indeed, in the omnipresent desperation for money, most of the drama until the denouement feels far more like a modern counterpart of Clifford Odets than Euripides, and Huen’s evocation of an otherly ethnic John Garfield only reinforces that impression. Alfaro also invokes the horror of border crossing in pointed contrast to the heroics of Jason and the Argonauts, incisively eliciting awareness of the tragedy (and more crucially ignored, the traumas) of all displaced persons, however variable their motives or their adaption to life in a new and often puzzling society.
Most of the burden of emotional persuasion falls, as it inevitably must, upon Zuniga Varela’s Medea, implausibly too gorgeous for the role of a propertied papa’s favorite relegated by her sex to economic and connubial servitude. It’s tricky to conceive the Greek sorceress as an ultra-traditional doormat and still credibly render her transformation into the Fury for all wrongs wrought upon women. Zuniga Varela cannot avail herself of the gravitas of the Medea tradition of Judith Anderson, Irene Papas or Zoe Caldwell, yet invests the role with enough innate integrity in the face of injustice that when overwhelmed by the enormity of her Fate, she navigates the transition with a more delicate hand, debased into horrid transcendence apparently more internal than brazen.
Nevertheless, the shambling, sheer populism of Alfaro’s approach mutes the cathartic power, although his folkloric delineation of honor gives the bulk of the action more weight even as his pleasing lightness seduces both characters and audience with a fleeting illusion that possibilities for these undocumented strivers might indeed prove limitless.
And when it comes to quality stitching, this Theatre @ Boston Court production comes blessed with the lapidary talents, so suitable to a site like the Getty Villa, of director Jessica Kubzansky and an indelible supporting cast of contrasting females — from the indigenous power of Medea’s lifelong maid (played by a commanding Vivis Colombetti) to the ingenuous ambition of an empathetic street vendor (Zilah Mendoza) to the ruthless avarice of manipulative entrepreneur Armida (Marlene Forte). Lighting and sound often present challenges to finesse in this space, but Ben Zamora and Raquel Barreto consistently achieve supple effects. Using the Getty’s available museum façade, Kubzansky even concocts a Mexican correlative for Euripedes’s rarely staged spectacle of Medea’s escape in a dragon chariot courtesy of grandfather Helios.
City Garage’s creative duo of Frédérique Michel and Charles A. Duncombe are long-established dab hands with Molière, so abundantly so that despite their reliable pedigree, I feared that Tartuffe by Moliere: A Reality Show would perhaps be too much yet again of the same thing. Yes, but no. Their joint adaptation and translation, employing an approachable vernacular, she directing and he producing and designing, balances with sophistication the deeply embedded rhythmic requirements of the foundational text and of an authentic staging with the need to highlight clearly the playwright’s unfortunately uncanny relevance to our own hypocritical times.
Referencing a more recent past that still expresses a sense of period remove (allowing fabulous ‘50s design gestures, including marvelous goofs on Parisian couture by costumer Josephine Poinsot), Michel and Duncombe imbue the familiar plot and characters with fresh repartee and a soupcon of mid- 20th century dash. It’s less a deconstruction (and even less “a reality show,” other than a few out-of-sync video bumpers) than an attempt to realize the essences of the material in all its eccentricities and individuality of style by means of a reimagining of the language, not unlike how jazz improvisation can meander far from the melody while never losing the basic sense of the tune.
While Molière remains ever insightful, the extended plot developments demand some indulgent patience, largely remedied by the unrelievedly breakneck delivery of the dialogue, which retains just enough traces of stilted (yet rushed) rhetoric to feel faithful to the aged cadences of the original. Michel’s penchant for a playing style that doesn’t gibe with more conventional norms of depicting psychological behavior can in some ways position her as the anti-Antaeus, though there certainly should be room in a diverse theater scene for such divergent thespian approaches.
At this point for me, Bo Roberts’s face has become so inextricably identifiable as a trademark Orgon that it was expected even before he took the stage. And speaking of entrances, Tartuffe (George Villas) takes as long to appear as Harry Lime (50 minutes in), as everyone talks incessantly of him before we get to meet the man himself. Villas, so novel in City Garage’s Neil LaBute show, The Break of Noon, earlier this season, makes a virtue of his natural astringency, deflating the pomposity from his nefarious invoker of moral rectitude, playing the hypocrisy as the engine of the long con he is grifting. For all the subterfuge and deceit, Tartuffe is as much the rational man as the passively ineffectual intellectual brother-in-law Cléante (briskly underplayed by David Frank).
New to the troupe, Chelsea Militano proves a wily surprise as an Elmire who starts out a bikinied bimbo, only to prove the sole character capable of decisive action and control. And no classic comedy would be complete without some over-the-top zaniness, here provided with violent flamboyance by J. Carlos Flores in drag as the all-knowing housekeeper Dorina, a Lupe Vélez caricature that provides a manic version of the subversive stereotypes long ago limned so covertly by Stepin Fetchit (and what an impressive counterweight to the Stage Manager-like omniscient humanity Vivis Colombetti brings to what is essentially the same role in Mojada).
I couldn’t say this was an indispensible Tartuffe, anymore than the Medea, but both do represent excellent entry points for an audience to encounter the works on which they are based, as does the production that follows.
And so on to Georges Feydeau, a ubiquitous influence as the prime shaper of boulevard farce to the percussive opening and closing of doors, less often seen in actual performance stateside. Though his sense of carpentered construction may have owed a debt to such predecessors as Eugène Marin Labiche (The Italian Straw Hat), Feydeau took delight in prolix plot mechanics to intricately frenzied heights with a keener wit reminiscent of golden age French comedy, if without the piercing acuity of Molière or Corneille. Action here replaces psychology, which is not a bad strategy in live theater either for knowing yowls or titters of rueful recognition.
A Noise Within’s latest repertory season leads off with Feydeau’s best-known work, A Flea in Her Ear, the first of David Ives’s (Venus in Fur) series of “translaptations” of French comedies, which have included School of Lies from Molière and The Heir Apparent from Jean-François Regnard (staged earlier this year in Long Beach). Here Ives’s clever reimagining necessarily must track the original blueprints conscientiously, while freely toying with the character types and making the verbal jokes work for our modern ears. However jaded those may be, nothing this side of Noises Off quite matches the relentless freneticism of Feydeau farce unchained.
To invoke the title of one of David Ives’s own great successes, it’s All in the Timing. Like a soufflé, Feydeau is either just right or a dud. Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott runs everyone through efficiently headlong paces, not easily maintained through three rigorously separate acts that demand two intermissions and require the engines to rev up after each break. Like the City Garage Tartuffe, invoking 1950s Paris proves a felicitous period more agreeably assimilable from a contemporary perspective.
Curiously, for all the bravura comic pyrotechnics of Act 2’s frantic tag and hide-and-go-seek bordello sequences, the elaborate development of Act 1’s initial setup — so often tediously tied to earlier rules of dramaturgy — arguably delivers even more pronounced laughs. An accomplished comedy-writing team like Feydeau + Ives can make the art of loading the gun even more boffo than the gag when it goes off.
It’s a strong ensemble, A Noise Within’s longest suit, but arguably no one could resist its spasms of inspired wackiness. Camille, afflicted with a speech impediment that cannot pronounce consonants, the sort of convention no longer permissible without air-quote irony, is here so inventively incarnated by Rafael Goldstein that the disorder transcends issues of political correctness. To a lesser degree, the stereotype of jealous Spanish husband with a pistol is nearly as well overcome by Luis Fernandez-Gil’s zealous embrace of all the ridiculousness of the role. Contrastingly, the ever-versatile Joshua Wolf Coleman instills an insinuating quality as an ambiguous doctor in the first act that one wishes paid off more heartily than the way in which the script strands him.
The rap against Feydeau is that his fabulous machines overwork themselves into repetitively contrived wind-up toys. That isn’t quite fair, though those resistant to farce in general may well share that view. That said, Feydeau isn’t quite as pertinent to our sensibilities as the more pomo-Anglo fancies of Michael Frayn or Alan Ayckbourn. And neither A Flea in Her Ear nor do any of Ives’s other vintages of new wines in old bottles hold a candle to their shared source masterpiece, Corneille’s The Liar, which compounds its genius with Ives’s own offhandedly fluid wordplay in rhyming couplets, no less
Now to an outlier from the prior discussion, a new work of a distinctly post-post sensibility. The Object Lesson, created and enacted by Geoff Sobelle, is a determinedly odd amalgam of performance art and clowning, an extended existential joke deploying self-aware empty gestures, obsessive materialism and well-established gags consciously stranded in the context of a litter-strewn vacuum. And yes, a desire to be loved. It’s as if a contemporary Emmett Kelly did an evening-long solo show, capped by the bottomless box trick.
I don’t come to the show with an entirely objective view. The “scenic installation design” by David Neumann consists of filling the entire Kirk Douglas auditorium with paper boxes loaded with detritus, wizened knick-knacks, decades-old love letters, and serendipitous suggestive instructions to audience members, as well as the obligatory vinyl and turntables. It looks like a hoarder’s cache writ epic large, and not un-reminiscent of my own house, though of course, like everyone else so situated, I believe I manage to be less conspicuous, less disorganized and far more purposeful. After all, I won’t even admit to being a collector, let alone a hoarder, I just enjoy listening to the sounds on my north of 75,000 records and CDs.
The audience sits amidst the clutter (a word I abhor as dismissive of the significance of “stuff,” itself a reductive misnomer) as well as on top of it. There have been complaints about difficulties seeing and hearing the show from various vantage perches: I suggest either seeking higher ground or be prepared to move about, something the audience instinctively learns to accomplish as the happening proceeds.
At first, Sobelle explores many impressive insights about the phenomenon of not being able to let go, whether of the past, of emotions, or most concretely, of things. He also indulges in set pieces that are rather common variations within the performance art world, involving such tropes as taped playbacks and unrehearsed audience participation in rigorously prescribed ritualistic routines, John Cage without chance. It isn’t so much dull as it is insistent that attendees enter and share its own zone of affectless absorption that deliberately feints at contemplation.
Nevertheless, there are moments of metaphysical sublimity seeded throughout all of the conceptual clutter, not least a divine tap dance on ice skates to the chestnut ditty “All I Do the Whole Day Through (Is Dream of You),” a physical karaoke punctuated by a delightfully corny climax of packing peanuts as artificial snowfall (a tribute to the pleasures of accumulating treasures of trash). The song is perhaps most famous from the classic movie Singin’ in the Rain, to which Sobelle’s skate is a sidelong homage, made more hip by using instead Al Bowlly’s 1934 croony version with the Ray Noble Orchestra. I sang along: don’t have all those records for nothing.
Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy, Pacific Palisades, Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through October 3. (310) 440-7300, getty.edu. Running time: one hour, 30 minutes.
Tartuffe by Moliere: A Reality Show, City Garage Theatre, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; through November 1. (310) 453-9939, citygarage.org (link: Brown Paper Tickets). Running time: two hours, 10 minutes.
A Flea in Her Ear, A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, (in repertory) Fri., Oct. 2, 8 p.m.; Sat., Oct. 3, 2 & 8 p.m.; Thurs., Oct. 22, 7:30 p.m.; Fri., Oct. 23, 8 p.m.; Sun., Nov. 1, 2 & 7 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 7, 2 & 8 p.m.; Thurs., Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m.; Fri., Nov. 13, 8 p.m.; Sun., Nov. 22, 2 & 7 p.m., (626) 356-3100 x1, anoisewithin.org. Running time: two hours, 30 minutes.
The Object Lesson, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Saturday 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 6:30 p.m.; Sun. Oct. 4, 1 p.m. only; through October 4. (213) 628-2772, CenterTheatreGroup.org. Running time: one hour, 30 minutes. (Early arrival strongly advised to rummage through the immersive clutter.)