Hamletmachine: The Arab Spring; Far Away; Love and Information; The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek; Viva La Mamma!
by Myron Meisel
Hamletmachine: The Arab Spring — an Adaptation of a Brutalist Classic
Heiner Müller’s 1977 Hamletmachine, which savaged Shakespeare’s original in brutalist bursts of ideological analysis, has itself become a foundational text for future playwrights to riff on, elaborate and critique. (Being barely seven pages long —single-spaced — it encourages, nay demands, flights of fancy and dialectical reaction.) Müller ended up as one of Brecht’s successors at East Germany’s Berliner Ensemble, and while his best-known play certainly spoke to immediate political concerns, its hallucinatory invocations of intellectual paralysis, a critique of established women’s roles and a harbinger of ecological destruction have kept it a provocative inspiration for artists to chew, digest or spit out.
Müller first interpolated the piece into his nine-hour Hamlet, and Robert Wilson was an early interpreter. Early on, it was performed as a radio show accompanied by the music of Einstürzende Neubauten. Georges Asperghis, student of Iannis Xenakis, created an oratorio around it, while Wolfgang Rihm fashioned an opera. Tony Kushner wrote an eloquent forward to an English-language anthology of Müller’s writing.
City Garage has championed Müller for a long time, not only mounting Hamletmachine early in its history but also world-premiering Magda Romanska’s lovingly acerbic counterpunch, Opheliamachine, two years ago. Now, company cofounder Charles A. Duncombe has adapted his own new version, updating the historical context to encompass events ranging from the fall of Communism to the rise of ISIS. Indeed, opening on the night of the Paris terrorist attacks, Hamletmachine: The Arab Spring proved overtaken by events, nevertheless disturbingly enriched by their dread and horror.
The action opens with Müller’s duo of Hamlets (read: humankind) emerging naked from the sea and ends with them reentering the waters, presumably rising to reclaim them. Such piquant imagery characterizes director Frédérique Michel’s absolute empathy with the material, expressed through the discomfiting grace and resigned flair with which the actors (all company veterans) embrace their fates as cogs in the mechanism.
Much is made of paralleling American fundamentalist preaching with the recruiting of radicals to jihad, and there’s almost a fond appreciation for the rhetorical con-artist manipulation of religion for its fostering of destructive intolerance. Megan Kim reprises her Ophelia as Terrorist from Opheliamachine, perhaps less shockingly this time, though with more rigorously committed fervor, repeating Müller’s most immortal monologue: “I expel all the semen which I have received. I transform the milk of my breasts into deadly poison. I suffocate the world which I gave birth to, between my thighs. I bury it in my crotch. Down with the joy of oppression. Long live hate, loathing, rebellion, death.”
Duncombe, who also produces and designs the sets and lighting, has been staggeringly prolific of late, and the strongest virtue of this latest opus, if one may mix metaphors for such digitally-preoccupied material, is its hot-from-the-typewriter, ripped-from-the-headlines quality of unmediated reaction. Michel amplifies the sense of freshness by eschewing any fussiness in her flourishes, giving an impression (perhaps misleading) of fleet creation, the ensemble serving and the audience consuming the dish before it gets cold.
Duncombe often traffics in blunt metaphors (see his 2013 Caged) and earnest righteousness, though leavened with a bemused erudition and a penchant for mischievous play. He can be simultaneously sophomoric and sophisticated, angry without rancor, obscure yet pertinently accessible. Like Brecht (and not so much like Müller), Duncombe wants to galvanize a response to action without succumbing either to foolish optimism or subversive cant. While he may not be saying anything particularly new, his savvy marshaling of past history with contemporary quandaries makes the palpable despair palatable enough for hope.
Three of City Garage’s previous Müller productions were discussed in the 2003 tome Müller in America, so this latest playful nightmare rendition represents new discourse in an ongoing dissertation. Indeed, this offering represents Part I of the company’s “post-modern Shakespeare” season, “The Winter of Our Discontent: Shakespeare in the Digital Age”, which tidily sums up the impact of this most immediate piece of theater. It made me mindful of the Depression-era Living Newspaper, of both the absurdity of Man’s destructiveness and the engagement of conscious souls in struggle against it. Karl Marx (here played by David E. Frank) doubles in a cameo as the Ghost Hamlet’s Father, which paradoxically reminds us that while Mad Uncle Karl’s prescriptions didn’t pan out, his analysis remains incontestible.
Two by Caryl Churchill
The Paris massacre even more poignantly affected Cal Rep’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away at its felicitous new digs on the Cal State University Long Beach campus. After nonstop listening to the breaking news for a couple of hours on the 405, my first destination was a Cambodian restaurant, another of which the radio announced had also been the site of the assassins’ first murderous strike. Before the performance commenced, the requisite moment of silence was observed, though no one at that time yet knew that one of their own students, Nohemi Gonzalez, was among the victims.
Churchill’s brief, enigmatic 2000 play posits, in three short acts of seven scenes, a woman’s gradual discovery of an annihilating violence overtaking the world. As a child, her sinister caretaker imparts sinister confidences of treacherous clandestine activities. As a designer of millinery, she shows great creative talent for innovative hats under the mentorship of a slightly older worker disillusioned with exploitative management. In the end, humanity has disintegrated to the point of forging confounding military and political alliances with warring animal species in apparently endless conflict and betrayal.
Far Away here proves intractable and difficult to apprehend. Its underlying theme of fear is founded on the impossibility of knowing the nature of threat and of ever being secure in the reliability of one’s surroundings. It speaks directly to the roots of terror, and how it can be caused by the inexplicable menace of undermined security. Alas, it also speaks in indirection so obscure, one can be perplexed as much by the play itself as the characters are by their indeterminate circumstances. It must be terribly difficult to clarify in production, as illustrated by director Trevor Biship’s earnest, overly opaque effort.
By comparison, Churchill’s 2012 Love and Information, in a mesmerizingly inventive mounting at Son of Semele, affords hardly any prescription for performance (not unlike Müller), yet still manages to penetrate deeply, and insightfully, into contemporary unease and malaise, as indicated by Lyle Zimskind’s perceptive Stage Raw review. Churchill’s fecund imagination manifests itself less as a script than a graphically notated score, realized with fructiferous imagination by a dedicated cast that takes enormous risks with swaggering confidence in their underlying safety.
Here Churchill breaks the glass of drama into innumerable shattered shards, only to reveal that each sliver nevertheless still comprises a transparent window, through which our perception of distortion remains clear. Director Matthew McCray transmutes such radical minimalism with a maximalism nearly as epic in its flamboyant way as his utterly contrasting and award-winning Our Class, festooning the relentless fragments with old-school theatrical pleasures of quick-change artistry. As the players assay more than 100 characters defined almost entirely by costume, posture and mannerism in strobe-like paroxysms of snapshot illuminations, the suggestive short shocks of scenes — some smaller than vignettes — bedazzle yet still evoke subtle intimations of significance, even in lives relentlessly fragmented by unending distraction and unsifted stimuli.
An immensely satisfying The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek
In her own prolix and pixilated way, Churchill achieves a mastery of economic tone. By contrast, in his immensely satisfying latest play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek (his seventh outing at his most sympathetic venue, East Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre), Athol Fugard, perhaps our greatest living playwright, condenses his dramatic gestures beyond the merely epigrammatic into concentrated essences. Bearing all the earmarks of a testamentary work, Fugard has been so long a master of his themes that he can, like in late Matisse or Picasso, evoke cascades of profound impact with the merest suggestion of a line, even a doodle becoming replete with significance.
As his sole respite from years as an indentured handyman spent decorating hard-scrabble rocks with colors, earth artist Nukain Mabuza (the sublime Thomas Silcott) desires to fashion his valedictory by telling his own story in a culminating artwork of all-knowing eyes and visage upon a commanding boulder. Too weak to execute his vision with his own hands, and determined to pass on his legacy, he importunes his young assistant Bokkie (Philip Solomon) to apply the pigment and draw upon the stone.
Their reverie is interrupted by the Afrikaner mistress of the land, Elmaire Kleynhans (Suanne Spoke), who objects to this radical departure from the merely ornamental, instinctively angry at the suggestion of resistance in self-expression.
(It recalls the old joke about the producer and director dying from thirst in the desert, who happen upon an oasis: The director enthuses that the water he tastes is good, whereupon the controlling producer opines, “No, that’s not quite right. Let me piss in it.”)
The second act jumps from 1981 to 2003, and a new South Africa in which the power relations between the races have been transposed, though not nearly so much as presumed. Bokkie, now a teacher who has assumed his rightful name as Jonathan Sejake (Gilbert Glenn Brown), returns to restore his mentor’s original work, only to be confronted once again by an ever-aggressive Elmaire, fearfully threatening him at gunpoint. Though the ensuing dialogue is didactically compressed as the pair edge towards mutual understanding, Fugard’s effortless command renders it all as simply more compactly human and transformatively earned.
A Deliciously Devilish POP Donzetti
Scrappy, resourceful companies like POP (Pacific Opera Project) dedicate themselves to maintaining opera as a genuinely popular art (not unlike the Independent Shakespeare Company’s approach to the Bard). After great success this season with a Star Trek-themed Abduction from the Seraglio and an al fresco Falstaff at Glendale’s Forest Lawn cemertary, founders Josh Shaw (direction, design, supertitle adaptation) and Stephen Karr (arranger-conductor) present their 18th production in four years with the Los Angeles premiere of an incredibly obscure early Donizetti comic opera, here entitled Viva La Mamma!, though originally known as (and recorded under) the unwieldy moniker, Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali, an 1831 conflation of two much earlier farces about jockeying over hierarchy of billing among opera singers (prima vs. segunda, etc.).
Ok, All About Eve this isn’t (what is?). But in POP’s hands, these broad backstage shenanigans set in a rehearsal hall sometime in the 1980s (Kyle Patterson’s house tenor has a penchant for Michael Jackson stylings) become the kind of bumptious comedy so beyond antique that it remains ever timeless. No new laughs, though still choice ones, what with showbiz being more ripe for burlesque than ever before, especially set in a recent decade still ripe for ridicule. Restoring hilarity to classical antics is no mean feat, and Shaw and his singers display seasoned slapstick chops along with dulcet vocals.
Donizetti plays a deliciously devilish game with his score, lampooning bel canto excesses even as he dextrously exploits them with unceasing melodic gorgeousness. He can parody Mozart, Rossini and lesser lights while rising to the occasion of rivalling them. The score — cannily adapted for five strings, clarinet and flute with no loss of lusciousness and perhaps some added sparkle of transparency — effortlessly maintains consistent sprightly invention and relentless forward movement. This isn’t the Donizetti of grand opera, but the fast-working fashioner of provincial entertainments for the closest thing the early 19th century had to a mass audience. Never in the least profound, it still aspires to the composition of something suprisingly not far below the highest order.
Burly Ryan Thorn once again assumes a domineering drag role as the titular battle-axe stage mother (he had done the same in another esoteric local premiere for POP, Cavalli’s La Calisto). Especially relishable is the opening showcase for star soprano Katherine Giaquinto, whose uproariously acrobatic embellishments remain thrilling despite their satiric tomfoolery. If you’ve hungered to witness a backstage catfight waged in song and fisticuffs between a begowned baritone and a coloratura, this is it.
With its proudly threadbare hipness, POP flagrantly resists the pretensions associated with opera. Shaw’s daringly ribald supertitles certainly puncture any feint at high-mindedness and are as funny in their own drollery as silent-comedy movie intertitles. And though, with the Ebell decked out in supper club tables, wine and snacks, the production might technically qualify as dinner theater, the uniformly strong caliber of singing and POP’s professionalism leaves no doubt as to its seriousness of purpose.
Certainly Los Angeles’ tight-knit community of operatic performers agrees: I spotted at least two Luchas from the still-running Hopscotch in the audience.
Hamletmachine: The Arab Spring, City Garage, Bergamot Station Arts Center, Building T1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (no performance Fri., Nov. 27); through December 20. (310) 453-9939, citygarage.org. Running time: 58 minutes
Far Away, Cal Rep at University Theater, Cal State University Long Beach, 7th Street & East Campus Drive; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (dark Nov. 22-29); through December 6. (562) 985-5526, calrep.org. Running time: 50 minutes.
Love and Information, Son of Semele Son of Semele Ensemble, 3301 Beverly Blvd., Westlake; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; Mon., Nov. 16 & Dec. 7 p.m., 8 p.m.; through December 13. Sonofsemele.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., East Hollywood; Fri.- Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 & 7 p.m.; Mon. 8 p.m. (no performance Nov. 27 or Nov. 8 7 p.m. performance); through Dec. 14. (323) 663-1525; fountaintheatre.com. Running time: approximately 1 hour and forty minutes.
Viva la mamma!, POP (Pacific Opera Project), Ebell Club of Highland Park, 131 S. Ave 57, Eagle Rock. Pacificoperaproject.com. Closed.