Reviewed by Neal Weaver
City Garage Theatre
Through October 15
Playwright Simon Stephens (Heisenberg, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) deconstructs Bizet’s opera Carmen in an attempt to illuminate contemporary issues of loneliness, isolation and all-around anomie. He includes a couple of Bizet’s arias, the “Habanera” and the “Seguidilla,” as well as a snippet of the Toreador Song, but otherwise the connection to Carmen seems tenuous.
Stephens sets his play in an unnamed European city dominated by its cathedral and opera house. The Singer (Kimshelley Lessard), famous for her rendition of Carmen, is now performing it at the local opera. But she seems to be going to pieces, mentally and emotionally. Her memory is failing her, and she has been confusing her own identity with her character’s. She can’t always distinguish between herself and the fiery gypsy she plays onstage.
Stephens keeps the characters’ names, but not their identities. Here, Carmen (Anthony Sannazzaro) is a man, a narcissistic gay hustler who starts to unravel when he’s betrayed and humiliated by a john. Don Jose (Sandy Mansson) is transformed into a tough woman taxi driver, the widowed mother of a son. Micaela (Lindsay Plake) is a university student whose boyfriend dumps her after she tells him that she loves him. And the toreador Escamillo (David E. Frank) has become a corrupt and amoral futures trader, whose deals have gone south, leaving him with a debt of two million which he is unable to pay.
The characters tell us their woes and back stories, and each of them seems lost and searching for something. They have no real connection with each other, but certain events touch or involve them all: an aborted performance of Carmen, and the death of a young motorcyclist when he accidentally smashes into a bridge.
It’s not always easy to keep track of the constantly shifting narratives and points of view, and it’s far from clear what it all adds up to, but the piece is fascinating to watch for most of its length. Director Frederique Michel and designer Charles Duncombe have given it a handsome and visually stunning production, stylized and ritualized. The cast is uniformly strong, with no weak links.
City Garage Theatre, Building T1, Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m; Sun., 3 p.m. (310) 453-9939 or www.citygarage.org. Running time: 110 minutes with no intermission.