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FROM THIS EPISODE

In Medias Res

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

It's a gimmick as old as Homer: starting in the middle of a story. The City Garage in Santa Monica is staging two works from Charles Mee's quartet of plays titled "Imperial Dreams&quot--but; they're starting with Part III and then coming back to Part I later this year. Fr--d--rique Michel's company is known for doing things differently, but mounting Mee's metrology in medias res isn't avant-garde posturing--it's downright old-fashioned... and appropriate, as Homer himself is one of the characters in Mee's Agamemnon.

The program notes read: &quotMee; tears apart and reconstructs the classic tragedy by Aeschylus." Now, this is avant-garde posturing. Mee may reconstruct classic works, but he doesn't tear them apart. His method isn't violent, it's celebratory and playful. His magnanimous style breathes life into plays from the past, using today's language and music to retell these familiar stories.

As staged by Michel and her designer Charles A. Duncombe, Mee's Agamemnon is a solemn affair. One that's bathed in blue light, suggesting lonely nights spent staring out at the Mediterranean Sea. The play opens with a nude Clytemnestra reclining in an empty tub. Without clothes, it's instantly clear that Michel's vision of Clytemnestra is the opposite of Mee's, whose stage directions describe her as &quotpale; white, as the moon."

Casting the dark, voluptuous Marie-Francoise Theodore is more than just a gimmick however, as the actress strongly conveys Clytemnestra's grief and bitterness. Likewise, the Greek chorus of severed heads might seem like a cheap effect when described, but in the context of Michel's staging it's underplayed and sustains a quiet power throughout the 70-minute performance.

The director can't help drawing parallels between the Trojan War and the current war in Iraq, but whatever one's opinions about either campaign, Fr--d--rique Michel's realization of Charles Mee's play is as poetic as it is political. Her Agamemnon is haunting, and often beautiful. It's also a rare local example of serious, European-style director's theater. The first installment of City Garage's &quotThree; by Mee" season suggests that Agamemnon is the start--or middle--or something big.

It wasn't until the middle of Harold Pinter's career, that the British dramatist allowed his second play, The Hothouse, to be seen on stage. Pinter wrote The Hothouse in 1958, just after the then-savaged-but-now seminal The Birthday Party, and right before his breakthrough success, The Caretaker.

A production of The Hothouse, currently running in Hollywood, shows why Pinter waited 22 years before staging this bright, funny but often heavy-handed play. Farce and vaudeville are always lurking in Pinter's early comedies of menace, but The Hothouse brings these elements to the foreground. Set in a British asylum, the cast of this Unknown Theatre Company production captures the blithering indifference of the hospital's bureaucratic staff. The actors play up the absurdity and go for big, broad laughs--when they start throwing drinks in each others faces, you'd almost swear you were watching an old BBC comedy.

Pinter probably realized this when he finished writing The Hothouse, so he just let it sit in a drawer. In reviving this slapsticky farce, director Christopher Cappiello reveals just how inferior The Hothouse is to Pinter's other plays. The clipped dialogue, the dark humor, the underlying feeling of dread that vibrates through his work--all of this is present in this early piece; it's just all very explicit. The Hothouse actually shows someone being tortured on stage, whereas in Pinter's other plays, the promise or effects of brutality are not seen; instead they're made clear in his signature pauses, by what is unsaid. Pinter's decision to give pause in regards to The Hothouse is further evidence that last year's Nobel winner is indeed a master of theatrical timing

Harold Pinter's The Hothouse runs through this Sunday at the Unknown Theatre; Charles Mee's Agamemnon runs through August 6 at City Garage in Santa Monica.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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