Dreaming of a Sun King

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Well you can't fault City Garage for not being ambitious!

Their latest world premiere is no less than epic. Under the banner Bulgakov/Moliere, company member Charles A. Duncombe has written a close to three-hour examination of state corruption, religious hypocrisy, gratuitous nudity, and for good measure the cowardice of the state.

But let's back up a second and get our bearings. Stick with me while I cover some facts:

City Garage's last production was a take on Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov, the Russian satirist, in 1936 wrote a play titled Moliere or The Cabal of Hypocrites, which chronicled Moliere's finding favor with the King, receiving generous state support, then being driven to his death by religious hypocrites who objected to Tartuffe...and the rumor that Moliere had unknowingly married his own daughter.

Still with me?

Okay, when Bulgakov's play received terrible reviews in Pravda, he wrote a frustrated letter to Stalin saying essentially, 'Russia has no use for me as a writer. Let me emigrate.' Stalin, apparently, personally called him and said basically 'What?' To which Bulgakov, supposedly said, 'There's no home other than Russia for a Russian writer'. He stayed and went on to write his masterpiece The Master and Margarita.

Okay...that's the historical back story and largely the plot of Mr. Duncombe's play. We begin with Bulgakov dictating his letter to Stalin, then falling into a despondent, drunken dream where his characters from the Master and Margarita perform his Moliere play in America, I guess, though that last part's not super clear.

What's commendable about City Garage's Bulgakov/Moliere is, in many ways, it's a continuation of their last production. Some of the same actors, costumes, and characters return. So, like so much of their work, they're accumulating meaning, building on their own aesthetic.

At its best, the production has a novelistic quality. We can get lost in subplots and the juxtaposition of jarring styles. And when a philosophical argument breaks out in the middle of Moliere's domestic soap opera, it helps to treat it like a separate chapter.

At its worst...it's like a novel. Both in its length and its scope, the play has difficulty holding together. The central obstacle is political sympathy: Bulgakov's Moliere, which makes up the heart of the evening, was largely a warning about the dangers of art depending on the largesse of the state. While at the dawn of the Soviet era that was a potent message, Arts in America have long ago given up the dream of a national theater or even generous artistic support. So even when Mr. Duncombe peppers the text with topical references to "the decider" and "Yes, We Can", it's hard to decode the political parallels. Yes, we have our own crop of religious hypocrites but there's hardly a Sun King who's going to whisk a touring theater company off to fully funded bliss.

If you're a die hard fan of the company or a devotee of Bulgakov, go. If not, just be happy that there are theater companies in LA with the guts to dig into the big ideas.

Bulgakov/Moliere plays at the City Garage in Santa Monica through June 1.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Runtime: 2 hours and 50 minutes, with an intermission.

Banner image: Kat Johnston, Bo Roberts and George Villas in Bulgakov/Mokuere. Photo: Paul Rubenstein