Forging Meaning

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

Remember the last time you learned another language?

Think about everything that's necessary to communicate in another's tongue. You've got to have a series of symbols that remain fairly constant. You have to not only learn those symbols but you have to repeat them, re-experience them until they take on deeper personal meaning. And, perhaps most importantly, a community to speak with -- so the act of tedious repetition can give way to the poetry of language.

To appreciate City Garage's world-premiere production of Opheliamachine, it helps to place the project into the larger context of the companies work - to appreciate the theatrical language being created.

Okay, I can hear some of you grumbling - what does all this semiotic mumbo jumbo have to do with theater?

Well take just the title of the show -- Opheliamachine. You might think -- oh, those are just pretty sounds. Or you might jump to Shakespeare and Hamlet's tragic love. Or you might get the reference to Heiner Muller's Hamletmachine, a sort of nine-page post-modern proving ground for ambitious avante-garde

The play itself, written by Magda Romanska, is a series of scenes that explore the themes of feminity, power, sex, rage, love, and madness through a faceted portrayal of Ophelia. Our title character is split in three: we have Ophelia the Brain -- typing away at a vintage typewriter complete with bell; Ophelia the terrorist clad in black fatigues with a .45 tucked into her bare midriff; and finally Ophelia the Mad confined to a wedding dress and, at times, a wheelchair.

Now, if you're familiar with director Frederique Michel's work, you'll recognize a certain perfection to the world-premiere of Opheliamachine happening at City Garage.

If you've never been - here's what you are almost guaranteed to see at any of their productions: deep blue light, a minimal platform set, bare breasts -- both male and female, the color red echoed in scarves, costumes, lipstick. You get the idea.

Now what you make of either Opheliamachine or really City Garage depends on whether you buy into the larger project. A fair criticism would be 'it all looks the same' which I'd argue is part of the point. Director Frederique Michel and Producer Charles A. Duncombe are creating a dramatic language and like any language that requires repetition - consistency. If you are willing to do the work the experience becomes larger than a single play: a crazed Ophelia in a red wheelchair evokes their production of Sara Kane's 4.48 Psychosis. Plays begin talking to each other - personal connections begin to emerge.

If you're looking for a play or a company that ties everything into neat little knots - this probably isn't for you. If you're willing to tackle a play as much as experience it - you won't be disappointed you spent 60 minutes in their world.

Opheliamachine plays at City Garage in Santa Monica through July 28.

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

Run time: 60 minutes without an intermission

Banner image: Kat Johnson in Opheliamachine. Photo: Paul Rubenstein