Lost Soles

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

Imagine if your shoes could talk. What stories would they tell?

That's the starting point for Sebastian Majewski's Polish play right left with heels at City Garage Theatre in Santa Monica.

Before you assume this is a light comedic tale, the shoes in question are sort of gruesome. The play imagines a pair of black high heeled shoes belonging to Magda Goebbels and fashioned, if that's even the right word for such an atrocity, out of human flesh and fat in Auschwitz.

The shoes are brought to life by two actresses who each play one of them and become our mostly reliable narrators for a tale that chronicles a legacy of violence and aggression in Poland. We begin at the Nuremberg War Trials and find our way through occupation, ethnic cleansing, Solidarity, and perverse nationalism.

The shoes make this journey because they keep getting passed down or traded or stolen from one person to the other. With each new pair of feet a new perspective on Poland.

Now, to grasp all this you really need a decoder ring or to be fairly fluent in Polish political history of the last half century. The play exists through a series of almost veiled references and while the casual audience member will get the basic story, the nuance will be lost. It's a bit like a play about Los Angeles that made reference to Boyle Heights then Van Nuys then Santa Monica. To an Angeleno, those references could speak of a very specific journey -- possibly freighted with symbolism. To an outsider, they're just names.

My advice, if you go, is to show up early and read the short essay in the program. It will orient you to the basic stops on our journey and some of the symbolism embedded in each tale. Don't worry. The play won't be ruined. It's not that kind of play. In fact, the play itself doubles back and tells its story twice repeating the second time with slightly different details as if to emphasize how slippery history can be and how we probably shouldn't trust any narrator to these kinds of atrocities.

It's also a play that's as much about the performance as it is the story. The two young actresses bring a disturbing vitality and cheeriness to this violent vulgarity. It's as if a sort of sarcastic teenage girl was describing a scene of torture. The reality is made all the more startling by the flippant tone. This distance helps keep the play aloft for its 60 minutes. Without it, and the crisp choreography that ties the two women together, this tale would likely be too grim to take.

It's also a wonderful use of City Garage's clean and limited aesthetic. As always, the back wall is blue, the women are in red, the scaffolding exposed. There's something liberating for both audience and creator in this prescribed palette. We know what we're getting and they know the tools they are working with. One senses a deeper artistic conversation and a longer visual journey. It's fitting that City Garage's new home is surrounded by the galleries of Bergamot Station. In many ways it's the perfect context for their art.

If you've got a passion for Polish history or a fetish for the travails of a pair of heels, make an evening of it. Take the Expo Line to Bergamot Station and step into this journey.

right left with heels plays at City Garage Theatre in Santa Monica through August 14.

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

Runtime: 60 minutes without an intermission.

Photo: Alexa Yeames and Lindsay Plake in right left with heels (Paul Rubenstein)