To Pillage

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

Chuck Mee is not your typical playwright.

Your first hint might be his website titled "the [re]making project." There you can find all of his plays - with this invitation:

"Please feel free to take the plays from this website and use them freely as a resource for your own work: that is to say, don't just make some cuts or rewrite a few passages or re-arrange them or put in a few texts that you like better, but pillage the plays as I have pillaged the structures and contents of the plays of Euripides and Brecht and stuff out of Soap Opera Digest and the evening news and the Internet, and build your own, entirely new, piece -- and then, please, put your own name to the work that results."

That's a remarkable notion in our age of copyright and patent disputes. It gives you a clue that Mr. Mee is not playing the same old game. And more than idle words, he stands by them as a writer.

You can experience not only this ethos but also the wonderful 'pillaging' in his new play Orestes 3.0:Inferno, receiving its world premiere at City Garage.

As the title suggests, the play takes as it's jumping off point the tale of Orestes. Back from the Trojan War, Orestes has killed his mother Clytemnestra and now with his sister Electra must stand trial. But describing simple plot is to miss the point of Mr. Mee's work. His plays are less about story arcs and more about assemblage and collage. He culls texts the way an artist might find the magic in a "found object."

Take the first lines spoken by Helen of Troy, who appears in the City Garage production in a ruby red pin-up bathing suit and sunglasses. She announces, "First of all, I cleanse my skin with products that cleanse but don't dry, products that are natural."

Could there be any more perfect introduction to the face that launched 1,000 ships?

Now contained in these lines is both the genius and the challenge of Mr. Mee's plays. Because he juxtaposes the classical rhythms of Euripides with the pedestrian beats of found text, the audience and the actors have to make tremendous leaps. In one instant you are in a Greek tribunal. In the next, an actor is confessing his erotic secrets. When it works it's thrilling. When it doesn't it feels a bit like channel surfing.

I wish I could say that director Frederique Michel's production at City Garage unlocked the secrets to Orestes 3.0: Inferno. Even with her best efforts to stylize the production and ride Mr. Mee's radical shifts, the cast never really masters the juxtapositions. And oddly, despite the predictable nudity and a ton of crotch grabbing, it's not really a sexy show.

If you're a diehard fan of City Garage or Chuck Mee, go . . . but know that you'll have to do the work of making sense of it all, which, when you think about it, is really Chuck Mee's point.

Orestes 3.0: Inferno plays at the City Garage in Santa Monica through November 25.

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

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes without an intermission

Banner image: Johanny Paulino in Orestes 3.0: Inferno. Photo by Paul Rubenstein