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THEATER : A Night of Provocative Drama


Be forewarned: "Us" is not for the faint of heart.

"It is beautiful, passionate, violent, erotic and very frank--the language of lovers," declares French-born Frederique Michel, who is directing the West Coast premiere of Karen Malpede's psychodrama, opening Friday at City Garage in Santa Monica.

The two-character play is an intimate look at a doomed sexual relationship; the staging includes plenty of male and female nudity and simulated lovemaking, plus decidedly indelicate discussions of rape, sodomy and incest between a father and a daughter.

"It's not shock to shock people," stresses Michel, who has been artistic director of the Aresis Ensemble since its founding in 1987. She established this new performance space (a converted garage) last year with her longtime lover and artistic partner, Charles Duncombe.

No stranger to provocative theater--her recent credits include "La Musica Deuxieme," "Blood on the Cat's Neck," "Night Coil" and "Exiles"--Michel nonetheless admits, "I've never read anything like it or Seen anything like it onstage. It's very hot. "

The heat was palpable during the play's 1987 debut, when "Us" (which is published in the theater anthology "Women on the Verge") was staged by Judith Malina at her Living Theatre in New York City.

"We were mobbed--there were lines around the block," playwright Malpede recalled fondly. "Since then, it's been done in Australia, at universities, and it's taught a lot. I'm very proud of it.

"I don't think it tells the whole story of man/woman relationships; it's not meant to, doesn't pretend to. My kind of theater is taking someone on a journey--into and out of. It's not static. My heroine, Hannah, survives, and is much stronger at the end than the beginning. It's also a memory play: Characters go back, confront the past and remember where they came from."

The playwright dedicated this 100-minute play to Julian Beck and Jean Genet--both of whom, she says, "looked at the dynamics of sexual relationships in a political context."

"Us" is "a sexual play; it looks at violence between men and women--how wife battering, incest and child abuse can inform erotic passion. That's a continuum in my plays: They tend to be about erotic intimacy and political/personal violence."

Malpede, 50, was raised in a Suburb of Chicago with her twin brother, John, who runs a homeless theater group called Los Angeles Poverty Department. She is the author of 11 plays; her most recent, "The Beekeeper's Daughter"--the story of a Bosnian rape victim--debuted in 1994 at the Dionysia World Festival of Contemporary Drama in Italy. A collection of Malpede's early works was published in "A Monster Has Stolen the Sun and Other Plays."

She also is the author of two books, "People's Theatre in America, 1927-72" and "Women in Theatre: Compassion and Hope," a compilation of letters and articles by figures such as lorraine Hansberry, Martha Graham and Gertrude Stein.

"Writing always comes from the life of the writer," she said. "And 'Us' is written to seem as if it's an intimate confession on the part of every character. That's all I'll say."

"Us" opens Friday, playing Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5:30 p.m. at City Garage, 1340 1/2 4th St. (alley) in Santa Monica. Closes Sept. 17. Tickets: $15 general admission; $7.50 students and senior citizens. (310) 319-9939.

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