Beyond its steamy fusion of dance drama, grand opera and film noir, Matthew Bourne's "The Car Man" is a sardonic fantasy of 20th century mid-America--a place where stud males are as abundant as auto parts, where social dances are one part bare-knuckled aggression to two parts hip-pumping foreplay, and where any kind of softness, sensitivity or vulnerability is doomed to extinction.
Performed at high heat by Bourne's London-based Adventures in Motion Pictures company, "The Car Man" plays at the Ahmanson Theatre through Oct. 28, with no fewer than four people covering each role through the run.
Thus, Saturday's cast may have offered only a cursory tour of Harmony, the fictional small town where Bourne combines and retells classic tales of desire and death.
Even so, I'd submit that Will Kemp's transition from victimized wimp to dangerous thug in the role of Angelo is one of the great performances of the year.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 18, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo caption--A photo caption accompanying the review of "The Car Man" in Monday's Calendar incorrectly identified the dancers and their roles. They are Alan Vincent as Luca and Saranne Curtin as Lana.
A repressed slave of duty turned murderous outlaw, Angelo is the counterpart of Don Jose in Bourne's radical reconception of "Carmen."
Using Rodion Shchedrin's percussion ballet score, "Carmen Suite," intercut with other arrangements of Bizet by Terry Davies, "The Car Man" gives Angelo a devoted girlfriend--Rita--who is the equivalent of Micaela in "Carmen," but a lot more interesting.
Nevertheless, Angelo becomes obsessed with Luca, a sensual, free-spirited outsider, and those who remember Bourne's "Swan Lake" will not be surprised that this Carmen surrogate is no Gypsy cigarette girl but a hunky, virile male.
But Luca also ensnares the wife of the aging, out-of-shape owner of the local diner and garage, and her story belongs to the stifled-unto-murder genre of "The Postman Always Rings Twice."
Indeed, her name is Lana (as in Turner, the star of the most enduring film version of "Postman"), and she unknowingly shares Luca with Angelo for a time, even dancing alongside her rival in a clever afterglow duet when both of them bed Luca on the same night.
As the archetypal "Postman" and "Carmen" narratives converge, Bourne adds a bit of "Midnight Express" and even a modern dance parody for seasoning, marshaling a choreographic style incredibly resourceful in its layering of character-dance color and emotional depth.
Whether he's evoking the heat, insects and lust of a night when nothing is happening or the surreal frenzy of social dances that barely contain the characters' primal urges, this is daring, accomplished, uncompromisingly lurid movement theater.
Moreover, his addiction to trailer trash seems to be shared by designer Lez Brotherston, who elevates ugly clutter into an all-American aesthetic with his rising/falling/rotating scenic panels that manage to provide a billboard illusion of freedom but keep everyone caged in.
Bourne and Brotherston also share a taste for comedy, and lighten the crime, guilt and destruction of innocence on view with mockery of everything from beatnik-era style to the characters' hollow pretensions and sex in all its forms.
You can argue that sometimes the comedy goes too far--that Scott Ambler, for instance, initially makes Dino (Lana's husband) too ridiculous to become the physical threat and symbol of guilt that Bourne needs to make key scenes fully credible.
Angelo, too, could have ricocheted between the laughable and the melodramatic, but Kemp, as mentioned, highlights every facet of his development, gaining sympathy even as his character spirals out of control.
Initially Bourne's teenage discovery, he has grown into one of the finest dancing actors of his generation.
Alan Vincent also plays Luca's studly arrogance for comedy yet generates sympathy in his drunken downfall. Yes, this may be the ultimate Adam Cooper role of all time, and it's too bad that Cooper (Bourne's original Swan) is currently an expensive international guest star and uninvolved in this project.
But Vincent is very, very sharp in defining Luca's low opinion of nearly everybody in Harmony--including himself. And it doesn't hurt that he looks rather like a DNA experiment combining the features of Ben Affleck and Russell Crowe.
As Rita, Etta Murfitt adroitly layers an increasingly irrational commitment to Angelo with a growing sense of alarm. She and Bourne are careful to steer away from bland Micaela-style virtue by having Rita lie to Angelo early in Act 2 and thus precipitate the bloody finale rather like Anita's lie does in "West Side Story." (No, you won't learn the ending from this review, but if you know "Carmen" and "Postman," you know who dies.)
As Lana, Saranne Curtin is the only major cast member who never plays for sympathy, but exalts her character's needs above everyone else's and goes for broke. What eventually happens to Angelo and Luca justifies her approach, but even before her plot takes over from "Carmen" as the driving force in "The Car Man," you admire the technical strength and emotional scale of her performance.
This is a terrific company and it will be fascinating to see what its other members bring to the leading roles. On Saturday, Brett Morris expertly conducted the 14-member pit orchestra.
"The Car Man" runs through Oct. 28 (with alternating lead dancers) at the Ahmanson Theatre of the L.A. Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. Tuesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Additional performances: Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 4, 11, 18 and 25 at 2 p.m. $25 to $70. (213) 628-2772.