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Drop its avant-garde? Never

Galvanized by its directors' vision, City Garage offers a daring alternative to the mass entertainment around it.

July 24, 2005|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

The set is built before rehearsals begin. The actors, cast in roles demarcated merely by numbers, arrive knowing all of their text but none of their blocking.

The director, a leggy Frenchwoman of unsmiling intensity who has banned the words "improvisation," "motivation" and "cute," takes up her perch in the center of the 48-seat house and begins to run performers through a precise choreography of movement and gesture, sometimes at stop-motion speeds. She gives direction; she doesn't give praise.

So begins work on another typical production at City Garage, a small, almost cultishly dedicated avant-garde theater company tucked in an alley off Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, where the occasional Ionesco (last year's "The Lesson") represents the most conservative programming.

More characteristic is the troupe's currently running "Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream," an aggressively stylized stage adaptation of Kathy Acker's vast novel about sex, power and identity; or 2000's "MedeaText: Los Angeles/Despoiled Shore," a melding of Heiner Muller's deconstruction of the Greek tragedy with original material about environmental collapse closer to home.

The new text in that case was provided by City Garage managing director, resident designer and sometime playwright Charles A. Duncombe. The "Don Quixote" adaptation is the work of artistic director Frederique Michel, the aforementioned Frenchwoman, who directs all of the company's productions with a famous iron fist, and who doesn't reject the term "micro-managed."

"I think I'm very fair, but I'm very demanding," concedes Michel, who has run the company with Duncombe, her husband, since they met in the late 1980s on a local production of "Miss Julie"; the company moved into its current space, a former garage for Santa Monica police and city officials, in 1995. "I choreograph every move. It's really like an orchestration."

"She creates the physical framework of the performance," Duncombe chimes in. "Once that has been completely physicalized, then the actors do their own work to supply the character that fits the frame. It's the opposite of what American-trained actors for the most part are used to."

Paul M. Rubenstein, a frequent performer and the company's general manager, agrees. "It feels backward to a lot of actors who are trained in a more internal, inward-looking sort of technique."

Company member Justin Davanzo, who in "Don Quixote" plays the roles of a talking dog and the 18th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, says he prefers this approach. "I've always been a very physical actor; I come from the physical side first. Then once I've mastered the movement, I don't have to think about it."

Not that it's a cakewalk: "Frederique works down to between a line: If the line is, 'I went to the store,' she'll say, 'Between "the" and "store," turn to the left, take three steps.' At first it's so frustrating, trying to grasp what she wants. She holds us to an extraordinarily high standard."

Paring the ensemble

The standards have only gotten higher in recent years, as Michel and Duncombe pared the acting company down from more than 50 dues-paying members to a core of a dozen or so committed ensemble members who don't pay dues, except the artistic kind. They had heard the refrain about their work for too long: that their admirable ambitions often exceeded their grasp, that the often "youthful" actors weren't up to the challenges of the material.

Michel cites L.A. Weekly theater editor Steven Leigh Morris as a key advocate. "We sat down with him and had long talks," she says. "He is the one who really made me shake out the company, because he told us, 'You guys do great work, but the problem is, most of the time the acting is not terrific enough for what you guys are trying to do.' I completely agreed, and we decided, OK, shake everything, throw out everybody."

"I was just sort of blathering, but they took me at my word," says Morris, who in 2003 singled out City Garage in the Weekly's "Best of L.A." but even then rapped them for their "hit-and-miss" productions. "Even when they don't succeed, they keep coming back at it. There's a singleness of purpose there that I find hopeful."

The commitment is bearing fruit: In 2004, New York's avant-garde Castillo Theatre bestowed an award for political theater, which found City Garage honored alongside such theatrical luminaries as Charles L. Mee Jr. and Robert Wilson.

For Diane Stiles, Castillo's managing director, City Garage's national reputation rests partly on an anomaly. "I'm tickled that they do such experimental work in Los Angeles," she says. "Here you can't walk a block without someone doing avant-garde theater in a shoebox. But to have it going on in the middle of Hollywood -- there's something very charming about that."

Duncombe says the company relishes this contrast.

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