CLASSIC IMAGE: John Everett Millais' iconic Pre-Raphaelite painting of Ophelia. (Photo courtesy Tumblr)

CLASSIC IMAGE: John Everett Millais’ iconic Pre-Raphaelite painting of Ophelia. (Photo courtesy Tumblr)

Puppetry is the art of pulling strings to animate inanimate objects. You could say this about City Garage’s new production “Opheliamachine” as well as the Geffen’s “Yes, Prime Minister.” Each involves the act of being manipulated by forces outside oneself.

In the case of City Garage, once again this outstanding local company engages in thought provocation. In contrast to the antic treatment of Hamlet and Ophelia in Santa Monica Rep’s “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” which closes on June 30, City Garage takes Ophelia out of her poor, put-upon, mad girl role and places her in the context of a media-saturated, social network-driven 21st century world, in which she faces down the forces that shape her image as a woman.

I remember when I was much younger bursting into tears at the Tate London as I stood before John Everett Millais’s iconic Pre-Raphaelite painting of Ophelia. The tragic beauty, arms out, hands holding flowers, is floating face-up in the wooded water, looking ethereally helpless. Shakespeare has her commit suicide after going mad from the confused signals she’s been getting from her fiancée Hamlet, not to mention his murder of her father.

“Opheliamachine” is an answer to “Hamletmachine,” created by German theatre artist Heiner Müller during the post-modern performance art era of the late 1970s, early ‘80s. Müller’s Hamlet is stymied by intellectual paralysis making him unable to take action in reaction to the totalitarian world in which he exists. But Ophelia is a rage-filled “other,” condemning the oppression she sees, finding no way out but self annihilation.

In Polish playwright Magda Romanska’s “Opheliamachine,” we find multiple characters and voices representing Ophelia as she confronts a world of contradictory images for women, while considering her choices about a brooding Hamlet who “wants to understand the world but all he can do is stare.”

Ophelia, on the other hand, speaks of her “self sufficiency and fits of self adoration” considering “the dread I want you to fill up or the dread that is not numbness … wanting to be desired, waiting to be respected …” while facing “the nightmare of desire or its lack.”

As always at City Garage, you could call the theatrical approach “experimental” and it’s highly, but cleanly, produced. This is not a linear narrative.

There are video screens with relentlessly scrolling news, talking heads and reality show footage beaming into our consciousness on a global level. On stage we see a parade of shapely women in blue wigs and backless red dresses; Hamlet with a guitar; a white-coated crooner in a spotlight; a narrator punching the keys of an old-school manual typewriter sitting above the action on the stage, where multi-level platforms expand the small stage’s performance space. Hamlet is less a character and more a spur to Ophelia’s search for self awareness.

Even if you don’t “get it” as it goes along, don’t worry, there’ll be plenty to talk and perhaps argue about post-theatre, where much of the meaning will be subject to your own filters and interpretation.

“Opheliamachine” runs through July 28 at City Garage in Bergamot Station

Call (310) 453-9939, or visit www.citygarage.org for more information.

 

Yes, men in charge

 

Maybe, like me, you remember fondly the British comedy series, “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister,” which provided a deeply satirical view of politics, shining a light on who really is the power behind the throne — a class of civil servants who pull their clueless government leaders’ strings.

Now onstage at the Geffen Playhouse is the West End London hit play, “Yes, Prime Minister” by the duo who created the TV series.

Michael McKean (“This is Spinal Tap,” “Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind”) plays Prime Minister Jim Hacker, a post dismissively regarded by Machiavellian Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey (Dakin Matthews) as “the only top job that requires no previous experience.” Democracy, says Sir Humphrey, is a process of getting the people to agree to policies that “those who know what they are doing” decide. And Jefferson Mays does a good job making Bernard, the hapless, naïve but semi-principled personal secretary, seem credibly human.

That tells you most of what you need to know about the satirical conceit of “Yes, Prime Minister” except that it is delivered in a maelstrom of polysyllabic manipulation and obfuscation — in other words, a lot of words.

It’s a bit flat, this comedy. It’s dense with verbiage and denser still with plot points, which uncannily reflect today’s news headlines. I couldn’t help but muse on how the G8 this week was not expected to resolve much except to make an agreed upon but meaningless general announcement; that’s a conclusion drawn about a fictional summit in the play.

Twisting and turning on a complex but thin thread, I can easily imagine this as a radio play. “Yes, Prime Minister” is onstage at The Geffen Playhouse through July 14; call (310) 208-5454 or find seats online at www.geffenplayhouse.com.

 

Patriot act

 

July 4 isn’t far off; a good time to reassess the Founding Fathers. The eloquence and passion of Thomas Paine are brought vividly to life by veteran stage performer/writer Ian Ruskin.

“To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine” has been performed to capacity crowds and critical acclaim across America, and arrives at The Electric Lodge in Venice for the next two weekends only.

Ruskin’s portrayal of the fiery patriot and founding father captures the brilliance and contradictions of the man who helped forge America’s core, yet today is misunderstood at best, forgotten at worst. He went from hero on the streets of Philadelphia to prison in Paris awaiting the guillotine. He was one of history’s greatest idealists but worst politicians, a dangerous and nearly deadly combination.

Six performances only of “To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine” begin this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, repeating next weekend at The Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave. in Venice. Tickets are only available here: www.brownpapertickets.com.

 

Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.

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