Making Eye Contact With City Garage’s Filthy Talk

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City Garage has historically been open to using nudity in its productions more often than just about any other theater company in the LA area. But recently the group seemed to shy away from the full monty on occasion — in 2010, after seeing City Garage’s amply-clothed philanderers in The Marriage of Figaro, I wrote that “no nudes is bad news.”

In 2011, the company moved to more spacious quarters at Bergamot Station, within a gallery — an ideal setting, one would think, for continuing or returning to the tradition of using nudity in creative ways. After all, representation of the nude human form has a long tradition in the visual arts.

David E. Frank, Heather Pasternak, Verna Petrychenka, Kyle Kinder and Troy Dunn in “Filthy Talk for Troubled Times”

I missed a couple of the early shows in the new space last year, but the reviews of those productions didn’t indicate anything about nudity — or about the use of any other technique that would have made the stagings especially gallery-specific. When I saw Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis there last August, I didn’t see how it was very different from what it might have been in the company’s previous space. Not that it needed nudity, but I wrote that “I look forward to seeing future productions that might be able to take some advantage of the proximity to the art.”

Well, my wishes have been granted. City Garage’s first production of 2012 features three entirely unclothed women throughout its one-act length, and it takes considerable advantage of its art-enclave location.

Director Frédérique Michel sets Neil LaBute’s early play Filthy Talk for Troubled Times in an art gallery instead of the topless bar where it was originally set in 1989.  It has been updated too — one of the characters refers to an event in her life that happened in 2005.

More than his later plays that have developed narratives and dimensional characters, Filthy Talk is, in some ways, a piece of performance art — it’s essentially a series of monologues and same-sex conversations in which four nameless men and two nameless waitresses inveigh against the other sex using yes, filthy talk. While this isn’t very satisfying if you’re expecting developed narratives and characters, it works on the level of a series of snapshots of soulless young people who don’t know to connect to other human beings, except in a seemingly endless pursuit of sexual contact.

But Michel has upped the gallery content of the production not only by putting Cameron Jordan’s authentically for-sale abstract paintings on the walls (with 10% of sales benefiting City Garage) but also by creating her own piece of performance art to supplement LaBute’s text.

Dave Mack, David E. Frank, Heather Pasternak and Kenneth R.

This is where the three naked women enter the picture — they’re part of a performance art piece that Michel and her partner Charles Duncombe have titled Art is About Cows: An Installation Inquiring Into the Nature of Art and Objectification. The women carry little red gift boxes, which often obscure a completely full-frontal view, as they walk through the room reciting or listening to various thoughts about art, supposedly taken from the utterances of 23 people ranging from Aristotle to Duchamp to Marx (Groucho, not Karl) to Shore (Pauly) to Putin.

This “installation” can be seen in different ways — as a Brechtian framing of the objectification of human beings that’s already apparent in LaBute’s writing, and/or as a sly satirical comment on the art world.

That latter meaning is in accord with comments made by Michel and Duncombe in an LA STAGE Times interview. According to Duncombe, “our experiences of art openings here are the opposite of what you expect. It’s a bunch of people walking around drinking free wine, hitting on each other and basically partying.” Adds Michel, “Drunk. Rude. And not the people who are going to buy the art at all.”

In other words, Michel and Duncombe demonstrate a refreshing eagerness to reflect LaBute’s vision back on their own audience. If his characters were still in a topless bar, it would be far too easy for the people who are likely to attend adventurous theater within an art gallery — and who are unlikely to enter a topless bar — to distance themselves. Actually, it’s still pretty easy to distance yourselves from these people, but at least we’re asked to consider the possibility that attitudes like these might also exist within theater-curious, art-curious souls like — ourselves.

At the same time, I wonder if Michel and Duncombe were making a satirical jibe at something more specific than the art world in general.

Centerpiece art installation at the 2011 MOCA Gala; photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for MOCA

In November, that world’s currently most famous performance artist, Marina Abramovic, raised eyebrows at a Museum of Contemporary Art gala in LA when she hired performers to serve as human centerpieces at the circular dinner tables. Sitting on lazy Susan-like devices under the tables, the performers poked their heads through holes in the tables and spent the evening silently gazing at the diners. The guests themselves were asked to wear white lab coats during dinner as part of the art —  although apparently some of them balked at that directive, because it covered up the stylish outfits they had worn for the occasion.

Meanwhile, at a few of the tables, Abramovic re-created one of her earlier pieces featuring nude women lying underneath representations of skeletons. Then, when dessert was served, it arrived in what looked like coffins carried by shirtless male pallbearers, until the “corpses” were revealed to be human-sized cakes depicting Abramovic and singer Deborah Harry, who had performed at the event. The celebrity-shaped cakes were then sliced and consumed.

2011 MOCA Gala; photo by Jeff Vespa/Getty Images for MOCA

The guests paid at least $2500 each to attend this gala, which raised $2.5 million for the museum. MOCA has posted video footage of the event.

I haven’t heard or read any mention of the MOCA gala from the City Garage team. But along with the programs, they distribute a separate sheet about their own “installation” that indicates an archly comic attitude toward such spectacles. They refer to the three naked women in their own “installation” as “art objects” — but also provide fictional biographies of these human “art objects” (for example, “Heidi graduated early from Yale with a BFA in anti-performance”).

The information sheet about Art is About Cows also includes fictional bios of Michel and Duncombe as performance artists (as opposed to theater artists) and cites their recent “generous corporate and foundation grants.” These were also credited in an announcement before the show began — the exhibition was said to have been funded by such generous patrons as the Koch brothers, among others.

I don’t know if Michel and Duncombe were intending to poke fun at the MOCA event in particular, but they certainly were raising a skeptical eyebrow over the intersection of big money and big-name performance art.

Vera Petrychenka and Kenneth R.

Of course, I didn’t attend the MOCA gala. But I did see a retrospective of Abramovic’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, including the nudes-under-the skeletons, among other works. Briefly, let me just say that I felt a much stronger human presence emanating from most of the performances in Abramovic’s work at MOMA than I did from the automaton-like performances in the City Garage “installation.”  While the women in Filthy Talk don’t make eye contact with anyone, the human centerpieces at the MOCA dinner apparently made eye contact with everyone who was sitting at their tables — over the course of three hours. In some ways, that’s the opposite of objectification.

Whatever their specific intentions with Filthy Talk (and the exhibition in an adjacent gallery that mixes Gerlad Slota’s photos with snippets of prose by LaBute), it’s clear that Michel and Duncombe have finally, fully inhabited their new space with this production. Now I’m looking forward to the variety of creative works that might result from this juxtaposition of theater and the visual arts.

Filthy Talk for Troubled Times: Scenes of Intolerance, City Garage at Track 16, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., near the intersection of Olympic Boulevard and Cloverfield, Santa Monica. Thur-Sat 8 pm, Sun 4 pm. Closes Feb 26. 310-319-9939.

***All Filthy Talk for Troubled Times: Scenes of Intolerance production photos by Paul M. Rubenstein

Deborah Strang, Lenne Klingaman, Geoff Elliott, Stephen Rockwell and Jill Hill in “Noises Off”; Photo by Craig Schwartz

I felt that A Noise Within also finally, fully inhabited its new space this weekend, with the opening of Noises Off. More than the company’s first two productions within its new east Pasadena venue, Noises Off — a revival of a 2009 production — hits just about every mark imaginable with Michael Frayn’s uber-farce — which, by act three, has devolved from an inside theater joke into an almost absurdist vision of a world gone hopelessly awry.

The new stage is so much deeper than the stage at A Noise Within’s previous venue in Glendale that when the set is revolved to provide perspective from backstage, we see larger glimpses of what’s happening under the footlights — on what is now the other side of the set. There also is a little more room on stage right and stage left, but at the Saturday matinee I attended, there apparently wasn’t enough room on stage right to prevent a little lamp from tumbling off a table and shattering just before the third act began. Some in the audience wondered whether the breaking lamp was part of the play, but I was assured that it was not.

Noises Off, A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes Sunday. 626-356-3100.

Last week, the day after I analyzed LA Times theater critic Charles McNulty’s habit of not writing about entire segments of LA theater during 2011, the Times ran a round-up of some end-of-year thoughts by the free-lancers who reviewed much of the LA theater that McNulty has apparently avoided.

In previous decades, the Times ran year-end reports from its free-lancers regularly, but I hadn’t noticed anything like this recently. It was good to be reminded so immediately that other critics are out there representing the Times, at some of the shows that McNulty doesn’t see or at least doesn’t write about.

It would be even better, for anyone who is trying to get a summary of the year in LA theater, for the free-lancers’ roundup to run side-by-side with McNulty’s year-end impressions. Otherwise, some readers might conclude that not much is happening on LA stages.

Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.