Opheliamachine: Theater Review

Opheliamachine - P 2013
Paul M. Rubenstein
Difficult comedy of ideas and ideologies honestly stimulates with its perceptiveness, the academic heaviness leavened by a welcomely light-handed production.

City Garage offers a feminist rejoinder to Heiner Muller's "Hamletmachine" in Santa Monica.

Hamlet’s scorned ingenue has long been a potent symbol for feminist theory and enlightened examination of the quandaries of young women, and if the otherwise contemplative Dane callously gave her no mind, the prototypical good girl as victim certainly continues to speak, in contradictory and bedeviling ways, to the experiences of many women in society.

In this world premiere play at City Garage in Santa Monica, Magda Romanska consciously concocts both an homage to and critique of a landmark theatrical composition, 1979’s Hamletmachine by Heiner Müller, the successor to Brecht as both director of the Berliner Ensemble and groundbreaking German experimental playwright. (It’s not so terribly different from Kitty Wells singing It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels as an answer song to Hank Thompson’s The Wild Side of Life.)

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Since City Garage has been conscientious over its two decades in presenting Müller’s work locally, it’s appropriate that it should mount Romanska’s fiercely meditative mirror, which quotes excerpts from Hamletmachine at the beginning and the end in both deference and defiance.

The split nature of Ophelia takes form as three actors playing differing aspects of her character. “The Brain” (Kat Johnson) sits at a now-antique typewriter reeling off screeds that ricochet through several successive schools of feminist thought. “The Terrorist” (Megan Kim) enacts violent fantasies of retaliation and revenge against an androcentric society (she kills Horatio (RJ Jones) by smashing his head in with her combat boot). And “The Mad” (Saffron Mazzia) is a timorous prospective bride with so little self-esteem as to be highly impressionable. Hamlet (Joss Glennie-Smith) reduces himself to a bit player with his compulsive absorption in media and pop culture.

If the modern take on Hamlet is that his consciousness inhibits his ability to act, then the ironies of Opheliamachine posit that radical analysis can be the enemy of effective political action, or put another way, that gender awareness is no refuge from the truism that each of us must reckon ourselves as our own most implacable adversary.

Romanska covers a lot of ground as her characters spew erudite invective critiquing the omnipresent oppression of a sexist hierarchy: though less than an hour in length, this is sometimes a crushingly dense exegesis of a half-century of women’s studies and post-modern literary theory. Romanska is a well-versed academic and accomplished dramaturg, and she heeds the cherished advice to write about what she knows. Thankfully, she has a vision comprehensive enough to relish irony and pose deeper questions than mere indictment.

If the world might be viewed more rewardingly without the arbitrary distinctions between the sexes, those prejudices must be confronted if any substantive change is to be accomplished in the world as it is. Romanska dramatizes the wisdom that confrontation comprises only the first essential steps.

House director Frédérique Micheland and her collaborator, producer-designer Charles A. Dumcombe, are well within their element with this potentially intractable material. They bring to bear some of the stage strategies that distinguish their interpretations of Ionesco: capable of underlining emphasis with a graceful hand, sharing with their actors a complete dedication to the singularity of the text and never condescending to simplifying complexity.

This funny yet brutal play needs the inventive mise-en-scene to support its fecundity of ideas amidst the tumult of its conflicting impulses. And don’t be afraid: It is OK, even purgative, to laugh.   

Venue: City Garage, Bergamot Station, Santa Monica (runs through July 28)
Cast: Kat Johnston, Megan Kim, Saffron Mazzia, Joss Glennie-Smith, Cynthia Mance, RJ Jones, Leah Harf
Director: Frédérique Michel
Playwright: Magda Romanska
Producer, production designer & lighting: Charles A. Duncombe
Costume designer: Josephine Poinsot
Sound designer: Paul Rubenstein