A forthcoming stage production or film from author and director Neil LaBute piques attention. Confrontational, disturbing and often brutally vulgar, with his scathing dialogue and biting portrayals of misogynistic and devious men, LaBute peels away the polite veneer of social interactions, revealing ugly relationships and gender divisions. His works are twisted expositions of the horrors of humanity that challenge you to address your own behaviors and private thoughts. Perversely compelling, a LaBute play is anything but dull.
City Garage, currently residing at the Track 16 Gallery space in Bergamot Station, is staging the West Coast premiere of one of LaBute’s early works, from 1989. Filthy Talk for Troubled Times: Scenes of Intolerance will run from January 8 through February 26.
Currently approaching its 25th birthday, the City Garage company was founded in Santa Monica in 1987 by artistic director Frédérique Michel and managing director Charles Duncombe. The group usually creates and presents works that explore contemporary ideas and issues in a distinctive, strongly physical, highly visual and multi-disciplinary style. Recently relocated from a space off an alley adjoining Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, City Garage is now in residence at Track 16, a large and versatile gallery and exhibition space within the sprawling former industrial complex that became the Bergamot Station art enclave in Santa Monica.
For LaBute’s play, Michel has conceived a re-staging that promises to present the text in a wholly different light. Working with LaBute’s approval, Michel has shifted the original setting from a topless New York bar to an entirely new setting, that of an opening at a high-end art gallery. In addition to the paintings of Cameron Jordan that are featured within the space, the primary art objects on display within the play are slim, fair-skinned, naked females. Michel has broken LaBute’s play wide open by giving speaking roles to the perambulating and naked objets d’art. The women will spout speeches, newly written by Duncombe, while the drunk male patrons of the play remain just as conflicted, angry and baffled as ever by the eternal mystery of the female of their species.
The evolution of an early LaBute
It was the gallery owner next door, Robert Berman, who first suggested that City Garage stage one of LaBute’s plays to complement an art exhibition he was planning.
Recalls Michel, “I said, ‘Why not?’ but first I have to read all of his works, and everybody around me said ‘No, Frédérique! Do not do Neil LaBute – you are going to hate him! He is a macho man, a misogynist. It is very realistic – it is not your style at all. This is not what you do.’ So I was intrigued, and I had to read him before I decided.” Michel found she loved LaBute’s writing. “He’s very witty, nasty and very real – he describes people the way they are, you know?” she posits, with her charming French accent.
Michel typically gravitates toward presenting edgy dramas with a purpose. “I don’t want to do comedy for comedy’s sake just to make people laugh,” she maintains. “If I pick up a text, I love to be in love with the language. For me, text is first, and then it has to have a political content or something to say — otherwise I have no ideas. It’s important to have people think about what they are seeing and discuss it afterwards.”
Duncombe asked LaBute for something that was non-linear, to complement Michel’s style of staging drama, and that’s when LaBute sent them the revised version of Filthy Talk.
LaBute recently reworked his 22-year old play for a benefit for New York’s MCC Theater Playwrights’ Coalition, where LaBute is playwright-in-residence. Speaking by phone from New York, LaBute recalls, “We did an hour’s worth or so at that benefit over four evenings [in June 2010].” The actors, including T. R. Knight, Alice Eve and Justin Long, had script in hand, so LaBute’s material was staged presentationally.
The playwright says he reworked his material in order to give it a keener sense of focus. “It had a wider range of topics in its fullest incarnation. I narrowed it down to focus more on issues of relationships, and added some new material. I felt there was one character that didn’t have enough individual material, so I wrote a new monologue or two. So it was a bit of building, a bit of retracting but ultimately focusing the themes.”
When pressed to elaborate on his themes, LaBute becomes a little tongue-tied. “Ah, it’s what these men and women are talking about to each other, or more often amongst themselves. It’s about relationships and where men and women stand, and how they fare and what they want. So, even 20-something years ago, I was interested in looking at men and women and how they can get along or don’t get along.”
Keep your motivation to yourself
Michel, however, has no difficulty encapsulating the play’s themes. “This play is about men and their fear of women. It’s also about homophobia, racism and of course sexism, and I think this is why this play works now because we are in a society that is afraid of everything. To me, those men are so infantile in the way they talk about women and especially sex with women, how mysterious it is for them – you have to laugh about it. This play is a very wise, black comedy. The only thing that is real and serious is the racism and homophobia.”
Adds Duncombe, “Well, the vicious comments directed towards the women, the fear and hatred is pretty real.”
Michel counters, “But if it was not real and funny at the same time, it would be unbearable.”
Word around the traps indicates that Michel is tough on her actors. Michel laughs and agrees, “I am mean,” she says, before retracting that statement. “No, I’m not mean. I am very precise and strong and I choreograph every move. Nobody can go wherever they want to. I am very tough on the text and think they should learn the text perfectly well. There is no ad-lib or improvisation. Yeah, I am tough because I work with pictures, so everything has to be beautifully perfect. So, I am kind of a dictator for some of the actors.”
Duncombe chimes in. “It’s an ‘outside in’ technique that Frédérique has used for years. There’s no sitting around and reading the text first, no people wandering around with books in their hands trying to discover what their character would do. She creates the physical of the play first, completely letting the actors do nothing except themselves examine what their character is about and why they are doing what they are doing; that’s completely their work. Once the physical framework is set, then the actors work on their own emotional reality.”
Michel says one common term is completely off limits — motivation. “I don’t want to hear it. That’s their job, not mine.”
From bar to gallery
Michel’s re-location of LaBute’s play from its original setting of a topless bar in New York to a place of worship of high art not only taps into a world that LaBute has previously shown in several of his plays and movies – Your Friends and Neighbors and The Shape of Things both deal with the art world and the concept of art – but the new setting suddenly brings the topics discussed into high relief.
Says Michel, “I thought the topless bar setting was passé. It was not something too exciting to me.”
Duncombe concurs, “We had the same thought. Because we are here in Bergamot Station, why not set it at an art gallery? 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.”
As soon as the play enters this new context, Duncombe observes, the dialogue is heard in a whole new way. “If you see men in a topless bar, well, you expect lewd dialogue. But when you throw it into this context, where you kind of expect people to be sophisticated, more upscale, maybe white collar, professional workers, the dialogue becomes more threatening.”
Michel points out that they have not altered LaBute’s text, but they have added some monologues.
Duncombe explains, “Our idea was to have a faux exhibition here that is the subject of this gallery opening that these guys are at. We have the paintings of Cameron Jordan, and her works are called ‘Spacescapes’. But then there is a second installation of art works, that is theoretically by Frederique and Charles, which is a living installation piece, like something you’d see in Soho or MOCA. It’s called ‘Art is about cows – an investigation into the nature of art and objectivity.’”
The living installation consists of the three completely naked women, who are commenting throughout on art and being an object and what it is to be a woman. Adds Duncombe, “And they’re commenting on the nature of objectification, of art and of seeing.” Says Michel, “All this works with and against LaBute’s text.”
Duncombe says the faux exhibition is already underway as the audience arrives, with the exhibition ‘pieces’ reciting their high art commentary while the play’s cast is wandering about the gallery and watching. “And then, bit by bit, Neil’s play takes over,” says Duncombe. “The men are in conversation about this evening that is boring them to death. They’re really talking about whether there are any women they can hit on and score with.”
LaBute sounds intrigued by Michel’s re-location of his play from a bar to an arena of high art. “I love it when someone handles [my plays] in a different way. Whether it’s successful or not is one thing, but the fact that someone is willing to do that, to continue to stretch their own work, is great. I don’t always feel that a director needs to do something different just to get their fingerprints on it. That’s not as interesting to me as when someone has a really viable idea.”
As for Michel’s art gallery setting, LaBute says he’s “very curious. I’m not precious about it. In this case I was quite open to the idea, because there was a connection to the other exhibition that is happening at roughly the same time.”
Postcards from the edge
This special art-themed theater project is being presented in collaboration with an art exhibition at the Robert Berman Gallery, right next door, which features the work of photographer Gerald Slota paired with the prose of LaBute. Entitled Home.Sweet.Home, this creative art project is an evocative series of postcards, created when LaBute began emailing a premise or an idea with the hope of sparking a visual response from Slota. Describing the process, which occurred over the course of a year, LaBute says, “I began to feed him little, three-line stories. Sometimes not even stories but impulses or lines of dialogue. Then we would see if that would shake anything in him, that would make him create a picture to accompany that.”
The result was a series of about two dozen “greeting cards” or “postcards.” They were exhibited late last year in New York, at the Ricco Maresca Gallery. LaBute says the pair created some new material for the Santa M0nica show. These two art-and-LaBute-themed events will both open and run concurrently in January 2012, with the exhibition scheduled January 7 through February 4, and the play continuing through February 26.
LaBute says that Michel’s staging concept makes a nice correlation with both the Bergamot Station space and the art exhibition happening right next door, adding, “I’m very eager to see them both.”
Filthy Talk for Troubled Times: Scenes of Intolerance , presented by City Garage, Track 16, Building C1, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Opens Jan. 6. Plays Thurs.– Sat. 8 pm; Sun. 4 pm. Through Feb. 26. Tickets: $25.00, Students/Seniors w/ID $15.00; Sundays: “Pay-What-You-Can” (at the door.) http://www.citygarage.org/
Home.Sweet.Home by Gerald Slota and Neil LaBute. Robert Berman Gallery C2, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave. Santa Monica. Opening Reception on Saturday, January 7, 2012, 5-7 pm. Performance to follow at City Garage at Track 16 Gallery at 8 pm. Exhibition runs from Saturday, January 7 until Saturday, February 4. C2 Gallery Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11am – 6pm.
***All Filthy Talk for Troubled Times: Scenes of Intolerance production photos by Paul M. Rubenstein