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Magda Romanska: Opheliamachine

June 14 - July 28, 2013

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Purchase Opheliamachine tickets online at Brown Paper Tickets or call the Box Office at 310-453-9939 to reserve seats.

Directed by Frédérique Michel
Produced by Charles A. Duncombe

Cast: Joss Glennie Smith, Leah Harf, Kat Johnston, RJ Jones, Megan Kim, Cynthia Mance, Saffron Mazzia

This smart, ruthlessly funny play, tracks Ophelia’s impossible journey to bridge that vast space. It is a postmodern tale of love, sex, porn, and politics in the fragmented world of our confused emotions and our modern, global, virtual sexuality.

“Opheliamachine embodies a profound understanding of drama, the poetic nature of the stage and the politics of aesthetics. Opheliamachine is a gorgeous new creation.” – Anne Bogart, Director

Third Sunday Q&A
After the Sunday, June 30 matinee, please join us for an informal discussion with the cast and creators of Opheliamachine.

This project is supported, in part, by the Los Angeles County Supervisors through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and the Wells Fargo Foundation.


By Lovell Estell III

"I expel all the semen which I have received. I transform the milk of my breasts into deadly poison." Lifted from Heiner Müller's eternally confounding Hamletmachine, the words are a fitting part of the opening tableau of Polish playwright Magda Romanska's similarly themed postmodernist drama, now in its world premiere at City Garage.

Seated behind an old typewriter on a stage that's segmented into halves, Ophelia is realized as something of a triadic entity -- brain/narrator, terrorist and madwoman (Kat Johnston, Megan Kim, Saffron Mazzia), while Hamlet (Joss Glennie Smith), situated in the other half of the stage, mostly watches television.

Romanska uses this framework for a vigorous deconstruction of the feminine psyche, image and gender roles, and her script -- heavy laden with dense imagery and symbolism -- explores love, sex, violence, politics, class sensibilities, feminist aesthetics, the vacuities of mass culture and the timeless mystery of death. This is theater that's not easily accessible and is devilishly bleak at times, but it's not without shards of humor, and is relentlessly provocative and challenging under imaginative direction by Frédérique Michel. The production is nicely embellished with a collage of visuals projected on a huge screen and two monitors. Cynthia Mance, RJ Jones and Leah Harf round out the cast.


Opheliamachine an uncompromising vision at City Garage

By Philip Brandes

In her own fashionably postmodern fashion, the title character in the visually stylish “Opheliamachine” at Santa Monica’s City Garage is a tragic figure, though she bears only slight textual ties to Shakespeare’s original archetype.

Instead, Magda Romanska’s fiercely confrontational new play is more directly a response to German avant-garde theater director Heiner Müller’s notorious 1977 deconstruction, “Hamletmachine”  (also staged by City Garage, in 1996).

Müller’s play had transformed Ophelia from victim to Electra-fied avenger, but Romanska, not satisfied with its persistent patriarchal baggage, focuses on gender relations and the struggle to liberate feminine identity from its cultural and political determinants. A writer seated at a typewriter, this Ophelia (Kat Johnston), creates her own story through stream-of-consciousness monologues as densely associative and enigmatic as Müller’s, while Hamlet (Joss Glennie-Smith) sits on the sidelines enslaved to TV programming.

Director Frederique Michel launches her staging with Ophelia’s enraged final speech from Müller’s play, neatly bridging the two productions and establishing specificity when Romanska’s Ophelia announces her determination not to identify with the past.

Easier said than done amid contemporary media-driven conformist pressures (smartly expressed in Charles A. Duncombe’s video-saturated production design). Further emphasizing Ophelia’s struggle, Michel employs her “Hamletmachine” device in representing a protagonist’s fractured psyche with multiple actors (Johnston, Megan Kim, Saffron Mazzia, Leah Harf).

Though Ophelia’s quest for self-determination teeters on the brink of inevitable annihilation, compared with perpetually servile Horatio (RJ Jones) or shopaholic Gertrude (Cynthia Mance) she “fails better” (in Samuel Beckett’s sense). With few traditional theater points of reference to navigate by, her uncompromising journey is not for the intellectually incurious.


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

By Myron Meisel

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.)

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.


Forging Meaning

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Remember the last time you learned another language?

Think about everything that's necessary to communicate in another's tongue. You've got to have a series of symbols that remain fairly constant. You have to not only learn those symbols but you have to repeat them, re-experience them until they take on deeper personal meaning. And, perhaps most importantly, a community to speak with -- so the act of tedious repetition can give way to the poetry of language.

To appreciate City Garage's world-premiere production of Opheliamachine, it helps to place the project into the larger context of the companies work - to appreciate the theatrical language being created.

Okay, I can hear some of you grumbling - what does all this semiotic mumbo jumbo have to do with theater?

Well take just the title of the show -- Opheliamachine. You might think -- oh, those are just pretty sounds. Or you might jump to Shakespeare and Hamlet's tragic love. Or you might get the reference to Heiner Muller's Hamletmachine, a sort of nine-page post-modern proving ground for ambitious avante-garde

The play itself, written by Magda Romanska, is a series of scenes that explore the themes of feminity, power, sex, rage, love, and madness through a faceted portrayal of Ophelia. Our title character is split in three: we have Ophelia the Brain -- typing away at a vintage typewriter complete with bell; Ophelia the terrorist clad in black fatigues with a .45 tucked into her bare midriff; and finally Ophelia the Mad confined to a wedding dress and, at times, a wheelchair.

Now, if you're familiar with director Frederique Michel's work, you'll recognize a certain perfection to the world-premiere of Opheliamachine happening at City Garage.

If you've never been - here's what you are almost guaranteed to see at any of their productions: deep blue light, a minimal platform set, bare breasts -- both male and female, the color red echoed in scarves, costumes, lipstick. You get the idea.

Now what you make of either Opheliamachine or really City Garage depends on whether you buy into the larger project. A fair criticism would be 'it all looks the same' which I'd argue is part of the point. Director Frederique Michel and Producer Charles A. Duncombe are creating a dramatic language and like any language that requires repetition - consistency. If you are willing to do the work the experience becomes larger than a single play: a crazed Ophelia in a red wheelchair evokes their production of Sara Kane's 4.48 Psychosis. Plays begin talking to each other - personal connections begin to emerge.

If you're looking for a play or a company that ties everything into neat little knots - this probably isn't for you. If you're willing to tackle a play as much as experience it - you won't be disappointed you spent 60 minutes in their world.

Opheliamachine plays at City Garage in Santa Monica through July 28.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

"...Director Frédérique Michel and her collaborator, producer-designer Charles A. Dumcombe, are well within their element... Funny yet brutal..." -Hollywood Reporter