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Charles L. Mee: Orestes 3.0: Inferno

(click here for more photos)

September 21 — November 25, 2012

Directed by Frédérique Michel
Produced by Charles Duncombe

Cast: Justin Bardales, Mitchell Colley, Nathan Dana, Justin Davanzo, Erol Dolen, Megan Kim, Samantha Geraci-Yee, Leah Harf, Katrina Nelson, Mariko Oka, Johanny Paulino, Megan Penn, Daryl Keith Roach, Bo Roberts



A Visual Feast of the Greeks

By Charlotte Stoudt, Sept. 28, 2012

The House of Atreus looks good on leather. Leather couches that is -- part of the seating at T1, the Bergamot Station Arts Center and new home of City Garage. The company’s inaugural production, the skin-flashing, free-associative “Orestes 3.0: Inferno” suits this funky black box space.

Playwright Charles L. Mee has made a career out of tweaking the Greeks, and this world premiere is a mash-up of two of his plays. Director Frédérique Michel’s visually striking result plays something like sampling: dynamic, but diffuse.

Orestes (an intense Johanny Paulino) faces trial for killing his mother, Clytemnestra. Helen of Troy (Katrina Nelson), the Kato Kaelin of the pageant, shows up in swimwear and platform sandals, while Electra (Megan Kim) anxiously twirls en pointe. Apollo hosts this media circus like a Valley dude in boardshorts, but he can’t match the mojo of Menelaus (Daryl Keith Roach), who delivers a rockin’ cover of the Bo Diddley salvo “I’m a Man.” (Justin Bardales performs the onstage music.)

Like Mee, Michel’s work tends to feel like an experiment rather than finished product. You admire her willingness to swing for the fences, even when the hits fall short. Did “Orestes 3.0” shed new light on Euripides’ dense and ancient text? Not really. But Michel stages one of the year’s most startling tableaux: A son tenderly covering his naked, beautiful and very dead mother. That image is worth Mee’s thousands of words.


Playwright Charles M. Lee takes on Euripides in this production by avant-garde company City Garage

By Myron Meisel, Oct. 1, 2012

The Bottom Line: Bold and vigorous reimagining of Euripides tragedy made trenchantly relevant to contemporary moral issues, enhanced by a striking, stylish and focused production.

Times are bad, life is tough, and things have gone horribly wrong. Who do we blame: the gods, someone (anyone) else — me? Do we share culpability? Does it matter? How do we respond to the dreadful actions of others, or of ourselves? How do we distinguish justice from self-justification, in others or in ourselves? What is to be done?

Such questions of undeniable pertinence to contemporary life and politics can trace their origins to the classical Greeks. Playwright Charles L. Mee (bobrauschenbergamerica, Big Love, The Berlin Circle) has previously wrought impressive adaptations from the Athenian theater (Agamemnon, Orestes 2.0) but he has surpassed himself in this world premiere created especially for Santa Monica’s premier avant-garde company, the City Garage, inaugurating their new and highly felicitous space at the Bergamont Art Complex.

Mee stays true to the original myth though he freely spins the narrative through a most contemporary sensibility. Agamemnon has returned from Troy to be murdered by his wife Clytemnestra for having sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to appease the gods of war. In turn, her children, Orestes (Johanny Paulino) and Electra (Megan Kim), have revenged their father by killing their mother and her lover. The city has turned upon them, and where Orestes would have been king, the only issue before the tribunal is whether they should be stoned, or their throats cut.

The action opens after the murders, the proceedings emceed by a most Dionysian Apollo (Erol Dolen, inspired and original in his creepiness), a feral satyr who takes great joy in toying with bloody human folly: after all, the gods may order the mortals to commit atrocities, but why need they obey? The playwright Sophocles is recruited for meditations on human responsibility. Menelaus (Daryl Keith Roach), King of Sparta and uncle to the accused, feels motivated by the kinship of blood to help, yet military weakness forces him to be pragmatic. Their grandfather, Tyndareus (Bo Roberts), sets aside familial bonds to be rigorously vindictive for the murder of his daughter. Orestes, remorseful but unrepentant, is goaded by his pal Pylades (Justin Davanzo) into terrorist hostage-taking as his only hope for salvation.

Everyone makes an articulate advocate for a different viewpoint, and Mee simultaneously makes each case and reveals its flaws, scrupulously avoiding judgment. The common thread is that we make principles out of our perceptions of self-interest, and above all, we preserve the capacity for denial that ensures we never recognize our own responsibility.

The most original of all the creations is Mee’s Helen (Katrina Nelson), modeled on familiar stereotypes of the Westside trophy wife yet executed with such perfect pitch she becomes unerringly fresh. Appalling, obtuse, self-absorbed yet oddly frank, even honest, Nelson’s brilliant turn conveys both acute irony and deep embodiment of character. She’s not merely a cliché, nor a pop culture reference. She’s a vivid axiom who cannot (and will not) be dismissed, enabled by breathtakingly witty couture.

All of Mee’s intellectually stimulating myriad of arguments could not take life without the animation of Frédérique Michel’s continuously inventive direction. The corps is superbly drilled, and the pace furiously drives us from one lucid speech to another. Anachronisms and modern references may abound, yet they never seem to be forced signifiers, always enlightening the point. For once the Furies in a modern realization genuinely integrate into the narrative.

Mee never lapses into the glib, even as his speakers may. His vision of human subterfuge is comprehensive in its many variations. He calls for us to examine our lives in productive ways. It is a forthright and courageous challenge, and while there is no way to gauge if this play has a life in the future, it indubitably speaks with force and cogency to the way we live now in this very moment. This has to be one of the highest callings for the theater.


To Pillage

By Anthony Byrnes, Sept. 25, 2012

Chuck Mee is not your typical playwright…[He] is not playing the same old game. And more than idle words, he stands by them as a writer. You can experience not only this ethos but also the wonderful 'pillaging' in his new play Orestes 3.0:Inferno, receiving its world premiere at City Garage. As the title suggests, the play takes as it's jumping off point the tale of Orestes. Back from the Trojan War, Orestes has killed his mother Clytemnestra and now with his sister Electra must stand trial. But describing simple plot is to miss the point of Mr. Mee's work. His plays are less about story arcs and more about assemblage and collage. He culls texts the way an artist might find the magic in a "found object." Take the first lines spoken by Helen of Troy, who appears in the City Garage production in a ruby red pin-up bathing suit and sunglasses. She announces, "First of all, I cleanse my skin with products that cleanse but don't dry, products that are natural." Could there be any more perfect introduction to the face that launched 1,000 ships?

Now contained in these lines is both the genius and the challenge of Mr. Mee's plays. Because he juxtaposes the classical rhythms of Euripides with the pedestrian beats of found text, the audience and the actors have to make tremendous leaps. In one instant you are in a Greek tribunal. In the next, an actor is confessing his erotic secrets. When it works it's thrilling. When it doesn't it feels a bit like channel surfing. Go . . . but know that you'll have to do the work of making sense of it all, which, when you think about it, is really Chuck Mee's point.”


Gods and Monsters

By Samuel Bernstein, Sept. 25, 2012

“A work of passion, intelligence, and mischief….Mee and Michel collaborate with graceful eclecticism as they seek to bring a modern sensibility to this ancient tragedy; employing music, dance, and a mélange of performance styles….Michel directs her actors with evident authority and imagination….It’s clever, fresh, and feels inspired.”