I love the whole notion of Frederique Michel directing these shows that manage to be both challenging and baffling. I won't even pretend I can make head or tails of this production, but this is not a theatre that is making its reputation on accessibility. The physical structure, with its between-numbers address and its alley entrance, serves as an apt venue for the equally abstruse play within. The artistry involved cannot be denied. Not getting the piece makes us want to rise to the occasion next time—as opposed to running screaming into the night, the response to recondite theatre with nothing behind it.
This particular outing is a deconstruction of that bit of second-tier Shakespeare, the mayhem and revenge-fest Titus Andronicus. Playwright Albert Ostermaier—rather a Big Thing in Germany; if you don't read Titus at least read the program notes—has reconfigured the piece so that Titus (played variously by Stephan Pocock, Bo Roberts, and a mannequin torso) is a writer whose art has been put at the service of a morally dubious state. Daughter Lavinia (played by Maia Brewton and a mannequin torso, but not the same one) functions more as a muse this time around, making her eventual appearance in hacked-up form all the more poignant. Leni Riefenstahl (Katharina Lejona) and Elia Kazan and Ezra Pound (Paul M. Rubenstein) also appear, musing on using their art in the service of something bigger. Only the Riefenstahl moment made the fog in my head clear; trenchant points were being made about the culture of the image and entertainment as control, but too soon the character was gone. The image thing carries through in Charles Duncombe Jr.'s set, a shrine to physical culturism. The work has been translated by Anthony Vivis, but I kept thinking that a production in German might be more effective, as the audience could then concentrate on the meta-theatrical and not get bogged down in the words.
Lejona and Rubenstein spend most of the evening functioning as the Angel of Death and the Dark Angel, respectively, and in these capacities they set the tone of the piece. They're spooky and lascivious and just about everything but safe. Michele Gingembre has put the Tituses (Titi? Titae?) in boxy red suits, indeed sticking to an effective red-and-black palette throughout—even Lavinia's white dress is spattered with blood. Michel doesn't so much block her actors as choreograph them; at the same time they're not so much speaking as singing without benefit of melody—if that makes any sense. Sometimes the challenge for the audience is in keeping a straight face, but it's definitely theatre by and for the artistically ambitious.
"Titus Tartar," presented by and at City Garage, 13401/2 4th St., Santa Monica. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 5:30 p.m. June 14-July 21. $10-20. (310) 319-9939.