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Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

The Car Man

Also see Sharon's review of Kiss Me, Kate

Men in T-shirts and jeans, with dirt under their fingernails. Barefoot women with skirts that flutter to reveal glimpses of their underwear. A stranger in a worn leather jacket. Sweat dripping off muscular bodies. The Car Man is what happens when Matthew Bourne puts his mind to creating a sexy ballet and, given his Swan Lake, that's saying quite a lot.

Bourne takes two couples living in a small American town, Harmony, adds in one cocky and charismatic drifter, stirs it all up to the passionate music of Bizet's Carmen, and lets the sparks fly. The first couple is Dino, the boorish owner of a garage, and his wife, Lana. Lana moves through the show in a perpetual state of steamy desire, as if she just walked in from a Tennessee Williams play. Dino is of little use to Lana, and when he posts a "Man Wanted" sign at his garage, it perfectly echoes Lana's sentiments. Luca, the drifter, is the man they were looking for. Strong and sexy, Luca's tattoo might as well say "100% prime." Lana is immediately attracted to him, and it's very clear there is going to be trouble in Harmony.

Will Kemp as Angelo
The other couple is Rita, Lana's sister, and Angelo, her shy, virginal boyfriend. Rita's tender attempts to seduce Angelo, and his tentative replies, make a delicate counterpoint to the furniture-toppling carnality of Luca and Lana. It would be a mistake, though, to think that Angelo and Rita are just supporting players in the Lana-Luca affair. For while the first act belongs largely to Lana and Luca, the second act is Angelo's. As many as five performers rotate in each of the five principal roles, but when Will Kemp is dancing Angelo, he is the emotional center of the production. Kemp dances Angelo with grace and sensitivity, and when Angelo is betrayed, we see his dejection and misery transform into a cold desire for vengeance. At one point, Kemp begins a turn and, in one smooth movement, picks up a weapon as he continues the revolution. When the turn ends, he is poised to kill. The change is a chilling one, and it is perfectly illustrative of Kemp's entire performance, deftly portraying the conflict between Angelo's gentle nature and the rage to which he has been provoked.

This is not to slight the rest of the company. The vast majority of performers in The Car Man were in the show's original cast and their experience and facility with Bourne's choreography shine through. Bourne himself is in excellent form, so confidently conveying his story through movement that he may actually be toying with the show, inserting a country/western dance precisely played to the music of Carmen simply because he can. Indeed, if there is a flaw to The Car Man, it is that it doesn't stop. Even which Luca and Lana are sharing a private moment, the ensemble is wildly dancing upstage and in the wings. Perhaps a slightly more magnetic pair would prevent this from even being an issue (Alan Vincent and Saranne Curtin were playing Luca and Lana when reviewed), but as it stands, the ensemble sometimes detracts attention away from where it ought to be. In contrast, during one of Angelo's second act numbers, the ensemble reflects and magnifies his emotions. It's powerful stuff which makes use of the medium of dance to the fullest theatrical effect.

The Car Man is for mature audiences only, and much is made of some brief male nudity. The nudity is inconsequential; it is just some guys showering and toweling off. It doesn't hold a candle to what these dancers do with their clothes on. George Bernard Shaw said that dance is "the vertical expression of a horizontal desire." Bourne has his dancers express that desire horizontally as well, and The Car Man includes some of the most effective and intense depictions of sex possible by performers who aren't actually exposing themselves. It's not for the faint-hearted; and it's not to be missed.

Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre, Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director/Producer; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; and Katherine Doré for Adventures in Motion Pictures present Matthew Bourne's The Car Man, an Auto-Erotic Thriller. Directed and Choreographed by Matthew Bourne; Designed by Lez Brotherston; Music by Terry Davies & Rodion Shchedrin's Carmen Suite (after Bizet's Carmen); Lighting by Chris Davey; Sound by Matt McKenzie/Autograph; Musical Director Brett Morris; Associate Directors Scott Ambler & Etta Murfitt. Performances are given by kind permission of Musikverlag Hans Sikorski, Hamburg.

The Company:
Scott Ambler, Sam Archer, Stephen Berkeley-White, Belinsa Lee Chapman, Andrew Corbett, Saranne Curtin, Vicky Evans, Darren J Fawthrop, Valentina Formenti, Adam Galbraith, Nina Goldman, Heather Habens, Paulo Kadow, Will Kemp, Nanette Kincaid, Rachel Lancaster, James Leece, Etta Murfitt, Kevin Muscat, Neil Penlington, Emily Piercy, Arthur Pita, Lee Smikle, Alan Vincent, Ewan Wardrop, Shelby Williams, Richard Winsor.

The Car Man plays at the Ahmanson Theatre through October 28, 2001.

Photo by Bill Cooper

Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Los Angeles area.

-- Sharon Perlmutter

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