Adventures in Motion Pictures

Matthew Bourne's 'Car Man'

by Ed Lippman

September 19, 2001 -- Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles

Small Town America. Three words that evoke such vivid images; tree-lined neighborhoods with manicured lawns and quiet, sleepy homes; picturesque downtown squares lined with shops. Harmony, U.S.A. is one of those towns. Like most small towns, everyone knows everybody’s business -- good and bad. And, like most small towns, newcomers easily find turmoil and conflict lie just beneath the veneer we affectionately call American Dream. A sign welcomes you to Harmony, U.S.A., population 375. It also reminds you to “Drive Safely.” Rest assured, safe driving is the last thing you need to worry about when passing through this town.

The curtain comes up on a frenetic display of penned up energy. Testosterone and tension fill the air as men and women alike partake in an animalistic dance, more a repressed mating ritual. This is a town on the edge and it only takes the arrival of a mysterious stranger named Luca to stir up an already brewing pot. Played in this performance with a steely intensity by Ewan Wardrop, his Luca is a physical and sexual presence to be dealt with. The moment he arrives in town he immediately sets about using its residents to his own ends.

One of his first conquests is Lana, a steamy, red-head whose looks and a body every hot-blooded man in town lusts after. Saranne Curtin danced the role, a dead-ringer for movie queen Lana Turner, a perfect embodiment of the seductress with big-city dreams trapped in a loveless marriage of convenience. When she and Luca first catch each others eye, everything stops -- literally. In one of many filmic moments, the noir exchange of glances and cigarette smoke says it all. These two are trouble with a capital “T” and they’re destined to happen.

Luca next sets his sights on the hapless Angelo, victim of all the town’s bullying males. Luca befriends Angelo, securing himself a job in the town garage at the same time. Will Kemp lives and breathes the role of Angelo, burying him in oversized clothes as if to hide himself from everyone. His only refuge is the sympathetic and loving Rita, Lana’s sister. Angelo fights her overtures, but gives in leading to one of the evenings more enjoyable and inventive Pas de Deux.

When Luca finally beds Lana, the sexual energy is as violent as it is destined. He doesn’t stop there, seducing Angelo the very same night. Both his conquests linger in the afterglow in one of the funnier scenes of the performance, ultimately setting about a series of changes that end in murder and blood, forever changing the peaceful town of Harmony.

The story as a whole is more a metaphor for the loss of innocence in America as we moved from insular country to a world power after World War II. We long for simpler times, the days of innocence associated with the era before the 1950’s, innocence lost as we expanded sexual freedoms in the 60’s culminating in the self-absorption of the “Me” generation. Watching Harmony, U.S.A. unwind as it falls from grace is both unnerving and titillating at the same time. Yet, we are keenly aware the seeds of it’s own destruction lay dormant all along. Any Luca could walk into any Harmony and bring it to its knees.

Lez Brotherstons’s set design captures the barest hints of the quintessential small town. A neon sign lights up Dino’s Café, garage doors raise and lower converting an auto repair shop into an apartment then a prison, walls move in and out creating bays in the garage and beatnik night clubs. There are no black curtains or scrims hanging in the wings or behind the sets, allowing the industrial feel of the backstage to creep up on the town. By the middle of the second act, the town has a rust-belt tinge, accentuating the spiritual demise of the towns residents.

The dancers were all captivating to watch. Matthew Bourne uses a smattering of dance styles to communicate the feelings and moods of the characters. Everything within sight, furniture, sets, props, even the clothing they wear end up incorporated into their performance. Will Kemp and Ewan Wardrop stand out. Dance seems a logical extension of their characters, scarily intense and real. Saranne Curtin uses her body in all the right ways as she slinks the role of Lana into existence. Matthew Bourne creates vivid characters for all the company, giving each and every dancer’s character a name, history, attitude, and way of moving. This makes for an extremely interesting group of people to watch, though at times it did overshadow the main action.

There is one moment early in the second act that deserves special mention when a Cabaret act skewers Martha Graham in a most hilarious way. Etta Murfitt plays Virginia, a crazed, knife-wielding Medea, posing and marching about shadowed by two mimes, Scott Ambler (who also plays Lana’s overweight, obnoxious husband Dino) and Darren J. Fawthrop. As she agonizes her way across the stage, the mimes pose and prance, eyeballs popping and rolling around in silent mirth asif they alone understand there's a joke here. This scene alone was worth the price of admission.

The only element that really seemed out of place was a gag involving mosquitos throughout the show. Hearing the sound of the tiny gnats flying around took me out of the action happening right in front of me. The whole story relies on music and dance, so the sudden presence of a "real world" noise took me back, jarring me out of the moment. I can understand the thought behind the sound effect, but felt it was not entirely necessary.

I have to agree with Matthew Bourne's feeling that the music should be taped, blaring out at the audience. The Los Angeles shows are to a live orchestra. Though up to the task, I have to wonder how much more a pounding soundtrack, blasted at the audience as Bourne indicated he prefers, would have added to the experience. There were moments where the sensation of a pounding bass reverberating through the hall would have added rather than detracted from the performance.

In the second act, Luca’s mystery predator robs the town of its innocence. Lana and the towns residents go along for the ride all too willingly, becoming monstrous in their own right. Luca’s descent into alcoholism compounds his own sense of guilt. As he dances with his conscious, another inevitable turn of events begins to unfold leading to the final moral demise of every resident of Harmony.

The second act unfolds all too quickly. It’s sudden and brutal ending leaves you stunned. The silence in the theater in the last few moments was deafening. Much as America struggles to find its way back to the safe comfort of simpler times, Harmony is determined to set itself right again. But the curtain comes down on a different town, wiser for it’s complicity in horrendous acts. The cost of its flirtation wears heavy on its less charged, more somber population.


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