Theater Review: CARDENIO (City Garage, Santa Monica)

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by Tony Frankel on March 2, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles


In Cardenio, now playing at City Garage, a character states in Latin, “De gustibus non disputandum est,” which means “There’s no accounting for taste.” Well, there’s no accounting for what I saw on stage tonight. Across-the-board amateur to average to appalling acting from a 12-member cast (all of whom have trod the boards with this company before); awkward, bemusing blocking and interpretation from Artistic Director Frédérique Michel; and a shaky script by Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt and post-modern playwright Charles L. Mee. The point here was to deliver a sunny comedy about three couples rethinking their love for each other on a terrace in Umbria, Italy. Instead we get a rapid-paced but dull misfire that falls like a house of Cardenio.

Anthony Sannazzaro, Gifford Irvine

Mee’s plays are audacious, imaginative, weird, sometimes funny, and can even be powerful and thought provoking; but they are not for all tastes. He likes to piggyback on a classic and reassemble it, or as he says, “smash it to ruins, and then atop its ruined structure of plot and character, write a new play, with all new language.” His works, which usually center around the twisted nature of love relationships. are very tough to direct, which may be why some great directors have chosen to stage his works.

Anthony Sannazzaro, Devin Davis-Lorton, Gifford Irvine

Here, Mee and Greenblatt take Cardenio — a.k.a. “Shakespeare’s lost play,” a tragedy of revenge mostly co-written, scholars think, by John Fletcher — and attempt a modern comedy that ultimately bears little to no resemblance to it. Written with the Aristotelian Unities (one locale, one day, succinct action) the play is mere fluff — not good, not bad — but there’s nothing Shakespearean about it. Plus, it’s sorely lacking in any sophisticated puns or wordplay, which begs the question why Ms. Michel didn’t even seem to attempt sight gags or physical humor for the characters and their ridiculous reversals, unjustified jealousies and silly segues.

Gifford Irvine, Devin Davis-Lorton

At first it seems like this will be done in the style of The Importance of Being Earnest when Anselmo (Anthony Sannazzaro) enters in a panic on the day of his intimate second wedding to Camila (Devin Davis-Lorton) at his mom’s home in Umbria (the first wedding was at City Hall). He doesn’t trust Camila’s love, and asks best man Will (Gifford Irvine) to flirt with his bride for proof of her fidelity. Sadly, it soon veers from what could have been a Wildean comedy of manners into a flat farcical rendering that has no sense of  time (or timing) or place (Charles Duncombe‘s set looks more like the back of a rented ballroom than a lived-in stone farmhouse).

Anthony Sannazzaro (center) with cast

Complications ensue in the plot when parents Luisa (Martha Duncan) and Alfred (Duncan’s real-life husband Bo Roberts) surprisingly arrive with both Susana (Natasha St. Clair-Johnson) — Anselmo’s love interest from college — and a play to perform: a recently discovered lost play by Shakespeare called Cardenio. The actor parents wish to perform the play with the staff and wedding attendees before they leave to do the play in Maine. Then there’s Camila’s loud, harsh sister Doris, rendered with a one-note obnoxiousness by Kat Johnson.

Anthony Sannazzaro (standing, left) with cast

Can you imagine the possibilities in such a set-up? I’m still trying to figure out what Michel was going for. Actors eschew beats, pace with no motivation, storm on and off stage, overact like high-schoolers, stand in stilted tableaux, and deliver lines in either a forced or crazy cadence that made no sense whatsoever, especially in monologues. And how odd it is that the play mom brought isn’t Cardenio as she states, but, I believe, Theobald’s Double Falsehood, a version of the story of Cardenio found in Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which was also the source for John and Will’s 1601 play.

Performed in tiny fragments (everybody keeps interrupting everybody so we never get to see Double Falsehood), the amateurs performing on the terrace have oddly memorized their lines for the most part. The same applies to the Italian handyman Rudi (Troy Dunn) as he acts out several characters in a sort of one-man show, during which each character saunters on and watches him stone-faced (maybe they noticed Dunn’s accent going in and out). And why is Susana clearly lip-synching opera when it’s supposed to be real? (An irony would be to have the actress sing live, but only Anselmo hears her as a diva.) When Camila drops her wedding dress, leaving her buck naked before exiting, you KNOW you’re at City Garage! You just won’t know what universe you are in.

(front) Gifford Irvine, Devin Davis-Lorton,
(back) Anthony Sannazzaro, Natasha St. Clair-Johnson

I did love Michel’s dance number which had actors with a wine glass in their mouth instead of a rose. I’d say it was incongruous, but there was no context to know if it was or not. The only things that landed right in 135 minutes were my eyelids.

photos by Paul M. Rubinstein

Gity Garage
Bergamot Station Arts Center
2525 Michigan Ave. Building T1 in Santa Monica
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 4
ends on March 26, 2023
for tickets ($25 – $30), call 310.453.9939 or visit City Garage
Thurs and Sun “Pay-What-You-Can” at the door

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