Crash

Matthew Bourne's fiendishly smart The Car Man sends a small town on a collision course with violence and sexual betrayal

In the opening scene of The Car Man, a chorus of working-class Italian Americans dances big and lusty with a lot of frisky thigh slapping and high-spirited sexual innuendo. You feel like you're watching a production of Oklahoma that has been invaded by West Side Story. But the performers' exuberance reflects an innocence that quickly turns sour. In Oklahoma terms, it's the equivalent of abandoning the budding friendship between the farmer and the cowboy to wallow in the darkness of Judd's lust, envy, and suicide.

Loosely based on Carmen, Bizet's hyperbolic opera of passion and betrayal, The Car Man is a jittery blend of styles where freshly scrubbed musicals lock horns with gritty film noir, while Italian cinema vérité mixes it up with surreal fantasy. Creator Matthew Bourne launches the show into this off-kilter universe from the outset. Sexy drifter Luca (danced with a feral intensity by Ewan Wardrop) wanders into town, gets a job as a car mechanic, seduces the boss's wife (Saranne Curtin, who seethes and wriggles inside her milky skin like an amalgam of Sophia Loren and Lucille Ball), beds a sensitive male ingénue named Angelo (a scrawny, intense Will Kemp), helps the boss's wife murder the inconvenient husband, then stands by while she frames Angelo. Misery of all kinds follows, including Luca's remorse and descent into alcoholism, Angelo's prison rape and descent into madness, and the moral descent of the whole darned town. All this descending takes place on a bilevel set by Lez Brotherston, a cagelike metal structure that functions as a garage (and later a prison), flanked by a diner and vintage cars.

As a choreographer bent on accessibility, Bourne fills the stage with movement that defines character and carries the plot along at breakneck speed. As a director determined to bring adventurous work to wider audiences, he creates dance sequences that evolve naturally from the convoluted syntax of the plot. In a recent interview, the artist, who made his name with an all-male rendition of Swan Lake, discussed his method of simply "looking for good reasons for dance to happen," like the fights and wild parties that are the staples of youth culture. Bourne needn't look far for an excuse to get his leads slinking across the stage: The relationship between the stranger, Luca, and the magnificent Lana exists as a kind of death tango from the get-go.

My name is Luca: Ewan Wardrop and Saranne Curtin rattle the second floor in The Car Man
My name is Luca: Ewan Wardrop and Saranne Curtin rattle the second floor in The Car Man

When these two finally get it on, it's with the savage release of sexual outlaws. Bourne sets the scene by giving us the palpable sense of a long, hot summer. The performers lounge around in a restless torpor, unable to move but too uncomfortable to rest, occasionally rousing themselves for a quick, sweaty clinch or a half-assed scuffle. The tension builds and finally explodes as Luca and Lana begin their clash-of-the-titans tryst on a table where Lana has been kneading bread. They finish up in Lana's apartment above the garage, illuminated by a blazing inferno of light.

Meanwhile, the rest of the town writhes in a series of peripatetic erotic duets that echo the transgressive variety of Luca and Lana's coupling. Afterward, Luca smokes on the fire escape wearing Lana's slinky negligee, a portent of his subsequent (make that immediate) seduction of Angelo in the back seat of a car. The cuckolded husband, played to perfection by Scott Ambler as a belching, farting, dirty old man, discovers the lovers and is duly dispatched by them. Cinematic devices such as flashbacks, split screens, wipes, and fades render all this action as a kind of montage and give it a psychological intimacy--as if we were simultaneously inside the characters' heads and outside, observing them.

While Bourne does not consciously parody or deconstruct his numerous sources, he admits to following his subconscious impulses, allowing, "things on [his] mind to creep into the piece." So Marlon Brando's sultry presence in Streetcar Named Desire influenced the physicalization of Luca, while River Phoenix's "tangled and introverted" movement in My Own Private Idaho became the outline for Angelo's character. For all its sampling of pop-culture icons, The Car Man is more than just a pastiche of Bourne's Top Ten theatrical moments. He seamlessly weaves the various strands of this artful spectacle into a psychological thriller that probes, teases, and bludgeons us with its mythic power. "There is the way in which people in American small towns know everyone else's business," the Englishman says. "I find that peculiarly American." At the same time, Bourne incorporates the alienation and stylized angst found in the films of European directors like Visconti.

In Act Two, for instance, an eerie scene set in a bar/cabaret features the townspeople in a kind of country-western number with flamenco accents, while a bunch of beatnik types in black leather slither around them. A cabaret act of sorts--a Martha Graham parody of early modern dance--showcases a vengeful woman fiercely, and abstractly, attacking two men. Her over-the-top melodrama and dated symbolism is reconfigured in the next scene, as an imprisoned Angelo movingly portrays a more contemporary take on anxiety.

The final scenes move us further into a surrealistic landscape of social chaos. Angelo returns to wreak vengeance on Luca and Lana, who now seem drained of the first act's vitality. The townspeople are equally desiccated, simultaneously combative and spent, flailing around as if infected by some neurological disorder. The social order has broken down, and we are left with a town inhabited by the wretched and the doomed.

 
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