The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

The theatrical adaptation of short stories from Aimee Bender's collection "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt" is to the stories what a musicvideo is to a song. City Garage artistic director Frederique Michel doesn't dramatize these four tales of feminine yearning -- she stages them, providing a visualization of the text that's sometimes literal but often not.

With:
With: Maureen Byrnes, Bo Roberts, Victoria Coulson, Paul M. Rubenstein, Maia Brewton, Kathryn Sheer, Laurence Coven, Ilana Gustafson.

The theatrical adaptation of short stories from Aimee Bender’s collection “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” is to the stories what a musicvideo is to a song. City Garage artistic director Frederique Michel doesn’t dramatize these four tales of feminine yearning — she stages them, providing a visualization of the text that’s sometimes literal but often not. It’s a bold project in conception, yet it’s also rather a tame — even prosaic — way of translating the literary into the theatrical. Bender’s source material is strong, though, and even if the musicvideos aren’t especially imaginative, the songs are very much worth hearing.

Michel takes three of Bender’s short stories, “Call My Name,” “Fell This Girl,” and the title tale, “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt,” and uses them nearly verbatim. She also dices up one more, taking one character’s tale from the piece “Fugue” and spreading it out among the interstices between the three main events as well as at the beginning and end.

All the stories focus on the notion of feminine desire, on unfulfilled passion. In Bender’s elegant prose, sexual needs have a near-spiritual element — they run deep, are infused with a sense of mystery along with pure sensuality.

In the funniest of the selections, “Call My Name,” a young wealthy woman (a smartly playful Victoria Coulson), in an elegant red dress, follows home a shy man (Paul M. Rubenstein) she has spotted on the San Francisco subway. Soon, she’s naked and tied up in his apartment, all at her own bidding, while the man continues to be wholly uninterested in her desperate desire to be taken.

Like that piece, the next, “Fell This Girl,” follows a young woman (Maia Brewton) in search of a deep, and ultimately futile, connection with a lover.

The protagonist in this story, named Susie, even follows the object of her affection below the city streets where he works. Bender has a way with images — the subterranean setting matches the depths of Susie’s desire, which runs far beneath the superficial. When her lover (Rubenstein, again) expels her from this place, she goes in search of another sexual encounter, this time even less fulfilling.

The production design, by Charles A. Duncombe Jr., makes liberal use of photographs and video, which are projected onto a series of staggered flats in the back of the playing space. A video of a moving subway train begins and ends the stories, while evocative stills, by Rick Pickman, help establish the setting, whether it be the underground, a man’s apartment, a hotel room, a field, etc. It’s not done literally, which keeps the emphasis on the metaphorical or, at least, emotional nature of some of the material.

There’s a poetical quality to the evening, Bender’s lovely language paired with some evocative images.

The last fully staged piece, “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt,” involves a handicapped father (Laurence Coven) and his teenage daughter (Ilana Gustafson), who like the older female characters has a most passionate passion for passion itself.

It’s the best of the stories, and the most theatrical of the ones Michel has selected. Many of Bender’s tales are surrealistic, but this last piece is the only one here firmly in that vein, and it requires Michel to make some more significant, and successful, choices in interpreting the text. By the time we get to this one, though, Michel has put all of the stories into the same basic rhythm, which dulls the effect.

Maureen Byrnes plays the main character in “Fugue,” a woman separated from her husband who encounters a burning bush. She’s the one performer who seems to define her own style, mixing the quirky and the banal.

The others are good, but they never quite seem to leap out from being narrated beings and into live-ness, even when they’re literally stripped naked.

There’s a lot of talent on display here, but still the endeavor doesn’t take a leap into the transporting. It’s more a mixture of the short stories with graphic design than with theater, and many of the images do in fact seem like book-cover jackets.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

City Garage, Santa Monica; 45 seats; $20

Production: A City Garage presentation in one act of stories by Aimee Bender, adapted by Frederique Michel. Director, Michel.

Creative: Set, lighting and sound, Charles A. Duncombe Jr.; costumes, Michele Gingembre. Opened March 8, reviewed March 9, 2002; closes April 21. Running Time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast: With: Maureen Byrnes, Bo Roberts, Victoria Coulson, Paul M. Rubenstein, Maia Brewton, Kathryn Sheer, Laurence Coven, Ilana Gustafson.

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