nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
January 29, 2010
Zagreb Youth Theatre's production of The Garage, based on a novel and adapted for the stage by Croatian writer Zdenko Mesaric, takes place in a picturesque Croat tourist town specializing in euthanasia. This is not a misprint. Tourists from around the world travel there to "enjoy the benefits of state-of-the-art assisted suicide packages." The town, as presented in the play, has no industry other than this tourism and the lack of economic incentive leads the country to pay its poverty-stricken citizens a stipend to live there. Death and decay are everywhere and have created a seedy environment with little hope or opportunity.
The play follows Binat, a nine-year old boy who lives in the town with his violent father (billed as The Father) and diabetic mother (The Mother). Binat is introduced at the town's sole source of entertainment: he's the chief attraction at the no-holds-barred ultimate fighting matches that take place at The Garage, a crude arena set up by a character identified as The Bookie and his girlfriend, The Muscular Blonde. These matches represent a chance for Binat to lift his family from their dire circumstances. The more Binat wins, the more money they make and successive victories can lead to bigger and better venues that would provide treatments for The Mother's disease.
Binat's home life prepares him for a life inside the ring. His father goes on drinking binges and peppers him with jabs, slaps, bites, and insults. He turns rewards into punishments by lovingly offering him chocolate and then stuffing it down his throat. His affectionate mother soothes his bruises with whiskey and launches into hurtful diatribes as a result of her low blood sugar. The world around him—its poverty, its vindictiveness, its ability and desire to mine his talents—exploit him for money. Such influences create a feral man-child constantly at the ready to defend himself against viciousness both in and out of the ring.
While it may seem depressing, The Garage is dynamic and compelling. Mesaric and director Ivica Buljan clothe their despair with musicality and desperate affection. There is a tremendous amount of affection between Binat and The Mother. There are several entertaining musical interludes—TBF, a Croatian band, sits on the stage and scores the show—my favorite being the punked-out jingle advertising the settlement, "Death Is Not The End." There is also a sweet and sensual dance number between Binat and a young woman that provides him and the audience welcome respite from the cruelty at work on stage, making the inherent despair more palatable.
But just barely. The Garage presents an incredibly bleak world and Buljan drives it at a relentless pace. The energy is explosive but keeping his foot on the accelerator means there's not time to process the view. This can lead to an overwhelming experience such as the one my friend had, when she later asked, "Why do people like theatre like this?"
It's a good question. The Garage is raw. It's smart, sloppy, and full of mean and brutal episodes—The Father sells his son for sex he doesn't really want; The Father spits chocolate on The Mother which Binat then eats off her neck; The Father holds a razor to Binat's neck. (Paging Dr. Freud.) But what gives the production punch, what gives it nerve, are the times when a simple emotion springs up: a moment of affection, a hand reaching out to help, a genuine act of kindness. You root for the kindness to take hold; you watch it squirm as it's gleefully tossed about; and you bear witness when it is overwhelmed and smashed into a broken, more helpless form.
The Garage gives shape, form, music, and voice to the parts of ourselves that break and the parts that are broken. And it pleases me to report that the audience left smiling, invigorated from the experience.