The Bourne Imperative

Well, I’m not sure whether I could stomach Lorna Luft and Dallas alumnus Ken Kercheval in a touring production of White Christmas; but Matthew Bourne’s Bizet ballet The Car Man was certainly worth a trip to the splendid Canolfan Mileniwm Cymru (Wales Millennium Centre) in Cardiff Bay. Inspired by James M. Cain’s oft-adapted 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (revived on 24 January 1952 on Hollywood Sound Stage, starring radio stalwart Richard Widmark), The Car Man is set in mid-20th century small town America (the fictional Harmony, pop. 375), The Car Man tells the story of the titular drifter who falls for the accommodating wife of his new boss (a vixen named Lana, after the actress who played her in the 1946 film version). Though easily duped, the cuckold is bound to find out, eventually, and to be less than accepting of the triangular situation.

Unlike his whimsical if choreographically frivolous Edward Scissorhands (my impressions of which I shared previously), Bourne’s earlier Car Man is proper dance theater, with an exceptional performance by Michela Meazza as Lana.

While firmly within the tradition of 19th-century melodrama without resorting to camp, The Car Man bears no resemblance to Carmen. Indeed, the story as told in movement, light, and a generous amount of stage blood is far easier to follow than that of Bizet’s opera or the Prosper Mérimée novella upon which it is based, a plot comedian Ed Wynn insisted on translating for the listening audience of Tallulah Bankhead’s radio variety program The Big Show on 26 November 1950, as opera star Lauritz Melchior struggled to perform Pagliacci:

And as the curtain rises, we see Carmen walking out of the cigarette factory. We know it’s a cigarette factory because there are doctors walking in and out of the building.

Those medical practitioners, of course, were meant to endorse tobacco rather than treat the workers or assess the risks of smoking.

Carmen has many admirers; and to each one of them she has given a lock of her hair. Isn’t that beautiful? So, Carmen, or as she is now called by her friends, Baldy, [. . .].

Not that Mr. Wynn could have possibly prepared me for the theatrical experience of The Car Man. In keeping with his celebrated all-male revision of Swan Lake, the old love triangle has been colored pink; or, rather, it is getting another—an outré—angle, as Bourne tosses a male admirer of Lana’s lover into the bloody mix of lust, jealousy, and murder. Being granted views of a communal shower, a private bedroom, and life behind bars—or wherever else you might expect intimate encounters of the same and opposite sex on a sultry evening, Bourne’s audiences can and should expect the full bodyworks.

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