Motor crossed with theater

Our Garage turns their car dwelling into a theater, performing ‘Philip Guston’

Megan Kadrmas

Welcome to Our Garage. It’s a simple two-car, with some room to spare, situated behind an inconspicuous house in the Longfellow neighborhood.

It’s a garage like any other in the neighborhood, until at night, when Our Garage squeezes 30 to 40 people into the space for an intimate theater experience.

Our Garage, converted to a theater for the fourth consecutive summer by The Off-Leash Area theater group, is a fully functioning garage. Enter on a Friday or Saturday night, however, and the shelving units and oil stains fade to black as the space fills with the sights and sounds of the group’s second run of “Philip Guston Standing On His Head / Standing Philip Guston On His Head.”

Philip Guston, an American painter who experienced his peak fame and success as an Abstract Expressionist, was shunned by the art community when he suddenly abandoned the abstract movement and began painting distinguishable objects.

This hourlong performance piece embodies the struggle Guston experienced later in his life to maintain his creativity and integrity as an artist as well as his sanity.

Guston, played by co-artistic director Paul Herwig, is literally entrapped within one of his paintings.

The set, which at first appears to only serve as a backdrop, becomes interactive as parts of it thrust forward or break away. This interaction with the set itself is an interesting reflection of an artist’s relationship with his work.

The set opens up to give Guston his brushes and later, violently attacks him from every side.

The audience is also engulfed in this creative world, teetering dangerously close to stumbling into the insanity. They are mere feet away from the heart of the stage, able to see sweat beads on Herwig’s neck.

Herwig said the group wanted to detail not only Guston’s struggles but the adverse effects on his relationships. The artist’s wife Musa (played by co-artistic director Jennifer Ilse), who admits her first love was painting, is the typical 1950s housewife who buried her dreams and aspirations to support those of her husband.

The couple paint together during the play, with beautifully choreographed movements turning into a frenzied competition.

Guston has no speaking lines and Musa has only a handful. She is the narrator and left to explain important events from Guston’s past and reflect upon his current state. Guston does not leave the stage when Musa enters into his painting to speak; he continues his actions silently in the background.

While not outright distracting, this draws full attention away from Musa, causing the audience to experience first hand her supporting role in their relationship. Musa still tries to convince herself that she made the right decision to choose “our” life over “my” life.

The use of other art forms is integral in this and other Off-Leash Area performances. Puppetry enlivens Guston’s images, showing his loosening grasp on reality. The audience relies heavily on the music to reflect action and emotion, since there is little dialogue to express the characters’ ideas and intentions. The sound mashes childish melodies with intense images of Guston’s hallucinations and struggles.

Perhaps this is one of the plays where you should read the guide, Herwig suggested. Guston’s history is not well-known to most and reading the biographical information included in the pamphlet before the show was helpful to understanding the imagery and action of the play.

After the curtain closes, the audience is invited to join the cast for popcorn and conversation around a bonfire in the backyard. If it is a nice night, this hourlong play can stretch into an evening of socializing and connecting with the theater community.

The audience-actor interaction comes full circle, from the audience silently immersing itself in the world the actors portray to everyone physically interacting. The audience intimately bonds with the characters on stage, and then moves outside to bond with the actors who skillfully brought these characters to life.