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Theatre Review (LA): In a Garden by Howard Korder at South Coast Repertory

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South Coast Repertory is known for developing relationships with playwrights. This is great for the playwrights, who get to see their plays mounted, and interesting for their audience. One such playwright is Howard Korder. In 1989 SCR put on its first Korder play, Search and Destroy. Hollow Lands followed, and now comes a little gem of a play, In a Garden, with the usual themes of overweening ambition, hubris, lying, and deception to gain one's own selfish aims, and a basic pessimism about most human endeavors. In A Garden is about all that plus some observations about the U.S.'s attempts at dealing with the Middle East.

There are three characters in the play, which is set in the fictitious country of Aqaat. The Minister of Culture (Mark Harelik) has summoned a young American architect (Matt Letscher) to build him a small gazebo, but he puts the architect through a series of tests and over time, years in fact, revealing to him what he wants and how he wants it.

The minister uses deception and lies to humble the architect, who we find out has never actually built anything. Letscher builds for us a man torn apart by his own ambition who finally is trapped into an impossible situation. Harelik is brilliant in playing the infuriating charmer from the Middle East. Over the course of the play, we discover that he too is under the thumb of the dictator, chillingly played by Jarion Monroe. In the final scenes we find the Minister tortured, and the architect totally stymied. In the end the gazebo has been built only to be destroyed by an ongoing conflict. This parallels America's dealing with Israel, Iran, and Iraq and reminds us just how futile, on a human level, it is to expect a fulfilling outcome.

The wonderful set by Christopher Areca exemplifies the kind of barren style one might find in a palace in a Middle Eastern country. David Kay Mickelson provides the costumes (suits mainly) and Lap-Chi Chu provides the lighting. The director David Warren has really captured Korder’s style and lets it unfold throughout, keeping us unsure of the outcome. In A Garden will be performed at South Coast Repertory until March 28th.

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About Robert Machray

  • joel beers

    I saw this play last night and I agree with your review. Two things you don’t mention is just how humorous this quite serious play is; the interplay between the Minister of Culture and the architect is fantastic.
    Also, Mark Harelik as the Minister delivers an incredible, commanding performance. He’s one of the best stage actors of our time and anyone who gets a chance to see him in this play or any other performance should absolutely experience this master craftsman at work.