Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Gone But Not Forgotten

The recent death of Prince forced many people to stop and think about what it means to be a unique talent. Statements like "There'll never be another like him" or "This marks the end of an era" reverberated throughout the press in a manner similar to how people used to groan that "They just don't write musicals like they used to." Don't believe me? Take a quick at the musicals that premiered in 1959.

Some shows, of course, quickly faded into history. Based on Sean O'Casey's 1924 play (Juno and the Paycock), Juno closed after 16 performances despite having music and lyrics by Marc Blitzstein, choreography by Agnes DeMille, and Shirley Booth as its star.

On October 22, 1959, a musical based on Eugene O'Neill's only comedy (Ah, Wilderness!) opened on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre. With music and lyrics by Bob Merrill (and book by Joseph Stein and Robert Russell), Take Me Along was nominated for eight Tony Awards. Although the cast featured Walter Pidgeon, Eileen Herlie, and Robert Morse, the only performer from the show to win a Tony Award was its extremely popular star, Jackie Gleason.


Gleason was one of the first television personalities to headline a musical on Broadway. Having won the hearts of audiences nationwide as the belligerent Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners, he subsequently appeared as the producer, host, and lead performer of The Jackie Gleason Show. To get a good idea of why Gleason was nicknamed "The Great One," spend 50 minutes watching him get roasted by Dean Martin and a crew of top comedians from days gone by.


A prolific recording artist, Gleason also appeared in such films as 1961's The Hustler, 1962's Requiem for a Heavyweight, 1963's Soldier in the Rain, 1977's Smokey and the Bandit, and 1986's Nothing in Common.


When one looks back on America's most famous fat clowns, a startling factoid comes to light. Oliver Hardy died in 1957. Zero Mostel died in 1977. Jackie Gleason died in 1987. Did his death mark the end of an era or the end of a genre?

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Gone. Irreplaceable. And yet the world goes on. Although much beloved, Gleason was only one man. What happens when an area's main industry and culture evaporate into thin air? Mike Plunkett's new documentary looks at the stark reality of such a situation through a clinical lens that is often enhanced by breathtaking natural beauty.

A scene from Mike Plunkett's documentary, Salero

Salero is set in the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. It is a barren land where, for many generations, local salt gatherers (saleros) have harvested salt using pickaxes, shovels, and buckets. In an economically depressed area, all that is available to the local men is a grueling form of manual labor.

However, with the discovery that large reserves of lithium (which has become a key component in batteries) lie below the salt crust, Bolivia's government decided to switch from mining salt the old-fashioned way to extracting the infinitely more valuable lithium (which is used throughout the tech industry). In his director’s statement, Plunkett writes:
“My initial decision to go to the Salar de Uyuni was purely an impulse. I read an intriguing article about the untapped lithium reserves beneath the salt flat, and how Bolivia was poised for historic change. But it was the images of the landscape itself that drew me there. I needed to experience this captivating place of endless, glimmering salt, before its total transformation. As a storyteller I’m fascinated by places and the power they have to shape the identities of the people who live in them. I was excited by the idea of creating a story around this mysterious place, where the Salar itself would be a central character. The salt flat is about the size of the state of Connecticut. When you’re driving out there, it feels like you’re like in a sailboat on the ocean. Standing out on the Salar for the first time is a strange feeling. It’s like stepping out of a boat at sea and being able to walk on the surface of the water.  It’s hard to judge distance. It’s very disorientating. It has a power over you psychologically. You feel the presence of the landscape. There’s nothing for hundreds of miles, except for one sound: the rhythmic digging and scraping of the saleros at work, which, at a distance, sounds like the ticking of a clock. How could we write a poem about this? How could we describe it in a stanza, this place that would astonish the great poets and unsettle the great scientists?”
A scene from Mike Plunkett's documentary, Salero

In order to service a 21st-century mineral extraction industry, hotels and roads would need to be built. An airport would have to materialize out of nowhere on the salt flat. Tourism would soon become a major economic force in local communities. While in the tiny town of Colchani, Plunkett met a salt gatherer named Moises (who became the human face of his documentary about the staggering changes which would soon engulf the area).
“His thoughtful, poetic way of describing his life, and how it had been shaped by the Salar was so moving. He seemed to embody the soul of this remote corner of the world, and to speak with its voice. He  has this way of making everything he says prophetic. It didn’t take long to discover that he was known as the most dedicated salero, working before the sun came up when no one else was around. His sense of purpose and his intimate connection to the earth was unlike anything I had witnessed before. It felt like a lifestyle from a previous age, one that technology has since erased from the modern human experience. Moises believed, unwaveringly, that his life as a salt gatherer would be passed on to his sons and carried on for generations. I identified with his vigorous passion for his work, which, in a way, is an art form. The longer we spoke, the more I became consumed with curiosity about his life and his outlook on the world. Would he have to say goodbye to everything he loved?”
Poster art for Mike Plunkett's documentary, Salero
“Moises spoke not only of his personal experience, but also had remarkable insights about the world at large, and events far beyond his small town of Colchani. Much more than the voice of one man, or of one region, he spoke to a timely, collective experience. At the outset, I anticipated a story of external conflict would unfold. I expected to bear witness to a traditional way of life as it was uprooted, cast aside, and replaced with modern industry. However, what came increasingly into focus was the internal, emotional journey of a man, as he came to terms with leaving behind his identity. As he would work each day on the Salar, and I on making the film, it was a shared effort to preserve what would otherwise be lost to history. From this, as if unearthed from the Salar itself, the universal questions of our endeavour came to light. How does our connection to place define who we are? What does progress give us, and what does it take away? What can we preserve in a world of constant change?”
A scene from Mike Plunkett's documentary, Salero

As one watches Salero, it's often difficult to imagine why anyone would want to disturb such a pristine and serene landscape. Until one snaps to attention and remembers that, in the real world, there is money to be made. Plunkett's documentary manages to look at the stark impact of industrialization on a remote area through an often poetic lens whose captivating images soften the loss of a culture and natural landscape quickly fading into past history.

Salero also benefits immensely from a beautiful musical score by Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie and Andrew David Watson's magnificent cinematography. Here's the trailer:


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Sometimes, as people age, there are moments when they think back and wonder about their loss of innocence. How did it happen? Did it make them stronger? Could their formerly fearless optimism and youthful naivete ever be recaptured?

Coming-of-age stories frequently raise the same questions described by Mike Plunkett in the process of filming Salero. "How does our connection to place define who we are? What does progress give us, and what does it take away? What can we preserve in a world of constant change?”

A perfect example of a coming-of-age story can be found in Robert Louis Stevenson's 1883 novel, Treasure Island, which has been exquisitely adapted for the stage and magnificently directed by the ever-resourceful Mary Zimmerman. The Berkeley Repertory Theatre recently presented the West Coast premiere of Zimmerman's piratical adventure in a blood-pumping staging that achieves the same level of audience buy-in as many Cirque du Soleil productions.


In an age when CGI-rendered special effects (which have become an integral part of the Pirates of the Caribbean films) have so severely reframed the thrills and chills of pirate stories and tales of buried treasure, perhaps the most amazing thing about Zimmerman's production is how it keeps audiences on the edge of their seats for the show's entire duration. It's one thing to sit back and be dazzled by a film; it's quite another to attend a live theatrical performance at which the audience wallows in the deliciously wretched excess of their willful suspension of disbelief.

Demetrios Troy as Israel Hands and John Babbo as Jim Hawkins
in a scene from Treasure Island (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Todd Rosenthal's brilliant unit set suggests a schooner's curved deck. In rough seas (or moments of internal turmoil), members of the cast can push the ship back and forth like a gigantic playground swing. Zimmerman's crew of pirates can climb up and down the Hispaniola's rigging, vanish high above the ship, or appear to be rowing a skiff ashore.

John Babbo as Jim Hawkins in a scene fromTreasure Island
(Photo by: Liz Lauren)

With costumes designed by Ana Kuzmanic, some fierce lighting designed by T.J. Gerckens, and superb sound design and original music created by Andre Pluess, this version of Treasure Island is a class act from start to finish -- the kind of dramatic experience no theatre buff in his right mind would ever want to miss. While lots of people like to practice talking like a pirate, high praise goes to John Babbo who, as young Jim Hawkins does some exceptional work with an accent from the Western coast of England.


Babbo's portrayal of young Jim Hawkins offers a sharp contrast to the thickly accented and deliciously smarmy characterization of Long John Silver by Steven Epp. An extremely versatile actor who has previously appeared at Berkeley Rep in Accidental Death of an Anarchist as well as three Molière comedies (The Miser, Tartuffe, and A Doctor In Spite of Himself), Epp has found a fantastically hammy and villainous role which fits him like a glove.

Steven Epp as Long John Silver in a scene from
Treasure Island (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Over the years, Epp has proven to be an intensely physical actor with a deep commitment to his characters and each playwright's script. In the following video, he talks about the specific appeal of portraying a man like Long John Silver.


While some may be swept away by the performances of Epp and Babbo, there is a great deal of fine acting in supporting roles. Matt DeCaro is quite wonderful as the gullible and often fatuous Squire Trelawny, while Christopher Donahue does double duty as the frightening Billy Bones and Trelawny's loyal manservant, Tom Redruth. Steve Pickering does equally well while doubling as the feared Black Dog and the shipwrecked Ben Gunn.

Matt DeCaro (Squire Trelawney), John Babbo (Jim Hawkins) and
Alex (Dr. Livesey) in a scene from Treasure Island
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With Alex Moggridge as Dr. Livesey, Philip R. Smith as Captain Smollett, Demetrios Troy as Israel Hands, and Matthew C. Yee as Abraham Gray, one gets a clear sense of the socioeconomic advantages of the privileged classes and a higher education (as well as how those advantages crumble to bits when confronted by pirates). Others in Zimmerman's ensemble included Travis Delgado as Constable Dance and Dick; Kasey Foster as Jim's mother, Mrs. Hawkins, and George Merry; and Anthony Irons as Pew.

Above all else, this is an evening which quickly seduces and then firmly holds its audience in awe through the magic and craft of live theatre. Performances of Treasure Island continue through June 5 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer.