Monday, March 23, 2015

Sweet Clarity

One of the hardest tasks for theatre companies is to find a way to make classics of the dramatic literature accessible to modern audiences. Often, specific problems arise with regard to crafting translations from French, German, Russian, Italian, and other languages so that a word or phrase translated from its original cultural context can be understood by today's theatregoers.

For many years, opera companies would try to perform works like Johann Strauss II's 1874 operetta, Die Fledermaus, and his subsequent Wiener Blut (1899) -- as well as Franz Lehar's popular The Merry Widow (1905) in English translations which often fell short of the mark. During the late 20th century, Andrew Porter's translations of 37 operas (including Der Ring des Nibelungen) were used by numerous opera companies. Soon after Lotfi Mansouri introduced the use of Supertitles at the Canadian Opera Company for a 1983 production of Richard Strauss's 1909 opera, Elektra, the new technology proved to be a game changer.


Since then, more and more operas have been performed in their original language with Supertitles written in the language most familiar to the audience. In 1987, having just experienced Wagner's Ring at the Seattle Opera, I flew to Aarhus for the Danish National Opera's production of Der Ring des Nibelungen fully anticipating another production with the use of Supertitles. Indeed, the DNO used Supertitles -- but they were written in Danish!


In 1962, the creative team of Larry Gelbart, Burt Shevelove, Stephen Sondheim, and George Abbott mined three works by the ancient Roman playwright, Plautus, to create their hit Broadway musical entitled A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. This month, San Francisco's intimate Custom Made Theatre will offer the world premiere of Evren Odcikin's new adaptation of Plautus's farce, Miles Gloriosus, entitled The Braggart Soldier or Major Blowhard.

In programming the classics for modern audiences, the question becomes:
  • Should one use an existing translation which might sound a bit stodgy to modern ears?
  • Should one commission a new translation and then make the choice of staging the work as intended by the playwright or updating it to a more contemporary setting?
  • Should one go with a contemporary adaptation of the play which may tighten the action, eliminate a few minor characters, and include some state of the art profanity?
I recently attended back-to-back openings of two works which chose the third option. One was a French comedy that was first performed in 1664; the other a Russian play first produced in 1896. With some inspired tinkering, could plays that were 350 and 119 years old (and written for wildly different cultures) be made accessible to modern audiences? The answer was a resounding and electrifying YES!

* * * * * * * * *
My pathway to Molière's famous farce, Tartuffe, has taken a strange and winding course. Although I read it in college, the text was not particularly exciting. On May 27, 1980, I attended the world premiere of Kirke Mechem's operatic adaptation when the San Francisco Opera debuted Tartuffe at the Herbst Theatre. In the spring of 1988, I traveled to Oregon to catch two more performances of Mechem's Tartuffe at the Eugene Opera .

As often happens with college productions, the comedy was quite polite and never reached the biting sarcasm that was one of Molière's strong points. As Tony Taccone (the artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre) notes:
"Very few plays transcend the period in which they were written. Those that do become the standard by which we measure ourselves, both culturally and artistically. A great production of a classic work vivifies the past, illuminates the present, and inspires us to create work that dares to be important. Perhaps because he was an aspiring tragedian whose life was plagued with obstacles of every variety (or perhaps because his formative years were spent in the countryside learning the comic secrets of commedia dell'arte), Molière's work is a daring blend of the darkest and lightest aspects of human experience."
As part of a co-production with the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., Berkeley Rep is presenting the Bay area premiere of David Ball's new adaptation of Tartuffe using a beautifully austere, cream-colored unit set designed by Tom Buderwitz with costumes by Sonya Berlovitz and some magnificent sound design by Corinne Carrillo. Directed by Dominique Serrand, the cast includes several members of the tragically bankrupted Theatre de la Jeune Lune of Minneapolis who are now working with Serrand at his new artistic home, The Moving Company.


While many people like to think of Tartuffe as a 17th-century farce, when viewed through a contemporary lens it becomes a stinging indictment of both religious hypocrisy and the blind devotion and unspeakable stupidity with which gullible souls turn their lives over to religious charlatans. In this production, Tartuffe (Steven Epp) has thoroughly bamboozled the wealthy Orgon (Luverne Seifert), who is deaf to the concerns of his loyal housemaid, Dorine (Suzanne Warmanen); his brother-in-law, Cleante (Gregory Linington); his son, Damis (Brian Hostenske); and his wife, Elmire (Sofia Jean Gomez), about Tartuffe's false piety and predatory nature.

Sofia Jean Gomez (Elmire) and Steven Epp (Tartuffe) in a
scene from Molière's Tartuffe (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Orgon's teenage daughter, Mariane (Lenne Klingaman), is eager to wed the handsome, young Valere (Christopher Carley), but becomes panicked when her father -- hopelessly lost in his idolatry of a religious con man -- promises her to Tartuffe.

Lenne Klingaman (Mariane), Suzanne Warmanen (Dorine), and
Christopher Carley (Valere) in a scene from Molière's Tartuffe
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With no one in his household able to knock some sense into him, Orgon falls deeper and deeper under Tartuffe's spell until, in a spiteful rage, he disinherits his son, signs over all his assets, and even grants Tartuffe ownership of his home. A wily grifter, Tartuffe soon takes advantage of the situation by kicking Orgon and his family out of their home while acting more and more saintly by the moment. Adding insult to injury, he sends his servant, Laurent (Nathan Keepers -- looking like a malicious Alan Cumming), to deliver news of the family's eviction.

Luverne Seifert (Orgon), Steven Epp (Tartuffe), and Brian
Hostenske (Damis) in a scene from Tartuffe (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Serrand has paced this production with an astonishing sensitivity to the musicality of Molière's rhyming couplets. Lines are spoken a bit more slowly than usual, with crisp elocution so that the audience can truly savor Molière's wit. The addition of several moments of ominous liturgical music makes this production feel somewhat operatic.

As the play progresses, the style seems to evolve from bel canto to (if there even is such a thing) comic verismo. Instead of having the farcical nature of La Barbier de Seville (the first part of the Figaro trilogy by Pierre Beaumarchais), the atmosphere steadily darkens, becoming increasingly dangerous and making one think of such operas as Don Giovanni, Faust, and Mefistofele.

One might wonder if a 350-year-old French farce would lose some of its relevance in the 21st century, but let me offer a convenient little litmus test. Watch Stephen Epp's tightly-wound, muscular performance as the scheming, seducing religious hypocrite and think about what happens if the lead character's name (Tartuffe) is changed to Ted Cruz. As the French would say, et voila!


* * * * * * * * *
Judging from the intense passion so many theatre people harbor for Anton Chekhov's play, The Seagull (1896), it's hard to believe that at the play's premiere in Saint Petersburg, it was roundly booed by the audience. The evening was such a disaster that, after witnessing the audience's reaction, the shocked playwright announced that he would abandon his life's work (writing plays). Over the years, however, The Seagull has become a staple of the dramatic literature and inspired numerous adaptations:

Directed by Frank Corsaro, Thomas Pasatieri's operatic adaptation of The Seagull (with a libretto by Kenward Elmslie) received its world premiere from the Houston Grand Opera on March 5,1974 with a cast headed by Evelyn Lear, Frederica von Stade, Richard Stilwell, and John Reardon, The Seagull was subsequently staged by opera companies in Seattle, Fort Worth, Washington, Atlanta, and San Francisco. The only complete recording was made with the 2002 student cast from the Manhattan School of Music (which presented the opera's New York premiere). A modern dress version of Pasatieri's opera was captured on video and can be watched on YouTube.


In May of 2008, the McCarter Theatre presented the world premiere of Emily Mann's new adaptation entitled A Seagull in the Hamptons. In 2012, the Marin Theatre Company staged the world premiere of Libby Appel's new adaptation, simply entitled Seagull.

Adam Magill as Con in Stupid Fucking Bird 
(Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli) 

First produced in Washington, D.C., Aaron Posner's hilariously updated version of Chekhov's classic (entitled Stupid Fucking Bird) is receiving its Bay area premiere from the San Francisco Playhouse in a production that has been brilliantly -- and very sensitively -- directed by Susi Damilano. As Bill English (San Francisco Playhouse's artistic director) explains:
"I first noticed Stupid Fucking Bird in its original production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in DC, ordered up a copy, and immediately fell in love. As a life-long Chekhov devotee, I was exhilarated to find The Seagull alive and breathing inside of this very contemporary fowl. And yet, it unmistakably bears the mark of the hippest contemporary dialogue and captures the sense of being alive 'now' beautifully. How glorious. Some tangy new wine in an old treasured bottle, reinforcing our deepest spiritual thirst to feel not only that we are all connected, but that it has always been so."
Carrie Paff as the narcissistic Emma in Stupid Fucking Bird
(Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli) 
"Aaron Posner has had his way with the story, not only by adding the elements of public address, but actually asking the audience questions about their take on the story and insisting on answers. These elements of meta-theatricality peel back the layers of worshipfulness which get in the way of Chekhov's grounded sensibility. And Mr. Posner has resurrected the humor. Chekhov wanted audiences to laugh at and with his characters and, ironically, he hated the very serious, dour approach that Stanislavski took to his work. We think he would love Stupid Fucking Bird."
Martha Brigham (Nina) and Adam Magill (Con) in a scene
from Stupid Fucking Bird (Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli)

Breaking through the fourth wall involves risks as well as rewards. On opening night, the audience's enjoyment was somewhat diminished by a claque of rowdy and very drunk women seated behind me who were feeling absolutely no pain. They reacted to every scripted laugh and bit of stage business like teenagers screaming for their favorite team at a high school football game. Like Queen Victoria, I was not amused.

Posner's approach to revamping The Seagull is at once ruthlessly iconoclastic and tenderly devout. He has updated the action to the present, so that the frustrated Con (Adam Magill) comes across as a painfully insecure hipster with minimal talent. His narcissistic mother, Emma (Carrie Paff), is an aging star of stage and screen whose primary goal is to be the object of adoration from anyone and everyone who crosses her path. Emma's introverted brother, Sorn (Charles Shaw Robinson), is an aging doctor with one foot in the grave.

The hangers-on temporarily revolving around this family include the depressed, sarcastic Mash (El Beh), who wants nothing to do with the plain, simple, and good-hearted Dev (Joe Estlack). Those familiar with Chekhov's play know that Con/Konstantin is hopelessly smitten with Nina (Martha Brigham); Dev/Semyon is head over heels in love with Mash/Masha; and Trig/Trigorin (Johnny Moreno) is Emma's current lover (and a man who does not hesitate to focus his gaze on Nina's perky young breasts).

Emma (Carrie Paff) and her lover, Trig (Johnny Moreno)
in Stupid Fuckinng Bird (Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli)

Posner (who did a smashing job of directing last summer's production of The Comedy of Errors for the California Shakespeare Theatre) has a long history of making the classics accessible to modern audiences. By eliminating some minor roles and combining two characters into one (Sorn), he has streamlined much of the narrative and intensified some of the relationships. His basic methodology is surprisingly simple:
"I trust and ask more from our audience. Television is so good these days -- the best of television is so fucking good and movies are spectacular. But they ask less and they just put you in a passive position. They do it brilliantly and in a spectacular fashion that we can't begin to match. But what we can do is ask audiences to step up and in and be part of the process and our capacity to engage with these people as actors at one moment and as fully embodied characters one second later. My daughter doesn't need consistency of play. We can be in a fairy kingdom one second, under a castle the next second, under the sea the next second and . . . Oh look, there's a sandwich. I'll go eat it. She doesn't need to do fucking transitions between her realities -- they're just all present for her. We have an innate capacity to do that, to enjoy that, and to like the dizzying nature of simultaneous realities.

That's the fun of theater for us, but I don't know that we always exploit it as much as we can. And, sure, that's certainly some of the impulse behind Stupid Fucking Bird. It's not coincidental that Stupid Fucking Bird uses a lot of Shakespearean devices in fact and that my 25 years of directing 20 different Shakespeare plays are all wrapped into my playwriting as well and so trying to make sure that the days are the days and that we're engaged with amazement and that kind of thing and full presence. Certainly those are all connected for me. The distance from Stupid Fucking Bird to The Tempest is not very far for me."
Charles Shaw Robinson, Joe Estlack, El Beh, and Johnny Moreno
in a scene from Stupid Fucking Bird (Photo by: Jennifer Palopoli) 

Working on Bill English's unit set, Damilano's ensemble does a superb job of sending up Chekhov while making the poignancy of his characters more relatable than usual. I particularly liked the performances by Adam Magill, Joe Estlack, and El Beh.

It doesn't matter how big a fan of Chekhov's plays you are -- Stupid Fucking Bird has something for everyone (including big heaping doses of depression, anxiety, narcissism, futility, and raucous laughter). Performances continue through May 2nd at the San Francisco Playhouse (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer: