Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Matter of Craft

Many years ago a friend was attending college in Prescott, Arizona when students were given the opportunity to offer suggestions for new course material. When someone recommended adding dance or ballet classes, one of the stoners in the dorm snorted derisively. "You don't need a class for that stuff -- you just smoke a joint and then get up and do it."

Acting is not as easy as it may look -- even to other actors. Deanna Dunagan (who, at 68, recently won the Tony award for best actress in a play for her searing portrayal of Violet Weston in August: Osage County), confessed that her role was exhausting to perform. Violet, who is onstage for 90 minutes out of a 3-1/2 hour show, must climb up and down 350 steps during the course of each performance. The physical and emotional demands of the role are on a par with Edward Albee's Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And yet Dunagan's replacement in the Broadway cast (while the actress rests up for the play's London engagement) is none other than 80-year-old Estelle Parsons!

When Harvey Fierstein wrote a memorial tribute to Estelle Getty (who died this week at the age of 84), he made a very interesting comment:

"The thing about Estelle was that you could not catch her acting. She was being. If her character was supposed to be angry, Estelle got angry. If her character was broken hearted, the actress was broken hearted. On stage there was simply no deception. It all felt real. Acting opposite her was an absolute pleasure and complete challenge. She demanded the same truth from the rest of us that she was delivering."

For any actor, honing one's craft is a lifelong pursuit (any performance that looks effortless is a triumph of deception). Perhaps the biggest challenge for an actor is performing a one-man show. Often staged with a minimum of costumes, this tour de force leaves an actor at his most vulnerable. When an actor is secure enough in body and mind to let a character completely take over, the art can soar. When an artist is struggling to make the narrative work, the desperately sought-after theatrical magic evaporates into thin air.

Whether simply telling stories about one's past (Elaine Stritch At Liberty, Chazz Palmintieri's A Bronx Tale), or sitting behind a desk for two hours while dazzling an audience with a fiercely intelligent narrative (Mike Daisey), solo performers need a wealth of stage experience, strong material and incredible stamina. Whether one is rapidly switching accents and body language while juggling close to 40 characters (Dan Hoyle) -- or taunting an audience with sass and sequins (Dame Edna) -- in order to get through the evening a solo performer must have supreme confidence in his craft.

When any of these factors is missing, the performance can -- and inevitably will -- suffer. Despite the actress's willingness to re-enact the fall of the World Trade Center's twin towers by holding her massive, pendulous breasts up to eye level and then, one by one, letting gravity take over ("What did you say, Timmy? Is that an airplane?") The Breast of Sherry Glaser often struggled to find its mark. Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking lost plenty of steam as the actress kept stalking the stage in search of an ending.

Two solo acts recently seen in San Francisco could not have been more different. One offered a slick, magnificently confident performance from a veteran of stage and screen. The other showed a work in its early stages of development, roughly hewn and in sore need of directorial assistance.

Having begun his career at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Roger Rees boasts more than a passing acquaintance with the Bard of Avon. The recipient of Tony, Obie, and Olivier awards for his stage appearances, Rees is also an accomplished stage director. His skill at creating a one-man show is breathtaking in his knowledge of Shakespeare's writing, his research and recall of theatrical lore from past centuries, his willingness to poke fun at popular misconceptions about William Shakespeare and the sheer delight with which he sinks his teeth into telling James Thurber's The Macbeth Murder Mystery.

And yet, in a very strange way, Rees almost makes Shakespeare sound too easy to perform. Having trod many a classical stage during his career, Rees's comfort level with the text -- and his seemingly limitless energy -- could easily intimidate actors half his age. While his execution of some of Shakespeare's greatest monologues is practiced and fierce, I occasionally felt like I was watching a very sophisticated mechanic turn a trick (almost like listening to a facile coloratura soprano toss off trills and roulades that have been so carefully rehearsed that they seem effortless). His performance is a showcase of craft and confidence triumphing over a huge amount of text and memory work.

Sadly, such was not the case at Victoria Doggett's one-woman show, Kiss My Booth, which I recently saw at The Marsh. For those who are unfamiliar with The Marsh, it is a performance workspace at 1062 Valencia where new pieces of performance art are tested, polished, and allowed to have their kinks worked out before live audiences. It has been a testing ground for performers like Charlie Varon, Brian Copeland, Marga Gomez and Josh Kornbluth.

Doggett's piece aims to demonstrate what life is really like for vendors at a trade show. But because much of her material is still trying to find its rhythm, one always feels as if she is pacing herself by numbers. Certain moves are so clearly marked that one can almost hear a metronome ticking in the performer's mind.

The only segment of the show which really takes off -- and during which Doggett seems perfectly at ease with her character -- is her impersonation of Doris, a self-important, gluttonous food critic from "Chicago Bites" magazine who can't seem to score enough samples to satisfy her hunger or fill her pocketbook. If Doggett can bring the rest of the show up to the level of Doris's comfort zone, Kiss My Booth will improve tremendously.

A curious note about voice projection: Roger Rees chose to perform What You Will without any amplification in a 1,025-seat theater. Doggett, performing Kiss My Booth for a group of perhaps 40 people, was outfitted with a battery-powered radio microphone Whether this was for video recording purposes or intended to be part of a trade show demonstrator's costume, the visual did not work to her advantage.

Ann Randolph (a fearless performer who is brazenly confident in her craft) brings Squeezebox back to The Marsh from September 13 to October 5. In the meantime, treat yourself to a guilty pleasure and spend five minutes watching two musical theater legends -- Angela Lansbury and Julie Andrews (with a helping hand from Steve Lawrence) -- demonstrate superior craft and supreme confidence.

No comments: