Thursday, December 11, 2008

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

"Shit happens!" you say?  

Then let me tell you about the funniest, most outrageous prank I ever saw pulled on a live audience. In February of 2000, playwright-director John Fisher, who is now the Executive Director of Theater Rhinoceros, wrote and staged Barebacking: A Sex Panic Comedy (click on that link to read a rollicking review of the production).  Act I ended with a mad frolic across the Rhino's stage that was funnier than any French farce.  However, none of the local drama critics could bring themselves to describe what exactly made it so funny because what they had just seen was so lewd, so crude, and so horribly rude that their editors simply couldn't imagine putting those words in print. With the sexual frankness of the blogosphere and a bit of 20/20 hindsight, I think the time has come to revisit that little incident as the set-up for this particular article.  

Here's what happened.  

As Act I neared its end, the audience was being titillated by a highly sexual scene in the barely-lit orgy room of a gay bathhouse.  As the audience (mostly gay men) watched a hunky, hairy, naked man squat down with his hands on his knees, they realized that the man kneeling behind him was noisily imitating the sounds made by a dedicated rimming enthusiast.  

Suddenly, there was a mysterious sound, a horrified gasp of "Ohmygod!" and the first man ran offstage.  He left the "rimmer" exposed to the audience with a dark, gooey, wet substance all over his astonished face. As soon as the shock of recognition dawned on the audience, the second man ran offstage as well.

Bright lights suddenly came up on the next scene, staged like a Feydeau farce with plenty of slamming doors.  Without missing a beat, one actor after another rapidly crossed the stage as part of a farcical chase based on mistaken identities.  The only problem was that sitting center stage -- in full view of the astounded audience -- was probably the biggest, messiest, and most scatologically symbolic puddle of chocolate pudding you've ever seen in the theater.  

Part of the ongoing prank was the cast's skill at not stepping in the muck -- no matter how fast they ran back and forth across the stage. The best part? Watching the horrified reactions on the faces in the audience as the house lights came up at intermission and people realized that they'd been royally punked.

But, hey.  That's the magic of live theater.  The fact that the audience is willing to suspend its sense of disbelief to see what will happen -- and that, with proper planning, it can be pure magic.
This isn't just about little children clapping to let Tinkerbelle know that they really do believe in fairies.

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With Christmas fast approaching, many arts organizations are now offering "family fare" designed to sell tickets, fill houses, and entertain larger audiences.  December is Nutcracker month for ballet fans, Messiah time for concertgoers, and the high holy days for last minute Oscar contenders.  Judging from two productions seen on Sunday at The Marsh, it's also a time for magic.

My double header began with David Hirata & Friends: Magic Holidays, an extremely likeable show for children of all ages.  I should confess that I'm an absolute sucker for magicians. I don't have the slightest interest in finding out the secrets which allow a magician to saw someone in half or make a tiger disappear.  Smoke and mirrors are just fine with me.  I'm simply happy to be entertained.  A good magician's act is my kind of "shock and awe."  The only violence I've ever really liked in entertainment was the machine-gun sound of Ann Miller's tap shoes on a coffee table.

A short, sweet man sporting a long braided ponytail, David Hirata is the kind of genial sorcerer who is perfectly comfortable performing his magic tricks at close range.   Hirata is confident enough that, after being rejected by a young Asian girl whom he asked for help, he was not the slightest bit shaken when she emphatically announced (in one of those clarion children's voices that reverberates throughout a theater space) that "I just don't feel like it."

Hirata was joined onstage by his Merlin-like colleague Kim Silverman (who is also President of the Society of American  Magicians in Palo Alto).  Whether teasing audiences with water tricks, pulling dollar bills from fresh lemons (or a not-so-poached egg), or torturing people's minds with rope tricks, both men kept their audience intrigued, fascinated, and totally engaged.  What made the performance extra special were the oohs, aahs, and eagerly raised hands of young children yearning to participate and, perhaps, become magicians in their own right.  You can watch Hirata and Silverman (along with juggler Stefan Fisher) perform in this delightful video clip.

* * * * * * * *

Later that afternoon I returned to The Marsh for a second piece of "family entertainment." For the past few years Jeff Raz and Liebe Wetzel have been delighting audiences with their Lunatique Fantastique shows. Using their imagination to turn the simplest materials into highly animated characters, their shows are an absolute delight.

Lunatique Fantastique's holiday show, Wrapping Paper Caper. follows the exploits of a Humphrey Bogart-like store detective as he pursues a trail of styrofoam packing peanuts in search of clues.  Along the way he encounters a cast of characters who instantly materialize out of a configuration of bread rolls, linen, dishware, and pieces of cutlery. These include a cardboard-tube horse and a mysteriously powerful packing box.  His patience is tested by a flirtatious "damsel in dis dress" (created from foil wrapping paper, tinsel, and a Christmas ornament) whose powerful hips can knock him off his feet from an impressive distance.  Another challenge to the detective is the presence of Peanut Man (who claims that his secret power lies in his ability to change the environment, ocean, and jungle).

You can get a sense of the great fun to be had during the Wrapping Paper Caper by watching the following clip:

But if you want the full effect, I urge you to watch this longer clip of the Detective versus Box sequence.  Needless to say, the presence of young children in the audience makes the experience especially enjoyable.

* * * * * * * *

Several years ago I attended a production of A Christmas Carol whose grimness actually shocked me.  In its dark determination to recreate the most depressing view of Dickensian London possible, it made the penny dreadful blood and gore of Sweeney Todd seem positively uplifting. The ghost of Jacob Marley was merely a warmup for the horrifying figures of the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future.  I found it difficult to believe that such a scary production would be marketed as the ideal family outing, something that would be especially entertaining for young children.  Perhaps young children who enjoy hideous nightmares, I thought.

On Tuesday night American Conservatory Theater hauled out its big holiday money-maker with a revival of A Christmas Carol. Adapted by Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh in 2005, this production is designed to create a much more amiable environment.  Instead of aiming to recreate the most forbidding aspects of Victorian-era London, John Arnone's sets are designed to add a sense of whimsy to the proceedings.  The Spirits that visit Scrooge are dressed and portrayed as much friendlier ghosts.  Much more of the stage direction has been designed to inspire laughs from the audience.

Karl Lundeberg's music goes a long way to brighten the evening and, under Dominique Lozano's direction, the large cast performed with much zeal.  James Carpenter's Scrooge was much less bitter than the usual characterization, easily getting in touch with his inner child. Erin Michelle Washington (The Ghost of Christmas Past),  BW Gonzalez (The Ghost of Christmas Present), Jarion Monroe (Mr. Fezziwig), Sharon Lockwood (Mrs. Fezziwig), Nicholas Pelczar (Fred) and Sharon Lockwood (Mrs. Dilber) made the most of their comic moments.  Only Ken Ruta, as the ghost of Jacob Marley, offered the slightest touch of terror to the proceedings.

BW Gonzalez and James Carpenter (Photo by Kevin Berne)

As the performance neared its end, however, one of those dreaded moments of freak misfortune occurred.  After its final descent, the machinery which moves Scrooge's bed up and down failed to return the stage floor to its proper position, thus leaving a large gaping hole in the stage just before a large crowd scene.  This kind of mechanical mishap poses a definite threat of injury to the performers and A Christmas Carol came to a screeching halt.

As the stage manager announced that the evening's performance would be interrupted for several minutes due to technical problems, the curtain was lowered and the house lights brought up. No one panicked. Nor was the mood in the auditorium dimmed in the least. After stagehands had constructed an appropriate patch and the gaping hole had been safely covered, the audience was thanked for its patience, the house lights dimmed, and the curtain brought back up so that the final crowd scene could once again get under way.

Therein lies the moral of this column.  Part of the risk and excitement of live theater is not just that a moment of magic might be shared between the audience and performers. There is also the inherent risk that at any moment something might go wrong.  When accidents occur (which they do), it only adds to the excitement of the moment, and to the admiration felt for professionals who can handle such situations with grace and aplomb.  

My favorite such moment occurred during the taping of a Stephen Sondheim revue, Putting It Together, when Carol Burnett was forced to stop the show.  Watch and learn:

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