Monday, February 16, 2009

From Russia With Love

Some people think that a creative mind only works with new ideas. Nothing could be further from the truth. Watch a balloon artist in motion and you will quickly see how old ideas are given new life. Add a new color of balloon here, a new twist there, and suddenly a brand new balloon animal appears, ready to bring a smile to a fresh new face.

It isn't just the idea that counts, it's what you do with it. If a cook can turn a potential disaster into a new dish with surprising appeal, all power to him. If an artist can find a way to reinterpret another artist's ideas, all power to him. If a performer can bring new life to an old piece of music, all power to him. 

Filmmakers and stage directors do this all the time. Miklos Laszlo's 1937 play, Parfumerie, became the inspiration for The Shop Around The Corner as well as In The Good Old Summertime,  She Loves Me! and You've Got Mail. Godzilla has undergone more facelifts than Joan RiversCinderella  has had more costume changes than Cher.

Operatic stage directors frequently try to help an audience re-examine a cherished piece of stage literature by updating a classic to a different era or geographical setting. In July of 1985 I attended a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado by Opera Australia that was a revelation. My main goal had been to get inside the famous Sydney Opera House. But as a life-long fan of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, I was both shocked and awed by what I saw onstage.

Christopher Renshaw's production had been inspired while researching the 1890 Japan exhibition in Knightsbridge (which had originally inspired the librettist, Sir William S. Gilbert, to create The Mikado as a spoof of British interest in the Far East). Renshaw told his scenic designer, Tim Goodchild, to create a set that: 
"...looked like a china cabinet in which knickknacks are kept. The characters live in Tiffany cups. Pooh-Bah lives in a drawer. The Mikado and Katisha are two Japanese dolls on top of the cabinet. It’s sort of an Expressionist, surreal attempt to mix the two cultures, with a singular lack of respect for the English.” 
His production turned The Mikado into “just a fashion statement of that age, which was restlessly looking for things that were new.” The production's show curtain included an illustration of Queen Victoria with chopsticks in her hair. It's worth purchasing the video.

Two of this past weekend's events, although originally created by Russian artists, were given a novel twist with mixed results.  One was a smashing success. The other? Not so much.

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As part of its fourth annual "Winter Event," the San Francisco Silent Film Festival dedicated Valentine's Day to showing how lovers were depicted during the era of silent film. One of the films was a rarely-seen Russian farce that took advantage of the worldwide popularity of married silent film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

In 1926, Pickford (known as "America's Sweetheart") and Fairbanks (known as "Everybody's Hero") traveled to Moscow while on vacation. At that point in their careers their international fame far eclipsed the current Brangelina phenomenon. Accompanying Hollywood's most famous couple was Russian film director Sergei Komarov, who filmed Pickford and Fairbanks as they relaxed aboard the train from Warsaw to Moscow. 

When the two film stars (who were adored by Russian audiences) visited Moscow's MezhrapomRus film studios, Pickford embraced a Russian actor during what would, by today's media standards, be called an obvious photo-op. Of course, in today's celebrity culture (where paparazzi are constantly stalking their targets for candid photos that can sell for millions of dollars), such events are carefully staged by publicists. 

What happened to Pickford and Fairbanks after that kiss may well be the greatest example of a celebrity being punk'd. Komarov built a rowdy silent farce around his film footage, thus creating a stunning showcase for the comic talents of the lucky Russian actor, Igor Ilyinsky.  Although Pickford is reported to have learned of the film's existence sometime late in the 1940s, Fairbanks died without ever even knowing that the film had been made.

Igor Ilyinsky and Mary Pickford

In A Kiss From Mary Pickford, Ilyinsky plays Goga, a young ticket-taker at a cinema.  After his advances are rejected by an aspiring actress who insists that she won't kiss him until he's as famous as a big movie star, he auditions for a group of scam artists whose racket is telling people what professional careers would best suit them. Armed with a certificate saying that he has acting talent, Goga applies for a job as a stunt man at a Russian movie studio and consistently ends up in the wrong place at the right time.

Accompanied by Philip Carli on the piano, A Kiss From Mary Pickford revealed an incredibly gifted slapstick artist with a comical instinct almost as strong as Charlie Chaplin's. Although Komarov's film may not be a masterpiece (and some of the footage of Pickford and Fairbanks is a bit fuzzy), Ilyinsky's performance was a knockout, easily winning the hearts of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's devoted audience.

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As I sat in the Zeum Theatre on Sunday afternoon, watching the American Conservatory Theatre's new production of Philistines (an updated adaptation of Maxim Gorky's first play), I had the strangest sensation. Scenes were being repeated -- almost with the exact same dialogue -- from another play set in Tsarist Russia in which a family is torn apart by a younger generation's eagerness to embrace change. Instead of Tevye the dairyman conversing with a Fiddler on the Roof, Gorky's patriarch, Vassilly, was trying to tame the Goyim in the House

While trying to reassert their role as the master of the house, both men were fighting a losing battle. Tevye and Vassilly were uneducated (the Bible may have been the only book they ever read). Their world was changing in ways they could not understand. Although they wanted the best for their children, they were learning -- with great pain -- that what their children wanted was quite different. Despite their fatherly authority (and their efforts to maintain order within their respective homes), these men knew they were losing their children to a new world filled with frightening ideas.

One of the underlying forces in both plays is the effect of education on young minds.  In Tevye's home (as in the homes of most religious Jews), education demands respect. Tevye's personal dream would have been to have enough money so that he could be free to spend his days reading the Torah and conversing with the learned men at the synagogue. His daughter Chava, who had a passion for books, eventually ran off to join her lover, Perchik (a radical intellectual), in Siberia.

The opposite has happened in Vassilly's home.  Vassily (Jack Willis) is a member of the bourgeoisie who can afford live-in servants, even though some of the rooms in his estate have been rented out to tenants. Although Vassilly may have wealth, he knows that he and his wife, Akulina (Sharon Lockwood) are stupid. His son, Pyotr (Patrick Russell), who flunked out of university, has come home to live with his parents. His daughter, Tanya (Natalie Hegg), has become a teacher who, having remained a spinster, is useless and unfulfilled in the eyes of her ignorant parents and their servants.

Vassily's children have become the slackers of their day, living off of their parents without enough gumption to leave the nest. Having received an education, it would seem that their most improved skill is one they inherited from their parents: complaining about how miserable their lives are. Apparently, Chekhov's Three Sisters (1901) aren't the only depressed Russians who failed to act on their desires.

Jack Willis and Natalie Hegg (Photo by David Wilson)

Outside, however, a revolution is brewing. Pyotr's idealistic friends Shyshkin (Weston Wilson) and Tsvetaeva (Mfoniso Udofia) along with his girlfriend Elena -- who rents a room in Vassilly's house -- are all eager to embrace life.  Vassilly's foster son, Nil (Rondrell McCormick), is not only earning an income, but has decided to marry one of Vassilly's servants, Polya (Brittanie Bond). They can't wait to embrace whatever change the future holds in store. Only the older generation is determined to cling to the status quo.

While Gorky's first play, written in 1901, caused riots to erupt in the theater at its premiere, the audience's reaction at the Zeum Theater was much more sedate. Part of the problem is that theatrical naturalism (which was shocking in 1901) is a given in today's theater. The shock of seeing ordinary people and their problems dominating a stage (as opposed to fairy tales or dramas involving royalty) wore off long ago.

The cast, under Richard E.T. White's direction, mixed veteran Bay area actors with students in A.C.T.'s Master of Fine Arts program.  By the final moments of Philistines I felt like I had watched Jack Willis turn into an angry mixture of Rob Reiner and John McCain. Among the students, I particularly enjoyed the work of Allison Brennan (Stepanida), Philip Martinson (Teterev), Liz Sklar (Elena),  and Weston Wilson (doubling as Shyshkin and a doctor). I loved the set design by Melpomene Katakalos, who has done some very fine work in the East Bay for the Crowded Fire Theater Company.

The nagging problem I had with A.C.T.'s production is something that I also noticed in the company's recent staging of Gogol's comedy, The Government Inspector.  In an effort to rework the text to make it more accessible to modern audiences, Andrew Upton has tried to make a distinctly period piece sound like a sitcom. The gimmick does not ring true, a fact made all the more painful upon a recent viewing of Sarah Ruhl's brilliant new play, In The Next Room (or the vibrator play), over at Berkeley Rep.  

In Ruhl's play, the sexual repression of an era long gone is clearly captured by staying true to the language restraints of the time. At the end of that play, a wordless dramatic transition creates theatrical magic of the finest kind without ever betraying the era in which the play is set.

Hannah Cabell and Paul Niebanck in Berkeley Rep's production of 
In The Next Room: or the vibrator play (Photo by Kevin Berne)

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