Sunday, March 8, 2009

Honing Their Craft

Theaters, like restaurants, are labor-intensive operations. When the Obama administration announced its intention to pour some of its stimulus money into support for nonprofit organizations, some people were surprised to learn that the money was strictly intended to go to maintaining salaried positions -- in other words, keeping people who were already on the payroll from losing their jobs.

When the audience enters a theater, it is greeted by "front of the house" personnel (box office staff, ticket takers, concessionaires, and ushers). Before the house lights go down, however, a lot of work has been done in anticipation of any performance. That work can usually be divided among three teams of people:
  1. Artistic: This includes the creative team -- the people whose collaborative artistic vision has shaped the production about to be seen by the audience. While this refers to the playwright and stage director (as well as the choreographer, costume, scenic, and lighting designers), the playwright may, in fact, be dead. In the case of a traveling production, the costumes and sets may have been rented (after having been used in a previous production). The lighting may have been recreated from a plot book. The choreography may have been recreated by someone who was in the original cast of a production or someone using a choreographer's instructions (as memorialized in labanotation). In some situations, a resident stage manager or assistant director may be working from a set of guidelines (a prompt book) set forth by a famous stage director in order to recreate the feel of the original production.
  2. Business: These people handle the fundraising, marketing, publicity and accounting ends of the venture. Some of this work (including the ordering of supplies for the front and back sections of the theater) may be outsourced to third parties.
  3. Cast and Crew: These are the people who produce theatrical magic at each and every performance. The list includes actors, musicians, technicians, lighting people, sound engineers, and backstage personnel (stagehands, electricians, dressers, property people, etc).
There is, however, one force which is often invisible to the public. Just as an upscale restaurant (or chain of restaurants) may employ a sommelier or wine buyer, there is usually someone involved in the creation of a stage production who functions as a dramaturg. A dramaturg is essentially responsible for "shaping a story or like elements into a drama that can be acted -- giving a work or performance a structure." According to Wikipedia:
"The dramaturg will often conduct research into the historical and social conditions, specific locations, time periods, and/or theatrical styles of plays chosen by the company, to assist the playwright, director and/or design team in their production. The dramaturg locates and translates worthy scripts from other languages, writes articles and makes media appearances promoting shows and community programs, and helps develop original scripts."
Prior to his death from AIDS, my friend Scott Heumann was employed as the dramaturg for Houston Grand Opera. The public was primarily exposed to Scott through his program notes, translations for the Supertitles used in many HGO productions, and lectures about upcoming operas. During his tenure with the company, Scott's immense knowledge of operatic history, his acute ear for voices, his background as a musicologist, and his creativity helped to refine the artistic vision behind many of HGO's successful productions. Three productions seen this weekend helped to remind me of the value of good dramaturgy in creating a successful theatrical presentation.

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Many of the nation's arts administrators, fundraisers, and marketers are concerned about the demographics of today's audiences. Performances of live theater tend to draw an older, more affluent, and more educated audience. Where will the audience of tomorrow come from if they are used to downloading their entertainment from the Internet or watching it on their cellphones?

I wish more of those decision makers in the arts could have been present at Friday night's opening of Sauce For the Goose. This production of Georges Feydeau's classic farce, Le Dindon (1896), was being staged by UC Berkeley's Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies. Not only was the theater filled with a young audience literally screaming with enthusiasm and support for its friends in the cast, some very interesting dramaturgical choices were evident. In describing one of the film adaptations of Feydau's farce, critic Hal Erickson noted that
"The title, which translates to The Turkey, refers to the sort of fellow who spends his time romancing the wives of others. All the usual stock characters are in attendance, including the amorous fashion plate, the wry playboy, the ripe-for-cuckolding husband, his impressionable wife, and a pompous, easily deflatable authority figure, in this case a cavalry officer. It was de rigeur for Feydeau to include at least one character with a 'funny' physical or vocal impairment. This time, it is the stone-deaf wife of a lecherous bellhop. There's a plot, to be sure, but that plot is soon forgotten amidst a maelstrom of assignations, misunderstandings, misrepresentations and ever-slamming doors."
Prior to Friday night's performance (and between acts), the sound system played contemporary music ranging from French cabaret songs to Sex Bomb. There were numerous moments throughout the production of this 113-year-old farce which referenced contemporary cultural icons. In Act I, the male servant, Jean (Erik Petigura), was made up to resemble Lurch, the towering butler from The Addams Family. The deaf wife was reassigned from the bellboy to a pompous cavalry officer. Not only was Act II's bellboy cast as a horny bisexual boytoy who claimed to have recently been diagnosed as suffering from "puberty," Joshua D. Lomeli made the most of his opportunity to please the audience with his highly energetic striptease.
As the curtain rises on Sauce For The Goose, we meet Pontagnac (Daniel Desmarais) an incorrigible skirt chaser whose latest target is Lucienne (Zoe Garcia). What Pontagnac does not know is that Lucienne's husband Vatelin (Joe Lavranos) is an old and very dear friend of his. Upon learning that Pontagnac already has a wife (Brittany Berg), Lucienne confesses that if she ever thought her husband were having an affair, there would be hell to pay.

After Lucienne persists in refusing Pontagnac's advances, he offers her a mischievious challenge: If Pontagnac can prove to Lucienne that her husband is having an affair with another woman, she will quench his desire for her love. Together, they lay plans to entrap Vatelin that evening at the Hotel Ultimus.

Vatelin has indeed been carrying on an affair with a buxom and slightly kinky German woman, Brunnhilde Soldignac (Brittany Saturnino), whose husband (Will Austin) arrives seeking legal help from the unsuspecting Vatelin. Meanwhile, Lucienne continues to flirt with the lusty Redillon (Daniel Duque-Estrada), telling him that if she were ever to cheat on her husband, it would likely be with him.

Act II opens in a luxurious suite at the Hotel Ultimus as a hotel guest, Armandine (Lyndsy Kall), demands to be moved to a different room. The hotel manager (Sahand Nikuokar) tries to assuage her while the bellhop tries to seduce her. As soon as they leave, Lucienne and Pontagnac arrive to rig the bed with a series of bells which will go off when anyone sits on top of them. If both bells go off, that will be their signal to break into the room and catch Vatelin with his mistress.

No sooner do they leave than Brunnhilde arrives with Redillon. When the hotel manager interrupts them to state that he has rented the room to another couple that has just arrived at the hotel (and informs them that they must vacate the room immediately), Redillon instructs Brunnhilde to hide in the bathroom and not come out until he tells her to. He then leaves with the hotel manager to try to settle a problem. No sooner have they left than the bellhop ushers in a tall, strapping military officer named Pinchard (Benedict Tufnell) and his elderly deaf wife (R. Salcido in a classic drag role).

The evening offers a delightful romp of mistaken identities, unexpected couplings, and some great slapstick moments under the meticulous direction of Christopher Herold. UC Berkeley's production benefitted immensely from Kenneth McLeish's superb translation, Giulio Perrone's beautiful and efficient set design, and the outstanding costume work by Wendy Sparks.

What impressed me even more than the solid performance by the young and tightly-knit ensemble, however, was the fact that the production's artistic concept and execution were so far superior to many performances of period pieces I've seen staged by American Conservatory Theatre. This was one of the rare times I left a theater wishing I could go right back in and sit through another performance of the same play. Feydeau's delicious farce, Sauce For The Goose, ends its run on March 15th. You can order tickets here. Get them while you can!

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While there have been numerous depictions on stage and screen of life in German concentration camps (Bent, A Love To Hide, Schindler's List, Shoah), few dramatists have focused their attention on what took place within America's Japanese Internment Camps at Topaz, Manzanar, Tule Lake, Gila River, and other locations after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942

Several important documentaries have been devoted to the Japanese Internment experience (including Children of the Camps, Passing Poston, and Topaz). This year, the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival will present a documentary entitled You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story, which describes the entertainer's experience at Topaz. 

Far fewer narratives exist. In 1976, there was a television movie entitled Farewell to Manzanar. Hollywood released Come See The Paradise in 1991 and Steve Kluger's deeply moving novel, The Last Days of Summer, is guaranteed to bring you to tears.

I've written about Lunatique Fantastique's work before, whether reviewing a comedy like The Wrapping Paper Caper or Chicken Stock, A Fowl Play (a fairly serious piece about the dangers of a bird flu epidemic).


Liebe Wetzel's company researched Executive Order 9066 by consulting with The Japanese American Museum of San Jose, The Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah, The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and interviewing internees who survived the camps (as well as others whose lives were impacted by EO 9066). Some of the material for the show was found in Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's novel, Farewell to Manzanar.

Performed in "live, 3-D animation," the show is dedicated to the memory of Donna Nomura Dobkin (a textile artist, doll maker, and puppeteer who always wanted to relate the story of her family's incarceration but died before she was able to realize her dream). Using such simple elements as a Japanese tea set, a white sugar bowl, table cloths, tin cans, a bucket full of sand, a roll of brown wrapping paper, a battered old suitcase, and an actual metal mess hall tray from the Topaz concentration camp, Wetzel creates a remarkable narrative out of thin air.


Lunatique Fantastique presented its production of Executive Order 9066 at The Topaz Museum in June, 2005 as part of the ceremonies commemorating the 60th anniversay of the camp's closing. For people unfamiliar with the history of the Japanese internment during World War II, the show will come as quite a shock (This ain't Kukla, Fran and Ollie). It is difficult to find the proper words to describe Wetzel's presentation because, as with most of Lunatique Fantastique's productions, seeing is believing.

Executive Order 9066 begins with a Samurai's trip to America. You will see two children (made out of teacups and napkins, using chopsticks as weapons) playing at martial arts games and witness a reenactment of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the sinking of a battleship. The cloaked ensemble reenacts a family's forced evacuation from their home in Berkeley, their relocation to the Japanese internment camp in Topaz, Utah during World War II, and their subsequent (and tragic) return home following the war.


As part of this production you will see President Roosevelt materialize out of thin air, a family be transported by bus to a terrifying encampment, a reenactment of a baseball game, as well as an atomic bomb exploding over Hiroshima (with a resultant mushroom cloud). Although the piece contains some strong antiwar statements, it ends on a note of optimism after 60 minutes as cherry blossoms magically seem to emerge from a tree made from dried twigs

Executive Order 9066 is a sobering piece of theater that will leave you moved, appalled, and genuinely disturbed (I would not recommend this a form of "light entertainment" for children). As Weltzel stated during an interview several years ago, "We use our performances to give voice to populations that do not have a voice." You can order tickets here.

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Saturday night marked the official opening of Charlie Varon's latest one-man show, Rabbi Sam. I first saw this piece in a workshop production about two years ago when Varon and his long-time collaborator, David Ford, were still developing its 12 complex characters. To suggest that, on Saturday night, Varon was on fire would not do the experience justice. His performance at The Marsh was a stunning tour-de-force.

Varon's central character is Sam Isaac, a young, progressive American rabbi who is a single father (his wife died at an early age). Hired by a progressive congregation to bring "an island of sanity" to the Jews of Semanitas, California, he immediately stirs up controversy -- to the great annoyance of the more traditional board members. Most of the characters he has created are easily recognizable to American Jews, as is their emotional baggage. Among the people Rabbi Sam must contend with are a survivor of Auschwitz who refuses to cast a vote, a social worker who is more interested in feeling compassion for herself, and a man who wants to include his "open letters to Louis Farrakhan" in the congregation's newsletter.

There is Mark Warshauer (the kind of man who thinks all the world's problems can be solved by a cheese Danish), Harriet Kahn (who is all about numbers), and a woman who was hoping to entice a lesbian couple to join the congregation. There is the congregation's current President, Bob (who claims to have interviewed some rabbis whose resumes were as thick as a brisket) and Jerry Gomberg (who can't understand why he shouldn't be allowed to meet the anonymous donor who is offering the congregation a $2 million membership grant). 

As he struggles to retain his job, Rabbi Sam is also subjected to the third degree from Sarah Schimmel -- the widow of the congregation's former President. She's a tough old broad who minces no words. Imagine a bitter, depressed Judge Judy with Selma Diamond's voice and a slow-burning cigarette in one hand who hasn't smiled in years and you're getting closer to the essence of that one and only bundle of joy named Sarah Schimmel.

Over the course of two content-packed hours, Varon explores the challenges facing American Judaism today, the need for spiritual guidance, the aching loss of a single father who never had a chance to bid his dying wife farewell, and navigates his way through turf wars that could make your average condo association board meeting look like a sunny day's walk in the park. In addition to the cheese Danish you can help make borscht, eat some mashed potatoes, and hear about a dinner made entirely from different forms of ice cream. The intensity of Varon's acting and the depth of his characterizations -- not to mention his rapid shifts in body language and voice as he enacts an argument between board members -- will astonish and delight you. Order tickets here

What's that? You want a little taste first? A nosh, maybe? Go ahead and watch the trailer. See if I care.



1 comment:

Linda said...

George, thanks for the wonderful review of EO9066. Linda