Thursday, April 2, 2009

Epic Outcomes

Epic drama comes in a surprising variety of shapes and sizes. There are, of course, the ancient narratives written by poets like Homer, as well as the Greek tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. There is Virgil's Aeneid (written in Latin late in the first century B.C.), Dante's Divine Comedy (written in the early 1300s), and Milton's Paradise Lost, which was originally published in 1667.

There are Icelandic Eddas (some of which have become important sources of Norse mythology) and the ancient sagas written about Scandinavian and Germanic history --  which were primarily written in the Old Norse language. There are the Mahabharata and Ramayana (written in Sanskrit). 

All of these epics were written in the poetic form of their time. Many centered around the roles played by gods and goddesses in determining the fate of humans. Supernatural events were standard fare, as were wars, rapes, and ritual sacrifices.

In recent years, audiences at Berkeley Rep have been treated to Mary Zimmerman's reinterpretations of epic tales in her productions of Argonautika, Metamorphoses, and Arabian Nights (her production of The Odyssey has been mounted elsewhere). Two new plays seen back to back this week offered such strong references to Greek mythology and Greek drama that comparisons were unavoidable. 
  1. In both plays, characters broke through the theater's fourth wall to address the audience directly. 
  2. In both plays there was a significant amount of crotch grabbing and upper torso nudity. 
  3. In both plays there was a significant same-sex relationship. 
  4. In both plays poetic license played an important factor.
  5. In both plays the carnage was devastating. 
  6. In both plays the scope of the tragedy was indeed epic.  
While the gods of comedy and tragedy have blessed playwrights and stage directors with powerful gifts --  including the talent and tools with which to create magic for an audience --  the two plays in question represent polar extremes of artistic vision, dramatic insight, and physical execution. Were Charles Dickens a Bay area theater critic, he would undoubtedly be writing "It was the best of plays, it was the worst of plays."

* * * * * * * *

To dismiss Lillian Groag's astonishingly untheatrical translation and dishearteningly tacky staging of Christopher Logue's reinterpretation of Homer's Iliad as a pretentious piece of shit would hardly do justice to the monstrous turd that was dropped on the stage of the Geary Theater during A.C.T.'s world premiere of War Music. In her director's notes, Groag writes:
"Had Carey Perloff not had the artistic courage and integrity to devote the theater's resources some three years ago, at a time when most theaters are reduced to putting up small-cast plays with -- all too often -- safe contents, and without the tremendous input of the stunning Daniel Pelzig, this evening would not be a reality."
Alas, reality bit a big one this time. Billed as "a visionary new work of epic proportions," Groag's War Music proved to be a pathetic example of an ambitious playwright/stage director who bit off more than she could chew.  This production embodies the kind of epic failure for which people hoist banners proclaiming "Mission Accomplished." 

This is the kind of painfully boring production that makes a person wonder if his coughing is more interesting than what's happening onstage. This is beyond embarrassing and beyond merely appalling. When the curtain came down at the end of a long evening that was essentially "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," I felt intense sadness for a cast that had worked so hard to learn so much text and jump through so many hoops for such scant theatrical reward.

Rene Augesen and David A. Moss (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

What can be learned from this theatrical train wreck? 
  1. In her infinite lack of wisdom, Groag opted to have multiple narrators using the "he said, she said" format for advancing the long and complex plot of Homer's epic poem. This was a most unfortunate choice for her to make as both translator and stage director --  a gimmick which left the audience confused, alienated, and ultimately bored to tears. Some of Groag's tired directorial shtick (especially when staging actions by the gods) might have been appropriate for a sitcom character like Urkel but, even in the context of bickering gods, was tragically misconceived.
  2. If you've gone to the trouble of commissioning a composer to write new music for a new production, why resort to playing a recording of Richard Wagner's "Rhine Music" from Das Rheingold as soon as the troops encounter a river? John Glover's original score -- especially in those passages that sounded like muted wind chimes -- often made the audience wonder if someone's cell phone was ringing (an annoying distraction from the stage action). 
  3. Beaver Bauer's costume design outfitted most of the ensemble in khaki cargo pants and army jackets. With multiple players enacting multiple roles, this device often proved counterproductive, making it difficult for the audience to follow (or care about) who was speaking at any given time. Headgear varied from army berets to baseball caps sporting propellers.
  4. A.C.T. seems to favor a style of "updating" that weaves together cultural references from many eras while using a mishmash of costume styles from various eras. All too often, it is counterproductive.
In 1982, as part of Miami's New World Festival of the Arts, the Greater Miami Opera Association produced the world premiere of Robert Ward's Minutes To Midnight starring the husband and wife team of Thomas Stewart and Evelyn Lear. An ill-fated event cursed with the dire omen of an impending hurricane, the opera was a dismal flop. During intermission, I overheard one subscriber ask "Who wants to go to an opera about nuclear war on your bridge night?"

The composer, who had chosen to be his own librettist on this occasion, had given the singers lines like "uniformed thugs are on the march" Ms. Lear (who was notorious for her caustic candor) told Ward that those words were simply not singable.  She later told me that, following the opening night, the composer asked her if she had some notes she might want to give him for future productions.  The frustrated soprano minced no words in telling Ward that his opera was a piece of shit that would never receive a second production. While I suspect the same fate awaits War Music, that's certainly not the case for the play across the Bay.

* * * * * * *

My first encounter with playwright Octavio Solis was a magnificently theatrical production of his intense drama, Gibraltar, when it was staged at Thick House on Potrero Hill. His plays have been staged by Bay area companies such as Magic Theater, Intersection for the Arts, and the San Jose Repertory Theater.  Originally commissioned by the Denver Center Theatre Company, Lydia has already been staged at the Yale Repertory Theater in February 2009 and will be presented in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum later this month. That's three different productions of a new American play in three successive months!

After seeing the Shotgun Players' production of David Hare's Skylight and Marin Theater Company's production of Solis's Lydia within three days of each other, it's infuriating to see Lillian Groag criticize theaters for putting on "small plays with safe contents." Neither Skylight nor Lydia is, by any stretch of the imagination, a safe play. By contrast Ms. Groag comes off as a mediocre playwright and hack stage director.

One might well wonder how a play about a Mexican-American family living in El Paso during the 1970s resembles classic Greek theater.
  1. Most of the violence and gore occurs offstage
  2. The poetry written by a character is an important piece of self-expression, just as the poetry of the playwright's language causes the drama to soar.
  3. The script features some archetypes of classic drama.
  4. A horrible secret lies at the core of the story.
  5. One or more characters acts as a deus ex machina, capable of resolving the play's basic conflict(s).
At the center of the play is Ceci Flores (Gloria Garayua) who, just a few nights prior to her Quinceanera, was involved in a horrible automobile accident which left her alive, but severely brain damaged. Her older brother Rene (Lakin Valdez), who was driving that night, has since become  an angry drunk with a nasty habit of fagbashing. Her younger brother Mischa (David Pintado), is beginning to find an outlet for his emotions by writing poetry. The handsome young cousin whom Ceci had a crush on before her accident, Alvaro (Elias Escobedo), has recently returned from duty in Vietnam and taken a job with the U.S. Border Patrol, turning in wetbacks who try to cross the border illegally. 

Ceci's father Claudio (Luis Saguar), works on graveyard shift as a short-order cook. Her mother (Wilma Bonet), likes to believe that she knows everything that goes on under her roof. But even Rosa (who, although having recently been "born again" remains emotionally and physically exhausted from trying to care for her brain-damaged daughter), has finally given up and decided to hire a maid so that she can return to her government job and get a life. 

Enter Lydia (Adriana Gaviria), a mysteriously intuitive wetback who desperately wants to learn English and seems to have an unworldly talent for communicating with Ceci and calming her. Lydia has strange ways of realigning the household's dynamics, whether by taking the plastic covers off Rosa's lampshades, encouraging Mischa's adolescent yearnings for love, asking pointed questions about what happened to Ceci, or straddling Claudio so that he can fuck her as he sulks in his recliner.

Adriana Gaviria and Gloria Garayua (Photo by: Ed Smith)

I would not call a play in which:
  1. A brain-damaged woman lies topless at the edge of the stage,
  2. A brother's guilt for something much more than an automobile accident is revealed, 
  3. One actor pours hot wax (paraffin) on another actor's bare back,
  4. Mexican-Americans betray their own people to the immigration authorities as an act of personal revenge,
  5. A brooding father betrays his wife in their own living room,
  6. A father beats the crap out of his son,
  7. A young man performs an act of incest on his older, brain-damaged sister so that she can die happy,
  8. The audiences witnesses a pre-death moment of spiritual and physical ecstasy to rival Violetta's final moment of release in Verdi's La Traviata ...
.... a safe play. Director Jasson Minadakis has elicted stellar performances from a fierce and brave ensemble of actors willing to take huge emotional risks. Lydia is a powerful and provocative family drama that has it all. But be careful that you don't jump to conclusions: All too often the secret you're expecting to be revealed by one character is, in this stupendously dysfunctional household, owned by another. 

Solis has used his great skill as a playwright to gift his actors with a wealth of dramatic choices involving complex characters tormented by their physical, psychological, and emotional shortcomings. His script employs every bit of supernatural intervention, character magic, pathologic behavior, and magnificent writing at his fingertips to create a transcendent theatrical experience. I was particularly impressed by Mark Morgan's set design and Kurt Landisman's lighting (both of which which greatly enhanced the play's dramatic impact). If it's "a visionary new work of epic proportions" you want, Lydia is the play to see. Not War Music.

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