Sunday, April 12, 2009

Starved For Affection

A new neighbor. 

A potential boyfriend. 

A puppy named Bo. 

All arrive with smiles on their faces, bringing new opportunties for immeasurable happiness. On first glance (as in this clip from Rodgers & Hammerstein's 1951 musical, The King and I) the possibilities seem endless.

Unfortunately, disappointment (like familiarity) often breeds contempt. Once the initial niceties have passed, a person's annoying habits, condescending behavior, mood swings and/or neglect can soon curdle the milk of a budding relationship. Sometimes a line is crossed. Sometimes -- no matter how desperately a family tries to reestablish the bonds that once held it together -- old wounds simply can't heal. On rare occasions, a person may get a glimmer of insight into himself.

Three productions seen this week in Bay area theaters deal with the thorny issue of what happens when the emotional equilibrium that exists between people is shattered by a catalytic (and possibly life-transforming) event. In two of these productions the playwright's command of language was so strong -- and the director's work so deft and insightful -- that the results were enthralling. The inherent weaknesses of the third production only made me appreciate the other two even more.

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Written in 1888, August Strindberg's classic, Miss Julie, has often been regarded as a play about class warfare and the battle of the sexes. Set on midsummer's night, its action is limited to the kitchen of a count's estate where, as usual, his spoiled daughter Julie is up to no good. This is not a midsummer's night to be filled with the kind of mischief that inspired Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film, Smiles of A Summer Night or Stephen Sondheim's 1973 musical entitled A Little Night Music. This is a play about two desperately unhappy people trying to break out of the roles thrust upon them by their gender and their place in society while a third party, clinging to her faith in God, stands helplessly on the sidelines.

The wonder of the Aurora Theatre's production is that it has taken a play that is now 121 years old, staged it in a 150-seat auditorium with arena seating, and shaped it into the kind of electrifying theater that has a person on the edge of his seat throughout its tense 90 minutes. In his program notes, the company's dramaturg, Daniel Olmstead, writes:
"The play's raw sexuality was too shocking to allow anyone to produce it at the time, but it has gone down in history as a masterpiece of naturalistic literature. Heavily influenced by the discoveries of Darwin and other scientists ushering in a new era of understanding the world around us, Strindberg and the other naturalists wanted to apply the scientific method to human nature.  In the case of Miss Julie, Strindberg attempts an impartial observation of what happens when you combine two people of different classes -- and turn up the heat."
Mark Anderson Phillips and Lauren Grace
Photo by: David Allen

For those who suffered the abject humiliation of having to sit through A.C.T.'s despicable War Music (in which director/translator Lillian Groag picked up every piece of rotting shtick she could find and desperately flung it across the stage in the misguided hope that it would stick to something other than her ego), I would urge you to catch a performance of the Aurora Theatre's production of Miss Julie. Not only do you owe it to yourself to see a magnificent production of a theater classic, this is a rare opportunity to understand how so much less can deliver so much more.

Part of Strindberg's genius was to examine the love/hate aspect of the relationship between Jean and Julie. As a poor child, Jean fell head over heels for the Count's daughter. But Jean's keen awareness of his place in the world as a member of the servant class kept him from realizing his dreams. 

Julie, on the other hand, has always commanded people to do her bidding and held the power to humiliate people for the sake of her amusement. Instead of leading to bliss, the final consummation of their desires makes Jean and Julie look at each other with the bitter realization that their midsummer night's fuck might not have been worth it. As reality starts to sink in, their futures take on a shockingly bleak new perspective.

Lauren Grace and Mark Anderson Phillips
Photo by: David Allen

Many years ago, when I first read Miss Julie, I was much too naive to understand the sexual and class tensions at the heart of Strindberg's script. The translation I read certainly did not prepare me for the dramatic impact of Mark Jackson's staging. By the end of the evening I was in awe of Mark Anderson Phillips' heavily masculine portrayal of Jean and deeply impressed by Lauren Grace's petulant Julie as well as the surprising strength of Beth Deitchman's Christine.

A great deal of credit for this production's success goes to Helen Cooper for her effective translation, to David A. Graves for a remarkably intuitive soundscape, and to designer Giulio Cesare Perrone for a unit set that is simple, effective, and yet surprisingly elegant in its minimalism. All of these elements have been carefully integrated under the meticulous direction of Mark Jackson, whose keen attention to motivation and detail anchor the evening in a most astonishing way.  It's rare to see a classic done so well that the audience leaves the theater visibly shaken by the ending.  Be sure not to miss this production (you can order tickets here).

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Back in San Francisco, New Conservatory Theatre Center is presenting the Bay area premiere of Jordan Harrison's Act A Lady. Directed by Dennis Lickteig, the play has some nice moments but sags terribly under the weight of its complicated structure and the playwright's often clumsy attempts to get to the truth of who really lurks beneath someone's skin (or costume).

Set in a small Midwestern town in 1927, Harrison's play focuses on the fact that, during Prohibition, farmers from the South and Midwest were often eager to participate in cross-dressing dramas that were staged by women. According to the playwright, "This play is about people who are venturing into unknown territory, losing track of themselves or who they thought they were."

Thus, we have Miles (Harry Breaux), the hardware store owner who takes great delight in dressing up as Lady Romola and Vicomte Valentino; True (Glenn Kiser) who acquires a new sense of self as the Countess Roquefort; and Casper (Benjamin Pither) whose chance to get up in drag as the maid Greta allows him to  get in touch with his mancrush on True, his probably gayness, and his hunger for the make-believe world that exists onstage. 

Benjamin Pither and Michaela Greeley (Photo by Lois Tema)

Michaela Greeley doubles as Zina (a Germanic lesbian stage director) and Casper's alter ego. Laura Morgan alternates between playing Lorna, a makeup girl who worked in Hollywood, and True's alter ego. Scarlett Hepworth switches back and forth between Dorothy (Miles' God-fearing wife who plays a mean accordian and likes to write songs with surprisingly religious endings) and her husband's alter-ego.

Michaela Greeley and Scarlett Hepworth (Photo by Lois Tema)

What struck me about Act A Lady was how, by taking itself seriously, it lost its dramatic punch. The play-within-a-play structure had all the elements needed for a grand farce but kept imploding under its own weight as it tried to lay the groundwork for moments of soul-searching in the second act. Although the director and cast worked hard to bring life to the production (which played to a near-empty house), it took me a few days to realize what was missing. 

Harrison's play has all the elements that a comic genius like the late, great Charles Ludlam used to brilliant effect as the creator of New York's Ridiculous Theatrical Company.  The brilliance of Ludlam's stagecraft was that too much was never enough because he knew how to work with wretched excess. His was a rare gift, and one that is painfully missed.

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After this winter's desperate fight for survival, I'm happy to report that Magic Theatre has a new hit on its hands with the world premiere of American Hwangap. Although filled with laughter, Lloyd Suh's new drama about a Korean-American family living in West Texas is blessed with an engaging set of characters, believable family conflicts, and a remarkably gifted Asian-American ensemble of actors delivering powerfully-crafted portraits of complex, flawed people.

The catalyst being used as an excuse to reunite this family is a hwangap (a Korean 60th birthday celebration) for a fairly worthless father who has been missing in action since he walked out on his family and returned to Korea. His wife, Mary (an intense portrayal by the gifted Jodi Lang) has overcome enough of her bitterness over having had to pick up the pieces of her failed marriage to invite her ex-husband, Min Suk (Keone Young), back to Texas for a family reunion in the hope that it will help her dysfunctional children overcome some of their emotional hangups.  

Jodi Long and Keone Young (Photo by: David Allen)

Their eldest son, David, has become an embittered denizen of Wall Street.  Ryun Yu delivers a performance which is, at once, beautifully conflicted while evoking images of an Asian-American Alec Baldwin. Refusing to fly down to Texas for his father's hwangap (but not wanting to relinquish control over his emotions), he can't let go of the shame of ending up in jail (just like his father) after an impulsive flight to Seoul.

Ryun Yu (Photo by David Allen)

Their daughter Esther (Angela Lin) has become a perpetual student after two failed marriages and the loss of an infant child. She continues to nurture a seething resentment against her father and can't wait to leave her mother's house. No matter how hard she tries to run, she cannot hide from her family's dysfunctional problems.

Their youngest son Ralph (Jon Norman Schneider) is pushing 30 and still living in his mother's basement in his pajamas. Ralph's got some noticeable behavioral problems (he once hopped a flight to Ecuador without really knowing why) and is quite content to use his emotional breakdown as an excuse to never grow up.  Still, he desperately wishes he could bond with his father and catch up on all of the father-and-son moments they never got to experience after Min Suk left for Seoul.

Jon Norman Schneider (Photo by: David Allen)

It doesn't take long for Mary's defenses to wilt and Min Suk to realize that if he has any chance of reuniting with his wife, he's going to have to force Ralph out of his basement cocoon. Not only does this mean taking responsibility for his years of misdeeds, it means that Min Suk must also start acting like a father (the scene in which Min Suk and Ralph go fishing is exquisitely written).

Jon Norman Schneider and Keone Yung (Photo by David Allen)

Communication problems and impulsive behavior pose big challenges for this family. Min Suk carries years of shame on his shoulders. Mary has worked hard at trying to reinvent herself from a subservient Korean bride to a liberated Korean-American woman who became a successful realtor in order to provide for her family after her husband's disappearance. The occasion of the hwangap allows each character to step out of the action and deliver the toast they would like to believe to their irresponsible father.

I was especially taken with the stark simplicity and inventive flexibility of Erik Flatmo's set, which allowed director Trip Cullman to frame each one of Suh's scenes using only a few suggestive props. Carefully exposing the frayed relationships between his characters with a remarkable theatrical grace, Cullman's immensely talented ensemble brought life to a complex set of Asian-American characters struggling to celebrate their father's 60th birthday at the same time South Korea marks 60 years of independence. The performances in American Hwangap are uniformly magnificent. But it is the strength of Suh's writing that really impresses.

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