Monday, May 25, 2009

Down-sizing the Classics

As we enter an era in which communications are being redefined by who can transmit the most coherent message in a single Tweet, we must ask ourselves how new audiences will respond to theatrical classics in the age of social networking. Will they welcome chances to be kept abreast of new developments from their favorite arts organizations? Will they use text messaging as a means to enter a raffle, vote for their favorite entry at a film festival or make a donation? Can Medea kill her two sons in less than 140 characters? In his upcoming New Media Made Easy workshop, publicist David Perry will address the question of what to do when "YouTube and I Twitter."

Making the classics relevant for modern audiences often requires downsizing voluminous scripts to a reasonable running time. Morality plays that may have run for 4-5 hours in their original form must be boiled down to their bare essentials. Plays that were written in an old-world literary style (that could put a modern coffee addict to sleep) must be retooled and refocused for modern audiences. With today's span of attention getting shorter and shorter, more and more playwrights are writing cost-effective one-act dramas that try to keep an audience seated for no more than 90 minutes.

  • Some people want to get home at a decent hour (especially on a weeknight). 
  • Some people prefer the CliffsNotes version of a classic rather than the whole shebang
  • Some people have no taste for medieval poetry. 
  • Some people are intellectually lazy. 
Whatever! Welcome to the audience of the future.

This week, three Bay area theater companies revisited classic works from the dramatic literature by condensing their texts, updating their performance styles, and trying to make age-old conflicts relevant to modern audiences. Each company was severely challenged by budgetary constraints. Each had to rely on its craft and creativity to make the audience suspend its sense of disbelief. Each company had to reinvent dramatic wheels which had been honed to perfection in another time and place.

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First up at bat was the premiere of Faust Part 1, Mark Jackson's radical reworking of Goethe's legendary Faust: Der Tragodie Erster Teil for Berkeley's ever-adventurous Shotgun Players. Jackson recently did a stunning job of updating Shakespeare's Macbeth (1611)  for this company and mounted a smashing production of August Strindberg's Miss Julie (1888) for Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company.

Mark Jackson and Peter Ruocco (Photo by: Jessica Palipoli)

Based on popular German legends, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus was first published in 1604, even though Christopher Marlowe's play had, by that time, been performed for more than a decade. First published in 1808, Goethe's version of the age-old story about a man who sells his soul to the devil was subsequently adapted by composers Hector Berlioz for La Damnation de Faust (1846), Charles Gounod for Faust (1859), Arrigo Boito for Mefistofele (1868), Ferruccio Busoni for Doktor Faust ((1925), and Sergei Prokofiev for The Fiery Angel (1927).

Playwrights ranging from Heinrich Heine to William S. Gilbert and David Mamet, from Gertrude Stein to Vaclev Havel and George Axelrod have all made use of the Faust legend. In 1957, Damn Yankees (a musical reworking of the Faust legend starring Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston) became a major Broadway hit. Randy Newman's Faust premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1995 and was subsequently produced by Chicago's Goodman Theater.

Even if he is not paid royalties, the devil always gets his due.

While the Gounod and Boito treatments of the Faust legend often become major exercises in set and costume design, Mark Jackson's approach went in the opposite direction. Using Nina Ball's simple yet highly evocative set -- and with his actors clad in modern dress -- Jackson edited more than 900 pages of Goethe's original dramatic poem down to a workable script that could be performed in less than two hours. 

To perform such an extensive hatchet job and then co-direct and star as Faust is no easy task. But Jackson rose to the challenge with astonishing craft, grace, and style. His bushy-eyebrowed Faust alternated between being a pompous, world-weary intellectual and a willful young stud -- from a revitalized soul intoxicated by physical desire to a battered fool who can barely begin to comprehend the damage he has done.

Mark Jackson and Blythe Foster (Photo by: Jessica Palipoli)
"There is something profoundly sad about the fact that we still have not learned the lessons Goethe and Aeschlyus seemed to recognize so long ago. Will the human race ever learn self-responsibility? Or to strike the balance of justice without shedding more blood?" asks Jackson. "Like humankind has done for millennia, Faust will likely continue to forget the lessons he learns -- or rather the lessons he is given the chance to learn. Mephistopheles understands this and I think this is why he is, in a sense, the most conscious and moral character in the play. He provides Faust with every opportunity to learn and do the responsible thing, and Faust fails. Similarly, Faust Part 1 provides us with the chance to imagine what we might do in similar emotional and moral circumstances.  Hopefully, we do choose to remember, even to change rather than to forget, forget, and forget."
In the scene where Gretchen keeps asking Faust if he believes in God, Jackson delivered a magnificent dramatic turn, repeating Faust's self-serving response in widely varying renditions until his performance began to resemble a Ben Stiller-like meltdown. As impressive as Jackson's performance was as Faust, he was quietly and most artfully upstaged by Peter Ruocco's subtle and remarkably understated performance as the devil.

Ruocco's Mephistopheles knows that time is on his side and that the game is rigged in his favor. These facts give him the freedom to let Faust rant and rave to his heart's content. The devil is, after all, merely an enabler of human folly. As Goethe notes: "We are never deceived, we deceive ourselves."
Mark Jackson and Peter Ruocco (Photo by: Jessica Palipoli)

Jackson and Ruocco received strong support from Blythe Foster as Gretchen, Zehra Berkman as Gretchen's mother, and Phil Lowery as Gretchen's brother, Valentin. Nina Ball's set design was simple, yet remarkably effective. Most impressive, perhaps, was the debut of Matt Stines as a sound designer whose ominous rumblings could shake the foundations of the Ashby Stage (which claims to be the nation's first 100% solar-powered theater). 

While it demands a viewer's careful attention and intelligent involvement, the Shotgun Players' production of Faust Part 1 succeeds in challenging its audience with moments of daring theatricality, complex philosophy, gore, comedy, and egomania. Not bad for a tale that has been told over and over for the past 400 years!

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By contrast, Boxcar Theatre's 35-minute reworking of Ion -- a play believed to have been written by Euripides somewhere between 412 and 414 B.C. -- provided much lighter fare (a good thing considering that Ion was being performed on consecutive weekends in San Francisco's parks with little advance fanfare). Because I live right across the street from Dolores Park, I was able to bundle myself up on a cold Saturday afternoon, grab a folding chair, and walk across the street for an earful of Euripides before heading out to Magic Theater for a look at its new production of Mauritius.

As performed by Peter Matthews, Stephanie RenĂ©e Maysonave, and Sarah Savage, Ion lacked a traditional Greek chorus.  However, the actors from Boxcar managed to speed through the ancient tale about the hero's mysterious identity without getting hung up on the moral stigma of being fathered by a god (Apollo) who would fuck anything in sight. 

Instead, this performance became an exercise for the three actors who, by taking over a prop or shred of cloth from another performer, would step in and out of their roles as if participating in a game of theatrical round robbin. Each actor (whether male or female) portrayed any number of characters (male and female). Thus, Matthews portrayed men and women; the two female actors portrayed women as well as men.

In a city where gender identity is a constant source of confusion, concern, and occasionally cause for celebration, Boxcar's performance of Ion proved to be an interesting diversion for the people wandering through Dolores Park as well as for those who had come specifically to attend the performance. Needless to say, the dogs romping in and around the performance area had weightier concerns than Euripides and the Gods.

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Over in the East Bay, Berkeley's Central Works was reviving their 2002 production of Misanthrope. Based on Moliere's classic comedy of manners, Le Misanthrope. the Central Works version offers the perfect mirror with which to examine our behavior in a new golden age of hypocrisy. According to the program notes from the director, Gary Graves:
"When we sat down at our first workshop meeting on this project, the group began by reading through Richard Wilbur's translation of Moliere's original play, The Misanthrope, written in 1666.  Before beginning workshops, Central Works decided to do a contemporary updating of the play, that it would be a comedy, and that we would reduce the action to a three-character play, two men and one woman: the Misanthrope (Alan), his best friend (Phil), and the wealthy widow (Celia), with whom the Misanthrope is deeply in love.  After assembling the collaborative team and reading the original play, as a group, we proceeded by asking what thematic issues are present in the original and how we might translate those issues into contemporary terms. 
As workshops progressed, we brainstormed about ways in which we might play out these thematic issues in the onstage interaction of just our three central characters.  In some cases, we have "distilled" certain aspects of Moliere's original scenarios; in other cases we have adapted various components and, in still other cases, we have altogether invented circumstances with a particular view toward the original.  Our play, in these diverse ways, resonates with Moliere's and, in some instances, I hope even represents a kind of "dialog" between the two.  In the end, we have retained the basic premise put forth by Moliere in the first scene of his play, which is articulated by the Misanthrope -- "If it were up to me, " says Alceste (Alan), "we would all speak from the heart or say nothing at all" -- and we have tried to follow that premise to its logical conclusion, given certain newly invented circumstances. What we have here is a new play, but one which is clearly based on, or "inspired" by, Moliere's comedy -- both of which, I think, ask what limits, if any, honesty might have in the course of human affairs -- particularly in affairs of the heart."
Darren Bridgett as Alan, the Misanthrope

Whereas most productions of Moliere's Le Misanthrope might be staged as period costume dramas, the challenge facing Central Works is quite different. Performing in an extremely intimate space at the Berkeley City Club that seats only 50 people (arranged arena style around the central playing area), the actors at Central Works have no costumes or makeup behind which they can hide. Members of the audience are, at most, six feet away from them. Performing there is a bit like doing theatre-in-the-round in your living room.

The basic setup of Misanthrope is that Alan (the Misanthrope) hates the world as it is. Though passionately in love with Celia, he despises the social pretense and petty gossip on which she seems to thrive. In all truth, each of the play's three characters is running a bit of a scam. 
  • Celia is a wealthy widow who has been brought up on charges of murdering her ex-husband. In her grief during the year since his death, she has not only run through her entire inheritance, but gone heavily into debt trying to maintain an exuberant, if overly flamboyant lifestyle. Deeply in love with Alan, she has also been having an affair with Phil.
  • Alan, a journalist who believes in telling the absolute truth, has asked Celia to marry him. Unfortunately, after his refusal to revise an article which angered his newspaper's publisher, his moral posturing has cost him his job. He will probably never work in that town again.
  • Phil, a playboy who has grown up among the rich -- and acted like them throughout his life -- is not only penniless, but heavily in debt to a mobster. Unbeknownst to Alan (his best friend), Phil has also asked Celia to marry him.
Deb Fink as Celia and Darren Bridgett as Alan

What makes productions at Central Works so thrilling is that each performance is like watching people traverse a high-wire tightrope without any safety net. When the audience knows that a character is lying (but the other character in the scene does not), there is an added tension that might not exist in a production framed by a proscenium arch. Due to the extreme intimacy of the performing space the actors have to be secure in their craft, know their lines upside down and inside out, and inhabit their characters with much more passion and integrity than mere "truthiness." 

The cast for this year's revival included two of the actors from Central Works' 2002 production of Misanthrope. Deb Fink's Celia and Darren Bridgett's Alan were beautifully layered portrayals of people who hate to tell the truth if it is going to hurt someone they love. Michael Navarra's Phil had some wonderful moments (especially during the soliloquy in which he described how he was forced to watch his brand new, phallus-like sports car be destroyed at the hands of the mobster he had failed to pay in a timely manner).

Michael Navarra as Phil

Performances of Misanthrope continue through June 21 at the Berkeley City Club.  You can order tickets here (remember that seating is limited to 50 people per performance).

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