Wednesday, December 2, 2009

One Prick Can Ruin Everything

No doubt you've met one these types: the guy whose basically philosophy is "If I'm not having fun, nobody should be having fun!" These people show up everywhere -- at the office, at a family gathering, while riding on MUNI -- they're everywhere.

Unlikely Hyacinth Bucket on the BBC's beloved Keeping Up Appearances, these people are not particularly interested in looking better than those who surround them. They're just selfish, curmudgeonly types who have never gotten over some psychological insult or who always seem to wake up on the wrong side of the bed.

Whether these people follow the depressing role model of Debbie Downer or decide that, since someone infected them with AIDS, they needn't give a rat's ass about who they, in turn, infect, they can be found throughout our society. With the current economic climate stressing people out -- and causing some to reach for a weapon -- it's a good idea to stay away from people who are obsessed with bringing others down.

As we enter the month of December -- and Ebeneezer Scrooge starts appearing on stages across America -- perhaps we should look at staged presentations in which one tiny prick has the potential to ruin everything. Two notable events seen during the Thanksgiving holiday perfectly illustrate my point.

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Often regarded as Giuseppe Verdi's greatest opera, Otello was revived this fall by the San Francisco Opera in a production borrowed from the Lyric Opera of Chicago. John Gunter's towering unit set, which easily filled the stage of the War Memorial Opera House, was structured much like an Elizabethan theatre.

A sketch of The Swan, a theatre from Shakespeare's time.

John Gunther's set for Otello (Photo by: Terrence McCarthy)

With Stephen Barlow recreating Peter J. Hall's original staging, this revival proved to be a rather strange evening for me. On a personal level, part of the problem was that I was suffering from a severe postnasal drip that kept me coughing throughout much of the performance. That didn't prevent me from noticing a substantial lack of dramatic fire onstage. Or that the conductor, Nicola Luisotti, had a tendency to drown out his singers during the opera's large ensembles.

In Shakespeare's tragedy, the protagonist is a fierce warrior whose tragic flaw is his jealousy. Easily manipulated by his malevolent subordinate Iago, Otello's jealousy eventually overtakes his reason and -- provoked by Iago's scurrilous insinuations -- causes him to strangle his wife, Desdemona. A subplot involves Otello's other weakness (the fact that he suffers from epilepsy). During a crucial moment, the mighty military hero falls helpless to the floor as he is gripped by an epileptic seizure.

Nothing of the sort happened in this performance, largely because the Otello (Johan Botha), who certainly has the vocal chops for Verdi's most demanding tenor role, is not a particularly effective actor. While Botha's stentorian tones were often thrilling, his acting reminded me of the time I watched Montserrat Caballe calmly walk offstage at the end of a performance of Tosca instead of leaping to her death from the ramparts of the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome.

Zvetelina Vassileva as Desdemona (Photo by Cory Weaver)

As Otello's doomed wife, Desdemona, Zvetelina Vassileva delivered a beautiful performance of the Willow Song and Ave Maria. In supporting roles, Beau Gibson was an appealing Cassio, Renée Tatum an effective Emelia, Eric Halfvarson a somber Ludovico, and Daniel Montenegro a sweet-voiced Rodrigo.

Much has been made of Marco Vratogna's performance as Iago, but it did not sweep me off my feet. Part of the problem is that, try as he might, Vratogna (who is a strong actor with an equally powerful voice) had little to play off of when confronted with Botha's Otello. Botha reminded me, in an odd way, of Ermanno Mauro (a Canadian tenor who had the vocal stamina and brilliance to handle Verdi's score but whose limited dramatic skills led to many wooden performances). It also made me realize how easy it is to have been spoiled by having experienced some of the 20th century's greatest Otellos (Placido Domingo, Jon Vickers, James McCracken) in the role.

Iago (Marco Vratogna) and Otello (Johan Botha)
(Photo by: Terrence McCarthy)

While one attends any performance of Otello hoping for greatness, all too often what one hears is a serviceable performance which earns no demerits, but rarely inspires. This was definitely one of those performances.

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While one evil prick like Iago might deflate a hero's legend, a simpler, smaller prick could burst easily burst a real bubble. Over at The Marsh, Louis Pearl (who bills himself as "The Amazing Bubble Man") is merrily entertaining children of all ages during the holiday season with The Greatest Bubble Show On Earth. Pearl takes delight in creating bubbles of all shapes, sizes, and complexity while showing audiences new and interesting ways to make them more fascinating than anything they've ever tried in their bathtubs.

All too often, arts marketers eager to cash in on the end-of-year holidays will try to promote a show as being suitable for families and young children. Happily, this is one production that lives up to its hype and, in many ways, exceeds it.

With many of the youngsters in attendance gathered on mats on the floor in front of Pearl, the Bubble Man does a bubble-icious job of bringing kids up onstage to be volunteers in his "bubble magic." Oddly enough, one gets the feeling that a lot of adults in the audience wish they were small enough to be called on as volunteers. Watch this video of Pearl in action and it will be easy to understand his show's appeal.

The Greatest Bubble Show On Earth has been extended through December 27th. You don't have to be under a certain age to enjoy this show -- you can simply be young at heart. Everyone has a great time and nobody complains about getting soapy water in their hair. The only sad part is that no college currently offers a degree in Bubble-ology. Order tickets here.

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