Sunday, March 28, 2010

Risky Stage Business

While most people who attend a theatrical performance are primarily interested in being entertained, live theater involves serious risk-taking in order to meet specific challenges:
  • Playwrights face the challenge of breaking new ground, solving structural problems in their script, and finding someone to produce their work.
  • Adapters face the challenge of making an established piece more relevant to modern audiences, even if that means treading on sacred turf.
  • Producers face the challenge of raising and very possibly losing a shitload of money in their effort to make a play come to life.
  • Directors face the challenge of exploring a playwright's script with the cast, shaping its presentation with the design team, and communicating its core truths to the audience.
  • Actors face the challenge inherent in bringing a character to life and making that character credible to the audience.
Whereas film can be edited, colorized, and manipulated until the filmmaker is satisfied with the final product, live theater changes from night to night because so many variables are at play. Each audience is different. Each performance may have a slightly different rhythm.

At any given performance, one line may get a sudden, unexpected laugh while another seemingly guaranteed gag falls flat on its face. It's all a big crap shoot in which there is often a whole lot more crap than shoot.
  • Poorly conceived projects may be aborted after a reading highlights glaring challenges that are impossible to overcome.
  • A playwright might suffer a miserable failure because the audience rejects his artistic vision.
  • So many artistic compromises may have deprived a play of its very reason for being that, by the time the production reaches opening night, the drama is essentially dead on arrival.
  • An actor who has been miscast in a role may cause the entire project to implode.
  • An audience may vehemently reject a director (or adapter's) dramatic conceits.
Three performances recently seen in Bay area theatres took huge risks with varying degrees of success. Thankfully, only one proved to be an unmitigated, craptastic disaster.

* * * * * * *
There's a reason why the plays of William Shakespeare have remained popular for more than 400 years. Most are brilliantly written, with a richness of language that has transcended time. Some (Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona) have survived being updated to different historical periods while being adapted for the musical stage (West Side Story, Kiss Me Kate, The Boys From Syracuse, Two Gentlemen of Verona). Some have even transformed into ballets (The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Othello).

Composers ranging from Benjamin Britten (A Midsummer Night's Dream) to Otto Nicolai (The Merry Wives of Windsor) and Giuseppe Verdi (Macbeth, Falstaff, Otello) have created operatic classics based on Shakespeare's plays.

Composers writing in vastly different styles, from Aribert Reimann (Lear) to Giaochino Rossini (Otello) and Ambrose Thomas (Hamlet); from Ralph Vaughn Williams (Sir John In Love) to Thomas Adès (The Tempest) and Hector Berlioz (Béatrice and Bénédict) have all been inspired by Shakespeare's plays. Frederick Delius (A Village Romeo and Juliet), Charles Gounod (Roméo et Juliette), Vincenzo Bellini (I Capuletti e I Montecchi), and Riccardo Zandonai (Giulietta e Romeo) have all composed operas inspired by Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers. Even Richard Wagner took a stab at the Bard's work with Das Liebesverbot!

The following video clips illustrate how four different composers, writing in vastly different styles, each capture the blush of young love in Romeo and Juliet. First up is Bellini's aria for Giulietta in I Capuletti e I Montecchi (1830), as sung by Mariella Devia in a 2008 performance at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa:

Second is Romeo's aria, Ah! Lève-toi, soleil! from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette (which premiered in Paris in 1867):

Third is the balcony scene from Sergei Prokofiev's 1938 ballet score with Carlos Acosta (Romeo) and Tamara Rojo (Juliet) dancing Kenneth MacMillan's choreography for the Royal Ballet:

And finally, the original Tony (Larry Kert) and Maria (Carol Lawrence) from 1957's West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim):

The one thing all these creative artists had in common was a deep respect for Shakespeare's work, an essential understanding of his writing that was appallingly absent from the African-American Shakespeare Company's recent (and truly ghastly) adaptation of Othello. The story of interracial love between the black Moor and the white Desdemona has been portrayed on many stages. But rarely has a performance of this great tragedy received so much inappropriate laughter from its audience.

Othello (Jeff Handy) and Desdemona (Vivian Kane)
(Photo by: David Allen)

Founded in 1994, San Francisco's African-American Shakespeare Company was designed:
"... to create an opportunity and a venue for actors of color to hone their skills and talent in mastering some of the world's greatest classical roles; and to unlock the realm of classic theatre to a diverse audience who have been alienated from discovering these time-favored works in a style that reaches, speaks, and embraces their cultural aesthetic and identity.

Drawing on our own imagination, creativity, experience, and the resources at our disposal, we strive to provide the world with the best theatrical experience that combines a rich cultural aesthetic within a world-classic production in a manner that is lively, entertaining, and rings relevant to diverse contemporary audiences.

Our vision is to change the perception and attitudes to better reflect the world's diversity and to bring opposing communities together through sharing, appreciating, and admiring the gifts and treasures that each culture and person manifests on this earth. We strive to involve and acknowledge the diverse cultural expressions represented in the country using classical stories, which speaks universally of our shared human nature, while striving to be a hallmark of artistic excellence."
The company's new production of Othello, described in its promotional materials as "an incendiary interpretation," has been supported by a special National Endowment for the Arts initiative with Arts Midwest’sShakespeare for a New Generation.” Director Sherri Young (who is also the company's Executive Director), admits that some of the sequences of events in Othello have been changed, but stresses that she has tried to maintain the language of the original Shakespeare. As she recently explained:
"In this version, Iago is an overweight African-American woman who has a love fantasy about Othello. She loses a promotion and feels even more betrayed when he marries Desdemona."
There's just one problem: That's not what Shakespeare wrote. Nor is it what he intended. Young's heinous artistic miscalculations (which reverberate throughout the evening) are as culturally tone deaf as someone who believes the best way to perform a Chopin sonata is by banging out every note at equal volume.

Othello, (Jeff Handy), (Vivian Kane) and Iago (Aimee McCrary)
Photo by: David Allen

In an interview with the San Francisco Examiner, Young was asked if there was something about her that people would find surprising. With remarkable candor, she responded:
"That I really don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t. I started this Shakespeare company, but I’m not a Shakespeare scholar. I only acted in two Shakespeare productions. I started a business, and I had no business skills."
I hold that truth to be self-evident.

The profound and abysmal misunderstanding of Shakespeare reflected in this production is on a par with the willful ignorance of Tea Party enthusiasts who insist that President Obama is not an American citizen. This production almost demands to be seen by anyone curious to watch an artistic rape in process.

Desdemona (Vivian Kane) and Othello (Jeff Handy)
Photo by: David Allen

While it would be easier to simply wag a finger and scream "Oh, no, she didn't!" there is a lesson to be learned from Young's truly execrable adaptation of Othello -- a lesson about how a mediocre talent can unwittingly mutilate a great work of art, disingenuously dismembering a masterpiece in a brutal act of artistic malpractice.
  • In what can best be attributed to a cost-cutting move, the key roles of Roderigo, Brabantio, and the Duke of Venice have been eliminated.
  • This can be a little tricky, since Shakespeare's play begins with Roderigo (a wealthy civilian who had hoped to marry Desdemona) complaining to Iago (Othello's lieutenant) about a perceived social insult from Othello. Instead of seeing Roderigo get egged on by Iago to awaken Desdemona's father, Brabantio, we now see Iago using his cell phone to awaken Brabantio instead.
  • In Shakespeare's play, Iago is a powerful military man who has been passed over for a key promotion. That wound is never clearly communicated to the audience in this production, which depicts Iago doubling as either a manipulative bartender or someone whose easy access to Othello is convenient at best, and questionable at worst.
  • In Shakespeare's play Iago seethes with hatred for Othello, in this version Iago seemed like someone who was rather bored and lacked something to do.
  • When Shakespeare's soldiers speak of their love for the Moor, it is an expression of loyalty that stems from an admiration for military prowess. It is most definitely not the love of a fat black bitch who thinks she has been spurned by a black man who is in love with a white woman.
  • Without the presence of the Duke of Venice, the audience cannot understand how Othello (a military man) defended himself to his civilian superiors.
  • Without Brabantio, the audience cannot understand how Othello has humiliated Desdemona in front of her family.
  • Whereas Iago's speech about "lying with Cassio" and hearing him talk in his sleep means one thing in the context of two male soldiers in battle, it takes on a very different significance when being spoken by a nasty, manipulative bull dyke who purports to have had a crush on her male superior.
  • Young's attempt to portray Iago and his wife, Emilia, as an interracial lesbian couple falls flat on its face with a resounding thud.
The shoddy stage direction did little to assist Jeff Handy (Othello), Vivian Kane (Desdemona), Aimee McCrary (Iago), Cassio (Sam Leichter), or Meggy Hai Trang (Emilia) or show any of these actors off to good advantage. However, this horribly misguided production did invoke the nightmarishly comic memory of having once seen a stripped-down version of Aida (minus Verdi's Triumphal March) performed on an op-art set for Mart Crowley's 1968 homodrama, The Boys in the Band.

* * * * * * * * *
Some people approach a Chekhov drama with the same enthusiasm they have for eating their vegetables. But when done well, a good performance of a Chekhov play can lure carnivores toward vegetarianism.

When first produced in 1896, Anton Chekhov's dramedy, The Seagull, was a a notorious failure (the actress playing the ingenue had such a severe case of stage fright that she lost her voice). And yet, when it premiered in May of 2008 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, Emily Mann's new adaptation, A Seagull in the Hamptons, was hailed for its style and dramatic effectiveness.

In the following three clips, the playwright/director and actress Maria Tucci discuss how updating the action by 110 years and moving it from Tsarist Russia to a wealthy enclave near the southeastern tip of Long Island sacrificed none of the comedy, drama, or humanity in Chekhov's original.

It's always a pleasant shock to walk into the Ashby Stage's auditorium and see how a local set designer has made use of this remarkable space. Robert Broadfoot's elegant unit set is so brilliantly designed that I would urge serious Bay area theatregoers to buy a ticket to A Seagull in the Hamptons just to see how well it supports the drama. In the course of updating the action, Chekhov's original characters have been transformed by Emily Mann into:
  • Harold (Andy Alabran), a nebbishy schoolteacher.
  • Milly (Anna Ishida), Harold's hard-drinking, bitter, and sarcastic Goth girlfriend, who has had a life-long crush on Alex.
  • Nicholas (Richard Louis James), Alex's rich uncle, an attorney (and possible closet case) who always wanted to become a writer but married his career, instead.
  • Lorenzo (Mark Manske), Milly's father, a local who has been managing Nicholas's house.
  • Ben (John Mercer), a local physician with limited savings who fears he will never be able to retire.
  • Paula (Beth Deitchman), Lorenzo's wife, who has been having an affair with Ben.
  • Alex (Liam Callister), a depressed, moody young man who aspires to be a writer but may not have much in the way of talent. As the play begins, he and his girlfriend are about to put on a laughably pretentious show for the locals.
Liam Callister as Alex (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
  • Nina (Kelsey Venter), a local girl who yearns to be an actress. Although she and Alex are wildly in love, Nina's parents don't want her going anywhere near Alex or his family.
  • Maria (Trish Mulholland), Alex's egocentric mother. An extremely selfish and self-centered actress, Maria is rarely able to see past her own wild emotional needs to notice those of her anguished son.
  • Philip (Alex Moggridge), Maria's current lover, a writer who is surprisingly unimpressed with his own work. Every bit as selfish as Maria, Philip worries that he is observing life rather than living it.
Trish Mulholland as Maria (Photo by:
Jessica Palopoli)

Directed by Reid Davis with a deep sense of honesty, truth, and integrity, the West Coast premiere of Mann's play by the Shotgun Players is indeed cause for celebration. As always,
the Shotgun ensemble delivers a magnificently cogent, intelligent, and tightly-knit performance.

While Trish Mulholland, Alex Moggridge, Anna Ishida and Kelsey Venter score strongly in their respective roles, the impassioned performance by young Liam Callister as Alex and, most especially, the portrayal by Richard Louis James of Alex's rapidly deteriorating uncle are both inspired and inspiring. A Seagull in the Hamptons continues at the Ashby Stage until April 25. You can order tickets here.

Nicholas (Richard Louis James), Nina (Kelsey Venter) and
Maria (Trish Mulholland) (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

* * * * * * * * *
Written by Marilee Talkington and Justin Quinn Pelegano, the Vanguardian Productions staging of Truce is not for people who want mindless entertainment. Although monologues by artists like Dan Hoyle, Ann Randolph, Charlie Varon, and the above mentioned Richard Louis James (who has a one-man show about Quentin Crisp) can be highly entertaining, Truce deals with a physical disability most people would rather avoid: blindness.

Slowly but steadily, Talkington has been losing her vision to a form of macular degeneration in which the cones (photoreceptor cells in the retina that function in bright light) and rods (photoreceptor cells in the retina that function in less intense light) in her eyes have stopped functioning. The result is a form of legal blindness in which there is no central vision, but some vision around the periphery.

Marilee Talkington

Talkington, who earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in Acting from American Conservatory Theatre, is one of only two legally blind actors in the country to have done so. In 2001, she self-published The Zen Handbook for Actors. Marissa Wolf (the artistic director of the Crowded Fire Theatre Company who also directed Truce) describes Talkington as follows:
"I am completely enamored with Marilee's work. One of the things I noticed years ago, when we were first working together, was that she would push and push until she got to where she felt a particular movement should be (sometimes even at the expense of her body). What I love about watching Marilee move onstage -- and I've always felt that way from our first collaboration -- is that you're watching someone who moves with such grace and agility, yet she's not there to be a dancer. There's a very muscular, human side [of her work] that involves breath. She is incredible onstage: a force of beautiful energy, engagement, and groundedness whose presence affects you.

I love working with movement -- I think that's one of the things that makes Marilee and I such a wonderful match together in the theatre. She is not only a wonderful actor, but also a wonderful movement coach. That's a language that she lives and breathes as well.

One of the things that always interested me about Marilee -- and that was revealed slowly as we were working together -- is that she goes for it fully, physically, and loves taking physical risks. She is one of those incredible actors who all directors love to work with because she says yes to everything. In fact, if you give her an idea and ask 'Why don't you try it this way?' she'll say "I'll see you one better. I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that, and then I'm going to do this on top of that!"
When I first started going to the opera back in 1966, I met a woman named Lois Kirschenbaum who was affectionately known as the Queen of the Met's Standees. Although Lois was legally blind, she rose to more challenges than many sighted people. Her stamina was simply unbelievable.

Watching Talkington perform her one-woman show reminded me of that deep well of energy and total commitment to pursuing one's passion that I saw in Lois (while at A.C.T. Talkington received the Carol Channing Trouper Award for Commitment and Leadership). She is the kind of intelligent and intensely physical performer who is willing to take big risks in order to earn the kind of artistic rewards that will quench her thirst for fulfillment.

Before opening the show at San Francisco's Noh Space, Talkington had wanted to reinvestigate the play and open it up a bit more, to dig deeper in search of the work's core truths and to see if she could communicate with audiences at an even deeper level. Wolf recalls that:
"When she first showed me the script, I was interested in something that the script starts to reveal -- something that I saw in her life -- which is a pushing away of a physical ailment. The sense of being fully capable physically is so important for her. I said yes to this project because I was really excited to be part of that process, to crack open that world that was already on the page, so rich and full, but clearly had more room for emotional resonance. I was interested in where the story was coming from: Marilee's own experience, and why she was going to tell the story now.

This is a very special piece because there's a design device in the production that aligns the audience with the way Marilee sees. There's something really powerful about this that's not only Marilee's unveiling of her life and her stories, but is actually an experience for the audience that engages their senses. I think this piece really comes to life for the audience in ways that a lot of theater doesn't."
Talkington's play warms up the audience with her childhood delight (rather than fear) at being the center of attention whenever she was taken to a medical office, but describes how her mother (who is also blind) would throw cold water on some of Marilee's happier moments in order to prepare her for reality. Marilee's consternation at attending a conference for the blind where she was taken to task for not using a cane is as startling as her discovery that some blind people attend conferences primarily for the orgies.

It is a remarkable performance, marked by great discipline, surprising athleticism, and a powerful sense that the audience is being drawn into the physical limits of Talkington's world. The actress speaks candidly about what it was like, as a blind college student, to discover that she was a very sexy woman and learn how to make the most of her assets.

"I see Truce as a kind of living memoir in which there is an uncovering of childhood experiences, Marilee's sight, and sight loss. One of the ways in which the piece functions so beautifully is how it really opens itself up in terms of accessibility so that we can all find ourselves within Marilee," notes Wolf. "But then it opens up into something else -- something very rich -- that perhaps people in the audience will never have dwelled upon or spent time thinking about."

Truce is, without doubt, a challenging experience for the artist as well as for her audience. Days after you've witnessed Talkington perform, her story will continue to haunt you. Here's the trailer:

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