Sunday, August 15, 2010

Boxcar Theatre's Southern Strategy

In order to survive, small theatre companies must articulate their artistic mission and work to develop a niche audience for their productions. The elements that make a company unique help it to generate funding and a loyal audience base.
  • The Marsh is dedicated to showcasing solo performance art.
  • 42nd Street Moon presents "staged concert performances of classic and rarely performed musical works that celebrate and preserve the art and spirit of the American Musical Theatre."
  • Theatre Rhinoceros and New Conservatory Theatre Center present works by gay playwrights and plays that will interest gay audiences.
  • CentralWorks is committed to "the collaborative development of original works for the theatre."
  • The Exit Theatre (home to September's San Francisco Fringe Festival) supports experimental theatre throughout the year.
  • The Asian American Theatre Company aims to "connect people to Asian American cultures through theatre."
  • Berkeley's Shotgun Players "exists to create fearless, provocative, relevant theatre. A key accomplishment has been our focus on long-term relationships with playwrights and composers. We present at least one commissioned play per season. Many of these commissions also feature original music."
  • Symmetry Theatre asserts that "the plays we choose may never have more male than female roles. In any given show there may never be more male than female Equity contracts."
  • Golden Thread Productions tries to "make the Middle East a potent presence on the American stage and a treasured cultural experience by developing and producing theatrical work that is aesthetically varied and politically and viscerally engaging."
Since its founding in 2003, Boxcar Theatre has aimed to "turn theatre on its head." Whether performing in its 50-seat black box theatre South of Market, in a wax museum, or on a windy slope in Dolores Park, the company has a solid history of creating new works, reinterpreting classics, and challenging audiences through innovative approaches to drama. This past season, as most nonprofits were trimming their sails due to the sagging economy, Boxcar fearlessly staged a whopping 15 productions!

Ross Pasquale, Erin Gilley, El Beh, and Allison Combs in Boxcar's
adaptation of Ionesco's Rhinoceros (Photo by: Peter Liu)

In the past two years, under the leadership of its artistic co-directors, Peter Matthews and Nick A. Olivero, Boxcar has focused in on a clear path toward the future. By building a permanent company of artists can who work and train together as an ensemble, their hope is to become a true "director's theatre." 

Capping off the season with a massive project devoted to works by Tennessee Williams, the company is concurrently staging The Glass Menagerie, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and A Streetcar Named Desire in its tiny black box theatre in addition to offering readings of the following one-act plays by Tennessee Williams:
  • At Liberty.
  • Auto da Fe. 
  • Green Eyes.
  • The Long Goodby.
  • Moony's Kid Don't Cry.
  • Adam & Eve on the Ferry.
  • The Chalky White Substance.
  • This Property Is Condemned.
  • I Rise in Flames Cried The Phoenix.
  • Talk To Me Like The Rain and Let Me Listen.
Michael Moerman, the company's literary manager and resident dramaturg, notes that: "While the theme of our full productions is reimagining the Tennessee Williams we all thought we knew, the theme of these readings might be discovering the Tennessee Williams we didn't know at all!"

As Matthews and Olivero recall:
"When we made the leap last year to become the only 'directors' theatre' on the West Coast, we were looking for something to exemplify what our mission is. This project gives our audience the clearest understanding of what a 'directors' theatre'  is really all about. With one playwright, one cast, one design team, one theatre space, and three directors, our hope is let audiences see the full impact that a director has on a production. We challenged our directors to find something new in three American classics and bring that vision to life with their three unique productions. As with any director worth their salt, the vision must be supported by the external provided by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tennessee Williams. Anyone can set Macbeth on the moon, but is that what Shakespeare really wanted? Our guess is no. But hey, if you can justify it, pitch it to us and we'll consider it for a future season."
Artistic Co--Directors Peter Matthews and Nick A. Olivero (Photo by: Peter Liu)

Unlike the experience with larger repertory companies such as American Conservatory Theatre or the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, watching Boxcar's actors tackle multiple roles is an extremely intimate experience. At some moments, a performer may be standing five feet away from the audience; on some nights an actor previously seen in a major role may be doing double duty selling refreshments.

Some powerful performances by local actors are on display during Boxcar's "Tenn Will" festival. Most notable are Suzann A. Kendall's characterizations of Amanda Wingfield and Big Momma. An actress of uncanny vulnerability and emotional depth, Kendall's work is a joy to behold.

Matching her in a remarkable contrast is Hanna Knapp, who does double duty as Amanda's shy daughter, Laura, in The Glass Menagerie and as Gooper's greedy wife, Mae (mother to all those awful "no-neck monsters"), in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.  Lauren Doucette demonstrated the many faces of Southern charm as "Maggie the Cat" and the "shadow Laura."

Suzann A. Kendall as Big Momma and Lauren Doucette as Maggie
in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof  (Photo by: Peter Liu)
Peter Matthews offered a poignant portrayal of Brick in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof while Nick A. Olivero did double duty as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie. I was especially impressed with Brian Jansen's characterizations of Mitch in Streetcar and Brick's brother, Gooper, in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Brian Trybom delivered a powerful portrayal of the guilt-ridden, drunken Tom in The Glass Menagerie.

Suzan A. Kendall, Brian Trybom, and Hannah Knapp star in
The Glass Menagerie (Photo by: Peter Liu)

As a playwright, Williams was notorious for making revisions to his work. Boxcar used a one-act version of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof that condensed the action into a tense confrontation as the Pollit family learned that Big Daddy had terminal cancer.

In this production, director Jeffrey Hoffman transformed the unseen ghost of the deceased Skipper into a live body that appeared behind scrims to keep haunting Brick. In a critical move, the desperate Maggie donned Skipper's old football jersey in an attempt to stimulate her depressed, disillusioned, and disgusted husband's long-lost sexual desire.

In her director's note for A Streetcar Named Desire, Rebecca Longworth wrote that "On occasion I find myself face to face with someone I can neither tolerate nor understand. This is the stuff that Streetcar is made of."  The cramped quarters of the Boxcar Theatre exacerbated the claustrophobic impact of Blanche's delusions of grandeur on her sister and brother-in-law in New Orleans. 

The only production that suffered from directorial overkill was The Glass Menagerie, for which Jessica Holt decided to add shadow versions of Amanda, Laura, and Tom as well as a trio of female singers. While the shadow Amanda (Maggie McCally) did a superb job of putting the audience in touch with the young, flirtatious Amanda who remains a vibrant spirit in the older Amanda's mind, the concept did not work quite as well for Laura and Tom's doubles. 

A textbook case in which less would have been more, Holt's approach would probably have been more successful if she had stuck to one shadow figure: the ghost of Amanda's past. Throughout the performance, there was simply too much unnecessary stage business (at times the Wingfield apartment began to resemble a train station).

The constant movement of extraneous actors miming too many thoughts, the intrusive sounds of a violin, and a girl trio with nowhere to go continually interrupted and muffled rather than enhancing the theatricality of the playwright's script. Thankfully, Holt let the scene between Laura and the Gentleman Caller stand on its own merits. From that point through to the final blackout, the magic of Tennessee Williams was able to soar. 

The Boxcar Theatre's "Tenn Will Festival" has been extended through September 5th. You can check  exact performance dates here.

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