Monday, August 9, 2010

Grief Encounters

When the tragic news broke that, on August 21, 1982, Calvin Simmons had drowned in a canoeing accident near Lake George, New York, many people in the classical music world wept openly. Simmons was one of the brightest and most adored talents.

By the time he was 11 years old, Calvin was conducting the San Francisco Boys Chorus. San Francisco Opera's General Director, Kurt Herbert Adler, had carefully mentored Simmons, sending him out to tour with Western Opera Theatre, and subsequently hiring him to conduct mainstage productions of Puccini's familiar La Boheme and Dmitri Shostakovich's challenging score for Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Simmons went on to conduct the world premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti's La Loca for the San Diego Opera, made his Metropolitan Opera debut conducting Engelbert Humperdinck's score for Hansel und Gretel, and was the first African American named to to head a major American symphony orchestra (the Oakland Symphony Orchestra). Two months prior to his untimely death, I had the pleasure of hearing him conduct Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. The dream cast (Ashley Putnam, Patricia McCaffrey, Jerry Hadley and Thomas Hampson) was directed by Jonathan Miller in a production that was beyond special.

Calvin Simmons
Calvin had a mercurial personality, a great sense of humor, an endearing smile, and a vitality that was intoxicating. When I learned of his drowning, my first reaction was to wonder "Why do the talented young ones always die? Why don't they ever kill off a few of the really rotten old bastards, instead?"

Old people have a curious advantage as they near the end of their lives. The people who love them have had many years to prepare themselves emotionally for their demise. Back when I was a frequent flyer, each time I said goodbye to my parents I wondered if it would be the last time we would see each other.

When young people die unexpectedly, their deaths seem far more tragic because of their lost potential. Three dramas recently produced by local theatre companies examine what happens when death strikes unexpectedly.
  • In one drama, someone comes home in a box. 
  • In another, someone's prized belongings are discovered in a box. 
  • In the third, someone discovers a deadly weapon in a box.
The contents of each box become plot points that take audiences on a strange journey of shock and loss as they witness the survivors struggling to comprehend why someone they love has died.

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Cory Hinkle's new dramedy, The Killing of Michael X, A New Film by Celia Wallace, recently received a staged reading as part of the 2010 Bay Area Playwrights Festival. In his extremely energetic script about the ramifications of a young man's Oxycontin overdose, Hinkle throws some red herrings out to the audience to make sure they stay confused:
  • Did the the young man's father drive to Phoenix or Seattle to bring him home?
  • Why have Celia and her best friend, Jake, stolen a family member's Lexus to drive cross country?
  • Why is Celia determined to kill the CEO of the pharmaceutical company that manufactures Oxycontin?
The audience eventually realizes that the live video they are watching is actually the movie playing in Celia's head as she tries to come to grips with her brother's fatal overdose. Celia has no interest in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grieving. She wants action and revenge.

It was her older brother who instilled a love of music in Celia's heart. It was her older brother that she looked up to. It is her brother who is now gone forever.

Playwright Cory Hinkle
The Killing of Michael X, A New Film by Celia Wallace examines the behavior of a young woman who is in deep denial about her brother's tragic death. While Hinkle mines plenty of laughs from Celia's particular style of acting out, the play needs more trimming and clarification before it is ready for a fully-staged production.
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While most young playwrights would be thrilled to get one staged reading during the summer months, J.C. Lee has the rare distinction of having recently had one play (Pookie Goes Grenading) offered to audiences at the 2010 Bay Area Playwrights Festival while another was in rehearsal across town for its world premiere at Sleepwalkers Theatre. An extremely prolific talent, Lee's writing demonstrates a wild sense of fantasy combined with a desperate grip on reality. His linguistic strengths help him create unforgettable characters who occasionally speak with poetic eloquence. His gift for capturing today's vernacular and using it to support a bizarre sense of humor makes this 27-year-old Berkeley resident a talent to watch.

Playwright J.C. Lee
Whereas Lee's hilarious characters in Pookie Goes Grenading show little if any self awareness, the people who populate This World Is Good (which takes place during Bill Clinton's presidency) have a great deal more introspection.
  • Sam (Shoresh Alaudini) is a teenager who imagines a meteor on a collision course with the Earth. A gifted young artist, he has been drawing sketches for a comic book based on a new-age superhero: someone who has no superpowers but is just an average guy. When his older sister leaves for college, Sam becomes depressed and eventually commits suicide.
  • Ally (Dina Percia) is Sam's sister, a talented editor who is getting ready to quit her job. Since leaving home, Ally has tried to distance herself from her mother's constellation of neuroses. When her mother arrives at Ally's office to tell her of Sam's first suicide attempt -- and begs her daughter to move back home -- Ally refuses to take the bait. Although an extremely independent soul, Ally is terrified of Y2K.
  • Emmy (Tessa Koning-Martinez) is Sam and Ally's distraught mother. She hates technology so much that, after a particularly annoying telemarketing call, she disposes of her telephone. Ever since Sam's death, and her subsequent loss of contact with her daughter, Emmy has been tormented by a combination of parental guilt and  empty nest syndrome. She finally breaks free of it all and hikes across the United States in her bare feet. 
  • Doug (Damian Lanahan-Kalish) is Ally's geeky boyfriend. An academic who acquires a set of washboard abs, he is idolized by his students. He is also the only friend Ally can turn to in a crisis.
Emmy (Tessa Koning-Martinez), Sam (Shoresh Alaudini) 
and Ally (Dina Percia) in This World Is Good
Despite some clumsy set changes in a tiny performing space, director Tore Ingersoll-Thorp has managed to stage Lee's play so that his writing can shine, (particularly during Sam's monologue about what it is like to be "a boy in a box" and Emmy's monologue about leaving town and embarking on a new life). The strongest performances actually come from Tessa Koning-Martinez and Shoresh Alaudini (who was equally impressive in Crowded Fire Theatre Company's recent productions of Drip and Forever Never Comes). Lee notes on his blog that:
"This play, my first earnest attempt at a realism infused with the playfulness with which I generally take so much liberty in my previous non-realistic worlds, has taught (and continues to teach) me a great deal. I found myself surprised at the end of rehearsal. The play leaves us with a stark, resonate image that impacted me a great deal more in the seeing than the writing. 
It was a powerful reminder of the way a play can constantly play with context. A story that initially seems about one thing can blossom outwards, transforming into something about so much more. I'm not sure I consciously intended to do this (I'm nowhere near self-aware enough to see this sort of stuff in advance), but before writing this play I always thought one had to anticipate context very early in the game to prepare an audience for the framework with which they're supposed to view the play. The director helped achieve that in our production, but I was still surprised. The play almost works in reverse (well, I hope it works in reverse)."
This World is Good is the first installment of a trilogy that will be produced by Sleepwalkers Theatre over the next year. In the following video clip, Lee explains what inspired him to attempt such a massive project:

This World Is Good continues at the Phoenix Theatre through August 28th. If you want to catch the work of a phenomenally talented young playwright, you can order tickets here.

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Immediately after the 2010 Bay Area Playwrights Festival vacated the Thick House performance space on Potrero Hill, Symmetry Theater moved in with its handsomely designed, beautifully directed, and deeply disturbing production of Show and Tell.

Poster art for Show and Tell
Anthony Clarvoe's drama starts off sweetly as a pretty young elementary school teacher shares some postcards from the nation's capital with her students. Moments after Corey (Chloe Bronzan) leaves the classroom to retrieve her autoharp from the teacher's lounge, an explosion kills all of her students.

From that point forward, Clarvoe's play is tightly focused on (a) discovering what caused the explosion, and (b) consoling the families whose children have died. The aching hurt of the survivors offers a sharp contrast to the often rowdy behavior of the forensic team that arrives onsite. With three of the women in the cast doing double duty, we meet the following characters:
  • Sharon (Julia Brothers), the most cynical member of the forensic team. Sharon's seen it all and doesn't hesitate to wallow in moments of black comedy. She can get a little carried away when called upon to play "Good Cop, Bad Cop."  Sharon also has little patience with her very serious co-worker, Iris.
  • Seth (Robert Parsons), the head of the forensic team who, in the course of erecting a wall of emotional armor around himself (an occupational hazard) has become desperately lonely. In the course of consoling Corey and accepting her help in identifying the bodies, he ends up seducing her.
  • Iris (Jessica Powell), the member of the forensic team with the deepest passion for her work. Iris resents Sharon's lack of respect for the dead.
  • Ann (Erika Salazar), an intern with the Department of Parks and Recreation who is helping to manage the crisis at Corey's school. Fascinated by Iris's approach to forensics, she would love to transfer from Park and Rec to the forensic team.
Chloe Bronzan as Corey in Show and Tell (Photo by: Jay Yamada)
  • Erinn (Julia Brothers), a hyperreligious grandmother whose grandchild was killed in the explosion. Errin is ready for a knock-down, drag-out fight with God.
  • Lucy (Jessica Powell), another student's grandmother. After receiving a call asking her to come to the school with any items that might help identify her grandchild's body, all she could do was take the child's drawings from the refrigerator door and put them in a shopping bag.
  • Gail (Erika Salazar), a mother whose child was killed in the blast. Gail is in shock, huddled in a fetal position.
  • Farsted (Wylie Herman), an overly conscientious construction worker whose son was killed in the blast. Farsted's grandfather was a war hero who brought home some rather strange trophies (a necklace made out of human ears and an explosive device) that were stored in a box in the house Farsted inherited from his parents.
As directed by Laura Hope, Show and Tell follows a downward spiral away from the innocence of the schoolchildren, through the grief of their survivors, to the burned-out cynicism and objectivity of the forensic team. The one person who can't seem to find her footing is Corey who, instead of being beside herself with grief is actually somewhat thrilled by the explosion and the thought that she could help the forensic team with the process of identifying body parts.

As a teacher, Corey lives to learn. She has spent her entire life within an educational culture where she tries to help others. Even  her seduction by Seth seems, in some way, motivated by her desire to help and learn.
Seth (Robert Parsons) and Corey (Chloe Bronzan) in Show and Tell
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)
Kate Boyd's scenic and lighting design added immensely to the production. I had to chuckle at how quickly I recognized the shape of Corey's carrying case for her autoharp. All those hours spent as a child watching Charity Bailey play her autoharp on television finally paid off!

Symmetry Theatre's tightly-knit ensemble includes especially touching performances by Chloe Bronzan, Robert Parsons, and Julia Brothers. Show and Tell continues at Thick House through August 22.  You can order tickets here.

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