Saturday, November 6, 2010

Fangs For The Memories

"He knows when you've been sleeping.
He knows when you're awake.
He knows when you've been bad and good,
So be good for goodness sake!"
Too early for Christmas songs? How about a line from 1965's Do I Hear A Waltz? that references "all those noises buzzing in your head"?

The internal conversations that we have with ourselves as we try to make up our minds, observe passers by, and wonder about the nature of life are, at best, messy and disorganized. If you don't believe me, try this simple exercise:
  • Lie down.  
  • Close your eyes.  
  • Place your hands at your sides. 
  • Try to think of absolutely nothing. 
You'll be astonished at the rush of thoughts that start to ricochet around your brain as they compete for your attention without having any clarity or agenda. Sometimes writers think they will find gold by embracing a "stream of consciousness" style of prose. They don't always succeed.

But when they do, mere flights of fancy can become moments of introspective drama. Questions sparked by curiosity can lead to soliloquies of surprising tenderness and passion. With a little editing, of course.

* * * * * * * * * *
In the summer of 2009 I attended a production of The Unexpected Man staged by a small local theatre company named Spare Stage. Directed with a rare grace and intelligence by Stephen DrewesYasmina Reza's beautifully-crafted 1995 two-character play had been cast with Ken Ruta and Abigail Van Alyn, whose years of acquired theatrical craft glowed in a performance of rare sensitivity.

Spare Stage recently reviewed its bare bones production with Susan Maeder replacing Abigail Van Alyn. Once again, The Unexpected Man offers audiences an evening of beautifully insightful writing that shapes two wonderfully poignant characterizations.

Ken Ruta and Susan Maeder in The Unexpected Man
Photo by: Peter Prato

Ruta portrays an aging novelist traveling by rail from Paris to Frankfurt. A dyspeptic old curmudgeon with an outsized ego, his thoughts reveal a bitterness about growing old and not being given the kind of respect and authority he imagines he deserves from his children, his colleagues, and the rest of the world. His disillusionment with life, his disappointment at being denied ExLax by his doctor, and his disgust with the man who could become his son-in-law make it clear that this lonely intellectual snob is not a particularly happy man.

Sharing the train compartment with him is a sophisticated Parisian widow who has read all of his books and had a crush on the author for years. The woman wonders whether she should simply take out her copy of the man's latest novel (The Unexpected Man) and start reading it to catch his attention. The man wonders if she reads at all.

Ken Ruta and Susan Maeder in The Unexpected Man
Photo by: Peter Prato

As the play progresses, the characters take turns examining their inner thoughts through a series of monologues as the audience waits to see which one will be the first to step out of his comfort zone and initiate contact with the other.

Stephen Drewes' subtle staging offers viewers a golden opportunity to watch two mature professionals doing what they do best -- bringing such emotional intimacy to the thoughts of their characters that it seems as if they are genuinely living their roles instead of acting them.

Such evenings of charm and intelligent theatre are rare these days and most welcome. The Unexpected Man continues at the Exit Theatre through November 14.  You can order tickets here.

* * * * * * * *
Up in Walnut CreekCenter Rep has been titillating audiences with a most impressive production of Dracula. Written in  1924 by Hamilton Deane (and revised three years later by John Balderstone), this production has been directed by Michael Butler with great gusto (not to be confused with "Gusto the Body Snatcher" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum).

Eugene Brancoveanu as Count Dracula (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Any production of Dracula rests on the shoulders of its lead performer. Operatic baritone Eugene Brancoveanu (who is of Romanian descent) comes through quite handsomely, offering a virile and athletic portrayal of the world's favorite vampire. He received strong support from  Michael Barrett Austin (Renfield), Michael Wiles (Dr. Seward), Thomas Gorrebeeck (Jonathan Harker), Sam Leichter (Butterworth), and Robert Sicular as the vampire-hunting Professor Van Helsing.

Among a vampire's extrasensory powers is supposedly the ability to read a person's thoughts before that person can even know what she is thinking. Lauren Doucette (as the maid, Miss Swales) and the three vampire vixens (Emma Goldin, Taylor Jones, Kate Jopson) were obviously at their Master's beck and call. But it was left to Madeline H.D. Brown (Lucy) and Kendra Lee Oberhauser (Mina Murray) as Count Dracula's latest conquests, to show the bloodthirsty side of feminine beauty at its purest evil.

Kendra Lee Oberhauser and Eugene Brancoveanu in Dracula.
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The physical production (which features a puzzle-like unit set designed by Kim A. Tolman, lighting by Kurt Landisman, and costumes by Victoria Livingston-Hall) is fascinating. The trees of Transylvania never looked as good as Tolman's interpretation (which resembled the arterial branches of the circulatory system as they glowed with a blood-red tinge).

Lucy (Madeline H.D. Brown ) nears an empty grave in Dracula.
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With fog constantly filling the stage to mask the vampire's entrances, I found my thoughts colliding with surprising results. It didn't take long for me to realize that Jonathan Harker perfectly rhymed with Benjamin Barker (a/k/a Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street). In the second act, when newspaper reports described a pretty young woman who had lured several young children away and then killed them, the first thought that came to my mind was "Lucy, you got some 'splainin' to do!"

Dracula continues through November 20 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek (you can order tickets here).  In the following clip, director Michael Butler and Eugene Brancoveanu discuss Center Rep's current production of Dracula.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

Please contact me. I am the PR Director for Houston Grand Opera and would love to have you at the premiere of our Mariachi Opera this weekend. I can help with transport and lodging if necessary.
My email is or phone is 713-5460278