Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Women of the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough

One of the things I have always loved about Eric Overmeyer's 1985 play, On The Verge (or The Geography of Yearning), is the script's constant sense of wonder as three female explorers traveling through time encounter new inventions and previously unimaginable phenomena. While Patti Lupone, Laura Benanti, and Sherie Rene Scott keep running back and forth across the stage of the Belasco Theatre in the new musical adaptation of Pedro Almodovar's 1988 film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, some 3,000 miles to the west a group of refreshingly adventurous women has been entertaining audiences here in San Francisco.

Over at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, Arturo Catricala has directed a caustic, yet moving production of Terrence McNally's 1993 dramedy, A Perfect Ganesh. With a cast of four, this intimate play follows the adventures of two Connecticut matrons traveling through India as they try to deal with their roiling emotions. While on the surface, Margaret Civil (Cheryl Smith) and Katharine Brynne (Michaela Greeley) might seem quite similar in terms of age, wealth, social status, and health, internally they're each a mess.
  • One has discovered a breast lump, the other wants to kiss a leper
  • One lost her four-year-old son after he ran out into traffic and his head was run over by a car, the other's grown son died after a vicious gay-bashing in Greenwich Village
  • One was astonished to see the black woman whose car crushed her child turn up at her son's funeral, the other still can't bring herself to use the word "nigger" when referring to the young thugs who killed her son.
  • One is a horrid prig, the other wants to get in touch with her sensuality and spirituality.
  • One is a narcissistic control freak, the other can't wait to explore new lands and open herself up to new emotions and new experiences.
What neither ever expected was to be confronted and manipulated throughout their journey by Ganesha.(Sara Razavi), India's meddling elephant-headed god of wisdom, prudence, acceptance, and love.

Ganesh (Sara Razavi) and Margaret Civil (Cheryl Smith)
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

Kuo-Hao Lo's unit set easily transports the two women from airport boarding lounges to five-star hotels, from the streets of New Delhi to a small boat floating on the Ganges. Throughout the evening Seth Thygesen (very much like the shape-shifting gondolier in Death in Venice) takes on a variety of roles ranging from Air India personnel to the ghosts of each woman's deceased son, from local guides to Japanese tourists.

Michaela Greeley, Seth Thygesen, and Cheryl Smith in a scene from
Terrence McNally's A Perfect Ganesh (Photo by: Lois Tema)

While Katharine's guilt over her son's death leads her to a painful examination of her own homophobia, the two women -- as well as the playwright -- must learn how to function in an alien setting where the customs and culture they take for granted in the United States have little if any importance. McNally pokes fun at the Indian sense of humor with a few pointed barbs at E. M. Forster's 1924 novel, A Passage To India, and its questionable assault in the caves of Marabar. McNally's insight into the human condition shines in his depiction of two severely mismatched travel companions as they simmer, snarl, sulk, and finally say they're sorry for their lack of sensitivity in tense moments.

By the time Margaret and Katharine have survived dysentery, petty jealousies, and conquered some of their darkest fears, they arrive at the Taj Mahal with a deeper awareness of their lives, their loves, and their losses. Upon returning to the United States one is met with news of an unexpected tragedy, the other slips back into a surprisingly comforting routine.

Katharine Brynne (Michaela Greeley) and Margaret Civil
(Cheryl Smith)  visit the Taj Mahal  (Photo by: Lois Tema)

In his program note, New Conservatory Theater Center's founding artistic director, Ed Decker, writes:
"I've wanted to produce A Perfect Ganesh for quite some time. The story is timeless, the characters are vivid, and the themes of life -- seen as a continuous spiritual pilgrimage -- are nourishing. Not only that, but when you have the Hindu god Ganesha (the lord of success) at the center of things, the stakes are pretty darn high. This is a golden elephant god that can swallow the sorrows of the universe and protect the world. His elephant head denotes wisdom and symbolizes the soul of human existence. Ganesha's human body signifies the earthly existence of us all. He can repel obstacles. He prods man along the path of righteousness and truth.
Terrence has asked me many times why it has taken NCTC so long to get around to producing the play. To be honest, I wanted to be sure we were mature enough as a company to take it on. The dense, expansive, and profound journey of the play must be served well  You need a sure-headed director, quality performers, and a centered, imaginative design team to do such astonishing writing justice.  Thankfully, all of those things are in place."
Indeed they are. I particularly enjoyed Michaela Greeley's performance as Katharine. Sara Razavi wore her elephant head with pride and portrayed numerous characters with impressive dexterity. A Perfect Ganesh (which was nominated for the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Drama) continues through December 18 at New Conservatory Theatre Center. You can order tickets here.

* * * * * * * * *
Over at the Magic Theatre, audiences are being treated to the West Coast premiere of Or, a brilliant new comedy by Liz Duffy Adams that plays like a Feydeau farce inspired by Charles Ludlam. Directed with uncanny wit, grace, and impeccable style by Loretta Greco, Natacha Roi stars as the bisexual 17th-century poet Aphra Behn (a former female British spy who is determined to earn her living through a second career as a playwright).

Natacha Roi as Aphra Behn (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Ben Huber alternates between portraying King Charles II (who reopened England's theatres) and William Scott (Behn's former espionage partner). Maggie Mason takes on multiple roles, including the lust-driven bisexual actress Nell Gwynne and a theater producer desperate for a new play. If you think Hamlet's advice to the players is intense, just wait until you hear her deliver Lady Davenant's hysterical speech (whose rhythm and delivery resemble Edina Monsoon's  rants in Absolutely Fabulous) about the kind of play she wants to find.

Maggie Mason as Nell Gwynne (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Or, (the comma in the title refers to various plays with double-stranded names) offers a treasure trove of inside jokes for theatre historians and readers. Part of the play is written in rhyming verse, other parts in straight prose. Deftly scripted with a solid sense of farce, politics, pansexuality, and period, Adams' script offers delicious opportunities for the two supporting actors to take on multiple roles.

Making some rapid character changes between the desperate William and the horny King Charles, Ben Huber offers a wonderful contrast between the dashing romanticism of a swashbuckler type of hero and a King whose privileged pursuit of sex demonstrates an appetite for whatever flavor presents itself next. It's rare to see both types portrayed as the same woman's lovers by one actor with such zest and delight.

Ben Huber as William (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Although barely two hours in length, this one-act play deals so richly with themes of double crossing spies, double dipping lovers, backstabbing maids, and backstage antics that one leaves the theatre on a cloud of satisfaction, amazed by the dramatic skill with which Adams and Greco have crafted a roller coaster ride through a potential royal assassination and a royally endowed theatrical debut

Or, is the kind of romp and frolic one yearns for but rarely gets to see onstage.  Performances continue at the Magic Theatre through December 5th (I can't think of a nicer treat with which to start the holiday season). You can order tickets here. Enjoy the trailer:

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