Friday, December 17, 2010

The Plot Thickens

Those who devour murder mysteries often marvel at the inventiveness of their authors. Whether they have found new ways to bump off a victim, nab a criminal, or surprise a courtroom, it is the final plot twist that usually reveals the true identity of the murderer or the reason a crime was committed.

A dead body can lead to some wild improvisation, but comedy is much harder to craft. Writing a good farce takes exceptional skill.

One of the experts in this field was Sir William S. Gilbert who, together with Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote a series of comic operettas during the Victorian era. Observe how Gilbert meticulously sets up his hero's inner conflict in this scene from The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty:

[Pirate King]

For some ridiculous reason, to which, however,
I’ve no desire to be disloyal,
Some person in authority, I don’t know who,
Very likely the Astronomer Royal,
Has decided that, although
For such a beastly month as February,
28 days as a rule are plenty,
One year in every four
His days shall be reckoned as nine and twenty.
Through some singular coincidence
I shouldn’t be surprised if it were owing
To the agency of an ill-natured fairy
You are the victim of this clumsy arrangement,
Having been born in leap year on the 29th of February;
And so, by a simple arithmetical process, you’ll easily discover,
That though you’ve lived 21 years, yet, if we go by birthdays,
You’re only five and a little bit over!

I’m afraid you don’t appreciate the delicacy of your position:
You were apprenticed to us --

Until I reached my twenty-first year.

[Pirate King]

No, until you reached your twenty-first birthday (producing document) and, going by birthdays, you are as yet only five-and-a-quarter.


You don’t mean to say you are going to hold me to that?

[Pirate King]

No, we merely remind you of the fact, and leave the rest to your sense of duty.
Gilbert's ability to overcome a complex obstacle with a single masterstroke is evident in the following dialogue from the final moments of Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri:

[Queen of the Fairies]

You have all incurred death; but I can’t slaughter the whole company! And yet the law is clear -- every fairy must die who marries a mortal!

[Lord Chancellor]

Allow me, as an old Equity draftsman, to make a suggestion. The subtleties of the legal mind are equal to the emergency. The thing is really quite simple -- the insertion of a single word will do it. Let it stand that every fairy shall die who doesn’t marry a mortal, and there you are, out of your difficulty at once!"

Witness Ko-Ko's brilliant explanation of how someone who is not really dead can be brought back to life (as seen in this final sequence from Essgee Entertainment's updated production of The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu in Brisbane, Australia).

With his taste for upending tradition, I wonder how Gilbert would have reacted to the Union Theatre of London's 2007 all-male production of H.M.S. Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved A Sailor (the company will present an all-male production of Iolanthe in April 2011 at Wilton's, the oldest surviving grand musical hall in the world). Here's countertenor Alex Weatherhill as Josephine singing "The hours creep on apace":

* * * * * * * * * *
The Theatre Department at San Francisco State University recently staged a farce about marriage written by Gilbert. Part of the plot twist that lies at the center of Engaged is the fact that a couple declared their love to each other (in what was then known as a "Scottish marriage") in a house that sat astride the border between England and Scotland. In his director's note, William Peters wrote:
"Speed of execution and complication of incident are the prime technical features of farce. Like Lucy in the chocolate factory, once life’s conveyor belt swings into high gear, there is simply no stopping it. Stephen Sondheim, in his new book Finishing the Hat, explains why songs disappear for up to 20 minutes at the end of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Forum: 'I don’t think that farces can be transformed into musicals without damage -- at least, not good musicals. The tighter the plotting, the better the farce, but the better the farce the more the songs interrupt the flow and pace. Farces are express trains; musicals are locals. Savoring moments can be effective while a farce is gathering steam, but deadly once the train gets going.'”

"The plays and novels of his time seem to have bothered Gilbert a great deal. He was an artist with more than a mild case of misanthropy, and his targets are the over-the-top sentimental weepies that clogged the theatres and musical halls of his day. He shared with Dickens a clear-eyed take on the economic imperative of modern life and its role in shaping the love relationships between men and women.
Written in 1887, at the height of Gilbert and Sullivan’s popularity, he chose to produce Engaged as a non-musical. Our work has been to try to recapture as much of the context of Gilbert’s play as possible while, at the same time, making it play for an audience unfamiliar with that context. The costumes are designed and created with exquisite attention to detail. The set creates a space that has the simplicity of a burlesque roll-drop, while keeping a distance from mere theatrical parody. The hardest task of all, of course, as with all comedy of a certain complexity, is to find the details in the text and make them all fly.
Time is comedy’s medium. Comic timing, to anyone who has tried to achieve it, is an infinitely subtle medium. It is always an astonishment to be reminded that the greatest clowns and farceurs are performers possessed of great delicacy. They touch time with a sensibility that makes the description 'a sense of humor' take on a fresh literal meaning.
There is a train in Engaged, and it does run off the rails -- but the calamity is intentional and leads to a cascade of troubles for the hapless characters involved. These characters are Gilbertian in the extreme: Driven by the need to establish a secure 'pecuniary position,' every character swings wildly between extravagant romantic declarations and sober financial calculations. 'Business is business' is the order of the day."

Poster art for SFSU's production of Engaged

To appreciate the intricacies of Gilbert's farce, I'd suggest you read its detailed plot synopsis. The SFSU production was handsomely designed by Abe Lopez with costumes by Sarah Correa. Under William Peters' astute direction, the cast did a superb job of carrying off a comedy of manners from a very different era. The only hindrance was a tendency to make their Scottish accents so thick as to at times be unintelligible.

As the miserly Cheviot (who falls in love with every woman he meets), Ian Hopps showed a strong flair for physical comedy while, as his friend Belvawney, Joseff Stevenson did some very nice work as his foil. Gabby Batista's Belinda and Cody Metzger's Minnie dominated Act II as each tried to figure out what their rights and rewards would be if married to Cheviot.

Bryce Duzan (Mr. Symperson), Catherine Pyne (Parker, the maid), Michael Saarela (Angus Macalister), Brandon Cusack (Major McGillicuddy), Frannie Morrison (Maggie MacFarlane) and James Mayagoitia (in drag as Mrs. MacFarlane) made notable contributions in supporting roles. A good time was had by all.

* * * * * * * * *
On the other side of town, 42nd Street Moon was performing Babes in Arms, a 1937 Broadway classic by Rodgers & Hart in an adaptation by playwright John Guare. Directed by Dyan McBride (with choreography by Zack Thomas Wilde), this production went back to the original plot devised by its composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart.

As one considers the list of standards that emerged from this show's score ("Where or When," "I Wish I Were In Love Again," and "My Funny Valentine" for starters), it's sometimes hard to believe that these songs are nearly 70 years old. It's even harder to believe that these numbers were written during an era when songs from Broadway shows routinely entered the popular culture. Consider this recording of "The Lady is a Tramp" by the great Sophie Tucker (pay careful attention to her diction):

For a real blast from the past, here's Eydie Gorme singing "Johnny One-Note" (one of my favorite numbers from the show):

Because the 1939 film version of Babes in Arms that starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney eliminated much of the script from the original show, it's interesting to note, from a historical perspective, the role that Babes in Arms played in musical theatre's history of depicting race relations in America.

Gabriel Stephens, Michael Scott Wells, and Isaiah Boyd in
Babes in Arms (Photo by: David Allen)

While Guare's adaptation retains lots of digs at vaudeville performers and on-again, off-again Communists, there are enough bizarre plot twists in Babes in Arms to show the debt its creators owe to William Gilbert's style. Michael Scott Wells was most appealing as Valentine "Val" LaMar, with Joshua James aiding and abetting him as his sidekick, Marshall Blackstone. Danny Cozart got in some good comic moments as Gus Fielding (the young man who is a capitalist when he has money and a Communist when he's broke). 

Ben Euphrat was appropriately belligerent as Sam Reynolds, with Tyner Rushing as his flirtatious sister, Dolores. Dirk Leatherman did triple duty as their father (Sheriff Reynolds), vaudevillian Dan LaMar, and radio newsman Phil McCabe. Zachary Franczak did double duty as the bigoted Lee Calhoun and French aviator RenĂ© Flambeau (who had just flown nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean). Gabriel Stephens showed strong appeal as Lee's younger brother, Beauregard Calhoun.

Alexandra Kaprielian as Billie Smith (Photo by: David Allen)

For me, the high point of the evening was watching Alexandra Kaprielian finally get a major role in which she could really show audiences what she's got (her renditions of "My Funny Valentine" and "The Lady is a Tramp" were layered and delightful). Sophia Rose Morris scored nicely with "Way Out West (On West End Avenue)." As the young black tap dancer, Irving DeQuincy, Isaiah Boyd lit up the stage of the Eureka Theatre. 

Last, but not least, 42nd Street Moon's revival offered a gentle reminder that, some 34 years before John Lennon wrote his own song named "Imagine," there was popular song using the same title that had been created by Rodgers and Hart for Babes in Arms

It's still a classic.

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