Monday, May 21, 2012

Backstage Follies

There's a special place in my heart for backstage stories. Whether presented in the form of a large musical (Kiss Me, Kate, Dreamgirls, Follies, Gypsy: A Musical Fable) a straight narrative (The Dresser, Zero Hour), or a rowdy comedy (Enter Laughing, Noises Off, Anton in Show Business), these tales of triumph and trauma rely on the magic of live theatre to capture the hearts of their audience.

Watching a character make the transition from a nervous moment backstage to appearing in front of an audience is, for me, as exciting as seeing an actor switch back and forth between "conversational mode" and "acting mode" with a solid display of craft and dexterity. Films ranging from Singin' in the Rain, All About Eve, and Sunset Boulevard to The Artist, For The Boys, and Me and Orson Welles have done a splendid job of capturing the onstage and offstage lives of performers.

One of my all-time favorites is a series created for Canadian television several years ago named Slings and Arrows (available on Netflix), which chronicled the never-ending crises faced by the artists and employees of the nonprofit New Burbage Festival. Modeled on Canada's famous Stratford Festival, Slings and Arrows took Shakespeare to new and unimaginable heights during three seasons of sheer brilliance.

Two recent productions gave audiences a special look at the highs and lows of life in the theatre. One was a homegrown project which had a fascinating evolution.

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Based in Berkeley, PlayGround has been a powerful incubator for aspiring Bay area playwrights. Launched in 1994, its program specializes in developing and staging 10-minute plays inspired by a topic or code word. To date, more than 135 playwrights have written more than 400 short plays (some of which have gone on to be included in the annual "Best of PlayGround" festival).

In addition to its original format (in which professional actors are cast in its staged readings), PlayGround now commissions seven new full-length works per year, awards $25,000 from its New Play Production Fund to Bay area theatres producing new works by local playwrights, and has started working with local high schools to help young playwrights sharpen their skills.

Playground's logo

This month marked the debut of the Best of PlayGround Film Festival, for which five of PlayGround's playwrights were given an opportunity to turn their 10-minute play into a short film. Faced with the tasks of fundraising, filming, and post-production, the process proved to be a huge learning experience.

Perhaps the most fascinating of the films shown during this festival was Jonathan Luskin's poignant backstage drama, Ecce Homo (which was part of the 2011 Best of PlayGround Festival).  Ecce Homo captures a poignant moment in the lives of two vaudevillians who finally get to play the legendary Palace  Theatre in 1932, just as talking pictures are delivering a fatal blow to vaudeville. In 2011, Luskin received a PlayGround Fellowship to expand Ecce Homo into a full-length play.

A popular Bay area playwright, Luskin (who is also co-founder of Flying Moose Pictures) was able to use film as a way of setting Gus and Fanny's career crisis exactly where it belongs by renting Oakland's famous Paramount Theatre (the art deco architectural wet dream designed by Timothy L. Pflueger which is one of the nation's last great movie palaces) for his shoot. Because of his tight shooting schedule, the play's dressing room scenes were shot at the Bayview Opera House, a much cheaper location to rent.

Interior shot of the Oakland Paramount

Luskin's ability to use the art deco fixtures in the lobby of the Oakland Paramount allowed him to capture the feeling of the grandeur that movie palaces offered the American public throughout the Great Depression. While shots of performers auditioning onstage, roosters strutting their stuff in front of the footlights, and a singing duck helped evoke the talent seen on vaudeville stages throughout America, in a wonderfully romantic way the theatre itself became a character in Ecce Homo.

Art deco forms in the lobby of the Oakland Paramount

My hope is that, at some point, viewers can watch Ecce Homo on YouTube -- as much for the joy of Luskin's play as for the way in which he has used the grandeur of the Paramount in service of his story.

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Down in the South Bay, San Jose Rep is delighting audiences with Theresa Rebeck's backstage comedy, The Understudy. Although many an actor has earned good money working as an understudy, precious few have become famous in their own right.

If one goes to the Internet Broadway Database and checks the "replacement and/or transfer information" on long-running shows, one often comes across some jaw-dropping surprises:
The understudy in Rebeck's play has little to no chance of becoming a glamorous replacement. In fact, Harry (Gabriel Marin) is a bit of a shlub, a down-and-out actor whose cynicism and disgust with the film industry's casting choices are confessed directly to the audience. The actor Harry is understudying, Jake (Craig Marker), was recently transformed into an action figure hunk in a small role where he got to utter such brilliant lines as "Get in the truck!" For $2 million!

Craig Marker and Gabriel Marin in The Understudy
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As it turns out, Jake is understudying Ben, a Hollywood superstar with a multi-million dollar price tag who is trying to gain some legitimate theatre credits by acting in a supposedly "undiscovered masterpiece" written by Franz Kafka. What should be a simple, low-voltage understudy rehearsal is transformed by some unexpected developments:
  • The stage manager for the production, Roxanne (Jessica Wortham), is a former actor and control freak who was once engaged to Harry. Unfortunately, Harry disappeared two weeks before they were to be married. It would be a severe understatement to say that Roxanne "has issues."
  • While Jake may be getting a decent quote for minor roles in Hollywood -- and is eagerly waiting to hear from his agent about a potential new contract -- he's increasingly aware that he lacks Harry's talent and craft.
  • The pothead working the control booth keeps screwing up the lighting, sound, and turntable cues for the rehearsal.
  • The theatre's loudspeaker system is still on, which means that even when Roxanne, Harry, and Jake think they are only speaking to the person in front of them, their words are being broadcast to the dressing rooms and backstage toilets.
Gabriel Marin and Jessica Wortham in a tense moment
from The Understudy (Photo by:  Kevin Berne)

Rebeck, who is a well-established writer for stage, film, and television, obviously knows all kinds of back-stabbing dirt commonly heard in the theatre and doesn't hesitate to spice the evening with everything from misplaced cues to a sly dig at Jeremy Piven's infamous case of mercury poisoning in 2008. Annie Smart's rotating unit set becomes an unexpected and uncontrollable character as it moves back and forth with a life of its own.

As directed by Amy Glazer, The Understudy is a theatergoer's delight, filled with lots of inside jokes about actors, and plenty of digs at the injustices of the acting profession. It also contains extremely juicy roles for Bay area regulars Gabriel Marin and Craig Marker, who handle the testosterone-driven side of the equation with great comic skill. Julia Wortham's seething portrayal of Roxanne becomes increasingly manic and hysterically funny in a performance that blazes with managerial anger and jilted frustration.

Jessica Wortham, Craig Marker and Gabriel Marin
in The Understudy (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The final moments of the show have a Kafka-esque beauty that could only happen in a live performance. The Understudy continues through June 3 at San Jose Rep (click here to order tickets). If you can't make it down to San Jose, you might enjoy renting 1980's The Stunt Man, a sorely neglected film starring Peter O'Toole as a mercurial, and often unnerving, film director.

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