Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Expect The Unexpected

Whether working in theatre or film, the challenge for many writers and directors is to come up with something new. Sometimes the challenge involves finding a new approach to old material. At other times it may lead to the creation of an utterly outrageous moment guaranteed to shock audiences.

One of my all-time favorites for pushing the envelope is this opening sequence for an episode of the brilliant HBO television series Six Feet Under.

The recent San Francisco International Film Festival screened three short films that were each, in its own way, simply breathtaking. In 2007, Nash Edgerton's Spider showed a talent for dangerous comedy.

As a followup to Spider, Edgerton recently finished Bear, a 10-minute short that may be one of the darkest black comedies I've seen in years. Its protagonist, Jack, is a major douchebag who likes to play pranks on his girlfriends.

To celebrate his new girlfriend's birthday, Jack has concocted a doozy of a surprise in which he gets dressed up in a bear costume. Edgerton's experience as a stuntman guarantees that Jack's prank will go wrong. Horribly, tragically and, in a oddly karmic way, perversely wrong.

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Mimi Cave's five-minute long short entitled Bizness is little more than a music video for the musical group tUnE-yArDs. But it bursts off the screen with a confident and infectious combination of energy, exuberance, and imagination.

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The ability to tell a powerful story in a limited amount of time is an acquired skill for many filmmakers. Alfie Barker's beautiful short, Imagine, was inspired by a newspaper article which described the real life experience of a man named Shander Herian (who lost his sight during childhood). Barely three minutes in length, Imagine is a deeply moving mini-masterpiece.

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Several factors brought a sense of newness to the California Shakespeare Theater's new production of The Tempest:
  • CalShakes had recently converted the Bruns Amphitheatre so that it is now powered by solar energy.
  • This was the first time in his career that the artistic director of CalShakes, Jonathan Moscone, had ever directed The Tempest.
  • This was the first time that choreographer  Erika Chong-Shuch (who portrays Ariel) had ever been involved in a Shakespearean production.
As Chong-Shuch explains:
"I’ve always believed that choreographing something you’re in is a really bad idea. But the thing that’s a really good idea is doing that when you have a director, when you have somebody whose eye you completely trust. There’s all this assumption about Shakespeare being complicated and intellectual, and you have to have gone to college to understand it. This is the first Shakespeare play that I’ve ever studied, and there are so many layers to study; then underneath all those layers are just simple relationships, these painful loves, painful wanting. I’ve never been a Shakespeare person, so it’s been really amazing to realize how simple the story is. We’ve been talking about theater that has 5,000 things that you can do with rope -- building a theater that’s based on tricks. It feels like if we can distill all of that research and all of that study and all of those tricks to just arrive at these simple, painful, magnetic occurrences…that would make me really happy."
Erika Chong Shuch as a butterfly-like Ariel
in The Tempest (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Moscone has always been a director who embraces a fluidity of movement, especially if it will help to clarify a dramatic text or add a sense of momentum to the plot. Working with a small cast in which, with the exception of James Carpenter, the key actors doubled up on roles, Moscone made strategic cuts in the text while enhancing some moments with surprisingly modern references (a Nat King Cole look-alike lip synced to a recording of Stardust during the wedding of Ferdinand and Miranda). As the Calshakes dramaturg, Philippa Kelly, notes:
"In order to corroborate his magical powers, Prospero requires a shipwreck, an airy spirit, and a spontaneously appearing and disappearing banquet; but we in the audience don't require anything so supernatural. Magic happens in the theatre every time someone pulls a piece of fabric out of a box and suddenly it's a sail, a cape, a mask; when we make thunder and lightning and we quell the storm in front of your eyes; when we bring out the witch's son, Caliban (Shakespeare's anagram for 'cannibal'), and his words open up the beauty and the ugliness of the universe.  Theatre is a world of make-believe, but it's more than make-believe; it's a world we're thrown into for the two hours' traffic of the stage; a world into which ours is briefly contracted; a scene that offers a prism through which our own vision can be expanded, as if by magic."
Emily Kitchens as Prospero's daughter, Miranda
in The Tempest (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While The Tempest requires thunder, wind, storms, and a churning ocean, the opening night performance got an unusual "value added" touch of nature. Shortly before the performance began, I noticed a herd of cattle wandering across a nearby hilltop. Whereas audiences usually hear owls and other nocturnal birds hooting during a performance, this was a rare performance of The Tempest when, thanks to a bevy of bovine beauties, the hills were alive with the sound of "moo-sic."

Doubling as Prospero and the servant Stephano, Michael Winters occasionally seemed to be channeling Tevye the dairyman. Catherine Castellanos seemed especially conflicted as both Caliban and Antonio. While I found the concept of having Chong-Shuch's Ariel resemble a butterfly to be truly inspired, the real stars of the evening were a radiant Emily Kitchens (doubling as Miranda and Sebastian) and Nicholas Pelczar (who alternated between the romantic lead, Ferdinand, and the clown Trinculo).

The production was nicely framed by Emily Greene's fluid set design, Anna Oliver's costumes and the exceptional work of Cliff Caruthers (sound design).  And, to be sure, the chorus of cows.

Stephano (Michael Winters) and Trinculo (Nicholas Pelczar)
in a scene from The Tempest (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Written at the tail end of Shakespeare's career, The Tempest is not the easiest play to stage. Although filled with magic (and driven by Prospero's desire to exact revenge on Antonio), there are no lovers clearly torn asunder (Miranda has never seen any man other than her father).  Nor is there a murder most foul to drive the plot. As Moscone explains:
"I think that a big part of this is about letting go of death, of somebody who died. And that’s my prism, that’s my lens through which I see this play right now. It has one of the most beautiful speeches about life ending, which has to do with plays ending at the same time. 'We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.'
The lens through which I felt connected to The Tempest is the relationship between Prospero and Ariel that, to me, felt like the love story at the center of the play. Ariel is written in kind of an androgynous architecture, but it always felt to me that the relationship between Prospero and Ariel was a male and female relationship. The love that they share is so complex (somewhere between beautiful and dysfunctional at the same time) and one that feels mutually respectful while at the same time completely power-based. It feels theatrical: Prospero feels like a director, she feels like an actor. And there are times when I thought, 'she’s his wife, she’s sort of a specter of his' who is never talked about in the play. But he lost her. He talks about her to Ferdinand: 'You have one-third of what matters to me.' And it made me cry when I read that."
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Over on Potrero HillTheatre Rhinoceros has mounted an extremely satisfying production of Kate Fodor's 2007 dramedy, 100 Saints You Should Know. Directed by John Fisher, the play deals with people who find their faith tested with regard to everything from cleaning toilets to vows of celibacy, from the slow and sudden death of beliefs one took for granted to the sudden, accidental death of a drunk teenager.

Theresa (Ann Lawler) and Matthew (Wylie Herman) in
100 Saints You Should Know (Photo by: Kent Taylor)

The five characters inhabiting Fodor's play are:
  • Theresa (Ann Lawler), a cleaning woman who is estranged from her family. After many years of not feeling religious, she has recently had some curious urges to pray (accompanied by a feeling that she no longer knows how to do it).
  • Abby (Kim Stephenson), Theresa's self-centered teenage daughter.  Full of attitude and seething with resentment, she's in the rebellious stage of questioning everything and everyone (especially her mother, who forgot to leave Abby $10 before heading off to work).
  • Matthew (Wylie Herman), a handsome young Roman Catholic priest who, although still celibate, is grappling with the knowledge that he may be attracted to men in ways that are not merely platonic. Matthew's growing awareness was spiked by the pictures of nude men he saw in an art book at the library. His superiors have recently asked him to take a leave of absence from the church and may not want him to return. Having sensed that his work as a priest no longer feels totally honest, Matthew is thinking of quitting the priesthood.
  • Colleen (Tamar Cohn), Matthew's mother, a devout Irish Catholic for whom there is no greater honor than to have her son called to the priesthood by God. Nor is there a denial mechanism she is unwilling to embrace with regard to her son's very new and human reality.
  • Garrett (Michael Rosen), the teenage boy who delivers groceries from his father's store to Colleen. Although he's been drinking alcohol on the sly and is curious about the outside world, Garrett is no match for a manipulative teenager who doesn't intend to be evil, but can occasionally seem mean beyond her years.
Colleen (Tamar Cohn) and  her son, Matthew (Wylie Herman) in
100 Saints You Should Know (Photo by: Kent Taylor)

Working with a unit set designed by Jon Wai-keung Lowe, Fisher has directed his cast with in a way that lets Fodor's writing shine without overindulging his actors. 100 Saints You Should Know is one of those rare surprises: a thoroughly modern play which frames its challenges in human rather than political terms; and prefers to have its characters struggle internally rather than engage in physical combat.

I especially liked the performances by Wylie Herman (a frequent performer with Killing My Lobster who bears a strange resemblance to Will Ferrell) and Kim Stephenson as Abby. Performances of 100 Saints You Should Know continue through June 17 at Thick House (click here to order tickets). Highly  recommended!

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