Friday, June 1, 2012

Taking a Chance on Adam Chanzit

Every now and then a curious coincidence on my calendar has me attending performances of two new works by a young playwright staged at different Bay area theatre companies. In 2010, J.C. Lee's hilarious Pookie Goes Grenading was given a reading at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. Several weeks later, I caught the Sleepwalkers Theatre world premiere production of This World Is Good (part of Lee's trilogy entitled This World and After).

This month, my schedule delivered a back-to-back surprise: two plays by Adam Chanzit, who studied playwriting at the Yale School of Drama and Chinese literature at UC Berkeley. Here's how Chanzit describes himself on his website:
"Hailing from the Mile High City, Adam has (in no particular order) been a teacher, an overconfident foosball player, a student of Chinese, a hypochondriac, a music peddler in Staten Island, a Daoist practitioner in Shaanxi, an underemployed coffee shop prowler, a dabbler in continental philosophy, a squanderer of afternoons, a trans-Siberian wanderer, and the unofficial inventor of one person snow football. He blames an often morbid imagination on watching Eraserhead too many times when young. He lives in California."
Chanzit's two world premieres offered an interesting contrast: one was a darkly comedic thriller; the other inspired by Henrik Ibsen's classic, An Enemy of the People (which rocked the world 130 years ago yet retains a chilling timeliness in view of recent environmental issues). To no one's surprise, both plays were produced by Bay area companies with a strong history of showcasing new work that deals with controversial themes.

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Chanzit's Down To This received its world premiere under the direction of Tore Ingersoll-Thorp and the folks at Sleepwalkers Theatre. Focused on a man with a peculiar gambling problem, the audience was informed that there could be one of two possible endings depending on what happened late in the play. And Lord knows, we all love an egg toss!

Donna (Tonya Narvaez) and Charlie (Derek Fischer)
awaken to the arrival of an unexpected guest
in Down To This. (Photo by: Sarah Roland)

Down To This begins as a man and woman are wrapping up their one-night stand. Charlie (Derek Fischer) has brought Donna (Tonya Narvaez) home for a roll in the hay and is trying to impress her by making frittata for brunch. There's just one problem.

Maria (Kendra Lee Oberhauser) is about to make an entrance. Charlie's closest friend since childhood, Maria is a jealous, dominating bitch who has just been released from prison. She brings to the table a loaded gun, some emotional baggage, and plenty of money to help the two of them get a fresh start in life. Maria also has a whole lot of repressed anger and a deep appreciation of Charlie's skill at making frittata.

Kendra Lee Oberhauser as Maria (Photo by: Sarah Roland)

Pretty, powerful, and dangerously practical, Maria (who was supposed to arrive a few days later) has been spying on Charlie through one of his apartment's windows. Earlier that morning she saw him doing something that really pissed her off.

As Donna is about to learn, Charlie is a tragically confused wimp with a weakness for games of chance. He's also like putty in Maria's mean and manipulative hands.

Donna is not the only person in for a nasty surprise. After Maria forces Charlie and Donna into the bedroom, Charlie’s idiot roommate, Randy (Shane Rhoades) and his equally clueless friend Allen (Jomar Tagatac), enter the apartment to find themselves in exactly the wrong place at precisely the wrong time.

Photo by: Sarah Roland

Tore Ingersoll-Thorp has directed Chanzit's thriller so that the comic moments lay a foundation for Maria’s final showdown. While Rhoades and Tagatac provide some rowdy comic relief, the laughs only offer a brief respite before the bullying, trigger-happy Maria gets down to business.

Chanzit's writing struck me as tightly structured, often hilarious, and gaining momentum as Maria felt she was left with no choice but to bring matters to their logical conclusion. Oberhauser's intentionally strident performance was magnified by the acoustics at EXIT Stage Left. Here's the trailer:

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In 1882, when Ibsen wrote An Enemy of the People, his controversial play was based on the following plot points:
  • A small coastal town was hoping to make big bucks off a new spa featuring baths purported to offer visitors medical benefits.
  • The town's mayor, Peter Stockmann, having already helped to procure private and public money to help pay for the baths, was eager to see his town benefit from the waves of tourism that were bound to bring money to local businesses.
  • The mayor's brother and co-investor, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, had recently discovered that waste products from a local tannery were contaminating the water used in the baths. As a result, tourists were becoming ill.
  • Faced with a possible loss of income, the greedy townspeople turned on Dr. Stockmann (who thought that by sounding the alarm he would become a hero) and branded him a lunatic.
Poster art for The Great Divide

In Chanzit's new play, The Great Divide (which just received its world premiere from Shotgun Players), the action has been updated to modern times and set in a small town in Colorado where the extraction of natural gas is the town's main industry. As the playwright explains:
"When I heard the debates raging over water contamination from hydraulic fracturing and the EPA's inability to investigate, I couldn't help but think of Ibsen. The situation is not identical to the one in An Enemy of the People, but this is a contemporary arena full of complex Ibsenian conflict. Currently, disputes between the environment and the economy, and between long-term and short-term thinking polarize the sides, dividing the community. In today's world the Internet, while connecting us as a global community, also has a way of reinforcing local divisions. It is perhaps easier now to shut out the other side, keeping our circle to those who think and talk like us, visiting websites and forums that confirm our own positions."
There are other factors which weaken the impact of Ibsen's original concept. Following major environmental disasters such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska; BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in 2011, the public has become a lot more jaded about the ability of corporations to police themselves and show genuine concern for the public good.

In 2000, when Julia Roberts starred in Erin Brockovich (the story of how, by poisoning the water in the town of Hinckley, California, Pacific Gas & Electric caused many residents to develop cancer and other illnesses), there was a sharp spike in public awareness of corporate malfeasance. A series of hard-hitting documentary films soon followed. They include:

While all of these documentaries have helped to lay out the problems being caused by man's reckless approach to the environment -- and may do an excellent job of educating the public about the growing crises we face -- films don't necessarily produce the kind of gut reaction or intense debate one can achieve through live theatre. As Mina Morita (who directed The Great Divide) explains:
"We live in a nation that is working through increasingly complex and polarizing times. Nothing is simple. In a community like Berkeley, where everyone brandishes their liberal perspective, how do we create a story where taking a side is not so simple? We want to show the results of a town torn apart by the single issue of water contamination. We want to test all of this audience's defense mechanisms, so it is not easy to judge who is right and wrong. The play asks: What will a person sacrifice for what they believe is right? What if they lose their family? What if they are left with nothing? And what if the other side of the issue is equally valid? What if, in their righteousness, both sides lose their ability to even hear the perspective of the other side? What if the other side has a face that one loves? What if a whole town is fractured because of one issue that seems, on the surface, to have an easy solution?"
Mayor Peter Stockmann (Scott Phillips) and his environmental
activist sister, Katherine (Heather Robison), face off at a
public meeting in The Great Divide (Photo by: Pak Han)

In The Great Divide, Dr. Katherine Stockmann, a famous environmentalist, has just returned home to her family in Colorado after years of activism in Latin America and other hot spots around the world. While living on the East Coast, she got spooked when, in retaliation for some of her statements, strangers started to intimidate her child.

Looking to kick back and enjoy some peace and quiet, she's hoping to reunite with her brother Peter (Scott Phillips), their mother (Michaela Greeley), and ease some of the strained relations with her husband, Tom (Edward McCloud). Even though she is not practicing medicine, an old friend of the family, Mrs. Lewis (Rebecca Pingree), seeks her out for medical advice about symptoms that have been spreading throughout the community. Katherine soon comes to realize that:
  • The local doctor is on the payroll of the natural gas company.
  • The gas company funds any "research" done on the side effects of fracking.
  • Most people in town owe their livelihood to the gas company.
  • The gas company has poured money into a new college for the community.
  • Although he may be the town's mayor, her brother is romantically involved with Rita (Sarita Ocon), one of the gas company's publicists.
  • Due to some carefully-crafted legalese, the EPA is unable to investigate the situation.
  • A local journalist hoping to make a name for himself (Ryan Tasker) is dating her daughter Petra (Luisa Frasconi) while trying to push Katherine to take action.
Ryan Tasker and Luisa Frasconi in a scene from
The Great Divide (Photo by: Pak Han)

Act I concludes with a rumbling explosion that literally shakes the theatre. In the second act, Katherine's activism is met by some townspeople who can't afford to lose their income, others who vilify her for trying to kill the goose that's laid their golden egg and some who, fearing for their physical and financial health, try to avoid Dr. Stockmann entirely.

What few people expect is that the natural gas company has been looking for a way to pack up and leave a town that is becoming a financial liability. Unlike Ibsen's tannery, a multinational corporation doesn't have to worry about collateral damage to either the environment or its employees. Using the infamous "invisible hand of the market" excuse, it can pick up stakes and move its labor force to another location on a whim. Those who can't afford to make the move can stay behind and starve.

Once the gas company has left town and taken its financial resources away, the residents are left with no income, Peter is left with no mistress, and Katherine finds herself being abandoned by her husband as well. The only winner turns out to be her mother, who bought up a whole lot of land at fire sale prices.

Heather Robison is Dr. Katherine Stockmann
in The Great Divide (Photo by: Pak Han)

In some ways, The Great Divide suffers a disadvantage of genre: it's much easier to handle the expository needs of the story and educate an audience using a documentary format than to rely on public hearings that disintegrate into a rowdy confrontation.

While I admired Heather Robison's impassioned portrayal of Dr. Stockmann as well as the sound design by Colin Trevor and Martin Flynn's unit set, The Great Divide suffered under the necessary burden of having to deliver so much historical information without the kind of dramatic fluidity one enjoys in film.

Dr. Katherine Stockmann (Heather Robison) tries to convince
the townpeople to value their health over their income in
The Great Divide (Photo by: Pak Han)

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An interesting historical footnote: While The Great Divide depicts the struggles of a town that has become totally dependent on a gas company for its main source of income, instead of thinking about Ibsen's An Enemy of the People after the opening night performance, I found myself focusing on The Visit, a 1956 black comedy by Friedrich Durrenmatt in which an extremely wealthy woman returns to her home town offering to make a much-needed donation in return for the body of her former lover (who is still very much alive). In Durrenmatt's play, the greed of the townspeople eventually wins out and Claire Zachanassian gets what she wants. In a coffin.

In 1971, Durrenmatt wrote an operatic libretto for The Visit which was set to music by Gottfried von Einem. The Visit of the Old Lady received its world premiere from the Vienna State Opera with Christa Ludwig in the title role. In October 1972, the von Einem work received its American premiere from the San Francisco Opera in a production directed by Francis Ford Coppola that starred Regina Resnik as Claire Zachanassian.

Regina Resnik as Claire Zachanassian in The Visit of the Old Lady

Angela Lansbury had been announced to star in a musical adaptation of The Visit by John Kander and Fred Ebb in March 2001 but withdrew from the production due to her husband's terminal illness. What the creative team for The Visit had discovered was that, in its own peculiar way, the plot of The Visit bore a strong resemblance to Franz Lehar's popular operetta, The Merry Widow.

With that thought in mind, they changed their approach so that, instead of treating Durrenmatt's story as a tale of revenge, they approached it as a love story between two people who had been separated for decades by bitter circumstances. Although The Visit (starring Chita Rivera and John McMartin) had a successful out-of-town tryout at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in October 2001, the producers abandoned plans to bring the show to New York in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001.

Chita Rivera and George Hearn in the Signature Theatre
production of The Visit (Photo by:  Scott Suchman)

In May of 2008, The Visit was produced by the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia with Chita Rivera and George Hearn heading the cast. On November 30, 2011, an Actors Fund benefit held at the Vineyard Theatre featured a concert performance of The Visit starring Chita Rivera and John Collum. In the following clip, Chita Rivera sings one of Claire's songs, "Love and Love Alone."

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