Sunday, March 10, 2013

Acting Out

Christians are often taught to "Hate the sin, but love the sinner." With religion and the arts both driven by excesses of passion, it's hard not to wonder if a modified version of the Christian instruction applies to certain parts of the arts.
  • Is it possible to dislike a particular composer's style but be thrilled by the way a pianist performs of one of his concertos?
  • Is it possible to dislike an artist's politics but admire his paintings?
  • Is it possible to dislike a singer's personality and/or pulchritude but swoon over the sound of his voice?
Each of these questions points to the way an artist, having studied and learned a craft, has strengthened his instrument and solidified his talent to the point where it can sometimes outshine the material he is asked to perform. Let me give you some examples.

The Sorcerer (1877) was the third collaboration between composer Arthur Percy Sullivan and librettist William Schwenk Gilbert. Frequently overshadowed by their most popular comic operas (The Mikado, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance), The Sorcerer is very rarely produced anymore. Yet it contains one of the team's earliest patter songs, which is performed in the following clip by the legendary Martyn Green.

Although I loved to watch professional wrestling in my youth (and thrilled to the antics of Haystack Calhoun, Gorgeous George, Bruno Sammartino, Killer Kowalski, and Happy Humphrey), I've since lost my taste for violent sports. Although I found James Toback's 2008 documentary about professional boxer Mike Tyson mildly interesting, I had no desire to attend Tyson's one-man show (directed by Spike Lee) when it was booked into San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre.

Then, late one night, I stumbled across this video clip of Gene Kelly tap dancing with one of the greatest professional boxers of all time: Sugar Ray Robinson. How could anyone watch this clip without smiling?

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In recent years I've found it challenging to get through an evening of plays from the Theatre of the Absurd. Although I sometimes enjoy plays by Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, I haven't been done as well with works by Eugene Ionesco.

I'm not sure what could get me past the nagging feeling that I'm stuck in a nightmare of mental masturbation. As Elaine Stritch sang in 1970's Company, "Perhaps a piece of Mahler.  I'll drink to that!  And one for Mahler....."

Poster art for The Chairs

San Francisco's Cutting Ball Theater just unveiled a new production of Ionesco's The Chairs (1952) using a simple unit set that has been beautifully designed by Michael Locher and directed by Annie Elias in what can only be described as a labor of love. Using a new translation by the company's artistic director, Rob Melrose, Elias notes that:
"The text of The Chairs conveys a pathos and humanity beneath the surface antics, like the best of silent film performances. It is indeed equal parts tragedy and farce.While Ionesco’s play is 'absurdist,' he writes movingly from the point of view of the elderly. My own parents, 60 years married, seem nearly identical to this couple --  finishing each other’s sentences, recollecting only through tandem effort, supplying the pride, genuine interest, and encouragement that long-dead parents once gave, and laughing at jokes told for the hundredth time. Ionesco’s faith in the power of the imagination is perhaps best understood in his own words: 'I personally would like to bring a tortoise on to the stage, turn it into a race horse, then into a hat, a song, a dragoon, and a fountain of water. One can dare anything in the theatre, and it is the place where one dares the least. I want no other limits than the technical limits of stage machinery. People will say that my plays are music-hall turns or circus acts. So much the better. Let’s include the circus in the theatre! Let the playwright be accused of being arbitrary. Yes, the theatre is the place where one can be arbitrary. As a matter of fact, it is not arbitrary. The imagination is not arbitrary, it is revealing. …I have decided not to recognize any laws except those of my imagination, and since the imagination obeys its own laws, this is further proof that in the last resort it is not arbitrary.'"
Regardless of how one feels about Ionesco's play (which can certainly drag at times), Cutting Ball's production is notable for two gorgeously-crafted performances by two of the Bay area's lesser known actors: David Sinaiko and Tamar Cohen.

Because Cutting Ball's black box performance space (The Exit on Taylor) barely seats 66 people, Locher's curved unit set (designed to match the contour of an apartment atop a lighthouse) brings the actors within arm's length of the first row of the audience. With Derek Fischer appearing late in the play as the mysterious Orator who turns out to be a deaf mute.

The Chairs is the kind of play that may thrill a drama student, pique one's curiosity, or find itself on a life-long theatregoer's bucket list. No matter what one thinks of the play, this production is worth 75 minutes of your time for the simple privilege of watching the carefully-honed theatrical craft of Tamar Cohen and David Sinaiko. Here's the trailer

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In 2009, the Mill Valley Film Festival presented a curious film that had been written by Gareth Armstrong and directed by Michael Shabtay. The promotional blurb for Shylock read as follows:
"Stepping in and out of character while trolling around an elegant Dutch theater augmented by life-sized video projections of a modern production of The Merchant of Venice, actor Cahit Ölmez is decidedly 'not just talking about plays and acting.' Addressing us, his audience, Ölmez excavates Tubal, a minor but freighted Shakespearean creation, the only friend of Merchant's notorious Semitic villain, Shylock. Tubal grants Ölmez fresh access to Shylock, and the scars of the Elizabethan era's rampant anti-Semitism. And though Shakespeare may never have known a Jew, Shylock's tragic dimension has given rise to an unsettling ambiguity winding through centuries of theatrical history to this moment: a provocative meta-theatrical venture seeking nothing less than the chance to set Shylock free."

Often riveting by sheer virtue of its investigatory passion and analytical zeal, Shylock becomes a master class for actors, directors, and scholars in how to dissect a fictional character who has been created against a historical background. The skill with which Shabtay moves his living lecture from one environment to another while delivering a masterful overview of how Jews were perceived during the era in which The Merchant of Venice (first performed at the court of England's King James I in 1605) is set becomes a masterful juggling act which also traces the history of how Jews have been portrayed in Shakespeare.

Anderson's passion for Shylock is rooted in his one-man show (also entitled Shylock) which was recently presented at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco as part of this Spring's series of lectures and performances about Jews, Money and the Media.

Poster art for Shylock
This show premiered in 1998 (with Armstrong appearing as Shylock) and has since toured the world to great acclaim. Armstrong has directed a touring production of the show for Guy Masterson, who performs this (nearly two-hour) tour de force with great gusto. For those, like myself, who have never had the opportunity to experience a fully-staged production of The Merchant of Venice, Armstrong's energetically theatrical lecture offers a crash course in far more than Shakespeare's text.

Like Hal Holbrook (Mark Twain Tonight) and Julie Harris (The Belle of Amherst), Armstrong has found himself a character and a cause which he can nurture for the rest of his theatrical career. This one-man show reveals his strength as a researcher, his passion for the character of Shylock, his curiosity about Jewish history, and his craft as an actor/director. In the following clip, Guy Masterson describes the challenges that this version of Shylock presents to both the actor and his audience.

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