Saturday, March 16, 2013

Sister Acts

One may be the loneliest number, but two can't always offer the perfect solution. Whereas one person can supposedly change the world, doubling down on false premises and bad concepts can only lead to disaster. Onanism can lead to an endless pursuit of pleasure while attempting to get similar mileage out of a double-ended dildo presents a more complicated challenge.

When I first started to attend the theatre, it was fairly common to encounter three-act plays with sizable casts. Whether this was due to a thirst for the classics (works by William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan) or the preponderance of new musicals during the 1950s and 1960s,  stages were often filled with actors.

Solo performance artists (Victor Borge, Anna Russell) were on the wane. Plays like John Gielgud's Ages of Man and Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain Tonight were treated as novelty acts. As production costs continued to mount, fewer straight plays attempted the epic sweep of Luther (1963), The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (1963), The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1965), The Great White Hope (1967), and  The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1980).

However, a new genre of cost-effective productions like The Fourposter (1951), An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May (1960), Staircase (1968), Bent 1979, The Gin Game (1976) and 'night Mother (1983) began to have a strong impact on the box office. For better or worse, two-character plays were easier to stage, could be licensed to far more regional theatres, and were bound to develop healthy royalty checks for playwrights.

Anyone who has been an avid theatregoer over the past two decades knows that the traditional three-act play has become an endangered species. More and more, one encounters one-act plays with an approximate running time of 90 minutes that are designed to be performed by two actors.

Such plays require careful setup and a clearly-defined conflict between two characters. If a playwright can't get his audience to care about the characters he has created, the evening is doomed. If a stage director can't keep the audience's interest, the evening can seem interminable.

The two-character play is a challenge for many modern audiences. Performing it can either be a delicious challenge or a precarious tightrope act for the people onstage.

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For those who idolize someone who accomplished a great deal through a uniquely daring and personal approach to her work, there is a temptation to want to further their worship by showcasing that person in a piece of their own art. Sometimes that works. On other occasions, the temptation should be resisted tooth and nail.

After attending the world premiere of Lawrence Wright's two-character play at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre I thought the playwright would have been better off to have left well enough alone.
  • This play feels suspiciously mechanical, as if it had been mapped out on index cards.
  • The frequent snippets from Puccini's Tosca (including "Vissi d'arte) offer heavy-handed allusions to what a dedicated reporter did for her art.
  • By the end of the performance, I felt that this extended death scene should have been titled "La Strega" instead of "Fallaci."
Concetta Tomei as Orianna Fallaci (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Among her journalistic achievements reporting on war and politics, Orianna Fallaci gained fame for her extensive interviews with controversial world leaders. Some of her interviews lasted many hours (this was not someone in search of a convenient sound bite). While readers were thrilled by Fallaci's writing, many of the people she interviewed felt that she had been dishonest and treated them unfairly.

Wright's play begins in Fallaci's New York apartment as an aspiring journalist finally gets Orianna to answer her doorbell.  It's the summer of 2000 and Maryam (Marjan Neshat) has been sent by an editor at The New York Times to interview Fallaci for her eventual obituary. Even with her lung cancer in a temporary state of remission, Fallaci has no intention of making the job easy for Maryam. After all, she is Orianna Fallaci. She may be bitter, tired, and out of the celebrity limelight, but she is still very much alive.

Maryam (Marjan Neshat ) and Orianna (Concetta Tomei) in a scene from
Robert Wright's Fallaci (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

What follows is an extended cat-and-mouse game in which a young journalist tries to keep the focus on an old lioness, who keeps looking for ways to connect with her legendary killer instincts. Following the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, Fallaci re-enters the limelight with a series of highly controversial pieces that are critical of Islamic culture. Maryam (whose father is Iranian) undergoes a major personal and political transformation.

On one hand, the audience gets to watch Concetta Tomei etching an acerbic, raspy-voiced portrait of the dying Fallaci that often sounds like Kathleen Turner impersonating of Arianna Huffington in slow motion. On the other hand, I found Marjan Neshat's performance so underwhelming that she stood little chance of holding her own against a woman with far more worldly experience -- until they meet again in the afterlife.

Wright points to an interesting journalistic challenge that led to his creation of Maryam.
"Obit writers go out and write these preliminary obituaries that are then filed away. The information is supposed to be kept confidential until the subject passes away.  Sometimes, people say things to their obituary writers that they would never confide to contemporaries because they know that these words aren't going to be used until after they're gone. Part of Fallaci's lesson in this play is that there's a relationship between the reporter and the subject and it can be very aggressive. It can be erotic. It can be full of conflict. But from the beginning, it's a profound relationship and the reporter has a tremendous amount of power.  One holds the reputation of the other person in your hand, so one has to be cautious about how you use that kind of power.  On the other hand, you have an obligation to your readers to get to the bottom of what's going on with this person. An ordinary reporter carries a tremendous burden of responsibility, but an obit writer has an extra amount of that because -- as Fallaci says -- this is the final judgment."

Concetta Tomei as Orianna Fallaci

In a bizarre way, the near-operatic stage blocking by Oskar Eustis (which encourages actors to  aim for the audience instead of relating to each other) is one of the production's major weaknesses. I did not find the script to be particularly gripping or able to engender much empathy for either woman. If one were to ask "What Becomes A Legend Most?" the answer would most definitely not be Lawrence Wright's Fallaci.

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Under John Fisher's direction, Theatre Rhinoceros served up a delicious two-hander unlike anything I've ever seen before. Set in the American South during the late 1890s, neither one of the play's two characters has had a formal education.
  • Miss Flora (Velina Brown) is a single woman running a small inn and tending to local people community who are in need of her homeopathic knowledge and skills as a midwife.
  • Biddie (Dawn L. Troupe) is a traveling hog-cutter who grew up surrounded by 10 brothers and supports herself through word of mouth.
Biddie (Dawn L. Troupe) and Miss Flora (Velina Brown) in
A Lady and a Woman (Photo by: David Wilson)

Although Biddie has known for years that she was attracted to women, Miss Flora is just awakening to a sexual awareness she has never imagined or understood. In the following clip, the playwright discusses what motivated her to create this very special and intimate dramedy.

Often, when experiencing a play that is new to me, the question at the back of my mind is a simple one: Do I care about these people?  A Lady and A Woman is one of the happy instances in which the answer is a resounding "Yes." While Shirlene Holmes's script may seem tame in comparison to contemporary approaches to marriage equality, it covers all the bases of gender roles, adopting children, and dealing with how strangers regard a same-sex relationship.

Miss Flora (Velina Brown) and Biddie (Dawn L. Troupe) in
A Lady and a Woman (Photo by: David Wilson)

More than anything, the solid performances by Velina Brown and Dawn L. Troupe provoke a level of empathy in the audience that is rarely found these days. Performances of A Lady and A Woman continue through March 24 at the Eureka Theatre (click here to order tickets).

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