Sunday, September 8, 2013

What A Difference An "A" Makes!

Let's not kid ourselves.  Proofreading is a bitch. No matter how many times I think I've caught any typos or grammatical errors before clicking the "Publish" button, when I go back the next morning for one final read it's appalling to discover the mistakes that have slipped through.
  • Spellcheckers don't always catch situations where the word I've misspelled is a different word that is spelled correctly.
  • After working on a piece for several hours, my eyes can get so tired (and my brain so fried) that it's possible to read what I wanted to write without realizing that what I'm thinking doesn't match up with the text I'm reading.
  • Sometimes, if my mind is tired, I'll find my brain substituting wholly inappropriate (and often dangerously lewd) words for the ones I'm reading.
  • During allergy season, my eyes start tearing with the frequency and productivity of a runny nose. Things get very blurry and it's easy to miss a typo.
However, that does not mean that other people's mistakes can easily be ignored.  Recently, as I entered the Hotel Nikko to attend a performance by Christine Ebersole, I noticed that all of the show cards had misspelled her last name as "Ebersol" (ironically, the hotel's ad in the Bay Area Reporter spelled her name correctly). On my first night at the 2013 San Francisco Fringe Festival, as I sat through a piece that barely aspired to be described as "execrable," I was positively thrilled to discover that this particular offering (which had been listed as 90 minutes in length in the festival program) was nearing its end at the 60-minute mark.

Let me explain. Fringe festivals are divided into two categories. At some, entries are chosen by a jury panel (which helps to weed out some of the chaff).  At others, entries are chosen by a lottery system, which means that luck can (and often does) trump artistic merit.

Whoever wins a performance slot is given a chance to shine. Or not.

* * * * * * * * *
Imagine a group of aspiring musicians who browbeat their parents into letting them form a garage band.
  • Their parents have a garage.
  • Their folks have given them some money.  
  • Hell, they've even got instruments! 
  • What they lack in talent isn't easily articulated because (a) they're pretty damn clueless. and (b) their parents love them too much to level with them about the possibility of not having an artistic future.
What to do? What to do?  To quote a lyric written by the great Fred Ebb for 1975's Chicago:
"Give 'em the old razzle dazzle
Razzle dazzle 'em
Show 'em the first rate sorcerer you are.
Long as you keep 'em way off balance
How can they spot you've got no talents?
Razzle dazzle 'em
And they'll make you a star!

What if your hinges all are rusting?
What if, in fact, you're just disgusting?
Razzle dazzle 'em
And they'll never catch wise!"
Give that advice to a young man who wants to create a musical about an island in the middle of the ocean that has a volcano. The result could probably go in two directions.
  • The first might be a spoof of some grade B movies that were set in the South Seas. The best possible outcome would be for the audience to think the show was so bad that it was actually good.
  • The second might be a genuine attempt to create a new musical that turns out to be a pretentious piece of drek.
Unfortunately, what Aram Krikorian (whose skills as a composer, lyricist, actor, singer, and director are barely minimal) has created is a painful example of what happens when arts programs are eliminated from the education system and hapless fools do not receive sufficient guidance in how to develop their craft. The blurb for Krikorian's godawful mini-musical, Volcano, reads as follows:
"Somewhere in the middle of the ocean on a waxy little island, a volcano wakes. Three friends must stick together to fight off intruders trying to conquer their home. But the mountain grumbles and cracks open, spilling magma at every turn."
This half-hour videotape of Volcano: The Musical is from a production that may have taken place around 2011. It boasts lush visuals (which were not used during the San Francisco Fringe Festival performances) and an overlay of surtitles that contain far too many misspelled words.

However, it's worth watching in order to experience a rarely-documented example of what a truly appalling level of misguided theatrics looks like in live performance mode. This is the kind of stuff that gives rank amateurs a bad name.

Written and directed by Krikorian (who wrote the music and lyrics and takes on the role of Raffi), the performance at the San Francisco Fringe Festival featured a different cast than the one seen in the video. Chloe Anderson (who is currently representing San Francisco in Donald Trump's Miss California USA Pageant) appeared as the Captain, Rafael Charles Musni as Vartan, Victoria Vanni as Camelle, and Dominique Shaw as Shock. Dylan Thiffault furiously multitasked as the Narrator, Aveli, Zork, and some Workmen.

Dylan Thiffault

At the performance I attended, two people were seated in the front row videotaping the proceedings (prior to the show, one proudly told me that she knew lots of famous musicians). To describe Volcano: The Musical as hopelessly sophomoric would grossly insult every high school in America that has an active performing arts program filled with deeply-committed teenagers doing much better work than Krikorian and his sorry troupe of wannabe artists.

Occasionally, friends like to tell reviewers how lucky they are to be able to see so many shows for free. The above video offers a taste of what some critics have labeled "The Theatre of Look What the Cat Dragged In."

* * * * * * * * *
An hour after the idiocy of Volcano: The Musical and down a short and winding hallway, my evening took a sharp turn for the better. Based on the Just So Stories written by Rudyard Kipling, O Best Beloved features a cast of hyperenergetic performers acting out four of Kipling's tales:
Nikolas Strubbe and Joan Howard in O Best Beloved
(Photo by: Rebecca Longworth)

Prior to the show, the cast mingles with the audience as the stage is being set.  Some performers may seem more animated than others, but once the show begins, it's a wild and woolly ride through the animal kingdom (you really haven't lived until you've seen Sam Bertken demonstrate how a giraffe uses its tongue). As co-adaptor Joan Howard explains:
"This cast is wildly talented. Creating with them is such a delight. We love figuring out how to portray the animals in the stories with our bodies. We're also fascinated by showing all the mechanics of the show to the audience (like actors unpacking props on stage and hoisting the scenery) because it engages the audience's imagination."
The cast of O Best Beloved (Photo by: Travis Gaff)

Directed by Rebecca Longworth, the talented cast of O Best Beloved includes the constantly mugging Sam Bertken, co-adaptor Joan Howard, the tall and athletic Allison Fenner, the lithe and sensual Sam Jackson (who scores as an idle and emotionally distant camel), Casey Robbins, and Sabrina Wenske. You can get a glimpse of their hijinks in the following trailer from their Kickstarter appeal:

Seen from one perspective, O Best Beloved is a high-grade piece of children's theatre that could easily tour to schools and community centers.  On the other hand, the cast's energy level is so ridiculously high (and because they engage so much circus technique their performances are so engaging) that the production has equal appeal for children of all ages.

As a result, O Best Beloved could easily be booked along the college circuit (where it would have tremendous appeal to stoners) as well as on cruise lines (where it could entertain audiences of children as well as adults).

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