Monday, October 21, 2013

Cry Me A Liver

For nearly two-thirds of the 20th century, the Cunard Steamship Company was the dominant brand in transatlantic travel. Long before Cunard Line became a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation, the company's advertising campaigns were based on the simple slogan: "Getting There Is Half The Fun!"

The R.M.S. Mauretania depicted leaving New York harbor

That slogan is equally applicable to the fine art of storytelling. Whether a writer starts out with some characters in mind and lets them come to life as he writes -- or devises an ending from which he works backward to lead his characters toward the story's climax -- he needs to keep his audience interested in the plot line and concerned about the people in his story.

Bottom line? You can weave a tale about a notorious celebrity or devise a devilish denouement for your story. But if no one cares about the characters you've asked them to follow, you're up shit's creek without a paddle. It doesn't matter how long or how short your play is, you've lost your audience.

I mention this phenomenon because the contrasts in characterizations and the basic construction of three world premiere productions seen this week was shocking.
  • One play, despite the loftiest intentions, was a stillborn affair.
  • One play, based on a solid foundation of magical realism, built to a magnificent finale of grand stageworthiness but took a bit longer than necessary to get there.
  • One play offered a cast of horribly dysfunctional characters, whose lives had been devastated by a perverse political situation. Despite glimmers of hope in a life-or-death situation, there was no way to effect a happy ending.
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I'm certainly not the only person who has watched the promotional trailer for an upcoming movie and discovered that the trailer was better than the full-length film. Take a moment to watch the following trailer for Evelyn Jean Pine's new play, First, and pay careful attention.

One of PlayGround's resident playwrights (as well as being a 2013 participant in the Djerassi Artists Residency Program in Woodside, California), Pine has served as Executive Director of the Community Memory Project, Managing Director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Director of HandsNet's Working Families Online Roundtables, and Founding Director of the Tides Foundation's Community Clinic Voice. She is a proud co-owner of The WELL, (one of the oldest virtual communities and social networking sites on the Internet) who knows the worlds of computer programming, Cyberculture, and has written numerous (and highly effective) short plays as part of her work with the PlayGround program.

Unfortunately, First (which runs nearly two hours) is a sorry mess. Although Pine's play may have been inspired by the testosterone-driven crowd of hobbyists, entrepreneurs, hackers, and salespeople who attended the first personal computer conference on March 26, 1976 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the playwright's attempt to depict Bill Gates as a smug and cocky 20-year-old computer nerd with mommy issues hit the floor at Stage Werx with a resounding thud and imploded with a whimper befitting Microsoft's legendary "blue screen of death."

Jeremy Kahn as Bill Gates in First (Photo by: Art Siegel)

It's no secret that the young Bill Gates lacked social skills and patience (or that the computer industry has been dominated by men). But that's no excuse for such weak writing, incompetent stage direction, and amateurish acting. In her program note, the playwright states that:
"Media maven David Bunnell convened and created the First World Altair Computer Conference to celebrate and sell the computer that many anoint as the 'First Personal Computer.' The intimacy of both theatre and software couple in First, this fantastical, fictional retelling of a remarkable moment that launches us into the 21st century and beyond. The story of Bill Gates' 'Letter to Hobbyists' and the controversy it spawned has been told and retold. (Glory in Steve Levy's "Hackers," delight in the Altair exhibit at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, hear it described in the History of Microsoft videos on YouTube.). I love moments like this. They feel exhilarating, charismatic, rich in possibility."
Unfortunately, First fails to bring any of that excitement to the stage. Although well cast as Bill Gates, not even the talented Jeremy Kahn (an actor I admire) could breathe life into this leaden affair (I've read FAQ files that were infinitely more entertaining). First struck me as an ill-crafted script desperately trying to live up to its own publicity.

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Quite the opposite could be said of Lauren Gunderson's newest play, I and You, which received its first production  from the Marin Theatre Company as part of the National New Play Network's Rolling World Premiere program. Gunderson's play has only two characters (both teenagers) who meet under strange circumstances which can only be understood in the play's final, revelatory moments.
  • Caroline (Jessica Lynn Carroll) is a high school senior stuck at home in her "girl cave" due to an unspecified autoimmune disease. Quickwitted, fiercely intelligent, and lonelier than she might like to admit, she has become quite adept at manipulating her mother via text messages (which has proven to be a great way of ordering up room service without getting emotionally involved). As one listens to Caroline, it's easy to believe that one is hearing the voice of a teenage Karen Walker (from Will and Grace) before she was released from suburban hell and could start drinking with the grownups.
  • Anthony (Devion McArthur) is one of her classmates, an easygoing young African American student who loves poetry, jazz, and basketball. He's arrived at Caroline's home insisting that their English teacher assigned him to work with Caroline on a poetry project which involves analyzing Walt Whitman's use of pronouns in Song of Myself.

In the past year, Gunderson has shown great skill in writing zingers for her characters to toss over the footlights like bits of food being thrown into a pool full of hungry koi carp. With a defensive, often obnoxious teenager like Caroline, she's found the perfect delivery system -- a smartass teenage girl with great aim who can keep the one-liners coming (whether they emanate from an emotional place that is sullen and furious or fast and funny).

But Caroline is about a whole lot more than merely teasing boys and treating her mother like a servant. She's been wrestling with some serious issues that require her to live one day at a time (which is not all that easy for an adolescent with a limited span of attention).

Devion McArthur (Anthony) and Jessica Lynn Carroll (Caroline)
in the world premiere of I and You (Photo by: Ed Smith)

It's extremely easy for audiences to get restless about two thirds of the way through Gunderson's 85-minute play as they wonder where the playwright is heading. But about seven minutes after the impatience starts to creep in, Gunderson pulls off a magnificent coup de theatre that makes the evening totally worthwhile.

Caroline (Jessica Lynn Carroll) and Anthony (Devion McArthur)
get to know each other in I and You (Photo by: Ed Smith)

Whether or not audiences will be deeply moved by Gunderson's play depends on how much they grew to care about Caroline and Anthony in the first place. With a low likability factor, Caroline is a hard sell.

Though his love for John Coltrane's music and Walt Whitman's poetry make him seem far more interesting, Anthony is the kind of catalytic character whose presence resembles an extra-long lit fuse attached to a bomb that's waiting to go off. Their interactions often reminded me of this famous moment from the 2008 Presidential campaign.

Thanks to Michael Locher's set design, Wen-Ling Liao's lighting, and Will McCandless's contributions as the show's sound designer and composer, the explosion brings a long-overdue understanding of Caroline's predicament. Under Sarah Rasmussen's direction, this transformative storytelling moment is handled with great (and grave) poignancy. Performances of I and You continue at Marin Theatre Company through November 3 (click here to order tickets).

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From the moment the lights come up on a young woman lying comatose in a hospital bed, it's obvious that
Torange Yeghiazarian's new family drama, 444 Days, involves a medical crisis. The sounds of a medical ventilator haunt many scenes as the playwright probes what happens when a patient's needs are dwarfed by the scarred political past and emotional baggage of her biological parents.

Directed by Bella Warda and presented by Golden Thread Productions, 444 Days arrives with a variety of political bombshells just waiting to explode like the IEDs that pepper the Middle East:
  • Hadyeh (Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt) is a 25-year-old woman lying in a coma at Stanford Hospital, her last ray of hope after a series of hospitalizations in the Middle East and Germany. Desperately in need of a bone marrow transplant, she has little time to live unless a matchable donor steps forward. Meanwhile, angry protesters are gathered in front of the hospital, furious that the child of one of the students who occupied the American Embassy in Tehran and held 52 people hostage for 444 days is receiving care in an American healthcare facility.
  • Olivia (Sheila Collins) is the African-American nurse tending to Hadyeh and giving her sponge baths as her personal history starts to unfold. Because Olivia's main source of news has been television, she has a rather idealized concept of America's history in the Middle East and wishes people were more grateful for the generosity of Americans. Like many nurses who witness a patient's family battling over old wounds and territorial issues, Olivia understands that her primary professional responsibility is to care for and protect Hadyeh.
  • Laleh (Jeri Lynn Cohen) is Hadyeh's mother, a former Iranian revolutionary and translator who subsequently became an Iranian minister. An extremely intelligent woman whose husband waits silently in a nearby hospital lounge, Laleh has worked every possible angle she can to get her daughter the medical attention Hadyeh so desperately needs.
  • Harry (Michael Shipley) is a former diplomatic aide who was held hostage by Laleh and her fellow students. During the 444 days that they were together in the American Embassy, he worked with Laleh to translate certain documents. They also became lovers and produced a child (Hadyeh). Although Amin may have been the father who raised Hadyeh, Harry is the carrier of the gene which has caused her illness. His son, Michael, might be the perfect donor for a bone marrow transplant but there are complications (with major personal and political repercussions) in addition to the obvious tension between Harry and Laleh, who are meeting in Hadyeh's hospital room for the first time in 25 years.
Jeri Lynn Cohen, Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt, and Michael Shipley
in a scene from 444 Days ([Photo by: David Allen)

In describing her inspiration for 444 Days, Yeghiazarian notes that:
"The basic story I had in mind was about two characters bound together by a child, representing a moment of passion between them which they forever deny because of political conflict and nationalist concerns. To me, the current political situation in Iran is like a wound that has gangrened. I wanted a medical condition that would undeniably expose the two characters’ past. A love affair is a great way of personalizing the impact of war and political stalemate. The obstacles individuals must overcome to connect as human beings are hugely amplified when they are political enemies. I love focusing on the ways global situations actually impact our individual daily life.

In 2010 I lived in Tehran for six months. During this time, I was really struck by the defiance of Iranian women -- their accomplishments, their presence in all social arenas, and the strength they show in the face of significant daily challenges. The character of Laleh is very much informed by the experience of those six months. Her impassiveness is rooted in a survival strategy practiced daily in the streets of Tehran."
Michael Shipley and Jeri Lynn Cohen in 444 Days
(Photo by: David Allen)

A simple manipulation of Jim Cave's lighting helps director Bella Warda engineer smooth transitions between the period, 25 years ago, when Laleh and Harry fell in love, and their current crisis in Hadyeh's hospital room. Jeri Lynn Cohen does a formidable job of communicating the frustration and desperation Laleh feels as she tries to keep her daughter alive while juggling the tensions of her political situation, the personal stressors of an ex-lover who still wishes to marry her, and the most painful decision a mother can make.

Michael Shipley's portrayal of Harry is appealing (even if his character seems oddly impotent). As Olivia, Sheila Collins provides a strong foil to her patient's severely conflicted parents. In a rare moment of comic relief, Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt charms the audience when everyone else leaves her hospital room and she can momentarily awake from her coma to speak directly to the audience.

Sheila Collins, Michael Shipley, Jeri Lynn Cohen and Olivia
Rosaldo-Pratt are the cast of 444 Days (Photo by: David Allen)

Torange Yeghiazarian's script offers a fascinating mix of political and medical drama delivered by a tightly-knit ensemble. Performances continue through November 3 at Z Below (click here to order tickets).

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