Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Problems in Bed, Booze, and Beyond

It's hard to believe that five years have passed since Lady Gaga recorded Bad Romance. But with the fifth anniversary of the release date of Gaga's album, The Fame Monster, coming up on October 26, it's interesting to note the song's impact on popular culture.
As can be seen in the following YouTube clips, Bad Romance also inspired a wealth of parody videos ranging from the political to the surreal; from wildly scatological humor to an animated tongue-in-cheek sendup.

The crucial lesson to be learned from this is that once a rock-solid template becomes embedded in popular culture, numerous permutations are bound to ensue. As one culls through the literature based on bad romances, it becomes obvious that problems with alcohol, control issues, and sexual compatibility are recurring themes. Two recent Bay area productions highlighted these issues in impressive stagings of highly-celebrated American plays.

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Many years ago, I was Interviewing a young soprano who was in the apprentice program at the Santa Fe Opera. Having just graduated from a music conservatory, she confessed to being at a loss when it came to sitting down for interviews with national music critics. She told me that one interviewer after another had asked her the standard questions about what productions she had been in, where she would be appearing in the upcoming season, and what major recordings she had coming out What she didn't know how to tell them was that, once the Santa Fe Opera season ended, she would have to go back to waiting tables in Denver.

The San Francisco Bay area has a very active theatre community which has provided steady work for numerous artists who have chosen to live here rather than pursue potentially more lucrative careers in New York or Los Angeles. Most, if not all of them, will swear that this is a quality of life issue (or, as someone explained to me when I moved to the Bay area in 1972 and inquired about earthquakes, "The bottom line is that you can have 15 great years in San Francisco or 25 shitty ones in Los Angeles. The choice is yours!").

Frequently, I'll see some very good work done in small theatres that few people in the mainstream ever bother to attend. Occasionally, one learns via the grapevine or in unusual ways about an upcoming production at a company with scant resources for marketing and media outreach.

Because Bay area audiences often get to experience the work of a core group of actors in a wide variety of roles during the course of  any season, one tends to keep an eye out for chances to see some of these people tackle especially challenging roles. In late July, while attending a performance of Dracula Inquest at Central Works, I happened to notice that one of the actor's program bios made reference to an upcoming appearance in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof as part of the annual Eugene O'Neill Festival in Danville.

Huh? My interest perked up immediately.

As it turned out, the Role Players Ensemble of Danville was presenting the play that won Tennessee Williams his 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Drama using the 1974 version for which the playwright (who died in 1983) had made numerous revisions and strengthened the third act. The lead roles would be taken by two extremely talented young actors whose work I have admired (and who were both performing in the cast of Dracula Inquest). At the time I had no idea they had also become a couple offstage.

Joshua Schell and Megan Trout in a scene from Dracula Inquest
(Photo by: Jim Norrena) 
To have an opportunity to watch these talented and extremely photogenic actors perform two of the most famous roles written by Tennessee Williams in Danville's 245-seat, 101-year-old Village Theatre under the direction of George Maguire (whose work I have always respected) was quite tantalizing.

Megan Trout and Joshua Schell as Maggie and Brick in
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (Photo by: John Carter)

If any play reeks of a bad romance, it is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Its protagonists are Brick (a former college football star whose career as a sports announcer was ruined by his alcoholism), his sexually frustrated wife, Maggie (a relatively poor girl from Memphis who married into a wealthy family), and the unseen ghost of Brick's best friend, Skipper (a closeted homosexual whose unrequited love for Brick caused him to drink himself to death).

Adding to Brick and Maggie's personal misery are Brick's blood relations: brother Gooper (Robert Sholty), his prodigiously fertile wife, Mae (Jessica Lea Risco), and their tribe of rugrats that Maggie refers to as "no-neck monsters." The clan has gathered to celebrate the 65th birthday of Brick's father, Big Daddy (Randy Anger), who has been undergoing medical tests at the Ochsner Clinic for a cancer scare.

Although the initial report is that Big Daddy is cancer free, the truth -- which has been kept from Big Daddy and his wife, Big Mama (Beth Chastain) -- is that the disease is malignant and rapidly metastasizing to various organs. It's important to keep in mind that during the time in which Cat on a Hot Tin Roof takes place, no one ever wanted to mention the C-word any more than they wanted to deal seriously with alcoholism or an intensely platonic bromance between two football jocks.

Poster art for the original Broadway production of
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Ever since its 1955 Broadway premiere (with a cast headed by Barbara Bel Geddes, Ben Gazzara, Burl Lives, and Mildred Dunnock) and the release of the 1958 film adaptation (starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives, and Judith Anderson), the legend of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has metastasized almost as rapidly as Big Daddy's cancer. These days, the play is often produced as a major star vehicle (in 1990 I saw it with a cast headed by an over-ripe 46-year-old Kathleen Turner playing opposite Daniel Hugh Kelly, Charles Durning, and Polly Holiday).

To witness two lean and healthy young leads like Trout and Schell do a stunning job of delineating the conflicts between Maggie, Brick, and the rest of the Pollitt clan using a version of the play that, under Maguire's direction, clarified so many moments in the script, was cause for celebration. Working on a unit set by Paul Collins, the production benefited immensely from Randy Anger's powerful and poignant performance as Big Daddy --  a huge man with no patience for pretense who has been surrounded by greed and "mendacity" for his entire life and been left with nothing but scorn for his wife, son Gooper, daughter-in-law Mae, and their obnoxious brood.

On rare occasions in regional theatre, you get more than you bargained for. In this case, it was a near-revelatory production of a classic work by one of America's greatest playwrights that laid bare all the petty squabbling, medical ignorance, sexual frustration, shattered dreams, and rampant greed that had held the Pollitt family in its grip for years (by the final curtain, administering a morphine drip to ease Big Daddy's pain was the least of the family's problems).

Brick (Joshua Schell) and Big Daddy (Randy Anger) have a man-to-man
talk while Maggie (Megan Trout) and the rest of the family watch the
fireworks display in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Photo by: George F. Maguire)

With three hugely talented and forceful actors using every bit of their craft, I can assure you that this production was well worth the trip to Danville. It made me feel like I was hearing Williams's writing for the very first time. Bravo!

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No one in his right mind would ever suggest that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof took place in a feminist culture. However, Gina Gionfriddo's comedy of contemporary crises entitled Rapture, Blister, Burn (one of the 2013 finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama which recently received its Bay Area premiere from the Aurora Theatre Company) most certainly does. And yet, after decades of sexual politics, the play's core is about a strained marriage whose conflicts reflect a familiar set of ingredients:
  • One character's struggle with alcoholism.
  • An ineffectual husband with no interest in living up to his potential.
  • The ghost of a past romance that was never fully realized. 
While Cat on a Hot Tin Roof may be soaking in testosterone, Rapture, Blister, Burn is awash in estrogen. Its characters include:
  • Don (Gabriel Marin), the dean at a small, inconsequential liberal arts college in New England whose ambition has been sapped by smoking lots of marijuana and watching Internet porn in order to escape from the harridan-like behavior of his wife, who is a recovering alcoholic.
  • Gwen (Rebecca Schweitzer), Don's wife and the mother of his two children. A dry drunk with major control issues, Gwen often wonders what her life might have been like if she had followed a career path instead of becoming a mother. Their second child, Devon, was basically created in an attempt to keep their marriage afloat.
Gwen (Rebecca Schweitzer), Catherine (Marilee Talkington) and Don (Gabriel
Marin) in a tense moment from Rapture, Blister, Burn (Photo by: David Allen)
  • Catherine (Marilee Talkington), Gwen's college roommate who has achieved that rare level of notoriety in academia -- a strong feminist celebrity (nicknamed "The Doomsday Chick") who is known for her writing and appearances on talk shows. Shortly after learning that her mother suffered a heart attack, Catherine was seized with doubts about not having raised a family. To her surprise, she occasionally found herself agreeing with the noted arch conservative, Phyllis Schlafly, on matters related to a woman's place in the world.
  • Avery (Nicole Javier), one of Don's troubled students who has been babysitting for his two boys. On the night of Catherine's arrival in town, Avery's black eye completely freaks out Gwen, who insists that she be sent home. While Avery represents a younger generation with radically different values than Gwen's, she's no fool. She knows a troubled marriage when she sees one.
  • Alice (Lillian Bogovich), Catherine's mother who, although glad to spend time with her celebrated daughter, is not afraid to face her own mortality.
Marilee Talkington, Nicole Javier, and Gabriel Marin in a
scene from Rapture, Blister, Burn (Photo by: David Allen)

Old friends getting together. What could possibly go wrong?
  • In order to earn some money while staying with her mother, Catherine asks Gwen to see if she can arrange some teaching assignments for summer school and the fall semester (this is a task that the highly-driven, super-organized Gwen can easily accomplish).
  • When Catherine offers to teach a course entitled "The Fall of American Civilization" (with a special emphasis on torture horror as an entertainment genre and sadistic pornography as a distraction from real life), only two students register for her course: Gwen and Avery.
  • When Gwen's loose lips spill some of Don's secrets, her indiscretion reignites an old romance between Don and Catherine.
  • With Gwen envious of Catherine's celebrity lifestyle and Catherine wondering whether she should have had a family instead of a career, a curious swap is negotiated. Don will move in with Catherine while Gwen takes their precocious teenage son (who loves show tunes) to live with her in Catherine's New York apartment.
Needless to say, the best-laid plans soon fall apart.
  • Don's lack of ambition becomes abundantly clear to Catherine (who starts pushing him to write a book).
  • Gwen's (presumed to be gay) teenage son falls in love with a Goth girl that he met on line for tickets to Wicked.
  • Perhaps out of weakness, Don and Gwen make up and move back in together.
Lillian Bogovich, Marilee Talkington, and Nicole Javier in a
scene from Rapture, Blister Burn(Photo by: David Allen)

That leaves Catherine, Avery, and Alice (three women of distinctly different generations with radically different thoughts about feminism) to bond together in a new and unusual way. One of the hidden perks of Gionfriddo's script is that, despite paying homage due to Betty Friedan, it may be the only feminist tract in which Phyllis Schlafly gets the last laugh.

As directed by Desdemona Chiang on Kate Boyd's flexible unit set, Aurora's ensemble lays on Gionfriddo's bittersweet jokes and personal digs with a trowel. However, midway through the second act, Rapture, Blister, Burn starts to lose some team as the heat of rekindled romance begins to fade, the joyless Gwen returns to town, and all four women realize that Don is a pretty hopeless case.

Don (Gabriel Marin) and Catherine (Marilee Talkington) in
a scene from Rapture, Blister, Burn (Photo by: David Allen)

Over the years, Gabriel Marin has perfected the art of playing a spineless straight man. Watching his body language as he tries to duck the strident anger of his wife (who would much prefer to be drunk) and his lover (who wants more from him than he can give) is a joy.

I was particularly impressed with Marilee Talkington's characterization of Catherine and Nicole Javier's feisty Avery. While Lillian Bogovich's Alice gave her daughter plenty of loving support (bolstered with margaritas), the manipulative abrasiveness of Rebecca Schweitzer's Gwen often made it difficult to appreciate the actor's work because her character was so tightly wound.

Performances of Rapture, Blister, Burn continue through October 5 at the Aurora Theatre Company in downtown Berkeley (click here to order tickets).

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