Monday, December 22, 2014

Community Affairs

End of year wrap-ups and critics' annual lists of the top 10 events in their field aren't really my thing. Yet it gives me great satisfaction to note small accomplishments which would probably seem insignificant to most other people.

Mind you, these tiny milestones are not the kind of events most people would put on their bucket lists. Some might wish to go skydiving on their 75th birthday or travel to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, Others might yearn to participate in an intensely intimate and sensual threeway or go scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef. Here's Inga Swenson (who played Lizzie Curry in the original Broadway cast of 110 in the Shade) singing about the happiness that can be found in "Simple Little Things."

When one attends a great deal of theatre and opera (and watches numerous independent films being screened at film festivals), one's curiosity is often focused on what's new, what's innovative, and what's coming down the pike. Some of us, however, have certain kinds of unfinished business in the back of our minds.

While those traveling on London's Underground have grown accustomed to recorded warnings to "Mind The Gap," some of us like to use our spare time to fill in the gaps in our cultural landscape. Two Bay area productions (each intimately focused on the course of human events in a particular community) allowed me to do so in December.

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Up until this month, the only venue in which I'd seen performances of Avenue Q was San Francisco's 2,203-seat Orpheum Theatre. Not known for its intimacy, the Orpheum frequently hosts national tours of Broadway shows. At both of the performances I attended, the sound design helped immensely to provide a foundation for the jokes in Jeff Whitty's book and the music and lyrics by Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx.

Teresa Attridge, Christopher Morrell, Paige Mayes, and
Hayley Nystrom in a scene from Avenue Q (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

In the following hour-long clip, you can watch the New York cast of Avenue Q (ten years into the show's run) discuss the challenges of auditioning, attending "Puppet Camp," understudying various roles, and learning how to "feel the audience." Many questions about what actually transpires onstage during a performance are answered in the session (which was taped at the New York offices of Google) while revealing some juicy tidbits about puppet design and construction, how a female puppeteer learns which motions will best inform the audience that Trekkie Monster is masturbating, and what it's like to simulate sex between puppets.

Although I missed last season's production of Avenue Q by the New Conservatory Theatre Center in the 131-seat Decker Theatre, I looked forward to seeing the show this month because I was eager to see how it plays in a small venue. Using Kuo-Hao Lo's unit set and Wes Crain's costumes (with puppet direction by Allison Daniel), Jeff Whitty's snarky script lost none of its wit, even if rude puppets have become the norm rather than the deliciously vulgar shock that Avenue Q offered to theatregoers in its earliest days.

Stephanie Temple (Kate Monster) and Teresa Attridge
(Christmas Eve) in Avenue Q (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

When performers are in such close range of the audience, small details which may be missed by those who are seeing the show for the first time can become glaringly apparent to others. I was surprised to see how a small theatre can expose a production's weaknesses rather than showcasing its strengths.

What struck me most was how weak the show's puppeteers were at syncing their voices and body language with their puppets. Although most of the cast from the 2013 production was returning for a repeat engagement, the evening's most appealing work came from Teresa Attridge (whose performance as Christmas Eve was pure theatrical dynamite).

Under Dennis Lickteig's stage direction (with musical direction by Ben Prince and choreography by Rory Davis), the cast featured Zac Schuman as Brian and Paige Mayes as Gary Coleman. The show's puppeteers were Will Giammona as Princeton/Rod, Christopher Morrell as Nicky/Trekkie Monster, Stephanie Temple as Kate/Lucy, and Hayley Nystrom as Mrs. Thistletwat/"Second Hand."

While songs like "It Sucks To Be Me,"  "If You Were Gay," "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist," "The Internet Is For Porn," "There's a Fine, Fine Line," and "Schadenfreude" retain their caustic bite, the show's staying power is surprisingly reinforced by the growing inequality in people's incomes and the sorry fact that, ten years after Avenue Q's Broadway debut, it is just as hard for a newly-graduated English major to get a job.

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It's hard to believe that, in the course of 50+ years of avid theatregoing, I had never gotten around to seeing a stage production of Our Town. Why not? For a good part of my life I was intensely involved in covering the growing regional opera scene in the United States. On numerous other occasions, bad timing and geographic inconvenience made it impossible for me to catch notable productions of Thornton Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece.

Born in 1897 in Madison, Wisconsin, Wilder spent part of his childhood living in Yantai, China with his family (his father was a diplomat for the United States). Upon his return to America in 1912, he attended middle school in Berkeley and graduated from Berkeley High School in 1915 (a period noted for many Americans' loss of innocence that was bracketed by the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912 and the fatal torpedo attack on the RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915).

A decade later,  Gertrude Stein introduced Wilder to Samuel Steward (also known to gay readers as Phil Andros). The two men are alleged to have subsequently enjoyed a brief affair in Zurich. Although Wilder never married, one can sense his outsider's view of family life in 1931's The Long Christmas Dinner (in which nine decades of a family's history unravel around their annual Christmas dinners) and the role of the stage manager/narrator in Our Town.

In the following two clips, Gregory Boyd (artistic director of Houston's famous Alley Theatre) discusses what makes both the playwright and his play such important reference points in the history of the American theatre.

The gaping hole in my cultural landscape was recently filled by the Shotgun Players, whose wondrous production of Our Town takes one's breath away with its beauty, theatrical craft, earnestness, and simplicity. But, as director Susannah Martin stresses, as one crows about Our Town's simplicity, it's easy to overlook the strength of Wilder's script.

Working on Nina Ball's skeletal set (gently enhanced by Heather Basarab's exquisite lighting, Christine Crook's costumes, and Theodore J. H. Hulsker marvelous sound design), Ms. Martin has staged Wilder's play with an ensemble of gifted local actors whose skill at communicating with an audience (while seeming to underplay their roles) may well be one of this production's greatest assets.

Shotgun's production is also strengthened by the intimacy of the 100-seat Ashby Stage as a venue and Ms. Martin's ability to have various characters located among the audience (or running up and down the stairs that bracket the auditorium's main seating area).

Molly Noble and Tim Kniffin as Mrs. Gibbs and her husband, Doc
Gibbs in Thornton Wilder's Our Town (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

With Madeline H. D. Brown appearing as an emotionally neutral Stage Manager, Wilder's play follows the maturation of two families in the fictional town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. The lives of Doc Gibbs (Tim Kniffin); his wife (Molly Noble); their daughter, Rebecca (Karen Offereins), and their son, George (Joshua Schell) become intimately intertwined with those of  Mr. Webb (Don Wood), his wife (Michelle Talgarow), their son, Wally (Eli Wirtschafter) and their daughter, Emily (El Beh).

El Beh as Emily Webb in Our Town (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Other members of the ensemble included Sam Jackson as Mrs. Soames, Christine Macomber as Professor Willard, Wiley Naman Strasser as Howie Newsome, Valerie Fachman as Constable Warren, and Christopher Ward White as Simon Stimson.

Michelle Talgarow as Mrs. Webb in Our Town
(Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs) 

While there are many moments in Wilder's play where the plainspoken beauty of his language (combined with the simplicity of life in the early years of the 20th century) can trick audiences into thinking that they're examining the bare bones of life without any of the complications foisted on us by today's technology, the revelatory third act makes one realize that the time we spend on earth might only be a prelude to the blessed peace that follows. Without a doubt, Thornton Wilder's drama will haunt many an audience long after you they have left the theatre. This is also a play which will be appreciated far more deeply by people who have lived longer lives.

Madelnie H.D. Brown as the Stage Manager in
Thornton Wilder's Our Town (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs) 

Performances of the Shotgun Players production of Our Town continue at the Ashby Stage through January 25 (click here to order tickets). It's a magnificent experience.

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