Monday, September 21, 2015

Aspects of Love

At some point in your life, you've probably tried to end a phone conversation by saying "I love you" only to hear the voice on the other end of the line reply "I love you more." How people express their love for one another has become a constant source of inspiration for novelists, playwrights, songwriters, and poets. Consider the sentiments expressed in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's famous sonnet.
"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death."
For many people love begins impetuously, sparking an infatuation that deepens and grows over time. Consider these two songs: one written by George & Ira Gershwin for 1938's The Goldwyn Follies and the other written by Jerry Herman for 1964's Hello, Dolly!

For some, love is a solemn commitment based on a sense of joy and devotion "to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part." However, that doesn't mean that people can't occasionally mock the way they show their love for each other.

After Elvis Presley's screen debut in 1956's Love Me Tender, many a New Yorker took joy in warbling "Love me tender, love me fat, love me at the Automat." And who can't appreciate Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics for this feisty duet from 1943's Oklahoma!

As the years roll by and a relationship is tested, disturbing questions often come to mind.  Consider these two songs: one written by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill for 1964's Funny Girl and the other written by The Beatles in 1967 for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Romance is all well and good  as a source of artistic fodder. But the love of a father or mother for their children is presumed to be unconditional. What happens when a parent receives a stunning challenge regarding their child or delivers a startling ultimatum to their offspring? Complications quickly ensue.

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The Marin Theatre Company opened its 2015-2016 season with the West Coast premiere of Sarah Ruhl's fascinating 2014 play entitled The Oldest Boy. Beautifully directed by Jessica Thebus, it tells the tale of an interracial couple (a white mother played by Christine Albright and a Tibetan-American father played by Kurt Uy) who are visited by a Tibetan monk (Wayne Lee) and lama (Jinn S. Kim) who arrive with a very specific agenda.

A visiting monk (Wayne Lee) takes a selfie with a lama (Jinn S. Kim)
and Tenzin in The Oldest Boy (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The mother (who has been at home doing household chores while taking care of her three-year-old son) has no knowledge of the Tibetan custom of tulku. At first she is horrified by the prospect of being separated from her child and surprised by her husband's muted reaction to the visiting lama's request.

Ruhl learned about the practice from her housekeeper, who told her of two Tibetans she knew who had closed their restaurant and moved to Tibet when informed that their son was one of the chosen few. As Ruhl became more fascinated by Tibet's cultural traditions, she struggled to figure out how she could write a play about an American mother (probably Caucasian) who was asked to give up her son so that he could be raised in a monastery on the other side of the world. As the playwright explains:
"Tibetan Buddhists believe that while all of us are reborn, high spiritual masters are reincarnated (meaning they get to choose their new life and often choose a context that will be most fruitful to them in continuing their life’s work). I was first introduced to the concept of the tulku system (by which the student searches for the reincarnation of his former teacher) in the beautiful documentary Unmistaken Child. I was so moved by the idea that a student could find a teacher again; that the student becomes the teacher and the teacher becomes the student, lifetime after lifetime. I have been very lucky in my own life to have had extraordinary teachers. I was comforted by the idea that I might have known them before and might know them again.

When considering writing a play about a child who was a reincarnated spiritual master, I wondered how I would cast that role with a three-year-old who could memorize lines, project, and evince the spiritual authority of a 70-year-old lama. This seemed an almost impossible task. Since three year olds aren’t very reliable, I decided to use a puppet. The metaphor of the puppet and the puppeteer is meant to connect the child, or body, with the older spirit that animates the child. I’ve always wanted to work with puppets and I felt that the puppet would be the most clear way to see the child and the child’s previous life at the same time."
Tenzin interacts with his father Kurt Uy() and mother (Christine
Albright) in a scene from The Oldest Boy(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Ruhl doesn't hesitate to credit puppet maker Eric Bass, whose essay entitled “The Myths of Puppet Theater” helped her to understand how to present her story onstage. As Bass explains;
“There are two myths about puppet theater that need to be exploded. The first of them is the myth that the puppeteer controls the puppet. This myth is, of course, supported by numerous catch phrases in our language and culture (He played him like a puppet. Puppet government). All suggest that the puppeteer makes the puppet do whatever he or she wants. Although some puppeteers do try to impose their will on the objects of their art, most know that this is a disservice to both the art and the object. Our job, our art, is to bring the puppet to life. To impose control over the object is, in both spirit and practice, the opposite of this.

As puppeteers it is, surprisingly, not our job to impose our intent on the puppet. It is our job to discover what the puppet can do and what it seems to want to do. It has propensities. We want to find out what they are and support them. We are, in this sense, less like tyrants and more like nurses to these objects. They seem to have destinies. We want to help them arrive at those destinies. It requires from us a generosity. If we try to dominate them, we will take from them the life we are trying to give them.”

While being educated in a monastery, Tenzin speaks with his
mother (Christine Albright) in a scene from The Oldest Boy 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The mechanics of making the three-year-old Tenzin believable to the audience are accomplished through the work of two puppeteers: Melvign Badiola and Jed Parsario (guided by Jesse Mooney-Bullock) working in conjunction with a male actor -- Tsering Dorjee (Bawa) -- who provides the puppet's voice. With the help of dialect coach Lynn Soffer, the result is an exquisite adventure in storytelling. Equally impressive is Act II's reindeer dance (performed by Jed Parsario during Tenzin's enthronement ritual).

Jed Parsario as the Deer Dancer in The Oldest Boy
(Photo by: Ed Smith)

Working on sets designed by Collette Pollard (with costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt), the bulk of the narrative falls on the shoulders of Christine Albright who, as Tenzin's mother, struggles to come to terms with why she should give her child up to be raised in a monastery (and why getting pregnant and giving birth to a girl will ensure that her next child cannot be taken away from her).

As she gropes her way to a better understanding of reincarnation (as seen through the eyes of Tibetan Buddhists), Albright travels a tremendous emotional, psychological, and spiritual distance at the same time that her husband regresses, discovering that he's not so keen on giving up his son after all.

The lama (Jinn S. Kim) comforts Tenzin's mother (Christine
Albright) in a scene from The Oldest Boy (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

As in previous plays by Ruhl that have been seen on Bay area stages (2003's Late: A Cowboy Song and Eurydice, 2004's The Clean House, 2007's Dead Man's Cell Phone, 2009's In The Next Room: or, The Vibrator Play, and 2012's Dear Elizabeth), The Oldest Boy builds to a remarkable spiritual moment which, even for Western audiences who don't believe in reincarnation, can send shivers up and down one's spine.

While the journey may follow a long and winding path, the beautiful performances by Jinn S. Kim and Christine Albright anchor Ruhl's play in a most humane fashion. I also found myself riveted while watching the intense concentration of puppeteer Jed Parsario (whose eyes often seemed to be on fire).

Performances of The Oldest Boy continue at the Marin Theatre Company through October 11 (click here to order tickets).

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One of the glories of Shakespeare's plays is their resilience. Some have proven remarkably adaptable to directorial gimmicks while managing to find new relevance for new audiences in new generations. The Pearl Theatre in New York recently staged a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream which was greeted with the following rapturous words from Ben Brantley (the chief theatre critic for The New York Times):
"Everybody’s a Bottom in Eric Tucker’s riotous production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which a cast of five divides and multiplies like a troupe of stage-struck amoebas. Bottom is portrayed most zealously and multifariously by Jason O’Connell. But it seems clear that all the performers here have been infected by Bottom’s bottomless passion to take on any role that might be on offer, and to turn every thought and impulse into theatrical action. In their hands, Shakespeare’s tale of love lost and found in an enchanted forest becomes a gleeful paean to the joys of losing and finding yourself through acting."
Among the attractions at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival was Taiwanese actor Wu Hsing-kuo's one-man version of King Lear.

In August, a production of King Lear opened at the Courtyard Theatre in London that featured a cast of one man and nine sheep.

The California Shakespeare Theater is ending its 2015 season with a new production of King Lear directed by Amanda Dehnert. It's a curious production concept in which Melissa Torchia's costumes are primarily in black and white (until a character is smeared with blood). Although Joshua Horvath's excellent sound design brings Lear out onto the heath in the midst of a raging thunderstorm, I was most taken by Daniel Ostling's unit set, a brilliant mixture of chain-link fencing and smoked glass panels that comes apart very much in the style of a Japanese box puzzle).

Anthony Heald as King Lear (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

King Lear's tragedy is sparked by a vain old man's foolish request for each of his daughters to tell him how much they love him so he can decide how to divide his kingdom. After he has banished his youngest (and truest) daughter from England, his oldest daughters -- Goneril (Arwen Anderson) and Regan (El Beh) -- waste no time trivializing his importance, downgrading his  retinue, and stripping their father of his royal stature. Indeed, one of the most famous quotes from the play is the sadly disillusioned King's comment "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!"

El Beh (Regan) and Arwen Anderson (Goneril) in a scene
from Shakespeare's King Lear (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In her program note, Calshakes's resident dramaturg Philippa Kelly writes:
"Given that Lear reveals himself so early on as self-centered and violent -- not to mention badly in need of some gender-awareness training -- what is it that has continued to draw audiences, for 400-plus years, into the suffering and the psyche of such a character? I think the key lies in empathy -- what the OED defines as 'the power of projecting one's personality into, and so fully understanding, the object of contemplation.' Empathy is the quality that can open up the play as freshly today as in 1605, when it would have shocked the life out of audiences who believed utterly in the rightful predominance of God and the monarchy. Empathy, in other words, is what can make an old, entitled white king somehow a mirror for men, women, even teenagers, of many classes and races through ever-changing times and places."
Kjerstine Rose Anderson as the Fool in
Shakespeare's King Lear (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

In Dehnert's production, certain standard ideas about Shakespeare's tragedy have been turned upside down and inside out. The critical character of the Fool has been transformed from a man into a woman (who, although frequently referred to as "boy" remains very much a cisgender woman). Second is the fact that the Fool is played by the same actress (Kjerstine Rose Anderson) who portrays his King's youngest (and least selfish) daughter, Cordelia.

Cordelia (Kjerstine Rose Anderson) and her father (Anthony Heald)
in a scene from Shakespeare's King Lear (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The tragedy of King Lear has never lacked for deception, disillusionment, and death. As Goneril, Arwen Anderson acted as a malevolent ice queen, intent on scheming to murder her husband, the Duke of Albany (Sam Misner) with the help of the bastard Edmund (Dan Clegg) and manipulating her servant, Oswald (Patrick Alparone) to stir up trouble. As Regan (the equally vicious middle sister), El Beh was forcefully clad in leather befitting a dominatrix (an appropriate costume for stabbing your husband to death and mercilessly ripping out an old man's eye).

Anthony Heald, Arwen Anderson, and El Beh in a scene
from Shakespeare's King Lear (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Craig Marker doubled as Regan's husband, the Duke of Cornwall, and a doctor in Cordelia's camp, with Patrick Alparone doing a stunning job as both the King of France (who marries the shamed Cordelia) and Oswald (Goneril's servant). In lesser roles, Aldo Billingslea was an extremely touching Earl of Kent, Charles Shaw Robinson a sadly misguided Gloucester, and Rafael Jordan portrayed Gloucester's legitimate son, Edgar.

Anthony Heald as King Lear (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

The real question however, is how well the actor portraying Lear succeeds in capturing the  tragedy of a foolish old man. Dehnert's direction began with Lear's appearance as a doting father, merrily enjoying his power games with "Daddy's little girls" until one of them gives him an answer he furiously rejects. From that point onward, Lear descends with increasing rapidity into anger, bitterness, and madness, becoming an object worthy of pity.

While 71-year-old Anthony Heald gave a stirring and highly energetic performance as Lear, the full weight of his downfall was diminished by Dehnert's staging of the final scene (in which the play seemed to implode as the result of a poorly-conceived directorial choice in which the dead characters silently and briefly came back to life). This unfortunate gimmick sapped the dramatic strength from the play's final moments.

Anthony Heald as King Lear (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

It's too bad no production photos are available of Patrick Alparone's ridiculous Oswald or Dan Clegg's finely drawn Edmund -- whose time onstage easily outshone Lear's eldest daughters. Performances of King Lear continue through October 11 at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda (click here for tickets).

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