Friday, September 4, 2015

Journey To The Center of Self Worth

Does dissatisfaction lead to introspection?  Does introspection lead to dissatisfaction? Neither one of these issues is guaranteed to trigger the other (this ain't no "Which came first? The chicken or the egg?' kind of hypothetical).

The inquisitive mind can venture into dangerous places -- or not. Consider this classic exchange between Sir Reginald Bunthorne and the village milkmaid from Gilbert & Sullivan's 1881 operetta entitled Patience; or, Bunthorne's Bride.
Bunthorne:  Tell me, girl, do you ever yearn?

Patience:  I earn my living.
In August, Mina Morita (the new artistic director of San Francisco's Crowded Fire Theater) offered some poignant perspectives on how embracing risk brings meaning to our lives.

For cynics like Margo Channing (who detest cheap sentiment), this innocent expression of romantic yearning from 1986's animated feature, An American Tail, might be enough to trigger their gag reflex.

On rare occasions, an indistinct craving may be brought into clearer focus through the power of suggestion. Consider what happens to Eddie Redmayne's character in The Danish Girl.

With exquisite cinematography by Kristin Fieldhouse and an impressive musical score by Robert Allaire, Erin Li's beautifully crafted science fiction short, Kepler X-47, probes the inner torment of a woman trapped in a human zoo on a distant planet.

If one strips away the refrain from the lyrics to  Lady Gaga's 2011 megahit, Bad Romance, one finds a surprisingly brutal assessment of the toxic ingredients contributing to a dysfunctional relationship.
"I want your ugly
I want your disease
I want your everything
As long as it's free
I want your love.

I want your drama
The touch of your hand
I want your leather-studded kiss in the sand
I want your love.

I want your love and all your lover's revenge
You and me could write a bad romance.

I want your horror
I want your design
‘Cause you're a criminal
As long as you're mine
I want your love."
The anguish and desperation reflected in those lyrics hold a startling relevance to two productions currently before Bay area audiences. Each drama revolves around tortured souls who feel trapped in a bad romance.

* * * * * * * * *
A tale well told is often worth retelling; sometimes in its original form and sometimes with upgrades and embellishments. One of the most popular legends from the Ancient Greeks is the tale of Orpheus, the talented musician whose wife (Eurydice) was attacked by a satyr, bitten on her heel by a viper, and died at an early age. In a brave effort to bring her back to life, Orpheus traveled to the underworld, where his music so entranced Hades and Persephone that they allowed him to return to Earth with Eurydice.

There was one caveat, however.  Orpheus was instructed to walk in front of Eurydice and never look back until they had both returned to the upper world. If he failed to precisely follow these instructions, Eurydice would be lost to him forever. Needless to say, things did not go well.

Musical adaptations of the Orpheus legend have included Monteverdi's 1607 opera (L'Orfeo), Gluck's 1762 opera, (Orfeo ed Euridice), Stravinsky's 1948 ballet (Orpheus), Harrison Birtwistle's 1986 opera, The Mask of Orpheus, and, of course, Offenbach's 1858 operetta entitled Orpheus in the Underworld.

The Shotgun Players is currently presenting Sarah Ruhl's 2003 adaptation, Eurydice (which aims to tell the story through the eyes of Eurydice, rather than Orpheus).

As part of her re-imagining of the Orpheus legend, Ruhl has added the character of Eurydice's (deceased) father, who sends a message to his daughter on the day she is to marry Orpheus. Ruhl has also shifted the dynamic so that, instead of Orpheus turning back to look at Eurydice because of his own weakness, he turns back when (in a moment of insecurity) she cries out his name. A Bay area regular, director-choreographer Erika Chong Shuch notes that:
"I am a performance maker that thrives in highly collaborative settings. I love creating messy rehearsal environments where there are way too many ideas getting thrown against a wall.  I love processes that allow for a lot of failure. When I read Eurydice, I feel the generosity and openness of the work. Sarah Ruhl has written something that asks for collaborators, and demands that we bring all of our tricks to the table. The work asks us to flex our imaginations in profound and difficult ways; to imagine the world she introduces through our own lenses, experiences and sensibilities.  Eurydice asks us to create a distinct world for the characters, and the rules of the world are limitless. With this freedom, comes terror. And opportunity. And the hope that we create a home for the story to be told with complexity and power. I don't know how to say this ... dreaming into this play makes me feel like the imaginations of all the collaborators need to be wildly nimble. Wildly artful. Free."

A confused Eurydice (Megan Trout) asks her father (James Carpenter)
to take her to her hotel room in Eurydice (Photo by: Pak Han)

Upon entering the theatre, one is immediately impressed by Sean Riley's heavily industrial set design, which includes a barrier constructed of carefully balanced metal buckets. As the play begins, Orpheus (Kenny Toll) and Eurydice (Megan Trout) are blissfully, athletically, and enthusiastically engaged in the early stages of an exciting, exuberant, and exhilarating relationship.

Kenny Toll and Megan Trout in Eurydice (Photo by: Pak Han)

By stressing Orpheus's role as a songwriter (and not just a singer), Ruhl tries to describe the challenges of being in love with an artist. In the script, Eurydice states:
"This is what it is to love an artist. The moon is always rising above your home. The houses of your neighbors look dull and lacking in moonlight. But he is always going away from you. Inside his head there is always something more beautiful." 
Megan Trout and Kenny Toll in Eurydice (Photo by : Pak Han)

However, as she prepares to wed her beloved Orpheus, the appearance of Nils Frykdahl (who composed the production's original score) as a "Nasty Interesting Man" proves as powerfully destructive as the serpent's temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. His character succeeds in luring Eurydice away from the wedding ceremony on the pretext of having a letter for her from her deceased father.

Shotgun's production benefits immensely from Christine Crook's costumes and the powerful sound design by Matt Stines. The backup trio of clownish denizens in the underworld includes Jeannine Anderson as Big Stone, Beth Wilmurt as Little Stone, and Peter Griggs as Loud Stone.

Peter Griggs, James Carpenter, Jeannine Anderson, and
Beth Wilmurt in a scene from Eurydice (Photo by: Pak Han)

Forced to choose between her husband and the memory of her father, Eurydice opts for a letter from Daddy. When she arrives in the underworld, she undergoes a process whereby memories are slowly but steadily erased from her brain. At one point, she describes the process of dying with the words "I was not lonely/only alone with myself/begging myself not to leave my own body... How do you say goodbye to yourself?"

Megan Trout and James Carpenter in Eurydice (Photo by: Pak Han)

The Greeks may not have had words to describe dementia, but Ruhl's script hints strongly at the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

Megan Trout stars in Eurydice (Photo by : Pak Han)

While Shotgun's vivid and vital production of Eurydice leans heavily toward dance theatre, there is no doubt that the strongest performances come from the ever-amazing Megan Trout as Eurydice and veteran actor James Carpenter as her father. Performances of Eurydice continue through October 4 at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley (click here to order tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
A leopard may find it difficult to change its spots, but a critic always has the option of changing his mind. When Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical, The Phantom of the Opera, first opened at Her Majesty's Theatre in London on October 9, 1986, Harold Prince's opulent production (with sets and costumes designed by Maria Björnson) set a new standard in the branding of a musical. The show's iconic logo became a theatrical classic, establishing Phantom as a long-lasting, internationally-recognizable brand.

The original poster art for Phantom of the Opera

Poster art for the new production of Phantom of the Opera

In the three decades since its premiere, productions of Phantom have entertained more than 130 million people around the world while generating global revenues of more than $5.6 billion. As new productions settled in for long runs at theaters in cultural capitals like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Toronto, audiences came to expect a high level of consistency in production values (almost on a par with some of their favorite rides in Disneyland).

Jacquelynne Fontaine appears as the resident prima donna,
Carlotta Giudicelli, in The Phantom of the Opera 
(Photo by: Matthew Murphy)

There's a reason for those high expectations. In addition to becoming the longest running show in Broadway history, Wikipedia notes that:
"Phantom has been translated into several languages and produced in over 28 countries on six continents. With only the exception of Estonia, Hungary, Poland, New Zealand, and the 25th Anniversary UK and US Tours, these productions have all been clones using the original staging, direction, sets and costume concepts."
Katie Travis and Chris Mann in a scene from
The Phantom of the Opera (Photo by: Matthew Murphy) 

Over the years, my experiences with Lloyd Webber's musical have been less than enthralling. As someone who attended numerous operatic performances, I was less than impressed with the heavy amplification, Charles Hart's insipid lyrics, ;and performers who often seemed to have the emotional involvement of audio animatronics. Perhaps the most distressing factor was how eagerly fans embraced Lloyd Webber's pounding, pseudo-operatic score as "real opera."

While many audiences kvelled and felt verklempt over Björnson's sumptuous sets and costumes, they seemed fairly routine to anyone with a solid exposure to the standard operatic repertoire. Although there was no denying the giddy and ominous theatricality of the first act finale, I remained underwhelmed, gravitating more toward works by Broadway composers like Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne, Cy Coleman, and Jerry Herman than Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Christine Daaé (Katie Travis) sees The Phantom (Chris Mann)
magically appear in her dressing room mirror in 
The Phantom of the Opera (Photo by: Matthew Murphy)

When Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh first began to envision a new production of their biggest moneymaker, one of the key challenges was finding a way to cut down on the labor costs and time required to load a touring version of the show's scenery in and out of theatres. Following Björnson's death on December 13, 2002, a strategic decision was made to keep her highly acclaimed costumes in the new production but make some major changes to the scenic elements. As set designer Paul Brown explains:
"We wanted to crack open the wall to create these different layers of reality and imagination. We wanted to make the cylinder move very quickly, with twists and turns, but with the twisted imagination of the Phantom of the Opera. In teaming with Cameron Mackintosh and everyone who's lived with 36 years of Phantom, I was able to think about it quite differently.  My ignorance served me well."
The Phantom (Chris Mann) stalks the roof of the Opera Populaire
in a scene from The Phantom of the Opera 
(Photo by: Matthew Murphy)
"Like all of these things, some decisions have to be financial.  We had to do another version that could get out to more people. The time between getting into and out of the house was quite extreme. On this version, it's a very big production but one that's designed to tour. It's now a much quicker turnaround (which was part of the challenge). You finish off on a Saturday and, by the middle of the next week, it's up and playing again."
Ubaldo Piangi (Frank Viveros) stars in an operatic 
version of Hannibal in a scene from 
The Phantom of the Opera (Photo by: Matthew Murphy)

In March of 2012, a 25th anniversary production of The Phantom of the Opera directed by Laurence Connor began touring theaters in the United Kingdom and Ireland. When the North American tour of this re-imagined production touched down at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco, I was surprised at how much the show seemed to have improved.

Paul Brown's set design for the "Hannibal" scene in the 25th
anniversary production of The Phantom of the Opera

Paul Brown's set design for the "Masquerade" scene in the 25th
anniversary production of The Phantom of the Opera

Paul Brown's set design for the "Il Muto" scene in the 25th
anniversary production of The Phantom of the Opera

Paul Brown's set design for the "Don Juan Triumphant" scene
in the 25th anniversary production of The Phantom of the Opera

A tech rehearsal showing Paul Brown's cylindrical
scenic elements for The Phantom of the Opera

Paul Brown's scenery (which includes segments of a giant cylinder that can be moved into different positions) brought a much more cinematic feel to the performance. As Brown explains:
"There's a make-believe world that is in contrast to a dirtier backstage. You see this conflict of sawdust against painted gloss and gilded frames. The Phantom is a scavenger who has picked off bits of scenery for underneath the opera house. We wanted something grittier and dirtier; more 'real world' in contrast to the magic of the theater, that painted cloth of the proscenium. The Phantom's lair now has a wooded floor instead of a shiny black one."

The Phantom (Chris Mann) lures Christine Daaé (Katie Travis)
to his subterranean lair in The Phantom of the Opera
(Photo by: Matthew Murphy)

Certain parts of this new production struck me as major improvements over the original.
  • Designed for long runs, the original productions often faced site specific challenges (especially for the catwalk near the top of each theatre's proscenium arch built to accommodate surprise appearances by the Phantom).
  • In the nearly three decades since the show's world premiere, the technology for handling pyrotechnics and other special effects had improved by leaps and bounds.
  • The giant staircase which dominated Act II's "Masquerade" production number is now gone, eliminating some spectacle but tightening the stage action.
The Phantom makes a surprise appearance during Act II's
"Masquerade" number in The Phantom of the Opera
(Photo by: Matthew Murphy)

While Paule Constable's lighting designs and Scott Ambler's choreography go a long way toward enhancing the production values, two of the biggest improvements are due to Mick Potter's sound design and Dale Rieling's musical direction. For once, the audience was not oppressed by the kind of thunderous amplification which results in sound distortion. To my astonishment, there also seemed to be an increased focus on musical phrasing and nuance.

Storm Lineberger portrays Christine Daaé 's lover,  Raoul,
in The Phantom of the Opera (Photo by: Matthew Murphy)

This time around I was much more satisfied with the production from a musical standpoint. Chris Mann and Katie Travis delivered solid portrayals of The Phantom and Christine Daaé, with Storm Lineberger as an impassioned Raoul and Jacquelyne Fontaine having herself a rollicking good time with Carlotta's coloratura challenges. Frank Viveros fulfilled the stereotype of an Italian tenor as Ubaldo Piangi, with Anne Kanengeiser appearing as an appropriately stern Mme Giry.

As the new owners of the Opéra Populaire, David Foley, Jr. (Monsieur Firmin) and Edward Staudenmeyer (Monsieur André ) enjoyed some nice moments while Morgan Cowling shone in the supporting role of Meg Giry.

Morgan Cowling as Meg Giry in The Phantom of the Opera
(Photo by: Matthew Murphy)

Performances of The Phantom of the Opera continue through October 4 at the Orpheum Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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