Monday, November 16, 2015

So Little Time, So Many Possibilities

A brilliant idea. That's what most creatives crave. For some, great ideas come naturally. For others, they arrive on a cloud of fortuitous timing, often resting on a foundation of intuition and introspection. Once a brilliant idea is within an artist's grasp, the next question is what to do with it.
  • Should a creative person take it in one direction? Two directions? Three or four or more?
  • Should an artist present a brilliant idea to trusted collaborators who can join in on bringing it to fruition?
  • Or should an individual recognize that a seemingly brilliant idea might be more than s/he can handle?
These are important questions to ask. While many in the arts stress that one learns the most through one's failures, two recent artistic mishaps drew lots of attention.

Produced by the African Community Theatre under Kent State University's Department of Pan-African Studies, a recent production of The Mountaintop (a controversial play by Katori Hall) featured two actors alternating in the role of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.. One actor was African-American, the other was white. The man who cast and directed the production (Michael Oatman) is also a black playwright. He explained his reason for casting Dr. King with black and white actors as follows:
“I wanted to really explore issues of ownership and authenticity. Can a prominent American be performed by another American or does it have to be an African-American who portrays him? “Can a fellow American also have the same level of ownership or some ownership with King’s legend? I wasn’t sure of the answer, but I wanted to ask that question.”
Upon learning about Oatman’s casting decision, Hall had the play’s licensing agreement amended to state that  “Both characters are intended to be played by actors who are African-American or Black. Any other casting choice requires the prior approval of the author.” In her public comments, she explained that:
“The casting of a white King is committing yet another erasure of the black body. Sure, it might be in the world of pretend, but it is disrespectful nonetheless, especially to a community that has rare moments of witnessing itself, both creatively and literally, in the world. With a playwright’s intention being dangerously distorted, Oatman’s experiment proved to be a self-serving and disrespectful directing exercise for a paying audience.”

Several weeks later, a student production of Lloyd Suh's play, Jesus in India (which received its world premiere from San Francisco's Magic Theatre in 2012) was abruptly canceled when the playwright vehemently objected to the casting of three Indian characters named Gopal, Sushil, and Mahari with two white actors and one non-Asian mixed-race actor.

Faced with insufficient time for the director to recast the show and rehearse new actors, Suh instructed his literary agent to withdraw the licensing rights from Clarion University of Pennsylvania's theatre department. In his response to an email from Professor Marilouise Michel (who had been directing the production), Suh minced no words in explaining how he felt about the situation.
“It is incumbent upon me, professionally, personally and morally, to distance myself from this production, and condemn the way it has been cast. I have severe objections to your use of Caucasian actors in roles clearly written for South Asian actors, and consider this an absolutely unacceptable distortion of the play. I consider your assertion that the ethnicity of the characters are not 'specified for purposes of the plot/story/theme' outrageous. The play is called Jesus in India. India is not irrelevant, and I take great issue with the insinuation that you (not the author) are entitled to decide whether the ethnicity of a character is worthy of consideration.

You should know that what you are doing is connected to a very painful history of egregious misrepresentation and invisibility, and is incredibly hurtful. Hurtful to a community for whom opportunity and visibility is critical, and also extremely hurtful to me personally as a flippant denial of Asian heritage as a relevant and valid component of one's humanity. It hurts me to my core. I couldn’t stop myself from crying when I saw the photos and realized what was happening. It is embarrassing, humiliating, and demoralizing to be so casually disregarded.”

As Melissa Hillman wrote on her excellent Bitter Gertrude blog:
"Without even getting into the idea that white people should be able to play people of color whenever they want, even against a playwright's express wishes, you should know that playwrights, agents, and publishers pull the rights for ALL SORTS of reasons. Beckett's estate won't allow women to be cast in Waiting for Godot. MTI shut down a production of Anything Goes because they wanted to use a drag queen Reno Sweeney. MTI shut down a production of Godspell -- with a C&D!!--because the company changed the lyrics. Neil Simon refuses the rights to high schools that want to edit out his swear words. Without a finalized contract, Clarion had exactly zero rights here. Lloyd owns his play. If he wants to yank the rights unless every production puts a full-page elegy to Mr. Jingles the Sock Monkey in each program, he has that right. He sets the rules, just as you set the rules for who uses your property."
Bottom line: What might have seemed like inspired or reasonable casting choices by two stage directors proved to be less than brilliant ideas.  In an article published on the BBC News website entitled Viewpoint: How Creativity Is Helped By Failure, Pixar's president, Ed Catmull, makes no bones about the fact that:
"Early on, all of our movies suck. That's a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions of our films really are. I'm not trying to be modest or self-effacing by saying this. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them go from suck to non-suck. We are true believers in the iterative process -- reworking, reworking, and reworking again until a flawed story finds its through line or a hollow character finds its soul."
Two recent dramas performed on San Francisco stages helped to demonstrate what happens when a playwright embarks on an obviously complicated path in order to tell a story.
  • Can an artistic path become too daunting for a talented creative team?
  • Is there a good reason this road has been less traveled?
  • When trying to wrestle with a self-concocted artistic challenge, should a playwright give more consideration to the law of diminishing returns?
* * * * * * * * *
As much as I enjoy Stuart Bousel's annual SFOlympians Festival, scheduling conflicts meant that this fall I was only able to attend one performance. I was, however, delighted to see clips of Allison Page performing some of her "Waterlogues."

In addition to being a gifted comedy writer and Co-Creative Director of Killing My Lobster, Page recently demonstrated her strength as a dramatist with the premiere of Hilarity during 2015's DIVAfest. Directed by Adam Sussman, her one-act play, Jasons, debuted at this year's SFOlympians Festival in a semi-staged reading down at the EXIT Theatre. In order to understand the Greek mythology which inspired Page's play, it's best to read Stuart Bousel's crib notes:
"Jason was the son of Aeson, making his uncle Pelias (something that would prove to significantly complicate his life). Pelias sent Jason on a quest to find the Golden Fleece (something that would result in Jason rightfully taking his place on the throne of Iolcus in Thessaly, which turned out to be a bigger endeavor than he could have predicted). Apart from that gargantuan undertaking, he’s most famous as the husband of Medea, who herself was instrumental in Jason’s acquiring the Golden Fleece. While on the isle of Lemnos he managed to forget Medea for enough time that he fathered twins with Hypsipyle, but it was his engagement to Creusa that put Medea over the edge and caused her to take drastic, disastrous action."
As the evening begins, the cast takes to the stage with head shots of famous actors named Jason hanging from their necks. As Jason Alexander (Matthew Weinberg) begins the play, he explains with Seinfeldian inflections and gestures reminiscent of George Costanza that, although these actors bear one of the few names from Greek mythology that parents still bestow on their children, his colleagues are all struggling to retain relevance in today's society. Bousel explains this gimmick as follows:
"Jasons tells the story of mythological Jason by way of 20 real, famous Jasons. From Bateman to Robards to Schwartzman, Allison Page seeks to explore one hero’s journey through his non-heroic namesakes, forcing them to play parts in mythological Jason’s journey to recover the Golden Fleece. An actor playing Matt Damon as Jason Bourne as Jason’s mother? Yes. An actor playing Jason Momoa from Game of Thrones as Chiron the centaur? Definitely. Jason Voorhees cutting people’s heads off? TOTALLY NECESSARY. Not every person is a hero in their own story, and not every Jason has what it takes to get what they want. It’s time for Jasons to stop being polite, and start getting real. And it might also be time for Jason Mraz to get his head lopped off."
Poster art for Jason by Ashley Kea Ramos

Page's concept gave some of her actors wonderful comedic moments.
The evening came to a close with a beautiful speech delivered by Molly Benson as Jason Voorhees. And yet, after nearly two hours of Page's Jasonpalooza (during which the audience was frequently convulsed with laughter), I found myself hungering for less.

Part of the problem with Jasons is that a great deal of Page's laugh lines can be lost on anyone who has not been closely following the careers of the many Jasons appearing onstage (or has been unable to keep track with who's who at any given moment during her play). Although this particular problem may be generational, the critical weakness of Page's play is that it needs to be cut by about 20 minutes in order to become a tighter show with stronger impact.

Playwright Allison Page

Allison Page has always impressed me with her formidable talent (as both a playwright and performer). While Jasons reaffirms her skill as a comedy writer, it shows that, unlike Mae West's credo that "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful," sometimes too much of a good thing can simply be too much.

* * * * * * * * *
What seems like an unimaginably ambitious project is often based on a simple, universal premise. At numerous points in our lives we must decide whether to choose one path or another. Although we may subsequently end up wondering what might have happened had we chosen the alternate path, we rarely have a chance to explore both possibilities simultaneously without being labeled as schizophrenic.

After winning three Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for their groundbreaking musical Next To Normal (about a suburban mother struggling with bipolar disorder), composer Tom Kitt and playwright/lyricist Brian Yorkey found themselves working on a new show with a concept even more challenging than trying to show the impact mental illness can have on a family.  Their goal was to write a musical whose 38-year-old protagonist (Elizabeth) returns to New York City after a bitter divorce. Hoping for a fresh start, she meets up with her old friends Kate (LaChanze) and Lucas (Anthony Rapp) in Madison Square Park.

With her two friends pulling her in opposite directions, Elizabeth is confronted with two tempting choices that could lead her toward wildly different personal and professional possibilities. As a result, the story of If/Then is more complex than most comic operas by Gilbert & Sullivan.

Idina Menzel stars in If/Then (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

In one subplot, urban planner Liz (Idina Menzel) reunites with a former professional colleague named Stephen (Daren A. Herbert), meets and marries an Army doctor named Josh (James Snyder) who has recently returned home from his second tour of duty in the Middle East, and has two children with him. After Josh introduces his best friend, David (Marc Delacruz) to Liz's best friend, the bisexual Lucas, the two men fall in love and adopt a son. Meanwhile, Kate (an African American lesbian who works as a kindergarten teacher) falls in love and marries Anne (Janine DiVita), but their marriage falls apart when Anne is unfaithful. After Josh is killed while on duty overseas and Liz is left to raise two children on her own, Stephen offers her a job working with him on a major urban development project.

Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp in a scene from If/Then
(Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

In the other subplot, Beth (Idina Menzel) reunites with Stephen the morning after she has been arrested with her friend Lucas (a community organizer) at a protest against an urban development project. Beth helps Lucas find a publisher for his book and, as she starts working with her old friend Stephen (who is married), begins to feel the flames of a former flirtation coming back to life. When Stephen brings some documents to her apartment at night and attempts to kiss her, Beth realizes that she has no choice but to quit her job. After sleeping with Lucas, she becomes pregnant and decides to have an abortion without informing him of her plans.

Deeply hurt by what she has done, Lucas won't talk to Beth for two years until she calls him after having survived her flight's emergency landing. After Stephen gets a divorce, he asks Beth to come work with him again, but she decides to run for political office instead. Returning to Madison Square Park to meet Kate and Lucas for coffee, she encounters Josh (who has just finished serving his third term of duty in the Middle East). He asks her for a coffee date and she accepts.

Following the Broadway production of If/Then, when the musical's creative team had a chance to look back on the path which led them (and their musical) to success, they were able to pinpoint specific moments of serendipity when a critical decision moved them one step closer to achieving their goal.

Because there are so many moments in which If/Then switches from Liz's path to Beth's and back again, it often becomes difficult to remember which subplot is unraveling at any particular moment. With Menzel dressed largely in shades of black, white, and grey (and using a pair of black-rimmed glasses to signify whether she is Liz or Beth at any given moment), one wonders if something as simple as using glasses with red frames might have helped the audience to follow the action more easily.

However, the characters in If/Then are contemporary New Yorkers who could easily shock the pants off more conservative Midwesterners. In addition to two same-sex couples (one male, one female), Beth's decision to have an abortion is not the least bit controversial. Instead, it is simply portrayed as a mature adult taking control of her life and doing what she considers to be best for her future.

When the national tour of If/Then touched down at the Orpheum Theatre, there were some changes in the physical production. The angled mirror which hung above the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre in the Broadway production had been replaced with lots of video that gave the audience a much more solid sense of daily life in New York. Mark Wendland's fluid set design (combined with Emily Rebholz's costumes, Kenneth Posner's lighting, and the projections designed by Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully) gave the show a near-cinematic flow.

With both leads possessing powerful voices, Tom Kitt's music filled the Orpheum Theatre with songs of lust and love (I was particularly impressed with Snyder's full-throated tenor). Among the show's strongest numbers are "It's A Sign," "What the Fuck?" "No More Wasted Time," "Hey Kid," "You Learn to Live Without," and "Always Starting Over."

Carefully meshing all the storytelling elements together is director Michael Greif, who first worked with Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp two decades ago in the original Broadway production of Rent (1996). There can be no doubt that the major box office draw for If/Then has been its star, Idina Menzel, who may be Broadway's first major musical comedy star with a big voice and a cult following since Ethel Merman.

Idina Menzel stars in If/Then (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

An interesting piece of trivia for musical comedy fans: Menzel has included a tribute to Merman in some of her recent concert appearances. However, in 1939, when Cole Porter's musical, DuBarry Was A Lady, opened up at the 46th Street Theatre (where If/Then ran on Broadway) with Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr heading the cast, they did eight shows a week without amplification.

Performances of If/Then continue at the Orpheum Theatre through December 6 (click here to order tickets).

1 comment:

Theotoks said...

Hi George, Just FYI...It has recently come to light that the casting of a black actor to play Martin Luther King Jr. in the Kent State production of "The Mountaintop" never occurred. It had been considered, but only the white actor ever walked the stage.