Tuesday, January 26, 2016

To Exhume Or Not To Exhume

Whenever the anniversary of a famous author's birth or death reaches a significant milestone, critics and creative types may stop, look back, and think about a particular artist's cultural contribution. The more famous the artist, the less urgent the need to mark any major anniversary simply for the sake of history. Although this year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death (April 23, 1616), Shakespeare festivals now dot the international landscape.

Occasionally, an arts organization will try to draw attention by exhuming a rarely-performed work or presenting a festival devoted to a particular playwright (Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, George Bernard Shaw). Despite having the best intentions, some of the more noble attempts to showcase a minor work can fall to the mercy of what I like to call the "Dead Playwrights Society." Two Bay area productions recently rose to the challenge, with questionable results.

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When one looks at the list of major Broadway theatres, it's always interesting to know their history.
Two weeks after his death on October 2, 2005, Broadway's Virginia Theatre was renamed in honor of August Wilson, making him the first African-American playwright to have a Broadway theatre named after him. While the [George Howells] Broadhurst and Belasco Theatres on West 44th Street and the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on West 49th Street are favored houses for some producers, West 52nd Street has the distinct honor of having two venues named after playwrights (the Neil Simon and August Wilson Theatres) face each other from opposite sides of the street.

During his career, Wilson received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama: one for 1987's Fences and the other for 1990's The Piano Lesson. Both dramas were part of the playwright's Pittsburgh Cycle (which has also come to be known as The Century Cycle). As part of its artistic plan to perform all of the plays in The Pittsburgh, Cycle, the Marin Theatre Company recently unveiled a new production of 2003's Gem of the Ocean, a deeply problematic work that relies heavily on the use of magical realism as embodied in one particular character.  According to Wikipedia:
"The character most frequently mentioned in the cycle is Aunt Ester, a 'washer of souls.' She is reported to be 285 years old in Gem of the Ocean, which takes place in her home at 1839 Wylie Avenue, and 322 in Two Trains Running. She dies in 1985, during the events of King Hedley II."
Margo Hall as Aunt Ester in August Wilson's
Gem of the Ocean (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Set in 1904, Gem of the Ocean is the first of Wilson's ten plays that reflect the lives and experiences of African Americans during each decade of the 20th century. In a speech delivered at the 1996 Theatre Communications Group National Conference, Wilson explained that:
"Growing up in my mother's house at 1727 Bedford Avenue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I learned the language, the eating habits, the religious beliefs, the gestures, the notions of common sense, attitudes toward sex, concepts of beauty and justice, and the response to pleasure and pain, that my mother had learned from her mother, and which could trace back to the first Africans who set foot on the continent. It is this culture that stands solidly on these shores today as a testament to the resilience of the African-American spirit.  Those who would deny black Americans their culture would also deny them their history and the inherent values that are a part of all human life."
Margo Hall as Aunt Ester in August Wilson's
Gem of the Ocean (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Gem of the Ocean received its world premiere from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago on April 28, 2003 and, although the original Broadway production received five nominations for Tony Awards (including a nomination for best play), it closed after 15 previews and 72 performances. Although Wilson can write some wonderfully dramatic monologues for his characters, there is a lot of dead time in Gem of the Ocean which was not at all helped by the frequently appalling stage direction of Daniel Alexander Jones.

It's possible that some of the mannerisms used onstage during MTC's production might seem alien or confusing to contemporary audiences.Working on an abstract unit set designed by scenographer Kimberlee Koym-Murteira (with costumes by Katherine Nowacki and sound design by Sara Huddleston), Jones became a victim of his own artifice.

Namir Smallwood (Citizen Barlow), Omoze Idehenre (Black Mary)
and David Everett Moore (Eli) in Gem of the Ocean 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Wilson's play requires the audience to buy into a great deal of magical realism as Aunt Ester guides young Citizen Barlow on a journey to the mythical City of Bones. While certain scenic effects can enhance the emotional and spiritual power of Barlow's journey, many moments in this staging seemed pointlessly mannered.  Had the production featured a more naturalistic set and style, I'm sure the contrast with and transition to a sequence glowing with theatricality would have been much more effective.

In her program note, dramaturg Omi Osun Joni L. Jones writes:
“Theatrical jazz creates a collage of images, sounds, and time that allow the past, the present, and the future to provocatively co-mingle. The nonlinear, physically abstract nature of much theatrical jazz permits the spirituality of August Wilson’s work to be an everyday expression of Blackness, not ‘supernatural’ or ‘magical realism’ but Black Realism, where spiritual transformation and improvisational innovation are a way of life.

The set provides period features such as 1904 scenes of Pittsburgh juxtaposed against a liquid prism wall, all resting on a floor that suggests West African iconography. Black life stretches beyond the bounds of realism and naturalism; the sounds move through moan, free jazz, ancient, and present day African rhythms and ragtime, and Aunt Ester’s ‘long memory’ acknowledges how Black disenfranchisement in 1904 continues to play out in 2016 as she wears the anachronistic images of many (including Emmett Till, Mike Brown, Oscar Grant, and Aiyana Mo'Nay Stanley Jones) patched onto her skirt. These collage-inspired design choices reflect the way African Americans have woven together lives through oppression to find beauty and joy.”
Omoze Idehenre, Margo Hall, David Everett Moore, and
Anthony Juney Smith in a scene from Gem of the Ocean
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Unfortunately, very little of that came across the footlights. The suggestion of West African iconography on the stage floor could not be seen by most people in the audience. Nor could the images of contemporary African Americans patched onto Aunt Ester's skirt. The jazz music composed by Kevin Carnes sounded, at best, incidental. As a result, what unfolded onstage resembled some of the more misguided directorial conceits (Regietheatre) that have plagued the opera world.

So let me admit to a basic prejudice: Whenever I see actors marching around a stage as if following the grid lines on a piece of graph paper, I tend to lose faith in a director's artistic concept. Omoze Idehenre (a superb artist) seemed burdened by much of the blocking for Black Mary. As Solly Two Kings, Anthony Juney Smith's Act II soliloquy felt more like a sequel to MADtv's classic sketch about the Keanu Reeves School of Acting.

Thankfully, there were some solid actors onstage doing the best they could under the circumstances. Always a dynamic presence, Tyee J. Tilghman caught fire as Caesar Wilks (Black Mary's arrogant brother turned policeman). Namir Smallwood captured much of Wilson's poetry as Citizen Barlow (the young man who breaks into Aunt Ester's house through the kitchen window hoping that she can "wash his soul"). David Everett Moore was moving as Aunt Ester's caregiver, Eli, with Patrick Kelly Jones doing commendable work as Rutherford Selig, the white peddler who is Aunt Ester's friend.

Namir Smallwood (Citizen Barlow) and Margo Hall
(Aunt Ester) in Gem of the Ocean (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

One has to be thankful for the superb craft and strength underlying Margo Hall's performance as Aunt Ester. One of the Bay area's theatrical treasures, Hall brought a rare combination of dignity, grace, sarcasm, and historical weariness to the stage which, despite most of the production's questionable optics, heroically carried the evening on her sturdy shoulders.

Performances of August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean continue at the Marin Theatre Company through February 13 (click here for tickets). Like many movies, this is one situation in which the trailer leaves a much better impression than the director's overall concept.

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For its first production of 2016, Theatre Rhinoceros staged a rare revival of one of Noel Coward's last plays. First produced in April 1966 in London with a cast headed by the playwright, Lilli Palmer, and Irene Worth, A Song At Twilight had its premiere as the opening play in a trilogy entitled Suite in Three Keys (the other two acts were Shadows of the Evening and Come Into The Garden, Maud). The following clip from the 1982 film adaptation starring Paul Scofield and Deborah Kerr offers a delicious little reference to the San Francisco theatre scene.

In 1999, as part of the celebration marking Coward's centennial (the playwright was born on December 16, 1899), A Song At Twilight was revived in London with Corin Redgrave and his sister, Vanessa, in the leads.

Vanessa and Corin Redgrave in a scene from the 1999
London revival of Noel Coward's A Song At Twilight

One might well wonder: Why would this play appeal to a contemporary audience? Probably because its world premiere took place shortly before the LGBT rights movement erupted and started to gain momentum. Seen a half century later, A Song At Twilight offers audiences a chance to revisit the kind of repression practiced by gay men who felt it necessary to avoid any kind of scandal by entering into a loveless marriage in order to "keep up appearances." As John Fisher (the artistic director of Theatre Rhinoceros who directed and stars in its revival) explains:
“It’s a centenary celebration of a kind. One hundred years ago, Noel Coward was on the verge of a fabulous breakthrough. He had established himself as an actor (in London and on tour), he would soon see his very first full-length play produced, and he was all of 17. A Song at Twilight is from the last part of his career and represents a more reflective mood. Is Sir Hugo in A Song of Twilight an autobiographical portrait? Coward said it was not. He based Hugo Latymer on Max Beerbohm and W. Somerset Maugham. But Hugo’s plight remains a clever way to bring up social issues we know were close to Coward’s heart.”
Poster art for A Song at Twilight

Fisher stars as Sir Hugo Latymer, an aging, quick-witted, narcissistic author living in a Swiss hotel with his wife, Hilde (Tamar Cohn), in a 20-year-long marriage of convenience. As the play begins, Hugo anxiously awaits a visit from his former lover (an actress he hasn't seen in several decades). Well aware that Carlotta (Sylvia Kratins) must have an ulterior motive behind her visit, Hugo becomes increasingly agitated as he tries to figure out what she might possibly want from him. Could it be money? Some kind of revenge?

Sylvia Kratins and John Fisher in a scene from
Noel Coward's A Song At Twilight (Photo by: David Wilson)

As it turns out, Carlotta wants to discuss a much more delicate issue. After she and Hugo broke up, she became friends with the true love of Hugo's life -- a man who left her something very special in his will: the love letters Hugo had written to him. Much to Hugo's surprise, Carlotta has no intention of blackmailing him, nor does she disapprove of his homosexuality. She just wishes he could be honest about the fact that he's gay and was once deeply in love with her friend.

Like many closeted men, Hugo reacts with a combination of panic, denial, and a desperate need to reassert control over the situation. The role offers Fisher a chance to indulge in the kind of flamboyant behavior which allows some older men to convince themselves that no one really knows they're gay. Fisher's hungry eyes nearly devour the sight of Felix (Marvin Peterle Rocha), the hotel's handsome, tuxedoed butler.

John Fisher and Marvin Peterle Rocha in a scene from
Noel Coward's A Song At Twilight (Photo by: David Wilson)

The tug of war between Hugo and Carlotta allows Coward a chance to craft some prize zingers although, by the time Hilde returns from her coffee date with an old friend, Hugo's big secret has been exposed without any loss of reputation. To further rattle his nerves, Hilde has a few surprises of her own.

John Fisher and Tamar Cohn in a scene from Noel
Coward's A Song At Twilight (Photo by: David Wilson)

After a half century of people living openly-gay lives, A Song At Twilight seems like a strained and slightly dusty period piece. While Tamar Cohn offers a subdued and somewhat resigned performance as Hugo's beard, Sylvia Kratins is much more determined to unmask the lie that Hugo has been living for so many years. Fisher begins the evening with an over-the-top characterization of Sir Hugo, whose behavior becomes angrier and more irrational as he feels increasingly threatened. It's easy to imagine an elderly man who inflicted a great deal of emotional and psychological pain on himself for the sake of maintaining his career and reputation.

Whether or not Coward's play is autobiographical struck me as far less important than the fact that the closet is (and always has been) a terrible place to hide from one's own true self. Performances of A Song at Twilight continue through January 31 at Z-Below (click here for tickets).

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