Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Waiting For The Dramatic Payoff

Anyone who has sat through a performance of Samuel Beckett's absurdist comedy entitled Waiting For Godot (or Richard Wagner's romantic tragedy, Tristan und Isolde) knows that extreme patience is a prerequisite for being able to enjoy these works. Wikipedia's description of patience reads as follows:
"Patience (or forbearing) is the state of endurance under difficult circumstances, which can mean persevering in the face of delay or provocation without acting on negative annoyance/anger; or exhibiting forbearance when under strain, especially when faced with longer-term difficulties. Patience is the level of endurance one can have before negativity. It is also used to refer to the character trait of being steadfast."
Anyone who has been a parent or caregiver knows the value of patience. Anyone who has tried to teach a youngster how to play a musical instrument knows the value of patience. Among the more surprising quotes about patience are the following:
  • "Genius is eternal patience." (Michelangelo).
  • "Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish." (John Quincy Adams).
  • "The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it." (Arnold H. Glasow).
  • "Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet." (Jean-Jacques Rousseau).
  • "Patience is not just about waiting for something ... it's how you wait, or your attitude while waiting." (Joyce Meyer).
  • "Patience is a virtue, and I'm learning patience. It's a tough lesson." (Elon Musk).
And then, of course, there is Tevye's response to his nagging wife in Fiddler on the Roof: "Patience, Golde, As it says in the Good Book: Good news will wait and bad news will refuse to leave."

Zero Mostel as Tevye in the original cast of Fiddler on the Roof

While some theatregoers assume that a keen eye, a sensitive ear, and a wicked wit are prerequisites for a critic, they forget to include patience as a key component in critical thinking. I often find myself seated in a darkened auditorium patiently waiting for a playwright to let his characters deliver the necessary exposition to lay the foundation for his story, to let the drama's emotional tension build to a critical tipping point, or to have his protagonist achieve a moment of redemption.

Sometimes the wait is worth it; on many occasions it is not. The reasons why a production fails to reach its full potential have everything to do with casting, craft, and a perverse kind of artistic combustion. Two productions recently brought that challenge home to Bay area audiences with startling clarity.

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On June 15, 2013, Opera Theatre of St. Louis presented the world premiere of jazz musician Terence Blanchard's "opera in jazz" entitled Champion -- about boxing's emotionally conflicted welterweight and middleweight champion, Emile Griffith. The premiere received a good deal of coverage in the musical press because of its blending of jazz (a uniquely American art form) with opera and the controversy surrounding its subject, who had been the subject of a 2005 documentary entitled Ring Of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story. The following month, Griffith died.

A versatile composer who has worked on numerous film scores, Blanchard obviously didn't feel limited by the traditions of either art form. There are times when his music has a bluesy undertone that well suits his portrait of the aged Griffith as a tired, guilt-ridden man struggling to cope with the symptoms of dementia pugilistica. The opera's second act contains a beautifully written aria for Griffith's mother, Emelda (Karen Slack), two solid quartets, and a stunning aria for Emile's manager, Howie Albert (sung here and at the world premiere with great poignancy by Robert Orth).

Karen Slack as Emelda Griffith in Champion (Photo by: Bill Evans)

With Nicole Paiment conducting and Brian Staufenbiehl directing, San Francisco's Opera Parallèle partnered with SFJAZZ to produce the West Coast premiere of Blanchard's opera. Working on a minimal set designed by Dave Dunning and lit by Matthew Antaky, the production featured costumes by Christine Crook, choreography by Reginald Savage, and projections by David Murakami.

Oddly enough, both acts began without instrumentation or singing. The opera started off with Joe Orrach performing a wordless solo as a boxer building a rhythm while training on a speed (punching) bag. Orrach returned at the top of Act II, dancing back and forth as he practiced throwing punches until he started to build a new rhythm while jumping rope.

The anchor of Blanchard's opera is not the young, athletic Emile (handsomely sung by Kenneth Kellogg), but the the old, retired boxer (Arthur Woodley) who is being taken care of by his adopted son and caretaker, Luis Rodrigo Griffith (Andres Ramirez). Struggling to cope with his growing dementia, this Emile has trouble remembering where he left his shoe and trying to pull himself together for the critical moment in which he will finally get to meet Benny Paret's son, Benny Jr.

Arthur Woodley portrays the elder Emile Griffith in Champion
(Photo by: Bill Evans)

Griffith's mind keeps flashing back to earlier days in St. Thomas, where his Cousin Blanche (Aisha Campbell) would beat him and punish him by making him hold up cinder blocks with his arms. As he grew, Emile found happier times working in a hat factory before traveling to New York to meet his estranged mother.

Kenneth Kellogg portrays the young Emile Griffith
in a scene from Champion (Photo by: Bill Evans)

Once he arrived in New York, Emile had to find a way to earn a living. His mother's introduction to Howie Albert (Robert Orth) in the hope of getting her son a job in his hat factory took an unexpected turn when the businessman realized that the kid was built like a brick shithouse and introduced him to the world of professional boxing.

Kenneth Kellogg as young Emile Griffin in Champion
(Photo by: Steve DiBartolomeo)

As the elder Griffith looks back on his life, he recalls his rapid rise from an unknown boxer to a budding champion who likes to wear flashy clothes and flirt with women. His flashbacks soon focus on the date of the fateful weigh-in prior to his March 24, 1962 championship fight, when Paret patted him on the ass and taunted Emile by calling him a maricón.

Robert Orth, Victor Ryan Robertson, Karen Slack, and Kenneth Kellogg
in a scene from Champion (Photo by: Bill Evans) 

Act II heads into darker territory as Griffith is haunted by his struggle to accept his sexuality. In one scene, he clumsily attempts to make contact with a potential trick in a gay bar, but gets cold feet and leaves before anything can happen. In another, he is beaten by homophobic thugs in the alley outside a gay bar.

Kenneth Kellogg, Arthur Woodley, and Karen Slack
in a scene from Champion (Photo by: Bill Evans) 

The biggest problem with Blanchard's opera is partly due to Michael Cristofer's libretto, which must paint the elder Griffith as confused, fearful, and occasionally incoherent -- a shadow of his former self. As a result, the first act tends to be a hard slog through the exposition that leads up to the climactic moment when Emile knocks Benny Paret's lights out. Woodley's touching portrayal grows increasingly pitiful as he keeps singing with a rare dramatic authority.

As the younger Emile, Kenneth Kellogg received strong support from Chabrelle Williams as his wife, Sadie Donastrog Griffith; Victor Ryan Robertson as Benny ‘Kid’ Paret; and Mark Hernandez as the Ring announcer. Looking like a middle-aged Bette Midler, Michelle Rice had some nice moments as the owner of the first gay bar Griffith visits.

///Conductor Nicole Paiment with Kenneth Kellogg during
rehearsals of Champion (Photo by: Bill Evans)

I tip my hat to Nicole Paiment for collaborating with SFJAZZ to produce the West Coast premiere of Champion. Two underappreciated contemporary American operas which might resonate with Opera Parallèle's audience in future seasons are The Postman Always Rings Twice (by Stephen Paulus) which received its world premiere from Opera Theatre of St. Louis on June 17, 1982 and the bitingly sarcastic Where's Dick? (by Michael Korie and Stewart Wallace) which received its world premiere from Texas Opera Theatre on May 24, 1989 (click here for a slide show from that production). In fact, I'd be willing to bet that Where's Dick? has much greater relevance to the current cultural scene than it did 27 years ago.

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In recent years, several playwrights have attempted a dramatic version of time travel after intermission. While Act I is spent with a group of characters in one era and location, Act II may find the same characters (or their likenesses) appearing in a totally different world.

In 2012, Shotgun Players presented the full-length version of Truffaldino Says No (Ken Slattery's 10-minute play which was originally written for Playground). A rowdy farce about a commedia dell'arte character in the 16th century who flees the family business in Venice, Italy (only to find himself time traveling to a sitcom set in Venice Beach, California), the audience's ability to enjoy Slattery's craft was substantially enhanced by a knowledge of theatre history. In his program note, director M. Graham Smith wrote:
"Every worthy comedy must grapple with a consequential struggle. What happens when children don't want to follow in their parents' footsteps? Is it really possible to reinvent oneself in a New World and escape one's roots?"
CentralWorks recently presented the world premiere of David Weisberg's Totem and Taboo, with Smith directing an ensemble of four actors whose characters' names were easily recognizable to Baby Boomers and those who have enjoyed reruns of The Honeymooners (a beloved 1950s sitcom starring Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, and Joyce Randolph).

A frightfully labored piece of writing (as I exited the theatre I heard one woman loudly ask her friend "How do you spell 'pretentious?'"), Weisberg bit off a lot more than he could chew, wrapping much of his dialogue in embarrassing platitudes of political correctness. In his program note, Weisberg writes:
"Sigmund Freud and The Honeymooners? A rising tide lifts all boats? Pearl Harbor was an inside job? How to be fat without looking fat? The conspiracy to take down the Twin Towers? People are not rational, they're tribal? An organism in its environment, nothing more nothing less? Fundamentalists are reproducing like rabbits? A house-husband, the hero of our time? Mindfulness and genetic testing for social transformation? Olympic weightlifting is an art? The Silicon Valley libertarian masters of the internet economy? Animism, magic, and the omnipotence of thoughts? The prohibition against eating the totem animal? The compulsion to repeat? The concept of the disinterested individual is a liberal fantasy? Libidinal bonds are far stronger than rational agreements? The death sentence is the world's most perfect poem? The self-delusion of an addict? The massive unrelenting war machine? A tide of blood? Thanatos, god of strife and hate? The humanities are doomed? Every parent is a hypocrite? We never really know who our father is? All stories are dream stories? For the answer to these questions, and more, stay tuned and follow the raccoon."
Bob Greene as Ralph in Totem and Taboo (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Act I of Totem and Taboo starts off with Ralph (Bob Greene), a stay-at-home Dad and freelance writer specializing in philosophy, trying to hold the attention of his 17-year-old, smartphone-addicted son, Toby (Caleb Cabrera). They are interrupted by a visit from their newly-divorced, new neighbor named Trixie (April Green), who has brought a gift for Ralph's wife. Alice (Deb Fink) is a workaholic genetic biologist who has been helpful to Trixie following her divorce. While the horny Trixie is easily impressed by Toby's lean, muscular body, Ralph and Toby each have a secret they need to share.
  • A former university professor, Ralph has evolved into a pill-popping, stay-at-home house husband, tasked with raising his 17-year-old son while his well-compensated wife brings home the bacon. In between juggling his household chores and parental responsibilities, Ralph has also managed to complete his scathing critique of liberalism (and its failure to fulfill the promise of a better world) entitled Opting Out of the Social Contract. Unfortunately, no publisher has shown any interest in his book. However, the college application he submitted to Oxford University in his son's name (without asking for Toby's permission) has been accepted. Toby can now have the quality education that Ralph always wished he could have had. 
  • The entrepreneurial Toby, however, is aching to tell his father about his plan to skip college altogether and become a personal trainer (an occupation which cannot be outsourced overseas or replaced by a mobile app or robotic device). Unfortunately, Ralph's inability to listen to anything but the sound of his own voice has been a barrier to Toby being able to access his college education funds.
Caleb Cabrera is 17-year-old Toby in Totem and Taboo
(Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

When Ralph's painkillers trigger a hallucinatory episode, he finds himself in a dream state resembling a segment of The Honeymooners. While his paranoia convinces Ralph that his closest friends are trying to kill him, his boorish need to dominate every situation perfectly matches the behavior of Ralph Kramden. To make matters worse, his son has been transformed into Kramden's buddy, Ed Norton. With Alice and Trixie in the midst of a hot lesbian love affair, Ralph suddenly finds himself cast as the defendant in a rigged trial where Trixie is the severely biased judge.

April Green is Trixie Norton and Deb Fink is Alice Kramden
in a scene from Totem and Taboo (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

Will Toby get his money? Will Alice and Trixie fall in love? Will Ralph fall victim to cannibalism? The more important question for Epstein is: Will anybody in the audience care?
  • If Ralph's shenanigans were embodied in a lovable buffoon like Family Guy's dim-witted Peter Griffin (who has frequent flashbacks about his misdeeds), the brevity of each incident might work.
  • If Epstein's Ralph had been an irascible but slightly lovable bully like Ralph Kramden (whose personality could be tolerated for a half hour), his play might work.
But with such heavyhanded writing that was not the case. Two hours with a raging putz like Epstein's version of Ralph Kramden wears thin very quickly. On opening night, the fact that Ralph is an insufferably narcissistic asshole was compounded by Bob Greene's blustery performance (which resembled a sputtering Danny DeVito struggling not to go up on his lines).

Ed Norton (Caleb Cabrera) and Ralph Kramden (Bob Greene)
are loyal members of the Order of the Raccoon
in Totem and Taboo (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Caleb Cabrera shone while doubling as Norton and Ralph's alienated yet impassioned teenager who knows that his future cannot be the past in which his father chooses to live. Deb Fink and April Green scored strongly as the play's feminist voices of reason. But, despite a lot of hard work by an earnest cast,  the dramatic payoff for this strained comedy never really arrived. The overall sensation was of some clumsy comedy writing rather than a fierce Freudian farce.

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