Thursday, May 26, 2016

Who Are You Now?

Most cultures are based on a system of binary values. Whether seen in terms of male and female, plus and minus, right and left, or yin and yang, it's easy for people to understand ideas built around the concept of direct opposites. Whether framed in terms of black and white, good and bad, sky and sea, or wet and dry, knowledge built upon opposites is easy to digest.

However, when the human element is thrown into the equation, strange things start to happen. Compartmentalized behavior leads to concepts of the good twin versus the evil twin, a woman trapped in a man's body, a two-faced liar, a double-dealing crook, and a two-party political system.

Things get really messy when the values with which a person was raised are challenged by conflicting values from another culture. Whether one is met by people who speak a different language, adhere to a different set of religious beliefs, or whose skin is a different color, when confronted with opposing realities, cracks appear in what were rigidly-constructed and strictly enforced trains of thought.

Sometimes those ideological trains run right off the rails (the recent brouhaha over ridiculous bathroom bills is a prime example). Whether a devout Christian succumbs to logic, science, and atheism or an avowed meat eater chooses to become a vegan, a certain amount of confusion and culture shock can be expected as part of the process. However, as a dramatic device, nothing comes close to gifting a character with a multiple personality disorder. For a writer, it's the gift that keeps on giving.

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Moments of madness and delusional behavior are commonly found in bel canto opera, where distraught heroines may stab their bridegrooms to death or break into roulades of regret, trills of tintinnabulation, and arpeggios of anxiety at the mere thought that their intended could be messing around with a mysteriously veiled woman. While coloratura sopranos know that Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Bellini's I Puritani are classic examples of how to lose your marbles in front of a captive audience, tenors and basses have fewer opportunities to go bonkers onstage.

Brian Herndon stars in Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde
(Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

In 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson published Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the tale of a talented doctor whose chemical experiments had produced a serum with horrifying side effects. Not only did its ingestion begin to deform his body, the serum unleashed the sociopath previously hidden from the public by the doctor's good deeds and standing in the community. Two years following its publication, the gruesome exploits of a serial killer named Jack the Ripper gripped London with so much fear that a staged adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde had to be shut down.

Brian Herndon as the evil Mr. Hyde in a scene from
Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Since the publication of Stevenson's thriller, more than 120 adaptations of Jekyll & Hyde have appeared on stage and screen (including Leslie Bricusse, Steve Cuden, and Frank Wildhorn's odious 1990 musical). Sigmund Freud's work has led to deeper explorations of the psyche while increasingly dangerous drugs such as crack cocaine and methamphetamine have destroyed countless lives. Along the way, the audience's appetite for gore and terror has grown by leaps and bounds.

The co-artistic directors of CentralWorks (Gary Graves and Jan Zvaifler) have been working on a trilogy of Gothic dramas since 2014, when the company premiered Dracula Inquest. Following 2015's world premiere of a play about Charlotte Perkins Gilman entitled The Yellow Wallpaper, they recently presented the final work in their trilogy: Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde. With his curiosity about Stevenson's writing process as the key to putting a new spin on an old horror story, Graves has fashioned a fascinating new script based on Stevenson’s classic tale of good and evil. As the playwright explains:
"There’s a story that Stevenson wrote Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a sort of mad fever dream in just three days. He claimed the story came to him directly from his unconsciousness, presenting itself to him in a series of dreams. He was experimenting with tapping into his unconscious in his writing through the exploration of his dreams and the first person he read the story to was his wife, Fanny Osbourne Stevenson. After Fanny criticized the draft (and allegedly accused him of ‘missing the point of the allegory’), Stevenson flew into a rage. The two of them had an ‘almighty row’ about it that concluded with Stevenson heaving the manuscript into the fireplace, where it burned to ashes."
Robert Louis Stevenson (Brian Herndon) tries to explain his latest
story idea to his terrified wife (Danielle Levin) in a scene from
Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde (Photo by: Jim Norrena)
"The story we know today is the second draft, the revised version. I was fascinated with questions about what might have been in the first draft and what the big fight might have been about. The story has been interpreted as an allegory for late Victorian era homosexuality and as a parable of addiction. What exactly is ‘the allegory’ in Jekyll and Hyde? For me, the addiction theme is central. There is evidence that Stevenson was experimenting with a new drug called 'cocaine' when he wrote the book, a drug with addictive powers far better understood today than when it appeared in the 1880s. Why did Stevenson burn the manuscript? Was he addicted to a mysterious powder that fueled his writing but was making a monster of him? What was the big fight with Fanny about?”
Stevenson's novella was written under curious circumstances. The celebrated author of Treasure Island was staying in the coastal town of Bournemouth, where he had been sent to help him recover from a recent illness. His wife wrote that:
"In the small hours of one morning,[...] I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis. Thinking he had a nightmare, I awakened him. He said angrily: 'Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.' I had awakened him at the first transformation scene."
Robert Louis Stevenson (Brian Herndon) reassures his wife
(Danielle Levin) that his new story will be a goldmine in a scene from
Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Clocking in at 85 minutes, the artistic team at CentralWorks has done a splendid job of tightening the screws on their audience's nerves as Fanny frets about how to pay the bills, keep her husband alive, and prevent him from publishing something that will forever tarnish his legacy. Meanwhile, her obsessive husband keeps struggling to wrestle his dreams into text while insisting that, gruesome as it may sound, Jekyll & Hyde will save them from financial ruin (he was right).

Handsomely directed by Jan Zvaifler, this nailbiter benefits immensely from Gregory Scharpen's superb sound design (which includes some splendid musical choices and an uncanny ability to raise the creepiness level of the theatrical experience). Danielle Levin delivers an impressive portrait of the worried (and often terrified) Franny, who cannot understand what is driving her husband's frenzy and has good reason to fear for their future.

Watching Brian Herndon's portrayal of Robert Louis Stevenson is a genuine pleasure. Often seen as a supporting character actor on Bay area stages, Herndon delivers a riveting performance as a financially insolvent writer struggling with a nightmarish artistic concept and new writing process that are is so much bigger than anything he has attempted in the past. It is a long-deserved and well-earned triumph for such a talented artist.

Brian Herndon stars as the doomed Dr. Jekyll in a scene from
Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Performances of Robert Louis Stevenson: Jekyll and Hyde continue through June 12 at the Berkeley City Club (click here for tickets).

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In 1917 (long before Shirley MacLaine started talking about her past-life experiences), a posthumously published novel by Henry James was adapted for the stage by John L. Balderston. Its protagonist was a young American who traveled back through time and met his ancestors from the period of the American Revolution. James's The Sense of the Past was transformed into Berkeley Square and, following a successful 1926 premiere in London, became a big hit on Broadway in 1929 with Leslie Howard starring as Peter Standish.

Howard was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in the 1933 film adaptation. In 1951, Tyrone Power starred as an atomic scientist who traveled back to the 18th century in I'll Never Forget You (also known as Man of Two Worlds)

Following a string of successes with his songwriting partner, Frederick Loewe (Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Camelot), lyricist Alan Jay Lerner teamed up with composer Burton Lane in 1965 for a new musical whose easily-hypnotized heroine had extrasensory perception (ESP) and, during sessions with her psychiatrist, revealed that she had led a rather ribald life in 18th-century England. During its troubled out-of-town tryout, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever replaced Louis Jordan with John Cullum in the role of Dr. Mark Bruckner prior to opening on October 17, 1965 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre with Barbara Harris as the show's star attraction.

Although On A Clear Day... ran for 280 performances, when it was transformed into a film vehicle for Barbra Streisand, numerous liberties were taken with the script and score which eventually made it seem more like a showcase for Streisand's costumes than anything else. In 2011, Peter Parnell did a major reworking of Lerner's original script in which the neurotic Daisy Gamble of the 1960s was transformed into the equally neurotic David Gamble of the post-Stonewall 1970s (an insecure gay florist who, like Daisy, wanted to quit smoking in order to please his nerdy and slightly boring boyfriend, Warren).

Chris Morrell as David Gamble in NCTC's production of
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Parnell's treatment, which scrapped the 18th-century material and recast Melinda Wells as an aspiring 1940s jazz singer, was developed with the Vineyard Theatre and inserted four less impressive songs that were written by Lerner and Lane for 1951's Royal Wedding (which starred Fred Astaire and Jane Powell). Despite a rather extensive facelift, when the revised version of On A Clear Day ... opened on Broadway in November 2011 starring Harry Connick, Jr. and Jessie Mueller, it lasted a mere 57 performances.

San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center recently staged Parnell's revised version of the show with Ed Decker directing a downsized ensemble on an appealing unit set designed by Kuo-Hao Lo (with costumes by Wes Crain and choreography by Jayne Zaban). With the handsome William Giammona portraying the still-grieving psychiatrist and Chris Morrell appearing as the insecure David (in a performance that resembled a cross between Bob Denver's Gilligan and Jamie Farr's Corporal Klinger). Melissa O'Keefe became the new, Jazz-era Melinda.

Melissa O'Keefe as Melinda Wells in a scene from
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Having seen the original Broadway production 50 years ago, I was extremely curious to see what Parnell's reworking of the story might accomplish. There's no doubt that the show is now a whole lot funnier. With some perky jabs at Streisand and with Warren (originally portrayed by William Daniels) having become a much more embraceable character with OCD tendencies, the subplots are somewhat more believable. Supporting roles were filled by Audrey Baker as David's roommate, Muriel, Jessica Coker as Sharone Stein (Mark's mentor and professional colleague), and Christine Macomber as Mark's secretary.

While this new production featured music direction by Matthew Lee Cannon and new instrumental arrangements by Ben Prince, what I found severely lacking was the lavish romanticism of Lane's score. Those who saw the original version of On A Clear Day.... may long for a more lyrical and lush treatment of Lane's music. I still find songs like "Wait 'Til We're Sixty Five" and "On Board The S.S. Bernard Cohn" fairly ridiculous. However, the relocation of the title song to the show's final moments (and its buildup to a powerful ensemble piece) proved to be most impressive.

Melissa O'Keefe (Melinda) and William Giammona (Mark Bruckner)
in a scene from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

The essence of On A Clear Day... rests with the plot's attempts to manipulate time. The forward momentum of the plot holds its fascination in the 2011 version (even if it hasn't solved all of the story's dramatic problems). However, as I watched the show unfold, I found myself wrestling with an extremely odd hunch that this 1965 Lerner-Lane musical may yet have further to go in its evolutionary process. Let me explain why.

Any show that originates in a contemporary setting runs the risk of becoming a period piece after several decades (Hair being the classic example). Had Parnell begun to revise On A Clear Day... several years later, he might have found much more dramatic gold by re-envisioning Daisy Gamble as a modern day transwoman, Melinda as a 1940s male crooner like Frank Sinatra looking forward to sex reassignment surgery (although I would hate to have him renamed Melvin), and Mark Bruckner as an openly gay psychiatrist who lost his lover during the AIDS crisis.

Kevin Singer (Warren) and William Giammona (Mark Bruckner)
in a scene from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

Although the 2011 interpretation adds some interesting gay twists (especially in the growing attraction David has to Mark and Mark's sudden awareness that during their hypnosis sessions he's been dancing with and kissing a man), a further updating of the show would bring a much deeper poignancy to songs like "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" and "She Isn't You" (which started off as "She Wasn't You" in 1965 and became "He Isn't You" in the 1970 film adaptation). Unfortunately, splitting the acting responsibilities for Daisy and Melinda between two actors eliminates a key magical element of the show's emotional core when the audience needs to witness an actor's physical and vocal transformation from one character to another character in another era.

William Giammona (Mark Bruckner) and Melissa O'Keefe (Melinda) in a
scene from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Sound confusing? So are past-life regressions and reincarnation. Performances of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever continue at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through June 12 (click here for tickets).


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