Sunday, June 23, 2019

With Catlike Tread, Upon Our Prey We Steal

Religious fundamentalists and conservative politicians love to talk about how evildoers are determined to ruin America. Yet they seem perfectly comfortable raising their children on Disney movies whose villains are named Maleficent, Scar, and Cruella de Vil. And who doesn't love that famous family friendly film where the Wicked Witch of the West screeches "I'll get you and your little dog, too!"

New generations often display new tastes in entertainment. The genteel manner in which Jessica Fletcher solved mysterious deaths on Murder, She Wrote has been replaced by the intense drama of American Horror Story. So perhaps it's advisable to check out's website for a professional definition of malice aforethought:
"(1) the conscious intent to cause death or great bodily harm to another person before a person commits the crime. Such malice is a required element to prove first degree murder. (2) a general evil and depraved state of mind in which the person is unconcerned for the lives of others."

In her article in The Stranger entitled "The Older Generation to Young Gay Men: 'Why the Fuck Are You Complaining?'" Katie Herzog writes:
"When the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage for good (or at least for now), Jeffrey and Rodney got married for a second time. But all these experiences -- having a court invalidate his relationships not once but twice, surviving the AIDS crisis, losing the first man he'd really loved, seeing countless friends and lovers get thinner and thinner before they just disappeared -- have given him a vastly different perspective on what is happening right now in American life than many younger queer people, who feel hurt and oppressed when someone uses the wrong pronoun or when a straight actor plays someone gay."
Sometimes the strangest words can trigger a violent reaction, as evidenced in the following comedic short being screened during the 2019 Frameline Film Festival.

From the latest addition to the Godzilla franchise (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) to the recent announcement that Robert Pattinson is the newest movie star to be cast as Batman (The Batman has an official release date of June 25, 2021), some of today's hottest action films mix malice aforethought with pop culture and dress it all up with hefty doses of CGI-scripted magical realism.

Wikipedia defines magical realism as "a style of fiction that paints a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements. It is sometimes called fabulism, in reference to the conventions of fables, myths, and allegory... with magic or the supernatural presented in an otherwise real-world or mundane setting." For a better understanding of magical realism, consider Stephanie Strick's description in her recent program note entitled “Many Ways To Skin A Cat.”
Skinning as a literary device has an origin in folklore traditions and fairy tales. While certainly a gruesome activity in real life, the presence of skinning in these stories typically heralds an irrevocable shift in the lives of the tale’s characters. The selkie, a figure in the folklore of many regions in Scandinavia and the British Isles, is perhaps the most salient example. In an 1869 collection of Irish folktales, author Patrick Kennedy describes the silkie (selkie) as an otherworldly seal creature who can remove her fur skin and become a woman. One day, a man steals the selkie’s skin and hides it away, barring her from the waters she knows and stranding her ashore. He then marries her. The selkie’s seal skin represents her identity, her ability to move fluidly between worlds. Its terrible loss confines her to the man’s domain.”

A painting of a selkie removing her seal skin
“An Italian skinning story, “The Old Woman Who Was Skinned,” portrays a main character who seeks someone else to skin them. In this 1634 fairy tale by Giambattista Basile, a vain woman persuades a barber to skin her to make her younger. This tale envisions skinning as a type of rebirth, the stripping away of one’s former self in order to start fresh with new choices.”
Kevin R. Free and John William Watkins in
a scene from Wink (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While many pet owners like to joke that "dogs have masters, cats have staff," a new piece of absurdist theatre receiving its world premiere from the Marin Theatre Company proves that shapeshifting and magical realism are as potent as ever when it comes to reeling an audience in to the outrageous worldview of a contemporary comedy.

Liz Sklar as Sofie in Wink (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Jen Silverman's new play, Wink, may seem like a normal domestic comedy for about two minutes but, soon after Sofie (Liz Sklar) starts fretting about her missing cat (Wink), things get curiouser and curiouser. With scenery and costumes designed by Dane Laffrey, lighting by Jen Schreiver, and sound design by Jake Rodriguez, the audience soon discovers that Sofie and her husband, Gregor (Seann Gallagher), are seeing the same shrink: the fastidious Doctor Frans (Kevin R. Free).

Kevin R. Free (Doctor Frans) and Seann Gallagher (Gregor)
in a scene from Wink (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Not only does Gregor confess to Dr. Frans that he has killed, skinned, and buried Sofie's beloved cat, he worries that instead of feeling guilty, it made him feel stronger, releasing a strangely intoxicating sensation of rage. Though Dr. Frans hypothesizes that Gregor may be struggling with latent homosexual tendencies, Gregor is convinced that some other force is at play.

Meanwhile, Sofie has taken to vacuuming their home with a vengeance as a way of releasing her own anger at Wink's disappearance. In a highly theatrical psychotic break, she switches from robotic housecleaning to a destructive rage as she tears apart the living room (breaking vases, upturning chairs, throwing cat toys across the room, dumping Wink's litter box all over the rug, and pounding holes into the walls).

Liz Sklar as Sofie in Wink (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Cut to a new scene in which Dr. Frans is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a bizarre figure slithering over the top of his office wall. It's the skinless Wink (brilliantly embodied by John William Watkins), who has decided that what he really wants is not calm, but a chance to hunt and exact revenge.

“I’m a queer woman, so my lens on my work is shaped by both my gender and my queerness,” states Silverman. "I was raised across many different countries, so my characters are often outsiders of a kind, in ways both obvious and buried. These are unconscious resonances that draw me toward characters, however, not intellectual decisions about recognition. The development period for this play allowed me to discover that, at its heart, this is a story about transformation: our capacity for it, our need for it, the damage it does to the structures we’ve built, and the necessity of rebuilding our lives at a certain point (or building them differently). It’s been good practice as a writer to create and discard many, many drafts in pursuit of the play’s best container and its sharpest questions.”

Seann Gallagher as Gregor in Wink (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

The transformations in Wink are pretty astonishing and, in Gregor's case, can be traced to certain hunting rituals that employed sympathetic magic in primitive cultures (as described in Sir James George Frazer's masterpiece, The Golden Bough). Whether Gregor develops a fetish for Wink's fur (which he eventually starts wearing as an empowering piece of underwear) or Sofie starts believing that she has been raped by a terrorist named Ronald who crawled through a window, their diminishing grip on reality is matched by Dr. Frans, who falls head over heels in love with a skinless, deceased cat to which he has become increasingly subservient, and Wink (who has taken to wearing the pants in their relationship).

“In Jen Silverman’s play, Gregor’s act of skinning his wife’s cat creates a ripple effect across the lives of all four characters, disrupting the patterns in their lives and uncovering unknown selves," observes Stephanie Strick. "Even Wink, who luxuriates in his plan for hunt and revenge, encounters opportunities he never expected. As the characters wrestle with their impulses, they open up to the terrifying and liberating possibilities of change.”

Liz Sklar (Sofie) and Seann Gallagher (Gregor) in
a scene from Wink (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

Mike Donahue has done a splendid job of directing Wink's world premiere production, drawing beautiful performances from his four-actor ensemble. While Seann Gallagher and Kevin R. Free give strong performances as Gregor and Dr. Frans, Liz Sklar gives one of her best performances in recent years as Sofie, with John William Watkins stealing the show whenever he is onstage.

Liz Sklar and John William Watkins in a scene
from Wink (Photo by: Ben Krantz Studio)

By the end of the play, Sofie prefers to be called Ronald, Wink has moved on to greater adventures, and Gregor is down on his knees, howling at the moon. One could easily say that "the cat's out of the bag" with regard to Silverman's 75-minute play (which I'm pretty sure will have a long and healthy life on regional stages and in college theatre departments). It would also be interesting to see a small theatre company plan a season around a theme of pets and bestiality that includes a production of Wink along with Mary Chase's Harvey (which won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros (1959), and Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (which was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama). Performances of Wink continue through July 7 at the Marin Theatre Company (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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Most tourists exploring Copenhagen (or taking a guided tour of Denmark's capital city) make a point of visiting Edvard Eriksen's famous statue of The Little Mermaid. First unveiled in 1913, the beloved icon was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen, whose popular fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, was first published in 1837. Today, Denmark's ambitious little social climber can be seen in numerous forms of entertainment:

The San Francisco Opera is currently presenting Antonin Dvorak's 1901 opera, Rusalka, which premiered in Prague. Using the handsome David McVicar production (with sets designed by John Macfarlane, costumes by Moritz Junge, and lighting by David Finn) borrowed from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the company has a major hit on its hand thanks, in no small part, to the exceptional work of conductor Eun Sun Kim.

Rachel Willis‐Sørensen stars in Rusalka (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Like other versions of The Little Mermaid, Rusalka is not only awash in magical realism, it boasts a resourceful, conniving witch named Ježibaba (Jamie Barton) who has plenty of malice aforethought. Add in the heroine's formidable father, a water goblin named Vodník (Kristinn Sigmundsson), a trio of wood nymphs (Natalie Image, Simone McIntosh, and Ashley Dixon), and a jealous foreign princess (Sarah Cambidge) who wants to make the handsome prince (Brandon Jovanovich) her own, and it's easy to see how, with the right ingredients, Rusalka can cast a magical spell over any audience.

Jamie Barton as Ježibaba in Rusalka (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

In his program note entitled "Finding The Way to Rusalka," Larry Rothe writes:
“[Librettist Jaroslav] Kvapil created Rusalka from several sources (mainly Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, but also Undine by the German writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué). With their aquatic settings and fantastic characters, these stories provided material that Kvapil framed as a folk tale, meshing with Dvorák’s current passion. Kvapil dwells on images of the moon, whose mysterious light radiates throughout a world fraught with the dangers of wished-for enchantment. The libretto indeed reveals few particularly Slavic elements beyond the names in the dramatis personae (although the witch Ježibaba will reappear in operas by another Czech composer, morphing into one of Janácek’s mean-spirited village crones). Whether it was the story Kvapil told or the tone he adopted, his libretto touched Dvorák.”
Rachel Willis‐Sørensen and Jamie Barton in a scene
from Rusalka (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
“In Rusalka, Dvorák’s opera ambition coincided with his love of legend. The composer seems unbothered by a sometimes blurry plot with the potential to encourage considerable interpretive leeway. Dvorák folded these into the musical context of Slavic legend. We hear the bardic harp as Rusalka is introduced, and again as the Prince meets her. We hear melodies inspired by Czech folk tunes and dances. Dvorák knew what made opera work. Early on, as violist in the orchestra at Prague’s National Theatre, he learned about the stage. By 1901, when Rusalka was premiered, he had already written eight operas (although none had attracted much interest outside Bohemia). Rusalka changed that. It brought him his biggest theatrical triumph, at home and abroad.”
Rachel Willis‐Sørensen and Kristinn Sigmundsson
in a scene from Rusalka (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

My first exposure to this opera's charms came as I watched my friend, Lilian Sukis, perform Rusalka's hauntingly beautiful "Song To The Moon" before a class of voice students at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. In 1991, I saw my first fully-staged performance of Rusalka starring Renée Fleming at the Seattle Opera. But, as directed by Leah Hausman for the San Francisco Opera, McVicar's production proved to be a deliciously rewarding and glorious treat.

Brandon Jovanovich as The Prince in Rusalka
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Like Richard Wagner's Rienzi, Giachino Rossini's Il Viaggo a Reims, Jules Massenet's Esclarmonde, Carlo Maria von Weber's Der Freischutz, Ponchielli's La Gioconda, and Verdi's I Due Foscari, Rusalka is hardly a staple of the operatic repertoire. While some sopranos occasionally offer the "Song To The Moon" as an encore following their recitals, the opera's score contains a wealth of lush and richly colored music.

Sarah Cambidge as the Foreign Princess in Rusalka
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Dramatically, Rusalka is a fairly tight piece of work whose three acts contain little if any downtime. Act II, Scene II even contains a brief yet fairly traditional ballet (nicely executed here to comic effect by Rachel Speidel Little and Christopher Nachtrab). In addition to the romantic leads and female villains (Ježibaba and the Foreign Princess), there are three nicely-written small roles for a forester (Philip Horst), kitchen boy (Laura Krumm), and hunter (Andrew Manea).

Kristinn Sigmundsson as the Water Demon
in Rusalka (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Towering over the performance is soprano Rachel Willis‐Sørensen's moving portrayal of the title character (who starts out as a confused young water nymph with a goal of upward mobility but, after agreeing to a witch's bargain, finds herself very much a "fish out of water" in the Prince's castle). Tenor Brandon Jovanovich returned to the San Francisco Opera with a powerfully-voiced portrait of the privileged, fickle Prince. Throughout the performance, the vocal work from lead artists and secondary singers was rock solid. Choreographer Andrew George and chorus director Ian Robertson also deserve kudos for their artistic contributions to the production.

Rachel Willis‐Sørensen and Brandon Jovanovich
in a scene from Rusalka (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Over five decades of attending operatic performances, I've witnessed numerous productions (ranging from Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel and Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten to Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld and Wagner's Die Fliegende Hollander) whose stories involve a curious mix of mythological figures and mere mortals. MacVicar's production of Rusalka rises to this challenge with exceptional grace as it carries the action from a haunted forest -- where horny wood nymphs are running between the trees -- to a dark kitchen and stately ballroom within the Prince's castle. As far as I'm concerned, any stage director who can milk some comedy from a scene in which a kitchen boy stuffs a goose's carcass to the sounds of Dvorak's music deserves extra credit!

Laura Krumm (Kitchen Boy) and Philip Horst (Gamekeeper)
in a scene from Rusalka (Photo by: Cory Weaver)