Saturday, October 4, 2008

Death Becomes Them

Death comes for everyone: the archbishop, the saint, the Mafia capo and the innocent child.  Yet how and when death will choose to appear often remains a mystery.  With John McCain's campaign currently in a death spiral that still hopes to be rescued by what sounds like an evangelical cocktail waitress, some people are already placing bets on whether the candidate will precede his Presidential campaign down the toilet of infamy.   Maybe that's what Ross Perot meant when he used to refer to that giant sucking sound: the pathetic demise of John McCain.

Time alone will tell.

How people talk about death may vary from culture to culture but, for playwrights, screenwriters, and storytellers far and wide, death offers the inspiration for powerful narratives. This week two Bay area theater companies opened their seasons with plays in which death dominated the stage.  Although both tried as hard as possible to succeed, each play missed the mark by a substantial margin.  Death was not proud.

Or, as they say in show business:  Close, but no cigar.  

First up was the Magic Theatre's production of K of D: An Urban Legend.    Purportedly exploring the mythology of how urban legends are created, Laura Schellhardt's 75-minute monologue describes how a series of mysterious deaths -- and, in particular, one young woman's supposed "kiss of death" -- became the dominant theme of a small town's long hot summer. Directed by Laura Novick and starring a determined and energetic Maya Lawson, the K of D had some real structural problems.

Let me explain.

There are many one-person shows in which an actor takes on multiple roles, jumping from one character to another with a chameleon-like grace that astounds the audience.  Think of Chazz Palminteri's recent appearance in A Bronx Tale.  Think of plays like I Am My Own WifeThink of Dan Hoyle's staggering performance in Tings Dey Happen -- or Lily Tomlin's award-winning performance in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

These plays share two common traits:  (1) a narrative which propels the audience forward with intelligence and a clear sense of direction, and (2) a strongly-delineated cast of characters.

Now try to imagine a performance piece in which the characters are not always that easily distinguishable from one another because, despite her best efforts, the actor onstage fails to make the character transitions clear enough to the audience.  Or in which the speed with which the actor jumps back and forth between characters prevents the audience from closely following the narrative.  Last, but not least, imagine a situation in which the narrative is not really all that compelling as a story. 

Those are the unfortunate structural weaknesses which undermine the 75 minutes in which Maya Lawson is onstage at the Magic Theatre.   While, as a professional actor, she's working extremely hard, her narrative -- and the characters she is attempting to portray -- never really get high enough off the ground to find their true pitch.  Laura Novick tries very hard to make the evening come to life, but all the sound engineering and skateboard symbolism in the world can't breathe enough life into this play to make it take wing.

Maya Lawson in "The K of D" (Photo by David Allen)

Out in Concord, the Willows Theatre Company opened its season with the West Coast premiere of Lying In State.  Written by David C. Hyer (a retired oil company executive who died in 2003), this political farce asks audiences to imagine what would happen if people tried to re-elect a deceased politician.  

As with any farce, there are some stock characters:  the not-so-grieving widow (whom the politician once accidentally shot in the ass), the lamebrained governor, his likeable but clueless publicist son, and the decedent's opportunistic brother.  Add in the bimbo whose bouncing bosoms earned her the name of Buttons with most of the local politicos -- and a lunatic housewife who has been taking her cat's medicine along with a variety of painkillers -- and the stage is set for mischief.

Hyer lays out a lot of exposition to set up the action for the moment when the increasingly desperate ensemble discovers that the supposedly dead politician is not resting in his coffin.  As the Governer sends the coffin to the rotunda of the State Capitol so that the deceased can lie in state (and the bimbo grasps the true meaning of what her friend meant when he said that he wanted her to have his Senate seat), ulterior motives lead to frequent outbursts of political idiocy such as sending the corpse to a nearby fundraising event.

The campaign manager envisions television ads which just show someone from the waist down, with his legs moving as the voiceover chants "Run, Ed.  Run!"  The bimbo produces a picture of both rival candidates with a stripper before realizing the stripper in the picture is actually herself.  Toward the end of the play, when the President of the United States is arriving for the funeral, the phone rings and, lo and behold, it is the decedent calling from an undisclosed location.

The ensemble at the Willows Theatre Company gave this play their best shot.  I particularly liked Cynthia Rogers Baggott as Margo, the demented housewife.  Deborah Del Mastro worked to get laughs as the newly-widowed first wife (whohad  lost a lot of weight and gotten rid of her stutter once she left the sleazy world of politics).  Others in the cast included Ken Baggott (Harry), Chris Hayes (Herb), Chris Libby as the governor's son Wally, and Michael Medici as Fred, the Governor. Richard Elliott directed, trying to milk as many laughs as possible.

The production suffered, however, from one critical piece of miscasting.  While Yvonne Campbell gave it her best shot as Buttons the bimbo, the role should really have been given to an actress half her age.  Campbell's supposedly goofy stripper appeared to be older and have had more life experience than the dead politician's widow, the older Governor, and most of the men in the cast. Although Ms. Campbell has a close association with the company that goes back quite a way, this was not the best role to showcase her talent.

Lying In State is a perfect vehicle for community, college, and dinner theater productions.  It requires a small cast, a unit set, and a movable coffin.  With a more gifted director, a more highly skilled ensemble and a younger, better Buttons, I imagine the show would have produced more solid laughs.

Nevertheless, the audience in Concord seemed quite happy with the proceedings onstage and had themselves a merry time.

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