Monday, March 16, 2009

Theatrical Tri-Tip

The succulent joys of a well-seasoned tri-tip may be unknown to vegetarians. But for those of us who love a good piece of meat, the tri-tip (named because it comes from a triangular muscle cut from the bottom sirloin) offers a winning combination of lowered fat and lowered cost without compromising any of the beef's robust flavor. A popular item in many supermarkets, tri-tips are excellent steaks for cooking on a grill, in a rotisserie, or being ground up for use in a prized low-fat chili recipe. Think of tri-tip as a lean, clean source of protein.

This weekend witnessed the openings of three local theatrical productions wherein lean muscle and sinew offered a solid foundation for some performances. Produced by three very different companies in three diverse environments, the results ranged from rare to well done, with an occasional slab of rump roast taking center stage.

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The American Conservatory Theater's Master of Fine Arts Program and Young Conservatory joined forces for the world premiere of Ron Ackerman's Volleygirls at the Zeum Theater. I may not be a sports fan but, as a loyal fan of Tennessee's Lady Vols, my business partner used to travel to cities across America to attend their games. After watching the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival's presentation of Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority, I have a better appreciation for the role of women's sports in building self image.

Thus, it was interesting to watch Ackerman's play about a lackluster female volleyball team from St. Agnes High School in Bexley, Ohio. The playwright's long-time devotion to sports (plus the time he spent shadowing a high school coach for his research) led to the creation of a taut, 90-minute drama that balances the sport with the personalities that inhabit and surround the sport. Whether on or off the volleyball court, Ackerman's players are more complex than one often encounters in dramas about a sports team trying to overcome crushing odds in order to achieve success.

James Bigelow with the team from St. Agnes
Photo by Jay Yamada

In concisely crafted and dramatically effective moments, Ackerman gets under the skin of an English teacher who is doubling as a volleyball coach, the adolescent girls he must supervise, and several overly protective parents whose egos can't allow their children to fail. With W. D. Keith directing, the volleyball team featured Zoe Birnbaum (Crash), Madeleine Kelley (Jocelyn), Caitlin Martin (Liv), Arianna Papalexopoulos (Marisal), Katie Rich (Ingrid), Jacqueline Toboni (Katie) and Kelsey Venter as the team captain, Jess. Young Colin Woodell (Xavier) was the only male from the Young Conservatory to be cast in the play.

The students were uniformly strong, which is not only a credit to their director, but also to the playwright (who crafted believable roles for a substantial number of adolescent actors). I especially liked Liliana Duque Piniero's unit set and Ian Smith's lighting.

The adults in the cast included James Bigelow as the milquetoast coach and Cat Walleck in multiple roles as a fellow faculty member (Sally) and as Carla and Lauren (two mothers of girls on the St. Agnes women's volleyball team). Special mention should be made of Nick Gabriel's four stunning cameos as Dirk, Ref, Phil and Ben. A powerful and extremely versatile actor who is capable of imbuing his characters with surprising depth, Gabriel is definitely a talent to watch.

Nick Gabriel

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Down in Palo Alto, Theaterworks offered its subscribers a production of It Ain't Nothin' But The Blues, a musical revue by Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Randal Myler, Ron Taylor and Dan Wheetman that evolved from a 45-minute educational outreach piece of theater designed to tour Denver area schools back in the 1990s. In 1999, the show had a 284-performance run in Lincoln Center. In the ten years since, it has received numerous productions (often with several of the original contributors in the cast).

Alison Ewing and James Monroe Iglehart
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Designed to trace the history of the blues from its earliest roots among African-American slaves by following its development up and along the Mississippi River to cities like Memphis and Chicago (as well as rural areas in Appalachia), the show has evolved into a concert backed by multiple slide projections. As one of its creators and key performers, Charles Bevel, notes:
"Trying to cover the whole gamut and genres of African-American music from the inception of slavery through the 1960s in two hours, plus showing their strong influences on other forms of popular American music, was about one inch this side of impossible. Randy Myler, our director, suggested that it would be best to use 'a picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words' approach; that is, using just enough dialogue to weave the songs together, while relying on projected images to tell the story. The pictures were gathered from the Library of Congress and other places, including the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The most laborious process would also be the most heartbreaking: deciding which songs to include and which to leave out."
C. Kelly Wright (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

While there is no doubt that the audience was thrilled by the cast's singing, I found the show's structure occasionally offputting. There were many moments when the performers were simply upstaged by the historical slides being projected on the three screens behind them. With the addition of a backup band, the second act proved to be much stronger than the first. What seemed to be missing was a more solid narrative to guide the audience through the evolution of the blues.

With more than 40 musical numbers on the program, I found myself particularly moved by Alison Keating's renditions of My Home's Across The Blue Ridge Mountains and Fever, Chic Street Man's performance of Crawlin' King Snake, C. Kelly Wright's delivery of Someone Else is Steppin' In and My Man Rocks Me, and Michelle E. Jordan's powerful versions of St. Louis Blues and Strange Fruit (a song about the lynchings of black men in the South). Others in the powerful ensemble included "Missisippi" Charles Bevel, James Monroe Iglehart, and Tony Marcus.

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I've saved the leanest, meanest cut of meat (appropriately presented by Cutting Ball Theater) for last to discuss. THOM PAIN (based on nothing) is a magnificent solo piece written by Will Eno, who has been called "the Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation" by New York Times theater critic, Charles Isherwood. Directed by Marissa Wolf, it stars Jonathan Bock as a disgruntled, frustrated, lonely man who is desperately trying to find a way to explain and confront his life (with all its failings -- and a few of yours, too).

Jonathan Bock (Photo by Bryan Wolf)

Barely 70 minutes long, this play is not merely beautifully written (it was one of the finalists for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), but a superb vehicle with which an actor can refine his craft. It calls for a solo performer who is able to work closely with an audience -- often getting in their faces -- while making people laugh, squirm, and question authority. It requires an actor with tons of confidence, who doesn't need to hide behind a costume but who can, instead, roll with the playwright's rhythms with no fear of capsizing an overly caustic canoe.

Think of writers like Augusten Burroughs and filmmakers like Todd Solondz. Think of some of the most fiercely intelligent and political comics you've seen -- performers like Lewis Black, Scott Capurro, and John Oliver -- and then imagine them stuck in an existential nightmare, outside their comfort zones, unsure whether they will ever be let back in. 

Jonathan Bock (Photo by Bryan Wolf)

Think of a bitter, cynical soul struggling to find a ray of hope in his otherwise bleak childhood, attempting to show an audience that, despite his overwhelming sarcasm, he has one or two likeable qualities. Then think of an actor who has found the right beats in a playwright's language of disillusionment and is performing them with the smoky smoothness of a jazz musician learning how to use a laser.

When you're done thinking about all of that, get your ass down to the Exit Stage on Taylor and watch Jonathan Bock's amazing performance. Unlike many monologues (which call for an actor to impersonate a variety of characters), what you see in Mr. Bock is what you get. One man coping with a narrative, playing with an audience and, in the process, creating theatrical magic. Steak, not sizzle.

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