Friday, June 12, 2009

In At The Kill

Attempts to anthropomorphize wild animals can be dangerously misleading. While Americans have embraced Tony the Tiger, Bert Lahr's portrayal of The Cowardly Lion, and Calvin's stuffed tiger named Hobbes, in real life such animals are deadly predators. The Monkey King is a classic figure in Chinese mythology. Ganesh, an elephant deity, is a popular figure in Hindu culture. From Dumbo to The Jungle Book and beyond, elephants are a favorite character in animated Disney films.

On October 3, 2003, entertainer Roy Horn was attacked by a rare white tiger used in his animal act at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas. On December 25, 2007, a 243-pound Siberian tiger named Tatiana escaped from her enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo and attacked three youths, killing one and injuring two of his friends.

In other instances when supposedly domesticated animals have attacked their trainers, the media has dutifully reminded viewers that these animals were probably threatened or following their natural instincts. While Julie Taymor's phenomenal staging of The Lion King makes full use of puppetry and stage magic, there is no attempt to confuse poetry and make-believe with real life.

Basic instincts -- whether sexual, maternal, or predatory -- can be found throughout the animal kingdom. However, getting in touch with them in a society built on educated, complacent lifestyles often takes a lot of work. No matter how much we try to improve our behavior toward others, we mate the same way giraffes do and defecate the same way whales do. Humans, like any other species, are innately wired to respond to forces of nature. Threats of aggression, dominance, or an intrusion upon one's sense of territoriality can quickly stimulate the flow of adrenaline.

Despite mankind's never-ending attempts to elevate its ranks above the rest of earth's species, the sad truth is that we are born as animals, live as animals, and die as animals. Our brains may have advanced to a point where we can read, write, and surf the web, but our cardiorespiratory systems and musculoskeletal development all follow a familiar pattern replicated among the world's mammals. Many insist on debating whether human behavior is a result of nature or nurture. But when the beast within us receives adequate provocation, certain instinctive -- indeed feral -- reactions can be stimulated. In matters of life and death, we surprise ourselves with our survival skills.

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One of the oldest behavioral patterns seen among mammals is that of the younger threatening the older's dominance. Think of an eager puppy or lion cub getting swatted back into place by its mother. Think of a gorilla challenging one of its elders to see who can become "king of the mountain." Then think of an older Edward Albee trying to defend his skills against the younger version of himself.

To close out its season, American Conservatory Theatre presented the West Coast premiere of Albee's At Home At The Zoo just a few months prior to the 50th anniversary of the September 28, 1959 world premiere of Albee's one-act play, The Zoo Story, in West Berlin. As many theater folk know, in 2004 Albee wrote a "prequel" entitled Homelife in which he introduced audiences to Ann (the wife of one of the two characters who appear in The Zoo Story). After making some slight adjustments in The Zoo Story, Albee withdrew the performing rights to the original one-act play and is now insisting that the two plays be performed together under the title At Home At The Zoo.

Like many prequels, what now constitutes the first act of the story is a bit of a yawn. Ann and Peter (who live a fairly comfortable life on the upper East Side of Manhattan) have settled into a lifestyle that is more notable for its routineness, symmetry, and lack of communication than for any surprises or overt displays of passion. Peter is a quiet, studious type who can easily lose himself in one of the textbooks his company publishes. While he occasionally agonizes over whether or not his circumcision is "failing" (he understands it is impossible for his foreskin to return), he is relatively content with his life.

Peter accepts things far more than he challenges them, preferring to be gentle with those he loves rather than do anything that would hurt them. He has his reasons, too. Once, during his wilder college days, he was having sex with a woman when she told him she wanted to get fucked in the ass. Much to Peter's surprise, his animal instincts took over and he ended up pounding her with a beastly bravado and, in the process, physically hurting her (something he has always regretted).

While Peter may be more than adequate in bed as a lover, Ann yearns for a slightly kinkier relationship that could involve the type of power games often found in BDSM activities. She wants to challenge the boundaries of their routine lovemaking and maybe even take things to a more intense level of sexplay. As adults, however, the sense of routine that accompanies aging and compromise has severely dulled their animal instincts. The sight of these two intellectuals trying to get in touch with their primitive nature has comic potential.

Anthony Fusco and René Augesen (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Where Albee does score during his new first act (primarily through his terseness and sparse writing) is in depicting the boredom and alienation that have tempered Ann and Peter's relationship. Neither character is particularly sympathetic or interesting. Nor are their lives. The passion Ann tries to provoke can barely heat Peter's temperament from tepid to a mild simmer.

What's more, today's audience is not going to be shocked by bored housewives or middle-aged men who have become obsessed with their penises. This, like the legendary "daring" of the now 81-year-old Edward Albee, is decidedly old news. What Act I basically does is set up an excuse for Peter to take a walk in Central Park after he leaves his apartment. If this had been written by anyone other than Edward Albee, the critical response would have been "big fucking deal!"

Act II, however, finds us in Central Park as Peter sits on a bench reading. Enter Jerry, the young, angry and dangerously unstable force of nature who is about to rock Peter's world with stories of a lifestyle radically removed from Peter's creature comforts.

Jerry starts in easy, trying to distract Peter from his book and engage him in conversation. But as Jerry starts to describe where he lives, and his attempts to poison one of the neighbor's dogs, he becomes less comic, less pathetic, and starts to appear a bit sinister. When he starts to challenge Peter's territoriality, a semiserious game of challenging the older generation turns surprisingly violent.

Manoel Felciano and Anthony Fusco (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

I had the strangest reaction while watching At Home At The Zoo, and it is to something which would not normally interest me. Act I depends a great deal on pregnant pauses, truncated responses, and contains barely 25% of the verbage of the second act. It has been written through the eyes of a trained clinician who knows his way around a sterile operating theater. As one would expect to find in any surgical suite, Act I calls for precise, deft action with a minimum of extraneous noise.

By contrast, Act II takes place in the streets (or concrete jungle) where animals swing wild from the trees, between park bunches, and with their fists. Whereas the young Albee was an angry, daring playwright, the old Albee has become an accomplished cynic with great craft but much less to say.

While Rebecca Bayla Taichman's direction neatly balances the questioning pokes and challenges between Albee's characters, her best work can be seen in the pacing and musical shadings of Jerry's monologues/arias which form the bulk of the second act. Manoel Felciano delivers a beautifully impassioned performance as Jerry, with Anthony Fusco's Peter serving as a powerful foil in a character that almost cries out to be inhabited by David Hyde Pierce. René Augesen does the best she can with Albee's material for the prequel but, in large part, this production shines because of the austere set design by Robert Brill and Stephen Strawbridge's lighting in Act II.

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Over at the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera is currently staging a revival of Tosca with Adrianne Pieczonka in the title role, Carlo Ventre as Cavaradossi and Lado Ataneli as the evil Baron Scarpia. Composed by Giacomo Puccini, this opera received its world premiere on January 14, 1900 at Rome's Teatro Costanzi.

Since then it has become a staple of the repertory for most opera houses that is guaranteed to please audiences with its major arias, its searing melodrama, and a chance to experience moments of old-fashioned verismo singing. While many audiences are drawn to Puccini's opera because of its love story, the person who really moves the plot along is the villain. Unlike other operatic characters, Scarpia has no delusions of grandeur or a poetic lifestyle. In the opening of Act II, he fully embraces his primitive instincts:
"For myself the violent conquest
Has stronger relish than the soft surrender.
I take no delight in sighs or vows
Exchanged at misty lunar dawn.
I know not how to draw
Harmony from guitars, or horoscopes
From flowers, nor am I apt at dalliance,
Or cooing like the turtle dove. I crave.
I pursue the craved thing, sate myself and cast it by,
And seek new bait."
Lado Ataneli as Scarpia (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Later in the second act, when Scarpia offers Tosca a chance to bargain for her lover's life, he admits that:
"Yes, they say that I am venal, but it is not
For money that I will sell myself
To beautiful women. I want other recompense
If I am to betray my oath of office.
I have waited for this hour.
Already in the past I burned
With passion for the Diva.
But tonight I have beheld you
In a new role I had not seen before.
Those tears of yours were lava
To my senses and that fierce hatred
Which your eyes shot at me, only fanned
The fire in my blood.
Supple as a leopard
You enrapped your lover. In that instant
I vowed you would be mine!
Mine! Yes, I will have you … "
Tosca (Adrianne Pieczonka) and Scarpia (Lado Ataneli)
Photo by: Cory Weaver

In many ways Scarpia is an archetypical villain. But he's also someone who, like many predators, likes to play with his food before devouring it. That was easier said than done in this revival of Lotfi Mansouri's production (with sets and costumes designed by Thierry Bosquet) for reasons having to do with blocking. While Jose Maria Condemi's stage direction was methodical and precise, there wasn't much drama to be found in the evening's melodrama.

In many operatic productions, the placement of soloists on the stage is crucial (especially when it comes time to perform a major aria). A singer must be able to keep an eye on the prompter (or conductor) and will want to face the audience as much as possible in order to make sure that his voice carries out into the auditorium. What has developed over the years is a peculiar style of stage direction which keeps singers' mouths aimed squarely at the audience, often at the expense of any true interaction between characters. Only the most secure artists are willing (or able) to interact with their colleagues in ways that occasionally prevent them from singing directly out to the house.

As a result, this season's Scarpia (though eager to play with his prey) found himself wrestling with a Tosca who could sing loudly enough but would rarely look at her captor. A full-throated soprano with a carefully-measured stage presence can take a lot of the fizz out of a good old-fashioned struggle for survival. Although Marco Armiliato conducted enthusiastically -- and I was genuinely thrilled by some of the tenor's moments -- this production of Tosca was a bit more routine than rash, and about as threatening as a metronome.

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I would strongly urge anyone interested in zebras, Michael Jackson, pinatas, new music, opera, giraffes, pills, Maria Callas, model trains, political protests, healthcare reform and/or survival instincts to attend the screening of Fig Trees: A Documentary Opera About Pills, Gertrude Stein & AIDS Activism that will take place on Monday, June 22 at the Castro Theatre as part of Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival). Created by John Greyson, who is familiar to gay viewers as the director of Lilies (1996), this is a multimedia artistic triumph which combines a wide variety of performance styles.

Early memorable attempts to integrate film into staged opera productions include New York City Opera's 1975 production of Eric Wolfgang Korngold's rarely-performed Die Tote Stadt as well as the 1981 staging of Frederick Delius's hauntingly beautiful Fennimore and Gerda by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. An accomplished filmmaker, Greyson has taken a unique approach to creating a video opera by merging the story of AIDS activism on two continents with the opera Four Saints In Three Acts (which opened on Broadway on February 20, 1934 with a libretto by Gertrude Stein and a score composed by Virgil Thomsen). As he explains in the press kit for Fig Trees:
"In 1999, South African AIDS activist Zackie Achmat went on a treatment strike, refusing to take his pills until they were widely available to all South Africans. This symbolic act became a cause célèbre, helping build his group Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) into a national movement -- yet with each passing month Zackie grew sicker.

Fig Trees is a documentary opera about AIDS activists Tim McCaskell of Toronto and Zackie Achmat of Capetown as they fight for access to treatment drugs. Documentary interviews, speeches, press conferences and demonstrations are sampled, taken apart, and set to music, replayed this time as operatic scenes. A surreal fictional narrative is intercut with the stories of their struggles against government and the pharmaceutical industry. In this fictional world, Gertrude Stein decides to write a tragic opera about Tim and Zackie and their saint-like heroism. She kidnaps them, transports them to Niagara Falls, and forces them to sing a series of complicated avant-garde vocal compositions. However, when Zackie ends his treatment strike and starts taking his pills, Gertrude realizes that there will be no more tragedy, and thus no more opera.

Fig Trees performs musical and political inversions on the music and words of Gertrude Stein's 1934 avant-garde classic opera Four Saints in Three Acts, singing it upside down and backwards. Using compositional techniques of chance, palindromes, and polyphony, Fig Trees finds points of political harmony and musical convergence in operatic and documentary sequences that profile the overlapping stories of various activists: Gugu Diamini, Stephen Lewis, Simon Nkoli, and most of all, Tim and Zackie. Featuring in the supporting cast: a singing albino squirrel, an amputee husker, a ghostly male soprano, and St. Theresa of Avila, Fig Trees tells the story of Zackie's treatment strike in song and the larger story of the fight for pills on two continents, and across two decades, asking what does it mean for us to sing about AIDS?"

Easily the most ambitious multimedia opera project I've ever seen, Fig Trees stands in a class by itself. It is at once cinematically arresting, musically fascinating, politically relevant, and grandly entertaining in ways that would make Peter Sellars green with envy.

"We were definitely taking on opera as this conservative, elitist monolith," explains Greyson, "but on the other hand, trying to tease out a tendency that's sometimes forgotten, a tendency of resistance, a tendency of social activism buried within those surtitles and grand divas parking and barking on center stage."

To suggest that Greyson's film is a monumental achievement in the mixing of art genres with archival footage of real-life events would be a ridiculous understatement. This is a multicultural, multinational, multimedia stunner that will wash over you and flood your senses (whether you are listening to the human voice in all its richness, witnessing Nelson Mandela don an HIV Positive T-shirt or watching some stunning animation sequences). Kudos to David Wall for a thrilling original score. Here's the trailer:

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