Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Art Of Giving Head

Most people have no idea how much their heads weigh. I do because I learned the hard way. Back in the 1970s, when I first started working from home, I had not bothered to invest in an ergonomic office chair. Instead, I was trying to transcribe while sitting on a rigid kitchen chair that could not be adjusted for height or pitch.

Take my word, you never want to make that mistake. I had no idea how much strain I was placing on my neck muscles thanks to my wildly inappropriate typing posture. As I kept working longer and longer hours trying to meet deadlines for the court reporters whose dictation I was transcribing, the muscles in my neck began to tighten. My back started to go out of alignment and pretty soon the pain became unbearable. Soon, I could barely hold up my head.

Luckily, I friend guided me to a chiropractor whose adjustments helped to get me back in shape. Since then, I have been acutely aware of proper ergonomic precautions with regard to my desk space.

A person only needs to lose the support of his head once to understand that it is like trying to balance a bowling ball on a toothpick. Such painfully-acquired knowledge gives someone a unique perspective for viewing productions of Oscar Wilde's and Richard Strauss's Salome, in which the religious prophet, John the Baptist, is decapitated and his head presented on a silver platter to Judea's teen-aged princess.

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In order to fully appreciate the physical challenges overcome by designer Bruno Schwengl in the San Francisco Opera's new production of Salome (a co-production with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and L'Opéra de Montréal), one needs to have experienced different stagings of Strauss's opera. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen numerous productions of Salome with some great artists heading the cast.
All of these productions embraced a traditional stage layout featuring a removable covering to the cistern containing Jokanaan's dungeon cell. While dramatically accurate, the space needed to accommodate this design always creates a challenge for stage directors. Schwengl's new production, which premiered in June of 2009 at the Loretto Hilton Theatre, had to fit into a tiny theatre with a thrust stage.

By eliminating the presence of the downstage cistern cover and moving Jokanaan's entrances and exits to a darkened upstage wall with a circular opening (that can expand or contract like a camera's shutter), Schwengl immediately gave the opera a more focused performing space. The "tunnel of doom" effect created upstage also facilitated a Grand Guignol approach to presenting Jokanaan's severed head to the audience.

Nadja Michael (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

In most productions, the head appears on a silver platter that is propelled upward by the executioner as he rises through a trapdoor in the stage. In San Francisco Opera's new production, the executioner is suddenly seen upstage, holding a cloth sack dripping copious amounts of blood (the fake head is made of latex and holds 32 ounces of fluid). After he presents the severed head to Salome, she must unwrap it from its cloth covering while getting blood all over her costume.

In his director's note from the production's debut at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Seán Curran wrote:
"In moving from choreographer to director, I find myself returning to Martha Graham's famous saying: 'Movement never lies.' As one who is accustomed to moving bodies through space, it is interesting to me that the story of Salome more or less unfolds in real time (a rarity in opera). In this regard, the transition from choreographing to directing is not so radical. The choreographer's challenges of moving performers through space in a way that supports the emotional cadences of the score is equal to the director's challenge of pushing each character forward to tell a story deeply and vividly.

As a concert dance choreographer, my work is driven by music; it has primarily focused on the human condition and the relationships we forge with one another. Most of my dances can be viewed as microcosmic communities that exist within places (both real and fictional) of conflict, anguish, or chaos. I strive to shape my work with a mixture of formal craft and intuitive resonance without being overtly literal, thus making it universal.

Nadja Michael (Photo by: Terrence McCarthy)

The iconoclasts of modern dance have also provided unlikely, but fitting visual inspiration for the production's set and costumes. Loie Fuller's signature use of sheer, voluminous fabric that highlighted the interplay between movement and light; Ruth St. Denis's fascination with exoticism and Orientalism; Martha Graham's exploration of religious themes and even Isadora Duncan's naturalistic style juxtaposed against the demise in that fateful, freak automobile accident play into Salome's 'Dance of the Seven Veils.' Each of these artists showed a keen disregard for the traditional mores and expectations of women, and we see obvious parallels in Salome's behavior. She is a young woman discovering the power of her body; inflaming the lust of her stepfather, King Herod; provoking jealousy in her mother, Herodias; repulsing the evangelist Jokanaan with her sinful desires, and filling the soldier, Narraboth, with longing.

Packed into less than two hours, Salome is an operatic tour-de-force. The score is often a central character: alternately demure, stealthily moving the story along, and frenzied, mimicking the emotions of the characters through a violent cacophony of sound. Clearly, the opera's subject is sex, and longing; but more than that, it is a story of obsession, jealousy, regret, and horror. As wildly perverse as its story may be, however, and as vocally and instrumentally demanding the score for its deranged, maniacal characters, the opera's most powerful element is the illumination of our base human emotions: the lust and jealousy lurking within all of us. So, I find myself continually meditating on the idea that art should act as a mirror: we see our communities (our hopes, fears, desires, and indeed our very souls) reflected in the work. In Salome, we may not like what we see."
Many moments were obviously crafted with a choreographer's eye to telling a story. This was the first time I ever saw a Jokanaan physically flinch from Salome's touch as if he had received an electric sock. After Jokanaan returned to his dungeon and the circular barrier put back in place, Salome was able to stand spread-eagled against the wall, making it suddenly seem as if the audience was looking down at her as she floated on a piece of wood at the bottom of a deep, dark, and dank well.

Nadja Michael (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

A great deal of credit for the production's success goes to Christopher Maravich, whose subtle changes in lighting helped to frame Salome's changing moods as well as her descent into depravity. Although Nadja Michael's performance in the title role may have been stronger physically than it was vocally (her pitch tended to flatten as the evening wore on), her Salome was a complex characterization that knew how to flirt (with both Narraboth and Herod) as well as deal from a position of power.

Nadja Michael and Kim Begley (Photo by: Terrance McCarthy)

Garrett Sorenson (Narraboth), Greer Grimsley (Jokanaan), Kim Begley (Herod) and Irina Mishura (Herodias) all offered strong performances under conductor Nicola Luisotti's baton. This was also the first production I've ever seen in which, instead of wearing costumes inspired by tribal blankets, the Jews actually resembled a group of Yeshiva buchors with payos. As much as I loved the sight of blood dripping from the head of Jokanaan, a perverse part of my brain thought "Gee, I could have had a V8!"

Broc Johnson and Nadja Michael (Photo by: Terrence McCarthy)

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So much for lopping off someone's head. But what happens when, instead of revenge, someone wants to preserve a beloved's brain matter? In 1988, Peter Dickinson gained great acclaim for his science fiction novel, Eva, in which a 13-year-old girl who had been horribly injured in an accident awoke to the realization that her brain had been transplanted into the body of a chimpanzee.

Alameda's Virago Theatre Company decided to take the concept one step further with the world premiere of a new play by William Bivins entitled The Afterlife of the Mind. Set in a college town between the months of September and January, this play might best be described as a truly fucked up sex farce that could just as easily have been named "Gorilla My Dreams."

The basic plot revolves around the following characters:
  • Harry (George McRae) is a renowned philosopher who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Over the years he has corresponded with Ulrich on matters of the mind.
  • Lydia (Megan Kilian) is a former graduate student of Harry's who abandoned her dissertation in order to become his bibliographer and lover. Deeply in love with Harry's mind, she is desperate to save his soul and intellect. Having completely lost her identity in pursuit of Harry's work, Lydia doesn't want to accept the reality of his death if it means letting go of Harry.
  • Ulrich Hoffsteadler (Dennis McIntyre) is a brilliant neurosurgeon who has occasionally performed illegal surgeries which he refuses to acknowledge on the record. The archetype of a mad scientist, he attempted to perform a brain transplant between a human and a host while living in Uruguay. Unfortunately, the host (a ground sloth) remained curiously unresponsive. Now Ulrich operates out of the back of the bar he owns.
  • Dinah (Tracey Rhys) is Ulrich's sex partner, dominatrix, and personal assistant. Like Lydia, she has delayed her own goals in life in order to help a man whose brilliance she admires. But Dinah, who is full of sass, is itching to move on. The only problem is that she and Ulrich can't keep their hands off each other.
  • Father Jerome (Lol Levy) is a friend of Harry's who has been lusting after Lydia for quite some time.
  • Todd (Elias Escobedo) is a young man with a very healthy body who is suffering from terminal brain cancer.
Harry (George McRae) and Lydia (Megan Killian)

Although dealing with extremely serious issues of death, disability, medical malpractice, and physician's egos, The Afterlife of the Mind moves at a fairly rapid pace. During its frenetic 90 minutes, Lydia convinces Father Jerome to talk to Harry about the possibility of having his brain transplanted by Ulrich into a warm cadaver. When Harry finally relents, Lydia convinces Ulrich to move ahead with the procedure.

Unfortunately, Ulrich fails at getting the host's neuron receptors to link up to Harry's disembodied brain and, with the clock ticking, a life-sustaining environment must be found if Harry's brain is to survive. Faster than you can say "Achtung!" Harry's brain is transplanted into Lydia's womb, which makes her look about seven months pregnant. There it continues to be nourished until Lydia can find a new host.

Lydia then takes to cruising support groups for patients with terminal illnesses, where she meets a handsome young man named Todd. Offering Todd unlimited sex (every way he wants it and whenever he wants it) if he will simply sign a contract agreeing to become a host for Harry's brain, Lydia finally gets her new friend to sign on the dotted line. There's just one hitch: Ulrich insists on examining Harry to determine if he could be a suitable host.

When Ulrich discovers that Harry's cancer has gone into remission, he and Lydia must find a new host for Harry's brain. Ulrich has a brilliant idea, but it could be messy. Lydia would have to feed the new host through a tube 20-30 times a day and change the incontinent host's diapers frequently.

When Lydia reappears (minus the bun that was in her oven), Harry is eager to have sex. But as soon as he gets near Lydia, a threatening growl emanates from the other room, where the new host for Harry's brain is seated in a wheelchair. When Harry discovers that the host is actually a smelly gorilla that Ulrich has taken from the zoo, he panics and flees.

Left alone with the host, Lydia finally decides to leave town. She drives to the Grand Canyon, which she and Harry visited when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Finally, she finds a way to let go of Harry.

Playwright William Bivins

As directed by Laura Lundy-Paine, The Afterlife of the Mind pushed the dramatic envelope as far as it could possibly go. Like Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, this is the kind of theatre that impresses with its intelligence, delights with its daring, entertains with its exuberance, and leaves its audience gasping in disbelief. I strongly recommend that it be performed at medical schools and neurosurgical everywhere!

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As I left the Ashby Stage, one of these long-term memory brain farts erupted and I recalled a production I had seen one Sunday afternoon in 1967 at the Martinique Theatre in Herald Square. Although Gorilla Queen had become quite controversial and received a lot of buzz, I didn't understand the play at all. Now, thanks to the Internet, at least I know why. In his book, Factory Made: Andy Warhol and the Sixties, Steven Watson writes:
"Ronald Tavel attempted a more ambitious play, which was inspired by his brother Harvey's off-hand remark, 'I'll be damned if I'm going to take etiquette lessons from a Gorilla Queen.' Tavel became inspired. 'I didn't take Lady Godiva seriously (I took three weeks on that), but I took Gorilla Queen seriously. I took eight weeks on that. Now I'll show what I can do. Before I was playing with my pinky, now I'll show what I can do.'

He concocted a 73-page epic inspired by King Kong and a Republic 'B movie' called Captive Wild Woman. But John Vaccaro was not ready for such a long script. He liked to take something simple and embellish it, and he had never directed anything longer than 12 pages. So he selected 12 pages from Gorilla Queen (against Ron Tavel's counsel) and the company began rehearsing. 'I always say the writer really doesn't know what he's written,' said Vaccaro.

Ron Tavel did not want his play sliced up to the designs of John Vaccaro, and both Tavel brothers were convinced that the company's new star actor, Charles Ludlam, wanted them to move on so that he could usurp the position of company playwright. In late February, the Tavels parted company with the Ridiculous, paying back the $1,000 that was put in the kitty at the beginning, relinquished the lease on the loft, and the name 'Play-House of the Ridiculous.' It was a clean parting.

Reverend Al Carmines offered Ron Tavel the Easter slot for Gorilla Queen to open at the Judson Poets Theater. Director Larry Kornfeld quickly assembled a cast and the play was produced in the church's choir loft opening in mid-March. Gorilla Queen had an indescribable plot and a screwball exotic Maria Montez vision involving characters that included Claudette Colbert and Clyde Beatty. In its burlesque style of play, Gorilla Queen attacked language. 'It went beyond logic into pre-logic,' said Martin Gottfried, then theater critic for Vogue, who described it as 'an avalanche of words -- restructuring the language, challenging meanings, applying this new dimension to the cause of comedy.'

It was also a hymn to pansexuality. In fairy tale style, the play concludes with a wedding pronouncement that opened the door to the widest pansexuality possible: 'I pronounce you man and wife, or man and man, or ape and man, or queen and woman, or queen and man, or queen and queen, or ape and up and up.' The curtain comes down on an anthem to the many varieties of polymorphous perversity, ending 'If it's got a hole, hump it!'

Gorilla Queen became an unlikely hit and, after it played its last performance in the Judson loft on April Fool's Day, the production moved to a commercial engagement at the Martinique Theater two weeks later. This theater, located at Broadway and 32nd Street was described as 'halfway to Broadway,' and it was widely written about, becoming the first unlikely commercial hit of the Ridiculous theater."
Did you notice a prize piece of trivia as you skimmed through that huge quote? Back in the 1960s, Vogue Magazine had a serious theatre critic on its staff!

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