Sunday, October 18, 2009

Exorcising Demons Onstage

Whether a person vents his frustrations in a psychiatrist's office or on a proscenium stage, the process of acting out often provides a healthy catharsis. Whether creating a character -- or crafting a dramatic presentation -- the opportunity to work things out before an audience provides invaluable feedback to performers.

Whether the venue is a class in improvisation, a staged reading, or a full-blown production within the safe confines of academia, live theatre demands the presence of a life force that can speak, sweat, breathe, and falter. Only by examining how their work product holds up before a live audience can creative artists patch, edit, and refine a piece until it is ready to stand on its own.

Three recent productions showcased works in varying stages of their artistic life. While each had its strengths, seeing them within a week's time frame allowed one to grasp a better understanding of how creating new works for the stage requires constant polishing and tinkering to bring a piece of drama to fruition.

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Located in eastern Poland, the city of Chelm is frequently referenced in Yiddish folklore and literature as a city of fools. According to Wikipedia:
"A typical Chelm story might begin: 'It is said that after God made the world, he filled it with people. He sent off an angel with two sacks, one full of wisdom and one full of foolishness. The second sack was of course much heavier. So, after a time, it started to drag. Soon it got caught on a mountaintop and so all the foolishness spilled out and fell into Chelm.'"
The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco recently presented San Francisco's Word for Word Performing Arts Company (a program of the Z Space Studio) in a staged reading of The Tumblers as part of the group's "Off The Page" series. The group's artistic mission is "to tell great stories with elegant theatricality, staging performances of classic and contemporary fiction. We believe in the power of the short story to provide solace, compassion, and insight into our daily lives."

In The Tumblers, members of the Jewish ghetto in Chelm are told they will be going on a long trip and should only pack the essentials. One group packs everything they can envision themselves needing, from silverware to jewelry, from heavy coats to cherished family portraits. They end up on a train headed for one of Hitler's concentration camps, never to return to Chelm.

The second group, comprised of Chelm's classic fools, reacts differently. Believing that the barest essentials requires even greater stringency than called for, many of the men shave their beards so that they will carry less hair. As snipers shoot several Jews (including a young girl), they board a train filled with circus clowns and other performers who have been touring Eastern Europe.

At first failing to understand their great good luck, they pile into an empty railroad coach. Upon learning that they can only survive by pretending to be acrobats, they sew together ragged costumes with whatever shreds of cloth they can salvage and learn how to tumble to a point where their performance is hailed for its resemblance to "poor, clumsy Jews." As director Amy Kossow notes:
"Nathan Englander likes to say he 'is not' a writer. He writes or does not write. There is no 'being a writer; for him -- it is the physical act that matters, the pencil in his hand. He says that he, like most writers he knows, has a layer of shambling insecurity covering a deep and private well of confident muscularity from which he draws his powerful writing and, indeed, his fiction packs extraordinary punch. He takes incredible risks, flying high and far into imagery of a magically and meticulously imagined past. Englander may not think of himself as a writer, but we may think of him as an acrobat of language. His writing is joyous and heartrending, and it makes us gasp and hold our breath. His language soars off the page and, like the tumblers in the story, we do not know where or how it will land."
There is, indeed, a story of great stageworthiness to be found in The Tumblers. Although there were some awkward moments in this initial reading, I particularly enjoyed the performances by Patricia Silver as Widow Raizel, Jeri Lynn Cohen as a horn player, Joel Mullennix as Mendel, and Jim Friedman as the Mahmir Rabbi.

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Across the bay, on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, the school's Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies presented the world premiere of a new musical that was
written, directed, and choreographed by Joe Goode with music and musical direction by the very talented Holcombe Waller.

Holcombe Waller

Billed as "a multi-disciplinary mashup of dance, music, and theater inspired by this new era of hope and apathy, Dead Boys is a freak folk musical about trust, gay activism, gender identity, talking to the dead, and the privileged culture’s pursuit of happiness." In his director's note, Joe Goode states that:
"Dead Boys is about waking up, about making the passage from observer to participant in one's life. It is about allowing what is deeply personal to become political. It is about music and the sort of rumination that only music will allow. And ultimately, it is about believing in the preposterous, giving oneself permission to see, hear, and most of all, feel a truth that is beyond reason."
An extremely ambitious piece of dance theatre, you can get a feel for Dead Boys by watching this slide show on the website for The Daily Californian. Tremendously helped by the way David K.H. Elliott lit Erik Flatmo's unit set, Dead Boys made powerful use of strategically-placed webcams to unfold the mysteries underlying Monroe's disturbing dreams.

An overly intellectual gay student who uses his wits to fend off intimacy, Monroe (Daniel Duque-Estrada) hasn't been able to act on his lust for the mysterious man with a saxophone (Danny Nguyen). His roommate Brandon (Nicholas Trengrove) is an aspiring musician who can be a real asshole. Brandon's on-again, off-again girlfriend Carly (Rachel Ferensowicz) has lots of emotional baggage while their landlady, Anna (Lura Dolas) resembles an overly organic, new-agey kind of Mrs. Madrigal who likes to dabble in psychic phenomena and spiritual healing.

Other characters include Monroe's upstairs neighbors, Dwayne (Ben Abbott) and Luis (Mario Rizzo) who are into some heavy BDSM role-playing of the "master and his slave dog" variety, and a young woman who is despondent over the loss of her cat. In the second act, Carly introduces Monroe and Brandon to her old friend Roberta (Caitlin Marshall), the kind of perky young woman who can make anyone want to slap her. Roberta has a secret that elevates a portion of Act II to theatrical brilliance.

Suddenly dropping a plant which reminds her of a beloved uncle (who supposedly died of a heart attack), Roberta starts channeling the voices of the dead gay boys who were assassinated in Iran as well as other victims of homophobic violence whose souls have been haunting Monroe in his sleep. During the many years in which I sat through numerous "opera/musical theater workshops," I don't think I ever encountered a scene so meticulously conceived, beautifully crafted, and intensely staged. Special credit goes to Waller for his musical writing and to Caitlin Marshall for her bravura, other-worldly performance as a confused and panicky young woman channeling dead souls through a suddenly operatic voice.

Dead Boys was essentially created by Goode and Waller to be performed by the students at UC-Berkeley. Whether or not it will receive any subsequent productions remains to be seen. It contains a great deal of good writing as well as a few cringe-worthy moments (songs about reductive thinking don't have much appeal to me).

* * * * * * * *
On takeoff, the four engines on the latest model of a Boeing 747 deliver approximately 248,000 pounds of thrust. Once the plane reaches its cruising altitude, the pilot may reduce its air speed to a more fuel-efficient level. But as Franny Potts, Ann Randolph has no intention of slowing down. Hurtling through the air with the angry heat of a menopausal laser beam, Franny is a highly dysfunctional woman on an intensely focused mission.

Imagine someone who:
  • Always has to be right.
  • Is an insane trivia freak.
  • Is as aggressive as Ann Coulter.
  • Is as hungry for approval as Orly Taitz.
  • Has more pep than the Energizer Bunny.
  • Is more exasperating than the Roadrunner cartoon character.
  • Has an annoying laugh that resembles Woody Woodpecker's.
  • Fancies herself an up and coming performance artist who specializes in facial gesticulations to accompany the sounds of flushing toilets and car alarms.
  • Thinks her flight attendant must be a whore because the term "dirty blonde" confirms the fact that she's already a slut.
  • Can easily get lost in sexual fantasies about the pilot training his equipment to engage with her personal (and dripping wet) landing strip.
Now imagine that woman sitting next to you on a cross-country flight. Better yet, imagine her in a very loud argument with her alcoholic, wheelchair-bound mother that is so raucous it could make Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance seem like the wimps of comedy.

As Bette Davis warned in All About Eve: "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night." However, unlike the midnight rides of Paul Revere and Ichabod Crane, Randolph's one-woman show is filled with outrageous laughs, brazen sexual bravado, crackling thunderstorms, and genuine pathos. Once the captain turns off the seatbelt sign and Franny Potts is finally free to roam about the cabin, all hell breaks loose.

When I first saw Ann Randolph perform her one-woman show entitled Squeeze Box, I couldn't get over the ferocity of her stage presence, the ease with which she switches from one character to another, the rapidity with which she dives over the edge, the expressiveness of her rubbery face, and her uncompromising grip on an audience's attention.

Randolph doesn't have too many quiet moments onstage. She's more like a comedic terrorist who sticks your finger in an electric socket and says "Watch this!" as she fearlessly attempts to jump over the moon.

Known for her Write Your Life workshops, Randolph has returned to The Marsh to perform Loveland, the story of crazy Franny's trip back to Ohio to spread her mother's ashes. As directed by Matt Roth, her performance is the kind of tour de force that could even leave Dan Hoyle gasping for air.

Since leaving Loveland, Ohio, Randolph has spent three years living at Athens State Mental Hospital while working her way through college, earned her living on the "slime line" in a salmon processing plant (pulling blood balls off the fish as they moved down a conveyor belt), and used cheerleader pompons to clean off rocks coated with crude oil following the 1989 toxic spill from the Exxon Valdez. On her blog, she writes that:
"I think I should call my next show Free Room and Board. I always knew that if I had to spend money on rent, I wouldn’t have money to produce my own shows, so I always looked for opportunities for free rent. Like in New York — I knew after I saved the money in Alaska that I didn’t want to blow it on rent, so I put an ad in The New York Times classifieds saying 'Alaskan Bush Woman seeks free room in exchange for tutoring in the arts and/or companionship.' Well, let me tell you, I got a lot of freaks calling me, but I did find a legitimate one. He was a 90-year-old Jewish Orthodox man who lived on Central Park West, and he had just lost his wife. His daughter responded to my ad. She had me move into his apartment and keep him company in the morning, just until the maid came. It was an unbelievable apartment. My bedroom overlooked Central Park and all I had to do was just sit at the breakfast table with him while he ate his gefilte fish. He called me 'the kook,' I think because I used to play banjo in the subway with a red wig on (that’s when I started getting desperate for money)."
In Loveland, Randolph's amazingly fertile imagination -- which lifts off on a wave of wondrous anger, soars across the country in a cloud of cumulus crazy, and survives some tear-jerking mid-air turbulence before landing -- offers audiences the kind of breakthrough dramatic experience one yearns for but rarely gets in modern theatre. Scheduled to run through November 14th, Loveland should not be missed (you can order tickets here).

If you've never seen Randolph in action, enjoy the following video clip. Like most of what Ann does, it is the kind of totally demented, unforgettable, over-the-top comedy that usually goes too far for the mainstream (Randolph's dangerous style of theatre forces people to think way past their comfort zone). I love it!

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