Monday, December 7, 2009

Season's Bleatings

Just before Thanksgiving I paid a visit to the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco for a beloved annual event: the appearance of the San Francisco Chronicle's much-adored television critic, the ever charming Tim Goodman, to discuss the current season's crop of scripted television shows. All bloggers are not equal, so when Goodman mentioned his appearance at the JCC on his blog, Tim Goodman: The Bastard Machine, there was a sudden rush for tickets at the box office.

Don Asmussen's portrait of Goodman as "Mr. Crankypants"

In today's media, if television critics enjoy a strong bond with their readers, that may be well be because so many readers follow the same shows that the critics are watching. The cost of accessing network and cable entertainment is far less than attending live performances at the opera, ballet, symphony, or theatre.

With the advent of DVRs, one can view what one wants at exactly the time one wishes to watch a particular program. These days, if the TiVO or DVR fails to record a particular selection, one can often watch it online through Hulu or the program's website.

Goodman stressed that if a person stuck to watching the 20% of television that represented the best of what is now available in scripted comedy and drama, there would be no time left over to wallow in the remaining 80% of available programs (of which a great deal is total crap). He also confessed that, with so many cutbacks in print media, he's been forced to give up 10 inches (of column space) to his boss.

San Francisco Chronicle television critic Tim Goodman

Although Goodman produces frequent podcasts and his blog is an absolute joy to read (especially his reports from the industry's annual Death March With Cocktails), the critic's candor, charm, and genuine likeability score strongly with his readers during personal appearances. Despite the amount of television he must watch to keep pace with current programming, his palpable enthusiasm for the medium and its refreshing bursts of creativity is balanced by his astute and acute observations of how the television industry really functions , e.g., Third Act May Be In Store For O'Brien.

Five days after Goodman's appearance at the JCC, retailers girded their loins for the annual Black Friday frenzy, during which shoppers try to grab the best bargains for Christmas gifts. While there have been many attempts to capture the Christmas craziness on stage and screen, my favorite has always been this delightful number (seen in a video clip from the Macon Little Theatre's 2004 production) from Act II of Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick's much beloved 1963 musical, She Loves Me! .

Nearly four decades ago, screenwriter William Goldman published The Season: A Candid Look At Broadway, which covered the 1967-1968 Broadway season in remarkable detail. As we head into December, we enter the season when arts organizations trot out their cash cows -- reliable productions that are guaranteed to sell tickets. In the San Francisco Bay area these include:
With the retail season in full swing, Christmas blockbuster films due out in theatres, and most critics writing their year-end "Top Ten" lists, it's important to remember that "season" is not just a noun.

The word can also be used as a verb. To "season" food (by adding seasoning to a recipe through the appropriate use of herbs and spices) means that one can enhance a dish's taste, strengthen its flavor, and often transform an average meal into a culinary delight.

A talented chef who knows how to use seasoning well can produce astonishing results. Conversely, someone who attempts to throw whatever leftovers and spices he can find into a crock pot and hope for the best often ends up producing a soggy, sorry stew. Two holiday productions new to the Bay area perfectly illustrate this concept.

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When I first heard that Cirque du Soleil was planning a show based on insects, I was curious but not particularly excited by the idea. There is no limit to the company's ability to stretch the imagination as far as possible (any show created by Cirque du Soleil is bound to deliver a very high level of satisfaction to its audience).

While there are numerous reasons for theatregoers to attend Ovo (which is now being performed under The Grand Chapiteau near Mission Rock) there is a compelling need for fashion, architecture, set design and acting students to see the show. All too often, we hear critics bemoan the lack of a compelling artistic vision on the part of a creative team, a stage director, a filmmaker, or an arts organization. Several recent shows by Cirque du Soleil have struggled to clearly communicate what the show is about.

Ovo, however, is that rare theatrical exception in which an artistic vision has been clearly articulated, soundly visualized, and brilliantly executed from start to finish through a magnificent weave of stagecraft, lighting, design, music, and its cast of talented performers. It may also be the only show in which you will ever hear the opening notes of Beethoven's popular Symphony #5 competing beat-for-beat with La Cucaracha!

Cirque du Soleil's stage platforms usually feature a complex mix of trap doors and hidden trampolines required to support the action in each show. Set designer Gringo Cardia's approach to designing the performance space for Ovo was immensely helped by his life-long fascination with insects.

Although he was inspired by the structures that certain insects create when they establish nests and colonies, Cardia didn’t want to copy nature as much as he wanted to interpret it. "When I was a kid, insects made me think of science fiction monsters, which I loved. I wanted people inside the Big Top to see the world through the eyes of insects. To accomplish that, I played with scale."

Thus, certain elements of the set (which in real life, might seem small to humans) become monstrous objects for the creatures who inhabit a world of miniatures. An enormous 20-foot mechanical flower (that blooms midway through Act I in full view of the audience) is seen from the insects’ point of view as a towering, inspiring -- and carnivorous -- feature of the environment. A tropical bloom in Act II becomes a mammoth artistic sculpture.

Although initially concealed from audience view by three enormous “skins” designed to create a sense of depth, the curves and openings in the upstage wall reveal its secret life as a home to various species of insects. Measuring 60 x 20 feet, the climbing wall in Ovo is designed to resemble a vertical cross section of ground as it might appear in a typical ant colony.

Unlike past Cirque du Soleil shows, the performers climb onto the wall, disappear into it, and use it as a stage, launch pad, and landing platform. This new dimension makes it feel as if Cardia has opened up an entire new physical frontier for Cirque du Soleil's acrobats.

Act I's suspended platform (used during the scarabs' big acrobatic act) shows how the supporting wires and cables reinforce the architecture of the insect world. Act II's giant spider web (made with strongly woven synthetic straps) is the only part of Cardia's set that is actually made up of straight lines.

Because Cardia had previously worked with the show's director, Deborah Colker, on many dance productions, the two artists were able to design certain parts of the show in tandem. Together with costume designer, Liz Vandal, they have created a magnificent, yet highly pragmatic spectacle.

One of the challenges in Cirque shows is to find ways to distract the audience while certain design segments(safety nets, wire rigging) are either being locked into place or dismantled. Watch carefully at the moment 51 seconds into the following trailer when you see pairs of furry insect legs protruding from a series of downstage trap doors as the crew prepares an area further upstage for the next number.

Vandal's costume designs are a constant source of amazement. Notice the construction of the legs for the cricket costumes in the following clip from a dress rehearsal. What you will see is that each of the insects has also been given a series of behavioral postures, facial tics, and tongue movements taken directly from the insect world that can be used to punctuate a musical moment or allow a performer a specific reaction to the audience's applause.

As the show's costume designer explains:
"When I was just a kid I put rocks down around the yard near the fruit trees and I lifted them regularly to watch the insects who had taken up residence underneath them. I petted caterpillars and let butterflies into the house. All insects are beautiful and perfect; it is what they evoke for each of us that changes our perception of them. I've always had passion for them. When I learned that Ovo was inspired by insects, I immediately knew that I was in a perfect position to pay tribute to their majestic world with my costumes."
Many of Vandal's designs were inspired by drawings of futuristic superheroes as well as suits of armor from past history. The gold-tinged elongated corsets worn by the acrobatic scarabs reference the world of superheroes. The segmented shells on many garments alternate between hard and soft materials. How did she evoke specific insects without actually copying their anatomy?
"The solution was to connect with the feeling of being face to face with a spider, a cockroach, or a butterfly," she explains. "Then I made detailed drawings of designs that interpreted their morphology. For example, the dragonfly's wings are evoked by pants made of veined lace, and the mosquito's stinger by a Mohawk of fine red stems. The idea of the shell also became a metaphor, since the word 'insect' refers to 'sections.' This revelation consolidated my approach. Working with Cirque's costume shop, we developed techniques of pleating fabrics to provide three-dimensional muscle, volumes and shells. The result is a sort of organic origami. The most obvious example of that is the crickets' costumes. The team also explored the textures of wings and shells using the sublimation technique to poeticize them and give them an evocative texture. I have a particular soft spot for the crickets (whose detachable legs break away from their bodies) because their costumes are so sexy, graphic, and vibrant."
My favorite costume from the show belongs to "Creatura," which is described in the production notes as "dancing to a tune that is all his own. He’s a bendy, twisty knot of stretchy limbs in constant motion." Watch Creatura in the following clip and you'll notice that its limbs resemble the accordion style of a folding Japanese lantern combined with the flexibility of a toy Slinky:

Initially, the show's cricket costumes each required 75 hours of work due to their complex design and the need to maintain rigidity while allowing the material to flex and expand. Microscopic photography of certain insects revealed that the materials used in Ovo's costumes were remarkably similar in structure to the bodies of the actual insects.

In order to achieve the desired effect, the designer and costume shop team used the permanent pleating technique developed by Japanese designer Issey Miyake. "We pushed this technique even further by printing on colored materials, sublimation, and eroding the fabric not only to stiffen it, but also to give it a metallic sheen," explains Vandal.

Ovo features 53 performers from 13 countries disguised as crickets, ants, butterflies, fleas, spiders, a neurotic ladybug and two clowns. Some the show's daredevil acts will take your breath away. Others will charm you.

The musical score (especially a tango for insects) is great fun. Throughout the show you will continually be stunned by the way Ovo's artistic vision has been so grandly realized by its set and costume designers. Here's a preview:

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I was really looking forward to the West Coast premiere of A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration down at Theatreworks in Palo Alto. What I experienced felt more like a soggy, messy Civil War Christmas pudding.

As I left the theater, I kept battling a nagging suspicion that the play had been written in reverse. Upon returning home and reading about the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, Paula Vogel, I came upon this curious quote:
"Asserting that she 'writes the play backwards,' moving from emotional circumstances and character to craft narrative structure, Vogel says, 'My writing isn't actually guided by issues. ... I only write about things that directly impact my life.'"
That explained a lot. Vogel, who grew up in Washington, D.C., spent ten years researching the events and political climate of 1864 as she tried to imagine what Christmas Eve might have been like in the nation's capitol at the tail end of the Civil War.

Jessa (Myha’la Herrold) and Mr. Wormely (Michael A. Shepperd)
(Photo by: Niko Kitaoka)

The idea for the play came to Vogel in 1997, when she came across four or five stories "that all collided on Christmas, Lincoln's Christmas in 1864. I spent my childhood roaming the forts of Washington and Maryland and the two battlefields. I wanted to know what it was like to be fighting in a war and trying to have a Seder. I also wanted to find one Native American who was there on this Christmas Eve."

Vogel's play includes a cross section of spirituals, Christmas carols, and traditional American folk songs that were popular at the time. As one enters the theatre, one can hear recordings of folk singers such as Pete Seeger. With arrangements by Daryl Waters, the show's musical score includes:
Currently Chair of Playwrighting at the Yale School of Drama, Vogel wrote ten drafts of A Civil War Christmas. It took her four weeks to write the play, which had been commissioned by the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The play was then developed at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island and the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut (where the play received its world premiere in 2008).

"The real fun of the play is the doubling, tripling, and quadrupling of parts," Vogel explains, "so that one moment an actor plays a President and the next moment he may play an assassin." Nevertheless, it helps to consider some other cultural events that might have influenced the creation of this play.
These four works are stunning achievements in the craft of storytelling. The plots of Show Boat and Ragtime (which deal with the history of racism in America) have an epic sweep that cover several years -- if not decades -- of action. The action in Magnolia and Gosford Park was limited to events within a two-day period and benefitted from brilliant writing supported by magnificently insightful cinematic editing.

Unfortunately, A Civil War Christmas does not boast such shining assets. Vogel's plot lines focus on:
  • Hannah and her daughter, Jessa (two slaves who are trying to cross the Potomac River to freedom). When they must separate, Hannah instructs her daughter to go "to the President's house" and wait for her there.
  • John Wilkes Booth and John Surratt are two conspirators hoping to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln.
  • Elizabeth Keckley is the former slave who became dressmaker and confidante for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. After she saved up enough money to send her son to college, he dropped out and enlisted in the Union Army, only to be killed shortly thereafter.
  • Decatur Bronson is a free black man and Army officer whose wife was kidnapped by slave traders.
  • Abraham Lincoln is determined to ignore his staff's safety warnings and insists on riding to his summer house on horseback to retrieve the pair of gloves he bought for his wife's Christmas present.
  • Mrs. Lincoln, still grieving over the death of their son Willie (and vulnerable to rapid mood swings) is determined to surprise her husband by decorating a Christmas tree in the White House.
  • Moses Levy is a dying young Jewish soldier who remembers meeting Walt Whitman.
  • Walker Lewis is a key White House servant who comes to the rescue of Hannah and Jessa.
  • Clara Barton was a nurse who later became famous for starting the American Red Cross in 1881.
  • Raz is a 13-year-old boy who runs away to join the Confederate States Army.
Although director Robert Kelly utilized every bit of the Lucie Stern Theatre in his attempt to draw the audience into Vogel's play, there were some structural challenges he simply could not overcome:
  • Whereas young Jessa almost dies from hypothermia as a result of exposure to the elements, A Civil War Christmas dies a slow and clumsy death from too much exposition. There are moments when one wonders if Vogel will have the discipline to resist grabbing at certain clich├ęs but, alas, she does not.
  • One often gets the feeling that Vogel's play was constructed by reshuffling index cards in her attempt to include a long list of popular musical numbers while struggling to advance her numerous plot lines. Rather than being inspiring or revelatory, the overwhelming clunkiness of the final product resembles painting by numbers.
  • There's an old proverb that "Too many cooks spoil the broth." In the case of A Civil War Christmas, too may narrators cause the audience to lose interest in key moments.
  • Vogel's attempt to piece together so many small, unrelated scenes simply does not work onstage as well as the same technique does onscreen. Whereas this kind of plotted patchwork works brilliantly in film, onstage it resulted in an awful lot of set changes and "busyness" that accomplished very little.
  • The playwright's decision to show Mrs. Lincoln singing Silent Night to a dying soldier while a chorus contrapuntally recites the traditional mourner's kaddish in Hebrew was a forced and extremely clumsy gimmick.
  • There's no avoiding the feeling that, because this play is nearly 30 minutes too long -- and could easily have ended in several places -- it seems to be imploding under its own weight. Most playwrights have difficulty cutting text and scenes (especially those words which lie closest to their heart because of an idealistic tone or an audience's favorable reaction to certain moments). However, I'm willing to bet that if Vogel eliminated the entire plot line about Raz -- along with its references to Mosby's Raiders, A Civil War Christmas would become a much tighter, more coherent script.
  • It's a sure sign of trouble when the characters most easily and wholeheartedly embraced by the audience are two horses and a mule.
Runaway slaves Jessa (Tiana Travis) and Hannah (Tracy Camp)
(Photo by: Mark Kitoaka)

I enjoyed the performances by C. Kelly Wright as Elizabeth Keckley, Tracy Camp as Hannah, Myha'la Herrold-Morgan as Jessa, Michael A. Shepperd as Decatur Bronson, and Robert Parsons as Abraham Lincoln. Cast members performing multiple roles included Cyril Jamal Cooper, Jayne Deely, Daveed Daniele Diggs, Diana Torres Koss, Ian Leonard, Gary S. Martinez, Jonathan Shue, Kit Wilder, and Elizabeth Palmer.

A Civil War Christmas tries to show what life was like more than 140 years ago when our nation was torn by civil war, racism, and Washington, D.C. was gripped with freezing cold. In Vogel's overly earnest attempt to cram as much information into her play as possible while broadcasting a holiday message of "peace on earth, good will toward men," the award-winning playwright forgot one critical guideline for the theatre: All too often -- and especially when it pains the creative team to make critical cuts -- less is more.

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