Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Acting Out

In a world in which more and more people are texting acronyms, tailoring their thoughts to 140-character Tweets, and using the word "whatever" as the answer or rebuttal to any challenge, people who can use the English language with flair are to be celebrated. I tip my hat the man who, in writing about the growth of the porn industry, referred to a website dedicated to amateur porn made by college men as an "Institute of Higher Yearning." Actor Steven Weber, who has become a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, writes that:
"Without art and the expertise of artisans, craftspersons, and performers of all stripes in all areas, all devoted to art's proficiency and ubiquity, the world -- as we see every day when we turn on our various screens -- is cold, violent, and downright stupid.
Along with championing the deregulating of industry, the Republicans have also sought to deregulate grammar. From insipid, misspelled 'protest' signs ('Get a clue, morans!') to the nod and wink denials of rampant racism being at the core of their most recent rebellion, the Republicans continue their seeping jihad on all things cultured, demonizing 'smart' as elitist.
With 'How's that hopey-changey thing comin'?' my revulsion for all things Republican congealed into a small, tight knuckle lodged somewhere between the fight or flight and porn quadrants of my brain."
What does it take for a playwright to move his rage from the page to the stage? The usual process begins with a series of readings (private or public) in which actors begin the process of giving life to the playwright's characters.

Even with minimal preparation and insufficient rehearsal time, performing artists (and that's what they are: artists) bend their muscle, voice, intuition, and body language toward putting a human voice atop the dramatist's words as a trial audience attempts to determine if the characters are believable, sympathetic, hateful, or likable. Bottom line: if the playwright's words can be transformed into flesh and blood onstage.

A recent string of readings sponsored by the Aurora Theatre Company's 2010 Global Age Project and the Magic Theatre's Martha Heasley Cox Virgin Play Series allowed audiences to enjoy sneak previews of several works in progress. None was greeted more riotously than a new play about sexual politics by Theresa Rebeck entitled What We're Up Against. Rebeck's skill with dialogue and plotting are enhanced by the fact that she is an extremely fast writer with a keen sense of character and wit.

Sunday's visit to the Bay Area One Acts Festival revealed some clever short plays that examine the process of playwrighting as well as the impact placed on great literature by seemingly arbitrary restrictions. The reading of Rebeck's new play proved to be the icing on the cake.

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Directed like an angry piece of chamber music by Paul Cello, a new play by Crish Barth entitled Reading with Friends (produced by Climate Theatre and Instrumental Theatre) examined the personal tensions between a group of people gathered for the first reading of their friend's new play. Fearing that the nervous playwright, Barry (Brian Trybom), had locked himself in his bedroom at the worst possible moment, they were all forced to stall for time in Barry's small apartment. Who are these people?
  • Ellie (Sylvia Burboeck) is an overly optimistic woman who tries to find a silver lining in any tense situation.
  • Jen (Laura Jane Coles) is a total bitch who doesn't have an ounce of creativity that she can call her own. An extremely cynical soul, she can take anyone down in an instant, cutting and slashing with abandon, leaving no soul unburned.
  • Richard (Derek Fischer) is her soft-hearted husband with a secret he'd like to keep hidden.
  • Andy (Jeffry Hoffman) is the playwright's awkward roommate, who finally got up the courage to expressed his "feelings" to the playwright the night before the reading.
Whether or not Barry has as much talent as he'd like to believe (he did, after all, write a piece about the failing auto industry entitled "The Fall of Chrome") is not the question. His friends must determine whether Barry has drunk himself into a stupor, is hiding in his bedroom paralyzed with the fear of having his work read aloud by strangers for the first time, is terrified by Andy's amorous advances, or is just plain crazy.

Barth's one-act play was a joy to watch as each character's neuroses started to reach the boiling point. The strongest performances came from Derek Fischer and Laura Jane Coles. The play's surprise ending was a gem.

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Coles and Fischer also appeared in a two-character piece by Edward Luhn entitled Generic Play. Directed by Jill MacLean (and produced by Playwrights Foundation) this brief exercise in writing took a clinical approach to a standard domestic spat by putting each statement and direction into lifeless, generic text.

Laura Jane Coles (Photo by: Lisa Keating)

Luhn's play succeeds because the audience is so familiar with each character's response that it quickly understands how a workable drama can be crafted using a series of standardized building blocks straight out of a textbook for playwrighting. Seeing the result come to life onstage bears testament to the skill and imagination of this particular playwright, as well as to the play's ability to register its authenticity with the audience.

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As directed by Alex Curtis, Tim Bauer's rollicking, breathless romp through Romeo and Juliet kept the audience and actors gasping for breath. Three Little Words is based on a simple premise. Four actors are tasked with performing the entirety of Shakespeare's classic tragedy. However, there's a new set of rules:
  • The four actors must impersonate all of the characters in Shakespeare's play.
  • Each actor can only speak in sentences that use three words.
  • Each actor can only speak one sentence before another actor must pick up the story.
Jasen Talise, Dave Dyson, Megan Briggs, and Nick Dickson

"My main rule in writing a short play is to convey the essential information, the setup, as quickly as possible. If I only have ten minutes, I don't want the audience to spend the first three minutes wondering who the characters are and where they're supposed to be," explains Bauer. "I suppose that comes from my improv days, when you'd walk onstage and say 'Great day for fishing' so that the audience and your fellow improvisers immediately knew why the hell you were miming holding a fishing pole."

Bauer's play kept his cast of four (and the audience) on their toes. Although the breathless moments may have caused some contractions to seem like one word instead of two (and there were some instances where four words actually slipped into one sentence), for the most part the cast did a masterful job of sticking to the rules. This was also the kind of situation where, the more familiarity one had with Shakespeare's script, the more fun was to be found in Bauer's abbreviated text.

In addition to playing the lovestruck Romeo, the training Nick Dickson has received attending the Clown Conservatory at the San Francisco Circus Center came in handy for pratfalls and other moments of broad physical comedy. Young Jasen Talise (an exciting Asian-American actor currently enrolled at UC Berkeley) scored strongly as the nurse and in other supporting roles. Megan Briggs was a quick-tongued Juliet while Dave Dyson took on Friar Lawrence and a host of other roles. Needless to say, a good time was had by all!

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Perhaps the most stunning of the one-act plays performed was directed by Jessica Holt and produced by Threshold. Brilliantly written, The Catcher in the Rye had been adapted by Jon Brooks as a means of tackling the restrictions placed on usage of fictional characters by their creators and the corporations which use them as trademarks.

"A lot of my short plays end up being around 15 minutes because I'm ruthless in cutting material (or try to be). I try to keep it as light and economical as possible, even more than in a long play," notes Brooks in describing his approach to writing a one-act play. "In some ways, it's all done with smoke and mirrors. There is less margin for error. A few lousy minutes in a two-hour play is a much smaller percentage of the total than a few lousy minutes in a short play."

Brooks starts off traversing dangerous territory. The late J.D. Salinger was notoriously protective of his work. Six months before his death, he filed a lawsuit against another writer who had attempted to use one of the characters he created for The Catcher in the Rye.

As the play begins, a writer (Andy Strong) is trying to work his way through the legal restrictions against making any references to The Catcher in the Rye. Suddenly, who should pop up by Holden Caulfield (Aaron Martinsen), brazenly reciting Salinger's text in a way that could quickly put the author at risk of incurring legal and financial penalties.

Soon, several other well-known l characters are breaking out of their artistic straightjackets and demonstrating questionable patterns of behavior that could devalue their brands faster than you can say Tiger Woods:
  • Snow White is desperate to hump anyone (fully grown or dwarf-sized) who crosses her path.
  • Ronald McDonald (Raymond Hobbs) gets pretty aggressive, drops his drawers and squats down over a hamburger bun to show how the items on his menu are really made.
  • Zooey (Brant Rotnem) and his sister Franny decide that incest suits them just fine!
  • Scarlett O'Hara is starting to exhibit lesbian tendencies.
  • A man removes his Microsoft T-shirt to reveal another shirt with the logo ISCROTOM.
Aaron Martinsen as Holden Caulfield

A tightly-knit ensemble consisting of Brittany Berg, Lauren Doucette, Rachel Ferensowicz, Raymond Hobbs, Aaron Martinsen, Brant Rolnem, Andy Strong, and Joseph Yeh took the audience on a wild ride as Brooks challenged issues of copyright and proprietary use with blazing wit and biting satire. This play would be a brilliant piece of entertainment for professional conferences attended by entertainment attorneys, librarians, and specialists in intellectual property law. Bravo!

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