Monday, March 1, 2010

A Bay Area Puzzlement

I don't often find myself sitting in a darkened theatre and hoping that someone's inappropriately ringing cell phone will distract me from the sorry mess onstage. But that's exactly what happened during the opening night of the American Conservatory Theatre's new production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle and it's important to understand why.

Stage director John Doyle has gained great notoriety for his minimalist productions of such masterpieces as Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes and two of Stephen Sondheim's musicals: Company and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Whether staging productions in a tiny venue like The Everyman Theater in Liverpool (whose funding is scant) or the mighty Metropolitan Opera, Doyle's directorial strength has involved stripping away a lot of theatrical trappings to reveal the core of the drama underneath.

However, it's important to understand that works like Peter Grimes, Company, and Sweeney Todd are musical masterpieces that were meticulously crafted by their composers and lyricists. By contrast, Bertolt Brecht's rambling attempt at dialectical theatre is a fucking mess. Its structure can be wildly confusing, most of its characters draw no sympathy from the audience, and it was created in a theatrical style embraced by Brecht (sprechgesang) that has not aged well.

Rod Gnapp and Anthony Fusco (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Several months ago, when the Shotgun Players mounted an updated, punk version of Brecht's Threepenny Opera (with music by Kurt Weill) their production succeeded far more on the strength of the ensemble's acting than it did on the strength of Robert MacDonald's translation. If only the same could be said for Doyle's staging of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which has been unnecessarily cheapened and vulgarized by Domenique Lozano's adaptation. According to Doyle:
"Brecht was writing political theatre, and that's tougher for us because our need to scream and shout, our need to say 'No!' erodes over time, I think. I was raised as a child of the '60s, through the '60s into the '70s, in political theatre, with the belief that it was important to stand up and say it. But it has gradually become harder to do that. I have spent quite a bit of my career working in nontheatre environments -- working with communities, with prisoners, with the socially disadvantaged, and sometimes with people who were mentally and physically challenged -- in the belief that we can all tell a story.

If theatre has a future (and I do believe it has) it is to explain with the audience the fact that we are theatrically storytelling (as opposed to putting movies onstage, or doing the real thing). I have discovered more and more that when I try to reenact something onstage 'for real,' it's not as good as reality. It can't be. So I have to try to enact something that asks the audience to participate in that vision of reality. And then it's theatre, because they've filled in the gap."
Omozé Idehenre as Grusche (Photo by Kevin Berne)

My warning sensors started throbbing early in the evening when I detected members of the cast (consciously or unconsciously) imitating Christopher Walken and Butterfly McQueen. Nor did it help that I was sitting in an area where a lot of A.C.T.'s acting students were so besotted with the thrill of watching their colleagues onstage that it felt like I was surrounded by an old-fashioned operatic claque drooling over their favorite diva.

It's a sure sign that there's trouble ahead when the stage rigging becomes more interesting to watch than the performance unfolding beneath it. In Act II, when the proceedings disintegrated into the kind of mess that even NBC wouldn't option as a sitcom, I found myself asking questions like:
  • Whose artistic vision is responsible for this travesty?
  • Is it the company's Associate Artist who has written a new adaptation of Brecht's play in the hope of making The Caucasian Chalk Circle relevant for a modern audience?
  • Is it the internationally famous stage director who, having realized that even he couldn't put lipstick on this pig, made some pretty desperate choices?
  • Or does the fault lie with A.C.T.'s artistic director, Carey Perloff, who is known to be fiercely devoted to her actors but whose artistic standards may be a lot lower than she imagines?
The answers are equally shocking. In truth, the project was jointly conceived by Perloff (who struck up a friendship with the stage director when he directed Sweeney Todd at A.C.T.) and Doyle, who was attracted to an opportunity to work with a resident company of actors attached to a school like A.C.T.'s.

Indeed, my questions might seem overtly vicious, categorically unfair, and downright rude if theatregoers were not simultaneously able to catch another theatrical production which achieved everything that Perloff, Lozano, Doyle and the cast of The Caucasian Chalk Circle did not.

And therein lies what the King of Siam once called a puzzlement. There seems to be a David and Goliath scenario that keeps repeating itself within the Bay area theatre community.
  • On one hand, there is the region's flagship theatre company, snugly nestled into an auditorium that seats nearly 1,000 people. Home to a world-famous acting school, A.C.T. has a heavy subscriber base, a well-funded marketing department, and is convenient to tourists filling Union Square's hotels who are eager to catch an evening of theatre. On the other hand, there is a tiny theatre company performing at the Berkeley City Club that has no money for marketing and often struggles to reach its seating capacity of 50 theatregoers for any given performance.
  • On one hand, A.C.T.'s audience often seems to be easily dazzled and far less discerning than the Central Works audience, which can be seen sitting on the edge of their chairs even when they are less than 10 feet from the actors.
  • On one hand, A.C.T. has commissioned some loathsome and surprisingly crass adaptations of classics by people like Lillian Groag (War Music) and Domenique Lozano (The Caucasian Chalk Circle), while Central Works has been blessed with the dramatic skill of Gary Graves, who teaches playwrighting at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre and whose lean, elegant adaptations of classics by such titans as Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Gogol, Moliere, and Dostoyevsky continue to astonish audiences with their artistry.
Jordan Winer, Richard Frederick and Cat Thompson
(Photo: Jay Yamada)

In the latest contrast, Bay area audiences are looking at two wildly different plays with some curious similarities.
  • Both The Caucasian Chalk Circle and An Anonymous Story (based on a short story by Anton Chekhov) hinge on who will provide the future care for a child that cannot speak for itself.
  • Both plays deal with the tensions resulting from class struggle.
  • Both plays are the result of new adaptations from the original source by American playwrights.
  • Both playwrights have access to the full resources of a major regional theatre company.
  • Both productions were developed through an extremely collaborative process.
  • Both plays take place in periods and cultures alien to a modern American audience.
  • While Doyle is hailed far and wide for his achievements as a stage director, the bare-bones productions staged by Central Works make his minimalist stagings look like Franco Zeffirelli's overblown productions for the Metropolitan Opera.
Richard Frederick and Cat Thompson (Photo: Jay Yamada)

In his program note, Gary Graves writes:
"I first encountered the treasure trove of Chekhov's short (and not so short) stories as a graduate student, when a good friend of mine allowed me to direct his adaptation of Ward Six. I immediately fell in love with the story and found in it a whole new dimension in Chekhov's work, apart from the great plays of his so familiar on stage. The stories, in particular the longer ones or 'novellas,' often rove across distant, unfamiliar landscapes: the far-flung Russian provinces, the great cities, and even to other parts of Europe.

In 2004, I returned to the multitudinous short stories (some say there are as many as 300 of them) when we decided to adapt one for a project at Central Works. But we didn't know which one. Choosing from so many rich options proved a considerable challenge. In the end, we narrowed it down to two, and finally chose The Duel, one of Chekhov's masterpieces. That project was so exciting, and so artistically rewarding, that I've long wanted to return to the same well once again.

This year, we decided to turn to the other story (the one not chosen in 2004): An Anonymous Story. Completed in 1893, this curious tale is a much lesser known work of Chekhov's. Though both stories have many of the same themes in common, Anonymous stands out among the rest of Chekhov's work for its peculiar veneer of political intrigue. The 'Anonymous Man' at the heart of this story is a revolutionary of some sort, though Chekhov tells us virtually nothing about the character's actual politics.

We have set the play in 1887, the year Chekhov began writing it. That year Alexander Ulyanov and several others were executed for attempting to assassinate Czar Alexander III. Ulyanov's younger brother was Vladimir Lenin. It would be nearly 25 years after the publication of An Anonymous Story before the Russian Revolution finally erupted in full. Chekhov, however, was no protocol-Bolshevik. The hero in this story is driven by something other than his political principles, something more familiarly Chekhovian, perhaps."
This latest adaptation by Gary Graves is, quite simply, an enthralling experience in the theatre due, in no small part, to the direction by Soren Oliver and the always brilliant sound design by Gregory Scharpen. The small cast of characters includes:
  • Anonymous (Richard Frederick), a political activist who has disguised himself as a footman in Orlov's house.
  • Orlov (Jordan Winer), a spoiled member of the aristocracy who thrives on irony.
  • Gruzin (Dennis Markam), Orlov's closest friend who is, at best, an intellectual colleague and, at worst, a ravenously-hungry parasite.
  • Orlov's father (Jordan Winer), a government official whom Chekhov's anonymous man aspires (but lacks the guts) to kill.
  • Polya (Sandra Schlechter), Orlov's housemaid who has a penchant for stealing Zinaida's belongings.
  • Zinaida (Cat Thompson), Orlov's mistress who leaves her husband for him but subsequently runs off to Venice with Chekhov's anonymous man.
Cat Thompson (Photo: Jay Yamada)

While every performance at Central Works is a tightly-knit ensemble affair, special mention should be made of Cat Thompson, whose portrait of Zinaida was stunningly beautiful and filled with anguish. As I have frequently noted, if you consider yourself a serious theatregoer, you should immediately plan a visit to Central Works. An Anonymous Story runs through March 28th. You can order tickets here.

The unresolved issue that remains, however, is the gaping disparity in artistic vision, artistic standards, and the quality of artistic product produced by these two companies who, over the past several years, have been fairly consistent in the quality of their output. I think it has a lot to do with issues of focus, confidence, process, and integrity.

For example, consider two men of equal stature and physique. One could be dressed in expensive clothes and still look as if he had just fallen into a puddle. By contrast, the other man could fall face down in a mud puddle and rise up looking absolutely fabulous.

As King Mongkut would say: "Is a puzzlement!"

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