Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Circling The Brain

Most playwrights and screenwriters set out with a goal of taking their audience on some kind of journey. While the distance traveled between point A and point B might be geographically precise, the distance traveled in the hearts and minds of the audience can vary in many, many ways.

One of the key factors involved is the audience's sense of buy-in to the dramatic premise of the plot. Is it believable? Are the characters sympathetic? Will there be some kind of emotional payoff for the audience?

Or is the entire production merely meant to distract and entertain.

The results often depend on how well a production can pierce through an audience member's protective armor. As with many relationships, that depends on how much a person is willing to be vulnerable to certain kinds of intimacy. These include:
  • Physical intimacy: A meeting of the flesh which allows someone to fuck with your body.
  • Emotional intimacy: A meeting of the hearts which allows someone to fuck with your emotions.
  • Intellectual intimacy: A meeting of the minds which allows someone to fuck with your brain.
Two productions recently staged in Berkeley did their best to challenge audiences on all three levels of intimacy. One was a work in progress, the other a full-blown world premiere. In both cases, the results were fascinating, invigorating, titillating, and exhilarating.

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Several Bay area theatre companies (Magic Theater, Aurora Theatre Company, Theatreworks, and Playwrights Foundation) have programs aimed at nurturing playwrights through workshops, staged readings, and artistic residencies. As Marissa Wolf, the artistic director of Crowded Fire Theater Company explains:
"The Matchbox production is part of our works in development program that offers resident artists the opportunity to experiment with new ideas and forms, producing the final piece in an alternative venue outside of a traditional theatre. From a beautiful new music composition with televisions and cellos, to a 3D soundscape of one girl's journey through the underworld, over the years The Matchbox productions have unearthed the cutting edge of Crowded Fire's season by encouraging our ensemble to take risks and dig deep into their wellspring of theatrical questions and desires."
Crowded Fire recently mounted a Matchbox production of The Lysistrata Project. Written and directed by Elena McKernan, this play allows clusters of audience members to follow three different dramatic tracks in a single story as they witness a series of events in the lives of:
  • Cindy: a June Cleaver archetype who is struggling to navigate a world filled with lies, the threat of nuclear war, and the closely-guarded secrets of making the perfect apple pie.
  • Karen: an iconoclast who rejects current societal norms and is willing to get involved in a dangerous new revolution that might cost her her friends, her husband, and possibly even her life.
  • Linda: A young widow whose latest hobby threatens the very fabric of American society. Whether she is perceived as a Communist, a whore, or a dangerous influence on the fragile minds of American women, Linda has impacted more lives than she knows.
Far from the standard tour-guide experience ("And we're walking, we're walking....."), audience members attending McKernan's drama found themselves enmeshed in an exercise in political voyeurism. As Wolf stresses: "Elana is a fiercely intelligent and insightful practitioner. Her nuanced writing reveals beautiful underpinnings of Greek tragedy while remaining immediate and topical for us today."

Standard protocol for workshop productions allows critics to look, but not review. Thus, I will merely quote McKernan's message to the audience that participates in The Lysistrata Project (which was staged in the playwright's Berkeley residence).
"Welcome to my home. Welcome to a reimagined Berkeley, circa 1958. Welcome to a world in which McCarthy reigns supreme and merely having a voice is akin to terrorism. You are entering into a truly immersive, intimate theatrical experience.

For me (and unlike the original Lysistrata), this play isn't so much about war as it is about the effects of war in a culture where -- aside from the experience of those on the front lines -- most citizens are actually quite removed from the fighting and are instead left with a sense of dread and a vague paranoia. It's about revolution, change, and the inevitability of change (even when those in power will do everything they can to resist it).

This structure is unlike anything I've worked on before. It is thus theatrically both liberating and exciting, because it is as much an experiment for me as it will be for you. As you embark upon this journey through a period of history marked by an intense social rigidity and an equally intense period of political and social change, above all else I want you to feel welcome to engage with the piece."
Not wanting to reveal any more details about The Lysistrata Project, let me just say that McKernan's drama offered attendees the kind of participatory theatrical experience that can be politically provocative and/or powerfully personal. I was particularly impressed with the way sound and lighting cues for this site-specific production were managed by off-the-shelf technology using a series of iPhones manipulated by the cast. And there was pie!

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The Berkeley Repertory Theatre's recent world premiere of Girlfriend accomplished the rare feat of showcasing the process in which physical, emotional, and intellectual intimacy takes root and starts to develop between two horny, isolated teenagers in rural Nebraska, circa 1993. Set during that delicate and peculiar moment in recent history when the Internet had not yet gained popularity, AIDS seemed like something that only happened to people who lived in big cities, and home phones were just becoming portable, Girlfriend inhabits a landscape of surprisingly fresh country air where the most deafening sound is a freight train as it rumbles by.

There are many reasons to cheer this production, not the least of which are the magnificent sound design by Jake Rodriguez and Japhy Weideman's imaginative lighting (especially a double strand of multicolored fluorescent tubes that are used to great dramatic effect). Perhaps, more than anything, it is a sign of how far Bay area audiences have evolved that an intimate, two-character rock musical about two underage gay men struggling to come out to each other should receive a fully-funded world premiere from the one of the nation's largest and most reputable regional theatre companies rather than from a tiny gay theatre company with minimal resources.

Although set in Cornhusker territory, Girlfriend is not the kind of gay love story in which farm boy fantasies get the Falcon Studios treatment. Nor is it akin to the kind of one-handed fiction in which the farmer's horny son falls under the influence of a handsome stranger and they both proceed to "cum in buckets" (I always loved that phrase).

Ryder Bach as Will (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Instead, Will (Ryder Bach) is a stereotypically sensitive high school theatre geek who has grown up being thrown to the ground by his classmates and having the word "fag" written on his forehead. Although he is about to graduate, Will has no real plans for the future other than getting a job at K-Mart.

Mike (Jason Hite) is the favored high school jock whose nonexistent out-of-town "girlfriend" offers convenient cover from prying questions about his sexual orientation. Unlike many jocks, who tend to vent their frustrations through violence, Mike prefers to strum his guitar while quietly singing to himself. Constantly pressured by his father (a doctor) to aim higher in life, Mike is thrilled just to have an opportunity to get out of his small town on an athletic scholarship and go to college in Lincoln, where he can start to have a life of his own.

Jason Hite as Mike (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Using songs from Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend album, Todd Almond has fashioned a love story that is simple, honest, and succeeds in communicating the most intimate thoughts and feelings to the audience (even when its two heroes can barely find the words with which to communicate their feelings to each other). Unlike such popular jukebox musicals as Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys, Sweet's songs have become enmeshed in the story line with a naturalistic flow that avoids show business clich├ęs and big production numbers.

Girlfriend is a surprisingly introspective, nearly minimalist rock musical that takes its own sweet time working up to the kiss between two often monosyllabic teenagers that ends Act I and the arc of personal growth that fills Act II. With help from Bay area choreographer Joe Goode, director Les Waters has managed to capture the sweet tenderness and awkward unsurety of one's first brush with forbidden love.

While Girlfriend makes no bones about the harsh realities of small town homophobia -- or the angst of young gay guys struggling to find a direction for their futures -- it remains astonishingly lyrical in the way it unfolds on the Berkeley Rep's thrust stage. As director Les Waters notes:
“I’ve devoted my career to developing new work, but I’ve never directed a musical before. This show, which is touchingly genuine and utterly lacking in cynicism, was impossible to resist. When I first read the script, I was struck by how Todd had transformed Girlfriend into a beautiful story about two teenage boys falling in love while remaining completely faithful to Matthew’s brilliant music. Joe Goode is the perfect choreographer for this show because his style always uses movement in service of storytelling and character. This touching and genuine story needs a light touch, and he knows how to combine dance and narrative in ways that no one else can.”
Ryder Bach and Jason Hite (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Girlfriend's score does not feature the standard kind of musical-dramatic punctuation that anchors a big Broadway number like "I Am What I Am" (as performed in the current revival of the Jerry Herman/Harvey Feinstein musical, La Cage aux Folles, that just opened on Broadway). Instead, Sweet's music delicately aids and abets the plot as Will and Mike talk about the music they love, explore their burgeoning sexuality and -- after far too many nights watching the same movie at the local drive-in -- eventually get down to business.

While Girlfriend may seem extremely accessible (especially for gay men who can still recall their first tentative moves in confessing their feelings for someone of the same sex), the show is remarkably uplifting without being coy. It takes a softer, more wholesome route to the heart than one usually finds at an age where young gay men fuck first and ask questions later.

I was especially taken by David Zinn's simple unit set, which allowed the two leads plenty of space to roam while the all-female band (Julie Wolf, Shelley Duty, Jean DuSabion, and ieela Grant) were confined to what looked like a typical, wood-paneled downstairs den.

Ryder Bach and Jason Hite (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In some ways, I wonder if Girlfriend could have been produced in its current form without today's advanced technology for body microphones. To their credit, the creative team has avoided many of the artistic traps hilariously outlined by songwriter Andrew M. Byrne (of Mock Your World fame) in A Contemporary Musical Theatre Song. Here it is, as sung by Anthony Holds (who will soon be appearing on Broadway in Enron):

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