Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Matzoh Mia!

Last month, as Jews around the world gathered to celebrate Passover, they asked the same question they've been asking for years. "Why is this night different from all other nights?" For those who are not Jewish, the traditional answers are:
  • On all other nights we eat both chametz (leavened products) and matzoh, but on this night, we eat only matzoh (unleavened bread).
  • On all other nights we eat many vegetables, but on this night, we eat maror (bitter herbs).
  • On all other nights we do not dip vegetables even once, but on this night we dip twice.
  • On all other nights some eat sitting and others reclining, but on this night we are all reclining.
The role of matzoh in the Passover Seder is to symbolize the flight of the Israelites from Egypt, when they had to leave in such a hurry that there was no time to wait for leavened dough to rise. While eating "the bread of affliction" at Passover is supposed to help Jews appreciate their freedom, sometimes it can also help them appreciate what it feels like to be constipated (matzoh is not famous for flowing freely through the digestive tract).

That thought came to mind as I sat watching two recent productions which seemed like excellent choices for theatrical subscribers but, instead. delivered dramatic spectacles akin to unleavened lead.

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Although handsomely designed with scenery by John Iacovelli, costumes by Anna R. Oliver, and lighting by York Kennedy, the Aurora Theatre Company's new production of John Gabriel Borkman is a bit of a puzzler. Written in 1896, Henrik Ibsen's drama about the repercussions of financial mismanagement, lost love, and a failed marriage might seem highly relevant in light of the mistakes made by "the brightest boys in the room" at Enron or the recent fallout from credit default swaps. After all, back in 1991, Danny DeVito and Penelope Ann Miller had a big success with Other People's Money (a movie which showed how people's lives and futures are affected when traded like commodities by brokers whose only interest is the thrill of the deal).

However, I don't think that's where the crux of the problem lies with Ibsen's play. As I watched the drama unfold with a plodding meticulousness, it became increasingly evident that the self-righteous, unrepentant, and monomaniacal title character was so enthralled with his delusions of grandeur that not even death could make him understand the scope of the tragedy he had inflicted on his community. With a sneering disdain for others' hopes and aspirations -- a smugness that reminded me of the Neocons who proclaimed that "We will be greeted as liberators" upon invading Iraq -- I saw a power-hungry businessman who resembled Dick Cheney much more than Bernie Madoff.

James Carpenter as John Gabriel Borkman
(Photo by: David Allen)

Several decades after the spread of the Industrial Revolution from Britain to other parts of Europe, John Gabriel Borkman was little more than a drunken gambler convinced that he could become a Captain of Industry. After five years in jail -- and eight more years spent pacing the floor of a small upstairs room in his house (without ever speaking to his wife) -- his obsessions have led to madness. His selfishness has not just ruined his family, but his entire community.

Unfortunately, as directed by Barbara Oliver (using a new version by David Eldredge), Ibsen's drama does not hold up very well. Of the older characters, there is only one man who is not consumed with dreams of bitter retribution. Like hissing, selfish vipers, the elder Borkmans can't stop themselves from trying to ruin other people's lives. What sends Act II careening off in a new direction is their brazen miscalculation that their son, Erhardt (Aaron Wilton), would automatically do their bidding.

But why would he? Just look at who is pressuring him:
  • His father, John Gabriel Borkman (James Carpenter), is a disgraced bank officer who has never shown any love for the young man.
  • His mother, Gunhild (Karen Grassle), has become a bitter shrew whose only hope is that her son will help her exact revenge on her husband through the writing of John Gabriel Borkman's epitaph.
Gunhild (Karen Grassle) and John (James Carpenter)
(Photo by: David Allen)
  • His aunt, Ella Rentheim (Karen Lewis), is his mother's dying twin sister -- who was once his father's lover. When John Gabriel Borkman ruined everyone else's lives, he made sure that Ella's estate did not suffer. Childless, she desperately wants Erhardt to keep her company in her dying days and take her name. Her motive, however, has a lot more to do with being sure that she has won the boy's love from his biological mother.
  • And then there is Mrs. Fanny Wilton (Pamela Gaye Walker), a wealthy local woman who is obviously in love with Erhart (even though he is seven years younger than her). Fanny and Erhardt have decided to head off to Europe, taking Vilhelm Foldal's young daughter, Frida, with them. Mrs. Wilton plans to help develop Frida's musical talents and enjoy life with Erhardt for as long as the going is good.
If, in performance, John Gabriel Borkman was not a very enticing affair, I'd say it was mostly due to the sea of bile drowning the older twin sisters and the unrepentant man they once loved. Although long years of repressed anger, resentment, and disgust may build character, it can also become surprisingly tedious.

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Down at Theatreworks in Mountain View, a new production of To Kill A Mockingbird had a rather dispirited opening night. An audience member's medical emergency brought the proceedings to a temporary halt late in Act I, but did not really diminish the performance. The problem, instead, was to be found with the play's structure and casting.

Robert Kelley is usually a very resourceful stage director. But Christopher Sergel's dramatization of Harper Lee's famous novel comes with some pretty heavy baggage. Despite a handsome unit set by Andrea Bechert, the production never really found its mark.

In book form, Lee's story can spark the reader's imagination with its sharply drawn characters and powerful tale of racial prejudice. The popular 1962 film version of To Kill A Mockingbird (which starred Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as his daughter, Scout) benefited from strong performances and superior camera work. Onstage, however, there was no chance to splice and edit scenes in order to create a greater sense of intimacy and introspection.

Anthony Newfield, Howard Swain, and Philipe D. Preston
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

When three serviceable, but not particularly strong child actors are put onstage and asked to anchor a story, there's trouble ahead. Sierra Stephens (Scout Finch) and Eric Colvin (Jem Finch) often delivered their lines clumsily and without much effect. Gabriel Hoffman (Dill) and Blythe Foster (Mayelle Ewell) fared slightly better, with Kevin Blackton, Howard Swain, and Phoebe Moyer lending support in multiple roles.

Anthony Newfield gave an earnest performance as the ethical attorney assigned to defend a young black man (Philipe D. Preston) falsely accused of raping a white girl in a small Southern town in 1935. Nancy Carlin's Miss Maudie Atkinson attempted to double as a narrator.

Scout (Sierra Stephens) and Calpurnia (Cathleen Riddley)
(Photo by: Tracy Martin)

When all else fails, one can always depend on Rod Gnapp -- one of the Bay area's finest and most reliable character actors -- to deliver in spades. As the racist villain, Bob Ewell, Gnapp delivered another one of his sterling characterizations of twisted masculinity, wallowing in the macho ignorance of white trash at one moment and then coldly threatening Atticus Finch the next. It's a joy to watch this man work.

Howard Swain, Rod Gnapp, and Phoebe Moyer
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Ultimately, what kept both John Gabriel Borkman and To Kill A Mockingbird from rising to their full potential was that both plays seemed to be crippled under the weight of the necessary exposition. This is all the more perplexing considering the seething rage and blistering hatred that lies at the core of each story. While I was grateful for a chance to experience these two dramas, neither production provided a particularly satisfying experience.

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