Saturday, May 15, 2010

Oops, There Goes The Neighborhood!

As the world watches, shocked and awed by the potentially vast toxic impact that will result from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, lists are being drawn up of those people, industries, and natural habitats that could fall victim to the horrendous side effects of the recent explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig. These include:
  • The South's vast shrimping and seafood industry (that has depended on the plentiful fish stocks in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico).
  • The culture of New Orleans, whose legendary Creole cuisine has often been built around dishes featuring fresh fish and shellfish.
  • Tourism focused on recreational fishing activities.
  • The abundant biodiversity of Louisiana's coastal areas, whose bird populations might suffer from eating toxic fish.
  • The fragile ecosystems surrounding the Louisiana wetlands as well as the coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea.
Each of these imperiled ecosystems represents a microcosm thrown out of equilibrium by forces beyond its control. Just as the past few years have witnessed a national crisis for beekeepers as a result of colony collapse disorder, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico threatens much, much more than just marine life.

What is the invisible glue that can hold a tiny population together in a state of harmony? What factors keep things humming at ground level? Whether one considers the critical role played by plankton in the ocean or the ability of bees to spread pollen, a sudden jolt to the natural order of events can have dire consequences.

In human terms, the colony or ecosystem is usually defined as a local neighborhood. As people age, relocate to the suburbs, or pursue careers elsewhere, the tone of a neighborhood continues to change as a result of population churn.

Immigrant ghettos such as the Mission District, Chinatown, and Little Italy are all subject to gentrification, gang violence, and urban renewal. But at the center of each neighborhood there are usually key personalities whose emotional security has helped to nurture those around them and foster a sense of cultural stability -- until a drastic change occurs.

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Back in 1961, when I was just beginning to go to the theatre on a regular basis, I attended a performance of a strange play by Eugene Ionesco. At the time I knew absolutely nothing about the Theater of the Absurd. Nor did I have any kind of political awareness (in my truly pathetic naivete, I thought that the phrase "and to the republic for which it stands" that I recited every day in school as part of the Pledge of Allegiance meant that people would obviously want to vote Republican).

Watching the second act of Rhinoceros, however, was an important moment in my theatrical education. Although the cast featured the likes of Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, Morris Carnovsky, and Jean Stapleton, it was Zero Mostel's towering performance (in which the actor so convincingly portrayed the transformation of an fat, effete intellectual into a raging rhinoceros) that scared the shit out of nearly every person seated in the audience at the Longacre Theatre.

Thankfully, Mostel's performance was preserved on film in the movie version of Rhinoceros directed by Tom O'Horgan and produced by the American Film Theatre (co-starring Gene Wilder and Karen Black). Mostel's transformation is a model of craft and physical fury that no actor should miss. Here's the trailer from the 1974 film:

At the time I saw Rhinoceros onstage, I was much too young and naive to understand what Ionesco's play was all about. First produced in 1959, it criticized the kind of fear-based environment that had allowed such herd-driven movements as Fascism, Communism, and Nazism to gain power in Europe and Russia. Today, many Americans are witnessing a similar phenomenon with the angry, fear-driven, and largely hysterical rise of the Tea Party movement.

Erin Gilley as a radio journalist (Photo by: Peter Liu)

San Francisco's Boxcar Theatre recently debuted Evren Odcikin's immersion-style adaptation of Ionesco's play in its tiny South of Market basement theatre. The production's promotional materials describe Rhino as follows:
"With an ever evolving landscape requiring the audience to move about the Boxcar Playhouse space, this original piece defines what experiential theatre is all about. Physical transformations, ideological conformity, and that nagging feeling you might never ever fit in come together in this sometimes hard-hitting, but always playful work of art.

Don't you feel the pressure to change? Your neighbor has become one. And so has your wife. With their beautiful horns, rough skin, and cacophonous trumpeting -- don't you think they are just a little bit better than you?"
El Beh and Allison Combs (Photo by: Peter Liu)

As I watched Boxcar's quartet of actors lead the audience through what it feels like to be caught in the middle of an outbreak of "rhinoceritis," I couldn't help but think back to the days when muscle clones were desperately pumping iron at gay gyms so that their biceps, pecs, and calves could be just a silly millimeter larger, their abs more tightly defined, and their insecurity comforted by their added bulk. I remembered teasing one of the more peer-pressured queens about the fact that the next step in men's fashion was going to be gym shorts made out of veal.

"Really? Where can I get them?" asked Marty. "Are they available in some catalog?"

Ross Pasquale, Erin Gilley, El Beh, and Allison Combs
(Photo by: Peter Liu)

Odcikin's staging (in which the actors constantly move through and around the audience) removes the safety net of a theatre's fourth wall so that those in attendance can sense how the fear of noncomformity is growing all around them. While Rhino is very much a bare-bones production in which movement and sound are more important than sets and costumes, I was taken by the cleverly conceived and artfully executed rhinoceritic headdresses designed by Amy Knight. These sculptures, combined with Nick A. Olivero's lighting and Sara Huddleston's sound design (which grew increasingly threatening as more and more people gave up their identity to join the local herd of rhinoceroses) proved to be most effective.

Photo by: Peter Liu

Over the course of an hour, Boxcar's ensemble of four actors (Ross Pasquale, Erin Gilley, El Beh, and Allison Combs) worked hard to instill a sense of trepidation and unease in the audience. However, the great irony at the end of Rhino is that the one character who has stubbornly decided to remain a human being finds himself filled with regret because he lacks the ability to become a rhinoceros (who can run with the crowd). Anyone who has ever felt out of place at an event where everyone else seems to be having a wonderful time knows that feeling. Rhino continues through May 29 at the Boxcar Theatre. You can order tickets here.

* * * * * * *
Last Wednesday's opening night of In The Heights at the Curran Theatre was cause for celebration. This vibrant show (with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Quiara Alegria Hudes) won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical -- and with good reason.

Set in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan (an area heavily populated by Dominican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, and Puerto Ricans), the musical pulses with a score that uses hiphop and salsa to underline the vitality of street life in a tightly knit community.

Beautifully directed by Thomas Kail, with some thrilling choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, the show delivers something that has been missing from the musical stage for far too long: a cast of easily recognizable contemporary characters whose fate the audience genuinely cares about. These include the two cousins staffing the corner bodega:
  • Usnavi (Kyle Beltran), is a young Dominican American whose parents died when he was very young.
  • Sonny (Shaun Taylor-Corbett), his younger cousin, recently passed through puberty and is looking forward to making a name for himself with the ladies.

Next to Usnavi's bodega is the salon where, for several years, Vanessa (Sabrina Sloan), Daniela (Isabel Santiago), and Carla (Genny Lisl Padilla) have been gossiping and styling hair for the women of the neighborhood.

Across the street, the Rosario family has been running a private car service. The family patriarch, Kevin Rosario (Daniel Bolero), has a history of making impulsive decisions without consulting his more level-headed wife, Camila (Natalie Toro). Their daughter Nina (Arielle Jacobs), has just returned from California after dropping out of Stanford University. Kevin's employee, Benny (Rogelio Douglas, Jr.) is a darker skinned Dominican American who has always had a crush on Nina.

Shortly after Abuela Claudia learns that she has won $96,000 in the lottery, a power blackout throws the neighborhood into chaos, heightening the emotional desperation of certain characters and showcasing the generosity and compassion of others.

Abuela Claudia (Elisa Santora) and Nina Rosario (Arielle Jacobs)
(Photo by: Joan Marcus)

By the final curtain, Abuela Claudia has ascended to heaven, Vanessa has learned about the depths of true friendship, Nina has decided to go back to school, and Usnavi has opted to stay where he is and where he belongs -- In The Heights. What is truly amazing is the story of how the show came into being and eventually made it to Broadway. As Lin-Manuel Miranda explains:
"When I was directing West Side Story in high school, a musical opened on Broadway called The Capeman, written by Paul Simon. I truly believed that it was going to be the greatest musical in the history of the universe, because it featured two of my heroes, Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades, and had a score by my third hero, Paul Simon who, to this day, has never written a bad song. But it was about a Puerto Rican gang member, and Latinos in the show were portrayed as knife-wielding murderers from the 1950s – and this was 40 years after West Side Story.

How specific a subset can you get?

I had a very conflicted relationship with that musical. I saw it three times in previews and loved the score. But it didn’t work as a show (it works as a concert). And it broke my heart because the critics ripped it up. It sort of began this curse that Latino musicals can’t succeed on Broadway. I spent two years in my head trying to fix Capeman, but I couldn’t. So that was the other reason I wrote In the Heights.

The credit for this show getting from Wesleyan to Broadway really goes to Tommy Kail. He’s an incredible director. He’s excellent at making sure that everyone’s writing the same show, which is one of the hardest things to do in musicals. Even before we had producers, he had us meet every Friday, bring in songs, bring in scenes, and pick them apart. There have been five different plots, and 60 cut songs. Writing this show was like my grad school degree."

Wednesday night's performance got an extra boost of energy from lead dancer Sandy Alvarez and Shaun Taylor-Corbett's Sonny. Natalie Toro scored strongly with Camila's big number ("Enough") while Isabela Santiago's Daniela brought plenty of spice and sass to the evening.

The show ultimately rests on the shoulders of the actor playing Usnavi. To that end, Kyle Beltran came through with a magnificently likable and genuine portrayal of a hard working, good-hearted young man who is a dedicated friend (although at times incredibly naive about women and love).

Kyle Beltran as Usnavi (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Special mention should be made of Howell Binkley's exceptional lighting design (especially for a simulated fireworks sequence at the end of Act I), the wonderfully flexible unit set designed by Anna Louizos, and the superb musical arrangements and orchestrations by Alex Lacaomire and Bill Sherman, which allowed the show's romantic ballads to end on tender cushions of sound rather than overpowering the audience with deafening levels of amplification.

Fifty years ago, a musical like In The Heights would have been marketed as"the dancingest show on Broadway." The truth, however, is that every moment of dance and music contained in this show not only rings true, but rests on a solid foundation of dramatic motivation. The obvious physical affection shared by members of Usnavi's neighborhood is something that many of us wish we could have in our daily lives.

Thankfully, In The Heights will continue to delight audiences at the Curran Theatre through June 13. You can -- and most definitely should -- treat yourself to a performance of this heart-warming musical (you can order tickets here).

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