Monday, August 30, 2010

The Architecture of Storytelling

Some stories are more difficult to tell than others. That may be due to a story's length, complexity, or need for special effects. In some situations, a surprise ending may not work well if everyone knows what's coming down the pike.

Other stories depend on an audience's empathy and ability to grasp the basic humanity underlying a difficult situation.These stories may require a more sophisticated audience, fewer special effects, and more concentration on character. Put in simple terms: one approaches Driving Miss Daisy very differently than one might think about staging Mamma, Mia!

Two recent productions by theatre companies down on the Peninsula tackled the storytelling challenge from different angles. One managed to reduce an epic poem to a piece of intimate, yet highly charged theatre. The  other had an unexpected advantage in relating a difficult story thanks to the architecture of the theatre in which it was presented.

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Down in Palo Alto, the Stanford Summer Theatre presented The Wanderings of Odysseus using Oliver Taplin's translation. With a unit set designed by Erik Flatmo and Michael Ramsaur's lighting designs, the tiny Nitery Theatre was used as a black box arena for relating one of the greatest stories of all time. As the director, Rush Rehm (who is also the artistic director of Stanford Summer Theater) explains:
"Homer creates a world of memorable characters, archetypal conflicts, flights of imagination, and gritty details that never lose sight of human corporality and mortality. With over 60% of the narration in direct speech, the Iliad and Odyssey ask for performance, with actors moving between enactment and narration. Arising from an oral tradition, the greatest of these stories took shape some 2,700 years ago, eventually finding the form we know as Homeric epic. Once written down, the Iliad, Odyssey, and other stories now lost -- The Sack of Troy, the Little Iliad, various nostoi ("homecomings") -- became the performance texts for rhapsodes.  These protocol-actors competed at festivals in Athens and throughout the Greek world
Calypso (Courtney Welsh) and Odysseus (L. Peter Callender) in
The Wanderings of Odysseus (Photo by: Stefanie Okuda)
In 1992, the Getty Museum and the Mark Taper Forum commissioned Oliver Taplin to translate the stories of Odysseus's journey home to Ithaca. With five actors and a musician, I developed a four-hour piece, The Wanderings of Odysseus, which played for a month in the inner courtyard of the Getty Museum in Malibu. I have compacted and intensified Oliver's original script, working with a group of eight actors, a percussionist, and a choreographer." 
Courtney Walsh as the blinded Cyclops in The Wanderings of Odysseus
(Photo by: Stefanie Okuda)
Rehm's intense two-act staging requires the eight members of his ensemble to take on multiple roles. Four actors (Paul Baird,  L. Peter Callender, Luke Taylor, and Alex  Ubokudom) portray Odysseus as he ages over the course of the story. 
  • Baird also appears as Hermes (the messenger of the Gods) and Elpenor (the member of Odysseus's crew who fell to his death prematurely after a heavy night of drinking). 
  • Callender impersonates two gods: Zeus and Poseidon (ruler of the sea).
  • Taylor appears as Hephaestus (Aphrodite's husband) and Eurylochus (who warns Odysseus about Circe's power to turn his men into pigs).
  • Ubokudom portrays Alcinous (the ruler of the Phaeacians) and the great warrior, Achilles
  • Ariel Mazel-Gee delivered moving portraits of Nausicaa, Polites, and the blind prophet, Teiresias.
Polites (Ariel Mazel-Gee) tries to resist the sirens in
The Wanderings of Odysseus (Photo by: Stefanie Okuda)
Of the three women in the cast, Courtney Walsh stood out for her portrayals of Calypso, Arete, and Polyphemus the Cyclops (Poseidon's son) while Bronwyn Reed portrayed Athena, Aphrodite, and Circe. Madhulika Krishnan shone as a Phaeacian dancer. The unexpected star of the evening proved to be percussionist Taylor Alan Brady, whose improvisations added a solid foundation of music, magic, and rhythm to the production.

It's interesting to think of some of the interpretations of classic works from Greek theatre that have recently been staged by Bay area theatre companies. Can you imagine what would happen if a summer arts festival devoted to the literature of ancient Greece featured the following?
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A little bit further to the south, a magnificent and deeply gratifying production of Adam Guettel's award-winning musical, The Light in the Piazza, is charming audiences at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. In her program notes for the Theatreworks production, Vickie Rozell writes that:
"In the early 1960s, Mary Rodgers (composer of the musical Once Upon A Mattress) suggested that her father, Richard Rodgers (composer of Oklahoma!), adapt The Light in the Piazza into a musical.  He told her it was lovely, but not for him. Years later, in 1998, she suggested it to another composer: her son, Adam Guettel."
Rozell then goes on to discuss The Light in the Piazza without ever mentioning the curious choice that Richard Rodgers made instead. This is, in so many ways, a story of the road not taken. Rodgers teamed up with Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim to adapt a play Laurents wrote in 1952 entitled The Time of the Cuckoo into a musical. It had already been made into a successful film in 1955 (Summertime) which starred Katherine Hepburn. According to Wikipedia:
"Laurents originally conceived the production as a small chamber musical with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, and Mary Martin in the lead role of spinster Leona Samish. By the time the project began to gel, however, Hammerstein had died. Stephen Sondheim was asked by Laurents and Mary Rodgers (Richard Rodgers' daughter) to write the lyrics. Although he felt the original play did not lend itself to musicalization, Sondheim agreed. Rodgers, who was producing the Broadway production, rejected Martin as too old for Leona.
Franco Zeffirelli was first choice for director. He met with Laurents, Sondheim, and Rodgers (who fell asleep during their discussion). Laurents suspected Rodgers had been drinking, and when he discovered a bottle of vodka secreted in the toilet tank during a later visit to the Rodgers apartment, he realized he had been correct. The composer's chronic drinking proved to be a major problem throughout the rehearsal period and pre-Broadway run at the Colonial Theatre in Boston and the Shubert Theatre in New Haven.
Laurents suggested John Dexter direct the show, but later regretted the choice. Dexter insisted on giving the lead role of Leona to Elizabeth Allen, who Laurents felt could manage the acting and singing but had a cold personality too contrary to that of the character. Rodgers' mistreatment of Sondheim left the composer feeling apathetic if not outright sour about the project, but he maintained his professionalism. The first run-through was disastrous. Dexter immediately lost interest, leaving most of the work to his assistant-cum-choreographer Wakefield Poole. Herbert Ross was called in to work on the dance routines and brought with him his wife Nora Kaye, who served as a mediator among the warring factions. She was faced with an arduous task (given Rodgers openly dismissed Sondheim's lyrics as 'shit') and eventually banned Laurents from rehearsals completely."
Poster art for Do I Hear A Waltz?
I caught two performances of the original production of  Do I Hear A Waltz? in 1965, when I was attending Brooklyn College. Although it had some sweet moments, the show just couldn't seem to find itself. It seemed lost on the stage of the 46th Street Theatre (which was subsequently renamed in honor of Richard Rodgers). A little more than a year after it closed, Mary Martin and Robert Preston took over the stage of the 46th Street Theatre for a long run of the Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt musical,  I Do! I Do!

The times, they were a'changing as the public embraced Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and the sounds of Motown. In 1968, Hair moved to Broadway. Although Rodgers had one popular hit song ("The Sweetest Sounds") from 1962's No Strings -- for which he wrote both the music and lyrics  -- none of his subsequent musicals (1970's Two by Two, 1976's Rex, and 1979's I Remember Mama) produced a single popular hit song.

As one listens to Guettel's score for The Light in the Piazza, it doesn't take much to realize that what he has written is a chamber opera rather than a traditional Broadway show. Nor does it sound anything like the musicals written by his grandfather. Guettel's writing and orchestration (keyboards, violin, cello, bass, and harp) are nothing like the musical language and punctuation style of most Broadway songs. Although his show is not entirely through composed, it depends on a cast with classically trained voices.

One most also consider the kind of environment in which a chamber opera like The Light in the Piazza should be performed. The show had its premiere at Seattle's Intiman Playhouse, which seats 446 and was subsequently produced at Chicago's Goodman Theatre (capacity 450).  Its New York debut took place in Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre (capacity 1,080). A Live From Lincoln Center telecast on PBS allowed for numerous close-ups.

Rebecca Eichenberger as Margaret Johnson in
The Light in the Piazza (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

When I first saw The Light in the Piazza on tour at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre (capacity 2,203), it seemed as if this very delicate show had been left to fend for itself in an airplane hangar. With a seating capacity of 589 (nearly one fourth the size of the Orpheum), the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts is just the right size for The Light in the Piazza to have an intimate connection with its audience. On opening night, my initial impression was that the sound designer, Cliff Caruthers, might actually want to reduce the level of amplification.

Based on the 1960 novel by Elizabeth Spencer, the show's book by Craig Lucas is tight and trim. Many lyrics are in Italian. However, the audience has no trouble understanding the challenges faced by the story's two young lovers and their overprotective parents.

Margaret Johnson (Rebecca Eichenberger) and her daughter, Clara
(Whitney Bashor) in The Light in the Piazza (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Margaret Johnson (Rebecca Eichenberger) has good reason to worry about her daughter, Clara (Whitney Bashor). When Clara was young, she was kicked in the head by a pony. Although her body has fully developed into that of a beautiful young woman, mentally and emotionally Clara is still a child.

Fabrizio Naccarelli  (Constantine Germanacos) is a handsome young Florentine who has developed an intense crush on Clara. His love and sensitivity, however, go much deeper than the puppy love suspected by his father (Martin Vidnovic), mother (Caroline Altman), brother (Nicolas Aliaga), and sister-in-law (Ariela Morgenstern). They have always looked on Fabrizio as a boy, never as a grown man.

Clara (Whitney Bashor) and Fabrizio (Constantine Germanacos) in
The Light in the Piazza (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

The cast performs together beautifully as a musical and dramatic ensemble (with the exception of Richard Frederick who, as Margaret's husband, Roy Johnson, only appears in scenes involving long-distance phone calls). Robert Kelley has directed the production with a great deal of sensitivity. J. B. Wilson's sets, Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes, and Pamila Z. Gray's lighting carefully bathe the story in the romantic glow of sunsets and young love.

The Light in the Piazza is not the kind of show that sends audiences out into the night humming its tunes or singing its lyrics. It is, however, a class act that embodies all of the artistic goals that the Opera/Musical Theatre program of the National Endowment for the Arts kept trying to reach back in the 1980s (with decidedly mixed results).

The Light in the Piazza continues through September 19 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. You can order tickets here for this most satisfying evening of musical theatre.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Excellent Ensemble Work

Much of the past week was spent being entertained by the talented artists who belong to Berkeley's Shotgun Players. Last Sunday, I attended an outdoor performance of In The Wound (Jon Tracy's thrilling new adaptation of The Iliad). At three subsequent performances I had an opportunity to enjoy the company's staging of Alan Ayckbourn's comic trilogy, The Norman Conquests.

Reg (Mike Mize) and Sarah (Kendra Lee Oberhauser) in
The Norman Conquests (Photo by: Robin Phillips)

Written in 1973, The Norman Conquests consists of three plays which take place simultaneously in different parts of a home in suburban England. In 1975, the three plays had a brief New York run at the Morosco Theatre with a cast that included Richard Benjamin (Norman), Ken Howard (Tom), Barry Nelson (Reg), Estelle Parsons (Sarah), Paula Prentiss (Annie), and Carole Shelley (Ruth).

I don't know why the production didn't last longer (it's possible that Ayckbourn's sense of humor didn't travel across the Atlantic particularly well during the 1970s). But as seen in the Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage, The Norman Conquests is an unbelievably satisfying theatrical treat. The six characters in Ayckbourn's farce are:
  • Norman (Richard Reinholdt), an unmanageable man child who just wants to make everyone happy (Norman wouldn't hesitate to dry hump the sofa if he thought he could make it happy, too). An irrepressible spirit locked in the body of big, cuddly bear, Norman is like a small tornado that causes chaos wherever he goes. Much of Norman's unpredictable behavior is linked to his undying hunger to be the center of attention.
  • Ruth (Sarah Mitchell), Norman's caustic wife. A successful, overworked businesswoman who has learned not to take Norman's antics too seriously, Ruth has an acid tongue. She can quickly deflate someone's ego with her withering remarks. Because she is horribly nearsighted (and too vain to wear her glasses), Ruth is constantly bumping into things and trying to compensate for her myopia.
  • Annie (Zehra Berkman), Ruth's younger sister. Annie is the frumpiest member of the family. Most of her time is devoted to caring for her aging, depressed mother (who, in her youth, apparently behaved quite scandalously). Although Annie is in desperate need of a vacation, she doesn't seem to have much luck communicating her needs to men.
  • Tom (Josiah Polhemus), Annie's lunkheaded neighbor. A veterinarian who communicates much better with animals than with humans, Tom is about as dense as they come. Unable to express his true feelings for Annie, he fumbles every opportunity that comes his way. He is a master of not saying anything.
  • Reg (Mick Mize), Ruth and Annie's brother. Terribly henpecked and horribly emasculated, it doesn't take much to make Reg happy. He doesn't get many moments of happiness from his wife or children.
  • Sarah (Kendra Lee Oberhauser), Reg's shrewish wife. Sarah is a horrible control freak and insufferable megalomaniac with a severe martyrdom complex. She's the kind of mother who can't stop condescending to women who have not had children. In short, Sarah's a royal pain in the ass.
Richard Reinholdt as Norman (Photo by: Robin Phillips)

Ayckbourn's trilogy presents an irresistible challenge for actors (who occasionally get to perform all three plays in one day). While the challenge for the set designer (Shotgun's Nina Ball) was fairly straightforward, managing rehearsals and performances at the Ashby Stage while the company is also performing In The Wound with a cast of 30 over at John Hinkel Park is a monumental scheduling and logistical challenge for such a small company.

In order to spread the responsibility around, Joy Carlin directed Table Manners, Mina Morita directed Round And Round The Garden, and Molly Aaronson-Gelb directed Living Together (the plays were performed in that order on "marathon" days). Although the entire ensemble did a superb job, I found myself particularly smitten with Sarah Mitchell's acerbic portrayal of Ruth and Mick Mize's deft comic timing as Reg. The scene in which everyone at the breakfast table tries to ignore Norman is simply priceless.

Tom (Josiah Polehums), Sarah (Kendra Lee Oberhauser), Reg (Mick Mize),
and Annie (Zehra Berkman) in a scene from the Shotgun Players'
production of The Norman Conquests. (Photo by: Robin Phillips)

Because the Ashby Stage barely seats 150 people at any performance, Ayckbourn's plays benefit from an extra measure of intimacy. Gestures and lines that might otherwise need to be telegraphed to the audience in a larger theatre (as they were in A.C.T.'s recent production of Round And Round The Garden) took place on stage sets where the dining and living rooms were approximately the same size one would expect them to be in a home like Annie's.

The result was astonishing. Even during some of the most histrionic moments (and there are plenty in Ayckbourn's trilogy) -- and when it was obvious that people were "acting" -- the audience still felt like they were having that cherished "fly on the wall" experience in the midst of a dysfunctional family meltdown.

Sarah Mitchell as Ruth in The Norman Conquests
(Photo by: Robin Phillips)

As I sat through the Shotgun Players' production of The Norman Conquests, I couldn't help wondering how Ayckbourn's trilogy might work if performed by an all-male cast. It would require a certain amount of tweaking the script for Table Manners, but with the number of gay couples adopting children these days, the characters and situations would still play remarkably well from a gay angle.

The Norman Conquests has been extended through Sunday, September 12.  You can order tickets here.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

From Russia, With Mixed Feelings

When I was a child, our family had a prize possession that my sister and I could only use on special occasions. Known as "the sick puzzle," it contained 81 one-inch wooden cubes whose individual sides had been painted red, white, blue, or yellow. The house rule was simple: the only time you were allowed to play with the sick puzzle was when you were actually sick.

Although my sister and I knew exactly where to find the sick puzzle, we always respected the rules of usage. As such, there was one toy that became a family heirloom and was put back into use soon after my niece and nephew were born.  To this day, the mere mention of the sick puzzle can provoke a twinge of nostalgia for something that held a very special place in our hearts.

For many people, cartoon art holds a similar function. Different generations embrace different cartoons.  Thus,  the people who grew up reading Peanuts, Archie, B.C., and Dennis the Menace may have very different tastes and sensitivities than those who were raised during the heyday of Blondie, Ferd'nand, Pogo, and The Little King. While I'm currently drawn to Pearls Before Swine and Get Fuzzy, there is a special place in my heart for Berkeley Breathed's ferociously brilliant Bloom County and, of course, Bill Watterson's hilarious Calvin and Hobbes.

Whenever I'm feeling down or need a pick-me-up, all I have to do is open up one of my coffee table books of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons to be brought back to "a happy place." Fifteen years after Watterson chose to discontinue his beloved comic strip, visions of Spaceman Spiff, Calvin's diabolical snowman creations, or Miss Wormwood can instantly bring a smile to my face. The same holds true for images of Opus the Penguin, Bill the CatGary Larson's demented animals, and other figments of a cartoonist's imagination that became cultural landmarks for so many of us.

All of these, however, reflect American culture. Most of us know very little about the history of cartoon art in the Soviet Union -- especially political cartoons. Two films recently seen at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival breathed new life into my appreciation of cartoon art. Each proved to be quite fascinating.

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During interviews with Boris Efimov (who died in 2008 at the age of 109), viewers of Stalin Thought of You will be astounded by how spry and alert the artist was at 104. Whether having his picture taken flanked by two statuesque blondes or examining a fellow artist's renditions of Stalin and other famous Russians, Efimov enjoyed a long life and offers a remarkable perspective on Russian politics throughout the course of the 20th century.

Efimov's political cartoons depicted Soviet politicians and their henchman from Stalin through Brezhnev, with plenty of drawings depicting Americans like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and George W. Bush. Sketches of controversial figures like Adolf Hitler and Leon Trotsky flowed freely from Efimov's fingers.

Using rarely seen footage from the Russian State Film Archives, documentarian Kevin McNeer (with help from the Soyuz Multifilm Animation Studio) has produced a fascinating documentary. What makes it even more interesting is that during his interviews with Efimov, McNeer doesn't quite seem to grasp how oppressive life really was under Stalin.

Efimov's older brother, Mikhail Koltsov, was a Soviet spy and journalist who was much admired by Ernest Hemingway for his work in Spain (Koltsov inspired the character of Karkov in Hemingway's novel.For Whom The Bell Tolls). While Koltsov's ambition eventually led to his execution under Stalin's regime, Efimov was allowed to live.

When the Nazis invaded Russia, Efimov was one of the Russians that Hitler's troops had orders to hang upon capture. Although he had been blacklisted as the relative of a dissident, Efimov was spared exile in a Gulag and eventually reinstated as Pravda's top political cartoonist. Stalin was such a big fan of Efimov's work that he would even make suggestions on how Efimov should draw certain characters like Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Like the best political cartoonists, Efimov mocked authority in the Russian press during a lengthy career that spanned most of the 20th century.  He was lampooning events during World War II as well as during the Cold War. Although his cartoon work for Russia's state-owned media helped keep him alive, he never recovered from the emotional wound of his brother's murder. As a result, Efimov's descriptions of the power struggles within the Kremlin bear personal witness to many of the changes that occurred within its walls.

The film's trailer gives an insight into Efimov's mental acuity late in life, the mischievous nature of his art, as well as a backstage tour of Russian politics under Stalin's reign:

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Before discussing A Room And A Half, a 130-minute film written and directed by Andrey Khrzhanovskiy (an award-winning animator and documentarian), it's necessary to establish a timeline in the life of Joseph Brodsky:
With these facts in mind, try to imagine what it would have been like to give a filmmaker and animator access to the memories, dreams, and youthful thoughts of a Jewish poet who, after growing up in poverty, went on to  become a celebrated international literary figure with plenty of money. At a certain point, the fiction that can be created from the man's life becomes more interesting than the real facts.

The result? A Fellini-like meditation on what it was like to grow up in St. Petersburg instead of Rome. Brodsky's fictionalized life is seen through dramatic reenactments, archival news footage, and scenes in which the Americanized  Brodsky (Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy) is seen in a New York Russian social club, during a  return to Russia aboard a cruise ship (which never happened), and as he tours the city in which he was born.

Memories of his youth include scenes in which he tried to sneak young girls into his bedroom or when young Brodsky (Evgeniy Ogandzhanyan) and his father would imitate hungry cats at the dinner table. His chain-smoking mother (Alisa Frenjndlikh ) is always ready to pour him some more "fungus drink." His father (Sergei Yursky), a former seaman, delights in showing the young Brodsky the glories of St. Peterburg's architecture. In one delightful memory sequence, a butcher shows him how to choose between different types of sausage.

Brodsky's parents are depicted by two actors who age through approximately five decades until, at the end of the film, the adult Brodsky is reunited with their ghosts in the ruins of the 1-1/2 room apartment in which he was raised.

Alisa Frejndlikh and Sergei Yursky in A Room and a Half
While the film benefits from Vladimir  Brylyahkov's evocative cinematography, its greatest assets are the animated sequences which capture the young Brodsky's fantasies.  Whether standing in awe as pianos, trombones, and other instruments float through the imaginary air -- or questioning the identities of the black crows that Brodsky later realizes symbolize his parents -- Khrzhanovskiy's vivid imagination brings some much needed levity to his often ponderous film.

Although A Room and a Half could easily be cut by 30 minutes, it includes many moments of deep lyricism, superb whimsy, and breathtaking footage of "the Venice of the North." Here's the trailer:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dream Your Little Dream

Here's a curious piece of trivia: If you look at the "one" year in each decade since 1930, you're bound to find a musical that was either groundbreaking for its time or the work of a major composer. Consider the following:
Two of the above-named musicals have received major facelifts thanks to technological advances in stagecraft.  Whereas the original production of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying featured cartoon-like sets by Robert Randolph and costumes by Robert Fletcher, the 1995 revival (which starred Matthew Broderick and Megan Mullaly) featured an exciting new use of computer graphics which incorporated video by Batwin & Robin Productions, Inc. into the set design by by John Arnone

The new touring version of Dreamgirls which just roared into the Curran Theatre features sets by Robin Wagner integrated with Howard Werner/Lightswitch's computerized multimedia effects and costumes by William Ivey Long. Back in 1981, when Robin Wagner designed the original Broadway production, audiences were amazed at how Wagner's lighting towers literally danced across the stage, becoming an integral part of the action.

The new production (whose technical wonders are detailed in a fascinating article by David Barbour in the March 2010 issue of Lighting and Sound America) does the unthinkable. It makes the 1981 production look downright primitive and almost geriatric. For those who found the 2006 film version of Dreamgirls surprisingly lacking the electricity of the stage version, the production currently on display at the Curran Theatre adds lots of cinematic flair and vitality to the show without diminishing the audience's thrills. In the following video clip, members of the creative team discuss some of the changes that were made:

From the very first beats of Henry Krieger's score, Dreamgirls roars out of the opening gate and never slows down. I really can't think of another Broadway musical that goes from 0 to 60 mph in ten seconds and maintains that pace for a solid two and a half hours. The cast gets a total aerobic workout, the computerized sets (which incorporate a series of LED displays) are a technological triumph, and the story still packs a wallop.

The backstage crew has its hands full during each performance (although the moving scenery may be automated, each performance requires the cast of 26 to don a total of 305 costumes and 175 wigs). Under Robert Longbottom's energetic direction and choreography (aided by Shane Sparks), the new version of Dreamgirls is every bit as remarkable as the original. It incorporates all the magic of live theater in ways that will leave audiences nearly paralyzed with admiration. I was so jazzed up from the performance that I couldn't sleep for three hours after I got home from the theatre (and believe me, that doesn't happen very often).

The cast for this production of Dreamgirls is exceptionally strong. Syesha Mercado starts off meekly as a young Deena Jones who blossoms into a Diana Ross-like pop icon with Adrienne Warren (Lorrell Robinson) and Margaret Hoffman (Michelle Morris) as her backup singers. As the difficult Effie White, Moya Angela has no problem bringing down the house with a huge voice that serves her especially well in the Act I curtain number, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." Trevon Davis shines as Effie's songwriter brother, C.C. White.

Among the male leads, Milton Craig Nealy is suave as the loyal, old-school Marty, Chaz Lamar Shepherd is the snakelike Curtis Taylor, Jr., and Chester Gregory (a spectacular performer) owns the stage as rhythm and blues singer, James "Thunder" Early.

Dreamgirls continues at the Curran through September 26 in a production that revitalizes a Broadway classic while encapsulating everything that is right and good about the culture of musical theatre. You can order tickets here.

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The previous night, over at the Rrazz Room, San Francisco's most beloved (and delusional) Russian opera diva, Katya Smirnoff Skyy (J. Conrad Frank) took the stage for a one night stand which included some music from Dreamgirls. While Effie's song, "I Am Changing" was cleverly used by Katya's musical director, Joe Kanon, to kill time while the star was getting into a new costume, you really haven't lived until you've heard "One Night Only" sung with a mock Russian accent.

Countess Katya Smirnoff Skyy
Imagine a cross between Tallulah Bankhead, Arianna Huffington, Bette Davis, and Ira Siff (a/k/a Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh). Or, if you prefer, read Katya's description of herself:
"I am the Great Katya Ludmilla Smirnoff-Skyy, reigning diva of the Russian opera world. My hair is lavish, my accent thick, and my voice....giant, or so I am told. The details of my life are somewhat shrouded in mystery. The great Katya was born in Communist Petrograd, the daughter of a famous dancer and a roving gypsy minstrel. During her formative years, Katya traveled Europe with her half-sister Kielbasa (the Polish lunch lady), until the fateful day she met and wed the good Count Smirnoff-Skyy. Together they returned to the motherland and lived happily for many years, until the Count's unfortunate demise. Katya was left alone, with little more than a title, a voice, and a fabulous collection of imperial jewels. She knew it was time to return to the stage -- the world had waited long enough. After the great fall of Communism, Katya packed her makeup bag and came to 'the America.' Now she plays concert halls, opera stages, and the occasional drag bar. She is a dutiful employee of the Macy's, where she sells 'the Makeup,' fulfilling a life-long dream to beautify the world."
Countess Katya Smirnoff Skyy
Whether Katya is performing a hilarious rendition of Bizet's Act I aria from Carmen (the famous Habanera) -- a role in which she claims that she was so beautiful she never bothered to learn the words for the second verse -- "Blackbird," "Everything's Coming Up Katya," or her own peculiar version of "Down With Love," the lady is an impressive act.

Stringing together her take on Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance," "Let's Fall In Love," and "Take A Chance On Me" with her own version of "My Life Would Suck Without You," Katya has developed a loyal audience that faithfully attends her shows every third Sunday at Martuni's as well as her occasional stints at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. Dressed in stunning outfits by "Mr. David," she uses her fierce falsetto and superb comic timing to keep the audience eating out of her hand. As she recounts her hilarious conversations with people like John Lennon, it's hard to resist her peculiar charms.

Her appearance at the Rrazz Room proved, once again, that Katya is at her best when her audience is drinking along with her. Witness her hilarious rendition of "I Got Vodka" (her version of Gershwin's delightful "I Got Rhythm" that was first made famous by Ethel Merman in 1930's Girl Crazy):

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Blood On Their Hands

It started with a Greek chorus, a collection of nameless onlookers who would comment on what had just transpired onstage. Like many beauty contests, the format finally boiled down to three women:
Eventually, the girl trio left the background to become the main characters in a play.
By sheer coincidence, I attended two back-to-back performances this weekend -- staged outdoors in East Bay venues -- in which three key characters were dressed in white nurse's costumes that had red crosses emblazoned on their chests. In each case, the three women predicted future events and acted as dramatic catalysts to move the action forward.

Both plays were adaptations of literary classics. Both dealt with the struggles of a war-weary population. The key difference between the two productions was to be found in their respective stage directors/adapters.

One production was the world premiere of a new work created by a budding theatrical genius with the potential to become the Peter Sellars of his generation. The other was a misguided adaptation of a classic Shakespearean drama by a self-indulgent hack.

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The plays of William Shakespeare have gained new life at the hands of playwrights and composers.
Over the years I've witnessed stage directors (in both theatre and opera) take artistic license with the classics in order to update them, make them more relevant, or give audiences a new perspective on an old work. The most egregious offenders?
Although California Shakespeare Theater's new production of Macbeth could not compete with the above-mentioned fiascos, it certainly tried. Stage director/adapter Joel Sass explained his approach as follows:
"I’m after a sort of David Lynch-y quality I’d characterize as feverish, ominous, and slightly ritualized. Events in the play should unfold in a space that contains the residue of events that have already occurred or that will be re-enacted; it is a dream-space that reflects Macbeth’s interior desires, disorder, claustrophobia, anxiety. The viewer’s conviction about the ‘reality’ of what they witness is periodically subverted: the space and the objects (and even the actors!) within it are mutable and can assume different functions/contexts. We want to create a surprising, psychological thriller/horror show, and not a history pageant/morality play.
The main thing I've done is reduce the number of supplementary characters. Often, people ask whether this is an exercise in budgetary thrift, but it isn't that at all! The fact is that, while I have enjoyed many 'large scale' Shakespeare productions, I often feel that the potency of the story is lost in the traffic of grand crowd scenes and continually shifting scenery. I wanted this Macbeth to feel much more intimate. 
Macbeth requires a great sensitivity to tone. What should be a psychological horror show can become a campy haunted house pretty quickly if you don't attend to tone. So in our production, we've avoided portraying the 'Wyrd Sisters' as stereotypical witches. Instead, we're conceiving them as the faceless, veiled nuns of an unnamed order, haunting the halls of an old asylum. We don't know what deity they serve, whether they are human anymore (or ever were), but we do see that they are capable of bringing comfort, pain, and temptation to those who encounter them.
I was very interested in tracking how morality and conscience are tested among those other characters in Macbeth's service. So I got rid of individuals who did no more than deliver 10 lines of verse before vanishing. Then I selected a half dozen remaining characters and extended their arc through the story by allowing them to absorb additional language and linger longer in Macbeth's sphere of influence.
Some characters have switched gender as our creative response to the casting of the ensemble. For example, I knew we'd be working with Delia MacDougall (from 2008's Pericles) and I thought it would be wonderful to have her play the Thane of Ross as a woman, to show the presence of a powerful woman as a member of Duncan's inner circle."
There's a curious thing about attempting to update Shakespeare: When done by a stage director with genuine insight who understands and respects Shakespeare's work, his plays can not only withstand certain tweaks, on some occasions they can even become more clearly focused.

However, when a misguided, poorly planned concept is imposed on a Shakespearean play by a self-indulgent stage director using tricks and shtick for cheap effect, the effort often backfires, making the stage director look foolish and miserably untalented. It may not be so much that Macbeth, as a play, is accursed. It may be that the director himself is a curse on the Scottish play.

What may have sounded great on paper, didn't work so well on opening night of the Calshakes production.. Sass's ideas reduced much of Macbeth to something that resembled a tacky slasher film that was inspired more, perhaps, by Quentin Tarantino than by William Shakespeare.

At the beginning of the play, the wounded captain who tells King Duncan how Macbeth and Banquo defeated the Norwegian and Irish forces ends up on a hospital gurney being operated upon by the three witches (who proceed to remove various organs from his torso until he dies).

The three witches operate on Duncan's captain in Macbeth
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Zombie-like witches haunting an abandoned World War I mental asylum proved to be the least of this production's problems. After Macbeth kills Duncan, he reappears with both hands dripping with blood (this is not usually the case since Macbeth is a skilled warrior). Having both Macbeths dripping with blood after Duncan's death severely dilutes the impact of Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene (in which she guiltily tries to wash the blood from her hands).

Stacy Ross and Jud Williford in Macbeth (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
The attempt to use modern dress did not fare much better. Whether Macbeth was wearing a track suit, soldiers were dressed using Army surplus, Banquo and Fleance were decked out like Nascar drivers, the ghosts of Banquo's sons wore gas masks or, following her sleepwalking scene, Lady Macbeth was strapped into an obsolete type of wheelchair, tied down with restraints and wheeled offstage (perhaps for a lobotomy?), Christal Weatherly's costumes often seemed to work against the action rather than support it.

For example, in the banquet scene, when Macbeth reacts in horror to the sight of Banquo's ghost with the words
"Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with." would seem nearly impossible for Macbeth to notice Banquo's glare when the ghost is wearing a motorcycle helmet with a tinted visor covering his face. Nor does Banquo ever sit in Macbeth's chair (which would have a lot to say about a throne that had been unjustly usurped). Instead, he merely stands in the middle of Macbeth's living room. At end of the banquet scene, when Macbeth says
"My strange and self-abuse
Is the initiate fear that wants hard use,
We are yet but young in deed." was the first time I ever received a hint that part of Macbeth's constellation of problems might be a tendency toward chronic masturbation. Another unnecessary bit of gratuitous violence involved the scene in which Lennox used a pair of pliers as a torture device to extract the Thane of Ross's fingernails.

Lennox (Nicholas Pelczar ) tortures the Thane of Ross (Delia MacDougall )
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

For the record, Shakespeare's play ends with Malcolm's speech -- not with an epilogue in which the ghosts of Macbeth and his wife wander around a deserted asylum spouting lines from their famous soliloquies and acting like they had just dropped in from a touring production of Marat/Sade. Joel Sass's travesty might not have seemed like such a lurid theatrical miscarriage if Bay area audiences had not been exposed to Mark Jackson's brilliant modern dress adaptation of Macbeth that was staged by the Shotgun Players in December of 2008.

The Calshakes cast worked hard to bring Sass's concept to life. Although Stacy Ross's Lady Macbeth and Craig Marker's Macduff carried dramatic weight, the efforts of Jud Williford as Macbeth, Nick Childress as Malcolm, Nicholas Peclzar (doubling as Banquo and Lennox), and James Carpenter (as King Duncan, a porter, Seyton, and Lady Macbeth's doctor) seemed curiously anemic. Macbeth's sobering words -- "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" --  took on new meaning in Mr. Sass's hands.

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Speaking of the Shotgun Players, here's a tip. Go to this link now and reserve your seats for a performance of Jon Tracy's In The Wound. Do not pass "GO," do not collect $200. As the folks at Nike say, "Just do it!"

It's rare for lightning to strike twice in the same place. In terms of outdoor theatrical productions by a small company staging world premieres on a bare-bones budget, the odds against success are even greater. Unless, of course, you've got incredibly strong leadership.

Poster art for In The Wound

The Shotgun Players' founder and artistic director, Patrick Dooley, boasts a solid resume as an actor, director, and producer (in 2007 Shotgun became the nation's first 100% solar-powered theatre). As Dooley notes:
"In the early days, we didn't talk to many local playwrights. It didn't seem smart for an unknown theatre company to do an unknown play by an unknown playwright. So we just focused on making good plays and diligently sent our checks to support the faraway families of Mamet, Churchill, and Brecht.  Somewhere along the way, I realized that it was time to start giving back to an art form that had been so good to us. Yes, there is always room in the world for another great Hamlet. But it's also important to support those voices trying to articulate the world we live in today. We've made a concerted effort in the last few years to do just that with some remarkable success (Dog Act, Meyerhold, Beowulf,  This World in a Woman's Hands).
A key accomplishment has been our focus on long-term relationships with playwrights and composers. To back that up we produce at least one commissioned play each season. Many of the commissions also feature original music.  Keeping with the spirit of innovation and challenge, we encourage our playwrights to write the epic, sweeping plays they've always dreamed of.
To celebrate our 20th anniversary in 2011, we will present an entire season of commissioned new works."
Director/writer Jon Tracy is a theatrical wunderkind who, in addition to his work with Shotgun Players, is Director of Artistic Development at SFPlayhouse (where he oversees new works by local playwrights produced in their "Sandbox" theatre). According to his bio, "Jon Tracy is an unsubstantiated myth. He dreams big raconteur-like things and sings small raconteur-like dreams. He keeps meeting happiness for coffee and the coffee is good."

His work is more than merely good. In 2009, Dooley and Tracy joined forces to create The Farm, a hugely successful adaptation of George Orwell's allegorical novel, Animal Farm, that was one of the best productions seen in the Bay area all year. This month, they have returned to John Hinkel Park with Tracy's adaptation of Homer's epic poem, The Iliad, entitled In The Wound.

Once again, with minimal funding, Shotgun Players have accomplished what many larger theatre companies could only dream about:: creating a vibrant new piece of theatre that is relevant, accessible, and consistently thrilling.

If last year's production of The Farm was bursting with energy, In The Wound has 30 athletic actors constantly on the run performing what, at times, looks like a Greek version of color war. Tracy has updated the action from ancient Greece to August of 1944, labeling the Grecian Task Force's invasion of Troy as Operation Tyndareus. Although his soldiers first appear with bright red and blue plumage in their helmets, by the end of Act I, many are on crutches or limping across the stage with the help of aluminum walkers.

Charisse Loriaux,  Elena Wright, and Emily Rosenthal
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
Whether Tracy's nurses/goddesses are pounding out rhythms on war drums or taking turns galloping across the stage disguised as a stag (seeing is believing), his imagination is so rich -- and so clearly articulated onstage --  that he manages to make Homer's epic poem understandable to a modern audience that, like the ancient Greeks, has grown tired of constantly being at war. Tracy's wry, sarcastic writing also contains some golden comic moments:
"The other day I had lunch with the head of Medusa."
"Oh yeah? How'd that turn out for you?"
Jon Tracy rehearsing In The Wound (Photo by: Torbin Bullock)
Tracy has taken care to explain how the Trojan War resulted from the oath of Tyndareus -- a plan concocted by Odysseus, King of Ithaca (Daniel Bruno), who describes himself as a social mathematician. Dressed in a dark, blue suit, Odysseus -- who is often counseled by Palamedes (John Thomas) --  is drafted into the business of war.

Since war never ends, Odysseus can never rest. Although his wife, Penelope (Lexie Papedo) and son, Telemachus (Yannal Kashtan), keep pining for him at home, their time together is limited by the Gods.

Thanks to Odysseus, the Greeks had all vowed to uphold the oath of Tyndareus (in which they swore to support Helen's choice of a husband and unite against anyone who tried to steal her away). Unfortunately,  they had never considered the possibility that Troy's rowdy lover, Paris (Harold Pierce), would abduct Helen (Jennifer Jovez) from her elderly husband, Menelaus, King of Sparta (Dave Garrett).

Family ties and sacred oaths being what they are, Agamemnon, King of Mycenae (Michael Torres) -- who is also the brother of Menelaus -- is quickly drawn into battle. Not even the sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia (Nesbyth Rieman) -- who was, for a very brief time, the wife of Greek's greatest warrior, Achilles (Aleph Ayin) -- can save him from years of war-torn misery.

The famous Greek warriors Patroclus (Roy Landaverde) and Ajax (Dave Maler) are on hand to engage in lengthyy battle. On the opposing team stand Paris's brother, Hektor (Alex Hersler), and his elderly father, King Priam (John Thomas).

Nina Ball's unit set features three towers which hide musicians beneath camouflage netting and a series of wagons used to help with transitions while masking entrances and exits. Christine Crook's costumes range from simple Army fatigues to three amazing costumes for AthenaHera, and Aphrodite that incorporate angel's wings made from of the crutches of dead warriors. Brendan West's original score (which was created in collaboration with every member of the production and is performed exclusively by the ensemble) includes music for the waterphone, harmonium, and wind chime. I'm pretty sure I saw one Greek soldier playing a harmonica as well.

Tracy has created a rollicking, walloping piece of epic theatre about the evil and stupidity of war. In addition to its literary and dramatic value (you've never seen paper planes make such a powerful anti-war statement), In The Wound is an impressive achievement in traffic control. Performances continue through October 3 in John Hinkel Park. Don't miss it!