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.

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