Sunday, September 19, 2010

Enter Laughing -- Literally!

Literally, folks. It's one of Joe Biden's favorite words. Literally.

The writers for MADtv had a field day building sketches around Clyde (Michael McDonald) and Judith (Nicole Sullivan), two childless snobs from Los Angeles who peppered their dialogue with the word "literally."  Here are three of my favorites. Literally!

I stress the use of the word "literally" because I recently saw two theatrical productions in which a dramatist's words were used quite literally. In one situation, the reading of an unsolicited screenplay was acted out literally (including typos) to great comic effect. In the other, a young playwright's insistence on having the cast recite his stage directions as part of their performances literally set up an unintentional barrier between the audience and his characters. Literally!
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A literal reading of a script means that every word is spoken as it appears on the page. No one has spoofed this phenomenon better than poet Taylor Mali in The The Impotence of Proofreading.

Whereas the Word For Word Performing Arts Company is "an ensemble whose mission is to tell great stories with elegant theatricality, staging performances of classic and contemporary fiction," the Sacred Fools Theatre Company is aiming for laughs from an unusual source. Their episodes of Magnum Opus Theatre (hosted by Thurston Eberhard Hillsboro-Smythe) make use of unsolicited material that has been rescued from the trash. As they explain in their program notes:
"Each week, hundreds of untrained, talentless writers from around the world send their unsolicited scripts to Hollywood in the desperate hope that their story will be made into a feature film. Most never even get read… until now. Magnum Opus Theatre presents scrupulously faithful renditions of those terrible screenplays -- live upon the stage. Word for word. We didn't change a thing. Honest!"

What quickly becomes obvious is that the talented cast will respond (literally!) to the stage directions being read by the host. A typically bad sentence from an unsolicited screenplay might read as follows: "There is some things you just have to imagine because you can't see!"  When a screenplay's bad grammar has obviously been written by someone for whom English is a second language, much merriment ensues. The cast will also mine comic gold from unfortunate typos.

As part of the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival, Magnum Opus Theatre presented Star Crossed Love, a horribly written script in which "a famous actor is killed in a freak on-set accident and goes on to become the guardian angel of a mysterious young girl, guiding her from her broken home to fame in Hollywood!" Franci Montgomery drew major laughs as the wide-eyed Amber Danaleouney while Michael Lanahan proved to be a brilliant physical comedian as Jeff Lenz.

Michael Lanahan

Supporting players included C.J. Merriman, Stacey Jackson, Eric C. Johnson, Joe Hendrix, Jaime Robledo, Megan Crockett, and Colin Wilkie. The sharp work of this Los Angeles-based company proved to be a high point of this year's San Francisco Fringe Festival (one hopes they will return to town on a regular basis).

Colin Wilkie and Stacey Jackson (Photo by: CM Gonzalez)

Although the following clip is from a previous production of Serial Killers, the same material appears in Star Crossed Love. Enjoy!

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Earlier this week I attended the first installment of a co-production in which three Bay area theatre companies are collaborating on presenting The Brother/Sister Plays by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. The first part of this trilogy, In The Red And Brown Water, introduces the audience to residents of a housing project near a Louisiana bayou. McCraney's writing was inspired by the  West African traditions of Yoruba, the Afro-Christian tradition of Santeria and Federico Garcia Lorca's play about a woman battling infertility, Yerma. Among the principal characters are:
  • Oya (Lakisha May), an athletic teenager known for her running ability. In legend, Oya oversees the winds, governs the dead, and guards the underworld.
  • Mama Moja (Nicol Foster), Oya's mother. Although she wants the best for her child, her illness takes a toll on Oya's future. Mama Moja dies early in the play.
  • The Man From State (Josh Schell), a track coach who offers Oya a scholarship which she declines in order to take care of her ailing mother.
  • Elegba (Jareed McNeill), a young boy the audience first sees begging for candy. By the end of the play, he is 16, has fathered a baby, and has a male boyfriend. Elegba is equivalent to the "trickster" or shape shifter found throughout mythology.
  • Shango (Isaiah Johnson), Oya's first lover, who enlists in the Army and enters a military lifestyle. In Yoruba legend, Shango represents male virility, passion, and bravery.
  • Ogun Size (Ryan Vincent Anderson) is the man Oya marries after Shango enlists. Ogun works as a mechanic in a car shop. In legend, he is symbolic of iron, fire, and war.
  • Aunt Elegua (Dawn L. Troupe), Oya's aunt, who (as guardian of the crossroads), helps Mama Moja through the death process.
  • Shun (Jalene Goodwin), one of the local young mothers who teases Oya about being unable to conceive. Shun eventually snags Shango as her lover.
  • The Egungun (Daveed Diggs), the man who spins music at a local club. The Egungun is also Elegba's boyfriend.
Elegba (Jared McNeill ) entertains his friends. (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While many have been justifiably crowing about the collaboration between Marin Theatre Company, Magic Theatre, and American Conservatory Theatre, I was surprisingly underwhelmed by In The Red and Brown Water. The images McCraney evokes in Elegba's dreams, the music used as part of community life, and the raw sexuality of characters like Shango are the stuff of which theatrical magic is made.

Nor did I have any problems with the physical production directed by (Ryan Rilette) which employs a fine cast of actors. I was particularly impressed with Lakisha May's lean Oya, Jared McNeill's lovable Elegba Dawn L. Troupe's rowdy Aunt Elegua, and Isaiah Johnson's hypermasculine portrayal of Shango.

Lakisha May and Isaiaha Johnson (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

My problem lies with McCraney's use of a structural dramatic gimmick that starts to lose its appeal as the play unfolds. As explained in the program notes for the play:
"The people who inhabit the world of the Trilogy guide the audience, narrating their own thoughts and actions, peppering the dialogue with 'he said' and 'she said,' both showing and telling the story. It is as though they want to make sure you see and hear what's happening, because they know how important it is."
McCraney himself states that:
"It's not just about [giving] voice to the voiceless, as in the characters onstage, but to the people in the audience who come into the theatre and don't see themselves reflected back to find a way to use the theatre to draw in those people who feel like the theatre has become too elite for them."
There are times when the literal use of stage directions ("Elegba enters like the moon on a clear night...") clearly add a touch of lyricism to the proceedings onstage. But there are far too many moments when McCraney's gimmick devolves into a clumsy echo chamber. There are other issues at play, which also need to be considered:
  • Most of the women in McCraney's play are defined by their ability to pleasure a man and give birth. Oya's intellectual potential and athletic ability are of much less importance to the community than the fact that she hasn't gotten pregnant. I suspect that most theatregoers were not "babies making babies" (like Shun and Elegba). Although they might not see themselves reflected onstage in McCraney's trilogy, they don't need interpreters to dumb down the material for them.
  • The characters depicted onstage are mostly poor and illiterate. The only one who manages to escape from the projects is Shango, who enters the military (where he gets training, discipline, and a better education than he received in the projects).
  • If a playwright's characters are basically illiterate, they must be so well defined -- and their dramatic conflicts so universal -- that any audience can relate to them without excessive interpretation.
  • If a playwright wants to model his characters on mythological figures, it is not necessary for the audience to know the specific mythology he is referencing. What is necessary, however, is that the updated version of the mythology be clearly communicated to the audience (Marcus Gardley did a beautiful job of updating the legend of Demeter and Persephone in his play "...and Jesus Moonwalks The Mississippi").
  • If performed before a largely African American audience that rarely comes to the theatre, the practice of guiding the audience by having actors speak their stage instructions might help. It might also be representative of a community in which a lack of reading skills demands an oral tradition.  But when performed before the largely white and affluent audience in Marin, this dramatic device weakened the play's impact by building an unnecessary wall between the audience and McCraney's characters.
Lakisha May, Jared McNeill and Daveed Diggs (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
It will be interesting to see how well the gimmick works when I see The Brothers Size at Magic Theatre and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet at A.C.T. In the meantime, here's an interesting video clip taken from the first day of rehearsals at Marin Theatre Company:

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