Monday, September 20, 2010

Making The Horrific Look and Sound Terrific

When confronted with a world filled with violence, cruelty, poverty, and abject stupidity, how does one cope with such horrors? By finding a way to confront such mind-boggling phenomena through art. Comedian Mel Brooks, when discussing his 1968 film The Producers and his subsequent work adapting the screenplay for the 2001 musical stage version, famously stated that the only way to triumph over something as horrific as the Nazis was to make fun of them.

Three works dealing with highly controversial topics recently received their Bay area premieres. Each had enough dramatic impact to shock and awe its audience. Each tried to maximize its effect through the careful use of horrific images, thoughts, and a subversive approach to the subject at hand.

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As part of the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival, David Jacobson performed the world premiere of his one-man show entitled Theme Park. Boldly written and performed at a level of high anxiety, Theme Park introduces audiences to the following characters:
  • The feisty owner of Super-Duper Mega-Marine Coaster World, who boasts of having paved over the Indian graves he discovered (and is alleged to have buried several of his own victims as well).
  • A young man who proudly stood up and dropped his pants in an effort to gross out the people seated behind him as the roller coaster he was riding in this "magic-tastical" environment was about to descend.
  • An inspector from a government agency that investigates accidents at amusement parks. His sharpest eyewitness to the accident is blind.
  • A former feral teenager with a speech defect who, as a child, was abandoned by his mother at the theme park. Now, the publicity director for Super-Duper Mega-Marine Coaster World, he has locked himself (and several hostages) in a room high up in Rapunzel's tower and is starting to shoot people on the ground. While the inspector down below keeps encouraging him to sing the amusement park's theme song as a means of calming the young man down, his primary goal is to get the young man to relinquish his weapon.
  • A bitter marine biologist who deeply resents the fact that no one listens to him.
  • A frustrated and hungry killer whale who has happily chomped down the body parts that were thrown from the roller coaster after someone pulled the emergency brake.
David Jacobson (Photo by: Louis Pepin)
Jacobson's writing is strong and often quite hilarious. While he still needs more performance time to really grow into the material he has written for himself, I would suggest altering one thing about Theme Park. As he changes from one character to another, he is presently running at a fever pitch that alternates between hysteria, anger, and abject fear. Jacobson needs to find some way -- or perhaps some character -- to offer the audience calmer, less frenetic voice that can bring some balance to the manic tone of his monologue.

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The Berkeley Rep opened its season with the West Coast premiere of Rinne Groff's poignant play, Compulsion. Directed by Oskar Eustis;(with the exceptional design and supervision of special marionettes by Matt Acheson), Compulsion is modeled on the life of writer Meyer Levin.

Levin was a Chicago-based writer whose novel based on the Leopold and Loeb case made him quite famous. He corresponded with Anne Frank's father and received Otto Frank's authorization to write a dramatic treatment of Anne's famous diary. Soon afterward, Levin's life became a living hell that was only made worse by his paranoia, suspicions of anti-Semitism, and fears that forces beyond his control were trying to wrestle the property away from him.

Hannah Cabell and Mandy Patinkin  as Mr. & Mrs. Sid Silver
in Compulsion  (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In Groff's play, Levin is given the name of Sid Silver (the name of the reporter in Levin's novel, Compulsion) and brought to life by Mandy Patinkin. Hanna Cabell portrays Silver's wife as well as Miss Merman, an editor who could have helped Silver immensely if he hadn't acted like such a putz. Other minor characters are all played by Matte Osian.

Part of the challenge in writing her play was finding a way to make the Levin/Silver character palatable enough to tell his story without losing the audience's sympathy.  As Groff explains:
"Sid Silver's personality has many facets, but one aspect is surely the narcissist. For me, one way in which the doubling works is that it plays on the idea that it's Sid's world and everyone else just lives in it. From his perspective, he is singular and everyone else is, for better or worse, at some level interchangeable.
I knew that Anne Frank had to be in the play, but I also knew that any attempt at her literal representation had the potential to feel cheesy. I toyed around with various Brechtian devices to "problematize" her portrayal, but nothing felt right. Then, in my research, I came across an article about Meyer Levin's work with marionettes, including a photograph from his marionette production of The Hairy Ape. It was such a striking image: a policeman marionette beating his baton on a hapless hairy ape marionette. To see that violence represented by figures as delicate and seemingly fragile as marionettes was incredibly moving to me.  And the idea came in an instant: Anne should be a marionette.
As the notion of representing Anne in this way progressed, it became more resonant on more levels.  A marionette, because its facial 'expressions' never change, is animated as much by an audience's projections onto its being as by the movement of the puppeteers who control it. That felt like an apt metaphor for the way that many people, myself included, project their own visions onto Anne Frank as an ideal. Finally, the notion of 'strings being pulled' definitely informs Sid Silver's vision of the world. (Meyer Levin's original working title for his autobiographical novel about his struggle with Anne Frank's diary was 'The Manipulators.')"
Sid Silver (Mandy Patinkin) with the Anne Frank puppet 
in Compulsion (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Compulsion is a work of immense -- and intense -- theatricality in which Anne Frank's marionette plays a key role. In a crucial scene in which Mrs. Silver awakes from a nightmare and sees the marionette, a moment of pure theatrical magic transpires. Just as abused children are often allowed to play with dolls during therapy sessions (so they can act out feelings and thoughts they cannot directly communicate to a therapist), the marionette is given an opportunity to unload an astonishing emotional burden to Silver's wife. It is a passage of rare dramatic beauty that should not be missed.

Groff's new play is a coproduction between the Yale Repertory Theatre (where it was produced in January), Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and The Public Theatre in New York (where it will be performed in February of 2011). The following clip contains footage from the production at Yale Repertory Theatre:

While Patinkin, Cabell, and Osian perform magnificently as a tightly-knit ensemble, special mention should be made of the three puppeteers (Emily DeCola, Daniel Fay, and Eric Wright) who breathe life into Matt Acheson's marionettes. Performances of Compulsion continue through October 31st at the Berkeley Rep. You can order tickets here.

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In 1989, when Texas Opera Theatre presented the world premiere of a "pop opera" by Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie, Where's Dick? became the first opera to aim directly at the audience that loves to read the supermarket tabloids and watch talk shows whose dysfunctional guests are primarily trailer trash. At the time, it was a brave move for Houston Grand Opera's General Director, David Gockley because most funding in the opera world comes from conservative sources who find it difficult to tolerate the use of gutter expletives on the operatic stage. Nevertheless, words like "fuck," "screw," "piss," and "shit" added a whole lot of spice to the proceedings. As the composer, Stewart Wallace, later told me:
"Some people have an attitude about art which insists that it is meant to elevate and should be above daily life. But vulgarity and art are not mutually exclusive. When you sing the word 'Fuck,' it gives your work a visceral connection to our daily existence which, dramatically, can be very powerful. It involves a conscious and deliberate attempt at examination by perversion: You twist something on its edge so that you can look at it in a different way. By doing so, the sound takes on a heightened element which makes it very different from the spoken word."
In its attempt to deal with such timely issues as child abuse, fake evangelists, urban violence and America's growing dependency on drugs (which are represented in the opera by pickles), Where's Dick? -- which was staged in a "gymnasium for crooks" --  featured the following characters:
  • Baby Snowflake, an albino gorilla (symbolizing pure violence) who lusts after virgin flesh. 
  • Fate Spritely, an eternal victim who carries a bridal veil in her purse -- just in case. 
  • Stump Tower, the famous midget real estate developer who has a surprisingly masochistic streak.
  • Mrs. Heimlich, a suburban matron who dabbles in child abuse and shopping.
  • Boldface Headlines, a male soprano dressed in kabuki robes. 
  • Reverend J. J. Newright and Sister Immacula (a takeoff on Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker). 
  • Ma Paddle, a sadistic old bitch who runs an orphanage.
  • A pederastic Santa Claus who's tired of groping "chicken."
Michael Korie's libretto contained such startling moments as a nun describing how Reverend Newright "dangled his wang in my face" or the Tarnish Brothers (Sterling & Stainless) urging the audience to "Slap your neighbor's face and get into the spirit of the show." There were plenty of bad puns -- "Half girl, half ape, I'm all bent out of shape" -- and a final chorus which insisted that "There's a little Dick in all of us standing tall." Needless to say, Where's Dick? was ahead of its time.

In 2003, when Jerry Springer: The Opera opened in London, it ran for 609 performances before heading out on tour and received four Laurence Olivier Awards (including the award for Best New Musical). While there are many compelling reasons to attend Ray of Light Theatre's staggeringly brilliant production of Jerry Springer: The Opera, the one that caught me completely by surprise was the phenomenal choral work by an ensemble of classically trained singers.

Written by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, the score for this piece (which ranges from rock to oratorio) contains as much -- if not more --  choral work as Benjamin Britten's 1945 opera, Peter Grimes, the triumphal scene from Aida, and the Prelude to Arrigo Boito's only opera, Mefistofele,  That it was sung so well is a tribute to Ben Prince's exceptional work as the show's musical director.

Jerry Springer: The Opera celebrates the legions of acutely dysfunctional Americans who crave their 15 minutes of fame on television. Whether deploying a chorus line of  Ku Klux Klansmen, mocking every symbol of Christianity, or filling the theatre with nonstop profanity, this show has something to offend everyone.  And God, is it fun!

Act I takes place during a taping of The Jerry Springer Show in Chicago, where we meet Jerry (Patrick Michael Dukeman), his lead security man, Steve Wilkos (Keith Haddock),Jerry's inner Valkyrie/conscience (J. Conrad Frank), and Jonathan (Jonathan Reisfeld), the man who warms up Jerry's audiences before each show. In the first sequence, we are introduced to Dwight (Steve Hess), his fianceĆ©, Peaches (Tracy Camp), his skanky trailer trash mistress, Zandra (Jordan Best), and his other lover, Tremont the transsexual (Timitio Artusio).

Zandra (Jordan Best) and Treymont (Timitio Artusio) in
Jerry Springer:The Opera (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

Following a brief break during which the chorus sings several ridiculous commercials, the audience is introduced to Andrea (Mia Fryvecind),  her husband-to-be Montel (Chris Yorro)who is heavily into diapers, scatology and spanking, and Baby Jane (Rebecca Pingree), a woman who likes to dress like a little girl and be spanked for being naughty. Another dysfunctional couple is Shawntel (Jessica Coker) -- an obese woman who wants to become a pole dancer -- and her sleazy husband, Chucky (Manuel Caneri).

After being fired from his job, Jonathan manages to place a gun in the hands of the confused Montel, who shoots Jerry in the chest. The talk show host then finds himself in a wheelchair in Purgatory where the head nurse (Tracy Camp) has been administering some powerful sedatives. After trying to justify his actions to the dead souls of his former guests, Jerry is confronted by Satan (portrayed by the same actor who played Jonathan) and urged to perform a special segment of his show down in Hell -- where all the necessary cue cards await for him.

As it turns out, Satan wants an apology from Jesus (Chris Yorro) and wouldn't mind getting one from God (Steve Hess) as well. Meanwhile, Eve (Jessica Coker) wants to ask God why she should have suffered so much for eating just one tiny apple. Mary (Jordan Best) has a few choice words to share with everyone.
Chucky (Manuel Caneri) and Shawntel (Jessica Coker) in
Jerry Springer: The Opera (Photo by: Ben Krantz)
I tip my hat to Ray of Light Theatre for its superb production of this huge show. While Patrick Michael Dukeman offered a compelling (and often comic) portrayal of Jerry Springer, I was most impressed by the contributions of Jessica Coker and Jonathan Reisfeld. The large and highly energetic ensemble deserves special credit for a phenomenal night's work.

Put simply, I had a rollicking good time during the show. Performances of this must-see production of Jerry Springer: The Opera continue through October 16 at the Victoria Theatre.  You can order tickets here.

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