Sunday, October 31, 2010

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It!

Over the years, I've learned that once a song becomes popular, lots of people will try to change it. They'll try to alter its lyrics or create new arrangements.  Think I'm kidding? Compare the way the Star-Spangled Banner is supposed to be sung with some of its recent "interpretations."

In 1979, Ethel Merman went into a studio and recorded 14 songs the way she had been singing them throughout her career. They were then mixed with a disco arrangement. The final product, entitled The Ethel Merman Disco Album, became a collector's item with high camp value. Here she is, on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, performing the disco version of Irving Berlin's hit song from 1911, "Alexander's Ragtime Band."

Two recent performances reminded me of the Merm's venture into disco. In one, the music of a great composer from Merman's era was given a loving retrospective. In the other, a classic was subjected to a new interpretation with questionable results.

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Last Thursday, 42nd Street Moon staged a "Jerome Kern Salon" devoted to the work of  one of America's greatest composers of popular song. Although 42nd Street Moon's artistic director, Greg MacKellan, feels that Kern (who died at age 60) was the finest "melodist" of the 20th century, I personally think that title might go to Irving Berlin (who lived to the ripe old age of 101).

The cast of 42nd Street Moon's "Jerome Kern Salon."

The evening featured a multitude of songs from Show Boat, the 1927 Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical based on Edna Ferber's novel ("Life Upon The Wicked Stage," "You Are Love," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," and "Bill") as well as such standards as "They Didn't Believe Me," "Pick Yourself Up," "Long Ago (and Far Away)," and "Who Stole My Heart Away?"

As one browses through the list of great songs by Jerome Kern -- ranging from familiar songs such as "A Fine Romance," "The Last Time I Saw Paris," and "Look For The Silver Lining" to lesser known numbers like "She Didn't Say Yes," "I'll Be Hard to Handle" and "Till The Clouds Roll By" one can't help marvel at Kern's romantic instinct and playfulness.

Rebecca Luker with 42nd Street Moon's Greg MacKellan

Although the evening featured Rebecca Luker as a guest artist, Bill Fahrner delivered a surprising and stunningly poignant rendition of "Why Was I Born?" Others in the cast included Pierce Peter Brandt, Debbie de Coudreaux, Alexandra Kaprielian, and Michael Scott Wells. As always, Dave Dobrusky was at the piano

What I love about these salons (in addition to the music) are the oddball pieces of trivia which surface. While I had known that the great theatrical producer, Charles Frohman, drowned when the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed on May 7, 1915 off Ireland's Old Head of Kinsale, I did not know that Jerome Kern was supposed to have left New York with Frohman when the ship sailed on May 1st but overslept after a late night poker game and missed the boat.

An artist's depiction of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915.

In the following clip from MGM's 1946 hit movie musical, Till The Clouds Roll By (a fictionalized biography of Kern's life), a 21-year-old Angela Lansbury sings the rarely heard Kern melody, "Spoon With Me."

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As she grew older, my mother (who died last week at the age of 96) used to joke that the seniors in her assisted living facility used to joke that "the patient is dying of improvement." What did she mean? Probably that every new test doctors wanted to use was less inspired by an ability to cure the patient than by their goal of billing Medicare for services rendered.

Singers often like to put their own personal stamp on a piece of popular music. Louis Armstrong's recording of the title song from Hello, Dolly! became an instant hit on the radio (as did Eydie Gormé's rendition of "If He Walked Into My Life" from Jerry Herman's next show, Mame). While Cher's attempt to sing all the roles in West Side Story is a nice concept, no one ever took it too seriously.

Although I never saw the original production of West Side Story, I've been lucky to see several others ranging from the 1964 New York City Center revival (starring Don McKay as Tony, Julia Migenes as Maria and Luba Lisa as Anita) to the 1980 Broadway revival (starring Ken Marshall as Tony, Debbie Allen as Anita, and Josie De Guzman as Maria) and Opera Pacific's 1987 production (starring Jeffrey Reynolds as Tony, Beverly Lambert as Maria, and Diane Fratantoni as Anita).

Directed by David Saint, the latest touring company of West Side Story (in a production based on the 2009 Broadway revival directed by Arthur Laurents) touched down at the Orpheum Theatre last Wednesday with decidedly mixed results. Much has been written about how Laurents decided to have the Sharks and their girls speak to each other in Spanish in an attempt to  make the show more relevant to today's audiences and give it what Pooh-Bah once referred to as "dramatic verisimilitude." My reaction upon finally seeing the production was that it was a huge mistake (almost as misguided as an all-bear version of Follies with Bruce Vilanch singing "I'm Still Here").

The idea initially came from Tom Hatcher (Mr. Laurents' life partner who died on October 26, 2006), who saw a production of West Side Story in Bogotá, he realized that when Spanish is the audience's primary language, the Sharks become the heroes and the Jets become the villains. As Laurents recalls:
“I felt the gangs in the original production were sweet little things. The truth is that they’re all killers -- every one of them. I wanted to do a much tougher West Side Story. What I thought 50 years ago, I certainly don’t think today.  A lot of my ideas have changed, and this whole production is radically different from what it was back then.
I said to Tom, 'What if there was some way to equalize the gangs?’ And Tom said, ‘What if the Sharks spoke and sang in Spanish at those moments when they would in life?’ And that was it. That’s when I became interested in directing the show. ‘A Boy Like That’ was originally in Spanish and it was very effective --  for people who knew the show. But once you got past that audience, people had no idea what was being sung. So now, the song is in both languages, first in English then in Spanish. We did the same thing with ‘I Feel Pretty.’ The costumes by David C. Woolard are purposely independent of any particular decade."
"The Jet Song" from Act I of West Side Story 
(Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Laurents insists that, from the start, the use of Spanish was an experiment and that, when he felt audiences did not understand what a song was about, he restored at least some of its English lyrics. Unfortunately, the approach did not work as well as he imagined.
  • In the lead-up to the song "America," there is some caustic dialogue between Bernardo (German Santiago) and Anita (Michelle Aravena ) which cannot be clearly communicated with the dancers' body language alone. A failure to communicate those sentiments severely weakens the song.
  • Similarly, in the 'I Feel Pretty' number, the audience misses out on a great deal of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics.
  • By Act II of the opening night performance, the Puerto Ricans were alternating between speaking their lines in Spanish and English in a way that diluted their credibility and made the effect seem almost laughable. As a close friend remarked, "If Arthur Laurents was so interested in making this sound more like today, he should have just changed the words 'Krup You' to 'Fuck you!' at the end of "Dear Officer Krupke." 
  • To me, the worst use of this gimmick (and that's all it is, folks -- it's a gimmick) came during the Act I quintet, when Anita, Tony (Kyle Harris), Maria (Ali Ewoldt), the Jets and the Sharks are all describing their feelings about the upcoming rumble. At the moment when the voices all merge, the impact of everyone singing the same lyric is a powerful dramatic statement. That impact was totally lost when the Spanish and English versions essentially drowned each other out.

The Dance at the Gym (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

As my favorite character in J.C. Lee's play, Pookie Goes Grenading, would say: "Dat's just stoopid!"

Joey McKneeley, who had previously worked with West Side Story's original choreographer, Jerome Robbins, and has since restaged the dances in numerous productions, explains that:
"What happened with the choreography, and with West Side in general, is that it had become a museum piece. It became stuck in a time warp, and it started to feel dated. The material is not dated. The subject matter is not dated. The social content speaks so vibrantly to today’s audiences. But the choreography was missing a youthful zest, it was missing passion.
The Dance at the Gym (Photo by: Joan Marcus)
Arthur wanted to break free of that museum quality. And he felt, as did many people, that the show needed to be updated in terms of its appeal to an audience. That included making the choreography look edgier, harder. He wanted to get rid of the musical comedy aspects of the choreography, and take it to a more reality-based place. It was difficult (because it’s not my work) and I wanted to be true to the integrity of the choreography. But if my director wants something changed, I have to try to acquiesce to his needs. How do you change choreography when it is not yours? What parts do you manipulate without losing the original intent or structure? Very challenging!
I had all the resources to pull from: my experience from Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, the movie version, the West Side Story choreographic manual, the 1980 revival video, even the New York City Ballet version of the dance suite. Along with my associate, Lori Werner, I started as we have for all the tours...setting what we know. Then, as per Arthur’s suggestion or prodding, I was able to use my insight as a choreographer to adjust a step here or there to help take the show away from its entrenched past and bring it into the 21st century with more edge and energy.
An example is the opening of the show. There is a step called the 'sailing step,' a very ballet looking jump with arms out in second position. If the intent is to make these Jets look intimidating right at the top of the show, then a pretty ballet step defeats the purpose. Simply making the hands into fists gives a hard look to the step, but still communicates the fact that the Jets are in charge of this street and will protect it and fight for it.
I kind of walked a tightrope. But in the end, I think the adjustments that were made to the choreography really were the right things to do for Arthur’s vision.With each actress that plays Anita, you want to build around their strengths. The changes in the choreography (which needed the approval of the Robbins estate) were most extensive in the second act ballet. Tony and Maria, the show’s doomed lovers, are now featured more prominently. Arthur wanted the ballet to be connected a little bit more to the book and the characters. We also left out the nightmare section of the ballet, which is about a third of the piece. Although it completes the ballet’s thought, Arthur felt we could do without it, and everyone agreed. I have since worked on an Australian production of West Side Story, and was able to take some of the lessons that I learned and apply them to that production. However, I went back to the original choreography,"
YouTube allows for curious comparisons.  Here is Debbie Allen leading the "America" number in the 1980 Broadway revival. The choreography for that production was recreated by Lee Becker Theodore (who played Anybodys in the original cast of West Side Story). As you can see, Ms. Allen is a lean, mean, dance machine.

Now, see if you can spot the difference in the number's energy as it was staged by Joey McKneely in the 2009 revival with Karen Olivo as a fleshier Anita. It's slightly slower, the gestures are less exaggerated, and the energy level is much lower (if not a bit anemic). There's no ignoring the fact that, 30 years later, "America" is sending quite a bit less electricity out into the theatre.

Still, some of the production's changes seemed totally unnecessary and occasionally counterproductive:
  • This group of Jets looks so clean that one would imagine they had been brought in from a prep school.
  • Whereas the Jets dress up for the dance at the gym, they seem out of place wearing vests and ties (instead of T-shirts with rolled up sleeves holding a box of cigarettes) on the street. The costume for Diesel (Kyle Robinson) looked like a standard knit Lacoste/Izod shirt. These boys look far too wholesome to be hoodlums.
  • During the "I Feel Pretty" number, an utterly gratuitous piece of shtick has been added in which Consuela (Lori Ann Ferreri) and Maria have a diva-like throwdown to see which soprano can hold the highest note for the longest amount of time.
  • Not only does the abbreviated ballet in Act II diminish its dramatic impact (without the nightmarish aspect of Robbins' original choreography it seems more like a dancing Hallmark card), it's rather strange having the character of Anybodys (Alexandra Frohlinger) sing "Somewhere" (this was originally sung by an offstage voice).
Without any doubt, the strongest member of the cast was Ali Ewoldt as Maria. Michelle Aravena's Anita was powerful but, as Tony, Kyle Harris was having some obvious vocal problems with his upper register. The rest of the touring production's cast included Drew Foster (Action), Ryan Christopher Chotto (A-rab), Grant Gustin (Baby John), Joseph J. Simeone (Riff), Nathan Keen (Big Deal), and Jay Garcia (Chino).

The adult roles were well played by John O'Creagh (Doc), Stephen DeRosa (Glad Hand), Mike Boland (Officer Krupke), and Christopher Patrick Mullen (Lieutenant Schrank). Leonard Bernstein's music is still thrilling after 53 years, even if opening night had some rough moments in the orchestra pit.

As an interesting piece of trivia, the actor playing Tony in this company (Kyle Harris) also played Tony in the hilarious Web Site Story. If you'd like to see a fascinating adaptation of West Side Story, the following 21-minute clip is of West Bank Story (which received its world premiere at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and, at the 79th Academy Awards, won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film). Enjoy!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Trick or Treat

So here we are at last: Halloween weekend and the town is crawling with pranksters and pricks, drunks and dicks. With so many San Franciscans focused on the World Series, theatre managers around town tried to placate nervous audiences by announcing the baseball scores during intermission at some performances.

But the times, they are a-changing. The Castro District no longer closes the streets for one of the most famous Halloween celebrations on the West Coast. And, in its 31st year, the producers of the Exotic Erotic Ball tried to relocate their event to Richmond but were forced to cancel due to poor ticket sales.

What's a person supposed to do in this town to get genuinely creeped out for Halloween? Business as usual just won't cut it.

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After a week of theatregoing in which dramatists talked about the Taliban castrating men, pulling them to pieces and feeding them to Marjan (the one-eyed lion in the Kabul Zoo) -- and Boxcar Theatre's production of Equus focused on an emotionally distraught teenager who had blinded six horses -- I was primed to enjoy the Brava Theatre Center's Halloween treat. Written and performed by Joel Israel, Reluctant was not for the faint of heart.

As directed by Meiyin Wang (with music composed by Mark Valadez), Reluctant offered audiences a Twilight Zone-ish nightmare in which the soothing/seductive voice of a radio announcer/psychopath with a fetish for necrophilia slowly and deliberately escorts the audience into a new version of hell. Imagine a gore fest without any gore, a Quentin Tarantino shock fest without any violence. Then think about how to creep out an audience with the sound of one talented actor's voice.

Although Reluctant features a different female guest at each performance who participates in the radio host's prurient "interview" segment (on the night I attended, the guest actress was Brava's artistic director, Raelle Myrick-Hodges), the show rides on Joel Israel's shoulders like a skeleton intent on scaring Ichabod Crane to death. At various moments, Israel delivers the news, talks like a psychopathic killer, and uses his cold-hearted confidence and blistering bravado to make even the most devoted voyeurs in the audience squirm in their seats.

As a result, Reluctant is not a show for the kiddies. Nor should anyone ever consider it "family entertainment." But if you love being transported by a radio actor's voice (or have ever wondered if The Shadow knew exactly what you were doing), this is the show for you. The following two video clips give a sense of what Joel Israel has to offer theatre queens, murder mystery fans, and perverts at large.

Reluctant continues at the Brava Theatre Center through November 13. You can order tickets here.

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Coming up at the Third I Film Festival is a deliciously creepy film that does not have a single redeeming character. Beautifully written and directed by Smita Bhide, The Blue Tower takes place in Southall, a suburban town near London with a heavy English/Indian Hindu population. Two towers -- one red and one blue -- seem to conspire to drive the protagonist to distraction as his life begins to crumble. The Blue Tower focuses on the following unfortunate souls:
  • Mohan (Abhin Galeya) is a young British-Indian man trapped in an arranged marriage. Unemployed, without any money or children (and driving a beat-up old car), he has the word "loser" written all over him. Although Mohan's wife works, she is rarely interested in having sex with him. Among his many duties is looking in on his Aunty Ji, a vain and bitter old woman who dishes out misery in heaping portions.
  • Vivek (Nicholas Khan) is an old friend of Mohan's who has recently offered him a job. While his friends and family keep warning Mohan that Vivek is a total flake who never honors his promises, Mohan is optimistic that Vivek will offer him a decent wage and a chance to advance in the world.
  • Three Balti House Losers (Paul Chowdhry, Amit Shah, and Sonell Dadral) are Mohan's good-for-nothing friends who are always trying to latch onto a get-rich quick scheme.

  • Kamla Aunty (Indira Joshi) is a hateful old widow who refuses to put any money in the bank. Instead, she keeps large packages of cash in shoe boxes stacked on a shelf in her bedroom closet. Bed-bound and diabetic, she lashes out at anyone who crosses her.  She is constantly threatening to call the employment agency and have her English home health care worker replaced by "a nice Indian girl."
  • Minnie (Harvey Virdi) is one of Kamla Aunty's new neighbors. Along with her husband, Mukesh, she has convinced Kamla Aunty to move back to India where she can afford five times as many servants for the same money she is paying to an employment agency.
  • Mukesh (Inder Manocha) is Minnie's husband and, no doubt, a con artist with a long history of bilking unhappy widows out of their savings.
  • Asha (Manjinder Virk) is Mohan's wife, who has always been surprisingly close to her handsome brother.
  • Ashok (Kayvan Novak) is Mohan's brother-in-law, who has been having sex with Asha since they were children.
  • Papa Ji (Madhav Sharma) runs a successful import/export business and has frequently pressured Mohan to take a job "with the family." When Mohan breaks the news that Papa Ji's son (Ashok) has gotten his daughter (Asha) pregnant, Papa Ji dismisses the situation and tells Mohan to go home, take care of his wife, and raise the child as his own.
  • Judy (Alice O'Connell) tries to take care of Kamla Aunty and monitor the old woman's pills and diet. Unfortunately, she is constantly being abused (verbally and physically) by the old woman. Not only has Judy fallen head over heels in love with Mohan, she knows how the two of them can escape to a brighter future.

In her director's statement, Smita Bhide writes:
"The Blue Tower is a different kind of British Asian film. It’s not about arranged marriages or culture clash or suicide bombers or racism. In it, a young Asian guy falls in love with a white girl, but this isn’t a Romeo and Juliet story. Believing he can escape the trap of his small-town life and loveless marriage, he unwittingly walks into an even bigger one involving deceit, theft, and eventually murder.
I wanted to make a contemporary B-movie with a nod to films like The Honeymoon Killers or The Postman Always Rings Twice. But I also wanted to get beyond a purely genre-influenced narrative to explore some bigger themes (the power of the family within Indian immigrant culture) and also explore the question of how much someone’s good or bad luck can be determined by their character. Or does their luck affect the kind of person they become? Is Mohan doomed to be a victim because of his very nature? Can he only escape his fate by embracing it?
Our budget for this film was next to nothing. We made it for so little we didn’t even get into debt (for a fraction of what is considered these days to be micro-budget). We cut our cloth accordingly, didn’t go for flashy visuals or any locations we had to pay for. I tried to focus on the building blocks of drama: character and story. It was shot entirely hand-held on a small digital camera. The look is realist due to our budgetary constraints. But the tone and style of the narrative is heightened and storybook, more fable than observational slice-of-life.
The film has had enthusiastic responses from younger, multicultural audiences who see it a refreshingly different and authentic portrait of British Indian lives compared to many we’ve seen so far. However, they certainly don’t see the story as 'representative' of what really happens in the culture. They understand that it’s fictional, an imaginary story that just happens to be peopled by British Indian characters.
It is crucial that we guard against the temptation to see every British Asian as being somehow representative of a community as a whole -- or as only existing to provide a window for a white audience to see into an exotic world.
The difference in The Blue Tower is that -- for once -- a brown-faced character is portrayed on the screen as a universal Everyman figure and not forever marginalized as an 'ethnic' with special-issue problems. His struggles are a metaphor for what we all face in our attempts to determine our own fate."
As a writer and director, Bidhe has achieved a remarkable success in crafting a film that draws the viewer into a horrible domestic situation, breaks down any resistance, and tells her story in lurid, graphic, and uncompromising detail. Sandy Nuttgens and Mike Scott have provided a superb musical score that heightens the suspense.

Villainy is everywhere. No one wins. Here's the trailer:

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If you prefer the lighter side of Halloween, you'll probably enjoy Giants, a quirky documentary narrated by Tom Skerritt that was recently shown at DocFest 2010.  Written and directed by Jim Dever and Mimi Gan, Giants is all about the farmers who are obsessed with growing the biggest pumpkin possible.

Whether aiming to win a local contest or heading to Half Moon Bay for the biggest prize of the year, Giants is the kind of film that forces you to smile at the devotion and occasionally lunacy of people who have gotten carried away by their hobby. There are the devout Christians who pray to God to help their pumpkin grow fast and big. There are also petty rivalries between pumpkin growers who see each other year after year.

If, like Charlie Brown and Linus van Pelt, you're looking for The Great Pumpkin, this film is for you.

If you only think of The Smashing Pumpkins as a rock band, you'll have stronger visuals to fill your head after watching Giants. Plus, you'll learn the secret of milking a pumpkin for all it's worth!  Here's the trailer:

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Searching For Needles in Haystacks

Culture vultures share one critical weakness. They often find it hard to imagine that other people won't be interested in the latest hit play or hot diva. Just as I am guilty of not really caring about sports events, many theatre queens are astonished to discover that some people would never even consider stepping foot in a theatre when they could watch a movie in the comfort of their home entertainment center, on their computer, or on a cell phone. It's all a question of priorities.

In 1974, when a production of Peter Shaffer's London hit, Equus, opened on Broadway, it caused quite an interesting controversy. Not only was its story of a troubled teenager who blinded six horses fiercely provocative, in the second act the Alan Strang character doffed his clothes and treated audiences (prudes and voyeurs alike) to a nude scene that was essential to the play's plot.

Not since December 1965 (when the Peter Brook production of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade opened at the Martin Beck Theatre) had so many pairs of binoculars been trained on one man's crotch.

In 1976, Peter Ball directed a production of Equus for San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre. At the performance I attended, something happened which genuinely shocked me. It wasn't the nude scene.

At the time I was working as a freelance transcriptionist for a group of court reporters. One of the office clerks at their firm was a middle-aged gay man who operated in a perpetual state of cruising (I often wondered if Eric ever looked at a male stranger anywhere above the waist).

Eric was constantly ogling men's crotches and wondering about the the richness of their contents. So, when he told me that someone had given him a free ticket to see a play at A.C.T., I wondered how he would react to Act II's famous nude scene.

The next time I ran into Eric, I asked him if he had enjoyed the second act. "Really? There was a second act?" he gasped in astonishment. "When the lights came up, everyone got out of their seats and started walking up the aisle, so I just followed them out into the street and walked home!"

I've always cherished that story as a keen reminder that not everyone is a devoted fan of the "the-ay-ter."

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San Francisco's Boxcar Theatre recently unveiled its new production of Equus. The tiny black box space shared by the Boxcar and Crowded Fire theatre companies has undergone so many reconfigurations and physical transformations that it's almost impossible to expect what will meet the eye with each new production. This time around, Nick A. Olivero created a barn-like atmosphere with some members of the audience seated in haylofts. Compared to more traditional productions of Equus that have been staged in theatres of approximately 1,000 seats, the result is a surprisingly intimate storytelling environment for 49 theatregoers.

Alan Strang (Bobby Conte Thornton) and Nugget (Mike Newman)
Photo by: Peter Liu

To make things even more intimate (and economical, no doubt), director Erin Gilley had three supporting actors double up on roles that are often played by separate actors. Doing so added an interesting psychological layering to the roles these people played in Alan Strang's life.
  • Having the same actress (Laura Jane Bailey) portray Dora Strang (the boy's hyper-religious mother) and Helen (the court officer who is desperately trying to find someone who can relieve Alan's emotional pain) creates a nice dramatic challenge as well as differing views of what a maternal influence can/should offer a growing boy.
  • Having the same actor (Jeff Garrett) portray Alan's father as well as Dalton (the owner of the horse stables) provides a telling double image of the male influences in the young boy's life.
  • Having the same actress (Lili Weckler) portray Jill  -- the teenager who seduces Alan -- as well as the nurse who attends to him  at a mental hospital, lets the same woman portray the boy's spiritual and sexual caretakers.
  • As in the original, one actor (Mike Newman) doubles as the young horseman and as Nugget the horse.
Nugget (Mike Newman) and Alan Strang (Bobby Conte Thornton)
Photo by: Peter Liu

While Michael Shipley's portrayal of Dr. Martin Dysart occasionally bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Glenn Beck, the evening is a major triumph for 18-year-old Bobby Conte Thortnon as the emotionally tortured Alan Strang. Thornton's facial features are smooth enough to assume the expressions of a young child seeing his first horse, and furious enough to assume the full wrath of an angry teenager. The fact that he is a few inches taller than Shipley makes his portrayal the first Alan Strang I've seen who could make the audience understand that this is a teenager whose body had grown to full size much faster than his emotions have matured; a boy in the body of a man who might not know his own strength.

Nugget (Mike Newman) takes Alan (Bobby Conte Thornton)
for a sexually arousing ride(Photo by: Peter Liu)

Aided immensely by Marc Blinder's sound design, Boxcar's thrilling production of Equus makes it hard to believe that Shaffer's intensely plotted play is now 37 years old. Gilley's magnetic direction of Boxcar's tightly focused acting ensemble pays handsome dividends on Olivero's wooden-planked set. It is Bobby Conte Thornton's performance, however, that is revelatory -- the kind you won't want to miss. Equus continues at the Boxcar Theatre through November 20.  You can order tickets here.

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Down in the South Bay, San Jose Rep offered the regional premiere of Bob Clyman's "biomedical thriller" entitled Secret Order. A clinical psychologist by day (and playwright in his spare time), Clyman makes no bones about what lies at the core of his drama:
"This play is about a cult -- specifically the cult of science, with its particular stylized language, assumptions, and taboos.  The title refers to a certain dynamic -- sometimes unconscious, and often problematical -- that can insinuate itself into human communications: the desire to control another person without the willingness to acknowledge that we are making that choice. We may be effectively issuing an implicit 'order' to the other person, but the order is so obscure that this person isn't exactly sure what it is we're doing. Neither are we."
Energetically staged by Chris Smith, Secret Order could just as easily have been named "How To Succeed in Cancer Research Without Really Crying." Its four characters are:
  • William Shumway  (James Wagner), a promising young scientist (probably in his mid 20s) from the Midwest who thinks he has found the key to curing cancer. Although at first Shumway seems to be succeeding in a very specific solution where others have failed, his laboratory findings in clinical tests on mice are not producing the desired results.  Faced with the age-old academic threat ("Publish or Perish") he fails to report a significant setback in the laboratory to his superiors. His gentle personality and Midwestern modesty prove to be his undoing when, as push comes to shove, he refrains from saying something which might hurt his boss's feelings.
  • Robert Brock  (Robert Krakovski), a middle-aged mover and shaker in research circles.  Once he turned 50, Brock realized that he was no longer able to come up with any brilliant scientific ideas of his own. After being promoted to chairman of his department (and following a period of depression), Brock threw himself into a frenzy of fundraising and professional networking activities in order to promote his university's research facilities in the hope that doing so would build a path to fame, fortune, and great wealth. After taking Shumway under his wing, he became obsessed with getting Shumway's cancer research published. The Nobel prize is always on his mind.
  • Saul Roth  (Julian Lopez-Morillas), a 67-year-old faculty member  who has been in the same department for 33 years and knows where a lot of bones are buried on the university's campus. After Brock strips Saul of his funding and on-campus office, Roth has plenty of reasons to seek revenge (even if it means sacrificing a relatively innocent lamb on the altar of professional ethics).
  • Alice Curiton(Kathryn Tkel), a 21-year-old student who desperately wants to work with Shumway on his research. An abrasive, irritating woman who thinks much faster on her feet than any of the men around her, she is the most idealistic of the lot (and ultimately the most vulnerable to corruption). Although she may not be "one of the boys," Alice is much more aggressive and competitive than the men who control her future.
James Wagner and Kathryn Tkel in Secret Order
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In a world jaded by one scandal after another, one might think that Secret Order would have minimal impact on an audience of sophisticated theatregoers.  But as Clyman explains:
"The first time I read about a case of scientific fraud, the phenomenon itself was much less publicized than it has become. The nature of scientific fraud immediately struck me as more interesting than other kinds of fraud, because it seemed so contrary to how things should be. When a portfolio manager absconds with his client's money, we feel sorry for the victims. But our collective faith in the moral universe is not fundamentally shaken. We understand that honest portfolio managers may have nothing in common with dishonest ones. The simple fact that all portfolio managers are supposed to concern themselves with is making money makes it easier for us, unfairly or not, to imagine this sort of lapse. In contrast, scientists are largely defined by -- and presumably committed to -- the goal of pursuing the truth. So our attempts to fathom why a scientist might commit fraud requires a much greater imaginative leap."

Robert Krakovski, James Wagner, and Julian Lopez-Morillas
in Secret Order (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

All four actors deliver clearly layered portraits of their characters. However, the production is helped immensely by scenic and media designer David Lee Cuthbert, whose graphics not only enhance the action, but help make the audience increasingly aware of the cutthroat sense of urgency at the heart of Secret Order. The following trailer gives some insight into how computer graphics are integrated into Cuthbert's unit set.

 Secret Order continues through November 7 at San Jose Rep.  You can order tickets here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Black Hole of Afghanistan

As the audience enters the theatre, they can see Mohammed Mashal (Vincent Ebrahim) painting a mural on a wall in Herat in 1996. At the very top of the wall are some famous figures (male and female) from Afghan culture. Suddenly, a shot rings out from the back of the theatre and members of the Taliban storm the stage, grabbing the terrified artist.  The long hard slog through the history of Afghanistan has begun.

Danny Rahim, Vincent Ebrahim, and Nabil Elouahabi in
Monologue (Photo by: John Haynes)

Long ago, in a faraway galaxy of network television, Ed Sullivan had a Sunday night variety show. In his introductory remarks, he often liked to boast that he had "a really big show for you people tonight." The Berkeley Rep's production of The Great Game: Afghanistan easily fits that description. It can be seen over the course of three evenings or, as I experienced it on Friday, October 22, in an all-day marathon that, with time for dinner breaks, lasted nearly 12 hours. The Great Game: Afghanistan is not the only marathon theatrical experience on record:
While the Ring Cycle, Nicholas Nickleby, the Figaro trilogy, and the Brother/Sister plays follow a complex plot that makes it preferable to view each segment in a particular order, that logic does not apply to The Norman Conquests or The Great Game: Afghanistan.

Conceived by Nicolas Kent, The Great Game: Afghanistan consists of 12 short plays that cover 150 years of Afghan history ("The Great Game" was a name devised by Rudyard Kipling to describe the struggle for control of Central Asia). Directed by  Kent and Indhu Rubasingham, this theatrical marathon consists not only of the 12 short plays, but includes several sequences in which actors perform verbatim (edited by Richard Norton-Taylor) the words spoken by such contemporary figures as Hillary Clinton, Stanley McChrystal, and David Richards. At the performance I attended, there were even quotes from September 26, 2010!

The Great Game: Afghanistan was first produced at London's Tricycle Theatre in 2009. An American tour has taken the company to the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington, D.C. (September 15-26), the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis (September 29-October 17), Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre (October 22-November 7), and finally to The Public Theatre in New York (December 1-19). The venture is a massive challenge for the ensemble of 14 actors (Daniel Betts, Sheena Bhattessa, Michael Cochrane, Karl Davies, Vincent Ebrahim, Nabil Elouahabi, Shereen Martineau, Tom McKay, Daniel Rabin, Danny Rahim, Raad Rawi, Jemma Redgrave, Cloudia Swann, and Rick Warden).

Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad by Stephen Jeffreys focuses on four British buglers in January of 1842 as they watch for any survivors of the famous massacre of Elphinstone's army outside of Jalalabad. When a distant speck turns into a man who has walked to Jalalabad, he turns out to be an Afghan native trying to discover what the British want. The soldiers wonder if they are merely following orders, spreading civilization, or enacting God's will. Meanwhile, another survivor of the massacre, Lady Florentia Sale, reads excerpts from her diary.

Tom McKay in Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad
(Photo by: John Haynes)

In Duologue by Siba Shakib, Mohammed Mashal (the artist painting the mural) is visited by the spirit of Malalai Anaa. A young Pashtun woman who was responsible for the July 27, 1880 victory against the British at the Battle of Maiwand, she reminds him of her importance to the Afghani people as a national folk hero.

Vincent Ebrahim and Shereen Martineau in Duologue
(Photo by: John Haynes)

In Durand's Line (by Ron Hutchinson), the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) has ended. Set in a guest house in Kabul in 1893, Britain's Sir Mortimer Durand tries to convince the wily Amir Abdul Rahman to redraw the map of Afghanistan according to what would later became known as the Durand Line. A lesson in the philosophy of map making, however, shows Durand how it would be just as easy to carve up Great Britain with a few convenient strokes of a pencil and assume that, by doing so, mountains would disappear while population effortlessly changed its identity and loyalty.

Danny Rahim, Raad Ravi, and Michael Cochrane in Durand's Line
(Photo by:John Haynes)

In one of the Verbatim sequences, General Stanley McChrystal,  Matt Waldman (the former Director of Oxfam in Afghanistan), and one of McChrystal's senior staff discuss the war situation with a journalist named William Dalrymple.

The scene then shifts to 2010. In Campaign (by Amit Gupta), James Kite (a British bureaucrat) is trying to find an exit strategy from Afghanistan. In an effort to gain some insight from the history of Mahmud Tarzi (who negotiated the British withdrawal from Afghanistan), he has had Professor Tariq Khan  brought to his office under the pretense of a meeting with a Minister whose surname is Hawke. The professor finds himself caught in a carefully choreographed battle of wits with Kite, whose behavior resembles a bird of prey.

Tom McKay, Raad Rawi, and Karl Davies in Campaign
(Photo by: John Haynes)

In Joy Wilkinson's play, Now Is The Time, a luxury car has broken down in the snow in 1929. The car, however, is much less interesting than its passengers.  They are:
  • Soraya Tarzi, the Queen of Afghanistan who is the only woman whose name appears on the list of the nation's rulers. 
  • Soraya's father, Mahmud Tarzi (Afghanistan's former prime minister).
  • Soraya's husband, Amanullah Khan (Afghanistan's King from 1919-1929).
As they flee Kabul, Soraya begins to realize that her husband has bargained away all the freedoms she helped to obtain for Afghanistan's women in his desperate attempt to remain King.

Daniel Rabin, Shereen Martineau, and Vincent Ebrahim in Now Is the Time
(Photo by: John Haynes)

David Edgar's play, Black Tulips, moves backward in time from 1987 to 1981 as the audience witnesses Russian soldiers being briefed on their weapons and what they can expect to encounter during the Soviet War in Afghanistan. With each step backwards in time, the outlook for the war becomes more and more idealistic.

Rick Warden in Black Tulips (Photo by: John Haynes)

In another one of Siba Shakib's monologues, the ancient Queen Gohar Shahd (the daughter-in-law of Tamerlane/Timur) describes her own vision of a world in which women are nurtured and protected.

Lee Blessing's play, Wood For The Fire, depicts two CIA operatives (male and female) who are trying to cope with General Akhtar, the director of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence, and his preoccupation with perceived threats from India.

Cloudia Swann and Danny Rahim in Wood For the Fire
(Photo by: John Haymes)

One of the most fanciful plays is by David Greig. Entitled Miniskirts of Kabul, it takes place in 1992 as a female Western journalist uses her imagination to conjure up a meeting with President Mohammad Najibullah in his secure space in the United Nations compound. While, at first, she is curious to learn if women were wearing miniskirts in Kabul at the end of the Soviet War in Afghanistan, she continues to probe deeper, asking Najibullah to explain how he could have tortured so many of his own countrymen.

Jemma Redgrave and Daniel Rabin in Wood For The Fire
(Photo by: John Haynes)

In The Lion of Kabul, Colin Teevan describes the death of two United Nations charity workers, who were trying to distribute food when they were murdered for supposedly having "disrespected" some Afghan women. Their boss, Rabia (a woman) has been invited to meet with the Taliban at the Kabul Zoo.  She arrives accompanied by her co-worker, Ismael, who is forced to choose between continuing to work for the NGO or continuing to live.

To Rabia's horror, she is informed that she cannot reclaim the bodies of her dead colleagues because they are no longer "available" (one of the men had been castrated and then had his arms and legs tied to two wagons which were then pulled in opposite directions until he came apart). Their body parts were subsequently fed to Marjan, the one-eyed lion in the Kabul Zoo.

Having captured the killers, a Taliban leader is now asking Rabia to decide whether the men who killed her coworkers should also be fed to the hungry Marjan. The Lion of Kabul offers plenty of food for thought.

Raad Rawi and Shereen Martineau in The Lion of Kabul
(Photo by: John Haynes)

Ben Ockrent's play, Honey, spans the five years from 1996 until 2001, as a CIA operative tries to convince Ahmad Shah Massoud (whose assassination on September 9, 2001 is presumed to have been carried out by agents of Al-Qaeda)  to help American forces resume their military intervention in Afghanistan.

Daniel Rabin and Michael Cochrane in Honey
(Photo by: John Haynes)

Another Verbatim segment features the thoughts of Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, Fiona Gall (Senior Technical Advisor for Disability at the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan), General Sir David Richards (Commander NATO/ISAF Forces in Afghanistan from 2006-2007) and Mark Sedwill (NATO Ambassador for Civilian Affairs in Afghanistan).

The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn (by Abi Morgan) tells the poignant story of a widow (whose husband taught school to Afghan children) who tries to reopen his school in the wake of 9/11 and the American intervention in Afghanistan. Set in the countryside outside of Kandahar in April of 2002, it stresses the value of an education to provide a way out of the horrors of life in Afghanistan.

Shereen Martineau and Sheena Bhattessa in The Night is Darkest
Before The Dawn
(Photo by: John Haynes)

On The Side of the Angels (by Richard Bean) offers a combination of comic relief and political tragedy as a British aid worker gets caught up in a struggle over the rights of women in Afghanistan. Desperately trying to negotiate a deal which will help women continue to farm without impacting a hostile warlord's use of irrigation equipment, she ends up condemning two very young girls to marriages with old men.

Gemma Redgrave, Tom McKay, and Nabil Elouahabi in
On The Side of the Angels (Photo by: John Haynes)

Another Verbatim segment includes the words and thoughts of Masood Khalili (former political advisor to Commander Massoud, presently Afghanistan's Ambassador to Turkey), Mullah Hafeez Akhond (a Taliban commander in Kandahar), U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, General Sir David Richards, and Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid.

The Great Game: Afghanistan concludes with Canopy of Stars by Simon Stephens. This last play begins with two British soldiers who are guarding the Kajaki Dam in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. When one returns home to Great Britain, he remains sullen and withdrawn as his wife confronts him about his behavior and the effect it has had on their family.

Tom McKay in Canopy of Stars (Photo by: John Haynes)

* * * * * * * * * * *
There is much dramatic gold to be found in The Great Game: Afghanistan. Overall, I was most impressed by the performances of Jemma Redgrave, Tom McKay, Daniel Rabin, Shereen Martineau, Vincent Ebrahim, Danny Rahim, Nabil Elouahabi, and Michael Cochrane. 

However, I would not recommend seeing it all in one day simply for the sake of participating in a marathon event. There is so much information and history to be digested that, at times, it can feel as if one is sitting through a lecture series that will never end. There are many moments when a member of the audience can feel as if he is being instructed to eat his vegetables because "they're good for you."

If 150 years of Afghanistan's history proves anything, it is that this miserable area of the world is a black hole that baffles armies, swallows invaders, and eats its young. No one wins. Everyone loses. That's not to say that too much of a good thing can't be wonderful. Sometimes it's simply too much. Here's the trailer:

Monday, October 25, 2010

As Her World Turns

The world of soap opera has undergone surprising changes in recent years. In 1970, 19 daytime soap operas attracted viewers to America's three main networks. Guiding Light (which made its television debut in 1952) was cancelled in 2009. As The World Turns concluded a 54-year run last month. On November 8, Days of Our Lives will celebrate its 45th anniversary. What kept these dramas alive for so many years?
  • The unwavering faith of their viewers.
  • The incredible plot twists devised by their writers.
  • The continued success and loyalty of their advertisers.
  • The ability of certain characters to keep the faith despite overwhelming signs of defeat.
The growing strength of the feminist movement played a major role in bringing about the downfall of daytime soap opera. As more and more women entered the workplace, ratings started to sag. More important, however, was the fact that as women gained financial independence (combined with the ability to use birth control pills), they discovered they had more options and more power over their own lives.

Two recent Bay area productions focused on a classic predicament found in soap operas: How long should a wife remain faithful to a husband whose military career has left her alone to raise a family?.

In light of so many American soldiers who have headed back to Iraq and Afghanistan on return tours of duty, the question remains surprisingly relevant. Should a wife wait one year?  Three years?  Ten years?  Will she even recognize her husband when he returns home?

* * * * * * * * * *
Having been humped and dumped on stages around the world for more than a century, Cio-Cio-San certainly deserves a medal of valor for trying to stand by her man. Puccini based Madama Butterfly on John Luther Long's 1898 short story entitled "Madame Butterfly" and Pierre Loti's 1887 novel entitled "Madame Chrysantheme."

Not only did Madama Butterfly provide the inspiration for 1989's Miss Saigon, back in the days when soprano Martina Arroyo was singing the role of Cio-Cio-San, she famously referred to her portrayal of Puccini's teenaged geisha as "Madame Butterball."

The San Francisco Opera recently staged Madama Butterfly using the production created for the Lyric Opera of Chicago by Harold Prince in 1982 (Prince had achieved an artistic triumph staging Stephen Sondheim's 1976 musical, Pacific Overtures, in Kabuki style). In his staging of Butterfly, Prince had a group of stagehands dressed as Koken (stage assistants dressed in black who help the performers with their costumes and props). While the idea may have seemed novel in the mid 1980s (when Prince was still fascinated by Japanese theatrical traditions), it has since lost a great deal of its visual appeal.

The wedding scene from Act I of Puccini's Madama Butterfly
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

When I first saw this production at the Houston Grand Opera in 1990, I was enthralled by the use of a turntable in Clarke Dunham's unit set. Not only did the turntable add a wonderful sense of movement (and passage of time) to Puccini's opera, it also compensated for many moments that can seem overly stagnant for modern audiences. The turntable added surprising layers of depth and moments of nuance to the opera. As Dunham explained:
"In 1980 I was engaged by the late Carol Fox to design the new Chicago Lyric Opera production of Madama Butterfly. It was to become the first of many productions on which I would collaborate with Harold Prince, and the production team of Prince, Dunham, [Florence] Klotz and [Ken] Billington was born. By the time the opera opened, Fox had been succeeded by Ardis Krainik as General Director of the Lyric Opera and Prince, Dunham, Billimgton (with Judy Dolan as costume designer) would return some years later to create the 1995 Lyric Opera production of Candide.
Hal and I conceived this production of Butterfly as an un-slavish salute to the Japanese custom of Kabuki theater, using the Kabuki conventions as a springboard to an otherwise very Western production. Our collaboration was so close that we each often thought the other had come up with the concepts that made the production tick. We especially wanted to see the leading characters through Oriental eyes. Therefore, almost all of the designs, scenery and costume, are based on Japanese 'Ukio-Oi' woodcuts depicting the Western World's 'opening of Japan'. Many of those Japanese woodcuts also became the basis for the full-stage projected backdrops I designed and likewise for Ken Billington's elaborate lighting patterns.
The production takes place on a huge football-shaped turntable (actually sectional castered platforms that can strike and set in minutes). In this manner, we can see all of Butterfly's world, rather than being trapped in the confines of that tiny Japanese house. Black-gowned Kabuki 'prop men' appear to revolve the turntable from position to position, though it is actually propelled by a hidden rubber-tire drive inside the house."
Clarke Dunham's revolving unit set for Madama Butterfly (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

The challenge facing any performance of Madama Butterfly is simple: If the soprano isn't up to the task, there is little else in the opera that will make the evening memorable. In this instance, Russian soprano Svetla Vassileva proved to be a major disappointment, evoking dismal memories of Renata Scotto's famous wobble. Tenor Stefano Secco was an adequate, although not particularly exciting Pinkerton. The strongest vocal performances actually came from those in supporting roles, notably Quinn Kelsey (Sharpless), Thomas Glenn (Goro), and Austin Kness (Prince Yamadori). When Kate Pinkerton becomes a compelling figure in Act II, you know something is off balance.

Pinkerton (Stefano Secco) and Goro (Thomas Glenn )
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Jose Maria Condemi directed with Nicola Luisotti getting a powerful performance from the orchestra. Unfortunately, at the performance I attended, the audience broke into cheers during intermission as news spread throughout the War Memorial Opera House that the San Francisco Giants had won another baseball game. The performance was not received with the same amount of enthusiasm.

* * * * * * * * * *
This has been an extraordinary year for opportunities in which Bay area theatregoers can revisit Homer's epic poems. In August, Shotgun Players offered the world premiere of Jon Tracy's reinterpretation of The Iliad entitled The Salt Plays: Part 1 --  In The Wound.  That same month, Stanford Summer Theatre presented The Wanderings of Odysseus. In December, Shotgun Players will stage the world premiere of Tracy's reworking of The Odyssey (entitled The Salt Plays: Part 2 -- Of The Earth).

Over at the Berkeley City ClubCentral Works presented the world premiere of their latest "method play," Penelope's Odyssey, which was written by Gary Graves and developed with the members of the acting ensemble. Their latest effort -- possibly their best in several years -- re-examines the events in the Odyssey through the eyes of Penelope, the lonely but resolute wife of Odysseus.

Jan Zvaifler as Penelope (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

  • Penelope (Jan Zvaifler) has been waiting for her husband to return from the Trojan War. She's been waiting for 20 years, during which time she has been weaving something very mysterious on her loom.
  • Telemakos (Leontyne Mbele-MBong) is Penelope's child by Odysseus. Although she spent much of her adolescence as a girl, one day Telemakos was lying on the beach when the goddess Athena appeared before her and pronounced her the "son of Odysseus" (this was probably the fastest and least painful gender reassignment procedure in history).
  • Antinus (Matt Lai) is the son of one of Penelope's neighbors. An arrogant, self-centered, and very macho fool, he has determined that it would be in Penelope's best interest (as well as his own) for them to wed. And yet Penelope is not particularly impressed.  Or interested.
  • Odysseus (Terry Lamb) is the great Greek warrior who has been missing in action for 10 years. Famed for his wits and use of strategy, he has returned to Ithaca to reclaim his wife and kingdom.
Terry Lamb as Odysseus (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Updated to the present (Antinus rides a motorcycle around the island), Penelope refers to her child as him/her (in what may seem to be an effort at political correctness, but really is not), and Odysseus appears to be a homeless drunk who stinks to high heaven. Penelope's Odyssey shows how a woman must use her wits to protect herself from a horde of 50 ravenous drunks who are squatting in her home in the hopes of becoming her next husband. In the final analysis, Penelope's Odyssey is all about power: 
  • Who had it (Odysseus). 
  • Who craves it (Antinus). 
  • Who is trying to protect it (Penelope), and 
  • Who must learn how to master it (Telemakos).
Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Telemakos (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

In recent seasons I've often raved about the superlative quality of the productions staged by Central Works on a shoestring budget. To craft a script that allows four actors to retell the story of Homer's Odyssey from a distinctly new perspective requires guts and great storytelling skill.

Directed by John Patrick Moore and brilliantly enhanced by Gregory Scharpen's sound design, the Central Works ensemble delivered the kind of performance that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats with their jaws hanging open in anticipation of the next plot twist. This play also leaves audiences wondering whether the dreams they hope will come true are really worth it.

Penelope's Odyssey continues through November 21 at the Berkeley City Club.  Any serious theatregoer in the Bay area would be a fool to miss this intelligently written and theatrically riveting production. You can order tickets here.