Monday, October 11, 2010

Approaching Nirvana

As a life-long atheist I haven't had the experience of attending church or temple on a regular basis.  A darkened theatre is where I go for inspiration, introspection, reflection, and renewal. Although I don't usually think of an evening at the theatre as "ethereal" or "floating on gossamer," two recent performances left me feeling marvelously content. Coming at a time when the pre-election news cycles have become increasingly depressing, both experiences renewed my faith in the ability of the arts to purge, cleanse, and renew one's spirit.

God knows, it doesn't happen that often. The odds of attending not one, but two emotionally fulfilling, artistically satisfying, near perfect performances in a week lies somewhere on the outer edge of the bell curve.

What surprised me was that this phenomenon involved an opera that has never been one of my all-time favorites and a play that received fairly disappointing reviews when it moved from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company to Broadway last year. In each case, a great deal of the evening's success was due to superb casting.

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This fall, the San Francisco Opera revived its now 28-year-old production of Le Nozze di Figaro. Originally directed by Sonja Frisell, this time it fell under the directorial guidance of John Copley, who was staging his 30th production for the San Francisco Opera. With this production having been revived in 1986, 1991, 1997, and 2006, the sets and costumes were hardly new to local audiences.

But something was different, astonishingly different, and I'll bet that it was partly due to a request by the conductor, Nicola Luisotti. The San Francisco Opera's new musical director had asked that the level of the orchestra pit be two feet higher than normal. The maestro's request was accommodated as a nod toward the 18th century practice of having opera orchestras seated at or near the level of the audience. Luisotti was also having fun at the keyboard (I could swear I heard him interject a phrase from Aida's "Numi pieta" -- which he also conducted this fall -- into one of the stretches of recitative).

If size isn't everything, then perhaps vertical alignment has a previously unknown value.The change in the height of the orchestra pit allowed a closer unity of sound between the singers and instrumentalists. It also allowed for closer communication between the soloists and conductor which, as far as I could tell, created a much more "organic" feel to the performance.

The Countess (Ellie Dehn) and Count Almaviva (Lucas Meachem)
Photo by: Cory Weaver
Unlike many performances of Mozart's opera that I've attended in the past, there was no star anchoring the cast. Instead, there was a beautifully tight ensemble that allowed the music to soar, the Count to implore, and the comedy to score.

As Susanna, Danielle de Niese was an absolute delight: a deft comedienne with solid vocal technique. Whether battling with Marcellina (Catherine Cook), assisting the Countess Almaviva (Ellie Dehn), plotting to entrap the Count Almaviva  (Lucas Meachem), or making sure that she and Figaro (Luca Pisaroni) were able to make it to the altar before the Count could have his way with her, the Australian-born lyric soprano made a smashing company debut.

Susanna (Danielle de Niese) and Cherubino (Michèle Loiser)
Photo by: Cory Weaver

This revival also featured a superb Cherubino (Michele Losier), a wonderfully smug Don Basilio (Greg Fedderly), and the welcome return of San Francisco Opera veteran John Del Carlo as Dr. Bartolo. The production (originally inspired by the paintings of Francisco Goya) looks remarkably fresh. Under the deft leadership of John Copley and Maestro Luisotti, Le Nozze di Figaro was an absolute joy from start to finish.

Figaro (Luca Pisaroni) and Susanna (Danielle de Niese)
Photo by: Cory Weaver

* * * * * * * * * *
Down in Mountain View, Theatreworks presented the West Coast premiere of the latest play by Tracy Letts (whose August: Osage County won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as that year's Tony Award for Best Play). If Superior Donuts lacks the Wagnerian weight and breadth of August: Osage County, it nevertheless stands on its own quite nicely as an intimate two-act dramedy.

Neatly directed by Leslie Martinson on a unit set designed by Tom Langguth, Superior Donuts introduces audiences to the following characters:
  • Arthur Przbyszewski (Howard Swain), a painfully shy, aging hippie who avoids confrontation like the plague. Now nearing 60, Arthur is getting tired of running the donut shop he inherited from his father. He is also a heavy reader.
  • Randy Osteen (Julia Brothers), a female cop who frequents Superior Donuts. Even though Randy is attracted to Arthur, having grown up with seven brothers who are all policemen she is totally lacking in any knowledge of how to flirt.
Randy Osteen (Julia Brothers) and Arthur
Przybyzswski  (Howard Swain) (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

  • Franco Wicks (Lance Gardner), a 21-year-old black bundle of nervous energy who intimidates Arthur into giving him a job. Given a chance, Franco would transform Superior Donuts into a cafe with poetry slams and better food. Although he claims to have written the great American novel, Franco also has a gambling habit which has left him deeply -- and dangerously -- in debt. He may well be too smart for his own good.
  • James Bailey (Michael J. Asberry), Randy's partner on the police force. A black cop who likes to attend Star Trek conventions with his wife.
  • Luther Flynn (Gabriel Marin), the local thug to whom Franco is in debt for a sizable amount of money.
  • Kevin Magee (Elias Escobedo), Luther's sadistic henchman.
  • Max Tarasov (Soren Oliver), a Russian immigrant who owns the storefronts on both sides of Superior Donuts. Max is eager to buy Arthur's business so he can open up the largest electronics store in Chicago's Uptown district.
  • Kiril Ivakin (Jon Deline), Max's hulking nephew who has only recently arrived in America.
  • Lady Boyle (Joan Mankin), one of the local homeless characters who enters Arthur's shop every day for a free donut and cup of coffee.
Arthur (Howard Swain) and Lady Boyle (Joan Mankin)
Photo by: Tracy Martin

Letts uses a structural device that often brings the action to a grinding halt as Arthur breaks through the theatre's fourth wall and addresses the audience in a series of monologues. Thanks to the playwright's skill, however, this technique allows the audience to get inside the soul of a man who is so shy he can barely bring himself to speak to strangers.

Each character in Superior Donuts is carrying around enough emotional baggage to topple the Sears Tower. However,  Martinson has directed the show with much more warmth and tenderness than one would expect to find on a dark and snowy night in Chicago.

Lance Gardner as Franco Wicks (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Lance Gardner's performance as Franco ignites the stage with the vitality of youth while Joan Mankin, Michael J. Asberry and Howard Swain represent the sadder, wiser, and older generation. Soren Oliver's portrayal of Max and Julia Brothers' characterization of the female cop reveal the soft hearts of devoted friends hiding under a mountain of protective armor.

While the strength of Tracy Letts' script is enough to demand your attendance, Lance Gardner's exuberantly bravura performance is icing on the cake. Superior Donuts continues at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through October 31. You can order tickets here.

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