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.

No comments: