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."

* * * * * * * * * *
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.

* * * * * * * * *
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.

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