Saturday, November 27, 2010

Soul-Sucking Succubi

Once upon a time a witch could instill fear in people's hearts. From Rapunzel's mother to Hansel and Gretel's Rosina Daintymouth --  from Endor to Salem, Massachusetts --  witches were thought of as powerful tools of evil, women whose seductive and manipulative skills could crush a man's soul or enslave him to the dark powers of Satan.

No one cares about witches, anymore. That's because they're too busy calling women bitches, instead.

In the past 25 years (as rappers removed the mystique from witches and made a "bitch" sound more like a disposable item), it's been hard to correctly label the truly scary women in our society. Can you imagine pretty little Dorothy Gale, dressed in a gingham smock, looking Sarah Palin, Mary Matalin, or Karen Hughes in the face and innocently asking "Are you a good bitch or a bad bitch?"
  • Gone are the days when witches had hooked noses, warts on their fingers, brooms to fly, and places to go. 
  • Gone are the days when a lust-filled cackle could turn one's blood to ice. 
  • Gone are the days when a witch might cast a spell on someone.
  • Gone are the days when people were terrified by words like "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!"
Thankfully, those women can still be found in literature and onstage. Two of them recently visited Bay area theatres.

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First published in 2002, Coraline is a horror novella by Neil Gaiman that achieved rapid market penetration. Winner of the 2003 Bram Stoker Award for Best Work for Young Readers, in 2009 Coraline was adapted by Henry Selick, who transformed it into a popular stop-motion film. A stage adaptation by David Greenspan with music and lyrics by Stephin Merritt had its world premiere in New York on May 6, 2009. SFPlayhouse is currently presenting the show's West Coast premiere of the musicalized Coraline.

In the following video, lead actor Maya Donato, director Bill English, and SFPlayhouse's music director, Robert Moreno, describe the special effects that have been created for this production of Coraline.

To be honest, I was glad I had neither read the book nor seen the movie of Coraline prior to attending SFPlayhouse's production. Entering the theatre without the emotional baggage of comparisons to how the story plays out in other art forms made it easier to concentrate on what was happening before my eyes. As director Bill English explains in his program note:
"Every culture has a story that puts in symbolic form the journey from child to adult. From Walkabout to Star Wars, humanity has thrilled over and over to this universal story of transformation. Dorothy, Alice, and many other young tweenies have taken us on this journey. We all remember that time in our lives when we realized for the first time that we would have to forge a new identity that would be all our own, separate from our parents. And we also remember the wave of terror that came with it." 
Maya Donato as Coraline (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

"We all have stood facing that door into an alternate universe and yet, shivering with fear, we went through.The 'other' world is not really all that different from her own (boring and tedious). And yet courage is required of Coraline and she steps up to the challenge. The story reminds us all that behind the ordinary doors in our lives lie the opportunity and the challenge of transformation.
Joseph Campbell describes the hero's journey as a violent upheaval in which the protagonist makes a courageous leap that transforms his nature and ours with him if we come along for the ride. It's Coraline's very ordinariness that makes it special. Coraline tackles the second biggest question humans face: Who am I and how do I fit in with this world?"

Miss Forcible (Susi Damilano), Coraline (Maya Donato), and
Miss Spink (Maureen McVerry). Photo by: Jessica Palopoli

While Bill English has drawn appealing performances from Susi Damilano (Miss Forcible), Maureen McVerry (Miss Spink), Maya Donato (Coraline), and Jackson Davis (Coraline's father),  the evening's high-powered moments all belong to the fearsome Stacy Ross, who portrays Coraline's real and "other" mothers with wicked glee. Brian Degan Scott (Mr. Bobo) and Brian Yates Sharber  (the cat) make strong contributions in supporting roles.

Coraline (Maya Donato) and the cat (Brian Yates Sharber)
Photo by: Jessica Palopoli

As a stage vehicle, Coraline has big ambitions but distinctly limited charms. While I very much liked Valera Coble's costume designs and the unit set designed by Bill English and Matt Vuolo, I continue to find Stephin Merritt's talent as a composer to be criminally overrated (this is the same man who created a truly wretched score to accompany the San Francisco Film Society's screening of the 1916 silent version of Jules Verne's novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).

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Over at the San Francisco Opera, beloved soprano Karita Mattila scored a major triumph in her debut in the role of the seductive, cynical Emilia Marty in The Makropulos Case. Based on a play by Karel Capek, Czech composer Leos Janacek's opera about a mysterious woman who claims to be 337 years old grows ever more fascinating for audiences as they feel themselves wither and age.

Karita Mattila as Emilia Marty (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Born in Prague (where her father was an alchemist in the court of Emperor Rudolf II), Elina Makropulos was forced to sample a potion that could keep her youthful for 300 years. Over the centuries she has led a scandalous life using the same initials (E.M.) but taking on the names of Eugenia Montez, Ektarina Myshkin, Ellian MacGregor, and her current Emilia Marty.

Like the heroine of Alban Berg's opera, Lulu, this siren causes men to lose their senses, spend all their money on her, and commit rash acts in the hope of impressing her. However, after 337 years on earth, she is tired, bored, and ready to die. Emilia has outgrown love, politics, greed, and the usual roster of base human instincts. Unless, of course, she can get her hands on the recipe for her father's potion.

Matthew O'Neill as Count Hauk-Sendorf  (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Janacek's operas are not famous for melodies or lyrical lines. Instead, they are taut musical dramas that require solid acting from their singers. Under the baton of conductor Jiri Behlolavek, the cast acquitted itself quite handsomely. 

Director  Olivier Tambosi drew crisp characterizations from Matthew O'Neill as one of Emilia's old flames (Count Hauk-Sendorf), Brian Jagde as the newly-infatuated Janek, Thomas Glenn as Vitek, Gerd Grochowski as Baron Jaroslav Prus, and  Dale Travis as Dr. Kolenaty. 

In smaller roles, Susannah Biller shone as Kristina and Miro Dvorsky was quite effective as Albert Gregor.  Austin Kness continued to impress as the stagehand; Maya Lahyani did double duty as a chambermaid and cleaning woman

A co-production with the Finnish National Opera, The Makropulos Case was handsomely designed by Frank Phillipp Schlossmann. However, the true stars of the evening were Karita Mattila (who will perform the role again in Helsinki in 2012) and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

Karita Mattila as Emilia Marty (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

An interesting side note: While The Makropulos Case is not exactly the female equivalent of Anne Rice's best-selling novel, Interview With The Vampire, if the story ever gets a screen adaptation, the role of Emilia Marty would be perfectly tailored to Cher's talents. Not that Cher is 337 years old. At least, not yet.

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