Monday, January 24, 2011

Pace Makers

January may start slow, but the pace of theatrical presentations is rapidly accelerating. Many Bay area arts organizations have learned the value of sharing their resources by either co-producing events or inviting their artistic colleagues to make use of their performance spaces.

In what was once the York Theatre on 24th Street, the women running the Brava Center for the Arts have launched an artistic collaboration with choreographer Joe Goode. Thanks to Goode's curatorial guidance, they were able to present three Bay area dance companies to their growing subscription base while adding a new dimension of contemporary dance theatre to their company's artistic profile. Goode began each program as a genial host who explained the concept behind Gush and the significance of the dance pieces to be presented.

Choreographer Joe Goode

Starting off each program was one of Goode's early creations, 29 Effeminate Gestures. Taking great pleasure in the fact that he had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to "recreate a masterpiece," Goode looked out into the audience with a twinkle in his eye and smirked "So there!" As performed by Melecio Estrella, 29 Effeminate Gestures remains an accessible piece of dance theatre in which a young man's sissy-like affectations are temporarily tamed by his access to power tools. Real chairs were harmed during the performance of this work.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
Born in BurmaLedoh came to America when he was 11 years old. As an adult, in trained under Butoh master Katsura Kan in Japan and eventually founded Salt Farm as a multi-media dance theatre company. According to Ledoh:
"We live in the body which is form proceeding through time. When I am fully in the body, I experience a sense of timelessness. Movement is one avenue to experience the moment. When fully standing in the moment, the past and the future are easily accessible. I am a filter allowing energy and experience to pass through me."
Ledoh and Iu-Hui Cha performed an extended version of ColorMeAmerica, whose film components are often more compelling than its dance elements. While researching materials to include in this review, I came across the following video of a 10-minute version of ColorMeAmerica which, to be honest, strikes me as far more riveting and able to hold the audience's attention than Ledoh's longer version of the piece.

COLORMEAMERICA from Salt Farm Butoh Vérité

* * * * * * * * * * * *
I was much more impressed with two works performed by the Axis Dance Company. Choreographed by Sebastian Grubb (and performed by Grubb and Rodney Bell), The Narrowing is a duet for two men -- one free to escape the confines of his chair and the other wheelchair bound. With an original score of immense appeal by Michael Wall, it's a work of surprising poetry and athleticism, some of which can be seen in this clip from an open rehearsal.

Following a brief intermission, the company performed a work that had been created by Goode (and for which he won an Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography). Entitled "the beauty that was mine, through the middle, without stopping..." the piece was performed by a cast of five (three of whom were in wheelchairs). As with many of Goode's dance theatre pieces, this one included spoken text, a dry sense of humor, and occasional images of breathtaking beauty -- one of which can be seen in the following clip:

 * * * * * * * * * * * *
Down in Mountain View, TheatreWorks began 2011 with a new production of Patrick Barlow's delightful adaptation of The 39 Steps (based on the book by John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock's classic film version from 1935).

The 39 Steps falls into a peculiar category of stage farce. It's the kind of show whose ingenuity dazzles the first time around. A repeat viewing allows someone to catch a lot of moments that may have whizzed by too quickly during the first exposure. However, subsequent viewings often leave one scrutinizing the physical execution of the performance rather than analyzing the superb craftsmanship in the writing.

This is where the experience gained over many years of attending operatic performances comes in handy for an arts writer. Certain operas fall into a category known as "the standard repertory." These include such "bread and butter" operas as Aida, La Boheme, Carmen, La Traviata, The Barber of Seville, The Magic Flute, and Madama Butterfly. Audiences get used to experiencing these operas on a fairly regular basis. Because their experiences may change depending on the cast, production, and performance venue, one's appreciation of an opera becomes enriched in much the same way that one's appreciation of a favorite dish is changed as it is prepared and served in one restaurant after another.

The result? Rather than familiarity breeding contempt, repeated viewings help to develop a broader appreciation of an opera's basic strengths while allowing audiences to learn how different singers, designers, and directors deepen and color their understanding of a composer's work.

In a piece like The 39 Steps (which depends on rapid pacing, quick costume changes, and multitudinous sight gags), the element of surprise evaporates over repeated viewings and allows one to concentrate on the work's structure as well as how the creative team's inventiveness, brevity, and economy of effort produce maximum comic results. The bottom line is that only one of the four actors stays within a role throughout the performance (the hero, Richard Hannay). The other three actors take on more than 100 characters

Rebecca Dines, Mark Anderson Phillips, Dan Hiatt, and Cassidy Brown
in The 39 Steps (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

I first saw The 39 Steps on Broadway after the original production had moved from the 740-seat American Airlines Theatre to the 1,082-seat Cort Theatre. When the touring production touched down in San Francisco's 1,667-seat Curran Theatre, the performers were playing to a substantially larger house than they had on Broadway.

Seeing The 39 Steps in the 589-seat Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts gave a slightly different feel to the production. This auditorium feels wider than either the Cort or Curran and, for this production, set designer Joe Ragey has added a slight thrust to the stage (which allows for a wonderful new sight gag involving a model train).

Rather than keep everything at the tightly-wound, frantic pace of the original production, director Robert Kelley has given his cast some extra time to breathe and add some harmless shtick to their characters (I particularly liked what Dan Hiatt did with Mr. McGarrigle). 

Dan Hiatt as Mr. McGarrigle (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

As Kelley explains in his director's notes:
"If The 39 Steps makes gentle fun of one of the world's greatest film directors, it also pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock's profound influence on the cinema and his astonishing ability to engage the psyche of his audience. For the actors, director, and designers of our TheatreWorks production, The 39 Steps is much more about theatre than film. It is an invitation to invention, an opportunity to translate the miracles of the silver screen into both the magic and the mishap of live theatre -- all with tongue firmly in cheek. Using every theatrical trick in the book, it relies heavily on the imagination of the audience and the creativity of a crackerjack cast. It's a celebration of the creative process, a feast of theatricality, and a huge artistic challenge. For the actors, it is at once a nightmare and a delight. For the director and designers, it's a fiendish Rubik's cube that is both exciting and addictive. For the sound designer contemplating some 50 Hitchcock films overflowing with mood setting music, it is a cornucopia of compelling possibilities."
Rebecca Dines and Mark Anderson Phillips in The 39 Steps
Photo by: Tracy Martin

Under Kelley's astute direction, the four-actor ensemble (Rebecca Dines, Dan Hiatt, Mark Anderson Phillips, and Cassidy Brown acquitted themselves handsomely throughout the evening. My only regret was Kelley's choice to close a set of curtains in order to facilitate several set changes (which occasionally caused the show to lose some of its rapidly  building momentum). Since that didn't matter at all to the audience (which has having itself a roaring good time), this seems like a moot point.  The 39 Steps continues through February 13th at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

No comments: