Sunday, February 6, 2011

Life Upon The Wicked Stage

On February 7, 1940, Walt Disney Animated Classics released Pinocchio, its second full-length feature. Of the songs that became famous from the film, When You Wish Upon A Star won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and became the signature theme for Disney ventures. Another song, sung by J. Worthington Foulfellow (a sly fox with criminal tendencies) had the following lyric:
An actor's life for me
A high silk hat and a silver cane
A watch of gold with a diamond chain
An actor's life is gay
It's great to be a celebrity
An actor's life for me
An actor's life is fun

An actor's life for me
A wax mustache and a beaver coat
A pony cart and a billy goat
An actor's life is fun
You wear your hair in a pompadour
You ride around in a coach and four
You stop and buy out a candy store
An actor's life for me!

An actor's life for me
A high silk hat and a silver cane
A watch of gold and a diamond chain
You sleep till after two
You promenade a big cigar
You tour the world in a private car
You dine on chicken and caviar
An actor's life for me!"
In today's celebrity-driven culture, whenever audience members and gossip addicts fantasize about the glamorous lifestyles enjoyed by their favorite actors, they quickly forget an actor's ongoing fear of financial insecurity, the constant invasions of an actor's privacy, and the long hours some actors most devote to exhausting, boring, and often humiliating publicity tours. The downside of the acting profession was perhaps best captured in this song by Jerome Kern (with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) from 1927's Show Boat:
"Life upon the wicked stage
Ain't ever what a girl supposes;
Stage door Johnnies aren't
Raging over you with gems and roses.
When you let a feller hold your hand
Which means an extra beer or sandwich,
Everybody whispers: "Ain't her life a whirl?"

Though you're warned against a roué
Ruining your reputation,
I have played around
The one night trade around
This great big nation:
Wild old men who give you jewels and sables
Only live in Aesop's Fables.
Life upon the wicked stage
Ain't nothin' for a girl.

I admit it's fun to smear my face with paint,
Causing everyone to think I'm what I ain't,
And I like to play a demimonde role
With soul!
Ask the hero does he like the way I lure
When I play a hussy or a paramour,
Yet when once the curtain's down
My life is pure, and how I dread it!

Life upon the wicked stage
Ain't ever what a girl supposes;
Stage door Johnnies aren't
Raging over you with gems and roses.
If some gentleman would talk with reason
I would cancel all next season
Life upon the wicked stage
Ain't nothin' for a girl!"
In his recent article entitled Why I Call Myself A Socialist: Is The World Really A Stage? famed actor/writer/comedian Wallace Shawn put the life of an actor in a unique perspective. Although it's a long piece, it's definitely worth reading.

Three recent Bay area stage productions examine the challenges facing actors in their moments offstage (whether in their dressing rooms, relaxing with their families, or improvising new material for a future act). Set on three different continents, in three different eras, they reveal outsized capacities for intimacy, loneliness, and, of course, narcissism. The three stereotypes are:
  • The actress/mother.
  • The actor/manager.
  • The creative clown.
* * * * * * * * * *
First produced in 1896, Anton Chekhov's play, The Seagull, is set in a country estate in Russia owned by Pyotr Nikolayevich Sorin (Richard Farrell), a former bureaucrat who always wanted to be a writer but settled for a steady paycheck. Now retired, Sorin wishes he could spend more time in the city, but his failing health makes that impossible.

John Tufts as Kostya (Photo by: David Allen)

Although he is well tended to by servants, Sorin dotes on his nephew, Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov (John Tufts), an impassioned and frustrated young playwright who has just finished a pretentious short piece in which the neighbor's daughter, Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya (Christine Albright), will perform before a small gathering of friends. Kostya's mother, a touring actress whose narcissism knows no bounds, is one of the spectators. When Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina (Tess Malis Kincaid) mocks her son's play, her behavior triggers an impetuous display of wounded ego from the young man.

Among the others present on the estate are Mme Arkadina's parasitic boytoy, a famous author named Boris Alekseyevich Trigorin (Craig Marker), and Marya Ilyinichna (Liz Sklar), the boozing, depressed daughter of Sorin's housekeeper, Polina Andreyevna (Julia Brothers). A poor schoolteacher named Semyon Semyonovich Medvedenko (Peter Ruocco) has been in love with Masha for years, but she couldn't be less interested in him.  Meanwhile, her mother, who once had a fling with the local doctor, Yevgenii Sergeyevich Dorn (Howard Swain), has never managed to control her jealousy over the doctor's appetite for women.

Trigorin (Craig Marker) with Nina (Christine Albright)
Photo by: David Allen

Needless to say, unreasonable expectations are to be found everywhere.
  • Kostya, who was originally in love with Nina, tries to gain fame as a writer and win back his mother's affection.
  • Mme Arkadina wishes her overly-dramatic son would grow up and be nice to her lover, Trigorin. 
  • Nina (who wants to run away from her controlling parents and become an actress) is willing to sacrifice her life to make Trigorin happy.
  • Trigorin wants to explore Nina's youthful passion (but, after he fathers a child with her, returns to living with Mme Arkadina).
  • Semyon wants to marry Masha (which results in a less than perfect marriage).

Mme Arkadina (Tess Malis Kincaid) and Trigorin (Craig Marker)
Photo by: David Allen

The Marin Theatre Company recently staged the world premiere of a new version of Chekhov's play by Libby Appel, titled Seagull. Certain moments took on a bit more weight than usual (in particular the tug-of-war between Sorin's suggestion that his sister give Kostya some money with which the young man could enjoy life and Mme. Arkadina's protestations that she's broke and doesn't have a kopek to spare).

Although the ensemble was directed with great care by Jasson Minadakis (who got some wonderful work out of Craig Marker, Tess Malis Kincaid, and John Tufts), I found myself most impressed with the simple, stark beauty of Robert Mark Morgan's unit set, in particular his use of horizontal and vertical segments of birch trees as an atmospheric device.  Seagull continues at Marin Theatre Company through February 27 (you can order tickets here).

* * * * * * * * * *
The days of the actor/manager are long gone. But, for many years, there were small theatrical touring troupes built around the fame and talent of a well-known star who would perform numerous roles in repertory as he and his colleagues toured the provinces. Following its initial success in London's West End in 1980, Ronald Harwood's touching play, The Dresser, was transformed into a magnificent film starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in 1983.

Harwood based his play on his experience as a dresser for the acclaimed Shakespearean actor/manager, Sir Donald Wolfit. The play's two lead characters are Sir (an aging actor/manager in the midst of a nervous breakdown who, never having missed a performance in his life, is determined to appear that night as King Lear) and Norman, his personal dresser.

Norman (James Carpenter) and Sir (Ken Ruta) in The Dresser
Photo by: Kevin Berne

There are many ways one could describe the character of Sir (selfish, egomaniacal, manipulative, tyrannical) but shy and retiring would not be among them. The role is perfectly suited to a veteran actor (Ken Ruta) who not only understands the personality traits of the dying Sir, but has the dramatic skills to communicate them to the audience in all their fiendish fury.

On the other hand, Norman (James Carpenter), is an aging alcoholic homosexual control freak who has nurtured a platonic (albeit deeply conflicted) love for Sir over 16 years while tolerating his boss's constant whining, bullying, and infantile behavior. Sir's dressing room is the tense arena in which Norman coaxes and prods the aging actor prior to each performance in a never-ending struggle to get the old beast onstage.

Why is this night different from all other nights? World War II is raging all around them and German planes are bombing England. Mr. Davenport-Scott (the actor who usually plays the role of Lear's Fool) has been arrested on a morals charge, and Sir (who is clearly losing his mind and has a sense of impending doom) has just signed himself out of the hospital against medical advice.

Norman (James Carpenter) tends to Sir (Ken Ruta) in The Dresser
Photo by: Kevin Berne

Meanwhile, Norman must deal with a series of interruptions from the three women trying to wrest control from his hands:
  • Her Ladyship (Rachel Harker) has been Sir's lover and acting partner for many years. Sick and tired of a life spent in cold dressing rooms, cold railway stations, and eating cold sandwiches, she wants Sir to announce his retirement and give up the stage.
  • Madge (Lynne Soffer) has been Sir's loyal stage manager for 20 years. Even though Madge has nurtured an unrequited love for Sir for two decades, she has made peace with the fact that, even if Sir will never return her love, she can at least have him in her daily life.
  • Irene (Blythe Foster) is a young actress enthralled with Sir's power and flattered by his sexual advances. She does not understand -- as Norman tersely explains to her -- that Sir's interest in her has nothing whatsoever to do with her personality or her looks but is entirely about the fact that she weighs less than Her Ladyship (whom Sir must carry onstage as the dead Cordelia).

In his director's note, Rick Lombardo writes:
"This play -- a love letter to the theatre and those who dedicate their lives to making plays -- is really about so much more. As we watch Sir and his rag-tag Shakespearean company attempt to perform King Lear, even as Hitler's bombs fall around them, we feel the power of art to sustain and define us. We witness Sir battling the demons of his decaying physical and mental faculties, and come to understand his rage against old age and approaching annihilation. And in the relationship between Sir and loyal dresser, Norman, we experience the power of love to give  meaning and purpose. The action of Harwood's play parallels, in many ways, the monumental King Lear his characters are attempting to perform with the dresser serving (much as Lear's fool does) as touchstone, wise counselor, and friend who is willing to wade boldly into the storm to do the great man's bidding."
Under Lombardo's direction, the San Jose Rep's production of The Dresser delivers a powerfully satisfying evening of theatre, made even more riveting by the transformations between Kent Dorsey's design for Sir's dilapidated dressing room and the backstage area from which the audience can see the cast performing King Lear.

Norman (James Carpenter) and Sir (Ken Ruta) in The Dresser
Photo by: Kevin Berne

Whether one sees The Dresser on film or in a live theatrical performance, it offers magnificent acting opportunities for its two leads.  Now in his mid 70s, Ken Ruta gives a bravura performance as Sir while James Carpenter's Norman keeps the show's nervous energy at an appropriate fever pitch. Performances of The Dresser continue through February 20 (you can order tickets here).

* * * * * * * *
The folks at ZSpace are currently presenting the world premiere of The Companion Piece, a curious piece of performance art that was conceived by Beth Wilmurt and directed by Mark Jackson over several years of improvisation and workshops. The opening and closing segments of the piece are anchored by a magnificently snazzy performance from Jake Rodriguez as a heavily rouged vaudevillian who works best as a solo performer. Although he may be delivering stale jokes and insults to the audience, this supremely confident old-timer warns onlookers that "I don't open shows and I don't close shows. I don't need you, so why don't you just go home!"

Jake Rodriguez as the Vaudevillian (Photo by: Pak Han)

In between Rodriguez's high-voltage solo turns, Christopher Kuckenbaker and Wilmurt attempt to "improvise" material they might be able to put into their act. Using all kinds of props (ranging from a battered old piano to a trampoline, from a plastic rose to a fake potted plant), they play with a vaudevillian's bag of tricks while testing the strength and truth of their theatrical instincts and improvisations.

Some ideas work better than others; but the best material has often emerged from stage accidents and tiny mishaps. As director Mark Jackson explains:
"Devised theatre is actually the most physically, emotionally, and intellectually demanding way to go about making theatre that I am aware of.  With no script laid out in advance to provide a basic map that everyone can point to in order to identify points A to Z, the collaborators have to draw this map on their feet, together. How exactly this is done can take many, many forms. It is very much an experiment."

Christopher Kuckenbaker and Beth Wilmurt (Photo by: Pak Han)

Part of what inspired Wilmurt to conceive The Companion Piece was noticing how some of the old-fashioned vaudeville comedy teams depended on each other to perfect the timing of their material. While some artists prefer to work alone, The Companion Piece asks if others thrive -- and may actually produce better art -- when in the company of another person.

What is thrilling about watching The Companion Piece is how this 80-minute show has been developed through constantly taking dramatic risks. Many moments are intriguing -- some even inspiring. Although the performance the audience witnesses has essentially found its pulse and pace (moments of hilarity are neatly balanced by a silent ballet between two actors guiding giant wheeled stepladders around the performance space -- or by Wilmurt's curious monologue on a swing high above the stage), the three actors do a superb job of entertaining the audience without ever having to make sense.

Performances of  The Companion Piece continues at ZSpace through February 13 (you can order tickets here).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the kind words about the 'Seagull' design. It's a great show all around.

- Robert Mark Morgan