Sunday, June 5, 2011

Character Building Exercises

At a certain point, counting cards becomes second nature to those who play pinochle, gin, bridge, and poker. However, those who excel at such games don't just count the cards that have been played. They study their partners' and opponents' body language for facial tics and other signs that might give away an upcoming move.

Any writer worth his salt tries to flesh out a character by describing the person's physique, clothing, vocal mannerisms, and personality traits.  Tiny bits of information revealed by a person's speech pattern (stuttering, nervous coughs, dramatic sighs), a habit of glancing sideways at critical moments, shifts in posture, and/or changes in tonality, inflection, and vocal pitch are the nuances that help to layer a character.

An artist with a keen eye -- and ear -- for capturing these human imperfections may develop a talent for mimicking or shaping that character onstage. Someone who is too busy trying to move a plot along may simply not have the time or interest in giving complex characters the depth and dimensions they deserve.

The results, however, are instantly obvious to an audience.

Two new works that put a wide range of American characters onstage are now being performed before Bay area audiences. In one, the sculpting of each character has been conceived, tested, and refined over a period of nearly three years. The other is a world premiere fresh out of the bottle, with its strengths and weaknesses glaringly on display.

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Directed by Leonard FogliaAnna Deveare Smith's new one-woman show entitled Let Me Down Easy has settled down on the Berkeley Rep's Roda Stage. Following its debut at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut in January of 2008, Smith (who is also an artist in residence with the Center for American Progress) has taken it to Washington, D.C. as well as a series of regional theatres. In the following clip from a PBS interview done while she was performing at the Arena Stage, Smith discusses the origins of her show and how its text became increasingly relevant as the nation's healthcare crisis deepened.

Smith's attention to the music of language and the ways people express themselves in their most vulnerable moments (especially when their standard vocabulary fails them) began when she was working in the complaints department for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. As she tried to articulate a link between a person's language and identity, she developed a process of taping interviews with all types of people and using the recorded material to meticulously capture their accents, speaking patterns, and body language as she worked to bring each character to life.

Having worked for many years as a medical transcriptionist (and been able to transcribe my own tapes after interviewing many opera singers and other artists), it's easy for me to appreciate the intricate demands of listening to tiny bits of sound over and over again to get a person's speech patterns just right. As a writer, that kind of intimacy with the spoken word allows one to iron out the grammatical wrinkles and tighten the text without ever losing sight of the speaker's true voice (one of the keenest compliments I ever received came from a baritone I had profiled who said that I had transformed his words into what he thought he was saying as opposed to what actually came out of his mouth).

Smith's 100-minute monologue takes place on a starkly elegant unit set designed by Riccardo Hernandez that frames her work with the same kind of grace she elicits from many of her subjects. Whether impersonating supermodel Lauren Hutton or Ruth J. Katz, JD, MPH (who currently serves under Congressman Henry A. Waxman as the Democratic Chief Public Health Counsel on the United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce), musicologist Susan Youens, Ph.D.  or the Reverend James H. Cone, Smith's performance often transcends gender while exposing a person's spirit and spirituality with a rare and eloquent honesty.

Anna Deveare Smith in Let Me Down Easy (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Some of her portraits are riotously funny.  Hearing choreographer Elizabeth Streb describe how she tried to impress her lesbian lover at a birthday party by smothering a small fire with her midriff -- or playwright Eve Ensler explain how you can just "know" when a person is "living in her vagina" -- leaves audiences convulsed with laughter. And yet, Smith's portrayals of cancer survivor Lance Armstrong and professional boxer Michael Bentt capture acute moments of competitiveness and vulnerability that flash by during her interviews with seemingly invulnerable athletes.

Whether relating the experience of a high-level administrator at Charity Hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina or capturing the salty toughness of former Texas Governor Ann Richards as she battles cancer, the fine details captured by Smith's artistic instinct shine through with the same brilliance she applies to capturing her feisty, elderly aunt.

Let Me Down Easy is a masterful display by a performance artist at the top of her game as she probes the souls and inner thoughts of the rich and not-so-rich, the famous and the unknown, while weaving a rug of modern, rugged Americana.  Performances continue at the Berkeley Rep through July 10 (you can order tickets here). In the meantime, here's the trailer:

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If one examines the recent crop of new musicals, it quickly becomes obvious that each of these shows was accompanied by high levels of anticipation from theatregoers.
The recent world premiere of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City at the American Conservatory Theatre was eagerly awaited for obvious reasons.
  • Those who were living in San Francisco when Armistead Maupin's serial novel, Tales of the City, first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle cherish their memories of the wild adventures, searing heartbreak, and catty gossip that delighted readers who saw Tales as a reflection of the time in which they were living. Many readers fell passionately in love with Maupin's characters (particularly Michael "Mouse" Tolliver) and embraced them as a part of their own extended families.
  • Many of those who were introduced to Tales of the City in book form (or through the 1993 television miniseries) found Maupin's stories irresistible.
  • For many young LGBT men and women, Tales of the City opened up a window onto a whole new world of possibilities for them to consider. Even as they felt trapped living at home with their parents, Tales became an essential part of their coming out process. If Mary Ann Singleton could leave Cleveland and reinvent herself in San Francisco, so could they.
  • For the musical's creative team, being able to work with an established regional theatre company that was as much a part of San Francisco's cultural landscape as Maupin's novels (and where the author still lived), offered the blessing of having the show's world premiere take place in its home territory.
  • For A.C.T.'s marketing staff, Tales of the City offered the opportunity to create a special VIP package for premiere center orchestra tickets priced at $200 per seat.
  • For the development staff at A.C.T., premiering a show that would generate a huge amount of local interest opened up a host of new fundraising opportunities (an entire page in the program is devoted to listing donor names in new categories such as Commissioning, Production, Music, Choreography, Scenic, and Casting sponsors).
Michael "Mouse" Tolliver (Wesley Tylor) and Mary Ann Singleton (Besty Wolfe)
Photo by: Kevin Berne

As you watch the following video clip in which set designer Douglas W. Schmidt and costume design Beaver Bauer describe their research for this new production, you'll notice something very interesting. Schmidt's eventual set design (inspired by the back stairways of so many San Francisco houses) bears an astonishing resemblance to the layout for the stage of an English Renaissance theatre (what we now think of as an "Elizabethan" or "Shakespearean" stage).

Unlike some of my friends, I chose not to rush out and re-read Tales of the City one more time prior to seeing the musical. The show's characters remain deeply etched in the imaginations of those who read Tales in serial as well as in book form. To a great extent, I think the streamlined style and strength of Maupin's writing stimulated a rare kind of emotional buy-in from his readers. I wanted to see how the musicalized version would hold the stage on the basis of its own merits.

From a technical standpoint, this is a very slickly designed show. Aided by Robert Wierzel lighting design, Schmidt's unit set facilitates a smooth flow of rapidly changing scenes. Crisply directed by Jason Moore (with choreography by Larry Keigwin), much of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City zips by at an astonishing pace.

From the very first beats of disco music, a parade of fond memories whisks across the stage in the form of first time bong hits, roller-skating nuns, the steam room in a gay bathhouse, and the jockey shorts contest at The EndUp (I was one of the judges at several of those contests). The very last thing I expected to experience during the performance was a pang of nostalgia at the sight of gay men dancing in high-waisted pants! Songwriters Jake Shears and John Garden have written an Act I curtain number for Mrs. Madrigal (Judy Kaye) that is the transgender equivalent of Albin's "I Am What I Am" in La Cage aux Folles.

Judy Kaye as Anna Madrigal (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

However, as the evening wears on, its weaknesses become more noticeable (I can't remember previously encountering a musical whose program did not list its musical numbers). The song written for Michael to sing when he reads his coming-out letter to his mother was so mechanical and uninspired that the moment would have had far greater dramatic impact without music.

Members of the audience who did not arrive pre-invested in Maupin's characters might find it very hard to gain traction with them or develop a sense of empathy as so many plot points go whizzing by onstage. By the time the final curtain came down I had the bizarre feeling that I had just experienced the CliffsNotes version of Tales of the City. And, as anyone who ever used them to write a paper for an English class knows, CliffsNotes are a handy tool for understanding plot points, motivation, and the use of symbolism. However, they never create a sense of empathy for any of a novel's characters.

Anna Madrigal (Judy Kaye) and Mona Ramsey (Mary Birdsong)

While the libretto by Jeff Whitty is extremely faithful to the source, after some surprisingly nostalgic moments in the first act, I found myself responding to Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City as if it was an industrial show. Certain characters like Beauchamp Day (Andrew Samonsky), his lonely wife, DeDe Halcyon-Day (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone), Brian Hawkins (Patrick Lane), and Mona Ramsey (Mary Birdsong) were all present and accounted for. As in the original, one of the most sympathetic characters was Edgar Halcyon (Richard Poe).

Whereas, for many people, the emotional heart of Tales of the City was more easily found in the romantic misadventures of Michael "Mouse" Tolliver (Wesley Taylor) than the ongoing embarrassments of Mary Ann Singleton (Betsy Wolfe), in the musical version Michael and his handsome gynecologist, Jon Fielding (Josh Breckenridge), almost seem like characters who are merely peripheral to the back story of Anna Madrigal's gender identity. In Act II, when salty Mother Mucca (the superb Diane J. Findlay) brings down the house, the show achieves a sudden -- and startling -- burst of energy.

Jon Fielding (Josh Breckenridge) and Michael "Mouse" Tolliver (Wesley Taylor)
Photo by: Kevin Berne

In many ways, these problems lie not so much with Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City as with the audience's changing level of awareness. While this show is definitely a period piece, it's not as much of a period piece as something like The Boy Friend (Sandy Wilson's delicious send-up of the Roaring Twenties).
  • Some 35 years after Tales of the City first appeared in print -- and in an age of medical marijuana -- a scene in which someone gets stoned for the first time seems quaint rather than illicit or vicariously shocking.
  • The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence recently celebrated their 30th anniversary.
  • A jockey shorts contest holds little shock value compared to the graphic images of shaved butt holes one can easily find on the Internet.
  • With films like 2005's Transamerica and 2011's Becoming Chaz, transgenderism has become the new black.
  • The hateful Anita Bryant (who opens the show's second act) is, at best, a distant memory for most people in the audience.
As a result, there is an element of watching Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City that becomes like watching a PowerPoint presentation created from a series of family picture albums. Julie Reiber portrays Mary Ann's former friend from Cleveland, stewardess Connie Bradshaw, while Manoel Felciano appears as the mysterious Norman Neal Williams.

As beloved as Tales of the City may be to Bay area audiences (and Maupin's devoted readers), I'm not sure this show can survive a Broadway transfer any more than Steve Silver's Beach Blanket Babylon. A great deal of my doubt stems from the fact that Maupin's characters -- who came to life so beautifully on the printed page and in the television miniseries -- don't have the same magnetic grip on the audience in the musical comedy version.

As the old saying goes "Opinions are like assholes -- everybody's got one!"  The above is strictly my opinion. Due to the heavy demand for tickets, Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City has been extended through July 24 (you can order tickets here).

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