Friday, August 19, 2011

Laying A Proper Dramatic Foundation

Most theatregoers can remember the following quote from Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet:  "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King." A far more important passage to review from time to time is Hamlet's instructions to the actors in Act 3, Scene 2:
"Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, by use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant. It out-herods Herod. Pray you avoid it. Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of the which one must in your allowance o'erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly (not to speak profanely), that neither having th' accent of Christians, nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of Nature's journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably. Reform it altogether! And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That's villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it. Go make you ready."
After walking out of staged reading of a godawful new work in progress last week, it helps to go back to basics. Before anyone can bring anything to life on the stage you need to have a decent script to work with.

In the past two weeks I've had a golden opportunity to see three memorable productions. Each play took place in a very different time frame and was written by a playwright with a unique world view. Each was the work of an extremely prolific playwright.

In each case, the writing was rock solid -- which allowed a truly gifted director and cast to treat the playwright's words like a magic carpet that could help them soar through theatrical time and space. There were numerous lessons to be learned while watching their characters come to life.

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Little more than a year has passed since I was first exposed to the raging talent of J.C. Lee when I attended a reading Pookie Goes Grenading over at Thick House. Since then, I've seen two more of his plays (This World Is Good and Into the Clear Blue Sky) produced by Sleepwalkers Theatre, which is now producing the third part of Lee's This World and After trilogy: The Nature Line.

In order to understand what makes these three plays so compelling (on top of Lee's raw writing talent), it helps to understand Sleepwalkers' artistic vision:
"This company was born from the ashes of the worst production of Hamlet ever. We believe the producing of a play to be an essential step in the process of writing one. We have staged 12 full productions in four years, consisting of 19 original  plays by 10 up-and-coming local playwrights."

Narcy (Janna Kefalas) and Dora (Lissa Keigwin)
 in The Nature Line (Photo by:  Clay Robeson)

As directed by Mina Morita (with some magnificent sound design work by Colin Trevor), The Nature Line takes audiences to an apocalyptic world where women's wombs are too fragile to bear children and, following an outbreak of disease, human touch is forbidden.

In a world ruled by corporations that enforce sterile conditions, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have been replaced by four dimwitted comic book nerds whose role as sperm donors keeps them locked inside a  laboratory where they must produce "fertilizer" on demand. The "talent contest" scene in which Jason (Joshua Schell), Benji (Jomar Tagatac), Go-Go (Jeff Moran), and Pencil (Roy Landeverde) perform a scheduled milking (like cows on a farm) is comedic gold.

Go-Go (Jeff Moran), Pencil (Roy Landaverde), and
Benji (Jomar Tagotec) are three of the caged sperm donors
in The Nature Line (Photo by: Clay Robeson)

The bulk of the play, however, has much more to do with the quest of a confused woman named Aya (Charisse Loriaux) to find the natural links to motherhood through her encounters with  her friend Arty (Ariane Owens), a mysterious bag woman (Amy Prosser), the often unintelligible Grandma (Carla Pantoja), and the enigmatic child (Soraya Gillis) whose sole talent consists of dragging Aya around by her hair.

Aya (Charisse Loriaux) and "T" (Amy Prosser)
in The Nature Line (Photo by: Clay Robeson)

The contrast between the earthiness and spontaneity of these women and the starched insanity of corporate hack/laboratory supervisor Narcy (Janna Kefalas) and her dimwitted student nurse, Dora (Lissa Keigwin), forces the audience to choose between women who will ask questions and seek meaning versus those who merely follow orders from unseen corporate honchos.  Lee's partner, Adrian Anchando (who directed the first production of The Nature Line) notes that:
"This play was written and directed by two men, but it is inspired by the beautiful women in our lives. I hope that we have come closer in understanding their strength. From the loss of culture to the loss of a child; the things women don't speak about. Our families have gone through so much. Every action they took led me to where I am today. No matter how high tech we may get, there is still something so animal, so primal about human emotion -- it's ageless. I am amazed by how little we really know.  
It is strange to me that in order for us to move forward, we have to let go. I think that our future will not be measured by what we gain as a people, but more about what we've lost. This new story with an old soul had to be told. It is timeless. If you feel confused watching…maybe you should be. Not all the questions are answered for us. It's intentional. Commit to the story and you will realize that, though it is set in a time far away, it is still so close to now. Welcome to a new kind of folklore."
Delphie (Soraya Gillis) and Aya (Charisse Loriaux)
in The Nature Line (Photo by: Clay Robeson)

While a playwright may have a vivid imagination that can create compelling dramas, the reality of getting one's plays produced is quite another matter. As J.C. Lee explains:
"This trilogy started as a fevered madness at The Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2006 and ended as I furiously scribbled the final rewrites for This World Is Good in the rehearsal room last August. To think that it's been a year since then blows my mind, and to think you're constantly told in this business that this or that can't be done because of money is bullshit. I take one look at what Sleepwalkers has managed to do over these past few years and know, assuredly, that incredible things can be done if incredible people are in the room. 
This project has been over a year in the making and I have to say it's been an incredible ride -- mainly because the people over at Sleepwalkers are that rare breed of risk-taking, smart, and caring artists who want to do one thing and one thing only: tell the story of the play in the clearest, best way possible. Tore Ingersoll-Thorp, Sleepwalkers' Artistic Director, was one of the first people to find my work and not only believe in it, but invest -- money, time, energy, and love -- and a playwright can't get by in this world without investors." 
Sleepwalkers Theatre performs in a tiny space on what looks like a fairly minimal budget. The fact that its creative team can pull such huge amounts of magic out of what seems like thin air speaks to their artistic vision, resourcefulness, and impressive levels of craft.

Although Lee's script hits an occasional bumpy spot, his writing is so solid and his wit so strong that one is always eager to saddle up for another session with this skilled storyteller.  Ultimately, The Nature Line asks audiences to question which is the better path: to submit to the rigidity of mindless control freaks or explore the possibilities of the unknown --  to take risks or to spend one's life cowering in fear. Performances of The Nature Line continue through August 27 at the Phoenix Theatre (you can order tickets here). Here's the trailer:

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The Marin Theatre Company recently launched its 45th season with its first foray into the world of August Wilson. The noted African-American playwright who died in 2005 received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and now has a Broadway theatre named in his honor.

Wilson's famous "Century Cycle" consists of ten plays set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Each play takes place during a different decade. Prior to this week, I had managed to see productions of Fences, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Radio Golf, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. With Marin Theatre Company's new production of Seven Guitars, I've now seen half of the plays in Wilson's cycle.

Poster art for Seven Guitars

Set in 1948, Seven Guitars focuses in on the efforts of blues singer Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Tobie Windham) to return to Chicago where he hopes to record another hit record. Unfortunately, Floyd is broke. He lacks the money to get his electric guitar out of hock (as well as the drums belonging to his friend and fellow musician, Red Carter (L. Peter Callender), who played drums on Floyd's recording but got no recognition for his artistic contribution.

Floyd (Tobie Windham) and Vera (Omoze Idehenre)
in Seven Guitars (Photo by: Ed Smith)

If Floyd's attempts to persuade his former girlfriend, Vera (Omoze Idehenre), to join him in Chicago are going nowhere fast that could be because Floyd had once dumped Vera and left for the big city with another woman (to suggest that Vera's guard is up would be a severe understatement). Living upstairs from Vera is her feisty landlady, Louise (Margo Hall), whose niece, Ruby (Shinelle Azoroh), is arriving from rural Alabama to escape some "man trouble."

Ruby (Shinelle Azoroh) has a knack for attracting attention
from men in Seven Guitars (Photo by:  Ed Smith)

Louise's most troublesome tenant is Hedley (Charles Branklyn), a 58-year-old man living on unfulfilled dreams whose borderline personality is not helped by the ingestion of alcohol. Hedley is desperate to have a child and quick to suggest that the teenage Ruby (who, unbeknownst to him, is already pregnant) become his wife.

As directed by Kent Gash, Seven Guitars portrays a tightly-knit group of friends who have known each other long enough to know each other's secrets. The sassiest of the bunch is Louise, who is quick to speak inconvenient truths. The most cautious is Vera, who has no desire to be hurt again.

Louise (Margo Hall) and Vera (Omoze Idehenre) in a scene from
August Wilson's Seven Guitars (Photo by: Ed Smith)

While Floyd's desperate quest for money leads to tragic consequences, a series of outbursts by the unstable Hedley (who has been diagnosed with tuberculosis but refuses to enter a sanitorium) drive many of the plot's conflicts. Seven Guitars actually begins with Floyd's funeral before flashing back to the events which led to his untimely demise.

While many swear by the beauty and power of Wilson's dramas, I've always found them a bit underwhelming. There's no denying the playwright's skill in creating interesting characters, challenging narratives, and poignant monologues. Nevertheless, I always end up feeling that his plays could benefit from some judicious cuts.

That does not, in any way, diminish the work of Marin Theatre Company's dynamic ensemble. I have always been captivated by Margo Hall's performances and consider her to be one of the Bay area's theatrical treasures.  A recent graduate of A.C.T.'s Master of Fine Arts Program in Acting, Omoze Idehenre continues to impress with her strong characterizations and subtle reactions to the other actors onstage. Tobie Windham (Floyd) and Charles Branklyn (Hedley) delivered stirring performances, with L. Peter Callender (Red Carter) and Marc Damon Johnson (Canewell) lending strong support.

Performances of Seven Guitars continue through September 4 at the Marin Theatre Company (you can order tickets here). Here's the trailer:

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Each year, a handful of theatrical productions may be truly memorable. But when one experiences a performance that soars above the year's offerings with a grace and timeliness that becomes all the more astonishing when one realizes that the play is more than a century old, there is definite cause for jubilation. Few playwrights other than  George Bernard Shaw can still pull off such an artistic coup.

First published in 1898, Candida is another one of Shaw's prickly looks at the price of modern morality, the gender roles assigned to a married couple, and the banal greed of employers with no civic conscience. To see Shaw's play receive belly laughs from a modern audience is testament to the playwright's wit as well as a pert reminder that some things never change.

The California Shakespeare Theater is currently presenting Candida in a production directed by Jonathan Moscone with such grace, style, and exuberance that it almost seems to float on air. With a tightly-knit ensemble that has dug deep into their characters and found so much more than appears on the printed page, this production should not be missed by any serious theatregoer in the Bay area.

Eugene Marchbanks (Nick Gabriel), Candida (Julie Eccles), and the
Reverend James Morell (Anthony Fusco) Candida
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The action take places in the home of the Reverend James Morell (Anthony Fusco), who seems to think that people actually take his sermons to heart when the hard truth is that all the women he encounters fall in love with him.  His secretary, Miss Proserpine Garnett (Alexandra Henrikson), is the latest in a string of female employees to become infatuated with her boss. Morell's wife, Candida (Julie Eccles), is stronger, wiser than her husband, and more than willing to enlighten him about the dynamics of "Prossy's Complaint."

Using a beautiful unit set designed by Annie Smart (with costumes by Anna Oliver and lighting by York Kennedy), this production is one of those comedic treats that seems as if it is floating on a cushion of tart lemon chiffon.

When the play begins, Morell is receiving an unexpected visit from his father-in-law, Mr. Burgess (Jarion Monroe), a gruff business owner whose concept of giving his female employees a substantial raise is to replace them with machines. Neither man particularly likes the other, but when Burgess needs a favor in the business world, he is willing to grit his teeth and visit the very well-connected Reverend.

As they await Candida's arrival, Burgess and Garnett develop a keen dislike for each other, which is interrupted by the entrance of 18-year-old Eugene Marchbanks (Nick Gabriel). A spoiled and petulant poet from a rich family, Marchbanks has no real responsibilities, no real work to do, and is quite impressed with himself.

He also has a severe crush on the preacher's wife. As a result of his uncontrollable surges of testosterone and poetic inspiration, Marchbanks has determined that Candida must choose whether to spend her future with her husband or himself. Like most men, he never thought to ask her how she felt about the idea.

Candida (Julie Eccles) with Eugene Marchbanks (Nick Gabriel)
Photo by: Kevin Berne

In the following clip, Moscone and his cast discuss how much subtext they were able to mine from Shaw's play and how they were constantly surprised by its depth and modernity.

Two of the great joys of this production are the performances by the younger members of its cast.  As Proserpine Garnett (Miss Prossy), Alexandra Henrikson is a model of feminist frustration -- a woman whose severe intelligence can't always cover for her emotions. However, it is Nick Gabriel's triumphant performance as Eugene Marchbanks that steals the show.

A recent graduate of A.C.T.'s Master of Fine Arts in Acting Program, Gabriel has a phenomenal talent for physical comedy. His Marchbanks is constantly alternating between the determined newfound masculinity of a puppy trying to challenge a larger, older, and much bigger dog, and a kitten who has just been distracted by a shiny object. Inflamed with the kind of ardor that keeps a teenage male constantly battling the demands of the rocket in his pocket, the look of smug delight on Gabriel's face as Candida takes his hand and drags him from the room is almost like that of the teacher's pet who knows he is about to get the kind of spanking that will bring him dangerously close to an orgasm.

Eugene Marchbanks (Nick Gabriel) and Miss Prosperine Garnett
(Alexandra Henrikson) in Candida (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
There are many reasons to catch this delightful production -- an evening of pure theatrical magic -- but Nick Gabriel's sublime performance (layered with so many subliminal thoughts) is a wonder to behold. Performances of Candida continue at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda through September 4 (you can order tickets here). Here's the trailer:

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