Friday, September 9, 2011

The Never-Ending Search For Self

Once upon a time bookstores didn't have a section devoted to "Self-Help."  What am I talking about? Once upon a time there were bookstores!

Whether people went to have their Tarot cards or astrological chart read to them, whether they saw a therapist on a regular basis, or whether they assiduously wrote their thoughts down in diaries and journals, the quest never stopped to get a better grip on who one was and what the future held in store.

Some people spend their whole lives searching for answers. People like Charity Hope Valentine (the girl who wanted to be loved). In the following clip, Shirley Bassey sings "Where Am I Going?" from 1966's Sweet Charity.

Although it would be nice to think that we get wiser as we get older, that's not often the case. Grown adults who should know better make phenomenally bone-headed blunders.  Sometimes, when examine the wreckage our wake, we're amazed that we've even survived. Some 25 years after singing I'm Still Here" during 1985's concert version of Follies with the New York Philharmonic, I wonder how Carol Burnett feels about Stephen Sondheim's lyrics today.

Two Bay area theatre companies opened their seasons this week with plays about women who are either desperately trying to find themselves or looking back and acknowledging what they survived. Although one piece was a revival of a play that premiered here in 1993, the other was the world premiere of a piece that's been in the incubation process for a long, long time.

* * * * * * * * *
Written by Claire ChafeeWhy We Have A Body received its world premiere from San Francisco's Magic Theatre in 1993. Directed by Katie Pearl on a beautifully spare and concise unit set designed by Marsha Ginsberg, its revival this fall marks the first step in Magic Theatre's new "Legacy Series" (during which, each season from now until Magic celebrates its 50th anniversary in September 2016, the company will revive one of its outstanding world premieres).

Poster art for Why We Have A Body

At the heart of Chafee's play are four complex females:
  • Having watched her two daughters grow into extremely conflicted young women, Eleanor (Lorri Holt) is convinced that the lesbian brain is divided into three (instead of the usual two) segments: memory, lust, and hammering doubt.  As for her own lot in life? "Marriage was the only career option I was offered and, believe me, as a career it wildly favors those who can go without intellectual stimulation for vast stretches of  time."
  • An armed robber who specializes in holding up 7-Eleven storesMary (Maggie Mason) is the more aggressive of Eleanor's daughters. Not only does Mary consider Sylvia Plath to be one of the great comic writers of the 20th century, she immediately tells the audience "It's not your fault that you don't listen to your own unconscious mind.  That's why it's there."
  • Far more methodical and analytical than her sister, Lili (Lauren English) is a private investigator who specializes in adultery cases. Instead of concentrating on the man's characteristics, she prefers to listen to the wife's side of the story in order to discover the husband's emotional trigger points.  When she was only four years old, she would try to wear the Superman cape in nursery school and make the boys cry. When Mary complains about feeling as if she's never really accomplished anything, Lili is quick to remind her sister that "You have sailed through practically an armada of therapists virtually unchanged.  That has got to count for something."
  • Finally, there is Renee (Rebecca Dines), a paleontologist who ends up sitting next to Lili on a flight and confides that "While other girls were guessing each other's favorite color and putting little plastic barrettes in each other's hair, I was constructing a geodesic dome out of my brother's Lego set." While Renee is quite attracted to Lili,  she is very much in the beginning stages of self-identifying as a lesbian. As lonely as Lili might be, the last thing she wants is to be stuck (yet again) in the role of having to figure someone else out.  For once in her life, she'd like to be the one who gets "figured out" in a relationship.
Lili (Lauren English) and Renee (Rebecca Dines)
in Why We Have A Body (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Since Why We Have A Body premiered in 1993, important changes have taken place in the lesbian as well as general cultures.  For one thing, pay phones (which are a key plot point) have become almost impossible to find.  Mary's magical ability to send telepathic fax messages seems a bit outdated in an era when the use of fax technology is rapidly waning.  The play's basic structure, which is marked by numerous beautifully-written monologues, can be a bit off-putting until the audience gets into the rhythm of Chafee's writing. In a recent interview, the playwright noted that:
"People used to sit on the phone for hours. I think it was crucial for me, and I think it really helped with storytelling because I couldn't wait to get home and call up my best friend and say 'You're not going to believe what happened to me today.' Even how long people have conversations inside this play I think is unusual. Texting has created this whole shortened language. I think that having these four characters talk to us and each other for these extended periods, it felt interesting to show this. Will this look like a lunar landscape to the young?"
Sisters Lili (Lauren English) and Mary (Maggie Mason) in
Why We Have A Body (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

What I found fascinating about the opening night performance of Why We Have A Body is how effectively the piece was directed by Katie Pearl (with Jessica Holt acting as associate director). This production is clearly a case in which a script is enhanced by how the actors do or do not interact with each other. The cast's numerous double takes, pregnant pauses, and ability to address the audience enhance the rhythms of Chafee's monologues as her play is brought to life onstage.

The four-woman ensemble is exceptionally tight, with the strongest performances coming from Lauren English and Maggie Mason as Eleanor's two daughters.  Why We Have A Body continues through October 2nd at Magic Theatre (you can order tickets here). Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
What do you do when you've won an Emmy, a Grammy, a Tony, and an Oscar, become a widow, had knee replacement surgery, and are about to turn 80? If you're Rita Moreno, you accept a very personal challenge from a close friend who heads a local theatre company and head back to the stage.

However, funneling a lifetime of artistic achievements into a 2-1/2 hour show means making some tough choices. Especially if you've grown up in poverty, starred on Broadway in shows ranging from Lorraine Hansberry's drama, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, to introducing Googie Gomez to audiences attending Terrence McNally's bathhouse comedy, The Ritz, and later starring in an all-female revival of Neil Simon's hit comedy, The Odd Couple.

How do you balance your desperate years of trying to combat an image as one of Hollywood's "utility ethnic" actresses to working on educational television in shows like The Electric Company and The Muppet Show? How do you balance a scandalous role in which you go down on Jack Nicholson in 1971's Carnal Knowledge with appearing as the psychologist nun named Sister Peter Marie Reimundo in HBO's prison series, Oz?

Salvatore Vassallo, Ray Garcia, and Rita Moreno
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

How do you compare the thrills of working with Jerome Robbins and having passionate affairs with Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley to the long-term satisfaction of enjoying a stable marriage to a nice Jewish doctor? And, if you decide to keep the story of how Marilyn Monroe's acting coach taught you how to enter a room by leading with your vagina, what gems are you willing to leave out?

These were not easy challenges for Moreno or Berkeley Rep's artistic director, Tony Taccone (who makes his debut as a playwright with this show). As Taccone explains:
"Every solo artist has to face issues of how honest and transparent they're going to be. It kind of gets down to whether you are willing to hurt people or yourself (and also how to avoid being indulgent). These very tricky lines. In any one-person show, the focus is on the performer, and the audience identification and critical identification is on the voice of that individual. As a performer, as a storyteller, Rita understands setup and payoff better than most people. 

I'm not known as an auteur as a director; I'm known as somebody who can competently address different kinds of work and try to make that work live on a stage. In terms of writing this, the trick is to make it completely appear like everything that is coming out of her mouth is something that she thought of, that it feels completely natural, and that she owns it in a way that feels deep, connected, truthful, and honest.  That's how it should be because, if you don't do that, it feels really weird. With this solo show, I'm trying to invent a persona that's Rita Moreno that feels a lot to Rita Moreno like Rita Moreno might feel. It's a trick."
Rita Moreno and Salvatore Vassallo perform together in
Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As directed by David Galligan (with choreography by Lee Martino), Moreno works with backup dancers Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo to relive some great moments from her career (Googie Gomez's hilari8ous rendition of "Everything's Coming Up Roses"). Throughout the evening, she demonstrates that, even as she nears 80, she can still own a stage. However, Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup also has many wistful moments as Moreno details some of her more brutal encounters with racism in Hollywood, and the many things in life that she has lost.

In addition to serving as a highly entertaining and immensely satisfying evening with a beloved entertainer, Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup offers audiences a master class in survival and longevity. Performances continue through October 30 at the Roda Theatre (you can order tickets here). Here's the trailer:

No comments: