Saturday, October 22, 2011

Gods and Monsters

It's a curious phenomenon in the theatrical profession.  When you're young and have no money, the way to get noticed is to call in favors from friends who can help you. If you're a playwright, your friends help you produce a show. You might even cast them in readings or staged productions.

When you're an established artist and feel you're entitled to have greater artistic control over anything associated with your name, you'll often turn to friends and colleagues who share your artistic vision and whom you can rely upon to deliver the goods.

In the old days, actor/managers like David Garrick, Sarah Bernhardt, and Jacob Adler built companies around them. The Lunts (Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne) toured extensively while keeping a small group of friends and relatives employed. The phenomenon of the actor/manager was beautifully captured in the 1983 film The Dresser.

Actor/manager Jacob Adler in 1920

There was a time when producers were considered to be theatrical titans. Most remained behind the scenes.  But after Frederick Brisson acquired the screen rights to Gypsy: A Musical Fable for his wife (Rosalind Russell), Ethel Merman -- who had created the role of Madam Rose on Broadway -- started referring to Brisson as "The Lizard of Roz." Howard Kissel titled his book about one of Broadway's greatest impresarios "David Merrick -- The Abominable Showman: The Unauthorized Biography."

These days, playwrights and stage directors often collaborate with actors, theatre owners and the artistic directors of nonprofit arts organizations who can help bestow an extended lifespan on a theatrical venture  (the opera world has been involved in international joint ventures for more than 30 years). In recent weeks, two theatres in downtown San Francisco have been involved with mammoth undertakings whose success ultimately has rested on the shoulders of one man doubling as artist/impresario.

One is still in the formative stages of an artistic career; the other has achieved international renown as an actor. One has meager finances to work with, the other has been able to use his cachet to help generate funding for a 10-city international tour that will allow him to bring his portrayal of one of Shakespeare's greatest villains to audiences around the globe.

Each, in his own way, has taken to heart Thornton Wilder's words in a passage from The Matchmaker often referred to as "the money speech." This comes when Dolly Levi breaks through the fourth wall to address the audience to say:
"Money, money, money, money, money! It's like the sun we walk under. It can kill or cure. The difference between a little bit of money and no money at all is enormous, and it can shatter the world. And the difference between a little bit of money and an enormous amount of money is very slight. Yet that, too, can shatter the world. It's all a question of how it's used. As my late husband Ephraim Levi always used to say: 'Money (you should pardon the expression) is a little bit like manure. It doesn't do anyone a bit of good unless it's spread all around, encouraging young things to grow.'"

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After moving from Tucson to San Francisco, aspiring actor/playwright/producer Stuart Bousel launched No Nude Men Productions in 2003 with a barefoot staging of Christopher Marlowe's play, Edward II, in a Mission District gallery space. Over the years, he has produced many of his own plays while “reimagining” such classics as Racine’s Phèdre and Sartre’s No Exit.

Whether creating a 30-minute condensation of Victor Hugo’s classic entitled “Less Miserable: A Hot French Epic” or a severely reconceived and reconstructed  two-hour version of Hamlet (that used Shakespeare’s original text with some very creative cutting and editing), Bousel has become an increasingly prolific force in Bay area theatre.

In 2010, Bousel (whose partner, Cody Rishell, is a graphic designer) commissioned 11 new plays for the  first SF Olympians Festival. This came to fruition with the help of 72 actors ( 11 artists created a new piece of art for each play). For 2011's SF Olympians Festival, Bousel commissioned 32 plays and engaged over 100 actors and artists.

Poster art for the 2010 SF Olympians Festival

At 33, Bousel has a steady job at a nonprofit, a strong working relationship with the folks at EXIT Theatre (who plan to publish five of his plays from the 2010 festival), and a solid network of actors, artists, directors, and designers at his fingertips. As he explains:
“I love to inspire and foster creativity in other people.  I try to focus No Nude Men on helping other writers get work done. I help run San Francisco Theater Pub, which has a very strong new works element focus and is why I started the SF Olympians Festival. It’s all about getting new work out there and turning new work into an event.
I want the theater to be like the symphony was in the 18th and 19th centuries. I want people to come, excited to hear new and classic plays that are performed well by enthusiastic actors the same way audiences used to flock to hear new concertos and symphonies, back when they had canons in the auditoriums and ladies had to bring their smelling salts because Berlioz left his ascot undone again.”
Actor/playwright/impresario Stuart Bousel

Although I was only able to attend two events at this year’s festival, I was impressed with the size and scope of SF Olympians (which, in 2011, raised some of its funding through Kickstarter). Bousel stresses that:
“Being a champion of new work is an expensive hobby. In the past we've done fundraising parties. I’ve  encouraged people to donate money instead of buying me Christmas or birthday gifts (I have enough stuff -- the world, however, needs more theater). With the Olympians Festival, I specifically want people to be excited about the legacy of myth and the power of hot, smart, modern storytellers. I want them to go home and think about their lives, our society, the world, and the possibility of other worlds. I want to entertain people by stimulating their intelligence. I want them to ask for more and pay for it, because theatre has to live somehow.
The folks at EXIT Theatre are the most important part of the San Francisco grass roots/indie theater scene. They make it possible for guys like me to keep working, failing, working some more, and triumphing.They were the first place I went when looking for a home for this festival. They are definitely an integral part of our identity as it emerges and I plan to stay there as long as they're willing to have me.”
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Bennett Fisher's writing caught my attention last year with his full-length play about the recent global financial crisis entitled Hermes as well as a one-act play about a shady real estate scheme entitled Pure Baltic Avenue. A founding director of San Francisco Theatre Pub (as well as the artistic director of Palo Alto's Flying Island Theatre Lab), he is a prolific writer and talented actor.

Actor/playwright Bennett Fisher

Fisher's entry in the 2011 SF Olympians Festival was Chronus which, to my surprise had absolutely nothing to do with chronology or the art of keeping time.  As Bennett explains:
"Chronus was the mightiest of the Titans (a race of ancient, more primordial gods that came a generation before the Olympians). Part noble reformer, part vicious reactionary, Chronus overthrew his tyrannical father, Uranus, to become the lord of Heaven. Paranoid that his offspring would also rise violently against their father, he devoured each of his children the moment they were born (with the exception of Zeus, his youngest son). Zeus was raised in secret, and later defeated Chronus, cutting his stomach open to release the devoured gods, then casting the Titan into Tartarus. Chronus’s relationship with his Greek and Roman worshippers was complicated: he is revered as the ancestor to the Olympians and despised as their oppressor, represented sometimes as the patron of harvests and bounty or as the force of chaos and disorder."
Poster art for Chronus created by Celeste Shulte

In Fisher's play, a Republican congressional candidate from Tuscon (who was defeated in the 2008 general elections) is tempted to align himself with the Tea Party and quickly persuaded to run for a Senate seat during the 2010 midterm election. As his staff (including a vicious, amoral campaign manager) tries to rebrand him in order to attract a extremely fickle new voter demographic, they must cope with the reality that his half-Filipina wife (who was born in the United States) has a mind of her own.

While the campaign manager and the candidate's wife fight for control of his future, it becomes evident that Maria cannot -- and will not -- be pimped out as a spokesperson representing the entire Spanish-speaking population of Arizona.

Directed by Jessica Holt, the cast featured Colin Johnson as the malleable candidate, John Chronus; Chris Quintos as his feisty wife, Maria; Leigh Shaw as former McCain staffer Piper Clyde (who takes over the Chronus campaign), and Myron Freedman as Arthur Petersen, an old school political consultant.

Fisher's script is fast and furious, with so many political zingers that, if the actors had been rapidly walking down a hallway as they read their lines, one could easily have imagined the staged reading to be a rehearsal for an episode of The West Wing written Aaron Sorkin.

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In the past three decades Kevin Spacey has established himself as a multitalented force to be reckoned with. Noted for his performance as the loathsome Buddy Ackerman in Swimming With Sharks (1994), the two-time Oscar winner made his debut as a filmmaker directing Albino Alligator in 1996. Spacey founded Trigger Street Productions with Dana Brunetti in 1997 and won a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1999 (the same year he won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in American Beauty).

Spacey co-wrote, co-produced, directed, and starred in 2004's Beyond The Sea (a biopic about singer Bobby Darin). His new movie, Margin Call, has earned him critical acclaim for his performance as an investment banker on Wall Street.

Equally active on the legitimate stage, Spacey appeared on Broadway in Eugene O'Neill's tragedy, Long Day's Journey Into Night, in 1986 and won a Tony Award in 1991 for his performance as Uncle Louie in Neil Simon's acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Lost In Yonkers.  In 2003, he became the Artistic Director ofLondon's Old Vic, where he has directed and performed in numerous productions (a 2007 staging of Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten transferred to Broadway).

Well connected in Democratic and Hollywood circles, Spacey is also known for his incredible skill at impersonating famous voices (as demonstrated in the following video).

When an artist is as well connected as Spacey, he can pick and choose his projects. Together with Sam Mendes (who directed Spacey in American Beauty) and Joseph V. Melillo (the Executive Producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music), he has helped create three touring productions sponsored by The Bridge Project (a transatlantic partnership uniting BAM, the Old Vic, and Neal Street Productions). While on tour, the 52-year-old Spacey keeps up with his managerial responsibilities at the Old Vic through a combination of email, cell phone, and Skype sessions.

His portrayal of Richard III is a physically grueling tour de force which began a 12-performance run last Wednesday at the Curran Theatre. Although Shakespeare made Richard into a hunchback for his play, in real life he stood straight. In this particular production, Richard's left leg is almost as horribly twisted as his soul, allowing Spacey to lurch around the stage and shamelessly mug for the audience without losing character (although, if you watch closely, there is a fleeting homage to Groucho Marx).

Kevin Spacey and Chuk Iwuji in Shakespeare's Richard III
Photo by: Manuel Harlan

I was one of approximately 1,600 people who had the bizarre experience of going to bed after having seen the blood-spattered corpse of the psychopathic English ruler (Spacey) hauled up and hung above the stage by its ankles and then awakening the next morning to see pictures of the blood-spattered corpse of an equally perverted tyrant, Libya's internationally despised Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi.

The news, however, did not diminish the impact of Spacey's deliciously repulsive performance or of the fine supporting work by Maureen Anderman as the Duchess of York, Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth, Chuk Iwuji as the Duke of Buckingham, and Gemma Jones as the widowed Queen Margaret. Tom Piper's unit set (with superb lighting by Paul Pyant and projections by Jon Driscoll) offers a powerful platform on which director Sam Mendes can stage his briskly-paced production at a length of approximately three hours and 20 minutes.

Gemma Jones as Margaret in Shakespeare's Richard III
Photo by: Manuel Harlan

While Spacey dominates the stage (and speaks with much greater clarity than most of his supporting cast), it would be a grave mistake to think that all of the credit goes to the actor in the title role. Sam Mendes has updated the action to the present with a stark theatricality heightened by Mark Bennett's heavily percussive musical score and Gareth Fry's phenomenal sound work (the amplification of an offstage mob was so realistic that I thought people were clapping and screaming right behind me).

All things considered, it's been a rather amazing week.
One deeply despised tyrant may be dead. But for another, the show must go on.

Kevin Spacey and Hadyn Gwynne in Shakespeare's Richard III
Photo by: Manuel Harlan

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