Monday, October 24, 2011

Step On It

Mae West liked to boast that "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful." But that's not always the case. While trapdoors allow actors to disappear beneath the stage, other traps can sink a performance with the slow but steady effectiveness of the Chinese water torture.
  • A playwright may have so tediously overwritten a script that it sinks under the weight of too many attempts to be coy, cute, and clever.
  • A director may become so in love with giving each line extra time to sink in that his staging of a tense drama contains enough pregnant pauses to populate an army of quintuplets.
These critical weaknesses took their toll on two recent productions by Bay area theatre companies. In each case I found myself wondering: Was this really necessary?

* * * * * * * * *
As part of the 2011 SF Olympians Festival, I attended a staged reading of GEMINI or Jim and I, or The Comedy of Veras by Tom Darter. Can you sense the overkill yet? The mythology of the Gemini twins informs us that:
"The constellation Gemini depicts the identical twins Castor and Pollux. They had the same (human) mother, Leda, but different fathers: Castor was fathered by the human Tyndareus, while Pollux was fathered by Zeus, King of the Gods, who visited and seduced Leda disguised as a swan. Therefore, Castor was mortal, and Pollux was immortal. When Castor died, his brother Pollux asked Zeus to let his brother share in his immortality, so that they could remain together. Zeus granted the request, and transformed them into the constellation Gemini."
Poster art for Gemini by Kelly McClellan
Twins have provided plenty of material for talented playwrights and screenwriters:
I don't doubt that Tom Darter had the best intentions as he attempted his first full-length play. As he explained:
"I was drawn to this mythological pair, and this story, because I am myself a twin. We were born almost two months premature. My twin lived only one day. As a teenager, I discovered that my name (Thomas) actually means 'twin.' I have thought about what it means to be a twin for most of my life.

In this play I take the opportunity to explore the subject from many angles. The play Gemini is about three sets of identical twins: the Celestial Olympian twins of the title (and the constellation), who are very close; two male twins who hate the idea of being twins; and two female twins who are unaware of each other’s existence. Zeus gives the Celestial twins (Castor and Pollux) the task of reconciling/reuniting the two other sets of twins. There will be cases of mistaken identity throughout -- some humorous, some not so much.”
Playwright Tom Darter

As directed by Karen Hogan, Darter's clumsy script stumbled around the stage, getting stuck in dull moments of exposition while exposing far too many references to the SF Olympians Festival, the EXIT Theatre, and the denizens of the local theatre scene as having been crafted with a ridiculously amateurish approach to playwrighting. Because Darter had given his set of female twins (Vera #1 and Vera #2) a penchant for annoying word play, many of their lines became oddly counterproductive.

That didn't stop a boisterous claque of friends from laughing their heads off at material that wasn't very funny. The cast included Matt Gunnison (Castor), Nick Brunner (Pollux), Sara Breindel (Vera #1), Lisa Darter (Vera #2), Dan Kurtz as the angry male twin (Tom), and Travis Howse as the more likable male twin (Jim). Although Sarah Savage (Angela) and veteran Anne Hallinan (Hera) were able to score numerous laughs, this heavy-handed script needs severe tightening in order to become a workable comedy of mistaken identities.

* * * * * * * * *
The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, which has returned to health following a series of traumatic events (including the deaths of its co-founders, Stanley E. Williams and Quentin Easter), opened its 31st season with a curious double bill.  While in residence at London's Royal Court Theatre, Brazilian playwright Marcos Barbosa premiered a tense drama entitled Almost Nothing.

No doubt inspired by the work of Harold Pinter, Almost Nothing features four characters who have severe problems communicating with each other. Whether a cultural or personal trait, evasiveness seems to be their most common characteristic.
  • Antonio (Rhonnie Washington) is a successful businessman whose evening was ruined when a young man suddenly appeared next to his car window.  Feeling threatened, Antonio pulled out his gun and shot the young man. As Antonio and his wife try to compose themselves in their home, Antonio attempts to get playful as a means of defusing the tension. His wife is not interested.
  • Sara (Kathryn Tkel) is obviously shaken, but not stirred. A cool, calculating woman who plays her cards very carefully, she knows how to ask exactly the right question whenever words fail her husband. The fact that the couple has no children of their own makes it difficult for her to understand what the victim's mother must be feeling.
  • Vania (Wilma Bonet) is the mother of the murdered young man. Although she claims only to want to see the faces of the people who killed her son, Vania's rage slowly succumbs to Antonio's financial offer (which they both know is for a lot more money than she could get if she went to the police and had to hire a lawyer). 
  • César (Rudy Guerrero) is a local thug who knows enough to let his clients say what they want without ever saying too much himself. Having done sufficient research on Vania and her son, he hints that both might have been street people struggling to support their respective drug habits. For the right price, César is more than willing to get rid of Vania.
Kathryn Tkel and Rhonnie Washington in Almost Nothing
Photo by: Steven Anthony Jones

Barbosa's minimalist script (translated for LHT by Mark O'Thomas) pits society's "haves" against the "have nots" in an obvious class struggle over the price of a young man's life. The play's final scene takes place on the anniversary of the shooting when, after arriving home from a banquet,  Sara is the horny one.  The distracted Antonio, however, couldn't be less interested in having sex with his wife.

Unfortunately, director Steven Anthony Jones went way overboard on the use of drawn-out silences and introspective bits of stage business. Despite a powerful outburst from Wilma Bonet's Vania, most of the dramatic tension evaporated from the stage. Many of the pregnant pauses between lines began to feel silly.

Kathryn Tkel, Rudy Guerrero, and Rhonnie Washington in
Almost Nothing (Photo by: Steven Anthony Jones)

* * * * * * * * *
Thanks to the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the women's liberation movement, the gay liberation movement, and the growth of the hippie subculture, the 1960s was a decade of tumultuous social unrest. During that decade, mainstream theatre audiences got a new look at race relations in America.

For many, however, it was the 1965 double bill of two plays by Douglas Turner Ward (Happy Ending and Day of Absence) that marked an critical turning point. The Dramatists Play Service describes Day of Absence as:
"...a satire about an imaginary Southern town where all the black people have suddenly disappeared. The only ones left are sick and lying in hospital beds, refusing to get well. Infants are crying because they are being tended to by strange parents. The Mayor pleads for the President, Governor, and the NAACP to send him 'a jackpot of jigaboos.' On a nationwide radio network he calls on the blacks, wherever they are, to come back. He shows them the cloths with which they wash cars and the brushes with which they shine shoes as sentimental reminders of the goodies that await them. In the end, the blacks begin to reappear, as mysteriously as they had vanished and the white community, sobered by what has transpired, breathes a sigh of relief at the return of the rather uneasy status quo. What will happen next is left unsaid, but the suggestion is strong that things will never quite be the same again."

In 1967 Ward (along with actor Robert Hooks and manager Gerald S. Krone) formed the Negro Ensemble Company. As Steven Anthony Jones (the artistic director of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre) notes:
"Day of Absence is the play that created a place in the American Theatre for every African American theater company that exists today. It began the black theatre movement and started the growth of the African American theatre canon that continues in the 21st century."
As Ward recalls:
"Back then, black people had no habit of going to theatre. We were pioneers in developing a majority black audience. That production had a black producer, a black author's play with a 99% black cast."
Playwright Douglas Turner Ward

What the playwright subtitled "a satirical fantasy" in 1965 has recently become a reality in America. Following the passage of new laws targeting illegal immigrants in Arizona and Alabama, minority families have been disappearing overnight, leaving many schools without students and many employers without workers. With the action for LHT's production set in Arizona, it was fascinating to read the playwright's production notes more than 45 years after Ward wrote Day of Absence:
"The time is now.  Play opens in an unnamed Southern town of medium population on a somnolent cracker morning -- meaning no matter the early temperature, it's gonna get hot. The hamlet is just beginning to rouse itself from the sleepy lassitude of night.
  • No scenery is necessary -- only actors shifting in and out on an almost bare stage and freezing into immobility as focuses change or blackouts occur.
  • Play is conceived for performance by a Negro cast, a reverse minstrel show done in white-face. Logically, it might also be performed by whites -- at their own risk.  If any producer is faced with choosing between opposite hues, author strongly suggests 'Go 'long wit' the blacks' -- besides all else, they need the work more.'
  • If acted by the latter, race members are urged to go for broke, yet cautioned not to ham it up too broadly. In fact -- it just might be more effective if they aspire for serious tragedy.  Only qualification needed for Caucasian casting is that the company fit a uniform pattern -- insipid white, also played in white-face.
  • Before any horrifying discrimination doubts arise, I hasten to add that a bona fide white actor should be cast as the Announcer in all productions, likewise a Negro thespian in pure native black as Rastus. This will truly subvert any charge that the production is unintegrated.
  • All props, except essential items (chairs, brooms, rags, mop, debris) should be imaginary (phones, switchboard, mikes, eating utensils, food, etc.)  Action should indicate their presence through mime.
  • The cast of characters develops as the play progresses. In the interest of economical casting, actors should double or triple in roles whenever possible."
Michael J. Asberry and Wilma Bonet in
Day of Absence (Photo by: Steven Anthony Jones)

LHT's production of Day of Absence is a lively farce which also reveals how much Ward's script might benefit from 20 minutes of cuts. With a pillow stuffed under his shirt, Michael J. Asberry portrayed the buffoon-like Mayor Henry R. E. Lee while Wilma Bonet (who had offered such an intense portrayal of Vania in Almost Nothing) displayed solid comic chops as Jackson, the Mayor's bumbling henchman.

Rajiv Shah and Kathryn Tkel in Day of Absence
Photo by: Steven Anthony Jones

In a city that celebrates the racial diversity in its pool of actors, LHT's casting included the beat-boxing Carlos Aguirre doubling as the Trickster and Rastus and the talented Rajiv Shah doubling as John and a courier. Carla Pantoja doubled as the announcer and newswoman Jackie, with Kathryn Tkel and Rhonnie Washington appearing in smaller roles.

Wilma Bonet and Carla Pantoja in Day of Absence
Photo by: Steven Anthony Jones

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