Sunday, November 27, 2011

Strangers In Strange Lands

Like many multigenerational families of American Jews, my parents conversed with my grandparents in Yiddish rather than English. I have friends whose second family language was Armenian.

One of the joys of living in San Francisco is the huge variety of speech we hear in public. When a diverse population faces off with tourists from around the world, the language stew becomes extra spicy.

Last year I was riding a MUNI bus when a cranky old white man turned to two middle-aged Asian women engaged in a heated discussion and screamed "This is America, goddamit. Speak English!"

His failure to understand that their conversation was none of his business was every bit as pathetic as his inability to grasp that, whether these people had been born here or arrived as immigrants, they were probably citizens of the United States of America. Just like him.

As I move about San Francisco I'm always fascinated by the mix of languages I hear. On any given day (or transit route) it may range from Spanish, Arabic, and Portuguese to Russian, Japanese, Thai, and a variety of Chinese dialects. On Thanksgiving, when I went back to Cirque du Soleil for a second viewing of Totem, there were numerous tourists speaking French, Italian, and German. Seated behind me was a large family speaking in either Tongan, Samoan, or Hawaiian.

Is my exposure to San Francisco's polyglot population the reason I wasn't the least bit threatened by words I could not understand? Or have my years of watching foreign films and attending opera performed in foreign languages inured me to the strange sounds of an alien vocabulary?

No one could fake their way through a foreign language like Sid Caesar. In the following video clip from the 1991 Chabad Telethon, Caesar demonstrates his versatility with doubletalk in multiple languages.

One of Denmark's great artists, comedian Victor Borge, perfected a form of phonetic punctuation which he shared with Dean Martin in the following video clip:

When I traveled to Denmark in 1987, I had been assured that most Danes spoke English and that I would have no problems getting around. Two memories stick in my mind from that trip:
The Danish version of Mount Rushmore in Legoland

Anyone who has traveled to foreign countries where English is not the dominant language has experienced moments of anxiety as they realize that signs are written in a foreign alphabet or that their attempts to learn a foreign language allowed them to speak at a much slower and more methodical pace than that of standard conversation.

* * * * * * * * *
Earlier this month I attended the West Coast premiere of a new play by Anne Washburn presented by a regional theatre company that was new to me. Even if The Internationalist occasionally proved to be incomprehensible, it was a perfect match for this company, whose mission statements stresses that:
"Just Theatre provides an artistic home to theatrically adventurous voices addressing morally complex questions. We present new work that is smart, funny, and weird with complex narratives, distinctive use of language, and big ideas. We seek out plays and playwrights pushing the boundaries of structure and form, developing new plays by local playwrights and introducing compelling new voices to Bay Area audiences."
The setup is simple. An American employee of a multinational corporation is met by one of his foreign colleagues at the airport of an Eastern European city when he arrives, exhausted, from Istanbul. With his departure from Ataturk International Airport having been delayed by nearly seven hours, it doesn't really matter if Lowell (Nick Sholley) was flying on Turkish Airlines (whose hub is at Istanbul) or an American carrier with a code-sharing agreement.

Sara (Alexandra Creighton) is pretty, speaks fluent English, and has gone above and beyond the call of duty to greet him upon his arrival. What follows is a wealth of misassumptions based on poor communication, cultural clumsiness, and Lowell's debilitating jet lag.

At first, it seems to Lowell that things are going exceedingly well. On his first night in a strange town he's met a pretty woman, gotten laid, and is ready to make his debut at his company's regional sales office.

Alexandra Creighton (Sara) and Nick Sholley (Lowell) in
The Internationalist (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

He soon discovers that in his eagerness to tip the appropriate amount, he may have insulted Sara by treating her as if she was a prostitute. The next morning, as he listens to the office staff's routine conversation, it soon becomes obvious that Lowell is completely out of his element.

The behavioral nuances of office workplace rivalries translate easily enough but, even after witnessing some heated exchanges, Lowell simply cannot figure out what people are saying. Without Sara around to help him, he stands by helplessly as James Kalli Jonsson) says:
"Flippers!  Dimit reehall garan ab morekon veeit lall eyeda tabba mixt fruek. Lorlia tora im adura timp kimmel pen deer eeday lil ganna dona pad di veno til orlana bib durit. "Gimfia lil dansk" "Amsta deeg fidol ib abat ama hiyad inal timtoi akeyed dis bindur kor ladal feed" "Agana ten" Tsad tsay door gurinam fia hengst."
In her production notes, Washburn writes:
"Much of the play takes place in a made-up foreign language. It is crucial that when characters speak English they speak it without an accent, regardless of the level of their English skills. The foreign language should be rendered in as rapid and uninflected a manner as possible, also without an accent."
As The Internationalist progresses, Lowell slowly comes to realize that:
  • Sara may be pretty, but she's merely part of the janitorial staff. Although she's willing and able to act as a tour guide, she's really hoping to be treated like a peer.
  • Paul (Michael Barrett Austin) may seem quiet, but he's been secretly cooking the books in order to abscond with a large amount drawn from the regional office's bank account.
  • Irene (Lauren Bloom) and Nicole (Harold Pierce) probably hold the most power in the office, but seem to be involved in some kind of passive-aggressive rivalry.
Lauren Bloom (Irene), Kalli Jonsson (James), and Harold
Pierce (Nicole) in The Internationalist (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

As directed by Jonathan Spector, The Internationalist presents some stiff challenges:
  • For the actors, there is a tremendous amount of difficult text to memorize (much of it in gibberish) with the understanding that they may never appear in another production of this play.
  • For the audience, it becomes uncomfortably easy to start tuning out the foreign gibberish once someone realizes that there is no English equivalent.
While the playwright has an interesting point to make, The Internationalist demands a tremendous amount of work for a very limited return on investment.

* * * * * * * * *
Not too many people in the audience are thinking about the amortization of an actor's study time or the cost of the production. But consider the following:
David Hockney's set design for Act II, Scene I of Turandot

Two decades ago, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera teamed up to create a new production of Puccini's last opera, Turandot. Designed by artist David Hockney, the production (which was built in San Francisco) premiered in Chicago in January of 1992.

Hockney's Turandot has subsequently been staged at the War Memorial Opera House in 1993, 1998, 2002, and 2011. While the sets have remained the same, numerous artists have been fitted for Ian Falconer's magnificent costumes.

Earlier this fall, the production was seen with Iréne Theorin as Turandot, Marco Berti as Calaf, and Raymond Aceto as Timur. In November, Susan Foster stepped into the title role, with Walter Fraccaro appearing as Calaf, Christian van Horn as Timur, and Giuseppe Finzi taking over for Nicola Luisotti on the podium.

Most people remember Turandot's music for the visceral impact of its magnificent choral moments as well as its stunning solo arias. Unfortunately, when Turandot is performed without Supertitles, Act II, Scene I can easily lose an audience's attention.

Thanks to Garnett Bruce's inventive staging and some beautiful ensemble work from Hyung Yun (Ping), Greg Fedderly (Pang), and Daniel Montegro (Pong), this scene became the highlight of this fall's revival for me. In the following video clip, the three comprimario artists discuss the kind of teamwork necessary to make this scene score with the audience.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Flirting With Disaster

Throughout history, women have famously held men captive to their beauty.
From Mae West to Madonna, from Elizabeth Taylor to Katy Perry, the provocative public and private lives of pinups reflect the power of seductive sirens to titillate millions, causing many a male fantasy to erupt in ecstasy. Whether images of these beauties have been used to inspire lust or advertise products, women referred to as "sex toys," "sex kittens," and "sexpots" never fail to dominate the media.

It didn't matter if they were as buxom as Brigitte Bardot, as tempting as Tempest Storm, as vivacious as Vivien Leigh, or as gender bending as Lady Gaga, their ability to make men weak was undeniable. Sometimes blondes fared better with the public (as demonstrated in the following clip from What's My Line?).

Unfortunately, blondes don't always have more fun.
One of the most famous blondes of all time was found dead in her apartment at the age of 36 on August 5, 1962.  While some people still insist that she was murdered, the official cause of her death (as listed by the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office) was acute barbiturate poisoning resulting from a probable suicide. While publicists feed the masses with fantasies about sex bombs who explode on the silver screen, the sad truth is that many a sex bomb implodes in private life.

* * * * * * * * *
Directed by Simon Curtis, My Week With Marilyn is based on the diaries kept by Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) who, as a young man, was hired as third assistant to Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) when the famous actor was attempting to direct and star in 1957's The Prince and the Showgirl opposite Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams). Perhaps a bit of back story is in order.

In 1949, Carol Channing rocketed to fame as a gold-digging blonde bombshell in a new musical by Jule Styne, Leo RobinJoseph Fields, and Anita Loos entitled Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In the following clip from 1987's Broadway Sings: The Music of Jule Styne, Channing (a fiercely gifted musical comedy star) recreates her performance as Lorelei Lee singing "I"m Just A Little Girl From Little Rock."

While Lorelei was a brilliant caricature in Channing's hands, by 1953 (when the film adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes opened in theatres starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe), the character had been softened to match Monroe's softer and more feminine appeal. Here's the famous "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" production number:

During filming, although Marilyn Monroe was often in costume with her lines learned, she was so terrified of leaving her dressing room to perform that she frequently remained there until Jane Russell stopped by and asked Marilyn to come with her to the set. By that time, Marilyn was already riding atop a tsunami of superstardom. In 1952, she had appeared on the cover of LIFE Magazine. In December of 1953, she appeared on the cover of the very first issue of Playboy.

On January 14, 1954, Monroe married New York Yankees superstar Joe DiMaggio in San Francisco before joining the cast of There's No Business Like Show Business. That same year she filmed The Seven Year Itch (which yielded the iconic shot of Marilyn standing above a subway grate as a puff of air raised her skirt).

Poster art for The Seven Year Itch

Marilyn's marriage to DiMaggio crashed and burned before 1954 came to an end. After filming Bus Stop, she married playwright Arthur Miller on June 29, 1956. My Week With Marilyn begins that same year as the naive young Colin Clark leaves his family's country estate and heads off to London with hopes of finding a behind-the-scenes job in the film industry. His tenacity, critical thinking, and impressive research skills help him land a spot on the crew for The Prince and the Showgirl, where Marilyn Monroe's notorious moodiness is bound to cause trouble.

Marilyn arrives in London as an international sex symbol with her new husband (Dougray Scott) in tow although, as her acting colleagues soon discover, she is a nervous wreck.  Frightfully insecure, yet hoping to be validated for her acting skills, she is easily intimidated by the presence of film legend Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) and the great English actress, Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), on the set.

Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike

Desperately trying to hold Marilyn together are her Stanislavski Method drama coach from The Actors StudioPaula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), and close friend/fashion photographer Milton H. Greene (Dominic Cooper). As Miller finds himself suffocating under the burden of his wife's insecurities (in 1954 the playwright had been denied a passport by the House Un-American Activities Committee to attend the London opening of his controversial drama, The Crucible). the care and nurturing of Marilyn Monroe slowly falls into the hands of the inexperienced Colin Clark.

In the following clip from a Newsweek roundtable discussion, Michelle Williams, James Franco and Nicole Kidman discuss the challenges of portraying a cultural icon onscreen.

My Week With Marilyn is a delightful exercise in historic recreation in which Williams does her best to inhabit the body and soul of one of the most idolized women of the 20th century. What modern audiences see, however, is not just the challenges of handling a moody movie star, but the realities of substance abuse that were often kept hidden from the public in the 1950s.

Just as every person has an image of who and what Marilyn Monroe is and was, I suspect audiences will have highly individual reactions to the way Michelle Williams impersonates one of the screen's most famous sex goddesses in her private moments. Despite the film's best efforts to keep the spotlight on Marilyn, whenever Judi Dench, Zoe Wanamaker, or Toby Jones is onscreen, they steal the spotlight so easily that it almost seems criminal.

Having witnessed numerous Marilyn impersonators (male and female) over the years, it's hard for me to imagine any one performer capturing the magic or conquering the iconography of Marilyn Monroe. In one of the key scenes, Marilyn mischievously asks Colin "Shall I be her?" The results tell the audience that it was all an act and that Marilyn was in on the joke.

Test your own perspective by watching the following two trailers: The first is for 1957's The Prince and the Showgirl; the second is for My Week With Marilyn. See if you can spot the indefinable spark which made Marilyn Monroe one of a kind:

* * * * * * * * *
Long before Norma Jean Baker was baptized in 1926 and long after Marilyn Monroe died on August 5, 1962, a promiscuous gypsy girl was burning up operatic stages around the world. With music by Georges Bizet, Carmen (which had its premiere on March 3,1875 at the Opera Comique in Paris) became the forerunner of the verismo style and went on to become one of the most performed operas of all time.

The final offering of the San Francisco Opera's fall season, Carmen returned to the stage of the War Memorial Opera House in the familiar production that was originally designed and directed by Jean Pierre Ponnelle (with costumes by Werner Juerke) in 1981. The good news is that the physical production remains strong and sturdy. Both the adult and children's choruses (under the direction of Ian Robertson) seemed fine in Acts I and IV.

The performance I attended could be described as quirky, but acceptable. A graduate of La Scala's young artist program, mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili has an impressive voice whose visceral effectiveness was compromised by her severe lack of charisma and the fact that her wig covered much of her face during key moments of the opera.

Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen
Photo by: Cory Weaver

As the toreador, Escamillo, baritone Paulo Szot was announced as being indisposed but delivered a robust performance. I was quite impressed with the work of second year Adler Fellow Sara Gartland, who made her role debut as Micaela.

Thiago Aracam (Don Jose) and Sara Gartland (Micaela)
Photo by: Cory Weaver

Although Susannah Biller (Frasquita), Cybele Gouverneur (Mercédès), Daniel Montenegro (Le Remendado), and Trevor Scheunemann (Moralès) all lent sturdy support to the production, some things were notably amiss.
  • Conductor Nicola Luisotti opened Act II as if accompanying a slow-motion film sequence (I have never heard this act begin with such slow tempi).
  • Jonathan Rider's fight direction was not just lame, it was often laughable.
  • Lighting designer Christopher Maravich chose to keep Carmen in the dark for much of Act III's card scene.
Paulo Szot as the toreador, Escamillo
Photo by: Cory Weaver

These artistic choices, combined with the curious inability of stage director Jose Maria Condemi to get much spark out of his leading lady, struck me as quite bizarre. Despite some strange approaches to key notes, tenor Thiago Arancam cut a dashing, virile figure as the naive and conflicted Don José. His Act II rendition of Don José's Flower Song was beautifully shaped and I look forward to more of this artist's work.

Thiago Aracam as Don Jose
Photo by: Cory Weaver

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Risky Business

It's all too easy to mistake current headlines for genuine farce. Conservatives hoping to nab the Republican party's Presidential nomination can't stop making fools of themselves. But, in all honesty, they're giving clown cars a bad name.

Farce is hard work that requires good writing, a solid situational setup, outrageous characters, an acute perspective, superb timing, and an actor's total commitment to crossing the line into dangerous territory. The creative team must unanimously want to "go there" for the material to work. Watch these clips from MADtv, Little Britain, and Come Fly With Me and you'll see brilliant comedians demonstrating their solid craft.

Filming farce has a peculiar advantage over live performances. When shooting for television or movies, it's easy to do multiple takes which can then be edited down to a final clip and later accompanied by music or a laugh track. When performing farce live onstage in plays like Noises Off, The 39 Steps, or Lend Me A Tenor, the risks become much greater.
  • Timing is everything.
  • Actors must be able to gauge the audience reactions in order to land each joke with perfect aim.
  • Essentially, there is no safety net.
Sometimes, breaking the theatre's fourth wall can add to the farcical frenzy when an actor addresses the audience directly. One of the best uses of this trick comes at the end of the first act in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum when the braggart soldier, Miles Gloriosus, is threatening to kill the conniving slave, Pseudolus. Begging for a chance to say one word -- just one word -- Pseudolus promises the angry warrior that it will be a good word. And it's a doozy:


But what happens when there is no fourth wall to break? No one to yell "Cut"? Nowhere to hide?

I recently had the rare opportunity to experience two stage farces in back to back performances. Each was performed in a theatre with arena seating. One was based on fact, the other entirely fictional.

* * * * * * * * *
In one of its rare ventures into farce, Central Works recently presented the world premiere of Embassy, a new comedy written by Brian Thorstenson and directed by Gary Graves. The promotional blurb for the play reads as follows:
"Graham Greene meets Liberace in this shamelessly farcical mix of the personal and the political. Paradise was never so sweet as it is for the U.S. Ambassador and his wife living on a remote and little-known island in the Caribbean. It's the eve of Carnival when the Ambassador learns he's being reassigned to an obscure, war-torn country that he can't even pronounce (and that's just the beginning of his problems)! Identities double, genders bend, and subterfuge surfaces as events spin out of control in this outrageous send–up of domestic diplomacy."

Carmelita Rodriguez-Ramirez (Olivia Rosaldo) and Ambassador
Blundercart (Richard Frederick) hide behind a potted palm
during a tense moment in Embassy. (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Thorstensen's cast of crazies include:
  • Carmelita Rodriguez-Ramirez (Olivia Rosaldo), the maid at the American Embassy on "UCI" (unidentified Caribbean island). With her phony accent, no one should be surprised to learn that Carmelita is working undercover for the CIA.
  • Mr. Blundercart (Richard Frederick), the bumbling, egomaniacal ambassador whose sense of white privilege has grown completely out of hand. Blundercart refuses to allow a ship to dock and unload its cargo of electric lightbulbs unless the government builds him a brand new embassy built that is twice as large as any other American embassy (including the one in Baghdad) and is located in a prime location on UCI. An avowed heterosexual, he is thrilled to be dressing up in drag for Carnival. The Ambassador is also curiously fixated on Robaire Dorchester-Scott's bulging biceps.
  • Robaire Dorchester-Scott (Daniel Redmond), the handsome, muscular, dark-skinned native who serves as personal assistant to Blundercart. Not only does Robaire have a weakness for sailors, he has good reason to want the cargo of electric lightbulbs delivered to his island.
  • Mrs. Blundercart (Jan Zvaifler), the Ambassador's control-freak of a wife who has been running a strange import/export business on the sly to help build a nest egg. Just in case...
  • The Third Man (Cole Alexander Smith), a mysterious figure who arrives on the island with news that the Ambassador is being transferred to another embassy. Strongly attracted to Robaire Dorchester-Scott's muscles (even when Robaire is wearing a bat costume for Carnival), the Third Man once had a torrid romantic affair with Carmelita Rodriguez-Ramirez.
Robaire Dorchester-Smith (Daniel Redmond) and The Third Man
(Cole Alexander Smith) find themselves in close quarters in Embassy.
(Photo by Jay Yamada)

Needless to say, every one of these people has a double identity and plenty of dirt on someone else. Some are working for the CIA, others "studied abroad." In describing what inspired him to write Embassy, Brian Thorstensen explains:
"In the introduction to her book of essays, Political Fictions, Joan Didion writes that she came to realize that most of American politics had to do 'with the ways in which the political process did not reflect but increasingly proceeded from a series of fables about American experience.'  I read the book two summers ago and was fascinated by Didion's premise and the varieties of situations, in both domestic and foreign policy, that she explored.  Disturbing information to be sure, but my overwhelming reaction to the set of essays was how absurd, how comical, how downright silly the players (from Generals to Ambassadors to Supreme Court Justices) appeared.  They came across as characters who might have stepped out of a play co-authored by Molière and Beckett.  
When Central Works approached me about doing another project with them, I immediately thought of Didion's book. To be more accurate, I thought of some of the characters she wrote about and bumped that up against this particular theatre space. That became the departure point for Embassy. We've left Didion behind on our journey in creating our own very silly Caribbean fable."
Jan Zvaifler as Mrs. Blundercart in Embassy
Photo by: Jay Yamada

Classic stage farces often involve a lot of slamming doors, inappropriate entrances, characters caught in compromising positions, and hasty exits. When the action is kept onstage in full view of the audience the comedic effect can be quite powerful. However, when the action involves two sets of doors which allow the actors to run past the audience, the effect can lose its frenzied energy with too much repetition.

Coupled with heavy doses of alliteration, blackmail, and a few comic sound effects that didn't seem to work as well as planned, Embassy often seemed to be straining to find its sea legs. I frequently found myself wondering if some of the jokes (which failed to land correctly during performance) may have seemed riotously funny during the creative process. The strongest acting came from Daniel Redmond and Cole Alexander Smith. As always, Gregory Scharpen did a stunning job with the production's sound design.

* * * * * * * * *
Scheduling conflicts prevented me from attending last year's world premiere of SexRev: The José Sarria Experience. Thankfully, Theatre Rhinoceros has revived this rowdy farce (written and directed by John Fisher) that was inspired by the life of San Francisco's legendary drag activist, José Sarria.

Poster art for SexRev: The José Sarria Experience

As with the best of Fisher's highly energetic farces, there is absolutely nothing subtle about SexRev. When Fisher is in top comedic form nothing -- and no one -- is sacred. Members of the audience are liable to be pulled into the stage action (after doing a lousy job of trying to march in place with a raised sword while gargling mouthwash, I ended up reeking of spearmint for the rest of the performance).

Carlos Barrera and Sean Keehan appear in SexRev:
The José Sarria Experience
(Photo by: Kent Taylor)

For those who don't know, José Sarria used to act out his favorite operas at the Black Cat Bar during the 1950s and 1960s. Fisher has done an excellent job of researching Sarria's life and peppering the show with operatic trivia (including Kurt Herbert Adler's infamously homophobic claim that "There are no fairies working at the San Francisco Opera").

SexRev tracks Sarria's life from childhood through his military service (and early love affairs with self-loathing men) to his advocacy on behalf of gay men arrested for loitering. Always reminding arrestees that "If you swallow, they don't have any evidence," Sarria steadfastly advised gay men who were busted and charged with performing lewd acts (or worse) to insist on a jury trial.

His emergence as The Widow Norton and his ability to turn the Imperial Court System into a powerful fundraising mechine during the AIDS crisis led Sarria down a path he could never have imagined in his youth. He has been honored by the California State Assembly, had a small portion of 16th Street named Jose Sarria Court and, at the age of 89, was able to attend one of last year's performances of SexRev.

José Sarria as The Widow Norton

While the audience waits for SexRev to begin, orchestral selections from Verdi's Aida flood the theatre. Once the show starts, all hell breaks loose with a tightly-knit ensemble leaping in and out of disguises, doing cartwheels across the performance area, and (as is ever the case with Tom Orr) bouncing their genitals around to amuse the audience.

Because the playing area at CounterPULSE is a rectangle doubling as a half drag/half operatic war zone, it's amazing how well Fisher has been able to fashion a farce about a real person. Donald Currie acts as a narrator who describes what it was like to grow up gay in San Francisco and, at 10 years of age, enter a gay bar in order to hear "The Nightingale of Montgomery Street."

Tom Orr and Carlos Barrera take turns portraying Sarria at different stages of his life, with one usually covering for the other during a costume change (they do, however, interact frequently during the show). Using Lara Rempel's often hilarious costumes, Jean Franco, Sean Keehan, and Robert Kittler lend sturdy support in a wide variety of roles.

Tom Orr, Carlos Barrera, and Jean Franco share a moment in
SexRev: The José Sarria Experience (Photo by: Kent Taylor)

A perversely joyful romp and frolic that manages to deliver a handsome amount of history, SexRev is a perfect example of gay theatre as edutainment. The production has been extended through December 4 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Anyone Can Epistle

"Egads, how epic, how exciting!" exclaimed the epileptic egalitarian with especially effortless exuberance. "This exquisite example of eye-popping eccentricity is the epitome of ethical earned excellence embedded in ethnic educational entertainment. Any exaggerated effort to deny its equally ebullient and ecstatically electrical effect (while exigently pushing the envelope with excessive éclat) would be easily earmarked --  explained as an egregious excuse for embarking on an evil exploitation of encrypted emails!"

Others, of course, might refer to such esoteric epistles as exceptionally eager, enigmatic pieces of experimental excrement -- or eclectic endeavors to mix egotism with endless elitism.

Enter those words as empirical evidence that this extra elegant message has been brought to you by the letter "E." It should also be noted that writing these three paragraphs was way more fun than sitting through the Aurora Theatre Company's new production of A Soldier's Tale.

Based on a concept by former San Francisco Ballet prima ballerina Muriel Maffre, this production adds a four-foot-tall puppet to the 1918 work featuring music by Igor Stravinsky.  The score accompanies a libretto by C. F. Ramuz in which the devil aims to capture the soul of a poor soldier who is on leave for two weeks.

According to Tom Ross, Aurora's artistic director (who co-directed the piece with Maffre), the production's first outing took place in 2006 at the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival. Using a slightly reduced orchestration for Stravinsky's music, the Berkeley staging features:
  • L. Peter Callender as the narrator and voice of the soldier.
  • Joan Mankin as the devil in a variety of disguises.
  • Muriel Maffre as the puppeteer and, later on, the daughter of the king.
Muriel Maffre guides the Soldier down a ramp
in A Soldier's Tale (Photo by: David Allen)

There's just one problem. The raison d'etre for this dismal production is to perform the piece with a puppet representing the soldier. What would happen if any of this show's key elements were removed from the production?
  • If the role of the narrator was eliminated, there would be no story.
  • If the role of the devil was eliminated, there would be no conflict.
  • If the puppet was eliminated, there would be no reason to mount this production.
And therein lies a very sad kernel of truth. Ms. Maffre's contribution seems like an artistic indulgence at best. The real stars of this production are Donald Pippin's easily accessible translation of Ramuz's libretto and a gripping performance by the ever-wonderful Joan Mankin.

L. Peter Callender, Joan Mankin, and Muriel Maffre in
A Soldier's Tale (Photo by: David Allen)

The opening night performance of A Soldier's Tale, which lasted approximately 75 minutes, was hardly what one would call a compelling piece of dance theatre. With all due respect to Ms. Maffre, the production concept (which seemed more like a well-intentioned artistic fantasy rather than a 93-year-old work in need of revival) struck me as a disappointing and tedious academic exercise that would have been much more at home in a university theatre department.

* * * * * * * * *
The opening night of the San Francisco run for the national tour of Fela! was quite the opposite. A rip-roaring piece of total theatre built on the concept of "recreating" one of Fela Anikulapo Kuti's 1977 concerts at the Afrikan Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, the show's breathtaking energy level keeps audiences enthralled for more than two hours.

Born in Abeokuta, Nigeria in 1938, Fela Kuti became an international star whose combination of traditional Yoruba, highlife, and jazz gave rise to a potent new sound (Afrobeat) which he took to stages around the world. Prior to his death on August 2, 1997,  Fela had produced over 70 albums. Many of his songs are performed during Fela!

Fela Kuti was known for his blunt political activism as well as for his music. As I sat watching Fela! unfold, I was struck by how much closer this show came to representing the spirit of today's Occupy Wall Street movement than the recent revival of Hair (1968's hit counter-culture protest musical). In the following video clip, dancer/choreographer/author Bill T. Jones  and Carlos Moore (the author of Fela: This Bitch of a Life) discuss what Fela Kuti was like in real life:

Thanks to an electrifying performance by the athletic Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti, opening night kept the Curran Theatre rocking like a house on fire. Much of the credit for the production's success goes to Jones (who co-wrote the show's book with Jim Lewis). However, a great deal of the production's visual appeal is due to Marina Draghici, who designed the sets and costumes for Fela!

In addition to Sahr Ngaujah's powerhouse performance in the title role, the touring cast features two women with stunning soprano voices. As Sandra, Paulette Ivory's singing cuts through the air like cold, lemon-coated steel.

Paulette Ivory and Sahr Ngaujah (Photo by: Tristram Kenton)

As Fela's mother, Funmilayo -- often referred to as "The Mother of Africa" --  Melanie Marshall brings a powerful set of pipes to "Rain" (music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean with lyrics by Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis). This beautifully-staged showstopper can be seen in the following clip (taken from the original Broadway production) featuring Lillias White:

Jones keeps his cast in perpetual motion while encouraging audience participation early in the show to help create the feeling of an  event. Strengthened by Robert Wierzel's lighting and Peter Negrini's projections, Fela! takes on a look, sound, and feel all its own. The show takes off like a rocket and stays in orbit until the house lights come up at the end of the evening.

Performances of Fela! continue through December 11 at the Curran Theatre (click here to order tickets).  Here's the trailer:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Hot Out Of The Oven

An auspicious date looms on the horizon -- the first anniversary of the first preview of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark on November 28, 2010. By the time November 28, 2011 rolls around, this much-criticized musical extravaganza (whose estimated $75 million budget makes it the most expensive show in Broadway history) will have finally played more regular performances than previews. This dubious landmark raises  some interesting questions:
  • When is a show finally ready to declare itself out of the incubator stage (readings, workshops, and previews) and ready to be reviewed by the press? 
  • When should paying audiences feel they are entitled to their money's worth? 
  • When is an artistic creation ready and able to stand on its own two feet?
Not every show is as technically complex as Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.  Nevertheless, audiences arrive at the theatre with heightened expectations about what they are going to see.

Two new works recently received their world premieres from Bay area theatre companies. One piece was ripe off the vine -- a fat, juicy drama just waiting to be introduced to audiences.  The other was woefully in need of cutting, trimming, and more development time.

* * * * * * * * *
Ever since 2008, when Don Reed brought his one-man show entitled East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player to The Marsh, Bay area audiences have been eating out of the palm of his hand. A talented stand-up comedian, impressionist, writer, dancer, and actor, Reed's one-man show described his hilarious adventures growing up between the strict Oakland household in which his stepfather was a Jehovah's Witness and his other home in Oakland, where his daddy  was a pimp.

Each Friday for two years, after finishing his day job as warm-up comedian for Jay Leno's studio audience, Reed commuted to the Bay area to perform East 14th on weekends.  On one of my trips to The Marsh I watched him test a snippet of material from his next show.

Don Reed in Kipling Hotel (Photo by: Rick Omphroy)

Reed returned to town this fall to unveil Kipling Hotel: True Misadventures of the Electric Pink '80s, a one-man show about his early experiences at UCLA and working in a seedy resident hotel in Los Angeles. I was unable to attend the press night for Kipling Hotel on October 22 when, following the performance, Reed informed the audience that his mother had died that morning. However, upon seeing the show several weeks later its weaknesses were painfully obvious.

Announced as having a running time of one hour and 40 minutes, Kipling Hotel dragged on way past its bedtime. In a bizarre way, the extra 45 minutes at the performance I attended provided a master class in the perils of writing, directing, and starring in your own show.

Some people think that the hardest task for an artist is to create. More often than not, creative artists can't stop themselves from coming up with more material than they can use.

The most painful task for many artists is to eliminate bits and pieces of an act that they love for extremely personal reasons, but which are weighing down a show.  Whereas East 14th was a lean, mean dramatic machine that stayed within the boundaries of Reed's adolescence, Kipling Hotel is a bloated mess that flops all over the place, clinging to the stage at time with the tenacity of a starstruck octopus.

Don Reed in Kipling Hotel (Photo by: Rick Omphroy)

In order to include as many colorful characters and moments as possible, Reed has thrown so much into the creation of Kipling Hotel that his show is suffocating under its own weight. Long after the evening could and should have come to a reasonable conclusion, Reed was still onstage performing impressions of Sammy Davis, Jr. and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial as he struggled to find an ending.

If Reed could bring himself to cut the entire segment of the show about his adventures after his career started to take off, he'd have a much stronger and more clearly-focused monologue. In its current form, Kipling Hotel needs the kind of brutal cutting that is often difficult for an artist to perform when the material is about his own life. Reed can rest assured that he has plenty of material left for a third show devoted to his impressive career.

* * * * * * * * *
If you want to see a powerful new play that is the epitome of a lean, mean, theatrical machine, head on over to Magic Theatre where Sharr White's gut-wrenching Annapurna just received its world premiere. Masterfully directed by Loretta Greco on Andrew Boyce's deliciously seedy unit set, Annapurna offers audiences a chance to peel the onion on the terminal stages of a marriage that shattered long ago. As Greco explains in her director's note:
"Annapurna contains everything that comprises a great Magic play: rich, precise language, high stakes, arresting metaphors, complicated characters, and emotional daring. It's a family play, in the tradition and terrain of Sam Shepard's family plays, full of buried secrets, inexplicable hope and the eternal themes of mortality, faith, and redemption.  Like the mountain range from which the play gets its name, the story is at once captivating, treacherous, and magnificent."
Requiring only two actors and a unit set, Annapurna is an extremely economical play to produce. Its two characters are:
  • Ulysses (Rod Gnapp), a dying poet who carries his oxygen tank in a backpack as he walks around the house wearing nothing but an apron. A recovering alcoholic who has never known exactly why his wife abandoned him and moved back East with their son, he is living his last days in a self-imposed form of purgatory in a dilapidated mobile home in a trailer park full of losers in Paonia, Colorado.
  • Emma (Denise Cormier), his ex-wife, has arrived unexpectedly after having left her second husband. Back when they were a couple, Emma used to edit Ulysses's writing and has never really stopped loving him. Although she never can and never will forgive Uly for what happened during his fateful blackout, as a true control freak she has invaded the dying man's home with two clear goals. To help Ulysses get through his final days and  to help him make a decent impression on his long-estranged son, Sam.
Rod Gnapp and Denise Cormier in Annapurna
Photo by: Jennifer Reiley

For the past 20 years Emma and Ulysses have been nurturing deep emotional scars and emptying bags of salt into the festering wounds of what was once a happy marriage. And yet, at the heart of each character, is a lyricism that simply can't be suffocated. Sharr White has created two fine and ferociously damaged people caught in the emotional whirlpool of not being able to live with or without each other.

Rod Gnapp as Ulysses in Annapurna
Photo by: Jennifer Reiley

While Elise Cormier's Emma is a powerhouse of conflicting emotions, the evening really belongs to Rod Gnapp as the dying Ulysses. Over the years, Gnapp has built himself a resume filled with portrayals of deeply damaged heterosexual men whose rage is palpable, yet whose broken hearts can yield genuine tears. He is, in the truest sense of the term, an actor's actor.

Although much of Annapurna's strength rests in its gritty reality, Sharr White's sudden bursts of poetry make the evening soar in unexpected ways. Performances continue at the Magic Theatre through December 4 (you can order tickets here). In the meantime, here's the trailer:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Honorable Mentions, Dishonorable Intentions

Recently, in a moment of weakness, Stephen Colbert almost made me feel sorry for Michele Bachmann. Discussing a backstage confrontation at one of the Republican debates, Colbert noted that:
"After Dickerson's accidental gab-fest, Bachmann's campaign manager stormed through the spin room saying 'John Dickerson should be fired. He is a piece of shit.' But to add insult to injury, a piece of shit is polling higher than Michele Bachmann."
Then I remembered what Michele Bachmann is all about and realized that comparing her to a piece of shit  dishonors pieces of shit everywhere. One has to search far and wide these days to find people acting honorably.
I often tell friends that, during my adolescence, the reason I didn't get into much trouble was because some of us were still trying to be good. As corny as it sounds, having grown up regarding our teachers with a healthy combination of fear and respect, being good was supposed to be its own reward.

With a Presidential election in 2012, honor is one of the least likely traits to be discussed as voters try to decide who to vote for. In a society driven by celebrity gossip, the concept of one's honor seems dainty and quaint. In previous centuries, however, honor was quite a big thing.

* * * * * * * * *
Oscar Wilde's play, An Ideal Husband, is all about how blackmail, corruption, and compromised ethics can change our lives. Over at UC Berkeley, the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies recently staged Wilde's play in a student production featuring costumes by B. Modern and sets designed by Eric Sinkkonen. In her director's note,  Christine Nicholson writes:
"Oscar Wilde's play about love, politics, and insider trading could easily have been the stuff of today's headlines. Do we expect too much of our politicians? Can one serve the public ethically even if one may have done something unethical in the past? Can one change over the course of a lifetime? This question invariably arises during each election cycle. How does one's private life, a life that will be filled with all too human instances of error, affect one's public life? Do good works matter in the light of ethical lapses? What part does love and forgiveness play?
Wilde grappled with those questions over a hundred years ago, and we are still grappling with them today -- the lessons of history that we are doomed to repeat. The image of the Senate spouse standing beside their tarnished husband or wife is an all too common one. Yet are we not all flawed? Which one of us would withstand the background check that we subject our public servants to? Wilde, while asking hard questions of the public servant, also asks hard questions of the private one. Where do we forgive? Where do our ideals force us into rigid, untenable positions? Wilde asks us to include both our ideals and our failings in our assessment of each other -- both our public and private selves -- and to forgive where we can. Is it possible? Is it necessary? Is it a worthy goal?"

Gwen Kingston (Mrs. Chevely) and Bernadette Bascom
(Lady Chiltern)in Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband
Photo by: Ryan Montgomery

Born two years before George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde didn't hesitate to take aim at the hypocrisy of the Victorian era. After Shaw published Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893) and Candida (1894), Wilde premiered An Ideal Husband on January 3, 1895. Unfortunately, the popular playwright was arrested three months later, charged with "gross indecency," and his name was removed from the play. Nor was Wilde credited as the playwright when An Ideal Husband was finally published in 1899.

In Wilde's play, Sir Robert Chiltern (Sanford Jackson) is a member of the House of Commons known far and wide for his impeccable moral credentials and high ethical standards.  His wife, Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Bernadette Bascom), was smug and priggish in school and has remained so. Robert's sister, Miss Mabel Chiltern (Dasha Burns), hopes to get married -- but definitely not to the young man who proposes to her twice a week.

One of their closest friends is Lord Arthur Goring (Andrew Cummings), a flamboyant bachelor who much prefers theatre and gossip to more manly affairs. Although his father, the Earl of Caversham (Alex Lee), wishes his son would get married and settle down, Lord Goring has a devoted butler named Phipps (Matthew Capbarat), an impressive home, and is quite happy to pursue a single lifestyle.

Sanford Jackson (Sir Robert Chiltern) and Gwen Kingston
(Mrs. Chevely) in Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband
Photo by: Ryan Montgomery

Everything changes with the entrance of Mrs. Chevely (Gwen Kingston), who was one of Lady Chiltern's classmates at school. Having always despised Gertrude, the widowed (and extremely wealthy) Mrs. Chevely now holds in her possession a letter from Robert Chiltern which proves him guilty of selling a piece of privileged information in his youth.

Would she blackmail Lord Chiltern in order to get back at Gertrude? Of course she would. Unless, of course, she became a little too sure of herself. As Lord Goring and Mrs. Chevely keep turning the tables on each other, Act II's intricate plot twists become as entertaining as those found in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.

Andrew Cummings (Viscount Goring) and Dasha Burns (Mabel Chiltern)
in Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband (Photo by: Ryan Montgomery)

I especially liked the performances by Gwen Kingston and Andrew Cummings as the play's two master manipulators. Dasha Burns was appealingly narcissistic as Mabel Chiltern while Alex Lee played the Earl of Caversham as broadly as possible. One thing's for sure: After 115 years, Oscar Wilde's caustic wit has lost none of its bite.

* * * * * * * * *
I can't remember having ever enjoyed Don Giovanni as thoroughly as I did during the final performance of the San Francisco's Opera's new production of Mozart masterpiece. At first, I was a little worried that set designer Alessandro Camera's numerous mirror frames (which kept flying in and out of the stage picture) might prove to be a horribly tedious gimmick. But as the evening moved on, they served a curiously utilitarian purpose.

Leporello (Marco Vinco) and Don Giovanni (Lucas Meachem)
in Mozart's Don Giovanni (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Many productions of Don Giovanni take place on a sharply-raked stage or in front of a unit set, leaving the audience with very little sense of elevation. Camera's designs include a set of garden swings, benches, and hedges, so that the action gets to move about a vertical axis as well as a horizontal plane. Not only does this trick the audience into believing that they are moving between the many rooms in which Don Giovanni takes place, it occasionally helps to reinforce the differences in social classes between the aristocracy and the peasants.

With an impassioned Nicola Luisotti conducting from a raised orchestra pit, much of the evening's success was due to the finely detailed staging by Gabriele Lavia, an Italian theatre and film director who brought a wealth of background detail, character motivation, and nuanced moments to this new production. The costumes designed by Andrea Viotti added a welcome sense of color to the proceedings.

Ryan Kuster (Masetto) and Kate Lindsey (Zerlina) in
Mozart's Don Giovanni (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Rarely does the relationship between Masetto (Ryan Kuster) and Zerlina (Kate Lindsey) become a high point of the evening. But with the exceptionally agile Ms. Lindsey doing cartwheels across the stage -- and testing her physical attraction on interested men --  it was easy to see why Zerlina's youthful sexuality was so enticing to Don Giovanni and confusing to Masetto.

For once, Don Ottavio (Shawn Mathey) actually came across as a heroic figure trying to redeem the honor of Donna Anna (Ellie Dehn). Lavia's detailed direction also worked wonders in the scenes between Donna Elvira (Serena Farnocchia) and Leporello (the exceptionally appealing Marco Vinco).

Marco Vinco (Leporello) and Serena Farnocchia (Donna Elvira)
in Mozart's Don Giovanni (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

One change in this new production took me completely by surprise. According to Wikipedia:
"The opera's final ensemble was generally omitted until the mid-20th century and does not appear in the Viennese libretto of 1788. Nonetheless, the final ensemble is almost invariably performed in full today."
This was the first time I had seen Don Giovanni performed without the final ensemble. To my mind, the deletion is a huge dramatic improvement that leaves the audience in a much different place emotionally.

Don Giovanni (Lucas Meachem) and the Commendatore
(Morris Robinson) in Mozart's Don Giovanni
Photo by: Cory Weaver

As the libidinous Don (who could easily be branded as a serial rapist) Lucas Meachem was vocally and dramatically superb. Morris Robinson was impressive as The Commendatore. But two things about this performance really stood out:
  • I have often felt that, with new productions, it's best to avoid opening night because it tends to feel like a dress rehearsal. By the end of the run, the cast has usually formed a much tighter ensemble (both as singers and actors) and the performance has a different level of energy. On this particular evening, the entire ensemble was in top form with Luisotta pouring his heart into the music. The results were simply thrilling.
  • Certain shifts away from standard performance style helped to make this an exceptionally rewarding staging. Not only was each and every moment carefully thought out and executed with regard to character development, one never had the sense that this was just another production where singers were following the blocking indicated in a prompt book. The artists onstage genuinely brought their characters to life (something that doesn't happen as often as it should in opera).
From the cast's enthusiasm during the final curtain calls, it was obvious that this had been a special experience for the artists as well. Here's the trailer: