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.

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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.

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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:

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