Friday, November 11, 2011

The Perfect Pivot

Earlier this year, I noticed an unusual word creeping into several pundits' observations as they tried to describe President Obama's political technique. Whether used in describing basketball or dance, the term pivot (according to Wikipedia) refers to:
"A rotational movement of the whole body around one's own vertical axis, as if around a pivot. During the turn the foot swivels on the floor (or other dance surface). Pivot turns may be with the support on a single foot and on both feet, with both swiveling in place and staying as they are."
Watching a writer pivot on a plot point can be entertaining as well as educational. It demonstrates a key technique in storytelling: how to take the reader (or audience) by surprise and go charging off in another direction.

It's almost like a literary game of "Tag." Suddenly, one person has a hot potato in his hands and must quickly find a way to pass it on to someone else.

Two recent productions by Bay area theatre companies featured plots which suddenly veered off in unexpected directions. In each case, the writers -- as well as the actors speaking their words -- had to make the transition believable for audiences. Of equal importance was the fact that the audience had to be equally willing to go along for the ride.

* * * * * * * * *
Up in Walnut CreekCenter Rep has been presenting the West Coast premiere of a beautifully written play by Carter W. Lewis (a writer who has an astonishing acuity for the language, anger, and angst of today's disenfranchised teens). Powerfully directed by Jessica HeidtThe Storytelling Ability of a Boy focuses on three deeply conflicted characters:
  • Caitlin (El Beh) is an attractive English teacher who recently left her husband and took a new job in a small town in order to escape from a boring marriage. While trying to be "a good teacher" to two of her smartest and neediest students, Caitlin fails to keep clear boundaries between teacher and student. Much to her surprise, her cello becomes an object of fascination for two of her school's biggest troublemakers.
  • Dora (Monique Hafen) is an angry young teenager in full-blown rebellion. Eager to gross out anyone who crosses her path, she's the kind of aspiring pervert who likes to fantasize with her best friend about having sex with Luciano Pavarotti's corpse and getting one of her breasts stuck in the dead tenor's fat folds. Although Dora sees herself as Peck's best friend and most loyal defender, she finds herself wrestling with a new phenomenon: her physical attraction to Caitlin.
  • Peck (Jeremy Kahn) is Caitlin's most talented creative writing student, a young man whose ability to tell stories is matched only by the ferocity with which the bullies at his school keep making his life miserable. Peck's growing crush on Caitlin is not helped one bit by the fact that his recent attempt to have sex with Dora was a humiliating failure. Not only does Peck have Tourette syndrome, he also has access to a rifle.

Working on a brilliant set designed by Nina Ball that is framed by angled, graffiti-covered steel school lockers), The Storytelling Ability of a Boy features two precocious, superintelligent teenagers who use each other as sparring partners. While Dora idolizes Peck for his ability to create a dangerous narrative and use words to create something beautiful, their combined anger at authority figures (coupled with their resentment of the school's bullies) finds a new target in Caitlin, a woman whose past holds a few too many secrets.

Jeremy Kahn and Monique Hafen portray two of the
most unpopular students at their high school in
The Storytelling Ability of a Boy (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

There are moments in Carter's play when it feels like the audience is watching dangerous cat-and-mouse game as Dora and Peck simultaneously try to befriend and take down Caitlin. The playwright has a keen sense of how intelligence can foster loneliness and alienation. But, as each new secret is revealed, Carter veers off on surprising -- and often shocking -- tacks filled with danger and suspense.

As in Evie's Waltz (which was produced by Magic Theatre in 2008), Carter's skill with crafting suspense and pushing it toward the audience with a horrifying kind of adolescent humor yields powerful dramatic results. As Peck, Jeremy Kahn continues to impress as a young actor who has an uncanny ability to tap into a teenager's internal tug-of-war between his blossoming intelligence and sudden spikes of anger and confusion.

With her portrayal of Dora, Monique Hafen (recently seen in the West Coast premiere of Harper Regan at SFPlayhouse) reaffirms her strength and versatility. As the most mature of the three characters, El Beh tries to stay grounded and keep the reason she stopped playing her cello a secret.

Caitlin (El Beh) is a teacher with a troubled past in
The Storytelling Ability of a Boy (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

* * * * * * * * *
It's hard to imagine that the script of ran 85-year-old musical that premiered during the Roaring Twenties could be so delightful. Or that bootlegging could be so much fun.  But the book written by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse for Oh, Kay! is a model of manufactured merriment.

Oh, Kay! is a romp and a frolic about a gang of bootleggers who have been running their operation from a yacht anchored in international waters, just 12 miles off the coast of Long Island. Unbeknownst to its owner, they've been hiding a large quantity of booze in the basement of a mansion in Southampton.

When Jimmy Winters returns home unexpectedly with his bride-to-be, the chorus of adoring women eager to party with him prove to be a source of amusement and intrigue. Simultaneously, the bootleggers must do their best to avoid getting arrested.

To no one's surprise, the male romantic lead (whose potential father-in-law is a Judge) falls in love with a pretty bootlegger. Complications ensue.

Originally written as a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence, the songs by George and Ira Gershwin include such classics as "Clap Yo' Hands," "Someone To Watch Over Me," "Fidgety Feet," and "Do, Do, Do." The following clip (which includes a 1926 recording of "Do, Do, Do" made by Gertrude Lawrence) gives a taste of what made the woman a star as well as the brilliance of the Gershwin brothers as a songwriting team.

This perky, popular song was recycled for Tea For Two (a 1950 movie starring Doris Day and Gordon MacRae that had been adapted from 1925's London and Broadway hit musical, No, No, Nanette). A  video clip from the 1950 film proves that songs written by the Gershwin brothers rarely lose their staying power. Even after 85 years, the song has lost none of its appeal.

The recent revival by 42nd Street Moon kept very close to the original script and, as directed by Maureen McVerry, proved to be a total audience charmer. A long-time member of 42nd Street Moon's performing ensemble (who once starred in a revival of Oh, Kay!) McVerry's directorial debut with the company brought a twinkling sense of mischief to the proceedings.

Oh, Kay! offers audiences a heady reminder of how charming and witty romantic comedies used to be. As Kay, Teressa Byrne revealed a strong set of comedic chops that were handsomely backed by a lovely soprano voice. Much to my surprise, Jackson Davis's over-the-top performance as Revenue Officer Jansen (a rival bootlegger masquerading as a G-man) evoked fond memories of Art Carney.

Tyler McKenna and Teressa Byrne in Oh, Kay!
(Photo by: David Allen)

Both Lisa-Marie Newton (as the stuck-up socialite, Constance Appleton) and Brian Yates Sharber (as "Shorty" McGee, a bootlegger masquerading as a butler) had just the right spirit for landing one gag after another. As Jimmy Winter ,Tyler McKenna had every bit of masculine charm -- coupled with a gleaming smile -- required for a clueless socialite.

Craig Jessup (Judge Appleton) and Stephen Vaught (The Duke) provided comic foils. Doing double duty as dance captain while portraying bootlegger Larry Potter, Zack Thomas Wilde kept his ensemble merrily tapping away during the "Fidgety Feet" number.

Zack Thomas Wilde, Teressa Byrne, and Brian Yates Sharber are
three bootleggers in Oh, Kay! (Photo by: David Allen)

What I love about this production is the way it showcases exactly why companies like 42nd Street Moon, City Center Encores! and the Reprise Theatre Company of Los Angeles are so clearly focused on breathing new life into the history of musical theatre. Many of the shows they produce retain a solid capacity to entertain audiences -- if only they can be given that chance.

The following clip shows Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence in the 1968 biopic, Star! The transition from a moment of solitude to a scene from Oh, Kay! leaves no doubt about the staying power of a song like "Someone To Watch Over Me."

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What a great review of Oh, Kay! George. It puts that wonderful Gershwin show in the context of its time and your inclusion of all the links to YouTube content is really useful. Thanks again.