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.

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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.

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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:

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