Monday, December 19, 2011

The Damsel In Distress With Dandruff

The news of playwright/politician Vaclav Havel's death brings a sobering reminder that creative people can change the world. While scientists and engineers find new ways to improve our lives, athletes and entertainers inspire us.

But writers make us think.

While some people like to shop, chat, or play video games on the Internet, I use it primarily for reading, research, and writing. Not only has the Internet allowed easy access to newspapers and magazines in electronic format, it has catapulted self publishing into a brave new world populated by bloggers free from old media restrictions of word counts, censored vocabulary, and a publication's "editorial guidelines."

Comedy writers keep us laughing.  Speechwriters frame a politician's message. But, as more and more people have taken to blogging, I've found myself increasingly happy to discover a wealth of new voices and ideas through the powerful reach of the Internet.

Playwrights are a special breed who, on a good night, have the ability to lift an audience out of their everyday lives (and sometimes even out of their seats) while transporting them to freshly imagined worlds and situations which challenge their perceptions and force them to engage their critical thinking skills. In prefacing his year-end wrap-up piece in the Sunday New York Times entitled "Without Hype, Playwrighting Thrives," Charles Isherwood made the following observation:
"For the second year running I quickly totted up my list of my favorite nights at the theater before noticing, to my happy surprise, that the lineup didn’t include a single revival. The inspiriting truth is that, while most of the media attention and dollars continue to go to the overhyped fare that is more branded entertainment than art, American playwriting that strives to tell subtler if less handily marketable truths is in surprisingly strong shape."
Isherwood's comment inspired me to look back at some of the evenings I spent in Bay area theatres this year.  Skipping over the classics (plays by Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekhov, Williams, and Albee), I decided to look for relatively new works (world premieres, West Coast premieres, Bay Area premieres, etc.) whose theatrical magic rested on a foundation of solid writing.

Bypassing spectacles like Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil's Totem -- as well as revivals and touring companies of Broadway musicals like Hair, Gypsy: A Musical Fable, The Most Happy Fella, The Music Man, Finian's Rainbow, My Fair Lady, Avenue Q, Billy Eliot the Musical and Fela! -- I noted the plays that had tickled me, challenged me, and whose unique voices had intrigued me. They include:
While readings of works in progress are presented each year by Theatreworks, Magic Theatre, Aurora Theatre Company, SFPlayhouse, and Playwrights Foundation (as well as some exceptional work written on short notice during Playground's season), nothing grabs me quite like a well written, beautifully directed, and brilliantly acted piece of theatre. Usually, by this time of year, most producers are relying on the box office safety of traditional holiday fare: The Nutcracker, Hansel and Gretel, A Christmas Carol, etc.

Not Stuart Bousel.  In the past three years, the San Francisco-based playwright, director, actor, and producer has been involved in the production of more than 60 dramatic readings, semi-staged and fully-staged productions. Under the auspices of No Nude Men Productions, Bousel decided to finish off the year with a program of one-act plays by Bay area talents.

Playwright/producer/actor/director Stuart Bousel

According to the promotional blurb for Ladies in Waiting, each of the three fantasies about distressed damsels was "a supernatural tale exploring the varied feminine archetypes that form the foundation of our society's gender stereotypes and biases."  The order in which they were performed took audiences from a twist on a popular fairy tale to a nightmarish prison fantasy and ended up with a rollicking semi-Noir farce.

The performance of Ladies In Waiting that I attended took place on a chilly Friday night in the middle of the holiday season. While others were getting drunk at office parties, shopping for Christmas gifts and having dinners with friends, a small theatre in San Francisco's Tenderloin was packed with a young audience eager to enjoy the dramatic equivalent of a tasting menu from the theatre of the absurd.

Poster art for Ladies in Waiting

While many have sought to label the theatrical art form as "a fabulous invalid," it's amazing how effective that invalid can be at explaining complex situations, disarming people's defenses and, in a very short time, changing people's minds. As long as one person is capable of performing and another is capable of reacting, theatre will never die.

Written by Claire Rice and directed by Stuart Bousel, Woman Come Down used little more than a bicycle, a ladder, and a hatchet for props. What it did have, however, was a fresh take on two popular fairy tales (similar to what James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim did in 1987's Into The Woods).

In Woman Come DownRed (Kristen Broadbear) is a young woman whose mother (Karen Offereins) has become a sarcastic control freak. Red suspects her handsome, but boring boyfriend, Henry (Leer Relleum), is about to propose to her.

On her way to grandmother's house, Red encounters the lean and hungry Mr. Wolf (Maro Guevara), who is eager to distract her so he can do his job (apparently, there are lots of lonely, elderly women who would like to expire on their own terms, with or without dignity). Mr. Wolf tells Red all about the mysterious woman in a tower who has always fascinated him.

Maro Guevara (Wolf), Kristen Broadbear (Red), Theresa Miller
(Rapunzal), and Leer Relleum (Henry) in Woman Come Down

When Red finally meets Rapunzal (Theresa Miller), she offers the lonely young woman an option she never knew she had: Rapunzal could come down from the tower and take responsibility for her own life. Later, upon arriving at grandmother's house, Red and Rapunzal find Mr. Wolf wearing the old woman's clothing (even a wolf likes to get up in drag). Soon Henry arrives on the scene, axe in hand, boasting that he has purchased a perfect place in the woods where Red can lead a secluded life raising their children.

Red quickly realizes that she doesn't want to lead the same life that her mother and grandmother did and tells the shocked Henry that she doesn't want to marry him, either. As she bids Henry goodbye, Rapunzal and Mr. Wolf start to eye each other with hunger.

The cast of Ladies in Waiting in rehearsal

* * * * * * * * *
Directed by Sara Judge, Alison Luterman's new play, Night In Jail, has three characters:
  • Samantha London (Tonya Narvaez) is a tabloid celebrity, a spoiled prima donna whose fame and fortune is largely the result of a sex tape that went viral on the Internet. Having been arrested and charged with drunk driving, she's stunned to discover that she can neither buy, bluff, nor bully her way out of the situation.
  • Henry DuBois (Charles Lewis III) is the officer guarding her prison cell. A recovering alcoholic, he knows every bullshit excuse Samantha will throw his way and is sure he can resist her bullying.
  • The ghost of Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Broadbear) has done a little bit of creative time traveling but picked a lousy moment and destination for the end of her journey.
Charles Lewis III, Theresa Miller, and Kirsten Broadbear in Night In Jail

Rest assured that these three characters never expected to end up playing a game of dominoes in a jail cell!

* * * * * * * * *
Written by Hilde Susan Jaegtnes and deftly directed by Claire Rice, Oily Replies is set on an oil rig where strange things have been happening.  Three virgins (Karen Offereins, Theresa Miller, Tonya Narvaez) have mysteriously appeared to tempt and taunt the clueless oil workers (Maro Guevara and Aaron Tworek).

Meanwhile, a Noir-style detective named Sergeant Manson (Leer Relleum) has landed on the rig, dressed in a trench coat, ready and eager to grill the crew's supervisor, Skint (John Lennon Harrison), about why people's body parts have been disappearing. A self-proclaimed "Important Man" (Charles Lewis III) arrives to inform the Narrator that he can't be killed off.

It's beginning to look like the villain might be the virgin with dandruff. But then again, maybe not.

The cast of Ladies In Waiting takes a bow

Oily Replies was immensely enhanced by Jim Lively's sound design. And yet, in three plays written about ladies in waiting, I found myself most impressed by the male performers. Maro Guevara was hysterically funny as Mr. Wolf and an oil worker covered from head to toe in grime. Charles Lewis III scored strongly as the prison guard, Henry DuBois, and the "Important Man."

The evening's top honor goes to the ever delightful Nick Dickson, a graduate of the Clown Conservatory who can make an audience dissolve in giggles merely by opening his eyes. Or inhaling. Or sticking his hands in his pockets.

There are times when Dickson looks like an impish Dennis the Menace (or Bill Watterson's mischievous Calvin). At other moments, his theatrical training makes his work onstage seem effortless. He's the kind of actor who never fails to entertain; a performer one never tires of watching

Leer Relleum (Sergeant Manson) and Nick Dickson
(The Narrator) rehearsing Oily Replies

Most of the people involved in Ladies in Waiting are part of Stuart Bousel's extended theatrical family, acquired from his involvement with No Nude Men Productions, San Francisco Theatre Pub, and the San Francisco Olympians Festival.

In 1962 Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh, Bob Fosse, Cy Feuer, and Sid Caesar teamed up for a musical based on the delicious fake memoir of Belle Poitrine by Patrick Dennis. The final song in Little Me, entitled "Here's To Us," was introduced by Nancy Andrews. Nearly fifty years later, it still resonates as a tribute to all those who collaborate on theatrical ventures large and small.  Although the song was rarely recorded, Judy Garland once performed it on her television show. Here's the clip:

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