Friday, March 16, 2012

No Wild Left Behind

The urge to rewrite history burns deep within the hearts of most cultural warriors. From those who like to participate in reenactments of famous battles from the American Civil War to the wealthy travelers who plan to Tweet their way across the North Atlantic next month as they follow the route taken by the RMS Titanic on its disastrous maiden voyage, people like to put their personal stamp on famous moments in history.

Of course, some people tend to overdo things. Whether their efforts involve building a Creation Museum dedicated to showing that humans co-existed with dinosaurs, insisting that our nation's Founding Fathers favored corporations, or denying that the Holocaust actually took place during World War IIreality is often in short supply.

Some (Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, Pol Pot) like to assert themselves on a grand scale. The Church of Latter Day Saints likes to baptize the souls of dead people who were foolish enough not to live their lives as Mormons. Catholic Bishops want to deny women the use of contraceptives while covering up for pedophilic priests who were merely "doing it for the children." When it comes to being delusional, is there really that much difference between Rasputin, Harold Camping, and Michele Bachmann?

For playwrights who need inspiration, history is a never-ending source of ideas. Some visit museums and monuments; others travel to ancient ruins to imagine what life might have been like way back then.

In Michigan, part of the Henry Ford Museum is dedicated to Greenfield Village, a collection of more than 100 historical American buildings that were purchased and moved to Dearborn where they are used to illustrate how many Americans worked and lived during an earlier part of our nation's history.

Many of the employees at Greenfield Village dress in period costumes and perform tasks using equipment from days gone by.  As Robert Kelley (the artistic director of TheatreWorks) notes:
"You have to love history to be in the theatre.  You paint bison on the walls of caves, dance among megaliths, discover tombs in the Valley of the Kings; you create plays set in ancient times, the Renaissance, and every decade since.  But you have to really worship history to be a great reenactor. And many are, producing passionate reenactments of everything from Nativity scenes to The Passion Play, from medieval jousts to refought battles of the Revolutionary, Civil, and World Wars.
Why would anyone spend fortunes to reproduce the past?  In theatre, film, tourism, and the lives of reenactors everywhere, the answer is obvious: It's fascinating and it's fun.  It's a way to touch the past, to see how different and demanding life once was, yet to marvel at how much of it remains the same. The fundamentals of social interaction and personal relationships seem to be constant across immense stretches of time. Conflicts based on religion, race, ideology, and nationality have defined the many millenia of human development.  And at the most personal level, the problems, priorities, and prohibitions of love seem to be a constant as well."
Two plays recently performed for Bay area audiences captured both the whimsy and the cruelty of historical reenactments and cultural revisionism. Each had a peculiar appeal all its own.

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Other than a monologue, the most economical type of stage vehicle is the two-character play. Some are written as romantic comedies (The FourposterSame Time, Next YearThe Owl and the Pussycat). Others serve as vehicles for aging actors (The Gin Game, Staircase, The Unexpected Man). Some are extremely intimate musicals (Daddy Long Legs, Long Story Short, The Last Five Years, Murder For Two) while others lead inexorably to one character's death ('Night, Mother, VigilA Steady Rain).

Down in Palo Alto, TheatreWorks is presenting the West Coast premiere of a lovely two-character play by Carly Mensch that is set in New York City's intriguing Lower East Side Tenement Museum.  The museum and its historic significance provide the "gimmick" for the play's creation. As always, the playwright's challenge is to bring two characters to life.

Matt R. Harrington and Kimiye Corwin star in
Now Circa Then (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

In Now Circa Then, Mensch is actually introducing the audience to four characters: two are contemporary actors; the other two are the characters they inhabit as part of their job descriptions.
  • Gideon (Matt R. Harrington) is a young man who is a rabid history enthusiast.  By the time the audience meets Gideon, he has participated in all kinds of historical reenactments and is thrilled to be working at the Tenement Museum, where the character he portrays offers him a wide range of possibilities as an actor.
  • Julian Glockner immigrated from West Prussia to the United States in 1890 and settled in on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
  • Margie (Kimiye Corwin) is Gideon's polar opposite: she couldn't care less about history. Having left Michigan and come to the Big Apple with a goal of reinventing herself, she took the first job she was offered. Unable to afford Gideon's mad passion for role playing, Margie occasionally has to sleep in the museum when she doesn't have a place to live.
  • Josephine Glockner is Julian's wife, a European immigrant with little education who has left everything behind in order to find a new life in the New World.
Kimiye Corwin and Matt R. Harrington star in
Now Circa Then (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

It doesn't take much to figure out that, finding themselves forced to act together as Julian and Josephine,  Gideon and Margie are destined to fall in love, grow up, and outgrow each other in the course of the play's 90 minutes. While many of Carley Mensch's blackout scenes provide plenty of laughter, there is an underlying pathos which is sweetly nurtured by Meredith McDonough's sensitive direction.

This is the kind of play which largely succeeds on the strength of its casting. It takes very little time for the audience to fall in love with Matt R. Harrington's unrealistic exuberance and Kimiye Corwin's combination of reticence and desperate practicality. One is an oversized puppy, eager to lick everyone's face. The other is a world weary cat who is warily sizing up her new surroundings.

When (after quarreling with Margie) Gideon decides to have Julian die of tuberculosis, the play veers off in a new direction which allows Mensch to mine comic and melodramatic gold at the same time. Andrew Boyce's set is a cozy delight, with the actors entering from the orchestra pit (as if climbing up to the tenement's fifth floor).

The strange thing about Now Circa Then is its tricky layers of accessibility. Throughout the play, the audience has a grand time watching Gideon and Margie lock horns.  But, like a dinner of Chinese food, a half hour after the show has ended, theatergoers might find themselves hungering for something more.

Played out against a background of New York's immigration history, Now Circa Then is a dramedy whose warmth and charm are quite captivating. Performances at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto continue through April 1 (click here to order tickets).

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In 1962, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released How The West Was Won, a grand, old-fashioned epic about human migration across the Plains that included Cheyenne Indians attacking a wagon train, the Civil War, and the building of the transcontinental railroad.  For those of us who have attended some of John Fisher's epic stage plays (Medea: The Musical, Barebacking: A Sex Panic Comedy, SexRev: The Jose Sarria Story, and Fighting Mac!), Ishi: Last of the Yahi is, in a sense, Fisher's long-awaited Wild West Show.

Ishi (Intae Kim) and Dr. Alfred Kroeber (Christopher Herold)
Photo by: Ryan Montgomery

Recently revived by UC-Berkeley's Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, Fisher's play deals with an ugly chapter in the history of California (as well as the history of the University of California) that most people never heard of and would prefer not to learn about.  Ishi: Last of the Yahi takes place during the period when the State of California was offering good money for the heads of murdered Indians. As Fisher explains:
"Theatre is meant to be exciting, digging deeply into what motivates people to do both good and bad things. As a playwright, I am very interested in the Bay area as a locality.  A lot of American stories told onstage seem very East Coast to me. Berkeley and San Francisco are distinct entities and I see all my stories as unique to the Bay Area. Research comes with a lot of responsibility and the story of Ishi shows us that the more money and ambition become involved, people start doing strange things.  All is not quiet within the ivory tower.
This is a California adventure story that is timely because it has not been completely told.  But there is darkness in all adventure. In America, there is a great sense of responsibility for what we did to the Native Americans. But in California, there is this misconception that what happened was far away -- it happened to the Plains Indians or during the Trail of Tears.  If I have any message to convey it is that it happened right here. We had our own genocide in Northern California and that is what is missing from this story."
Intae Kim as Ishi (Photo by: Ryan Montgomery)

Based on events in California history, Fisher's drama tells the story of Ishi (Intae Kim), a Yahi Indian who, following the massacre of his tribe, surrendered to the white man and became the equivalent of a human laboratory specimen. When Dr. Thomas Waterman (Matthew Capbarat) realizes that the story Ishi is trying to tell ("Coyote Rapes His Sister") has deeper repercussions than mere incest, it becomes obvious that the white man cannot retain control of the narrative.

Ishi (Intae Kim) and his sister (Nancy Martinez Soto)
Photo by: Ryan Montgomery

Upon entering the Zellerbach Playhouse, I immediately fell in love with Annie Smart's elegant unit set, which gave Fisher a chance to use every inch of this neatly reconfigured blackbox theatre. Because there is so much material to be covered, Fisher's play suffers from the weight of too much exposition.

In one subplot, Fisher tries to show the failed marriage between UC-Berkeley's famous cultural anthropologist, Dr. Alfred Kroeber (Christopher Herold) and his wife, Henrietta (Gwen Kingston), who was dying of tuberculosis. In another subplot he attempts to depict the socioeconomic influence of Phoebe Apperson Hearst (Devon Roe) in funding Kroeber's research and museum.

Sam Batwi, Alfred L. Kroeber, and Ishi in approximately 1911

A third dramatic thread involves Dr. Saxton Pope (portrayed here as a woman by Kirsten Luisa Peacock), who is so desperate to achieve recognition through Ishi's legacy that, following his death, she violates her most sacred promise to the Indian who thought she was a friend.

Strong supporting performances came from Emma Nicholls as Kroeber's annoying sister-in-law, Charlotte, and from Joaquin Ticonderoga as Sam Batwi, a "civilized" Indian who doesn't always translate accurately. As with several of Fisher's other plays, Ishi: Last of the Yahi proved to be a long and complex but highly-animated slog through history. Even if this play tries the audience's patience, one can't leave the theatre without having learned a tremendous amount about a most unpleasant chapter in California history.

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