Tuesday, April 3, 2012

So Much To Say, So Little Time

Storytelling is one of man's oldest art forms. In its simplest form, it involves a parent telling a story to a child who might be sitting on the adult's lap or lying in bed, about to go to sleep. However, when storytelling takes place among adults strange things happen.

As the art form has progressed from primitive tribal communications to more complicated tales involving history and legend, the mechanics of transmitting a story have become much more complex. Special effects involving everything from magic tricks to stagecraft and film have helped to broaden the story's landscape and deepen its impact.

Monologist Mike Daisey

Whether one experiences a gifted monologist like Mike Daisey in performance or sits through 19 hours of Richard Wagner's famous tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelung, how a story is told has a lot to do with how well its audience remains attentive. The narrative needs careful shaping and editing. Its presentation often needs good lighting and strong visuals.

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A beloved performer and gay activist well known in New York's cabaret scene since the early 1990s, Miss Coco Peru (a/k/a Clinton Leupp) had a small role in 1995's To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar. When Trick premiered in 1999, Jim Fall's popular gay romance provided Miss Coco with an unforgettable scene.

When Leupp brought his one-woman show (Ugly Coco) to San Francisco, most people in the audience were laughing so hard they could barely stay upright.  Miss Coco returned to town for a double header at the Victoria Theatre on April Fool's Day with a new wig and good reason to celebrate. This year marks Leupp's 20th anniversary as Coco Peru, bringing truth and sarcasm to people everywhere -- especially those who don't know how much they need it!

Miss Coco's new show (There Comes A Time...) covered a surprising amount of ground, from worrying that she might have killed a friend who was an AIDS patient at St. Vincent's Hospital by fulfilling his request for a meatball parmigiana sandwich to her recollection of what it was like to speak at a memorial service for Bea Arthur held at Broadway's Majestic Theatre. Miss Coco also shared plenty of her unique collection of social-anthropological wisdom, ranging from how baboons have dealt with bullies to why young drag queens who think they've become major celebrities just because they were given an opportunity to lip synch on television really need to get over themselves.

Unlike previous shows, Miss Coco did a fair amount of singing on Sunday night, revealing a healthy baritone. She also shared some extremely poignant insights about how bullying often leads to self hatred. As a young actor who had just posed for head shots, Leupp was so upset at what he saw in the mirror that he threw all but one of the photographs in the garbage.

When that picture (of a very handsome young man) was projected on a giant screen, you could almost hear a collective gasp from the audience.

Another story that hit home involved her friendship with her former college friend,composer Jonathan Larson (who wanted Leupp to take on the role of Angel in the original production of Rent). Although Miss Coco's new show has quite a few hilarious moments, one should never forget that she is a real "giver."  Here's her advice to young drag queens (in a scene from The Fairy Dragmother).

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Over in Berkeley, the Shotgun Players recently presented the first installment in Tom Stoppard's trilogy entitled The Coast of Utopia. The West Coast premiere of Voyage featured a large cast directed by Patrick Dooley.

Nick Medina as Vissarion Belinsky in
The Coast of Utopia: Voyage (Photo by: Pak Han)

Stoppard has a long history of theatrical brilliance, but his historical plays often become weighted down with wordiness. Act I of Voyage takes place between September 1833 and Autumn of 1841 on the Bakunin estate in Premukhino (approximately 150 northwest of Moscow). Act II takes place from March of 1834 to Autumn of 1844 (mostly in Moscow and St. Petersburg), and occasionally features the same characters seen in Act I from a different perspective.

I was especially grateful for the pre-performance dramaturgical lecture by Joanie McBrien, which helped to explain the forward momentum of Stoppard's play and many of its references to finer points of Russian culture. While the Bakunin family -- husband Alexander (John Mercer), wife Varvara (Zehra Berkman), their daughters Liubov (Christy Crowley), Tatiana (Caitlin Louchard), Varenka (LeAnna Sharp), Alexandra (Nesbyth Rieman) and their son Michael (Joseph Salazar) -- remain easily identifiable, the rest of Stoppard's characters did not fare as well.

Joseph Salazar as Michael Bakunin in
The Coast of Utopia: Voyage (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

These included writers Ivan Turgenev (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Alexander Herzen (Patrick Jones); philosophers Peter Chaadaev (Richard Reinholdt) and Nicholas Stankevich (Adrian Anchando); literary critic Vissarion Belinsky (Nick Medina) and the editor of The Moscow Observer, Stefan Shevyrev (Matt Lai); the lusty Natalie Beyer (Casi Maggio) and the servant Semyon (Alex Shafer). Minor supporting roles were taken on by Kevin Clarke, Anne Hallinan, Britney Frazier, Chris Kristant, Ben Landmesser, and Sam Tillis.

Voyage presented one of those rare situations where I found the dramatic experience far less interesting than the production concept. Because the play is divided into 23 scenes set in various parts of Russia, it presents a steep challenge for a set designer on a low budget.

When the same person is tasked with designing scenery for all three plays in Stoppard's trilogy (knowing that there will be certain performance dates when the complete trilogy is performed in sequence), the logistics can become quite daunting. Add in the fact that, as a period piece, there will probably be a larger budget than usual for costumes (designed here by Alexae Visel), and the need for a lean, mean, way to set the scene becomes both a dramatic and financial imperative.

Christy Crowley and Adrian Anchando in a scene from
The Coast of Utopia: Voyage (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

I have long admired the work of Nina Ball, a scenic designer whose sets appear on stages throughout the Bay area during the course of any given year. Ball makes great use of any stage space with a minimum of fussiness. Some of her designs clearly resemble puzzles (the kind that have been designed with a sense of mathematical possibilities). Her unit set for Voyage is a shining example of how to achieve a lot with limited resources.

Essentially, Ball's floor plan is framed by an open cube of aluminum segments. Radiating outward from the upstage right corner across the top surface of the cube are a series of bars containing tracks. Using these tracks, hanging screens can be moved along a predetermined path and rotated into various positions by the actors.

Nina Ball's early sketch for the Voyage set

My skill as a graphic artist is downright appalling but, if you look at the following image (cropped from the state flag of Arizona), you'll get an idea of how the premise works. Imagine each of the radiating red segments is a piece of aluminum (similar to a curtain rod or the base for some track lighting) that splays out from the upper left corner of the top of the cube.

Here's the fully-dressed set for The Coast of Utopia: Voyage that the audience sees upon entering the theatre (all of the panels that look like wallpaper can be repositioned along the overhead tracks)

Act I, Scene I set for The Coast of Utopia: Voyage
Photo by: Nina Ball

Performances of Voyage continue through April 15 at the Ashby Stage (click here to order tickets). If you do go, be sure to arrive in plenty of time for the pre-performance dramaturgical lecture.

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