Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Struggling To Stay On Top

In 1889, August Strindberg wrote a 10-minute play entitled The Stronger, which is essentially a monologue. In 1952, Hugo Weisgall transformed The Stronger into a short opera which (much like Gian-Carlo Menotti's comic opera, The Telephone, Francis Poulenc's monodrama, La Voix Humaine, and Arnold Schoenberg's atonal Erwartung) provides a powerful soprano with a dramatic showpiece.

The Stronger is a nasty little piece of confrontational theatre which focuses on two women who meet in a bar on Christmas Eve. Estelle (a pompous, frustrated, and condescending suburban matron who married Lisa's boyfriend) proceeds to get sloshed -- and more than a little obnoxious -- while Lisa, showing remarkable restraint, keeps her mysterious peace.  As Estelle unleashes her venom in the guise of Yuletide cheer, Lisa sits and listens in bored and often outraged silence.

Hidden truths begin to emerge in the form of Estelle's intense jealousies, resentments, and delusions of grandeur.  It's hardly a pretty picture for Christmas Eve and, while she may smugly believe that she is emerging triumphant from her little showdown, it is Lisa (the stronger of the two) who has the discreet wisdom to lose a battle and win a war.

Many dramatic situations are sparked by a character's desire (or ability) to upset the status quo. In each of the following three plays, forces outside the immediate conversation are doing their best to drive people crazy.

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In 1992, when Oleanna, had its world premiere, David Mamet's confrontational drama about political correctness left audiences quite steamed. No matter where one stood on issues of sexism, political correctness, or respect for one's elders, the play's brutal finale was a shocker.

John (Michael Storm) is a university professor who is awaiting confirmation that he has been granted tenure. He is constantly being interrupted by phone calls from his wife that involve their attempts to purchase a new home. Just as he is about to head out to meet with their realtor, a confused and needy student (Josie Alvarez) brings his life to a crashing halt.

A key feature of David Mamet's script is the fact that his characters are constantly interrupting each other (their conversations are also frequently interrupted by telephone calls). Often, it seems as if Mamet wrote Oleanna with the perverse goal of never finishing a sentence.  But a lot has changed since 1992.
  • Cable television talk shows have had a disastrous effect on the art of conversation. Although there are still a few television personalities (kudos to Rachel Maddow) who let their guests finish a sentence, most talking heads are highly confrontational in their attempts to increase conflict.
  • After 15 years of pundits like Chris Matthews dominating the news media, the game has been switched to seeing who can best rebut another's argument by simply "talking over" their opponent.
  • The overspill into our culture is that people don't listen to what another person is trying to say long enough to let him complete a thought. Because they frequently interrupt, cutting someone off in midsentence, we live in an age of staggering electronic communication capabilities and piss-poor personal communication abilities.
  • Simultaneously, as America has become an ever more litigious society, the threat of being sued for potential or implied insults has made people more cautious about what they say -- with one glaring exception.
  • Fundamentalist Christians have severely ramped up their accusations of being persecuted and learned how to play the victim card to the hilt.
Josie Alvarez and Michael Storm in Oleanna
Photo by: Calvin Jung

In her recent article for The Huffington Post entitled Bullying, Leadership, and the Presidency of the United StatesKerry Kennedy wrote:
"The stories shared by the Cranbrook Class of 1965 included perpetrators, bystanders and victims of bullying, but no sign of a defender -- the only sort of person with the moral courage to stand up against their peers for a greater good. These are the people who make human rights victories possible and they represent the greatest opportunity for true leadership that most students face during these formative years. Because, every time a student hears a sexist joke or a racial slur, every time she hears the words 'faggot' or 'slut' or 'fatso' or 'retard,' she must make a decision. Will I be a perpetrator, a victim, a bystander or a human rights defender? And each time she makes that decision on which role she will play, she is exercising a muscle. Like any muscle, the more she uses it, the stronger it becomes. And its strength defines who she is in her school, her family, her neighborhood, and most importantly, who she sees when she looks in the mirror."
Josie Alvarez and Michael Storm in Oleanna
Photo by: Calvin Jung

In the oddest way, TheatreFIRST's recent production of Oleanna made Mamet's 1992 shocker seem like the work of a playwright whose use of a particular literary gimmick had not weathered the test of time very well. Much of this is due to the overcareful enunciation of the two actors and the tempo set by Storm as director (I often felt as if I was listening to a piece of chamber music where the metronome's setting needed to be adjusted).

Both Storm's condescending professor and Alvarez's portrayal of a frustrated student were hampered by the pace of the performance. While Oleanna is designed to bring a clash of ideas to a boil, the slow and steady simmer (while extremely challenging for actors) didn't produce much excitement until John's violent eruption at the finale.

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Over at the Bay One Acts Festival, a fascinating two-character play by Christopher Chen that was originally produced by Instrumental Theatre made a deep impression on me.  Directed by Paul Cello, A Game starred Ariane Owens and Charisse Loriaux as a lesbian couple cleaning out the house of one partner's deceased mother. At various times in the script, the voice of a couples counselor interrupts the action to suggest a bit of role-playing to help them deal with the grieving partner's emotions.

Ariane Owens in A Game
As the playwright explains:
"What I aim to do in my plays is to take the audience down a rabbit hole, and to make this a meticulously choreographed journey. I like to first create a solid structure, then slowly pull this structure out from under the audience’s feet, so that they ultimately land in a place of real dislocation and ambiguity. For me, this mimics the process of confronting a work of art, then allowing the work to shift and change until it ultimately expands your mind and upends your emotional state. I aim to have my plays guide the audience through this 'expanding' and 'upending' process, and I hope that’s what happens in this play, albeit in a shorter time frame. I wanted to do an intimate, two-person drama with no fancy frills, just two actors and a director really digging into a text. I also wanted to have some sort of shifting of reality that was totally self-generated and perpetuated by the characters. 
A weird therapy game proved a natural set-up. But then, after I already mapped the play out, I realized I might have been subconsciously influenced by two works I read many years ago (The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera, and Harold Pinter’s play, The Lover). Initially I had written the characters as a heterosexual couple, but then Paul suggested two females for several reasons. First, we need more juicy female roles onstage. Second, having two females would make the shifting power dynamics more interesting. Thirdly, it would just be great to have a play which contains a lesbian couple in which their sexual orientation wasn’t the subject. What I love about the play now is that, by making them a same-sex couple, we ultimately get to zero in more, without the specter of male sexual power dynamics hovering in the background. It is a more neutral space in a way, where we can really focus in more on key subjects like trust and delusion (among others)."
Ariane Owens and Charisse Loriaux in A Game

A Game does a beautiful job of revealing the hidden baggage in an otherwise successful relationship (fears of abandonment, inadequacy, etc.). Chen's play also reunited director Paul Cello with Ariane Owens (they had worked together on Sam Leichter's The Pond at last year's Bay One Acts Festival).

Owens is an extremely gifted artist whose magnificently layered interior acting is a joy to behold. While Charisse Loriaux offered a compelling performance as her partner, one wonders if Owens is destined to become a Bay area muse.

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Stop what you're doing right now and click here to order tickets to FWD: Life Gone Viral, the wickedly brilliant new comedy that is scheduled to run through June 10 at The Marsh (but which I suspect will be extended through the summer). I have no doubt that many people will want to see this show more than once. As well they should.

Jeri Lynn Cohen and Charlie Varon in
Life Goes Viral (Photo by: Ted  Weinstein)

A collaboration between three veteran Bay area talents (Charlie Varon, David Ford, and Jeri Lynn Cohen), FWD: Life Gone Viral has Varon and Cohen going through their paces as:
  • The Russian, a man with some very interesting views about how YouTube and other social media act like a virus.
  • Donald Saperstein, a dying man who made a video in which he blamed his ex-wife for his cancer. His video went viral, inspiring patients around the world to rethink their approach to a terminal illness.
  • Dr. Lilian Steinberg, Saperstein's ex-wife who, as an oncologist, must break the news to one of her patients that his laboratory results were mistaken for those of another man with the same name. Lilian's ex has a talent for driving her up the wall. Although she is an extremely ethical medical provider, there are times when revenge sure sounds sweet. When Donald asks if he can move back in with Lilian and their children for the final stages of his disease (so that he can be close to his family and, coincidentally, be able to have them care of him), she's faced with the ugly choice between being compassionate or a doormat.
  • Adam Roth, Lilian's patient who, now that he's been given a reprieve from cancer, can't stop thinking about how to take advantage of the moment in a world of burgeoning social media. Adam has also become infatuated with Lilian and, although his flattery warms a part of Lilian's ego that has not been stroked in eons, it also makes her vulnerable to the strangest kinds of temptation.
  • Ellen Green, the woman who recognizes Donald and Lilian from their YouTube videos and realizes that they are engaging in an online spat.
  • Janet Chandler, a tireless and tiresome representative for Susan G. Komen For The Cure who is, to put it politely, a relentless advocate.
  • Dr. Margaret Dyer, a director at a major medical clinic who, at first, embraces the use of Saperstein's video as a teaching tool because it helps to lighten the workload for her professional staff, but must later retract her endorsement.
  • Zizo Slavek, a medical researcher who explains that "Human beings crave sugar, so we invented Coca-Cola. Human beings crave fat, so we invented Crisco. Human beings crave attention, so we invented YouTube.  And now, we have diabetes and heart disease, and soon we'll have diseases of overexposure."
  • A pair of tiny unarmed electronic spy drones created to resemble the proverbial fly on the wall.
Poster Art for Life Goes Viral Photo by: David Allen

Varon has always been a gifted monologist whose talent for characterization has charmed audiences in such one-man shows as 1994's Rush Limbaugh in Night School and 2009's Rabbi Sam. A writer of great wit and intellectual acuity, his ability to tie his characters in knots is like watching one of filmdom's great farces (One, Two, Three or It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) without a chase scene or any slamming doors.

While Varon has usually worked alone onstage, he blossoms opposite Jeri Lynn Cohen (a cancer survivor who is a charter member of the Word For Word Performing Arts Company). An artist whose fierce talent as a communicator can cascade through flashes of irony, pathos, bitterness, and comedy in the twinkle of an eye, Cohen's acting is a joy to watch.

Developed through long hours of improvisation by Varon, Cohen, and Ford FWD: Life Gone Viral has emerged as a farcical exposé about how the Internet has changed our lives (from enabling the kind of exhibitionism that leads to nipple-piercing videos to spiking the competitiveness of stupid men who are driven by a statistical lust for more "hits" and "likes"). The audience has to be on the edge of its seats to catch some of the rapid transitions between characters as well as the numerous references to social media and pop culture that whiz by.

Unlike two-actor plays that depend on rapid costume changes (The Mystery of Irma VepGreater Tuna), FWD: Life Gone Viral depends on an intelligent audience being able to keep pace with the comedic brilliance unfurling before them at a furious pace. From learning how to spy on people with one's cell phone (or, if you can afford it, a miniature drone) to deciding whether or not to forgive your selfish ex-spouse, The Marsh's new show offers a roller coaster ride through a new world of bits, bytes, hits, and likes.

Not only is FWD: Life Gone Viral one of the best pieces to be developed by Ford and Varon (helped immensely by Cohen's contribution), this is one of the few shows they've worked on that can be performed by others. I hope the performance rights turn into a steady revenue stream for all involved. Here's the trailer:

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