Thursday, August 9, 2012

Mind The Gap

How do you like your narrative exposition? Fact-driven, bullet-pointed, loud and in-your-face? Or slowly thawed and then braised until the story's meat falls off its structural bones? In an age of crushing noise, how does a playwright lure audiences into a drama? How capable is a prospective audience of filling in the blanks?

If you watch a lot of movie trailers, you'll notice a growing trend to include many of a film's best special effects or signature moments in its trailer. This has the dual effect of enticing potential audiences to buy a ticket for the full experience or telegraphing a subliminal message that this is all there is to see, there isn't much more in the film that's really worth your time.

Trailers, however, can be deceptive. Marketing an action adventure film to teenagers is very different from marketing a film about personal relationships to more mature audiences. An independent film with a unique flavor can end up creating a trailer that sets up a completely different set of expectations for a potential viewer than the experience he will ultimately have upon watching the entire film.

As smaller nonprofit theatre companies have begun to experiment with using multimedia marketing techniques to fill seats, it's been interesting to monitor their efforts. Although most of these companies have been quite creative in the design and execution of their trailers (which are primarily posted on YouTube and Vimeo), some of them have contracts which prevent their videos from being embedded in promotional blog posts and online reviews (which severely limits their effectiveness as a social media marketing tool).

The following trailers are for two new plays being performed in the Bay area. Watch them carefully and ask yourself how much they tell you about the play itself and what you might experience in the theatre if you buy a ticket.

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Back in March, when SFPlayhouse staged Aliens, I was impressed by how thin Annie Baker's script seemed and how skillfully three actors and a director brought it to life. Doing so required the actors to be acutely aware of pacing, almost treating Baker's writing as if it were a piece of minimalist music in which one note could capture an audience's attention in surprisingly profound ways. As Jasson Minadakis explains:
"Annie Baker is one of the most unique new voices in American theatre. Her art lives in the simple, everyday events that happen to all of us, but she elevates them until they become transcendent, beautiful. Annie cites Anton Chekhov as one of her favorite writers and it is no surprise that, much like Chekhov, she takes casual moments and mines them for the extraordinary acts of bravery human connection demands.  She explores the complexities of communication, its grace and clumsiness, success and failure. In Annie's plays, when people attempt to share thoughts and emotions that are eloquent and complete in their minds, these turn into hopeless fragments, embarrassing clich├ęs, and strangled silences when shared.  Yet, she manages to capture those fragile emotions that so often break when expressed through the rough, unforgiving medium of language."
Playwright Annie Baker

Marin Theatre Company and Encore Theatre Company are currently co-producing the Bay area premiere of Baker's& Circle Mirror Transformation, a 90-minute play in which a handful of adults in a small town in Vermont participate in a community college's new acting class for beginners.

The cast of Circle Mirror Transformation
Photo by: Kevin Berne

When the lights come up, five people are lying on the floor of a rehearsal room/dance studio trying to count to 10. If this is easier said than done, it's because only one person is allowed to speak at a time. Basically, this is a lesson in learning how to listen to your acting partners. The five bodies on the floor belong to:
  • Marty (Julia Brothers), the woman teaching the class.
  • James (L. Peter Callender), Marty's husband. A member of the community college's administration, James is having an extremely difficult time communicating with his daughter.
  • Schultz (Robert Parsons), a middle-aged man who recently broke up with his wife. As he learns how to function as a single man again, Schultz appears shy, socially clumsy, and emotionally vulnerable.
  • Theresa (Arwen Anderson), an aspiring actress who broke up with her condescending boyfriend in New York and has recently moved to Vermont in the hope of finding a new career path.
  • Lauren (Marissa Keltie), a sullen, withdrawn teenager who is hoping to get cast as Maria in her high school's production of West Side Story.
L. Peter Callender, Robert Parsons, and Julia Brothers in
 Circle Mirror Transformation (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Silence is a big part of Baker's writing and, in many situations, the audience nervously fills the void with laughter that may be due to the shock of recognition, their empathy for a character's unease, or their own personal discomfort at the lack of communication.  As the playwright explains:
"In real life, we're silent and bored and inarticulate a lot of the time, and yet, in most so-called naturalistic theatre, it always feels to me like the writer and director are trying to pretend that life is high-paced and exciting and that everyone likes to talk about feelings and ideas in an intelligent way that relates back to a central theme. I record myself speaking the very early drafts and scenes of a new play before anyone else has read it. I do this because it's so important to me that I capture the cadences of painful, ordinary speech and it's hard to tell if it's believable on the page."
When I first started interviewing opera singers about their art and how they viewed themselves as artists, I was astonished at how easily they would open up and say "Here's who I am, here's what I'm made of. Feel free to poke around and ask any questions."

As directed by Kip Fagan, Circle Mirror Transformation shows how a series of acting games helps people to let down their hair, unbuckle their emotional armor, put aside some of their control issues, and begin to look inside themselves. Whether one uses these games for therapeutic purposes or to become more comfortable with his fellow cast members, they help to facilitate introspection, flexibility, and empathy.

Toward the end of the play, each person is asked to write down a personal secret which is then read by another member of the group. The shock of recognition (for the audience) can leave theatregoers wondering if they have correctly linked each character with his secret or if, perhaps, the mysteries may run deeper. Circle Mirror Transformation is a fascinating play, beautifully acted by a tightly-knit ensemble. Performances continue at the Marin Theatre Company through August 26 (click here to order tickets).

Arwen Anderson and Julia Brothers in
Circle Mirror Transformation (Photo by: Kevin Berne

* * * * * * * * *
By contrast, the world premiere of Patricia Milton's new play starts at a fever pitch and, as directed by Sara Staley, pretty much stays there. Intended as a genre mashup of romantic comedy, fairy tale, and science fiction, The Believers is most notable for its fury and excessive verbiage.
  • Sam Halliwell (Jon Fast) is an entrepreneur with minimal ethics whose largest client is the United States Government. Currently overseeing a laboratory located in a mysterious tower in the woods, he is working on a biological weapon which has been hinted at in recent news reports. If successful, the military would be able to drop a love bomb (or spray a mist) over a limited territory that would cause all of its inhabitants to fall in love with each other and lose interest in fighting. It's the oldest trick in the book -- a love potion. But instead of being used on an individual basis, the goal of Halliwell's scientists is to find a way to weaponize the drug and rapidly distribute it among the enemy.
  • Sam's receptionist, April May (Kate Jones), is a devout young woman with an obvious crush on her boss. April May also has a hilarious habit of vomiting up hilariously mangled Country/Christian platitudes that won't help anyone.
  • Rocky Wise (Casey Fern) is the young scientist who, rather than create the love bomb the client is hoping for, is trying to re-engineer its molecular structure so he can create a drug which will prevent someone from falling in love. He's still carrying tons of emotional baggage from his nasty breakup with a female scientist (who has just been hired by Sam to become Rocky's boss on the project).
  • Grace Wright (Maria Giere Marquis) is Rocky's ex-girlfriend, an ambitious woman whose skills at analyzing chemical formulae are much stronger than Rocky's and who is torn between wanting to love Rocky and her pursuit of fame and fortune.

Among the many undisclosed problems facing Tower Labs is the fact that its use of proteins extracted from certain animal glands have produced an interesting side effect for those who have ingested the drug: They've suddenly become sexual magnets for horny muskrats. To make matters worse, the toxic runoff from the laboratory has caused frogs to rain down from the sky (a literary gimmick used to much greater effect in 1999's Magnolia).

There is not (and probably never will be) any subtlety in the way this play is performed. Under Staley's direction, the tiny performing area at StageWerx became little more than a shouting platform for the actors, who had precious little space in which to maneuver. However, two quirks of the script quickly became obvious to me.
  • Just as some successful sitcoms have introduced a character that resonated so solidly with audiences that it was given a spinoff series of its own (Maude, The Jeffersons, Lou Grant, Rhoda, Phyllis, Trapper John, M.D., The Colbert Report, The Cleveland Show, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Frasier), Milton has created a character that, at least in the world of television, would instantly be recognized as having "legs." Not only is April May a great Christian clown figure, as portrayed by Kate Jones she is a clueless cluck who is just itching for a development deal.
  • Unfortunately, if you take April May (and all of the comic relief she provides) out of the script for The Believers, you're left with two very hostile and competitive biochemists who, when are not screaming back-story data and chemical trivia at each other, are barely capable of communicating in real time.
The result is a very loud and occasionally tedious work which aims high and could benefit from some strategic cuts. Less of Milton's biochemists would be definitely be more (what Rocky and Grace need most is some heavy duty make-up sex). As for April May, the horny muskrats, and the frequent deluges of frogs? Bring it on!

1 comment:

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