Friday, September 28, 2012

Who's Crazy Now?

Are people driven to madness (as we see in so many bel canto operas) or do some of them take public transportation to reach their destination? Is madness the end product of "nature versus nurture" or can it be the sorry result of psychological trauma, aggravated mental illness, or emotional manipulation by forces of evil?

While some refer to the "bird in a gilded cage" syndrome, others find that social isolation and psychological restraint can conspire to send them careening over insanity's cliff. In the following clip from 1992's Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall, soprano Harolyn Blackwell warbles "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" from Stephen Sondheim's score for Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

In two recent Bay area productions, the question of why the caged bird sings could easily be traced to family pressures:
  • In one play, a confused virgin was being pulled in opposite directions by the machinations of her greedy, ass-kissing father and the oddly mercurial and often frightening mood swings of her unstable royal boyfriend.
  • In the other, the caged bird kept calling collect from a federal penitentiary.
Which messenger from an alternate universe would you prefer to hear from? A ghost who walks at midnight or a suburban nut job who tried to assassinate the President of the United States?

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On December 31, 2007, 77-year-old Sara Jane Moore was released on parole after serving 32 years of a life sentence for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford outside the St. Francis Hotel on September 22, 1976 in San Francisco. In their controversial 1990 musical, Assassins, Sondheim and his librettist, John Weidman, mocked Moore as one of the most inept spies in history. The following two clips contain some of the dialogue from Moore's hilariously imagined encounter with Lynnette "Squeaky" Fromme.

Two decades after the premiere of Assassins, Sara Jane Moore is back onstage. Well, sort of. Not only is the 1990 musical being staged by the Shotgun Players in Berkeley next month,  Ady Abbot (who gives Segway tours of San Francisco during the day) recently performed her hilarious monologue entitled Whatever Happened to Sara Jane? at the 2012 San Francisco Fringe Festival

Abbot's family has a curious history with Sara Jane Moore, which she explains in the following clip (taken when she was trying out her material at The Marsh).  Abbot's performance is carefully shaped and smoothly delivered, which makes the news that she is working to transform it into a full-length presentation early next year quite enticing. Here's an appetizer of Abbot describing her dysfunctional family and her grandmother Barbara's relationship with that notorious caged bird, Sara Jane Moore.

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First published in 1603, Hamlet has long ranked as one of the greatest tragedies to come from William Shakespeare. Frequently performed (and subject to all kinds of updating and interpretation by stage directors), it is a fascinating tale of murder, skullduggery, and skull diggery.

Notable for its use of magical realism (appearances by the ghost of Denmark's recently deceased king), the play revolves around a protagonist whose manic behavior while attempting to revenge his father's murder borders on schizophrenia and leads his easily confused girlfriend to go mad and drown herself in a nearby stream.

Whereas Ophelia's mad scene has included all kinds of sung verses, my favorite version comes from Ambroise Thomas's 1868 operatic adaptation of Hamlet. In the following clip from a 2003 performance in Barcelona, soprano Natalie Dessay delivers a heartbreaking rendition of "A vos jeux, mes amis, permettez-moi de grâce de prendre part!"

Using a bizarre but highly effective unit set by Clint Ramos (which seems to set half the play's action in a swimming pool and, at one point, even has Ophelia appearing to be stuck and possibly suffocating in a fish tank), the California Shakespeare Theater has unveiled a new staging of Hamlet which gives the melancholy Dane (LeRoy McClain) one hell of a workout.

Director Liesl Tommy has updated Shakespeare's tragedy to a contemporary setting n which an extremely bloody ghost of Hamlet's father (Adrian Roberts) makes his way through the audience, Rosencrantz is portrayed by a woman (Jessica Kitchens), Horatio (Nick Gabriel) seems to be guiding spectators through a memory play, the crucial epilogue by Fortinbras (the Crown Prince of Norway) has been eliminated, and all kinds of trash strewn about the stage (including a pair of plastic pink flamingos) make it clear that something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark.

A scene from California Shakespeare Theater's new production
of William Shakespeare's Hamlet (Photo by; Kevin Berne)

Jake Rodriguez's sound design goes a long way toward giving this production a sense of the supernatural. While Nicholas Pelczar (Laertes) and Adrian Roberts (Claudius) provide plenty of macho bluster and guilty ego, it is Julie Eccles (Gertrude) who nearly steals the show in her bedroom confrontation with her angry son. This intensely physical (and wildly) thrilling wrestling match could not have been possible had the play been staged in traditional costumes instead of modern dress.

Queen Gertrude (Julia Eccles) looks down on her son,
Hamlet (LeRoy McClain) (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The great strength of Ms. Tommy's production lies in her ability to streamline some of Shakespeare's text and clarify the motivations and emotional deterioration of key characters. Through a particularly vacuous style of body language, Polonius (Dan Hiatt) is revealed to be as much an ass-kissing, shallow courtier as an empty-headed fool who would pimp out his own daughter for political favor. The Player King (Danny Scheie) and Player Queen (Mia Tagano) perform Hamlet's accusatory play before a Prince of Denmark who is excitedly rocking back and forth on his childhood hobby horse.

Mia Tagano, Danny Scheie and LeRoy McClain in Hamlet
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As Ophelia, Zainab Jah gave a richly layered portrayal of a dutiful young daughter of a court noble who can't possibly imagine that her father (Polonius) or her fiancé  (Hamlet) would deceive or jeopardize her. Her brilliant use of Ophelia as a dramatic foil to Hamlet during his famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy changes the usual dynamic of the scene and delivers huge theatrical dividends later in the evening.

Ophelia's growing confusion, increasing horror, and [now] predictable mental breakdown were beautifully staged by Ms. Thomas in a manner whose context and movement in relation to Hamlet's bizarre behavior helped to clarify Ophelia's inability to grasp how her life could could crumble to pieces before her. Ms. Jah's desperate struggle in an elevated fish tank was a sight to behold!

Zainab Jah as Ophelia (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The production's Hamlet, LeRoy McClain, gave an athletic and often electrifying performance in the title role. Lean, seemingly mean, and determined to glean proof of his uncle's guilt in the murder of his father, McClain was all over the stage and auditorium, displaying a powerful presence and remarkable stamina.

Though Ms. Tommy's invigorating staging runs about 3-1/4 hours, it zips by with a speed and urgency that is quite remarkable. Thankfully, this challenging and riveting production of Hamlet by the California Shakespeare Theater has just been extended. Performances continue at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda until October 21 (click here to order tickets).

"Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well."
LeRoy McClain as Hamlet (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

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