Friday, May 31, 2013

The Power of Positive Thinking

It's that time of year again! After all the TED talks, all the Sunday sermons, and all the self-help seminars, 'tis the season for those who have walked a hundred miles to stop, look back, and share a few kernels of wisdom with this year's class of graduating students.

Commencement speeches come in all styles, from somber to hilarious, delivered by celebrities ranging from Meryl Streep, Joss Whedon, and Oprah Winfrey, to the President of the United States. Two of this year's favorites, however, skip a lot of the lame platitudes that litter this particular literary genre and try to keep it real. One is by Michelle Obama (a woman everyone knows and loves); the other is by Christian Cagigal, a talented local magician who was asked to speak to the graduating students from the theatre department at his alma mater, San Francisco State University. Each is highly entertaining and well worth your time.

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It's hard to cure some people of their optimism (although many have tried). In a new short entitled The Scenes, filmmaker Laura VanZee Taylor shows how a group of fifth grade girls at Mount Diablo Elementary School have taken matters into their own hands by forming a comedy troupe known as What the Heck Was That?

Confronted with the growing lack of arts programs common in today's public schools, this group of proudly theatrical youngsters decided to created their own opportunity to replace those that had been denied them by short-sighted politicians. With little adult supervision (and despite a few encounters with bullies) these students are learning, growing, and thriving while growing older, stronger, and wiser.  See for yourself!

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Escaramuza: Riding From The Heart  (which will be shown at San Francisco's 2013 DocFest) shines a light on the team of first-generation Mexican American horsewomen who comprise the Escaramuza Charra Las Azaleas as they spend two years preparing to represent California and the United States at Mexico's National Charro Championships in Puerto Vallarta.

Poster art for Escaramuza: Riding from the Heart

Rooted in the cattle culture of Colonial Mexico, Charreada blends equestrian skills, folkloric costumes, mariachi music, and ethnic food into a living folk tradition. In between the men’s riding and roping contests, the women (escaramuzas charras) perform precision horse ballets as they lead their animals through intricate, synchronized patterns.

A scene from Escaramuza: Riding from the Heart

The Latina women of Las Azaleas are proud role models in a society where female athletes are a rare phenomenon. Using video captured on cell phones to analyze their performances, the team must deal with unexpected pregnancies and the threat of Mexican gangsters lying in wait on the road to Puerto Vallarta. The film is filled with thrilling horse displays, great music, and a tremendous sense of team building and sportsmanship. Here's the trailer:

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In 1957, Federico Fellini's film, Nights of Cabiria, was released. Starring Giulietta Masina, the film told the story of a Roman prostitute who (despite having a hooker's proverbial heart of gold) was extremely unlucky in love. Long before the language of codependency had entered the mainstream, Cabiria was conceived as the diminutive equivalent of a schlemiel. It's fascinating to note the difference in tone between the film's original trailer and the trailer for its 1998 re-release.

The musical adaptation of Fellini's film, Sweet Charity, landed on Broadway in January of 1966 with a book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. The original production featured a thrilling transition to Charity's workplace, the Fandango Ballroom, created by Robert Randolph (who  designed both sets and lighting).

The star of the show was Gwen Verdon (a beloved Broadway icon whose husband, Bob Fosse, directed and choreographed Sweet Charity). While Fosse's production numbers were famous for spoofing cultural trends ("The Rich Man's Frug" and "The Rhythm of Life"), Sweet Charity gave him a chance to mold a major musical around the talents of the woman who was both his wife and his muse.

Molly Bell as Charity Hope Valentine (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Sweet Charity has been given an excellent revival from Center Rep in Walnut Creek (which was made even more delightful by the fact that it was performed in the intimate 300-seat Margaret Lesher Theatre). Molly Bell stars as the hooker who keeps hoping that some day, somehow, someone will love her.

Under Timothy Near’s direction, Bell got sturdy support from Alison Ewing as Nickie and Brittany Danielle (doubling as Helene and Ursula). The various men bedeviling Charity were portrayed by Noel Anthony as Italian film star Vittorio Vidal, Keith Pinto as Oscar Lindquist, Colin Thompson as Herman (the owner of the Fandango Ballroom), and as James Monroe Iglehart as “Big Daddy Brubeck.”

Charity (Molly Bell) with film star Vittorio Vidal (Noel Anthony)
in Sweet Charity (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Jennifer Perry’s choreography was obviously inspired by Fosse’s work in the original Broadway production; Neil Simon’s book remains a bedrock of comic writing. The miracle of Charity's character is that she never succumbs to the bitter disillusionment of her fellow taxi dancers at the Fandango Ballroom. No matter how many men hump and dump her, she never loses faith that someday she will meet Prince Charming.

The dance hall hostesses of the Fandango Ballroom in Sweet Charity
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Whereas Gwen Verdon's voice gave many of the characters she portrayed a unique vulnerability (it certainly helped make Charity more of a Chaplinesque figure than a pathetic emotional doormat), Center Rep's revival  takes a more determinedly positive approach to Charity's problems. Some notable changes from the original production include a musical number for Oscar ("Good Impression") that was added to the second act. As in the 2005 revival starring Christina Applegate, Charity's basic black sheath has been traded in for a bright red dress. As embodied by the tireless Molly Bell (who has the energy of a cheerleader), this Charity is a whole lot perkier.

Molly Bell as Sweet Charity (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of Sweet Charity continue at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek through June 22 (click here to order tickets). If you've only seen the film adaptation, you should really treat yourself to a live performance.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Pair of Pitch Perfect Productions

When one thinks of the wealth of British playwrights who have contributed to the theatrical literature, certain names quickly come to mind. Thanks to William Shakespeare, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, and William Schwenk Gilbert, the world's wealth of comedy and tragedy has become infinitely richer.

From John Osborne, Caryl Churchill, Joe Orton, and Alan Ayckbourn to Harold Pinter, Alan Bennett, Robert Bolt, and Terence Rattigan; from Michael Frayn, J. M. Barrie, Arnold Wesker, and Simon Gray to David Hare, Peter Shaffer, T.S. Eliot, and Peter Ustinov, one need not be a rabid Anglophile to appreciate the immense scope of the contributions made by British writers to our understanding of the human psyche. But what about contemporary British playwrights?

Two plays by two of Britain's most beloved playwrights are currently being presented within a block and a half of each other in San Francisco. Both productions are so beautifully crafted and magnificently acted that it almost takes one's breath away. Each requires a tight ensemble, careful attention to English accents, and an audience's devoted attention. Each delivers in spades.

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The first time I saw a performance of Tom Stoppard's 1993 play, Arcadia, I did not have a very good experience. I don't know whether I was sitting in a bad acoustical pocket of the theatre, whether my blood sugars were running high, or whether I was just plain tired. For the life of me I just couldn't seem to get involved in the performance. Last week, American Conservatory Theater unveiled a magnificent new production of Stoppard's play that turned my experience with Arcadia completely around.

Stoppard has occasionally referred to Arcadia as "a thriller and a romantic tragedy with jokes." Not too many playwrights can make merry (and keep an audience's attention) with talk of iterated algorithms, a young woman's attempts to prove Fermat's last theorem, a 19th century understanding of heat exchange (the second law of thermodynamics), 20th century chaos theory, and the centuries old mystery of a most mysterious hermit.

Along the way Stoppard's audience gets to witness a teenager's curiosity about the meaning of "carnal embrace," a vain poet's cuckolding by the teenager's tutor in the gazebo of an English country house, the curious role Sidley Hall plays in revealing the ramifications of a sexual indiscretion that took place 200 years ago, and the professional meltdown of a pompous fool who has the floor pulled out from beneath his cockeyed theorizing.

Julia Coffey, Nick Gabriel, and Nicholas Pelczar in a scene from
Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

A great deal of the credit goes to director Carey Perloff, who has long held a torch for Stoppard's work. Hailed by many as a modern masterpiece, Arcadia offers actors the kind of fiercely intelligent, multi-layered script that allows them to delve into the social climate of the early 19th century (as well as that of the early  21st century).  As Perloff explains:
"It's a great time travel play. What's humbling about working on Arcadia is the breadth of Tom's curiosity. Who else would put chaos theory, Byron, and landscape architecture together? Arcadia's joy in discoveries (scientific discoveries, academic discoveries), joy in getting it wrong, joy in justifying it, that crazy pursuit of knowledge and Tom's amusement with our blind alleys seems particularly acute to me now. It is utterly wrong to think that science is in some way unromantic and rational, just as it's wrong to say that someone in the humanities can't be precise and scientific. Science has become so overwhelmingly beautiful. When you start to iterate fractals, it is magical. It is like seeing the hand of God.  It is like seeing a part of a coastline and then a bigger section. That same iteration and fractal gets bigger, and it is holy, spiritual, and beautiful."
Rebekah Brockman, Jack Cutmore-Scott, Adam O'Byrne, and Gretchen
Egolf in a scene from Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The American Conservatory Theater’s production presents Stoppard's complex theatrical tale with such a rare sense of dramatic clarity (resting on a foundation of crisp diction) that its nearly three-hour length flies by unnoticed. With a talented ensemble cast consisting of Rebekah Brockman, Julia Coffey, Jack Cutmore-Scott, Anthony Fusco, Nick Gabriel, Ken Ruta, and Nicholas Pelczar (for the portions of the play that take place between 1809 and 1812) -- and Allegra Rose Edwards, Gretchen Egolf, and Adam O’Byrne (for the scenes that take place in 2013) -- the evening is filled with intellectual merriment, sexual abandon, and socioeconomic context.

Add in England's long history as a society often defined by class, some professional rivalry mixed with curatorial sleuthing, and a set of magnificently-etched characters from two distinct eras and an audience is greeted with a cornucopia of dramatic riches wrapped in a delicious sense of irony. Special mention should be made of Titus Tompkins (whose characters appear in both time periods) and Andy Murray, who gives a bravura performance as Bernard Nightingale (an egocentric buffoon of a professor) who gets properly humiliated by his colleague, Hannah Jarvis (who handily disproves Nightingale’s theory about Lord Byron).

Andy Murray and Allegra Rose Edwards in a scene
from Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

I'm always intrigued when a massively complex script is allowed to stand on its own without being drowned in production values. I tip my hat to Douglas W. Schmidt for his tasteful unit set and Alex Jaeger for a wardrobe of period costumes which serve to enhance (yet never overwhelm) the onstage ambience. That characters set apart by more than two centuries can appear onstage simultaneously without ever trashing the dramatic illusion is a tribute to Stoppard's genius, Schmidt's simple elegance, and Jaeger's restrained palette. Perloff, however, is quick to point to another one of Arcadia's frequently overlooked strengths:
"Because I've been doing a lot of work on gender disparity lately, one of the things I have really noticed in the play is that it's about how women's voices are consistently muted. If Thomasina had been a man, her equations would have been taken seriously.  If Hannah were not a female scholar working on what we would now call feminist criticism about Caroline Lamb, she would have been taken seriously. The way Bernard pisses all over Hannah's work is often how male star academics treat women. Unlike many American playwrights of his generation, Tom writes spectacularly interesting women and is deeply respectful of women. He really has an appetite for three-dimensional women, and I think that cannot be underestimated.  When you look at his counterparts in America, they are not like that. I think it's really worth noting."
Rebekah Brockman and Jack Cutmore-Scott in a scene
from Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Perloff's staging of Arcadia offers audiences a dream production of a near-perfect play as well as a rare chance to see Stoppard’s work performed with such loving attention to detail. Thankfully, the show's run has been extended to June 16 (click here to order tickets).

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San Francisco Playhouse has a hit on its hands with its new production of Abigail’s Party. First produced in London in 1977, Mike Leigh’s dramedy revolves around the kind of cocktail party during which everything that could go wrong does so with spectacularly bad results.

The small cast of characters includes:
  • Beverly (Susi Damilano), the narcissistic wife of a hen-pecked realtor.  She has a tendency to bully her guests after downing a couple of drinks (even if her efforts to keep everyone’s glass filled can cause someone to start vomiting). Beverly has mastered the art of saying exactly the wrong thing at precisely he wrong time.
  • Laurence (Remi Sandri), a self-employed realtor who is trying extremely hard to provide the best possible service to his clients while keeping his nagging wife happy.
  • Sue (Julia Brothers), a painfully shy, middle-aged divorcée whose teenage daughter (Abigail) is throwing a party.
Angie (Allison Jean White) and Sue (Julia Brothers) are two
of the guests at Beverly's party (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
  • Angela (Allison Jean White), a rather mousey nurse who works in the Intensive Care Unit at a local hospital and knows how to administration CPR in an emergency.
  • Tony (Patrick Kelly Jones), Angela's husband. A former jock now employed as a computer operator, Tony is the kind of monosyllabic, sexually frustrated grunt who is often embarrassed by what comes out of his wife’s mouth.
Beverly (Susi Damilano) lusts after Tony (Patrick Kelly Jones)
in Abigail's Wedding  (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

While it might be tempting to compare Abigail’s Party to Edward Albee’s legendary Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, neither Beverly nor her put-upon husband, Laurence, have the intellectual chops,  deep reserves of venom, or bloodthirsty desire for revenge that come naturally to Albee’s George and Martha.

Susi Damilano looks like she’s having a blast portraying Beverly while Julia Brothers and Patrick Kelly Jones prove, once again, that it’s the quiet types you really have to keep an eye on.

Working on a magnificent set designed by Bill English, Amy Glazer has done a splendid job of directing San Francisco Playhouse's tightly-knit ensemble. Special mention should be made of Tatjana Genser's costumes and Lynne Soffer's contribution as a dialect coach. Those who don't quite understand what a dialect coach can do for actors will get a special kick out of this 1956 rehearsal clip of Julie Andrews in the pre-Broadway tryout of My Fair Lady.

Performances of Abigail's Party continue through July 6 (click here to order tickets).

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Mortician's Lot Is Not A Happy One

Barely eight years since Vimeo (November 2004) and YouTube (February 2005) were launched, the ability to upload videos and share them with the world is now taken for granted. While it's easy to understand how valuable these services have become for researchers and librarians, their value to publicists, independent artists, and performing arts organizations cannot be overstated.

There was a time when the only hope of seeing archival footage of television or live performances would have involved a carefully-planned visit to the New York Public Library for the  Performing Arts in Lincoln Center. But in today's world of easily accessible online video, opera fans can watch full-length performances from companies around the world (as well as historic video clips from European, Asian, and Australian productions).

In addition to clips from Opera Australia, I've been genuinely tickled by some of Essgee Entertainment's productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas (some of which are available on Netflix). The company uses amped-up orchestrations, cheesy sight gags, singers who occasionally rock out with the music, and a style of aerobic choreography that contains more comic shtick than any devoted Savoyard could dare to hope for!

More than anything, Essgee's Gilbert & Sullivan productions allow audiences to experience beloved old chestnuts from a sassy new perspective. The following clips from Essgee's 1994 production of The Pirates of Penzance feature Jon English as the Pirate King, Helen Donaldson as Mabel, and a magnificently talented physical comedian, Tim Tyler, as the Sergeant of Police.

It's a strange transition from the merriment of Gilbert and Sullivan to the loneliness and misery of the morgue. But after HBO introduced viewers to Six Feet Under in June of 2001, Alan Ball's quirky scripts showed audiences that the lives of funeral directors could be filled with roiling passions, crippling insecurities, and the darkest kind of dark comedy.

Two new plays thrust lonely morticians into a world of unnecessary chaos. One does a remarkable job of detailing the emotional upheaval caused by a meddling outside force; the other serves up a long, messy evening of self-indulgent absurdist theatre that, like Dana Carvey's SNL character (The Church Lady) makes one sigh, "Well, isn't that special!"

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Inspired by the theme of "Fearful Symmetry," one of the short plays being showcased in the Best of Playground Festival is The Spherical Loneliness of Beverly Onion, Written by the talented Katie May and beautifully directed by Rebecca Ennals, the script focuses in on a female mortician (Carla Pantoja) who takes great pride in her work, demonstrates a remarkably tender approach to caring for the corpses (Will Dao) she prepares for burial, and likes to work alone.

Looking down on Beverly Onion are the opposing forces of Fate (Jomar Tagatac) and Luck (Anne Darragh). One knows how to keep a clinical distance, the other can't stop herself from projecting her own emotions onto a situation and meddling where she doesn't belong.

When Luck takes it upon herself to broaden Beverly Onion's social life, she is shocked to find that her latest toy is not the slightest bit interested in meeting new men. As a series of dismal speed-dating encounters makes crystal clear, telling strangers that you're a mortician doesn't always produce the best results.

Katie May's play was blessed with two strong performances by Carla Pantoja and Anne Darragh. Here's a quick glimpse into The Spherical Loneliness of Beverly Onion.

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There was a full moon over San Francisco's Tenderloin on the night that Krispy Kritters in the Scarlett Night received its world premiere from the Cutting Ball Theatre. Unfortunately, some things did not go as planned.
  • Due to a printing error, the program informed audiences that "The play runs 90 minutes with no intermission." When the lights came up on a rather anticlimactic end to the first act of Andrew Saito's new play, some people took it as a cue to leave the theatre (luckily for me, the show's publicist was seated close by and confirmed that Krispy Kritters was indeed a two-act play).
  • The cast list identifies 35 characters who are played by "himself" or "herself." These turned out be fictional rodents with names like Cuxy, Wuxy, Porky, Piggie, and Judas as well as plastic toys representing a lamprey eel, a wolverine, a coyote, a barracuda, and Harold the Gila Monster.
Gran Ma Ma (Marjorie Crump-Shears) gets her medicine from
Scarlett (Felicia  Benefield) in Krispy Kritters in the Scarlett Night
(Photo by: Rob Melrose)

The promotional blurb for Krispy Kritters describes it as "a play about love and longing in the neglected neighborhoods of a fictional city. Scarlett is a woman who takes care of her grandmother by pulling wild animals out of her ears and letting them loose in her backyard menagerie. She makes her living as best she can off of the dreams and desires of married men who are willing to sacrifice everything for her."

As Cutting Ball's artistic director, Rob Melrose, explains:
"Bringing unique voices to our audience is a critical piece of Cutting Ball’s mission. I get sent lots of plays (most are very conventional and better served by the many other theaters in the area). Krispy Kritters, however, amazed and delighted me. Andrew deals with the dreams and desires of people on the fringes of society. I couldn’t tell how it could possibly be staged, but I was in love with the audacity of the play’s vision and the play’s imaginativeness. I invited Andrew to have Krispy Kritters be a part of our 2011 RISK IS THIS…Festival, admitting to him that I didn’t completely understand the play or know how to stage it, but that I needed to be in the room with him and wanted to get to know his voice. As surreal as the language and images are, the heart of the play comes from a real place. For our rehearsal process, we did some rehearsals out on the street in the Tenderloin.  Our actors did interviews with sex workers, morgue attendants, nurses, and veterans for insights into their character’s professions.  Being in our neighborhood reminds us everyday of the humanity of people from all walks of life.  That humanity permeates through Andrew’s play."
Drumhead (Wiley Naman Strasser) visits Scarlett (Felicia Benefield)
at her brother in Krispy Kritters in the Scarlett Night
(Photo by: Rob Melrose)

The evening begins with Pap Pap (David Sinaiko), a wheelchair-bound veteran, insulting people and snarling at various perceived threats. The main characters include:
  • Drumhead (Wiley Naman Strasser), a morgue worker with a fetid imagination and unmet sexual desires.
  • Scarlett (Felicia Benefield) a hooker without a heart of gold.
  • Gran Ma Ma (Marjorie Crump-Shears) Scarlett's somewhat demented grandmother.
  • Snowflake (Mimu Tsujimura) one of Scarlett's rivals for the attentions of men.
  • Nurse Candy (Maura Halloran) an overworked, underpaid caretaker.
Pap Pap (David Sinaiko) comforts Snowflake (Mimi Tsujimura)
in Krispy Kritters in the Scarlett Night (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

Melrose's direction includes many farcical moments and some pieces of manic shtick that are bound to excite audiences. The problem, however, is whether or not all the gimmickry is supported by good writing or just being put onstage for shock purposes.

There's a very interesting comparison to be made with another piece of contemporary absurdist theatre that was produced last month by Crowded Fire Theatre Company. Much like Krispy Kritters, Thomas Bradshaw's outrageous black comedy, The Bereaved, focuses on the tragicomic aspects of sex and death.

Although Bradshaw's characters are distinctly upper middle class (and Saito's distinctly lower class), Bradshaw's writing is much stronger. Without invoking elements of magical realism, it hits its targets a lot harder and lands its punches far more successfully than the discombobulated script for Krispy Kritters (which is Saito's first play to receive a fully professional production). There were numerous moments (in addition to the sex scenes between Drumhead and Scarlett) when I found the writing somewhat juvenile. At one point, one of Saito's characters asks: "Are you going to criticize my work? Are you going to use profanity?" Alas, I found Krispy Kritters too lame to even merit profanity.

The artistic leadership of Cutting Ball Theatre has taken a deep interest in "movement theatre" in recent years. The one performer who truly seemed to take this approach to heart was young Caleb Cabrera who did some of the best work of the evening (and whose efforts will probably be overlooked by many audience members). Whether impersonating a sewer rat, an angry John, or an inebriated chimpanzee named Gloria, Cabrera moved with the agility of a gymnast and the disciplined imagination of a mime.

After the chimpanzee drank some poison that had been intended for Ms. Scarlett -- and died -- I couldn't help thinking, "Little Gloria...Happy at Last"! Here's the trailer:

Monday, May 20, 2013

Forging A Path Through Uncertain Territory

A recent theatrical brouhaha resulted from a critic's dismissive comment -- "Why bother?" --  with regard to a new work that failed to please his palate. Anyone who has spent sufficient time in the world of theatre knows that very few productions are born perfect. Some have flaws that get ironed out in readings, workshops, and previews. Others, though they may have been deemed critical failures, nevertheless often contain some very good moments of work that deserved to reach a wider audience.

NBC's cancellation of Smash has had some people licking their chops with Glee while others wonder the producers of a show that launched with so much fanfare could have made so many missteps. It's much easier to judge a show's failings from the comfort of an armchair than from the center of the storm.

Without meaning to sound like a Pollyanna, there is a type of storytelling which, by the very nature of its complexity, requires a certain amount of daring mixed with a suspension of disbelief in order to accommodate the use of magical realism. Whether such works arrive in the form of a short play, a major reworking of a classic, or an overblown musical, many productions deserve an honorable mention for the moments they get right as opposed to a blanket condemnation because of moments that were hideously misconceived or poorly executed.

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First published in 1916, Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken, reads as follows:
"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
Poet Robert Frost

Half a century after Frost's poem was published, Frank Sinatra put his inimitable vocal stamp on a song whose lyrics had been written by the great singer/songwriter, Paul Anka. The lyrics to My Way (familiar to far more people than Frost's poem) read as follows:
"And now the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend I'll say it clear
I'll state my case of which I'm certain

I've lived a life that's full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Regrets I've had a few
But then again too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption

I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Yes there were times I'm sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out, I faced it all
And I stood tall and did it my way

I've loved, I've laughed and cried
I've had my fill, my share of losing
And now as tears subside
I find it all so amusing

To think I did all that
And may I say not in a shy way
Oh no, oh no, not me
I did it my way

For what is a man what has he got
If not himself then he has not
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way
Yes it was my way."
Singer/songwriter Paul Anka

Among the short plays presented at the 2013 Best of Playground Festival, two stood out for their ability to highlight the results of following "the road less traveled." Written by Evelyn Jean Pine and directed by Tracy WardSimple and Elegant took the form of a fairy tale featuring a magic fish.

Inspired by the prompt  "End of Days," Pine's play told the tale of two sisters, Simple (Rebecca Pingree) and Elegant (Carla Pantoja), who fought over the gold coin that flopped from the belly of the fish (Will Dao) that Elegant had cut open with her knife. Elegant remained proud and defiant.  Simple, however, fulfilled the fish's simple request and found herself a magical host who could give her unconditional comfort and love.

When faced with an ultimatum from her fisherman father (Dodds Delzell) to return home or protect the fish, Simple wrapped herself in the fish's belly and swam out to sea. One assumes she lived happily ever after.

Will Dao, Rebecca Pingree, Carla Pontoja, and Dodds Delzell in
Simple and Elegant (Photo by:

Amy Sass's short play, Significant People, proved to be a more poignant experience. Inspired by the prompt "Haunted by the Past" and directed by Steven Anthony Jones, it featured Dodds Delzell and Anne Darragh as a pair of docents discussing the work of a great, great man.

What quickly became clear was that the man had received all the glory for his work while the woman who stood by his side throughout the process never got the same kind of recognition for her contributions to his success. As the female docent keenly tries to point out the differences in which the woman's contributions were downplayed and trivialized (despite his assurances that this was not the case), the audience easily grasps the feeling of having been short-changed by life.

Anne Darragh in Significant People (Photo by: Mellopix, Inc.)

In the play's final moments, the female docent slowly dons the famous man's hat and suit jacket in order to sense what it might have felt like to be the center of so much adulation while wrapping her arms around the orange dress that the man's partner wore to so many events. As performed by the magnificent Anne Darragh, this was a beautifully executed gesture of personal yearning wrapped in the kind of devotion that allows one to stand in another person's shadow; of wistfulness mixed with a tinge of envy over what might have been possible in another time, another place, another culture.

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What happens when the head of a regional theatre company decides to postpone a production in order to accommodate a lead actor's schedule? In the case of Rick Lombardo, the artistic director of the San Jose Repertory Theatre, his first reaction was to turn to one of his closest colleagues for help.

"When I asked Kirsten Brandt to propose some of her dream project ideas to me, her idea of staging Doctor Faustus using cutting edge media technology to create the 'paranormal' world of the play instantly intrigued me," he explains, "so much so that I signed on to create the sound and musical worlds of the play for her."

Playwright/director Kirsten Brandt

Rest assured that, with sets, lighting, and media designed by David Lee Cuthbert and costumes by Cathleen Edwards, the world premiere of a revitalized version of The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (first performed in October 1594) was nothing like what the playwright had initially imagined. Although Christopher Marlowe's version of Doctor Faustus is much rowdier and bawdier than the familiar operas (Gounod's Faust, Boito's Mefistofele), this production's stagecraft incorporates video projections, overhead cameras, a remarkable soundscape, and a cast of four doing yeoman's duty impersonating everyone from Lucifer, Beelzebub, and the Pope to the Seven Deadly Sins.

At the center of it all is Mark Anderson Phillips giving a bravura performance as the arrogant scholar who sold his soul to the devil in order to spend the next 24 years pursuing knowledge, wine, women, and  adventure..

Mephistofeles (Lyndsy Kail) and Doctor Faustus
(Mark Anderson Phillips) travel the world in search of adventure
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Not only does Faust's new world include some annoying shadow puppets, in Brandt's artistic vision, Mephistopheles (Lyndsy Kail) is a female demon sent by Lucifer to do Faust's bidding.

Lyndsy Kail as Mephistofeles (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With Rachel Harker and Halsey Varady taking on a wide range of supporting roles, the brunt of the evening is borne by Mark Anderson Phillips (who deserves credit for memorizing a fierce amount of material).

Mark Anderson Phillips as Doctor Faustus (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Although there are numerous moments in the evening that burst with creativity, they are largely overshadowed by the feeling that Brandt is throwing every theatrical trick she knows against the theatre's fourth wall in the hopes that more (rather than less) will stick with the audience. On some occasions I found her work enticing and amusing; during other parts of the evening I found myself wishing that the production could just call it quits and end.

This is the kind of production where, despite my basic dissatisfaction with the script, I can derive a great deal of satisfaction from the production's stagecraft (hats off to the fluidity of Cuthbert's designs) and the work of one or two actors. Nevertheless, it's the kind of evening that rates an "E" for effort.

The Pope (Rachel Harker), Doctor Faustus (Mark Anderson Phillips) and
a Friar (Halsey Varady) in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Some Like It Shot

Like weddings, theatrical events come in all shapes and sizes.
  • Some are big, overblown spectacles while others rely on developing an intimate rapport with a small audience.  
  • Some are heavily-amplified affairs while others let the actors use their normal speaking voices. 
  • Some rely on elaborate sets, costumes, lighting, and fog effects while others may let the actors perform in street clothes.
  • Some can take a viewer's breath away with the stark simplicity of their offering while others arrive overly hyped yet underwhelm.
For the audience, it's not always a question of getting what you paid for. Sometimes the experience is more about having reasonable expectations. Consider this performance of "Old Fashioned Wedding" by Reba McIntire and Brent Barrett from the 1999 revival of Irving Berlin's famous musical, Annie Get Your Gun.

Sometimes, entering a theatre without a specifically crafted set of expectations can be a blessing in disguise. One can be seductively charmed, deeply moved, or end up watching a piece from a completely unexpected perspective. That's pretty much how my week started off here in San Francisco.

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For the past few years, Greg MacKellan (the artistic director of 42nd Street Moon) has led a series of musical salons dedicated to celebrating the great songwriters of Broadway. Some have been strictly lyricists, others have doubled as both composer and lyricist.

Most of these were held at the 511-seat Alcazar Theatre on Geary Street, where the need for amplification led to some pretty spotty sound work that often compromised the evening's quality. For Once In Love With Loesser, 42nd Street Moon moved back to its home base of operations, the 200-seat Eureka Theatre on Jackson Street.

Greg MacKellan, Emily Skinner, Stephanie Rhoads, and Jason Graae
on opening night of Once In Love With Loesser

This smart move added intimacy and familiarity to the evening, brought the audience closer to the performers, and let them sing with their natural (as opposed to amplified) voices. With Dave Dobrusky at the piano and Greg MacKellan narrating, the evening featured 42nd Street regulars Ashley Jarrett, Bill Fahrner, Ian Leonard, and Ashley Rae Little.  They were joined by Jason Graae (currently starring in the company's staging of Little Me) and Broadway's Emily Skinner (making her first appearance before a San Francisco audience).

The cast of 42nd Street Moon's Once In Love With Loesser

Loesser's career was divided into three major phases:
Jason Graae scored strongly with "Once In Love With Amy" (from Where's Charley?) and "The King's New Clothes" (from 1952's Hans Christian Anderson). Emily Skinner made a lovely transition from Cleo's exhausted "Ooh! My Feet" to Amy's "Somebody, Somewhere" (from The Most Happy Fella). While Ashley Jarrett brought a lovely soprano to "If I Were A Bell" (from Guys and Dolls), Ian Leonard's tongue-in-cheek rendition of "Sing A Tropical Song" from 1943's Happy Go Lucky was much more droll than this clip by The Andrews Sisters.

At the top of the evening, MacKellan explained how difficult it was to narrow down the choice of songs for his tribute to Frank Loesser. In addition to Loesser's strengths as a lyricist, as a composer he had an uncanny knack for avoiding arrangements that relied on dominant chords, preferring instead to employ numerous and surprising chromatic tones to add depth and emotion to his ballads.

While the evening was a total delight, I was surprised that MacKellan never bothered to mention Greenwillow. To my mind, one of Loesser's most achingly beautiful songs (which was not performed during Once In Love With Loesser) is "Never Will I Marry."

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From the Pontifical Swiss Guards in Vatican City to the brave men of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; from beefcake calendars to the homoerotic drawings by Tom of Finland, who doesn't love a man in uniform? Whether we admire the cut of a sailor's jib, or the elaborate headdresses worn by the Queen's Guard as they stand in front of Buckingham Palace, a military uniform has an almost mystical appeal to men and women alike.

Whether in comic operas like Gaetano Donizetti's 1840 hit, The Daughter of the Regiment (seen above with tenor Juan Diego Florez as Tonio), or Gilbert & Sullivan's 1881 triumph, Patience, soldiers have often been portrayed as lovesick heroes and comic figures.

Unfortunately, real life rarely mirrors what happens in operettas. Regardless of its nationality, the military is a war machine that treats young men as cannon fodder and, if it doesn't kill them, sends them home physically wounded, emotionally broken, and/or suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.

Because so many in today's audience have grown up in the era of an all-volunteer military, there is absolutely no awareness of the paralyzing fear that enveloped families whose sons had been or were likely to soon be drafted. The best and the brightest were often sacrificed in Germany, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other theatres of war. Despite all the plays and movies that have been made about military history, I've never been a big fan of the genre I refer to as "war porn."

A scene from Black Watch (Photo by: Scott Suchman)

The American Conservatory Theater is currently presenting the National Theatre of Scotland's touring production of Black Watch (which has been billed as "A Revolutionary Theatrical Event") in the Drill Court of the San Francisco Armory.

Gregory Burke's war drama takes a hard look at life within a high-testosterone group of bored and occasionally angry young men who volunteered to join the legendary Black Watch (Third Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland) during the Iraq War only to discover that no one could tell them what they were really fighting for. For many of these young men (some who had not even finished high school), the military offered the only hope of employment. Their enlistment was not so much a gesture of defending their country as trying to get out of a miserable situation with no future.

Although some were deeply moved by this production, I found myself looking at it through a very different lens. Burke's script involves a group of soldiers who have returned home to Scotland and, at the urging of their friend Cammy (Stuart Martin), volunteered to talk to a journalist. Although they thought they were getting a female journalist named Sophie (whose name had been enough to arouse several lurid sexual fantasies), instead they found themselves facing a young male journalist with no military experience who kept asking them "What was it like?"

Chris Starkie and Robert Black in Black Watch
(Photo by: Scott Suchman)

As directed by John Tiffany, Black Watch makes extensive use of video, wartime sound effects, and a billiards table which can easily be used to represent a military transport vehicle. Whether recalling the the lies they faced during the recruitment process, their shattered dreams of glory, the experience of watching their friends die from an improvised explosive device, the narrative is broken up by numerous flashbacks which show the men in action -- or waiting for any kind of action to relieve their boredom.

There are numerous fight scenes; some petty squabbles among the soldiers, others choreographed depictions of soldiers reacting to bomb blasts, dying in the field, etc. I'm willing to bet that if all the instances of "fuck," "fucking," "shite," and "cunts" were deleted from Burke's script, it would lose as much in length as it did from its atmosphere of hypermasculinity.

Last fall, when the Berkeley Repertory Theatre presented An Iliad (a monologue written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare), Henry Woronicz performed a bitter soliloquy listing every famous war from the beginning of time up to the present as a chilling reminder that nothing ever changes. The careers and futures of young men are tragically cut short as they try to defend a nation, a principle, or a commercial interest such as oil. A segment which traces the history of Scotland's Black Watch has the company undressing and redressing Cammy in the uniforms of one war after another in a production number that could easily be named "Black Watch Barbie."

By sheer coincidence, a few weeks prior to seeing this production I had read an excellent blog post by the artistic director of Berkeley's Impact Theatre, Melissa Hillman, entitled Get It Together and Hire A Fight Director. It's a wonderful piece of writing that explains the importance of choreographing a fight scene so that it is not only believable, but safe for the actors who must perform it night after night.

Two soldiers stand guard in Black Watch
(Photo by: Scott Suchman)

Performances of Black Watch continue through June 16 at the San Francisco Armory (right above's headquarters). If you live outside the Bay area, let me recommend reading Hillman's article before you watch the BBC telecast of Black Watch. from the Highland Football Academy. Here's part 1:

Monday, May 13, 2013

Taking Responsibility For Their Own Decisions

On his first day in office, President Barack Obama proudly signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.of 2009 into law. According to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton:
“If a country doesn’t recognize minority rights and human rights, including women’s rights, you will not have the kind of stability and prosperity that is possible. We see women and girls across the world who are oppressed and violated and demeaned and degraded and denied so much of what they are entitled to as our fellow human beings. I believe that the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century."
If the past 18 months have taught us anything about the deeply misogynist leadership of the Republican Party, it's that although many of its grumpy old white men may be married and have fathered children, they don't know jack shit about women or female anatomy. Whether insisting that a woman's reproductive system can magically shut down in order to ward off a rapist's invading sperm  -- or that there's nothing wrong with requiring women to undergo a transvaginal probe for political purposes -- the jaw-dropping willful ignorance of conservative policy makers is a  prime example of the toxicity of denial.

When asked about Congressman Todd Akin's talk of "legitimate rape" and the time that House Republicans invited five male religious leaders to testify about whether or not it was appropriate for birth control to be covered by Obamacare, Cecile Richards (President of Planned Parenthood) noted that:
"Some folks in Congress are so wrapped up in their political ideology, they forget that women are part of the equation. Todd Akin is not an outlier. He made the mistake of actually laying it out there on a TV talk show. This type of discussion is pretty common in the House. When someone asks you, 'Did the rape guy win?' and you have to ask which one, that’s a bad sign."
Some think that the War on Women is a conscious effort by conservatives who should know better. Based on a fierce combination of male chauvinism, cultural blindness, hyperreligiosity, a severe distrust of science, sexual naivete, biological illiteracy, willful ignorance and a craven lust for power, I'm convinced they really don't know any better. 

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Recently screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Tall as a Baobab Tree focuses on two young Senegalese women, Coumba (Dior Ka) and her 11-year-old sister, Debo (Oumoul Ka), who are the first generation to leave their family's remote village in order to attend school in a nearby city. Life at home is still quite primitive, with meals being cooked over open fires. There is no electricity, water is drawn from local wells, and many young girls between the ages of 8 and 12 are forced into arranged marriages.

Coumba (Dior Ka) and her sister Debo (Oumol Ka)

The two sisters enjoy learning and have great respect for their teacher (Birame Ndour). Coumba, in particular, sees her education as the key to previously unimaginable opportunities. When her older brother, Silèye (Alpha Dia) is injured in an accident, her father (Mouhamed Diallo) can only think of one way to raise the money to cover Silèye's hospital bills: selling Debo into an arranged marriage with an older man who wants a second wife.

Coumba, who is horrified that her younger sister's future could be sacrificed so easily, voices her objections to her father (who is angered that she would defy his wishes). Following her father's refusal to spare Debo, Coumba devises a plan to earn the funds required for her brother's medical care by working as a housekeeper in a local hotel.

The basic arithmetic that Coumba has learned at school allows her to calculate how many days she will have to work to earn sufficient funds. After warning Debo that this plan must remain a closely-guarded secret between the two sisters, she persuades Amady (Cheikh Dia), a young man who is fond of Coumba, to watch her father's herd of cows each day while she goes into the city to perform housekeeping work.

Amady (Cheikh Dia) and Coumba (Dior Ka)

As filmmaker Jeremy Teicher explains:
"When I first visited the village of Sinthiou Mbadane, Senegal, the trip by horse cart traversed through wide open fields that stretched uninterrupted across the horizon. After turning off the paved roads, the concrete houses of the city would melt away, giving in to rolling hills populated only by massive baobab trees. Clusters of straw huts would eventually pop up between the trees, surrounded by herds of cows. This was Sinthiou Mbadane. Even though it was only a few miles from the city, it felt like a completely separate world. Village life is now in the midst of a transformation. A new generation, with access to school for the first time in history, is coming of age. Roads from the city stretch deeper into the countryside and straw huts are steadily being replaced by new, concrete buildings.

I wanted to tell a story that captures the emotions of the old and new worlds colliding. Tall as the Boabab Tree explores the tensions, quiet victories, and heartbreaks that come with this change. This film is about standing up for your beliefs and doing what you feel is right, no matter what. To me, the film speaks to the energy and idealism of youth while portraying a very stark and realistic world where change is two steps forward and one step back, where the invincibility of youth bends beneath the harsh realities of life –- but is not stamped out.”

Teicher's film (the first to use the colloquial Pulaar language, an ethnic language spoken mainly across West Africa) was inspired by his 2011 documentary short, This Is Us, about the impact of education on the daily lives of children in West Africa. Although Coumba's mother (who entered into an arranged marriage as a girl) tries to explain that her life has not been so bad, after Debo is taken away by her husband-to-be, Coumba must plan for her own future. Her hope? That she and Amady will be able to attend university together. Here's the trailer:

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There's a certain type of play that aims to shock and largely succeeds in its goal. Written by Melissa Fall and directed by Claire Rice, You're Going To Bleed (which is being presented at the EXIT Theatre as part of the 2013 DIVAfest) falls into the category of "dangerously ambitious" work.

The cast of You're Going To Bleed (Photo by: DivaFest)

Fall's black comedy has a lot to do with the battle of the sexes, incoherent misguided fantasies, laying blame, radical feminism, and avenging a spouse's never-ending insults. It puts both the "man" and the "fester" back in manifesto while leaving the audience with some cringe-worthy images. You're Going To Bleed is the rare play that can use a broken unicorn,, a woman who suffers a spontaneous miscarriage while clad in bright yellow jeans, and a bowl of soup containing ground bits of glass instead of alphabet pasta as engines of comic relief. As director Claire Rice explains:
"When writing the press release for this show, we ran into trouble with the word “period.” Should we use it or find a euphemism? It had to be pointed out to us that 'on her period' was itself a euphemism. The play asks that we be able to openly converse about a bodily function as natural as any other. It asks that the shame associated with it be put away, and yet here we were trying to come up with a euphemism for a euphemism because some people may be uncomfortable with the topic. Yet, the fact that Anne is on her period when this play begins is the most comfortable and conforming moment in the play. The rest is squirm-inducing to say the least. Having a vagina doesn’t make me a feminist. Wanting to say 'period' without having to worry about loosing male audiences just might."
Anne (Megan Briggs) confronts her husband (Paul Jennings)
in You're Going To Bleed (Photo by: Claire Rice)

You're Going To Bleed revolves around the following unfortunate souls:
  • Anne (Megan Briggs) is a female attorney who wants to have sex with her husband despite the fact that she is having her period. Fed up with being the family's underappreciated breadwinner and frustrated by the glass ceiling she faces at her law firm -- "What am I supposed to do, file a class-action suit against a bunch of lawyers?" -- she is very close to her breaking point. Will menstruation be enough to send her over the edge or will the arrival of her idiotic kid sister be the more potent catalyst?
  • John (Paul Jennings) is Anne's unemployed husband who has been giving acting lessons to local teenagers. When first seen, John is masturbating to thoughts of having sex with one of the women from Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible (which was written about the Salem witch trials but is ostensibly about McCarthyism). Although John has needs, he has learned to tiptoe around that time of each month when his wife is menstruating. He has never fully recovered from the trauma of the first time they had sex. Anne was having her period (but didn't tell him), there was blood all over the sheets, and after they finished fucking he felt like Lady Macbeth trying to watch the blood off his hands. John's other misfortune is that, whenever he thinks he is safely "monologuing" his inner thoughts to the audience, the women he is talking about can hear him.
Paul Jennings as John in You're Going To Bleed
(Photo by: Claire Rice)
  • Abigail (Margery Fairchild) is one of John's teenage students. Inspired by the character of Abigail Williams in The Crucible, she is having lurid sexual fantasies about her acting coach.
  • Helena (Eden Neuendorf) is Anne's younger sister. After surviving a horrible childhood, she has always been hungry for Anne's approval. Helena has stalked, seduced, and married a man who looks and sounds quite like Hugh Grant because, after all, what woman doesn't want to have sex with Hugh Grant?
  • Grahame (Sam Bertken) is a generic buffoon based on the supposedly irresistible appeal of Hugh Grant.
Sam Bertken (Grahame) and Paul Jennings (John) in
You're Going To Bleed (Photo by: Claire Rice)

At the very least, Melissa Fall's writing is provocative. There are some moments when her play sounds like a feminist tract (in one of John's more frustrated monologues) and others when it turns into the kind of feminist revenge scene that makes men believe in the fearsome monster known as vagina dentata. At the core of You're Going To Bleed is a battle over who owns the power to define the narrative: men or women. Rest assured that when a frustrated wife feeds her husband a dinner containing glass shards, he'll never again trivialize her complaints about her monthly bout with internal bleeding.

John (Paul Jennings), Anne (Megan Briggs), Helena
(Eden Neuendorf), and Grahame (Sam Bertken) sit down to
dinner in You're Going To Bleed (Photo by: Claire Rice)

With sets by Joshua Saulpaw and video by Colin Johnson, You're Going To Bleed offered its actors some ripe opportunities for chewing the scenery. Paul Jennings did a fine job as a sexually frustrated, bull-chested husband whose murderous rage only leaves him feeling more impotent than ever. Megan Briggs and Eden Neuendorf portrayed the two unlucky sisters whose marriages continue to deteriorate.

The evening's top honors, however, went to Margery Fairchild for an inspired haunting (it ain't easy to keep wheezing while you've got a glass unicorn grasped between your teeth) and Sam Bertken for his riotously funny performance as a Hugh Grant knockoff.

The ghost of Abigail (Margery Fairchild) and a unicorn haunt
Anne's family in You're Going To Bleed (Photo by: Claire Rice)

Performances of You're Going To Bleed continue at the EXIT Theatre through June 1 (click here to order tickets). As you watch the show, think about the kind of poetic justice that could be inflicted on conservative Republicans by locking them in the EXIT Theatre and forcing them to experience Melissa Fall's feminist revenge play.