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:

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