Thursday, October 10, 2013

Back From The Dead

If the dead have no way of defending themselves, how can one libel the dead? After all, libeling someone is hardly the same thing as labeling them.

On October 19, biblical scholar Joseph Atwill is scheduled to address the Covert Messiah Conference in London to explain how he can prove that Jesus Christ was never a real person. Atwill's new book, Caesar's Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus, claims that Jesus was little more than a piece of psychological warfare concocted by the Roman Empire as a propaganda tool to stop some overly zealous Jews who were determined to identify a Messiah. Talk about "stealing someone's thunder"!

In the following three video clips, four of America's "best Christians" (Stephen Colbert, Bill O'Reilly, Michele Bachmann, and Mrs. Betty Bowers) share their collective knowledge about the wit and wisdom of Jesus Christ:

The Colbert Report
Get More: Colbert Report Full Episodes,Video Archive

Just as religious fanatics let their paranoia and imaginations run rampant while interpreting scripture, playwrights and novelists use every trick in the book to make miracles happen, explain a character's motivation, or clear a dead person's name. Whether resorting to flashbacks, hallucinations, or magical realism, they can use extralegal devices to exonerate someone from charges of murder or bring the dead back to life with remarkable ease. Consider the following two examples:

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The San Francisco Opera recently presented the world premiere of Tobias Picker's new opera, Dolores Claiborne. Based on the 1992 novel by Stephen King (which led to a powerful movie starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh), much of Picker's adaptation is told in flashbacks as Dolores sits in the sparse and dismal office of Detective Thibodeau (Greg Fedderly), steadfastly refusing to let him bully her into confessing the murder of her elderly employer, Vera Donovan (Elizabeth Futral).

While everyone on the small island off the coast of Maine knows that Dolores murdered her husband, Joe St. George (Wayne Tigges) after learning that he had been sexually abusing their daughter, Selena, no one has ever really grasped the odd relationship between Dolores and Vera, which is based on a bitter understanding that "an accident can be a lonely woman's best friend."

Picker's opera traveled a rocky road to its opening night. Despite the best laid plans for a work built around the vocal and physical strengths of mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, barely a month before the premiere Zajick was forced to withdraw from the production because of health problems. Patricia Racette (who was then in rehearsal for the season's opening night production of Mefistofele) agreed to learn the role in time to open the production and appear in its first four performances while Catherine Cook (Zajick's understudy) would appear in the final two performances (the one I attended marked Cook's debut in the role).

Catherine Cook as Dolores Claiborne (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

One aspect of this kind of operatic crisis management that has not received enough attention is that all three women (Zajick, Racette, and Cook) are former Adler Fellows who received a great deal of their training from the San Francisco Opera and nurtured their careers under its roof. Their work during those early years helped to build a special kind of relationship in which the opera company acquired an intimate knowledge of each artist's working habits, artistic strengths, and ability to deliver in a crisis. The performer, in turn, feeling a strong loyalty to the company that helped shape her (as both an opera singer and working professional) is eager to help.

Despite some quick rewriting by the composer, the sudden shift in vocal range from the earthiness of Zajick's booming mezzo to the slightly lighter soprano voices of Racette and Cook took a dramatic bite out of the opera which, on such short notice, was pretty much unavoidable. Although Catherine Cook gave a thoroughly committed performance in the title role, most of her attempts to communicate her character's Yankee gruffness came through in moments of silence rather than song.

The result was a diminished contrast between the voices of Dolores and Vera and an odd shift in dramatic power to the piece's villain. Every time Wayne Tigges began to sing, the sheer physical power of his voice (combined with the brutish masculinity of his character) seemed to turn Picker's opera upside down and inside out.

Wayne Tigges as Joe St. George (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Overall, I found the production's set design by Allen Moyer, lighting by Christopher Akerlind, and projections by Greg Emetaz to be far more satisfying than either Picker's music or James Robinson's stage direction. Considering the great characters and deeply moving story created by Stephen King, I found J.D. McClatchy's terse libretto lacking in dramatic power and frequently incomprehensible. Even the solo aria for the heroine's daughter, Selena St. George (Susannah Biller), seemed to have been inserted into the second act from another world.

Despite some solid work by George Manahan on the podium, I never got the feeling that Picker's opera had managed to achieve "lift off." Attempts to use a series of black curtains to simulate a lens opening and closing on certain scenes only kept reminding me that some effects work better on film for specific reasons.

To its credit, Dolores Claiborne has one shining asset with which few, if any operas, can hope to compete: a murder planned to take place during a solar eclipse. While the carefully choreographed scene led to the welcome demise of an abusive husband, I found the execution of the eclipse far more intriguing and satisfying than Picker's music (or, for that matter, the interaction between Dolores and her husband in that scene). I can't help thinking that certain dramatic moments (whose musical support can be thrilling onscreen) simply don't fare as well in a fully-staged operatic environment. Librettist J.D. McClatchy readily admits that:
"Opera is closer to film than it is to prose. Though it moves so much more slowly, opera has either learned from film or taught it lessons in montage and pacing, the texture of time, the pitch of the close-up. I want the words to have resonance, and to create a pattern of images that gives depth to a character. Film has more speed and variety, but opera has more intensity. Film has more subtlety, opera more grandeur and intimacy. Film has more excitement, opera more emotional depth.”
Therein lies the key to many of Dolores Claiborne's problems, rather than its solutions. Here's the trailer:

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The California Shakespeare Theater is finishing off its 2013 season with A Winter's Tale, one of Shakespeare's less frequently performed and more convoluted works. As a car salesman might say: This piece has everything!
  • An insecure king with lousy political skills and an easily wounded ego.
  • A faithful wife whom he sentences to death for her supposed infidelity.
  • A royal heir (Mamilius, son of Leontes and Hermione) who dies of the depression brought on by his father's abject stupidity and cruelty to his Queen.
  • The promise of young love between Perdita and Florizel.
  • A great Shakespearean clown offering the kind of wit and wisdom that eludes most royals.
  • A statue that comes to life, restoring Hermione to her previous state.
  • An Oracle who proclaims the innocence of Hermione and Polixenes and has no connection whatsoever to Larry Ellison.
  • A talking clock that announces the passage of 16 years' time.
  • One of Shakespeare's greatest pieces of stage direction: "Exit, pursued by a bear."
Christopher Michael Rivera as Autolycus in A Winter's Tale
(Photo by:

As directed by Patricia McGregor (with some wonderful costume work by Katherine Nowacki and "fabric connoisseur" Erica Varize), this production was notable for its tricky lighting (hat tip to Russell Champa), and the occasionally thunderous sound design by Will McCandless. Michael Locher's jigsaw puzzle of a set managed to pull off some fascinating transitions between scenes with grace and style.

Michael Locher's set design for A Winter's Tale at California
Shakespeare Theatre (Photo by: Patricia McGregor

I doubt many Tea Party conservatives would enjoy this imaginative and ebullient production, whose cast was heavily populated by minorities and features some of the Bay area's most outstanding African American actors.
A radiant Tristan Cunningham performs in Shakespeare's
A Winter's Tale (Photo by:
  • The ravishingly beautiful and radiant Tristan Cunningham appears as Perdita (the daughter of Leontes and Hermione who knows nothing of her royal lineage), Emilia (one of Hermione's ladies in waiting), and a pre-show clown.
  • Tyee Tilghman doubles as the loyal Sicilian noble, Camillo, and the amorous Florizel (the only son and heir to Polixenes), who is determined to woo Perdita.
  • A shape-shifting Christopher Michael Rivera appears as Autolycus (a talented pickpocket and peddler) and Antigonus (a loyal friend to Hermione).
Omozé Idehenre, Margo Hall, and Peter L. Callender in
A Winter's Tale (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

One of the odd joys of this production is how Omozé Idehenre (a graduate of A.C.T.'s Master of Fine Arts program) quietly redefines the concept of female beauty to realign it with the fertility of the Earth Mother. A fully-figured woman whose voluptuousness is more Rubenesque than most contemporary actresses, Idehenre begins the evening as an extremely pregnant Queen of Sicily who is all-a-tingle and all-aglow with expectancy, but finishes up as a reclining statue come to life in a most statuesque manner. The company's artistic director, Jonathan Moscone, admits that:
"I grew up Catholic, and so my readings and experiences of A Winter’s Tale have, for many years, been through the lens of Biblical interpretations.  Although I am no longer religious, I am still struck, perhaps more deeply than ever, by the miracles enacted in this most exquisite Romance. More than struck, I am in awe. There is something bigger at work here but, as I see it now, what is divine is found in the human. It is within each of us: the power to hurt, to destroy, to rebuild, to expand, and to imagine; and to realize a new identity, for the self, for the family, for the community, for society."
Margo Hall and Christopher Michael Rivera in a scene
from A Winter's Tale (Photo by:

One's chances of seeing this play staged are quite rare. While I was impressed by the cast and production, I also found myself reflecting on how the cruelty of winter's dark and spiteful choices can begin with shallow behavior, take us to fallow fields, and yet eventually be replaced through the power of nature and the appearance of the proverbial "flowers that bloom in the spring." Performances of A Winter's Tale continue at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheatre in Orinda through October 20 (click here to order tickets).

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