Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Edgy Thrills of Extreme Storytelling

Although it's convenient to think of a ride on MUNI as a gift of free theatre, nothing compares to the wonders that transpire while you're asleep. Whether taking a nap or going for a full eight hours of shut-eye, the periods of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep offer some of the most startling and imaginative visions a person is ever likely to experience.

Dreaming involves a lot more than merely emptying your brain's cache. Images that have been warped, shaded, and revised in ways that go far beyond Photoshop go streaming through one's imagination with a rapid-fire gusto that easily outstrips conscious thought. Wildly improbable scenarios transport the mind into weightless (and often fearless) realms of possibility that, in more traditional forms of storytelling, would rely heavily on magical realism.

Some dreams are quiet and sardonic. The other day I awoke from a dream sequence in which I was seated on a toilet in a large room as Woody Allen and a famous actress stood in front of me, waiting to use the facility. In an attempt to act polite and seem accommodating, I said "Look, I'm squeezing extra hard just for you......"

On other occasions, the sheer physicality of one's dreams can be so intense that it makes the best CGI scripting seem downright puny. One night I dreamt that I was looking through an apartment's glass window toward downtown San Francisco when I witnessed a gigantic explosion. There was no sound and everything else stayed perfectly calm as I watched a huge conflagration engulf an entire city block.

With spontaneous bursts of creativity that can make a person feel like he is traveling in new dimensions, dreams offer the kind of visual and dramatic thrills one rarely finds in real life. Yet many miss out on the magic of dreams because of their need to quantify and control the experience. I once had a roommate (a huge science fiction fan) who insisted that he could program his dreams by deciding what he wanted to dream about. He totally missed the point.

The developers of two new mobile apps are urging users to record their dreams so that their input can be stored in a huge database of dream material.

What these engineers fail to grasp is that most users will lack the language skills, vocabulary, clarity of vision or force of memory to accurately describe what transpired in their dreams. Why? Because the power and magic of dreams can neither be bottled nor digitally preserved.

Nevertheless, someone who is a heavy dreamer probably has had his powers of imagination stretched and toned like a dancer's muscles so that it can be used as a powerful source of inspiration. From Homer and Aesop to Voltaire and Tolkein, writers have created incredible tales capable of provoking fantastical visions.

My own taste favors the kind of author whose perverse sense of humor joins hands with a ribald talent for magical realism. For the past two decades Christopher Moore's comic novels have introduced readers to talking fruit bats and cetaceans who crave pastrami (Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings). From the Island of the Sequined Love Nun to The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, he has taken readers on fabulously improbable adventures.

Whether telling his own version of the story of Jesus in Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal or turning Shakespeare's story of King Lear upside down and inside out in Fool, Moore's hyperactive imagination never fails to impress.

Moore is probably most famous for his trilogy of comic vampire love stories set in San Francisco (Bloodsucking Fiends, You Suck, and Bite Me), which are a far cry from Count Dracula.

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An appreciation of Chris Moore's prowess as a storyteller (I particularly loved Sacré Bleu) comes in handy when experiencing the deliciously perverse tale of Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness. The Shotgun Players recently unveiled a new production of Anthony Neilson's black comedy that was cheekily directed by Beth Wilmurt on a unit set cleverly designed by Nina Ball.

The Scottish playwright (who claims he got booted from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama for insubordination) had his first success when Normal: The Düsseldorf Ripper was performed at the 1991 Edinburgh Festival ("It got me some attention, possibly because it was about a serial killer"). A firm believer that part of an artist's job is to explore and define moralities, Neilson stresses that "No matter how shitty life gets, there's a part of your brain saying that this is good material."

Patrick Kelly Jones and Sarah Moser in Edward Gant's 
Amazing Feats of Loneliness (Photo by: Pak Han)

Part of Neilson's comic strength lies in his ability to find laughs in the most bizarre places. His script contains an hilarious theatrical echo effect as well as the following brilliant line: "He said there was no place in the Catholic church for the sexual molestation of children, so they're building one."

Would you ever imagine Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man) as the star of a romantic comedy?  Perhaps not. Yet, as portrayed by a troupe of traveling actors, the characters in Edward Gant's stories seem to be ripped from the pages of Ripley's Believe It Or Not! -- or on loan from P.T. Barnum's inexhaustible freak show.
  • One is a young woman named Sanzonetta Tutti who suffers from hideous acne (a skin condition so foul that, upon maturing, the cheese stored in her facial zits is transformed into precious pearls that can be squeezed from the pustules on her face. (After seeing this play, no one will ever think of the French word "pamplemousse" as merely another term for the pomelo fruit).
  • Another is a Victorian era rake, a narcissistic lover named Salvatori Avaricci whose lust for conquest causes him to abandon his oozing, pimpled girlfriend in order to hook up with a mysterious oyster named Martine.
  • A third is a man whose brain must be drilled open before the audience by a fakir atop a mountain in Nepal in order to remove the memory of his beloved, who was stung by a bee and died at a picnic
  • A fourth is an actress comically dressed as a back alley abortion.
  • A fifth is a giant teddy bear who desperately longs to be served an imaginary cup of tea.
Ryan Drummond and Sarah Moser in Edward Gant's 
Amazing Feats of Loneliness (Photo by: Pak Han)

Instead of paving a Scottish equivalent of the yellow brick road, Neilson's words build an outrageous path that leads toward a bubbling cesspool of absurdist entertainment (imagine what would happen of Seth MacFarlane and Quentin Tarantino tried to build a vaudeville act together). As the playwright explains:
Edward Gant marked quite a change in my writing style. I'd never been a realist, particularly, but I'd largely stuck to a naturalistic style and more domestic settings. Gant was the moment when I really began to let my imagination run free, to embrace a more theatrically dynamic style and, basically, to have a little more fun with things. It was that moment when I realized (as many artists before me have realized, and as Gant himself says) that the truth of life lies least of all in the facts. Gant is the only play I've written that actually addresses the nature of art and storytelling. But it's full of things that make me laugh. There's a lot of what some might call ‘low-brow' sitting alongside more sophisticated material. I've never been afraid of that kind of juxtaposition and that might be where my Scottishness comes in… a certain earthiness doesn't disqualify something as a work of serious intent.”
Ryan Drummond and Sarah Moser in Edward Gant's 
Amazing Feats of Loneliness (Photo by: Pak Han)

The amazing thing about Neilson's play is how it creeps up on you before sweeping you off your feet and pulling the rug out from underneath. At first, it's hard to figure out the playwright's intentions (or whether the vaudevillian shtick is headed anywhere). But, just as the storytelling becomes almost too bizarre for words, one of the actors steps out of character to argue with his fellow actor/manager, Edward Gant. At that point the show suddenly veers off in a new direction focused on the meaning and importance of theater in our lives.

Blessed by Christine Crook's often hilarious costumes and Jake Rodriquez's excellent sound design, this production should not be missed by anyone who considers himself to be a true culture vulture. With Brian Herndon narrating as the egocentric, opium-addicted Gant, the evening unfolds in the highly capable hands of three extremely versatile actors:
  • Ryan Drummond appears as Salvatori Avaricci, Sergeant Jack Dearlove, Edward Thomas Dawn, a doctor, a pimple, and an absurdly thirsty bear.
  • Patrick Kelly Jones takes on multiple roles as Nicholas Ludd, a Nepalese fakir, and a deceitful Italian sister.
  • As an actress named Madame Poulet, Sarah Moser appears as the Princess of Pustules, Louisa von Kettelmein, a back alley abortion, and a bear.
Patrick Kelly Jones in Edward Gant's Amazing 
Feats of Loneliness (Photo by: Pak Han)

Performances of Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness continue at the Ashby Stage through January 12 (click here to order tickets). I'd easily rate this as one of the most astonishing Bay area productions of 2013.

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