Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Through A Lens, Darkly

Have you ever sat through a full-length feature that could have ended several times? Or been trimmed by at least 20 minutes?  If so, you might find a treasure trove of cinema in the recent crop of short films, including some that were chosen for the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Not every short film is a joke or a mini-documentary. Like short stories, some of these films frame a remarkable slice of drama within a very brief screening time. This is especially true when it comes to offering insights into the lives and fears of young children.

In Charles Blecker's six-minute Epitaph, a young boy is seen making preparations to bury his dead pet (the latest in a long history of animal friends to succumb). The catch here is that Billy Coffin (who takes his last name very seriously) has always had a hobby of writing very serious epitaphs for his pets -- as well as imagining what his own should sound like (let's hope his parents guide him toward a career as a funeral director).

While some viewers might find Billy (Graham Bennett) to be an exceptionally morbid soul, toward the end of the film he's joined by a young girl (Miranda Autumn Lewis) who completely understands his attachment to his pets. The two almost effortlessly form a strong bond. This short film is notable for Sebastian Kleppe's outstanding cinematography.

Billy Coffin (Graham Bennett) finds a sympathetic new friend
(Miranda Autumn Lewis) in Charles Blecker's Epitaph

A beautiful work of hand-drawn animation by Roberto Kondo and Daisuke "Dice" Tsutsumi can be found in their 18-minute story about a lonely little pig who is constantly bullied at school. Not every pig gets to live in a windmill where he has the responsibility of making sure the gears work properly to keep pollution from darkening the skies. In The Dam Keeper, audiences are treated to a poignant tale that children of any age can relate to. It's not often that a put-upon porcine protagonist finds a pretty new pal and manages to push back against the perils of pollution. It's even rarer that the story is rendered so beautifully. Here's a teaser for The Dam Keeper:

There comes a time in every child's life when a stuffed toy or teddy bear is no longer a cherished confidant. Nor is the imaginary friend (whose evil twin may return in adulthood when a person starts hearing voices) given much thought once he has been abandoned by a child. Most people regard a child's growing maturity as the passage from innocence toward a fully-functioning adult.

No more famous example of this may exist than Clara's sexual awakening during a dream sequence as a nutcracker doll given to her by Herr Drosselmeyer is magically transformed into a handsome young prince. In the following clip (accompanied by some of Tchaikovsky's most orgasmic music) Rudolf Nureyev and Merle Park perform the Grand Pas de Deux from Act II of The Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker.

In Kate Tsang's delightful 15-minute short, So You’ve Grown Attached, the situation is viewed from a unique perspective. For as long as she can remember, Izzy (Madeleine Connor) has shared all of her activities and intimate thoughts with her invisible friend, Ex (Simon Pearl). The day finally comes when Izzy's attention is drawn to a young boy who shares her passion for comic books.

Although Izzy can't quite articulate what is driving her attraction to Ron (Jake Miller), her tight bond with Ex quickly evaporates into thin air. This, of course, leaves Izzy's imaginary friend in a quandary, which leads him to seek advice and solace from other imaginary friends who have been dumped -- such as BearBear (Patrick Fleury). Tsang's quirky, absurdist film is a refreshing delight.  Here's the teaser.

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Once adolescence sets in strange things start to happen. Puberty can skew one's perspectives on the world, as can one's exposure to guns, disease, and power. A 22-minute short by Serge Mirzabekiants is darkly lit to the point where the uncomfortable sibling rivalry between two brothers -- 11-year-old Albert (Alexis Lalmand) and his 13-year-old brother Edgar (Lucas Moreau) -- seems doomed from the start.

Albert (Alexis Lalmand) heads into the forest holding his
deceased grandfather's treasured Winchester rifle

Guns play a major role in The Birds’ Blessing, and not just because of the traditional hunt held each year by a family that lives near the edge of a forest. When their father (Eric De Staercke) sends his two sons into the woods with specific instructions about where to go and what to do, Albert and Edgar are already challenged by circumstance.
  • Albert (the good son) has been given the privilege of using his deceased grandfather's Winchester rifle.
  • Edgar (the bad son) takes out his resentment toward his younger brother by abandoning him in the forest and, when Albert ends up screaming for help after finding himself trapped in a deep pool of mud, humiliating him.
A terrified Albert (Alexis Lalmand) cries out to his
brother Edgar for help in The Birds' Blessing

Later, when the brothers return to the family's mansion, Albert is shocked to encounter his grandmother (Jocelyne Verdiere) holding a shotgun barrel just below her jaw in her desperate desire to escape from the boredom and hopelessness of widowhood and old age. The Birds' Blessing is a severely disquieting coming-of-age story which will leave a chilling impression on viewers. Olivier Boonjing's foreboding cinematography coupled with the deceptively delicate musical score creates a sense of heightened suspense. Here's the trailer:

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One could consider The Master’s Voice: Caveirao, a surreal 11-minute short by Guilhereme Marcondes, as a Brazilian nightmare or a warning about the dangers of living in an authoritarian police state. The film essentially describes "the eternal battle for the soul of Sao Paulo, the clash between bohemia and authoritarianism; between comedy and horror."  Every night at 3:33 a.m. in the mythical city of 'M,' all clocks come to a halt. For a moment, time is frozen. During what might seem like a fraction of second to mortal eyes, a second night filled with magical realism is revealed as bizarre spirits come out to play.

In far too many ways, The Master's Voice: Caveirao, is a sight to behold, a nightmarish free-for-all enhanced by a lively musical score by Paulo Beto -- Anvil FX. Here's the trailer:

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LBJ has been making headlines again this year. Following the end of the Breaking Bad series, actor Bryan Cranston has been starring in Robert Schenkkan's play about the 36th President of the United States entitled All The Way. And, on April 8, 2014, President Barack Obama delivered the keynote address at a Civil Rights Summit held at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

However, the LBJ that has been memorialized in popular culture is a far cry from the man portrayed in a seven-minute short by Kelly Sears entitled The Rancher. Narrated by Sam Martinez, and billed as a "quasi-historical thriller," the film portrays Johnson as suffering from a potent combination of nightmares and sleep deprivation. Using a combination of archival footage and distorted images, Sears gives viewers the impression of a powerful man struggling to cope with the burden of carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Let There Be Light

Few artists paint from the perspective that "You're only as big as the canvas that's facing you." Sculpted by the father-and-son team of Gutzon and Lincoln Borglum, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial is one of the few exceptions to the rule. After receiving Congressional approval, the project (which would carve the faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt out of granite) took 14 years to complete.

While the Mount Rushmore National Memorial was originally conceived as a mammoth sculpture that could spur tourism to the Black Hills of South Dakota, it also became a massive patriotic and artistic inspiration to those who visited the memorial (especially when one considers that the sculpture was created long before computers were available to artists).

Throughout history, artists have left their mark on one civilization after another. Sometimes, those with the deepest appreciation of art may surprise you. Consider the following quotation from the Pirate King in Gilbert and Sullivan's 1879 comic opera, The Pirates of Penzance:
Although our dark career
Sometimes involves the crime of stealing,
We rather think that we're not altogether void of feeling.
Although we live by strife, we're always sorry to begin it,
For what, we ask, is life without a touch of Poetry in it?

Hail, Poetry, thou heav'n-born maid!
Thou gildest e'en the pirate's trade.
Hail, flowing fount of sentiment!
All hail, all hail, divine emollient!"
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While the personal computer has changed the way most of us live our lives, it's often mind-boggling to think of the impact computer technology has had on creative types. Back in August 1966, when The Doors recorded Light My Fire, they were hoping for a hit song. I'm sure they had no concept of what might happen if someone hooked a laptop computer up to a pyro board that was, in effect, a two-dimensional Rubens' tube. In the following video clip, Sune Nielsen gives new meaning to the phrase "Come on, baby, light my fire!"

Similarly, when Thomas Edison invented the first commercially practical incandescent lightbulb in 1879, his mind would have reeled at the thought of digitally mapping projected light onto the interior of a 367-foot tall gas tank in Oberhausen, Germany to create an artistic experience like Gasometer Oberhausen.

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Among the 168 entries being screened at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival, several are devoted to artists using digital technology to create art with light. Max Hattler's A Very Large Increase in the Size, Amount, or Importance of Something Over a Very Short Period of Time may last only two minutes, but it leaves a lasting impression.

In describing his two-minute short entitled Cosmic Flower Unfolding, Ben Ridgway writes:
"One day while meditating I tried to visualize in my mind’s eye how I might be able to animate a flower unfolding made up of glowing, pulsating shapes. When I did this I spontaneously saw a face made up of intricate glowing shapes that glowed like neon. The face was inhaling and exhaling at the same time and seemed to represent the exchange of energy and life that we experience through human existence. Every time I thought about making a film, this experience would come back to me, beckoning me to translate it into a moving image.

At the time, I had been studying the illustrations of Ernest Haeckel and was planning on doing an homage to his work at some point. The marriage of oceanic motifs inspired by Haeckel mixed with the flower idea excited me and became the driving inspiration for the film. Ernest Haeckel is famous for his incredibly intricate renditions of animals and sea creatures. Many of his images exhibit noticeable symmetry both through individual forms and overall composition. To me, he uncovered the divine in his work through masterfully transforming mundane life forms into idealized artistic interpretations of those forms."
It's worth checking out Ridgway's blog to see more of his designs. In the meantime, here's the trailer for Cosmic Flower Unfolding.

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Suppose someone gets the funding to create a huge piece of public art that enhances the environment, engenders civic pride, entertains millions of delighted viewers and provides a new scenic vista to a city whose economy thrives on tourism. Once the installation is complete, the initial publicity cycle has run its course, and approval ratings are sky high, if a cost analysis shows that it only requires $30 a night to pay for the electricity to keep it running, would the project's funders consider raising a few million more to keep the display going for years to come?  You'd better believe it!

Although the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opened to the public six months prior to the Golden Gate Bridge, it has always remained in the shadow of the Bay area's most famous tourist attraction. Designed to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Bay Bridge, the idea for The Bay Lights project is credited to Ben Davis who, along with Leo Villareal had enjoyed numerous trips to Burning Man.

The immense -- and intense -- challenges facing Davis, Villareal, and Executive Producer Amy Critchett are the subject of a thrilling (and often breathtaking) documentary by Jeremy Ambers entitled Impossible Light. While the narrative includes enough statistics to choke a horse (60,000 zip ties, 500 feet tall, 25,000 individual white LED lights strung over 1.8 miles of bridge cable, $8 million raised through donations and private sources), the behind-the-scenes drama that rests on the foundation of Kevin T. Doyle's elegant musical score anchors a great story that climaxes with the debut of The Bay Lights on the rainy night of March 5, 2013.

While plenty of attention is focused on Villareal's installation, Impossible Light derives even greater depth and strength from three of the film's key elements:
  • Natural Beauty: The San Francisco Bay area is noted for its scenic splendor. However, frequent aerial footage of the visual interplay between the Bay, the fog, and two landmark bridges provides a rich sense of scope and spectacle.
  • Man-made Beauty: The ability to get inside the project by accompanying Caltrans workers and the creative team as they climb the cables of the Bay Bridge and navigate their way through the installation process provides some awe-inspiring footage of the bridge itself.
  • Digitized Beauty: Leo Villareal's ability to work with algorithms as a means of crafting a light sculpture offers an astounding display of how computer technology has become a powerful tool for working artists.
As a documentary film, Impossible Light captures what can happen when a rare combination of civic involvement, digital and civil engineering, artistic vision, and cinematography unite to help the private sector and a government agency join forces on a creative project. As the old saying goes, "That thing's a real piece of work!" Here's the trailer:

Thursday, April 24, 2014

For Those With Absolutely No Interest in Pirates

Facebook's COO, Sheryl Sandberg, titled her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. In her new memoir, A Fighting Chance, Elizabeth Warren recalls how, during her 2012 campaign for the United States Senate, she would frequently introduce herself to young girls by making eye contact as she said “I’m Elizabeth and I’m running for Senate, because that’s what girls do."

Much has been written about how the power networks in Washington, D.C. and Silicon Valley essentially operate like old-fashioned sausage factories, with much of the tech industry oozing near-toxic levels of a "bro" mentality. In her recent article entitled What Are Misogynist Geeks So Afraid Of?, Amanda Marcotte (the author of It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments) writes:
"You see, as a big punk and indie rock fan, I witnessed something similar happen in the 1990s in that scene. Women who wanted to play instruments in rock bands got a lot of shit from dudes. A lot of men who otherwise thought of themselves as progressive and enlightened would immediately bunch up the second they saw a woman playing guitar. This woman could do something they couldn't do, or could do it better. The possibility that they weren't inherently better just by virtue of being male was raised. So they tried to shut it down, reassert themselves and their social superiority (usually through sexual harassment, which is the cheapest and easiest way for a man to assert his male privilege). It sucked. Women fought back. Sexist dudes heckled louder.

Eventually, however -- in no small part because the ugly attempts to assert male privilege started to evolve into bands like Limp Bizkit (showing exactly how much of an intellectual embarrassment misogyny really is) the women started winning. Nowadays, you go to clubs and women are up there playing. By and large, they are left alone. Occasionally some asshole will try to say something, but it’s a lot better than it used to be, by a long shot. The number of women on stage in punk and indie clubs seems much higher to me than it did when I was in my late teens and early 20s."
Founded in July 2008, Bay Area Girls Rock Camp is the kind of summer program Marcotte might have loved to attend in her youth. The following documentary by Lily Yu, Judy Lee, and Jeremiah Mellor is being screened during the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival.

But what if you're a spoiled teenage girl who finds herself in the following predicament:
  • Because of your family's extreme wealth, you have no friends.
  • After staying out all night, every night, haunting the club scene and getting very little sleep, you're prone to frequent bouts of narcolepsy.
  • Having been indicted for running a lucrative Ponzi scheme, your father (a Bernard Madoff type) is headed off to jail.
  • Although your big dream in life is to be hired as a drummer in a rock band, you ain't got no talent.
The answer should be obvious: You end up as the protagonist in a new musical -- but not just any musical. A musical with all this intrigue and a telltale tattoo, too!

Poster art for Sleeping Cutie with Jesse Caldwell as the Father
and Marissa Joy Ganz as his daughter, Lucy

The creative team for Sleeping Cutie: A Fractured Fairy Tale Musical knows its theatre history well. Not only have they named the show's musical finale "Deus Ex Machina" (after a stage gimmick that was quite popular in ancient Greek theatre), they've obviously learned a lesson from the pre-Broadway tryout of 1962's hit musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

When Forum was foundering during its Washington tryout, Jerome Robbins was brought in as a show doctor to help the creative team (Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove, and Larry Gelbart). Most people were unaware of the backstage tensions caused by his presence. Jim Brochu describes what happened in his one-man show entitled Zero Hour.

As an experienced dancer, director and choreographer, Robbins quickly identified the problem: The opening number "(Love Is In The Air") wasn't working and needed to be replaced. The audience needed to be told what Forum was all about at the beginning of the evening in order for them to understand the inspiration for its particular style of low comedy.

The opening number that Robbins devised ("Comedy Tonight") became a Broadway classic. After Forum opened to rave reviews in New York, it received the 1963 Tony Award for Best Musical and ran for 964 performances,

Faced with so many fairy tales that have become cultural landmarks (not to mention popular adaptations of the Sleeping Beauty legend for ballet, animation, and updated versions of the story for film and stage), Diane Sampson (who wrote the book and lyrics for Sleeping Cutie) decided to set the tone from the beginning with an opening number entitled "What This Isn't."

With the tone of the piece firmly established, she was able to introduce a cast of characters familiar to modern audiences.
  • The Father (Jesse Caldwell) is a classic swindler who, faced with many years in jail, is having major regrets about the number of lives he has ruined. The person he is most concerned about, however, is his teenage daughter who seems alone and directionless.
  • Mary (Stephanie Prentice) is the archetypal housekeeper-guardian left behind to look over Lucy while her father is in prison.
  • Lucy (Marissa Joy Ganz) is a spoiled brat whose mother disappeared when Lucy was very young. As a result, she has never had to think of anyone's needs but her own.
Marissa Joy Ganz is Lucy in Sleeping Cutie
(Photo by: Mellopix, Inc.)

Supporting characters that cross paths with the principals are handled by proteans Man #1 (John Patrick Moore) and Man #2 (Buzz Halsing), And then there are the two love interests:
  • Charlie (Luke Chapman) is the blind lead singer in a rock group which is auditioning female drummers for their band. He quickly falls for Lucy's questionable charms.
  • The Woman (Gwen Loeb) is a patient in a rehabilitation center for people with psychological problems who has been chatting online with Lucy's father and pushing for a chance to visit him in prison.
Gwen Loeb is a woman of mystery in Sleeping Cutie
(Photo by: Mellopix, Inc.)

Co-produced by Playground and Off A Cliff Productions, Sleeping Cutie recently enjoyed its world premiere at San Francisco's Thick House. In her director's note, Cindy Goldfield writes:
"Directing a new musical is a funny thing. A lesson in trust, intuition, patience, and inspiration. My favorite part of the process (with the input of the playwright, composer, and the actors) is discovering the basic core themes which generally are present even in early drafts... the playwright's voice ringing out even when they may not be able to articulate it themselves. Forgiveness. Retribution. Acceptance. Renewal. Fate. Recovery. Compassion. The themes of this play are big and lush, sometimes humorous and sometimes scary. Not your usual fare for a traditional musical ... which this is not. In working on Cutie, what struck me were the internal struggles of the characters. The courage in reaching out for connection, trusting an intuition, finding strength in vulnerability. These universal human themes inspired me at every turn."

Buzz Halsing, Jesse Caldwell, and John Patrick Moore perform
"The Carlo Ponzi Shuffle" in Sleeping Cutie (Photo by: Mellopix, Inc.) 

Sleeping Cutie features a clever, well-crafted book by Diane Sampson, clearly-defined characters and some delightful plot twists. Why then, did I leave the theatre feeling strangely unfulfilled? Perhaps it was because I couldn't remember a single note (much less a complete song) from Doug Katsaros's highly functional but not particularly memorable score.

The problem may have more to do with its execution on opening night than its basic composition. While each of the actors had a distinct voice, there seemed to be an odd imbalance at crucial moments. Marissa Joy Ganz's Lucy tended toward shrillness while Gwen Loeb's sweet soprano allowed her songs ("How I See It" and "Then and Now") to resonate with more empathy. Unfortunately, John Patrick Moore's upper range was simply not up to the vocal demands of Katsaros's music.

John Patrick Moore, Luke Chapman, and Buzz Halsing are part
of a rock band in Sleeping Cutie (Photo by: Mellopix, Inc.) 

Keeping in mind that this production was mounted on a shoestring budget, these are minor quibbles which can probably be fixed with more money and better musical preparation. Performances of Sleeping Cutie continue at Thick House through May 11 (click here to order tickets).

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Silence Is Not Always Golden

On October 19, 1959, William Gibson's powerful drama, The Miracle Worker, had its Broadway premiere at the Playhouse Theatre. Starring Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan and a very young Patty Duke as Helen Keller (by the time I saw the production, Suzanne Pleshette had replaced Anne Bancroft), Gibson's drama portrayed the crucial moment when Helen Keller (who was deaf, blind, and mute) was able to connect the dots and start to associate signed words with sounds. In the following news clip from 1930, Keller and Sullivan recall that breakthrough moment.

Keller's realization that "I am not dumb now" marked a huge step forward from the conventional terminology which had labeled her as "deaf, dumb, and blind." As modern medicine developed a deeper understanding of people with hearing and visual disabilities, new technologies led to the development of pioneering treatments with stem cells, bionic eyescochlear implants, and a greater sensitivity to the needs of those who are deaf and/or blind.

With more and more professional resources available to people with visual and auditory handicaps (and greater support networks for them), many have been able to live independently in ways that were previously unimaginable. A charming six-minute short film by Chaitanya Gopinath entitled Lunch with Yoshi (which is being screened during the San Francisco International Film Festival) follows a blind woman around Bangkok as she shops, rides the city's mass transit, and prepares lunch for a visiting friend.

Poster art for Lunch With Yoshi

As part of his research and preparation for filming, Gopinath tried his luck riding Bangkok's Skytrain while blindfolded so that he could experience what it is like for his protagonist to rely on the kindness of strangers to help her navigate her way through a busy city. Not only did the experience help him understand the challenges someone like Yoshimi Horiuchi faces on a daily basis, it made him acutely aware of his own abilities as a sighted person.

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The recent death of actress Phyllis Frelich brought back memories of my first exposure to Mark Medoff's award-winning play, Children of a Lesser God.  Back in the 1970s, the New York City Opera used to perform at the Los Angeles Music Center following its fall season at Lincoln Center. Having attended many performances by New York City Opera while I was in college, I didn't hesitate to travel to Los Angeles for a week's vacation.

During one trip in November or December of 1979, I caught a matinee performance of Medoff's play at the Mark Taper Forum and was completely blown away by Frelich's impassioned performance as Sarah Norman, a deaf woman who was formerly a student of James Leeds (played by John Rubinstein). Following its transfer to Broadway, Children of a Lesser God won the 1980 Tony Award for Best Play. Both Frelich and Rubenstein won Tony Awards for Best Actor.

Flash forward 35 years to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's new production of Tribes, the award-winning British dramedy by Nina Raine which deals with the plight of a young deaf man who was raised by parents who didn't want him to learn sign language. Instead, Billy (James Caverly) was taught how to read lips and became quite proficient at it. Unfortunately, Billy's nuclear family is a toxic mess.
  • His father, Christopher (Paul Whitworth), is an academic bully who talks over everyone else and derives a somewhat perverse pleasure from intimidating people he assumes to be his intellectual inferiors. Try to imagine John McCain as an extremely condescending, long-tenured university professor who has stayed too long at the fair.
  • Billy's mother, Beth (Anita Carey) has literary aspirations which are frequently derided by her husband. Although she often manages to hold her own against Christopher's narcissistic bullying, after long years of marriage her admiration for his intellect has worn thin. With her three grown children having recently returned to live at home, she has plenty to deal with.
Paul Whitworth (Christopher) and Anita Carey (Beth)
in Tribes (Photo by: Mellopix, Inc.)
  • Billy's sister, Ruth (Elizabeth Morton), is desperate to find a boyfriend and wonders what she lacks that could make her life so boring. Despite a lack of any talent or training, she imagines she could become an opera singer. Some members of the audience might find Ruth (who is nowhere near as intellectually gifted as the rest of her family) to bear a striking resemblance to Meg Griffin on Family Guy.
  • Billy's brother, Dan (Dan Clegg) is a selfish, depressed, and desperately lonely soul who suffers from auditory hallucinations. He is terrified that Billy might become independent and leave him alone.
Dan Clegg (Dan) and James Caverly (Billy) in Tribes
(Photo by: Mellopix, Inc.)

One night, Billy goes to a party for deaf people and meets an attractive young woman named Sylvia (Nell Geisslinger). The daughter of deaf parents, Sylvia has been able to hear and speak since birth but is starting to lose her hearing.

Whereas Billy has gone through life lip reading, Sylvia has always used sign language to communicate with her parents. She sees herself belonging to the "Deaf Community" (where deaf people communicate by signing) as opposed to the "deaf community" (where deaf people essentially rely on lip reading).

Not only does Sylvia's interest in Billy inspire him to learn sign language, it also leads to a peculiar job opportunity which, as Billy shows increasing talent, raises the possibility of him leaving his family's home and moving in with Sylvia.

James Caverly (Billy) and Nell Geisslinger (Sylvia)
in Tribes (Photo by: Mellopix, Inc.)

The bookshelves in Todd Rosenthal's intricately designed set are overflowing with the kind of collection that would make any university professor proud. But in many ways, the inability of Billy's family to truly listen to what he is trying to say (or even try to understand his feelings) leads to a bitter confrontation when Billy realizes that he belongs with a tribe of deaf people who sign rather than his nuclear family. The Act I finale -- in which the family gathers around the piano to listen to Sylvia play music as Billy stands silently, not hearing any sound and unable to participate in a group activity with the people he loves -- is heartbreaking.

Jonathan Moscone has done a superb job of staging Tribes for Berkeley Rep with a keen focus on demonstrating how some people don't listen and, whether by choice or because of a physical disability, some people don't hear. Thanks to Jake Rodriguez's sound design, the audience is able to understand the difference in the types of noise that Billy's family hears, Billy doesn't hear, and Sylvia is starting to hear replacing the sound of her voice and what she has grown up able to hear.

As Billy's situation with his family, with Sylvia, and with his new job starts to deteriorate, it's a rare treat to witness Caverly's impassioned performance rise to the boiling point. The following clip from the show's 2010 world premiere in London offers fascinating insights into the research Raine did while writing the play and how some of her consultants reacted to its premiere. To my mind, this clip offers the best advertisement to convince theatergoers they should purchase tickets to a performance of Tribes.

Tribes continues at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through May 18 (click here to order tickets). Capital Stage in Sacramento recently announced that it will open its 2014-2015 season with its own production of Tribes in September.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Papa, Can You Hear Me?

As politicians and pundits ponder America's diminishing middle class, more than one baby boomer has noticed a peculiar phenomenon afflicting younger generations. While the parents of baby boomers may have worked hard to ensure that their children enjoyed more opportunities than their parents had been able to provide, a surplus of riches has resulted in a curious form of paralysis.

Many baby boomers grew up in a time when their choices were pretty obvious. Sure,there were chores to be done and goals to be met for their children (piano lessons, ballet classes, summer camp, etc.) But not a lot of money could be squandered on meaningless frivolity.

By contrast, today's young consumers have so many options at their fingertips that much more time is spent in pursuit of instant gratification than being productive. Easily distracted by mobile devices and a celebrity-driven media, many young adults have money to spare.

Those enjoying newfound wealth through high-paying jobs or their professional success don't feel the same kind of urgency their parents did with regard to managing their time or dealing with financial matters. Some have developed into entrepreneurial toxic cartoons.

Despite their constant braying about the need to have marriage defined as being the relationship between one man and one woman, the conservatives who espouse traditional family values have been forced to acknowledge that new kinds of families exist in America.
For many families, the unsung hero in a child's life may be a teacher, coach, or mentor who provides the kind of role model or trusted friend that may not be available at home.  The following YouthFX short, Inside the Ring (which is being screened at this month's San Francisco International Film Festival), was filmed at a boxing club in Albany, New York where Jerrick Jones has been an inspiration and mentor to generations of aspiring athletes.

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Alas, there are also men who, though they remain at home and function as breadwinners, are not the most loving people in the world. A prime example of this would be Troy Maxson, the protagonist in August Wilson's poignant Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Fences (which had its world premiere at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut in 1983).

I first saw Wilson's play during its 1987 pre-Broadway tryout at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco with James Earl Jones in the lead role. At the time, I found it difficult to appreciate Wilson's play. Numerous factors might have affected my experience that evening.
  • My first exposure to James Earl Jones had been his bravura performance in The Great White Hope on Broadway in 1969. While Jack Johnson was a powerfully heroic figure, Troy Maxson was not what anyone would call a sympathetic character. A garbage collector in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who, after finally being promoted to a truck driving position, saw no reason to get a driver's license, he was an old-fashioned macho bully. Troy cheated on his wife and didn't particularly like his children. But, hey, it was the 1950s.
  • By 1987, many San Franciscans were living in a constant state of mourning due to the AIDS crisis. People's politically correct nerves were frayed, to say the least. Listening to African American men calling each other "nigger" onstage may have been one more depressing use of language that I could have lived without that evening.
But times change. Audiences change and, as new actors step into the shoes of the characters a playwright has created, their personalities, physiques, and professional training reshape the dramatic experience. The following clip allows viewers to compare two markedly different portrayals of Troy Maxson:

Fences was the sixth installment written in Wilson's 100-year "Pittsburgh cycle" or "Century cycle" of plays set in Pittsburgh's Hill District (each play takes place during a different decade). Wilson received Pulitzer Prizes for Drama for Fences (1987) and The Piano Lesson (1990). On October 16, 2005, the Virginia Theatre was renamed the August Wilson Theatre in honor of the playwright who had died two weeks earlier at the age of 60.

So far, I've seen productions of Fences, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Radio Golf, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and Seven Guitars. The Marin Theatre Company, which has set a goal of producing all ten plays in Wilson's Pittsburgh cycle, recently offered an exquisitely staged new production of Fences.

Margo Hall and Carl Lumbly in Fences (Photo by: Ed Smith)

Directed by Derrick Sanders on a simple unit set designed by J.B. Wilson, MTC's production is one of those rare achievements in ensemble acting where audiences leave the theatre gobsmacked by the high quality of what they have just experienced. One of the factors which makes MTC's production so interesting is that every member of its cast has strong ties to the Bay area.
  • Steven Anthony Jones, who portrays Troy's co-worker, Jim Bono, was a core company member of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater for more than two decades. Currently serving as artistic director of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, his Bono is an affable, middle-aged man who tries to warn his stubborn friend about the dangers of seeing other women. A solid family friend for many years, the last thing Bono wants is to see Rose hurt by her husband's infidelity.
  • Adrian Roberts (Gabriel) is a familiar face on Bay area stages. As Troy's younger brother (who sustained a head injury during the Korean War which has left him mentally impaired), his behavior is often childlike, filled with an odd mixture of paranoia and wonder.
  • Tyee Tilghman (Lyons), who is frequently seen onstage at CalShakes, portrays Troy's son from a previous marriage as an aspiring musician who is much more interested in following his passion than paying his bills. As the son who shows up every Friday hoping to borrow money from his father, Lyons is a surprisingly sympathetic character whose ambition keeps him going.
  • Eddie Ray Jackson (a San Francisco native) portrays Cory, the teenaged son of Troy and Rose. A high school student who is being courted by a college recruiter, Cory is frustrated by his father's refusal to sign the papers that would allow him to apply for a football scholarship.
Eddie Ray Jackson and Carl Lumbly in Fences (Photo by: Ed Smith)

The evening's two powerhouse performances come from actors who never fail to impress Bay area audiences with their depth and versatility.
  • Carl Lumbly (Troy Maxson) is a powerful, athletic actor who has no trouble commanding a stage. As Troy (a talented former baseball player who has spent several years in prison) he embodies the kind of middle-aged man who is determined to be respected as the alpha male in his family. Sexually selfish and stubborn as a mule, he is keen on lecturing his sons about responsibility. While Troy remains financially responsible to his family, he's standing on increasingly shaky moral ground.
  • Margo Hall (Rose) is one of the Bay area's dramatic wonders. An actress, singer, and playwright with an uncanny ability to create complex characterizations, she has a great talent for gaining an audience's sympathy by underplaying a role. An artist who often paints sorrow with knowing silences, Hall communicates the utter sadness and despair of a woman who has tried to remain loyal through 18 difficult years of marriage only to be hit with the ugliness of her husband's betrayal when Troy informs her that he's about to become a father (with another woman). Where other actresses might use Rose's big scene in Act II to show their vocal fire, Hall's eyes and body language reveal a woman who, fearing her husband's anger, has always forced herself to remain in control of her feelings.
Eddie Ray Jackson, Margo Hall, and Carl Lumbly in Fences
(Photo by: Ed Smith)

MTC's production of Wilson's play packs a solid set of dramatic punches. Performances of Fences continue at the Marin Theatre Company through May 11 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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While doing some research on YouTube, I came across a wonderful clip of August Wilson discussing the state of theatre in America with Charlie Rose.

Although Wilson is correct to complain about the lack of African American professionals in the higher echelons of many American theatre companies, the Black Theatre Network is "dedicated to the exploration and preservation of the theatrical visions of the African diaspora." Thanks to the Bay area's diversity and thriving theatre community, local audiences have the opportunity to attend performances and readings at three African American theatre companies.
On the company's website, its Executive/Artistic Director, Dr. Mona Vaughn Scott, notes that:
"If my Mom, Nora Vaughn, were alive today, she'd tell you that the Black Repertory Group Theater is a revolutionary theater; that both of my parents initially started using theater as a means to impart knowledge about the rich history of Black Americans way back in Vicksburg, Mississippi where Mom and Dad were also high school teachers. After three aborted attacks from the Ku Klux Klan, (Mom told me that one bullet just missed my head in my baby bed), Mom finally convinced my Dad to leave so he could scout out and find a new home for us in California. Dad reluctantly left us behind in Mississippi. Mom continued to boldly use her 'drama to inform and educate,' joining Dad in California almost a year later when I was three years old.

Running my late parents' theater and cultural center is the most revolutionary thing I've ever done. My family has always been involved in civil rights and revolutionary acts from the 'Gate' because Mom and Dad taught us to be revolutionaries early on. My mother was fierce. The power brokers at that time gave Mom so much resistance to building her new theater in the early 1980s that, after three dates that were not met and promises not kept, Mom picketed City Hall (right outside the Mayor's office). We display her picket sign that states: HERE I SIT, TILL BLACK REP STANDS. Needless to say, Mom received the 'Approval' for construction to begin the very next day."

Friday, April 18, 2014

Joy to the World!

It's not always easy to find a quick pick-me-up at the movies. The standard multiplex now features a pre-show featuring 15-20 minutes of loud (and frequently overproduced) promotional pieces. What if you want something more substantial than a glorified commercial to tickle your fancy? What if you're craving something more satisfying than a severely overpriced bucket of popcorn?

The answer can usually be found at a film festival where, depending on the size and scope of the festival (and the taste of its programmers), there may be several offerings that feature short films made by budding filmmakers. The 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival features seven programs (average length 80 minutes) offering 65 short films grouped in clusters ranging from animated films to "fun for the family" attractions; from experimental shorts to shorts created by young filmmakers.

These shorts range from fanciful to educational; from mini-documentaries to impressive displays of imagination. As a writer who is often frustrated by encountering the improper use of homophones (as well as the bigoted opinions of homophobes) in published articles, I got a genuine kick out of Cameron Haffner's two-minute short entitled Affect vs. Effect.

With the San Francisco Silent Film Festival now scheduled for Memorial Day Weekend instead of mid-July, Silent, A Short Film (by Brandon Oldenbrurg and Limbert Fabian) has an inescapable charm.

For an added treat, click here and scroll down the page to watch a short film in which the creative team at Moonbot Studios discusses how Dolby technology allows artists and animators to be even more creative with their use of sound.

Anyone who has been confronted by a horde of eager Girl Scouts and their mothers during cookie season will take cynical delight in Natasha Lasky's delightful Cookie Wars which, in barely six minutes, does a splendid job of redefining capitalism.

While more and more OF the shorts shown at festivals can be found on YouTube and Vimeo, sometimes only a brief trailer or teaser is available online. Two of my favorite shorts from the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival were not only impressive for their writing and animation work, but for their musical scores as well. In Yulia Aronova's deliciously sweet My Mom Is An Airplane, a little boy basks in his mother's ability to do anything and everything with a grand sense of style.

Finally, the Oscar-winning directors (Brandon Oldenburg and William Joyce) who created The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore have come out with a new 12-minute gem from Moonbot Studios that explains how a group of oppressed factory workers stuck in a drab, monochromatic world ruled by numbers use their imaginations to create the alphabet, color, and jellybeans! An obvious homage to Fritz Lang's spectacular 1927 silent film, Metropolis, you won't want to miss The Numberlys!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Comedy, Tonight!

A popular show business axiom insists that "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." While any performer who has bombed onstage will quickly acknowledge this bitter truth, the bottom line is that comedy depends on good ideas and solid execution. Mary Elizabeth Williams makes this point brilliantly in her article for entitled Stephen Colbert is Dead, Long Live Stephen Colbert!

Last week I attended performances of three very different comedies.
  • One was a world premiere, the other two were Bay area premieres. 
  • All three shows were solidly cast with tightly-knit ensembles that employed strongly talented performers. 
  • Two productions sizzled, challenging their audiences with issues critical to their lives while causing them to repeatedly laugh out loud (proving beyond any doubt that just a spoonful of sarcasm helps the medicine go down). Curiously, these two plays delivered a wealth of information to their audiences which reflected each creative team's personal passions.
  • The third, quite surprisingly, fizzled out. Audience response was polite, but noticeably tepid. 
What could have caused such a difference in response? Was it just a sober audience on a weekday night? Or were other, more subtle factors at play?

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Suppose you want to write a play that tackles a difficult and extremely newsworthy issue. How can you position it dramatically in an easily understandable setting for a contemporary audience? In the following video, Tony Taccone explains how he and Dan Hoyle teamed up to write Game On for the San Jose Repertory Theatre.

Written for a cast of five (who perform on a unit set), the protagonists of Game On are two impassioned losers whose fanatic devotion to fantasy baseball helps to distract them from the sadder and more distressing realities of their lives.
  • Vinnie (Marco Barricelli) is a middle-aged, Brooklyn-born Italian-American facing some steep medical expenses. When he is not driving a cab in and around San Francisco, the frequently depressed Vinnie is glued to his television, watching documentaries about endangered species on the Discovery Channel. A sensitive soul whose emotions are easily manipulated by mass media, the sentimental, anthropomorphically-vulnerable lug has taken to giving individual polar bears names like "Petie" because he feels so deeply about the perils they face as a result of climate change.
  • Alvin (Craig Marker) is a cold and clinical numbers man. In contrast to Vinnie (who always goes with his gut), Alvin has been using sabermetrics as a tool for building his fantasy baseball team (as well as building statistical arguments for the entrepreneurial dream he and Vinnie share to make insects a new and extremely profitable source of animal protein for the American diet). If all goes well, a culinary trend embracing entomophagy could make them incredibly wealthy.
Craig Marker and Marco Barricelli in Game On
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

In a way, Vinnie and Alvin are not that different from Max Bialystock and Leopold Bloom in The Producers. Both are small-time idealists who are completely out of their league trying to raise money to support their dreams. If only someone with megabucks to spare would taste some of Vinnie's fresh, worm-laden spring rolls or fried crickets, Vinnie is sure that the dipping sauce alone could convince that person to write a check!

As the play opens, Alvin and Vinnie are in the television room of an upscale home in Los Altos, which is close to Silicon Valley's deep pool of venture capital. As they eagerly await some precious face time with a Godot-like mogul (who has an expressed interest in "green" projects), they argue about baseball players and fundraising strategies. It soon becomes obvious that, while Vinnie is a man of deep passions, Alvin is a rabid control freak.

Craig Marker and Marco Barricelli in Game On
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The hard truth is that neither Alvin nor Vinnie is equipped to go swimming with the venture capital sharks of Silicon Valley. Alvin, in particular, is so wrapped up in numbers and the "rules of the game" that he misses important body language cues and important "tells" dropped by those who step into the game room. They include:
  • Bob (Mike Ryan), a Silicon Valley entrepreneur whose company has just been bought by the Godot-like mogul and who is now scouting potential business acquisitions for his new boss.
  • Glen (Cassidy Brown), Alvin's former fraternity brother who, following his recent divorce has quietly "married up." A bit of a doofus, Glen plans to don a cape and ski mask and use a bullhorn to intimidate the guests at his wife's party into making larger donations to green causes. His attempt to create and perform a politically confrontational rap song (most probably written by Dan Hoyle) is hilariously misguided.
  • Beth (Nisi Sturgis) is Glen's new wife, a diehard sports fan as well as a wealthy Silicon Valley player who is hosting the party and knows the revered billionaire on a first-name basis. She's much better at getting people to write checks than Glen could ever hope to be.
Craig Marker, Cassidy Brown, and Marco Barricelli in Game On
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Hoyle and Taccone have fashioned a script which covers a lot of topical issues while delivering a steady supply of laughs to the audience. Their play is nicely structured, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. Working on John Iacovelli's stylish unit set, Rick Lombardo has directed with a sure hand (San Jose Rep's impressive study guide for students attending performances of Game On includes a wealth of material on such topics as global warming, food and sustainability, entomophagy, fantasy baseball, sabermetrics, how to fund a startup, and whether or not to seek venture capital).

While Craig Marker has developed a reputation for delivering solidly-crafted characterizations, Alvin's spectacular emotional meltdown allows him to show audiences what an impressively layered artist he can be with the right material. Game On gives Marco Barricelli a much stronger opportunity to show his strengths than he received from A.C.T.'s recent production of Eduardo De Filippo's Napoli.

In supporting roles, Mike Ryan offered an appropriately bland Bob while Cassidy Brown enjoyed some deliriously comic flame-outs as Glen. In her limited time onstage, Nisi Sturgis had no trouble communicating to the audience that Beth was much more shrewd and savvy than any of the men in Game On.

* * * * * * * * *
As in Game On, the dialogue in Wittenberg (which is enjoying its Bay area premiere at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley) fairly crackles. That may well be because playwright David Davalos is also an actor. Davalos first got the idea for his play in 1991, while appearing as Rosenkrantz in a Utah Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet. As the playwright notes:
"The theatre I enjoy best as an audience member (Shakespeare, Shaw, Stoppard) also challenges and provokes me, be it emotionally or intellectually. To an Elizabethan audience, a reference to Wittenberg both identified a person there as Protestant and as someone immersed in an academic environment of intellectual foment and questioning -- as if an American Hamlet in the 1960s were identified as coming home from Berkeley or Kent State.  In many respects, I reverse-engineered Hamlet's psychology from the moment in Hamlet when he's just about to stab a praying Claudius but second-guesses himself. I wanted to suggest that Hamlet's internal moral conflict pre-dated Hamlet."
Jeremy Kahn as Hamlet in Wittenberg (Photo by: David Allen) 

It's an interesting dramatic trick, made all the more accessible by Tom Stoppard's breakthrough success with 1966's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Billed as "A Tragical-Comical-Historical in Two Acts," Davalos's play (which premiered at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia in 2008) takes place in October 1517 as Hamlet (Jeremy Kahn) is still struggling to decide whether to major in philosophy or theology (like some of his classmates, he's also been hanging out at the Bunghole Tavern).

Two of the university's most noteworthy professors, Dr. Faustus (Michael Stevenson) and Martin Luther (Dan Hiatt) are vying for the attention of the Danish prince who, as a senior, is due to graduate as part of Wittenberg's class of 1518. However, Hamlet recently spent a summer in Poland, where he was exposed to the dangerous astronomical theories of Nicolaus Kopernik claiming that the sun (rather than the earth) is the center of the universe.

Dr. Faustus (Michael Stevenson) and Martin Luther (Dan Hiatt)
try to influence Prince Hamlet (Jeremy Kahn) in Wittenberg
(Photo by: David Allen)

Hamlet is under no great pressure to make up his mind. His ability to win at sports (due in large part to the referee's deference) allows him to enjoy his royal status on the tennis court as well as in the classroom. Ironically, Hamlet is not the only one facing some difficult decisions.
Dr. Faustus (Michael Stevenson) and Helen (Elizabeth Carter)
congratulate Hamlet (Jeremy Kahn) on winning a tennis match
in Wittenberg (Photo by: David Allen)

There is so much to admire in the Aurora Theatre Company's production of Wittenberg. From Eric Sinkkonen's intriguing unit set to Maggi Yule's handsome period costumes; from Josh Costello's clever stage direction to the work of his finely-tuned four-actor ensemble, this play glows with the kind of intelligence, wit, precognition, and mischievous cross-referencing that could give a puzzle fanatic like Stephen Sondheim an erection.

It's rare to leave a theatre thinking how much you'd like to get your hands on a copy of the script so that you could slowly savor all the puns, comedic setups, and insider jokes that Davalos has so intricately woven into Wittenberg. While one doesn't need an thorough knowledge of Hamlet, Dr. Faustus, or Martin Luther's life to enjoy this play, the stronger one's sense of history and literature, the more fun a person will have at any performance of Wittenberg.

Martin Luther (Dan Hiatt), Dr. Faustus (Michael Stevenson), and
Hamlet (Jeremy Kahn) are all severely conflicted in Wittenberg
(Photo by: David Allen) 

Peformances of Wittenberg continue through May 4 at the Aurora Theatre Company (click here to order tickets). It's a delicious evening of quick-witted fun!

* * * * * * * * *
In 1981, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams introduced audiences in Austin, Texas to the citizens of Greater Tuna. The Greater Tuna franchise grew over the years because of the small-town charm of its characters and the dexterity with which Sears and Williams handled quick costume changes as they jumped from one character to another. Unfortunately, the last time I saw them perform one of their plays the thrill was gone, the script was weak, and the performers seemed to be navigating on autopilot.

Jaston Williams and Joe Sears in Greater Tuna

In 1982, Michael Frayn's backstage farce about everything that could possibly go wrong in a stage production (Noises Off) premiered in London and became a popular hit. Although the show has enjoyed numerous revivals, it failed to make a successful transition to the silver screen in 1992 when Peter Bogdonavich directed a cast that included Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, and Marilu Henner. The verdict was that Noises Off was too much of a live theatre experience to work as a film.

In September 1984, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company presented the world premiere of Charles Ludlam's deliciously zany spoof, The Mystery of Irma Vep, with Ludlam and his partner (Everett Quinton) entertaining their audience with wacky costume/character changes and a surprise ending. According to Wikipedia, in 1991 Irma Vep was the most produced play in the United States.

Everett Quinton and Charles Ludlam in
1984's The Mystery of Irma Vep

In June of 2005, Patrick Barlow's hilarious adaptation of a popular 1935 film premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Its director, Fiona Buffini, had four actors recreating Alfred Hitchcock's screen adventure, The 39 Steps, as they jumped through lighting-fast costume changes and a dizzying array of characters in a highly-stylized and monstrously inventive stage production.

Some comedic tricks hit their mark and never fail to please. Others lose their sting after their first time up at bat. The urge to cherry pick the best qualities of past comedic successes and merge them into a new (yet old-fashioned) mashup can be irresistible. But there are times when resistance is definitely called for.

It's understandable that a creative team might hope to merge the best elements of shows like Noises Off and The 39 Steps in order to capture the kind of comic gold and commercial success that each of those stage comedies achieved on its own. But lightning doesn't always strike in the same place, in the same way, and with the same force, as Steven Suskin admirably explains in his Huffington Post review of Bullets Over Broadway (Aisle View: Don't Speak! Don't Sing!) while meticulously describing how a structural quirk in the new musical continually sabotages the show's comedic momentum.

Darren Bridgett and Michael Gene Sullivan in
The Hound of the Baskervilles  (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Created in 2007 by Steve Canny and John Nicholson for a small British theatrical company named Peepolykus, a comic adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's 1901 Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, became a sizable hit in Great Britain. It has since delighted audiences in numerous cities.

What happens when the intended comedic magic fails to materialize onstage? When a fierce farce feels forced, fertile fun flees a futile fantasy. Instead of the audience feeling like they're feasting on fresh fruit, its faith flutters in fear of failure as it feeds on a fallen souffle filled with flaccid shtick.

Get it? Got it? Good!

Darren Bridgett and Michael Gene Sullivan as two country yokels
 in The Hound of the Baskervilles (Photo by: Tracy Martin) 

That pretty much sums up the energetic (but lame) performance of The Hound of the Baskervilles that I saw last week down at TheatreWorks (which fully deserved to be subtitled "This Turd Won't Hunt"). Darren Bridgett, Michael Gene Sullivan, and Ron Campbell (who spent several years as one of Cirque du Soleil's leading clowns) are all accomplished performers who were working hard onstage.

What could possibly have gone wrong? Several hunches pin the blame in surprising places:
  • Because I was unable to attend the production's opening night (where members of the audience are frequently welcomed with a free glass of wine), I caught up with The Hound of the Baskervilles at a midweek performance which draws a more sedate audience less driven by the thrill of attending an "event."
  • As a critic, I've already sat through several performances of The 39 Steps (including a January 2011 TheatreWorks production directed by Robert Kelley). It could very well be that the novelty of this particular production style has worn thin, causing me to feel as if The Hound of the Baskervilles was a similar product that was simply late to market.
  • Whereas the characters in Game On and Wittenberg are motivated by their passions and/or obsessions, none of the characters in The Hound of the Baskervilles exhibits any sense of personal need. At numerous times during the evening, it seemed as if the performers were on a treadmill, trying to keep up with the demands of their rapid costume changes. I never felt any sense of dramatic urgency that could heighten the fun. 
  • Because of the way the comedy has been structured, the actors occasionally step out of character to address the audience -- even bitching about written complaints (fictional) that were submitted by members of the audience at intermission. At the beginning of Act II, one actor insists on starting all over again and performing a compressed, hyperactive version of Act I to prove to those who complained just how wrong they were. Sometimes a gimmick doesn't work. This one landed with a resounding thud.
  • It's quite possible that, despite the current fascination with television and film treatments of Sherlock Holmes, the TheatreWorks audience was not especially familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle's story of The Hound of the Baskervilles. As a result, some of the jokes which might titillate Sherlock Holmes fans may have completely lost their punch.
Darren Bridgett and Ron Campbell in a scene from
The Hound of the Baskervilles (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka) 

Ironically, the experience awakened long-buried memories of a dreary Broadway musical entitled Baker Street, which opened on Broadway in February of 1965 and whose exquisite sets (designed by Oliver Smith) were far more impressive than the show's book, score, or Hal Prince's stage direction. Although the cast was headed by such theatrical stalwarts as Fritz Weaver (Sherlock Holmes), Martin Gabel (Professor Moriarty), and Inga Swenson (playing a stage actress named Irene Adler), Baker Street is rarely, if ever performed. Consigned to oblivion, it offers a tiny footnote to the history of the Great White Way as the show that marked the Broadway debuts (in small supporting roles) of Tommy Tune and Christopher Walken.

Martin Gabel, Fritz Weaver, and Inga Swenson in 1965's Baker Street