Sunday, June 29, 2014

There's Lots of Good Fish in the Sea

The lyrics to many choral refrains in Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas are often ignored or forgotten by audiences who favor the musical solos and patter songs written for the lead performers. But William S. Gilbert's lyrics serve very specific purposes. In H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), the female chorus frequently describes its link to Sir Joseph Porter with a variation on the following refrain:
"And we are his sisters and his cousins and his aunts.
Yes, we are his sisters and his cousins and his aunts.
Yes, we are his sisters and his cousins and his aunts,
His sisters and his cousins whom he reckons by the dozens and his aunts!"
In The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Gilbert uses the chorus to strengthen a particular plot point. As lust pirates, the men sing:
"Here's a first-rate opportunity
To get married with impunity
And indulge in the felicity
Of unbounded domesticity.
You shall quickly be parsonified,
Conjugally matrimonified,
By a doctor of divinity,
Who resides in this vicinity."
Simultaneously, the female chorus (as Major General Stanley's daughters) sings:
"We have missed our opportunity
Of escaping with impunity;
So farewell to the felicity
Of our maiden domesticity!
We shall quickly be parsonified,
Conjugally matrimonified,
By a doctor of divinity,
Who resides in this vicinity."
Buried in the extended finale for The Mikado (1885), are some words of wisdom for niche grocers as well as those who have rather unceremoniously been humped and dumped by their lovers.
"You'll find there are many who'll wed for a penny,
Who'll wed for a penny.
There are lots of good fish in the sea,
There are lots of good fish in the sea."

* * * * * * * * *
As part of the 2014 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Bay area audiences will have a chance to watch Julie Cohen's delicious documentary entitled The Sturgeon Queens. Using a gimmick that would seem downright cheesy in any other film, Cohen gathers together a group of long-time customers of Russ & Daughters' Appetizing Store around a table (with food catered by Russ & Daughters) and has them read her script as if they were participating in the reading of the Haggadah at a Passover seder.

The moral of the story? When you've got fresh pickled herring on the table, who needs Morgan Freeman's voice to lend gravitas to your project? With Russ & Daughters celebrating 100 years in business in 2014, Cohen's documentary relies on folksy testimonials from loyal customers of the popular fourth-generation family business on Manhattan's Lower East Side to tell its history.
  • Calvin Trillin, Morley Safer, and Maggie Gyllenhaal unabashedly gush over the quality of the store's freshly-smoked fish. 
  • Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg describes how, as a pre-feminist era child, she was tickled to encounter a family business named "& Daughters" instead of "& Sons."
  • Founder Joel Russ's great grandchildren Josh and Niki (who left successful professional careers in order to return to the family business) describe how they have started a series of annual 'herring pairing' events where New Yorkers can enjoy traditional schmaltz herring with high-end spirits."

Much of the family's history is provided by two of Joel Russ's daughters: 100-year-old Hattie Russ Gold and her 92-year-old sister, Anne Russ Federman. Their father was an Austro-Hungarian immigrant who began selling herring from a pushcart shortly after he passed through Ellis Island and stepped foot in Manhattan.

With salmon and herring plentiful (and freshly-smoked), the Russ business soon blossomed. From the comfort of their home in Florida, Hattie and Anne reminisce about what it was like to work in a fish store that had no heat during the winter and no air conditioning in the summer. While some of the store's customers tried to set up a match between one of the Russ daughters and their sons, one young man preferred the direct approach. "Does your mother make gefilte fish with sugar?” he asked. “How’d you guess?” Anne  replied. “I’ll be over Friday night,” he stated.

A man who often placed the needs of his business above the needs of his family, Joel Russ was no fool. Having failed to produce a son, he came to realize that the intelligence and beauty of his daughters were rapidly  becoming assets to his business. As a result, he didn't hesitate to make them owners and managers of the family business (Anne developed a formidable sales technique of teasing customers by saying that a particular fish was so beautiful, that she didn't know if she could bear to part with it).

Joel Russ also took the bold step of encouraging one of his Dominican workers to learn the fine art of slicing lox. Not only did Herman Vargas learn how to speak Yiddish by listening to Russ's clientele, once the regulars overcame their reluctance to deal with someone who wasn't even Jewish, they started referring to him as "Boychick, the artistic slicer."

The Russ family nearly lost their business during the Depression and again in  the 1970s, when the Lower East Side was overrun with prostitutes, drug dealers, vandals, and graffiti artists. But Russ & Daughters (which is still situated on the corner of Houston and Orchard Streets). When Anne’s son Mark left his career as a trial attorney to help save the family business, he learned the fine art of haggling with fish vendors at the Fulton Market.
"It was more like a street brawl than a commercial transaction. One family would reject a piece of fish and say that it was awful. 'What you mean it's awful? You don't even know a good piece of fish!' would be the response. Then cursing (in Yiddish) would start."
The irony of the great success of Russ & Daughters, which will soon open a second location (for sit-down eating), is that its success is built on a fish stock that was once considered as a food staple for poor immigrants but has now become a pricey delicacy. Whether one lusts for lox, black caviar, pickled herring, or whitefish salad, the celebrity of Russ & Daughters has less to do with popular Jewish entertainers like Molly Picon, Zero Mostel (or chefs like Mario Batali) who have been loyal customers than with the actual quality of the store's food. In the following clip, filmmaker Julie Cohen explains what an appetizing store is as well as its particular place in New York's Jewish cuisine.

Much of the musical score for The Sturgeon Queens is based in Klezmer and music from the Yiddish Theatre (at one point Anne sings a popular Yiddish song she learned as a child). A painting of a winged herring by Marc Chagall frequently appears during transitions between film segments. Here's the trailer:

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Over the years I've seen numerous productions (and many more performances) of Giacomo Puccini's reliable tearjerker, Madama Butterfly. Although I usually avoid questions about which opera is my favorite, Butterfly is, without doubt, within the top 10.

The problem with loving something (or someone) so contentedly is that, after a while, one's time with them can seem to be spent on automatic pilot. Whether in bed or at the dinner table, familiarity does not breed contempt so much as routine. My mother once commented about a friend who had retired to Florida by stating that "After 25 years, you pretty much know everything they have to say."

Jun Kaneko's set design for the cherry blossom duet in Act II
of Puccini's Madama Butterfly (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Sometimes, however, a thrilling surprise can catch you off guard. In 2012, when the San Francisco Opera presented a new production of The Magic Flute that had been designed by Jun Kaneko, his ability to use computer-generated imaging software as a tool for playing with light and color proved to be a breathtaking treat. Kaneko had already impressed audiences at Opera Omaha with his 2007 production of Madama Butterfly and at the Opera Company of Philadelphia with his 2008 production of Beethoven's Fidelio.

When I learned that David Gockley had decided to bring Kaneko's nontraditional production of Madama Butterfly to the San Francisco Opera, I was eager to see what this talented artist might do for the work. That he could make me feel like I was discovering Puccini's opera anew is testament to the power of his art.

During the overture, the audience is greeted by a huge museum-like display of kimonos hanging from above like semaphore flags. Gone are the standard three-dimensional sets which include a Japanese house, the surrounding trees, and the footbridge that Cio-Cio-San and her entourage must cross in order to reach the spot where her wedding will take place. Gone are Pinkerton's military uniforms, which have been replaced by a rather jazzy set of outfits.

Brian Jagde as Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton in
Puccini's Madama Butterfly (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

There are times when Kaneko's unit set resembles some of the productions that were designed and directed by Wieland Wagner decades ago. But, oh, what dramatic miracles Kaneko achieves with CGI animation.

Case in point: Many companies (including the San Francisco Opera) now perform Madama Butterfly in two acts instead of three. The orchestral interlude between the moment when Cio-Cio-San sets up her night watch to await Pinkerton's arrival and the early morning moments the sound of birds when dawn breaks over Nagasaki's harbor have always presented a challenge for audiences. While I cannot explain the exact mechanics of how Kaneko filled this interlude with simple displays of color patterns projected onto three large screens, its dramatic effect was both refreshing and remarkable (as was his depiction of Pinkerton's ship, the S.S. Abraham Lincoln).

Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio-San) and Brian Jadge (B.F. Pinkerton) sing the
Act I love duet in Puccini's Madama Butterfly (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

Because Butterfly is so frequently performed, many people forget that the title role offers a tough night of singing for the soprano. I've been fortunate enough to have experienced quite a few sopranos in the title role over the years, from Franesca Roberti, Leona Mitchell, and Diana Soviero to Teresa Stratas, Renata Scotto and Yoko Watanabe. It's fair to say that Patricia Racette's powerfully sung Cio-Cio-San proved to be a deeply personal and touching portrayal of Puccini's unfortunate teenage bride.

Racette was in good company, with Brian Jagde providing a full-throated, tall and handsome Pinkerton and Brian Mulligan contributing a sympathetic portrayal of the American consul, Sharpless. What really took me by surprise in this production was how much stronger the contributions of certain supporting characters became under Leslie Swackhamer's compelling stage direction. Julius Ahn was a spectacularly effective Goro with Efrain Solis as a solidly-sung Prince Yamadori (it's interesting to note that Racette, Jagde, and Solis have all participated in the Merola Opera Program).

Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's Madama Butterfly
 (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

In roles that are often taken for granted, Morris Robinson delivered a memorable Bonze while Elizabeth Deshong sang one of the strongest performances of Suzuki I think I've ever heard. Music director Nicola Luisotti kept things moving at a brisk pace throughout the evening

Many opera fans decide whether to attend a live performance of Madama Butterfly strictly on the basis of who is singing the role. However, aided by Gary Marder's exquisite lighting, Kaneko's sets and costumes proved to have a revelatory effect on Puccini's opera. I can only hope that this production has been captured for future release on DVD by the San Francisco Opera. Here's some footage from the production.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Caveman Cometh

Mention Eugene O'Neill's 1946 drama, The Iceman Cometh, to a younger generation and most people will have no idea what an iceman did. Cavemen, however, they know about.

In the past 100 years, Hollywood has delivered plenty of movies that feature prehistoric cavemen. From the earliest days of silent film, cavemen have found their way to the silver screen. Here's Charlie Chaplin in 1914's His Prehistoric Past (the last film Chaplin made for Keystone Studios).

In 1923, Buster Keaton's full-length feature entitled Three Ages included segments devoted to the Stone Age, the Roman Age, and the Modern Age (which was, at that time, also known as The Roaring Twenties).

From One Million Years B.C. (1966) to Encino Man (1992); from The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) to The Flintstones (1994); cavemen have found a place in popular culture. In 1949, when MGM adapted the hit 1944 Broadway musical, On The Town, co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen used New York's famous American Museum of Natural History as a location shoot for a new musical number entitled "Prehistoric Man."

In 1929, Cole Porter's hit musical, Fifty Million Frenchmen, included the song "Find Me A Primitive Man." Peter Bogdanovich restaged the number for Madeline Kahn in 1975's At Long Last Love.

With people now embracing a paleolithic diet, when someone is labeled as being a Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon kinda guy, the slur is likely a reference to his mentality and lack of social skills rather than his use of leopard skin to make a fashion statement.

* * * * * * * * *
One of the stranger documentaries to be screened at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival was set in the tiny Bulgarian village of Satovcha, whose 2,000 residents may have radios, computers, and televisions but, thanks to their religious traditions, live in a society based on much more stringent gender roles than one finds in modern cities like London or San Francisco.

In Satovcha, it's definitely a man's world. A world for real men, manly men who make all of the important decisions. If their women don't like what the men decide, that's tough.

Much of the 70-minute film follows a group of village elders who have been meeting every night for the past 45 years to expound on the world's problems (many of which they feel are due to women, who have learned from television how to argue with men). These men are conservative enough to make rightwing nutjobs like Louie Gohmert, Ted Cruz, and Michelle Bachmann all seem like flaming liberals.

While the local Communist Party leader is strongly in favor of atheism, this group of stubborn old geezers is surprised to hear one of their own suggest that homosexuals should be tolerated. As the filmmaker, Tonislav Hristov, notes
Soul Food Stories isn’t a film about the food itself. Soul food is the ritual of getting together around the table when each one of your friends brings his own spice in the sense of experiencing each other.”

Visiting Satovcha (whose population consists of Orthodox Bulgarians, Muslim Turks, Pomaks, and Evangelist Gypsies) is a bit like stepping back in time. Not quite as far as the stone age, perhaps (some of the villagers use Skype to videochat with their descendants in Los Angeles), but to a kind of patriarchal society which would boggle the minds of many Westerners.

The women of Satovcha (who are seen making a favorite filo pastry called banitsa) pretty much stick to their work in the kitchen. Mostly, they keep most of their opinions to themselves. Although these women have voted to request that the men let them use of the Pensioner's Club for a second day each week, that decision rests with one of the men (who feels that the men of the village have already been generous enough to their women).

The common ground which keeps people talking to each other is the food that they share. Although most of the younger people have left Satovcha and moved to larger cities, what Hristov never suggests in his documentary is that if their women ever stopped feeding them, the men would probably not be able to survive -- with or without their opinions.  Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Long before Tony Soprano brought his particular brand of thuggery to television, audiences were grappling with the three low-lifes in David Mamet's angry American Buffalo. The Aurora Theater Company recently mounted a tense production of the play which, in its own perverse way, offers up a silent plea for continuing education for America's bottom feeders. Working on Erik Sinkkonen's depressingly stark unit set, director Barbara Damashek notes:
"American Buffalo is beautifully constructed, cunningly observed, shamelessly theatrical, and wickedly funny. Mythically, the American con artist is a treasured part of our rogues gallery of antiheroes. No contemporary playwright has captured this territory quite as well as Mamet. He's also captured a great American theme: the idea that sales and selling is our hunt."
Teach (James Carpenter), Bobby (Rafael Jordan), and Donny
(Paul Vincent O'Connor) in a scene from American Buffalo
(Photo by: David Allen)

Of the three characters in Mamet's script, none is particularly perceptive or articulate. Nor could the term "upwardly mobile" ever be applied to them. Each is a pathetic loser, a primitive American man trying to claw out a place for himself in Chicago's South Side. If even the pettiest crooks cling to a code of honor, it's because sometimes that's all they've got going for them.

American Buffalo (which premiered at Chicago;s Goodman Theatre in 1975) was Mamet's big professional break as a playwright. Whether his use of street language was praised or condemned, it could not be ignored. Peppered with words like "fuck," "cunt," and "shit," his script offers actors a perversely written kind of sheet music for desperately confused and hopelessly lost souls.

If one were to delete all the expletives from Mamet's play, it would strip the action of its pulse, its rhythms, and its social class (or lack thereof). The coarseness of its language, the clumsy stupidity of its characters, and the squalor in which they struggle to survive are what give the play its muscle. Chicago theatre critic Richard Christiansen once described American Buffalo as:
"...a play about the desperate need of little men to score big, about the rapacious greed of the American capitalist system, about the rhythm and beauty of words in the most common and vulgar street language, about the tragic betrayal of personal relations, about the passing on of tribal wisdom from one generation to the next, and above all, about the need for family as expressed in the search of a younger man for a father figure."
James Carpenter, Paul Vincent O'Connor, and Rafael Jordan
in a scene from American Buffalo (Photo by: David Allen) 

Each of Mamet's men is a real piece of work:
  • Donny Dobrow (Paul Vincent O'Connor) runs a junk shop on the South Side where a coin collector recently paid $90 for an American buffalo nickel. Although Donny doesn't know shit about numismatics, he's got enough street smarts to know that the coin was probably worth a lot more than $90. His plan is to break into the purchaser's home, find the nickel and the rest of the man's valuables, and make off with the loot.
  • Bobby (Rafael Jordan) is a quiet, inarticulate, and directionless young man who looks to Donny as a father figure.
  • Walter "Teach" Cole (James Carpenter) is Donny's friend, poker buddy, and occasional co-conspirator. A man who seesaws between being a pathetic whiner and a raging bully, Teach practically reeks of desperation, dysfunction, and despair. 
Donny (Paul Vincent O'Connor) challenges Teach (James Carpenter)
in a scene from American Buffalo (Photo by: David Allen)

In a 1997 interview with John Lahr, Mamet explained that:
"American Buffalo is a classically structured tragedy. Drama has to do with circumstance, tragedy has to do with individual choice. The precipitating element of a drama can be a person's sexuality, their wealth, their disease. A tragedy can't be about any of those things. The difference between drama and tragedy is that tragedy has to be the attempt of one specific person to obtain one specific goal. When he either gets it or doesn't get it, we know the play is over and we can go home and put out the baby-sitter. That's why we identify with a tragic hero more than with a dramatic hero -- we understand the tragic hero to be ourselves."
Paul Vincent O'Connor, James Carpenter, and Rafael Jordan
in a scene from American Buffalo (Photo by: David Allen) 

The intimacy of the Aurora Theatre Company's playing space (with its horseshoe seating pattern) intensifies the desperation, clumsiness, and inherent stupidity of Mamet's three losers. It also magnifies a bravura performance by James Carpenter as one of the most miserable motherfuckers in Chicago. While Paul Vincent O'Connor and Rafael Jordan hold their own against Carpenter's histrionics, there is absolutely no question about who is the evening's dominant personality.

Performances of American Buffalo continue at the Aurora Theatre Company through July 20 (click here to order tickets).

Monday, June 23, 2014

Dearly Beloved

It's tempting to paraphrase George Orwell by stating that "All artists are equal, but some artists are more equal than others."
On January 2, 1996, the beloved Viennese soprano, Leonie Rysanek, ended her run of more than 300 performances at the Metropolitan Opera with her portrayal of the old Countess in Tchaikovsky's 1890 opera, Pique Dame (Queen of Spades). Having been an audience favorite at the Met for nearly four decades, her final ovation was a highly emotional experience on both sides of the footlights.

If one were to search for a song which could capture the core value of an exceptional artist, one might turn to "Something Wonderful," the impassioned solo sung by Lady Thiang in Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1951 musical, The King and I. Hammerstein's lyric reads as follows:
"This is a man who thinks with his heart,
His heart is not always wise.
This is a man who stumbles and falls,
But this is a man who tries.
This is a man you'll forgive and forgive
And help and protect as long as you live.

He will not always say what you would have him say,
But now and then he'll say something wonderful.
The thoughtless things he'll do will hurt and worry you,
Then all at once he'll do something wonderful.

He has a thousand dreams that won't come true,
You know that he believes in them and that's enough for you.

You'll always go along, defend him when he's wrong
And tell him when he's strong, he is wonderful.
He'll always need your love and so he'll get your love
A man who needs your love can be wonderful."
Charlie Chaplin was probably the most beloved entertainer of the 20th century. His affair with actress Joan Barry in the 1940s led to a paternity suit which gave FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, an opportunity to wage a smear campaign against the gifted comic (whom Hoover suspected of having Communist leanings).

One of the charges filed against Chaplin claimed that he had violated the Mann Act. Although he was acquitted, Chaplin's personal life became the subject of scandal again two years later when, at the age of 54, he married Eugene O'Neill's daughter, Oona (who was only 18).

On September 19, 1952 (the day after Chaplin and his family sailed for London to attend the world premiere of his film, Limelight), Attorney General James P. McGranery revoked the actor's permit to re-enter the United States. Chaplin did not return to America until 1972, when he received the Academy Honorary Award (for which he received a 12-minute standing ovation).

* * * * * * * * *
While silent film fans have never lost their passion for such geniuses as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, one of the films screened at the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival proved to be a revelation. I had never seen or heard of Max Linder (a French director, writer, and actor who has been described as the first international film star).

The reason is a sad and simple one. On October 31, 1925, Linder (who had a long history of depression due to the health problems that resulted from his service in World War I) and his wife committed suicide after attending a screening of Quo Vadis.

What one learns from reading up on Linder's life is quite fascinating. He started out as a contract player at the Bordeaux Théâtre des Arts in 1901. His big break came in 1907 while acting in small roles for Pathé Brothers.  After René Gréhan (Pathé's leading star of slapstick comedies) left to go to work for another studio, Linder was chosen to take over Gréhan's signature role of Gontran. In the following short from 1907, Linder stars as "The Unskillful Skater."

By 1911, Linder had become the world's most popular film star (among his fans were George Bernard Shaw and Czar Nicholas II). Long before Charlie Chaplin introduced his character of The Tramp in 1914's Kid Auto Races at Venice, Linder was entertaining audiences in silent shorts as Max (a handsome, fashionable fool with a tendency to get into all kinds of trouble). By the time Linder left Pathé in 1914 he had made more than 400 films there.

Charlie Chaplin and Max Linder

During the brief years he spent in Hollywood, Linder became a close friend with Charlie Chaplin. Although his 1922 spoof of The Three Musketeers (The Three Must-Get-Theres) was praised by silent film stars like Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, it was a box office dud.

Linder's work had a strong influence on filmmakers like Mack Sennett and King Vidor. In addition to giving Maurice Chevalier his start in films, he inspired major talents like Adolphe Menjou and Raymond Griffith. A young actor named Abel Gance (famous for his 1927 silent film epic, Napoleon) appeared in one of Linder's silent movies. A signed photograph that Chaplin sent to his close friend read "To Max, the Professor, from his disciple. Charlie Chaplin."

With the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's screening accompanied by Donald Sosin on piano and Frank Bockius on percussion, what quickly became obvious was that Linder was a master of physical comedy. Written, directed by and starring Max Linder, Seven Years Bad Luck (1921) tells the story of a dapper man who, after breaking a mirror, is convinced that he will be plagued with seven years of bad luck. It also contains one of the first recorded depictions of the human mirror trick.

Considering Serge Bromberrg's enthusiastic introduction for Seven Years Bad Luck, I was surprised to hear some people in the Castro Theatre complain that Linder had crammed "too much" into the film's 65 minutes. Bottom line? The experience felt like watching a master class in the art of comic setups, pratfalls, and silent entertainment.

Poster art for Seven Years Bad Luck

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow recently came under fire for her claims about the hardships of acting.
"You come across [comments] about yourself and about your friends, and it’s a very dehumanizing thing. It’s almost like how, in war, you go through this bloody, dehumanizing thing, and then something is defined out of it."
Compare Paltrow's whining with what Linder wrote in a September 1917 issue of Motion Picture Magazine.
"War, Monsieur, is not so terrifying as one who has not been in it may conceive. As a motor dispatch-bearer for France, I felt no horror, particularly at what fate might be hovering over me, preparing to strike the next moment. The Great Divine, it seems, has provided at least one single solace in this game of life and death. He has made the bullets, the shrapnel, and the tremendous bombs to fly so quickly at us that we cannot see them. And what we cannot see, we do not fear so much. In truth, I have had some experiences in the production of my own cinema-plays which have filled me with more terror, momentarily, than battlefield ventures.

I had conceived what you might call a 'thriler' as a scene in my third Essanay comedy, 'Max in a Taxi.' Having been disinherited by my wealthy father, the scenario directed that I lie down in front of an onrushing express train, thus to doff my life-burdens. The train was to rush down upon me; all would be over -- but no! Within 10 feet of where I lay was to be a switch, which the audience has not perceived. And even as the engine's pilot stretched forth to snuff out my life, the train suddenly was to strike the switch, swerve to a side-track, and whiz past, leaving me and my life-burden intact.

The scene was filmed without a flaw. I lay down upon the track; the huge express train rushed up to within 10 feet of me. The switch opened and it swung to the left and past. Yet, during the fleet second of the action, the terrible horror almost paralyzed me. What if by some unforeseen accident the switch refused to open? Here was death which I could see hurtling directly at me. I could not escape it. As I arose from that track, I felt almost a craving, Monsieur, for the battlefields again. There, at least, I did not have to look at the death as it rushed at me or I rushed at it."
Max Linder as his dapper character, Max

Thankfully, Seven Years Bad Luck can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. Enjoy!

* * * * * * * * *
2014 has been a triumphant year for Dan Hoyle. In March, the San Jose Repertory Theatre presented the world premiere of Game On, a contemporary farce co-written with Tony Taccone (the artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre). In June, The Marsh presented the world premiere of Hoyle's latest monologue: Each and Every Thing.

Directed by Charlie Varon (and developed with the help of Varon and Maureen Towey), Each and Every Thing is a remarkable showcase for Hoyle's talents as a mimic and shape shifter. In between performing some of his hilarious rap songs ("Phone Zombies"), he contrasts his interactions with coffee shop patrons in Calcutta andto his encounter with a violent felon who belongs to the Aryan Brotherhood on one fateful night in Nebraska.

Dan Hoyle in Each and Every Thing (Photo by: Patti Meyer)

Whether imitating a much younger version of himself learning how to watch television or mimicking a black street hustler named Coco (who has a wicked sense of humor), Hoyle's ability to capture the spoken rhythms of the people he has met in his travels and craft them into compelling vignettes is often astonishing. His work is literate and riveting, hysterically funny, fluid, and filled with pathos. His ear for foreign accents and regional dialects is uncanny.

The skills which Hoyle employs to carry on a conversation with his stoned roommate, Pratim, while driving through the Midwest are no less impressive than his ability to portray the various characters attending a Digital Detox retreat in Northern California. Watching him perform makes it easy to believe that Robin Williams has some pretty stiff competition.

Dan Hoyle in Each and Every Thing (Photo by: Patti Meyer)

Over the years, Hoyle has a developed a loyal and loving following. Photos of him dressed in the simplest of street clothes cannot convey the energy of his performance, the laid-back grace of his storytelling, the depth of his characterizations, or the kind of relaxed charisma which makes audiences fall hopelessly in love with him.

Part of Hoyle's appeal is the simple knowledge that his audience is in the hands of a master storyteller and will leave the theatre enchanted, entertained, and dramatically fulfilled. In his author's note, Hoyle writes:
"I would have never guessed this play would emerge when I began writing it two years ago. And yet I've been researching it for the past decade. What a pleasure to revisit dormant material (Chicago MiniDisc recordings, that night in Nebraska, my newspaper route) that had been traveling with me all this time. And a thrill to observe the dawn of the digital age. As with all my best 'subjects,' at some point they become collaborators, and Pratim shares this stage in more ways than one. As I always say, what you'll hear tonight is a blend of sometimes several people's words and my own writing in the service of the larger truth of my experience. For now, I ask you turn off your devices, be present for the secular humanist church that is live theater, and take this journey with me. Your phone will be waiting for you on the other side, I promise."
Dan Hoyle in Each and Every Thing (Photo by: Patti Meyer)

Performances of Each and Every Thing continue through August 24 at The Marsh (click here to order tickets). The following interview with KQED's Michael Krasny offers an opportunity to hear some of Hoyle's characters and material from the show.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sweet Meets, Sweet Treats

The Urban Dictionary defines "meet-cute" as "a scenario in which two individuals are brought together in some unlikely, zany, destined-to-fall-in-love-and-be-together-forever sort of way (the more unusual, the better)". While the initial premise often seems delicious, complications are what provide the situation with added drama. If real life is messy; love can be even messier.

Although many of these stories are marketed to the public for the upswing of the story cycle (when two people meet and start to feel all tingly about each other), they often fail to mention the downside of the story. That's when the sweet high of infatuation evaporates and its bubble of giddy delight bursts as a result of meddling by jealous friends or the brutal facts of real life.

Are you the kind of person who is always up for the ride? Or have you become sufficiently jaded to wait and see if a romance will really pan out and mature into the real-life challenges of commitment, cohabiting, and maybe even (God forbid) honoring the traditional vows of marriage.

Sometimes the truth comes as a big surprise to young lovers. Although the sex may be great and their hearts might be in the clouds, they might just be better off letting the latest love of their life become a treasured friend, instead.
  • Someone who cares enough about their dreams to help them come true.
  • Someone who will try to save them from bouts of self-destructive behavior
  • Someone who will actually look out for their best interests.

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During the 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival, the newly-appointed executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, Graham Leggat, enthusiastically introduced an independent film from Ireland that he claimed had touched him like no other film he'd seen in his life. Written and directed by John Carney and made on a shoestring budget of approximately $160,000, Once starred Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as two Dubliners down on their luck. The Guy was a busker who (when he wasn't playing guitar and performing his songs on Grafton Street) repaired vacuum cleaners at his father's appliance shop. The Girl was a Czech immigrant who sold flowers and played piano in a music store.

Following its theatrical release, the movie's hit song, "Falling Slowly," won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Original Song. Once also won the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film.

The film's two stars became romantically involved during the North American promotional tour for Once and settled into Hansard's Dublin flat. They eventually separated and moved on to a different type of relationship (touring for several years as a folk rock duo named The Swell Season).

A stage adaptation of Once had its world premiere in 2011 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The show opened on Broadway in 2012, was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won eight (including Best Musical). Subsequent productions have been staged in Dublin, London, and Melbourne, Australia. As with the film, the stage version has developed a loyal following.

Stuart Ward as the Guy in Once (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

The U.S. national tour of Once (which began in Providence, Rhode Island) recently landed at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. As someone who had been severely underwhelmed by the movie when I saw it at the San Francisco Film Festival, I was curious to see how the story would work onstage. Much to my surprise and delight, I found it to be a vastly improved experience. Although the basic material still seems slight, live theatre can sometimes be much a more conducive medium for a dangerously thin love story than a low-budget film.

Working with a libretto by Enda Walsh, director John Tiffany has dramatically altered the storytelling process for Once (and for all). Prior to the show, audience members are given a chance to come up onstage and order drinks from the bar at the back of Bob Crowley's unit set for a Dublin pub. As Tiffany explains:
"My dad used to play in a brass band back in Yorkshire. He would take me to very drunken evenings with him and his band mates. They would go on competitions and then we would go back to the band room and everyone would do their song. There was something about the way working class men could communicate through music in a way that they couldn't in words. That's where I came up with the idea of having a bar onstage, the actors singing songs as the audience arrived, and the audience being able to go onstage and get a drink from the bar."
A scene from Once (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

This simple gimmick of breaking down the fourth wall gives the audience a greater sense of emotional buy-in to what follows. It allows people to feel as if they're looking in at "their" pub with a sense of ownership. It also allows them to occasionally feel as if they are attending a concert, rather than a drama.

Crowley's inclusion of a space above the bar for digital Surtitles (which are used to translate the Czech spoken by various actors) works as well in the Curran as it has in opera houses since Lotfi Mansouri introduced the technology at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto during a January 1983 production of Elektra.

Members of the Once ensemble (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

Once the performance begins, an ensemble of multi-talented musicians (the kind that were once called "triple threat" performers) becomes a singing, dancing, acting, and music-making storytelling unit. Thanks to the powerful contribution of movement coach Steven Hoggett (who has obviously worked with the cast to develop specific bits of body language for each character) and Tiffany's masterful economy of action in moving props around the stage (as well as the audience's focus), this version of Once does a splendid job of reaping a great deal more entertainment from a small amount of source material than the film did.

Raymond Bokhour drew empathy as the Guy's soft-hearted father, with Benjamin Magnuson scoring points as a bank manager with musical aspirations and Evan Harrington charming the audience as Billy (the manager of the music store where the Girl plays the piano). Among the ensemble, I was particularly impressed with Matt DeAngelis as the the pugnacious Svec; Alex Nee as Andrej (the burger boy who anticipates being promoted to a managerial position); and Claire Wellen as the Girl's mother, Reza.

At its heart, Once might seem like a meet-cute love story. Deeper down, however, it is the tale of one musician being able to recognize the manifestation of another musician's insecurities bubbling to the surface and help him overcome his doubts and self-loathing in order to achieve his personal and professional goals. Songs such as "Leave," "Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy,"  and "When Your Mind's Made Up" hold a powerful grip on the audience. Thankfully, the show's hit song, "Falling Slowly" does not feel like quite the cloying ear worm it did in the film.

Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal fall in love in Once
(Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

The bulk of the evening rests on the shoulders of Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal as the two musicians who fall in love and slowly come to realize that tending to the responsibilities of their previous relationships is more important than consummating their current romance. Both have strong appeal and are excellent in their roles, with Ms. de Waal adding a particularly dry and blunt kind of humor to the evening as a "very serious" Czech. Here's the trailer:

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Coming-of-age stories come in all sizes and flavors. Brazilian filmmaker Daniel Ribeiro (You, Me and Him) has come up with a new and emotionally charged permutation. In many ways, the protagonist of his film (The Way He Looks) is a typical teenager.
  • Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) is curious.
  • Leonardo has a loving relationship with his grandmother.
  • Leonardo has grown up with a best friend, Giovana (Tess Amorim), with whom he shares his secrets.
  • Leonardo is constantly pushing back against his overprotective mother, Laura (Lucia Romano).
  • Leonardo craves his independence.
Ghilherme Lobo stars as a blind teenager in The Way He Looks

The big difference is that Leonardo is blind. Even without being able to see his fellow schoolmates, he is slowly starting to realize that he is also gay.

At his high school in Sao Paolo, Leo is frequently teased bullied by assholes like Fabio and Guilherme (Victor Filgueiras). Giovana often runs interference for him and helps Leo when he needs special assistance (like getting information on a student exchange program that might help him spend some time in another country, far away from his helicopter parents).

One day, after their teacher has sent Guilherme to the principal's office, a new student arrives from a rural town. After Gabriel (Fabio Audi) is assigned to the seat behind Leo, the possibility of making a new friend is intoxicating to the blind student. Giovana, however, is also attracted to Gabriel.

Ghilherme Lobo (Leonardo) and Fabio Audi (Gabriel)
in a scene from The Way He Looks

As the two boys start to bond, Giovana begins feels as if she is being ignored by Leo. The more jealous she becomes, the more she starts to act out, eventually giving her best friend the silent treatment for some perceived insult that neither Leo nor Gabriel can comprehend.

When Gabriel and Leo get paired up to work on a school project (and Gabriel is welcomed into Leo's home with open arms), Giovana feels even more alienated. As he becomes better able to understand Leo's needs, Gabriel inadvertently helps Leo push past previously unchallenged boundaries. He introduces Leo (who only likes classical music) to some popular songs by his favorite band, Belle and Sebastian and also teaches Leo how to dance.

However, when Gabriel convinces Leo to come to a class party, tensions quickly erupt. Just as Leo and Gabriel start to dance, another girl in their class, Karina (Isabel Guasco), pulls Gabriel away. Later that evening, when the kids at the party play "Spin the Bottle," Fabio mischievously substitutes Karina's pet bulldog for the girl Leo is supposed to kiss. Although still angry at Leo, Giovana rushes to rescue her friend from potential humiliation.

Later, when a slightly inebriated Gabriel unexpectedly plants a kiss on Leo's lips, it rocks the blind boy's world. Several days later, when Fabio and his friends start teasing Leo as he leaves school with his hand resting on Gabriel's arm for guidance, Leo's response comes as a rude shock.

Fabio Audi (Gabriel) and Ghilherme Lobo (Leonardo)
in a scene from The Way He Looks

One night, Gabriel even convinces Leo to sneak out of his home one night so the two can watch the lunar eclipse and go for a late-night spin on his bicycle. When Leo gets parental permission to join his classmates on a camping trip, not only does he end up with a terrible cold, the tensions between him, Giovana, and Gabriel intensify.

Fabio Audi (Gabriel) and Ghilherme Lobo (Leonardo)
in a scene from The Way He Looks

In the following video, Ribeiro and his lead actors discuss some of the challenges they faced in filming The Way He Looks (one can't help but notice how much Ghilherme Lobo looks like a teenage version of Matt Damon).

One of Ribeiro's best touches offers a new twist on the traditional locker room shower scene. Gabriel convinces Leo (who always showers alone at home) to take a shower at school. What Leo can't see is the reaction after he drops his towel when Gabriel springs a boner and, to cover for his embarrassment, tells Leo that he's done showering and has to go dry off.

While Ribeiro's film is anchored by Ghilherme Lobo's powerful performance as Leo, it offers audiences an endearingly provocative combination coming-of-age and coming-out stories filled with tenderness, vulnerability, teenage angst, and a new awareness of what it must be like to be young, gay, and blind.

The Way He Looks had its world premiere at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival, where it received a FIPRESCI Prize as well as the Teddy Award for Best LGBT film. It's a hands-down triumph for Ribeiro and his cast. Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Attention Must Be Paid

If one goes by the calendar year instead of the traditional September-September definition of a Broadway season, 1964 was a banner year for Broadway musicals. In that 12-month period 16 major musicals debuted on Broadway.

While musical comedy fans are happily celebrating the 50th anniversary of legendary hits like Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof, and Hello, Dolly! one can't help but be curious about the musicals that failed to reach landmark status, like Joan Littlewood's imported musical revue entitled Oh, What A Lovely War!

Notable flops included Rugantino (28 performances); Foxy starring Bert Lahr (72 performances); Cafe Crown starring Sam Levene (3 performances); Something More! starring Barbara Cook (15 performances); and Anyone Can Whistle starring Angela Lansbury (9 performances),

Shows that opened with big stars heading their casts (but soon faded into oblivion) included Golden Boy starring Sammy Davis, Jr. (568 performances); I Had A Ball starring Buddy Hackett (199 performances); Fade Out-Fade In starring Carol Burnett (274 performances); Ben Franklin in Paris starring Robert Preston (215 performances); What Makes Sammy Run? starring Steve Lawrence (540 performances); and High Spirits starring Beatrice Lillie (375 performances).

While Stephen Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle went on to achieve cult status, one of the most curious failures of 1964 was Bajour, a show about gypsies bilking gullible Caucasians that starred Chita Rivera, Herschel Bernardi, and Nancy Dussault. Soon after Bajour opened on Broadway to less than enthusiastic reviews, it changed its marketing materials from the pre-opening poster art to something that might help boost sales of the original cast recording (which arrived in stores just before Christmas).

Although none of Bajour's songs found their way into the popular culture, the lyrics written by Walter Marks for his song "Must It Be Love?" are quite captivating:
"Just because I found his kiss appealing
Doesn't mean I care for him.
It was just a temporary feeling
Flying on a fleeting whim.
Just because I'm restless as a kitten
And floating in a trance,
Doesn't have to mean that now I'm smitten
And bitten by romance.

My heart's a-quiver, but must it be love?
Sure, I shiver, but must it be love?
Here in the stillness, I was chilled tonight.
Still, chill or illness, can't explain my plight.

My thoughts assemble, then fly like a dove.
True, I tremble, but must it be love?
This feeling frightens me yet I adore it...
Should I trust it? Why must it be love?

Any other feeling, I could take in stride.
Any other feeling, I could cast aside.
But this... emotion just pulls me along.
Like an ocean, its tide is so strong.
If this is love, then am I ready for it?
No... that's just it..
Oh must it be love?
I just mustn't let it be love."
In a bizarre way, the lyrics for "Must It Be Love?" almost seem like a "lite" version of Violetta Valéry's aria, "Ah, fors'è lui" from Act I of La Traviata:

The San Francisco Opera recently revived John Copley's 1987 production of Verdi's masterpiece (commissioned by Terry McEwen) as part of its 2014 summer season. Not having seen this particular production since it came online nearly 25 years ago, I had looked forward to getting reacquainted with its charms. I was particularly eager to experience Albanian tenor Saimir Purgu's Alfredo in live performance (as opposed to several compelling videos of him I had seen posted on YouTube).

Nicole Cabell (Violetta) and Saimir Purgu (Alfredo) in
Act I of Verdi's La Traviata (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

I tend to avoid attending opening nights of most opera productions (which can sometimes feel like a dress rehearsal) and hope for greater cohesion as the cast gets over the pre-opening stress and settles into a string of performances. This seemed like it would be the kind of revival one attends feeling confident that the basic kinks have been ironed out of the production and, with solid casting and musical direction, one should enjoy a reasonably good show.

Nicole Cabell as Violetta in La Traviata (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Alas, the 2014 revival was not greeted warmly by many operagoers. At the performance I attended, I was surprised to encounter such a disheartening and anemic performance on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House. One might ask:
  • Was it due to soprano Nicole Cabell's slip-and-slide vocal performance in Act I? Cabell (who made an impressive San Francisco Opera debut in 2012 in Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi) has a ravishingly warm voice, plenty of vocal power, and strong dramatic instincts. Her performance deepened and grew as the evening wore on. Even if her Violetta was not a portrayal that "grabs" an audience, it was totally functional and easy on the eyes.
  • Was it due to Purgu's tendency to bark out certain musical phrases? In the first half of the opera, the handsome tenor went for some very interesting moments of musical shading and delivered a reasonable amount of impassioned singing.
  • Or was the letdown primarily due to Laurie Feldman's rather mechanical, paint-by-numbers style of stage direction? Feldman (who has been a familiar face at the San Francisco Opera for more than two decades) has enjoyed an international reputation as a reliable caretaker of certain productions who can be entrusted with their revivals.
Violetta (Nicole Cabell) and Germont (Vladimir Stoyanov)
in Act II of La Traviata (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

I had no problems with Nicola Luisotti's conducting (to be honest, I was delighted with some of the moments when he would draw out a phrase for dramatic impact). And, to be honest, I was grateful for Vladimir Stoyanov's solid and stolid portrayal of the elder Germont. John Conklin's set and David Walker's costumes continued to create a warm and playful sense of the demimonde lifestyle in Acts I and III.

Sometimes being a pack rat with a good filing system has curious advantages. Several days after the performance, I was able to retrieve my Bay Area Reporter review of a November 1987 matinee (from when this production was brand new). To my surprise, it contained the following text:
"Many complained that this Traviata was deadly slow and poorly sung. Although John Conklin's designs may have been aimed at inducing a claustrophobic atmosphere which would highlight the drama, his sets often left me with the feeling that this new production was sculpted in such a manner that it would become, above all other considerations, rentable to other opera companies. Conklin's reduced stage frame worked best in the Act I and Act III party scenes, where one had a sense of lavish interiors in decent-sized rooms (as opposed to the usual period furniture plopped down on a stage the size of a football field). I particularly admired Conklin's Act II set for Violetta's country house; one of the best executed concepts for this act I have seen in recent years. Most of the production money was obviously spent on David Walker's opulent costumes for the women; period masterpieces which will retain their glory for many years to come."
In the January 1849 issue of Les Guêpes (“The Wasps”), Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously wrote "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." The popular translation is "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Here's the trailer.