Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Beware Your Fantasy: It Might Just Come True!

Who among us doesn't like a good story? When friends ask me to identify a favorite movie, I will often cite 1987's The Princess Bride for its magnificent cast, wealth of imagination, storytelling craft, emotional satisfaction, and dry sense of humor. Even more than those factors, however, is the poignant way in which the film depicts a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading a story to his sick grandson (Fred Savage).

Two years ago, a collection of nearly 500 fairy tales was discovered in an archive in Regensburg, Germany. They belonged to a collection of myths and legends that had been locked away after being gathered by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (1810–1886), a historian living in Oberpfalz during the same period when the Grimm brothers were busily recording the fairy tales that made them internationally famous.

Fairy tales, short stories, and playlets have a way of infecting the imagination to produce new variations on age-old themes. In June, Wily West Productions joined forces with the Playwrights Center of San Francisco to present Sheherezade 14, an evening of short plays written by local playwrights and directed by Wesley Cayabyab and Amy Crumpacker. As Wily West's Executive Producer, Laylah Muran, notes:
"I love short form writing (whether it's short stories or short plays). Although there are a lot of short play festivals, I feel like there is still a perception that short plays are somehow less than full-length or one-acts. It takes a lot of work and craft to effectively distill entire relationships, emotional arcs, sense of place and time, and entire plot lines into less than 10 pages. It takes a different (but no less important) skill set for actors and directors to realize those elements, have it be just as satisfying as, and sometimes more haunting, more emotionally impacting, than a longer work."
Poster art for Sherezade 14

Some of the entries in Sherezade 14 were especially poignant. In Vonn Scott Bair's The Duck, a woman named Hope (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) refuses to cooperate with a team of investigators (Cameron Galloway and Rick Homan) attempting to track down a missing person.

Hope has a curious history. Having nearly drowned as a child, she was saved by a duck who guided her to a piece of wood that she clung to until she could make it to shore. Her cabin is filled with duck-themed tchotchkes; her mental state has always been a bit fragile.

Hope is also sick and tired of being sought out by the authorities as a suspect in every local missing persons case. However, this time the investigators are trying to solve a murder which leads to an unexpected payoff for the orphaned Hope.

Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, Cameron Galloway, and
Rick Homan in Duck (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

In Bridgette Dutta Portman's delicious Brew, Drink, Repeat, Joe (Philip Goleman) ducks into Mobius Coffee one morning where he encounters a strange barista named Stacie (Cat Luedtke) who could very well be the hipster-era equivalent of an accursed river troll. Each time Joe tries to leave the café, he's drawn back to Stacie's serving station in what feels like a caffeine-infused version of Groundhog Day. Will he be the person who sets Stacie free from her curse? Or will he end up stuck on a Mobius loop of his own?

Philip Goleman and Cat Luedtke in Brew, Drink, Repeat
(Photo by: Jim Norrena)

In Jim Norrena's heartbreaking Reframing Rockwell, one of America's most beloved artists (Rick Homan) is artistically blocked and having trouble getting started on a new painting. After a half century of charming readers of the Saturday Evening Post and art lovers of his paintings, Norman Rockwell's ability to capture the perfect American family at rest sharply contrasts with the turmoil in his life.

Is Rockwell's artistic frustration due to physical problems in his studio? His inability to find the exact tube of paint he needs? Or is it a reflection of the emotional distress he experienced during the 1950s while living in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (where both Rockwell and his second wife received psychiatric treatment at the Austen Riggs Center)?

As Norrena's play progresses, it's hard to tell whether Mary (Cameron Galloway) is trying to be overly solicitous or whether the artist is struggling with depression and feelings of guilt about his wife showing early signs of dementia.

Rick Homan and Cameron Galloway in Reframing Rockwell
(Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

Terry Anderson's Dissonance posed a simple question: What happens when you're out for a nice Sunday afternoon stroll in the park and you notice a body lying near the park bench on which you're seated? Do you call for help? Do you get someone to drag the body out of the bushes? Do you try to administer CPR? Call 911?

How would you feel upon learning that the dead body and most of the people at the scene are part of an acting troupe that specializes in "site specific" performance art? Punk'd? Outraged? Amused? Abused? How would you feel, indeed.

* * * * * * * * *
When I first saw Into the Woods in 1986 during its San Diego tryout at the Old Globe Theatre, the 10-minute prologue crafted by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine instantly established itself as both a theatrical coup and a masterpiece of narrative exposition. Because so much is happening onstage so quickly, it's often hard for the audience to grasp how carefully this number has been crafted to set the stage for subsequent events.

When the show landed on Broadway the following year, it asked audiences to consider what would happen if the wishes made by characters in some of the world's most beloved fairy tales actually came true. Would everyone live happily ever after?

As this beloved musical nears its 30th anniversary (with a film version starring Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp due for release at Christmas) it's interesting to note its continued popularity with Bay area audiences. Ray of Light Theatre presented a superb production in May-June of 2013. The San Francisco Playhouse is currently performing the Sondheim/Weidman musical as its summer attraction.

Maureen McVerry and Tim  Homsley in a scene
from Into the Woods (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

As with works that have become staples of the operatic repertoire, as one experiences new and different productions of Into the Woods, each performance yields a greater appreciation for the intelligence and craft which have threaded so many beloved fairy tales into a literary tapestry of stunning resilience and depth.

No longer is Cinderella (Monique Hafen) just a pretty girl who's been dealt a shitty fate. Nor are her stepsisters physically ugly so much as spiritually selfish and emotionally spiteful. The fact that Lucinda and Florinda are being portrayed by real life twin sisters (Lily Drexler) and Michelle Drexler) in this production adds an extra layer of irony to the proceedings.

I've always been fascinated at how Sondheim and Lapine decided to have actors double up on some roles as a way of offering new insights into old characters (as well as making casting more economical). Thus, Bekka Fink doubles as the ghost of Cinderella’s dead mother and her bitchy stepmother. Louis Parnell doubles as the show's Narrator and its curious Mystery Man.

As in some productions, a new character has been added. Ian DeVaynes appears as a young boy to whom the Narrator is telling the story while, under Susi Damilano's stage direction, Little Red Riding Hood (Corinne Proctor) has acquired a second wolf lusting after her tender young flesh. One can't help wondering if the two wolves are meant to be the evil alter egos of Cinderella's Prince (Jeffrey Brian Adams) and Rapunzel's Prince (Ryan McCrary).

Ryan McCrary, Corinne Proctor, and  Jeffrey Brian Adams
in a scene from Into the Woods (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Into the Woods is the rare show that gives every member of its ensemble a chance to shine. Keith Pinto and El Beh were particularly moving as the Baker and his wife while Safiya Fredericks (the Witch) and Noelani Neal (Rapunzel) may have undergone the most radical physical transformations in the show.

Tim Homsley (a young actor who has done some very impressive work around the Bay area) was one of the strongest Jacks I've ever encountered with veteran Maureen McVerry bringing her years of stage experience to her portrayal of Jack's frustrated mother. John Paul Gonzalez shone in his brief moments as the Prince's steward.

The Baker's Wife (El Beh) and Cinderella (Monique Hafen)
in a scene fromInto the Woods(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

When a production of Into the Woods plays out smoothly onstage, it's easy to overlook the contributions of its talented design team. Nina Ball's flexible yet foreboding forest provides a fascinating backdrop for Abra Berman's delightful costumes and Jacquelyn Scott's witty props. Special kudos to music director Dave Dobrusky and sound designer Theodore J. H. Hulsker, who makes the entire auditorium vibrate with the power of the giant's approaching footsteps.

Tim Homsley as Jack in  Into the Woods (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

Damilano made some interesting casting choices for this production, most notably in casting the tall and handsome Homsley as a potential giant among giant killers. Performances of Into the Woods continue through September 6 at San Francisco Playhouse (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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