Monday, September 29, 2014

Different Strokes For Different Folks

Every now and then when I'm searching for a theme to write about, I find inspiration in a most unusual source: serendipitous calendaring. Even though I might not have imagined any possible kind of idea that could connect two performances I'm scheduled to attend on consecutive nights, something happens after the house lights go down that leaves me positively gobsmacked.

Often, the connection is something that could never have been imagined on paper or in theory. It's only after the curtain rises that cognitive links begin to emerge. The latest example (which involved two legendary pieces of musical theatre) was particularly breathtaking.
A 10th century copy of a tapestry from approximately 830 showing King
Charlemagne with Pippin the Hunchback (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
  • Both works contain surprisingly strong anti-war messages in their narratives.
  • Both works went on to become key successes in their composer's catalog.
  • Both works require performers who have mastered an extraordinary set of acrobatic skills: one vocal, the other a combination of dance and gymnastics.
  • Both works require artists who are confident in their stamina as vocal or physical athletes.
  • Both works can be severely impacted by the acoustics of any particular performance (one relies on singers using their diaphragms for breath control to "float" a beautiful musical line; the other depends heavily on electronic amplification (whose ability to distort sound can result in the kind of shrillness that compromises the overall quality of a performance).
  • Both works require safe displays of fire onstage.
Who knew?

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In an era when few people are accustomed to hearing singers whose voices have not been manipulated by sound engineers, the San Francisco Opera's new production of Norma offered a stunning display of great singing. Not only were the three principals extremely capable artists who could deliver some wonderful vocal shading, their voices were easily able to fill a 3,000-seat auditorium without the help of amplification. These artists had an astonishing ability to maintain impressive volumes of sound (without showing vocal strain) over the course of a three-hour performance.

Sondra Radvanovsky and Jamie Barton in Bellini's Norma
(Photo by: Corey Weaver)

By a curious twist of fate, Jamie Barton (Adalgisa) and Russell Thomas (Pollione) were last-minute replacements for the artists who had originally been signed for their roles. With solid support from conductor Nicola Luisotti, they fit into Kevin Newbury's new co-production with the Lyric Opera of Chicago,  the Canadian Opera Company, and the Gran Teatro del Liceu in Barcelona.

I was especially taken with David Korins's heavily wood-themed unit set which depicts the inside of a huge barn-like structure being used by a tribe of Druids as a combination shelter and factory for building a war machine with which to fight the Romans. Jessica Jahn's costumes added a half-primitive, somewhat symbolic touch to the proceedings

Sondra Radvanovsky stars in Bellini's Norma
(Photo by: Corey Weaver)

Of course, one doesn't set out to produce Bellini's opera unless one has a specific soprano in mind who can handle the vocal demands of the role. Following her recent Metropolitan Opera triumph, Sondra Radvanovsky awed the audience with her powerfully dramatic portrayal of the titular Druid priestess. Whether tackling the monumentally difficult aria, "Casta Diva," or singing duets with Jamie Barton's lusciously-voiced Adalgisa, this was a night for the kind of grand singing that is rarely heard anymore.

The final moments of Bellini's Norma (Photo by: Corey Weaver) 

A last-minute substitution for Pollione, young Russell Thomas demonstrated an impressive, powerful tenor with a strong sense of purpose. Minor roles were taken by Christian Van Horn (Oroveso), Jacqueline Piccolino (Clotilda), and A. J. Glueckert (Flavio). Special credit goes to D. M. Wood for her evocative lighting and chorus director Ian Robertson. Here' s some footage from the production.

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Inspired, no doubt, by her work directing Cirque du Soleil's 2012 production of Amaluna, Diane Paulus (the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge), approached her revival of 1972's Pippin with a great deal of circus magic in mind. The illusions designed by Paul Kieve and circus acts devised by Gypsy Snider of Montreal's 7 doigts de la main circus troupe give a much more contemporary feeling to the commedia dell'arte players than was seen in the original Broadway production of Pippin.

That production, with its book by Roger O. Hirson, was conceived as a one-act, somewhat surreal piece of entertainment that was memorably enhanced by Fosse's thrilling choreography. Its costumes gave a definite sense of period and the production (for which Bob Fosse won the 1973 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical) worked hard to seduce its audience.

This revival of Pippin has been choreographed by Chet Walker "in the style of Bob Fosse." A veteran of many Fosse productions, Walker is keenly in touch with the the kind of jazz hands, hat tricks, and angular hip movements used by Fosse beginning in 1954 with the"Steam Heat" number from The Pajama Game and on through Sweet Charity (1966), Chicago (1975), and Dancin' (1978).

What landed on the stage of the Golden Gate Theatre when the new national touring company of Pippin came to town is a perfect example of the kind of glitter and dazzle that can anesthetize an audience the way too much ice cream eaten too quickly can trigger a sensation of brain freeze.

In the four decades since Pippin premiered on Broadway, some of Schwartz's songs ("Magic To Do," "Corner of the Sky") have embedded themselves in the popular culture. However, I have a particular fondness for "Spread A Little Sunshine" as sung by Sabrina Harper's leggy Fastrada.

Sabrina Harper as Fastrada in Pippin (Photo by: Terry Shapiro)

John Rubenstein (who portrayed Pippin in the original Broadway cast and now appears as his father, Charlemagne) likens the revised version of the show to focusing on the character of Pippin as "a sort of reality-TV centerpiece." As Pippin's lusty grandmother, Berthe, Lucie Arnaz has a grand old time leading the audience in a sing-along of "No Time At All."

Much to my surprise, Matthew James Thomas (Pippin) and Kristine Reese (Catherine) seemed remarkably bland in their roles. Although Sasha Allen is a steely Leading Player, I found myself infinitely more entertained by Callan Berrgmann's performance as Pippin's slimy, scheming brother, Lewis.

Matthew James Thomas (Pippin) with Callan Bergmann (Lewis)

Over the years, Pippin has often been broken into two acts (which, in the case of Paulus's 2013 revival, means that a great deal of shtick has been ladled onto the stage in order to stretch things out). The revised ending, in which the character of Theo takes on the new quest for meaning and fulfillment, is ominously preceded by numerous statements by the Leading Player that "The show is over!"  If only someone had made that clear to Ms. Paulus.

Clad mostly in a combination of acrobatic spandex, this revival's cast aims to clobber the audience into submission by dazzling them with circus stunts and deafening them with amplification. As someone who was never a rabid fan of the original production, I found it ironic to notice how this ardent young hero in search of a life that will bring him meaning and fulfillment is stopped at various points during the show and asked how he feels about his latest experience.

"Empty and vacant," replies Pippin. I would add "painfully shrill" to his description.

Curiously enough, three years after staging Pippin, Fosse (known for his salesmanship and cynicism) created the famous "Razzle Dazzle" number for Chicago.

Performances of Pippin continue at the Golden Gate Theatre through October 19 (click here to order tickets). A touring company of Chicago holds the stage at the Orpheum Theatre from November 7-16 (click here to order tickets). See both and you'll understand how the "Razzle Dazzle" number offers a perfect description of Pippin.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Adrift, Bothered and Bewildered

Call me old fashioned. but I'm attracted to people who can make up their mind. People who have some idea of who they are, where they're going, and what they want out of life.

Forty years ago, I shared a flat with several gay men who had strikingly different personalities. While I'm just as guilty as others when it comes to procrastination, there are times when one looks at a friend and wishes he would simply shit or get off the pot. Let me explain:

One of my roommates could not walk past a mirror without spending 10-15 minutes checking his hair. One day, out of sheer frustration, I suggested to him that if we had made plans to go anywhere, it would be better if I met him at the event instead of our trying to leave apartment together. "But why?" he asked in astonishment.

"Because at the rate things are going, I'm losing two weeks out of every year while you look at yourself in the mirror," I replied. Tact was never my strong point. Thankfully, we were not in love or perceived by others as a couple.

I first heard Ronnie Gilbert sing the traditional Irish (or Scottish) ballad entitled "I Know Where I'm Going" on an album by The Weavers. To this day, its honesty, simplicity, and the purity of Gilbert's voice never fail to touch my heart.

In December 1965, The Beatles released a song entitled "Nowhere Man." Written by John Lennon, its lyrics state:
"He's a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody.

Doesn't have a point of view
Knows not where he's going to
Isn't he a bit like you and me?

Nowhere Man, please listen
You don't know what you're missing
Nowhere Man, the world is at your command.

Nowhere Man, don't worry
Take your time, don't hurry
Leave it all till somebody else lends you a hand."
Jeremy Hillary Boob, Ph.D. (the character from
The Yellow Submarine who is the quintessential "Nowhere Man"

Lennon's lyric can easily be applied to relationships that are starting to fall apart.
  • Perhaps the dominant person in the relationship is tired of making all the decisions. 
  • Maybe the passive partner lacks the ability to speak up for his own needs. 
  • In some cases, the partners may bear cultural and emotional scars which cloud their vision about what is happening to their relationship.
  • Sometimes, people just get bored with each other and don't know how to move on.
Two new productions dealing with the foibles of maintaining a relationship are currently entertaining Bay area audiences. In one, a conflicted bisexual man can't make up his mind about who he is or what he wants. In the other, people from different cultures choose to marry for some of the strangest reasons.

* * * * * * * * *
Crowded Fire Theater Company recently presented the world premiere of Christopher Chen's new play, The Late Wedding. Directed by Marissa Wolf (with excellent sound design by Cliff Caruthers), Chen's fanciful play was inspired by the writing of Italo Calvino -- in particular his novels Invisible Cities (1972) and If on a winter's night a traveler (1979).

Chen describes The Late Wedding as a "fluid play" (meaning that there can be anywhere from 3-16 actors playing a host of characters and couples). In the playwright's mind, several actors might even cycle through a single character. Gender, sexuality, and race can (and should) be endlessly interpreted and reinterpreted from one production to another (or even within a single production).

As the evening begins, Kathryn Zdan appears as a narrator who explains what the audience can expect of the play -- and of their own experiences during the evening. The basic premise is that the audience will be taken on an an anthropological tour of imagined tribes and their marital customs.

A series of strangely intertwined interludes or vignettes, The Late Wedding starts to careen off balance as its curious exploration of distance, distraction, and inattention in today's heavily Internet-influenced relationships is interrupted by a playwright's random notes to himself ("Reactivate Netflix account!").

Michael Anthony Torres and Lawrence Radecker in
The Late Wedding (Photo by: Pak Han)

The audience first encounters two men from the Bakaan tribe (played by Lawrence Radecker and Michael Anthony Torres), whose relationship thrives on the language of nostalgia. As they recall the details of their numerous vacations in the Calaman Islands --  and try to recreate the emotions that they felt during those vacations -- their behavior resembles that of long-time couples who use old photo albums and slide shows to reawaken long dormant passions and moments of satisfaction in their relationship.

Kathryn Zdan and Lauren Spencer in
The Late Wedding (Photo by: Pak Han)

Attention then shifts to a couple (portrayed by Kathryn Zdan and Lauren Spencer) whose culture insists that the best part of marriage is the anticipation of the wedding day. After the ceremony, the newlyweds split up and go their separate ways (communicating primarily by text messages, long distance phone calls, and email). In fact, they may never see each other again (when one finally gets around to thinking about visiting her spouse, she learns that her partner died years ago).

Michele Leavy and Ogie Zulueta in
The Late Wedding (Photo by: Pak Han)

A third couple (played by Michele Leavy and Ogie Zulueta) lives in a constant state of time warp, where a person could be alive today but, if he awakens tomorrow, his memory of what was today would be of a day that was dead (meaning that, like his memory, he might be dead as well). Or something like that. As the show's director, Marissa Wolf notes:
"Chen channels our society's collective unconscious with dizzying urgency. He is peeling back layer after layer of cultural practices and rituals, revealing a raw, pulsing interior of longing and hope. Implicit in his examination of structure and human consciousness is the very real portrait of a world in which all people, gay or straight, have the right to marry."
Kathryn Zdan and Michael Anthony Torres in
The Late Wedding (Photo by: Pak Han)

While I have great admiration for Chen's skill as a writer, I'm not always able to follow where he's going in some of his plays. The Late Wedding is frequently funny, disturbing, and poignant, but can also be confusing and lack focus. I would, however, urge people to see Chen's play for the opportunity to experience the stunning unit set designed by Melpomene Katakalos (who, together with Nina Ball, is one of the Bay area's most underappreciated talents).

Performances of The Late Wedding continue through October 11 at Thick House on Potrero Hill (click here to order tickets).

Michael Anthony Torres in The Late Wedding (Photo by: Pak Han) 

* * * * * * * * *
On January 29, 1966, when Sweet Charity opened on Broadway, its protagonist (Charity Hope Valentine) was a taxi dancer whose heart was frequently broken. Composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Dorothy Fields crafted a poignant second act number for Gwen Verdon to sing entitled "Where Am I Going?" Although many artists have since recorded the song, few have captured the vulnerability in Verdon's voice. Here's Barbra Streisand performing the number during her March 30, 1966 television special entitled Color Me Barbra.

Nearly a half century ago, when Coleman and Fields were crafting this song, I doubt they thought of it as an anthem about the trials and tribulations of bisexuality. But if one listens to the lyric carefully, and then reads Charles M. Blow's intensely personal op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled Up From Pain, one gets a better understanding of the confusion that plagues some (but not all) bisexuals.

The New Conservatory Theatre Center is currently offering the West Coast premiere of Michael Bartlett's attention-grabbing Cock, a play whose title easily drives audiences into theatres where they experience far less sexual titillation than consciousness raising.

Todd Pivetti, Stephen McFarland, and Radhika Rao in Cock
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

Beautifully directed by Stephen Rupsch on a simple unit set designed by Devin Kasper, Bartlett's play dramatizes the internal and external psychosexual struggles of John (Stephen McFarland), a young man who has been in a long-term relationship with "M" (Todd Pivetti). The audience quickly grasps how well the two men know each other by the accuracy with which they criticize and exploit each other's weaknesses.

"M" is a stockbroker whose dominance in the relationship is a given. After years together, it would seem that he has been the one to divide up most of the responsibilities in the relationship (there are hints as well that he likes rough sex).

Todd Pivetti as "M" and Stephen McFarland as John in Cock
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

Their relationship is challenged by an external threat when John confesses that he's fallen in love with someone new: a woman. "W" (Radhiko Rao) has seen John every day on their commute to work. One thing after another has led up to his first contact with a woman's vagina and a new, and intoxicating exposure to the concept of gentle, loving sex.

Whether the urge to up-end the stability of a long-term relationship  is triggered by the temptation of tasting forbidden fruit or the lust for one's fellow man, the concept of a romantic triangle is hardly new to the stage. However, the ways in which Bartlett lays out the boredom of going through the motions of maintaining a relationship, the pain of emotional alienation, the joys of discovery, and the intoxication of new love, makes Cock pulse, throb and erupt with a sense of urgency, doubt, and need that one rarely finds in gay theatre.

Radhika Rao and Stephen McFarland in Cock
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

In an effort to force John into making a decision, "M" invites "W" to dinner so that all three can meet face to face. However, at the last minute he also invites his recently-widowed father, "F" (Matt Weiner) to join them as "a part of the family."

As emotions start to bristle, the father locks horns with :W," "M" asks John to move out of the house, and "W" finally accepts the fact that she can't turn John straight.  However, as the play ends, John is left cowering in the garden emotionally torn and silently crying from the emotional pain of his predicament. This, of course, leaves the audience wondering:
  • Why does "M" put up with John? What's the big attraction?
  • Why did "W" think she could (or should) rescue John from his long-term relationship with a man?
  • Is John's torment the result of never having come to terms with his latent bisexuality?
  • Or is John a textbook example of what happens to children whose helicopter parents never insisted that they finish whatever they started?
Radhika Rao and Stephen McFarland in Cock
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

This was one of the strongest productions I've seen at NCTC in many years, thanks in large part to Stephen Rupsch's sensitive stage direction and Stephen McFarland's heartrending portrayal of the emotionally torn John. Performances of Cock continue at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through October 12 (click here to order tickets).

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Vamping and Camping

Whenever it seems as if the world is about to crumble like a cookie (or be transformed into a pile of ash), it helps to embrace wretched excess. Like a religious deathbed conversion, wretched excess may be the antithesis of everything a person stood for in his sane, tightly disciplined life. But there comes a time when giving in is a better option than merely giving up.

As part of its one-day Silent Autumn 2014 program, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented the world premiere of a beautifully restored print of Rudolph Valentino's last film (released just two weeks after the famous matinee idol died at the age of 31). Thrillingly directed by George Fitzmaurice, there is much about 1926's The Son of the Sheik to admire.
  • Valentino's lithe and athletic stunt work as an equestrian is a pleasant surprise (many people forget that he worked in San Francisco as a ballroom dancer/escort for several years).
  • Vilma Banky's dancing ranges from campily seductive moves to some pretty fancy footwork.
  • The costumes for the two romantic leads are gloriously designed and an absolute joy to behold.
Wilma Banky and Rudolph Valentino in 1926's The Son of the Sheik

But while Valentino and Banky were impressive stars during the silent era, this restored print (completed by Ken Winokur and Jane Gillooly’s distribution company, Box 5), adds another star to legacy of The Son of the Sheik -- a brand new score composed and performed by the Alloy Orchestra.

Music was -- and always will be -- a key component of silent film. A great score (or performance by talented accompanying musicians) can bring an audience to its feet with a standing ovation. Poorly-matched musical choices from what's available for free (most likely because the music has entered the public domain), can sap life and blood of a silent film experience.

Those who have attended the San Francisco Silent Film  Festival in the past are familiar with the delights that emanate from the Alloy Orchestra's instruments.  Starting with their first collaboration in 1991 (a new score for Metropolis), they have since composed scores for 25 silent classics ranging from He Who Gets Slapped, The General, and The Phantom of the Opera to The Black Pirate, The Lost World, and Nosferatu.

The trio, which consists of Terry Donahue on junk percussion, musical saw, and accordion; Ken Winokur on percussion and clarinet; and Roger C. Miller on keyboard, describes its work as:
".... a three-man musical ensemble, writing and performing live accompaniment to classic silent films. Working with an outrageous assemblage of peculiar objects, they thrash and grind soulful music from unlikely sources. An unusual combination of found percussion and state-of-the-art electronics gives the Orchestra the ability to create any sound imaginable. Utilizing their famous 'rack of junk' and electronic synthesizers, the group generates beautiful music in a spectacular variety of styles. They can conjure up a French symphony or a simple German bar band of the 20s. The group can make the audience think it is being attacked by tigers, contacted by radio signals from Mars, or swept up in the Russian Revolution."
The thrilling key to their new score for The Son of the Sheik is a heavy percussive element, whose desert drums cover everything from the pounding hooves of Arabian steeds (although the film was shot in Yuma County, Arizona) to the passionate pumping of blood through a handsome young stud's heart. The following three clips offer appetizers of how Alloy Orchestra's new score sounds:

Although the following clip contains the entire film, you might find it difficult to enjoy with its comparably sedate choices of classical music. Thankfully, the Alloy Orchestra will be touring screenings of The Son of the Sheik throughout the coming year (click here for their tour dates). Hearing their new score for The Son of the Sheik could completely transform your feelings about silent film.

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The great English poet and playwright,William Congreve, is remembered for his assertion that "music has charms to soothe a savage breast," I don't know how Congreve would have reacted to Meow Meow, the Australian cabaret performer who opened the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's 2014-2015 season. Directed by Emma Rice (the Joint Artistic Director of Kneehigh Theatre), the world premiere production of An Audience With Meow Meow is devoted to celebrating the presence of that rarest of entertainers, a genuine stage animal.

Born Melissa Madden Grey, Meow Meow has been entertaining audiences for much of the past decade with her comic timing, husky chest voice, and bawdy sense of humor. She has toured Australian concert halls with Barry Humphries (a/k/a Dame Edna) and the Australian Chamber Orchestra in a program of lost and re-found works from the Weimar Germany of the 1920s. In 2013 Meow Meow made her London Philharmonic Orchestra debut under Vladimir Jurowski's baton as Jenny in Brecht/Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper with performances in Paris’ Théatre des Champs-Élysées and London’s Royal Festival Hall.

Whether talking about her upcoming shows or making fun of herself, Meow Meow is determined to give her audience their money's worth. If one is sitting in a certain part of the theatre, it's possible to be called into service as Meow Meow body surfs the crowd. At other times, one might simply feel as if one has been called to witness an extraordinary talent hold the audience in the palm of her hand. She is completely at ease interacting with strangers in a way that would make perfect sense to a Cirque du Soleil clown but terrify a more cautious performer like Barbra Streisand.

Whether performing on Australian television or in the Kneehigh Theatre's stage adaptation of Michel Legrand's beloved film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Meow Meow is ready to give her all to the audience. The result is a type of communal experience which is partly scripted but can be hilariously spontaneous. At one moment she may be cursing out "those fucking producers" while, a bit later in the show, she will hold her audience spellbound while singing a darkly introspective ballad.

Certain performers occupy a rare space in entertainment history because they are truly creatures of their own invention. Tony Taccone (the artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre) describes Meow Meow as a cross between Liza Minnelli and Lucille Ball. "She’s funny, smart, and has the voice of a ferocious angel." During the performance I attended, there was never any doubt in my mind that I was watching a phenomenally gifted artist whose formidable vocal and dramatic assets evoked memories of the comic acuity of a young Carol Channing and the musical intelligence of Bette Midler, with a dash of Edith Piaf thrown in for seasoning.

Comparisons, however, are futile. An extremely versatile artist who thrives on taking risks, Meow Meow is very much her own creation. Backed by dancers Michael Balderrama and Bob Gaynor (with musical supervision by Lance Horne), performances of An Audience With Meow Meow continue through October 19th at the Roda Theatre (click here to order tickets). It's an experience one is not likely to forget!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Despicable You

There's something about religious hypocrisy that is jaw-droppingly timeless in its newsworthiness. Among the news items to hit the fan in recent months are the following:
On November 22, 2013, when Bill Maher was discussing marriage equality with Dan Savage, he mentioned that the Bishop of Honolulu, Clarence (Larry) Silva, claimed that children adopted by gay parents have a greater chance of committing suicide. Savage's reply was refreshingly blunt and brutal:
"That's total bullshit. He's comparing children with gay parents with children who are raped by Catholic priests. I am just done being lectured about children and their safety by Catholic fucking bishops, priests, cardinals... A bishop in Illinois (on the day Governor Quinn signed the gay marriage law making same sex marriage legal in Illinois), held an exorcism in his cathedral to exorcise the State of the demons of gay people having full civil equality. No exorcisms exorcising the State from the demons of kiddie-fucking Catholic priests --  they never got around to that exorcism! I hate to always go there, but they don't have moral high ground when they talk about the welfare and safety of children. They just don't. They have squandered that on the tips of their dicks."
Today's polarized media has allowed religious hypocrisy to flourish in the most hateful and absurd ways (Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association recently declared that the simple fact that Americans eat bacon is proof positive that the United States is a Christian nation). Two recent stage productions put religious hypocrisy front and center, proving that whether among poor, ignorant country folk or in highly educated and privileged urban circles, religious posturing offers a powerful cover for one's venal desires and most painful insecurities.

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Since its February 24, 1955 world premiere at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Carlisle Floyd's opera, Susannah, has become the second most performed American opera (behind Porgy and Bess). Starting in 1956, it was performed for five consecutive seasons at the New York City Opera. In 1958, Phyllis Curtin and Norman Treigle starred in the NYCO production at the Brussels World's Fair (for which Susannah been chosen to represent American music and culture).

Written during the period when McCarthyism was terrorizing Americans (and causing people to name names of purported Communists and their supposed "collaborators"), Floyd's opera tells the story of an innocent young woman whose reputation is destroyed by jealous gossip and the predatory sexual advances of the town's ass-grabbing new preacher, the Reverend Olin Blitch.

My first exposure to Susannah was at a performance given by Western Opera Theater at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts in 1977 with Elaine Olbrycht in the title role.  In 1982 (using sign-language interpreters for hearing-impaired members of the audience at certain performances), the New York City Opera staged Susannah with a cast headed by Faith Esham and Samuel Ramey.

Susannah finally reached the Metropolitan Opera in 1999 with a cast headed by Renée Fleming, Samuel Ramey, and Jerry Hadley. This month (almost 65 years since its world premiere), Susannah made its official company debut at the San Francisco Opera with a cast headed by Patricia Racette and Raymond Aceto.

Little Bat (James Kryshak) and Susannah Polk (Patricia Racette)
in a scene from Susannah (Photo by: Corey Weaver) 

Using costumes designed by Michael Yeargan for the Houston Grand Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago's co-production of Susannah, this staging of Floyd's opera was especially notable for Erhard Rom's set and the stunningly evocative projections featuring footage of the Great Smoky Mountains. This was the first time I had ever seen a production of Susannah which did such a splendid job of contrasting the purity and serenity of innocence and nature with the ugly insinuations of hatefully insecure, narrow-minded people who have been blinded by their religion. In his director's note, Michael Cavanagh explains why the opera has been reset from the 1950s to the  era of the Great Depression:
"The story takes place just as the conditions that led to the Dust Bowl take hold. All over the Central and Southern states, the unrestricted growth of mechanization in farming techniques caused terrible erosion of the topsoil and left the environment vulnerable to drought (which in turn led to the collapse of the agricultural economy). In the story of Susannah, a child of nature suffers at the hands of mankind. She's been abandoned, neglected, and abused by one father figure after another. We see the skies darken and the world dry up. It's as though her mother figure -- nature itself -- has come to exact revenge. In all of this lies an allegory for our own times and a cautionary tale. If we attempt to control and harvest nature -- or our natural selves -- only for selfish reasons, we are doomed to a life out of balance and a world teetering on the brink. Individually or as a society, pride really does go before a fall."
Raymonod Aceto as the Reverend Olin Blitch
in Susannah (Photo by: Corey Weaver)

This production of Susannah was a triumph for soprano Patricia Racette, whose bubbly enthusiasm for life and ripe sensuality was easily destroyed by the holier-than-thou town gossip, Mrs. McLean (Catherine Cook). Susannah's scared betrayal by her former friend, "Little Bat" McLean (James Kryshak) was dramatically heart-breaking (although extremely well sung). Tenor Brandon Jovanovich gave a physically powerful and vocally rich performance as Susannah's older brother, Sam.

Brandon Jovanovich as Sam in
Susannah (Photo by: Corey Weaver) 

While Karen Kamensek's conducting and Michael Cavanagh's direction firmly shaped the drama in Floyd's opera, I found myself surprisingly underwhelmed by Raymond Aceto's performance as the villainous man of God. Neither forceful nor particularly slimy, his characterization of the Reverend Olin Blitch was about as ordinary a preacher as one might find, That banality, of course, may be the true face of evil.

Nevertheless, Floyd's score contains many wondrous moments, from Susannah's Act I aria, "Ain't It A Pretty Night" to Sam's rendition of "The Jaybird Song." Here's some footage from the production.

* * * * * * * * *
There are, to be sure, all kinds of bad Jews in the world. There are those who eat ham all year and then suddenly become pious around the high holy days. And then there are those who think that Abraham Foxman is rational and objective.

My first awareness that I was a bad Jew arrived one fateful day during high school when my aunt Bess called. While waiting for my mother to come to the phone, Bess asked me what I was doing to honor my roots as a Jew in observance of the upcoming Yom Kippur holiday. Not being smart enough to filter anything out of our conversation, I promptly blurted out that I was going to a Wednesday matinee of The Sound of Music so I could watch the nuns sing and dance. I could hear my aunt's queasy harrumph of disapproval from miles away.

In Joshua Harmon's new play entitled Bad Jews (which is currently receiving its regional premiere from Magic Theatre), the Jews in question are young three Millennials mourning the death of their grandfather (a Holocaust survivor who has finally kicked the bucket).

Liam (Max Rosenak) is the golden grandson who can do
no wrong in Bad Jews (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Liam (Max Rosenak) is the golden grandchild, the firstborn male who could never do any wrong. Although Liam couldn't make it to the funeral on time because he was skiing in Aspen with his girlfriend, Melody (Riley Krull) -- a genuine shiksa goddess from Delaware -- he is very much a modern, assimilated Jew with a sense of white privilege. As the oldest grandchild, he knows exactly what he wants and has done a fine job of making sure his doting mother gets it for him.

Jonah (Kenny Toll) wants no part of the upcoming battle
between Liam and Daphna in Bad Jews (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Jonah (Kenny Toll) is Liam's younger brother. A man who prefers to avoid the kind of  take-no-prisoners family confrontations which frequently erupt between passionate and argumentative members of the chosen people, Jonah has not yet told anyone that he had a tattoo carved into his arm which is the same number his grandfather was given by the Nazis. That's Jonah's way of keeping the family tradition alive and he's sticking with it.

Daphna (Rebecca Benhayon) and her cousin Jonah (Kenny Toll)
in Bad Jews  (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Daphna Feygenbaum (Rebecca Benhayon) is Liam and Jonah's cousin from the poorer side of the family (her parents both taught in public schools). With a large head of unmanageable hair that requires constant attention, it takes Daphna less than a minute to signal to the audience that she is an emotionally damaged, dangerously manipulative young woman who has probably acquired every disgustingly dysfunctional habit she picked up from her mother's toxic personality. After two minutes in Daphna's presence, it should surprise no one to find himself thinking "Funny, you don't look shrewish!"

Of the three grandchildren, Daphna obviously has the greatest need to be the center of attention -- at any cost. Attacking Liam for every advantage he has enjoyed in life is a piece of cake. Stripping away any sense of dignity that Melody might have is child's play. By the time (late in the play) when Liam tells his cousin that she has never really been in love -- and probably never will be -- it's the first time anyone has given Daphna a taste of her own truth-telling medicine.

The problem is that Daphna desperately wants to inherit her grandfather's chai (a piece of jewelry) and is damned if she will let Liam use it to propose to someone like Melody, who isn't even Jewish. In her own way, Daphna clings to my own grandmother's peculiar outlook on life: "If I'm going to be miserable the whole world can be miserable as well!".

Using Erik Flatmo's cramped unit set, Ryan Guzzo Purcell has directed Bad Jews in a way that highlights how some of today's Millennials have never really earned their place in the world but, instead, are quick to claim pieces of someone else's history as their own.

Liam (Max Rosenak) and Melody (Riley Krull) in
Bad Jews (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

I enjoyed the performances by Max Rosenak and Kenny Toll as the two brothers and got a kick out of Riley Krull's portrayal of a decent young shiksa who thought she might pursue an operatic career even though she had no talent.

With regard to Rebecca Benhayon's portrayal of Daphna, it's important to delineate between the character that has been created by the playwright and the artist inhabiting the character's skin. It's a testament to Ms. Benhayon's skill as an actress, Mr. Purcell's insight as a director, and Mr. Harmon's talent as a playwright that, by the end of Bad Jews (and even though I'm a nonviolent person), I just wanted to haul off and deck the bitch!

Dapha (Rebecca Benhayon) and her cousin Jonah (Kenny Toll)
in Bad Jews  (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Performances of Bad Jews continue at the Magic Theatre through Sunday, October 5 (click here to order tickets).

Friday, September 19, 2014

Send In The Clowns

According to Wikipedia, schadenfreude is "the feeling of joy or pleasure when one sees another fall or suffer misfortune." Since the day one primitive man watched another get hit on the head by a coconut, physical comedy has progressed from slipping on a banana peel to the point where the art of clowning is taught at schools like the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College (here in San FranciscoCircus Center runs a popular Clown Conservatory).

Today, clowning has achieved a level of professionalism that could only have been dreamed of in the early days of vaudeville and touring circuses.

While many credit the Commedia dell'arte with creating a set of stock comic characters during the 16th century, it wasn't until the advent of silent film that a library of recorded physical comedy became available to the masses. Since then, audiences have been able to study and be inspired by the antics of such great clowns as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Max Linder, The Three Stooges, and Laurel and Hardy. In reviewing The Mack Sennett Collection Volume One for The New York Times, J. Hoberman wrote:
"Sennett’s films can be shockingly callous, steeped in sick humor and gross-out comedy. “The Noise of Bombs” (1914) keeps a baby in continuous danger and has as its final gag the villain blown sky high. Foiled in his attempt to secure a free turkey, the scurrilous antihero of “A Bird’s a Bird” (1915) decides to kill a pet parrot; later in the movie, a dinner guest’s copious chin whiskers can be seen floating in the gravy boat."
If today's conventional wisdom insists that "a mime is a terrible thing to waste," much of that is due to the work of Marcel Marceau (who toured internationally for nearly 60 years, bringing his character of BIP to theatres and college audiences everywhere).

Marceau obviously inspired Robert Shields, a popular street performer in San Francisco during the 1970s who was known for his talent as well as the physical risks he took on a daily basis.

Bay area audiences recently received an odd opportunity when clowns of radically different ages, levels of talent, and years of experience performed in theatres two blocks apart. The contrast between what was on display at the EXIT Theatre during the 2014 San Francisco Fringe Festival and the opening production of the American Conservatory Theater's 2014-2015 season offered an object lesson in how good packaging can enhance even the greatest talents.

* * * * * * * * *
Because it is an unjuried event, the San Francisco Fringe Festival presents audiences with a peculiar challenge (you pays your money, you takes your chances). While Fringe festivals attract a wide variety of performance artists specializing in physical comedy, the entries can vary from nervous amateurs to polished professionals.

Clowns working in close quarters with their audience must also be able to improvise and have plenty of confidence in their material. Part of the challenge for Fringe artists involves traveling light, being able to quickly "grab" the audience, and working without the kind of fourth wall one might find in a venue with a proscenium stage.

In recent years, shows like The Four ClownsSubmarine, and Pi Clowns have had audiences at the San Francisco Fringe Festival laughing so hard that their sides hurt. Alas, I did not experience that kind of exhilaration with the two clown shows I saw at this year's festival.

Written and performed by Kurt Bodden and Allison Daniel (who met while studying physical performance in the conservatory program at San Francisco's Flying Actor Studio), An Awkward Sensation offers a series of 16 brief skits which depict everything from an annoying fly buzzing around someone's food to a strange and oddly-mismatched balletic pas de deux.

Allison Daniel and Kurt Bodden in An Awkward Situation

Some pieces are quick vignettes, such as the scene in which one character is excitedly talking on a cell phone to a friend while describing this great new apartment he has just leased in San Francisco (and nonchalantly stepping over a dead body). Another smartly written piece offers a grisly resolution to the old Halloween question of "Trick or treat?"

Both actors shine in a series of blackout skits entitled "Superheroes" which detail how an ordinary person became a superhero after an unfortunate encounter with an animal (cat, dog, cockroach, Tyrannosaur, etc.,) that had accidentally been exposed to heavy doses of radiation.

Allison Daniel and Kurt Bodden in An Awkward Situation

While Bodden and Daniel put a lot of energy into their mixture of sketch comedy, mime, puppetry, and clowning, I often found myself wishing they could find a director capable of tightening their material and helping this duo to refine their show.

I was much less entertained watching Richard Harrington and Chris Kauffman perform Cabaret Terrarium, a series of lame vignettes that comprise a weakly strung-together story whose success rests largely on the fact that each member of the audience has received a noisy toy to play with for the 60-minute duration of the show. Cabaret Terrarium's promotional material describes the show as follows:
"A man is found inside a block of ice at the North Pole by Norwegian archaeologists. They defrost him. He has no memory of his past. He has a birthmark on his belly in the shape of a frog, a matchbook in his pocket, and a microphone in his hand. And he has a Belgian accent. He doesn't know his name, but there is one thing he is sure of: that he is a singer of the cabaret. Soon, the man learns that his name is Gustave, and he re-imagines for himself a traveling companion: his mostly mute friend and associate Nhar, whom he lost on the ice. With the help of Nhar, Gustave tracks down his family and his past, first in Belgium, then in Colombia, and then finally in the redwood forests of Northern California. The more places he visits, the more he begins to realize the awful truth about his own shadowy misdeeds. The tale of this quest and its dramatic conclusion is told in narrative, musical numbers and re-enactment by Gustave and Nhar, who complements Gustave's deadpan storytelling with his subtle mime routines and musical accompaniment." 
Chris Kauffman and Richard Harrington in Cabaret Terrarium
(Photo by: Ken Stein)

Although Harrington and Kauffman have been working to refine their particular style of deadpan comedy for more than 15 years, as directed by Patricia Buckley, Cabaret Terrarium leaves a lot to be desired (click here for a sample video from the show). Indeed, were it not for the fact that the audience made use of their wooden frog-shaped noisemakers with the level of glee one could expect from a rhythm band in elementary school, this show would be frighteningly lame.

Chris Kauffman and Richard Harrington in Cabaret Terrarium
(Photo by: Ken Stein)

* * * * * * * * *
Over at the American Conservatory Theater, two old hats were performing in their new show (aptly entitled Old Hats). Having risen through the ranks of the Pickle Family Circus, Cirque du Soleil, and developed solid reputations as masters of their craft, Bill Irwin and David Shiner are happily resurrecting the show they debuted in 2013 for New York's Signature Theatre.

Blessed with new technology (reflected in Erik Pearson's video design and production) as well as some stunning costume work by G. W. Mercier (who also created the show's scenery), the two clowns continue to delight audiences with a level of skill and artistry that takes years to achieve. As director Tina Landau notes:
"David and Bill have very different working styles. They're both perfectionists and they are both diligent to the extreme. There are a number of competitions between the two that run throughout the piece. Because of that, one of them is always failing at any given time. One of the main things I did on the project was create a physical world within which their work could live. I feel like it has been my lucky gift to get to work with them because I learned so much merely by observing two great artists work on their craft."
David Shiner and Bill Irwin as two politicians in Old Hats
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While working off each other as rival politicians (or as a smarmy magician and his coyly judgmental assistant), the two men feed on their audience's energy as a means of making the evening a rousing success. Whether recruiting volunteers from the audience or working with the talented Shaina Taub and her musicians, they make old routines come alive with a freshness that is remarkable.

Shaina Taub in Old Hats (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Each clown, of course, has his special solo moments. Shiner scores strongly in a "Hobo Puppet Waltz" while Irwin has great fun as a waiter trying to tame some unruly spaghetti.  Irwin also makes full use of new technologies as "Mr. Business" (a man trapped between the communicative abilities of his smartphone, tablet, and a perversely interactive billboard).

"The Encounter" revives a wonderful duet from their previous show, Fool Moon, in which both men (clad in ingeniously-designed costumes) try to outdo each other with their respective medical regimens.

David Shiner and Bill Irwin as two commuters in Old Hats
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Despite the ability to incorporate state-of-the-art digital mapping into Old Hats, what touches the hearts and minds of their audience are often the simplest, most human moments. Some of these appear in Shiner's classic "Cowboy Cinema" routine.  In "The Magic Act," Bill Irwin uses a more garish costume than he had in the Signature Theatre production to speak volumes with his hips. As Shiner notes:
"Life's not easy. It's a struggle for everyone; no matter who you are, no matter how much money you have, no matter how successful you are -- it's always a struggle. Nobody's perfect. We all feel like misfits, like we don't belong, like outcasts. The clown brings those imperfections to light and we can laugh at them. Clowning succeeds the most when we're able to laugh at the parts of ourselves that we hate (or fear) the most. The clown's role is to bring that struggle to light in whatever way a clown chooses to present those problems.

As we observe the clown trying to solve those problems and conflicts, that's where the comedy comes in because the clown is playing the fool. He's doing the best he can and being the most idiotic he can possibly be -- a complete idiot, someone who can't do anything right. I think the most satisfying laughter is when it heals; when the clown is able to reveal human weakness or human failings in a very comic light. In essence, we're laughing at parts of ourselves that we find embarrassing -- and those things are what make us wonderfully human."
Bill Irwin, Shaina Taub, and David Shiner in Old Hats
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Performances of Old Hats continue through October 12 at the American Conservatory Theater (click here to order tickets).