Sunday, November 16, 2014

Hell Hath No Fury Like A Woman Wronged

One of the joys of witnessing a piece of creative theatre is savoring the work of a playwright willing to restructure the traditional dramatic universe. Whether making one of his characters a shapeshifter, morphing the styles of celebrated films into the actions and thoughts of his characters, or simply looking at life through a new, prism-like perspective, an imaginative playwright can take an audience on unexpected journeys through time, space, gender, and reality. Consider the following examples:
Two recent productions featured works by writers at opposite ends of their careers. One was by a young playwright who works full-time as a professional music teacher; the other by one of America's greatest 20th century playwrights. Curiously, each involves a woman of substantial wealth who has repressed a great deal of anger about some of the compromises she has been forced to make in her life. As can be expected, some wounds never fully heal.

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Built around the theme of "The Monster Ball," the 2014 San Francisco Olympians Festival witnessed the world premiere of Peter Hsieh's rowdy comedy, Argus. While one might think the title character would be the focus of the play, the true catalyst behind much of the script's action is Zeus's jealous wife, Hera (Maggie Ziomek).

Hsieh mischievously creates a mashup between Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, today's celebrity-driven culture, and the brave new world of high-tech surveillance. In his approach to the ancient Greek legend, Hera's servant, Argus (Patrick Barresi), is a watchman-like android who, thanks to his 100 eyes, can see everywhere. One might suggest that:
"He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!"
Poster art by Cody A. Rishell for Argus

Like many celebrities, Zeus (Carl Lucania) and Hera depend on personal assistants to act as "fixers" who can conduct opposition research and do damage control for them. Without doubt, the couple is way past the point where couples counseling might help their relationship.

Thanks to a clumsy lower-level assistant named Gnat (Leer Relleum) -- whose sloppiness handling the "swan rape incident" became a huge media embarrassment for the powerful Olympus Corporation (for which Zeus is the Chairman of the Board) -- Hera's out for revenge.
  • As the play begins, Zeus is hungrily cruising for sex. He decides to work his magic on Io (Danielle Perata), a naive and impressionable nymph whom he transforms into a white heifer during a moment of inconvenient truth. 
  • Zeus's frustrated assistant and resident thug, Hermes (Sunil Patel), is not only the speedy messenger of the gods but a rabid cinephile who likes to quiz his torture victims about the music found on various film soundtracks before he beats the shit out of them. As Hermes informs Gnat that he is about to cut out his tongue, cut off an ear, and break one of his arms, he advises the terrified underling that this would be a good time to start reviewing the entire filmography of Lars Von Trier.
  • Meanwhile, Hera has ordered Argus to track her husband's movements in the hope of trapping Zeus in one of his many lies. When Argus seems unable to relate to certain types of human behavior that simply don't compute, Hera suggests that he download an "empathy patch" for his software. 
Vince Faso, Stuart Bousel, and Peter Hsieh onstage during the 2014
San Francisco Olympians Festival (Photo by: Charles Lewis III) 

Directed with gusto by Rory Strahan-Mauk, Hsieh's comedy has great fun spoofing the male-on-male violence found in many action films, His script is notable for its imagination, numerous cultural references, and the glee it takes in depicting the smarmy behavior of the power elite. The repeated descriptions of the property damage caused every time Hera's private jet lands close to where her husband is misbehaving -- and the hilarious performance by Leer Relleum as Gnat who, having been fired, lost his tongue, and been condemned to waiting tables, must try to describe the wine list to his former employer -- were comic gems.

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The acid-tinged comedy in Edward Albee's third Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Three Tall Women, is of a much more cynical type. Its three tall women (named "A," "B," and "C") are seen from different perspectives in each act.

Terry Bamberger as "B" and Michaele Greeley as "A" in Act I
of Albee's Three Tall Women (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

In Act I, "A" is a frail old woman in her nineties with a mild case of Alzheimer's disease who drifts in and out of coherence, nostalgia, bitterness, incontinence, and spiteful bouts of vituperation. "B" is a 52-year-old version of "A" who is currently employed as the old woman's sadder-but-wiser caretaker. "C" is a grotesquely naive and fearful 26-year-old woman employed by the law firm that manages "A's" financial affairs.

At the end of Act I "A" suffers a stroke and, when Act II begins, she has been transformed into a poorly dressed and bewigged mannequin (talk about a bad hair day!) lying in bed. The three actors who appeared in Act I  take on more clearly-defined portrayals of "A" at various stages of her often unhappy life. The woman who portrayed "A" in Act I is now a fully-functioning octogenarian; the 52-year-old has held onto her age, but is clearly the 52-year-old version of "A" while the youngest is still desperately clinging to denialism as a survival technique.

Michaela Greeley, Katherine Otis, and Terry Bamberger in Act II
of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Midway through Act II, "A's" grandson arrives to mourn her death. Carrying a bouquet of her beloved freesias, he sits silently and helplessly as the ghosts of "A" angrily revisit old wounds, past betrayals, and and lost opportunities.

"B" (Terry Bamberger) berates The Boy (Nathan Brown) in Act II
of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Albee has frequently confessed that the character of "A" is based on his adoptive grandmother, an extremely conservative woman with whom he had a horrible relationship (when the play premiered, a family friend suggested that Albee  had been kinder than others might have been in his portrait of the woman). In one interview the playwright stated:
"I learned that I was adopted when I was five or so, and I wasn't surprised.  Many kids when they're growing up have the fear that maybe they're not the natural children.  I had the terrible fear that maybe I was.  When I was told that I was adopted, I remember being rather relieved. I just didn't feel that I belonged."
I've waited many years to see a production of Three Tall Women and now, thanks to Custom Made Theatre, I've finally had an opportunity to make up for lost time. Forcefully directed by Katja Rivera, Custom Made's ensemble of four talented Bay area actors gives stunning performances in a drama which asks the audience to examine the complexities and motivations of a woman at various stages of her life.

The skill with which Albee meticulously dissects and reconstructs "A" and "B" often resembles the artistic process of designing a three-dimensional puzzle. The younger, most shallow generation, does not fare very well in Albee's play. As The Boy, Nathan Brown has little to do but look pretty, introspective, and pretty introspective. As "C," Katherine Otis is faced with the least sympathetic character in the script -- a semi-delusional young twit who has no desire to hear bad news.

Katherine Otis as "C" in Act II of Edward Albee's
Three Tall Women (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

While Terry Bamberger's "B" has a fiercely powerful and accusatory monologue directed at her gay son in Act II, it is Michaela Greeley who dominates the proceedings with an exquisitely layered performance as the elderly "A" who, with the wisdom and exhaustion of old age, simply wishes for her life to be over and done with.

Michaela Greeley as "A" in Act II of Edward
Albee's Three Tall Women (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

Custom Made Theatre's production of Three Tall Women continues through December 7 (click here to order tickets). In the following interview with Linda Winer from 2006, Albee discusses whether or not men can truly write about women, his curious techniques for naming characters, and the contributions of women to the world of theatre.

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