Monday, June 8, 2015

Looks Aren't Everything

How many times have you met someone whose first impression was so strong that you couldn't wait to learn more about them? All too often, the discovery process proved to be a fairly shallow and unsatisfying dig.
  • Sometimes it became painfully clear that the person had nothing of interest to say.
  • Sometimes one learned that the person loved to talk but didn't know how to listen.
  • Sometimes it didn't take long to realize that some people have no other hobbies or interests than themselves.
A similar phenomenon occurs in the theatre where, with so many plays now being produced in venues that lack a traditional proscenium arch, there is rarely a curtain separating the audience from the stage. As people enter the theatre they are often struck by the beauty of the scenic design, the mood it creates, and a particular style it may evoke.

However, once the actors come onstage, what felt uplifting at first sight may well lead to a feeling of having had unrealistic and unfulfilled expectations. That letdown is hardly the fault of the set designer if  the playwright's script was unable to live up to the artistic vision shared with members of the creative team. Sometimes there truly is less onstage than meets the eye.

Two recent productions greeted Bay area audiences with beautifully-designed unit sets that faded into the background once the actors came onstage. Ironically, as the evening progressed, the fact that a supporting actor could repeatedly steal the show unexpectedly pointed to some of the script's weaknesses. For me, the experience felt like going to a wedding where one of the groomsmen (who was either more charismatic or more attractive than the groom) kept diverting attention from the couple that was being married that day.

* * * * * * * * *
Take, for example, Noel Coward's 1925 hit comedy, Fallen Angels, which is receiving a new production from TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Set in the dining-drawing room of an upscale London flat, the action takes place in the Fall of 1927. In his program note, director Robert Kelley writes that:
"If the era of women's liberation dramatically changed our world in the 60s and 70s, the 1920s rocked convention at every turn. After two decades of suffragist struggles, women embraced both  the vote and the premise of equality with a radical assault on social convention and restriction. For decades, I thought the play no more than a funny show about women drinking. It took me years to realize it was more -- a wry and insightful exploration of women, their relationships, and their place in the rapidly evolving society of the 1920s.

I began to see the play as epitomizing the emerging yet conflicted women of the 1920s, increasingly liberated, yet engaged in conventional, sometimes passionless relationships; open-minded yet bound by the lingering constrictions of gender and class; independent in spirit but dependent financially and, in the case of Saunders (the overqualified maid), not quite at ease being better educated, more accomplished, and more discreet than her upper class 'superiors.'"
Jane (Rebecca Dines) and Julia (Sarah Overman) get sloshed
in Act II of Fallen Angels (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Although Coward wrote Fallen Angels during a period of genuine social change, he was only 24 years old at the time. The first act is a surprisingly thin 30-minute piece of exposition as Julia (Sarah Overman) complains to her rather pompous husband, Fred (Mark Anderson Phillips), that they are no longer in love. Fred, of course, is preoccupied with preparations for the day's golf date with Willy (Cassidy Brown), whose wife Jane (Rebecca Dines) is Julia's best friend.

 Willy (Cassidy Brown) and Fred (Mark Anderson Phillips)
prepare for a golf date in Fallen Angels (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Here's the problem. Upon entering the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, the audience is greeted by an exquisite unit set designed by J.B. Wilson that contains some strong Art Deco elements. As Wilson explains:
"In thinking about the characters and the story, I concentrated on the notion of a traditional British Georgian-style flat that has been remodeled and updated in the spirit of a new style for a new, modern century. There are Art Deco elements to the decor of the set, including the large metallic wall panels a la Edgar Brandt, the sweeping curve of the step, the main doorway, the illuminated soffit [feature that runs around the top of the walls, about 14 feet off the floor], and the mantelpiece."
Jane (Rebecca Dines) and Fred (Mark Anderson Phillips) in
Act II, Scene II of Fallen Angels (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"I want to stress that most of the choices were formed through research into London Art Deco specifically, which I discovered is a bit more staid in its residential manifestations than is the 1920s French ocean liner version of Art Deco, or the more flamboyant 1930s Hollywood version of the style that many of us are familiar with. Another part of the story of the set is the theme suggested by the title. If the characters are 'fallen angels,' they have fallen from above into the Garden. Thus the sky blue walls with a suggestion of clouds, and the stylized gilded jungle elements lurking in the panels on the wall."
Julia (Sarah Overman),  Maurice (Aldo Billingslea), and Jane
(Rebecca Dines) reunite in a scene from Fallen Angels
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

After the men depart for their golf holiday, Fallen Angels focuses on their two wives who, after complaining about how bored and hungry they are, proceed to get smashingly drunk while awaiting the arrival of Maurice (Aldo Billingslea), a Frenchman with whom each woman once had a torrid affair before marrying her husband.

While Rebecca Dines nad Sarah Overman do a splendid job with the physical comedy of becoming thoroughly besotted, Tory Ross continues to steal their thunder as the newly-hired maid who has far more life experience in her little finger than either of the two pampered women she is serving.

Fred (Mark Anderson Phillips) and his new maid, Saunders
(Tory Ross) in a scene from Fallen Angels (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Even though the pacing picks up after the surprisingly unsatisfying first act, the production never fully rises to the splendor Wilson's Art Deco-inspired set and Fumiko Bielefeldt's delightful period costumes. It's hard to imagine Noel Coward's witty banter being upstaged by design elements, but this production may be the rare exception.

Jane (Rebecca Dines) and Julia (Sarah Overman) share an anxious
moment in a scene from Fallen Angels (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Performances of Fallen Angels continue at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through June 28 (click here to order tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Upon entering Magic Theatre's auditorium for the world premiere of Luis Alfaro's new drama (This Golden State: Part One - Delano), it was obvious that Andrew Boyce's simple unit set had been strongly influenced by the evangelical community in which the play's action takes place. The seating for the auditorium's two side sections had been replaced with handsome, brightly cushioned church pews (which Magic Theatre might want to keep as permanent fixtures) while, far upstage, sections of the set were split so that they formed a cross which could be effectively lit from behind.

Romie (Carla Gallardo) and Elias (Sean San Jose) in
a scene from This Golden State: Part One - Delano
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Set in the small town of Delano in California's Central Valley, Alfaro's drama visits an evangelical congregation trying to overcome what some could consider a crisis. Its long-time pastor has recently died and, with the drought affecting everyone's finances, Brother Able (Rod Gnapp), a representative from the church's regional management structure, has driven down from Oregon to determine whether or not this particular congregation can survive on its own or if it needs to be merged with one or more others.

To Brother Abel's surprise, the church's affairs are very much in order thanks, in large part, to the meticulous financial recordkeeping of the pastor's widow, Hermana Cantu (Wilma Bonet), whose tireless efforts to make and sell tamales to the locals have helped to sustain the organization's financial health. Although one of the deceased pastor's brightest followers, Elias (Sean San Jose), has gone on to lead a congregation in San Diego, he has been called back to Delano by Hermana Cantu to pay his respects to her late husband and, if he is so inclined, take over the congregation.

Elias (Sean San Jose) and Brother Abel (Rod Gnapp) in a scene from
This Golden State: Part One - Delano  (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Despite his devotion to his beloved new wife, Sister Ester (Sarah Nina Hayon), there is a skeleton in Elias's closet that has nothing to do with his past as an angry young man whose greatest pleasure was eating cheap hamburgers from his favorite fast food outlet. When Ester voices her concern to Brother Abel about Elias, he instructs her to ask her husband about "the girl." As the playwright explains:
"If you are in the theatre, your job is to question everything (probably way up there on that list of things to question is the role of organized religion). I was raised both Pentecostal and Catholic, and there is something extraordinary about the ritual of the church. Rituals are important to me and I think of theatre as one big ritual. For me, bringing these two rituals together  -- the communal experience of it -- makes me excited.

I love the comfort of the church, but I don't really like its organization. If you are in the margins in any way, the church helps and [yet] it also seems to hurt. Then there's faith, right? Faith is the trust you have in the outside (it's that bigger-than-us idea). For me, that exists in the power of theatre, the power to create change, and to write plays that in some way suggest that change is possible -- that we are all capable of and in need of change."
Sarah Nina Hayon portrays Sister Ester in Luis Alfaro's
This Golden State: Part One - Delano (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Alfaro's script is filled with plenty of laugh lines and, as directed by Loretta Greco, builds to a poignant revelation. But something is lacking in this play. It's hard to identify whether that curious ingredient is a true sense of conflict, a crisis for the congregation, a stronger narrative structure, or a greater sense of dramatic momentum.
  • Elias finally accepts that the accidental death of a young woman named Romie (Carla Gallardo)  -- whom he had prepared for baptism -- was not his fault.
  • Sister Ester undergoes an impressive transformation from a subdued, submissive wife to a woman discovering her spiritual strength while beginning to understand the help and leadership she can give to a community.
  • Following his clinical assessment of the situation, Brother Abel realizes that the congregation is in good hands and his crisis management services are not needed.
  • Not only does Hermana Cantu accept the fact that her husband is dead and she's not getting any younger, with the help of a younger congregant named Moises (Armando Rodriquez), she learns that pupusas are easier to make than tortillas and can sell just as well, if not better.
Moises (Armando Rodriquez), Hermana Cantu (Wilma Bonet),
and Sister Ester (Sarah Nina Hayon) in a scene from
This Golden State: Part One - Delano (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

In her director's note, Loretta Greco writes:
"With great humility and authenticity, Delano offers us the rare experience of faith through the prism of community -- a place where hard work is for the greater good, and hope is mindfully tended. It is my hope that this play reminds us of our own larger purpose and what each of us is uniquely called to contribute."
Strangely enough, for all the attention focused on Elias, it soon becomes obvious that although some of the men who purport to be leaders in this community are quite charismatic, it is the women who get things done. During her brief visit to Delano, Sister Ester soaks up a lot of wisdom from Hermana Cantu. By the end of the play, it's starting to look as if Sister Ester might take over the leadership role left vacant by the death of Pastor Cantu.

As has been in the case in several other productions,Wilma Bonet turns the character of Hermana Cantu into a force of nature. Not only is this woman the glue holding her community together, she is the real driving force in Alfaro's play. Although it's easy to imagine that This Golden State: Part One -- Delano may be focused on Elias and/or Ester, whenever Wilma Bonet leaves the stage, it almost feels as if Alfaro's fragile play might lose its footing and start to implode.

Wilma Bonet consistently steals the show as Hermana Cantu in
This Golden State: Part One - Delano (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

No comments: