Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Poignant Loss of Innocence

Every child who comes into this world arrives in a state of helpless innocence. If that child is lucky, s/he will be raised by loving parents who try to provide a safe and healthy path toward a promising future. Unfortunately, there is no way of predicting how or when that child's idealism will be tarnished by reality.

Whether disillusionment results from an act of aggression, a natural disaster, substance abuse, or domestic violence, the loss of a child's innocence can be an unexpected and traumatic event. For others there is a slow but steady erosion of hope and joy. This decidedly more incremental process may be due to increased responsibilities, a growing sense of maturity, financial stress, personal tragedies, the onset of disease, empathy for others, or a growing awareness that the deck is stacked against them.

Harvey Milk often insisted that "You've got to give them hope." President Barack Obama ran on a platform of "Hope and Change." But there are times when the proverbial arc of the moral universe does not bend toward justice, but continues to ignore the people who seem to be standing in its way.

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The Bootstrap Theater Foundation recently presented the world premiere of a compelling environmental drama with music at Z-Space Below. Written by Sharmon J. Hilfinger & Joan McMillen (and directed by Tracy Ward), Arctic Requiem: The Story of Luke Cole and Kivalina tells the tale of a San Francisco-based environmental lawyer who took up the cause of Inupiat villagers living in Kivalina, Alaska. A former member of Nader's RaidersLuke Cole founded the nonprofit Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment (CRPE) in order to assist marginalized communities fight the imposition of environmental and health hazards by profit-driven corporations. Cole also taught environmental justice at UC, Berkeley, UC, Hastings College of the Law and Stanford Law School.

Numerous documentaries have helped to focus attention on the growing perils of climate change.

While certain kinds of edutainment that can be achieved in film, audiences experience a vastly different sort of dramatic impact during a live performance. That's not to suggest that a play about the environment can't run aground on lofty intentions, guilt tripping, or a willingness to resort to theatrical styles (interpretive dance) that could diminish an audience's sympathy for the project.

Damon K. Sperber (Luke Cole) and Lynne Soffer (Lucy) share a
moment of friendship in Arctic Requiem (Photo by: Vicki Victoria)

Thankfully, the ambitious and commendable Arctic Requiem avoids such creative hurdles by concentrating on:
  • An oppressed racial minority belonging to a 10,000-year-old Eskimo culture that faces the loss of its habitat due to environmental pollution and climate change.
  • An Inupiat myth that casts a raven as a trickster who not only creates the world, but exists in all dimensions of time. 
  • An easily identifiable corporate villain (Teck Resources) determined to build the world's largest zinc mine despite the risk to a pristine environment. Teck's legal staff follows a typical path of moving the goal posts for those who would dare to sue them while trying to pit one group of plaintiffs (most of whom are employed at Teck's Red Dog mine) against another.
  • Government malfeasance by easily corrupted federal officials.
  • An idealistic lawyer from San Francisco who comes to Alaska on a quest for environmental justice and is willing to spend six years working on a case involving the Clean Water Act. On February 26, 2008, Luke Cole filed a Global Warming lawsuit (Kivalina vs. ExxonMobil Corp.) which sought reparations for the first climate change refugees in the United States.
The Raven (Gendell Hing-Hernandez) guides environmental 
lawyer Luke Cole (Damon K. Sperber) in Arctic Requiem: 
The Story of Luke Cole and Kivalina (Photo by: Vicki Victoria) 

Working on a unit set by Guilio Cesare Perrone that included blocks of ice hanging above (and melting into) onstage pools, the six-actor ensemble demonstrated the trials and tribulations of villagers living on a barrier reef island located about 70 miles above the Arctic Circle. With Damon K. Sperber as Luke Cole and Lawrence Radecker and Michael Torres as two of Kivalina's troubled male villagers, Cathleen Riddley and Lynne Soffer alternated between portraying two of the female plaintiffs and two of Teck's manipulative lawyers.

Gendall Hing-Hernandez (Raven) with the cast of Arctic Requiem:
The Story of Luke Cole and Kivalina (Photo by: Vicki Victoria)

While Soffer provided some beautifully poignant moments as Lucy, the strongest acting came from Gendall Hing-Hernandez (who effortlessly switched between portraying the Raven, a local judge, a representative from Teck Resources, and several other roles). Musical accompaniment was provided by Joan McMillen on piano and Helen Newby on cello.

Poster art for Arctic Requiem: The Story of 
Luke Cole and Kivalina (Photo by: Vicki Victoria)

Arctic Requiem: The Story of Luke Cole and Kivalina is one of those rare cause-related dramas that leaves viewers with a tremendous sense of respect for the actors and creative team as well as empathy for the people they are depicting onstage. By weaving a musical element and a whaling narrative into the production, the creative team was able to give life to a tremendous amount of information and legal maneuvering, thereby crafting a powerful drama that never lost its grip on the audience.

Performances of Arctic Requiem: The Story of Luke Cole and Kivalina continue through November 15 at Z-Space Below (click here to order tickets).

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In rare instances, a person's loss of innocence may be due to a catastrophic event (the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Hurricane Katrina). More often, however, it is marked by the passing of a more personal milestone. That moment may be as exuberant as a young man getting laid for the first time or as bittersweet as his doting mother realizing that her teenage son is no longer her little boy.

Brandin Francis Osborne (Tommy) and Rachel Ticotin (Essie
Miller) in a scene from Ah, Wilderness! (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

The American Conservatory Theater is presenting a new production of Ah, Wilderness! Eugene O'Neill's comedy premiered on Broadway on October 2, 1933 (at what is now the August Wilson Theatre) with a cast headed by George M. Cohan. In 1934, Will Rogers starred in the first national tour when Ah, Wilderness! was presented at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco.

Set in Connecticut on July 4, 1906, the play focuses on life within the tightly-knit Miller household as it is affected by the sturm und drang raging within the soul of its middle son, Richard (Thomas Stagnitta). O'Neill's original subtitle for the play was A Nostalgic Comedy of the Ancient Days when Youth was Young, and Right was Right, and Life was a Wicked Opportunity. However, as director Casey Stangl notes:
"Richard is a young man who is not only falling in love for the first  time, he is also very smart and has a very analytical and complex mind. He's attracted to radical political ideas that are different from the sense of conformity that surrounds him. You can feel that sense of rebellion, of wanting to break out of the confines of this small community that he's in, which is also something that O'Neill greatly felt."
Thomas Stagnitta as Richard Miller in Eugene O'Neill's
Ah, Wilderness! (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

While hormones rage through his 16-year-old body, Richard has been devouring all kinds of "dangerous" books to feed his romantic, idealistic soul. Quick to passionately regurgitate newly-acquired bits of wisdom (with or without their original context), his emotions can vary wildly from moment to moment. He may ardently profess his devotion to his girlfriend, Muriel McComber (Rosa Palmeri), or think she's a silly goose unworthy of his attention and affection.

Although Richard's 19-year-old brother, Arthur (Michael McIntire) -- a handsome college jock who considers himself to have become a man of the world -- may feel no need to corrupt his impressionable kid brother, one of Arthur's classmates at Yale, Wint Selby, (Matthew Capbarat), offers Richard an opportunity to experience a Fourth of July celebration that (instead of mere fireworks) includes booze, loose women, and a chance to blow his parents' curfew to smithereens. For a constipated mama's boy accustomed to playing by the rules, who could ask for anything more?

Matthew Capbarat (Wint Selby) and Thomas Stagnitta (Richard
Miller) in a scene from Ah, Wilderness! (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Despite the fact that there was plenty of history being made in 1906 (the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the San Francisco Earthquake, the sale of the first Victrola, the launch of the RMS Lusitania -- as well as the deaths of Susan B. Anthony, Henrik Ibsen, Pierre Curie, and Paul Cézanne), the Miller household seems to have been carefully insulated from anything more disturbing than the fact that Aunt Lily's long-term boyfriend whom she refuses to marry, Sid Davis (Dan Hiatt), has gotten drunk again.

Margo Hall (Libby) and Dan Hiatt (Sid) in a scene from
Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

This is all the more surprising when one considers that Richard's father (Anthony Fusco) owns the Evening Globe, where his challenges include (a) dealing with a threat by local businessman David McComber (Adrian Roberts) to pull all of his advertising from the newspaper because of the bad influence Richard is having on his daughter, and (b) the occasional need to hire his brother-in-law, Sid (currently working as a reporter for the Waterbury Standard) if he loses another job because of his drinking problem.

At home, Nat is forced to deal with the constant fussing and fretting of his wife, Essie (Rachel Ticotin), over Richard's whereabouts and her youngest son, Tommy (Brandin Francis Osborne), who is eager to set off some firecrackers on the Fourth of July. By contrast, her daughter, Mildred (Christina Liang), and the family maid (Jennifer Reddish) seem to require little supervision.

Margot Hall (Lily), Christina Liang (Mildred), and Michael McIntire
(Arthur) in a scene from Ah, Wilderness! (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As family dramas go, Ah, Wilderness! is rather benign, a glimpse of turn-of-the-century America back when drugs, violence, sexism, and racism were not tearing apart the bucolic appeal of Connecticut's small towns. To help capture the ethereal air of the Miller household, set designer Ralph Funicello and lighting designer Robert Wierzel used a set of scrims to set the tone for the production. As Funicello explains:
"The play depicts a time that is about 40 years after the Civil War. It's quite easy to realistically build the interior of a house, but it's not so easy to build realistic exterior spaces. The challenge of the scene on the beach was something that drove the whole design. I wanted to create a set that would accommodate the beach scenes within the context of the rest of play."
Thomas Stagnitta (Richard Miller) and Rosa Palmeri (Muriel McComber)
in a scene from Ah, Wilderness! (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"In order to do that, I concentrated on blurring the sharp lines of realism. A dreamy haze permeates the whole play. My intention for this new production revolved around the idea that scenes would unfold in a fuzzy, dreamlike, memory-infused environment. I then calculated how much detailed architecture (a spare set with only the essential furniture) I would use and how much of it would be abstract. I decided not to use doors in the construction of the set so that the characters can float in and out of rooms as they please."
O'Neill's play requires a fairly large ensemble, several of whom must play young characters. While veteran actors Anthony Fusco (Nat Miller), Margo Hall (Lily Miller), and Dan Hiatt (Sid Davis), contributed handsomely to the production, Rachel Ticotin (Essie Miller) was often difficult to hear, leaving some important gaps in her interactions with other characters. Having inherited the production on short notice following the tragic death of Mark Rucker, Casey Stangl was fortunate to have numerous young actors available from American Conservatory Theater's Master of Fine Arts Program. As she explains:
"One of the reasons why I think this play is difficult to do (or why it's not done that often) is the fact that it requires so many talented young people. For our production, there is a confluence of young actors who not only are at A.C.T. and who are available and talented, but who have also been in this program together for almost three years and have a sense of family about them. They all know each other and have each other's backs. They know the best and worst of each other. That's just like being in a family and adds a lot to the potential depth of this production's ensemble. The connectednsss of the M.F.A. Program actors is only to our advantage in terms of creating this tight-knit community that makes up the universe of the play."
With Caitlan Taylor appearing as Belle (a prostitute), Arthur Wise as a bartender, Matthew Baldiga as a salesman, and Michael McIntire as Arthur, the younger members of the ensemble included Christina Liang as Mildred, Jennifer Reddish as Norah, Matthew Capbarat as Wint Selby, and Rosa Palmeri as Muriel McComber. However, the evening was dominated by a beautifully layered performance from Thomas Stagnitta that was a huge triumph for such a young actor in embodying a complex and conflicted character onstage.

Rachel Ticotin (Essie), Thomas Stagnitta (Richard), and Anthony Fusco
(Nat) share a tense family moment in a scene from Ah, Wilderness!
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Performances of Ah, Wilderness! continue through November 8 at the American Conservatory Theater (click here to order tickets).

Monday, October 26, 2015

A Most Ingenious Paradox

Many opera companies have experimented with updating works from the standard repertoire in order to make them more relevant to contemporary audiences. Why? Doing so has financial as well as artistic rewards (because the scores to many operas are now in the public domain, an impresario may not need to pay royalties in order to be granted production rights).

The San Francisco Opera recently scored a major success with its new production of Donizetti's 1835 opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, which had been updated to some kind of modern mythic landscape. This season the Metropolitan Opera is reviving Michael Mayer's production of Rigoletto, in which the action has been updated and relocated to Las Vegas in the 1960s (Jonathan Miller's 1982 production of Rigoletto for the English National Opera relocated the action to New York's Little Italy in the 1950s).

Over the decades, Gilbert & Sullivan's most popular comic operas (The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance) have undergone constant reinvention.
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson starred in the 1939 production of
The Hot Mikado (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Television audiences across America were charmed on April 29, 1960, when Groucho Marx played Ko-Ko opposite Helen Traubel's Katisha in a condensed television production of The Mikado for The Bell Telephone Hour.

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Many people forget that The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty had its world premiere in New York on December 31, 1879 at the Fifth Avenue Theatre. Since then, Pirates may have eclipsed The Mikado as the most popular Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.  On November 13, 1955, artists from the famed D'Oyly Carte Opera Company (Ann Drummond-Grant as Ruth, Neville Griffiths as Frederic, and the great Donald Adams as The Pirate King) performed the "When you had left our pirate fold" trio on the popular television series, Omnibus.

The desire to liven up The Pirates of Penzance gained momentum in 1980, when Joseph Papp presented Wilford Leach's production with a cast headed by Rex Smith, Linda Ronstadt, Kevin Kline, and George Rose as part of the Public Theatre's annual Shakespeare in the Park series. After 45 outdoor performances at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, the production (which featured new orchestrations) transferred to Broadway, where it ran for nearly 800 performances. In 1983, the Public Theatre's production was filmed with its original leads, although Angela Lansbury replaced Estelle Parsons in the rule of Ruth, the middle-aged "piratical maid-of-all work."

In 1994, Australia's Essgee Entertainment toured a cheeky production of The Pirates of Penzance which took plenty of the liberties with the original. According to Wikipedia, "The Australian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast the production on television throughout Australia. The video/DVD enjoyed triple platinum sales, becoming the top-selling music video in Australian history."

In 2006-2007, Anthony Warlow starred in Opera Australia's touring production of The Pirates of Penzance. His Pirate King was obviously modeled on Johnny Depp's characterization of Captain Jack Sparrow.

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The latest adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance is being presented by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre as its family-friendly holiday show. Adapted and directed by Sean Graney (along with co-adapter Kevin O'Donnell and co-director Thrisa Hodits) for the Chicago-based theatre company known as The Hypocrites, the production features choreography by Katie Spelman with costumes by Alison Siple.

Tom Burch's unit set includes several blue plastic wading pools which anchor the main playing area as well as a bar/refreshment stand which the audience is encouraged to patronize throughout the 80-minute show. Andra Velis Simon's music direction includes new orchestrations written so that Sullivan's music can be performed on ukulele, guitar, banjo, concertina, accordion, and a musical saw.

How a person reacts to this production will greatly depend on their age and previous exposure to Gilbert & Sullivan. As one enters the playing space, the room is filled with people tossing brightly colored beach balls and inflated plastic sharks at each other as members of the cast sing, play instruments, and jump up and down with a vengeance. Billed as a piece of immersive theatre, this production has been designed as a playground for people with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). If you have a squirming child (or grandchild) who has run out of Ritalin and feels that he has outgrown Chuck E. Cheese's, this is the holiday show for you!

Whereas the Public Theatre's production of Pirates interpolated "Sorry Her Lot" from 1878's H.M.S. Pinafore and the "Matter Patter" trio from 1887's Ruddigore, The Hypocrites' production goes way beyond Gilbert & Sullivan in its effort to include music familiar to a modern-day audience.
 Zeke Sulkes (Frederick), Shawn Pfaustch (the Pirate King),
and Christine Stulik (Ruth) sing the Paradox trio in
The Pirates of Penzance (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Whereas Frederick (Zeke Sulkes) and Mabel are usually cast with the strongest voices in any Pirates company, in this production the strongest voices belong to the men portraying The Pirate King (Shawn Pfaustch) and Major General Stanley (Matt Kahler). In an interesting move, the roles of Mabel (the ingenue usually sung by a coloratura soprano) and Ruth (usually sung by a contralto) were both performed by Christine Stulik, whose shrillness and pitch problems were made all the more painful by Kevin O’Donnell's amplification.

Christine Stulik (Mabel) sings "Poor Wandering One" with a
backup trio comprised of Jenni M. Hadley, Kristen Magee, and 
Becky Poole in The Pirates of Penzance (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As someone who is not shy about indulging in wretched excess, even I felt that Graney's production suffered from the artistic equivalent of unrelenting ejaculation. Whereas some might describe an unskilled woman's facial technique as "applying makeup with a trowel," The Hypocrites' approach to The Pirates of Penzance felt like being caught in a fast and furious game of Whac-a-Mole with serial shtick that would not die. The production's fever pitch brought to mind one of my favorite lines from 1875's Trial By Jury: "She may very well pass for 43 in the dusk with the light behind her."

In recent months there has been a tremendous brouhaha among theatre artists about cultural appropriation with regard to productions of The Mikado in which Caucasian actors have used Yellowface to portray Japanese characters. One aspect of cultural appropriation, however, which has become increasingly annoying is the tendency of today's hipsters to seize on past styles and trends in an attempt to claim them as their own.

From folks like Sarah Chrisman and her husband, Gabriel (who prefer to live a Victorian-era lifestyle with no electricity) to any number of pretentious Millennials who aspire to reinvent the past in order to stand apart from their peers, this 21st-century form of cultural appropriation forces some people to confront what Gilbert & Sullivan called "a most ingenious paradox."
  • What if your artistic efforts are vampiric rather than inspired?
  • What if your attempt to build on someone else's original work only reveals how much stronger their talent was than yours is (or might ever be)?

Performances of The Pirates of Penzance continue through December 20 at the Osher Studio (click here to order tickets).

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Damsels In Distress

For centuries on end, many men and women were forced into wedlock through a marriage that had been arranged by a matchmaker or the efforts of their parents to bolster the family's wealth and power. Although today's Americans rarely face such pressures from parents who assume that young girls are incapable of choosing a spouse on their own, the practice still thrives in India and other parts of the world.

While an arranged marriage might seem like a winning concept to one's parents, the equation for success was usually based on money, property, social status, and political connections. The future happiness of a gay son or lesbian daughter was never a consideration. Reluctant brides were often confronted with horrifying marital prospects they would find impossible to love.

What held true in an impoverished Jewish shtetl (and among peasant families throughout the world) was also common practice in the upper strata of society. Brides were treated as chattel; commodities (not unlike farm animals) whose emotions were irrelevant to any kind of long-term relationship. If a family could engineer a successful marriage, the newlyweds could learn to love each other over time.

Much of the dramatic conflict in two recent Bay area productions was caused by the fallout from an arranged marriage which seemed destined to please a lot of people. Unfortunately, the bride was not one of them.

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Long before Family Feud became a popular game show on television, bitter rivalries between tribal clans led to constant battles over land and perceived insults. According to Wikipedia:
"A fundamental difference between wars enacted within the same tribe and against neighboring tribes is such that wars between different tribes are, in principle, wars of extermination. The Yanomamö of Amazonas traditionally practiced a system of escalation of violence in several discrete stages: the chest-pounding duel, the side-slapping duel, the club fight, and the spear-throwing fight. Further escalation results in raiding parties with the purpose of killing at least one member of the hostile faction. Finally, the highest stage of escalation is Nomohoni or all-out massacres brought about by treachery. Similar customs were known to the Chimbu of New Guinea, the Nuer of Sudan, and the North American Plains Indians. Among the Chimbu, pig theft was the most common cause of conflict, even more frequent than abduction of women, while among the Yanomamö, the most frequent initial cause of warfare was accusations of sorcery."
Cover art for Mike Dawson's Growing Up Yanomam'o:
Missionary Adventures in the Amazon Rainforest

Conflicts between rival families have provided a rich source of inspiration for dramatists.

In 1819, Sir Walter Scott published an historical novel entitled The Bride of Lammermoor. Scott's story revolved around the tensions between the Ashton and Ravenswood families, with young Lucy Ashton secretly falling in love with Edgar, Master of Ravenswood. When Donizetti adapted the story for his opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, not only did he create a tuneful and tightly-woven score, he also crafted the most famous mad scene in all of bel canto opera.

Nadine Sierra as Lucia di Lammermoor (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

The San Francisco Opera unveiled a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor this fall that updated the action away from the 19th century and placed it some indefinable era that could preserve the basic tensions of Scott's novel while trying to portray the power struggle between the Ashton and Ravenswood families as involving not just a patriarchal struggle for dominance between two Scottish clans, but a case of potential corporate ruin as well. As director Michael Cavanagh explained:
"Our production of Lucia takes a modern-mythic approach to this great work. The setting is a dystopian near future, where the intense pressures of mega-corporate deal-making are akin to the great inter-family alliances of yesteryear. The production's clean lines and imposing structures create a world that is at once oppressive and starkly beautiful. The production, then, stands as a memorial to eternal love, and serves as a warning to those who would put ambition ahead of family and thus forsake our connections to the past.”
Enrico (Brian Mulligan) confronts Lucia (Nadine Sierra) in a scene 
from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

With impressive scenery and projections designed by Erhard Rom, costumes by Mattie Ullrich, and lighting by Gary Marder, the production's rich visuals were strengthened by the use of forced perspective and, in the wedding scene, a cluster of giddily sculpted floral hats for the female chorus.

Normanno (AJ Glueckert), Arturo (Chong Wang), and Enrico
(Brian Mulligan) in the wedding scene from
Lucia di Lammermoor (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

While some traditionalists in the audience were horrified by the look of  San Francisco Opera's new production, I was absolutely thrilled by it. The design concept created the kind of dramatic tension which has long evaporated from most stagings of Donizetti's opera. The ghost of a girl killed by one of Edgardo's jealous ancestors (which Lucia describes to her maid, Alisa) as well as the ghost of Enrico (which her brother describes as the way he will haunt her if her lack of cooperation forces him to commit suicide) made prophetic appearances at key moments in the opera.

Blessed with two leads who could act and sing the living daylights out of their roles, Michael Cavanagh's stage direction provided Scott's lovers with the kind of tender and amorous body language it could easily relate to.

Nadine Sierra (Lucia) and Piotr Beczala (Edgardo) in a scene
from Act I of Lucia di Lammermoor (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Looking a lot more tribal than his rich sponsors, Nicolas Testé made an impressive company debut as Raimondo (the Ashton family's religious counselor). Zanda Švēde (Alisa) and AJ Glueckert (Normanno) excelled as Lucia's servant and Enrico's henchman. Fresh from his starring run in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Brian Mulligan's booming baritone brought a new sense of economic desperation to Enrico's attempts to manipulate his sister into marrying Arturo (Chong Wang).

Edgardo (Piotr Beczala) confronts Enrico (Brian Mulligan) in the 
Ravenswood scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor  
(Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

However, there was never any doubt that the evening belonged to the two leads. This was the kind of production where Lucia looked physically (as well as mentally) fragile while her Edgardo was obviously not just a lover, but a hero to the young girl.

Thanks to Nicola Luisotti's propulsive conducting, soprano Nadine Sierra (a former Adler fellow who was drafted to replace an ailing Diana Damrau) and tenor Piotr Beczala brought the house down with a winning combination of their solid musicianship, clean singing, and impassioned acting. Unlike so many performances I've seen in the past, there was no exodus of opera queens following Lucia's mad scene. Instead, the San Francisco audience was stoked and eager to hear Beczala deliver Edgardo's death scene.

Under Ian Robertson's direction, the San Francisco Opera Chorus sounded magnificent. This handsome new production was a triumph for David Gockley's administration in its final year of leadership. The following clip contains some footage from the the production.

* * * * * * * * *
While Lucia's descent into madness is engineered by her brother's insistence that she marry someone other than her true love, the foundation for Ada Lovelace's romantic problems has been solidly constructed by her overbearing mother who, after a year of marriage to a famous (and famously philandering) poet, was abandoned with an infant in her care.

Kathryn Zdan stars in the Central Works world premiere of
Ada and the Memory Machine (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

Because Lord Byron abandoned his wife a month after their daughter was born and left England barely four months later (his subsequent offspring were all born out of wedlock), Ada's mother became a bitter harridan determined to protect her only child from societal gossip about the father Ada never knew. To ensure that her daughter did not succumb to the evil influence of poetry, she focused Ada's attention on the study of mathematics. As playwright Lauren Gunderson explains:

Central Works recently presented the world premiere of Gunderson's new play, Ada and the Memory Machine, starring Kathryn Zdan as Ada with Jan Zvaifler portraying Ada's bitter mother as well as her tutor, Mary Somerville (a polymath in an era when women were discouraged from participating in science). However, after Ada meets Charles Babbage (Kevin Clarke), a polymath whose attention is easily distracted by his next brilliant idea, she finds herself falling in love with a man whom she can bond with on an intellectual level but who remains emotionally unavailable.

Ada's mother had been carefully preparing her daughter for an arranged marriage to William King-Noel (the First Earl of Lovelace). A man who lacked Ada's intellectual strength and would have preferred to have a dutiful wife who could simply provide him with children, Lovelace initially tried to cut off any communication between Ada and Babbage.

Kathryn Zdan (Ada Lovelace) and Kevin Clarke (Charles Babbage) in
a scene from Ada and the Memory Engine (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

After Ada married the Earl of Lovelace on July 8, 1935, the couple had three children. When she died of ovarian cancer (on November 27, 1852), Ada was the same age as her when Lord Byron perished. In the final months of their illnesses, both father and daughter may have been weakened by the popular practice of bloodletting. By the time of her death, Ada (who had planned for Babbage to be the executor of her estate) was completely alienated from her hyper-religious mother.

In recent years, Lauren Gunderson has written some exquisite plays about intelligent women making major breakthroughs in the fields of mathematics, philosophy, and science.
What Gunderson achieves in Ada and the Memory Engine is quite remarkable. She manages to capture the cognitive energy and intellectual intimacy that can strengthen a friendship and make it so much more important to an individual than the physical and amorous intimacy dictated by an arranged marriage. In addition, she manages to show the Earl of Lovelace's growing awareness that, while by his rights as a husband, he should have first his wife's first allegiance in body and soul, as a man he cannot stimulate her mind as well as another man who, in addition to worshipping Ada, is her intellectual peer.

Kathryn Zdan stars in the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson's
new play, Ada and the Memory Engine (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

The play's final scene (which Gunderson wrote first), tackles the age-old question of what happens in the afterlife -- especially with regard to a person blessed with a brilliant mind. After Ada dies, she realizes that she was depending on too many numbers to make Babbage's memory engine function properly. At first, she thinks she should have used only two numbers (1 and 2), but then realizes that the correct numbers should be 1 and 0 (which later became the basis of computer programming).

Having left her fleshly body behind, she also has the long-desired opportunity to finally meet her father, Lord Byron, in the afterlife and discover the influences he has had on her emotional and intellectual development. It's a fascinating scene, beautifully acted by Joshua Schell (who also plays Ada's husband) and Kathryn Zdan and exquisitely directed by Gary Graves. The final moments of the play are underscored with music composed by The Kilbanes that is set to verses from Lord Byron's poetry. As Gunderson notes:
“Ada has the mind of a mathematician and the heart of a poet. She is fueled by curiosity and joy, but is constantly battling stress and a painful diagnosis of ovarian cancer. She commits to her passions fully. She tries to follow the rules of her day, but has no problem asserting herself. She has been weak her whole life, but her creativity and acumen strengthen her. She is a mother of three and is friends with her husband, but not in love with him. She harbors a sadness from growing up without a father. She thinks that he would have liked her, been proud of her. She will never know. She adores Babbage and has always wondered what would have become of her if she married him instead. When she dreams, she dreams of impossible things that only the future will see.

Ada is a play I’ve been wanting to write for years. When Central Works approached me to consider working with them on a new play, I immediately thought it was a perfect match. Their commitment to producing brand new plays, their interest in history onstage, and their flexible aesthetic and productive process meant we could make this thing together and make it something special.”
Joshua Schell (Lord Lovelace) and Kathryn Zdan (Ada) in a scene
from Ada and the Memory Engine (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

It should be noted that Ada and the Memory Engine was not just the 49th world premiere produced by Central Works, but the final offering in the 25th anniversary season for this Bay area theatre company known for its "organic" process of creating plays. Tenderly directed by Gary Graves (with handsome period costumes by Tammy Berlin), Ada and the Memory Engine is a rare and special artistic achievement: an intelligent play about intelligent historical people that has been crafted by intelligent theatre artists for an intelligent audience.

Poser art for Ada and the Memory Machine

In an era when people are constantly bemoaning the lack of women in science and mathematics, I was lucky enough to attend performances of David Auburn's play, Proof, and Ada and the Memory Machine on successive Sundays. Together, these plays (coupled with Gunderson's Silent Sky offer a fascinating curriculum for book clubs and those teaching courses in women's studies.

Performances of Ada and the Memory Engine continue through November 22 at the Berkeley City Club (click here to order tickets).

Thursday, October 22, 2015

San Francisco Treats

Contrary to what commercials once told Americans, Rice-A-Roni (which was introduced to consumers by the Golden Grain Macaroni Company in 1958) is not the only San Francisco "treat." When I think of some of San Francisco's unique attractions, I tend to consider local arts organizations that create original work (as opposed to primarily restaging works that have already found their place in the dramatic literature).

Quite often, when people refer to community theatre they do so in a condescending tone, as if to imply that even though a community theatre group might stage Broadway musicals, their productions aren't up to the standards of "real" Broadway productions. Such criticisms fail to take into account that it is often the smaller black box and community theatres that encourage the creation of new work by local playwrights, directors, actors, and choreographers.

November welcomes the 2015 SFOlympians Festival, playwright-director-entrepreneur Stuart Bousel's annual challenge to aspiring dramatists to create new works based on the characters and events in Greek mythology. Subtitled "Many Deities, Many Nights, One Festival," the action takes place down at the EXIT Theatre from November 4 to 21.

Since its founding in 2010, the SFOlympians Festival has showcased the work of 78 writers, 57 directors, 290 actors, and 34 graphic artists. In 2015, the festival will feature readings of 30 new plays by 31 Bay area writers (click here for tickets). For a description of the 2016 SFOlympians Festival, (whose theme will be Harvest of Mysteries), click here.

October offered me a chance to attend back-to-back productions by two favorite Bay area community theatre groups. One is a relatively young group; the other was celebrating its 30th anniversary. Both companies offered audiences a whopping good time.

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In recent years, the folks at the Left Coast Theatre Company have structured their evenings as anthologies of six shorts play built around an LGBT-related theme. Many of these plays have been written by company regulars.

Down at the Phoenix Theatre, Left Coast Theatre offered its latest anthology: a seasonal treat for horror-hungry Halloween celebrants entitled Screaming Queens (Horror Shorts With An LGBT-Bite). Several new playwrights contributed to the program, accompanied by some new faces on stage. Acting as a rhyming "Hostess With The Mostess" was the bearded Terry Maloney Haley in full drag with a dead raven (instead of a tiara) perched atop his wig.

Terry Maloney Haley as Mistress of Ceremonies in
Screaming Queens (Photo by: Aaron Levy-Wolins) 

One of the Left Coast's strongest new actors is Neil Higgins (who appeared last spring in Motherly Advice). A gifted playwright with a great laugh who has written some impressive short plays for the SFOlympians Festival in past years (2012's Iapetus and 2014's Echidna), Higgins starred in the evening's opener, Meet Cute. Written by Evan Boughfman and directed by Don Hardwick, Meet Cute focuses on Glenn, a fan of rom-com films who frequents his local movie theatre in the hope of finding a date -- perhaps a handsome gay man who would like to share some of his popcorn.

There's just one problem. Glenn is shy, lacks social skills, and is so desperately hungry for affection that he quickly scares off any stranger who could become a potential date. The first to turn him down is Derek (Rowan Rivers), who doesn't hesitate to accuse Glenn of creeping him out.

Pete (Ryan Engstrom) and Glenn (Neil Higgins) in a scene
from Meet Cute ((Photo by: Aaron Levy-Wolins) 

Next up is the extremely hunky Pete (Ryan Engstrom), who confesses that the reason he sat down next to Glenn is because Glenn bought the concession's last box of his favorite candy. Would he be willing to sell his box of Sour Patch Kids to Pete? Glenn adamantly refuses.

Neil Higgins (Glenn) and Joel Canon (Mason)
in Meet Cute (Photo by: Aaron Levy-Wolins) 

When Glenn returns to his seat, he is visited by the bloodthirsty Mason (Joel Canon), his meat cleaver-bearing alter ego who suggests that Pete may have to meet a grisly fate. But when Glenn starts choking on a piece of popcorn, it is the good-hearted Pete who comes to his rescue by applying the Heimlich maneuver. After Glenn explains that he has given names to each of the Sour Patch Kids in his box of candy, he offers to share them with Pete. This could be a match for Glenn.  Or a match made in hell.

Higgins also stars in The Screens as Allen, who the audience could easily assume to be a delusional and embittered mental patient talking to his psychiatrist. Written by Erik Champney and directed by Richard S. Sargent, this intense psychodrama comes with an evil twist at the end. As Allen struggles to differentiate between the facts and fictions that cloud his memory, the mysterious man (Richard S. Sargent) who keeps gently interrogating him turns out to be named Damien.

Sabrina De Mio and Isabel Siragusa in Presence
(Photo by: Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Paranoia is a reliable source of terror and, in Thomas J. Misuraca's play, Presence, two newly-coupled lesbians have trouble getting to sleep in their new home. Judy (Isabel Siragusa) and Brenda (Sabrina De Mio) have hardly finished unloading the U-Haul -- and still have numerous cartons to unpack -- when Judy starts showing signs of skittishness. Convinced that the strange sounds she keeps hearing are coming from an intruder, she insists that Brenda go downstairs to get rid of the threat. Brenda, on the other hand, is convinced that Judy's erratic behavior is a sign that she doesn't really want Brenda to stay. When Judy finally drifts off to sleep, Brendan rises and stands behind the bed with body language that could be interpreted as protective ... or perhaps predatory.

Joel Canon (Gary) and Richard S. Sargent (Tyler) in Gaybola
(Photo by: Aaron Levy-Wolins) 

Two short plays deal with the paranoia that quickly spreads when a new disease rears its ugly head. In James A. Martin's Gaybola, young, hot twinks are panicking as word spreads across social media (Grindr, Scruff, etc.) of a new gay plague that is a quick and merciless killer. Directed with wicked glee by Chris Maltby, the action is frequently interrupted by hunky newscaster, Anderson Lemon (Ryan Engstrom), whose only clothing is a pair of bulge-enhancing briefs like those designed by Andrew Christian.

The action focuses on Tyler (Richard S. Sargent), an easily-terrified young queer who has just broken up with Gary (Joel Cannon), a horny sex-hound who remains emotionally unavailable. Upon learning that their mutual friend, Don Cooper (Rowan Rivers) has succumbed to Gaybola, Gary insists on dropping by Tyler's apartment. Keenly aware that as soon as Gary walks in the door, he'll insist on fucking, Tyler wrestles with the choice of whether or not to answer the doorbell. Faced with a choice between celibacy or a gloriously hypersexual death, Gaybola is like an 21st-century gay man's version of Frank R. Stockton's classic short story, The Lady, or The Tiger?

AJ Davenport stars as Deedee in Dawn of the DeadZone
(Photo by: Aaron Levy-Wolins)

The evening's finale was Rita Long's riotously funny Dawn of the Deadzone in which Deedee, an older, rounder, and robust rural lesbian (AJ Davenport) who raises goats, is visited by two panicky urban Millenials: Katy (Isabel Siragusa) and Twink (Connor Fatch) who desperately seek protection from a frightening new disease. Described as a "virus-stained, brain-eating technology that takes over the heart," this new killer can only thrive within a smartphone's range of connectivity.

As Deedee (an avowed Luddite) listens to Katy and Twink's frantic cries for help, they spot an approaching Zombie (Aaron Tworek), whose eyes are riveted on his smartphone. Directed with a grand sense of humor by Kris Neely, Deedee and her goats manage to save the day.

Connor Fatch and Chris Maltby in The Fierce
(Photo by: Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Although nowhere as funny as Gaybola or Dawn of the Deadzone, the play with the greatest depth was Terry Maloney Haley's The Fierce, in which two drag queens battle for possession of a pair of magic heels. With a bitter confrontation between the older Charles (Chris Maltby) and the younger Toby (Connor Fatch), The Fierce probed the need for a younger generation of drag queens to respect their elders, with a few references to The Wizard of Oz thrown in for laughs.

Screaming Queens was a better program than some of Left Coast Theatre's previous productions. The writing was more solid and there were some welcome new faces onstage. The company's progress in its three short years of existence is quite notable.

Poster art for Screaming Queens

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To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu, the halau's beloved Kumu Hula, Patrick Makuakane, hosted its annual show (aptly entitled Kanakolu: 30 Years of Hula) at the Palace of Fine Arts. Among the guest performers were vocalist Hannah Viernes, dancer Sayali Goswami, Kumu Hula Shawna Alapa'i, and drag diva Matthew Martin along with musicians Kris Lee, Lihau Paik & Kellen Paik (who flew in from Hawaii for the festivities).

In the three decades that Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu has been a presence in the Bay area, its dancers have appeared at numerous events around San Francisco, traveled to perform at Lincoln Center and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, made regular visits to Hawaii, and become goodwill ambassadors spreading the spirit of Aloha through Makuakane's unique talent for creating contemporary hulas that can be danced on the same program as more traditional (kahiko) hulas. His hula mua ("hula that evolves") can be seen during the group's "Hit and Run Hula" performances in the city's parks and at beloved tourist attractions. Few, however, have had the chance to enjoy a hula flash mob performed at 38,000 aboard a Hawaiian Airlines 767 en route to Honolulu.

In addition to the halau's formal performances, two of the most impressive aspects of Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu's full-blown stage productions are the visions of San Francisco and Hawaii projected on a huge screen behind the dancers and Makuakane's eclectic choice of musical selections.

Over the years, a hula set to Roberta Flack's recording of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" has become an audience favorite, while a hula entitled "Daughters of Haumea" (performed to "I Am Stretched On Your Grave" pays tribute to the way Hawaiian women have ritually mourned their loved ones. Makuakane's description of trying to swim out into the waves while carrying an urn containing his mother's ashes added a poignant and humorous touch to the proceedings.

Among the hulas performed to honor San Francisco were "He Mele Papahi" (a Hawaiian tribute to crabs) and Makuakane's Krishna Hula (sung to "Bow Down Mister"), which celebrates the day his halau crossed paths with a group of Hare Krishnas in Golden Gate Park.

Dancers from Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu performing the Krishna Hula

In addition to using some of the music from Louis Armstrong and Andy Iona's classic “Jazz Goes Hawaiian” album, the group performed its Kalapu Jazz Hula using George Gershwin's 1930 hit song "I Got Rhythm," "The Beauty Hula, "If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight," and the Hawaiian war chant ("TA-HU-WA-HU-WA-I") which is familiar to most people as the finale to Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room attraction.

In addition to Makuakane's tribute to Hula's Bar & Lei Stand in Waikiki, the company performed selections from Ka Leo Kanaka (The Voice of the People), a program celebrating its volunteer-driven project that resulted in a cultural resurrection similar to what Aaron Lansky (the author of Outwitting History) achieved for Yiddish literature once digital technology became available to the staff of the Yiddish Book Center.

As Nina Wu wrote in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser:
"The inspiration for Ka Leo Kanaka (Voice of the People) came from a project called Ike Ku’o ko’a, a global initiative that enlisted thousands of volunteers to transcribe Hawaiian-language newspapers dating from 1834 to 1948. More than 100 Hawaiian-language newspapers were published throughout the [Hawaiian] islands during that time period, resulting in more than a million typescript pages of text, which Ike Ku’o ko’a ('liberating knowledge') describes as 'the largest native-language cache in the Western world.' Over eight months in 2012, Makuakane and his halau transcribed nearly 1,200 pages, making them the largest contributor to the effort. That effort, in turn, proved rewarding for the halau, which received a competitive $50,000 choreographer’s commission grant from the Gerbode Foundation of San Francisco for the production."
Dancers from Na Lei Hulu i ka Wekiu
performing in Honolulu (Photo by: Lin Cariffe)