Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Is This For Real?

Not only is storytelling is a genuine art form, it's a lot harder than one might think. It requires skill with vocabulary, phrasing, and a deep appreciation of the musicality of one's language. It requires a sense of drama, of make believe and, above all else, a deeply personal kind of buy-in from one's audience.
  • How else can one be sure that an audience will carefully listen to  (and empathize with) Tevye's talks with God?
  • How else can one suspend disbelief long enough to give Mama Rose credit for having another one of her ludicrous dreams about a dancing cow hitting the big time in vaudeville with her daughters?
  • How else can Peter Pan get an audience of 1,500 people to clap their hands as a way of proving to Tinker Bell that they really, really do believe in fairies?
Of course, storytelling can accommodate more than one viewpoint. There can be a single narrator, or two characters trying to justify their individual points of view. Some shows depend on spectacle and magic tricks to keep an audience's attention riveted to the stage.

Whether one story is told through the eyes of several characters (Rashomon) or the voice of one person, it's the writing and delivery that will put any story across to the audience. Consider these three "waterlogues" written by Stuart Bousel and performed by Allison Page during the 2015 SFOlympians Festival.

Many a play has been built on the model of A meets B, A gets B, A loses B (the gender of the two characters offers a variety of permutations). Another variation on a theme involves the old "Can't live with him, can't live without him" kind of love affair. The challenge for a writer is to find a structural device which gives life to the story of a relationship between two radically different personalities.

Some writers choose a linear path. Others opt for an epistolary format (I heartily recommend Steve Kluger's 1998 novel, The Last Days of Summer, and Jamie James's 2002 novel, Andrew and Joey). Can a literary device lose its effectiveness if it becomes too much of a crutch?

Many years ago, when Jule Styne's ill-fated musical, Prettybelle, was struggling through its Boston tryout, I sent its star, Angela Lansbury, a letter explaining why the show's frequent flashbacks (the show was based on Jean Arnold's novel entitled Prettybelle: A Lively Tale of Rape and Resurrection) were losing the audience. When I came back to see another performance just before Prettybelle closed out of town, I was shocked to see that most of the flashbacks had been written out of the script. When I visited Lansbury in her dressing room, she said "I gave your notes to Gower [Champion]. As you can see, he used them."

The moral of the story? Just as too many cooks can spoil the broth, too many flashbacks can undermine a love story's momentum.

* * * * * * * * *
The Magic Theatre recently presented the West Coast premiere of Tanya Barfield's intimate two-hander entitled Bright Half Life. Directed by Jessica Holt on a simple, yet surprisingly elegant unit set designed by Erik Flatmo (with costumes by Christine Crook and sound design by Brian Hickey), the play was staged in the Rueff Theatre (American Conservatory Theater's new black box space) atop the recently renovated Strand Theatre on Market Street. As the playwright explains:
“In my life: Event A leads to B, which leads to C. But in my mind, all three events happen at the same time or out of sequence. Bright Half Life began as a few pages of unrelated, often jarring moments of events between two characters called 'Person 1' and 'Another Person' in a document called 'new-idea.' When I was about 30 pages in, I realized that these seemingly unconnected moments and events were weaving their own story. The themes of Bright Half Life demand virtuosic performances, emotional gymnastics, and sleight of hand storytelling. We, as audience, are in communion with the actors -– we’re all together in the same room, breathing the same air. To me, that’s what makes theater special.”
Sarah Nina Hayon (Vicky) and Lisa Anne Porter (Erica)
star in Bright Half Life (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Barfield's play traces the relationship between two women from the day they meet on the job in 1985 until 2031 (after they have split up and fallen out of touch for a while).

Vicky (Sarah Nina Hayon) is the more tightly wound woman. Initially holding all the power in her hand as Erica's supervisor, she falls in love with a woman who is much further out of the closet, much earthier, much more romantic, and much more in touch with her desires.

Lisa Anne Porter (Erica) and Sarah Nina Hayon (Vicky) star in
Bright Half Life (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Erica (Lisa Anne Porter) is someone who wears her emotions much closer to the surface. Occasionally mischievous, she is nevertheless terrified of some of the challenges Vicky cooks up (going for a ride on a Ferris wheel, going skydiving). Whereas Erica is a lowly office temp when they first meet, once they move in together, get married, and have children, it becomes apparent that Vicky is the true breadwinner while Erica (who writes tech manuals) is the partner who devotes the most time to worrying about and raising their twin daughters, Lexi and Chloe.

Lisa Anne Porter as Erica in Bright Half Life
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Barfield's writing often leaves the audience feeling as if they are being erratically flung back and forth on a yo-yo whose arc is becoming shorter and tighter. As Vicky and Erica careen back and forth between various phases of their relationship, the story of their lives starts to emerge as if through a fog. Unfortunately, until the final scene (when the two women jump out of a skydiving plane), it's easy to feel as if you're the passenger in a car whose driver likes to speed up to each stoplight before hitting the brakes hard (without ever allowing the audience a sense of closure for any particular scene). After 85 minutes, this process becomes as tedious as watching a Newton's cradle.

In her program note, Magic Theatre's artistic director, Loretta Greco, explains that:
“Attempting to love one person meaningfully over time is not for the faint of heart. One of the joys of the play, for me, is how it allows us to experience the tangled rush of those tough and foolhardy leaps of faith inherent in the rituals of coexisting. The exceptional care with which Tanya incrementally unveils the unique fragility of each of the unlikely individuals that make up this (and any) union is what I think makes the play truly exceptional. I fell for this buoyant, thrilling, no-holds barred language play for many reasons, not the least of which was Tanya’s trust in the essential ingredients of theater. She enlists us as the audience to actively and emotionally engage with structure in a truly extraordinary way. She trusts that we are hungry to flex our imaginations and hearts, and to lean in.”
Lisa Anne Porter (Erica) and Sarah Nina Hayon (Vicky) star in
Bright Half Life (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

I was less captivated by Barfield's writing and found the play's structure increasingly alienating as the evening wore on. While Jessica Holt's stage direction and Sarah Nina Hayon's portrayal of Vicky were solid pieces of work, I came away more impressed with Erik Flatmo's stark, graceful set and the amazing grace of Lisa Anne Porter's portrayal of Erica.

One of the key responsibilities of any actor is to pay attention to the person she is interacting with at any given moment. While Hayon's Vicky was, by necessity, a bit dismissive and self-absorbed, the true wonder of the evening was watching how Porter (simply by paying attention to Hayon) managed to quietly capture the kind of love and warmth that often radiates from embers rather than flames. Her glowing performance reminded me of the lyric from Cole Porter's song in 1948's Kiss Me, Kate: "So In Love."
"Strange dear, but true dear, when I'm close to you, dear,
The stars fill the sky, so in love with you am I.
Even without you my arms fold about you,
You know darling, why, so in love with you am I.

In love with the night mysterious
The night when you first were there.
In love with my joy delirious
When I knew that you could care.

So taunt me and hurt me, deceive me, desert me,
I'm yours till I die...So in love, so in love
So in love with you, my I."
* * * * * * * * *
Kiss Me, Kate has a strange relevance to Sarah Ruhl's 2011 farce, Stage Kiss (which the San Francisco Playhouse is presenting with Gabriel Marin and Carrie Paff in the leading roles). In Kiss Me, Kate, Lilli Vanessi examines the flowers she has received from her ex-husband, Fred Graham, and exclaims "Snow drops, pansies, and rosemary -- my wedding bouquet!"  In Stage Kiss, Marin kisses Paff's forearm and instantly recognizes the combination of scents which used to drive him crazy: "Paper, lemon, and sweat!"

Ruhl makes no bones about her inspiration for Stage Kiss (in which two former lovers discover they have been cast as onstage lovers in a Grade-B romantic drama from the 1930s).
“How weird, to watch actors kiss. It’s their job (and what a wonderful job, to get to walk in and kiss attractive people all day), but also what a weird job. What's happening to the body? What's happening to the imagination? Some actors are really good at separating fantasy and reality. Others are not.”
Carrie Paff (She) and Gabriel Marin (He)
star in Stage Kiss (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

As its plot bounces between rehearsals, performance mode, and real life, Stage Kiss lovingly mocks the habits and tics exhibited by actors as they audition, rehearse, and interact with the person playing opposite them onstage. Whether the woman (Carrie Paff) wants to readjust the positioning of chairs or must react to a young gay man (Allen Darby) reading lines during her audition who leans in to kiss her while opening his mouth as wide as a basking shark, the eccentricities of life in the theatre world are on full display under Susi Damilano's knowing direction.

Photo of a basking shark (Courtesy: Google Images)

Thus, it's no surprise to see an eager but fairly incompetent stage director (Mark Anderson Phillips) encouraging his cast to improvise, or a scene in which the play's two leads end up in bed together after opening night. Nor is it surprising that the leading lady's husband (a "numbers guy" played by Michael Gene Sullivan) secretly wishes that his wife would teach him to act and that their daughter (Taylor Imam Jones) not only hates her mother, but finds her mother's ex-lover's acting embarrassingly inept.

Mark Anderson Phillips, Carrie Paff, and Gabriel Marin
in a scene from Stage Kiss (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Ruhl's play addresses a series of contradictions which may be unique to the world of the theatre.
  • Does real life imitate art or does art imitate real life?
  • What happens when one's onstage life becomes one's offstage life (and vice versa)?
  • Which moment holds more truth? When two lovers share a stage kiss or when two actors share a real kiss?

In his program note, artistic director and set designer Bill English writes:
"In the theatre, we live to investigate the point where illusion intersects reality, where 'pretend' meets 'real.'  We know that even in life, the boundary between real and imagined can be a slippery slope, the boundary between false and sincere, between madness and sanity. We know that 'all the world's a stage' and that we, the players, will play many roles.

The very term 'stage kiss' implies that it is not real. And yet, a kiss is still a kiss. Lips meet. Moisture is exchanged. Warmth is felt. It is the actor's job to kiss. Stage Kiss is a love poem to the theatre, a dance that seduces us by stepping deftly across the line between real and the unreal, on stage and backstage, illusion and reality. It is an existential play, a piece of fluff, a love story wrapped in a love story, wrapped in a love story."

The cast of Stage Kiss (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

Because Carrie Paff and Gabriel Marin are two of the region's best-liked actors (at San Francisco Playhouse as well as at other theatres around the Bay area), their familiar faces and personalities bring an extra dramatic impact to Ruhl's play. While Taylor Iman Jones, Millie DeBenedet, and Michael Gene Sullivan all lend strong support, Kevin Allen gets huge laughs as an apprentice actor during auditions and rehearsals (as well as in Act II, as a ridiculously costumed pimp in a screechingly awful play written by the character portrayed by Mark Anderson Phillips).

Whether onstage or off, the burning issue at the core of Stage Kiss is best summed up by Herman Hupfeld's 1931 lyric for "As Time Goes By" (which became famous in 1942 when it was used in the movie, Casablanca).
"You must remember this:
A kiss is still a kiss
A sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply.
As time goes by.

And when two lovers woo
They still say, 'I love you,'
On that you can rely.
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.

Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate
Woman needs man
And man must have his mate
That no one can deny.

It's still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by."
Gabriel Marin (He) and Carrie Paff (She)
star in Stage Kiss (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Performances of Stage Kiss continue at the San Francisco Playhouse through January 9, 2016 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Pony For Your Thoughts

It's that time of year again -- the season where journalists can't stop themselves from publishing Top Ten lists and the pressure to score killer bargains leaves compulsive shoppers frothing at the mouth from Black Friday to New Year's. Why wait in line in a shopping mall or department store to sit on Santa's lap when you could join in the fun with the annual San Francisco Santa Skivvies Run?

Why try to devise new party games for your employer's holiday celebration for the staff when you could sit at home watching PewDiePie play stupid holiday-themed video games?

Perhaps you're a devout Wagnerite who's hoping that Santa Claus will deliver tickets to the 2016 RING cycle at the Washington National Opera. Or maybe you still haven't recovered from the year the Seattle Opera staged Act III of Die Walkure with a team of carousel horses floating above the stage during the Ride of the Valkyries.

Whether you're hoping Santa will deliver a stud who's hung like a horse or have been secretly worshipping a horse god (like 17-year-old Alan Strang in Equus), you're in luck.

Forget about The Nutcracker, the Sing-Along Messiah, Christmas With The Crawfords, and A Christmas Carol. Forget about the circus coming to town. Your horsiest desires are about to be overwhelmed by an event of such incredible beauty and animal appeal that I guarantee it will be the most impressive production you'll see in years.

Call it Cavalia 2.0 if you wish. With 120 permanent employees, 65 horses (40 of which perform in most shows), 365 costumes, a 125-foot tall Big Top that seats more than 2,000 spectators, 200 moving lights, 19 projectors, a 17,500-square foot stage made from 10,000 tons of dirt, sand, and stone, and a man-made 40,000-gallon lake, Odysseo is a knockout production worth seeing as much for its horses, acrobats, aerialists, trick riders, and dancers as for its design, stagecraft, and use of current technology.

Unlike the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (which moves its two shows around the country each year in specialized 60-car trains), transporting Odysseo between cities requires 100 vehicles, eight shower stalls for the horses, and a 250-ton crane to lift the 70-ton technical grid into place. Over a year's time, Odysseo's horses will eat 18,000 bales of hay, 18.7 tons of grain, and 1,800 pounds of carrots.

Odysseo is the creation of Cavalia's founder and artistic director, Normand Latourelle, whose dreams have been brought to fruition with the help of director Wayne Fowkes, set designer Guillaume Lord, costume designers Georges Lévesque and Michele Hamel, lighting designer Alain Lortie, and a team of choreographers (Darren Charles, Elsie Morin, Mathieu Roy, and Alain Gauthier).

Michele Hamel (who worked on designing the costumes for Odysseo with the late Georges Lévesque) explains that:
"The gymnasts have several costume changes during the show: one is a free interpretation of African pants. Some of the trousers were inspired by Asian and Chinese tribes and, of course, we wanted colors. The costumes had to be very comfortable and not slippery because the gymnasts (who are originally from Guinea, Africa) do lots of very tricky moves. The durability of the fabrics (with regard to frequency of use and strength of movement) was a constant concern because the costumes will be on tour for a long time. The challenge in the conception of the costume for riders is to create something that will be original and lasting even when noble fabrics are used. We had to find a fabric that looked like silk, but was resistant to water, with nice colors and not too stiff. For this show we used stretch linen and faux fur. The first time we tried one of the costumes for the female riders in Nomads, the horse was scared by the fluffy sleeves of the corsage until he came near and smelled it and probably discovered it was not a living animal."
A scene from Odysseo (Photo by: Color-ish Company)

Whether one thinks of stage spectacles produced by Cirque du Soleil, some of the world's great opera companies, or scenic elements which have become trademarks of some Andrew Lloyd-Webber musicals (the giant truck tire in Cats, the falling chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera), the creative team for Odysseo came up with one sequence which I don't expect anyone to surpass in the near future. Toward the end of Act I, a fully-functioning carousel descends from the grid above the main stage. As some of the male acrobats perform on the carousel poles, it continues to slowly spin around, creating a breathtaking display of art, gymnastics, and showmanship.

The carousel sequence from Odysseo (Photo by: Shelley Paulson)

Because digital scanning technology has come so far since the first production of Cavalia: A Magical Encounter Between Human and Horse in 2003, the visual design by GEODEZIK for Odysseo is nothing less than breathtaking. Whether one is watching the horses perform in a countryside where the mountains seem to dance from one side of the stage to another -- or seeing the giant head sculptures (moai) from Easter Island zoom up in size, as if to say "We're ready for our close-up, Mr. DeMille!" -- the visuals are remarkably rich. My favorite sequence takes place in the African desert and savanna, with flocks of birds flying out of the trees as the seasons slowly change from spring to summer and winter.

Horses performing in Odysseo's watery finale
(Photo by: François Bergeron)

The real stars of Odysseo are, of course, the horses. In the first scene, I was dazzled by the beauty of a black and white American paint horse. One of my favorite moments in the show is a quiet segment at the top of Act II which begins with the horses lying down with their riders and trainers. One by one, the audience sees the horses rock from side to side on their backs until they gain enough momentum to get into a position from which they can stand up.

Horses surround the African acrobats in Odysseo
(Photo by: François Bergeron)

It would be folly to ignore the sheer athleticism of Odysseo. In addition to the riders and trainers, there are two sets of acrobats. The Africans do some jaw-dropping stunts and interact with the audience during a musical chant that asks for an end to war. The white acrobats draw gasps of astonishment with their displays of powerbocking on spring-loaded jumping stilts similar to the ones used in the following video.

What amazes me about Odysseo is now efficiently its creative team has managed to fill the vertical as well as horizontal space in front of the audience. From acrobats gallivanting across the stage on jumping stilts to muscular male gymnasts doing poetic pole dances; from nine male aerialists simultaneously performing on hoops above the stage to a cluster of angelic women being lifted on high, the spectacle is stunning.

Throw in a carousel that can be raised and lowered on cables and you've got yourself quite a show. As if all the talent on display were not enough, when it comes to eye candy there is a veritable banquet of beefcake with plenty of biceps, triceps, and abs to feed an audience's fantasies. Performances of Odysseo continue through January 10 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Falling From Grace

The curious thing about credibility is that it takes years of hard work to earn and mere moments to destroy. Once idolized by their followers, celebrities like Josh Duggar and Jared Fogle have recently experienced a sudden and precipitous loss of face which not only deprived them of future income but, in Fogle's case, sent him to jail.

Child molestation has long been a crime in America. But when some holier-than-thou representative of Christian family values is revealed to have been molesting his younger sisters and their friends, even the true believers are appalled. How ironic, then, that those who openly celebrate the pleasure they derive from sex between consenting adults should be chastised for the simple fact that they are enjoying life.

Two new plays recently allowed Bay area audiences the chance to witness the sorry spectacle of two successful men crashing and burning. Each had been a highly respected member of his profession until some inconvenient facts about him begin to surface.

* * * * * * * * *
Fifty years ago (on November 13, 1965), a new musical starring Julie Harris opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. The show's quirky heroine, Georgina, was a fantasy-prone antiques dealer struggling to save her brownstone from being demolished in order to make way for a new skyscraper in mid-Manhattan. Although it ran for 248 performances, Skyscraper was a weak show, barely remembered today for one song: "Everybody Has The Right To Be Wrong."

While the starchitect in Skyscraper was portrayed by Peter Marshall (the original host of The Hollywood Squares), the starchitect in Amy Freed's brutal contemporary comedy, Monster Builder, is being enacted by Bay area favorite, Danny Scheie (an actor who knows how to meld lust, larceny, and egomania into a felonious farce built around a dastardly and demonic centuries-old secret).

Sierra Jolene (Tamsin) and Danny Scheie (Gregor) in a
scene from Monster Builder (Photo by: David Allen)

The daughter of an architect, Freed (who is a professor in Stanford University's Department of Theatre) is all too familiar with the kind of insufferable egotism and ruthless ambition necessary for architects to land exorbitant commissions for projects that may be more eye-catching than functional.
  • In Monster Builder, her heroes are a husband and wife team of idealistic young architects who are competing for a contract to renovate a public boathouse which, despite its landmark status, has fallen into total disrepair. Their goal is to restore it to its original beauty.
  • Freed's villain, Gregor Zubrowski (Danny Scheie) is the kind of raging asshole who prides himself on designing intimate projects (like a glass-walled beach house where everyone on the outside can watch everything happening on the inside) as well as the imposing Tower of Justice and Interrogation in Abu Dhabi. Gregor does not hesitate to tell the young Rita that "I not only have a seat at the table, I built the table!"
  • Zubrowski's nemesis is an amiable construction magnate named Andy, who spent an entire year living like a bum, surviving on coffee and crullers, until he came up with a brilliant and highly lucrative idea: building condominium complexes for status-hungry clients who crave the pretense of living in mammoth faux-Swiss chalets and pseudo-Venetian castles with names like "Versailles Acres."
Rita (Tracy Hazas) meets wealthy new clients Pamela (Nancy Carlin)
and her husband, Andy (Rod Gnapp). in a scene from Monster Builder
(Photo by: David Allen)

In an age when post-modern glass and steel buildings rule the urban landscape and the hubris of popular starchitects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid is reflected in trophy buildings that anchor a culture of expediency and greed, it's often hard for idealistic architects with a sense of integrity to develop a following. Perhaps that's why Rita (Tracy Hazas) and her husband, Dieter (Thomas Gorrebeeck), named their firm Third Place (which starchitect Zubrowski wastes no time in referring to as Third Rate).

Thomas Gorrebeeck (Dieter) and Tracy Hazas (Rita) in
a scene from Monster Builder (Photo by: David Allen)

As someone who lives near Ocean Beach in San Francisco, Freed was horrified with the design for the new De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. As she explains:
"Architects are kind of the set designers the stagers, of human life. I'm in a tiny theatre department, surrounded by the hyper-ventilating entrepreneurial class, and they're all five years old. They don't have experience with the impacts of ideas. They don't take history and they haven't heard of World War II. It's shocking how little humanities context or historical context seems to be curated anymore for our next generation. Theatre is a diminishing iceberg, trying to stimulate thought and talk.

There's a trend in theatre building to do huge signature buildings, and the theaters are stuck with the cost of maintaining these institutions. If you look at the money that's going to the building versus the money that's going to the art-making (or if you look at the money that's going to the university's signature building while they're cutting adjunct faculty), it's monstrous. It's much bigger than architecture: it's a consolidation of wealth and ego."
Tracy Hazas (Rita) and Danny Scheie (Gregor) in a
scene from Monster Builder (Photo by: David Allen)

The Aurora Theatre Company is currently presenting the Bay area premiere of Monster Builder under the crisp direction of Art Manke (who staged the play's 2014 world premiere at the Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon. While Freed's play is partially inspired by Henrik Ibsen's 1892 drama, The Master Builder, it neatly captures today's culture of celebrity worship (especially among the nouveau riche), a fascination with architectural "statements" that are often shockingly ugly, the bloodlust of professional rivals (who can't stand to see anyone land a commission they didn't turn down), and the serendipitous events that can take down a preening narcissist and rob him of his power over others.

Freed's play contains many architectural references which might go over the heads of some audience members (I particularly loved the way Danny Scheie spat out "arts and crafts"), but her comedy writing is strong and slices to the quick. At one point, Pamela (Nancy Carlin) recognizes Zubrowski's name as the architect who built the healthcare facility that quickly sent her mother's frail condition into a tailspin (what kind of person would design the cafeteria for a dementia unit in the form of a maze?) and bemoans the memory of patients struggling to return to their tables from the salad bar.

While strong performances come from Rod Gnapp as the construction magnate, Nancy Carlin as his wife, Thomas Gorrebeeck as Dieter, and Sierra Jolene as Tasmin (Gregor's mistress), the evening's top honors go to Tracy Hazas as the easily manipulated Rita and Danny Scheie as the evil starchitect, Gregor. Kudos to Tom Buderwitz for a maliciously modern and efficiently evil unit set as well as to Rodolfo Ortega for his excellent sound design.

Thomas Gorrebeeck (Dieter), Tracy Hazas (Rita), and Sierra Jolen
(Tamsin) in a scene from Monster Builder (Photo by: David Allen)

Performances of Monster Builder continue at the Aurora Theatre Company in downtown Berkeley through December 13 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Sometimes current events affect one's daily life in the strangest manner. The opening night of the West Coast premiere of Disgraced (a Berkeley Repertory Theatre co-production with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Seattle Repertory Theatre) took place hours after the news hit about November's horrifying terrorist attacks in Paris. During the curtain call, the cast held hands as they bowed their heads in a moment of silence.

The eruption of American Islamophobia that has dominated the headlines since November 14 becomes all the more painful in light of Ayad Akhtar's searing dramedy (which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama). In Disgraced, the audience witnesses the downfall of a successful Manhattan mergers and acquisitions attorney who, against his better judgment, attends a hearing at the urging of his nephew, Abe (Behzad Dabu). The subject of the hearing is a local Imam who has been arrested on suspicions of helping to finance groups that support terrorism. In the tensions following the 9/11 attacks, Abe thinks the Imam is being framed with trumped-up charges.

Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily) and Behzad Dabu
(Abe) in a scene from Disgraced (Photo by: Liz Lauren)

When the judge asks Amir (Bernard White) a question (even though he is not representing the Imam), a reporter's story in The New York Times identifies Amir Kapoor as the only Muslim attorney in the courtroom. That's how rumors get started -- a technique Rossini masterfully mocked in his 1816 masterpiece, The Barber of Seville.

Whereas Rossini's opera is a comic romp, Akhtar's play is very much a tragedy. Amir has been working long and hard at a law firm where, despite his loyalty, he has not been promoted in two years. Meanwhile, his wife's art (which has been focused on patterns and traditions found in Islamic culture), is on the brink of being chosen as part of an exhibition at a gallery run by Amir's friend, Isaac (J. Anthony Crane). Coincidentally, Isaac's African-American wife, Jory (Zakiya Young) is a lawyer at the same firm where Amir works.

Several days later, with tensions mounting after the hearing, Isaac and Jory arrive for dinner with Amir and Emily (Nisi Sturgis) at their apartment. The timing could not be worse.
  • Amir (who was traumatized during childhood by his mother's horrible anti-semitic behavior toward a girl he had a crush on) has had a horrible day at work and forgotten to purchase the wine for their dinner party. 
  • Isaac (who is trying to stick to a gluten-free diet) has a wonderful surprise for Emily.
  • Jory (who may well be the most observant person in the room) has an important announcement of her own.
Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Zakiya Young (Jory),
and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) in a scene from Disgraced
(Photo by: Liz Lauren)

Dinner is quickly ruined with a mention of the reporter's story about Amir. As the pressure starts to mount, Amir reveals that as he reached maturity (and in the wake of post-9/11 Islamophobia), he chose to keep quiet about his religious affiliation in order to climb the corporate ladder. Amir is the only person at the dinner party with a solid knowledge of Islamic culture -- both the good and the bad parts of it. He is acutely and painfully aware of the lessons Muslim children learn early in life (they're not all pretty).

One fact which has easily confused people is his family's heritage. Amir's grandmother was pregnant when the British agreed to the partitioning of India in 1947. As a result, he has always listed his mother as being from India (which would make most people assume that his family is Hindu) although, thanks to a political technicality, Amir's mother grew up in Pakistan (a Muslim nation). As Amir (who was born in America) moved up the ladder toward achieving success "American-style," he was forced to hide his identity as a lapsed Muslim. While he admires his wife's artistic talent, he doubts that Emily has any real idea of the more brutal realities of Muslim culture.

Bernard White (Amir) and Nisi Sturgis (Emily) in
a scene from Disgraced (Photo by: Liz Lauren)

In the following 38-minute clip, Aasif Mandvi (who played Amir in the LCT3 production at Lincoln Center) moderates a discussion with the playwright, Ayad Akhtar, and actor Josh Radnor (who played Isaac in the Broadway production of Disgraced). It's worth watching not only for each man's take on the play's characters, but especially for the playwright's explanation of how he made numerous changes in the script and how long it took for him to really understand what his play was saying.

Working John Lee Beatty's handsome unit set, Kimberly Senior has directed Disgraced with the mounting tensions of a pressure cooker as the life Amir worked so hard to build for himself starts to disintegrate before his very eyes. This is a riveting piece of theatre for a brave new audience capable of dealing with well-intentioned liberals, rampant Islamophobia, marital infidelity, racial profiling, and the devastating results of trying to deny who you are and where you came from.

While Disgraced has a classic tragic protagonist with a Shakespearean flaw, it's important to remember that Amir can be a real asshole. After his nephew tells him about being hauled in for questioning by the FBI, Amir never even bothers to ask Abe the most basic legal question: "Did you ask to speak to an attorney?"

Akhtar's drama delivers the kind of theatrical experience that will leave some audiences emotionally drained and inspire others to talk about the kind of Islamophobia that Americans proudly display on a daily basis. Performances of Disgraced continue at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through December 20 (click here to order tickets). Tthis production is not to be missed. Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Learning To Live Outside Your Comfort Zone

Fifty years ago I spent my summers working in a YMCA sailing camp on Point Judith Pond. Each summer brought distinct demonstrations of people being forced to live outside their comfort zone.
  • It wasn't just the youngest campers who sulked and cried because they were homesick. Often it was teenage boys who, instead of wanting to be with their parents, wanted to watch television or missed the family's dog.
  • There were always several campers who had never had a chance to go swimming in their lives and were terrified of the water. After listening to their terrified screams, two members of the waterfront staff would usually pick one of these kids up in their arms, walk him out into the shallow water, and let go. By the end of their stay at camp, you couldn't drag those kids out of the water.
  • Then, of course, there were the doting helicopter mothers who "just happened" to bake too many brownies or cook too many spare ribs and felt compelled to drive 45 miles (and navigate a dangerous dirt road) to deliver the food to their son. The staff gleefully gobbled up such contraband.
The child who learns to rise to a challenge will often embrace a new experience with open arms. Conversely, the child who is taught to fear change will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into new environments and unfamiliar situations. Some will insist on eating at McDonald's while traveling abroad. Others will choose a more determined pathway to the future.

During the initial stages of World War II's shameful internment of Japanese-Americans, GeorgeTakei’s family was taken from their middle-class home to the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, California (which had become a designated holding place for families while an internment camp was being built). Takei recalls that:
“We were housed in the horse stables. Can you imagine, for my parents to be taken from a two-bedroom home in Los Angeles, with their three children, and to sleep in this smelly horse stall? For my parents, it was degrading, dehumanizing; it was a horrible experience. But my memory is that it was fun. As a five-year-old kid, I thought ‘I get to sleep where the horsies sleep! I can even smell them!’”
How a child reacts to a stressful situation depends on what s/he learns from parents, family, friends, and teachers. Consider the way this Parisian father explained the November 15 terrorist attacks to his young son.

Children can be remarkably resilient. But what about adults who struggle to cope with the demands of their personal and professional lives? Will they happily go with the flow of new-found freedoms and technology? Or will they dig in their heels and resist change with the angry determination of a frightened adolescent?

* * * * * * * * *
The New Conservatory Theatre Center is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of The Kid Thing. Written by Sarah Gubbins and powerfully directed by Becca Wolff, the play depicts the growing tensions between two middle class lesbian couples living in Chicago.

Sarah Coykendall, Desiree Rogers, Jaq Nguyen Victor, and
Kimberly Ridgeway star in The Kid Thing (Photo by: Lois Tema)
  • Nate (Jaq Nguyen Victor) is a young, baby butch dyke who dresses like a skater boy and is eager for her partner to have a child. Nate's enthusiasm is matched by her naivete and periodic inability to hold onto a job.
  • Margo (Kimberly Ridgeway) is Nate's older, wiser, and much wealthier partner who doesn't mind being pregnant as long as she can make Nate happy by bringing a child into the world.
Kimberly Ridgeway,Jaq Nguyen Victor,  Sarah Coykendall, and
Desiree Rogers star in The Kid Thing (Photo by: Lois Tema)
  • Leigh (Sarah Coykendall) is the kind of control freak who makes the overly ambitious Tracy Flick (from 1999's Election) seem like she's on Quaaludes. Competitive, impulsive, self-involved, easily obsessed by an idea, and achingly insecure, Leigh's modus operandi is basically "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" Watching her nervously offer several flavors of gelato to her dinner guests (or a drink to her former college classmate) is a case study in frenzied overcompensation.
  • Darcy (Desiree Rogers) is Leigh's partner. When the couple first met, they had very little income. But when Darcy got a job with a high-powered public relations firm, she ended up working long hours wooing corporate clients (which often left Leigh's insecurities spinning out of control at home). While Darcy has an admirable amount of patience for some of Leigh's antics, she does not like to be railroaded into a project.
What starts out as a friendly dinner party where Darcy is handling the background music while the others are cattily dishing about Michael Jackson takes a sharp turn when Nate and Margo inform their hosts that they are expecting a baby. Leigh soon becomes determined to become pregnant using the same sperm donor that Margo used -- a former college classmate of Leigh's and Nate's named Jacob (Nick Mandracchia).

Sarah Coykendall (Leigh) and Nick Mandracchia (Jacob) 
in a scene from The Kid Thing (Photo by: Lois Tema)

By the end of Act I, two things have become painfully clear:
  • Leigh and Nate are trying to set Darcy up for a meeting with Jacob in the hope that both couples can share the same sperm donor.
  • Margo and Darcy have been having an affair behind Leigh and Nate's backs.
Kimberly Ridgeway (Margo) and Desiree Rogers (Darcy)
in a scene from The Kid Thing (Photo by: Lois Tema)

As Gubbins explains:
“I wrote The Kid Thing in response to the question all childless women in their mid-thirties face: ‘So, are you thinking about the kid thing?’ Being a gay woman, the question seemed even more complicated. But this play was also a response to the deep questioning I observed from so many women on the brink of motherhood --- educated, middle-class, career-oriented, and partnered women wrestling with whether they had the resources to be parents. This play examines how gay individuals and couples make life-altering decisions and how ideas about child-raising are often exacerbated by economic insecurities and internalized homophobia.”
The underlying conflict in The Kid Thing is how much each of these women wants to become a parent. Nate is eager and optimistic; Margo is willing and able. Leigh is determined to the point of being ruthless. Darcy however, is surprisingly reluctant to join in the fun.

The reason for Darcy's fear of commitment turns out to be much more complex than her friends could ever have imagined. In addition to being and old school and very masculine dyke, Darcy's long work hours mean that Leigh would be saddled with most of the childcare responsibilities. The Utopian visions Leigh and Nate conjure up about the two families sharing the same sperm donor and being completely transparent with each other quickly set off Darcy's bullshit alarm.

When Darcy starts doing some sarcastic "truth telling," the shit hits the fan. Deeply hurt by her behavior, Margo and Nate leave Darcy and Leigh's apartment in anger. Meanwhile, Leigh drops a bombshell on her partner, which effectively becomes the straw that breaks Darcy's back. Furious at Leigh's betrayal, Darcy leaves the apartment in a near-speechless rage. At the end of the play, Leigh is alone, possibly pregnant, and very much the unintentional victim of her manipulative tactics.

Under Becca Wolff's direction, NCTC's ensemble did a superb job of riding the ebb and flow of emotions which had little, if anything, to do with maternal instinct. They were helped by James Ard's sound design and Emily Ann Holtzclaw's costumes.

New Conservatory Theatre Center's cast for The Kid Thing
(Photo by: Lois Tema) 

Performances of The Kid Thing continue through December 13 at New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here to order tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Imagine, if you will, that Sheldon Cooper (the biggest nerd among the scientists in The Big Bang Theory) was reborn as a virginal Asian American college senior who was terrified of her vagina. An ardent online gamer with fearsome battle skills, Evie Malone (Monica Ho) earns her spending money by writing love letters for people who have broken up with their lovers and are hoping to get back together as well as advising those who wish to break up with their lover on the most effective ways to achieve their goal.

On paper and in theory, Evie brilliant at what she does. But when it comes to interacting with real live human beings, she is completely lacking in basic social skills.

Evie Malone (Monica Ho) is a college senior who loves to play
video games in Madhuri Shekar's contemporary farce,
In Love and Warcraft (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Custom Made Theatre is currently presenting the Bay area premiere of Madhuri Shekar's riotously funny play, In Love and Warcraft, in a production that has been merrily directed by James Nelson. The production's opening night took place under strained circumstances because the company's lighting board had been stolen earlier that day and all of the show's lighting cues had to be reprogrammed into a borrowed lighting board. Working on Devin Kasper's unit set (with costumes by Brooke Jennings and sound design by Liz Ryder), the audience had no problem getting into the spirit of the Shekar's farce. Opening night was [almost] "all systems go" from start to finish.

Although Ryan (Drew Reitz) may be Evie's online partner in their World of Warcraft guild, in real life he's an overgrown manboy living in the basement of his parents' home. Like Evie, he assumes that World of Warcraft is more important than anything in real life. A unexpected change in Evie's life, however, suddenly changes all that.

Ryan (Drew Reitz) challenges Raul (Ed Berkeley) in a
scene from In Love and Warcraft (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Unlike her roommate, Kitty (Laura Espino), Evie has no interest in touching people, especially if it could lead to sex. But when a new client show up asking for help in getting back together with his girlfriend, he finds Evie incredibly attractive and asks her out to dinner. One thing leads to another and pretty soon, Evie and Raul (Ed Berkeley) are happily snuggling together and holding hands -- as long as there is no sex.

Raul (Ed Berkeley) and Evie (Monica Ho) embark on a platonic
relationship during In Love and Warcraft (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

In her clueless approach to sexual desire, Evie tells Raul that since their relationship is strictly platonic, she understands that he might need to look elsewhere to fulfill his sexual needs. Raul, in turn, asks Evie to stop playing World of Warcraft and try to focus on life in the real world.

Evie (Monica Ho) gets a gynecological examination from a
female physician (Amanda Farbstein) in a scene from
  In Love and Warcraft (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

One night, when Raul runs into a very drunk Kitty at a local bar and ends up driving her back to the apartment and having sex with her, Evie loses it. The only way for Kitty to win back her friend and for Raul to win back the woman he loves is to join Evie on her own turf: virtual reality. As Custom Made Theatre's artistic director, Brian Katz, explains:
“The moment I heard about this play I immediately wanted to produce it. What’s better than a rom-com that is absolutely current (set in the exploding world of online gaming), but also has its roots in classical comedy? Upon reading the script, it was easy to see Shekar is the real deal. Her dialogue sparkles, the situations she sets up are hysterical, and on top of that the play has real heart. The gaming world is just the skin in which this play is wrapped. Our director, James Nelson, has told his cast that in the end it is about intimacy, and I completely agree. I think everyone can relate to Evie’s journey because she faces one of our greatest fears and, in trying to overcome it, finds what can be our greatest joy in life.”

Evie (Monica Ho) dresses as her avatar as Kitty (Laura Espino) looks
on in a scene from In Love and Warcraft (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Custom Made has assembled a winning ensemble that, under James Nelson's direction, makes the most of Shekar's hilarious script. From the scene in which Evie undergoes a gynecological examination (because her vagina stopped working) and experiences her first orgasm to the blossoming of Raul's character into a hot and hunky leading man who's not gay, but admits to occasionally liking to dress up, each character's individual journey is filled with sight gags and snarky dialogue. Monica Ho is a total delight as Evie and, in her scene with a male hair stylist (Sal Mattos) undergoes a stunning yet highly comedic transformation.

Although Laura Espino did a fine job as the hypersexual Kitty, I was most impressed with Ed Berkeley's performance as Raul. An extremely hot and hunky actor, he is a welcome addition to the Bay area's theatre community.

Raul (Ed Berkeley) finds his inner avatar in a scene from
In Love and Warcraft (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Performances of In Love and Warcraft continue at Custom Made Theatre through December 12 (click here to order tickets). This is the perfect holiday show for gamers, geeks, cosplay enthusiasts and those who crave  a rowdier and more up-to-date form of entertainment than either A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker.

Monday, November 16, 2015

So Little Time, So Many Possibilities

A brilliant idea. That's what most creatives crave. For some, great ideas come naturally. For others, they arrive on a cloud of fortuitous timing, often resting on a foundation of intuition and introspection. Once a brilliant idea is within an artist's grasp, the next question is what to do with it.
  • Should a creative person take it in one direction? Two directions? Three or four or more?
  • Should an artist present a brilliant idea to trusted collaborators who can join in on bringing it to fruition?
  • Or should an individual recognize that a seemingly brilliant idea might be more than s/he can handle?
These are important questions to ask. While many in the arts stress that one learns the most through one's failures, two recent artistic mishaps drew lots of attention.

Produced by the African Community Theatre under Kent State University's Department of Pan-African Studies, a recent production of The Mountaintop (a controversial play by Katori Hall) featured two actors alternating in the role of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.. One actor was African-American, the other was white. The man who cast and directed the production (Michael Oatman) is also a black playwright. He explained his reason for casting Dr. King with black and white actors as follows:
“I wanted to really explore issues of ownership and authenticity. Can a prominent American be performed by another American or does it have to be an African-American who portrays him? “Can a fellow American also have the same level of ownership or some ownership with King’s legend? I wasn’t sure of the answer, but I wanted to ask that question.”
Upon learning about Oatman’s casting decision, Hall had the play’s licensing agreement amended to state that  “Both characters are intended to be played by actors who are African-American or Black. Any other casting choice requires the prior approval of the author.” In her public comments, she explained that:
“The casting of a white King is committing yet another erasure of the black body. Sure, it might be in the world of pretend, but it is disrespectful nonetheless, especially to a community that has rare moments of witnessing itself, both creatively and literally, in the world. With a playwright’s intention being dangerously distorted, Oatman’s experiment proved to be a self-serving and disrespectful directing exercise for a paying audience.”

Several weeks later, a student production of Lloyd Suh's play, Jesus in India (which received its world premiere from San Francisco's Magic Theatre in 2012) was abruptly canceled when the playwright vehemently objected to the casting of three Indian characters named Gopal, Sushil, and Mahari with two white actors and one non-Asian mixed-race actor.

Faced with insufficient time for the director to recast the show and rehearse new actors, Suh instructed his literary agent to withdraw the licensing rights from Clarion University of Pennsylvania's theatre department. In his response to an email from Professor Marilouise Michel (who had been directing the production), Suh minced no words in explaining how he felt about the situation.
“It is incumbent upon me, professionally, personally and morally, to distance myself from this production, and condemn the way it has been cast. I have severe objections to your use of Caucasian actors in roles clearly written for South Asian actors, and consider this an absolutely unacceptable distortion of the play. I consider your assertion that the ethnicity of the characters are not 'specified for purposes of the plot/story/theme' outrageous. The play is called Jesus in India. India is not irrelevant, and I take great issue with the insinuation that you (not the author) are entitled to decide whether the ethnicity of a character is worthy of consideration.

You should know that what you are doing is connected to a very painful history of egregious misrepresentation and invisibility, and is incredibly hurtful. Hurtful to a community for whom opportunity and visibility is critical, and also extremely hurtful to me personally as a flippant denial of Asian heritage as a relevant and valid component of one's humanity. It hurts me to my core. I couldn’t stop myself from crying when I saw the photos and realized what was happening. It is embarrassing, humiliating, and demoralizing to be so casually disregarded.”

As Melissa Hillman wrote on her excellent Bitter Gertrude blog:
"Without even getting into the idea that white people should be able to play people of color whenever they want, even against a playwright's express wishes, you should know that playwrights, agents, and publishers pull the rights for ALL SORTS of reasons. Beckett's estate won't allow women to be cast in Waiting for Godot. MTI shut down a production of Anything Goes because they wanted to use a drag queen Reno Sweeney. MTI shut down a production of Godspell -- with a C&D!!--because the company changed the lyrics. Neil Simon refuses the rights to high schools that want to edit out his swear words. Without a finalized contract, Clarion had exactly zero rights here. Lloyd owns his play. If he wants to yank the rights unless every production puts a full-page elegy to Mr. Jingles the Sock Monkey in each program, he has that right. He sets the rules, just as you set the rules for who uses your property."
Bottom line: What might have seemed like inspired or reasonable casting choices by two stage directors proved to be less than brilliant ideas.  In an article published on the BBC News website entitled Viewpoint: How Creativity Is Helped By Failure, Pixar's president, Ed Catmull, makes no bones about the fact that:
"Early on, all of our movies suck. That's a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions of our films really are. I'm not trying to be modest or self-effacing by saying this. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them go from suck to non-suck. We are true believers in the iterative process -- reworking, reworking, and reworking again until a flawed story finds its through line or a hollow character finds its soul."
Two recent dramas performed on San Francisco stages helped to demonstrate what happens when a playwright embarks on an obviously complicated path in order to tell a story.
  • Can an artistic path become too daunting for a talented creative team?
  • Is there a good reason this road has been less traveled?
  • When trying to wrestle with a self-concocted artistic challenge, should a playwright give more consideration to the law of diminishing returns?
* * * * * * * * *
As much as I enjoy Stuart Bousel's annual SFOlympians Festival, scheduling conflicts meant that this fall I was only able to attend one performance. I was, however, delighted to see clips of Allison Page performing some of her "Waterlogues."

In addition to being a gifted comedy writer and Co-Creative Director of Killing My Lobster, Page recently demonstrated her strength as a dramatist with the premiere of Hilarity during 2015's DIVAfest. Directed by Adam Sussman, her one-act play, Jasons, debuted at this year's SFOlympians Festival in a semi-staged reading down at the EXIT Theatre. In order to understand the Greek mythology which inspired Page's play, it's best to read Stuart Bousel's crib notes:
"Jason was the son of Aeson, making his uncle Pelias (something that would prove to significantly complicate his life). Pelias sent Jason on a quest to find the Golden Fleece (something that would result in Jason rightfully taking his place on the throne of Iolcus in Thessaly, which turned out to be a bigger endeavor than he could have predicted). Apart from that gargantuan undertaking, he’s most famous as the husband of Medea, who herself was instrumental in Jason’s acquiring the Golden Fleece. While on the isle of Lemnos he managed to forget Medea for enough time that he fathered twins with Hypsipyle, but it was his engagement to Creusa that put Medea over the edge and caused her to take drastic, disastrous action."
As the evening begins, the cast takes to the stage with head shots of famous actors named Jason hanging from their necks. As Jason Alexander (Matthew Weinberg) begins the play, he explains with Seinfeldian inflections and gestures reminiscent of George Costanza that, although these actors bear one of the few names from Greek mythology that parents still bestow on their children, his colleagues are all struggling to retain relevance in today's society. Bousel explains this gimmick as follows:
"Jasons tells the story of mythological Jason by way of 20 real, famous Jasons. From Bateman to Robards to Schwartzman, Allison Page seeks to explore one hero’s journey through his non-heroic namesakes, forcing them to play parts in mythological Jason’s journey to recover the Golden Fleece. An actor playing Matt Damon as Jason Bourne as Jason’s mother? Yes. An actor playing Jason Momoa from Game of Thrones as Chiron the centaur? Definitely. Jason Voorhees cutting people’s heads off? TOTALLY NECESSARY. Not every person is a hero in their own story, and not every Jason has what it takes to get what they want. It’s time for Jasons to stop being polite, and start getting real. And it might also be time for Jason Mraz to get his head lopped off."
Poster art for Jason by Ashley Kea Ramos

Page's concept gave some of her actors wonderful comedic moments.
The evening came to a close with a beautiful speech delivered by Molly Benson as Jason Voorhees. And yet, after nearly two hours of Page's Jasonpalooza (during which the audience was frequently convulsed with laughter), I found myself hungering for less.

Part of the problem with Jasons is that a great deal of Page's laugh lines can be lost on anyone who has not been closely following the careers of the many Jasons appearing onstage (or has been unable to keep track with who's who at any given moment during her play). Although this particular problem may be generational, the critical weakness of Page's play is that it needs to be cut by about 20 minutes in order to become a tighter show with stronger impact.

Playwright Allison Page

Allison Page has always impressed me with her formidable talent (as both a playwright and performer). While Jasons reaffirms her skill as a comedy writer, it shows that, unlike Mae West's credo that "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful," sometimes too much of a good thing can simply be too much.

* * * * * * * * *
What seems like an unimaginably ambitious project is often based on a simple, universal premise. At numerous points in our lives we must decide whether to choose one path or another. Although we may subsequently end up wondering what might have happened had we chosen the alternate path, we rarely have a chance to explore both possibilities simultaneously without being labeled as schizophrenic.

After winning three Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for their groundbreaking musical Next To Normal (about a suburban mother struggling with bipolar disorder), composer Tom Kitt and playwright/lyricist Brian Yorkey found themselves working on a new show with a concept even more challenging than trying to show the impact mental illness can have on a family.  Their goal was to write a musical whose 38-year-old protagonist (Elizabeth) returns to New York City after a bitter divorce. Hoping for a fresh start, she meets up with her old friends Kate (LaChanze) and Lucas (Anthony Rapp) in Madison Square Park.

With her two friends pulling her in opposite directions, Elizabeth is confronted with two tempting choices that could lead her toward wildly different personal and professional possibilities. As a result, the story of If/Then is more complex than most comic operas by Gilbert & Sullivan.

Idina Menzel stars in If/Then (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

In one subplot, urban planner Liz (Idina Menzel) reunites with a former professional colleague named Stephen (Daren A. Herbert), meets and marries an Army doctor named Josh (James Snyder) who has recently returned home from his second tour of duty in the Middle East, and has two children with him. After Josh introduces his best friend, David (Marc Delacruz) to Liz's best friend, the bisexual Lucas, the two men fall in love and adopt a son. Meanwhile, Kate (an African American lesbian who works as a kindergarten teacher) falls in love and marries Anne (Janine DiVita), but their marriage falls apart when Anne is unfaithful. After Josh is killed while on duty overseas and Liz is left to raise two children on her own, Stephen offers her a job working with him on a major urban development project.

Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp in a scene from If/Then
(Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

In the other subplot, Beth (Idina Menzel) reunites with Stephen the morning after she has been arrested with her friend Lucas (a community organizer) at a protest against an urban development project. Beth helps Lucas find a publisher for his book and, as she starts working with her old friend Stephen (who is married), begins to feel the flames of a former flirtation coming back to life. When Stephen brings some documents to her apartment at night and attempts to kiss her, Beth realizes that she has no choice but to quit her job. After sleeping with Lucas, she becomes pregnant and decides to have an abortion without informing him of her plans.

Deeply hurt by what she has done, Lucas won't talk to Beth for two years until she calls him after having survived her flight's emergency landing. After Stephen gets a divorce, he asks Beth to come work with him again, but she decides to run for political office instead. Returning to Madison Square Park to meet Kate and Lucas for coffee, she encounters Josh (who has just finished serving his third term of duty in the Middle East). He asks her for a coffee date and she accepts.

Following the Broadway production of If/Then, when the musical's creative team had a chance to look back on the path which led them (and their musical) to success, they were able to pinpoint specific moments of serendipity when a critical decision moved them one step closer to achieving their goal.

Because there are so many moments in which If/Then switches from Liz's path to Beth's and back again, it often becomes difficult to remember which subplot is unraveling at any particular moment. With Menzel dressed largely in shades of black, white, and grey (and using a pair of black-rimmed glasses to signify whether she is Liz or Beth at any given moment), one wonders if something as simple as using glasses with red frames might have helped the audience to follow the action more easily.

However, the characters in If/Then are contemporary New Yorkers who could easily shock the pants off more conservative Midwesterners. In addition to two same-sex couples (one male, one female), Beth's decision to have an abortion is not the least bit controversial. Instead, it is simply portrayed as a mature adult taking control of her life and doing what she considers to be best for her future.

When the national tour of If/Then touched down at the Orpheum Theatre, there were some changes in the physical production. The angled mirror which hung above the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre in the Broadway production had been replaced with lots of video that gave the audience a much more solid sense of daily life in New York. Mark Wendland's fluid set design (combined with Emily Rebholz's costumes, Kenneth Posner's lighting, and the projections designed by Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully) gave the show a near-cinematic flow.

With both leads possessing powerful voices, Tom Kitt's music filled the Orpheum Theatre with songs of lust and love (I was particularly impressed with Snyder's full-throated tenor). Among the show's strongest numbers are "It's A Sign," "What the Fuck?" "No More Wasted Time," "Hey Kid," "You Learn to Live Without," and "Always Starting Over."

Carefully meshing all the storytelling elements together is director Michael Greif, who first worked with Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp two decades ago in the original Broadway production of Rent (1996). There can be no doubt that the major box office draw for If/Then has been its star, Idina Menzel, who may be Broadway's first major musical comedy star with a big voice and a cult following since Ethel Merman.

Idina Menzel stars in If/Then (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

An interesting piece of trivia for musical comedy fans: Menzel has included a tribute to Merman in some of her recent concert appearances. However, in 1939, when Cole Porter's musical, DuBarry Was A Lady, opened up at the 46th Street Theatre (where If/Then ran on Broadway) with Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr heading the cast, they did eight shows a week without amplification.

Performances of If/Then continue at the Orpheum Theatre through December 6 (click here to order tickets).