Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Up To Their Old Tricks

The trickster is an archetype whose presence is not limited to mythology. While there will always be a shape shifter like Loki lurking around (and plenty of kupua roaming Kauai and the neighboring Hawaiian islands), fast-thinking humans have always had a talent for distracting onlookers in times of crisis. Why else would someone give the order to "Send in the Clowns"?

Whether they rely on advanced planning, sleight of hand, or a talent for improvisation, folks with impressive problem-solving skills are blessed with a kind of mental flexibility and analytical insight that allows them to juggle more than one crisis at a time. As I learned at a very early age, there are three types of people who can quickly be identified in any emergency:
  • Those who become paralyzed with fear.
  • Those who panic and instill fear in others.
  • Those who can easily prioritize what needs to be done and inspire others to make it happen.
If anything, 2015 will be remembered as year full of bluster. As Macbeth famously noted:
"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."
While it would be easy to think those words applied to Donald Trump, as I look back on some of the last attractions of 2015, I can't help but marvel at how two characters cunningly played their cards in their ongoing struggles to outwit foolish old men. One was a beloved baritone from one of the world's most popular operas (which celebrates its 200th birthday in 2016). The other was a fictional lover portrayed by the greatest escape artist of the 20th century.

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Born in Budapest on March 24, 1874 as Erik Weisz, Harry Houdini had one of the most recognizable stage names of the 20th century.  Long before contemporary divas with one-word names like Cher, Madonna, and Rihanna were born, he was known simply by his last name: Houdini. Upon arriving in the United States, his family settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, where is father (a rabbi) led the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation.

From his early appearances in vaudeville (he made his stage debut as a trapeze artist at the age of nine) to his role as President of the Society of American Magicians, Houdini became internationally famous for his escape acts -- as well as the zeal with which he exposed fakes and spiritualists. Having baffled British police at Scotland Yard with a demonstration of his handcuff-escaping prowess, Houdini toured Europe, Russia, and was hailed far and wide as "The Handcuff King." Few people today can recall seeing him perform in silent film (an entertainment form he abandoned because he felt he couldn't earn enough money from acting).

Poster art for 1919's The Grim Game

Yet there can be no doubt that Houdini (who often showed silent films of himself performing escape acts as part of his vaudeville routine) was a fierce presence on the silver screen. As part of its day-long minifestival entitled A Day of Silents, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented a rare screening of Houdini's first feature film, The Grim Game (1919). Restored by Turner Classic Movies, the 71-minute film was seen by the public for the first time in 96 years on March 29, 2015.

Directed by Irvin Willat (with a screenplay by Walter Woods), The Grim Game features Houdini as Harvey Hanford, an aspiring journalist for The Daily Call who has devised a plan to show how circumstantial evidence can be misleading during a trial. Hanford is secretly engaged to Mary Cameron (Ann Forrest). The fact that Mary's father, Dudley Cameron (Thomas Jefferson), is a rich old geezer who loathes his black sheep nephew (Hanford) sets up an opportunity for an intricate embezzlement scheme.
  • Dudley has put a clause in his will stating that Mary cannot marry until he is dead. His hope is to engineer her marriage to his pliable physician, Dr. Harvey Tyson (Arthur Hoyt).
  • As the owner of the failing Daily Call, Clifton Allison  (Augustus Phillips) owes plenty of money to Cameron but can't get him to loan the newspaper more funding.
  • Meanwhile, Cameron has caught his attorney, Richard Raver (Tully Marshall), forging his client's signature on checks and other legal documents.
Harry Houdini makes a daring escape in The Grim Game

When Hanford concocts an intricate scheme to prove his theory, he approaches the three conspirators to help frame him for the murder of Mary's father. But when things go horribly wrong and Dudley dies in an accident, the reporter is arrested on false charges and finds himself being double-crossed by the trio of scoundrels. The film's plot provides numerous opportunities for Houdini to leap through open windows, escape from jail, and end up a romantic hero.

Harry Houdini in one of his daring escapes in The Grim Game

The Grim Game is great fun, with supporting roles taken by Mae Busch as Harry's friend Ethel Delmead, Edward Martin as a police reporter, and Jane Wolfe as Hannah. The grand climax includes a death-defying biplane trick filmed over Santa Monica with an unexpected mid-air collision that was quickly woven into the plot (a stunt double was used for Houdini). As Michael Fox writes in his program note:
"Houdini was an impressive screen presence even when he wasn’t engaged in his specialty. A barrel-chested bantamweight, he exudes strength (even in a three-piece suit and boater) and strides with confidence and purpose. He gives off an attractive aura of pent-up energy yet is utterly patient and comfortable in his scenes with love interest Ann Forrest. The man was not remotely intimidated by the camera, professional actors, or the looming audience; indeed, he seemed to revel in the whole enterprise of being watched.

The Grim Game was [about] watching Houdini’s skillful disposal of handcuffs, chains, et al. His ability to escape any form of imprisonment (and to break in, on occasion) was the equivalent of a contemporary superhero’s unique power and reassured viewers that good triumphs over evil, at least for the picture’s running time. The public didn’t need to know that the filmmakers employed a stunt double now and again. Houdini even went so far as to brazenly fuel the perception that he was onboard for the airplane crash that provides the film’s climax. (The More Things Change Dept.: A hundred years on, with CGI the norm, Tom Cruise and other action stars go to great lengths -- and heights -- to convince audiences they don’t simply exert and emote in front of a green screen and an industrial fan)."
Harry Houdini performing an aerial stunt in 1919's The Grim Game

With Donald Sosin accompanying the screening on piano, a rollicking good time was had by all. Here's some footage of the famous biplane sequence.

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When Emilio Sagi's new production of The Barber of Seville was introduced to San Francisco Opera audiences in November 2013, it immediately became apparent that this production was built to last several decades with a greater sense of life than many previous stagings of Gioachino Rossini's beloved comedy. As Sagi explained:
“I conceived the opera as a fragile jigsaw puzzle in which each scene is presented like a sketch, forming a series of mosaics, united by that frenetic poetic rhythm of the music, which pulses along the entire length of the opera. The vitality, bustle, and spontaneity of the Andalusian ‘street people’ with their dance songs and their flamenco-inspired body language are evoked throughout the entire opera. The scenery materializes with the music of the overture, emerging from the obscurity, the vacuum, the void. The triumph of love gives way to a progressive emergence of colors in fabrics and flowers right up to the grand finale.”
Dancers appearing as "Andalusian Street People" in a
scene from The Barber of Seville (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

San Francisco Opera revived this charming production with most of the original cast (including some members of 2013's alternate cast) returning to the stage for a chance to further polish their performances. Under the baton of Giuseppe Finzi (who helmed the 2013 production), there was an inspiring mesh of the ensemble which allowed the audience to appreciate the balance between the opera's romantic and buffo roles.

Don Basilio (Andrea Silvestrelli) and Dr. Bartolo (Alessandro
Corbelli) in a scene from Rossini's The Barber of Seville
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

The happy efficiency of Lorenç Corbella's unit set combined with Pepa Ojanguren's costumes and Gary Marder's lighting design kept the production looking bright and perky, easily winning the affection of the audience (with the exception of the bored woman seated across the aisle from me who kept her head buried in her well-lit IPad while her husband sat rigidly at attention, obviously enthralled by the performance).

Lucas Meacham was the wily Figaro in
The Barber of Seville (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Lucas Meacham returned to the streets of Seville as Rossini's amiable barber and go-to guy (Figaro) who must help the Count Almaviva (René Barbera) win the love of Dr. Bartolo's ward, Rosina (Daniela Mack). As much a fixer as a trickster, Figaro also helps Almaviva get into character as a last-minute stand-in for Rosina's music teacher, Dr. Bartolo (Alessandro Corbelli), as well as a drunken soldier determined  to camp out in Bartolo's house.

Rene Barbera as the Count Almaviva in Rossini's
The Barber of Seville (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

This revival was directed by Roy Rallo with a great sense of fluidity that was aided and abetted by the choreography of Nuria Castejón. Whether as a result of Figaro's meddling or Dr. Bartolo's house servants -- Ambrogio (Efraín Solís) and Berta (Catherine Cook) -- who delight in their own domestic flirtations, the evening's supporting cast proved to be every bit as much a tonic as the romantic leads. Kudos to Edward Nelson (Fiorello), Matthew Stump as an officer serving the Count Almaviva, and Andrea Silvestrelli as an all-too-easily compromised Don Basilio.

Dr. Bartolo's servants, Ambrogia (Efrain Solis) and Berta
(Catherine Cook), make merry in a scene from Rossini's
The Barber of Seville (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

It's so easy to take Rossini's opera for granted after many years of attending the opera. Yet this performance had a crispness and joy to it that filled the auditorium with cheer. I was particularly impressed by Alessandro Corbelli's performance as Bartolo (a veteran buffo doing beautiful work) and by the warmth of Daniela Mack's voice and personality.

Daniela Mack as the feisty Rosina in a scene from Rossini's
The Barber of Seville (Photo by: Cory Weaver);

While there was no denying tenor René Barbera's skill in negotiating Rossini's coloratura passages, I found it equally delightful to watch Catherine Cook kicking up her heels as Berta.  Here's some footage from this delightful production (which I imagine will return to the stage of the War Memorial Opera House at some point within the next five years).

Friday, December 25, 2015

Chinese Take-Out

In the beginning, there was precious little in the way of documenting history (cave paintings are not the speediest form of communication). However, as labor-intensive tools of communication (e.g. hieroglyphics) have been upgraded and replaced by electronics, mankind's ability to document its own history has had a remarkable impact on humanity. Looking back over the past 100 years, it's fascinating to see how the societies of certain nations have evolved.
Back in 1900, who could have imagined the changes that would transform China from the last days of the Qing Dynasty (which was overthrown by Sun Yat-Sen) to the Republic of China, The People's Republic of China under Mao-Tse Tung, and today's global superpower?

In the first half of the 20th century, the fascination with Orientalism ranged from speculation about opium dens to 1917's ragtime hit by Lee S. Roberts and J. Will Callahan.

  • Caucasian audiences took great delight in the exploits of Charlie Chan, a character created by Earl Der Biggers, a writer who (surrounded by hysterical fear of the so-called Yellow Peril) stated that "Sinister and wicked Chinese are old stuff, but an amiable Chinese on the side of law and order has never been used."
  • In 1967, Beatrice Lillie was cast as the predatory Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie, (portraying the Chinese house mother of the Priscilla Hotel for single women who, unbeknownst to her naive clientele, was selling her orphaned tenants into white slavery through the Chinese men who handled the hotel's laundry).
  • In 2008, Lauren Yee's Asian-American farce, Ching Chong Chinaman, received its world premiere from Impact Theatre in Berkeley. Its plot summary reads as follows:
"The ultra-assimilated Wong family is as Chinese-American as apple pie: teenager Upton dreams of World of Warcraft superstardom; his sister Desi dreams of early admission to Princeton. Unfortunately, Upton’s chores and homework get in the way of his 24/7 videogaming, and Desi’s math grades don’t fit the Asian-American stereotype. Then Upton comes up with a novel solution for both problems: he acquires a Chinese indentured servant, who harbors an American dream of his own."
Poster art for Ching Chong Chinaman

The recent A Day of Silents minifestival presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival featured two programs which offered remarkable views of China (and Chinese people abroad) as seen through Western eyes. Although one was fiction and the other nonfiction, the element of Chinese exoticism was at the core of each presentation.

* * * * * * * * *
In recent years, the British Film Institute has been digitizing footage from documentaries, home movies, travelogues, newsreels, and missionary films recorded in China between 1900 and 1948. Accompanied by Donald Sosin on piano, these clips ranged from the mundane to the fascinating. The following slide show (which was screened prior to the one program at the Castro Theatre) offers glimpses into China's past.

Around China With A Movie Camera: A Journey From Beijing To Shanghai (1900-1948) offered the audience a chance to travel back in time to a period when there were far fever people living in China than its current estimated population of more than 1.37 billion.

The films are remarkable for their diversity, capturing scenes in rural communities, along the Great Wall of China, as well as boat traffic on the Yangtze River. All kinds of transportation (from men carrying sedan chairs in Hong Kong to coolies pulling rickshaws through city streets) are on view. According to the program notes from the British Film Institute:
"Highlights include Shanghai’s bustling, cosmopolitan Nanjing Road in 1900, the Great World Amusement Park in 1929 and a day at the Shanghai races in 1937. Films of the streets around the Qianmen, Beijing, in 1910, Hangzhou’s picturesque canals seen in 1925 and early-20th-century views of big city glamour in Hong Kong, Chongqing, Guangzhou, and Kunming compete with scenes captured in remote villages in Hunan and Yunnan provinces offering a dazzling and unprecedented view of China at a key period in its history. One of the most fascinating items in the collection are the only known home movies from the 1930s made by a Chinese British family (Mr. S.K. Eng) who recorded an extensive holiday visit to China in 1933 including scenes from Shanghai where he had received his education."
A scene from Around China With A Movie Camera:
A Journey From Beijing To Shanghai (1900-1948)

While the poverty is often inescapable, these clips offer color-tinted views of celebratory processions, street markets, and fishing with cormorants as well as footage of Indian and German military officers walking down a street. From smaller communities like Suzhou and Kunming to major cities, the clips offer a wonderful experience in time travel. From scenes in a stilted city (Chongqing) to the canals of Hangzhou (billed as an Oriental Venice); from the Forbidden City to scenes of children practicing acrobatic tricks, these short films (many of which can be viewed at the BFI's website by clicking here) offer glimpses of China that have rarely been seen.

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The San Francisco Silent Film Festival concluded A Day of Silents with a screening of 1929's Piccadilly, directed E.A. Dupont and starring the great Anna May Wong as Shosho, the scullery worker at a nightclub who is first seen dancing on a table for the kitchen staff before she rises to become the club's star attraction.

While Piccadilly's plot is filled with betrayal and backstabbing, it also shows a keen awareness of the tensions caused when people of different races try to socialize together. Not only is Shosho blamed by Mabel Greenfield (Gilda Gray) for stealing her lover, Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas) -- who is the owner of the Piccadilly Club -- in the sequence when Shosho and Valentine visit a dive bar, they witness what happens when a drunken white woman attempts to dance with a black man.

Beautifully directed, the film features a young Cyril Ritchard as Mabel's dancing partner (Victor Smiles) and the screen debut of Charles Laughton as a picky diner who is incensed at being handed a dirty plate. The following clip shows Gilda Gray reacting to the distraction caused by Laughton's character while she is performing her dance routine with Cyril Ritchard.

In her program note, Imogen Sara Smith writes:
"Like Josephine Baker and Louise Brooks, Anna May Wong was an American woman who had to cross the Atlantic to find her greatest roles. In Piccadilly, Wong seems to be sporting Brooks’s bangs and Baker’s sinuous hips, but her knowing look -- wary, sultry, and intense -- is all her own. Her entrance is a knockout: in the bowels of a London nightclub, amid the steamy chaos of the scullery, she is dancing on top of a table for the amusement of her fellow dishwashers. Peering up at her, the camera lingers on her stunningly long and shapely legs, clad in stockings 'laddered' (as the British say) almost to shreds. Her swaying hips are all the more mischievous and provocative because it is obvious that this Chinese scullery girl is mimicking and mocking the nightclub’s blonde star dancer. Dance is not harmless entertainment: it is dangerous, seductive, rule-breaking."
Poster art for Piccadilly (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

With Donald Sosin accompanying the screening on piano, two supporting actors delivered fine work: Hannah Jones (a great character actress) as Shosho's friend and dishwashing supervisor, and King Hou Chang as Shosho's lover, Jim.

Anna May Wong as Shosho and King Hou Chang
as Jim in a tense scene from 1929's Piccadilly

An interesting piece of trivia from Wikipedia reveals that, in the scene where Shosho is hired to become the Piccadilly Club's star, "Anna May Wong (as Shosho) signs her contract with the characters 黃柳霜, which is actually her real Chinese name, Huáng Liǔshuāng." Here's the trailer:

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Attention to Detail in Manners and Murder

On a recent trip to see a first-run movie, I received an ugly reminder of why there is so much resistance to gun control. It's not just the virulent lobbying of the NRA at work. It's also the way violence, bombs, paranoia, blood, gore, and conspiracy theories (the essence of terrorism) have become a staple of popular entertainment.

Having untethered myself from cable television several years ago, I find more and more of my entertainment coming from stage presentations, foreign films, and documentaries. However, in 20 minutes of coming attractions (not to mention a James Bond-style commercial for beer), I saw more money poured into glamorizing explosives, weaponry, and commercialized violence than I'd witnessed in quite some time.

For those who live on a steady diet of such entertainment, my sense of revulsion might seem childish, amateurish, or downright pathetic. However, when a person has weaned himself off a steady diet of that genre, a sudden reintroduction to it can be disturbing and disheartening. Thankfully, there were more emotionally satisfying (and infinitely more docile) stories on hand with which to entertain myself.

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In 2007, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley unveiled its 50th world premiere, a musical adaptation of Jane Austen's 1815 novel, Emma, with book, music, and lyrics by Paul Gordon. A comedy of manners set in Highbury (south of London), the story pokes fun at Emma, a meddlesome and arrogant young woman with much less talent than Dolly Gallagher Levi, who is so proud of the matches she aims to make for friends that she remains utterly blind to the love of the good man who has her best friend since childhood.

Lee Ann Larkin (Harriet Smith), Lianne Marie Dobbs (Emma
Woodhouse), and Sharon Rietkerk (Jane Fairfax) in a scene
from Jane Austen's Emma (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In the following clips, Patti Murin and Andrew Samonsky perform three of the shows songs during a National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT) Songwriter Spotlight held on April 28, 2014 at Feinstein's/54 Below in New York.

With attractive period costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt and scenery by Joe Ragey, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley revived Jane Austen's Emma for its 2015 holiday show. A chance to restage a successful and beloved home-grown musical offers new opportunities. As the show's director, Robert Kelley, explains in his program note:
"This year we reprise, and reinvent, a musical premiere that delighted all of us almost a decade ago. Jane Austen's Emma (the novel was published exactly 200 years ago, in December 1815). Emma was TheatreWorks' 50th world premiere (we have since created 15 more!) First staged at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Emma remains one of TheatreWorks' best-loved and highest-attended productions. We've reassembled the acclaimed designers who created that production, re-imagined the scenery and costumes to grace the much smaller stage of the Lucie Stern Theatre. Most importantly, author Paul Gordon has returned to revise the production with new scenes, songs, and lyrics. As the director, I am thrilled to spend the holidays with this enchanting, favorite friend."
Lianne Marie Dobbs (Emma Woodhouse) and Timothy Gulan
(Mr. Knightly) in a scene from Jane Austen's Emma
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In addition to "I Made The Match Myself," and "Emma," Paul Gordon's score includes such delights as "Mr. Robert Martin," "Badly Done," "This Is How Love Feels," and "Stranger Things Have Happened." However, my hands-down favorite number from his score is Harriet Smith's "Humiliation" which, as strong as it seems when first heard in Act II, becomes even more delicious in its reprise.

Lee Ann Larkin (Harriet Smith) and Lianne Marie Dobbs (Emma Woodhouse)
in a scene from Jane Austen's Emma (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The romantic leads were strongly cast with the original Emma Woodhouse (Lianne Marie Dobbs) and Mr. Knightly (Timothy Gulan) repeating their roles. Sharon Rietkerk was a demure and quietly distressed Jane Fairfax) with Lee Ann Larkin easily winning the audience's sympathy as Harriet Smith.

The large cast included Robert Easley as Mr. Woodhouse, Lee Ann Payne as Mrs. Weston, Richard Frederick as Mr. Weston, Nick Nakashima as Robert Martin, Brian Herndon as Mr. Elton, Lauren Cohn as Miss Bates, and Travis Leland as the dashing, yet emotionally unavailable Frank Churchill. Michelle Drexler doubled as Mrs. Bates and Mrs. Elton.

Lianne Marie Dobbs (Emma Woodhouse) and Travis Leland
(Frank Churchill) in a scene from Jane Austen's Emma
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With musical direction by William Liberatore and some excellent sound design by Jeff Mockus, the production retained every bit of its original charm. Performances of Jane Austen's Emma continue through January 2 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto (click here to order tickets).

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When Shotgun Players first announced that its 2015 season would be devoted to showcasing the work of female playwrights, I was surprised and delighted to see Agatha Christie's name pop up alongside Aphra Behn (1640-1689) and more contemporary writers such as Caryl Churchill, Sarah Ruhl, Anne Carson, and Jackie Sibblies Drury. Whereas many people are familiar with Christie's 66 murder mysteries, her short stories, her most famous detectives (Miss Jane Marple, Hercule Poirot), and the numerous movies based on her work (Murder at the Gallop, Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express, The Mirror Crack'd), one of her most famous plays has never been filmed because of a clause in its original production contract which states that "No film adaptation can be produced until the West End production has been closed for at least six months."

Detective Sergeant Trotter (Adam Mcgill) begins to question
the suspects in The Mousetrap (Photo by: Pak Han) 

In 1947, the British Broadcasting Corporation sought to pay tribute to Queen Mary’s 80th birthday by offering her a special broadcast of her choice. The Queen requested a new play by Agatha Christie, who crafted a 30-minute radio drama entitled Three Blind Mice.
  • The Mousetrap (the two-act play which evolved from Three Blind Mice) received its world premiere production from the Theatre Royal, Nottingham (where it opened on October 6, 1952). After a brief tour, the production opened at London's Ambassadors Theatre on November 25, 1952. 
  • In March of 1974, the production moved next door to the St. Martin's Theatre where it is still being performed today.
  • Although Christie doubted that the play's initial run would last more than eight months, the original production has kept going for 63 years, during which time more than 400 performers have appeared in the cast.
  • Two members of the original cast (David Raven as Major Metcalf and Mysie Monte as Mrs. Boyle) stayed with the production for its first 11 years.
  • On December 16, 2000, the production celebrated its 20,000th performance.
  • At a 50th anniversary performance on November 25, 2002 attended by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, Richard Attenborough (who portrayed Detective Sergeant Trotter when the play opened in 1952) returned to give its famous curtain speech.
  • It is estimated that, barring the unlikely closure of the current production, The Mousetrap will celebrate its 30,000th performance sometime in 2024.
Detective Sergeant Trotter (Adam McGill) starts to examine Mrs. Ralston
(Megan Trout) in a scene from The Mousetrap (Photo by: Pak Han)

At the very least, this Shotgun Players production offers audiences a jolly good time. More impressive, however, is the craft with which the playwright baits each member of the audience in a way that plays on their personal prejudices. By the time a murder is committed, every one of the obvious suspects has a well-defined motive.

Throughout my life, I've been a total failure at guessing the identity of the villain in crime fiction (I first noticed this lack of talent as a child, while watching Raymond Burr's performances as Perry Mason). As the company's founder, Patrick Dooley (who directed this production) notes:
"The key to the success of any whodunit is how successful the writer is in keeping the murderer a mystery. Christie excels because of her ability to prey on our prejudices and undermine our instincts. She uses subversion, not gimmickry, to reveal that the truth was always there if only we had allowed ourselves to see it. While colorful, and often eccentric, her characters are also dynamic and complex -- appealing to our sympathy with their charms and vulnerabilities. What makes her stories most captivating is how she's able to stir up the fear many of us hold deep in our hearts. No matter how much we think we know someone, everyone keeps secrets. Usually, it's as benign as a sneaky cigarette habit. Sometimes it's something much more grim and macabre."
Adam McGill and Alex Rodriguez in a scene from The Mousetrap (Photo by: Pak Han)

The Mousetrap takes place in the snowbound Monkswell Manor, whose new owners -- Giles Ralston (Mick Mize) and his wife of one year, Mollie (Megan Trout) -- are attempting to turn it into a bed and breakfast. Among their initial guests are:
  • Christopher Wren (Nick Medina), an extremely nervous and easily agitated young man who claims that his parents named him after one of Britain's most famous architects.
  • Mrs Boyle (Trish Mulholland), an old battle axe who finds fault with everything and everyone who crosses her line of vision.
  • Major Metcalf (David Sinaiko), an army veteran who can't stop himself from snooping around the cellar.
  • Miss Casewell (Karen Offereins), a fairly neurotic woman whose bizarre behavior may have been caused by child abuse.
  • Mr. Paravicini (Alex Rodriguez), the only guest who arrives without a reservation. With his fake foreign accent and wearing enough makeup to make him look older than his age, the smug Paravicini oozes a strange combination of eccentricity, expectation, and egotism.
Alex Rodriguez and Megan Trout in a scene from The Mousetrap (Photo by: Pak Han)

It's a measure of Christie's skill that the only clue to the murderer's identity is a casual "Oh, it's you," uttered by Mrs. Boyle moments prior to her death. And that, at intermission, everyone in the audience is trying to figure out who the murderer could be.

Shotgun's staging of The Mousetrap benefits from Mark Hueske's unit set and lighting design (along with Valera Coble's costumes and the excellent sound design by Matt Stines). It's obvious from start to finish that Dooley and his ensemble had a blast putting this production together. Not only are accents handled handsomely, the spirit of Christie's thriller remains intact throughout the evening.

Megan Trout and Mick Mize in a scene from The Mousetrap (Photo by: Pak Han)

I was particularly taken with the performances by Trish Mulholland as Mrs. Boyle, Megan Trout as Mollie Ralston, and Alex Rodriguez (whose smarmy portrayal of Mr. Paravicini was an absolute delight). Mick Mize, Nick Medina, David Sinaiko, Adam McGill, and Karen Offereins offered solid support as the play neared its surprise ending.

Mick Mize, Adam McGill, and Megan Trout in a scene from
The Mousetrap (Photo by: Pak Han)

In an era when so many stage productions are weighted down with too much glitz and overamplification, Christie's whodunit harkens back to a time when audiences were sufficiently thrilled with intriguing characters and superb plotting. Performances of The Mousetrap continue at the Ashby Stage through January 24 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Home Is Where The Heart Was (A Long Time Ago)

Childhood memories of the homes in which we grew up can become distorted over time. What once seemed idyllic may, in retrospect, help us understand how bad news was kept from us so that, despite events like the Holocaust, we could develop a positive outlook on the world. Looking back can also lead to a greater awareness of what might have caused some of us to evolve into dysfunctional adults.

The famous abolitionistFrederick Douglass, claimed that "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." Current memes floating around the Internet include statements such as:
It's rare that one gets to witness the contrast between a happy household viewed nostalgically through an adult's eyes and the collapse of an unhappy household in back-to-back performances. When these two scenarios (heavily laden with fantasy) are set to music, audiences become more keenly attuned to the challenge of composing a score that will provide a solid foundation for what's transpiring onstage.

Will there be an even balance between the audience's aural and visual experiences? Or must one necessarily trump the other?

* * * * * * * * *
For the final production of its 2015 fall season, the San Francisco Opera's leadership opted to think waaaaaay outside the box by offering its audience a double bill of two works based on Edgar Allen Poe's famous short story, The Fall of the House of Usher. The evening opened with the American premiere of Gordon Getty's one-act opera, Usher House, and closed with La Chute de la Maison Usher (music and libretto by Claude Debussy reconstructed and orchestrated by Robert Orledge) in a co-production with the Welsh National Opera that was first staged by David Pountney in Cardiff in 2014. As General Director David Gockley explains:

To stress how far opera production styles have progressed from a dramatic stage presentation surrounded by painted drops to a cinematic type of experience, it's safe to say that this double bill was an evening in which audiences left the opera house whistling the projections.

I do not mean that in a derogatory manner. Between filmed projection and digital mapping, today's state-of-the-art technology and stagecraft allow audiences to experience music well-suited to guiding them through a slowly paced musical nightmare framed in a rich visual format. The following stills (taken from David Haneke's projections for Usher House) show how easily a dramatic scene might be depicted onstage without having to build three-dimensional sets.

A raven taunts Edgar Allen Poe (Jason Bridges) in the
opening scene of Usher House (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

A scene from Gordon Getty’s Usher House (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

A scene from Gordon Getty’s Usher House (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

Edgar Allen Poe (Jason Bridges) with Madeline Usher (Jamielyn
Duggan) in a scene from Usher House (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Doctor Primus (Anthony Reed) in a scene from Usher House
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Edgar Allen Poe (Jason Bridges) and Roderick Usher (Brian Mulligan)
in a scene from Usher House (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

A scene from Gordon Getty’s Usher House (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

A scene from Gordon Getty’s Usher House (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

Edgar Allen Poe (Jason Bridges) kneels outside the
doomed edifice of Usher House (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

In the following clip, Daniel Knapp (San Francisco Opera's Director of Production) explains how projected images evolve in front of the audience with the use of only three scrims.

What happens when animation is added to the mix? The audience is drawn into a more cinematic, psychological, and often dream-like style of storytelling perfectly suited to characters plagued with paranoia or who are descending into madness. Whether it feels as if the audience is being taken on a virtual tour of a decrepit gothic mansion or an acid trip, the visuals quickly assert their dominance over the music.

When discussing musical theatre, people often ask which comes first: the music or the lyrics. But with the advantages of digital mapping and today's projection techniques, perhaps the question that should really be asked is: Which is stronger? The visual or aural experience?

As I sat through this double bill by two composers from radically different eras and musical genres, I was struck by a curious thought: If one took away the music and simply depended on the titles and projections to tell the story, would it matter?

In the case of Gordon Getty, I think not. And, following the recent advice of U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson ("If you hear something, say something"), I can't help wondering if Getty is a much more talented orchestrator than operatic composer.

Throughout Usher House, it was obvious that although his ominous orchestrations helped to set the mood, Getty had trouble establishing any kind of interesting vocal line for a text that was often argumentative or declamatory. Toward the end of his one-act opera, he finally hit on a gimmick in which a performer sings several notes before jumping a fifth higher.

Had I not had a peculiar earworm haunting me from a skit entitled "She Doesn't Have The Range" that I had watched on YouTube earlier that week, I probably would not have connected the musical dots between those great British comedians (Matt Lucas and David Walliams) and the final scenes of Getty's opera.

The music held up much more strongly in Robert Orledge's completion of Debussy's score for The Fall of the House of Usher. I found Debussy's music infinitely more operatic, theatrical, and accessible than Getty's and could only marvel at conductor Lawrence Foster's ability to bring both scores to life. The following stills give a sense of the much more ominous approach to Poe's story taken in Debussy's one-act opera.

A scene from The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

A scene from The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

A scene from The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

A scene from The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

A scene from The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

The doctor (Joel Sorensen) with Roderick Usher (Brian Mulligan) in a
scene from The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Roderick Usher (Brian Mulligan) is dwarfed by architectural projections
in The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Brian Mulligan as Roderick Usher in a nightmarish scene from
The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Roderick Usher (Brian Mulligan) stares at the ghost of his sister,
Madeline (Jacqueline Piccolino) in a hallucinatory scene from
The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

A scene from The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

Without any doubt, the evening was a total triumph for baritone Brian Mulligan (who had already performed this season as Enrico in Donizetti's 1835 opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, as well as tackling the title role of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street). Here's some footage from the evening's double bill.

* * * * * * * * *
As I entered the Orpheum Theatre for the opening night of the national touring production of A Christmas Story: The Musical, I had no idea that I would be battling two unexpected handicaps during the performance.
  • The shrill impact of a group of heavily amplified screaming adolescents onstage combined with the sleep deprivation resulting from a smoke detector whose alarm merrily chirped all night long in my apartment (because its battery was running low) made it difficult for me to stay alert and focused.
  • The fact that I had never seen the 1983 film upon which the musical is based further diminished my enjoyment.
Christian Dell'Edera as Flick inA Christmas Story: The Musical
(Photo by: Carol Rosegg) 

That's not to suggest to suggest there is anything wrong with A Christmas Story: The Musical, which has a book by Joseph Robinette with music and lyrics by the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The touring production is a faithful knockoff of the show that was directed on Broadway by John Rando and choreographed by Warren Carlyle. With Matt Lenz recreating Rando's staging (using sets designed by Walt Spangler and costumes by Lisa Zinni), there was much to delight an audience.

Chris Carsten led off as the show's narrator (Jean Shepherd), while the stars of the show included Myles Moore as young Ralphie, Joshua Turchin as his brother (Randy), Christopher Swan as "The Old Man," and Susannah Jones as Ralphie's mother. Although Avital Asuleen held center stage in the big number written for the boys' substitute teacher, Miss Shields ("You'll Shoot Your Eye Out"), I was much more impressed with the simple sweetness of the mother's solo, "Just Like That."

Daniel Smith enjoyed his moments as a crotchety Santa Claus and Charles Pang shone briefly as the waiter in a Chinese restaurant. However, the evening's professional scene stealers proved to be a young tap dancer named Seth Judice and the two Bumpus hounds (played by Hoss and Stella).

Set in suburban Indiana during the late 1940s (when all that nine-year-old Ralphie can think about is how badly he wants Santa Claus to bring him a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle), the production does a nice job of capturing an era when families ate dinner together and no one had the option of using handheld electronic devices to isolate themselves from friends and neighbors.
  • Boys did a splendid job of getting into trouble simply because they were boys,
  • Mothers had their work cut out for them according to strict gender roles.
  • Fathers could make utter fools of themselves without being totally humiliated by their families.
Christopher Swan as The Old Man in
A Christmas Story: The Musical (Photo by: Carol Rosegg)

While the family depicted in A Christmas Story: The Musical is a far cry from any of Norman Rockwell's paintings, it shares many moments of tenderness and dysfunctional behavior. The scene in which Randy (who has always refused to eat a full meal discovers the joys of Chinese food was a special delight for me.

Nevertheless, I must admit to having two sobering thoughts during the performance. In the second act, there is a scene of abject gun worship which felt downright creepy in light of recent mass shootings throughout America. And I couldn't help but wonder how the tone of A Christmas Story: The Musical might shift if Lewis Black had been cast as the show's narrator!

Susannah Jones, Christopher Swan, Cal Alexander, and
Colton Maurer in a scene from A Christmas Story: The Musical
(Photo by: Carol Rosegg)