Thursday, March 31, 2016

Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Fun!

While many people worry about the future of San Francisco, there's one thing they cannot fix about the past. Marian and Vivian Brown, the famous identical twins who were a part of the city's cultural landscape for more than four decades, are dead and gone. No app could possibly replace them.

Born on January 25, 1927, the Brown twins were often spotted in identical outfits at all kinds of events around town. During their 40+ years of celebrity, they appeared in more than 25 television ads until Vivian died on January 9, 2013. Marian died the following year, on November 20, 2014. Their presence is sorely missed.

Whether in fact or fiction, twins have always been a part of the cultural landscape. Actors Jon and Dan Heder are identical twins, as are bass-baritones Eugene and Herbert Perry and politicians Julian and Joaquin Castro. Advice columnists Ann Landers and Abigail van Buren were stars of newspaper publishing for decades; the Winklevoss Twins are known primarily within investment circles. In a recent prank, several sets of twins teased riders in one of New York City's subway cars.

Twins often take on bizarre attitudes in fiction. In 1967's Something Different (Carl Reiner's only play written for Broadway), the protagonist and his wife have two sons who always speak in unison. What makes these identical twins so unique? One is white, the other is black. Consider Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum from Walt Disney's 1951 animated feature, Alice in Wonderland.

In 1997, a new musical entitled  Side Show, based on the lives of two famous vaudeville stars who were conjoined twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton), opened on Broadway.  In the following clip, Cheyenne Jackson and Jeremy Jordan are seen singing the show's Act I finale, "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" Below that is a video clip from the Rescigno twins, who offer a deliciously manic take on the show's big hit: "I Will Always Love You."

Born in New York City and raised in southern Delaware, Paul and Robbie Rescigno are twin performers with a unique act at their fingertips.

Robbie Rescigno received his BFA in Acting, graduated magna cum laude from Syracuse University and studied at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London. Paul received his BFA in Acting and graduated summa cum laude from Syracuse University. Is it any wonder, then, that the Rescigno twins were cast as the Dromio twins in 42nd Street Moon's revival of the beloved 1938 Rodgers and Hart musical entitled The Boys From Syracuse?

Dromio of Syracuse (Robbie Rescigno) and Dromio of Ephesus
(Paul Rescigno) in a scene from The Boys From Syracuse
(Photo by: Dominic Colacchio)

Based on Shakespeare's farce, The Comedy of Errors (1594), this revival of The Boys From Syracuse marks the final production directed by Greg MacKellan, 42nd Street Moon's co-founder and artistic director. The company's loyal audiences couldn't haven't hoped for a more joyous farewell.

With music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart and a libretto by George Abbott that remains razor sharp nearly 78 years after the show premiered on Broadway, The Boys From Syracuse tells the tale of two sets of identical twins who were separated in their youth during a storm at sea. One made it safely to Ephesus, where he and his servant, Dromio, thrived. Although the studly Antipholus of Ephesus (David Naughton) is married to Adriana (Abby Haug), the mischievous Dromio of Ephesus (Paul Rescigno) has been in a frenzied relationship with a dominating woman, Luce (Heather Orth), who likes to chase him around the room before settling down for the night with her catch.

Luce (Heather Orth) and Dromio of Syracuse (Robbie Rescigno) in
a scene from The Boys From Syracuse
(Photo by: Dominic Colacchio)
Antipholus of Ephesus has recently ordered a goldsmith to make a chain for him and a tailor to make some clothes for both Antipholus and his servant, Dromio. Complications quickly develop when Antipholus of Syracuse (Lucas Coleman) and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse (Robbie Rescigno) arrive in Ephesus hoping to find their long lost brothers and perhaps even their mothers!

Antipholus of Ephesus (David Naughton) uses his servant, Dromio of
Ephesus (Paul Rescigno) as a battering ram in a scene from
The Boys From Syracuse (Photo by: Dominic Colacchio)

In an increasingly twisted set of mistaken identities, Antipholus of Ephesus finds himself locked out of his home while his sister-in-law, Luciana (Elise Youssef), falls for Antipholus of Syracuse. Meanwhile, Luce finds herself with not one, but two Dromios to chase after.

Throw in lots of confusion about who is going to pay the goldsmith and how the life of Aegeon (Steven Vaught) --  a Syracusan merchant who fathered the Antipholus twins -- will be spared and there's plenty of mischief afoot.

Luce (Heather Orth), Adriana (Abby Haug), Antipholus of Syracuse
(Lucas Coleman), and Dromio of Syracuse (Robbie Rescigno) in a
scene from The Boys From Syracuse (Photo by: Dominic Colacchio)

The two sets of twins got plenty of support from a hyperenergetic Kyle Stoner as the tailor, goldsmith, and magician; Mike Rhone as a police sergeant, and Dyan McBride as a courtesan who had been carrying on with Antipholus of Ephesus. Nikita Burshteyn scored strongly in small roles.

The Rodgers & Hart score includes old standards ("Falling In Love With Love," "This Can't Be Love," "You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea," and "The Shortest Day of the Year") as well as lesser known (but devilishly sly) numbers such as "He and She," "Come With Me," Oh, Diogenes!" and "What Do You Do With A Man?" As always, "Sing For Your Supper" (the jazzy trio for Adriana, Luce, and Luciana) triumphantly brought down the house.

With the help of Jayne Zaban's choreography and Dave Dobrusky's excellent musical direction, Greg MacKellan kept the show moving at a brisk pace. The production was nicely framed by a unit set designed by Leanna Keyes and Danny Maher that was enhanced by Stephen Smith's costumes.

During a talk back following the Easter Sunday matinee of The Boys From Syracuse, the Rescigno twins let drop an interesting piece of theatrical trivia. The two brothers had appeared in a previous production of The Comedy of Errors in which Robbie had played Dromio of Ephesus and Paul had played Dromio of Syracuse. During rehearsals and performances, both felt that they would have been better cast as the opposite Dromio. After going through rehearsals with 42nd Street Moon (in which Robbie was cast as Dromio of Syracuse and Paul was cast as Dromio of Ephesus), they admitted to feeling much more comfortable with Greg MacKellan's casting choice.

The cast of 42nd Street Moon's delightful production of
The Boys From Syracuse (Photo by: Dominic Colacchio) 

Performances of The Boys From Syracuse continue through April 17 at the Eureka Theatre (click here to order tickets).

Friday, March 25, 2016

Cramming As Much Action Onstage As Possible

Part of the appeal of musical theatre is its potential for wowing audiences with spectacle. From Freddy Wittop's costumes in Hello Dolly's "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" and Cecil Beaton's contribution to the "Always Mademoiselle" fashion show in 1969's Coco, to Florence Klotz's showgirl costumes for the infamous "Loveland" sequence in 1971's Follies, costume design has been an important element in creating memorable stage experiences.

Back when Ed Sullivan used to boast about having "a really big show," he was frequently referring to the lineup of talent for that evening's broadcast.

One often looks to the opera world for really, really big shows whose mammoth sets, large choruses, and crowd of supernumeraries fill a stage. Whether one thinks of Franco Zeffirelli's finale to Act II of Puccini's La Bohème or the final moments of Robert Carsen's staging of Boito's Mefistofele, the ability to fill a stage with spectacle and sound (without creating a traffic jam) is an acquired skill.

Lotfi Mansouri (the former General Director of the Canadian Opera Company and San Francisco Opera) had a curious reputation as a stage director. For better or for worse, Mansouri was often described as a "traffic cop" because of his ability to move large numbers of people around a stage while staying on top of a musical score. Although many people immediately think of the Triumph March from Verdi's Aida ("Gloria all'Egitto, ad Iside") as the prototype for handling operatic crowd scenes -- especially in outdoor venues like Rome's Verona Arena -- few have ever matched the spectacle of 1998's staging of Puccini's Turandot at the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Depending on the size of a particular stage, it's easy to add more people to create a sense of greater spectacle. But what happens when a design team needs to downsize a production in order to fit a big show into a theatre with limited (or no) fly space? How does one create the same sense of excitement on a smaller stage? If your name is John Doyle, you can transform a mammoth show like Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street into to a chamber opera by eliminating the chorus, the orchestra, and having the actors perform on instruments when they are not singing.

* * * * * * * * *
When Miss Saigon premiered in London September 20, 1989, the new musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Richard Maltby, Jr. quickly became a source of controversy. Loosely based on Puccini's 1904 opera, Madama Butterfly, Miss Saigon's libretto moved the action to Saigon and Bangkok in the 1970s.

Two years later, when Miss Saigon landed on Broadway, the discussion about updating Puccini's opera was quickly overshadowed by talk of the mechanical helicopter which was a focal point of Kim's nightmare and the casting of a Caucasian actor (Jonathan Pryce) in a role that many felt should have been cast with an Asian American actor. With Broadway by the Bay presenting Miss Saigon some 25 years after its American premiere, I found it fascinating to see how changes in stagecraft and society have affected this award-winning musical.

The long sea voyage from Ho Chi Minh City through the South China Sea, into the Gulf of Thailand and along the Cambodian coast until Kim, Tam, and The Messenger reach Bangkok was beautifully realized with the help of Steven Channon's projections and Michael Oesch's lighting. Happily, today's technology allowed video projections and digital mapping to simulate the helicopter rescue without making three minutes of stagecraft the highlight of Act II.

Desperate Vietnamese hope to escape on a helicopter in Miss Saigon
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

More importantly, with Anthony Rodriguez III doing a brilliant job as The Engineer, there was no question of cultural appropriation in the casting of this key role. In addition to his numerous dramatic moments, Rodriguez absolutely nailed "If You Want To Die In Bed" and "The American Dream."

Kim (Danielle Mendoza) watches as her son (Nicolas Maggio)
gives The Engineer (Anthony Rodriguez III) a kiss in
Miss Saigon (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

Working with sets designed by Kelly James Tighe  and costumes by Leandra Watson, director Jasen Jeffrey kept the action moving at a fairly rapid pace. Nicole Helfer's choreography helped bring the appropriate levels of sleaze to the scenes where Asian prostitutes of both sexes were plying the oldest profession in the world.

The Engineer (Anthony Rodriguez III) is a Vietnamese pimp
in Miss Saigon (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

Can a person find true love in the midst of so much poverty and chaos? Can a desperately poor young woman try to maintain her integrity? Danielle Mendoza's Kim and Terence Sullivan's full-throated Chris took on the modern-day equivalents of Cio-Cio-San and Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton, excelling in their duets ("Sun and Moon," "Last Night of the World") while Sullivan did a splendid solo job with "Why, God, Why?"

Chris (Terence Sullivan) is the American soldier who falls in love with
Kim in Miss Saigon (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

Danielle Mendoza as Kim in Miss Saigon
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

As director Jasen Jeffrey, notes:
“One of my earliest memories of live theater was attending San Francisco Opera’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, on which the story of Miss Saigon is based. At its core, this is Kim’s love story. We first see her fall in love with Chris. Hope is empowered by that love and briefly lifted from the poor and tragic conditions of her own life. When the realities of war separate them, we then experience a mother’s fearless and unconditional love for the son she believes deserves a better life than she experienced. She pursues that outcome with a visceral drive and shows us the true strength of the human spirit. I have created a narrative that does not politicize these events, but allows us to see the common humanity not only in these characters, but in the parallels that are present in today’s global society.”
Tam (Nicolas Maggio) meets his father (Terence Sullivan) in a scene
from Miss Saigon (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

John (Aaron Grayson) sings about the plight of the "Bui Doi" in
Act II of Miss Saigon (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin) 

It's important to note several crucial differences between Miss Saigon and its source material:
  • In Puccini's opera, the United States is not at war with Japan; in Miss Saigon it is a full participant in the Vietnam War.
  • In Madama Butterfly, Pinkerton is a much bigger coward than Miss Saigon's Chris.
  • In Miss Saigon, Kim has a fiery confrontation with Chris's wife, Ellen; in Madama Butterfly, a more tepid confrontation occurs between Kate Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San's servant, Suzuki.
Kim (Danielle Mendoza) berates Ellen (Catherine Brady) in a scene
from Miss Saigon (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

From a musical standpoint, Broadway by the Bay's staging was quite strong. The two leads received solid support from Aaron Grayson as John and Catherine Brady as Ellen,with Brian Palac bringing a healthy tenor voice to the role of Thuy.  Nicolas Maggio was appropriately adorable Kim's son, Tam.

My only disappointment was with Jon Hayward's sound design, which tended to distort a great deal of the dialogue and singing. As much as I enjoyed the performance, I found myself wishing someone in the Bay area would stage Schönberg and Boublil's 1996 musical theatre piece, Martin Guerre (which has always impressed me as having a stronger musical score).

* * * * * * * * *
What can be done when a play revolves around an iconic contact sport and requires a great deal of simulated action in order to get the audience in the mood? Minus the ability to have a full-length football field crammed onto the stage of a relatively small theatre, a director can make sure that drummers are drumming, runners are running, and tacklers are tackling until a sad and noticeably subdued man comes onstage in a wheelchair.

Mike (Jason Stojanovski) is forced to watch the reply of the moment
he was injured in a scene from Colossal (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Gilbert and Sullivan's Pooh-Bah might dismiss this as "merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative." But in the case of Andrew Hinderaker's thrilling new play, Colossal, that's the whole point of the evening.

First produced in a National New Play Network "Rolling World Premiere" at the Olney Theatre Center, Colossal has since been presented by the Mixed Blood Theatre Company, Dallas Theatre Center, Company One Theatre, and Southern Rep Theatre. The San Francisco Playhouse's West Coast premiere of Colossal has been beautifully directed by Jon Tracy with Keith Pinto providing dance choreography, Dave Maier providing stunt choreography, and Alex Hersler, Zach Smith and Andrew Humann acting as the trio of drummers responsible for building the rhythm and maintaining the throbbing pulse of Hinderaker's hypermasculine "Concerto For Percussion, Helmets, and Shoulder Pads With a Crippled Soloist."

Mike (Jason Stojanovski) meets with his physical therapist (Wiley 
Naman Strasser) in a scene from Colossal (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Faced with the challenge of writing a drama that would intimidate any theatre company whose artistic director might flinch at its controversial themes and physical demands, Hinderaker decided to go for broke. As the playwright explains:
“We have general assumptions about how big a cast is going to be, what a theater space is going to look like, or what an actual play looks like. A lot of times, we’ve gotten to a place in the theater world where it’s not a choice, it’s a default. What was so exciting to me about this challenge was that it really gave me the permission to ignore every part of me that is going to have that knee-jerk reaction of ‘Oh, nobody will ever do this’ and to just let all of that go.”
A critical moment in Mike's life is revisited in Colossal
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

In a moment when the National Football League is attempting to man up and confront the horrifying realities of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Hinderaker puts the following issues front and center stage:
Marcus (Cameron Matthews) and Mike (Thomas Gorrebeeck)
lead their teammates in football practice in a scene from Colossal
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

In order to grasp the gravity of the situation, it's best to understand that Hinderaker's hero started out as the son of a mini-celebrity. His father, Damon (Robert Parsons), is the founder of a renowned modern dance company who taught his son that a person's body should be treated like a temple.

After learning the basic principles of modern dance from his father, Mike suddenly developed an interest in trying out for his college football team. Horrified by his son's betrayal of everything he had taught him, Damon issued an ultimatum which forced Mike to choose between football or his family. Not only did Mike choose football, he fell in love with his co-captain, Marcus (Cameron Matthews), a much more traditional jock who preferred to keep their sexual activities on the down low.

Marcus (Camerone Matthews) and young Mike 
(Thomas Gorrebeeck) are two football players in love 
in a scene from Colossal (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Because of Mike's early dance training, he was easily (and quite gracefully) able to avoid being tackled during practice sessions. Whenever his teammates might grumble about his sexual orientation, he wouldn't hesitate to point out that what they were doing on the field looked a whole lot more gay than anything they had accused him of doing.

Young Mike (Thomas Gorrebeeck) lifts weights as the older,
crippled Mike watches from a wheelchair in a scene from Colossal
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Colossal deftly moves back and forth between the present -- as Mike struggles to make peace with his physical therapist, Jerry (Wiley Naman Strasser) -- and the past, when he was a muscular athlete eager to prove himself on the field and earn the approval of his coach (Dave Maier). Along with the other players on his team (Xander Ritchey, Brandon Leland, Ed Berkeley, Jacob Hsieh, Brian Conway, Travis Santell Rowland), Mike was having the time of his life until a split-second decision shattered his future.

Working on Bill English's grassy unit set, Jon Tracy has done a stunning job of giving his ensemble an opportunity to use the languages of football and modern dance as parallel means of expression. This thrilling production is a perfect example of why NNPN's program of rolling world premieres is such a powerful vehicle for giving a new play more than one chance to reach an audience.

Ed Berkeley, Cameron Matthews, and Thomas Gorrebeeck
in a scene from Colossal (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

While Jason Stojanovski, Robert Parsons Wiley Naman Strasser, and Cameron Matthews deliver strongly-defined characterizations, it is Thomas Gorrebeeck's searing and profoundly moving portrayal of Young Mike that anchors the production -- a performance no serious theatregoer can afford to miss. Even if (like me), you're not a football fan, as a piece of rhythmic and muscular theatre, Colossal easily lives up to its name. The fact that it has proven box office appeal should lead to numerous regional productions.

The cast of Colossal trains for an upcoming football game
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Performances of Colossal continue at the San Francisco Playhouse through April 30 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Digging Out The Backstory

On January 26, 1974, a group of dancers who had appeared in Broadway shows met at the Nikolaus Exercise Center where, at the invitation of Michon Peacock and Tony Stevens, they were encouraged to discuss what had launched them on their path to becoming a professional dancer and share some of their personal stories with the group. Among those present was choreographer Michael Bennett who, together with Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood, Jr., would become a critical creative force in the shaping and molding of A Chorus Line.

Since its world premiere at the Public Theater on April 15, 1975 (and its subsequent transfer to Broadway's Shubert Theatre on July 25, 1975), A Chorus Line has become a landmark of musical theatre, winning nine Tony Awards as well as the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

While Broadway audiences were accustomed to seeing dancers onstage, they rarely had any knowledge of the person behind a performer's head shot. What A Chorus Line did so beautifully was to showcase the professional development, artistic struggles, dashed hopes, and emotional baggage each dancer brought to an audition.

In the course of introducing the audience to a character who was more interesting and had much greater depth than a flashy costume, A Chorus Line set a new standard for researching a character's backstory and humanizing the anonymous dancers who appeared on musical stages. Its success was so brilliant that in 2012, when Australia's Twisted Broadway performed a gender-bender version of "At The Ballet," it brought down the house.

Two recent world premieres by small Bay area theater companies drew the audience's attention to their characters' backstories. One showed how a group of office workers tried to keep a stiff upper lip while coping with personal stressors and confusing changes in the local environment. The other was focused on an old fool trying to free himself from long-held secrets that no longer had the power to bring him shame or ruin.

* * * * * * * * *
For the past 25 years, Charlie Varon has been charming Bay area audiences with his character-rich monologues and an occasional duet with a professional soulmate. His pieces usually get workshopped at The Marsh before embarking on formal runs in San Francisco, Berkeley, and other environs. In March of 2009, Varon debuted Rabbi Sam, a complex piece in which he impersonated various board members of a fictional Bay area temple.

In 2014's Feisty Old Jew, Varon introduced audiences to 83-year-old Bernie Schein, a former commodities broker who grew up in Brooklyn but never graduated from high school. An aggressive, manipulative gantseh macher with an endless supply of chutzpah, Bernie discovered that he had unwillingly graduated from being a real "somebody" to becoming an elderly 'nobody."

Inspired by his friendship with Mort Max, Varon's latest work, Second Time Around: A Duet for Cello and Storyteller, finds him sharing the stage with cellist Joan Jeanrenaud (who spent 20 years with the Kronos Quartet) as he delves into the self-inflicted anguish, misguided thinking, and social clumsiness of another resident at an assisted living facility: 92-year-old Ben Rosenau.

Rosenau has been asked by his friend, Selma, to perform a mitzvah by letting their friend Adele's grandson interview him for a school history project. Although Ben describes the boy's grandmother as the kind of woman who can effortlessly drag someone into her sense of personal despair, he has been warned that Adele's worries are somewhat justified. Her grandson, Seth, is notably lacking in social skills and (at least according to his mother) locks himself in his bedroom every evening so he can play video games all night long.

While Ben ponders whether he should give Seth tips on how to be a man, he can't ignore the fact that his body is failing him. In addition to the various aches and pains that are common to someone his age, Ben's hearing has become more unreliable, his mind is not as sharp as he would like it to be, and his body has developed a devilish talent for sabotaging his musings with a nap.

Ben is also living in a bit of a time warp. He still thrills to the sound of Winston Churchill's voice and can vividly recall the panic he felt on his first mission as a bomber pilot in World War II. As he watches Seth struggling to get a digital camera to start recording, Ben wonders whether he should tell Adele's grandson the secret that has haunted him for nearly 70 years.

Actor Charlie Varon and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud appear in
Second Time Around: A Duet for Cello and Storyteller
(Photo by: David Allen) 

Who else can he tell? For years, Ben has been estranged from his son, Danny (an Israeli activist living in an illegal settlement in the West Bank). He doubts he'll have a chance to visit with his grandchildren before he dies. And Ben can't help but wonder why Selma held his hands in hers while looking so deeply into his eyes.

Working with Varon's long-time collaborator, Dave Ford, Charlie and Joan have woven music into what would have normally been a 70-minute monologue. Jeanrenaud's score often acts as a sober counterpart to Varon's characterizations; her solos allowing him time to grab a sip of water without ever feeling that he is putting his audience on hold.

In key moments of the show (such as when Ben starts to have an anxiety attack from the stress of recalling his wartime adventures), Jeanrenaud's work on the cello conveys something which words cannot express quite so easily. As Varon notes:
"Music can go places that words cannot. The cello is a great instrument for expressing inner life. The scale of the cello allows me to scale up my performance and do line readings that would otherwise sound mannered or forced -- and there's rhythmic stuff that the cello opens up for me. It's an instrument that can take us deeper than words alone. That has been the most exquisite part about working with Joan."
Actor Charlie Varon and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud appear in
Second Time Around: A Duet for Cello and Storyteller
(Photo by: David Allen)

Second Time Around: A Duet For Cello and Storyteller provides a beautiful showcase for another one of Varon's eccentric alter kockers (rest assured there's lots more inspiration in assisted living facilities that has yet to be tapped). The addition of a musical element allows this gifted artist to breathe more life and greater depth into his storytelling. Those familiar with Varon's work will be thrilled by this new, added dimension to his art. Those who are discovering Varon for the first time are in for a genuine multigenerational treat.

Performances of Second Time Around: A Duet For Cello and Storyteller continue through April 17 at the Marsh in San Francisco (click here to order tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
The Marin Theatre Company recently presented the world premiere of Swimmers (a new play by Rachel Bonds upon which the company also bestowed its 2015 Sky Cooper New American Play Prize). Set in an office building in an area of suburban sprawl where coyote sightings have become increasingly frequent, the action begins early in the workday in the building's basement and, through a series of interlocking vignettes, works its way, floor by floor, up to the roof after business hours have ended.

L. Peter Callender as the janitor, Walter, in Swimmers
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The unsung heroes of this production are set designer Dane Laffrey and lighting designer Kurt Landisman, who have conspired to adapt what seems like a low-ceilinged, claustrophobic unit set from one floor to another by wheeling in desks, chairs, sinks, microwave ovens, and other office equipment for each vignette. The end result is that each floor plan in an architecturally sterile environment (whose fluorescent ceiling lights are merciless) seems like a microcosm of crushed dreams and lives spinning out of control.

Over the course of the evening, the audience meets:
  • Tom (Aaron Roman Weiner), a depressed widower who is first seen hiding in the basement, then at his desk, and finally on the roof. The trigger for his depression has been a publishing company's interest in purchasing his wife's manuscript.
  • Walter (L. Peter Callender), the building's janitor who is also a recovering alcoholic. Walter is married to a woman who is obsessed with knitting and is having problems with his son.
Charlene (Sarah Nina Hayon) shows Vivian (Kristin Villaneuva) photos
of her children in a scene from Swimmers (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 
  • Charlene (Sarah Nina Hayon), the office manager who is trying to remain perky while in the middle of a bitter divorce. As much as Charlene tries to keep the office running smoothly (and make everyone feel comfortable at work), at day's end she wearily climbs the stairs to smoke a joint on the roof.
  • Vivian (Kristin Villanueva), a new hire who is trying to absorb all the information being thrown her way. A bit confused while trying to fit in, Vivian is acutely aware of the need to report sexual harassment to the person in charge of HR (human relations).
Randy (Max Rozenak) is worried about coyotes and billboards
with ominous messages in Swimmers (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
  • Randy (Max Rosenak), a young man easily spooked by a highway sign indicating the end of the world, reports of coyotes, and an incident which brought ambulances to the building across the street.
  • Bill (Ryan Vincent Anderson), a middle management type who just earned a promotion that will require him to move to a regional office in Charlotte, North Carolina.
  • Priya (Jolly Abraham), one of Tom's colleagues who has had a crush on him for a long time. With her birthday approaching, Priya clumsily asks Tom if he would like to come to her birthday party, or perhaps just a dinner date for two.
Dennis (Adam Adrianopoulos) is the office's fat man who
likes to make jokes in Swimmers (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
  • Dennis (Adam Adrianopoulos), the good-hearted soul who likes to tell jokes, talk about what's on television, and take frequent naps in the bathroom.
  • Farrah (Jessica Bates), a woman who started with the company at the same time as Bill and feels that she should have been promoted instead of him. Farrah has a rather strange technique for de-stressing, which she demonstrates to a colleague by shoving his head into a sink full of cold water and holding it there.
  • Yuri (Brian Herndon), a shy Russian immigrant who gets sucked into Farrah's surreal relaxation techniques.
Farrah (Jessica Bates) shows Yuri (Brian Herndon) her technique
for coping with stress in Swimmers (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
  • George (Charles Shaw Robinson), the office's high-functioning alcoholic, who thinks that all any frustrated woman needs is a comforting hug in his big, reassuring arms. When he invites Walter to share an end-of-the-day drink with him, George takes offense when Walter tells him that he needs help and offers to accompany George to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.
George (Charles Shaw Robinson) has an obvious
drinking problem in Swimmers (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As directed by Mike Donahue (and enhanced by Theodore J. H. Hulsker's sound design), Swimmers is populated with easily recognizable (and often dysfunctional) characters who could be found in the offices of any large corporation. While their repressed hopes and quirky behavior may seem like standard material for a character's backstory, Marin Theatre Company's artistic director, Jasson Minadakis, finds something much more poignant in this script.
“Rachel has created a contemporary American fugue of loneliness, connection, and hope with her detailed, very human characters who ache and struggle to get through the day at their suburban sprawl office park. Part of the genius of Swimmers is its scope. It’s an 11-character play that moves up nine stories of an office building over the course of one day. It’s a huge tapestry for a play while also being extremely intimate. The play is really a composition of nine small plays existing within an overarching story. Each ripples out, connects to the others, shares characters and themes, and then quietly comes to an end. Rachel has an ear for the sweet melancholy notes of loneliness.  She also has a gift for bending those notes to create gentle affection and empathy that lifts and releases in a way that can only be called grace.”
Brian Herndon is Yuri in Swimmers (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

To my mind, the acting often felt far superior to the script. I was especially moved by the work of L .Peter Callender (Walter), Adam Adrianopoulos (Dennis), Jolly Abraham (Priya), Charles Shaw Robinson (George), and Jessica Bates (Farrah). Here's the trailer:

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Chamber Works: When Less Is More

Back when I was a small and extremely impressionable child, my father used to tell me bedtime stories about a little boy named Pinky, who was as small as my father's fifth finger. Because he was so tiny, Pinky was able to explore parts of the world that were impossible for fully-grown adults to experience.

Though these stories were completely fictional, Pinky's experiences helped to build a sense of wonder and awe in our family. While, as a child, I was totally under the spell of my father's power as a narrator, I had not yet learned to think of myself as a captive audience, someone who was happily participating in the process of storytelling.

If one thinks about how stories are transmitted these days, it becomes obvious that readers of fiction still complete the picture mentally that an author creates in their minds. Even if they have never traveled back in time to ancient Egypt (Aida), the guilds of 16th-century Germany (Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg), legendary China (Turandot) -- or the Parisian life depicted in Puccini's La Bohème, La Rondine, Il Tabarro, and Manon LescautVerdi's La Traviata, Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, Picker's Thérèse Raquin, Leoncavallo's Zaza and La BohèmeStrauss's Capriccio, Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, Charpentier's Louise, Donizetti's Maria di Rohan and Ugo, conte di ParigiOffenbach's La Vie Parisienne, Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, or Massenet's Manon and Sappho -- those who listen to opera recordings are able to envision the story taking place in their minds through the powers of musical suggestion and the use of their own imagination.

Whereas many films move so quickly and deliver so much visual stimulation that it is difficult for a viewer to "lean into" the story, certain stage works have been written in such a way that they offer audiences dramas resting on a curious foundation of fragility. Or, in particularly intimate moments, an ethereal kind of delicacy.

As they try to weigh the dramatic impact of tacit glances, wistful sighs, and moments of silence that can bring more depth to a drama, many have likened this downsized form of storytelling to chamber music. The Magic Theatre's artistic director, Loretta Greco, explains the need for an audience to feel the moment and respond to the inherent music of a playwright's language as follows:
"People who have seen a lot of my work would say that there is emotional truth in my productions, a desire for rhythm and for the event of coming together. I definitely think of great works by Samuel Beckett -- deep, funny, and spare -- that put language in the hands of brilliant actors who leave room for us to feel the deepest despair and maybe the greatest hope. As a director, I try to stay a couple of steps ahead of the audience so that they are always leaning forward. I want people to recognize their deepest souls here, to let the audience do the heavy lifting.

Ultimately, the alchemy comes when the audience and the actors are all in the same space. The lights go down. The guy next to me laughs. Somebody gasps. The lady behind me laughs longer than anybody else. There’s a shared vocabulary that’s actively being created. Hopefully, that community is built right there in the first couple of minutes of the performance so that we might feel we are not alone in our vulnerability.”
Magic Theatre's artistic director, Loretta Greco

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Greco's impressive craft and formidable talent can be seen in her staging of Will Eno's wonderful new play, The Realistic Joneses, in which she helps to shape a mildly absurdist script into an "easy-to-relate-to" one-act play. With lighting design by Robert Wierzel and sound design by David van Tieghem, the American Conservatory Theater's production is beautifully framed by Andrew Boyce's set design. A scenic artist who has worked with Greco on numerous projects, Boyce explains that:
"As with most of my work, light will play an important role in how we experience the design, both in mood and context. My initial impression was that this isn’t a play that asks for moving scenery, but instead asks the audience to embrace a flexible reality (one where their perceptions of the space and environment onstage are primarily changed through how the actors use the space to embody that change). A shift in light -- or even a specific sound in the background -- can affect our understanding of where we are.”
Rebecca Watson (Jennifer Jones) and Rod Gnapp (Bob Jones)
in a scene from The Realistic Joneses (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Eno's play focuses on two couples who share more than the same surname. Bob Jones (Rod Gnapp) and his wife, Jennifer (Rebecca Watson), have been living in a suburban landscape where the stars shine brightly and the night air is filled with owls hooting and a wide variety of bird calls. Their living situation would seem like a birder's paradise except that ornithology is not one of their major concerns.

Rebecca Watson (Jennifer Jones) and her husband, Bob Watson
(Rod Gnapp) in a scene from The Realistic Joneses 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Bob has been wrestling with a mysterious disease (the fictional Harriman Leavey syndrome) whose symptoms are baffling and often debilitating. With no prognosis for how much time he might still have to live, he is understandably moody and tends to reply to his wife's questions with terse, often monosyllabic answers. As Bob's disease has progressed, his communication with Jenny has become increasingly strained. As the playwright notes:
“I wanted to create a disease that was particular enough that it would be seen and felt as a problem, but mysterious or foreign enough that it could stand for the simple looming fact of mortality. It’s important for it to be degenerative, because that’s how it goes. We all have to face this process -- aging, sickness -- that, in some ways, is the opposite of left index finger, but, importantly, we are still alive while it is happening, and we have some time and a lot of choices about how to face it."
James Wagner, Allison Jean White, Rebecca Watson and Rod Gnapp
in a scene from The Realistic Joneses (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

One night, as Bob and Jenny are sitting on their patio, they are interrupted by the sound of garbage cans crashing to the ground. Instead of scavenging raccoons, skunks, or a clumsy prowler, the interlopers turn out to be their new neighbors. Probably a generation younger than Bob and Jenny, John (James Wagner) and Pony Jones (Allison Jean White) seem tentatively outgoing, frightfully insecure, and have a curious way of contradicting what they just said before they can even finish a sentence.

Allison Jean White (Pony Jones) and James Wagner (John Jones)
in a scene from The Realistic Joneses (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

It takes a while for the couples to discover that both husbands are battling the same disease (at one point a distraught Pony seeks help after John has suffered a seizure). But as the two men start to share and discuss their symptoms (and seek solace from each other's wives), they begin to bond as new neighbors might be expected to if they were not sharing a terminal disease.

While ACT's four-actor ensemble does a beautiful job of divulging each of their character's secrets, fears, and lies, the true star of the evening is Eno, a highly acclaimed playwright with a remarkable talent for taking the half sentences we casually utter (and so quickly deny) and weaving them into a nervously comedic quilt that can momentarily calm the internal fears of each couple.

Rod Gnapp (Bob Jones) and Allison Jean White (Pony Jones)
in a scene from The Realistic Joneses (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Working on a unit set which has been beautifully lit (and accompanied by a stunning soundscape of avian wildlife), The Realistic Joneses spins a delicate web around the audience while distracting them with laughter. Is Eno creating a reassuring cocoon around his characters or trying to help them make the best of whatever time is left together? As Greco sees it:
“I think the play speaks to who we are as human beings. Will Eno is one of our more potent observers of human behavior. He’s searching for answers to big questions: What does existence mean? Do we ever really know each other? Because, if we know each other, we should be able to share the most terrifying and most beautiful things of our lives. Why is it so hard to connect? This play explores how language isn’t enough and how inexplicable mortality is. It asks questions about how we live, how we connect, and how emotionally capable we are of really relating to one another in the strangest, darkest of times.

The Realistic Joneses is a dance about what it is to be human. There is an economy, a beautiful spareness, and it adds up in this quiet yet seismic way. There’s not an extra syllable. He leaves room for the person who’s experiencing it. With Will, an actor walks in the room and they either get it or they don’t. It’s a pocket of tone that is so peculiar. The actors that don’t get the tone? It doesn’t mean that they don’t understand the emotional construction or the psychological beats. It just means that they’re living in a slightly different pocket of existence.”
John Jones (James Wagner) seeks comfort from Jennifer Jones
(Rebecca Watson) in a scene from The Realistic Joneses
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The Realistic Joneses is one of those rare dramedies that, following a performance, one leaves the theatre wishing to revisit Eno's script as soon as possible in order to luxuriate in his deft writing and bask in the rich atmosphere created by its design team. The scene in which Bob and John stand outside in the middle of the night as the motion detector floodlights on John's house keep illuminating the two men and then leaving them in the dark is a priceless piece of comedic writing.

Bob Jones (Rod Gnapp) and John Jones (James Wagner) in
a scene from The Realistic Joneses (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of The Realistic Joneses continue at the American Conservatory Theater through April 3rd (click here to order tickets).

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David Gelb's 2011 documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, delighted foodies around the world while exposing them to a work ethic alien to many Millennials. The elderly protagonist, Jiro Ono, is the kind of culinary artisan who embodies the difference between an itamae and a shokunin. Instead of being obsessed with the profit margins of his 10-seat restaurant, he is more concerned with the environmental impact of overfishing and the never-ending artistic challenge of achieving perfection in his craft.

In addition to explaining the importance of the quality and proper preparation of the rice used in making sushi, Gelb's documentary exposed audiences to the concept of an aspiring itamae undergoing a long apprenticeship (perhaps 15 years) as he observes a master sushi chef in action and learns proper techniques. For most Americans, that might seem like a bizarre career path with an unacceptable return on investment. Unless, of course, one hopes to work in a field marked by its passion, integrity, tradition, and art,

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is presenting the regional premiere of Kimber Lee's delightful tokyo fish story on a wonderfully stark and suggestive set designed by Wilson Chin and lit by Dawn Chiang with sound designed by Jeff Mockus. The action takes place "in and around a dingy, declining restaurant called Sushi Koji, which is located on a dingy side street in a dingy, declining neighborhood."

Although tokyo fish story had its world premiere in March 2015 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California and will be staged at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego later this spring, it was part of the 2014 New Works Festival held in Palo Alto. As Robert Kelley (the artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley) recalls:
“Given our mission to celebrate the diversity of Silicon Valley, TheatreWorks has done many plays about Asian cultures.  We explored ancient Japan in the drama Rashomon, chronicled its opening to the West in the musical Pacific Overtures, shared the terrors of World War II in Nagasaki Dust, and witnessed the internment of Japanese-Americans in the courtroom drama, Snow Falling on Cedars -- all soaring works about culture and history. This fish story, however, set in a tiny Tokyo restaurant, seemed to be entirely about food!"
Francis Jue (Koji) and Linden Tailor (Nobu) in a
scene from tokyo fish story (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"How wrong I was. For amidst the tuna testing, octopus massaging, and kitchen intrigue was the play of my dreams – a tale of tradition buffeted by change, of demanding fathers and determined sons, of centuries-old prejudice finally overcome. It was a story of genius confronting mediocrity, of generation gaps and gender parity, of love lost but not forgotten -- a TheatreWorks play through and through. It was also about food, a culinary curiosity that had gone from fad to fixture in our Silicon Valley and was threatening the hegemony of mac and cheese in many school cafeterias. In a matter of days. we landed this fish for our 2014 New Works Festival. But with live sushi-making, a floating bicycle, shimmering ghosts, and an onstage river, it prompted one obvious question: ‘How will you ever do that on stage?” I had no idea. Toshi Sakuma (a master Japanese sushi chef from Kaygetsu restaurant in Menlo Park) not only taught the actors the basic skills, he gave them a window into the world of uncompromising excellence that defines the play.”
Koji (Francis Jue) rides his bicycle to the fish market while his son,
Takashi (James Seol) works in their restaurant in a scene
from tokyo fish story (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Working with an exceptional design team, director Kirsten Brandt has done a beautiful job of framing the various dramas happening in and around Koji's fading restaurant, a place whose traditionalist owner reigns supreme while other sushi restaurants that have adopted modern technology have customers lined up around the block.

Unfortunately, the widowed Koji (Francis Jue), is a stubborn old man who resents the "cows" that line up for what he considers to be the "slop" served by his rivals. His oldest son, Takashi (James Seol), took a year off to travel to America and visit his mother. But when Koji became ill, Takashi quickly returned to Tokyo to run his father's business.

Linden Tailor (Nobu) and James Seol (Takashi) in a
scene from tokyo fish story (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Their high-energy assistant, Nobu (Linden Tailor), is an aspiring rapper and Star Wars fanboy whose gusto while massaging octopus can be quickly subdued with a withering look from Koji. Although the hyperenergetic Nobu loves hip hop music and contemporary culture, he dreams of the day when he can become an itamae. Just watching Takashi effortlessly carve a flower out of a radish leaves him in awe of the man's artistry and technique. Meanwhile, Koji is becoming increasingly distracted by visions of his dead wife.

Francis Jue as the aging Koji in a scene from tokyo fish story
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Though Koji may be resistant to change, there is no way to avoid it. His contemporaries at the local fish market are starting to retire, the daily catches reveal bluefin tuna that been caught too soon to have had sufficient life experience to meet his standards, and the challenges of hiring restaurant help appall him. Whether dealing with Oishi (a young party animal whose work ethic could be summed up as "Whatever!") or the blazingly incompetent Yuji (a clumsy young man who thinks his experience helping his mother make sushi at home qualifies him to work in a restaurant), Koji and Takashi are feeling the strain of staying true to their cultural traditions.

To make matters worse, after Oishi is fired, a woman applies for the job! Although she can find work in a new chain of sushi restaurants run by the entrepreneurial Daisuke, Ama (Nicole Javier) longs to be taken on as an apprentice to an established sushi chef.

Nicole Javier and James Seol in a scene from tokyo fish story
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

How Ama eventually gets hired and Takashi's skills are finally allowed to blossom are part of the evolving mystery and beauty of Kimber Lee's script, which balances humor, bitterness, tenderness, Japanese tradition, and the generation gap with remarkable warmth and skill. In addition to the four principals (Francis Jue, James Seol, Linden Tailor, and Nicole Javier), Arthur Keng pops up in numerous guises as the ditsy Oishi, an apprentice tuna dealer, the hapless Yuji, and the entrepreneurial Daisuke.

Performances of tokyo fish story continue through April 3 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto (click here to order tickets). Here's some footage from the world premiere production at South Coast Repertory.