Friday, August 19, 2016

May The Farce Be With You

One thing's for sure. The more members of one family that live in close proximity to each other, the greater the possibility that something will go wrong. A tool that was once borrowed and never returned could lead to an argument. A mischievous cat with a habit of stealing objects from the neighbors' homes could be unmasked as an unlikely villain. The kids might conspire to drive the adults crazy. But if one person's clumsiness can lead to an entire clan slipping on banana peels and falling on their faces, perhaps it's time to call in a stage director.

One of the happiest programs of the 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival included the local premiere of the reconstructed 1927 Laurel and Hardy short entitled The Battle of the Century (which included the long lost reel that was found by Jon Mirsalis and restored by Serge Bromberg and his comrades at Lobster Films). When Clyde Bruckman directed The Battle of the Century, its famous pie-throwing sequence required the entire day's output of the Los Angeles Pie Company. As the following clip proves, those pies were worth their weight in gold.

That morning's program included two classic shorts by Buster Keaton: 1922's Cops and 1923's The Balloonatic. Watching these three films is like observing a master class in how to plot and direct the kind of physical comedy in which words are luxuries, rather than necessities.

William Tell (the last opera composed by Gioachino Rossini) had its world premiere at the Paris Opéra on August 3, 1829. Most Americans became familiar with Rossini's overture to William Tell while watching the Lone Ranger on television (which used the final section of the overture as its theme). The overture is comprised of four distinct sections: Dawn, a Storm, the Pastorale (including a call to the cows) and, finally, the famous March of the Swiss Soldiers. Like most of Rossini's overtures, the finale builds to its climax by announcing each theme, doubling it, playing it in another key, and then continuing to repeat and amplify the theme until it becomes an earworm.

In an odd way, the overture to William Tell resembles the structure of the farce in a silent short. The first section introduces the lead character (usually a young man who might be a romantic fool or a bumbling idiot). The second section accompanies the onset of trouble. Although there may be a brief respite (the pastorale), the final section accompanies a climactic chase sequence. Watch, listen, and learn.

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In a win-win collaboration between Cinémathèque Française and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the complete French version of René Clair’s most celebrated film, The Italian Straw Hat, was seen with the original color tinting scheme for the first time since 1928. Set in 1895, Clair’s farce was hailed by Pauline Kael as “one of the funniest films ever made, and one of the most elegant as well.” With live musical accompaniment by the Guenter Buchwald Ensemble, the screening at the Castro Theatre was cause for celebration.

Fadinard (Albert Préjean) and Hélène (Marise Maia)
are the newlyweds in René Clair's The Italian Straw Hat

Like one of Rossini’s famous crescendos, the plot is triggered by a simple incident. A man is on his way to his wedding when his horse eats a straw hat belonging to a married woman who is secretly having an affair with a handsome soldier. The irate soldier demands that the groom-to-be replace the woman’s hat or else he will destroy the groom's new home. Based on the popular 1851 play, Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie (written by Eugène Marin Labiche and Marc Michel), the story adds a string of insults to injuries as the groom’s day spins further and further out of control.

Anaïs de Beauperthuis (Olga Tschechowa) and Lieutenant Tavernier
(Geymond Vital) get caught in the bushes in The Italian Straw Hat

As Shari Kizirian explains in her program note:
“With the expert help of Films Albatros resident set designer, Lazare Meerson, Clair lovingly recreated the era in which cinema was born, transforming the mid-19th century setting to the Belle Époque and paying homage to one of the French cinema greats, Max Linder, in the form of a tuxedoed leading man (Albert Préjean) as a decorous gentleman beset by increasingly absurd circumstances on his wedding day after his horse chomps the wrong lady’s hat. Everyone has a sartorial irritant to overcome, a test to their Sunday-best dignity: a stray pin, tight dress shoes, a missing glove -- a pesky tie becomes a running joke that gives generously time and again. The supporting players hold up their end splendidly: Paul Ollivier as the hard-of-hearing uncle with his malfunctioning ear horn, Jim Gérald as the rotund cuckold, and Alice Tissot and Alexis Bondireff as a couple whose years of marriage have not improved the legibility of their secret sign language. Valentine Tessier (Jean Renoir’s Madame Bovary in 1933) as a lady shopper in a boldly striped dress has a few moments of exquisite exasperation as men invade a domain heretofore restricted to ladies.”
Alice Tissot and Alexis Bondireff portray an elderly
couple attending the wedding in The Italian Straw Hat
“Préjean is joined by a stellar cast of equals: Maryse Maïa as his long-suffering bride who endures her groom’s perplexing new behaviors, Russian-born Olga Chekhova, in a drooping artichoke of a dress repeatedly fainting into the arms of a succession of men, and Geymond Vital whose buttoned-down chest heaves with his threat to break every stick of furniture in the groom’s newly furnished apartment unless restitution is made for said hat. Intertitles are sparse, but no less entertaining, and one tersely explaining the gravity of Chekhova’s condition will elicit gales of laughter. As tightly choreographed and as keenly attuned to subtle expression and gesture as any Buster Keaton film, it, like the best Keatons, delivers much more than laughs.”
A deliciously farcical moment from The Italian Straw Hat

In contrast to the lack of subtlety in many contemporary comedies. The Italian Straw Hat is filled with moments of delicate wit and wry observation that pinpoint the small eccentricities which can sabotage a person's attempt to maintain a sense of composure. With much of the restored print in sepia tones, it also offers a rare combination of farce and gentility working hand in hand to keep the audience doubled over in laughter. Even though the following clip is not in the same beautiful condition as the restored film, it's worth your time to watch a masterpiece of cinematic comedy.

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While the technology of cinema offers tremendous opportunities for crafting and editing a farce (whether it be a 20-minute short or an 85-minute feature film), writing for the stage is quite another story. Not only does a playwright have more time to set up his sight gags, he also has to pace the comedy more carefully in order to make it through a running time of two hours (or more) without losing his audience.

Danny Scheie, Lance Gardner, and Khalia Davis in a
scene from You Never Can Tell (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Comedies that follow in the footsteps of the commedia dell'arte or a Feydeau farce (with lots of slamming doors) have an easily recognizable format. But what happens when a comedic style tends toward a more intellectual romp while attempting to tackle issues of social justice? Or the folly of human curiosity?

Much like The Italian Straw Hat, George Bernard Shaw's 1899 play, You Never Can Tell, begins with a simple, seemingly innocuous incident. Instead of a horse eating someone's straw hat, a young woman shows up at a dentist's office in need of having a tooth pulled. What could possibly go wrong? As one of the play's supporting characters keeps saying, "You never can tell."

Gloria (Sabina Zuniga Varela) and Fergus Crampton (Michael Torres)
in a scene from You Never Can Tell (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

If one thinks about Shaw's grown-up characters as people who try to respect the personal boundaries of others, it's easy to understand why some people insist on maintaining the status quo. However, what if the younger generation has absolutely no respect for boundaries, is insatiably curious about the people they meet, and tend to act like oversized puppies? Or these adorable baby elephants?

Add to the mix a wealthy woman (long estranged from her husband) who has made her fortune writing self-help books for 20th century women. And the attorney who has kept her family's secrets tightly under wraps for nearly two decades.

Elizabeth Carter is the wealthy Mrs. Clandon in Shaw's
comedy, You Never Can Tell (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

How about the overly attentive waiter at a seaside resort whose son has grown up to become a socially prominent judge? And the rich old landlord who has been successful in business but unlucky in love.

Walter (Danny Scheie) and Finch McComas (Anthony Fusco)
in a scene from You Never Can Tell (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Spice up the stew with a dentist who wallows in male privilege but is a terrible businessman; who claims that he can't find someone willing to settle down with him despite his obvious superiority yet falls head over heels for a young woman who never learned how to love. Like Pygmalion's Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Valentine is perfectly at ease with the idea of finding a wife who can support him and, by doing so, spare him the anguish of having to go out and get a real job.

Valentine (Matthew Baldiga) and Gloria (Sabina Zuniga Varela)
in a scene from You Never Can Tell (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Garnish the entree with an impetuous brother-sister tag team of fraternal twins nearing the age of 18 who are inquisitive to the point of being rude, presumptuous to the point of being bossy, and desperately eager to experience life outside of the bubble in which they've spent most of their lives.

Dolly (Khalia Davis) and Philip (Lance Gardner) in a
scene from You Never Can Tell (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

That's basically the foundation for a socially relevant comedy which can still hold its own more than 115 years after its premiere. The California Shakespeare Theater recently unveiled a new production of You Never Can Tell that was deliciously directed by Lisa Peterson. With some beautiful period costumes by Melissa Torchia and sound design by James Paul Prendergast, Shaw's social comedy came to life with surprising vigor. As Peterson notes:
“Often, productions of Shaw all look the same: there’s always a drawing room, there are always handsome clothes. I think that now, 100 years after he was writing these plays, they tend to feel kind of dusty and pleasant. My feeling about his plays is that it’s exciting to try to find a way to present them so that they feel as radical now as they did then. Shaw’s plays are often deeply rooted in their period and so, when you try to do what you might do with Shakespeare -- try to move it out of its period, cut it, come at it in a fresh way –- you find that the play struggles with you quite a bit. You can feel the verbal sparring in your hands. It feels like a roller coaster, jerking you from one side of the argument to the other.”
Philip (Lance Gardner), Dolly (Khalia Davis) and Valentine (Matthew
Baldiga) in a scene from You Never Can Tell (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Contributing greatly to the production's vigor and sense of whimsy is the unit set designed by Erik Flatmo. With the suggestion of a wooden roller coaster in the background (and airy downstage spaces that quickly change from a parlor to an upscale hotel's restaurant), there is much more athleticism and freedom of movement than one finds in some of Shaw's other plays.

With Khalia Davis and Lance Gardner as the rambunctious twins and Elizabeth Carter as their strongly feminist mother, the sense of excitement about taking risks in the new century is neatly balanced by Danny Scheie's hilarious portrayal of the headwaiter, Walter, and the work of Liam Vincent (who appears as the dentist's parlor maid as well as Walter's son, Bohun).

Philip (Lance Gardner) gets some advice from his mother (Elizabeth
Carter) in a scene from You Never Can Tell (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Anthony Fusco is reassuring as Finch McComas, the old friend who became the family's lawyer while, as Fergus Crampton, Michael Torres portrays an aging bully who was frustrated by his wife's behavior, ill-equipped to deal with children, and deeply wounded when his wife left town and headed off to Madeira with her three children.

As the irrational young lovers, Matthew Baldiga (Valentine) and Sabina Zuniga Varela (Gloria) do a splendid job of showing how much about life they each must unlearn if they are going to find happiness together. As always, Scheie demonstrates how an old pro can milk laughs from an audience simply by the way he lifts a drinking glass off a table or by saying "Yes, sir" with an Irish brogue that has suddenly materializes out of nowhere.

Gloria (Sabina Zuniga Varela), Philip (Lance Gardner), and Dolly
(Khalia Davis) are newly returned to urban life after living in Caracas
in this scene from You Never Can Tell(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The production's ultimate joy is the deftness with which Shaw arrives at a legal loophole which can make everyone happy. Performances of You Never Can Tell continue at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda through September 4 (click here for tickets).

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