Thursday, August 25, 2016

Second Time Around

The term "opening night" usually conjures up images of audience excitement, red carpet glamour, backstage stress, and post-review exhilaration. Whether the final curtain signals a project's success or failure, an opening night typically produces more buzz than most other performances. But not always.
  • In 1951 Walter Kerr wrote a three-word review of John Van Druten's play, I Am A Camera, which stated "Me No Leica." I Am A Camera later became the inspiration for 1966's hit musical, Cabaret (which is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary with a national tour).
  • On April 23, 1963, when She Loves Me had its Broadway premiere at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, a scrim got stuck during the opening number ("Good Morning, Good Day"). Kerr (who, by then, had become the drama critic for the New York Herald Tribune and was notoriously not fond of musicals) was purportedly in a less than charitable mood that night after having had a disappointing dinner. His review of the show was sufficiently negative to dampen box office sales. Indeed, some people remain convinced that Kerr's review killed the show's hopes for a long run, even though She Loves Me went on to develop a cult following and was recently live-streamed from Studio 54.

One of the risks of live theatre is that accidents can and do happen. A piece of scenery can get stuck, an actor can experience a wardrobe malfunction, etc. Sometimes, tragedy can strike in the most unexpected and bizarre way. On January 23, 1988, a despondent Bulgarian-born opera fan named Bantcho Bantchevsky committed suicide during the intermission of a Saturday afternoon live broadcast of Verdi's Macbeth at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center. After ushers were unable to talk him down from his position sitting on a balcony railing, Bantchevsky fell to his death, landing on the main floor of the auditorium.

The American Theatre Wing has a wealth of superb videos on its You Tube channel designed to educate theater lovers about every aspect of putting on a show. From interviews with the artists who build set models to costumer designers, lighting designers, and the milliners who make hats; from orchestrators, music directors, and choreographers to puppet designers, projection designers and scenic change artists, these videos demonstrate how and why it takes a small village to make the magic happen at each performance.

Many of these videos explain how producers maintain a sense of quality control over their artistic product so that the creative team's original vision remains intact over the course of a long run. While critics often stick to covering a show's opening night, there are times when a change of cast (or an important anniversary) can lure a critic back into the theatre to see how well a particular production is holding up.

These followup experiences allow someone to see if the audience is getting an experience worthy of the initial round of reviews or if a show needs tightening. They also allow critics to judge how a show plays with different audiences than the opening night one, which had high expectations and might have been well lubricated by the time the curtain rose.

Over decades of theatregoing, it's easy for those who attend opera and ballet to become accustomed to cancellations by artists who have taken ill or cast changes in a production. Unlike a long-running Broadway show (which performs eight times a week), some opera and ballet companies often perform in repertory as opposed to the more economically viable stagione system. As a result, change is the only constant.

In his recent article in The New York Times entitled In Praise of Repertory Theater: Macbeth at the Matinee, Miller at Night, Charles Isherwood stressed that:
"Seeing plays in repertory sparks conversations in the mind between shows, between periods. And it’s also distinctly satisfying (sometimes even astonishing) to watch an actor you’ve seen in, say, a Shakespeare tragedy performing a day or so later in a classic American musical. While, for the audience, seeing plays in repertory can be a distinctly stimulating experience, for the actors it can also be revelatory, as they get to stretch muscles they didn’t know they had."
The interior of Canada's Stratford Festival Theatre

Isherwood took care to emphasize how the theatrical community that develops in the shadow of a repertory theatre company creates an environment where older actors can mentor younger ones while local audiences have the opportunity to watch an artist develop through a wide range of repertoire. He pointed to the work of Lucy Peacock (an actress who has appeared at Canada's Stratford Festival for nearly three decades) as a prime example of the type of artistic growth a repertory actor can experience over many years of steady employment. As Peacock noted:
“I come from a long line of classical repertory actors. I recognize it in my DNA. I am a repertory girl. I’ve always found the sheer demands to be one of the exciting aspects of being a repertory actor. The thrill of a double-show day that can stretch to 14 hours. But I love the athleticism. After doing repertory for so many years, my body knows exactly what to do, physically (as well as mentally) and sometimes you come out positively feeling like an Olympian.”

* * * * * * * * *
To celebrate the 25th anniversary season of the Shotgun Players, artistic director Patrick Dooley decided to switch the small, Berkeley-based company over to a repertory format. Over the past few seasons he had tested the waters by running running Tom Stoppard's daunting trilogy entitled The Coast of Utopia (Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage) as well as Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy entitled The Norman Conquests (Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden) in repertory.

Mark Jackson's ambitious, provocative, and remarkably fulfilling production of Hamlet, however, poses a much steeper artistic challenge. The cast includes seven performers who are familiar faces to Bay area audiences (El Beh, Kevin Clarke, Nick Medina, Cathleen Riddley, Megan Trout, David Sinaiko, and Beth Wilmurt).

El Beh as Hamlet (Photo by: Pak Han)

Billed as a game of "Hamlet roulette," Jackson uses a skull filled with name tags for each actor to determine the cast list for each performance. Members of the audience is asked to pick one name tag at a time out of poor Yorick's skull as Jackson announces the roles they will play at that performance. Once the cast list has been finalized, the actors hustle backstage to prepare for the show.

Jackson's gimmick allows for 5,040 casting permutations. Not only does that go a long way toward proving the universality of Hamlet's dramatic potential, it means that no two performances will be alike. On any given night, Hamlet might be young, old, male, female, Caucasian, African American, queer, or come from a mixed-race family.

Horatio (Cathleen Riddley) watches as Hamlet (El Beh)
addresses Yorick's skull in Hamlet (Photo by: Pak Han)

In order to streamline the text (and eliminate any extra weight), certain cuts have been made (most notably Hamlet's monologue in which he gives advice to the troupe of players). The only critical character omitted in this version is Fortinbras, the King of Norway whose speech traditionally ends Shakespeare's play.

Christine Crook's costume design is simple, yet remarkably effective. In addition to Heather Basarab's lighting design, special praise should be given to the talented sound designer (Matt Stines) who transforms Act II's extended swordplay (fought with imaginary swords) into a brilliant and thrilling duel. But, as Jackson notes, "During our October 2015 workshop for this production, actor Kevin Clarke nutshelled something about the cast's task that also captured the underlying spirit of the production: We're not here to play any one role. We're here to do the play." In the following video clip, Jackson explains his concept in greater detail.

To suggest that Jackson's approach to Hamlet is ambitious would be a YUGE understatement. When I first saw Shotgun's production in April, Beth Wilmurt (whose work I have long admired) was chosen to play Hamlet. She delivered an athletic and deeply impressive portrayal of the melancholy Dane. Nick Medina was cast as Laertes, with the multitalented El Beh tackling the roles of Horatio and Ophelia (a particularly fascinating interpretation). Kevin Clarke appeared as Claudius and Rosencrantz, with David Sinaiko hilariously portraying Gertrude and Guildenstern. Cathleen Riddley doubled as the Ghost of Hamlet's father and a Gravedigger while Megan Trout appeared as Polonius and a Priest.

In mid-August, when I returned to catch another performance, El Beh was a fierce and furious Hamlet who captured the volatile personality and indignant rage of a petulant and rebellious teenager more thoroughly than any other actor I can remember. While Cathleen Riddley's portrayal of Horatio was steadfast and true, Ophelia's mad scene was wildly demented and truly alarming.

Catherine Riddley as the demented Ophelia in Hamlet
(Photo by: Pak Han)

This time around, Beth Wilmurt was cast as Laertes with Kevin Clarke once again appearing as Claudius and Rosencrantz. Nick Medina doubled as a more subdued Gertrude and Guildenstern with David Sinaiko appearing as an ass-kissing Polonius, a Priest, and Osric. As always, Megan Trout demonstrated what can happen when a hugely talented actor makes a triumph out of small roles. Her Gravedigger revealed a stunning sense of timing and irony; her portrayal of the Ghost of Hamlet's father as an angry spirit seeking revenge was enough to send chills down one's spine.

El Beh as Hamlet (Photo by: Pak Han)

With the company already jumping back and forth between productions of Hamlet, The Village Bike, and Grand Concourse, it will be fascinating to see what happens after Christopher Chen's new play (Caught) and Edward Albee's classic (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) are added to the mix. In December, Shotgun Players will perform all five plays in repertory while the seven actors continue to play "Hamlet Roulette."

I came away from this second viewing with an even deeper admiration of Jackson's skill as a director and much more empathy for the discipline required of his ensemble. I also found it interesting to note that, with more performances under their belt, there were fewer requests from the actors for help with a line. One reason might have been that El Beh's dramatic fury was keeping everyone on their toes.

Horatio (Cathleen Riddley) comforts the dying Hamlet (El Beh)
(Photo by: Pak Han)

* * * * * * * * *
Meanwhile, close to Union Square, San Francisco Playhouse has been delighting audiences with its stylish production of City of Angels. When this loving send-up of Hollywood noir culture opened on Broadway on December 11, 1989, it quickly became obvious that the show was a labor of love for its creative team (composer Cy Coleman, lyricist David Zippel, librettist Larry Gelbart, director Michael Blakemore, set designer Robin Wagner, and costume designer Florence Klotz).

With 40 scenes and 36 characters, it's easy to wonder if the musical's plot may be too intricate for some people to follow -- or if the gags come in such rapid succession that the audience can barely take it all in. However, because theatre technology has evolved tremendously over the past 25 years, it's easier to stage City of Angels with much more fluidity than it was 25 years ago.

Munoz (Rudy Guerrero) arrests Stone (Brandon Dahlquist)
in a scene from City of Angels (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

In many ways, City of Angels resembles a three-dimensional crossword puzzle. Keeping track of every plot development requires an alert audience capable of paying close attention to detail. Coleman's brilliant jazz score, which (like Sondheim's A Little Night Music) utilizes a small vocal ensemble working in tandem with the orchestra, is nowhere near as accessible as a jukebox musical. But its musical wit and considerable craft are hard to ignore. As Katisha would say, it is "an acquired taste."

The San Francisco Playhouse production benefits immensely from Bill English's intricate unit set (which features a revolving ring that can bring actors and scenery out from beneath an elevated playing platform) and his astute stage direction. A great deal of credit for the strength of the evening goes to music director Dave Dobrusky and Mary Chun for her superb reduction of the original orchestral score.

Jeffrey Brian Adams as Stine in a scene from City of Angels
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

One of the reasons I was eager to revisit this production is that it's so easy to miss a lot of clues and jokes as the show unravels in two different dimensions (several of the characters appearing in Stine's script for a noir film are played by actors who also appear in roles set in real life). In the original production, much of this was handled by keeping the film scenes largely in shades of black, white, and grey while the real life scenes had sets and costumes in color.

A segment of 35mm film

What English has cleverly done is to frame the upper playing platform with two vertical panels that resemble a strip of 35-mm film, thus making sure the audience is conscious of the fact that scenes on the upper level are taking place on the screen (or in the screenwriter's mind). Scenes that play out on the stage's main floor represent real life in Hollywood and New York (or, as real as it can get in either city).

Problems become increasingly complex as the film's producer and various actors try to meddle with Stine's script. The screenwriter runs into increasing difficulty when his characters start talking back to him, telling Stine how to handle the situations plaguing him in real life.

Caitlan Taylor as Stone's romantic interest, Bobbi, in a
scene from City of Angels (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

What quickly becomes evident is how much sarcasm and wit Larry Gelbart (whose credits include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, M*A*S*H, Tootsie, Sly Fox, and Oh, God!) injected into the script. Gelbart is fondly remembered as the man who once said "If Hitler is alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical!"

His skill with a gag line is neatly matched by David Zippel, who subsequently contributed lyrics to 1993's The Goodbye Girl (with music by Marvin Hamlisch) and 1994's The Swan Princess as well as two of Disney's animated feature films (1997's Hercules and 1998's Mulan).

Because the original creative team was having such a good time mocking the culture that produced noir films, their love for the style and vocabulary of that era shines through in the script. I tip my hat to Ryan Drummond, who was having a blast doubling as the megalomaniacal Hollywood film producer, Buddy Fidler, and his screen counterpart, Irwin. Nancy Zoppi scored some major laughs onscreen as the scheming Alaura and offscreen as Buddy's wife, Carla.

San Francisco Playhouse cast its leads nicely, with Jeffrey Brian Adams as the screenwriter (Stine) and Brandon Dahlquist as his fictional detective (Stone). Doubling as their love interests were Monique Hafen was a sadder-but-wiser Donna/Oolie and Caitlan Taylor as Gabby/Bobbi.

Monique Hafen as Donna in a scene from City of Angels
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

In supporting roles, Samantha Rose Cardenas shone as Mallory/Avril while Rudy Guerrero doubled as Lieutenant Munoz and Pancho (the actor who portrays him). John Paul Gonzalez was appropriately narcissistic as the sleazy crooner, Jimmy Powers. Ken Brill, William Giammona, Monique Hafen, and Caitlan Taylor offered some snazzy ensemble work as the Angel City Four.

Doing double duty designing sound and projections, Theodore J.H. Hulsker hit the ball out of the park with his work on this production. Credit also goes to Michael Oesch for his lighting design, Melissa Torchia for her costumes, Morgan Dayley for her choreography, and Mike “Miguel” Martinez for his fight choreography.

Brandon Dahlquist as Stone in a scene from City of Angels
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

How did the production hold up on a weeknight performance halfway through its run? Remarkably well. Though the house was not fully sold, the audience had themselves a good time and I was able to catch up on a lot of jokes I had missed on opening night because so many people were doubled over with laughter.

Curiously enough, in his recent article on the Playbill website entitled 9 (More) Shows Overdue for a Revival, Features Manager Michael Gioia placed City of Angels in the #1 position. Performances of City of Angels continue through September 17 at the San Francisco Playhouse (click here for tickets).

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