Monday, September 19, 2016

Monster of the House

What a difference a simple syllable can make! Change the sound of a word and it can take on a radically different meaning.
One of the highlights of Les Misérables is Act I's cynical comedy duet for the monstrously dysfunctional money-grubbing innkeepers, Monsieur and Madame Thénardier.

But what happens when one changes the word "master" into "monster"?
A frame from Bill Watterrson's comic, Calvin and Hobbes

The monsters around us rarely appear as dinosaurs that have been frozen in ice (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) or prehistoric reptiles that have been subjected to radiation (Godzilla). Sometimes they are people we have known and admired (I heartily recommend Mike Wise's article entitled Penn State Doesn’t Get to Decide JoePa’s Legacy: I Know). Some are even robotic.

Some monsters may arrive as a shape-shifting swarm of insects such as locusts or bees. Others occur in the wilderness as rare botanical wonders (Meet The Man on a Mission to Save Carnivorous Plants). However, not every species gets to star in a musical!

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It's hard to believe that Little Shop of Horrors has been a part of popular culture for more than half a century. Based on John Collier's 1932 story entitled "Green Thoughts," Roger Corman's film (The Little Shop of Horrors) was released in 1960.

Although its original title was supposed to be The Passionate People Eater, the story gained new life in 1982 when it opened Off-Off-Broadway as a rock musical (with music by Alan Menken and book and lyrics by Howard Ashman) in which Ellen Greene became famous for her rendition of "Somewhere That's Green." Greene subsequently starred in the London production, appeared as Audrey opposite Rick Moranis in the 1986 film version of the musical and, at the age of 64, triumphed opposite Jake Gyllenhall's Seymour Krelborn in City Center's 2015 concert staging of Little Shop of Horrors as part of its popular Encores! series.

In the nearly 35 years since its premiere, Little Shop of Horrors has become a darling of high school and college theatre departments (as well as community theatre groups). The rousing welcome it received on opening night of Ray of Light Theatre's new production left no doubt about the show's unwavering popularity with multiple generations thanks to Menken's rowdy score and the story's hilarious capacity to both titillate and entertain audiences.

Directed by Jason Hoover with musical direction by Ben Prince, ROLT once again delivered a top-notch production, shaped in no small part by Kevin Landesman's lighting design, Chrissy Curl's set design, and Maggie Whitaker's costumes.

Seymour (Sam Faustine) feeds Audrey a drop of blood in a
scene from Little Shop of Horrors (Photo by: Nick Otto)

ROLT's production benefited from superb casting, with Sam Faustine (who starred as Curly in Broadway by the Bay's recent production of Oklahoma!) offering a wonderfully nerdy portrayal of Seymour and Brendon North appearing as the sadistic Orin Scrivello, D.D.S. North subsequently stole scene after scene in a string of hilarious cameos.

Brendan North as Orin, the sadistic dentist, in a scene
from Little Shop of Horrors (Photo by: Nick Otto)

With Phaedra Johnson (Chiffon), Katrina McGraw (Crystal), and Jacqueline Dennis (Ronette) drawing constant cheers from the audience thanks to Lauren Rosi's sly choreography and some nifty sight gags, Jessica Coker supplied the voice of Audrey II (the man-eating plant that is the nonhuman star of the show).

Jacqueline Dennis (Ronette) Katrina McGraw (Crystal)
and Phaedra Johnson (Chiffon) in a scene from
Little Shop of Horrors (Photo by: Nick Otto)

As with most productions of Little Shop of Horrors, whoever portrays Audrey has the audience rooting for her all the way. Mary Kalita did a splendid job with "Somewhere That's Green" and "Suddenly Seymour" as well as handling the comedy bits with style.

Mary Kalita as the bruised and battered Audrey in a
scene from Little Shop of Horrors (Photo by: Nick Otto)

The production's only weakness was Anton Hedman's sound design, which made it nearly impossible to understand much of what Tim Hart was either singing or speaking as Seymour's frustrated employer, Mr. Mushnik.

Performances of Little Shop of Horrors continue through October 8 at the Victoria Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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Certain kinds of family gatherings bring out the worst in some people. Many a Thanksgiving dinner has been ruined by some heated political discussions. Many a Christmas has been dampened by perceived insults and unreasonable expectations. A death in the family, however, often brings out the most dysfunctional behavior of all.

Danielle Bowen (Jean) and Peter Ruocco (Steve) in a scene
from August, Osage County (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Those who relished the intelligence, black comedy, raw emotions, and poignancy on display throughout the five seasons of Alan Ball's award-winning HBO series entitled Six Feet Under were primed for a followup when August, Osage County received its world premiere from the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago on June 28, 2007. A family drama which included a suicidal alcoholic, a vengeful, pill-popping matriarch, a sordid, secret history of incest, and two married men who lust after teenage girls, the work earned playwright Tracy Letts the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Following its Chicago run, the production moved to Broadway, where it won five Tony Awards and ran for 648 performances. A London production and North American tour soon followed. In 2013, a film adaptation was released with an all-star cast headed by Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, and Sam Shepard.

While many dramas written by such great American playwrights as Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson, Tony Kushner, Sam Shepard, Edward Albee, Lillian Hellman, William Inge, August Wilson, and Terrence McNally have become firmly embedded in our cultural landscape, August, Osage County may be the first 21st-century play to present so much dysfunctional family life under one roof. Part of the play's dramatic impact comes from the three-level set that depicts the Weston homestead in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

J. B. Wilson's set for August, Osage County (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In many ways Letts's drama has been built on the power of three.
  • August: Osage County is a rarity in modern American drama: an old-fashioned three-act play.
  • A typical performance lasts nearly three hours.
  • Three types of substance abusemarijuana, pain pills, and alcohol (often working in tandem) have taken a heavy toll on various members of the Weston clan.
  • Three of the men onstage (Beverly Weston, Bill Fordham, and Steve Heidebrecht) share a typical male characteristic: the inability to keep their dicks in their pants.
  • As the patriarch of the Weston household, Beverly's sperm has made its presence known in three people of his generation.
  • The tragedy of Beverly's death brings three generations of the Weston family together under the same roof during the brutal heat of an Oklahoman summer.
  • As one enters the theatre, one can't help notice that J.B.Wilson's unit set is topped off by the isosceles triangle that frames the house's attic.
J.B. Wilson's unit set for August, Osage County allows
for multiple playing areas (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
  • As in Anton Chekhov's play, Three Sisters, the Weston family has three heavily conflicted daughters (Barbara, Karen, and Ivy) who are trying to cope with a ton of emotional baggage in order to get on with their lives.
  • Throughout the course of the play Barbara Fordham confronts the heavy influence of three men in her life: her husband, her father, and the man who took her to her high school prom (and who, in his role as the local sheriff, is now asking her to identify her father's bloated body).
  • Simultaneously, her husband, Bill Fordham, is trying to juggle three women in his life: his menopausal wife, his rebellious, pot-smoking teenage daughter, and the female student with whom he is having an affair.
  • Following Beverly's death, three women (Violet, Ivy, and Johnna) become virtual prisoners in a house haunted by guilt, sibling rivalry, substance abuse, and years of bitterness.
The sloped planking in J.B. Wilson's unit set serves as Westons'
dinner table in August, Osage County (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The Marin Theatre Company opened its 50th season with a new production of August, Osage County powerfully directed by Jasson Minadakis. The play starts slowly and meticulously unveils its secrets like a container ship that has crawled into port and begun to unload a human cargo filled with wounded egos, wanton lust, and worried relatives. If, as the old saying goes, "a dead fish rots from the head," it may be best to examine the Westons from the top of the family tree on down.
  • Beverly Weston (Will Marchetti) is the patriarch. During the Great Depression his family was forced to live in their car for several years. At one time in his life, he was an acclaimed poet. Now, as he interviews a young Native American woman who is applying for a live-in job, he explains what she can expect: "My wife takes pills and I drink." 
  • Violet Weston (Sherman Fracher) is the matriarch of the Weston clan and a real piece of work. Now suffering from cancer of the mouth, she has been addicted to pain pills for many years (once, when she was placed in a rehabilitation facility, she managed to smuggle a bottle of pills onto the ward by hiding it in her vagina). Violet loathes air conditioning, which is why even a series of tropical parakeets quickly succumbed to the heat in her house. Like an exhausted old gorilla playing King of the Hill, Violet likes to remind people that nothing gets past her. She is still intent on proving to her family that, emotionally, she's the strongest in the tribe and, when crossed, may respond with one of her caustic "truth-telling" attacks. Her most recent gripe is that "There's an Indian living in my house!"
Sherman Fracher as Violet Weston in a scene from
August, Osage County (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Violet's three dysfunctional daughters are:
  • Barbara Fordham (Arwen Anderson), the oldest of the Weston sisters. Married to a college professor whose job opportunity took them from Oklahoma to live in Denver, she is currently suffering from hot flashes, the breakup of her marriage, and the trials and tribulations of trying to raise a teenager who hates her guts. Barbara's 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Danielle Bowen), has a passion for old movies, likes to get stoned, and is quick to remind her father (David Ari) that she's now at "just the age you like 'em."
  • Karen Weston (Joanne Lubeck) is the youngest of the Weston daughters. Not particularly smart -- and indeed a bit ditsy -- she is very much a product of the "me" generation. Currently living in Florida, she is engaged to Steve (Peter Ruocco), and eagerly awaiting their wedding on New Year's Day, after which they plan to spend their honeymoon in Belize. Unfortunately, the much-married Steve is a lot more interested in getting high with Barbara's 14-year-old daughter and getting his hands on Jean's young, nubile body.
  • Ivy Weston (Danielle Levin) is the only one of the Weston daughters who never left home. Now nearly 47 years old, she continues to endure her mother's nagging criticisms about her looks and ridiculous suggestions about how to find a man. Ivy and her cousin, Charles, have secretly been planning to leave Oklahoma and move to New York to start a new life together in a less toxic environment. Not particularly bright and prone to forgetfulness, Charles (who may be mildly autistic) is in his mid-30s and totally unemployable. 
Arwen Anderson (Barbara) and David Ari (Bill) in a scene
from August, Osage County (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Orbiting around the gravitational force of the Weston home is Violet's younger sister, Mattie Fae Aiken (Anne Darragh), who came to the rescue when young Violet was being attacked by a man wielding a claw hammer. A tart-tongued shrew who frequently pushes her husband, Charlie (Robert Sicular), to the limit of his patience, Mattie Fae can never stop criticizing her son, Little Charles (Patrick Kelly Jones).

Danielle Levin (Ivy), Sherman Fracher (Violet), and Anne Darragh
(Mattie Fae) in a scene from August, Osage County
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Rounding out the cast is Johnna Montevata (Kathleen Pizzo), the young Cheyenne woman whom Beverly hired to help out with family chores, and Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Ryan Tasker), who took Barbara to their school prom many years ago, is now divorced, and has three daughters of his own.

With all these triangular sources of pressure baking in the Oklahoma heat, it's no wonder that August: Osage County becomes a three-dimensional chess game in which each move is accompanied by the eruption of regret, resentment, and retribution. Topping it all off is every daughter's biggest nightmare (the fear of becoming her mother), which has now landed like a bleeding cherry on top of Barbara's miserable menopausal sundae.

Sherman Fracher as Violet Weston in a scene from
August, Osage County (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

What's amazing is that, in the midst of so much angst, the audience can erupt in so much laughter. Having seen the original production of August: Osage County on Broadway and on tour in San Francisco,, MTC's new staging offered a valuable chance to pay closer attention to the beauty of Letts's writing, appreciate his drama's meticulous construction, and enjoy another magnificent performance from a tightly-knit ensemble of exceptional actors.

While MTC's production is blessed with Kurt Landisman's lighting and Theodore J. H. Hulsker's sound design, I was particularly impressed by J.B. Wilson's use of a slanted platform between two staircases which could later serve as the family's dinner table. Although its angle prevented the use of any real food onstage, the way the cast sat perched around the table heightened the dramatic stakes of getting through a meal with Violet Weston on a tear.

One of the biggest blessings of seeing August, Osage County in the 250-seat Boyer Theatre is the intimacy of the experience. While each member of the ensemble makes a strong contribution to the evening's drama, I tip my hat to Sherman Fracher, Arwen Anderson, and the ever amazing Anne Darragh for lighting up the theatre with three powerhouse performances. Who says they don't write good roles for older women anymore?

Performances of August, Osage County continue through October 9 at the Marin Theatre Company (click here for tickets).

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