Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Snap Went The Dragons

Some people can't suppress their burning need to dominate a situation. Whether they feel compelled to always have the last word in any argument or insist on always being "right," their behavior appears sufficiently pathological to point to a tragic flaw of near-Shakespearean proportions.

Egged on by alcohol or some other substance, they reveal their inner demons while "letting down their hair" or performing aggressive acts of "truth telling." In their agitated state, they may subconsciously be channeling Stephen Sondheim's lyrics for "Send in the Clowns."
"Isn't it bliss, don't you approve?
One who keeps tearing around,
One who can't move.
Where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns.

Don't you love farce?
My fault I fear.
I thought that you'd want what I want,
Sorry my dear!
But where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Don't bother, they're here."
Two small Bay area theatre companies recently staged dramas crafted by famous gay playwrights in which, by pushing too hard, pivotal characters discover that they've reached the point of no return. One of these plays, written more than half century ago by a theatrical legend, has become a classic American drama. The other is a period piece, set in 1962 (the same year in which the other play received its highly controversial world premiere).

Knowing what we know today, does hindsight give us 20/20 vision? Or, is it possible that, as audience members age, they become more capable of understanding the complex forces which cause people to sabotage their relationships? Should audiences be surprised to witness people who were always so sure of themselves being transformed into "sadder but wiser girls"? Or should they have been able to spot a potential train wreck long before the final curtain?

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San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center launched its 2016-2017 season with the regional premiere of Harvey Fierstein's poignant 2014 dramedy, Casa Valentina. Based on a true story, Fierstein discusses how he learned about the play's subject from some old photos in a book by Michael Hurst and Robert Swope entitled Casa Susanna and went about conducting his research. The following 30-minute interview with Fierstein is well worth your time.

Directed by Becca Wolff on a unit set designed by Kuo-Hao Lo, Casa Valentina introduces the audience to a group of heterosexual tranvestites who arrive at a bungalow colony in the Catskills for one of their weekend retreats (during which they dress as housewives and perform ordinary chores like cooking, cleaning, primping, and play cards). Their goal is to be able to pass as real women, to feel as if they can finally be the woman they wish they could see in the mirror.

Charlotte (Matt Weimer, seated) has some big news to share
in a scene from Casa Valentina (Photo by: Lois Tema)

The regular attendees include the group's organizer George/Valentina (Paul Rodrigues), The Judge/Amy (Tom Reilly), the eldest, Theodore/Terry (Michael Moerman), and the Southern Belle who likes to quote Oscar Wilde, Albert/Bessie (Jeffrey Hoffman). With George's understanding wife, Rita (Jennifer McGeorge), and Michael/Gloria (Tim Huls) helping out, the group is being joined by two guests.
  • Charlotte/Isadore (Matt Weimer) is a pushy executive who has flown in from Los Angeles to meet with the group. As the publisher/editor of a magazine for and about transvestites, she is the leader of a closeted national society of straight men who like to dress as women that is hoping to incorporate as a nonprofit. To suggest that Charlotte arrives with a rigid agenda would be a severe understatement.
  • Jonathan/Miranda (Max Hersey) is a tall, handsome, and recently married young man who, until this point, has only dared to dress up in women's clothes in the basement of his home while his wife is out of town.
Bessie (Jeffrey Hoffman) welcomes Jonathan/(Max Hersey)
to the club's gathering in a scene from Casa Valentina
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

From the opening scenes, one might expect Casa Valentina to be focused on Jonathan's learning how to feel more comfortable in women's clothing and his emotional adjustment to being in the company of similar-minded men for the first time in his life. Nervous, shy, and terrified that his secret might be revealed to his wife, he is grateful for Rita's calming presence in the face of Bessie's sassy inquisitiveness, flamboyant behavior, and intimidating use of a flash camera.

Jonathan (Max Hersey) is welcomed into the group
in a scene from Casa Valentina (Photo by: Lois Tema)

When Valentina introduces Charlotte to the group, it soon becomes obvious that their visitor from the West Coast is determined to railroad the group into signing an affidavit that would compromise their anonymity. Not only would the affidavit state that no homosexuals are allowed to join the national organization or any of its chapters but, by virtue of the organization achieving nonprofit status, the name of every person who signed the affidavit would become a matter of public record.

For men who just lived through the McCarthy era, the threat of blackmail is both terrifying and real. The Judge, who is about to retire from long years of public service, is absolutely horrified by Charlotte's stance against homosexuals. Most of the other men in the group have absolutely no desire to sacrifice their privacy for the sake of someone else's politics.

Rita (Jennifer McGeorge) questions her husband,
George/Valentina (Paul Rodrigues) in a scene from
Casa Valentina (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Having seen how closely her husband has evolved from thinking of himself primarily as a man (George) to thinking of himself as a woman (Valentina), Rita is finally forced to question what she's supposed to be getting out of their marriage when George regards wearing men's clothes as his "day job." In his program note, NCTC's artistic director, Ed Decker, writes:
"Knowledge is always power. It leads to enhancement of empathy which moves us toward greater acceptance of one another. The conversation around the spectrum of gender has advanced and many more are participating in it. In that regard, the power of theatre is undeniably transformative. Imagine the challenge of living a double life -- then or now. On one hand, bound by society's stringent often-prescriptive heterosexual norms, yet on the other, yearning deep within to set free a truer self. Gender stereotypes linger and judgment can be harsh -- even within the Queer community. As the characters in Casa Valentina exemplify, simply being who you are can undoubtedly be the hardest journey of all. Some 50 years later, we still struggle to embrace identity in its many forms."
Bessie (Jeffrey Hoffman) loves to take pictures of her friends in
drag in Harvey Fierstein'is Casa Valentina (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Soon after the play begins, some audience members may find themselves thinking "Ooh, that is such a Harvey Fierstein line!" That's because one of Casa Valentina's biggest strengths is that, although this is the first play Fierstein has written in 30 years, it has been lovingly crafted by someone who is both a playwright and performer who has lived an openly gay lifestyle. That helps immeasurably to focus on the emotional truths of each conflict and revelation (as well as the simmering rage in Genevieve Perdue's bitter portrayal of the Judge's daughter, Eleanor).

With costumes designed by Keri Fitch, NCTC's cast does a fine job of breathing life into Fierstein's tightly-knit circle of transvestites. I was particularly impressed by the work of Paul Rodrigues, Jeffrey Hoffman, Max Hersey, and Jennifer McGeorge. Although Tom Reilly drew a sympathetic bead on The Judge/Amy, Matt Weimer's portrayal of the self-righteous, bulldozing Charlotte made me want to haul off and deck the bitch. Here's the trailer.

Performances of Casa Valentina continue through November 6 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets).

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For the final production of their 2016 season, the folks at Shotgun Players decided to breathe new life into Edward Albee's 1962 masterpiece, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? How does one revivify a play which has made such an indelible impression on America's cultural landscape (especially after being brought to the screen by Mike Nichols in a film adaptation that starred Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis, and George Segal)?

Throughout his life, Albee (who died on September 16) was notoriously finicky about letting anyone mess with his writing. But that doesn't mean that changing the furniture is off limits. Working with the ever-resourceful set designer, Nina Ball, director Mark Jackson has given George and Martha's home a rather stylish makeover.
  • Their fabled living room, filled with the kind of traditional furniture one might expect to find in academia, has vanished and been replaced by bare flooring with a faux parquet pattern. Without a chair, sofa, desk, or hutch in sight, the main playing area now takes on the shape of a boxing ring without any safety ropes -- the perfect venue for a spectator sport such as watching a bitter couple have at each other.
  • Instead of wondering where anyone goes when they head for the bathroom or bedroom, the audience can now see the ghostly framework of the rooms on the second floor of George and Martha's home.
  • Although the script contains numerous references to Martha's habit of leaving half-empty bottles of booze all over the house, the room's sole decor consists of two recessed and back-lit counters on which stylish bottles of colored liquids stand nobly against the never-ending onslaught of the house's meanest drunk.
Beth Wilmurt (Martha) and David Sinaiko (George) in a scene
from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Photo by: Pak Han)

Taking advantage of the peculiar physical layout of the Ashby Stage, George and Martha now make their entrance from one of the hallways leading to the auditorium. The audience quickly realizes that while George (David Sinaiko) is still dressed like a frumpy academic, Martha (Beth Wilmurt) is wearing a much more stylish outfit than usual.

Nearly 55 years after its world premiere, Albee's three-act play (which is as meticulously constructed as a piece of chamber music) has lost none of its punch. If anything, the behavior on display during a long night of drinking no longer seems particularly shocking. In a society now dominated by tabloid journalism aimed at a population hungry for titillation, no one should be surprised to see a bitter, sex-starved cougar attempt to cuckold her husband by seducing a handsome young stud right on front of him. There's a reason why Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'s three acts are entitled "Fun and Games," "Walpurgisnacht," and "The Exorcism."

Beth Wilmurt, David Sinaiko, Megan Trout, and Josh Schell in a
scene from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Photo by: Pak Han)

With more and more people determined to live out their most outrageous fantasies, Albee's tales of an imaginary child who can be used as a bean bag in a toxic, dysfunctional relationship (or a mousy young woman who suffers an hysterical pregnancy) almost seem quaint. In the age of uber-groper Donald Trump, accusations of a drunken mother fiddling with her son's genitals -- or threats of "total psychological warfare" -- are mere appetizers for the evening's entrée: a knock-down, drag-out, no-holds barred battle of wits between a husband and wife who have stayed together for much too long.

Just as some people have wondered what keeps Bill and Hillary Clinton together through thick and thin, over the years there has been plenty of speculation about what kept George and Martha together.
  • With her father still in charge of a small New England college nestled in the fictional town of New Carthage, have the relative comforts of academic life prevented them from going their own separate ways?
  • Has Martha's standing as a big fish in a small pond dulled the ambition necessary to test her venom on larger prey?
  • Have the couple developed a kind of intellectual intimacy which is more durable than whatever emotional and physical attractions initially brought them together?
  • Or has George's tenure simply provided them with the financial security to keep the couple supplied with enough booze to float from one disappointing day to the next?
Nick (Josh Schell) and George (David Sinaiko) share some "man talk"
in a scene from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Photo by: Pak Han)
  • Are one night's games of Humiliate the Host, Hump the Hostess, Get the Guest, and Bringing Up Baby enough to keep their fangs sharp or is Martha constantly lying in wait (like a moray eel) for an ambitious, social-climbing young professor to join the faculty with hopes of advancing his career by plowing a few pertinent faculty wives? 
  • Has George's "bogginess" left him so resigned to Martha's attacks that it's simply easier to pour himself another drink to dull the pain of his failed marriage?
David Sinaiko (George) and Josh Schell (Nick) in a scene
from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Photo by: Pak Han)

And what about Nick (Josh Schell) and Honey (Megan Trout), the nice young couple from the Midwest that Martha drags home in the middle of the night because "Daddy said we should be nice to them"?
  • With his voice getting louder and his diction more slurred as he ingests more alcohol, is Nick really as hot as he looks? Or does his inability to get an erection and satisfy Martha's sexual needs reduce him to the mere rank of a houseboy who is "all hat and no cattle"?
  • Is Honey just a naive twit who likes to peel the labels off bottles and lusts for violence? Or a pathetic young woman with a sizable inheritance but precious little self awareness?
Megan Trout as the drunken Honey in a scene from
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Photo by: Pak Han)

The combination of Nina Ball's set, Heather Basarab's lighting, and Sara Witsch's sound design help to reframe George and Martha's living room as an performance arena. At numerous points in the play one or two characters will sit on the edge of the stage or watch from the sidelines as two bitter and vocabulary-heavy gladiators have a go at each other. Blink closely and you might even think that the following moment looks like a scene from a prize fight in which Nick (as a coach or referee) is trying to restrain Martha and pull the two combatants apart.

Josh Schell, Beth Wilmurt, and David Sinaiko in a scene
from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Photo by: Pak Han)

While there is much to admire in Mark Jackson's staging, this is one production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where the casting was unusually off balance. Although David Sinaiko, Josh Schell, and Megan Trout gave magnificently complex and layered performances (certainly, the best I've seen for Honey and Nick), Beth Wilmurt's portrayal of Martha was oddly lacking in "oomph" and often seemed to miss the mark.

Many theatregoers expect Martha to be a more full-bodied woman; someone who, in addition to constantly being reminded that she is six years older than her husband, is visibly starting to show signs of corpulence that reflect her spiritual, psychological, and physiological decay. Strangely  enough, as I watched Wilmurt's performance, I found myself thinking "Funny, you don't look shrewish!"

David Sinaiko, Josh Schell, Megan Trout, and Beth Wilmurt in a
scene from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Photo by: Pak Han)

Performances of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continue through November 20 (and later in repertory) at the Ashby Stage (click here for tickets).

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