Friday, October 14, 2016

The Labors of Love

As part of this year's retrospectives timed to the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington D.C., Robert Simonson (a former editor of Playbill) reposted a piece he had published on September 11, 2011 entitled When the Curtain Came Down on the American Heart. In this poignant recollection, he described the unique role that the theatre sometimes plays in our lives while paying tribute to those who work in all aspects of the profession.
"All Broadway shows -- all New York shows, period -- closed on Sept. 11. They remained shuttered for the matinees and evening performances of Wednesday, Sept. 12. But by Thursday, they were back open. City Hall saw that they were. 'We had gotten a very strong message from the Mayor and the Deputy Mayors that the Mayor wanted Broadway open as quickly as possible,' recalled Jed Bernstein, then president of the League of Broadway Theatres and Producers (now called The Broadway League), 'not only for the economic benefits that getting the city back to work would provide, but also for the psychological benefits that Broadway being up and running would contribute.' Sept. 13 was to have been the official opening night for Urinetown, the scrappy satirical musical that had graduated from the New York Fringe to the big time. The attacks pushed back that date to Sept. 20, making Sept. 13 another preview. But not just another preview."
Poster art for Urinetown
"The audience was partly made of airline attendants who had nowhere else to go. A cake, intended to celebrate the erstwhile opening, was cut open and shared with the theatregoers. 'It was a delicate effort, but I thought it took strength to get through it from the performers' point of view,' said Greg Kotis, the show's librettist and co-lyricist. 'It seemed an expression of courage and resilience, and those are elements of the theatre world. I guess I felt proud. It was a moment when it felt that theatre mattered more than it usually does. Theatre became about community. To be together in the same place, considering things through a play, that also made me feel proud. It's easy to feel that theatre is irrelevant. It's the poor stepchild of all the other mediums that command audiences in the tens of millions. The vitality of the medium felt very present and important.'"
Outside of New York, people around the world were stunned by the attacks. Few knew about Operation Yellow Ribbon, during which 38 aircraft were diverted to Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, where they landed with 6,600 passengers and 473 crew members. With only 500 hotel rooms available, the local population of approximately 10,000 people opened their homes to the stranded travelers, feeding and entertaining them until the airspace over North America was reopened to commercial aviation nearly six days later.

A surprising amount of art was inspired by Gander's community effort.

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In a move that has surprised and delighted many in the Bay Area theatre community, Jon Tracy (a gifted playwright, director, actor, and teacher) was recently named as the new Artistic Director of TheatreFIRST. In an attempt to bring the 23-year-old company more in line with the Bay area's multiculturalism -- and incorporate more than just sweat equity into the concept of diversity -- the organization's new mission statement reads as follows:
"TheatreFIRST, in residence at Berkeley’s Live Oak Theater, creates a social hub where, through the art of storytelling, all voices get heard. Dedicated to telling the world’s stories through multiple, simultaneous viewpoints, TheatreFIRST has redeveloped its lens so that a more actual world will be reflected and a more actual world will attend. Inspired by the above tenet, TheatreFIRST looks to foster new, necessary stories by new and established artists through collaborative residencies; the work produced ultimately becoming their next main stage season. TheatreFIRST’s productions are supported by an outreach program that gives the community entry points in to their stories as well as next-step programming that builds on our work’s themes."

Collectively titled We Are the Maps of Our World, the newly-revamped company's first season is comprised of four stories about how peoples' placement in society defines them and how, similarly, their actions define the spaces they inhabit. TheatreFIRST recently unveiled its first production, a play by Rob Dario inspired by Shakespeare's 1611 drama, The Tempest.

Whenever someone attempts to rework, revise, or update a classic, there is an equal amount of excitement and anxiety about what the final product will be. It's a bit like trying out a new recipe for a soufflé. It may fill with air, rise and taste delicious, or collapse into what my mother labeled "a poodjing." For longtime theatregoers, two extreme scenarios are easy to imagine:
  • In the best of all possible worlds, the new work's debut is an artistic triumph where all the creative elements are beautifully woven together so that the storytelling rests in the hands of skilled actors who are dressed, lit, and supported by talented professionals.
  • In the worst case scenario (and believe me, I've sat through a few of them), the final product stubbornly sits center stage like an embarrassing turd and nothing anyone attempts over the course of two or more hours can put lipstick on a dramatic pig.
Poster art for Bagyó

Theatregoers rarely, however, imagine what other outcomes might be possible. Will a play be too ambitious or not challenging enough for its audience? With high expectations on one side of the footlights, will the performance go smoothly on the other -- or will a series of technical glitches cause the evening to devolve into something resembling the last act of Noises Off?

Danny (Soren Santos) comes upon the dancing Miranda (Grace Ng)
in a scene from Bagyó (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

The opening night of Bagyó had a great deal going for it, assets which place the "reborn" TheatreFIRST on solid ground from a technical standpoint. Set on an island somewhere in Southeast Asia -- perhaps in the Philippines -- Bagyó (which is the Tagalog word for "storm") is filled with enough dance, folklore, symbolism, and magical realism to keep one's attention riveted to the stage for its 90 minutes.

Working on a stark unit set designed by Noelle Vinas and lit by Kevin Myrick (with costumes designed by Miyuki Bierlein), this world premiere production is especially notable for Lorin King's excellent and imaginative sound design. As directed by Bridgette Loriaux, Bagyó employs a variety of storytelling styles ranging from dance theatre to farce, from tribal ritual to agitprop.

Miranda (Grace Ng) and her sisters (Marsha Dimelanta and
Jennifer Jovez) in a scene from Bagyó (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

The unmistakable weakness, however, lies in Dario's script, which meanders all over the place without ever seeming to be sure of its destination. With some parts of the play written in Tagalo, it's possible for audiences to be confused by the urgency of lines spoken in a language they might not understand. The larger problem seems to be a lack of continuity combined with a desperate need for trimming. Had Bagyó lasted only 60 minutes, it might have been a tighter, more engrossing drama. At 90 minutes, there were too many moments when the play could have ended.

There is no reason to fault the actors, who gave fully-committed performances. As Miranda (Palarin's teenage daughter who, though she has no way of knowing it is also his chosen apprentice), Grace Ng offered a solid portrayal of a young woman on the cusp of self-discovery. As her brother, Iwaksi (the native boy who was adopted by Palarin and Beatriz), Wes Gabrillo struggled between trying to help Miranda and realizing that there were some problems she would need to solve by herself (Gabrillo also appeared as a Chinese soldier and what might have been a Hanuman-like monkey spirit).

Lintik (Ed Berkeley) and Palarin (Richard Robert Bunker)
in a scene from Bagyó (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

The authoritative patriarchal figures were Miranda's father, Palarin (Richard Robert Bunker), who also appeared as a worldly force of political manipulation, and Lintik, a sinister, muscular creature described as "The Dark and Irresistible Dual of Palarin," who was handsomely embodied by Ed Berkeley.

In smaller roles, Krystle Piamonte appeared as Palarin's wife (and mother to both Miranda and Iwaksi) as well as a mysterious woman of spiritual importance while Jennifer Jovez and Marsha Dimalanta appeared as the opportunistic soldiers of invading forces from France and Spain as well as two sisters/oracles hosting an enigmatic cooking show. Soren Santos was most impressive as Danny, the American soldier who oozed white privilege (when he was not portraying Palarin's henchman).

Iwaksi (Wesley Gabrillo) interrogates Miranda (Grace Ng)
in a scene from Bagyó (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Performances of Bagyó continue through Saturday, November 5 at the Live Oak Theatre (click here for tickets).

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Water has often been viewed as a source of healing. In many primitive societies, rain was perceived as a symbol of fertility. Thus, it should come as no surprise that in Bagyó and Outside Mullingar, heavy rains are a constant part of the soundscape.

Set in a small town in Ireland, John Patrick Shanley's four-character play is about the kind of stubbornness that convinces people they're right (when they are pitifully misguided) and prevents them from admitting that they're wrong. It is a dramedy about people who have encased their hearts with so much emotional armor that they can no longer acknowledge their desperate yearning to be loved because their pitiful self-image prevents them from imagining that someone could find any reason to love them.

When he was 22, Shanley decided that he didn’t want to be labeled as an Irish-American writer.
“I’m Irish as hell (Kelly on one side, Shanley on the other). I grew up surrounded by brogues and Irish music, but stayed away from the old country till I was over 40. I always knew I’d have to come home eventually. I just couldn’t own being Irish. Something in me hated being confined by an ethnic identity, by any family. But when I sat with my father in the farm kitchen he had grown up in and listened to my Irish family talk, I recognized that this was my Atlantis, the lost and beautiful world of my poet’s heart. I listened to the amazing language these folks were speaking as if it were normal conversation, and I knew this was my territory. It was new to me, but it was a time to listen, not to write.”
Lucinda Hitchcock Cone and Steve Brady in a scene from
Outside Mullingar (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With a meticulous sense of dramatic construction, Shanley has created four beautifully complex characters from two generations whose recalcitrance has done precious little to improve their lives.
  • Tony Reilly (Steve Brady) is a cantankerous and curmudgeonly Irish widower who knows that his remaining time on earth is limited. Having developed a spiteful streak of selfishness in his old age, Tony is thinking of leaving his farm to a distant relative in America simply because he can't imagine leaving it to his unmarried son, Anthony, who has been working the land for his entire life. Not the kind of person who is inclined to utter a kind word to Anthony, Tony's failing health has left him a thankless old coot who is convinced that his son is not really a Reilly, but a Kelly who has no true love for the land.
  • Anthony Reilly (Rod Brogan) is Tony's son, a 42-year-old virgin still desperate for any sign of his father's approval. Filled with self-doubt and convinced he's mentally damaged because of the voices he hears in his head, Anthony has never recovered from the idea that his neighbor since childhood, Rosemary Muldoon, has hated his guts ever since the day when, as a clumsy 13-year-old, he carelessly pushed the six-year-old girl to the ground.
Steve Brady, Rod Brogan, and Lucinda Hitchcock cone
in a scene from Outside Mullingar (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
  • Aoife Muldoon (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) is Tony's recently widowed friend. A caustic woman who has reason to worry about an incessant cough, Aoife is deeply concerned about the future of her daughter, Rosemary, who smokes incessantly and has never married.
  • Rosemary Muldoon (Jessica Wortham) is a spinster nearing 40 who still lives with her mother. Self-sufficient and not afraid of work, she once asked her father to buy her a gift -- a parcel of land that ran between the Reilly property and the road. As a result, any member of the Reilly clan who wanted to travel between the house and the road (especially Anthony) would have to get out of their vehicle to open and close two gates in order to reach their destination. Long thought of as a dyspeptic old maid, Rosemary has stubbornly been waiting for her block-headed true love to get a hint that she is still available. Unfortunately, when she gives up smoking in an attempt to seem more appealing, she only becomes more irritable.
Steve Brady, Jessica Wortham, and Lucinda Hitchcock cone
in a scene from Outside Mullingar (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

When Manhattan Theatre Club signed a contract to produce the world premiere of Outside Mullingar, Shanley, his son, Nick, the director (Doug Hughes), and the set designer (John Lee Beatty), embarked on a group trip to Ireland. As the playwright recalls:
“My cousin Anthony was not perfectly delighted that I had written a play set on his farm and that the main character was named Anthony. He was openly terrified when all these theater folk piled out of a couple of cars to photograph his home and him. Doug, exhibiting his considerable social skills, talked Anthony into a state of relative comfort and we had a good chat. I had written the play but now, being on the farm, I held the script like tracing paper over the real and looked for gold in the differences. I knew I was imposing, but that is the artist’s way. We take the real and refashion it to our purpose. The desire is strong, and reality must give way.”
Lovingly directed by Robert Kelley, Outside Mullingar is the kind of story in which two people who have always been assumed to hate each other finally overcome their shyness and make a stab at asking for what they want. Written with the kind of sarcastic humor that makes his play the opposite of a "feel good" rom-com, Outside Mullingar has no problem charming the pants off its audience.

Rod Brogan (Anthony) and Jessica Wortham (Rosemary)
in a scene from Outside Mullingar (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Andrea Bechert's rustic revolving set and the excellent sound design by Cliff Caruthers go a long way toward reinforcing the wet gloom and bittersweet despair of Shanley's characters. With costumes designed by B. Modern and lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley has mounted an impression production of Outside Mullingar which makes it easy for audiences to understand how the pressures of living in a small, isolated community could get under a person's skin.

Rod Brogan (Anthony) and Jessica Wortham (Rosemary)
in a scene from Outside Mullingar (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While the four-actor ensemble does a beautiful job with Shanley's script, the scene in which Rosemary finally manages to lure Anthony into her home for a drink long after their parents have passed away is a hilarious depiction of what can happen when two bumbling, passive-aggressive and painfully closeted romantics are trapped together with nowhere to hide.

Performances of Outside Mullingar continue at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through October 30 (click here for tickets).

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