Thursday, November 3, 2016

People Behaving Badly

When I was growing up in Brooklyn, a Saturday afternoon double bill (or triple bill) at the movies cost only 25 cents. If a kid was lucky, his parents might give him a nickel to purchase a bar of Bonomo's Turkish Taffy that would keep his mouth busy for a while.

Back in those days, there were no cinema multiplexes. A local theatre might be a movie palace with anywhere from 1,300 to 3,000 seats. For kids who went to matinee screenings without any parental supervision, an afternoon filled with Westerns or horror films could be a tempting place to act out. One of the more daring pranks was to purchase some popcorn and milk, mix them together and then, during a scary moment, lean over the balcony rail and dump the mixture onto some unsuspecting audience member while groaning "I don't feel well!"

The restored interior of the Loew's Kings Theatre in Brooklyn
(Photo by: Tamara Beckwith)

As an adult, theatres became my kind of church or temple. Some have impressive architecture, elegant interior decor, and a cherished history all their own. Like houses of worship, theatres are a place of ritual where audiences undergo a dramatic experience together. The house lights dim, the show begins, and by the time the house lights come back up at the end of the evening, many audience members have been transported to a shared mystical place through the power of storytelling. There is a sense of community. On most nights, there is a sense of respect for the artists, for the process of creating art, and for the art they are creating.

In their short time on earth, smartphones have revolutionized much of how our society communicates. However, that doesn't mean they are beyond reproach. If their lithium batteries explode or start a fire, that's problematic. If a smartphone literally burns a hole in someone's pocket, that's most unfortunate.

Unfortunately, the ways in which some people use their smartphones have done a great deal to erase our sense of community. Because their focus is on how to use their phone (and not on how it affects the people around them), some people can still be heard shouting into their smartphone on mass transit. As they cross a busy intersection, they can be so engrossed in looking at their phone that they almost get hit by a passing vehicle.

As a rule, I prefer to keep the drama in my life on the stage. However, to the chagrin of many concert and theatergoers, smartphones now embolden some of their owners to think that they are the only one in an audience who matters. Pre-show announcements warning against taking photos or recording video have become as ineffective as pre-flight safety announcements (I highly recommend reading Patrick Smith's recent article entitled Passengers Evacuate with Luggage in Chicago Runway Fire: It’s Time For Airlines and Regulators to Get Serious About the Safety Demo).

American Airlines Flight #383 (a Boeing 767) catches fire at O'Hare

Several years ago, I was attending a piano recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music when a woman seated in the third row on the aisle lifted her phone up so she could capture video of a student's performance. At intermission, I approached her and asked that she not repeat her actions during the second half of the program, politely explaining to her that although she might not be aware of it, she had ruined the experience for everyone seated behind her (whose eyes were instantly drawn to the video image being recorded on her phone). Her husband was outraged that I would dare to criticize his wife.

The following year, Patti LuPone started fighting back against theatregoers who couldn't leave their smartphones in their pockets (or who felt that their phones entitled them to "capture a moment" at the expense of the performers onstage and the people around them who had paid to see the show).

Public shaming has apparently lost much of its power to knock some sense into people. On Saturday afternoon, October 29th, Roger Kaiser thought he was honoring the memory of his deceased mentor when he dumped some of the man's ashes into the orchestra pit of the Metropolitan Opera House during the intermission of a performance of Rossini's William Tell. With no thought to the dramatic consequences of scattering a powdered substance which could easily be mistaken for anthrax in an era when suspicious packets of white powder have been mailed to potential targets of terrorism, Kaiser never imagined that during an intense election season his actions might be interpreted as being politically motivated. Or that he might cause the Metropolitan Opera to cancel the remainder of the matinee (as well as that evening's performance of L'Italiani in Algeri) in order to ensure the safety of its musicians and members of its audience.

What kind of asshole does something like this? An impassioned opera queen with no forethought? Or someone who thinks that his needs and desires are more important than those of anyone else in the theatre?

There's a reason why people don't scream "fire" in a crowded theatre. But what if you're attending a cult musical with a rowdy history of audience participation? At a recent performance of The Rocky Horror Show, my friend and I found ourselves seated next to a woman who had obviously gone to many midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Whether or not she understood the difference between a movie and a live performance is quite beside the point.

Courtney Merrell (Janet Weiss) and Ryan Cowles (Brad Majors)
in a scene from The Rocky Horror Show (Photo by: Nick Otto)

Whereas some members of the audience would scream things at performers, this woman stood up and, for much of the first act, let loose with a full-throated tirade of epithets aimed at the characters onstage. Numerous people in the vicinity kept turning around to look at her in shock and disgust.
  • Was she drunk? 
  • Was she an overly enthusiastic fan of The Rocky Horror Picture Show
  • Or was she just being a selfish asshole? 
During intermission, she sat quietly with two male friends but, once the second act began, she was eager to resume a performance that nobody had asked (or paid) to witness. Believe me, I get it -- this Millennial girl just wanted to have fun. But at whose expense?

Steve Hess as the Narrator in The Rocky Horror Show
(Photo by: Nick Otto)

* * * * * * * * *
This incident raises a curious question. How does a critic write about a theatrical experience that has been so completely compromised by one person's narcissistic determination to make the show all about herself (rather than the performers onstage or, for that matter, the play)?
  • A reviewer can try his best to ignore the woman's impact on the performance (easier said than done when it impacted a lot of disgruntled people sitting near her).
  • A reviewer can try to fill up space by relating the plot of a show which, having premiered in 1973, has been a part of popular culture for more than four decades.
  • Or a reviewer can explain why he was interested in seeing this particular production and what he was able to observe despite the obnoxious behavior of a woman so self-involved that she was consumed by her desire to make her presence known.
D'Arcy Drollinger as Frank-N-Furter in a scene from
The Rocky Horror Show (Photo by: Nick Otto) 

I'll opt for door #3.

D'Arcy Drollinger (Frank-N-Furter) and Paul Hovannes (Riff Raff)
in a scene from The Rocky Horror Show (Photo by: Nick Otto)

Ray of Light Theatre's 2015 production of The Rocky Horror Show debuted just before Halloween at the Victoria Theatre with local drag celebrity D'Arcy Drollinger starring as Frank-n-Furter. Under Jason Hoover's direction (with choreography by Bobby Bryce), the cast included Alex Rodriguez as a pint-sized Rocky who had "baby bodybuilder boy toy" written all over him. Chelsea Holifield appeared as Janet Weiss with Mary Kalita as Columbia. Using Kelly Tighe's set design and costumes by Miriam Lewis, the show was beautifully lit by Joe D'Emilio.

D'Arcy Drollinger (Frank-N-Furter) and Daniel Santero (Rocky)
in a scene from The Rocky Horror Show (Photo by: Nick Otto)

ROLT's 2016 production was directed by Maro Guevara (with choreography by Leslie Waggoner) and featured scenic design by Angrette McCloskey, costumes by Maggie Whitaker, and lighting by Leonardo Hidalgo. Cast replacements included Daniel Santero as Rocky, Courtney Merrell as Janet, and Alex Feifers as Columbia. Others in the 2016 cast included Melinda Campero as the Usherette, Elizabeth Curtis as Eddie, and Andrea Dennison-Laufer as Magenta.

Any time a show is revived, returning audiences find themselves wondering whether the new cast (and an altered production) will live up to their memories. While Steve Hess's performance as the Narrator and Ryan Cowles's portrayal of Brad Majors seemed more animated than in 2015, D'Arcy Drollinger's Frank-n-Furter and the wonderful Paul Hovannes's portrayal of Riff Raff seemed a bit subdued.

Andrea Dennison-Laufer (Magenta)  and Paul Hovannes (Riff Raff)
in a scene from The Rocky Horror Show (Photo by: Nick Otto) 

My memory of 2015's production is that it seemed flashier and a whole lot more fun. My judgment, of course, may have been severely compromised by constant interference from the raucous sideshow taking place two seats to my left. During her curtain speech, Drollinger mentioned the possibility of making Rocky Horror an annual Halloween event for Ray of Light Theatre. Next year I'll have to remember to bring extra restraints and a ball gag -- just in case!

* * * * * * * * *
In 2010, the beloved Finnish soprano, Karita Mattila, scored a major triumph when the San Francisco Opera presented a new production of Leos Janacek's provocative 1926 opera entitled The Makropoulos Case. With handsome sets and costumes designed by Frank Philipp Schlössmann and lighting by Duane Schuler, this co-production with the Finnish National Opera was greeted with rapturous applause. It was hard to imagine another soprano matching Mattila's portrayal of the enigmatic Emilia Marty.

Based on a play by Karel Capek, the plot of The Makropoulos Case revolves around a mysterious actress/opera singer who inflames passions wherever she goes -- and has been doing so for approximately 300 years. I first saw the work performed at the New York City Opera with Maralin Niska. In 1976, Anja Silja starred as Emilia Marty at the San Francisco Opera. This fall, the company revived its 2010 production with an absolutely stunning performance by soprano Nadja Michael that came surprisingly close to erasing memories of Mattila's previous triumph.

Nadja Michael as Emilia Marty in a scene from
The Makropoulos Case(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

How could this happen? Because there are no traditional arias in Janacek's opera (much of it is conversational in tone), it's highly unlikely that the audience would have memorized much of the opera's score. With a libretto written in Czech, there was no expectation of pear-shaped vowel sounds.

Instead of the familiar operatic styles one might find in works by French, Italian, and German composers, The Makropoulos Case plays out as a musical drama with a strangely intense protagonist. In some ways, Emilia is a bit like Frank Wedekind's Lulu, a woman who seems oblivious to the effect her sexuality has on men. Seen from another angle, she could be the Bizarro World's answer to Auntie Mame.

Charles Workman (Albert Gregor) Nadja Michael (Emilia Marty)
in a scene from The Makropoulos Case (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

While Mattila gave audiences the sense of a woman who had grown weary after centuries of fending off the attempts of crude men who saw her as another sexual conquest (and were eager to possess her as some sort of trophy), Nadja Michael's portrayal radiated the kind of sexual heat expected of a woman in her prime who knows how to use her erotic wiles to get what she wants. As the soprano explains:
"From the very first moment Emilia Marty enters the stage, all the men are hitting on her. And why? Because she is strong. They feel that there is an extra skill somehow, there is something, and that mirrors society in a spooky way to me. Janáček was a feminist. He loved the heroines in his operas and experiencing their difficulties in a male-dominated society. How do women survive? What difficulties and transitions do they have to face? What does age mean? What does giving birth mean?"
"The opera’s topic is extremely modern, because it is not only about the question of eternity and its costs. I see even more the debate about the position of a woman in society. Director Olivier Tambosi and I have had a long discussion about how to play a 300-year-old woman who has acquired so much wisdom and experience, but has also had to detach herself from many aspects of what makes us human. In The Makropoulos Case, Emilia becomes a vehicle for higher truth. In the end she becomes a higher human being because she has suffered all wounds imaginable and, at the same time, that makes her so sympathetic. I love her, because she has lived everything. Nothing can surprise her."
Nadja Michael as Emilia Marty in a scene from
The Makropoulos Case (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Now that Supertitles have been a staple of operatic production techniques, it's often hard to remember what it was like without them. My first experience with The Makropoulos Case was confusing as hell. But with Supertitles, it's fascinating to see how the audience can understand and sympathize with Emilia much earlier in the opera than they did prior to 1980. It also becomes apparent to the audience that the men who are trying to control Emilia have absolutely no idea who (or what) they are dealing with. For a woman who has outlived generations of lovers, the rules of patriarchy do not apply. Nor does she need a man to provide for her.

Nadja Michael (Emilia Marty) and Charles Workman (Albert Gregor)
in a scene from The Makropoulos Case (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

With her lush, vibrant voice, Nadja Michael's Emilia was an all-knowing force of nature who had reached the point where she was finally ready to give up her secrets. This was a stunning performance of breathtaking vocal and dramatic power that had been carefully framed by Olivier Tambosi's stage direction and Mikhail Tatarnikov's conducting.

Among the coterie of confused men orbiting around Emilia's sun were Matthew O'Neill as her lover from 50 years prior in Andalusia (Count Hauk-Sendorf); Dale Travis as the lawyer, Dr. Kolenatý; Joel Sorenson as Kolenaty's clerk, Vitek; Stephen Powell as Baron Jaroslav Prus; Brenton Ryan as the Baron's son, Janek (who commits suicide as a result of his infatuation with Emilia), and Charles Workman as Albert Gregor (who is sexually drawn to Emilia without knowing that he is directly descended from her). Julie Adams had some nice moments as Vitek's daughter, Kristina.

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