Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Crossing Over To The Dark Side

Fifty years have passed since a double bill by Peter Shaffer opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on February 12, 1967. Directed by John Dexter (with a cast that featured Michael Crawford and Lynn Redgrave in their Broadway debuts), Black Comedy/White Lies turned out to be an audience pleaser that ran for 337 performances.

Black Comedy was a droll farce that began in a young man's apartment at 9:30 on a Sunday night. Although people on both sides of the footlights were in complete darkness as the play began, the confused audience could hear the voices of Shaffer's characters carrying on a conventional conversation at a cocktail party. Once the apartment's electricity suffered a short circuit, the lights came up onstage and (as if by magic) the audience could see everything that was happening while the cast had to pretend that their characters were stumbling around in the dark. Thanks to Shaffer's gimmicky approach to what happens during an electrical blackout, much hilarity ensued.

The original Broadway production of Black Comedy starred Geraldine Page,
Michael Crawford, Lynn Redgrave, and Donald Madden

In 1979, when Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street premiered at the Uris Theatre, audiences were faced with a grisly tale of vengeance set to Stephen Sondheim's greatest score. By the end of Act I, when Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury) and Sweeney Todd (Len Cariou) launched into "A Little Priest," the audience was in on the joke and, although shocked and delighted, along for the ride.

In Act II, after Sweeney had slit several throats, a tense moment occurred as a man entered his tonsorial parlor accompanied by a small child. The audience got a huge laugh as the disappointed serial killer, realizing that a witness was present, realized he would have to give the man a shave without the perverse thrill of slitting his throat.

Sweeney Todd (George Hearn) prepares to slit a customer's throat
in a scene from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

In Pablo Greene's fetish fantasy novel, How to Kill a Superhero: World Without Daylight, after Roland has healed from his underwater struggle against the six-limbed supervillain known as the Crimson Hand, he gets a ride from a sadistic couple who think nothing of using tasers on him as they begin to mutilate his body in preparation for a decapitation.

After escaping their clutches, he walks across the Australian Outback at night. Stopping to rest one night, he falls into a deep sleep. As he awakens from a terrifying dream, he takes solace in once more staring at the stars in the sky and listening to the sound of snakes rustling in the grass. But as Roland monitors the sound of his breathing, he becomes aware of another set of lungs inhaling air very close to him.
"The moonlight shone over a face that lay just inches from mine, like a lover in bed. I had seen this face before -- his deep-set eyes, the pinpoints of white that shone without any pupils, and its mutilated black lips that hung in tatters over its sharp teeth.  'Miss me, lover?' said the Crimson Hand. I screamed again."
Artwork for How To Kill A Superhero: World Without Daylight

While Julie Andrews may have taught millions that "Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," comedy often serves as the lubricant which helps sarcasm and suspense become surprisingly palatable. In her recent article on the BBC News website entitled When Political Comedy Is a Case of Life or Death, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong stresses that:
"Comedy may get bleak, but it never dies. With clowns in the ascendant, we may find ourselves, paradoxically enough, in need of some seriously subversive humor. As the case of Muammar Gaddafi shows, only one thing can kill the instinct for political satire: the demise of a dictator." 
Two recent productions used black comedy to lighten the darkest of scenarios. In one, a brother and sister whose father had had two successive wives, battled their incestuous desires during an intense showdown in a motel room near the Mojave Desert. In the other, a demonic puppet caused enough physical and emotional damage for people to wonder if the devil had indeed made them do such horrible things.

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If you've already had the singular joy of reading Christopher Moore's hilarious novel, The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, you know that strange things can happen to people when a mysterious force invades a small and relatively clueless community. If you don't believe me, watch this delicious clip of Robert Smigel and his puppet, Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, interviewing Trump supporters at the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre is but one of 13 American theatre companies producing Hand to God (a gleefully diabolical comedy by Robert Askins) during the 2016-2017 season. Set in a Texas church whose pastor (David Kelly) is a horny hypocrite, the action revolves around Jason (Michael Doherty), a troubled teen whose mother, Margery (Laura Odeh), is trying to help the church's youth group by supervising Jason and his friends as they create and learn how to work with puppets.

Jason (Michael Doherty) and his puppet, Tyrone, in a
scene from Hand to God (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

There's just one problem. Jason is a very angry young man whose father recently died and whose mother seems to have lost interest in him. His best friend, Timothy (Michael McIntire), teases him mercilessly and has the hots for Jason's mother. His sympathetic classmate, Jessica (Carolina Sanchez), is aware of Jason's pain but is not quite sure how she can help him.

That leaves Jason's unpredictable sock puppet, Tyrone, with an opportunity to help the neglected teen vent his anger at the world around him aided by some shocking special effects. Although Askins wrote Hand To God long before the 2016 election, he doesn't hesitate to liken the foul-mouthed Tyrone to Donald Trump.

“A large portion of this country has been fucked," he states. "Even if people aren’t paying attention to it, something is happening and the dickhead is saying it. Even if the dickhead is wrong, the emotional content is not inaccurate. I see people who get what they want and they are predatory. They are evil. What if all these hypermasculine, out-of-date ideas about the masculine were put in the mouth of a puppet?”

Timothy (Michael McIntire) watches as Tyrone takes over the
conversation from Jason (Michael Doherty) in a scene
from Hand to God (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

It doesn't take long for Tyrone to turn Jason's world upside down and inside out. Brazenly insulting everyone he encounters (and forcing them to act out on their deepest, darkest secrets), Pastor Greg is easily exposed as the kind of slimy predator who would take advantage of a vulnerable congregant like Margery. Tyrone soon has Jason's mother grabbing Timothy's crotch and subjecting her son's friend to the kind of physical pain he never knew he craved.

Margery (Laura Odeh) taunts Timothy (Michael McIntire)
in a scene from Hand to God (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Ironically, it's the mousy Jessica who comes to the rescue with her own sock puppet, providing Tyrone with the kind of raunchy puppet sex that makes the puppets in Carnival! and Avenue Q seem as innocent as cherubs. The uproarious scene in which two puppets fuck their brains out on a tabletop is an example of black comedy at its finest. David Ivers, who directed the production, is quick to explain that:
“The sock puppet is probably the most universal, most innocent, most accessible way that any person, at any time, can make an alter ego (everyone’s got socks for the most part). We’re also aware the whole time that it’s being manipulated by someone. The idea that the devil can actually get inside that hand and that person and take over that puppet is petrifying because we’re all aware of the conceit."
Tyrone watches of Jason (Michael Doherty) as he sleeps
in a scene from Hand to God (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"You put the puppet on the hand of someone who is the most vulnerable, which is this kid. He’s already got some issues socially. He’s lost his father and is in a broken situation, in a basement in Cypress, Texas. And this isn’t some poor, southern town. Cypress is a suburb of a major city; there’s a high median income. The characters are hanging on so tightly to their systems of belief that every one of them gives in to the same version of evil. It’s subversive, delicious, and has a structure that is heightened and superior. It terrifies me for all the right reasons.”

There are times when an audience is having so much fun watching what's happening onstage that it's easy to forget that the actors are doing some really fine work. I tip my hat to Michael Doherty, who works his ass off (as well as his vocal cords) while voicing Jason and Tyrone. Following close behind is Laura Odeh as his frustrated mother, a woman who is shocked out of her state of hopelessness and helplessness and transformed into a raving vixen who has suddenly found an outlet for venting her anger and feeding her sexual appetite.

Michael McIntire's transformation from a darkly-dressed slacker into a horny teen who suddenly finds himself mounting the MILF of his dreams provides some great physical comedy while David Kelly just keeps getting creepier as Pastor Greg. Although Carolina Sanchez's Jessica may not seem like the most interesting character onstage, if you watch her as she works with Doherty to build up to the sexual frenzy in which her puppet gives head to Tyrone, you'll notice a combination of craft, cooperation, and comic timing that has been carefully rehearsed.

Using an impressively flexible unit set designed by Jo Winiarski (with costumes by Meg Neville), Berkeley Rep has staged Hand to God for maximum effect on an audience desperate for some comic relief from current events. The lighting design by Alexander V. Nichols and sound design by Joe Payne go a long way toward strengthening the special effects that accompany Tyrone's provocative antics. Designed by Amanda Villalobos, Tyrone begins and ends the show as the kind of friendly puppet anyone could love. Just be careful not to encourage him unless you're willing risk the consequences.

Performances of Hand To God continue through March 19 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here for tickets).

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It should come as no surprise that a young playwright from Texas like Robert Askins should have an avowed soft spot in his heart for Sam Shepard, whose tales of tormented souls laden down with emotional baggage from their acutely dysfunctional families has earned him a solid place in the literature of the American theatre. As part of its 50th anniversary season, Magic Theatre is presenting a legacy production of Fool For Love, which received its world premiere from the company on February 8, 1983.

While many screen epics have been dubbed as "sword and sandal" adventures, Fool For Love is the kind of story that falls clearly within the "loin and groin" genre of drama. Magnificently directed by Loretta Greco, this revival features stark scenery and simple costumes designed by Andrew Boyce.

Eddie (Andrew Pastides) demonstrates one of his rodeo tricks to
impress May (Jessi Campbell) in a scene from Fool For Love
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Though Fool For Love may have a running time of only 75 minutes and employ a small ensemble of four actors, it delivers emotional fireworks from start to finish. The story may seem simple, but it most definitely is not. May (Jessi Campbell) and Eddie (Andrew Pastides) have a long history of not being able to live with or without each other.

There's just one problem, a small, technical glitch most lovers never have to worry about. May and Eddie may have come from different wombs, but they were spawned by the same father. The Old Man (Rod Gnapp) had two wives and, although his offspring frequently address him (in their minds), there is no escaping the fact that part of May and Eddie's attraction to each other is not just lust, but incest.

Rod Gnapp appears as The Old Man in Fool For Love
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

After several disappointing years of living in a trailer with Eddie, May is attempting to live sober. Holed up in a motel room near the Mojave Desert, she is trying to maintain a desperate grasp on reality when the ever-impulsive Eddie shows up wearing his cowboy duds, twirling his lasso, and claiming that he's going to take May back and take good care of her.

May knows that Eddie's slick promises are bullshit, but he has that kind of lizard-like charisma and animal magnetism that makes a woman hunger for his touch while hating the honey-coated sound of his voice. Whether she finds herself on the floor, tightly wrapping her arms around Eddie's sturdy legs to prevent him from walking out the door, or pouting in a chair with her legs akimbo as she struggles to get rid of him, their genetic attraction is difficult to defuse.

Eddie believes in himself in a kind of goofy, macho way. A skilled rodeo rider who knows how to rope a steer (and doesn't hesitate to intimidate his half-sister by practicing rodeo tricks such as lassoing the bedposts in her motel room as the two of them keep arguing), he's not quite as smart as he'd like to think he is. While Eddie's mating dance includes some bowlegged strutting, his performance is like that of an engine that frequently misfires.

Eddie (Andrew Pastides) confuses and frightens Martin
(Patrick Russell) in a scene from Fool For Love
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

Complicating matters is the fact that May is awaiting the arrival of Martin (Patrick Russell), the relatively spineless man with whom she has a date. Meanwhile, Eddie is fleeing a vengeful woman who is determined to destroy his truck and the trailer that contains his horses.

With so much sexual tension sparking between May and Eddie, it should come as no surprise that Martin and the Old Man bring a kind of sly comic relief to the proceedings. Jessi Campbell's May burns with a furious determination not to let her brother barge in and ruin her life again, with Patrick Russell doing some fine character work as the befuddled Martin. As Eddie, Andrew Pastides is the embodiment of what some Texans call "a tall drink of water." Though Eddie may no longer be young, he's still charmingly dumb and full of cum.

Eddie (Andrew Pastides) prepares to lasso May (Jessi Campbell)
in a scene from Fool For Love (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Much of the black comedy in Fool For Love stems from the nervousness of ex-lovers caught in an uncomfortable situation. The amount of hilarity which erupts during each performance is a testament to Greco's solid direction. This so-called "legacy" production does full justice to Shepard's work as a major American playwright and his professional history with Magic Theatre. In addition to the ensemble's fine work, this revival gets a great deal of its dramatic impact from Christopher Akerlind's superb lighting and Sara Huddleston's frighteningly effective sound design (which frequently convinces the audience that the building is being rammed by an angry female driver seeking revenge on Eddie's cheatin' heart).

Performances of Fool For Love continue through March 5 at Magic Theatre (click here for tickets).

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