Monday, March 20, 2017

Keep Calm and Take A Deep Breath

One of the inherent dangers of a worldview in which Trumpism is a dominating force is the tendency to think of every experience as having a binary or zero-sum outcome. If one stridently thinks of life in such terms, the results are often self-defeating. It's easy to fall back on questions like:
In a world in which choices are increasingly affected by algorithms, it's important to remember that random possibilities can create wondrous results. Multiple factors lead to the creation of an idea, which can then be interpreted, interpolated, and improved upon in any number of ways. All one has to do is look at the methods by which nature disperses seed and sperm in huge quantities compared to the number of eggs available for fertilization in order to realize that concepts spread along viral rather than linear paths. That's why, instead of merely settling for the best of both worlds, it's sometimes possible to imagine having the best of all possible worlds.

In classical music, a fugue is defined as a musical form in which a subject or theme is repeated either a fifth above or a fourth below its initial statement. While Johann Sebastian Bach was a master at creating fugues, the same technique can be applied to contemporary music. Consider Ernest Toch's famous Geographical Fugue for Spoken Chorus (which was first performed in 1930) and a fugal arrangement of Lady Gaga's 2009 hit song, "Bad Romance," as prime examples.

All kinds of rhythm, tonal inflections, and sound distortions can be used to color and bring life to the words contained in a playwright's script. One of the most thrilling and remarkable achievements in this type of composition is found in the opening scene of 1957's The Music Man. During the "Rock Island" number, Meredith Willson tailored the sounds coming from a chorus of traveling salesmen to match the rhythms of their train as it left a station in Illinois and headed toward River City, Iowa.

What happens when a playwright, director (or both working together) decide to push the pacing of the actors' speech to extremes? It's possible to create a performance filled with pregnant pauses or a situation in which actors are deliberately talking over each other and stepping on one another's lines. Both techniques are useful tools in creating and maintaining a specific kind of mood. While the results can be rewarding, they can also be extremely frustrating for audiences.

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In Jiehae Park's play, peerless, the overtalking is fast, furious, and intentionally cacophonous. Inspired by key plot points in Macbeth (as well as the bizarre history of the Gibbons twins), Park has taken solid aim at the challenges facing high school students who are under tremendous parental pressure to get into the college of their dreams. In a rabidly competitive environment where every possible asset must be ruthlessly manipulated in order to win, two sisters are determined to reach their goal at any cost. As dramaturg Laura A. Brueckner explains:
Peerless is not a direct adaptation of the Scottish play, but deftly activates its characters and themes to put a comic twist on, among other things, the spiraling cost of success in today’s America (especially for children of immigrant families). Asian-American identical twins M and L take the place of Shakespeare’s murderous married couple. The throne they seek is admission to The College, a notoriously exclusive Ivy League fantasy institution that takes one (and only one) ‘early decision’ student from their high school every year.”  
Tiffany Villarin and Rinabeth Apostol in a scene from peerless
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“To ensure that they both will be chosen, M and L move to the Midwest to appeal to admissions officers’ notions of ‘geographical diversity,’ register in different years to avoid competing against one another, and pursue academic excellence (and a superhuman schedule of outlandishly perfect extracurriculars) with the grim determination of generals taking a castle. With their goals, recommendations, stats, softs, outfits, smiles, and identities perfectly coordinated, their shot at the American Dream feels assured. When this shot is threatened, things swiftly spiral out of control.”
Rosie Hallett and Tiffany Villarin in a scene from peerless
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Whereas the characters in Macbeth are all adults, peerless is populated with precious post-pubescent problem children whose fragile egos, raging hormones, and limited attention spans turn them into walking time bombs. In an educational environment bedeviled by trigger warnings, nut allergies, raging insecurity, and a desperate hunger for approval, M and L (portrayed with grand gusto by Tiffany Villarin and Rinabeth Apostol) have no need for chemical stimulants like Red Bull (a popular, highly caffeinated energy drink) or advertising slogans like "Double your pleasure, double your fun with Doublemint, Doublemint, Doublemint gum!"

Tiffany Villarin and Rinabeth Apostol in a scene from peerless
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Because no adult authority figures ever appear onstage, one of the hidden assets of Park's play is its ability to create a kind of feral adolescent tension that, as the twins become more vicious and calculating, begins to suggest a female version of Lord of the Flies. The three other actors are:
Tiffany Villarin, Jeremy Kahn, and Rinabeth Apostol
in a scene from peerless (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Marin Theatre Company (which is presenting the West Coast premiere of peerless) has assembled a winning design team that includes costume designer Sydney Gallas, lighting designer Heather Basarab, and Kate Noll, whose unit set is more effective than one could ever anticipate upon entering the theatre. Under Margot Bordelon's aggressive direction, the five-actor ensemble deserves kudos for their comic timing, with special praise going to Rosie Hallett (who never fails to impress audiences with her versatility) and Jeremy Kahn, whose gift for broad physical comedy can steal any scene in any show, anytime, and anywhere.

Jeremy Kahn in a scene from peerless (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Because the action in peerless takes place at such a mind-blowing pace (with the twins often drowning each other out as they argue with each other), one can only sit back in awe of the fierce concentration and verbal virtuosity that allow Rinabeth Apostol and Tiffany Villarin to spit out Park's dialogue without going up on their lines or gasping for air. Their teamwork is astonishing to watch, even when their speech becomes intentionally incomprehensible.

In recent years, I've noticed a growing trend for playwrights to resort to overtalking as a theatrical device. Whether their intention is to create a heightened sense of how people no longer listen to one another during conversations or to allow each character's internal thoughts to become visible to the audience, I find the use of overtalking problematic on two levels. First, it makes it nearly impossible to ascertain who is saying what. Whether intentional or not, it also forces the audience to assume that the playwright's words are far less important than the noise being created by the actors.

Rinabeth Apostol and Tiffany Villarin in the Hoopcoming
scene from Peerless (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

To my mind, such carefully crafted moments of confusion are meant to distract from the text and focus one's attention on the competitive nature of a character's behavior, inherent rudeness, or what happens when people are so in love with the sound of their own voices that they insist on being heard above anyone else who is speaking. As a result, my reaction has often been to sit back, relax, and not even try to concentrate on what is being said.

If there are times when the sheer display of performance technique onstage (with particular emphasis on an actor's skills at memorization and rapid-fire delivery) dwarf Jiehae Park's written text, so be it. In the case of peerless, the overtalking broadens the play's entertainment level while putting a new framework around terrifying levels of teenage desperation.

Performances of peerless continue at the Marin Theatre Company through April 2 (click here for tickets).

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No one tells a ghost story as fast as they possibly can. The idea is to build suspense by slowly making familiar objects and patterns of behavior seem eccentric and suspicious enough to make an audience believe that they might actually be dangerous. The reason that Annie Baker's play, John, requires three acts and three hours to tell its tale is the same reason that frogs don't mind being lulled to sleep in water whose temperature is slowly rising (rather than being thrown into a pot of boiling water).

A playwright wants an audience to be just comfortable enough to feel invested in his characters so that they will flinch when caught off guard and start looking for clues as to what could possibly go wrong. In her article entitled Terrifyingly Familiar, Elspeth Sweatman stresses that:
“The visual world of John is filled with eyes. There is a painting of a person named Eugenia on the wall, a picture of girls on a quilt, a doll in a rocking chair, and any number of gnomes, trolls, angel figurines, and tchotchkes on the shelves. Everywhere you look, there are eyes looking back at you. While figures with eyes can cause some uncertainty, there are also elements of the set that lead us to believe this world is populated by unseen entities that are watching. There are Christmas lights that flicker and a player piano that plays on its own. There is George (Mertis’s husband, who is always just offstage). There is the Jackson Room with its ‘temperamental’ nature and the looming presence of Gettysburg (widely considered to be one of the most haunted locations in the United States).”
Stacey Yen, Georgia Engel, and Joe Paulik
in a scene from John (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Each of the four characters that the audience meets harbors feelings of inadequacy and inconvenient truths they would rather keep hidden from strangers. They also represent two distinctly separate generations, whose histories and patterns of behavior are wildly different.

The young couple who drove down from New York to spend a weekend at a bed and breakfast near Gettysburg are easily recognizable as conflicted, but financially secure Millennials. Each makes steady use of their smartphone, wears comfortably nondescript clothing, and is frighteningly insecure.
  • Elias Schreiber-Hoffman (Joe Paulik) is a Civil War buff eager to tour the historic 19th-century battlefield and visit the Dobbin House (which features a diorama showing the crawl space used by slaves traveling the Underground Railroad). He is quick to accuse his Asian-American wife of making nasty little digs at him that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic and, like many young men, not in touch with his emotions. Elias lacks empathy, constantly worries that his wife is lying to him. and whenever he goes off of his medications, cruel and sadistic elements of his personality rise to the surface.
  • Jenny Chung (Stacey Yen) is much less interested in Civil War history and, with the onset of menstrual cramps, would prefer to stay in bed while Elias visits the local historical sites. Although she claims that the text messages she keeps receiving are from her sister (who is due to give birth soon), she also uses her phone to keep certain parts of her life to herself. As a rule, Jenny is much more conscious of (and insistent upon) maintaining personal boundaries than her husband, who turns into a pompous jackass when he's cranky. During a conversation with the two older women, she opens up about an orgasmic experience she once had that made her feel that she was in touch with the universe.
Stacey Yen and Joe Paulik in a scene from John 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

The adults in the room have had much more life experience, found ways to cope with the loneliness and insults of old age, and learned how to build a lifestyle that embraces and supports their eccentricities.
  • Mertis (Georgia Engel) is the genial owner and hostess of the B&B where the Elias and Jenny have chosen to spend the weekend. Soft-spoken, eager to please, and radiating warmth, she has decorated the place with collections of plates, tchotchkes, and dolls, including the same Samantha Parkington doll (from the popular American Girl dolls) that terrorized Jenny in her youth. Mertis likes to use her powerful vocabulary to write descriptions of each day's sunset in her journal that include such words as "subfuscous." She is also fascinated by ornithology (birds scare Elias) and has recently learned all the words used to describe different groups of birds (ranging from a "deceit" of lapwings and an "exaltation" of larks to a "parliament" of owls and an "ostentation" of peacocks). Always curious to learn whether people feel they are being "watched," she describes herself as a Neo-Platonist rather than a Christian.
  • Genevieve (Ann McDonough) is Mertis's friend who claims to have lost her mind when she was 57. Blind, eccentric, and paranoid after many years of believing that her late husband was trying to control her mind from afar, Genevieve has the gift of being refreshingly blunt. About everything.
Ann McDonough, Joe Paulik, and Georgia Engel
in a scene from John (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

People who have seen lots of horror films may be tempted to draw a link between the Samantha doll and the Good Guy doll in the Child's Play franchise of "Chucky" films or to wonder if Genevieve is as innocent as Ruth Gordon's evil neighbor in 1968's hit, Rosemary's Baby. With the self-starting player piano, a Christmas tree whose lights keep flickering on and off, and Mertis's talent for resetting the time for each scene by advancing the hands on the grandfather clock that stands in the living room, it would be easy for audiences to wonder if:
  • The B&B's living room is an alternate setting for a regional production of The Nutcracker.
  • Mertis has superpowers that allow her to control time and the light streaming in through the windows as she resets the clock in her living room.
  • The place is haunted by a musical Phantom of the B&B who likes to switch on the piano player to scare the guests.
  • Mertis's husband is really ill or locked in a cage in the basement.
  • Margaret Rutherford (the original Miss Marple) might appear at any moment clutching a magnifying glass in one hand.
Joe Paulik and Stacey Yen in a scene from John
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

While more logical explanations might point to standard maintenance problems (such as a leak in the roof of the Jackson room, faulty wiring in the circuits used by the Christmas lights and player piano, or the playwright's use of simple theatrical gimmicks to spook the audience), Baker's play is much less about the hidden terrors within our minds than the accommodations older people must make to the necessities of staying alive.

With costumes by Jessie Amoroso, evocative lighting by Robert Hand, and some excellent sound design by Brendan Aanes, Ken Rus Schmoll has directed John with a great sense of dread, wit, and geriatric compassion. While the relationship between Elias and Jenny is obviously doomed, the sturdiness of the friendship between Mertis and Genevieve is reassuring and surprisingly tender. As the set designer for John's world premiere production, Marsha Ginsberg reveals that: "One thing we were not expecting during our research was how similar the Mertis character is to a lot of the innkeepers we met (they were all women)."

Georgia Engel in a scene from John (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

There is a surprisingly reassuring feel to Baker's old-fashioned play, which has received a beautiful production from American Conservatory Theater. While Joe Paulik and Stacey Yen have the most intense confrontations, Georgia Engel guides the evening with a gentle touch (including the parting and pulling of curtains). Ann McDonough steals the show with a delicious display of panache.

Performances of John continue at the Strand Theatre through April 23 (click here for tickets).

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