Saturday, March 4, 2017

New Works, New Challenges

"Doesn't it get boring?" a friend once asked. "Like, I mean, going to so many plays and stuff." I had just finished describing how the ritual of attending live performances is very similar to the ritual some people enjoy when they attend a house of worship.

The house lights dim, the performance starts, the audience leans forward for some storytelling and, when it's all over, the house lights come back up again. Sometimes snacks are offered on the way out of the building; on other occasions, a person might be more interested in digesting the evening's dramatic experience, discussing the ideas it raised, or quietly thinking about what they learned that night before heading off to sleep.

Theatrical experiences can be viewed from a variety of angles. Irving Berlin's lyrics for "There's No Business Like Show Business" describe:
"The costumes, the scenery, the make-up, the props,
The audience that lifts you when you're down.
The headaches, the heartaches, the backaches, the flops,
The sheriff who escorts you out of town.
The opening when your heart beats like a drum,
The closing when the customers won't come."
Some people regard the theatre as a safe space where they can let down their guard in the darkness and experience the world through someone else's eyes. Because people get exposed to storytelling at a very early age, theatre is also a ritual where they can feel comfortable allowing themselves to feel emotionally vulnerable.

Sometimes, people who think nothing of watching the same professional sports events on television all year long (or who can sit through endless porn loops) wonder how a person can't help but become bored by constantly going to the theatre. All those stories! All that music! All those permutations and possibilities can be exhausting!

Unless, of course, you're willing to take a chance on something new.

This month's theatregoing started off with two contemporary dramas that could not have been more different. One was a somber musical experience inspired by the classified transcripts of a botched military attack. The other was a farcical attempt to follow a trio of actors through their nightmarish journey across America at the beginning of Donald Trump's presidency. One soared; the other flailed about onstage for far too long.

* * * * * * * * *
Following last year's debut of the Taube Atrium Theater as part of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, the San Francisco Opera is continuing to present recitals, chamber operas, and new forms of vocal expression through the SFOpera Lab. One of the productions which attracted a great deal of audience interest was The Source, a curiously effective oratorio composed by Ted Hearne with a libretto by Mark Doten that was taken directly from the extensive collection of classified documents leaked by [then] Bradley (bradass7), now known as Chelsea Manning. As director Daniel Fish explains:
"When I began working on The Source, I was struck by the sheer volume of material Manning helped make public. It felt impossible to look at it all, and yet to not look at it felt like a failure of responsibility. Jim Findlay and I filmed nearly 100 people as they watched a very small part of what Manning exposed. The resulting footage makes up the main visual element of the production. Jim and I are grateful to those people whose generosity with their time, their faces, their emotions and their myriad ways of looking and being looked at make the visual content of The Source possible."
A scene from The Source (Photo by: Stefan Cohen)

As the audience enters the performance space, they encounter four huge drop cloths being used as hanging screens. Under the musical direction of Nathan Koci, four vocalists (Melissa Hughes, Samia Mounts, Isaiah Robinson, and Jonathan Woody) sit among the audience, facing microphones that have been fixed atop music stands. Each stand also holds a smartphone which, through a wireless connection, can act as a monitor that allows the singers to follow Koci's baton. As faces are projected on the giant screens, it takes a while before the singers start to join in with the instrumentalists.

Hearne's score initially has a strangely chirpy sound, as if to mimic the pulsing of packets of data being transmitted from one electronic device to another. In the beginning, the text often sounds indistinct and jumbled, leading to blank stares or slightly confused looks on the multicultural and multigenerational faces above the audience. Representing a group of silent witnesses, some of the faces seem as if they might be reading text on a computer screen. Faces come and go at random, first appearing singly on each screen, and eventually in pairs and trios as more and more people get exposed to the information contained within the documents.

A scene from The Source (Photo by: Stefan Cohen) 

From a musical standpoint, the singers' voices seem clinically removed from the text culled from the leaked documents. While the impact on the audience can feel quite sterile, when coupled with the video projections designed by Jim Findlay and Daniel Fish, The Source builds toward its final black-and-white segment (which is screened without any musical accompaniment). As Hearne explains:
"In setting these texts, I wanted to create musical connections that could help the words resonate on a human level, but that could also highlight the way the information is presented and perceived. The documents are remarkable, and we’re fortunate to have them archived, a day-to-day account with every word searchable. Yet they don’t bring me any closer to the lived reality they describe. In fact, the structure of the information (hundreds of thousands of lines of data arranged in blank, opaque spreadsheets and military reports) dehumanizes its content and reaffirms my distance from it." 
"I think of the auto-tune in The Source as a not-quite-perfect reflection of the self. It may be an image filtered through endless data on a computer screen, or one neutralized by the distance between Brooklyn and Iraq, or an image of the person we (or Manning) might be if we could play the roles that are expected of us. When we did it at Los Angeles Opera, that was three weeks before the election, and WikiLeaks was totally persona non grata with Democrats, of course. But the piece seemed to even make more sense. The more we understand the gray areas, the more we have empathy. That’s the role of art: a different truth, a better truth."
The Source received its world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in October 2014 and was recently featured in a New York Times article by Zachary Woolfe, who pointed out some of the dramatic changes in Manning's life that have taken place since he leaked classified documents to WikiLeaks.
  • In 2009, Manning was an intelligence analyst assigned to an Army unit in Iraq.
  • Early in 2010, Manning leaked classified documents to WikiLeaks and was arrested in May of that year.
  • In July of 2013, Manning was convicted by court-martial and sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking classified military documents relating to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Manning achieved a curious kind of celebrity status within the anti-war movement, first as a conscientious objector and later as a transgender woman suffering from gender dysphoria.
  • In 2016, Manning made two suicide attempts while imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
  • During the run-up to the 2016 election, WikiLeaks became a source of controversy and fell from favor in the eyes of the public.
  • On January 17, 2017, President Obama commuted Manning's sentence.
A scene from The Source (Photo by: Stefan Cohen)

Sometimes art reveals its impact on the soul in strange ways. After the video of the helicopter shootings concluded, there was an elongated pause until the lights slowly came up in the room. A somber audience waited in silence, not sure whether the performance was over, until people slowly and quietly began to rise and leave the theatre. Although a recording of Hearne's score is available at the website for New Amsterdam Records, I wonder if it can ever have the same impact (without both sets of visuals) as the live performance.

Cover art for the recording of The Source, by Ted Hearne

* * * * * * * * *
John Fisher, the playwright, actor, and artistic director of Theatre Rhinoceros, has a well-known tendency toward wretched excess. On many occasions this has worked in his favor, especially when his fertile imagination teams up with his hunger for research and delivers a screamingly entertaining farce staged on the thinnest of budgets. At other times, his work may suffer from comedic overkill, leaving no gag line with enough time to land a solid laugh and no double take immune from being mugged to death.

His latest play, Flim Flam, falls into the latter category, as Fisher's three main characters leave behind the hardscrabble life of auditioning in New York City in order to cross the United States in search of opportunities to humble themselves in pursuit their art.

John Fisher, Kevin Copps, and Daniel Chung in a 
scene from Flim Flam (Photo by: David Wilson) 

Aaron (John Fisher) and Endin (Daniel Chung) are two frustrated actors who have been waiting tables while trying to nab auditions. Overly idealistic and prone to denial, their heartbreaking tales of rejection fail to impress a veteran actor who has actually managed to carve out a lucrative career.

Dobbins Del Rey (Donald Currie) has seen plenty of colleagues get ripped off by a scam artist named Harrible the Terrible (Kevin Copps), who poses as a failed indie filmmaker. Known for manipulating and abusing artistic talent as a way to get dramatic results (one actress committed suicide before earning a major award), Harrible has no qualms about asking his actors to fund his lifestyle with their credit cards (although he never pays them back), luring them into performing sex scenes (which, with some careful editing, can later be transformed into kiddie porn), crushing their artistic dreams, and manipulating them into sacrificing their last ounce of dignity.

Daniel Chung, Donald Currie, and John Fisher in a
scene from Flim Flam (Photo by: David Wilson) 

After Aaron and Endin are drained dry by Harrible the Terrible, they finally agree to follow Del Rey's advice. Their misadventures on the road include a horrible night in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and an unfortunate encounter with a desperate woman whose baby was born with the Zika virus. When they arrive in Hollister, California, the town's law enforcement officer (also played by Kevin Copps) turns out to own most of the local businesses, including the escort service where his wife (the town hooker) offers two-for-one discounts. Along the way, Fisher tackles all kinds of oddities ranging from Zabar's pricey pastries to gay-for-pay porn actors, from corrupt policemen and politicians to overly zealous, politically-correct students who are easily offended by anything and everything.

Krystle Piamonte and Jesse Vaughn in a scene from Flim Flam
(Photo by: David Wilson) 

Subtitled "A Comedy of Thespians" with an added note that "great acting always resides in closest proximity to embarrassment," Flim Flam mirrors the kind of greed and opportunism with which our Grifter-in-Chief has infected American culture and begun to undermine the government of the United States. As Fisher acknowledges in his program note:
“Last September I was on a plane back from New York when it suddenly occurred to me that everyone was much too fascinated with Trump. I was much too fascinated with Trump. He was too fascinating to watch. I realized that my fascination with a disaster might be someone else’s fascination with radical change. With a sickening thud, I realized he might very well become President. In front of me on the screen was an old movie (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) about greed and how it affects three men. Because I think art needs to respond to things quickly, I replaced my previously-announced play (Ding Dong) with my play about Trump’s America. It feels damn weird to live in it. I hope the play is as weird.”
Donald Currie and Krystle Piamonte in a scene 
from Flim Flam  (Photo by: David Wilson) 

Rest assured, Flim Flam, is weird (although it has moments of inspired zaniness). The real problem is that it is horribly overwritten, as if Fisher just couldn't stop himself from throwing one gag after another into the script in the hope that he could stretch his play into a full evening.

Although Kevin Copps, Krystle Piamonte, and Jesse Vaughn take on a variety of supporting roles (and members of the cast are constantly running to the back of the theatre to provide the kind of sound effects one might expect from a middle school's theatre camp),  Fisher's script bites off more than it can chew and, egged on by his excessive mugging (which is starting to make Fisher seem like a recurring cartoon character), makes the evening much more exhausting than it needs to be. Flim Flam resoundingly demonstrates that, while wretched excess can be delicious fun, there are times when less is truly more.

Jesse Vaughn and John Fisher in a scene from Flim Flam
(Photo by: David Wilson) 

Performances of Flim Flam continue at the Eureka Theatre through March 18 (click here for tickets).

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