Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Cost of One's Convictions

Last year's visit to an audiologist confirmed that, like many people my age, I'm starting to lose the ability to hear certain high-pitched frequencies. This was not the first time I've worried about a potential hearing deficit. As restaurants have become increasingly cacophonic environments (dramatically increasing the levels of peripheral noise), I've often found it difficult to hear what the person seated across the table from me is trying to say.

The first time I asked my physician to check my hearing, he ran some quick tests and told me there was no discernible problem. "Have you ever been to a restaurant named Piano Zinc?" he asked. I told him that I had eaten there and found it horribly noisy. He then made a rather curious confession. "I ate there last week with my partner and didn't hear everything," he said. "But, to be honest, I wasn't listening!"

In a scene from 1969's award-winning musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence (1776), John Adams asks: "Is anybody there? Does anybody care?" In the years since cable news became populated with what Spiro Agnew once referred to as the "nattering nabobs of negativity," there has been a woeful tendency for pundits to talk over each other while showing no interest in listening to what anyone else has to say. Being right is no longer important. What matters is how skillfully one can hog any available camera time while loudly dominating a segment of any news program.

Have we lost the art of listening to one another? Or have we become accustomed to living in a soundscape so full of noise pollution that we've learned how to filter out a surprisingly amount of clatter from the wretched clutter of our daily lives?

In March 2015, Harriet Partridge published a lovely photo and sound essay on The Spaces entitled 10 Buildings With Extraordinary Acoustics: Where To Find a Sonic Surprise. One of the locations she chose to highlight was St. Paul's Cathedral in London, a structure whose acoustics provide an excellent example of a "whispering gallery" (an acoustical wonder that may be an unintentional benefit of a building's architecture).

How does this peculiar phenomenon work? A visitor to St. Paul's (where this particular effect was discovered) who whispers something at the gallery wall can be heard on the other side of the building's 33-meter diameter dome. The following 15-minute video features a performance at St. Paul's of Samuel Bordoli's "Live Music Sculpture 3" as well as showing some of the visual splendor to be found inside the cathedral.

As you can see, some people are seated on chairs, paying careful attention to the musicians who are performing for them. Others wander through the open space, as oblivious to the live entertainment as if they were standing in an elevator listening to Muzak.

Over the course of its long history, The Church of England has survived numerous political crises. In 1534 (in his desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn), England's King Henry VIII rebelled against Pope Clement VII's control of the English church. Henry eventually assumed the role of Supreme Governor of the Church of England and, on December 17, 1538, was excommunicated by Pope Paul IIIRobert Bolt's 1960 drama, A Man For All Seasons, treated the power struggle far more seriously than Howard Brenton's 2010 drama, Anne Boleyn (which was recently staged by the Marin Theatre Company).

Designed by England's most famous architect (Christopher Wren), St. Paul's is one of London's most famous historic landmarks. Built after the Great Fire of London (1666), the cathedral was consecrated in 1697 and officially declared by Parliament to be complete on December 25, 1711. Although bombed by the German Luftwaffe in 1940, the physical damage to the building was subsequently repaired.

In recent years, London has become one of the wealthiest cities on the planet, a global financial center. But not everyone is happy with the concentration of wealth within the top 1% of the population. In October of 2011, after Occupy London's demonstrators had been evicted from their original encampment outside the London Stock Exchange, they moved to the land on which St. Paul's Cathedral sits (smack in the center of the square mile that defines the City of London). Their noisy presence caused a political problem which struck at the heart of the Anglican church, calling into question the institution's moral high ground as well as its responsibility to the community it serves.

Mike Ryan, Paul Whitworth, and J. Michael Flynn
in a scene from Temple (Photo by: David Allen) 

Unlike so many historical dramas involving the 1,400-year-old Church of England, Temple (a new play by Steve Waters which is receiving its United States premiere from the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley) deals with this particular crisis of conscience when, for the first time in its history, St. Paul's Cathedral closed its doors to the public. In fact, three of the characters in Temple are fictionalized versions of men who, as key church officials, were involved in the internal deliberations triggered by the closure of St. Paul's Cathedral:
  • The Dean (based on the Right Reverend Graeme Knowles) is the kind of technically illiterate person who tries to avoid confrontations and has trouble making decisions. With an academic's tendency to split hairs while examining both sides of a situation, he is ill-equipped to deal with the real-life demands of the police and political protesters surrounding St. Paul's. As a result of the Occupy London crisis, Knowles became the first Dean ever to resign his post and the first Dean to close St. Paul's Cathedral.
  • The Bishop (based on the Right Reverend Richard Chartres, Bishop of London) is a skilled politician within religious circles, who serves as the Bishop for the entire metropolitan London area. His "throne" is at St. Paul's Cathedral, where he has presided over major events such as state weddings and royal funerals.
  • The Canon Chancellor (based on the Reverend Giles Fraser) is a journalist who frequently appears on the BBC. Fraser publicly supported the Occupy London movement but, unlike the technically challenged Dean, knew how to use Twitter as an effective messaging tool.
Mike Ryan and Paul Whitworth in a scene from Temple
(Photo by: David Allen)

In marked contrast to the three men whose job it is to guide the spiritual and political life of the church are three women whose job it is to get things done.
  • The City Attorney (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) arrives on her way to a meeting, determined to get the Dean to buy into the City of London's plan to oust the protesters (their encampment was eventually evicted without violence by a court order at the end of February 2012). She knows how to use muffins as a negotiating tool.
  • The Virger (Sharon Lockwood), is a member of the church's staff whose duties resemble those of a stage manager during religious worship services. While the virger often precedes religious officers as they move around the church,  virgers rarely speak during a religious service.
  • The P.A. (Sylvia Burboeck) is newly arrived on the scene. At a loss to find where critical supplies are stored and intimidated by the task of becoming the Dean's personal assistant, she is extremely nervous about being asked for her advice as a lay person.
Sylvia Burboeck and Paul Whitworth in a scene from Temple
(Photo by: David Allen)

The facts upon which Waters based his play are easy to research online and essentially position the church between a rock and a hard place.
  • During the Occupy crisis, The City of London sought out the Church's support, demanding that the activists be evicted from the Church's grounds. Although the Church cited safety issues as its reason for closing St. Paul's during the protest (which lasted nearly three months), an unexpected side effect of its decision was a loss in tourism revenue. 
  • Caught in a crisis of conscience, the Canon Chancellor claimed that evicting the protesters would constitute an act of violence performed in the name of the Church. Soon after he resigned his post, news of his resignation rapidly spread across the Twitterverse.
Paul Whitworth and Mike Ryan in a scene from Temple
(Photo by: David Allen) 

Temple portrays a church leadership painfully sheltered from reality, unable to hear and understand the frustrations of its parishioners, and severely challenged when forced to deal with a rebellious segment of the public. As a playwright, Waters was intrigued by the dramatic conflict roiling around “an ancient institution surrounded by the most globalized forces.” As he explains:
"This is a play about work, about how we keep alive in our work. I wanted to write about how everything is done through euphemism, the way English life works through indirectness, tacitness, things that go without saying.  I wanted to write someone who, in the end, is quite lacking in ego. The play takes the Dean’s doubts and vacillations seriously. It’s an interesting problem for a playwright and an actor (a central character who sets his face against having an ego). What happened in St. Paul’s was clearly a disaster, a succumbing to pressure and power in an organization designed to think beyond the demands of money and might.

The resurgence of right-wing politics is a distorted reflection of the anger that drove Occupy to try and pull the emergency brake world-wide. There’s so much more hope in their vision as compared to Donald Trump, Prime Minister Teresa May, and the like. I was moved and inspired by the ideas and passion that drove Occupy. I think it was very interesting how Occupy conducted themselves because they refused to have representation (which meant that it was impossible to have a conversation because of that sense that, as soon as someone is elected to speak for others, they become corrupted). I felt my imagination being kindled by those professional and personal crises and felt they somehow spoke to a wider crisis in our values and our institutions.”
The final scene from Temple (Photo by: David Allen) 

Directed by Tom Ross on a unit set designed by Richard Olmsted (with costumes by Callie Floor and lighting by Jeff Rowlings), Aurora's production drew strength from Paul Whitworth's puzzled portrayal of the Dean, Mike Ryan's impassioned portrayal of the conflicted Canon Chancellor, and J. Michael Flynn's appearance as the Bishop of London (which, for some bizarre reason, reminded me of Vincent Price in his later years). While Leontyne Mbele-Mbong and Sharon Lockwood appeared as the outspoken City Attorney and Virger, I found myself most intrigued with Sylvia Burboeck's characterization of the Dean's confused and struggling personal assistant (who was painfully aware that she was in way over her head).

Performances of Temple continue through May 9 at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley (click here for tickets).

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

This Land Was Made For You and Me

In 1931, James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream as a concept that "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement." Thanks to the blatant xenophobia of Donald Trump and his gang of white supremacists, the image of the Statue of Liberty lifting her lamp "beside the golden door" has lost much of its meaning in 2017. In her famous sonnet entitled "The New Colossus," Emma Lazarus wrote:
"Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame."

This year may well go down in American history as the year immigration moved back into the spotlight. With an unending stream of Syrian refugees hoping to restart their lives, what we once took for granted as the American Dream has been upended with a perverse level of malice. More than 130 years after the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886 -- and after millions of immigrants sailed past her en route to Ellis Island -- the promise of shelter symbolized by her mild eyes has been replaced by the cold stares of U.S. customs agents at airports and border crossings. Any immigrant looking to be greeted with open arms would be better advised to head for Canada, whose new Prime Minster, Justin Trudeau, has a much warmer heart than America's 45th President.

It's fascinating to look at how immigrants and early pioneers who blazed a trail across America are depicted in opera and musical theatre. Think of the lyricism, magical realism, and wistfulness expressed in these three clips: the First Ballad from Benjamin Britten's 1941 operetta, "Paul Bunyan" (with a libretto by W. H. Auden); the tenderness of Baby Doe's final aria, "Always through the changing" from Douglas Moore's 1956 opera, "The Ballad of Baby Doe"; and the restless yearning of the title character in Carlisle Floyd's 1955 opera, "Susannah," as she longs to see the world outside the tiny Tennessee valley where she has always lived.

Compare that lyricism and wistfulness to the crass and cynical approach to "The American Dream" expressed in the following scene from Miss Saigon. Is it any wonder that Eric Trump recently described his father as "a man who has achieved every aspect of success -- wealth, family -- in fact so many people often come up to me and talk about him and the concept of the American dream. He is the epitome of the American dream."

The immigrant experience is being presented from radically different perspectives by two Bay area theatre companies. One deals with a contemporary situation; the other takes us back more than a 100 years to the era of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911.

* * * * * * * * *
On August 21, 1986, an overproduced, overwritten musical named Rags opened at New York's Mark Hellinger Theatre after 18 previews. The pedigree of the show's creative team was most impressive.

What could possibly go wrong? In a word, everything (the show closed after four performances). In his review for The New York TimesFrank Rich wrote:
"Rags wants to cover so much ground that there isn't time for people who don't pull their thematic weight. The show recklessly tries to encapsulate the concerns of Henry Roth's 'Call It Sleep,' 'Abraham Cahan's ''Rise of David Levinsky' and Jerome Weidman's 'I Can Get It for You Wholesale.' It earnestly attempts to touch on everything from the heyday of the Yiddish theater to the birth of the I.L.G.W.U., the origins of ethnic machine politics, the conflicts between first- and second-wave immigrants, the advent of feminism, and the virtues of both Marxism and capitalism. The milieu may be melting-pot America, but the show itself is a stewpot in which the multitudinous ingredients either cancel or drown each other out."
New immigrants arrive at Ellis Island at the beginning of Rags
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 
"Perhaps inspired by his subject or by the presence of Miss Stratas, Mr. Strouse has really stretched himself here. Evoking composers as diverse as Joplin, Sousa, Weill, and Gershwin, he uses his music to dramatize the evolution of a vernacular American pop music, much of it fostered by immigrant Jews during the period in which Rags is set. Sometimes Mr. Strouse's ambitions run away with him, and sometimes he retreats from his own scheme to Broadway basics (as in a pandering Act II comic duet for a flirtatious middle-aged couple). Still, this music is worthy of further hearing -- doubly so when the star is expressing the churning excitement of a heady new urban experience in fragrant songs like 'Brand New World' and 'Blame It on the Summer Night.'"
Donald Corren and Julie Benko in a scene from Rags
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Although a studio recording was made in 1991 (in which Julia Migenes replaced Stratas in the lead role), the show was heavily rewritten for subsequent productions by the American Jewish Theatre in New York (1991) and the Colony Theatre Company in Los Angeles (1993) that used only nine actors. In 1999, The Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami and New Jersey's famous Papermill Playhouse used a newly-revised version of the show which featured 15 actors.

A new version of Rags created by Joseph Stein, Charles Strouse, and Wayne Blood of R&H Theatrics was used by The Lyric Stage in Irving, Texas for its 2006 production. Stephen Schwartz (who subsequently wrote the music and lyrics for Children of Eden, Wicked, Snapshots, and The Prince of Egypt) and David Thompson (The Scottsboro Boys) are currently at work on a new version of Rags to be unveiled at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut in October of 2017.

Donald Corren and Darlene Popovic in a scene from Rags
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

In 1989, under the leadership of its founder and artistic director, Robert Kelley, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley was one of the first companies to stage Rags using a newly rewritten script. More than 30 years after the show's stillborn Broadway debut (and with numerous tweakings of script and score), TheatreWorks is once again presenting Rags to an audience that fell in love with it three decades ago. My only previous exposure to Rags was a stripped-down 2012 production by the tiny Willows Theatre Company at a small theatre in Martinez, California.

One can't help but look at Rags in the shadow of Ragtime, the 1996 musical based on E. L. Doctorow's novel that was directed by Frank Galati eight years after he had adapted John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath, for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. While both scores included elements of klezmer music, Ragtime boasted a superior book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.

What becomes obvious from listening to even a pared-down version of Rags is that, while its creative team obviously bit off more than they could chew, the team that subsequently worked on Ragtime had better luck with similar material. Even more ironic is the fact that TheatreWorks workshopped and subsequently presented the 2015 world premiere of Triangle, a musical about two parallel love stories affected by the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (with music by Curtis Moore and lyrics by Thomas Mizer), which is also a stronger piece of musical theatre than Rags.

Kyra Miller and Jonah Broscow in a scene from Rags
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Working with Joe Ragey's easily reconfigurable set and Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes, this 2017 revival of Rags did a solid job of highlighting its strengths without any need to apologize for its weaknesses. Thanks to Pamila Z. Gray's lighting and the sound design by Jeff Mockus, musical director William Liberatore was able to do the score justice (especially with "Brand New World, "Children of the Wind," Penny a Tune," and the title song, "Rags"). While certain musical numbers remain strong ("Easy For You," "Blame It On The Summer Night," "Three Sunny Rooms"), one can't escape the nagging feeling that, even though it may have been a labor of love, Charles Strouse may not have been the best composer for Rags.

This production used the latest version of the show's script and score, with Joe Ragey's evocative projections adding a much greater sense of period than might have been possible 30 years ago. Donald Corren was especially touching as Bella's stubborn and overprotective father, Avram, while Darlene Popovic landed her comedic moments nicely as the lonely widow, Rachel Halpern. Others in the cast included Noel Anthony as Rebecca's social-climbing husband, David Bryant as his political boss (Big Tim Sullivan), and Teressa Foss and Caitlin O'Leary as two of the sweatshop seamstresses.

Julie Benko and Travis Leland in a scene from Rags
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Kyra Miller shone as Rebecca Hershkowitz with Nic Roy Garcia portraying her young son, David, at the performance I attended. Julie Benko offered an extremely sympathetic portrayal of the stifled Bella Cohen (who dies in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire) with Travis Leland surprisingly endearing as the immigrant boyfriend she met while crossing the Atlantic Ocean and who embarks on an unimagined career selling phonographs. Danny Rothman gave an impassioned performance as Saul, the union organizer who falls in love with Rebecca.

Kyra Miller, Jonah Broscow, Donald Corren, and Julie Benko star in Rags
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

In an interesting twist, the final scene included several cast members dressed in contemporary outfits, reinforcing Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr's claim that "The more things change, the more they stay the same." While Rags is not a great musical, it's a show worth seeing -- even if you're reminded of much more stageworthy musicals like Fiddler on the Roof, Ragtime, Triangle, and Fiorello! (at one point I could have sworn I heard something that sounded similar to a song from Cy Coleman's 1980 show, Barnum).

Performances of Rags continue through April 30 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
If love is a many splendored thing, then it's safe to say that Saïd Sayrafiezadeh's biting and brutal new comedy, Autobiography of a Terrorist, is a multi-layered, intellectually complex, and splendid piece of work. As in Rags, the yearning to assimilate into American society is an ongoing narrative thread. However, whereas most stories which feature racism and xenophobia as key ingredients in the immigrant experience tend to focus on one aspect of the challenges faced after arriving in America, in the world premiere of his play, Sayrafiezadeh tackles a laundry list of challenges and grievances while attempting to explain what it was like for him to grow up in America during the Iran hostage crisis. What makes his new play such an intoxicating experience? He does it upside down and inside out with the same kind of dazzling dexterity demonstrated by Ginger Rogers who (lest we forget) did everything Fred Astaire did, but did it backwards and in high heels!

Damien Seperi and Alan Coyne in a scene from
Autobiography of a Terrorist (Photo by: Vahid Zamani) 

With Evren Odcikin directing this provocative new work for Golden Thread Productions, the playwright draws the audience into his backstory (an Iranian father who abandoned his family and a Jewish mother from upstate New York) by telling people that what they are about to see is "a collage of scenes" in which he will describe the problems he has encountered (whether auditioning for roles as an actor or trying to steer his play through a workshop reading without having it suffer excessive rewriting by people who feel compelled to change his story into one they would prefer to hear).

As Autobiography of a Terrorist demonstrates the degrading ways in which script alterations and casting changes are used to sanitize an author's writing -- and how one immigrant child who has felt oppressed for much of his life learns how to bully a younger immigrant child (while safely associating with a group of white Jewish children who have accepted him), it helps to remember that Sayrafiezadeh's play is subtitled "A fiercely funny dive into the absurdity of the immigrant experience in America."

Patricia Austin and Cassidy Jamahl Brown in a scene from
Autobiography of a Terrorist (Photo by: Vahid Zamani) 

As the playwright shows how humiliating it is for a well-trained Iranian-American actor capable of performing in numerous accents to try to please casting directors who can only think of him as a dark-skinned Disneyfied genie who should be break dancing to "Gettin' Jiggy wit It" in a commercial designed to sell donuts, Autobiography of a Terrorist heads further down the author's path into deeper and much darker issues. There are lots of laughs to be gained from asking actors to do weird and demoralizing things (such as climbing into an oven to hide from the police or taking over the author's role during a workshop production after the author has been forced out of his own play). Industry-specific issues (such as the whitewashing of roles written for brown-skinned characters and the desire of many non-Caucasian actors to savor what it must feel like to luxuriate in white privilege) are only two of the items Sayrafiezadeh takes time to explain to his audience.

Cassidy Jamahl Brown, Patricia Austin, Alan Coyne, and
Damien Seperi in a scene from Autobiography of a Terrorist 
(Photo by: Vahid Zamani) 

Under Odcikin's deft (and often breathless) direction, Golden Thread's ensemble of five determined artists jumps through acting hoops that range from hilariously fake attempts at empathy to painfully honest confessions; from surprisingly agile bits of physical comedy to heartbreaking moments of personal cruelty. As this all-too-timely play unfolds, it's easy to imagine that the audience is witnessing a perversely political adaptation of Noises Off. But that would be much too easy.

Sayrafiezadeh is absolutely fearless when it comes to pushing peoples' buttons. Describing what it was like for him (as a child) to hear the lyrics from The Beach Boys' hit song from 1965 ("Barbara-Ann") reworked into "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran," he turns the table on the audience by asking how uncomfortable it would make them feel to hear their friends singing "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb America!" As the company's founding artistic director, Torange Yeghiazarian, writes in her program note:
“It is surprising that, once again, the American President has identified Muslims and Middle Easterners as Enemy No. 1! When we chose Autobiography of a Terrorist by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh last year, I did not imagine just how relevant it would be today. Smart, funny, and poignant, Autobiography examines the many layers of hyphenated identity in America. It shows how distant political events shape a person’s life. Saïd is of mixed cultural background (Iranian and Jewish American). He examines the cycle of exclusion in the United States through this specific lens, but the story he shares could apply to any immigrant group or segment of society that has felt left out. This is what theatre does best: It complicates our understanding. It helps build community when we see ourselves reflected in someone else’s story.”
Jenna Apollonia as the Stage Manager in a scene from
Autobiography of a Terrorist (Photo by: Vahid Zamani)

While Patricia Austin, Cassidy Jamahl Brown, and Jenna Apollonia shine in supporting roles, the evening's top dramatic honors go to Damien Seperi (who appears as the playwright) and Alan Coyne, an actor who continues to amaze me with his astonishing agility and impressive physical comedy skills as well as his breathtaking talent for conveying moments of emotional vulnerability. Additional credit goes to lighting designer Cassie Barnes, costume designer Miyuki Bierlein, sound designer Sara Huddleston, and magic consultant Christian Cagigal.

Autobiography of a Terrorist is aimed at theatregoers who like to rise to a challenge and don't mind squirming in their seats when they are not laughing out loud. Performances continue at the Potrero Stage through May 7 (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Haunted By Their Past

Every year, as Jews around the world gather to celebrate the Passover seder, the youngest person at the table asks "Why is this night different from all other nights?" Because everyone is concentrating on retelling the story of how Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, no one ever stops to think about the implications of how that question applies to performances of live theatre. The answer is simple. The audience at each performance is different.
  • From a performer's perspective, one audience may cough more than others; another might be more supportive. 
  • One audience may laugh more heartily at the jokes while another seems to be daring the actors to impress them.
  • One night the show moves like clockwork, eliciting all the right reactions at all the right moments. But on another night, it can feel as if someone sucked all the air (along with the audience's attentiveness) right out of the theatre.
Unlike what happens while watching a movie, with live theatre it's always a crapshoot. Sometimes an actor will be replaced by an understudy; at another performance there may be a problem with the theatre's ventilation system. Mistakes can be made, props can fail, Part of the risk factor is what adds to the electric thrill of a great performance. Barring a power failure or some other kind of catastrophe, the show must go on.

* * * * * * * * *
It was a dark and stormy night. As I walked toward the Custom Made Theatre, gusts of wind were fiercely blowing the rain at me with so much force that it stung my cheeks. I quickly realized that it would be smarter to keep my umbrella folded than to try to walk with it open.

The play I was attending also took place on a dark and stormy night. Directed by Stuart Bousel, Custom Made Theatre was presenting Wendy MacLeod's dark comedy, The House of Yes, which premiered at the Magic Theatre in 1990. The story focuses on a severely dysfunctional family gathering for a tense Thanksgiving dinner while a hurricane rages outside some 20 years after President Kennedy's assassination.

Casey Robbins (Marty) and Caitlin Evenson (Jackie-O)
in a scene from The House of Yes (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

The location of the Pascal family's home couldn't be more ironic. Resting in the wealthy suburb of MacLean, Virginia (just outside of Washington, D.C.), the house sits just around the corner from Ethel Kennedy's home, Hickory Hill. Symbolism is not dead.

Shelley Lynn Johnson as Mrs. Pascal in a scene
from The House of Yes (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

Although MacLeod's play has only five characters, each one has enough emotional baggage to sink the Titanic.
  • Anthony Pascal (Elliot Lieberman) is the youngest child in the Pascal family. Still living at home with his mother, Anthony is at the awkward stage where he gets all googly-eyed at the sight of a pretty woman.
  • Mrs. Pascal (Shelly Lynn Johnson) is fiercely protective of her daughter. She's got good reason to worry.
  • Jacqueline Pascal (Caitlin Evenson) suffers from a borderline personality disorder and has recently been discharged from a psychiatric hospital. Because of her obsession with JFK's assassination and how it affected his wife (who subsequently married shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis), the Pascal family has gotten in the habit of referring to Jacqueline as Jackie-O. Frantically awaiting her twin brother Marty's arrival, Jackie (a control freak who is easily threatened by anything beyond her control) goes into a jealous snit upon learning that he is bringing a mysterious guest with him to meet the family.
Caitlin Evenson as Jackie-O Pascal in a scene
from The House of Yes (Photo by: Jay Yamada)
  • Marty Pascal (Casey Robbins) is Jackie's twin brother who is now a student hoping to get a somewhat normal life. For many years, he has appeased his sister by participating in her game of re-enacting JFK's assassination. 
  • Lesly (Juliana Lustenader) is the young woman Marty hopes to marry. Although she has been warned that his family is not what anyone would call normal, she's not quite sure how to react when met with open hostility from Marty's mother, lusty stares from his younger brother, and later that night walks in on her fiancé making out with his twin sister.
Elliot Lieberman (Anthony) and Juliana Lustenader (Lesly)
in a scene from The House of Yes (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Working on a unit set designed by Zoe Rosenfeld (with costumes by Kathleen Qiu, lighting by Sophia Craven, and sound design by Ryan Lee Short), the five-actor ensemble did their best to put MacLeod's sinister farce across but, alas, that night's performance didn't quite gel. Since word of mouth from the production's opening night (the previous performance) had been quite positive, there are three key factors which may have affected the evening.
  • Unlike most opening nights (which are fairly festive events filled with donors, subscribers, and friends of people involved in the production), a substantial part of the audience consisted of students from the Academy of Art University. Most of them were much too young to have lived through the horror of 1963's Presidential assassination or understand the cultural shock which so deeply affected the nation in its wake. I doubt many of these students have ever seen footage from the Zapruder film. Without such cultural references, it might have been difficult for them to appreciate Jackie Pascal's emotional investment in the personal tragedy faced by Jackie-O.
  • In an age when many people have decorated their bodies with piercings and extensive tattoos, the idea of a societal taboo has lost much of its clout. We're now living in a hookup culture where, instead of provoking outrage, incest could easily be dismissed with one word "Whatever!"
  • There are performances when jokes don't always hit their mark (when calculated pauses which anticipate the audience's laughter are met with split seconds of deadly silence). The same can be said of pregnant pauses meant to build suspense. Unfortunately, there were many such moments during the performance I attended.
Casey Robbins (Marty) and Caitlin Evenson (Jackie-O)
in a scene from The House of Yes (Photo by: Jay Yamada) 

As a result, a wickedly witty script felt surprisingly clunky. Despite appealing performances by Elliot Lieberman and Julia Lustenader, Caitlin Evenson (whose portrayal of the venal Jackie stood head and shoulders above the rest of the cast) struck me as the only actor who solidly hit her mark. Hopefully, the performance I attended was simply an "off" night.

Performances of The House of Yes continue through April 29 at the Custom Made Theatre (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Up in Walnut Creek, Center Rep is presenting Philip Kan Gotanda's play, Sisters Matsumoto, on a unit set designed by Andrea Bechert with costumes by Maggie Yule. Set in 1945, the play premiered in 1999 as a co-production between the Seattle Repertory Theatre, San Jose Repertory Theatre, and Asian American Theater Company. Its plot focuses on the return of three sisters to their family's farm after having spent several years in a World War II Japanese-American internment camp. Gotanda reveals clues to his audience like a slowly blossoming flower. As he explains in his program note:
"The main inspiration for the play is my mother's life that mirrors closely the return of the Matsumoto sisters to their rural home in Stockton, California after being incarcerated for two years in one of America's World War II relocation camps. It also draws inspiration from Chekhov's works as well as a movie by Kon Ichikawa, The Makioka Sisters (based on a novel by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki). In my own work, I have always been drawn to the small intimacies we must negotiate in our daily lives, not necessarily the big spectacle or the heroic act, but those every day braveries and failures that cumulatively define a life lived."
Carina Lastimosa, Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, and Melissa Locsin
in a scene from Sisters Matsumoto (Photo by:

For the Matsumoto sisters, whatever joy can be found in returning to the family farm is short lived. The oldest sister, Grace (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro), is married to the shy Hideo (Ogie Zulueta), a Kibei and former academic who is determined to start a newspaper although no one else in the family shows any enthusiasm for his idea. In addition to feeling trapped in a loveless marriage with little communication, Grace is determined to find a husband for her youngest sister, Rose, by hiring a local Japanese matchmaker.

Keiko Shimosato Carreiro as Grace in a scene 
from Sisters Matsumoto (Photo by: 

The middle sister, Chiz (Melissa Locsin), is a pharmacist married to Bola (Tasi Alabastro), an outspoken and gregarious Hawaiian-born physician whose earthiness is diametrically opposed to the Japanese-American family's restrained behavior. While the couple have brought their new baby with them to Stockton, their two sons have stayed behind with Bola's family in Los Angeles until the three sisters can settle back into farm life.

Tasi Alabastro (Bola) and Melissa Locsin (Chiz) in a
scene from Sisters Matsumoto (Photo by:

The youngest sister, Rose (Carina Lastimosa), was engaged to a man who was killed during the war. When one of her childhood playmates, Henry Sakai (Alexander M. Lydon), arrives with a gift for the Matsumoto family to show his appreciation for their beloved father (who, as a community leader, was very generous to the Sakai family during hard times), a spark of affection is easily rekindled even though all three of the Matsumoto sisters still refer to Henry by his childhood nickname: "ringworm boy."

Alexander M. Lydon as Henry Sakai in a scene
from Sisters Matsumoto (Photo by:

Tenderly directed by Mina Morita, the family's woes start to multiply when Mr. Hersham (Colin Thomson) arrives as a dinner guest. A close friend of their deceased father, Hersham got caught up in a bad business deal which he now deeply regrets. The news he brings adds insult to the many injuries the Matsumoto family has suffered and immediately places their future in jeopardy.

Alexander M. Lydon, Colin Thomson, Tasi Alabastro, and
Keiko Shimosato Carreiro in a scene from Sisters Matsumoto
(Photo by:

Having grown up on the East Coast, most of the stories I heard about World War II concerned Jews who were murdered in Hitler's concentration camps. During my childhood and teenage years, we were taught nothing about the Japanese-American internment (which mostly affected people living in the Western United States). As Morita explains in her program note:
“Military intelligence determined that not a single act of espionage or sabotage had occurred within the Japanese-American community (Hawaii included), or was likely to occur. However, thousands of Americans lost their homes, jobs, and dignities, even after demonstrating unwavering patriotism at home and abroad in the form of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which included 4,500 Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) and became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. This unit liberated the concentration camp in Dachau even as their families continued to be incarcerated in the United States. None of us imagined that the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese-Americans (70,000 of whom were American citizens) in 1942 could be a precedent for growing sentiment about Muslim-Americans in 2017.”
Ogie Zulueta as Hideo in a scene from Sisters Matsumoto
(Photo by:
“This production is a courageous appeal to our greater human compassion towards understanding the plight of neighbors who are forced to suffer flagrant violations of their civil liberties. It is an act of remembering and acknowledging a history we must not forget and we must learn from. Our very own Declaration of Independence states that ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ These beliefs are the fabric of our national mythology. It is the promise that the Matsumoto family -- and so many of us -- depend upon. Let us uphold this promise, together. To all of us visitors (immigrants and those forced to immigrate to this land that belonged to a whole people before us), let us recall the American Dream that carries so many people here.” 
Keiko Shimosato Carreiro as Grace in a scene
from Sisters Matsumoto (Photo by:

Gotanda's play demonstrates how, in a crisis, some people become hopeless and helpless while others use their wits to find their way out of a dire situation. Remembering that their father used to own the Europa Hotel on Stockton's main street, the Matsumoto family embarks on a plan that will allow Hideo to launch a bilingual Japanese/English newspaper, Bola to open a medical practice in the hotel's storefront, and Chiz to put her pharmaceutical degree to good use. Meanwhile, Grace and Rose can manage the hotel as the sisters rebuild their lives.

With sound design by Cliff Caruthers and lighting designed by Kurt Landisman, Center Rep's production was notable for a strange imbalance. Although Gotanda's script is crafted for the three sisters to dominate the evening, despite Keiko Shimosato Carreiro's brooding portrayal of Grace (who undergoes a surprisingly rebellious transformation), I felt that the strongest performances came from the always compelling Olgie Zulueta as Hideo and Alexander M. Lydon as Henry -- with Tasi Alabastro's Bola providing most of the play's comic relief.

Performances of Sisters Matsumoto continue through April 29th at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek (click here for tickets).

Monday, April 10, 2017

Thinking Way Outside the Box

"My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates -- you never know what you're gonna get." That piece of wisdom comes from the title character in 1994's Forrest Gump. But exactly what kind of box are we talking about? Boxes of chocolate are usually heart-shaped or rectangular. While their contents may be delicious, they're not likely to be very provocative.

Breaking free from the rigid constructs of patriarchal societies and religious dogma can be exhilarating but dangerous. Both Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) struggled against powerful church officials to prove that the earth revolved around the sun rather than accepting the conventional wisdom that the sun revolved around the earth. Just as science can disprove well-established nonsense promulgated by organized religion, the arts have the power to free up one's imagination and let it soar. In her powerful Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, Eve L. Ewing explained that:
"Art creates pathways for subversion, for political understanding and solidarity among coalition builders. Art teaches us that lives other than our own have value. Like the proverbial court jester who can openly mock the king in his own court, artists who occupy marginalized social positions can use their art to challenge structures of power in ways that would otherwise be dangerous or impossible. Authoritarian leaders throughout history have intuited this fact and have acted accordingly. It is imperative that we understand what Trump’s attack on the arts is really about. It’s not about making America a drab and miserable place, nor is it about a belief in austerity or denying resources to communities in need." 
A popular meme floating around the Internet
"Much like the disappearance of data from government websites and the exclusion of critical reporters from White House briefings, this move signals something broader and more threatening than the inability of one group of people to do their work. It’s about control. It’s about creating a society where propaganda reigns and dissent is silenced. We need the arts because they make us full human beings. But we also need the arts as a protective factor against authoritarianism. In saving the arts, we save ourselves from a society where creative production is permissible only insofar as it serves the instruments of power. When the canary in the coal mine goes silent, we should be very afraid -- not only because its song was so beautiful, but also because it was the only sign that we still had a chance to see daylight again."

Creative minds have no problem embracing the concept that some rules were made to be broken. Whether an artist decides to tackle the rules of gravity, common sense, or profit-driven product over integrity and creative process, a fertile imagination (coupled with a radical understanding of the artistic tools at one's disposal) can be a powerful force of liberation.

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There was a time, not so very long ago, when having a piano in one's living room was a status symbol. Not only did it show a serious interest in music, the presence of a spinet, upright, or baby grand demonstrated that its keys were being touched by someone who made a living by making music or, at the very least, a child whose parents were trying to nurture a budding musical talent.

Written by Irving Berlin, "I Love A Piano" was copyrighted on December 10, 1915. Its first recording was made 101 years ago by Billy Murray on January 5, 1916. Since then it has been sung by innumerable artists, including Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Barbara Cook, and inserted into such popular musicals as MGM's Easter Parade and the stage version of White Christmas.

The evolution from the harpsichord and acoustic piano to Wurlitzer's electric piano (and onward to today's electronic and digital pianos) has had a perverse impact on a beloved instrument. Advances in digital technology have made it possible for families and professional musicians to own keyboard instruments that are easily movable, capable of producing a wider variety of sounds, and much less expensive than a Steinway grand piano. Add in the cost of professional piano tuners (and the continuing cutbacks in funding for arts education in the schools) and it's easy to understand why so many acoustic pianos have ended up being broken down and hauled away to the city dump.

Born in 1962, artist Mauro ffortissimo grew up in Argentina and emigrated to the United States in 1981. A founding member of the Enso Art Collective, Miles Davis Memorial Hall, and 849 Folsom Music (a 13-member performance group specializing in music and spoken word), he lives in Half Moon Bay where, together with his wife, he runs the Enso Yoga Studio and Art Center. On April 26, his new film, Twelve Pianos, will receive its world premiere at the Castro Theatre as the closing night attraction at the San Francisco Green Film Festival.

Mauro ffortissimo with one of his pianos

Together with filmmaker Dean Mermell, Mauro decided to take 12 discarded pianos and put them to use in a manner which was not focused on finding the best possible acoustics or the most sophisticated audience of classical music lovers. Instead, he scouted out a dozen locations along the San Mateo County coastline where he could position unloved pianos so that they could be played by anyone who wanted to tickle their ivories. Whether performing alone or while dolphins leaped out of the surf below, his aim was to use the doomed pianos as a way of letting people experience music and art free from the formalities of the concert hall.

For twelve days, Mauro and his friends hauled pianos to coastal lookouts, into cypress groves, and performed for free. Despite having acquired the necessary permits, local police were not amused and ordered him to cease and desist. However, news of Mauro's activities reached San Francisco's City Hall and he was invited to bring his act to a more welcoming urban environment. With the ability to store his pianos in a condemned building that occasionally hosted underground concerts, Mauro and his colleagues from 849 Folsom Music rapturously punctured the myth that the arts are an elitist activity.

A scene from Twelve Pianos

Watching Twelve Pianos is an exercise equally steeped in sadness and joy. For anyone who has taken piano lessons or fallen in love with the sounds of jazz and classical music played on a keyboard instrument, it seems like a terrible waste to see these pianos on what is essentially their musical death march. And yet, the happiness they bring to people is undeniable (and often deeply poignant). In the film's thrilling final sequence, a friend who owns a fishing boat takes Mauro out to sea with a piano soundboard on deck so that he can communicate with some friendly whales. Here's the trailer:

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When one thinks of artists who have created work that strays far outside the box, names that quickly come to mind are Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and architects Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. And then, of course, there is Robert Lepage, the powerhouse polymath who was born in Quebec City in 1959.

Over the course of a multidisciplinary career spanning nearly four decades, Lepage has become a master storyteller with a boundless curiosity about new technologies and how he can incorporate them into his work. The American Conservatory Theater is currently presenting a limited run of his play, Needles and Opium, which originally premiered in 1991 at the Palais Montcalm in Quebec City. In 2013, following his stunning achievements with Cirque du Soleil and the Metropolitan Opera's Ring cycle, Lepage opted to revisit and reimagine Needles and Opium using technology (such as digital mapping) that was not yet available when the work was first conceived.

Wellesley Robertson III and Olivier Normand in a scene 
from Needles and Opium (Photo by: Tristram Kenton)

Following the premiere of the revised version at the Canadian Stage in Toronto, the current production of Needles and Opium has been touring the world with Olivier Normand in the dual roles of Robert and Jean Cocteau and Wellesley Robertson III appearing as the famous jazz musician, Miles Davis.

Wellesley Robertson III in a scene from Needles and Opium
(Photo by: Nicola Frank Vachon)

The story follows Davis, an American legend, as he travels to Europe in 1949 and finds his heroine in the form of French singer, Juliette Gréco. With the help of drugs, Davis lets his creativity blossom. In a parallel plot line, Jean Cocteau (a famous French filmmaker), lets opium guide him through a series of adventures in New York City.

Olivier Normand in a scene from Needles and Opium
(Photo by: Tristram Kenton)

As the two plots cross paths, Robert (a Canadian actor from Quebec who has traveled to Paris to do some voice-over work for a documentary about Miles Davis) finds himself stuck in a room at the Hotel La Louisiane in Paris battling loneliness, seeking the help of a hypnotist as he mourns a breakup with a lover, and bickering with the woman at the hotel's switchboard.

Olivier Normand in a scene from Needles and Opium
(Photo by: Tristram Kenton)

Using an English translation by Jenny Montgomery (with music and sound designed by Jean-Sébastien Côté), Lepage has accomplished something quite astounding by allowing the audience to experience what it is like to float through a dreamscape while losing track of time, space, and gravity; to sense the ecstasy of a drug taking control of one's nervous system while dealing with the folly of one's feelings about a lost love -- and to float against a starlit sky.

Working with a creative team that includes scenic designer Carl Fillion, props designer Claudia Gendreau, lighting designer Bruno Matte, costume designer François St-Aubin, and images designer Lionel Arnould, Lepage has placed the action in and around a cut-open cube that pivots and rotates within an invisible sphere against a background which can vary from the stars in the heavens to pitch blackness.

Olivier Normand in a scene from Needles and Opium
(Photo by: Tristram Kenton)

Although Lepage's surreal production is a genuine coup de theatre, it has one major weakness which is easily forgiven. Even with the use of English-language titles projected above the stage, the production values are so riveting that it doesn't take long for a person to lose interest in Cocteau and Davis and simply want to follow the dream unraveling before his eyes.

"How do you maintain a sense of intimacy with a thousand people?" asks Lepage. "You have to rely on technology to magnify you, to change the scale on which you work. I am drawn to plays in which the characters are transformed, but also to plays in which the sets are transformed and matter transcended. It's incredible to be able to travel through time and place, to infinity, all on a single stage. I think that if I remain fully aware of the stage as a place of physical transformation, I make it possible or can try to make it possible for the audience to really feel the direction in which the action and the characters are being hurtled. It's the metamorphosis brought about onstage that makes this kind of travel possible."

Olivier Normand and Wellesley Robertson III in a scene
from Needles and Opium (Photo by: Tristram Kenton)

Lepage's Needles and Opium is that rare theatrical mindfuck that makes George W. Bush's use of the term "shock and awe" seem puny, at best. It's the closest I've ever come to witnessing something akin to the dream world I inhabit in my sleep put into a theatrical framework onstage. I was particularly impressed by Olivier Normand's performance as Robert/Cocteau. Although Wellesley Robertson III never speaks a word as Miles Davis, his presence haunts much of Needles and Opium as he slides and strides across the set.

Performances of Needles and Opium continue through April 23 at the American Conservatory Theater (click here for tickets). Don't miss it!