Saturday, April 29, 2017

It's A Jungle Out There!

Sleep studies can document restlessness, REM activity, and other clinical indicators of a dream phase. Watch a sleeping dog suddenly start kicking his legs as he dreams and it's easy to imagine that he's chasing squirrels in a world far removed from the living room rug.

Even if they can't remember what they experienced, it's safe to say that most people dream while sleeping. As their minds take them on adventures across multiple dimensions, guiding them through unimaginable worlds and seemingly impossible physical experiences, the sounds and colors of a person's dreamscape can intensify and accelerate the dramatic experiences they undergo while sleeping.

The other morning, as I drifted in and out of consciousness, I dreamt I was at the San Francisco Playhouse, attending some sort of community poetry project. When called upon to contribute a few lines of verse, I heard myself (in haiku format) describe how the water in San Francisco Bay was boiling as oversized lemons fell from the sky. While this image was a far cry from harvesting sweet lemon drops from the Big Rock Candy Mountain, the last four words I spoke were "Welcome to climate change!"

A pioneer in the use of psychedelic drugs as a therapeutic tool for working with psychiatric patients, Dr. Timothy Leary (who gained notoriety while experimenting with psilocybin and LSD under the Harvard Psilocybin Project) became a countercultural hero during the 1960s for his mantra "Turn on, tune in, drop out." However, despite all the advances in popularizing the use of psychedelics and creating more potent hallucinogens over the past 50 years, no one has found a way to precisely share the full scope of a person's experiences while dreaming or hallucinating.

That's not to say that people haven't tried. New technologies have greatly enhanced the ability of animators to create new worlds with CGI scripting and digital mapping (just as the increased amount of sensory stimulation in our daily lives may have caused people to digest more images and ideas and thus dream more vibrantly). Every night, when I fall asleep, my dreams allow me "to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."

Sharing the thrills of creativity within the physical confines of a theatre with a proscenium stage presents a daunting challenge. How does one free an audience from such common theatrical restraints as gravity, time, and space in a way that goes far beyond digital mapping and inspired lighting design?

Those of us old enough to remember such cinematic experiments as Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama know that creating a shared "out of body, out of mind" experience is no easy feat. In a city like San Francisco (where, at any given moment, some people can't decide whether they're in the mood for oral or anal), audiences in two adjoining theatres (the Geary and the Curran) have come close to realizing theatrical nirvana with one show that gave audiences an incredible aural experience and another that triumphantly delivered the visual goods.

Earlier this month, American Conservatory Theatre presented a touring production of Robert LePage's mind-bending Needles and Opium. This impressively sculpted presentation allowed the audience to experience what it might feel 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 seemingly floating against a starlit sky. In more than six decades of theatregoing, Needles and Opium was the closest I'd ever come to witnessing something akin to the dream world I inhabit in my sleep every night being replicated in a theatrical framework.

"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."

What Lepage achieved visually in Needles and Opium, Simon McBurney is delivering aurally in The Encounter. Inspired by Petru Popescu's book, Amazon Beaming, The Encounter starts off with McBurney standing onstage and explaining to the audience how the various devices they see will create the sounds they hear through the earphones they must wear throughout the performance. As he guides the audience through certain sound effects, he slowly transitions into the character of the famed photojournalist, Loren McIntyre, who found himself lost in a remote area of the Brazilian jungle back in 1969.

Part of McIntyre's assignment was to travel to the Javari Valley and photograph Brazil's indigenous Mayoruna tribe for National Geographic. However, after getting lost in the rainforest, McIntyre discovered that he could not get back to his original location because, without any common language to use while attempting to communicate with the head man of the Mayoruna, he ended up having to spend two months living with the tribe until he could find a way to communicate with them telepathically.

Written, directed, and performed by McBurney, this intense monologue traces McIntyre's transition from a Western way of thinking into a nearly primitive way of life in order to survive. As he is stripped of Western assumptions (and a mischievous monkey destroys his camera and film), the photographer tries to relieve his thirst by munching on a hallucinogenic plant and finds himself swatting away mosquitoes and becoming acutely aware of a nearby jaguar as it makes its way through the forest.

Simon McBurney in a scene from The Encounter
(Photo by: Robbie Jack)

The storytelling ranges in style from simple narrative (as McBurney's daughter interrupts him while he is working at home in London) to the thrill of discovery familiar to those who have sat around a campfire, listening to ghost stories. The audience's earphones deliver positional sound of such astonishing quality that it makes it much easier for a listener to suspend any sense of disbelief.

Many of the sound effects in The Encounter are achieved the old-fashioned way, using a variety of Foley devices and common props (plastic water bottles, crinkly metallic bags that previously held potato chips). Add in some looping pedals (which come in handy for McIntyre's delusional moments and obsessive mutterings) and prerecorded sounds and the audience is subjected to a much purer soundscape than one would normally encounter during a live theatrical performance.

The technical star of the show is a binaural head filled with directional microphones (cost approximately $30,000) whose 3D audio technology is capable of delivering the kind of positional sound that can make theatregoers feel as if insects are buzzing around their heads or McBurney is whispering directly into their ears. While it's easy to be seduced by McBurney's stunning use of this technology, he prefers to see it as an enabling (rather than manipulative) storytelling tool.

"The Encounter has rightly been hailed for the power of its sonic experience," he states. "But, for me, it is not about what happens inside your ears but what happens between them." Although the journey he traces through the Amazon rainforest is a grand adventure (enhanced by a talented crew of technicians who keep morphing sound effects with the dexterity of jazz musicians as McBurney improvises certain moments onstage), his story serves another purpose.

Simon McBurney in a scene from The Encounter 
(Photo by: Robbie Jack)

McIntyre's original goal was to find the true source of the Amazon River, but what he found was something much deeper: a tribal awareness of man's relationship to nature based on a deep understanding of the responsibility we inherit as we alter the landscape in which we live. As eagerly as humans pursue deforestation in their lust to convert natural resources into goods and wealth, the human race is rapidly approaching an environmental as well as existential crisis. As far as McBurney and lots of scientists are concerned, the world has reached a very dangerous moment in the history of climate change.

Simon McBurney in a scene from The Encounter 
(Photo by: Robbie Jack)

The Encounter premiered in 2015 at the Edinburgh International Festival and was subsequently staged at the Barbican Centre in London and the John Golden Theatre in New York. Each attendee's seat is equipped with a pair of earphones that allows members of the audience to plug into the power of McBurney's imagination as the famed British actor leads them on a mind-blowing journey of spirituality, consciousness-raising, and hallucinatory misadventures (it helps to think of The Encounter as an armchair adventurer's version of the Ayahuasca experience without all the vomiting).

There's no doubt that this show is a triumph of sound design's ability to enhance a fairly traditional piece of storytelling. Some have even likened The Encounter to an old-fashioned radio play, but we now live in a much more sophisticated multimedia world than what existed on October 30, 1938, when Orson Welles scared the shit out of Americans during his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.

In all honesty, I found that watching McBurney switch back and forth between microphones as he raced around the stage occasionally became a bit tiresome. The simple solution was to shut my eyes for a few moments and retreat into the symphony of sound coming from my earphones.

Bottom line? There are many moments in McBurney's two-hour tour de force when The Encounter's aural stimulation delivers more than enough excitement and satisfaction. However, I get more mind-boggling visual effects in my sleep. Performances of The Encounter continue through May 7 at the Curran Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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).