Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Far From The Best Of All Possible Worlds

We're living in an age of hyperbole. Where many of us once believed that we were merely drowning in superlatives, the competition for readers, eyeballs, and sales has transformed our media into a crude landscape built upon a shifting foundation of wretched excess. Between the demands of the blogosphere and cable news, the urgent need to grab a person's attention has led us into a world where some publicists are cursed with the professional version of premature ejaculation.

By 2005, marketing teams were labeling certain clients' performances as "the event of the century" with little wiggle room for what might happen during the next 95 years. Political headlines scream things like "Elizabeth Warren Eviscerates Donald Trump on the Senate Floor," thereby creating an image of the impassioned Senator from Massachusetts sticking her hand up Donald Trump's flabby ass and disemboweling the 45th President of the United States for all to watch on C-SPAN. Cable news pundits constantly talk over the people they are interviewing; certain interactions are routinely described as "destroying" an opponent. The result is that audiences expect polite discussions to play out with the vituperative force of a mixed martial arts battle or a cage match for heavyweight wrestlers.

Not every creative person is capable of hitting the artistic equivalent of a home run with every project.
  • Although athletes train intensely to keep in shape, they remain vulnerable to injuries.
  • Opera singers take care to warm up their vocal cords while understanding that allergies, stress, and any number of physical imperfections can cause their voice to crack.
  • Long hours of practicing scales may help a pianist improve keyboard dexterity but will not prevent someone from ever flubbing a note.
The arts are one of the few areas of the human experience where people can learn from being allowed to fail. Few creative talents hit their mark on their first try because, in most cases, artists are far more interested in process than product. Once they've finished a project, they're often hungry for a new challenge that will allow them to stretch their muscles and grow.

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Launched in 1994, Playground has become the Bay area's most prodigious incubator for local playwrights. Over the course of each season, certain theme nights (mathematics, musical theatre, science, etc.) challenge writers to create 10-minute plays on a specific topic. As part of its 21st Annual Playground Festival of New Works, Playground recently included six short plays in an anthology program entitled Best of Playground 21. While three selections proved to be surprisingly disappointing, it's helpful to understand a key factor that may have weakened their impact.

Written by Jerome Joseph Gentes and directed by Amy Sass, Or: Or, The Play of Light featured the following cast of characters: One (Nicole Apostol Bruno), Two (Liam Vincent), Three (Michelle Ianiro), Four (Robyn Grahn), Five (David Cramer), and Six (Morgan J. Booker). While each represented a photon boasting the properties of waves and particles, the playwright's attempt to explain the phenomenon of light with actors holding lightbulbs as they moved around a darkened stage never really took flight. As a result, a portentous (and occasionally pretentious) script couldn't hold a candle to Ian Walker's sound design. This attempt to let there be light proved surprisingly slight.

Nicole Jost's Monarchs in Space (directed by Jessa Brie Moreno) features the following characters: Elena Vela (Nicole Apostol Bruno), Monarch 1 (David Cramer), Monarch 2 (Michelle Ianiro), and Monarch 3 (Morgan J. Booker). The set-up is simple. An astronaut has been tasked with studying the effect of zero gravity on three Monarch butterflies which, during the launch phase, were mere cocoons. As they emerge and discover their striking new beauty, the butterflies implore the astronaut to tell them stories about life on Earth, which seem as magical to them as fairy tales.

Although Genevieve Jessee's I Had A Bird (directed by May Liang) is built on a solid premise and presents the audience with a genuine conflict, her characters are named One (Michelle Ianiro), Two (Robyn Grahn), and Three (Nancy French). An affecting vignette that demonstrates how children who may not be able to understand the concept of a plague attacking their community are nevertheless resilient enough to learn how to play with each other, I Had A Bird showed potential for further expansion. Although it quickly veered from a child's wide-eyed innocence to an adult's fear of "the other," and from talk about sickness to the pain of grief, something about this play just didn't seem to gel.

I'm going to go out on the limb here with my own personal theory. Photons are neither cuddly, nor would any be likely to be given names like Bruce. Butterflies may yearn to be free, but quickly lose their singularity in a swarm of thousands. Children of different races interact in communities around the globe. But as an exercise in playwriting, assigning a number to each character may deliver a same kind of result as what one achieves from painting by numbers. The boundaries and colors may be clearly defined, but the context needs a lot more work.

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Speaking of "needing more work," attention must be paid to the musical adaptation of Mira Nair's 2001 film, Monsoon Wedding, which recently received its world premiere from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. This is the kind of pre-Broadway tryout that sets off alarms to warn producers that rhinestones are not a girl's best friend and "all that glitters is not gold."

Perhaps it's best to approach this particular experience through dual lenses (as two waves of seeming inevitability approached an opening night deadline).

Jaaved Jaaferi as Lalit Verma in a scene from Monsoon Wedding
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Set in Delhi, Monsoon Wedding focuses on the various conflicts involved in the planning of an arranged wedding. On one hand, there is the upper middle-class Verma family, whose patriarch, Lalit (Jaaved Jaaferi), is facing financial troubles and whose daughter, Aditi (Kuhoo Verma), is the bride-to-be. Eager to escape from the clutches of her very traditional Punjabi Hindu family, Aditi has agreed to marry a complete stranger even though she has been carrying on a long-term affair with Vikram (Ali Momen), a married man at her place of employment.

Additional members of Lalit's household include his wife, Pimmi (Mahira Kakkar); their son Varun (Rohan Gupta), who is happily dancing his way out of the closet; their maid, Alice (Anisha Nagarajan); and their niece, Ria Verma (Sharvari Deshpande), who is as moody as Varun is gay. Other local relatives include Pimmi's sister, Shashi Chawla (Monsoon Bissell), her husband, CL (Sorab Wadia), and their 10-year-old daughter, Aliya (Emielyn D. Das).

Michael Maliakel (Hemant) and Kuhoo Verma (Aditi) are the
romantic leads in Monsoon Wedding (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The groom-to-be, Hemant Rai (Michael Maliakel), is arriving from New Jersey a few days prior to the wedding. Tired of straddling the cultural divide of being half Indian and half American, he longs for a traditional Indian wife who will help him build a family more in line with his ethnic heritage. His mother (Krystal Kiran) and father (Andrew Prashad) have contributed a substantial amount to the four-day-long wedding celebration even though they have never met anyone from the Verma family.

The two men driving important subplots are Tej Puri (Alok Tewari), Lalit's wealthy brother-in-law who lives in Texas, is attracted to underage girls and (unbeknownst to Lalit) molested Ria when she was much younger; and PK Dubey (Namit Das), the fun-loving, charismatic wedding planner hired by the Verma family who falls head-over-heels in love with their maid, Alice.

Namit Das as PK Dubey in a scene from Monsoon Wedding
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With a plot that includes (a) a nervous bride canceling her wedding after confessing to her groom that she is still seeing another man, (b) a woman who has lovingly been raised by her uncle telling him that she can't possibly attend her cousin's wedding, (c) a creepy child molester lurking within the family, (d) a simulated scene in which a lovesick man chases the woman he loves on horseback as she rides through the countryside on a train, and (d) assorted relatives bragging about the Ivy league American schools from which their children have graduated, there should be enough tension to make Monsoon Wedding an intense and lively affair.

With a book by Sabrina Dhawan (who wrote the original screenplay), choreography by Lorin Latarro, and news that the Berkeley Rep's run had been extended due to healthy ticket sales, there was an encouraging buzz in the theatre's lobby on opening night. Add an extremely attractive display of Indian-themed fashions worn by many members of the audience and it would seem as if the stage had been set for a most entertaining evening.

Anisha Nagarajan (Alice) and Namit Das (PK Dubey) in a
scene from Monsoon Wedding (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Shortly after the performance began, reality entered with a disheartening thud. Despite the glittering costumes (many in blazing colors) designed by Arjun Bhasin, Scott Lehrer's solid sound design, and Peter Nigrini's impressive projections, there was no escaping Susan Birkenhead's excruciatingly insipid lyrics. Under Mira Nair's direction, dramatic moments which should have crackled with tension didn't; set changes often revealed stagehands wearing headphones as they tried to rig scenic elements which could have been more effective had they been flown in from above.

Monsoon Wedding is one of those rare musicals whose first act is much weaker than its second. There is also an odd imbalance caused by the fact that the two brides are much less interesting than the two grooms (who are also much stronger singers).

From a musical standpoint, Vishal Bhardwaj's score is surprisingly undistinguished. Although Dubey's grandmother, Naani (Palomi Ghosh), has a moving solo entitled "Love Is Love" and Sharvari Deshpande's Ria finally gets her dramatic moment with "Be A Good Girl," Hemant's solo ("Neither Here Nor There") and his duet with Aditi ("Could You Have Loved Me?") have little, if any, traction (audiences are much more likely to leave the theatre whistling the show's costume designs).

Although most of the audience responded enthusiastically, I felt as if I had been seated at a wedding table with extremely well-dressed but fairly superficial guests who had nothing to spark a conversation other than their clothes. Bottom line? Monsoon Wedding makes Mamma Mia! seem downright Shakespearean.

There was, however, one moment which delivered an unexpected laugh on a very personal level. The groom's first name (Hemant) is pronounced the same way as my last name (Heymont). During the brief scene when Hemant arrives at the Delhi airport, I did a double take when I heard him referred to as "Mr. Heymont from New Jersey." Performances of Monsoon Wedding continue through July 2 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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