Monday, May 8, 2017

Leave Your Emotional Baggage Outside

One of the most obvious differences between film and theatre is that, with film, there's no need to worry about quality assurance. The soundtrack and performances will remain the same over time. When you watch a film again (perhaps years later), the dimensions of the screen might change along with your expectations of what the experience will bring but, no matter what changes have happened in your life, the film will stay the same.

That's not how things work with live theatre. A play may receive numerous productions that are designed, costumed, cast, and lit differently. If it enjoys a long run, actors may leave the production and be replaced by understudies or other actors who have been cast in their roles. A touring production may travel to different cities -- and different countries -- while presenting the same show to audiences in different cultures.

In live theatre, the one constant is change. Why? Because each performance's audience brings a new matrix of hopes, dreams, and emotional baggage into the auditorium.

On May 28, 1953, when an ambitious new musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein opened at the Majestic Theatre, audiences were entertained with a show about a backstage romance between a chorus girl and an assistant stage manager working in a long-running production. In the following song from Me and Juliet, Larry (Bill Hayes) describes the "big black giant" that sits in judgment on the other side of the footlights at each performance.

A traditional theatre with a proscenium arch may hold anywhere from 800 to 3,000 seats, guaranteeing that the audience will seem like a fairly benign presence (unless, of course, your name is Patti Lupone). However, when one attends plays performed in theatres in the 50-100 seat range, it's easier for the actors to spot people they know in the audience. If an audience doesn't respond appropriately, the timing of certain moments (which might work well in a larger theatre) can feel strained or clumsy.

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Five years ago, Stuart Bousel faced a peculiar challenge. His one-hour play entitled Artemis and Apollo was scheduled for a public reading on December 15th as part of his San Francisco Olympians Festival. In addition to dealing with the sibling rivalry between two gods from Greek mythology, the cast of characters included Niobe, whose 14 children were murdered to punish her for her hubris.

On December 14, 2012 the media was dominated with news reports of Adam Lanza's brutal massacre of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. With a sold-out show and limited time to contact his audience, Bousel posted the following notice on his Facebook page:
To Everybody Who Was Planning To Come See The First Reading of TWINS on Saturday: In light of the recent events in Connecticut, I feel like I should warn you (since it isn’t explicit in the play’s description) that my play is about a child massacre. It’s not super graphic or explicit re: the violence, but there is a lot of black humor and a handful of moments that some people might find disturbing. I am going to go through with the reading because I believe artistic response to the world we live in, including all the terrible parts, is important, but I don’t want anyone going in blind and being unpleasantly surprised or unnecessarily uncomfortable. I’m looking forward to sharing this play with the world, I’m very proud of it, but I completely understand if you need to pass on it right now.”
Kyle Goldman as Apollo in Twins (Photo by: Andy Strong) 

Prior to most of the readings at his festival, Bousel would give an introductory speech which explained the characters involved and the roles they played in Greek mythology. Some of his speeches had audiences in stitches but, on the night that Twins received its first reading, his pre-performance speech saved the evening. The audience had a rollicking good time.

Billed as "a homicidal comedy spun from Greek Mythology," Bousel has reworked his original script and is directing a revised, 90-minute version of Twins in Pianofight's 92-seat black box theater. Having had five years to think about a fully-staged production (with costumes by Lindsey Eifert), Bousel is quick to admit that:
"Twins may be the darkest thing I have ever written. It was born out of my love for mythology, my fascination with this violent and grotesque myth that I first read in grade school, and an adult fascination with documentaries and accounts of real world crimes and massacres. Though I set out to write something harrowing, I realized the piece would never get written until I accepted it would probably also be a bit of a black comedy, and if there is something I’m really proud of here it is the slow and unsettling shift of the piece as it moves from being ridiculously funny, almost absurd, to somber, and then progressively devastating."
Kathleen McHatton as Artemis in Twins (Photo by: Andy Strong) 

Due to a clusterfuck of commitments, I ended up seeing the revised version of Twins at what turned out to be its first preview. With Kyle Goldman (Apollo) co-starring with Kathleen McHatton (Artemis), the cast included Andrew Chung (Nigel, Orpheus, Pan), Laura Domingo (Iris, Cassandra, Coronis), and Kyle McReddie (Eros, Troilus, Actaeon). Tonya Narvaez scored the most laughs as a trash-talking Hera (who sounds a lot like a cross between Karen Walker and Sarah Palin) with Ron Talbot as her husband, Zeus, and Kim Saunders (Selene, Marpessa, Rhea) scoring strongly with a beautifully-scripted monologue for a moon goddess.

Kim Saunders as Selene in Twins (Photo by: Andy Strong) 

Although I have seen other shows in this venue, I cannot give a detailed description of the performance for several reasons which need to be acknowledged.
  • Because of the poor soundproofing, there was so much extraneous noise filtering in from Pianofight's bar that I kept wondering if someone in the room was watching a movie on their smartphone.
  • The room's poor ventilation raised the temperature to a level where grogginess ruled and it was difficult to stay awake (stepping out into fresh air after the show was as invigorating as taking a hit of poppers).
  • Because there were barely a dozen people in the theatre (at least half of whom were working on the show), it was impossible for laugh lines to land with an audience the way I'm sure they did at Saturday's opening night performance.
Kyle Goldman (Apollo) and Kathleen McHatton (Artemis) in Twins 
(Photo by: Andy Strong) 

Performances of Twins continue through June 10 at Pianofight (click here for tickets).

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If one were to think back on characters who were a part of their fantasy life from childhood up to and including adulthood, most of them would first have been encountered in print media. Whether in the daily comic strips, Sunday "funnies," or paperback anthologies, characters such as Dennis the Menace, Garfield, Superman, Archie, and Andy Capp delivered suspense and giggles on a steady basis.

While cartoonists such as Gary Trudeau, Berkeley Breathed, Gary Larson, and Bill Watterson developed loyal followings, the cartoonist with the most profitable commercial empire (who even has an airport named in his honor) is Charles M. Schulz. By the time he died on February 12, 2000, the creator of Peanuts had left an indelible mark on American culture, perhaps second only to Walt Disney. In addition to their appearances in comic strips, the Peanuts gang appeared in animated television specials, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, and a wealth of Peanuts-branded products made possible through licensing agreements.

For some people, characters like Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and Lucy van Pelt remain eternally fixed in childhood. But for Bert V. Royal, their futures offer fascinating dramatic opportunities. In 2004, Royal's one-act play, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead (which was billed as an unauthorized parody), premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival and had no trouble finding an audience.

CB (Michael Brown) and Van (Val Garrahan) are two high
school friends in Dog Sees God (Photo by: Karl Schackne)

Not only did Dog Sees God receive the festival's Excellence Award for Best Overall Production, it garnered Theatermania's Play Award for 2004, the GLAAD Media Award for Best Off-Off-Broadway production and's 2006 Audience Award for Favorite Off-Broadway show. Royal's play had another reading on May 9, 2005 with a cast that included Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr., and Anna Paquin. An off-Broadway production in December of 2005 featured America Ferrera and Ari Graynor in key roles.

Following successful runs in Los Angeles, London, and Toronto, the Left Coast Theatre Company in San Francisco is presenting Dog Sees God in a production designed by Finn Ware and directed by Chris Maltby. In Royal's play, the beloved Peanuts characters have passed through puberty and are now struggling with the frustrations of day-to-day life in high school.

Matt (Geoffrey Malveaux) and CB (Michael Connor) are two
high school jocks in Dog Sees God (Photo by: Karl Schackne) 

Although CB (Michael Conner) may now be a jock whose best friend is also a jock, he's still a bit of a blockhead. After his beloved dog contracted rabies and killed a little yellow bird, CB had to have him put down by a veterinarian (true to form, CB can't stop wondering if his dog will go to heaven). Although CB sent out invitations to his dog's funeral, only one person showed up: his sarcastic sister (Val Garrahan) who is much too busy searching for a new identity, be it Goth, hippie, or -- despite a notable lack of musical talent -- an aspiring opera singer.

Two of the girls from the Peanuts crowd have not aged gracefully. Tricia (Isabel Siragusa) is still obsessed with her looks and popularity but, given half a chance, is a sloppy drunk with a failing future as a party girl. Marcy (Madison Worthington) remains socially awkward and may now have a crush on the frequently wasted Tricia.

Tricia (Isabel Siragusa) and Marcy (Madison Worthington) get wasted
during lunch in a scene from Dog Sees God (Photo by: Karl Schackne) 

Linus van Pelt has shortened his name and evolved into an affable stoner named Van (Ryan Whitlock) who, when he can think straight, is fascinated by the ongoing identity crises of CB's kid sister. Van's bad-ass sister (Ellen Dunphy) has been institutionalized after intentionally setting the Little Red-Haired Girl's hair on fire. When CB goes to visit her in the psych ward, she teases him by saying "The next time you come to visit, if you stick a book of matches up your ass, we can be BFFs!"

CB (Michael Brown) visits Van's sister (Ellen Dunphy)
in a scene from Dog Sees God (Photo by: Karl Schackne) 

The most provocative part of Royal's play is the triangle of repressed homosexuality that includes CB, his muscular best friend, Matt (Geoffrey Malveaux), and the shy and skinny Beethoven (Ryan Engstrom). Beethoven (who had apparently been sexually abused by his father), is severely introverted and paranoid about being bullied at school. Matt is the stereotypical closeted jock, a homophobic football player who routinely terrorizes Beethoven and hates being called by his adolescent nickname (Pig-Pen).

Beethoven (Ryan Engstrom) finds himself the unexpected object of
his new friend's affection in Dog Sees God (Photo by: Karl Schackne)

Constantly talking about how much he hates faggots and homos like Beethoven, Matt is stunned when CB confesses that he and Beethoven have made out and that he's beginning to wonder if he might actually be gay. Reacting with the limited tools at his disposal (anger and violence), Matt keeps bullying Beethoven "for messing with my best friend's head" until the young gay man commits suicide.

Matt (Geoffrey Malveaux) terrorizes Beethoven (Ryan Engstrom)
in a scene from Dog Sees God (Photo by: Karl Schackne)

Even in 2017, the scenes in which Matt bullies Beethoven are cringe-inducing. Having been out of the closet for nearly 50 years, I felt a knee-jerk reaction (common to many gay men) to having to witness yet another depiction of fagbashing. Just like cinema fans who are sick of seeing lesbians forced to die under falling trees, one wonders why we can't seem to move past the need to show gay men being beaten up in order to satisfy someone's internalized homophobia or generalized self-hatred. But when one thinks about the steady rise in fagbashings since Donald Trump began his loathsome quest for office -- and looks at reports of gay men being murdered in Chechnya -- it's a sobering reminder that some things never change.

Beethoven (Ryan Engstrom) and CB (Michael Brown) nervously
share a first kiss in Dog Sees God (Photo by: Karl Schackne) 

The most impressive performances in God Sees Dog came from Ryan Engstrom (Beethoven), Geoffrey Malveaux (Matt), and Ellen Dunphy (Van's sister). As should be expected, Michael Brown's CB basically served as a foil for all of his friends' eccentricities, staying true to the nebbishy core of Schulz's beleaguered Charlie Brown.

If I have one suggestion, it would be to tighten up the scene changes so that there is a smoother dramatic flow. As an interesting postscript, Royal is working on a followup to Dog Sees God. The working title? The Gospel According to Matt: Confessions of a Teenage Dirtbag.

Performances of Dog Sees God continue at the Shelton Theatre through May 20 (click here for tickets).