Friday, May 19, 2017

Make Them Laugh

Hibernation is defined as how an animal spends its winter in a dormant state. Slumbering in a cave like a big old bear might seem like a cozy way to get away from the cold but, for humans, winter-long naps are not an option. Between the most recent winter solstice (December 21, 2016) and the upcoming summer solstice (June 20, 2017), so much shit has hit the fan that it seems like there never was (nor will there ever be) any rest for the weary.

The cause of this rancid phenomenon is no secret. It's not daylight savings time, nor is it a shortage of kale. It's Donald Trump.

For those who, shortly after November 9, 2016, began grinding their teeth as they slept, the political landscape has been infected with a toxic gumbo of paranoid lies, radioactive tweets, and brazen bullying, garnished a soupcon of impending dementia. Some fear that the end of the world is nigh; others think it's wiser to grab some popcorn, sit back, and watch Washington implode. Those loyalists who still think that Trump is the answer to their hopes and dreams would be well advised to watch the first episode of The President Show (Comedy Central's new hit starring Anthony Atamanuik as the 45th President of the United States).

A well-written farce may rest on a foundation of mistaken identity, erratic behavior, or unreasonable expectations. Social clumsiness and repressed lust can only add to the fun. Sadly, a constitutional crisis tends to put a damper on the proceedings.

Bay area audiences are currently enjoying the world premieres of two beautifully crafted farces. One is by a gifted theatre artist who also teaches playwriting at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre. The other is an adaptation of a novella written by one of England's beloved authors. Each is marked not only by its careful plotting but by the fierce intelligence underlying the power of its storytelling.

* * * * * * * * *
For several years, the San Francisco Olympians Festival has been a hub of creativity for new works inspired by the characters in Greek mythology. Whether reworking tales about Zeus, Hera, Apollo, and Aphrodite into contemporary settings or bringing some of the more obscure gods and goddesses into the spotlight, under Stuart Bousel's direction, the festival has mined a huge amount of source material for comedic moments. Other playwrights have also found success updating stories from ancient Greece.
CentralWorks is currently presenting the world premiere (the company's 54th) of Edward King. Written and directed by Gary Graves with the kind of minimalistic flair that allows the audience to bathe in the glow of his dramatic craft, the action takes place in southern California with a cast of increasingly bizarre characters.

John Patrick Moore is a mail carrier in the San Bernardino Valley in
Edward King, a new play by Gary Graves (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Ed King (John Patrick Moore) is a mail carrier living in the San Bernardino Valley who loves his job, his country, and his wife. A true patriot, he treats his route like a glorified dance in which he proudly tosses the mail onto each person's porch with the grace and artistry of a professional baseball pitcher. Everything seems to be peachy-keen until one day, a dog named Chopper lunges at him and bites his leg. As Ed continues to deliver mail in the blazing sun, he passes out from the heat and has a bizarre dream in which a towering masked figure clad in black robes (perhaps Fate or a time-traveling member of an ancient Greek chorus) plants a seed of doubt in his mind about his true identity. Ed soon finds himself on a downward spiral as he quickly loses control over both his life and his wife.

Josefina/Jo King (Michelle Talgarow) met Ed when they were walking on a beach in southern California. Although she had previously been married to a creep named Morty (and was forced by her mother to give their child up for adoption), she fell in love with and married Ed, who was 13 years younger than her. Wanting to make sure that Ed truly loved her for who she was, Jo warned him never to ask about her age.

Michelle Talgarow is Ed's exhausted wife in Edward King,
a new play by Gary Graves (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Although Ed and Jo have had a relatively good marriage, financial stress has started to put a strain on their relationship. Their daughter, Mia, is in her first year of college and, like any teenager, trying to break free from her family ties by leaving cryptic (and somewhat hostile) phone messages for her parents. Meanwhile, Jo is stuck waiting tables during the swing shift at a local outlet of Bob's Big Boy where the short-order cook is such an obnoxious creep that she fantasizes about cutting off his balls and tossing them into the deep fat fryer.

To make matters worse, something strange has started growing in their basement's laundry room and spreading through the building's foundation. Acting like a manly man, Ed attempts to kill off the mold (or whatever it is) with some kind of toxic spray. As he searches his memory for clues about his roots, the thing in the basement keeps growing until Ed begins to wonder if he might be cursed.

Poster art for Edward King

As he becomes more obsessed with tracing his roots, Ed encounters three mysterious characters who seem to understand him a whole lot better than he does.
  • Lucy is a jaded psychiatrist who becomes downright giddy at the prospect of working with a new patient who is a perfect textbook case of someone with an Oedipus complex
  • Morty is Jo's demented first husband who has been living alone on a hilltop while writing a 12,000-page book that he expects his estranged son to publish (in some ways, Morty bears a strange resemblance to Mel Brooks's portrayal of The 2,000 Year Old Man.
  • Edwina is an exterminator who comes to Ed's home to make a professional assessment of his house. For some reason, Edwina is convinced that she and Ed used to make out in the back of a red pickup truck.

Jan Zvaifler appears as Edwina the Exterminator in Edward King,
a new play by Gary Graves (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

While Ed and his wife struggle to make sense of the ominous presence taking over their home, Ed (who was adopted) grows increasingly spooked by the idea that he might have married his biological mother. Determined to learn the truth at any cost, he secretly orders a genetic testing kit and (in a brilliant piece of stage of business) tries to get a swab of Jo's saliva while she lies in her recliner, snoring.

One need not have a familiarity with the Oedipus legend to have a rollicking good time at Edward King. In addition to Graves's delicious script (which includes an hilarious argument involving the words "nuclear" and "nukular"), Gregory Scharpen has outdone himself in the sound design department.

Although John Patrick Moore and Michelle Talgarow give strong performances as Ed and Jo, Jan Zvaifler steals the show in the four supporting roles of The Figure, Lucy, Morty, and Edwina. Because CentralWorks is a small nonprofit company that has created many more than 50 world premieres, co-directors Graves and Zvaifler have developed an intellectual intimacy that allows them to make the most out of their tiny 50-seat theatre while working on a bare-bones budget. Together with Scharpen, they have honed a technique for crafting new plays that are clinically lean but can deliver a huge return on their dramatic investment.

With Edward King, the CentralWorks team has given birth to a superbly intelligent farce guaranteed to delight theatre buffs as well as "civilians" who just want a few good laughs. Performances of Edward King continue through June 11 at the Berkeley City Club (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Over at Z-Below, Word for Word is presenting the world premiere production of Smut: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson) in a new adaptation written and directed by one of the company's charter members, Amy Kossow. As Kossow explains:

“The first of two novella-sized stores in Smut is ‘The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson,’ from which text we embark on our story. Underneath the story’s gentle demeanor stirs a plot that leads straight to a sort of deep radicalism. I read Smut while draped on a pool noodle in some clear water on a sunny day in Palm Springs, giggling while attempting to keep the book dry. When I was done, there was a queue of neighbors wanting to read it. I, of course, felt that Word for Word could do it wonderful justice. Imagine my joy in discovering a radio interview in which Alan Bennett said that Smut was indeed material that ‘wanted to be a play.’ I went to work, adapted the novella into a script and sent it to him. He gave approval and sent us his best wishes, telling us to ‘carry on the good work’ of bringing literature to our audiences.”

A scene from SMUT: An Unseemly Story (Photo by: Mel Solomon)

Smut focuses on the blossoming of Jane Donaldson (Nancy Shelby), a quiet, middle-aged woman who, having been newly widowed, has opted to supplement her income by renting out a spare room in her home to two medical students. In addition to her agreement with Andy (Andre Amarotico) and Laura (Rosie Hallett), Mrs. Donaldson has found a new source of income that involves simulating the symptoms of patients who might arrive in a hospital's emergency room in order to help medical students hone their triage and diagnostic skills. Much to her surprise (and that of the physician overseeing the program), Jane seems to have a talent for adding an extra level of drama to the simulation by creating surprisingly thoughtful backstories for the women she portrays during classroom situations.

Andre Amorotico (Andy) and Rosie Hallett (Laura) in a scene
from SMUT: An Unseemly Story (Photo by: Mel Solomon)

Jane's openness to learning places her in a curious situation where, not being overwhelmed with the kind of debilitating grief others might expect, she suddenly has the freedom to explore new options. Her disapproving daughter, Gwen (Delia MacDougall), is mortified by her mother's behavior and frequently reminds Jane that what she is doing is "not what Daddy would have wanted."

Since Gwen is married and no longer living with at home her mother, there's not too much she can do to halt Jane's new adventures. As Jane learns how she can be of value to medical students like Andy, Laura, and Rowswell (Phil Wong), she comes in contact with other "simulated patients" such as Violet Beckinsale (Patricia Silver), an condescending old woman with diva-like tendencies, and Terry Porter (Robert Parsons), a horny exhibitionist who is quite full of himself.

Nancy Shelby (Mrs. Donaldson) and Robert Parsons (Terry) in a
scene from SMUT: An Unseemly Story (Photo by: Mel Solomon)

After several months of waiting for Andy and Laura to pay their rent, the two young medical students confess that they don't have sufficient funds but would like to propose an alternate arrangement: Perhaps they could perform a demonstration of sorts for Mrs. Donaldson. What starts off as an unexpected introduction to sexual voyeurism whets Mrs. Donaldson's appetite for a little bit more spice in her life. Her daughter has no idea that Jane is listening through the walls each night when Andy and Laura have sex and, to be honest, Jane can't imagine that anyone at the hospital has a clue about the goings-on in the privacy of her home. The others, of course, have taken notice in Jane's change of temperament. In fact, Dr. Ballantyne has been developing quite a crush on her.

Nancy Shelby (Mrs. Donaldson) and Soren Oliver (Dr. Ballantyne) in a
scene from SMUT: An Unseemly Story (Photo by: Mel Solomon)

The entire story is related by the characters as if they were narrating it from the pages of Bennett's novella, rather than in standard script form. The effect is quite charming, helping to underline the English tendency to keep personal matters quite prim and proper ("No Sex, Please. We're British"). Nancy Shelby shines as the quiet and somewhat reserved Mrs. Donaldson, often acting as a foil to more extroverted characters portrayed by Soren Oliver, Robert Parsons, Delia MacDougall, and Patricia Silver. As the young medical students, Phil Wong is occasionally clueless but eager to learn and Delia MacDougall is constantly on the verge of quitting in a fit of frustration, while Andre Amarotico and Rosie Hallett portray two good-natured souls with healthy libidos.

A scene from SMUT: An Unseemly Story (Photo by: Mel Solomon)

Word for Word's production has been blessed with a handsome unit set that has been designed and lit by Jeff Rowlings, with costumes by Callie Floor. Performances of Smut: An Unseemly Story continue through June 11 at Z-Below (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

No comments: